The first Florida Man

Published Monday, March 27, 2023 @ 12:47 PM EDT
Mar 27 2023

According to This Day in History, on March 27, 1513 Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sighted "present day Florida." I think they meant to say the shore of what would later be known as Florida.

If he had actually spotted present day Florida, he would have immediately returned to Spain and kept his mouth shut.

Categories: Florida Man


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With great power comes great stupidity

Published Friday, February 10, 2023 @ 12:34 PM EST
Feb 10 2023

(Read the original article here. BigThink publishes some wonderful stuff. You can subscribe to their newsletters here).

There's an internet adage that goes, "Debating an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon- it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory." It's funny and astute. It's also deeply, depressingly worrying. Although we'd never say so, we all have people in our lives we think of as a bit dim- not necessarily about everything, but certainly about some things.

Most of the time, we laugh this off. After all, stupidity can be pretty funny. When my friend asked a group of us recently what Hitler's last name was, we laughed. When my brother learned only last month that reindeer are real animals- well, that's funny. Good-natured ribbing about a person's ignorance is an everyday part of life.

Stupidity, though, has its dark side. For theologian and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the stupid person is often more dangerous than the evil one.

The enemy within
In comic books and action movies, we know who the villain is. They wear dark clothes, kill on a whim, and cackle madly at their diabolical scheme. In life, too, we have obvious villains- the dictators who violate human rights or serial killers and violent criminals. As evil as these people are, they are not the biggest threat, since they are known. Once something is a known evil, the good of the world can rally to defend and fight against it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, "One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion."

Stupidity, though, is a different problem altogether. We cannot so easily fight stupidity for two reasons. First, we are collectively much more tolerant of it. Unlike evil, stupidity is not a vice most of us take seriously. We do not lambast others for ignorance. We do not scream down people for not knowing things. Second, the stupid person is a slippery opponent. They will not be beaten by debate or open to reason. What's more, when the stupid person has their back against the wall- when they're confronted with facts that cannot be refuted- they snap and lash out. Bonhoeffer puts it like this:

"Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one's prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical- and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack."

With great power comes great stupidity
Stupidity, like evil, is no threat as long as it hasn't got power. We laugh at things when they are harmless- such as my brother's ignorance of reindeer. This won't cause me any pain. Therefore it's funny.

The problem with stupidity, though, is that it often goes hand-in-hand with power. Bonhoeffer writes, "Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity."

This works in two ways. The first is that stupidity does not disbar you from holding office or authority. History and politics are swimming with examples of when the stupid have risen to the top (and where the smart are excluded or killed). Second, the nature of power requires that people surrender certain faculties necessary for intelligent thought- faculties like independence, critical thinking, and reflection.

Bonhoeffer's argument is that the more someone becomes part of the establishment, the less an individual they become. A charismatic, exciting outsider, bursting with intelligence and sensible policies, becomes imbecilic the moment he takes office. It's as if, "slogans, catchwords and the like... have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being."

Power turns people into automatons. Intelligent, critical thinkers now have a script to read. They'll engage their smiles rather than their brains. When people join a political party, it seems like most choose to follow suit rather than think things through. Power drains the intelligence from a person, leaving them akin to an animated mannequin.

Theory of stupidity
Bonhoeffer's argument, then, is that stupidity should be viewed as worse than evil. Stupidity has far greater potential to damage our lives. More harm is done by one powerful idiot than a gang of Machiavellian schemers. We know when there's evil, and we can deny it power. With the corrupt, oppressive, and sadistic, we know where we stand. You know how to take a stand.

But stupidity is much harder to weed out. That's why it's a dangerous weapon: Because evil people find it hard to take power, they need stupid people to do their work. Like sheep in a field, a stupid person can be guided, steered, and manipulated to do any number of things. Evil is a puppet master, and it loves nothing so much as the mindless puppets who enable it- be they in the general public or inside the corridors of power.

The lesson from Bonhoeffer is to laugh at those daft, silly moments when in close company. But, we should get angry and scared when stupidity takes reign.


Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

Categories: Big Think; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Evil; Stupidity


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Bananas and warp drive

Published Sunday, February 05, 2023 @ 9:40 PM EST
Feb 05 2023

It's kind of neat when you're pushing 70 years old and random, seemingly unrelated things stuck in your brain merge into unexpected enlightenment.

Like matter and antimatter.

When particles of matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other. This releases energy. Given a large enough quantity of particles, a lot of energy- enough to power the futuristic warp drive engines in Star Trek, for example.

But antimatter is science fiction, right? We don't see it occurring in nature; we have to create it, and it's ridiculously difficult. Antimatter is the most expensive substance on Earth: generating one gram (0.035274 ounces) of the stuff would cost $62.5 trillion dollars

Surprisingly, matter/antimatter annihilations are not science fiction. You encounter them practically every day.

Consider PET scanners.

PET an acronym for Positron Emission Tomography. Tomography is imaging by sections or sectioning that uses any kind of penetrating wave. Emission is something that has been emitted- released or discharged.

And positron?

A positron (or anti-electron) is the antiparticle, or the antimatter counterpart of the electron.

This gets interesting when you start talking about radioactive substances (radionuclides), those that are unstable because they have too much energy in their atomic nuclei.

When you get a PET scan, a radionuclide (tracer) is injected into your body. As the radioactive tracer emits its excess energy (decays), protons in the tracer's nucleus are converted into neutrons. That process releases various particles, including positrons: particles of antimatter.

When these antimatter positrons collide with the electrons of normal matter in your body, the particles annihilate each other. This generates electromagnetic gamma radiation, or gamma rays in the form of what are called, appropriately enough, annihilation photons.

The scanner detects the annihilation photons, which arrive at the detectors in coincidence at 180 degrees apart from one another. A computer analyzes those gamma rays and uses the information to create an image map of the organ or tissue being studied. The amount of the radionuclide collected in the tissue- how big the matter/antimatter annihilations are happening in the organs or tissues being studied- affects how brightly the tissue appears on the image, and indicates the level of organ or tissue function.

But isn't gamma radiation, like, deadly? It's the radiation produced by neutron stars and pulsars, supernova explosions, and regions around black holes. A gamma ray burst from one of those astronomical entities as close as a thousand light years could end life on Earth, its intense ionizing radiation ripping the ozone from the atmosphere and damaging the cells and DNA of all the planet's life forms.

But nature has a vast dynamic range. At the one end, cosmic apocalypse. Scale it down, and you have gamma rays generated by nuclear explosions and lightning.

Keep shrinking it, and you have PET scans. While it involves gamma rays generated within your body by matter/antimatter annihilation, it's on such a small scale and short timespan that it's of no concern. The radioactive half-life of the radionuclide used is under two hours, and it eventually decays into stable oxygen.

And matter/antimatter annihilations are probably happening on your kitchen counter right now. Bananas can contain tiny amounts of naturally occurring unstable radioactive isotopes, particularly potassium 40. Every hour or so, you could have a matter/antimatter annihilation going on in your kitchen.

I now have this image of Star Trek's Scotty furiously shoveling bananas into the Enterprise's warp engines...

(More on PET scans)

Categories: Antimatter; Bananas; PET scan; Positrons; Quantum mechanics; Star Trek


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Artificial Inaccuracy

Published Sunday, January 22, 2023 @ 9:28 AM EST
Jan 22 2023

While ChatGPT is an impressive achievement, it's far from perfect...

Q. What is KGB Report website?

ChatGPT: KGB Report is a website that offers news and analysis on business, finance, technology, and other topics. The website is named after the former Soviet Union's intelligence agency, the KGB, and has a focus on the economy and politics of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The website provides news and analysis on topics such as financial markets, international trade, and politics, with a focus on the countries of the former Soviet Union. The website includes articles, analysis, commentary, and data on a wide range of topics, as well as links to other sources of information. It is also possible that the website is not related to any official organization, and is an independent news source.

Q. What is

A. I apologize for the confusion, as I misunderstood your question earlier. The website is an independent news and analysis website that focuses on the economy and politics of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with a focus on the countries of the former Soviet Union. The website provides news and analysis on topics such as financial markets, international trade, and politics. It includes articles, analysis, commentary, and data on a wide range of topics, as well as links to other sources of information. It is not officially affiliated with any organization, but rather an independent source of news and analysis.

Categories: Artificial Intelligence; ChatGPT


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Published Monday, January 09, 2023 @ 9:37 PM EST
Jan 09 2023

Another bizarre obsession has been fulfilled.

"Whew!" was a now-obscure CBS Television daytime game show that featured Tom Kennedy as host. It aired briefly from April 23, 1979 to May 30, 1980. The game itself was simultaneously mundane and gimmicky, but its opening and closing theme songs induced in me an earworm of transcendent proportion.

(Parenthetically, the medical term for earworm is, among others, "involuntary musical imagery (INMI)". My three years of high school Latin- admittedly over a half-century ago- translates that to "involuntarium musicum imago", which is so close to the English version it probably wasn't worth the effort. Yet here we are. Sigh.)

The theme was written by Alan Thicke, who had a successful career as a television theme song composer in his pre-"Growing Pains" years.

That tune would leak into my consciousness every year or so, prompting me to search for it online. Various versions were available, but they were either cheesy imitations or lifted from aired episodes, and thus contained audience applause, the announcer's intro, and sponsor acknowledgements. No "clean" version was available.

According to

"The show's entire soundtrack had never been heard since the show's cancellation although numerous stitches and recreations of the soundtrack have circulated throughout the years, most notably the closing theme to the show was uploaded to YouTube by user Thewhammy83 on June 27th, 2010. Alan Thicke not only said he doesn't remember the show but also that he doesn't have the soundtrack in his possession. The show's executive producer Burt Sugarman also doesn't have a copy of the soundtrack but confirmed he has all 247 episodes of the show. There were rumors floating around that Thicke destroyed the master reels of the soundtrack after an ugly divorce, but the rumor has never been confirmed."

"In February 2009, the Museum of Television Production Music announced that they would be searching for the soundtrack. They tweeted 11 months later that Thicke had released the rights for the soundtrack to them. In late 2012, they announced that they had found the entire soundtrack and posted a picture on their website of the soundtrack's reels and track list. They restored it and made it available to their yearly subscribers as a renewal gift for a limited time until mid-2013." (I vaguely recall this, and the only reason I can think of for not subscribing was outrageous pricing. Or I stumbled across the offer too late.)

Anyway, I was wandering around YouTube today looking for information on the X-class solar flare that erupted on the sun this morning, and the site's mysterious, ineffable selection algorithm produced a sidelist of supposedly related videos which included:

These are undoubtedly violating someone's copyright, (despite the poster's "NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED!!!" disclaimer), but the files were posted over a year ago and YouTube hasn't taken them down, so if you share my inexplicable fondness for these tunes, I'd get them while you can. (It's now the ringtone for calls from my wife.)

Forty-three years. Wow. I guess the quest for the grail has ended.

I am reminded of Hans Gruber's observation in the film Die Hard. "'When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ Benefits of a classical education."

Categories: Earworm; Game shows; Music; Theme songs; Whew!; YouTube


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