Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Scientific Study Said WHAT?

I was listening to an NPR program a couple of days ago about how 2011 has been a year for scientific take-backs. Some of the supposed discoveries of recent times, such as zeroing in on a cause for aging, have gotten second looks by the scientific community. Some of the conclusions of these studies were rethought in 2011. Unfortunately, such news adds fuel to the anti-science flames that burn in the hearts and minds of some fundamentalist Christians. They want desperately for science to fail so that they can claim a victory for their dysfunctional religious theories like creationism. But these latest headlines do not cast doubt on the scientific process. There is no cause for scientists to hang their heads in shame. Quite the contrary: The news story on NPR shows how science works, and works very well. That is what science does; it corrects itself and moves on.

In today's world of blogs and up-to-the-second headline updates the pressure on the news media to report the latest scientific discoveries is tremendous. And the pressure on researchers to produce is equally intense. If you are a government-funded scientist working to discover something new or prove a favorite hypothesis, it is very tempting to report the positive results of a study you have conducted. And it is equally tempting for media to publish the results of scientific studies prematurely. That's because the consumers of information, the American public, are eager to find the answers to those vexing problems of life: How to slow the aging process, the best new drug therapy to treat X disease, the next new technological gizmo coming over the horizon. But what the media, and the public, seldom realize is that most of the scientific studies that are published in the mainstream media have not been published in peer-reviewed science journals yet. Some never get published in peer-reviewed science journals. Yet they are eaten up as a smorgasbord of facts by the general public. Then, after further scrutiny reveals flaws in the data or errors in procedure, the public gets irritated by the whole process and eventually becomes jaded and detached.

The researchers doing the studies may not have done anything wrong from a scientific standpoint. But the premature release of information, especially when accompanied by unverified conclusions, eventually can lead to distrust of the scientific process by the public. The scientific method is the best way of finding answers to nature's puzzles. But when researchers start forming their conclusions too early and leaking them to the public, they only do science a disservice. The proper manner by which the public should be informed of scientific research is to wait until after a study or an experiment has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Even then the caveat is to assume that any findings are tentative until they have been verified by independent researchers. Even after repeated verification, conclusions in science cannot typically be assigned a certainty of 100 percent. Science works by the process of inductive reasoning, which almost never yields 100-percent certitude. But that's fine; if a theory is useful in predicting outcomes it is a perfectly satisfactory theory. Its value is in its usefulness.

So when you read about the latest scientific discovery or about the results of a new study, drill down into the details of the story to find out if it is a single study that has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, or is it the end result of multiple research projects that is embraced by the scientific community as a whole? Be wary of the former, and understand that at some point, the rosy picture often painted by single studies often fades quickly.

Friday, December 30, 2011

How the French Influence English

This blog entry is not on one of my usual topics of religion or politics, and I am not even complaining about anything. It's just a subject my daughter and I have played around with recently and I thought it noteworthy.

Have you ever noticed how adding the modifier "French" in front of a common word sometimes makes it sound so much better? Here are a few examples. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Toast vs french toast
Kiss vs french kiss
Bread vs french bread
Cut vs french cut
Dip vs french dip
Manicure vs french manicure
Horn vs french horn
Pastry vs french pastry
Hens vs French hens
Braid vs french braid
Wine vs French wine
Maid vs French maid
Poodle vs french poodle
Doors vs french doors

Some people might be tempted to add french fries to the list, but in common usage, saying "fries" implies french fries unless preceded by another modifier, such as home fries or curly fries. Also, some of these items have little to do with the country of France or with French culture and most do not even need to be capitalized. French cut, for example, refers to a style of lengthwise cutting of vegetables. Use a capital letter only when the item refers to something actually associated with the country of France and is not part of a common phrase.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Real Meaning of Christmas

What exactly is Christmas and why does it have an entire season devoted to it. Most holidays get a single day; Christmas gets a whole month.

Charlie Brown, that affable but misunderstood Peanuts character was struggling with that question in the 1960s cartoon classic. Near the end of the program, Linus, the most insecure of the Peanuts bunch, swallowed his insecurities long enough to march out on the stage, in the spotlight, and recite a bible verse from memory. It was the biblical account of the birth of Christ.

It was not, however, the Christmas story. Linus mentioned nothing about Christmas in his monologue. The bible mentions nothing about it anywhere in any of its verses. So what is it?

I would think the world was about to come to an end if I ever made it through the entire month of December without hearing someone say something like, “It’s time we started remembering the true meaning of Christmas,” or “Let’s put the Christ back in Christmas.” Others are appalled that we sometimes abbreviate Christmas as Xmas.

Of course, the people who say that are most likely not familiar with the history of the holiday. The Greek word for Christ begins with an X, and that is where the abbreviated form Xmas originally came from.

But when was Christ ever in Christmas? I mean, officially, it never happened if you go back to the source, the bible. Nothing in the bible tells us to honor Jesus’ birth. In fact, it was considered improper to celebrate anyone’s birth in the first centuries of the Common Era.

But the early Catholic Church was having some growing pains. The Romans celebrated their god Mithras back in those days to celebrate the return of the sun god in the sky. This happened in late December just after the winter solstice.

Church leaders were shrewd. They knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to compete head on with such a well-established pagan practice. So they infiltrated it. As with all other Christian holidays, Christmas is a co-opted corruption of a pagan festival. The church made up a holiday to commemorate the birth of Christ and called it Christ’s Mass. Never mind that Jesus was not born in winter, they needed it to coincide with the solstice.

So, originally, Christmas was a public relations ploy by the early church to infiltrate an already-established religious practice.

Now, let me quickly point out that I’m not against Christmas at all. It is still my favorite season of the year because it’s a time when families seem closer and the atmosphere is festive. What can be wrong with that?

But Christmas is, by and large, a secular holiday, not a religious one. It does not have its roots planted in the Christian bible. Churches embrace it because it presents an opportunity to provide outreach more so than at most other times of the year. But even most bible scholars will acknowledge the whole baby-in-a-manger story even as told in the bible is at least partly apocryphal.

So celebrate Christmas as you always would. But just keep in mind its true roots. They have more to do with public relations than with Jesus. That part of Christmas, which is really its true meaning, is still intact.

Friday, December 09, 2011

My Top 10 Christmas Songs of 2011

I'm one of those people who loves Christmas music. Yes, I'm an atheist, but Christmas has a very strong secular side, which is really the only side I ever cared much about anyway. Granted, there are some very lovely Christmas hymns. Much of classical music was written in honor of someone's imaginary friend in the sky. That doesn't make the composers any less talented nor the songs any less able to produce goosebumps. However, my favorite Christmas songs are of the secular variety. Whether religious or secular, I have compiled a list of my top 10 Christmas songs for 2011. You won't find "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," or "Jingle Bells" among my top 10. I don't care much for the kiddie songs. You also won't find any latter day pop or rock Christmas tunes. Christmas songs must first and foremost sound Christmasy. They must evoke emotions or bring back memories. They must feel like Christmas and put me in a Christmas mood. So, in reverse order, here are my favorites.

10. "Somewhere in My Memory" by John Williams

This is the classic theme song from the movie Home Alone, by John Williams. Some songs simply have a Christmas feel about them, even before you hear the lyrics. This is one of them.

9. "When Christmas Comes to Town" by Matthew Hall and Meagan Moore

This is a sweet and beautiful little Christmas song from the movie, Polar Express. It is sung very competently by two children.

8. "All Through the Night" by Olivia Newton John

I love this duet version. It's not officially a Christmas song, but one of the lyrics is changed slightly to make it one. It is a traditional Welsh folk lullaby.

7. "I'll be Home for Christmas" by Michael Buble

Written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent from the point of view of a WWII soldier, it was made popular by Bing Crosby in 1942. It's mellow and melancholy and certainly evokes a lonely Christmas feeling.

6. "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole

The is a classic Christmas favorite written in 1944 by Mel Torme. It is subtitled "Chestnuts Roasting by an Open Fire." It's mellow and beautiful and has always been a favorite of mine.

5. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by James Taylor

Judy Garland sung the original version of this song in the movie, Meet Me in St. Louis. Later, Frank Sinatra recorded a version with modified lyrics. Written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, it has become one of the most-recorded Christmas songs in modern times.

4. Ding Dong Merrily on High by Blackmore's Night

I love the song, but I especially love this version. This group does it in contrapuntal style, reminiscent of Pachelbel's Canon. It's a beautiful rendition.

3. Christmas Canon by Trans Siberian Orchestra

Speaking of Pachelbel's Canon, the Trans Siberian Orchestra performs a brilliant vocal version of this Baroque favorite that is just right for the holidays.

2. Song for a Winter's Night as sung by Sarah McLachlan

This song was written by Gordon Lightfoot and has been recorded by several artists. In my opinion, the very best version is the one performed by Sarah McLachlan and appears on the soundtrack of the 1994 version of Miracle on 34th Street. Although not technically a Christmas song, McLachlan's version evokes a quiet, melancholy feeling with its ethereal quality and haunting accompaniment.

1. Christmas Time is Here by Vince Guaraldi Trio

This song, of course, was featured in the 1965 TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, but has since been recorded by numerous artists. It is the quintessential feel-good Christmas song. It brings back memories of Christmas past. It evokes a feeling of childhood. And its haunting and melancholy melody brings a sense of Christmas nostalgia and coziness like few other Christmas songs can produce. There are lots of good versions out there, including by Diana Krall, Kenny Loggins, Mel Torme, and my favorite, Sarah McLachlan.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Physical Media

Remember CDs and CD players? Of course you do. Most people still have them. CDs are still sold at Walmart last time I checked. But in a few short years, that question will sound less out of place, because physical media, like the compact disc, will soon become relics of a by-gone era.

I remember a few years ago when I had CD towers in my living room to store all my music. I didn't own as much music as most teenagers do these days, but I owned enough CDs to need a couple of storage towers for them. Before that, it was vinyl. I remember having to tape a nickel onto the turntable armature because one of my Eagles albums would skip in one spot. The nickel provided enough weight to dig through the obstruction in the groove. The more I played my records, the lousier they sounded. When CDs came out, that was no longer an issue. But they still had to be stored away. I also hated having to rifle through my collection to find the one CD I wanted, then open the jewel case and put in the disc, only to have to get up and put the damn thing away after it got finished playing. I know; it seems like a minor annoyance, but it was an annoyance just the same. But now all my music is stored neatly on my computer, and in the cloud, so I no longer have to bother with those awkward jewel cases.

Once upon a time, if I wanted to listen to a particular song, I would have to, a) be at home, b) want to listen badly enough to get up out of my seat and find the CD, c) put it in the player, d) get back up and put the disc away afterward. These days, when I want to listen to a particular song, I push a couple of buttons and it doesn't matter where I am. If I'm at home, I use the computer. If I'm in my car, I use my iPhone connected to the car's audio system, or if I'm at work I can use the computer there or my iPhone connected to my work computer's audio system. I can listen to the music stored on the devices or stored in the cloud. It makes little difference; it's the same music playing at the same quality. All my audio systems have sub-woofers and decent speakers so I get the full effect no matter where I am. And if I'm not at any of those three places, if I'm at the mall, for example, I just pull out my ear buds which are always in my hip pocket. So who needs physical media, anyway?

With movies, it's a little different. I have a Blu-Ray Disc player and I still have a substantial DVD collection. But movies are quickly joining music in their non-physical form. Until recently I could turn on the TV and watch a Netflix movie through my Wii system. The problem is, most of the titles available on Netflix for steaming are not the titles I care anything about seeing. I typically rent (or sometimes buy) new releases. And there are very few new releases available to stream on Netflix. I can also choose to rent them from my satellite provider's On Demand service. Those really are new releases, but I hate spending seven bucks to watch a movie On Demand when I'm used to paying a dollar to rent a movie from Red Box. Red Box occasionally offers some new releases, but not many. To Red Box, a new release is really just an old movie that they have recently added to their library. Those are not new releases and shouldn't be labeled as such. So I usually just wait the couple of days it takes to get a movie through the mail from Blockbuster (since I dropped my Netflix service after their price increase).

But I believe the future for movies at home will be services such as the ones that let you buy a movie and then download it to your computer. You can store it on your hard drive or send it to the cloud. In other words, movies will be sold and distributed exactly the way music files are distributed now. And we don't have to wait for the future; it's available right now. It just is not as well known or as widely available through the number of vendors that music files are today. But that will change. And then, DVDs will join CDs in the attic or basement storage bins.

As for books and printed media, those too are on their way out. I no longer buy paper books. I buy them for my Kindle. If a title is not available for Kindle, I wait until it is. Eventually, all titles will be released electronically and on physical media simultaneously. The same is true for newspaper and magazines as well as directories and phone books. I haven't used a real phone book in a decade. I haven't ordered a magazine subscription in longer. I don't buy newspapers. All of those are available online or through my Kindle. Even the old stuff is available in some cases. I can go online and search the archives of Popular Science all the way back to the days before my mom was born. I can even check out the old ads.

Physical media has not yet become totally archaic, but it's on its way. Probably within this decade, all forms of physical media will join vinyl. It will be published for collectors or for those who hold tightly to their books and CDs for nostalgia reasons. But the mainstream media will be totally electronic in all its forms. And even though I'm well into my sixth decade of life, I stand firmly with the new generation of media users. I say good riddance to physical media.