SGU Episode 935

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SGU Episode 935
June 10th 2023
935 Apple Vision Pro.jpg

While the Apple Vision Pro looks like a set of magic ski goggles, it's actually a computing platform that might eventually take over a lot of what we do today on smartphones, tablets, and computers. [1]

SGU 934                      SGU 936

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Absolute certainty is a privilege of uneducated minds and fanatics. It is for scientific folk and unattainable ideal.

Cassius Jackson Keyser, American mathematician

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, Evan’s trouble with poor air quality[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Thursday, June 8th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone.

S: Evan, you're sounding a little sore throated over there. What's going on?

E: I am. It's not a sore throat. What happened to me is that earlier this week, Monday, this sort of phlegminess developed in my throat. I really don't have any other symptoms of a cold. I didn't have a sore throat. My nose is not running. And no headache, no aches, no things you kind of think about having a cold. I'm like, what the heck's going on? Well, what's going on, especially in this part of the country, the Northeast United States, is that we've been under some really bad air quality.

S: I know. The worst in my lifetime probably.

E: Oh, absolutely.

S: Like do not go outside. Close all your windows. That kind of thing.

E: On Tuesday, I was outside. I think I was coming back from lunch. I was at work. And I'm like, what's wrong? Something's wrong with the light. Everything looked pink.

S: Yeah.

Special Report: Canadian wildfires (1:46)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [2]

E: Right. I'm looking at how you look at sunshine as it's on the ground. It's kind of like this white generally kind of, but it was pink as if somebody put a pink filter up. And I look up and there's this haze, this absolute haze over the entire sky. And that sun, I know you're not supposed to look at the sun without eye protection, but I looked at it. That thing was glowing pink, absolute pink. And I'm like, oh my gosh, this is the wildfires in Canada. And all that smoke and debris and soot is blanketing the entire Northeast part of the country and other parts of the country as well.

B: Jay, that's what we were seeing at your house Tuesday night.

J: Yeah. Remember we were looking outside and we were curious because it looked yellow.

E: Right. It was totally off color.

S: I noticed the smell first. So I got home on Tuesday and I smelled the burning smell, you know. And our oven, which is busted, was being worked on. So I figured, oh, the guy was doing something with the oven and burned some whatever rubber or plastic or something. But it wasn't going away. And then I went outside and it was just as bad outside. And like, oh, it smells like this everywhere. Where's the smell coming from? Is it a neighbor burning leaves or something? And then I came to find out it's coming from Canada, quite a bit away.

E: And it's not just that campfire kind of smoke smell, Steve, as you were saying. It almost has this artificial quality to it. Like some plastic is burning or something.

S: Exactly. That's why I thought it was like something in the oven, like something, an electrical fire.

B: Weird. I never smelled anything.

E: So it's not this, nice wholesome sort of, oh, campfire smell. It's this, bleh, this is disgusting.

C: So this is like not uncommon in California.

B: Right, right.

C: The red haze and like all of this stuff.

E: Air quality issues, yeah.

B: Big whoop, right?

C: And upwards, yeah, into the Pacific Northwest. One of the things that often will happen, and usually I guess if the fires aren't as far away, but one of the things that would often happen is that you get ash that rains down on your porch, on your car, and things like that. Are you guys seeing any ash on the ground or is it just the air quality?

E: Yes.

C: You are.

E: I had to watch. I couldn't, yesterday I could not see out the windows of my car. So I brought it home and hosed it down because that's how thick the debris, it's like pollen but about five times thicker almost. I got this coating entirely on my car. I had to hose it down so I could see.

S: So yeah, so what caused all the fires? From what I'm reading, they're not 100% sure. Lightning may have played a role, but you can't rule out human activity. But it's, again, apparently in the west of Canada and the east of Canada there are different causes. In the west they're saying, yeah, it's pretty clear that this is due to dry conditions resulting from global warming. In the east it's not as clear how much of a role that's playing. But clearly spring has come early and leading to more dry conditions. This is more of like a summer fire that we're getting in the spring because the ground is drier. It burns longer and is harder to put out, et cetera. It's not just the superficial stuff on top with a wet ground. The ground is dry.

E: Right. I was reading that this past winter they had low snowfall accumulations, not the usual typical kind of melt that occurs and would live in the ground and would postpone something like this until maybe later in the summer. This wildfire season came very early for Canada this year.

S: Yeah, so even though this is – I can't remember ever experiencing anything like this before, but this may become the new normal.

E: Oh my gosh. I hope not. I'm going to have to move. I don't know. I can't live like this. This is – did you see the photographs?

S: A climate refugee, Evan. You're going to become a climate refugee.

E: I might.

C: Do you just have really – I mean I'm just fascinated by the fact that all four of you live within relatively close driving range and Evan, you're getting hit super hard. Do you find that you – are you usually more sensitive to like environmental–

E: Well, pollen is normally – I do have allergies to pollen. It's not so unusual, but to this degree, it is unusual for me. But May is typically a bad month for my allergies to begin with. This kind of goes beyond the allergies I believe. Again, I otherwise – maybe I do have a slight cold of some kind. Some other people I know have colds. So maybe I have a version of a cold and this is just exacerbating that cold. But I really don't have any other cold symptoms. So I'm not really sure exactly what to attribute this to.

C: Interesting.

E: Did you see the pictures of New York City yesterday, Wednesday?

B: Oh my god.

C: It's spooky seeing it in New York.

E: I mean really, they were so right. They said it was – it is as if someone was shooting Blade Runner, the movie.

C: Didn't they say it was the worst air quality on record in New York?

B: Oh yes, ever. Today it was lowered from hazardous to merely unhealthy.

C: Are you wearing a mask, Evan? Put on a mask.

E: Yeah. Yes, I did wear a mask while I was outside. But I just really haven't been going outside. I've been limiting myself to being inside.

S: I've been reading about that.

C: I mean unless you have like a pretty intense air filter.

S: You really need like one of those filter masks. Yeah, with those two kind of – Like a COVID-19 mask isn't good enough. You need one that looks like a gas mask almost. You know what I mean? Like those filter masks.

E: Yeah. I actually have one of those. I should have whipped it out.

J: What kind of mask is that, Steve?

S: Yeah, there are actually filters. You're breathing the air through a filter.

E: It has the two canisters bound by the mouth to either side of the mouth. You know what those look like?

J: Oh my god. You have to wear one of those?

S: Yeah. If you really – or you stay inside. Make sure that you're – if you have an HVAC system in your home, make sure you have a good filter.

E: Yeah, we just had our service last month. Thank goodness. They put new filters in.

C: You're probably going to have to change your – you're supposed to change your filters monthly. So you're probably going to have to change your filters weekly right now.

E: Really? OK.

C: In LA, I always know when it's wildfire season, I have to change them a lot. I have like Dyson filters in every room, like HEPA filters in at least the bedroom and living room.

S: Yeah, the HEPA filter is good. If you don't have that, you can get a portable air purifier with good filters and just run those. You definitely should do that. That could reduce like 95% of this crap in the air.

J: What can, Steve?

S: These filters. Like if you run an air purifier with the HEPA filters.

B: I got mine going at maximum today.

C: Indoor air pollution is usually worse than outdoor air pollution. It's not a bad idea to have a good HEPA filter in your house.

S: I had to close my window in my office. Because the air is so bad outside. Honestly, this is the first time I felt like this really feels like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. You know what I mean? Like it's the first time – I know like we live in the northeast of the US and it's kind of a privileged location in that we don't really have to worry about any things like earthquakes or–

E: Right.

S: I thought tornadoes but even the tornadoes that we had a few years ago were nothing compared to other parts of the country. We rarely get hit by hurricanes and when we do it's just a really bad storm, etc. And now, like I really, really didn't think that climate change would impact me directly living in Connecticut for a long time. But here it is. I mean this is dramatic. I was locked in my house for three days because of the air quality. I mean think about that.

E: Yeah. I believe they closed some schools among other things.

Climate change review (9:05)[edit]

S: Speaking of global warming, in preparation for COP28 which is going to happen in December in Bonn apparently, 50 climate scientists prepared a review of like where are we, some stats about where things are. And it's really bad. So first of all, right now we are emitting more CO2 than ever, than ever. The amount of CO2 that the world is emitting is still increasing. The only thing–

B: Has the increase slowed down?

S: The increasing has slowed down. That's the only thing that we've achieved.

B: That's a win.

S: But think about that.

E: Not enough.

S: We've slowed the increase in emissions but we're still releasing even more every year. That's why I think – I know I talked recently about the fact that – again, I'm all in on wind and solar. It's great. But – and then people are, some countries are touting their mix of wind and solar. It's like, yeah, but you're just – you're not even keeping up with increased demand. You know what I mean? You're just the new electricity generation. More of the new generation is wind and solar. But we're still burning more fossil fuel and emitting more CO2 than ever before. So they keep a rolling average of like the average temperature increase above pre-industrial levels for 10 years, like a 10-year rolling average. So you guys know a few years ago we broke 1.01 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. That was for the period between 2010 and 2019. For that 10-year period, the average warming was 1.07. And now three years later, we're at 1.14. Remember the goal is to keep it below 1.5. We're already at 1.14.

B: Not gun debt.

S: Another way to look at it is our carbon budget. You guys are familiar with this concept? Like what's the total amount of carbon we can release into the atmosphere but still keep to that one – the total, cumulative, yeah, and still keep to the 1.5 C goal. So three years ago, we were – remember the whole – we got 12 years of global warming. We've burned through half of the remaining carbon budget. And then that's it. We're going to blow through 1.5. So we're failing. We're just not doing it.

B: It's going to be bad.

S: It is frustrating. It's like watching a car crash in slow motion. It's like for all the governments and so many people are talking about it and we're trying so many things. It's like, yeah, but we're still emitting more CO2 every year than the year before. Like we're not even coming close to really doing what we need to do to turn this ship around. So we got that going for us.

E: Yeah.

C: It's like, oh, OK.

S: I don't know, there's no upside to this story. It's just that we're not doing it.

C: Why?

S: Because it would take a much greater effort than–

E: Because try to get eight billion people to do one thing.

B: We can't even get people to believe it. I mean imagine that.

C: You believe it when it's too late to do anything about it.

B: Yeah. It's basically too late.

S: It's partly because there's no easy solution. It's not like there's this one easy thing we need to do and we just need to do it. We need to do 100 hard things that all involve tradeoffs.

C: But none of those tradeoffs are bigger than the tradeoff of what it's going to be like.

S: I agree. But it's also I think part of the problem is that we can't just do individual things. We need a strategic plan.

C: I thought that was the whole point of these meetings.

S: That is true. But the point is like individual countries are like doing things to try to reduce their carbon but they don't necessarily have like, all right, here's our 30-year plan. This is what we're going to do. It's not a lot of that going on.

C: I don't think that's necessarily true. I think a lot of countries have that. I think we don't.

S: Well, we don't. The ones that matter don't.

C: And when you say that, you mean the biggest polluters, right?

S: China, India, US.

E: Us, China, India.

C: Exactly. That's what you mean by the ones that matter. You mean the ones who are putting out the most carbon.

S: That's exactly what I mean. The ones that are putting out 90% of the CO2. Even the big European countries. Some individual countries are doing their bit but they're just, they happen to have low-hanging fruit they can pick. It's like, yeah, you have a bunch of, some countries have the geology that they can have all hydroelectric. But we can't replicate that around the world. You know I've railed against like Germany for shutting down their nuclear plants. That's the sort of thing that's the problem. There's a lot of cosmetic changes that you could do and you could make the numbers look impressive like, oh, we've installed 40% re-arranged solar.

E: Rearrange the chairs on the Titanic.

S: Yeah, basically. But it's like, yeah, until you like make a concerted effort to shut down those coal-fired plants as fast as possible, we're not going to make a dent. Or switching over to electric cars. It's all good that it only matters if you convert over your electricity generation to green energy. If you're burning coal, it doesn't matter if you're using that electricity to charge your electric car.

E: Energy demand is going way up as well.

S: That's the thing.

E: I think I once read, Steve, I don't have the fact right in front of me. I read by the 2035 there's going to be like a 50% increase in energy demand.

S: What I remember was by 2050 it would be a 50% increase in energy demand.

E: Oh, okay. 2050.

S: Something like that, yeah.

E: How is that going to happen?

C: So what is the comparison, by the way? Sorry to be obnoxious because I know we've covered this before, but what is the comparison to literal tailpipe emissions versus the burning of coal to produce the electricity for the electric cars? Is it actually one to one?

S: It's still better. Well, you're still better to have an electric car, but the benefit is pretty marginal. It's like a few percent.

C: But if you have an electric car with green energy going into power.

S: If you do, yeah. If you have solar panels on your roof and that's how you charge your car, great. That's awesome. Or if you just live in a place that has a good energy mix. If you live in a location where most of your electricity is coming from coal burning, there's still a little bit of a benefit to going electric. You could do so in preparation for improving the energy mix, but that is not going to solve global warming by itself. That's the bottom line. We've got to do all these things together. Of course, the electric cars are going to increase our demand for electricity. That's what I mean by strategic planning. It's not just, oh, we're building some more solar. How much energy are we going to need? How is this going to actually happen? How are we going to do it? It's the quickest pathway to shutting down coal and then other forms of fossil fuel. Unless we do that, we really have no chance and we're not doing it.

B: Our grand kids are going to revile us. They're going to be like, what the hell?

C: Kids already do.

B: But even, but I think it's our grand kids that are really going to feel it.

News Items[edit]

The Coming of AR (15:45)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, you want to talk about something a little bit lighter? Tell us about the coming of augmented reality.

B: Yeah, this surprised me. I hadn't been tracking this in a while, but it happened after more than a decade in development. Apple debuted its augmented and virtual reality headset called Vision Pro. It'll be available next year, early next year for a whopping $3,500 USD. A huge amount of money. So what is it? What can it do? What's our take? So those questions are answerable, but the big question that you can't really answer is this one. Is this mixed realities iPhone moment that will launch the product into the mainstream like none before it? That's the question. Or will it follow other super hyped products that were all supposed to be epic game changers, but weren't. Like - remember Google Glass, Metas Quest Pro, Microsoft's HoloLens, Magic Leap 2 to name a few. All of them made big claims about this is it. It's starting now. And they kind of like didn't get anywhere near those predictions. So this debut happened at the WWDC, Worldwide Developers Conference, this past June 5th, 2023. Apple's CEO Tim Cook said, "Today marks the beginning of a new era for computing. Just as the Mac introduced us to personal computing and iPhone introduced us to mobile computing, Apple Vision Pro introduces us to spatial computing", which is an interesting way to actually present this, I think, and actually a pretty good idea. In the press release, let's say they had lots of press releases. One said, kind of summed it up nicely, it's a revolutionary spatial computer that seamlessly blends digital content with the physical world, allowing users to stay present and connected to others. Vision Pro creates an infinite canvas for apps that scales beyond the boundaries of a traditional display, introduces a fully three-dimensional user interface controlled by the most natural and intuitive inputs possible, a user's eyes, hands, and voice. So now if you haven't heard, if you haven't seen this device yet, just imagine a pair of ski goggles and you're pretty much there. That's pretty damn close enough. It can be tethered to a pocket-sized battery for two hours, or you could connect it to your Mac by USB-C and then you could just use it for as long as you want. Each eye has a micro-LED display with a total of 23 million pixels. It's more than a 4K TV, powered by Apple's new R1 chip to do the real-time processing and also the M2 chip used in the Mac computer. Both of them, both chips control 12 cameras, five sensors, and six microphones, all in one device. Incredible. Apple apparently filed 5,000 patents during Vision Pro's development. 5,000! Wow. There's a dial on the headset that was interesting that lets you control how much of the real world peaks through the digital screen, essentially lowering or increasing how immersive the experience is. So it's not like there's a button for augmented reality, which just overlays digital content over reality, or virtual reality, which is a full replacement. Everything is basically digitally created and not real. Importantly, though, so you can actually do degrees where you can go make it more immersive, less immersive, but though, everything you see in your goggles, though, is digital. You're not seeing through the goggles at any point.

S: So Bob, you said you're not seeing through the goggles, but the transparent settings, you're seeing the video feed of what you're putting in?

B: Yes, you're seeing the video feed. So you're seeing a feed coming through. I think that's an important distinction. People though that who have actually demoed it said that the video feed, when you're supposedly looking through the goggles, is very, very good. It's almost, he said, it was almost indistinguishable from taking the goggles off. Some people said you occasionally see some obvious artifacts of the fact that it's a feed coming through, but they said it's very, very good quality. Okay. All right. Now there's lots of different objects that you can interact with, like folders and things and images that they are not 3D or volumetric, as they say. Yeah, they're kind of like two dimensional, but there are three dimensional aspects to it. But I guess that will absolutely increase as this thing gets tweaked and improved. Now as the press release implies, there's no handheld controllers, right? It's like minority port report. The interface is basically your hands and your eyes right now, and eventually your voice. Probably by early next year, the voice commands will be working. The system knows when you're looking at it, and when you're looking at a specific thing, and then it knows that you're looking at it, and then you can then manipulate it with your hand or your fingers. So that's interesting. Some examples of what you can do is say I get a FaceTime call from Steve. I would look at the answer button, and then I would be able to pinch it to open it up. Now I wouldn't see Steve, but I would see an animated avatar or a persona, I think that they're calling it, whose mouth and facial expressions would be synchronized to Steve's voice and face. It's kind of like a, what's it called? An emoji? Basically, it's very realistic, but it obviously wouldn't be Steve because they're just telltale giveaways. No shadows is one thing, and also the skin tones is just too perfect. It's obvious. I don't think it's really meant to be absolutely photorealistic, but the users have said that this is very, very photorealistic, but of course, it also slips into uncanny valley that people say that it's kind of creepy. This is how you're seeing the person that you're talking to in FaceTime or even Zoom, I think. That's kind of weird. You could take 3D videos and images and re-experience them later. That seems like kind of a no-brainer. There's also, there's apps that are going to be available that will be specific to Vision Pro, or you can open up your current iPhone or iPad apps and use them. Now those apps and other windows can be arranged in midair all around you to work with or read or to do whatever you're doing with those windows. And behind those windows, you could have either the real world video feed coming through, or you could be a fully immersive, all-encompassing wallpaper instead behind all of those screens. So you're fully immersed and fully virtual reality, I guess. Now there's lots of entertainment options, and of course, these were given a really high priority here. There's a cinema environment where you could watch movies and TV. There's a nature-themed environment that lets you make the screen seem like it's 100 feet wide. This next one sounds cool. It's called Apple Immersive Videos, and basically these are made for Vision Pro. They're 180 degrees, 3D, 8K recordings that put you right inside the action. Those seem pretty impressive. I would like to check that out. You can also, of course, stream Apple TV, Apple TV Plus, and Disney Plus on Vision Pro. There's also gaming. Apple Arcade will be available with 100 iPad games will also be available. So lots of different things you can do with it. In the future, I'm curious to see what does Apple envision in the next decade for this? So I think right now, what they're thinking is that in a couple of years, we could see a couple of versions being offered. One would be high-end, and the other one would be a low-end priced more like an iPhone. So it's kind of like now with the iPhone. You can get the high-end crazy iPhone for like, what? What is it? $1,500? Or you can get one that is much more reasonable at what? 6-7? $800? I don't know. I haven't bought a new one in like four years. So they're going to have that option, which I think is a good idea. I think it seems like an obvious thing where it'll still be very functional, but it'll be sub $1,000. So okay, that's in the next couple of years. By 2027, we may see Apple's long-delayed Apple Glasses. So I'm really interested in that, what that would be like. So I mean, this is all just like that one seems likely that we'll see Apple Glasses in 2027. I don't know much about it at all, but you can just imagine just by the name what it might be like. Not sure what the functionality would be. Further in the future, sometime perhaps in the 2030s, Apple is thinking about or considering potentially seeing augmented reality contact lenses. We've mentioned them on the show a few times. That's definitely like, whatever. That's too far away to really say how possible that would be. Maybe that might be one of the ultimate expressions of this technology. Talk about disappearing. The technology would barely even be visible, but who knows how long that would take or even if that's going to be the right way to go eventually when that technology is even there. I read a lot of reviews for Vision Pro. They're kind of all over the place in some ways, but there's definitely some consistency. For example, Neelay Patel at The Verge said, "Apple has clearly solved a bunch of big hardware interaction problems with VR headsets, mostly by out-engineering and outspending everyone else that's tried". Alan Trulia at Digital Trends said, "The Vision Pro is technically an excellent mixed reality headset with technology that eclipses every competitor". Jacob Kral from Men's Journal, he demoed, all of these people demoed the Vision Pro. Jacob said, "Apple really did it and is offering a mixed reality experience with excellent eye and hand tracking, a simple and intuitive interface with enough power and a high degree of immersion. They got a lot right, at least from this experience with Generation 1". On the more negative side, we've got Paul Tassi from Forbes. He said, "This tech is cool. This tech is not solving any problems. Fictional book characters get immersed in VR. Very few people in reality actually want to do that with any consistency. The continued usage rate compared to say a phone, a computer, a PlayStation 5 is drastically lower as people are wowed for a little while and then they put it down and they rarely use it again." I cannot tell you how many times I've seen this with people who buy VR sets, myself included. Kate Nibbs at Wired said, "An Apple headset, no matter how nifty it specs, is still a big honking gizmo plonked between its wearer and the rest of the world, inherently a barrier more than a conduit." So yeah, I'm seeing a lot of these sentiments being expressed all over the place. Many reviewers echoed the complaint that people just don't have the tolerance to wear something like that on their heads for extended periods of time. I totally agree with that. Absolutely.

C: Me too.

B: It's more of a psychological thing than anything else. I think this type of product as we see it now won't have the penetration that smartphones has now or even in the beginning or iPads or even Apple watches. Even if it were half the price, it's just too in your face, so to speak. Sorry about that one. It really is. I think I personally, I would use this probably for games for sure. Maybe the occasional deep immersion experience and maybe once in a while for work, maybe I'll do a video explaining how annoying it gets after an hour or two. But there's no way I would have a love affair with a device like this, like I do my smartphone. My precious. Now as we say in our book, it's folly to think that you can predict with any accuracy how people will use new technology. That's so true. But no matter how it's used in the future, it's almost irrelevant. It seems reasonable to think that mixed reality won't see the billions of users until it's at a scale of say something like a pair of sunglasses, at least perhaps wirelessly powered by a small device in your pocket. I don't know. But I think you would need a much smaller form factor for something like this before you're going to see billions of people using something like this. I think this is going to be an interesting niche type of technology. I don't think we're going to see a deep penetration for something this obtrusive, this thing that just hangs on your head. As nice as technically amazing it is, the hardware is incredible. No one's complaining that the technology is crap. It really is. 5,000 patents. I mean, it's doing some amazing work, especially for a version. It's not even version 1.0. This isn't even the device that's going to be for sale in January, in early 2024. So all right. So I'll finish with this. Will we think of June 5th, 2023 as mixed reality's iPhone moment? I mean, maybe, perhaps. Probably not. I think probably not. But who knows? Apple is Apple. They will have big hitters like Disney making content for this platform. And they're already getting many developers excited to create content for Vision Pro. That's why they made this announcement this week. That's why they did this many months before the launch, to get these developers excited and get them cracking and to have even more stuff available when it actually can be purchased. This could potentially be the beginning of Apple's dominance of spatial computing, if it even becomes a real thing that lasts. Or maybe not. Who knows? There could be some outlier, some other company that really hits more of a home run, something that can be, that really does take off because maybe it's smaller, maybe it's just focused on a couple of things instead of so many different things. I don't know. You can't really say what's going to happen. What do you guys think?

S: Yeah, I'm definitely interested in it, as you might imagine. I think a lot of it's going to come down to, is there a killer app? What will people be using it for?

E: Yeah, utility.

C: Right. Yeah. I agree.

S: If it's like an off-the-hook gaming experience, it'll fill that niche very nicely. I still use my VR headset. My tolerance is maybe about two hours at a go, depending on how I'm feeling.

B: Really?

C: But don't you feel like with VR, so far, that seems to be... I mean, I know it has applications beyond that, and it has amazing applications for medicine. It has amazing applications in the military. But for your everyday end user, it's a gaming device.

S: Totally. Totally.

E: It's a toy.

C: I worry that that's kind of the niche that all these things are going to hang out.

S: There were companies that tried to get the current VR platforms into the enterprise space. Like, you use it as your monitor to have a three-dimensional virtual office, and people just couldn't wear them long enough to make it practical.

C: Right. Yeah, just the tech's not [inaudible].

S: So, I'm interested to see how long could you, like, if I could go an hour and a half to two hours with my current kind of clunky VR set, could you go three or four hours with this? And if you could, that could be a chunk of your workday if you're doing, will this be the Zoom killer app where you're going to be in a more of a realistic? Because, yeah, we all have experienced the Zoom doom meeting, right? It's just hard. Like, I've had 10 students with me, and I have absolutely no idea if any of them are listening to anything that I'm saying.

C: What did I... Steve, that reminds me, there's a meme I saw the other day that was like, there's literally no difference between a Zoom meeting and a seance. Like, Jennifer, are you here? I can't see you. I can't hear you.

S: Right.

C: I think someone's trying to join us.

S: I mean, I've had good Zoom meetings as well. It just really, really depends. Zoom is good for some things. But the three-dimensional aspect and the full visual immersive aspect of VR/AR does change things.

C: Oh, for sure.

S: Yeah, I do. So who knows? Again, you can't... As Bob said, it's hard to predict this. But if there is that killer app where people decide, it's like, yeah, this completely changes the game. Like, now we could actually do virtual meetings, and they work, and they're worth it. You only have to wear this thing one or two hours during your day where you do all your virtual meetings, but you've got to have this device to do that.

C: I also wonder how much of it is psychological, right? Surgical theater, for example, is a really cool VR program that you can use on a monitor too, but the headsets are really great. I remember covering this with neurosurgeons at UCLA, where they literally will map out a patient's tumor or a patient's whatever anomaly they have going on in the brain, and they'll practice it by flying around in their brain before they go in for surgery. So that they're acclimated to the architecture, the way that they often described it was like, when you go into somebody's house that's new, and they're like, hey, can I go get a glass of water? You're rummaging around the cupboards trying to find the things you need. But after you've practiced in their kitchen for a while, it just becomes second nature. And they want that before they go in for the actual surgery. Surgeons don't give a shit. They'll put the stupid math. They're like, this is important, you know what I mean? But I worry about the culture of being in an office building. People are like, I'm not wearing that.

S: That's the thing that we can't predict. It's got to be worth it. It's got to be worth the expense. It's got to be worth the looking dorky.

C: Exactly. Never underestimate the dork factor. I think it's real.

S: Totally. So we'll see. I think that they've got to keep exploring and pushing and looking for things. And also, if there was an off the hook game, I would think, oh shit, man, I might plunk down the dough for that if there was something I had to experience.

C: Something that really, really gets you. You guys remember Google Glass?

E: Oh, yes. Oh, gosh. We talked a lot about it.

C: And they're all calling them Glass Hole. That did not catch on.

S: So we will see. It's an interesting thing. I mean, again, yes, the tech looks great. It looks like definitely a massive leap in terms of just AR/VR technology. But we're still waiting for that killer app.

B: Is it enough? Is it enough?

C: And also, is it solving? I love that that one reviewer said, is this solving a problem that doesn't exist?

E: Yeah, the utility of it is really hard to think of.

B: Right.

C: Like, are we doing it just because we can? Yeah.

S: Yeah. I mean, I sort of agree with that. But sometimes a new technology isn't solving an existing problem. It's just creating a better way to do things, something you didn't know you needed or wanted.

C: For sure. But usually I think those are slower to adapt.

E: Sure. Especially at $3,500 right now.

C: Yeah. I mean, adopt. I said adapt. That was wrong. I meant adopt. It is late.

S: I predict it'll all come down to whether or not there's a killer app. Okay.

The Causes of Cultural Differences (34:54)[edit]

S: Cara, tell us about the causes of cultural differences.

C: I came across this interesting write-up in the Conversation. I often talk about the Conversation. This one was co-authored by Alexandra Wormley and Michael Varnum. I did a little bit of digging. Michael Varnum runs a lab at ASU, Arizona State University, called the Culture and Ecology Lab. Pretty interesting. Clearly, there's a bias here of this article. You'll see why, because the article is claiming that a certain percentage of cultural differences come down to ecological factors. This is what their entire lab studies. It's what they have set out to try and understand. But it's a really fascinating spin on, I guess, really social psychology. This lab is within the psychology department at ASU. As they describe on their website, they study how patterns of cultural variation may be understood as responses to changes in basic ecological features. They use a bunch of different methods like surveys, archival data, and even EEG. They're looking at specific ecological conditions. When we think of ecological conditions, what comes to mind about a society, about a culture?

B: Resource availability.

E: Access to water.

C: Resource availability. Yeah. Water, population density.

E: Agriculture.

C: Agriculture. They mention even pathogens, like infectious diseases.

S: Isolation.

C: Isolation. All of these different things. These are what they really do define as ecological factors. When you look at, I guess, the whole history of social psychology as it relates to the question, why are cultures different? There are a lot of explanations. Religious influence. Philosophical influence. Different agricultural. Just like what food was grown there? What spices were traded? Whole cultures are built around these kinds of things.

E: Especially island nations where fishing has to be a huge part of that culture.

C: 100%. Yeah. Like how do they source thir food? Are they near water? All of these different things. We've seen a lot of these explanations in the literature for years. But what these researchers are saying is that there are some environmental factors that we haven't really been taking into account. They said, I don't just want to talk about this theoretically. I want to actually scientifically try to investigate this. How do we do that? They did something pretty impressive. They built an entire database. This was published last year. There is in Nature Scientific Data. You can literally go. It's open access. You can mine this huge dataset called the Ecology Culture Dataset, a new resource for investigating cultural variation. They look at, let's see, in the Ecocultural Dataset specifically. This is not necessarily what the article in The Conversation is covering. This is something that was previously published. It covers 220 different countries. They look at nine different ecological variables using 11 different statistical metrics. Nine ecological variables and 72 cultural variables. Then they statistically manipulate these different variables to try and predict how much variance, like how much difference between the different cultures is accounted for by these ecological variables. It's a big, big dataset that any researcher can go in and mine and do their own investigation using. It's pretty cool. Any graduate students out there looking for a PhD project, this is a great resource for you. Basically, the article that is described in this new piece was just published in the Royal Society, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It's biological sciences. The article that was just published yesterday, as of this recording, so June 7th, is how much cultural variation around the globe is explained by ecology. They looked at, in this specific one, 66 different cultural variables. Then they also looked at different ecological variables, like some of the ones that we just mentioned, rainfall, temperature, population, density, infectious disease. They looked at that across 200 different societies. They ran their statistical contrasts. They found that about 20% of all of the variance in this dataset could be explained by ecological features, which is a pretty big chunk. Like 20%, okay, one-fifth, it doesn't sound like a big number. But apparently, and I didn't realize this, in social psychology, they're usually operating with variance numbers around 4% or 5%. Usually they can say, like, the difference between these cultures is explained by X, about 4% or 5% of the difference is explained by X. 20% is pretty honking. That's a lot of variance.

S: It's a big effect size.

C: It's huge. Granted, their proxy for ecology is also big, right? There's a lot of variables that they're looking at. But they did find that a few things really stuck out to them that were kind of interesting. One of them is that, let's see, the amount of variation over time in levels of infectious disease was linked to the strength of social norms. So it's not just about there being high level or low level of threat from different diseases. It's when the threat varies over time, you tend to see stricter social rules, which kind of makes sense. And interestingly, in America, we actually had some of the lower levels of strict social norms because we didn't have a lot of threat of infectious disease pre-COVID-19 pandemic because of our health care. So kind of fascinating there. They also looked at how when the ecology shifts in places over time, culture actually shifts as well. And you can kind of follow that with regard to different variables. So I don't know, it's super interesting. Not something that we can summarize in five minutes because it's like an entire lab's work and it's like this huge publication and this huge data set, but something I never really thought about before.

S: Yeah, I think we tend to think of these cultural differences as being all historically contingent.

C: Right. Not geographic or-

S: Yeah, because they were that way. Yeah. Yeah, but a lot of historians and sociologists do look at how much of it is kind of destiny. Like we're just adapting to our environment and to our needs.

C: Almost like evolution, right? It's like social evolution. Yeah.

S: Right, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, interesting.

E: Makes sense.

S: All right, thanks, Cara.

Space Travel and Brain Health (41:40)[edit]

S: I'm going to just do... My time should be pretty quick. I'm just going to talk about the latest study looking at the effects of prolonged travel in space, specifically on the human brain. And the short story is there are effects. The question that they had was, so there's a number of things that happen when you are in space, right? Even if you're in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station. Probably the biggest one, what would you guys think is the biggest?

E: Specifically with the brain or just in general?

J: Just in general, biological, physiological.

E: That's muscle deterioration?

B: Calcium, calcium wasting.

C: The lack of regular gravity has all of these effects.

S: Yeah, I was talking more about what is the aspect of space. That's the biggest factor.

C: Exactly, right. Like you're not going down in the same direction. So your body was adapted for gravity.

E: Yeah, right? We kind of evolved.

S: We evolved in 1G. And yeah, so microgravity, we're not adapted to it. And it has a big effect on the fluid compartments in our body. Our body is basically just a bunch of different fluid compartments. And so that has a huge effect. You also got to think about things like radiation. That's another big one. Obviously, we try to shield against that.

C: But especially the farther out, like as we try to go farther, that's going to be a huge problem.

S: That's going to be, that may become the biggest thing when we try to-

B: Yeah, it's a deal breaker right now.

S: With longer distance. And there's also social isolation.

C: Oh, right, just psychological factors.

S: Yeah, the psychological factors are huge. The lack of green spaces, claustrophobia.

E: Now that's good utility for those Apple glasses.

B: That's where the VR comes in.

E: You got to have augmented reality.

C: I know this is kind of like an aside, but my favorite thing is, have you ever watched those interviews with astronauts after they're back on Earth and they're talking to the interviewer and then they'll just like drop their pen? Or they just drop things because they're so used to just letting things go?

B: Oh, awesome.

E: I didn't notice that.

B: Is it because of the gravity's here? It's because it's like, oh, it's so heavy. Or that pen is so heavy.

C: No, it's like when they're done using it, they'll sign something and then they'll just drop it because they're used to it just like floating.

E: I need a drink of water. They pucker in the air like there's water floating there.

S: No, I'm sure you develop your own muscle memory and it probably takes months to unwind that. So this is looking at the effect of microgravity on the fluid compartment that is our brain. And this is building on previous research, but they had a couple of questions that they were trying to answer. So what happens to the brain in microgravity?

C: So it floats, huh?

S: It floats. Yeah. So the gray matter tends to move up towards the top of the brain, right? And the ventricular spaces or the ventricles are the fluid filled spaces in the brain, right? There's water-like fluid, cerebral spinal fluid, CSF, inside the brain and around the brain. It's actually produced by the choroid plexus inside the ventricles. It then travels through the different ventricles, the third and then fourth ventricle, and then it passes through little holes near the brainstem. It goes to outside the brain where it's absorbed by the arachnoid villi and then it gets recycled. So it's constantly recycling, right? It also goes down and fills your spinal cord, your spinal column surrounding your spinal cord, right? So your brain and your spinal cord are all floating in liquid. So obviously that might have a huge effect from the absence of gravity.

B: What's the purpose of CNS besides like a cushioning effect?

S: Well, that's probably its biggest effect is a cushioning effect.

E: Protection.

S: Yeah. It is a shock absorber for the central nervous system.

E: That's interesting. So can you concuss your spine?

S: Yeah, sure.

E: The same way you can concuss your... the brain becomes concussed? Interesting.

S: Yeah, basically a bruise. You can get a contusion.

C: In your spinal, like in that... what's it called? The thecum? Whatever. In the channel where the cerebrospinal fluid is in your spine, is there a big change in microgravity?

S: The thecal side.

C: Because it's quite a small space, right?

S: No, it's actually a big bag of fluid at the bottom of the spine.

C: Okay. So it could still kind of slosh up or slosh down or push it.

S: Yeah, but this is looking at specifically at the brain. So the ventricles towards the lower part of the brain expand, right? The gray matter towards the lower. Yeah, in space in microgravity, the gray matter towards the lower part of the brain contracts. The sulci, the spaces between the pieces of the brain, they get sort of-

C: Like valleys.

S: -squished together.

E: Really? So the brain contorts, huh?

S: And then the gray matter sort of compresses towards the top of the brain. So they were specifically studying changes to the ventricular size in astronauts based upon their length of stay, their prior history of missions, and like, so how many prior missions have they had, and the time between their last mission, since their last mission. So how much time did they have to recover? So what they found was that there was significant increase in the lateral ventricles for the first six months of being in microgravity, and then it kind of plateaued. So that kind of makes sense. Like this fluid is slowly shifting around for the first six months, and then it reached equilibrium. And then at equilibrium, then basically that effect tends to plateau.

C: Was their intracranial pressure the same?

S: That's a good question. They didn't measure intracranial pressure. I mean, you'd have to do a lumbar puncture, you know.

C: I feel like this is like they're looking for interesting markers just because they're easy to study, but how does this translate to anything clinically?

S: They're looking at the things they could look at.

C: Right. Okay.

S: Absolutely. So the other thing is when you measure your intracranial pressure, that will vary based upon whether you're sitting up or laying down. Because, right, if you're upright, then you have that column, of fluid is really pushing down on the needle in your lower back and increases the measured pressure. So you always measure the pressure in the lateral decubitus position, right? Basically laying down on your side to get like that's the true pressure that we're trying to look at the horizontal sort of pressure in the system. So it'd be interesting to think, like what would the pressure be in the system without gravity pushing down on it?

C: Yeah, it's probably way different.

S: Yeah, I'm sure it'd be different. I just don't know exactly what it would be.

C: But also we have all these cool compensatory things that we do to keep it healthy.

S: They looked at, astronauts who were returning to the station. So the longer it was since they were last in the station, the more their ventricles increased when they were on the ISS, right, on the station. So what that implies is that the people who had a shorter interval since their last mission, they hadn't recovered yet. So they didn't have as much to go, like as much expansion to go to get back to their to the microgravity equilibrium point. And that was for like up to three years. It may take as long as three years to recover to your normal baseline after returning to Earth from microgravity. Yeah, that's a long time. So they said this could have, we're not really sure what the negative impact of all this is, there probably is some. But this could inform how long we make astronauts be on Earth before we would send them back up. Because at least as far as the fluid shifts inside the brain, it could take up to three years to recover from being in space for six months or longer. The other thing you could do is have shorter missions, right? If you do like a three month mission versus a six month or one year mission, then the fluid shifts won't be as significant. So yeah, I mean, again, this is just one data point. This is an obviously an ongoing research, the question that they're doing is this is they added some new pieces of information to it. For me, what this means, I think the bottom line of all this is that we need to sort out this artificial gravity business, basically, which as we learned is not easy. We're not talking about true, like artificial gravity, like in Star Trek, talking about spinning rotational gravitational.

E: Like the Martian.

B: Which is a crazy engineering problem.

S: Yeah, it's just a crazy engineering problem. You'd have to have a huge axis of rotation. Otherwise people just would get ridiculous vertigo. And they would sense that you're spinning and it wouldn't feel like gravity, it'd feel like spinning.

E: Who knew space was so inhospitable to humans?

S: By the way, did any of you guys experience the mission to Mars ride in Disney World?

C: Oh, 100%. I thought I was gonna lose consciousness.

S: Yeah. So there, they spin you like a, carnival ride. They spin you to simulate gravity.

C: But they pull Gs. Like, it's pretty intense.

S: You pull a couple of Gs, two, three, however many it was, but it was significant. But I remember I went on there. I know, I'm pretty sure Jay was with me. Bob, I don't remember if you were with me that time that I went there.

B: I don't think so.

S: But I went with a few people. I know Jay was among them. And they all loved it. They like, oh, that really felt like they really felt the gravity and it felt real. And to me, I just got massively dizzy. I just had horrible vertigo. I hated it.

C: Yeah.

E: That probably would have been me as well, I have a feeling.

S: So, obviously there couldn't have been that big a radius of rotation in that ride. But it wasn't enough. It didn't, it did not function like artificial gravity for me. It just was a vertigo machine as far as I was concerned. But it was a good demonstration, even though it was on Earth, on this planet, that you can use rotation to simulate gravity, but you got to get that axis of rotation big enough so that most people are going to, are not going to get vertigo, from it. And that's not happening anytime soon.

B: No.

S: Just take, you have to make too massive of a station.

UFO Whistleblower (51:58)[edit]

S: Okay, Evan.

E: Yeah.

S: This is actually, I think, the most interesting news item of the week.

E: Oh gosh.

S: It'll be a fun discussion.

E: Yeah.

S: But, I knew we had to talk about this, the UFO whistleblower and surrounding events.

B: Oh my God, man.

S: What is going on with this guy?

E: All right, here's the basics. His name is David Grush. He's a former intelligence official. And like you said, a whistleblower. And he is alleging that the U.S. government is in possession of, and I quote, "Intact and partially intact craft of non-human origin and information which have been illegaly withheld from Congress". Yep. So apparently he provided this classified information to Congress recently. This is the whistleblower part. Along with the intellignece community inspector general and filed the complaint alleging that he suffered illegal retailaiton for his confidential disclosures reported just recently. And he said these are, we have recovered craft, okay, alien craft, along with alien bodies as well, actual life forms. Yep.

S: Mm-hmm.

E: They're partial fragments, but enough to apparently do analysis with. And they've been made, and this has been known for decades. It has been hidden for many, many decades, not just by apparently our government, but governments around the world also apparently have this information as well.

S: And it's multiple craft. He says multiple craft, not just one, not one incident. It's not like Roswell.

E: Right, right.

S: Like this has been a multi-decade program where we have been like recovering alien artifacts and alien bodies in at least one incident. Over decades.

B: And multiple governments have done it, yet we still have no evidence.

E: Now, sure enough, he brought his fine, hard evidence with him to this report.

B: Of course. I mean, why would you make an announcement unless you could just back it up?

E: Exactly.

B: It's an extraordinary claim. It would be kind of ridiculous. I wouldn't say a word until I could actually produce real, solid evidence. So what's his evidence?

E: Yeah, yeah. Well, if you're looking for photographs, he didn't have any to present. If you're looking for tangible, physical items, he didn't have that either. He really didn't have any affidavits or anything from anyone kind of official in any other sort of capacity. But he told them that he was told these things by other people from within the program, the secret program and the system.

S: We had absolutely rock solid hearsay.

E: Where have we heard that before?

B: Give me a effing break. Come on.

S: It took me a while to figure out what he was actually saying because the reporting on it has been so bad.

E: Oh, gosh.

S: Because a lot of reporters said that he claims he has proof. But the proof he has is not of aliens or spacecraft or anything extraterrestrial. It's proof that there's a government program to look for such things. Right? That's the only evidence or proof, "proof" that he had and presented to Congress, which, of course, he cannot present to the public because of security reasons, whatever. But, so the thing is, OK, to sort of address the point you were making, Bob, like, why would he come forward if he doesn't have the evidence? He'll say, and I think he is saying, the point of what he's doing is to pressure Congress to pressure whatever agencies are in charge of this to release the information. It's like, fine, then release the information. Until it is, then it is just a big story. That's it. It's just a big fish story. But my huge problem with this is the problem that I have with all of these narratives is that they make no sense at all. On multiple levels. So this requires that there are aliens who have the technology to travel through interstellar space to come to Earth. They've been apparently surveying the Earth for decades, and yet they're crashing all the time, including with pilots in in the craft at sometimes it makes absolutely no sense. Even with today's technology, we could do better. Even with our current technology, not the interstellar travel part, but we could have unmanned drones. We have we can we could hide drones as birds or whatever. They could completely conceal whatever probes they were using to get whatever information they wanted to about the Earth. They could be hacking into our own surveillance systems, our own communication systems, and getting whatever information they want. If they didn't want us to know they were here, we would have no idea that they were here. It wouldn't be this tantalizing. Oh, they crashed. I mean, it just makes absolutely no sense. One of the commenters on my blog when I wrote about it made a very, I thought, hit the nail on the head when he said, this is a very 1950s concept of what aliens would be doing and what they would be like. We've already blown away the sort of retro alien concept in terms of technology. You know what I mean? It makes absolutely no sense. The other massive way in which this narrative makes absolutely no sense is the conspiracy part of it, which you alluded to, I believe, Bob, is the idea that you have this super secret government program, illegal too, this super secret illegal government program that's been able to keep its own existence secret from the US government for decades. And they're blabbing about it to this guy?

E: No way.

B: Right. But not just that. Other countries are in the same boat. It kind of reminds me of flat Earth-erism. It's like, really? All these countries are in cahoots or keeping this gargantuan secret for decades? Have you met people?

S: Yeah. Have you met people?

E: It's the typical grand conspiracy.

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah. And we've seen so many different studies that debunk within, what, three people, four? I don't remember. But like 24 hours. The more people involved, the faster this stuff gets leaked. Yeah. It's just not.

E: What's the old saying? Three people can only keep a secret when two are dead or something like that? Yeah. On its face, it totally falls apart. The fact that, yes, our government and other governments do have recovered crash programs or departments within their either intelligence communities or defense systems that, sure, if China were to, for example, send something, a drone or something over America and it crashed, yeah, there would be a recovery team that would go and get that and be secretive about it, obviously.

C: But not really. And that's the thing.

E: And they would want to figure out what the heck it is.

C: But do you remember how just like a few months ago there was like a balloon?

E: Mm-hmm.

S: Yeah, the China balloon.

C: That was all over the news within five minutes.

S: Right. Cara, you're right. The other thing is, so multiple alien crashes and every time the government gets there first?

C: Uh-huh. Right.

S: At no point in time does the private citizen on whose ranch it crashed or whatever, call the media first like most people would do, right? Wouldn't you call the media? And then they get there with their streaming cameras and it's over, the game, it's game over. There's no way they're going to be able to keep a wrap on something like that over multiple decades, right? So there's also the fact that it has to be illegal because there's no congressional oversight.

E: Right. Yeah, they didn't appropriate the funds to put this program into place.

S: That's not a little thing to pull off. I mean, Iran-Contra fell apart within a year or whatever it was or two years. That didn't last a single administration, the Iran-Contra type of secret program they had going on there. So just think about it. Every single director of the program that would be running this would have had the opportunity to reveal it to Congress and blame the former person, right? Blame the last guy. This guy, when I was put in charge, I discovered that my predecessor from the other party's administration, that was he, was hiding this from you guys and there's been no congressional oversight. So here it is, you know. That hasn't happened. The other big question, of course, is always why? Why keep it a secret? Why keep it a secret?

B: We don't want people to panic. [sarcasm]

S: Yeah, it's bullshit. I mean, so yeah, I totally get why they would keep the technology secret. That they would not let the actual pieces of the aircraft get into the public domain because they're trying to reverse engineer the technology. Sure, I would buy that if that were the only thing.

B: But that would mean, Steve, that we would see technology that seemingly came out of nowhere.

S: Yeah, discontinuity. There would be discontinuity in technology which we haven't seen. Because there's always a paper trail. There's always a research background. Things don't come out of nowhere. There's no technology that's sort of, where did that come from? Nope, that hasn't happened. Especially like a material science or something. But the other thing is that what would be the motivation to keep it illegal and secret for decades through multiple administrations? Wouldn't at some point say, 30 years ago we found an alien spacecraft. We've pretty much extracted everything out of it that we're going to extract out of it. So here you go. We're not going to – it's still going to be in the Smithsonian under massive protection. You're not going to be able to get your grubby hands on it. But why keep the mere existence of it secret from the world? Here's another thing. Look at it from the perspective of the aliens, right? As far as they know, the humans have discovered their existence. They've recovered their crash craft and pilots.

B: Come out. Come out of the closet.

E: Why are they waiting for?

S: So what are they waiting for? The humans already know. So why wouldn't they say, oh, you got us.

E: Oops.

S: We've been spying on you for decades. Why would they keep their own existence semi-secret, continuing? It makes no sense. It is a – again, it's a 1950s bad science fiction movie idea that does not make sense on multiple, multiple levels. And that's the bullshit this guy is selling. I don't buy it for a second.

E: And it's as also as if this person has no idea that everything that he's purporting has been brought up several times in the past. Every aspect of his story is a rehash of stories from last generation and the generation before that. There's nothing new here. Zero.

B: At this point, it's pathetic and it just pisses me off.

E: But as Steve said, like this is massive headlines and stuff. In fact, I believe I saw a headline tonight in which someone in Congress is going to now apparently give – write something up to one – the oversight committee or someone is going to – one committee is going to now look into this based on–

S: Do it.

E: Based on its claims. Right. Fine. Yeah, absolutely. You should find out that zero is going on. But I don't know. There is reaction to this and that will just further perpetuate it. The news – news media outlets love it because people – we have a fascination in our culture. There you go, Cara, our culture.

C: Yeah.

E: About aliens and about UFOs and things and alien craft. It's absolutely seeped into the American culture and Western culture overall, this existence of extraterrestrials. No doubt about it. Our culture is saturated with it.

S: Yeah, but that is a good point, Evan. There's nothing even remotely new here. You would think if this guy were revealing something, the secret, there would be some new wrinkle to the narrative, some new thing that would make it somehow make a little bit more sense or whatever.

B: Well, the new thing here, Steve, is that this guy is like the first real official from the government.

S: Insider.

B: Real insider or something.

S: Although he isn't really. He's still a friend of a friend hearsay. I didn't see the evidence, but I talked to somebody who told me that they did see the evidence. It's like, okay. The other thing is – the last thing I'll say about this, maybe there's something going on here, meaning that this guy was somehow tangentially given information about some program that he was not privy to that has some relevance. What I suspect is if there is anything to this, because he was on the task force, the UAP task force, and he's upset that they weren't giving the task force all the information. So it's possible that some military or intelligence compartmentalized unit in the government was like, no, we're not giving you this information. That's what he's talking about. Because it's like too secret for you guys in the UAP task force. No, we're not telling you how we monitor Russian whatever, high tech plane tests or whatever it is that they're doing. So I suspect if there's anything to it, it's that. It's that intelligence or military secrets are being kept from the UAP task force. That's it. It has nothing to do with aliens. This guy somehow parlayed that into they must be talking about aliens.

E: We've seen that before, too.

B: Yeah, I mean, that makes sense.

S: Right? That's the only way I can make sense of it. If anyone else has any other ideas how to make sense of it, I'm all ears. But I cannot make sense of this story as aliens.

E:' And look, I'm sorry. Anybody who says there's an alien body somewhere, something short of physical evidence is never ever going to cut it. You have to have that. Forget it otherwise.

S: Right. OK.


Correction #1: Which Attenborough ()[edit]

S: We're going to go on with some questions. We're going to start with a correction of a correction. I hate when this happens.

E: I feel terrible about this.

S: Yeah, I'm sure, Evan. Evan, confess your sin.

E: It's like – it's a running joke that – a bad joke that won't end.

S: Yeah.

E: All right. Let's see. David Attenborough, OK, British broadcaster, biologist, natural historian, and author, best known for writing, presenting in conjunction with BBC Natural History Unit. He is the one who had the quote from a couple of weeks ago about concerning the Yeti. Yes, not his brother, the actor Richard Attenborough. OK. Have I finally clarified that?

S: Yes.

C: We all assumed it was.

E: I did say – and I – initially in the quote game, I did say Richard Attenborough. So it was absolutely my mistake initially, no doubt about it.

S: But we all thought you said David. We reacted as if you said David.

E: I know.

C: Because that's where our head went.

E: Of course. Of course. As it should.

S: And it was correct because David did say the quote.

C: And the other two people in the choice were Jane Goodall and somebody else.

E: Goodall and who did I say? Let me look it up real quick. I believe it was–

S: Jacques Cousteau.

C: It was another naturalist.

S: It was Jacques Cousteau.

E: Jacques Cousteau.

C: Jacques Cousteau. Yeah. So of course we weren't thinking the actor. We were primed to think the naturalist.

S: Exactly. We were primed, I tell you.

E: I'm not the first one to confuse the two. I've seen it being confused before.

B: Oh, yeah. I'm sure.

E: But yeah, I was supposed to have clarified it last week. I failed in doing that. And I absolutely admit to my failure with humblest apologies to our listening audience, to the Attenborough family, and to abominable snow people everywhere. I apologize to the entire species.

C: I appreciate that.

S: That was the funniest line in Black Jack's King Kong movie. Have you ever seen that? Where it was a perfectly delivered line. Yeah, where they have, they're in the jungle and it's like infested with dinosaurs and King Kong and everything. And they have like a real tough naturalist guy, like the explorer kind of guy on their team with them. And he says very seriously and profoundly, I know what's responsible for this. And everyone's like, what? What is it? He goes, the abominable snowman. Perfectly delivered line. It was just so absurd.

Question #1: Breaking placebo effects ()[edit]

Hi and thanks for the show. Does being vocally skeptical potentially break the very real placebo effect for others? Am I possibly doing a disservice to my friends when I argue against the homeopathic "treatment" that helps them?
– Jaysen Naidoo, South Africa

S: Anyway, one more question. This comes from Jason Nadeau from South Africa. And Jason writes, "Hi, and thanks for the show. Does being vocally skeptical potentially break the very real placebo effect for others? Am I possibly doing a disservice to my friends when I argue against the homeopathic treatment that helps them?" That's a good question, Jason. Thanks for writing that in. So I think the short answer is no. But I have to correct an unstated major premise in your question when you refer to placebo effect in the singular.

C: Right.

S: When you're talking about this kind of thing. So the placebo effect, what is the placebo effect? That is everything that happens other than an active intervention, right? So if you're doing a clinical trial where you have an active treatment versus a placebo, the assumption is that in the active treatment group, you're going to have all kinds of effects plus a physiological response to the treatment. And then in the placebo group, you're going to have just everything else other than the physiological response. And so that's the collective placebo effect as measured in the clinical trial. But when you're talking about our placebo effects, the things that make up that measured effect. So that includes a lot of things that have nothing to do with whether or not you actually believe the treatment works or not. Like the fact that you're in a clinical trial or that you're taking a treatment or that you're paying attention to your illness.

C: Or that a doctor is touching you.

S: Yeah, you're having an experience with a doctor. Or you have hope or you are going to be more compliant with other treatments. There's all kinds of things. There's regression to the mean, which again has nothing to do with what you think. You're going to regress to the mean no matter whether you think you're treating your illness or not. So there are statistical effects. There are illusory effects. There's lots of contamination, a lot of confounding effects that go in there. Most of them have nothing to do with belief. And so no, for those things you're not going to interfere with it. But let's talk about the belief part of it. So there's no evidence that that component has any real physical benefit. Whenever you try to study, like try to parse out the different aspects of placebo effects and try to measure like what is actually happening. It doesn't seem that there's any real physiological benefit from just the belief that you're getting a treatment. What there is a difference in is how you report your symptoms. But we can't assume that like if you say, yes, I'm having less pain, that doesn't necessarily mean you're having less pain. It just means that you're reporting that you're having less pain. And you might think, well, what's the difference? Well, we don't know. That's kind of the point. We only can know what we know in a clinical trial. We can't. There's no pain-o-meter. We can't know how much pain someone's actually in. We can only know what they tell us. And if they're biased to tell us they're having less pain because they think that they're getting a treatment and they want to believe that it works and they want you to get the answer that you want or whatever, then that doesn't mean it's actually helping them. So the most common way that we try to evaluate whether or not somebody really is in reduced pain or not, regardless of what they're saying, is to look at other markers of pain. A big one is are they – how much pain medication are they taking, rescue pain medication, right? So if you're doing a treatment to reduce headaches and they're telling you how many headaches they're having, how bad they are, et cetera, that's one thing. But you could also track how much headache medication they're taking. Like if they're still taking just as much ibuprofen as they were before, even though they're telling you they're having fewer and less severe headaches, they're probably not. They're probably still having just as much of a headache burden as they were before because – as measured by their use of medication. Now, that's not a perfect measure either. That has confounding factors there as well. But it is just another window into that question. When you look at outcomes that are not subjective, like you're looking at outcomes like do people's lung function improve or do they survive longer, none of that happens. Like the placebo effects do not make people live longer. It does not improve their lung function. Whenever you try to look at those hard and fast outcomes–

C: Right. Only subjective measures.

S: Just the subjective stuff, right? And I don't worry about the subjective stuff in terms of placebo effects. In any case, my approach as a clinician is that these – the positive psychological aspects that sometimes get rolled into placebo effects, that's just part of good bedside manner. That's part of a good therapeutic relationship or a therapeutic alliance with your patient. That's all good. It's not really placebo. It's just part of the therapeutic interaction. Yes, it's part of the placebo effect as measured in clinical trial, but it's not really the – I believe this is a real treatment so I'm having a positive effect. It's that I'm having a positive interaction with somebody who cares about whether I'm feeling good or not.

C: Right. It's actually one of the desired – I don't – what's the opposite of a placebo effect?

S: A nocebo.

C: No, that's not what I'm asking for. Sorry. It's one of the variables, the actual variables that's measured in like psychological intervention. It's not considered a placebo effect at all. It's considered an active treatment effect is how well you get along with your therapist and how much you trust them. It's just because we don't measure it that way in drug trials.

S: Right. Drug trials are – and that also gets to what is the purpose of the trial.

C: Right.

S: Not all trials are efficacy trials. An efficacy trial, the word efficacy has a very specific operational definition. It's not the same thing as effective. It's not the same thing as does it work. It means is there a specific effect from an active treatment. And in order to make – in order to know that, you have to control for all other confounding variables. And that's why we do randomized placebo-controlled double-blind clinical trials. That's the only way to control for all other possible confounding factors. So you can isolate the efficacy of the active treatment you're studying.

C: Right. Just the drug.

S: Well, it could be other things too. It doesn't have to be just a drug.

C: Right, right. But I mean whatever it is you're studying. In this case, we're talking about a drug.

S: Yeah, yeah. But there are other things that go into effectiveness other than efficacy. And you need other kinds of research to address those questions. And there, the definition of, "placebo" is different. And things that we would consider a placebo as part of an efficacy trial are just part of the therapy.

C: Right, like going to a community clinic.

S: Yes. So when you're talking about the overall effectiveness of the interaction, of the medical or psychological interaction. Yeah. I know it gets complicated, but it just – this is just one of those times where you can't just boil it down to a simplistic definition because you lose all of what's actually happening.

C: And I'm glad that we took the time to specify that because I'm afraid that this is what often gets lost when we – like another name that logical fallacy might be when people write in and they're like, well, I read that therapy doesn't work because when you compare this therapy to that therapy or this therapy to that therapy, the outcomes are different than when you look at these drug trials. And it's like, yeah, because it's not a drug. And when we do randomized controlled placebo driven trials for psychotherapies, we have to do so much like different variable detection. Like it's a way different RCT setup when you're doing psychotherapy.

S: Totally. I agree, Cara. And it also cuts both ways. So meaning that when you're doing – so looking at whether or not cognitive behavioral therapy is effective, again, not efficacious, but effective, then it's a different kind of question. And you may not really care as much about, which aspect of the therapeutic interaction is contributing to the overall effect. You really want to just know, is the person better at the end of the interaction. And when you do try to parse it out, yeah, you could say, yeah, it turns out that like the empathy of the practitioner is a much bigger factor than whatever method they choose to use. The method they choose to use is not the biggest factor in terms of the outcomes. Although a lot of the other sort of less tangible things turn out to be more important. That's okay. But so I would say that's okay and that's in the context of psychological interventions. It's fine. But my one caveat is, but then don't make efficacy claims. Just make effectiveness claims. And why that's important is because when people inappropriately make efficacy claims, right, so you can't inappropriately criticize them for not doing efficacy trials, but they can't inappropriately make efficacy claims, that's when you get to people thinking that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a thing.

C: I know. It's dangerous. It's like you should really just be talking about effectiveness.

S: There's no efficacy to EMDR, but maybe, but sure, could it be part of this nutritious breakfast where it's part of the therapeutic interaction.

C: Yes, the purple hat.

S: There's some effectiveness. Sure. But don't start to come up with some bizarre neurological explanation for the efficacy of EMDR when you've never demonstrated efficacy to EMDR. It's going the other way. You're confusing effectiveness with efficacy.

C: Right. Agree. 100% agree.

S: Okay, good. We agree.

C: Yeah, we do. We really do.

B: Guys, I zoned out a second. Could you just repeat all that?

E: Yeah. What was the thing about the thing you said?

C: Purple hat. Purple hat theory.

E: Oh, purple hat.

C: Google it.

S: All right. Let's go on with science or fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:19:28)[edit]

Theme: Weird foods

Item #1: In Cambodia a popular delicacy is deep fried tarantula, a custom that arose out of necessity during the lean times under the Khmer Rouge.[6]
Item #2: Rhododendron honey is an expensive treat in Northern Australia, where the low levels of toxins are considered to add a unique and spicy flavor.[7]
Item #3: Corn smut is an invading gray fungus that is considered a scourge to corn growers, but eaten as a delicacy in Mexico.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Rhododendron honey
Science Deep-fried tarantula
Corn smut delicacy
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Deep-fried tarantula
Rhododendron honey
Corn smut delicacy
Rhododendron honey

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. The theme is weird food. So these are things that people actually eat. Okay? You got to listen to all the details. It's not just the food itself. There are other details in each of the items. Okay, guys, ready?

E: Yeah.

C: Yeah.

S: Here we go. In Cambodia, a popular delicacy is deep fried tarantula, a custom that arose out of necessity during the lean times under the Khmer Rouge. Item number two, rhododendron honey is an expensive treat in northern Australia where the low levels of toxins are considered to add a unique and spicy flavor. And item number three, corn smut is an invading gray fungus that is considered a scourge to corn growers but eaten as a delicacy in Mexico. Evan, why don't you go first?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Cambodia. How is this a popular delicacy if it arose out of the necessity of the Khmer Rouge? That's a bit weird.

S: That's the category. Yeah, weird.

E: But this is – oh, gosh. But look, if you ate something out of that kind of necessity – like I reckon back to when I've read stories and watched documentaries about the Civil War and what the soldiers were – had to eat to sort of survive during wartime. And it was like twigs and leather from shoes and things like that. So I don't know that it would – something like eating a tarantula arise out of that and become like, oh, hey, wait. These aren't so bad after all. So that one is a little creepy. The next one about the honey in northern Australia where low levels of toxins are considered to add a unique and spicy flavor. Does honey have toxins in it? I don't know enough about honey per se. Is it the fact that it's rhododendron? I know what a rhododendron plant is, but rhododendron honey. I have a feeling that one could be right. Australia is an interesting place with a lot of interesting animals and plants. So I think that one is right. The last one about corn smut invading gray fungus considered to be a scourge to corn growers. But eaten as a delicacy in Mexico, yeah, that one could be right. Obviously, corn is a very big part of the food and culture and everything in Central America. And the fact that a fungus – there's probably several fungi that arose from corn. So the fact that they then were able to turn into some kind of delicacy, I don't really see a problem with that one. It's the tarantula one I'm having the real issue with. I mean, but it's so kind of out there and disgusting. That kind of could be the gotcha one. But I don't know. I'm still going to go with the tarantula one as the fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah, there's really not a lot to go on here. I mean, what the hell? Who knows? For some reason, the spider, the tarantula one seems right. Like there are some cultures that would eat that. So I'll just go with that one as science. The gray fungus, who knows? The one that kind of just rubbed me just a little bit the wrong way. Maybe it was just the way you read it, the rhododendron honey. So what the hell? I'll just say that's fiction.

S: Okay, Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yeah, I mean, I'm looking at the honey one and I'm thinking there's so many different varieties of honey that, why not? Like that one doesn't really surprise me. The deep fried tarantula has shock value to it. That's the one where I'm, I could see where Steve would make that up just because it's like, what? You can't wrap your head around that. And the third one, I would love to think that Steve came up with the term corn smut. (laughter)

E: Oh, gosh.

J: But I just don't know if people would actually eat fungus. Like, he didn't talk about it if it's prepared in any way. I'm going to go with, I'm not going to pick the spider because I think that's the obvious one. I'm going to go with the corn smut as the fake.

E: Wow. All around.

S: All right, Cara, they're all spread out.

E: Nice. Well done, Steve.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Okay. So let's go with some, let's use some reasoning that's going to end up being either wrong for the right reason or right for the wrong reason. Okay. The tarantula one was the first one that I thought was going to be real. So that one sticks out to me just out, Southeast Asia, very common to eat very large insects, especially street food on sticks, on skewers, fried, crunchy. That like really doesn't, that one's not weird to me at all. I have so many pictures like in my Instagram feed of friends who are traveling in Southeast Asia eating like scorpions and things like that. So I don't know. That one doesn't bother me at all. Tarantulas, they're big. They're probably got a lot of-

B: They're arachnids like the scorpions.

C: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And then so, okay. The rhododendron honey, expensive treat in Northern Australia. So there is an expensive honey called Manuka honey that is kind of tastes like medicine. That's a little bit like woo woo, whatever, but it's also kind of tasty, but it's not dangerous. This thing about there being toxins in honey is worrisome to me. Like, ooh, it's unique and spicy. Wait, but there are toxins in it. I don't know about that. That one bugs me. Corn smut and invading gray fungus. Okay. It's invading. It's great, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's dangerous and people eat fungus all the time. Fungus is a huge part of our food group. And I could definitely see that maybe this one has like a yummy corn flavor. Corn is eaten all over Mexico.

B: Everyone loves smut.

C: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yum. So that one doesn't bug me as much. I think it's the rhododendron one that bugs me only because it's like toxic. We don't usually eat packaged toxic food unless maybe it's like, I don't know. It's an expensive treat, not on grocery shelves, but I think I'm still going to go with that one as the fiction.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Okay. So I guess we'll take these in order. Number one in Cambodia, popular delicacy is deep fried tarantula, a custom that arose out of necessity during the lean times under the Khmer Rouge. Evan, you think this one is the fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one is science. Sorry, Evan.

E: What, KFT? What are we talking about?

S: Yeah, KFT.

E: KFT, no way.

S: Yeah, so they originally started eating them because they were starving. And they said, well, what can we eat here? And they just would start collecting tarantulas in the forest because they're big, like as big as your hand.

C: They're huge. They're a food source.

S: Yeah, so fry them up and then choke them down. Then they became a delicacy. They liked it.

B: Chew them back up.

S: And now they basically breed them. They breed them in these pits.

B: For food.

S: Yeah, they breed the tarantulas for food. You can go to restaurants.

B: That's not even an apocalypse food.

C: Do they spice it or anything?

S: I'm sure they do all kinds of things to it, sure.

E: So even though this is right, it's wrong.

C: You guys, you have such an aversion to eating bugs. It's so funny.

S: If you visit Cambodia, like you have to do this. You have to go to a restaurant.

C: Right. That's probably why I've seen so many pictures and things. It's like a tourist trap.

B: That's why I'll never go.

E: Yep, not going there. Thanks.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right, let's go to number two. Rhododendron honey is an expensive treat in northern Australia where the low levels of tokens are considered to add a unique and spicy flavor. Bob and Cara, you think this one is the fiction.

B: Yeah, it is.

S: Jay and Evan, you think this one is science. And this one is.

B: Say it.

S: The fiction.

B: Yay!

C: Bob!

B: Cara, high five.

S: So rhododendron honey is a thing. And it's also called mad honey.

B: I love it.

S: Because you're not supposed to eat it.

B: Asposed.

S: It's bad. It'll make you really sick. Every part of the rhododendron is toxic. You can't eat it. It's one of those things you should never eat. And if bees happen to be making their honey from rhododendron pollen, it's toxic. And people can accidentally eat rhododendron honey. And when they do, they will get very, very sick from it. Including becoming delirious. Mainly it affects your stomach.

C: Do people do that then, like on purpose? Because they're dumb.

S: Yeah. I don't know that anyone's doing it on purpose. Everything I've read, it's always an accidental thing. So it causes confusion, upset stomach, general weakness, and other symptoms.

C: Fun.

S: Because in the ancient times, it was called mad honey. People knew about it. So not usually fatal, but apparently you really do not want to eat this.

C: It's like getting bitten by a bullet ant, right? Like you don't die, but you want to.

S: But you want to. So I chose northern Australia because rhododendrons are native to northern Australia. And in case that came up. And they eat lots of things with low levels of toxins. People eat lots of toxic foods. But they just do whatever they have to do to make sure the toxin levels are low enough that they can eat it. You like the puffer fish.

C: I try not to.

S: Personally, I try not to as well.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All of this means that corn smut is an invading gray fungus that is considered a scourge to corn growers. But eaten as a delicacy in Mexico. So, yeah, if you're growing corn in the U.S. and you see this gray fungus on your corn, you're screwed. You can't sell the corn and it could destroy whole crops. But in Mexico, they turned a bad thing into a good thing and said, well, let's eat it and see what it's like. So apparently it's delicious if you're the sort of person who likes mushrooms, which I'm not. But it tastes like a tasty mushroom apparently.

E: Yum.

S: Yeah. But instead of like on the corn cob, there are these huge gray, growths coming out of it. It looks disgusting. But they, yeah, they prepare it and they don't eat it raw. They cook it up and mix it in with whatever, put it on your taco, put it in your quesadilla. It's all good.

B: Question.

S: Nothing goes to waste. Yeah?

B: Who says scourge and who says scourge?

C: I say scourge.

B: Me too.

E: Scourge.

S: It depends on the context.

E: But does it?

J: I just say scourge.

B: Your context is wrong.

J: I say scourge.

C: You say scourge. Interesting.

B: I just looked it up. Saw scourge. Just throwing it out there.

E: Scourge. It's easier.

C: Scourge.

S: All right. Good job, guys.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:30:45)[edit]

Absolute certainty is a privilege of uneducated minds and fanatics. It is, for scientific folk, an unattainable ideal.

 – Cassius Jackson Keyser (1862 – 1947), was an American mathematician of pronounced philosophical inclinations.

S: Evan, do you have a quote for us?

E: I do. A quote suggested by listener Rick from Dayton, Ohio. Thank you, Rick. He says, I'm a long-time listener but first-time quote giver. Here we go. "Absolute certainty is a privilege of uneducated minds and fanatics. It is, for scientific folk, an unattainable ideal." A quote from Cassius Jackson Keyser, who was a mathematician from the early 20th century, United States, and wrote apparently a lot of books about mathematics and helped found the American Association of University Professors, among other academies that he was involved with, including the American Mathematical Society. So there you go. There are no absolutes.

S: Yes.

B: Except for that.

S: Certainty is a problem. I've really had to discipline myself not to say things like, I'm sure about this, or you'll never convince me this is not true.

B: Yeah, caveat.

S: Yeah. I mean, obviously, it's a little bit hyperbole. They're just turns of phrase. But it's good not to fall into that pattern.

E: Yeah. Yeah, it's a bad habit, basically, if you're doing that. And it's incorrect.

S: Yeah, and it's a good habit to discipline yourself to, in both words and thought, to always caveat things with appropriate levels of skepticism and say things in a more scientific manner. You'll notice scientists never say, never speak of certitude. They always talk about possibility and probability and things like that.

B: Yeah, which can make it frustrating, but that's science, baby.

S: Right. I know, and it gets exploited a lot. I know the anti-vaxxers always will make hay out of that when scientists say things in appropriate scientific fashion. Within the statistical power of the data, we're not seeing any effect. And I've had anti-vaxxers, both in writing and verbally, say, the only thing that's acceptable is zero risk. It's like, well, that doesn't exist in life. It doesn't exist.

B: Yeah, so you get out of bed, why?

S: Yeah, you can't eat anything then. Nothing you eat, drink, do, don't do, whatever has zero risk.

B: Yeah, don't take a bath or go down the stairs.

S: Yeah, or drive your car. Yeah.

B: Yeah, right?

E: Being alive is risky.

S: Right, absolutely.

B: It's ridiculous, yeah.

S: Absolutely. All right, thank you all for joining me this week.

E: Thank you, Steve.

J: You got it Steve.

C: Thanks.

B: Sure, man.


S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description


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