Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What If...

In Canada, Pretending to Be a Witch Is a Punishable Offense

Pretending to be a witch is against the law in Canada. (iStock/iStock)
TORONTO — Two Ontario women have been charged in as many weeks with a seemingly unusual crime that would not seem out of place in 17th-century Massachusetts: posing as a witch.

The first is Dorie “Madeena” Stevenson, a 32-year-old fortune teller in the city of Milton, Ontario, who police allege swindled more than $60,000 out of one of her clients as the owner of Milton Psychic. On the website for her business, nearly a dozen “accurate, in-depth, amazing” psychic readings are on offer for $75 each.

The second woman is 27-year-old Samantha Stevenson from Toronto, who police claim bilked a 67-year-old man out of $600,000 in a so-called “evil blessing scam.” Police say she promised to ward off evil spirits if he sold his house and transferred the money into her bank account until the spirit removal was complete. It was never returned.

(Officials are looking into whether the women are related or if their identical surnames are just a spooky coincidence.)

The women were charged under section 365 of Canada’s criminal code, which deals with the crime of “pretending to practice witchcraft.” Considered by many to be an archaic section of the law, the offense occurs when someone “fraudulently” pretends to tell fortunes or “to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.” It also makes illegal using “knowledge of an occult or crafty science” to locate lost objects.

The offense carries a punishment of up to six months in prison or a $2,000 fine, or both.
Section 365 has been law in Canada since 1892. It originated in a British statute from 1735 that repealed an earlier British law classifying witchcraft as a felony, after centuries of witch hunts in early modern Europe. The 1735 repeal reserved “a minor punishment” for “cheats and rogues” pretending to practice witchcraft, according to a paper in the Marquette Law Review.

The law remained unchanged in Canada over the centuries but for the addition of the word “fraudulently” in the 1950s.

This means that practicing witchcraft is not a crime in Canada, but faking it in order to extort or deceive others is. In fact, in a news release announcing one of the arrests, police were careful to note that the “charge is not connected in any way to any religion.”

Legal experts say that convictions under section 365 are extremely rare. Sometimes, charges are dropped if restitution is paid, as in the case of a man who in 2003 duped his clients into forking over nearly $23,000 for blood-stained eggs, black coal and worms — effective remedies, he claimed, for various curses. In other instances, the witchcraft-related charge is dropped and the defendant pleads guilty to fraud charges. That’s what happened in 2009, when a Toronto woman pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud after she convinced a lawyer to hand over tens of thousands of dollars by asserting that she was the manifestation of his dead sister.

But it’s likely that police won’t be able to charge people under section 365 for much longer.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced Bill C-51, legislation that would, among other things, remove “zombie laws” — those that are considered redundant or obsolete or that haven’t been removed from the books even though they’ve been deemed unconstitutional by courts.

The bill, which is nearing its final vote in the Senate, would ax section 365, as well as laws prohibiting challenging someone to a duel, issuing trading stamps, advertising a reward for the return of stolen property “no questions asked” and impersonating someone during a university exam.

Not everyone is pleased with Bill C-51’s plans to remove witchcraft-related offenses from the criminal code.

During a parliamentary debate over the bill, Peter Van Loan, a Conservative lawmaker, questioned whether eliminating section 365 was such a good idea given the proliferation of evil blessing scams and similar efforts to defraud the public.

These things really happen in our society, even in this day and age,” he said. “Does that provision, as it exists right now, cause any harm? No. Does it give the police an avenue or resource in the case of those particular unusual offenses? Yes, it does.”

Others say that eliminating section 365 is long overdue given the history of witchcraft-related offenses as tools used around the world to oppress women.

A 2015 paper by Natasha Bakht, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, and Jordan Palmer, a doctoral student there, described the law as “facially neutral but deeply patriarchal” and called for its repeal.

While the law should protect people from “frauds perpetrated under threat of misfortune,” Bakht and Palmer argue that “the provision that differentiates this type of fraud from others is mired in historic oppression of women and religious minorities and is not necessary to prosecute fraud.”

Are You a Wuss?


A Scaredy-Cat’s Investigation Into Why People Enjoy Fear

The New York Times  by Steph Yin  Oct. 28, 2016

Halloween is here again. That means your co-workers have planted surprise spiders around the office. You’ve been invited to a haunted hayride. Your neighbor’s yard has a full cemetery, rigged with motion detectors and pop-up zombies. Chicken-livered from the start, I have always dreaded this time of year. Haunted houses, ghost tours and horror film fests are not my thing, and why people love having the daylights scared out of them completely escapes me.

I decided to try to understand my friends who are on the lookout for thrills this time of year. As it turns out, there are many possible reasons some people like to be scared stiff. Each person’s threshold for experiences that provoke fear is made up of a unique recipe that blends nature and nurture. “The ingredients vary from person to person,” said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and a former president of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Farley is interested in what draws certain people to extreme behaviors, like driving racecars, climbing Mount Everest and flying hot air balloons across oceans. In the 1980s, he coined the term “Type T” personality to refer to the behavioral profile of thrill-seekers. What makes someone thrill-seeking, he said, comes down to a mix of genes, environment and early development.
David Zald, a neuropsychologist at Vanderbilt University, studies one piece of the equation. His research partly focuses on dopamine, a chemical involved in our brain’s response to reward. In the past, he has found that people who lack what he calls “brakes” on dopamine release tend to pursue thrilling activities.

When you go to a haunted house, you’re grappling with a conflict, Dr. Zald said: The experience could either be fun or terrifying, and how you weigh that balance could depend in part on dopamine levels. “Having a greater amount of dopamine pushes someone to pursue the goal of excitement,” he said, “whereas someone who basically has less dopamine is more likely to hold back and say, ‘No, this isn’t worth it to me.’”

Socially, we get cues about how to respond to fear from those around us, said Margee Kerr, a sociologist and author of the book “Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear.” Early on, that’s taking notes from our parents about how to deal with distress. Later, experiencing stressful situations with others can cultivate social bonds.

Part of that has to do with emotional contagion, or a communal response to shared experiences, Dr. Kerr said. If your friend is captivated by the horror movie you are watching together, you process that by recreating the same feeling in your own mind, and that can bring you closer together. People also tend to hold onto memories of fear more intensely, she said, so if you have positive associations with a scary situation, like going to a haunted house, you’ll likely want to do it again.
Fear-seeking can also be a way of testing oneself. Josh Randall and Kristjan Thor, creators of Blackout, a haunted house experience that consistently tops rankings of “Most Extreme Haunted Houses,” said they see many people coming to their events with a goal of self-fortification. “It’s almost like a dare to themselves,” Mr. Thor said. “People want to be able to conquer something.”

For many, being scared is a jolting escape from daily life. When immersed in a scary situation, you can suspend your disbelief and live in the moment — and that loss of control can feel really good. This is key for Blackout, Mr. Randall said: “For a finite period of time, that audience member can turn off the real world, and live in a fantasy world.”

After talking with the experts, I was starting to see why some friends love getting spooked. But why do I hate being scared so much?

It could be because I was never exposed to horror movies or haunted houses growing up, so by the time I did experience these things, I was ill-prepared. It could be that the regions in my brain involved in coding fear and anxiety are more sensitive. Most likely, it is a mix of many different factors. Regardless of the reason though, “it’s perfectly O.K. not to like scary things,” Dr. Kerr said.

For people who cannot fathom sitting out a haunted house, it’s important not to coerce your more cautious friends into doing something they do not want to, Dr. Kerr said. “That can compound the fear, and make it even worse.” So, for any friends who were thinking of inviting me to the haunted house this weekend, save your breath — I have a doctor’s note.

Pretend It's Radio

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About the Search for Extra-terrestrial Life & SETI@home

What Are We Learning from the Search for Extraterrestrial Life?
What Are We Learning from the Search?Shutterstock
Do there exist inhabited worlds other than our own?  This question has been posed for millennia: Epicurus, in a letter to Herodotus in 305 BC, posited the existence of other worlds and predicted that they would contain “the seeds out of which animals and plants arise and all the rest of the things we see.” The sixteenth century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno wrote that “there are countless suns and countless earths all rotating round… that are no worse and no less inhabited than our earth.”

Thus long before astronomers developed a detailed understanding of stars and the planets of the Solar system, philosophers speculated whether there might exist other worlds and whether we might someday come into contact with them.  The answer to this big question has enormous implications: It would inform not just our scientific understanding of the formation of planets and the formation of life upon those planets, but it would directly address the uniqueness of the Earth, and it would impact each individual’s understanding of his or her place in the cosmos.

How exciting, then, that we find ourselves alive at the moment in human history when we have the technological ability to answer the age-old question: Are we alone?

My goal is to show how astronomers approach this question. The search for other life in the universe has yielded new information and benefited from new technology. Those developments, in turn, have generated new approaches.  I plan to discuss the reasons water is a key element for life, describe the ways in which improved telescopes have changed our thinking about the existence of potentially inhabited worlds—and where we might find them–and explore the questions we hope to answer in the not-too-distant future.

Follow the water

The quest to find life on other worlds is (almost) always premised on the belief that life requires water, and in a liquid form. Liquid is the only state of matter in which a mixture of atoms and molecules can be present in high enough density for the chemistry of life to flourish: In a solid, each particle is held in place and unable to find other particles to initiate chemical reactions. In a gas, only a small subset of molecular species avoid condensation, and the overall density (and hence the rate of reactions) is far too low. After hydrogen (and the chemically inert helium), the most abundant atoms in our galaxy are oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Each of these react readily with hydrogen to form, respectively, water, methane, and ammonia. We certainly could imagine planets with lakes of methane, ammonia, or other molecules. Indeed, Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has lakes of ethane and methane. Why are astronomers bullish on water?

The argument is largely based on four properties of water that make it special compared to the other options. First, water is liquid at a much warmer temperature (the others would all be in gaseous form on the Earth), and the rate of most chemical reactions is staggeringly temperature dependent (roughly doubling for each modest increase of 10 degrees centigrade). Said differently, lifeforms in lakes of methane would, by necessity, live at very cold temperatures, and all the chemistry of life – including those that set the stage for the first cells, and later for evolution – would proceed at a pace that was painstakingly slow. Second, water is liquid over a much wider range of temperatures. The temperature at a location on a planet changes throughout the year (think seasons), but also over thousands of years (think ice ages). Both timescales are short compared to that of evolution. Thus water offers the best chance that nascent life forms won’t find themselves quickly frozen (or left to dry out as their ocean quickly evaporates). Third, unlike most hydrocarbons such as methane, water is a polar molecule, allowing it to readily dissolve salts, and permitting a natural mechanism to form long-lived membranes (and hence cells). Finally water is peculiar in that its solid form is less dense than its liquid form. A methane ocean on a planet undergoing an ice age would quickly freeze out: Freshly frozen methane would sink to the bottom, exposing the remaining liquid and allowing it to freeze rapidly. Water ice, on the other hand, floats, providing an insulating layer and allowing lifeforms to hunker down in the liquid that is protected below, awaiting the return of warmer days.
To my eye, these are all reasonable arguments as to why we should begin our search with liquid water. I confess a worry that we are blinded by our own terrestrial upbringing, and out there somewhere an alien astronomer is lauding the benefits of methane. But for now astronomers are nearly unanimous in their belief that we should first set out to find planets with liquid surface water.
The need to search outside the Solar system

Life has dramatically altered the appearance of the Earth to would-be alien astronomers: The impressive abundance of molecular oxygen in our atmosphere, and the distinctive green color due to the chlorophyll of our forests make Earth’s life easy to spot from afar.

Several decades of imaging and, in some cases, direct exploration of the other planets of the solar system make it clear that Earth is unique in this respect. On the Earth, life can’t hide its telltale effects, yet no other body in the solar system shows so much as a hint of life’s chemical activity. We know from now-dry riverbeds that water flowed on Mars in the distant past, and maybe life hunkers there yet, but Mars never received the sort of planet-wide makeover that occurred on Earth. Yes, there is liquid water on Jupiter’s moon Europa, but it’s hidden under several miles of ice and locked away from view (and from any light that would permit photosynthesis). The hydrocarbon lakes of Titan may be home to a thriving community of methane lovers, but if so, their chemistry is so obscure and different from ours that we haven’t spotted any telltale signs yet. To us, the chemistry of Titan’s atmosphere indicates only planetary physical (and not biological) processes.

While further exploration of our neighboring worlds within the solar system is surely merited, I think the prospects are much brighter once we look to the population of planets orbiting other stars. We call these distant worlds exoplanets.

The quest for rocky worlds

On March 6, 2009, a rocket lit up the skies of eastern Florida and placed the NASA Kepler satellite safely into orbit. Dozens of ground-based efforts had already established that exoplanets were a commonplace, but these planets were mostly gas giants and unsuitable for life. The promise of Kepler was that it would be the first project with the capability to discover planets that were as small as the Earth. At the moment of launch, we truly didn’t know if such exoplanets existed. Perhaps Kepler would survey its 150,000 stars and inform us that our home planet was unique?

Instead, Kepler told us an astounding fact: Most stars have planets similar in size to the Earth. Our galaxy contains far more planets than it does stars.

Kepler is particularly adept at discovering planets close to their stars, but for the planets to have the possibility of containing liquid water they must lie in the so-called habitable zone: Not too close, lest the water boil; not too far, lest it freeze. Like Goldilocks, we seek planets with orbits that are just the right temperature. For a star like the Sun, finding such planets is difficult: They are so far from their star that they orbit around it only once per year, and completing only a few cycles within the 4-year baseline of the Kepler mission. Moreover, the Sun is enormous compared to the Earth, and we must push the data to its limits to eek out these signals. Still, astronomers have persevered, and the current estimate is that perhaps 10% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet.

Despite what I was told in high school, the Sun is NOT an average star. Most stars are much smaller and emit much less light than the Sun. As a result, these red dwarf stars make it much easier to find Earth analogs: Instead of a one-year orbit, the habitable zone about such a star corresponds to only two weeks (the planet must be tucked in close to receive sufficient energy). Moreover, owing to their small physical size, the contrast between the planet and star isn’t nearly as great. Unlike the case for Sun-like stars, Kepler’s estimate of the rate of occurrence of Earth-like planets around red dwarfs is on much firmer footing: Last year and in subsequent work, Courtney Dressing and I found that 50% of M-dwarfs may have a habitable planet.  Since red dwarfs outnumber Sun-like stars by a factor of 10, this implies with near certainly that the closest worlds (and hence the ones most accessible, at least to our telescopes) orbit these tiny little red stars, and not a solar analog. Some of my colleagues have pointed out reasons to think that life would be impossible in orbit around a red dwarf: They are notorious for emitting copious amounts of sterilizing ultraviolet light, and planets in the habitable zone would be so close that the gravity of the star would have locked the planet’s rotation, implied a permanent, scorching dayside and a frigid nightside. These arguments strike me as unduly Earth-centric. We know so little about the beginnings of life on Earth, it seems a shame to not give red dwarfs the benefit of the doubt! More importantly, regardless of the theoretical musings for or against their habitability, the red dwarfs bring an opportunity that we simply can’t afford to miss.

The fast track to an inhabited exoplanet

Now that we know of potentially habitable planets, how can we establish whether they are in fact inhabited? Other stars are simply too far to contemplate space travel, so the prospects for heading off with butterfly nets in hand are dim. The answer lies in studying the exoplanet atmosphere and searching for atmospheric biosignature gases that would point unambiguously to active lifeforms on the surface below.

The prevailing wisdom is that the study of the atmosphere of an alien Earth requires an enormous technology development, ultimately leading to the launch of very large, space-based telescope (much larger than any yet launched). Such a project would take at least 25 years and require at least 5 billion dollars. This may indeed be what is required if we want to study a true Earth-twin, in a one year orbit about a Sun-like star. But does the newly-discovered preponderance of potentially habitable planets orbiting red dwarfs present an alternate path?

A decade ago, I developed a novel method to make the first detection of the atmosphere of an exoplanet, albeit for a decidedly non-Earth-like gas giant. The work came as a surprise to most of the research community, as the prevailing wisdom was that such a study would require a fabulously large and technologically advanced telescope, capable of first taking a picture of the exoplanet separated from the glare of its star. Instead, our team waited for the moment when the planet passed in front of its star (only a small fraction of exoplanets do this). We then used the star as a flashlight: As the light from the star passed through the atmosphere of the planet, imprinted upon it were the features of the atoms and molecules present in the planetary atmosphere. We had transformed the glare of the star from foe to friend.

This method works only if such eclipse events are relatively frequent, and if the star isn’t too much bigger than the planet. Neither is true for Sun-like stars, but indeed both are true for red dwarf stars. Excitingly, the method doesn’t require the construction of a specialty telescope. While studying Earths-like planets in this way can’t be done with current facilities, a number of upcoming telescopes that are already under construction may be powerful enough for this idea to work: These include the NASA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, and the ground-based Giant Magellan Telescope, which should see first light in 2020.

Much work remains to be done: We still need to find closer examples of the population of red-dwarf planets uncovered by Kepler, and we need to take care that the instruments on JWST and GMT are optimized for this work. But it is possible that we could undertake a meaningful study of the atmosphere of a potentially habitable planets within 5 years. The big questions posed by Epicurus, Bruno, and many others may indeed find their answer in the very near future.

How would you like to help SETI look of extra-terrestrial life?
You can help with your home computer or device when your computer is not busy with your stuff. Turn downtime into science time.

The science of SETI@home

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific area whose goal is to detect intelligent life outside Earth. One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology. 

Radio telescope signals consist primarily of noise (from celestial sources and the receiver's electronics) and man-made signals such as TV stations, radar, and satellites. Modern radio SETI projects analyze the data digitally. More computing power enables searches to cover greater frequency ranges with more sensitivity. Radio SETI, therefore, has an insatiable appetite for computing power. 

Previous radio SETI projects have used special-purpose supercomputers, located at the telescope, to do the bulk of the data analysis. In 1995, David Gedye proposed doing radio SETI using a virtual supercomputer composed of large numbers of Internet-connected computers, and he organized the SETI@home project to explore this idea. SETI@home was originally launched in May 1999. 

Classic is a 3D version of SETI@home Classic's 2D graphics, with the addition of a moving starfield and a swiveling/rotating motion  

Panels displays text and best-signal info on a pair of translucent rotating panels

 Panels displays text and best-signal info on a pair of translucent rotating panels

Live Online Help

The BOINC Online Help System lets you talk live, over the Internet, with a Help Volunteer who can
  • Answer your questions about SETI@home;
  • Walk you through the process of getting SETI@home running on your computer;
  • Help you solve any problems you're having with SETI@home.
Volunteers speaking many languages are available. Call now!

Making Top Toys

Edo-style spinning tops tell stories, aim for playfulness

The Asahi Shimbun /AP October 31, 2018

Photo/IllutrationThis undated photo shows an example of an Edo-style top depicting a courier, who appears to run frantically when it is spun. (Janell Landis/Carving Community: The Landis-Hiroi Collection via AP)

It once was thought that the Japanese tradition of carving Edo-style spinning tops had been lost. It turned out it had just gone on the road to northern Japan--and some of it ended up in America as well.
While they're called tops, these go beyond simple spinning disks. Many are more like carved, wooden figures, and might depict scenes with characters that dance, transform or fight. On one, an ogre disguised as a priest bangs a gong when you spin his hat; on another, two discs illustrated with a dog and a robber chase each other around. Figures from folklore and theater are represented, and whimsical scenes like two frogs sumo wrestling.

More than just playthings, the tops were traditionally used for street performances, and involve original creations, not just repetitive copies.

"They have a very varied history across different social groups and classes," says Paula R. Curtis, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Michigan. "Part of it is the artisans putting themselves into the work, interpreting their experiences and cultural background through these tops."

One such artisan is Michiaki Hiroi. His was the last family making tops in Tokyo when they moved to Sendai in the north of Japan after the World War II. His father made a living making the woodcrafts of that region, and Hiroi initially followed in his footsteps. Then one day a collector who knew about the Edo style came to the shop and discovered who he was. "This person said, oh my God, I've been looking for you forever," says Curtis.

Hiroi was inspired to begin making the tops and taking on apprentices. While the stereotype of craft apprenticeships in Japan is that they're hard to break into and not welcoming to women and foreigners, Hiroi didn't discriminate. One of his apprentices was Janell Landis, an American who came to Japan as a missionary and taught at a university in Sendai for 30 years.

When she became his apprentice in 1982, Hiroi encouraged her to bring her own experiences and culture to the craft. Where his tops might represent a figure from a Noh drama, hers included Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Cinderella. Instead of Japanese folklore, they reflected the stories important to her, such as a Christmas tree and a scene of the manger with baby Jesus.

If Christmas is fair game as a subject, then what makes a top Edo-style? Curtis, project manager of an oral history website about Landis and Hiroi, says that Hiroi's answer focuses on the tops' spirit: "He's very insistent on that when he talks about them: When people look at them, it brings them a sense of joy and playfulness,"

That response might seem evasive or frustrating--aren't you supposed to be able to identify a school of arts or crafts from how it looks? Not necessarily, according to Tamara Joy, curator of the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, Florida. For Japanese crafts, a style is often distinguished by where it comes from and who is teaching it, rather than certain patterns or techniques.

But the term Edo also has deep cultural and historical resonance that is reflected in these tops, says Joy, whose museum owns a collection of Hiroi's work that Landis brought back when she returned to the US in 1995.

Edo is the old name for Tokyo, but it's also the name of the era from 1603-1868, a period that saw the development of a new middle class with more free time and spending money. This resulted in an explosion of the arts and culture. These tops are part of that bigger picture, Joy says.

Often, they contained subversive commentary about the ruling classes. "There was a lot of sticking it to the people who were in charge," says Joy. This had to be subtle: perhaps a play that used historical characters with parallels to the present, or a performance with elaborate tops that actually told a story.
One of Joy's favorites in the collection represents a common figure of fun, the spear-bearer who led samurai processions. Paintings and illustrations mock his self-importance. "His chest is all puffed up, and he's got a smug look on his face," says Joy. "You couldn't directly make fun of the samurai, but you could poke at them and their egos through this character."

On Hiroi's top, the figure's spear moves around clumsily when his head is spun. "You could see the same character in a half-million-dollar painting," Joy says, "and he made his way into a top."