The tricks of memory

I keep getting reminded of how unreliable memories can be, especially about things that happened a long time ago. While forgetting details and even entire incidents are common, more concerning is when we ‘remember’ things that did not happen. The latest such incident occurred when a few days ago I was watching the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Danny Kaye. I was a huge fan of Kaye’s comedies as a boy, which often showcased his ability to sing comic songs, and this film had two of them. I recall watching it a long time ago and enjoying it so when I saw that it was streaming, I decided to take a second look.

The film is about a timid, milquetoast of a man who is bullied by his mother, his boss, and his fiancee and who escapes into daydreams where he is the hero of adventures. Like so many films that we recall from our childhood, it did not age well. (It was remade in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the title role). I would have stopped watching after about ten minutes but what kept me going was that I distinctly recalled that right at the beginning, while he is waiting at a traffic light, he daydreams that he is the pilot of a military plane that is flying through a major storm. Despite the dangerous conditions and the plane being buffeted by the strong winds, he remains calm and collected and his crew admiringly tell each other that they are confident that he is the one person who can pull them through. In the background, the engine makes a ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound, a recurring background machine sound in almost all his daydreams.
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The weirdness of the present calendar

When it comes to the calendar, there are only two things that are fixed by nature that we have no control over: the length of the day and the length of the year as approximately 365¼ days. All the other divisions are purely arbitrary. While some cultures have calendars that ascribe significance to the lunar months that last approximately 28 days, it is safe to say that we can safely ignore it. How many of us keep track of the lunar phases from day to day anyway? But despite the fact that we can subdivide the days in the year in any way we like, we have arrived at a system that makes little sense. We divide the year into four months of 30 days each, seven months of 31 days each and one month of 28 days, becoming 29 in a leap year.

But the really weird thing is the length of the week as seven days. As a result of the present system, any given date will fall on a different day of the week from year to year, which makes long term planning of events more difficult.
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Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving day in the US.

Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with this holiday. In many families it seems to be anticipated with dread at the thought of a large number of family members who do not share the same views and often do not get along with each other being expected to share a very long afternoon and evening together that can end up with arguments. And yet to not turn up can also cause problems, so it is a lose-lose proposition.

This Saturday Night Live sketch uses the framing of a Target advertisement to make this point.


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Extra-terrestrials are English speakers

The 2016 film Arrival that I reviewed here involved the sudden arrival of a fleet of alien spaceships at many locations on the Earth and had as a central plot the efforts by a linguist to overcome the language barrier and learn how to communicate with them.

But if we examine a map of all the reported UFO sightings over time, we see that almost all of them are in the English-speaking world, primarily the US and UK. This clearly shows that aliens also worry about communicating with us and have chosen to visit just those regions where the natives speak a language they understand, and that is English.

(Doonesbury)

How FOMO was used to swindle people

In the US where we are inundated with stories of the lifestyles of the rich, it should not be surprising that some people dream of joining that group. But most people are not born into wealth and need to find some way of getting there. Some have an entrepreneurial bent and try to market an idea. The tech world is appealing and the person who is held up as a model is the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. If you do not have an idea for a product or the stomach to do all the work of developing one, the next best thing is to identify someone who has and become an early investor so that one can reap the benefits if and when the product becomes wildly successful.

But identifying good ideas in the early stages is a gamble, especially if one is unfamiliar with the world in which it operates. What may seem like a terrific idea can turn out to be a smoke-and-mirrors exercise in which someone with very persuasive skills manages to convince rich people who lack the technical knowledge to cough up lots of money by promising a product that will revolutionize the field. The FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) phenomenon can be a useful lever of persuasion, where people fear that by not investing, they may be missing out on the equivalent of the next Apple.
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Black holes as dark matter candidates

As the search for WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) continues to be fruitless, advocates for alternatives to dark matter (such as Modified Newtonian Dynamics or MOND theories) to explain cosmic puzzles have been encouraged. But if the history of science is any guide, we should not expect the larger community of scientists to quickly embrace these alternative theories. This is because once a paradigm becomes dominant, as dark matter has, then it will not be dislodged until most of the variations within that framework have been explored and rejected. In the case of dark matter, a fresh search for WIMPs has been launched using extremely sensitive detectors that, if they still fail to detect them, will likely result in WIMPs being ruled out.
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Is your phone spying on you?

I am getting weary about hearing of all the ways that our devices are spying on us. The main ways in which we give away information are the sites that we visit and the searches we make. But we know about those and have grudgingly come to accept them as facts of life and the price we pay for the conveniences they provide. But there are other, more disturbing aspects, like that the cameras and the microphones on our devices may be surreptitiously recording us.

If you think your smartphone is spying on you, you’re probably right.

Apps are designed to track your moves, and your phone’s microphone can be picking up your conversations.

So if you’re suddenly bombarded with ads on your social media for things you’ve never searched for but have spoken about, it’s no coincidence.
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Well, that was embarrassing …

Ohio and North Carolina compete to claim the honor of inventing the airplane. While the Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur were from Ohio, their first flight took place in North Carolina in 1903. In support of their state’s claim, the state of Ohio issued a license plate showing their plane carrying a banner that said “Ohio Birthplace of Aviation”.

Unfortunately for them, their image had the plane backwards so that it seemed to be actually pushing the banner. That really would be a first.
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Atheists, agnostics, and Catholics are the most supportive of vaccines

Although the anti-vaccine and anti-mask protestors get a lot of media coverage, a new survey from the Pew Research Center finds that a majority of the American public (by a margin of 62% to 37%) see the health benefits if the Covid-19 restrictions as worth the costs, even though the restrictions have “hurt businesses and economic activity and keep people from living their lives the way they want”. But many also fear that the worst is yet to come.

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