Research everything, believe nothing

This will probably surprise no one who reads this blog regularly, but most of my fiction writing falls into one of two categories: stories based on real people or true events, and hard science fiction. I’m also a big fan of both historical and scientific accuracy, so I’ve developed the habit of fact-checking and researching the crap out of my fictional work.

It may not matter to a lot of people, of course, but if I see a glaring anachronism in a supposedly historically-based film or watch as they pull the magic element of Madeitupium out as a plot device in order to defy the laws of physics, then I will get pulled right out of the story.

A good case in point is the ridiculous dance scene in The Favourite. And it’s not just because the choreography on display would never have happened in the time period — the music is all wrong, too, in terms of instrumentation as well as certain chord progressions that wouldn’t have happened at the time, on top of not following the rigid rules of Baroque music of the era. But the even more egregious error in the film is that a central plot point is based on a bit of libel that was spread about Queen Anne to discredit her, but which is not true. If you want to learn more, it’s in this link, but spoilers, sweetie, as River Song would say. (By the way, apparently the costumes weren’t all that accurate, either.)

On the science fiction side, something like the finale of the 2009 Star Trek reboot just has me laughing my ass off  because almost everything about it is wrong for so many reasons in a franchise that otherwise at least tries to get the science right. Note: I’m also a huge Star Wars nerd, but I’m very forgiving of any science being ignored there because these were never anything other than fantasy films. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I’m not going to fault the science there, because no one ever claimed that any existed. Although some of the rules of magic seem to have become a bit… stretchy over the years.

But… where do I start with what that Star Trek film got wrong? The idea of “red matter” is a good place to begin. Sorry, but what does that even mean? There is only one element that is naturally red, and that’s bromine. Other elements might be mined from red-colored ore, like mercury is from cinnabar, but otherwise, nope. So far when it comes to matter, we have demonstrated five and postulated six forms: Bose-Einstein condensate, which is what happens when matter gets so cold that a bunch of atoms basically fuse into one super nucleus within an electron cloud; solid, which you’re probably pretty familiar with; liquid, see above; gas, ditto; and plasma, which is a gas that is so hot that it ionizes or basically becomes the opposite of the coldest form, with a cloud of super-electrons surround a very jittery bunch of spread out nuclei. The one form we have postulated but haven’t found yet is dark matter, which is designed to explain certain observations we’ve made about gravitational effects within and between galaxies.

Which brings me to the other gigantic and egregious cock-up from the Star Trek film. This supposed “red matter” is able to turn anything into a black hole. It does it to a planet early in the film, and to a spaceship near the end. Okay, so that means that “red matter” is incredibly dense with a strong gravitational pull, but if that’s the case, then a neutron star could accomplish the same, sort of. It’s one step above a black hole — an object that is so compressed by gravity that it is basically a ball of solid neutrons with a cloud of electrons quivering all through and around it. Neutrons are one of two particles found in the nucleus of atoms, the other being protons. It’s just that the gravitational pressure at this point is so strong that it mushes all of the protons together enough to turn them into neutrons, too.

But the only way you’re going to turn a neutron star into a black hole is to slam it into another neutron star. Throw it against a planet or a spaceship, and all you’ll wind up with is a very flat and radioactive object that was not previously a neutron star.

That’s still not the most egregious error, though. The film subscribes to the “black holes are cosmic vacuum cleaners” myth, and that’s just not true at all. Here’s a question for you: What would happen to all of the planets in our solar system if the sun suddenly turned into a black hole?

  1. They’d all get sucked in.
  2. They’d all stay where they were.

Bad science in movies tells us that “A” is the answer, but nope. If the sun turned into a black hole right this second, all of the planets would remain in orbit because the gravitational attraction of the sun wouldn’t change. Well, not quite true. If anything, it might lessen slightly because of the mass given up as energy in the creation of the black hole. So, if anything, the planets might start to creep into slightly more distant orbits.

The real negative effect wouldn’t be the black hole per se. Rather, it would be the sudden loss of thermal energy, which would turn all of the planets into balls of ice, along with the possible and likely blast of high-power radiation that would explode from the sun’s equator and generally cut a swath through most of the plane in which all of the planets orbit.

Or, in other words, we wouldn’t get sucked into the black hole. Rather, our planet and all the others would probably be scrubbed of most or all life by the burst of gamma and X-rays that would be the birthing burp of the new black hole at the center of the solar system. After that, within a few months or years, our planet would be as cold and desolate as Pluto and all the other dwarf planets way out in the sticks. Even Mercury would be too cold to host life. Give it a couple million years, and who knows how far out the planets and moons and asteroids and comets would have drifted.

Why is this? Because nature is big on conserving things, one of them being force. Now, not all forces are conservative — and, in science, that word just means “keeping things the same.” (Okay, in politics, too.) You might be familiar with the concept that energy cannot be created or destroyed, which is a sort of general start on the matter, but also an over-simplification because — surprise, energy is a non-conservative force.

Then there’s gravity and momentum, and both of those are incredibly conservative forces. And, oddly enough, one of the things that gravity creates is momentum. To put it in naïve terms, if you’re swinging a ball on a string, the path that ball follows is the momentum. The string is gravity. But the two are connected, and this is what we call a vector. Gravity pulls one way, momentum moves another, and the relationship between the two defines the path the ball follows.

Because gravity is an attractive force, increasing it shortens the string. But since the momentum remains the same, shortening the string reduces the circumference that the ball follows. And if the ball is covering a shorter path in the same time, this means that it’s moving more slowly.

A really dumbed-down version (so I can understand it too!) is this: if G is the force of gravity and p is the momentum of the ball, and G is a constant but p is conserved once given, then the only factor that makes any difference is distance, i.e. the length of the string.

Ooh. Guess what? This is exactly what Newton came up with when he postulated his universal law of gravitation — and he has not yet been proven wrong. So if your planet starts out one Astronomical Unit away from the Sun, which weighs one solar mass, and is moving in orbit at rate X counterclockwise around the Sun, when said star foops into a black hole its mass, and hence its gravitational attraction doesn’t change (beyond mass loss due to conversion to energy), and ergo… nope. You’re not getting sucked in.

Oh. Forgot that other often confused bit. Conservation of energy. Yes, that’s a thing, but the one big thing it does not mean is that we have some kind of eternal souls or life forces or whatever, because energy is not information. Sorry!

The other detail is that most forms of energy are non-conservative, even if energy itself is conserved, and that is because energy can be converted. Ever strike a match? Congrats. You’ve just turned friction into thermal energy. Ever hit the brakes on your car? You’ve just turned friction into kinetic energy — and converted momentum into thermal energy, but don’t tell gravity that!

In case you’re wondering: No, you really can’t turn gravity into energy, you can only use it to produce energy, since no gravity goes away in the process. For example, drop a rock on a seesaw, it’ll launch something into the air, but do nothing to the total gravitational power of Earth. Drop a rock on your foot, and you’ll probably curse up a blue streak. The air molecules launched out of your mouth by your tirade will actually propagate but still fall to ground eventually subject to Earth’s gravity. And, in either case, you had to counteract gravity in order to life that rock to its starting point, so the net balance when it dropped from A to B was exactly zero.

And it’s rabbit holes and research like this piece that makes me keep doing it for everything, although sometimes I really wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. When it comes to history, there’s a story that an Oscar-winning playwright friend of likes to mine tell and that I like to share. He wrote a play about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a group of  Japanese-Americans in WWII who were given a choice: Go fight for America in Europe, or go to our concentration camps. (Funny, none of my German ancestors were ever faced with the decision, “Go fight for America in Asia, or go to your concentration camps. Grrrr. But I do digress.)

Anyway… after one of the developmental readings of this play, he told me about a conversation he’d overheard from a couple of college kids in the lobby during intermission (this being about a decade ago): “Why were there American soldiers in Italy in World War II?”

And this is exactly why it is as important as hell to keep the history (and science) accurate. And these are things we need to fight for. Care about your kids? Your grandkids? Then here you go. Language. Science. The Arts. History. Life Skills. Politics. Sex Ed. This is what we need to be teaching our kids, with a healthy dose of, “Yeah, we’re kind of trying, but if you see the cracks in our façades, then please jump on, because it’s the only way your eldies will ever learn either.”

So… free education here. Questions accepted. No tuition charged. And if you want the media you’re eating up corrected, just ask.

Image: Doubting Thomas by Guercino (1591 – 1666), public domain.

Taste the rainbow: Food and drink that aren’t really that color

Color is a very important aspect when it comes to the human experience of food. You may think that it’s all about taste and nothing more, but all of the senses are involved to some degree. Smell is a big part of taste and the two are very closely related. Touch is also involved via the physical sensation in your mouth. That clam chowder may smell and taste fine and look good, but if there’s sand in it, it’s going to be the feel of it in your mouth that gives it away.

It can also affect whether you like certain foods. For example, while I love the taste of a lot of fruits, I’m not a big fan of the experience of eating them because of the texture. Something about peaches and other squishy fruits, grapes, and strawberries just puts me off, but blend ‘em up in a smoothie and I’m there.

But getting back to color, it can override all of those senses and change reality, especially if something is just the “wrong” color. For example, testing in reverse, scientists died a steak blue and fries green, then served them to subjects under lighting that made them appear their normal colors. The subjects rated the meal — generally, it tasted just fine — and then the special lights were turned off, revealing the true colors, at which point the meal they just ate and enjoyed became unpalatable.

This is because of another very important component of color and food that played into our survival, the same as smell did and does: If the color ain’t right, don’t eat it. It’s almost instinctual. If a food that isn’t supposed to be green turns any variation of that color through blue, don’t eat it. Likewise if any food turns gray, black, or white and fuzzy, throw it out untasted.

It can work in reverse, though, and food companies exploit this as much as they can — not only to get you to prefer their product, but to make the color consistent, whether the taste is or not. Taste and color are so intertwined, in fact, that there are a whole bunch of foods that come in false colors, were so manipulated that we only accept one color out of many, or were forced by governmental lobbying to only show their true colors. Here’s a tour through the rainbow of false-colored food.

Red

Those bright red maraschino cherries that pop up in everything from ice cream sundaes to mixed cocktails aren’t really that color at all. Maraschino cherries originated on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where they were brined in sea water and then soaked in a maraschino liqueur from Italy.

While they were brought to America early in the 20th century, during the Prohibition Era they couldn’t be soaked in alcohol so, instead, an American university professor from Oregon brined them with a calcium salt solution to bleach them white, later poaching them in sugar syrup and injecting them with red dye.

Yes, of course. Americans found a way to make a healthy fruit into a heavily processed and unhealthy garnish for both ice cream and booze. Yay… us?

Orange

(And… the one color I can’t display here!)

Oranges aren’t really that orange and are actually ripe when they’re green but get dyed orange in most places except California, but that wasn’t what I was going to say anyway. And yes, there are no naturally orange cheeses, but since all American cheese looks spray-tanned anyway, that’s probably not worth going into. You can read up on it on your own.

Nope. The real answer is: “What’s up, doc?” Say hello to the carrot, which wasn’t originally orange at all — and is a great example of GMO food that is a staple of organic and vegan markets because all that GMOing was done a long time ago. And yes, selectively cross-breeding plants is genetic modification, just done on a much slower and less reliable scale. The advantage to the latter is that you have much more control over the results you get, and you get them much faster. But in terms of what’s happening in the plant’s cells, there are no differences at all. Two different plants swap different parts of their genome to create a new organism.

Carrots used to come in a lot of different colors, like corn, but the TL;DR of this one is that through a random linguistic accident, the leader of Holland became known as William of Orange (referring to a place, not a color,) and the Dutch were known for growing carrots. A century after William’s passing, they developed and then exclusively grew orange carrots in honor of William, and so a major food preference was born. Would you even consider a white or yellow or purple one a carrot? No. Probably not. What you think of as a carrot is a GMO created in tribute to a monarch. Yay…?

Yellow

This one is a little bit of a reversal because it’s a food that isn’t naturally a particular color, is considered to be that color now, but was barred from being it for decades because of dairy industry lobbying. I’m of course referring to margarine, which nowadays is either golden yellow, paler yellow, or even white.

But it wasn’t always so, and when it was first developed in the 1870s as a cheaper (and, through a modern lens, healthier) plant-based alternative to butter, the dairy industry lost their shit. They tried to limit the manufacturing and marketing, then settled on getting the government to say, “Hey, margarine makers, you can’t dye the stuff to look like butter.”

In their natural forms, butter is yellow/yellowish and margarine is white. The dairy lobby managed to get state laws passed saying that such non-dairy foods couldn’t be dyed or, in the case of New Hampshire and South Dakota, that it had to be dyed… pink.

The government also got into the game, taxing margarine at different rates depending up on whether it was colored or uncolored. You can read about the whole megillah here. The short version is that margarine isn’t naturally yellow, for a long time the dairy industry tried to keep it white, but margarine eventually won.

Green

This one is short and sweet (or sour and spicy) with two things you’d naturally assume to be green: pickles and wasabi. In reality, the former generally isn’t green enough and the latter isn’t green at all because, if you’re getting it in America, you’re not really getting wasabi.

While pickles come from green vegetables (cucumbers) they often aren’t “green enough” after the pickling process, which makes sense, since it involves brining them, and any brining process will bleach things out. What’s odd, though, is that the green color we expect is restored via several yellow dyes.

Meanwhile, what you’re getting in Japanese restaurants or with your sushi trays at supermarkets is not real wasabi at all. Real wasabi is rare and expensive, and even a pound of freeze-dried powder is ridiculously pricey — $187 a pound, or almost $12 an ounce. Forget getting the real plant, ground fresh, because it’s hard to grow, very rare, and once it’s picked, it’s flavor doesn’t last long at all.

So… what you’re getting instead? Horseradish, mustard, and green food coloring. Enjoy!

Blue

For this, we only need to go as far as a beverage called Blue Curaçao, which certainly is blue in the bottle but, in reality, is actually an orange liqueur. Going from orange to blue is a good trick whether you do colors in pixels (RGB) or paint (RYB) because, either way, pure blue doesn’t have anything in it to make orange. So I’m not going to investigate too hard to figure out how they do it.

Purple

Okay, to be honest, I couldn’t find a single real food item that’s dyed purple when it’s not originally that color, but I did run across the idea that there’s no such thing as Purple Drink, Grape anything, or so on. In fact, here’s a scary soda fact for everyone: without artificial coloring, every last soda on the planet would be clear despite the flavor, but this brings us back to the top. Sight is just as important as smell and taste when it comes to the flavor of things.

Most purple drinks — not purple. Probably the most obvious one on the list. But in any case, avoid if you can anything called Purple Drank.

And so ends our tour of the rainbow, and a short note for my fans. It’s been a fun series of constant posts since the day after Thanksgiving, but I’ve now caught up to myself. (Hint: the WordPress schedule post feature is amazing) so, anyway, I risk going back to real time, and there’s some real world stuff to deal with at the moment, not to mention it’s my birthday in two weeks, so… if I miss keeping up my trend for a day or two, indulge me. And thanks for reading, liking, and subscribing.

And, as always, if you want to click that tip jar up there and contribute, well… it is almost my birthday!

Whole lot of shaking goin’ on?

(Warning: Betteridge’s Law alert in effect.)

Damn. Puerto Rico has been getting pounded by quakes over the last month to the point that they have visibly changed the landscape. Why so many earthquakes? Well, as they say in real estate, it’s all about location, location, and location. The island happens to be situated on top of or next to various tectonic plates and mini-plates, and it’s the collision of these pieces of the Earth’s crust that cause quakes in the first place. Well, the ones that aren’t man-made, anyway.

Puerto Rico isn’t alone in this, either. A look at significant earthquakes over the last 30 days shows the image of a very unsettled Earth. Now, it would be easy to buy into an interesting astronomical fact being the cause. That is, the Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun, perihelion, in January. This year, it was January 4th, with the centers of the Earth and Sun being only about 91.4 million miles apart. On July 4th, they will be at their most distant, at about 94.5 million miles.

Now, true, that’s only a little over a 3% difference, but that distance is about 390 times the diameter of the Earth, and enormous masses are involved on both ends. Perihelion is also the point in the Earth’s orbit when it reaches its maximum velocity, which is what flings it to aphelion, where it slows, reaches its minimum velocity, and comes flying back into a smaller orbit, which the Sun slingshots back out. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, the difference between maximum and minimum velocity is only about sixth tenths of a mile per second, but, again, we’re dealing with some pretty big objects here. And, anecdotally, I can tell you that the biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced was in January, and so was Japan’s, a year to the day later, and now Puerto Rico is shaking apart, and it must be connected, right?

Right… except that it’s not. Earthquakes are not driven by orbital mechanics or the weather or any other factors like that, and any belief in “earthquake weather” or “earthquake season” are pure confirmation bias and nothing more nor less.

However… there’s one thing to keep in mind about this time of year. We are closer to the Sun, and so get more heat from it, right at the time when it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, but summer in the Southern Hemisphere. And why is that the case? Because of the way the Earth is tilted. Winter is the season when its axis is titled away from the Sun. Summer is when it’s tilted toward. Spring and Fall are the seasons where the axis is mostly straight up and down.

So… in the Northern Hemisphere, we get winter when we are closest to the Sun and summer when we’re farthest away. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s exactly the opposite, and this is where we can see events in our solar system having an effect down here. Mainly Australia is burning.

Why? Climate change, hotter temperatures, drier forests, extreme weather (thinking thunderstorms with lightning that can start a fire), and human elements, although far from the “200 arsonists” dreamt up by the anti-climate change crowd. More like 24 actual arsonists, and then a bunch of idiots who may or may not have started fires, but at least did something that might have. And, anyway, claiming that arson and accident don’t add to the concept of anthropogenic climate change is a bit of a stretch. Humans did it? All that smoke is going to screw up the environment. And the burning would have stopped a lot sooner if the hotter climate hadn’t pre-baked the forests.

But… it’s hard to avoid confirmation bias when the earthquake alert app on my phone has been ridiculously busy since at least January 4th. The good news is that it’s easy to survive a quake with warning, and if you’re not living in buildings basically made out of mud, stone, and hope.

Just remember this: A) Do NOT get into a doorway. That’s outdated Boomer advice. Instead, squat down next to a heavy piece of incompressible furniture, like a sturdy armoire or a sofa, or barring that, right next to your bed, on your knees, rolled over, hands covering the back of your neck and head.

Once the shaking has stopped, if you can, grab your loved ones and go-bag (you have one, right?) get outside, shut off your gas if necessary, and escape to shelter, which could be your car if it wasn’t smashed flat in the collapse of a Dingbat style apartment. People, really, don’t live in them. Also try avoiding buildings that are four to eight stories tall, because they tend to sway at resonant frequencies in sync with seismic waves, and so sway harder and collapse more often.

The good news is that in a lot of places prone to earthquakes, things have been upgraded to a ridiculous and safe degree. The bad news? In a lot of places they haven’t.  Fun fact: Most of the U.S. and Canada reside on a single tectonic plate, so are not naturally susceptible to earthquakes. Not fun fact: Fracking completely fracks with that, and creates seismic events (aka earthquakes) in places that they should not be. Less fun fact: the tectonic plate with a lot of Southern California and half of the Bay Area is not the same one as the rest of North America.

Consequently, while people in other parts of the country grow up dreading tornadoes or floods, earthquakes have been my lifetime bugaboo. Good news, though. I’ve survived 100% of the ones I’ve been in… and I’ve accepted the fact that, for now, they are 100% unpredictable.

Our best weapon against AI is humor

My day job revolves around health insurance and, because of HIPPA regulations, the office has landlines. We can’t do VOIP because it’s not as secure. The theater I work at some evenings uses nothing but VOIP. I’m sure that the main consequence of this is that the theater never gets robo or sales calls, while the office gets them constantly.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no obligation to be nice to robo-callers or even to listen to their pitches. I’ve hung up on them in mid-sentence. To make it more confusing for them, I’ve hung up in the middle of my sentence. Sometimes, if they’re trying to pitch a service that the boss already has and I know that he did meticulous research before he obtained it or has a personal relationship with the provider, I’ll respond with a terse, “Thanks, but we’re happy with what we have,” and then hang up.

The fun ones are when we get calls trying to sell Medicare insurance. They start out just talking about Medicare Supplement plans, and those are perfectly legal to advertise. Why? Because no matter the provider, each particular plan has the same premium, determined by age, and has the same basic benefits.

These are the plans that cover deductibles, copays, and coinsurance not covered by other plans or Medicare itself. Where they differ is in the extras they toss on. Some of them provide gym benefits, others provide personal emergency systems — i.e. the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” necklace, others provide free over-the-counter stuff, like vitamins and cold remedies, by mail. It’s a mix-and-match, and what it’s really doing is providing people to decide what they prefer among plans that are otherwise identical.

So far, so good. If it’s a slow day and I get one of these calls, I will always push the button for more info, which connects me to a live operator. This is where it gets fun, because it is illegal to cold-call someone to try to sell them Medicare Advantage or Medicare Prescription Drug Plans.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what all those terms mean. I didn’t either six months ago. The gist of it is that selling these in the same way is illegal because their costs and coverages vary wildly, and it all depends upon the person being insured, and which medications they’re taking.

For somebody taking no drugs or with one or two common and cheap generics, Coverage X may only cost $13 a month. For someone with a lot of prescriptions, especially if one or more only come in a brand instead of a generic, Coverage X may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. And for each of them, the price of Coverage X, Coverage Y, and Coverage Z may also vary widely, also depending on whether they have a preferred pharmacy or not, and whether that pharmacy is in or out of network for the provider.

In other words… this is something people need to discuss with a professional who can look at their specific needs, analyze the options, and give the best and cheapest advice. That cold caller is probably only calling for a small number of (or even only one) providers, so they don’t care what your situation is going to cost. They only want to get you to buy what you’re selling.

And that is a big part of why these kinds of calls are so illegal.

Now, when I get a person doing one of these calls on the line, they will usually launch into a fast-talking spiel about how they can save me and my family money on all of our health insurance needs, including Medicare Advantage or Drug Plans, and what would I like to sign up for today?

My reply is always, “Hey, you sell Medicare insurance, too? So do we. My boss is an insurance broker.”

Analogy time: This would be the equivalent of somebody robo-dialing in order to hire a hitman to take out a rival, giving the fully incriminating pitch to whomever answers, and then finding out they’d called the FBI.

When I say this, I can hear the sudden confusion in the silence and the unstated “Oh, shit.” It takes a second or two, but then I hear them hang up on me, and that is the Holy Grail of dealing with these unethical idiots: making them end the call.

Some of them must be paying attention, though, because the other day I got one of these calls during a slow late afternoon, hit 1 to talk to a rep and then instead of immediately being put through, got some hold music, and then after about ten seconds, the call disconnected.

So, other Holy Grail. I think I actually got our office number blocked by a spamming, illegal robo-caller. That’s really satisfying.

However, there’s another trend in these robo-calls that’s somewhat more disturbing on a couple of fronts. First is that it could actually put people out of jobs. And yes, while we all hate these kinds of calls, I still get that for some people, these jobs are their tenuous lifelines. I blame the companies behind them, not the people who have no options other than to work for them.

Second is that this trend is using AI, and it’s getting a lot better. When you get a call that has a voice announcement or is reading off a recorded message, it’s pretty obvious what it is. Beyond the robotic cadence or the message outright stating that it’s a recording, there’s also just a huge difference in sound quality between a recording or digital audio and a live speaker.

Why is this? Simple. Digital or analog audio goes direct through an input line to the headset speaker in your phone. Spoken voice has to take the extra step or traversing a few millimeters of open air between the speaker’s mouth and their microphone, and this creates a completely different quality. You don’t even have to be an audiophile to pick up on it. It’s something we just automatically sense. “Recording” and “Real Person” appear as different from each other as “Mannequin” and “Human Being.”

But then they tweaked the technology, and now I’ve met a couple of AI robo-callers that were obviously filtered to sound like real people with that atmospheric connection. I don’t doubt that this is now a trivial process to add via computer, although to be honest, it could be done really low-tech and in cheap analog by setting up a speaker playing the voice next to a handset picking it up. Either way… these couple of calls got me at first.

Call number one, it was easy to spot after the initial two exchanges, because the voice launched into the uninterruptable spiel so, despite the sound quality, I got it and hung up.

The second and, so far, last time, it was a bit harder. The very human sounding voice started out with, “Hello, how are you today?” I replied, “Fine, and you?” It replied. “Great, thanks for asking. Can I ask you some questions about your family’s shopping habits?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for an opportunity to mess with them, but then also noticed that there seemed to be slightly too long of a pause between their question and my response. Also, every response started with a filler word. And the next response nailed it for me.

“That’s great. Are you responsible for the grocery shopping in your household.”

Trivial thing, but just like we can detect by hearing whether a voice is recorded or on the phone, our brains are also wired to detect whether we’re talking to a human, and this was the point that the bot failed the Turing Test. The responses were a bit mechanical and not keying into my tone at all. So I decided to give it a real test and replied, “I only pay for it, but everyone else decides what they want.”

The pause was slightly longer, and then came the reply, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you repeat that?” Of course, the human response would have been a laugh at a thing that AI hasn’t mastered yet: A joke.

Bingo, busted bot. So lots of points for the realism of the voice, delivery, and sound quality, but there’s still a long way to go on making it believable, and this is a very, very good thing, indeed. If you think it’s a bot, engage it with non-sequiturs and humor, and see how fast it falls apart.


Image: Alan Turing Memotial by Bernt Rostad, (cc BY 2.0).

Babylonian math and modern addition

Babylonians, who were very early astronomers, inherited a rather interesting counting system from the Sumerians, one that worked in Base 60, if you can believe it. It was basically derived from counting each of the segments of the fingers on one hand, not including the thumb (3 x 4) and then using all five fingers on the other hand to count each set of 12. Five times 12, of course, equals 60.

60 is a very useful number because it has so many factors: 1 through 6, then 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. It also has common factors with 8 (2 and 4) and 9 (3), and can easily create integer fractions with multiples of 5 and 10. For example, 45/60 reduces very easily. First, divide both by 5 to get 9/12, then divide both by 3 to get 3/4. It works just as easily in reverse — 60/45, 12/9, 4/3 which equals 1 1/3.

If you’re ahead of me, then you’ve already realized a very important place where we use 60 a lot.

Now, I would argue that the system is actually Base 12 counted in groups of 5, but the outcome is rather interesting, because to this day it forms the basis for some pretty basic things: Euclidean geometry and telling time.

A minute has 60 seconds and an hour has 60 minutes, of course. A circle has 360 degrees, which is 60 times 6. It’s a fortunate coincidence that an Earth year worked out to be so close to that in number of days — 365.25. And in case you’ve ever wondered why we add one day every four years, like we will this year, that’s the reason why. Our 365 day calendar loses a full day in that time, and we put it back by tacking it onto the end of February.

I still think that it was more Base 12 times 5, because there are some significant dozens that pop up, again thanks to the Babylonians. There are a dozen constellations in the zodiac, each one taking up 30 degrees of sky, giving us 12 months.

Of course, you can’t write “12” in Base 12 — those digits actually denote what would be 14 in Base 10. So how do you get around there only being 10 digits if you want to write in bigger bases?

If you’ve done any kind of coding or even HTML, you’re probably familiar with the hexadecimal system, which is Base 16. There, the convention was established that once a digit hit nine, the rest would be filled out with letters until you incremented the next digit up. So, once we get to 9 in Base 16, the following digits are A (10), B (11), C (12), D (13), E (14), and F (15). F is followed by 10 (16), and the whole process repeats following the rules I’ve described previously.

Now you might wonder, how did they do single digits in Base 60, and the answer is that the Babylonians didn’t. In fact, they sort of cheated, and if you look at their numbering system, it’s actually done in Base 10. They just stop at 59 before rolling over. They also didn’t have a zero or a concept of it, which made the power of any particular digit a bit ambiguous.

And yet… Babylonians developed a lot of the complex mathematics we know to this day, including algebra, a pretty accurate calculation of the square root of 2, how to figure out compound interest, an apparent early version of the Pythagorean theorem, an approximation of π accurate to about four digits, measuring angular distances, and Fourier analysis.

Yeah, not too bad for an ancient civilization that didn’t have internet or smart phones and who wrote all their stuff in clay using sticks, huh? But that is the beauty of the ingenuity of the human mind. We figured out this stuff thousands of years ago and have built upon it ever since. The tricks the Babylonians learned from the Sumerians led in a straight line right to the device you’re reading this on, the method it’s being piped to your eye-holes, the system of satellites or tunnels of fiber optics that more likely than not takes the data from source to destination, and even the way all that data is encoded.

Yay, humans! We do manage to advance, sometimes. The real challenge is continuing to move forward instead of backward, but here’s a clue. Every great advance we have made has been backed up by science. Within our own living memory — that of ourselves, or the still living generations who remember what their parents and grandparents remembered — we went from not being able to fly at all to landing humans on the Moon to launching probes out of our solar system, all of it in under one century.

We have eradicated or mitigated diseases that used to kill ridiculous numbers of people, are reducing fatality rates for other diseases, and are increasing life expectancy, at least when the voice of reason holds sway. For a while, we even made great advances in cleaning up the environment and quite possibly turning the tide back in favor of reversing the damage.

But… the real risk is that we do start moving backward, and that always happens when the powers that be ignore science and replace it with ignorance and superstition, or ignore the advances of one group because they’re part of “them,” not “us.”

To quote Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” And when an empire falls, it isn’t always possible for it to spread its knowledge. What Babylon discovered was lost and found many times, to the point that aspects of it weren’t found again until the time of the ancient Greeks or the Muslims, or the Renaissance.

In order, and only in terms of math, those cultures gave us geometry; algebra and the concept of zero; and optics and physics — an incomplete list in every case. European culture didn’t give us much in the way of science between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, while the Muslim world was flourishing in all of the parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe that it had conquered, along with preserving and advancing all of that science and math from fallen old-world civilizations.

Yeah, for some funny reason back then, their religion supported science. Meanwhile, in other places a certain religion didn’t, and the era was called the Dark Ages. That eventually flipped and the tide turned in Europe beginning in the 16th century. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s exactly why every college course in “modern” history begins at 1500 C.E.

Sadly, the prologue to this is the Italian war criminal Cristobal Colón convincing the Spanish religious fanatics Fernando y Isabel to finance his genocidal expedition originally intended to sail west to India but unfortunately finding some islands next to a continent in the way, on which he raped, pillaged, and slaughtered people for his own amusement. Or, in other words, the Dark Ages didn’t end until Colón and those Spanish rulers were dead and buried, meaning January 23, 1516, when they fed the last of them, Fernando, to the worms.

Oh, except that humans continued to be shitty as they sailed west even as science back home advanced. Dammit. And that’s been the back and forth since forever. What we really need are more people committed to the “Forth!” while determined to stop the “Back!”

Or, at the very least, push the science forward, push the bullshit back.

Look, up in the sky!

Throughout history, humans have been fascinated with the sky, and a lot of our myths were attempts to explain what goes on up there. In many cultures, the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) were named after deities or attributes of the planets with surprising consistency.

Mercury was often named for its swiftness in orbiting the Sun; Venus was always associated with beauty because of its brightness; Mars’s red color led to it being named either for a violent deity or that color; Jupiter was always associated with the chief deity even though nobody in those times had any idea it was the largest planet; and Saturn, at least in the west, was named after Jupiter’s father.

This led to Uranus, which wasn’t discovered until the 18th century, being named after Saturn’s father, i.e. Jupiter’s grandfather. Neptune, discovered in the 19th century, and Pluto, discovered in the 20th century before being rightfully demoted from planetary status, were only named for Jupiter’s less cool brothers.

Since the planets were given attributes associated with deities, their relationship to each other must have meant something, and so the bogus art of astrology was invented, although it was obviously not complete prior to Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto being added, but then was clearly incorrect during the entire period of time that Pluto was a planet. (Hint: That was a joke. It was incorrect the entire time.)

Since humans are also hard-wired to see patterns, the stars above led to the definition of constellations, the night-time version of the “What is that cloud shaped like?” game.

It wasn’t really until the renaissance and the rise of science, including things like optics (one of Newton’s discoveries), which gave us telescopes, that we really started to take a look at the skies study them. But it is still astounding how so many laypeople know so little about what’s up there that we have had completely natural phenomena freaking us out since forever. Here are five examples of things in the sky that made people lose their stuff.

1. Total eclipse of the heart… er… Sun

Until science openly explained them, eclipses of any kind were scary. For one thing, nobody knew when they were coming until Royal Astronomer became a thing, but only the elite were privy to the information, so the Sun would go out or the Moon would turn blood red, or either one of them would appear to lose a piece at random and without warning. Generally, the belief was that the Moon or Sun (particularly the latter) was being consumed by some malevolent yet invisible beast that needed to be scared away.

But long after modern science explained that an eclipse was nothing more than the Moon passing in front of the Sun or the Earth passing in front of the Moon, shit went down in 1878, at least in low-information areas.

The thing about this eclipse was that it had been predicted close to a century before, had been well-publicized, and was going to put the path of totality across the entire U.S. for the first time since its founding. There’s even a book about it, American Eclipse. But there’s also a tragic part of the story. While the news had spread across most of the growing nation, it didn’t make it to Texas, and farm workers there, confronted with the sudden loss of the Sun, took it to mean all kinds of things. A lot of them thought that it was a portent of the return of Jesus, and in at least one case, a father killed his children and then himself in order to avoid the apocalypse.

2. Captain Comet!

Ah, comets. They are an incredibly rare sight in the sky and well worth traveling to see if that’s what you need to do. I remember a long trek into the darkness when I was pretty young to go see Comet Hyakutake, and yes it was worth it. It was a glorious blue-green fuzzball planted in space with a huge tail. Of course, I knew what it was. In the past, not so much.

In the ancient world, yet again, they were seen as bad omens because something in the heavens had gone wrong. The heavens, you see, were supposed to be perfect, but there was suddenly this weird… blot on them. Was it a star that grew fuzzy? Was it coming to eat the Earth? What could be done?

That may all sound silly, but as recently as 1910, people still flipped their shit over the return of one of the more predictable and periodic of “fuzzy stars.” That would be Comet Halley. And, by the way, it’s not pronounced “Hay-lee.” It’s “Hall-lee.”

And why did it happen? Simple. A French astronomer who should have known better, wrote that the tail of the comet was full of gases, including hydrogen and cyanide, and if the Earth passed through the tail, we would either be gassed to death or blown up. Unfortunately, another French astronomer at the time actually played “Got your back” with him, and that was all it took.

It was pseudoscience bullshit at its finest, propagated by the unquestioning and uninformed (when it comes to science) media, and it created a panic even though it was completely wrong.

The worst part about Halley’s 1910 appearance? It bore out Mark Twain’s statement, paraphrased probably: “I came into the world with it, I will go out with it.” And he did. Goddamit.

3. Meteoric rise is an oxymoron

And it definitely is, because a meteor only becomes one because it’s falling. And while we’re here, let’s look at three often confused words: Meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite.

The order is this: Before it gets here and is still out in space, it’s a meteoroid. Once it hits our atmosphere and starts to glow and burn up, it has become a meteor. Only the bits that actually survive to slam into the planet get to be called meteorites. Oid, or, ite. I suppose you could think of it as being in the vOID, coming fOR you, and then crash, goodnITE.

So the things that mostly cause panic are meteors, and quite recently, a meteor blowing up over Russia convinced people that they were under attack. It was a fireball that crashed into the atmosphere on February 15, 2013, and it actually did cause damage and injuries on the ground.

The numbers on the Chelyabinsk meteor are truly staggering, especially to think that they involved no high explosives, just friction and pure physics (Hello again, Sir Isaac!) The thing was about 66 feet in diameter, which is the length of a cricket pitch, or about four feet longer than a bowling lane. It compares to a lot of things, and you can find some fun examples here.

But there was nothing fun about this asteroid. It came screaming through our atmosphere at about 41,000 miles an hour at a steep angle. The heat from the friction of our atmosphere quickly turned it into a fireball of the superbolide variety, which is one that is brighter than the sun. It exploded about 18 miles up. That explosion created a fireball of hot gas and dust a little over four miles in diameter. The kinetic energy of the event was about 30 times the force of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Over 7,200 buildings were damaged and 1,500 people were injured enough to need medical attention, mostly due to flying glass and other effects of the shockwave. Unlike other items on this list, these events actually can be dangerous, although this was the first time in recorded history that people were known to have been injured by a meteor. The Tunguska event, in 1908, was a little bit bigger and also in Russia, but happened in a remote and sparsely populated area, with no reported human injuries. Local reindeer were not so lucky.

4. Conjunction junction, what’s your function?

A conjunction is defined as any two or more objects in space which appear to be close together or overlapping when viewed from the Earth. Every solar eclipse is a conjunction of the Sun and Moon as seen from the Earth. Oddly enough, a lunar eclipse is not a conjunction from our point of view, because it’s our planet that’s casting the shadow on the Moon.

Conjunctions shouldn’t be all that surprising for a few reasons.

First is that most of the planets pretty much orbit in the same plane, defined by the plane in which the Earth orbits because that makes the most sense from an observational standpoint.

The inclination of Earth’s orbit is zero degrees by definition and the plane we orbit in is called the ecliptic. You can probably figure out where that name came from. Out of the planets, the one with the greatest inclination is Mercury, at 7º. Counting objects in the solar system in general, the dwarf planet Pluto has an inclination of 17.2º — which is just another argument against it being a true planet. None of the planets not yet mentioned have an inclination of more than 4º, which really isn’t a whole lot.

The second reason conjunctions should not be all that surprising is because each planet has to move at a particular velocity relative to its distance from the Sun to maintain its orbit. The farther out you are, the faster you have to go. Although this is a function of gravity, the airplane analogy will show you why this makes sense.

As an airplane gains speed, the velocity of air over the wings increases, generating more lift, bringing the airplane higher. In space, there’s no air to deal with, but remember that any object in orbit is essentially falling around the body it orbits, but doing it fast enough to keep missing.

If it slows down too much, it will start to fall, but if it speeds up its orbit will get bigger. This is directly analogous to ballistics, which describes the arc of a flying projectile. The faster it launches the farther it goes and the bigger the arc it makes. An arc in orbit becomes an ellipse.

Since every planet is moving at the speed required to keep it at the distance it is, things are likely to sync up occasionally. Sometimes, it will only be one or two planets, but on certain instances, it will be most or all of them. This video is a perfect example. Each one of the balls is on a string of a different length, so its natural period is different. Sometimes, the pattern becomes quite chaotic, but every so often it syncs up perfectly. Note that all of them did start in sync, so it is mathematically inevitable that they will sync up again at the point that all of the different period multiply to the same number. Our solar system is no different since the planets all started as rings of gas and dust swirling around the Sun. There was a sync point somewhen.

So conjunctions are a completely normal phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that people haven’t gone completely stupid with them. The first way is via astrology, which isn’t even worth debunking because it’s such a load. The Sun is 99.8% of the mass of the solar system, so it constantly has more influence in every possible way over everything else hands down. What influence did the planets have upon your personality at birth? Less than zero. The only relevant factor, really, is that people’s personalities are formed by their relative age when they started school, so that is influenced by the season they were born in, but that’s about it.

As for the modern version of people going completely stupid over conjunctions, it happened in the early 1980s, after the 1974 publication of the book The Jupiter Effect by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. In short, they predicted that a conjunction of the planets on March 10, 1982 would cause a series of earthquakes that would wipe out Los Angeles.

Since you’re reading this in at least the year 2020 and I’m quite safely in Los Angeles, you know how their prediction turned out. This didn’t stop them from backtracking a month later and releasing a follow-up book called The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered (aka We Want More Money from the Gullible) in which they claimed, “Oh… we miscalculated. The date was actually in 1980, and the conjunction (that hadn’t happened yet) caused Mount St. Helens to erupt.”

Still, just like with the whole end of the world 2012 predictions, at least some people bought into it.

5. The original star wars

The last item on our list is possibly a one-off, occurring on April 14, 1561 in Nuremberg, Germany. Whether it actually even happened is debatable since only a single account of it survives in the form of a broadsheet — basically the blog post of its day. If it had been as widespread as the story makes it seem, after all, there should have been reports from all across Europe unless, of course, the point of view from Nuremberg created the exceptional event in the first place.

It was described as an aerial battle that began between 4 and 5 a.m. when “a dreadful apparition occurred on the sun.” I’ll quote the rest of the paragraph in translation in full from the article linked above: “At first there appeared in the middle of the sun two blood-red semicircular arcs, just like the moon in its last quarter. And in the sun, above and below and on both sides, the color was blood, there stood a round ball of partly dull, partly black ferrous color. Likewise there stood on both sides and as a torus about the sun such blood-red ones and other balls in large numbers, about three in a line and four in a square, also some alone.”

The unknown author goes on to describe the objects — spheres, rods, and crosses — as battling with each other for about an hour, swirling back and forth. Eventually, the objects seemed to become fatigued and fell to the Earth, where they “wasted away… with immense smoke.

Now, what could have caused this phenomenon? The obvious answers are that it was a slow news day or that it was religious propaganda or some other wind-up. But if it were an actual phenomenon and really only remarked on in one village, then it’s quite possible that it was a meteor shower with an apparent radiant, or source, that happened to line up with the Sun.

It was a Monday, with a new Moon. The Sun rose in the east at 5:05 a.m., so the invisible Moon was somewhere around that part of the sky, too. But this also immediately calls the story into question, since the phenomenon seen coming from the Sun happened before sunrise according to the account. But if we consider that to just be human error, what we have is the Pearl Harbor effect. The attackers come in with the rising Sun behind them, making them hard to see or understand.

On top of that, if they’re coming in from that direction, they’re coming in at a very shallow angle. See the notes on the Russian meteor above. This can lead to some super-heated objects, which would glow red as reported, and anything not red hot against the Sun would appear black. If it happened to be a swarm of objects, like a bunch of small rocks and dust or a bigger piece that broke up, all flying in at once, the chaotic motion could certainly make it seem like a battle.

There is a meteor shower that happens around that time of year called the Lyrids, which is very short-lived, although I haven’t yet been able to find out whether its radiant was near the Sun in 1561. But a particularly heavy shower coming in at just the right angle could have an unusual effect in a limited area.

Or… the author just pulled it out of his ass for his own reasons. We can never know.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano, F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

Dream a little dream

We all have them. Some of us in color, others in black and white — although that really seems to be (sorry) an Ok, Boomer phenomenon. If you’re Gen X or younger, you probably dream in color because you grew up with color TV.  Only the generations that grew up with black and white media, whether TV or film, seem to have ever dreamt only in black and white.

Weird, eh? Although dreams can be weirder and very meaningful, although Freud really got it wrong because he decided that dream symbolism was universal when, in reality, it is actually very specific.

Think about it for just one second. Say that you grew up in the country and, as a child, you were traumatized by your first trip to the city. So… when you dream, it’s most likely that country dreams are pleasant and city dreams are not. Reverse this for someone who grew up in a city and loved it, but had a bad experience the first time they went to visit the grandparents on their farm.

What would Freud say? He’d pull shit out of his ass and make up some one-size-fits all statement, probably about how dreams of the country represent a desire to have sex with one’s mother, while city dreams represent a need to kill one’s father.

Yeah, wrong.

Dreams are very personal

I tend to dream myself into one of two general situations that have symbolic meaning to me, and not anyone else.

First, dense urban landscapes, day or night, frequently involving endless streets crowded by buildings with a lot of overhang and construction, and which often feel in my mind like a blend of New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. These dreams frequently involve me having to take public transportation — which I actually love to do — in an effort to get home that seems increasingly futile, especially when it’s three in the morning and I realize that I’ve exited the subway at the wrong place, and that the bus doesn’t stop here, it’s a mile or two up the road.

Subset of this, when I’m not doing the transit thing, I’ll enter a building, and it turns into either a gigantic amalgamation of malls (the Beverly Center on steroids with others appended); a weird combination of mall, public space in a university, and the dorms (the student union on steroids); or an office building in which I’m working, except that the office I go to seems to go on and on forever in an endless nest of cube farms, with each new inner door leading to another, identical cube farm with different people.

Also, the latter group tends to have really odd and iffy elevators, especially if it’s a really tall building. I’ve been in a couple of 200 story office towers, and acceleration on the express elevators in either direction was not pleasant.

Meanwhile, the dorm version inevitably leads to weird bathrooms that have either far too many toilet stalls, most of them not working, a few urinals where I don’t want to use them, or a grungy shower room hidden way behind everything. There usually aren’t a lot of stalls, just a lot of toilets installed in haphazard rows butting up against each other, pun intended. Finding that one urinal that actually has partitions on either side is always a blessing. Yeah, no way I’m sitting down in any of these bathrooms. They make the one in Trainspotting look like the restroom at the… Nashville Zoo?

But the other typical dreamscape is almost always even weirder and literally darker.

Welcome to my nightmares

Second, the suburban version. It involves a lot of weirdness and anxiety, because these dreams usually revolve around me having to figure out what shit to pack and where my plane tickets are in order to make it out of here in time to get home. Or, if not that, this, and very similar. I can’t take everything or, really, anything, and my brain melts trying to figure out how to get it all out of here anyway. Quite frequently, I know that I’m on a group trip to somewhere, like my improv company has gone to another city for a competition or I’m visiting friends in another state. Unlike a lot of the urban dreams, these tend to take place only at night.

Other variations include me going back to live in my parents’ house (sometimes with them even though they’re both dead), or me sharing a house with roommates I personally know, but who are never there. And, like the urban dreams, these houses often have rooms within rooms — a door in a bedroom that seems to be a closet will lead to a hallway that leads to another room, often another bedroom but also frequently some sort of living room with an entrance/exit off of it. Sometimes this will lead out to the street. Other times, it will lead to an alley that doesn’t seem to belong to a house — a common theme I’ll get to in a moment.

The puzzle houses are also frequently the locations for parties, so each discovery of a new room and hallway will lead to a new group of people.

This doesn’t just happen with houses. I’ve had it happen with apartments or condos, and a frequent one will be a very luxurious condo with modern design, marble floors, white walls, and huge rooms that goes on and on, and then I find a hallway the leads to a door that opens directly into… a huge mall. Or, sometimes there isn’t even a door. It’s sort of a variation of the student union from the urban dreams. I think I get this symbolism: a lack of separation between public and private space; although I’m not sure whether I think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t have any strong emotions about it in the dreams.

One other minor motif that also involves greatly exaggerated landscapes involves simple travel, whether it’s down a highway in a car or hiking, frequently on a grassy trail next to a river or viaduct, passing through various sections that will come to similar link points, like ramps or interchanges for the former, or footbridges and road crossings for the latter. The highway ones also often go through varied terrain. I’ve gone from a sunny beach to a snowy mountain pass in one. Then again, that’s easy to do in Southern California.

On top of all of this, I often go full Dr. Manhattan in my dreams. That is, I’m nude, I don’t care, and no one notices. It’s only the rare occasion when I decide that I should probably put on pants, but that’s generally only when it’s a dream in which I realize I’m interacting with past or present co-workers.

The meaning of dreams

In case you’re wondering, yes, I know full well what a lot of the elements of these dreams mean and symbolize to me. Why shouldn’t I? My subconscious speaks the language of my fears, hopes, and desires better than I do. It also knows how to put it into the metaphors that I cling to, and to cast it with people from my past and present (and maybe future?) who will shorthand the real message.

But… this also shows why Freud (and anyone else) who claims to interpret dreams with universal symbols is so wrong. If I dream about eating ice cream while walking with my mother, that will have an entirely different set of connotations than you having the same dream. Like I mentioned before with the city/country thing, maybe one of us has a very pleasant childhood memory of our mom telling us the family was going to Disneyland while we were walking and eating ice cream. Maybe one of us saw our mother hit and killed by a car on that walk.

They say that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and the same is true of dreams. If somebody who is gay or bisexual has erotic dreams about someone of the same sex, then those are good dreams. If a person who is heterosexual does, then those are moments when they wake up thinking, “WTF?” And especially if that dream was about someone they know IRL. (To be fair, though, the same applies to gay people having the same kind of dreams about the opposite sex and, yes, it happens. It’s happened to me more than once.)

But, again, another clear example of why Freud was so wrong. A dream about a sexy woman or man means very different things depending upon who’s dreaming it. Then again, Freud only wondered about what we dream. He never asked the important question.

Why do we dream?

This one still hasn’t been answered, though researchers have tried. There are many theories but no answers, and that’s only coming from the science side. If you want to go all mystic about it (please don’t) then dreams could also be messages from dead ancestors, the spirit realm, and any kind of woo you want to throw onto it. (Note: Wow. It wasn’t that long ago that woo was woo-woo. Talk about fast evolution of language. Whoot!) But short of the why, I think that this is the best what. Dreams are the emails your subconscious sends to you after hours to help you improve your next day.

Best part? They know the exact emojis you will relate to, and they hook them together in the right order. And it doesn’t matter whether you dream in full color or black and white, or whether you dream visually at all because, surprise, blind people dream as well and, depending upon when they went blind, they either dream through their other senses — touch, taste, and smell — or, if they became blind after about 5 or 6 years old, they also see in their dreams.

And think about it for a moment. Other than vision, and maybe sound, what other senses do you experience in your dreams? The only consistent one I can think of is kinesthetic. That is, full body motion, like the sense of falling or moving. Touch, taste, or smell, not so much.

Do electric sheep dream of androids?

Another great question is this. Do animals dream? And the answer is that, at least for mammals like us, of course. And what do they dream about? That’s a little harder to determine because, obviously, you can’t wake up your cat and dog and ask them. But researchers at MIT did use some science, and they determined that rats tended to dream about the task they had learned that day, and so seemed to use dreams as a sort of passive learning reinforcement.

And, of course, in less ethical times when experimenters had no problems physically altering the brains of animals in order to inhibit the protective feature of sleep paralysis, they used a very crude method to see that cats and dogs dreaming in REM sleep acted out exactly the hunting and play behaviors they would in real life.

Some humans naturally suffer the condition that scientists induced, and it’s called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. This is actually a thing, and was used as a successful defense in a murder trial in Britain, although the legal classification of pavor nocturnus is rather different than the medical definition noted above.

Still, there’s an interesting note. Cats, dogs, and humans all have rather aggressive dreams. Except when we don’t, and none of mine are. Fearful and anxious, maybe. Aggressive? Nah. And I’m not likely to murder anyone in their sleep, although there was this one time I sleepwalked into a rather awkward place only to wake up, realize it, and go back to bed.

And I’ve never had a dog that didn’t start to do that “paddle paw and squeak” thing while asleep, and I’ve never found it anything less than totally endearing.

Except for that part where Freud would say that dog is dreaming about killing his father and… Oh, shut up. The meanings of dreams are as unique as the dreamers, and if you want to be successful as a dream interpreter, here’s the clue to success: Learn how to get the dreamer to admit to you what each element means, then string it back to them in a narrative that’s really just good advice.

“Oh, so you dreamt about missing your train to work. Wow. What if that happened in real life?” (Listen to answer.) “Okay, so when you got there late, your boss threw something at you. How do you feel about your boss, and this job?” (Listen to answer.)

Lather, rinse, repeat, until they’ve told you exactly what their dream means, then repeat it all back in a nice narrative form. Accept payment and referrals, profit.

This is actually exactly how a “good” Tarot card reader works by the way. I’ve seen it in action from the outside, and it’s amazing. All they do is say what each card symbolizes in the space that it’s in, but then get the person they’re reading for to fill in the blanks. “This card means unbalance and it’s in the spot indicating your present. Is anything in your life feeling out of balance?” Etc.

It’s also exactly what Freud did, except in the less customized version — “Buy my book and know what your dreams mean!” Except, no. You won’t. But you will if you use the version I mentioned three paragraphs above. Talk to yourself. Think about each element of your dream, and ask yourself what it means to you. It can help to write your dream down, and then make footnotes on each bit of it. What each location and person and feeling means to you now because of what it meant then. After all of that, figure out how all of these bits and pieces relate to what you’re living now and, voilà… dream interpreted. Like I’ve said elsewhere… it ain’t rocket science.