My Thoughts Exactly

I was sitting in my aunt and uncle’s living room, having a casual conversation with my cousin.

“Yeah, well, my roommate is very nice”, she was telling me, “but she’s a little… well… weird. I mean, she has these habits. Like, for instance, she’s always complaining that she feels hot, and wants to keep the windows open at night. Once, it was like 22 degrees! And she just wouldn’t let me close the windows! Can you believe that? I was freezing!”

I stared at her blankly. There’s an awkward pause. I know that my cousin is like her father, and is particularly sensitive to the cold, but this seemed a bit much. I might have to side with her roommate on this one.

“Umm… well… 22 degrees is not that cold”, I reasoned, “Was there maybe a chilly spring breeze coming in through the window or something?”

It was her turn to stare at me blankly. Another awkward pause. “It was the middle of winter.”

Now I’m staring back at her. This is Seattle, not Rome. There is no such thing as a winter day with a 22 degree evening. Something clicks

“Ooh! 22 degrees Fahrenheit!”

This little gem posted on the IFLScience facebook page reminded me of this exchange.



Being the only person in the lab that is even tangentially American, many people have asked me things about Fahrenheit and gallons and pounds and whatnot. While I have memorized a few convenient conversions related to baking, I will never get the American Imperial system.

One of American’s favorite questions to ask anyone from Europe is “So… how much is a gallon of gas over there?” 12 years I have been asked this question, and I still have no idea.

I Am Officially In Revision!


After a lot of bad luck with publishing, and many many many long hours in the lab, my first (first name) paper has been submitted and the revision has come back. OK! I can do this!

For those of you who are scratching their heads right now, here is a brief overview of how publishing a scientific paper works:



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Dad’s Heading Back Today…

After having come to Germany and taking me to Berlin for an awesomesauce mini holiday, my father is leaving to hang out in Italy a little bit with his mother. I’m a little sad he’s leaving but very happy with his timing, the revision on my paper is going to come back any day now, and when it does I will have little time to do anything other than wish I could grow extra limbs so that I can get through all my work.

So I understand why he needs to go, but I dedicate this compilation of Daddy awesomeness to him

Cultural Differences: Respecting Your Parents

Note: old post, updated
As I’ve mentioned, my father has come to Germany to spend some time with me. Given that I only see him once a year, and usually only for a few days, I am both excited that he’s here and newly reminded of how very, very different our relationship is, compared to the one I have with my American family.
I have not spoken about my father much on this blog, and that is primarily because we do not have any real conflict, especially compared with the tension I have with my mother. However, given this visit, it reminds me of a weird moment I had when I was visiting my mother’s side of the family in the States, and highlighted a deep seeded cultural difference that may go a long way to explain why I clash so badly with my mother.

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A Baby Skeptic Stares At The Stars

Note: post from old blog
Yesterday’s post had me thinking a lot about how I formed my views on reality and the universe as I was growing up. Yesterday I wrote about how my experiences led me in the wrong direction, away from reason. However, there were other aspects of my reasoning that betrayed the skeptic that I would eventually become. One such example was my pondering on how we perceive time and space.
As an only child I often needed to entertain myself, which is probably one of the many reasons I thought about the nature of reality so often to begin with. So when we would go to the countryside I did what countless children had also done before me, and that is lay back and stare up at the stars. Staring into space gave me vertigo the way that looking over the edge of a cliff never did. It was scary, but once I assured myself that there was no danger of falling into the abyss of space it was exciting, and brought on many thoughts about how limited our understanding of space and time must be.
I realized, based on my experience of space and time, that the linear perception of time was just not going to cut it when it came to the vast universe above me. That X comes before Y which comes before Z was all well and good when looking at the timeline of my life, but I realized that this linear perception of time was very limiting. So what came before the Earth? What came before that? And before that? If time is just purely linear, where did it all start? How could something just start? Doesn’t there have to be something there for it to start from? The same went for space. Beyond this field is this country, beyond that is the world, beyond that is the galaxy, beyond that more galaxies and the universe, but what about beyond that? Could there be such a thing as true, limitless space? Doesn’t it have to end somewhere? But if it does, what lies beyond it? Of course, my Catholic upbringing gave me a very easy answer to these concepts: Beyond space is heaven, before time there’s God.
But even that seemed like a cop-out to me. How is pondering the possibility of a timeless God any easier to wrap your mind around than a time which has existed forever? How is conceiving of an infinite heaven any easier to comprehend than an infinite universe? Despite the whole “oh well one is natural and one is supernatural” explanation, it didn’t seem like an answer so much as more of the same question. Because of this I came to my own conclusion: I just don’t get it. And that’s O.K.
I realized that we describe what is going on around us as best we can, but we (or, at least, I) don’t have the capacity to really visualize such huge concepts as the beginning of time or the ends of space. My brain can’t reach that far, and that’s kind of cool. Like not being able to describe colors to someone who was born blind, there could be concepts completely beyond my realm of understanding, and there is nothing wrong with that.
I think the makings of a skeptic is to let go of the fear of the unknown. There are legitimate biological reasons why we are predisposed to fear that which we cannot see or perceive, but when it comes to certain concepts there is no need to invent and answer to fill in the blanks. Not knowing, or really coming to grips with the limits of our understanding doesn’t have to be scary, it can be amazing.

How Lucid Dreaming Contributed to My Woo Thinking

Note: old post, edited for clarity
Yesterday,  I told you about how I have been a lucid dreamer for as long as I remember. I want to revisit the subject to discuss how lucid dreaming may have slowed my progress out of woo thinking and into rational thought.
Most of you won’t know this, but I have been an avid reader of FtB for a long time, and even submitted a “Why I am an atheist” post to PZ’s open call for submissions. In it I briefly touched on my fascination with forgotten religions and all things magical and woo. I was raised by a mother who is still very much attached to her new age-y beliefs, I don’t think she has stopped believing in anything from aromatherapy to crystal healing, and I know for a fact she still believes in fairies, so of course I had little hope of rejecting these ideas as a child. Plus, let’s face it, believing in magic is fun! At least for a while. The fact that she encouraged this fantastical thinking definitely hindered the development of my skeptical muscles, although the tendency to do so was always in my personality. Despite the fact that it is in my nature to be a skeptic, however, I later noticed that my lucid dreaming was, in a small way, responsible for keeping me back, at least with regards to some views of the world.
I mentioned in my previous post on the subject that it is difficult for one to escape one’s own context, as it was for me with lucid dreaming. So when I was introduced (by my mother, of course) to the concept of “mind over matter”, everything just made sense to me. She showed me programs like What the Bleep! (which at the time I of course had no idea was pseudo-scientific drivel) and convinced me that there were many gurus who had achieved things like levitation and walking on water. Not to place all the blame on her shoulders, I took little convincing. While I was skeptical about many things in my childhood (for example, I never bought the existence of the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy for a second, no matter how hard my mother tried), the idea that matter, which was made up of mostly empty space, was only solid to the touch because your conscience expected it to be, made perfect sense to me. The reason this made sense in my mind was directly because of my lucid dreaming.
Those of you who are capable of lucid dreaming know that honing your skills at it requires a lot of concentration. It requires you to shut out that little doubting voice in the back of your mind. Let’s say, for example, you are dreaming you have the power of telekinesis, which you are using to defeat the monster in your nightmare. The second there is a little doubt in the back of your mind that says “oh no! What if this power stops working?” POOF! you don’t have the power any more (I also blame movies and TV shows which always put the hero of the story in a bit of jeopardy with a twist like that for those doubts…. dumb movies). Perfecting your abilities in lucid dreaming is all about mind over (albeit perceived) matter. That is why I needed to get better at flying: at first I could only jump off of buildings and soar, and if I carried anything it would weigh me down. I then managed to pump my arms like a bird and take off from the ground. It took me years to be able to soar into the sky carrying any burden at will, because I had to concentrate, convince myself it was possible, and completely eliminate any doubt or fear. It is the same reason why making things disappear in your dreams is easier than changing their appearance, unless you close your eyes or place your hand in front of them while doing so.
Because I was so well versed in the art of this kind of concentration, the reason the “mind over matter” concept made so much sense to me was because I figured that modifying your reality was like modifying your dreams, only infinitely harder.
Although lucid dreams are incredibly vivid and, at times, freakishly realistic, they still have that “taint” of a dream. You can still tell, once you wake up, that reality just feels much more “real” than dreams do, despite how real the dreams felt at the time. Because of this, it made sense to me that “mind over matter” would be much easier in dreams than reality. It made sense to me that it would take years of the kind of concentration I had been practicing in my sleep to be able to erase every last trace of doubt from your mind that your hand will not pass through that table, or that your body will not hover a few inches off the ground. It also made sense to me that it would require an even longer time concentrating to be able to pull off such a feat in front of others, with their disbelieving huffs tainting the back of your mind.
It was because of the fact that I could dream this way, and that I had no idea that I was in the minority, that I clung on to this particular brand of woo for the longest of all of my woo thinking. It made so much sense to my context, to my life, that it made me wonder: are the inventors, or the major proponents of “mind over matter”, also lucid dreamers?

Thank You Harry Potter for Giving Me Powers

Yes, you read that title correctly.

Not in the real world, of course, but my dream world has just gotten far more interesting.

Here’s the thing: I am a lucid dreamer, and I have been for as long as I can remember. I don’t mean those kinds of lucid dreams you get when you’re about to wake up, that are sort of hazy in-between dreams that are easy to control but don’t feel real. I mean full blown, deep sleep dreams can come fully under my control.

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Personal Differences: Is Hope A Lie?

I post often about cultural differences I noticed while moving from country to country. However, this post does not involve how different cultures perceive things, but rather a core difference that I noticed from person to person. You often hear people say things like “There are two kinds of people in the world, people who do A and people who do B”. This is one of those kinds of discussions.

While these are two extremes, and how far to either extreme you might be will depend a lot on your general anxiety levels, I find myself firmly at one extreme of these two scenarios.

Let’s say you are waiting for the results of something important in the mail. It might be exam results, the response to your college application, or test results from your doctor. You get home one day, and you find the letter in your mailbox. Do you

A. Stare at it, trying to find the courage to open it, usually asking someone else to open it for you and tell you what it says, or

B. Drop everything you’re doing and try not to tear the letter into pieces as you try to get it out of the envelope as quickly as you can?

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The Vatican’s Hypocrisy: A Personal Story

I am sure that those of you who frequent FtB will be fully aware of the Catholic Church’s abysmal record throughout history, from raping and castrating and stealing children from their parents to sell them for profit, to condemning millions of sick people to suffering in their dying days, to contributing to the mass spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and the list goes on and on.

You might also have heard from the people who defend the Catholic Church’s crumbling pedestal. Sure, there were priests who raped children, but there have also been teachers, coaches, and family members who raped children, these things happen, there are predators amongst us and they are attracted to positions which give them power over kids. We need to weed them out, not shut down the entire institution over a few bad apples, anymore than we should get rid of schools or sports programs.

And sure, the Catholic Church preached against the use of condoms, and still preaches against giving pain killers to terminally ill patients. But abstinence, and the idea of physical suffering in order to get closer to God, these are core tenets of the Catholic Church! You might disagree, or consider them old-fashioned, or unrealistic, or even harmful, but they believe them! They’re still trying to do good, however misguided you may think they are being.

And the crusades happened forever ago, you’re going to have to stop bringing that one up. People did some nasty shit in those days.

To those who defend the Catholic Church in this way, I have a story to tell from my own family. It is not a horrific story of rape or mutilation, in fact, in the grand scheme of things it will seem rather mild. However, I tell this story because, even if you grant all of the defenses of the Catholic Church that I have given, it still demonstrates that the Vatican as an organization doesn’t give a damn about the people. They hide behind their tenets when it suits them, and discards them mercilessly when it does not.

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