Uncommon Sense

May 3, 2021

It Says So Right on the Label

Filed under: History,language,Medicine,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:00 am
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I was reading the label of an over the counter (OTC) medicine and right on the front it said “No Artificial Sweeteners” and “Contains 44% Xylitol.” Not being a chemist, you might not be confused here.

Xylitol is produced from xylose, a naturally occurring sugar, by both chemical and biological methods. In the chemical process, catalytic hydrogenation of xylose produces the sugar substitute xylitol. In the biological process, quite a few chemical “pretreatments” are needed before biological action (via bacteria or yeast) creates the desired product.

The distinction here between “artificial sweetener” and “xylitol” is “wafer thin” (“Waffer thin” as pronounced by John Cleese in the Monty Python masterpiece “The Meaning of Life.”)

The difficulty is due only to advertising, which is a form of propaganda (which it was called pre-WW2, then propaganda became a “dirty” word). In advertiser lingo there are “bad” words and “good” words. Only “good” words are to be used with one’s own products and only “bad” words are to be used with other products.

For example, here are some “good” words: natural and all-natural, fresh, wholesome, etc. And here are some “bad” words: artificial, synthetic, chemical, etc.

In the above instance xylitol can be found in nature, but it is hard to harvest, so it is synthesized chemically or biologically. Yep, xylitol (chemical names are not capitalized, btw) is artificial (the xylitol they put in that bottle certainly was anyway).

Now, before you go bonkers on me, do realize that butter is artificial. What? Butter isn’t natural? Nope, butter is not natural, certainly not “all-natural.” You can not go pick a pat or two off of a butter bush out back, you know. The word artificial means made through man’s arts. Many things you think are natural aren’t really. For example, you go out into your backyard and pick an apple off of your tree and take a bite. Hmm, natural goodness, right? It seems so (and I have fond memories of doing just that as a child; I can still recall the taste of those apples). But most often it is not. Most fruit trees have been artificially selected to produce “non-natural” fruit, hybrids. Almost all of the plants we eat were never part of nature. We created them though artifice. Artichokes were thistles, corn was this spindly little plant with inedible seeds, sugar beets were tiny little things, not the football-sized things we grow today, and all bananas and grapes had seeds. The change process is called artificial selection to distinguish our efforts from nature’s.

Take the case of aspirin. Aspirin, by far, is the most successful drug ever devised. It’s century plus history began from the recognition that a tea made from willow bark had analgesic properties (the Egyptians knew this). But the tea was bitter as hell and if you used a bit too much it gave you a very upset stomach. Much later, it was discovered that the active ingredient in the willow bark tea was salicylic acid. An effort was made to find a chemical variant of salicylic acid that was still potent by which didn’t have those side effects. Since salicylic acid is a carboxylic acid, one attempt was to turn it into an ester, a much less irritating class of compounds. Aspirin is the ester formed from salicylic acid and acetic acid, the active ingredient in vinegar, and a star was born. Aspirin is artificial and I am happy about that.

Just being “natural” is not a sign of “good” or “safe.” Rattlesnake venom, arsenic, and monkey dung are all natural but I don’t want any of them in my body. In foods and pharmaceuticals, if a natural substance shows some promise, it is studied to see if modifications could make it better. In the case of pharmaceuticals, if they are strictly chemical we look to see if we can synthesize it as a lower cost/higher volume process of creating it. Instead of extracting rare colored dyes from clams, we can synthesize what we want and have more variety and permanence. This is what we do.

Problems arise when what we synthesize isn’t recognized by the biological process responsible for the breakdown and recycling of our wastes (they are not natural you see). We are currently experiencing these problems with oceanic plastic waste and microfiber residues in all natural waters.

A Side Note Question—What kills more fish: chemical pollutants or plastic waste? The answer is: commercial fishing. We kill via this method orders of magnitude more fish than all of the sources of pollution put together. I mention this because we have blind spots and advertisers take advantage of them.

April 27, 2021

Deepak Chopra BS

Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor of some sort (his certification is in internal medicine; he specialized in endocrinology) and yet he is better known as a new age guru who harkens back to being an old age guru (he is a fan of chakras and other aspects of Indian medicine). Note This is why I refer to him as Mr. Chopra below because his doctorate is not in a field that impinges at all with his opinions in this article. Were he writing on the pandemic and endocrinology, I would refer to him as Dr. Chopra.

In an online essay (A Reality Reset is Coming) Mr. Chopra emphasizes the “flaws” of materialism. He refers to a recent experiment on muons that “may” challenge the standard model of physics. I emphasize the “may” because such things come along with great regularity. And, also with great regularity, the predicted possible disruption of current theory does not happen. On the flip side, experiment after experiment confirms the standard model, but those experiments do not make the news. Maybe the last one that did was the “discovery” of the Higgs boson. I say discovery because its existence was predicted decades earlier and what was looked for was a conformation of its existence. Predicted by the Standard Model and then found. Quite a success.

But Mr. Chopra goes on to state “Materialism, it turns out, is just a plausible story, not a viable way to explain the world around us and certainly not the world “in here” where the mind operates.” He goes on to list many things that have not been explained . . . yet:
• No one knows where the Big Bang came from.
• No one knows how life began.
• The origin of time, space, matter, and energy remain totally hidden.
• The two leading theories in physics, General Relativity (which explains how large objects work) and quantum mechanics (which explains how tiny things work) turn out to be seemingly incompatible.
• The relation of mind and brain is as up in the air as it was at the time of Plato and Aristotle.
• The nature of consciousness and how it evolved—if it evolved—cannot be agreed upon.

I suppose Mr. Chopra thinks that these are trivial problems that should have been solved decades ago, but he glides over several thousand years of philosophy and religion having failed to solve these problems. Consider that roughly 100 years ago, we thought that our Milky Way galaxy was the entire universe. We knew nothing of the Big Bang. We had no evidence of planets existing around other stars. We knew little to nothing about quantum mechanics. Both special and general relativity had been postulated but at most fewer than 100 people understood those theories.

And Mr. Chopra is criticizing that which brought all of that knowledge to us.

He concludes “To boil things down to their most basic, if you don’t know where the universe came from and are equally baffled by where thoughts come from, how reliable is your explanation of reality? Intellectual honesty forces an answer: not reliable at all. Persuasive stories and unexamined assumptions riddle our current worldview.”

Okay, Mr. Chopra. Exclude materialism and explain . . . reality for all of us. Go ahead, we will wait.

And as to the reliability isue. I offer a test to Mr. Chopra. I will hold a 50 lb weight over his foot and ask him what he would do if I looked as if I were to drop that weight? He, like ever other person, would move his foot out of the downward path of that weight. That behavior, aka falling, is dependable, even though we still don’t know what gravity is. Dependability is based upon testing, not upon whether one knows where the universe or thoughts come from.

April 5, 2021

Who Wants to Think? Really!

I have been reading a revealing and fascinating book of late (They Thought They Were Free, The Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer). The author interviewed ten ordinary Germans right after WW2 and came to think of them as friends. Many of the conclusions I had come to about the nature of the German people have been severely corrected. And, I have spent more than a little time reading about and viewing works on WW2, particularly about the Germans (I am also reading a new bio of Hitler).

Consider the following quote from a colleague of the author who was a German college professor.

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There is no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated by the machinations of ‘national enemies,’ without and within that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?”

Who wants to think?

This was an intellectual speaking, right after WW2, so things were fresh in mind.

Who wants to think, indeed?

I was immediately reminded of Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (published in 1964, so also not long after the war). In that book, Hofstadter points out that there has been a large streak of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the beginning. (You may observe it in action right now: anti-vax, flat earth, chem trails, climate change is a hoax, etc. All of these are anti-expert and anti-intellectual efforts which find fertile soil to grow in our culture.)

Thinkers, bah, what do they know?

Of course, what I want to write about is . . . what the heck are they talking about? What is “thinking?”

At present we have no idea where conscious thoughts come from, and even less about subconscious mental processes. So, a conscious thought pops into your mind, what do you do? In most people, with most thoughts, we just ignore them and they go away. We need do nothing to make this happen. We don’t have to “shoo” away these thoughts (although I teach my archery students to do just that as there is no time to think non-helpful thoughts while trying to perform at archery). If a thought is important and ignored, it may come back. I tend to think that this is because whatever stimulated that thought in the first place (The house is on fire!) still exists and continues to stimulate that thought. Most thoughts just “go away” and they do not “come back.” And, since we don’t know where they come from, we certainly don’t know where they go to.

So, what distinguishes thinkers from those who do not want to think? Multiple things, I suspect, primarily thinkers are way more likely to grab that thought and examine it, which reinforces its existence, by injecting it into memory, first short-term memory and even long term memory (later). We consider that thought, as I am doing with “Who wants to think?” For intellectuals this is pleasant experience, or failing being that, at least stimulates one’s curiosity. I think it is in this “one thing leads to another” making of connections that much of this pleasure arises. By fitting a new thought in amongst the storehouses of ones memories, one is making that new thought part of what one “knows.” One is learning.

“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” Albert Einstein

Of course, we are not all alike. I remember a conversation I had while I was in grad school. It was over our backyard fence with a neighbor. She asked what I did and I said I was a student at the nearby college. (One doesn’t volunteer one is a chemist casually. Most people’s eyes glaze over then any conversation begun ends.) She responded with “Oh, you must have read a lot of books.” And I said, just “yes,” not the “thousands upon thousands” that was the truth of the matter (I was an avid reader from age 5.). She looked at me, smiled, and said “I read a book once.”

This natural ability to “let thoughts go” is the core of meditative practices. If you stop accepting thoughts, they come less and less frequently and finally, you get the dial tone of your mind. (I used to think of it as the empty TV screen static but that no longer exists for most people, so that metaphor is now dead/dying.)

Remember this?

If you have a mind like mine, you recover “normal programming” when a meditation is over rather quickly.

So, what do you think? (Do you see how cleverly I worked up to this question; neat, huh?)

PS I had an afterthought! It is clear to me that people who like to think, often have specialties: hobbies, topics, academic disciplines, etc. in which they exert their thinking and then other parts of their lives in which they think as little as possible. So, thinkers are rarely generalists. They choose what it is they will think deeply about, possibly creating a refuge from others. (Intellectuals often have poor social skills and retreat into mental pursuits as a way of escaping the bewildering nature of interpersonal relations. This is why scientists are often considered to be geeks . . . because they are.)

March 29, 2021

You Have a Conscience, Right?

I have been writing about the major axis existing for all sentient social species, that of dividing up our collective responsibilities from our individual responsibilities. In science fiction there are species with “hive minds” in which the individuals are totally subordinate to the collective (think of bees or the Borg). There are also species that are total individualistic. These are, of course, fictional, because we do not see these on Earth, where we are basically the only sentient social species.

I had a bit of a revelation when I heard a recent discussion of what we call our conscience. It was referred to as a subconscious function of our minds but I don’t see it that way. It seems to me that our morality is either taught to us or learned by us and so is like any other knowledge that we acquire. Possibly it is tinged with emotion more than anything else. I am sure you can remember occasions when as a child, you had an inner debate that began with the thought “If I do I am going to get in trouble!” (or feelings that amount to those words). Such thoughts/feelings come from where thoughts come from (which we still don’t know) and are conscious, not subconscious. They may be accompanied by emotional affect (tingling sensation, quivering, shuddering, etc.).

So, what is this “conscience thing”? I suspect it is a label we give our thoughts on issues that fall into the category of morality. I don’t think it is a thing in itself, like curiosity seems to be. It is, in my humble opinion, a social construct, the monitor so to speak of our social compact with one another. This is why in some cultures our consciences include feelings of how to deal with witches and in others this is absent.

So, basically, the fact that we recognize that “having a conscience is a good thing” is a recognition of our collective responsibilities to one another. It is rare, I suggest, that our consciences provide any guidance for us when the only person affected by the triggering action is us ourselves. Some claim that individual responsibilities come up in such a context religiously, but I suggest that those are collective feelings brought about by the teachings of a religious community. It is not a god which is the enforcer of our behavior but the approval or disapproval of those in our religious community. This is supported by the wide variations of what is acceptable behavior in various religions.

What this amounts to, if my supposition is correct (that our conscience is a monitor of our collective responsibility of others), is that if a matter impinges upon one’s conscience, then the responsibility is communal, not individual. If you see a child suffering because his/her parents’ cannot afford to take them to a doctor and you “feel bad” about that (empathy) but also pangs of conscience, then you are acknowledging that this is an area that belongs under our collective responsibilities and not just an individual responsibility.

Of course, there is no such thing as complete honesty when sharing feelings, consciences, etc.

February 5, 2021

Is Consciousness an Illusion?

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:57 am
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We distinguish between two modes of thinking: conscious and unconscious. The primary distinction is conscious thinking is something we are aware of as it happens. There are various theories of what “consciousness” is but none has reached the status of being preeminent, so those theories are not guides for us. We have experiments galore and speculation in excess but little, really, to go on.

The crux of the matter is that some researchers believe that consciousness is an illusion because we cannot know our thoughts directly. We definitely do not yet know where our thoughts come from. Certainly some come from memory, which can be consider to be, in part, thought storage. But ask any old person whether they have ever experienced the situation where they know they have memorized something but no matter how hard they try they cannot recall the exact thing, only to have it pop up later, often much later. (Happens to everyone eventually.) So, recall of memories isn’t an exact science just yet.

We are learning more and more about memory, but still what about the thoughts we seem to be aware of as they happen?

Some say these are an illusion because we are not aware of the processes that create those thoughts and may never be aware of them. That we may never be aware of them seems acceptable. Why would evolution provide us with a constant stream of background chatter that might distract us in a life threatening situation? But, again, so what?

We seem to be aware of some thoughts as they are processed and if that is an illusion, it is a useful one. I feel that the mental trait that distinguishes us from other animals the most is imagination. Many animals can store memories and, I would suppose, be able to compare a current situation with one stored in memory (otherwise, what are memories for). But, we seem to be able to create what is essentially a false memory, based upon rules we see displayed around us. The classic case is “was that rustle in the tall grasses due to the wind or a leopard stalking me for a meal?” I can see both of these possibilities in my “mind’s eye” and make a decision based upon both the likelihood of these things being the case and also the repercussions if I guess wrong. I can take a memory of a leopard and weave it into the scene in front of me creating, as it were, a new memory, which can them be processed as other memories are.

But imagination would be a poor tool if we had to call it up when we thought it might be useful (Computer, execute program “Imagination.”). That is much too slow for many possible scenarios that threaten our existence. So, our imagination force feeds us. How is that done? I don’t know. But it certainly creates at least one category of “thoughts that come to us.”

When someone declares something mental to be an illusion, I say “Join the crowd.” It seems that everything mental is an illusion. Conscious thought may be illusory, but it is the illusion that includes us being aware of the thoughts as they are fed to us. That’s all.

There are those who argue that reality is an illusion, for whom I have the same argument. It seems that we take in sensory information and create a simulacrum of the “reality” around us. We update it as we move around. (They say we create our own reality … no, we create our own simulacrum of reality.) Why we do this is almost obvious. For one it is a form of storage control and the other is that we do not have the capacity to acquire and store a whole database of information on our current situation (standing at a bus stop). Then a new acquisition needs to happen because a bus has driven by (not our bus), but what do we do with the previous set of data? Do we dump it to make space for the new acquisitions, or do we just adjust those parts that have changed, kind up like how computer backup programs make “incremental backups.”

All of the colors in our mental landscape are “illusory” to the extent that they are constructed from sensory input. Genetics studies show that we have three color sensors in our retinas but that two of them are related. One, apparently, was created through a minor mutation of the other. So, what that means is that our original “design” (via evolution) had us seeing in what is called duochrome. If that mutation hadn’t happened, then what we saw then would be considered normal. No one would wonder why we didn’t have “full color” vision.

Old duotone/sepia photo (only two colors are brown and black)

So, are colors illusory? I suggest we just add in front of any description of a mental attribute of humans “an illusion of . . .” Such a claim, “consciousness is illusory,” doesn’t get us anywhere. We just have to explain the illusion of consciousness rather than the mystery of consciousness.

And I find that the claim that we are “not aware of the processes that create those thoughts and may never be aware of them” to be specious. We are trying to explain/understand consciousness, not the causes of consciousness. One thing at a time here. And even if we do explain both, clearly not being aware of the process that result in consciousness does not limit our use of conscious thinking, just as not understanding how our muscles work doesn’t inhibit our use of them.

If we collectively learn where conscious thoughts come from, so that we have parity with how we collectively know how muscles work, we still do not need to be aware of them to use their product. It seems to be an additional criterion has been placed upon understanding the mystery of conscious thought—that we be aware of the process that cause the thoughts we are aware of, which reminds me of the “tortoises all the way down story.”

Other than such a claim getting one some philosophical street cred and maybe a whole slew of academic articles (it is still “publish or perish”?) such a claim doesn’t seem to really further our understanding.

So, what are your thoughts?

January 25, 2021

Astrology is the Old Homeopathy

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:01 am
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If you did not already know, homeopathy is bunk, complete bunk. Core principles in homeopathy are things like “the more you dilute a medicine, the stronger it gets.” Imagine a bar serving drinks using that principle, e.g. “Let me freshen up that drink with a little tap water,” spaketh the Barman.

Astrology has been around far longer than homeopathy but it, too, is a zombie idea, an idea that died a long time ago but just won’t stay dead.

For some strange reason, fairly reputable sources of news and comment still provide “astrological advice.” None of these advice columns explains how it is that the positions of the planets in the night sky, some which are upwards of a billion miles away, have any affect whatsoever on events in Earth? Clearly the moon has an effect on things like tides and whatnot, but other than that?

I am sure the powers that be in these news organs consider “astrology columns” to be entertainment, but actions have consequences. By publishing such nonsense, the publishers are encouraging people to consider causes and effects that are in no way connected. This does not exactly promote good thinking or good behavior amongst the readers of said outlets.

Now, I am sure the circulation managers of those outlets will argue that mixing in entertainment with their “newsy” articles will facilitate views or purchases of subscriptions. This, I believe, is true . . . which is why we have the comics. And I don’t see people planning their day around their morning Dilbert strip.

December 23, 2020

Conjunction Submunction, Part 2

In Part 1 of Conjunction Submunction I wrote: “I think the majority of the interest (in the conjunction) comes from people who still dabble in astrology. “OMG, Jupiter is in the house of Saturn? OMG!” (I know nothing about astrology, so that is clearly made up and if I offend any astrology people with my ignorance, well, you deserve it.)”

As things usually go, I received shortly thereafter what a “real” astrologer thinks it means, to wit:

“At 12:21 p.m. CT the Great Conjunction forms between Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius, showing us where innovation, community, and opportunity intersect. This is a rare occurrence as Jupiter and Saturn meet every 20 years and are doing so in air signs after over 200 years of being in earth signs. This conjunction is all about doing the work it takes to be free — individually, and collectively.

“Saturn is a harsh taskmaster, especially in a fixed sign like Aquarius. Aquarius energy can be full of peace, friendship, and humanity, but do not mistake the other end of the spectrum. Aquarius likes to connect, but exclusion is the flipside of inclusion and as our world begins to meld in ways that many don’t like, we may find many rebelling against the process of creating a humane, global community. This is where we learn the tough lessons of being human. Do what you say you will or stay silent. Rewards will not be given to lazy thinkers under these skies. If you’re dedicated to being silly, you’ll get goofy results. Edit and enhance your network with a discerning eye. Build friendships genuinely yet intelligently.”

So, now you know. (I always wanted to know where innovation, community, and opportunity intersected. I thought it was in Silicon Valley, but now I understand it is up in the sky . . . wtf?)

December 22, 2020

Conjunction Submunction

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:12 am
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There has been quite a stir in the astronomical community regarding a conjunction of the planets Saturn and Jupiter, out two largest planets. Do realize that these planets are “close” to one another in the sky merely in that they are close to a line of sight of someone standing on the planet Earth. They are actually about 450 million miles (730 million kilometers) apart at closest appearance.

So, why is this worth taking note of? Well, it isn’t there isn’t anything we can learn per se from this “event” or rather nonevent.

I suspect the interest is driven from (for astronomy geeks) having witnesses something that only happens every century or so. Blend in members of the astronomy community that want to get as much airtime as possible to establish the standing of their field. But I think the majority of the interest comes from people who still dabble in astrology. “OMG, Jupiter is in the house of Saturn? OMG!” (I know nothing about astrology, so that is clearly made up and if I offend any astrology people with my ignorance, well, you deserve it.)

Are you one of those who set up camera or telescope to get a view or picture of the two planets in the same frame? Or, did you, like me, wait for the flood of images posted on the internet to arrive? With regard to many of them, I could have done a better job using Photoshop, but then it wouldn’t be real, would it. I mean real in the meaning that it has anything to do with, well, anything.

Addendum As you might be able to tell, I am working on achieving my Curmudgeon Badge in the Old Timer Scouts program. It is on my bucket list.

At the Risk of Being Overbearing . . .

I offer a link to yet another aspect of the Pfizer vaccine roll-out kerfuffle. This post explains why the critic “IM Doc” was disappointed in the article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which exists to inform people, especially doctors, regarding what they need to know.

Whether this can be laid at the fee of the NEJM or Pfizer is almost irrelevant (almost, but not quite). It does, however, lead one to wonder how informed the opinions of our own doctors are.

A Document Maven Looks at the Pfizer Vaccine Paper in the New England Journal of Medicine


December 18, 2020

Follow-up on the IM Doc COVID Letter

Filed under: Politics,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:19 pm
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I link to the follow-up article below but note that someone was suspicious as to why the doctor didn’t use his name, and used the moniker “IM Doc” instead (standing for internal medicine doctor). Apparently the author was afraid he might lose his job if he went full on public. Can’t say whether that fear is valid, but since this is a Class Warfare blog, erring on the side of caution seems prudent.

The post is HERE.

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