Dear John,

I made the mistake of taking a look at the TryThought web stats which seemed to peak during my countdown to Armageddon in April of this year. Since then, readership has dropped off and flat-lined. I blame you, the deadbeat readers who are pretty much benefiting from free entertainment but have failed miserably in spreading the word.

Okay…that’s not completely true, I suppose. First of all, the shit I write about is probably edgy enough where one might think twice before recommending it; I’m certainly not oblivious to that complication. Second, there’s a lot of stuff I can do from a web development perspective to promote the site by making better use of various blog features and widgets that help catch the attention of search engines, social networks, etc. to actively link in to the skeptic community. Quite frankly, however, I’m very lazy. While I actually really enjoy just writing shit…I guess the whole campaigning strategey one must engage to truly expand in cyberspace really doesn’t really get me too worked up.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I kind of bought into the whole fantasy of “If you write it, they will read.” (And there’s another reason to hate that fucking movie, Shipman…it’s religion, man. Field of Dreams my ass.) Anyway, to make a long posting short, I’ve decided to close this little shop of bullshit for the winter and see if I can finish the book I’ve been procrastinating for far too long. If I’m going to surrender to the notion that this is all just mental masturbation anyway; I might as well start chipping away at some of the ideas that have been threatening to abandon my ability to remember them.

So…adios amigos. I hope you got something out of the 380-some posts I’ve crapped out over the past year-and-a-half (other than the amusing thought of “That dude is seriously messed up.”)

Perhaps I’ll miss this intellectual exhibitionism and return to it at some point, but I’ve got some real art to attend to first. (I’ve toyed with the idea of a blog where I write a poem every day for a year…we’ll see…) I suppose I imagined something more of a dialog in this endeavor…that never really panned out. The only dialog that seemed to get rolling was with one who was so diametrically opposed to the blog’s perspective that several folks accused me of manufacturing her as a ‘Poe.’

Anyway, thanks for reading. I would guess many will be secretly relieved from the chore of having to read the large volumes of tripe I’ve been spewing out for some time now. (Hey, my pleasure.)  If and when I come back online, I imagine I will upgrade the format and spend the time to employ the technology properly (did I mention the whole Field of Dreams shtick was bullshit? You can shove that movie up your ass) and do some of that unpleasant interaction with other humans to broaden my readership.

If the idea of not having my bullshit to entertain you 2 out of every 3 days tears you up too much, might I suggest going back and re-reading some of the archived posts? (There is some good shit there if I do say so myself.)

Let me close with this.

The critically acclaimed poet, Langston Hughes, wrote the following poem:

April Rain

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

I wrote this one, which, though I have yet to find a person who does not like it, has been rejected by so many poetry publishers that it would make your head spin.

Rain

My heart beats to the sound of pouring rain
The precious nectar of the sky
That cools and sooths my pain,
Relieving all inside me drained and dry.
A channel spreading life about
And carrying away
Debris and famine, ending drought,
While cleansing filth and purging soul’s decay.
I long to hear this rain,
To feel it fall upon my face,
To watch my shirt flecked with its fleeting stain,
To know its cool embrace,
To soak my hair
Embellishing my solitary stroll,
To wash despair
From deep within my soul.
I long to smell the rain’s deep pavement kiss,
Its tapping on a skylight overhead,
Or while I reminisce
Beneath a broad umbrella, spread,
While watching drips that dive
From canvas in collected streams–
These droplets loyally revive
My spirit’s breath with floods of dreams
And bring that day that passed so long ago
Into my lonely mind;
The images that only I can know,
The memories entwined
With who I am
And who I’ll always be,
And never shall I give a damn
Of what such recollections say of me.
That day is mine to cherish how I choose
I earned it through my sacrifice
Aware of what I’d lose
Consenting full to sorrow’s price.
In bed, in half a slumber, hear the rain
That dances on the roof,
And echoes on the window pane,
As distant as my youth,
Yet draws that distance near;
It draws that day right to the brink,
Just shy of now and here.
I lie so still, afraid to blink;
I must become the rain to lure
That scene from out my depths,
And carefully so to ensure
Success, I breathe with shallow breaths.
And then it comes—it always seems to come
Like colors when the rain meets light
Like colors of the sun
When day meets night.
It brings her a yesterday close,
As fresh as a memory’s verge.
Such feelings never fail to curl my toes
When with my mind they merge.
So when the weather’s fine I’ll weep
But in the rain—rejoice!
Awaken from that zombie sleep
And in those showers, hear her whispered voice.
And squinting, see her smiling face
Through drizzle, just a blur,
And longing for one last embrace,
She vanishes just as I reach for her.
I wonder if she ever feels as much;
Perhaps that instant, from her world she’s free;
Perhaps she stops and feels my phantom touch;
Perhaps it wakes her as the rain wakes me.

– (c) 2009   Jon Krutulis

If you build it, they will come? Fuck you, Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Aloha.

jk

The stock market, 9/11, space shuttle disaster, and Penn State.

Hindsight bias, or the tendency to subjectively distort the past with the lens of present knowledge, has a constant effect on human cognition, particular with regard to aspects of moral judgment. Symptoms of the hindsight bias are tell-tale emotive disbelief that rings of “How could they have let this happen? This could have been prevented so easily.” When looking back with our knowledge of what actually resulted, we tend to make the following errors.

  • We believe that, given the same circumstances as a one who made a critical decision in the chain of cause and effect, we would have made the “right” decision. (Either morally or logically superior.) This is not a shallow, I don’t want to think too much about it because I’d quickly realize I wouldn’t make that decision belief; it is a deep-felt belief that we would do the right thing.
  • We suspect that an individual who made a pivotal decision was acting in a nefarious and self-centered manner OR was incredibly intellectually lazy. Our omniscient perspective tells us that although the actor may not have known the outcome that occurred, he should have ascribed a much higher probability to such an outcome.
  • We tend to completely filter out the complexity of factors that often affect a particular decision. These factors frequently move us to make horrible choices that don’t have catastrophic consequences; thus, they may often never draw scrutiny. This intricate web of forces that feed the ego, or establish position in the social hierarchy, or a host of other possibilities, disappear when a failure occurs.

I’ve presented these with respect to negative consequences; however, the same bias can play the other direction with positive consequences. In this case, a decision gets more credit than it deserves due to the ultimate impact. We often ascribe heroics to what was essentially dumb luck or make a selfless champion of one who was acting only for personal gain. Nonetheless, negative hindsight bias seems to me more readily observable. The best way to understand the true cognitive effect of hindsight bias is to look at the stock market. When you look at the oscillation of the historical data of a particular stock, for example, one thing that often strikes us as obvious from the data alone is that except for an occasional stray event (like a sudden crash) the behavior of the stock appears as if it should be reasonably predictable. But, outside of employing elements of chaos theory and complexity analysis, the behavior is not even close to as predictable as it seems. For instance, if you look at the following stock.

As you follow it along, you can almost feel your mind use all the data to project a reliable patter.  At point ‘A’ for example, we might thing it appears quite obvious that it’s time to sell and at point ‘B’ to buy. We might believe that this stock game should be quite easy if you pay attention; however, when we jump to the end of the data we find that clarity we might expect to see completely disappear once the data stops. If you trace the graph along and reach the end, then boom–you get this strange cognitive dissonance where the uncertainty suddenly becomes more clear. (Think it seems clear? Hey…it took a dive in May 2010…did you do make the right call?)

Cognitive bias plays much more grotesque games than mere distortions of our ability to objectively look back at the past. Some cognitive scientists, such as Tversky and Kahneman, discovered through experiment (which is much more significant than discovery through meditation and reflection or discovering through prayer) that the hindsight bias can actually influence our memory. This helps explain our intense moral condemnation toward someone who pulls a boner which ends in catastrophe.

In the psychology test, subjects were asked to rate the expected results of an upcoming event  Then much later after the results of the event unfolded, the subjects were interviewed again and asked about how well they remembered rating their initial probabilities of the various possibilities. Their answers were significantly skewed toward an increase in probability of those effects which actually occurred. That is, they remembered being more confident about the actual results than they actually were prior to the events unfolding.

As you might imagine, the hindsight bias can cause many more problems than simply the annoying confidence of Monday morning’s armchair quarterbacks about the failures of this or that coaching decision. In courts, witnesses who benefit from hindsight, suffer from biases that are capable of influencing actual memories and juries who benefit from hindsight often find it impossible to empathize with defendants when they truly believe they would have found it quite easy to take the right action.

One of the most interesting demonstrations of this effect is captured if we think about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Watching documentaries about the buracratic road-blocks and individual failures to act on known intelligence, the common reaction has been to condemn those who failed to act appropriately and point a finger of accountability at the failure to deal with information that was in our hands. The hindsight bias, though, makes it very difficult for us to truly understand those decision points. We don’t see all those times where intelligence was ignored and nothing became of it, and we also don’t see those times when agents acted on intelligence that turned out to be inaccurate. When much ado is made about nothing, individuals must answer for that as well; even though the resulting ridicule doesn’t impinge into the public sphere, its cognitive effects certainly cannot be ignored. If you’ve ever watched one of these documentaries that covers the abject breakdown of acting on 9/11 intelligence, you probably reacted (quite naturally) with emotions that cried out, “Those idiots! Those fools! This could have all been prevented if you had done your jobs!” This is the hindsight bias at play.

As a further example, we all know the impact of the false intelligence around weapons of mass destruction. Much of the criticism toward the resulting invasion of Iraq hinges on our hindsight that this intelligence was largely bunk. Knowing the consequences, countless Americans misremember the level of their enthusiasm around this invasion. It usually does not breach into truly believing they opposed the war, when they were for it; however, the majority of Americans greatly attenuate the level of support for the war, remembering doubts and second thoughts that simply weren’t there. Even politicians with recorded comments and voting records later remember far less enthusiasm. But indulge me with this thought experiment for a moment, if you will. Imagine if we had not acted on WMD intelligence. Suppose the intelligence was acknowledged, but officials decided the level of certainty in that intelligence was not enough to justify an invasion. After a few years of continued tension, suppose Iraq then employed the use of WMD against us (in a terrorist fashion) or against Israel in a military fashion. How would we feel then about intelligence we had failed to act on?

My point, of course, is not to ignore costly mistakes. But when we fail to realistically consider the impact of the modes of human cognition and simply look judge and condemn, and employ an over-damped response to a particular failure, we should not be surprised when we end up spending billions to implement largely vacuous security measures (i.e. “Did you pack your own suitcase;”  “Luggage may not be left unattended…” etc.)  Most thinking individuals realize that after 9/11, we were much safer in the skies without doing anything at all. Once people understood the intent of the terrorists, it was no longer possible to hijack an airplane with box-cutter knives. The natural correction happened via cell phone aboard a plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville Pennsylvania. In a sense, in this tragedy, we can see how hindsight bias operates. With the stereo-typical mode of hijacking, of course, the hijackers want something so the projection ends with a bunch of terrorists sitting on a runway screaming stuff until the SWAT team moves. Expected casualties < 10%.  This leaves individuals to believe the best possible course of action is inaction. Let the authorities handle it. The moment the trajectory is changed and knowledge of suicide missions into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reached United Flight 93 passengers, the decision matrix swiftly changed. Suddenly action became the obvious choice. I submit that it wasn’t the particular breed of heroes aboard Flight 93 that led to their attempt to overtake the hijackers, but rather their newfound knowledge of where inaction would lead them (almost certain death.)

This does not mean that we don’t need to make any changes to our security protocols, of course, but only that we should understand that many of the changes that we are inclined to make (“to prevent this from ever happening again”) are highly unnecessary and ineffective with regard to that goal. In other words, such changes are often an incredible waste of money. It sometimes seems odd to me that with our hindsight bias, we often readily submit ourselves to such wasteful measures – yes, spend more government money to ensure our safety – while simultaneously we loathe the idea of using the government to make sure sick people (who cannot afford health care) are cared for. But that’s a topic for another day.  My point is not that we should avoid responding, but that we must learn to account for this problematic bias that plagues our judgment of past events.

The final example, of course, is the tragic episode at Penn State. This, of course, must be handled with kid gloves…(okay, maybe the wrong idiom to use here, but anything you say can erupt violently against you at this point…just ask Ashton Kutcher!) Much of what I’ve seen by the media called for the immediate removal of Joe Paterno (with the exception of a faction of Penn State Fans) and anyone who had an inkling of what might had gone on that horrible night. Never have I witnessed so many accusations of cowardice and failure to do the right thing. I think, of course, we are all agreed that the right thing would have been something other than the inaction that in fact occurred. Where I think the bias affects us, however, is in that feeling of certainty most of us have that we would have done what was right. Some, surely, would have done the right thing, but I would suggest that among many who scream “Coward!” the loudest, there are those who would have done no more (and perhaps less) than Paterno himself. Of course, we all have the hindsight profile of a serial pedophile who was abusing not one, but many kids. It is easy to judge now that the legendary coach was morally obligated to further action after nothing seemed to result from his reporting the incident (that he did not witness, but was reported to him by a reliable witness.) But imagine for a moment a very close acquaintance, friend and coworker for more than twenty years, who you have no indication is capable of child rape, is suddenly accused of child rape. It is much easier for an observer who doesn’t really know any of these actors to stand back and say, “Hey what about the 10-year-old who was raped?” The Bayesian model the brain tends to utilize (this is what makes it hard for one to give up on a theory such as Creationism in spite of clear evidence against it) explains why it is nowhere near as easy for someone whose representation of the accused is completely inconsistent with the action of the accused. If it has ever happened to you, then you know that not only is it hard to believe, but you do not want to believe it. How can someone you respect be capable of such a heinous thing. The obligatory act of passing the report on is hard enough – I guarantee you will not want to think about it. When nothing becomes of passing it up the chain, is the right thing to do something further? Yes, of course. But if you suppose the decency and character of an individual is fully defined by whether or not they do manage to escalate it…well, you are naive, and have no appreciation for the intricate complexity of the human brain. The expectation of one who has the clout and influence of a Joe Paterno, however, is clear. You must. It comes with the territory.

You know what they say about hindsight…

One may hope, however, that the hindsight bias serves us in our future judgments, yet it’s often tricky to match the pattern when instead of reflecting on what has happened, we are sitting in the present, and we are staring into an uncertain void of possibilities. I wish you the best in making the right choice – it’s not as easy as will look once you observe its effects.

jk

It’s not bullying if it’s in the Bible.

 

I’m not a huge fan of anti-bullying laws. It’s not reflective on my opinion on bullying, of course, but rather my opinion on laws and policies which seem to embrace the notion that the only course to justice and fairness is through a set of rigid rules and guidelines that can be uniformly applied in perfect objectivity. The subjectivity is not eliminated, however, but only relegated to the perception of the victim. As one might observe in the recent popularity of harassment policies, this gives one significant leeway to abuse such power by declaring him or herself as the victim even when such a claim is somewhat dubious.

The recent attention paid to anti-bullying laws has been a result of an alarming number of suicides committed by gay and lesbian teens as a result of ostracizing and intimidation directed at their sexual orientation. This, of course, is inexcusable and intolerable. No greater failure of the Christian ideal can be identified than the use of its principles to drive vulnerable teens to suicide; I would imagine that one whose words and actions result in such horrible consequences, by the principles of their own dogma, must see themselves (unless delusional) as far more insipid than those with sexual orientations that don’t match the Christian ideal–you have essentially driven one to the worst of fates through overt judgement and condemnation.

I greatly commend efforts such as the “It Gets Better” movement which offers support and hope to those who feel lost and separated; this is the best way to combat the hatred and ignorance which traipses around in a disguise of phony love. The use of legislation, however, to combat ignorance is most likely the wrong path to follow. I’ve already witnessed instances where kids are given the ‘bully’ tag not for mean-spiritedness, but for simply making the wrong call as a developing kid. It seems to be a result of empowering those who are ready to assume victim status.

When we impose rigid guidelines in the name of fairness, we end up with those absurdities that every so often garner media attention–such as a girl being suspended for popping a Midol. The argument seems to be that if we make an exception for Midol, we must make exceptions for heroine users as well, which strikes me as patently absurd.

Recent anti-bullying legislation efforts in Michigan drew much attention. In response to the suicide of Matt Eppling, a gay teen unacceptably harassed by his peers, Democrats sponsored a bill which aimed to put a stop to future incidents. In a act which completely ignored the dead elephant in the room (religion), Republicans insisted on including the following language:

THIS SECTION DOES NOT ABRIDGE THE RIGHTS UNDER THE FIRST AMENDMENT OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OR UNDER ARTICLE I OF THE STATE CONSTITUTION OF 1963 OF A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE, SCHOOL VOLUNTEER, PUPIL, OR A PUPIL’S PARENT OR GUARDIAN. THIS SECTION DOES NOT PROHIBIT A STATEMENT OF A SINCERELY HELD RELIGIOUS BELIEF OR MORAL CONVICTION OF A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE, SCHOOL VOLUNTEER, PUPIL, OR A PUPIL’S PARENT OR GUARDIAN. (What’s with politicians and SHIFT-LOCK?)

In spite of their ordinary fondness for the 1st Amendment, Democrats responded to this provision with intense ire, reasoning that it merely a mechanism to continue the very same type of denigration toward gays that caused the problem in the first place. Although I abhor the religious perspective on this in general, I do sympathize with the Republican concern here; we are in a load of trouble if simply vocalizing your belief can be essentially tagged as bullying. Anti-bullying would seem to become a mechanism of censorship. Surely, though, even the dimmest of Republicans can recognize the Catch 22 inherent in this exemption. If not, simply offer up the following scenario to the Republican in question:  “What if my sincerely held moral conviction is that God does not exist? Am I free to share that statement as well?” But as the Republicans do not in general abide by this principle (find out how well a teacher who expresses their moral belief that students be informed about birth control fares in a Republican community) it is probably more laughable that they included it than it is that Democrats remained so opposed.

Sam Harris clearly identified the problem several years ago when he blamed religious moderates for this post-modern mess. The dead elephant in the room is, of course, religion. The way to end this problem is not with a stupid anti-bully law at the end of the causal line, but rather through strong, collective behavior that rejects the validity of the fundamentalist position that homosexuality is wrong. Many religious moderates confound the problem by demanding that we have it both ways: homosexuality can be both wrong and tolerated. As a result, it is possible to pass both anti-bullying laws (which target those who would ostracize gays) and anti-gay marriage laws and amendments (which ostracizes gays.) Note the familiar post-modern hue of “gayness can be wrong for me and right for you–yay! now we’re all happy!”

I would suggest, however, that the problem that leads to gay teens committing suicide rarely completely hinges on the insensitive harassment of a few ignorant, bigoted peers. Most people are capable of filtering out a few assholes (we’ve all done it in the past, I think.) The struggle that is most difficult for a gay teen, rather, is the general overwhelming rejection of that teen’s nature by society as a whole–coping with the perception that what naturally attracts him or her sexually is generally believed deviant and immoral. Eliminating the meanness and cruelty of the occasional bully is a worthy objective, but ultimately, if it is the suicides that bother us, we need to recalibrate our moral perspective. When we examine the question of “Is homosexuality immoral?” we need to develop into a society of thinking individuals who reject the legitimacy of the answer “Yes, because the Bible says so!”  That is simply no longer good enough.

jk

Who the fuck moved my cheese?

 “Buddha, who moved my cheese?”
“What is cheese but part of the (w)hole?”

In another Journal flashback (from January 2000), here was my reaction to the book my brother’s employer bought for him, pop psychologist Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?

When we visited my brother’s family in Maryland last Thanksgiving, he showed me a book he had received from a high level manager at his work. I read it, but could not believe it was taking the corporate world by storm (as the book is packed with ugly cliches—I’ll take the liberty of using one as well), consistently appearing on the non-fiction bestseller list. It remains baffling to me what folks are finding so enlightening about this piece of garbage.

The story is called Who Moved my Cheese? And it is heralded as a modern day parable that somehow encapsulates the keys to business success and secretly relays it to its readers (presumably subconsciously) through a story targeted for folks with a forth grade reading level. In the story, a maze is occupied by two mice (Sniff and Scurry) and two miniature people (Hem and Haw). The four discover a windfall of cheese within the maze, and they all settle in to enjoy it. With a seemingly unending supply of cheese, the four maziens get a little torpid. Lo and behold, one morning they awaken to find that their cheese supply is gone. Vanished. Moved (an event which greatly influenced the title of the piece.) Sniff and Scurry (the rodents) react by immediately re-entering the maze in a renewed search for sustenance. The rodents’ reaction is apathetic and instinctive. “It was good while it lasted, no sense dwelling on it, let’s just go find some more cheese.” In other words, they instinctively react to the change by doing what needs to be done. The mini-men, on the other hand, react with an emotionally charged paralysis. The author, Spencer Johnson, belittles the human reaction of trying to reach “an understanding” of what the hell just happened. The mini-men whine and moan over their loss, refusing to leave their mined-out niche to venture out into that scary, scary maze again. Eventually, Haw, in order to keep from starving, ventures back out, coming to profoundly cliched insights along the way (leaving Hem behind to starve in perplexed self-pity—he sort of becomes like the unabomber.) The “parable” has been heralded as brilliantly addressing change management, but as far as I can tell it is more a caricatured embrace of reactive pragmatism.

Hem’s attention to detail pays off in a big way.

The maze seems to be a template for the environment of change, and the cheese is a goal. The most startling thing about these metaphors is that they clearly denounce the possibility of any type of metaphysics. It makes no sense to try to understand “a maze”—it represents chaos. The maziens must understand how to traverse the maze (Johnson suggests at the outset that humans are better than their rodent counterparts in methods of search because of their superior cognitive powers) but why waste time understanding “the nature” of the maze? Likewise, the cheese can be found—why waste time contemplating why that cheese is where it is and who put it there? As Washington Post writer Hank Stuever pointed out the story never answers the question its title asks: “who moved my cheese?” Rather it indicates that if you still feel the nagging urge to ask such a question you may be doomed to suffer Hem’s fate. I don’t think Johnson is trying to suggest that animal instincts are superior to human reasoning; however, he is clearly suggesting that while human reasoning is of immense value to problem-solving when applied pragmatically—it will be his undoing when he applies it ideologically. Put simply – “Use your mind for the purposes that it evolved, and if you want to succeed, try to temper those auxiliary functions that tempt us to want to fully understand “why”. Of the what, when, where, how and why questions, then, Johnson has the least use for “why”. I think this is the reason the story bugged me so much—“why” holds all the others together, conceptually it is the most important of them. And while I don’t suggest being distracted by it to the level of Archimedes (so the myth goes), humanity tends to gain the most from those obsessed with understanding the ‘why.’

jk

In God We Gush

“Don’t be ridiculous. We mean a ‘secular’ God.”

Finally, our lawmakers breach that formidable aisle of the partisan divide and come to an agreement that will make a lasting difference in our country’s struggles. Following a 35 minute debate which ironically was probably more of an overt violation of Matthew 6:5 than a productive political exchange, in a overwhelming majority of 396-9, the House voted to reaffirm the national motto: “In God We Trust.” Again. (Now maybe that Big Guy in the Sky will step up and clean up this mess we’ve made, being how we are His favorite country and he blesses us and all.)

As a brief history lesson, “In God We Trust” became the first ‘official’ motto of the United States in 1956. Does that time frame ring a bell, by the way? That’s right, this is the time during the Eisenhower administration when God’s PR seemed to experience an anti-communist windfall. In addition to establishing the motto, during this period “under God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance. A month later, Congress passed a law which required “In God We Trust” to be placed on all coins and currency. If you’d like to understand details of the history of this godly insertion, I’d suggest reading Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, which to me was about as eye-opening as they come. (Just as a note, a couple people I’ve talked to did not like Sharlet’s writing style, but I found the topic fascinating and the style bearable.) As Sharlet reports, Eisenhower entered the foray into the church and state boundary reluctantly; however, he ultimately owed his election to the endorsement of the fundamentalist Christians. As part of the anti-communism movement of the Red Scare, such religious endorsements stood in stark contrast to communist godlessness; thus they were easily propelled without any resistance at all. Politically, Eisenhower made the right move. Today’s overwhelming success likely has more to do with war on evolution and the loss of the 10 Commandments and nativity scenes than fears about communism.

“How much more of this bailout money are they going to
take from me and stuff into the pockets of the non-productive??!”

The “In God We Trust” motto replaced the unofficial motto of the day which was the Latin “E Pluribus Unum” which means “Out of many, one.” This was never an ‘official’ motto but it is on the Seal of the United States.

So what’s up with our motto returning to Congressional attention? The national motto was not about to expire and was not endangered in any way; it is however the 50th anniversary of the motto’s passage. Also, perhaps it simply seems like a good time for a reaffirmation of our faith…uh wait a sec, that probably won’t hold up…for a reaffirmation of our ‘motto.’ Yeah, that seems secular enough. But 396-6? So much for those goons who keep claiming our waning faith was earning us a divine beat-down in the form of hurricanes, earthquakes, early snowstorms, lost jobs, and crumbling economies. Now maybe if we had shitcanned the motto, maybe then you could bang drumsticks on a false correlation, but this emphasis of our trust in the creator…er evolver?…belches our lawmakers’ faith to the nation. Interestingly, though, this 50th anniversary celebration is not the first affirmation of the motto. In 2002, the motto was also reaffirmed. Hmmm, wonder what it triggered our affirmation at that time…that’s right, it was shortly following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. One might have never guessed that.

Most realize (with varying amounts of annoyance) that non-believers from time to time challenge the constitutionality of our nation’s motto. In the landmark decision Aronow v. United States, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled:

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.”

Alas, congress is certainly doing whatever they can to demonstrate this is not the case. In addition to multiple unnecessary reaffirmations (which are more indicative of religious expressions than secular ones) the latest re-re-affirmation also strongly encourages the posting of the motto in classrooms and public places (hmmm…sound familiar?) Unfortunately for God, in spite of the overwhelming congressional support for this latest reaffirmation, the media has not embraced this ceremonial waste of time with the “Rah! rah! rah! We love God!” eagerness they perhaps had hoped for. Rev. Barry Lynn ridiculed the action in the Washington Post and Inga Barks (religious enough to even use the godlessness leads to ruthless dictators claim) suggests that while it’s at it, Congress should go ahead and pass “Puppies are cute” legislation.

Interested at all in some of the discussion prior to voting on the bill? Well, Arizona Rep. Trent Franks (I’ll let you guess on which party) tells why this issue is so important…

Sadly, it seems as if Rep. Trent Franks mind has already become ‘worm food.’  (So, is he essentially saying, if we aren’t going to reaffirm our motto, “we should just let anarchy prevail?”)

Even Obama gets in his jabs.

(Not sure which one is worse, that Obama hates God or Obama hates baseball.) Which brings me to my last point. Notice how, once disagreeing with Trent Franks assessment of time well spent, the president reminds us “I trust in God…” This, of course, relates to that strange one-sidedness of the 396-6 affirming vote. Quite simply, if you don’t trust in God, you might as well identify with atheism. And we all know how atheism prevails in the polls.

Damn, with numbers like these, I’m surprised they let atheists get married! The gays have a 20 point lead on the godless (but probably, you can’t be a godless gay.) Obviously, this translates into a general electability. While pedophile priests still find it pretty easy to maintain employment on their knees, atheist politicians do not. As a result, I’m guessing approximately 9 candidates can look forward to political advertisements to the effect of “My godless opponent voted against retaining “In God We Trust” as the national motto. Is this who you want representing you?” Unfortunately for douchebags like Trent Franks, it appears we seem to know that worm-feed anarchist atheists don’t appear to be the real problem in this country. They couldn’t get elected if they wanted to.

But hey. Keep trusting in God. I’m sure that will do the trick.

jk

Veganasaurus Rex

Is it now? Is it really?
Hmmm…would have never made the connection.

Perhaps the most ridiculous misinformation (though it’s hard to pick a winner) presented by the Creation Museum in Doucheberg, Kentucky relates to the history of the dinosaurs. The museum itself is filled with with model and animatronic dinosaurs (including a nice little exhibit with the children of Eve and dinosaurs frolicking about together in Eden) in recognition to the tremendous appeal these creatures have with children.

“Duh!”

The focus is essentially a gimmick to keep the kids enthused while they are being programmed for a future of fundamentalism. As a result, the dinosaurs compete with Noah’s Ark as the most popular theme of the museum. And, of course, what ark diorama would be complete without Noah herding dinosaurs onto the boat. If one were trying to make fun of creationism and decided to put together the most absurd interpretation of Christian scripture as you could imagine, one could not surpass the inanity of what this $27 million dollar temple of dinosaurs presents as a defense of fundamentalist creationism.

Apparently some dinosaurs got on.

The dinosaur room, which looks much like something you would see at any one of several children’s museums across the country, includes full-scale models of some of the most popular dinosaur species to excite the kiddies about biblical history, which as we all know, is all about dinosaurs. What is strange about this display is the information plaque that accompanies each of these model beasts.

Apparently, Ornitholestes was named after the fall
(and not by Adam as he named every other creature)
because there were no ‘robbers’ before Adam’s sin.

Where in a real museum (‘real’ meaning organized by folks capable of rational thought) you might have various dinosaurs relegated to various time periods according to the age of rock in which the fossils were found, at the Creation Museum, all the fossils were amazingly dated to ~2348 BC.  Anyone know what happened in 2348 BC?…Let’s check the creation tips website! Well, what do you know? Noah’s flood! It all fits together. Not surprisingly, every one of these data cards has the same date of ~2348 BC. (By the way, I wonder why the museum chose not to use the BCE convention?)

Another amusing part of the dinosaur information is that the museum indicates the “Diet after the Fall.” You see before the fall, we were all vegetarians. Even those pointed-toothed, meat eaters which seem to have digestive systems honed for digesting meat. In a fallen world, of course, carnivores play an important role…but, why let me give it away? Let’s see the display for ourselves.

Oh, I see…”By removing the weakest and diseased, carnivores help
keep the fallen world functioning despite sin!”
After all, what good is a poorly functioning fallen world?

Now look, if you’re having trouble accepting all this using the Bible as your starting point, keep in the mind that the museum officials sympathize with you, and they have agreed to provide a logical proof for this cohabitation of man and dinosaur. Certainly, this will put the matter to rest…

I knew crocodiles were the key…I knew it!

To cap off the inanity of the premise of the coexistence of man and dinosaur, the museum offers us some weighty evidence in favor of the idea that dinosaurs were not as prehistoric as those ‘naive’ paleontologists might expect. Dragon myths, they suggest, were not simply the products of wild imaginations, but were inspired by something real…something still present in the times these myths originated…something big, something terrible, something dinosaury!

According to the video as well as Answers in Genesis, the bible describes dinosaurs in great detail in the Book of Job. Recall, Job was the dude God totally fucked with over a bet with Satan. Was the the movie Trading Places (staring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and a topless Jamie Lee Curtis) simply a product of some script writer’s imagination or was it based in the reality of the Book of Job? It’s probably best to avoid thinking about that for too long…

jk

Flashback – 1999

Many moons ago, long before the bizarre mental exhibitionism of blogs, I used to keep a journal which I fairly regularly updated. Among these pages are words no one (besides me) have ever read. More than likely, if I died, along with all those thoughts in my head that are fantastic enough to keep me happy to be alive, these words would be forever lost. Often, I create the unrealistic Hollywood scenario where these journals would be stashed away on a DVD (or the printed volumes I currently have on a shelf in my study would be relegated to a box in some attic) when some distant descendant with an interest ancestors would stumble upon them and the recorded thoughts would change their life (for the better) forever. More likely, they would deteriorate to atoms in a landfill, but since I’ll be dead and it doesn’t truly matter to me, I like to imagine it the more romantic way. I probably have 5000 pages of entries that include thoughts, things I did, notes on books I read, etc. so it is kind of strange to think that conceivably, a person who is not even born yet could know my thoughts more intimately than any individual in existence (without first person access.)

Back in the late 1990’s, one of the things I would regularly do would be to write to my senators and representatives about the political topics of the day. I’ve since given up on the ability to affect change in this way. Back then, though, when I thought a good idea could change things, I wrote lots of letters, and when I did so, I would paste it into my journal to record it. Since it is election season (early November), I thought I’d pull out one of those old letters for kicks. This one was sent to Senator Richard Lugar on May 14, 1999 after I was really pissed off about how much a pain in the ass filing taxes is. (My general opinion remains the same: it pisses me off that I have to spend so much time making sure that I am paying the right amount of my money to a government body that will essentially treat it with much less regard than that money means to me.)

Dear Senator Lugar,

After becoming increasingly frustrated about the complexity of filing my federal income tax return (not impossibly complex, but unreasonably complex), I have resolved to become more aware and involved in the activities of federal government. I am happy to report that I have found the Internet to be a very handy means of quickly ascertaining the activities of the Senate and House of Representatives. I am distressed to report that I find the sheer quantity of bills under consideration to be quite intimidating. After studying the content of some of them I am not encouraged, as I find the language is thick and hard to follow. Unfortunately, the summaries typically do not provide a clear understanding of the true implications of the bill. For instance S. 900 is described as

An original bill to enhance competition in the financial services industry by providing a prudential framework for the affiliation of banks, securities firms, insurance companies, and other financial service providers, and for other purposes.

But this does not even begin to describe the amount of regulation that is lifted, changed or imposed throughout the course of this bill and its amendments. Additional cross-references make deciphering the context even more challenging. I do understand the need to minimize the ambiguity in legislative syntax; however, I cannot but help believe that the language in these documents has become far too esoteric for the average person to reasonably comprehend. In a country that holds that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” it seems imperative to specify the context of the bill in a manner that is clear to all the people who are expected to abide by it. Incidentally, this is the same problem that frustrated me to begin with–the complexity of income tax code. I refuse to believe that in order to be effective, legislation must be stated in a manner which camouflages what the bill proposes must be done and/or cannot be done in a series of recursive indirections and puzzling “contract” syntax.

Since as an American citizen I must abide by the laws established in these bills, I should be able to read them once and have a clear understanding of what it is preventing me from or providing for. With most of the bills under consideration, this is not possible. Furthermore, there are over 1700 bills introduced by the House (so far for 1999) and almost 1000 by the Senate. It is not possible for a person to keep informed about this quantity of legislature–at least not by looking at the bills themselves. Many of the bills (such as S. 900) are actually many, many separate issues lumped together. Certainly, packaging some of these things together is an effective form of compromise–perhaps there is no other way to get some essential item through the legislative process other than packaging it with stuff that looks attractive to those that would normally oppose the item; however, I have become convinced that this technique is what leads to ‘Big Government’–the complex structure of regulations, exemptions, and favors that makes capitalism look bad. Mixed economy proponents unfairly wail “just think how cutthroat it would get without all these regulations!” yet the state of affairs is not a natural result of capitalism but of tampering with it.

As an example of my frustration: I decided to review S. 900 (among others) because it’s title “Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999” struck me as quite important. I was a little astonished about how primitive the bill numbering system is. There is no organization regarding type of bill (i.e. category such as ‘social security’, ‘banking’, ‘federal crime’, etc.) inherent in the way they are organized. That is, without doing a document search, I could not easily ascertain such things such as “what are all the bills that relate to the regulation of banking?” Furthermore, there was no apparent dependency hierarchy whereby one could determine (without studying the text of the bill itself) which laws this bill proposed to repeal or modify.

As I began reading the bill, the first item of interest appeared right away–repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. It took an hour of research to figure out what precisely the Glass-Steagall Act is; however, I enjoyed that history lesson. I was immediately enthused about the prospect of cleaning out some of that ugly New Deal legislation, but my enthusiasm was quickly stifled by the magnitude of the bill to follow. Significantly, it did not seem to me to be that case that remainder of the bill deals solely with countering the effects of knocking down the wall between commercial banking and investment banking. Importantly, much of the bill makes great sense and seems necessary to prevent commercial banks from investing in ways that I would describe as fraud regardless of whatever legal ‘loopholes’ apparently allow such activities that this bill seems concerned with. But much of the bill seems out of place.

For instance, consider Sec. 304 Financial Information Privacy Protection Good privacy stuff, but it is quite independent of establishing the bounds of investment fraud. In fact, it seems to apply to any number of customer information settings. For instance the part which amends Sec. 1003 to “The Consumer Credit Protection Act” states (in part):

`(a) PROHIBITION ON OBTAINING CUSTOMER INFORMATION BY FALSE PRETENSES- It shall be a violation of this title for any person to obtain or attempt to obtain, or cause to be disclosed or attempt to cause to be disclosed to any person, customer information of a financial institution relating to another person—

`(1) by knowingly making a false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation to an officer, employee, or agent of a financial institution with the intent to deceive the officer, employee, or agent into relying on that statement or representation for purposes of releasing the customer information;

`(2) by knowingly making a false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation to a customer of a financial institution with the intent to deceive the customer into relying on that statement or representation for purposes of releasing the customer information or authorizing the release of such information; or

`(3) by knowingly providing any document to an officer, employee, or agent of a financial institution, knowing that the document is forged, counterfeit, lost, or stolen, was fraudulently obtained, or contains a false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation, if the document is provided with the intent to deceive the officer, employee, or agent into relying on that document for purposes of releasing the customer information.

This is clearly anti fraud legislation that could be copied into one of thousands of bills (granted, the penalties for this fraud involving a ‘financial institution’ may be more severe); it should be dealt with independently of this particular bill (even if is an amendment to an existing act.) By making superbills, such as this one, when one strongly disagrees with portions of the bill but cannot convince others of the importance of these disagreements, his final recourse is either to accept what he disagrees with or vote against the bill. If he votes against it, in the eyes of the public he has voted against the entire bill when in fact, he may strongly support its primary intent. This is problematic for several reasons: it encourages persons in congress to let things slide through, it encourages persons opposed to the bill who know it will eventually pass to attempt to slide things through, and it hides the true context of the law from the public.

If I were a senator, for instance, I would oppose the bill as it stands for reasons not related to the primary intent of the bill. In Section 304, Amended Section 1003 (b) it states:

It shall be a violation of this title to request a person to obtain customer information of a financial institution, knowing or consciously avoiding knowing that the person will obtain, or attempt to obtain, the information from the institution in any manner described in subsection (a)

I reject this on the grounds that there is no place for such terminology as “consciously avoiding knowing” in criminal legislation. Certainly the request to obtain information in the manner prohibited by (a) could be stated as a violation; however–notions, belief and suspicions about the method of the party providing a service can not be included in legislation such as this. It is the onus of the actor, not the solicitor, to insure that such information be acquired legally.

Clearly, if the solicitor is not in a position to obtain the information at all, without the occurrence of a fraudulent act, then this could implicate the solicitor; however, the nature of this information is such that it can always be acquired legally, such as through the consent of the relevant financial institution customers. It is evasive to suppose that the introduction of a consideration for conscious states of knowing can ever be justly enforced. (Incidentally, I am aware of the parallels of this type of legislation with those that involve the buying of stolen commerce–and I have the same objections. Also, I am aware of the importance of the consideration of intent, a conscious state of knowing, in such instances as distinguishing murder from manslaughter; however, generally speaking, criminal law should focus on the actor—the one who commits the act of fraud in this case—and not attempt to further discourage the act by regulating activities which tend to encourage such acts—this is essential to maintaining both justice AND freedom) To be clear, my position is not that a violator of 1003 (b) is morally in the clear–my position is that a law that depends on states of knowing can not be justly enforced (or judged).

Secondly, Sec. 1003 (c) Nonapplicability to law enforcement agencies, directly implies that a law enforcement agency doing law enforcement business does have the legal right to obtain customer information BY FALSE PRETENSES. I am vehemently opposed to this ugly notion. Hopefully this aims at the specific instance of a law enforcement simulation of an attempt to illegally obtain information in order to verify financial institutions are complying with their requirements or to determine if some other party is selling the service of illegally acquiring information. If so this needs to be stated directly and not in an open-ended inference that the privacy constraints are nonapplicable to a law enforcement agency when it is operating “in connection with the performance of the official duties of the agency.” This type of immunative power begs to be abused by those on the hunt for drug dealers, black marketeers, and other tax evaders.

Incidentally, I was somewhat amused by SEC. 306. `Plain Language’ Requirement for federal banking agency rules. An excellent proposal to apply to all forms of legislation–particularly the one in which it was contained!

Well, I use these as examples to support my points that

  1. Presenting bills in a “legalistic” syntax does little to extract potential ambiguity and misinterpretation. Presenting these items in a logical, concise, and clear manner would be far more effective in insuring that the public as well as their representatives truly understand what they are voting about.
  2. Consolidation of congressional actions into “superbills” is a way in which government expands and which prevents the public from the proper perspective on his representatives’ stands on important issues.

In conclusion, I urge you to maintain attention of the following:

  1. The internet is giving rapid, broad exposure to the activities of the Federal Legislature. Please leverage off this fact by insuring that bills are framed in a manner that is easily accessible to all–including the form of syntax and avoidance of unnecessary detail.
  2. Urge that large legislative items be broken down into appropriately manageable bills instead of assembled under a single super-abstraction.
  3. Push for the advancement of legislative organization, including the categorization of bills and mapping of bill dependencies and derivatives, so that the interested public can easily identify bills of interest and relate them to the historical progression of federal law.
  4. Push for the consolidation of recurring themes in bills (not to be confused with the super-abstraction which I deplore) to simplify their expression and eliminate unnecessary redundancies.

I thank you in advance for your time and consideration of these matters. Please feel free to reply with any information you feel might be helpful in my attempt to become a member of the “involved” public.

Highest regards,

Jon E. Krutulis

How did that Financial Services Act work out anyway? At the time, I think I had some kind of delusion that this type of thoughtful communication would end up with Richard Lugar being so impressed that he would fly me to D.C. to discuss my new role in cleaning up politics. The response was pretty insulting actually – a form letter about the bill I mentioned with a booklet that included it’s complete text. Much like the probable fate of my journal, I imagine my letter was not actually read by anyone – perhaps scanned by some legal assistant who would rather move up by giving blowjobs.

jk

 

 

False Memories.

“I remember when this blog was all about the truth of Christian Doctrine.”
“Hmmm…Jesus, I think you might have what is called a false memory.”

Human memory is an amazing thing, but it is rooted in biology of the brain. It does not float about in immaterial pixie dust where it can be entertain immaterial essences in timeless dimensions. We know this because memory is destroyed when certain parts of the brain are damaged. Of course it doesn’t work like a computer where if you damage memory components at certain addresses, those particular articles of memory are lost. The brain is significantly more fault tolerant than that, but as a result it is certainly more imprecise. If you consider the types of things we can actually remember (sensory patterns and experiences, general events, dialogs, stories, facts, thoughts, processes, people, objects, abstractions, rules, relationships, choices, changes, feelings, etc.) and the multitude of properties associated with those memories such as a sense of time, spacial patterns and reference to other memories, it is incredibly staggering.

It is not surprising that we tend to suspect that there is some magical layer, a ghost in the machine, behind the the network of cells in some hidden dimension that non-physical in nature. But even if we allow for the soul as some life source that animates our biology, we now know enough about the brain to understand that memory is very much dependent on our matter. Memories are born and memories die with neurons and their connections that twist throughout our heads. When something gets damaged, a memory can be destroyed…lost forever. It’s not safely tucked away waiting for us in an eternal domain. The memory is part of the brain’s physics, when the material part is gone, the memory is gone.

What we’ve learned about the brain tells us much about the way we tend to remember things. Concepts are related in very intricate ways such that memories of the past continue to grow as we encounter new experiences. Think about as children how we struggled to remember something simple like a simple fact or process step. Not only are these improved over time as we continue to enforce them, but they change. A person who grew up in a Republican household who adopted a more liberal mindset after going off to college frequently remembers political discussions from his youth much differently than the true experience. We protect ourselves from bad memories by changing them and when we tell stories of our past, these stories frequently change as we hone them according to how listeners respond, much like the stories of a verbal tradition evolve over time. There may certainly be cases when we are aware of these tweaks and exaggerations (our report differs from our memory) but there are also times when the memory itself changes and we remember the tweaks and exaggerations.

“And from now on, instead of watching some stupid show on television,
you’re going to log onto TryThought.com.”

I heard a story told on a podcast where an individual told a story of a dream he once had. In the dream, he went to a store, bought a scratch-off ticket, and won $50,000.  A month later, as the story goes, he was in that same store he dreamed about and although he doesn’t usually play the lottery because of the dream, he used a spare dollar to buy a scratch-off ticket lo and behold, won $50,000. A skeptic who was interviewing him was impressed by the story agreeing that was quite amazing and if all the details were accurate, it seemed too unlikely to be mere coincidence. The host then suggested as a possible explanation that perhaps this was a false memory. The storyteller immediately denied it, saying something to the effect, “No, this was the dream. I remember it. It’s not a false memory.” It seemed to escape his reasoning skills to understand that if it was indeed a false memory, he would be unable to distinguish it from reality, so his memory obviously cannot be the gauge to evaluate whether or not his memory was false. The way he seemed to hear the suggestion was a suggestion that perhaps he was making the story up, but this is entirely different than a false memory, of course; this is a lie. Of course people remember things incorrectly all the time. Often we fill in details much later that themselves become part of the recollection. Thus a person who dreamed they won the lottery and then won the lottery is a pretty neat story, but it doesn’t seem like an impossible coincidence. But to the individual who wins (a highly emotive experience that stirs all sorts of elated feelings which impact the way we remember things) it is an amazing coincidence and it becomes very easy to fill out the memory with false details. In the dream, a store similar to the one dreamed about (and convenience stores have that tendency to be similar) becomes the exact same store; dreaming about winning and then winning becomes dreaming about winning the exact amount that was eventually won.

“I blocked the memory of my 3-way with Tom Riddle and that Whore with the Crutch.”

The new memory, though, becomes indistinguishable from the true memory. It is not a lie; this is the part that is hard to fathom. Most have heard stories about the controversy around recovered memories. It is believed that many cases of recovered memories about past sexual abuse were actually false memories that were implanted in vulnerable minds seeking for an explanation for the psychological difficulties which commonly plague us during our mid-lives. Many books have been written about this phenomenon, but we often have trouble appreciating a false memory around such a traumatic event. Thus we hear ‘false memory’ as ‘lie.’ The subject is lying about the memory…certainly they would be able to remember whether or not they were molested as a child! The answer, of course, is perhaps not. In fact, each of us likely has several quite vivid memories in our past that do not align at all with reality. When we tells stories of the past with old friends and run into that familiar disagreement when our friend tells us “That’s not the way it happened,” we of course naturally assume our friend is mistaken. Often, it is just as likely that your memory is the incorrect one. Memories are influenced by our experiences, emotions, biases and histories. Their fallibility is what makes eye-witnesses notoriously unreliable.

When I was a kid, I was hit by a car. According to my brother, who witnessed it, the car stopped as it hit me, throwing it forward, and the driver got out of the car and carried me off the street. My memory is very distinctly of the car passing completely over me while I was on the street, and then I crawled off the road and into the grass on my own. In this case, of course, it is a little bit easier to accept the inaccuracy of my memory because it did come with a head injury; however, the memory remains as the false one, and even with my knowledge, it seems absurd that I remember something so clearly that is not anything like what actually happened.

The brain is an amazing, mysterious, complex and wonderful thing. And the more we learn about it, the more amazing it seems to become. Alas, everything we’ve learned reminds us that it is indeed a ‘thing.’

jk

Hallucinations

“Oh my God, what is that digging into my leg?….Nooooooooo!”

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the apparent increase in the propensity to embrace secular supernatural phenomenon: Ghosts, horoscopes, fortune telling, crystal energy, vortexes, homeopathy, clairvoyance, spiritual channelling, etc. It almost appears as if the migration away from traditional religious beliefs herds susceptible minds into waiting, trendy cultural niches. While from the religious perspective, this is often seen as the luring away from a proper respect for the supernatural by evil spirits or satanic forces (as made clear by the videos and illustrations.) A more objective observe, however, might suggest that the human mind needs something to believe in.

But if you speak with individuals who are convinced of the reality of ghosts and matterless spiritual energies capable of somehow imparting effect on the material domain (or at least into the minds in a manner that is indistinguishable from action in the real world), you may be quite surprised in what you find. Most of these believers are not essentially a skeptical mind that has whimsically embraced some irrational perspective; in face, you will find that these beliefs are driven by very powerful subjective experiences. A believer in ghosts, for example, often has a first hand account of a ghostly encounter–something he or she is convinced was an actual experience. I’ve seen the amplitude of this certainty in some that is strikingly similar to the certainty many Christians express with regard to being touched by Jesus or an angel.

Importantly, these experiences are certainly common enough where they cannot simply be written off as willfully fabricated tales (intentional untruths). Volumes have been written on the topic, of course, and the psychological intricacies that lead to these experiences cannot possible be adequately addressed in a blog post; however, it is noteworthy that these experiences are definitively tempered by an individual’s cultural context. Much has been written about well understood and surprisingly common sleep states known as sleep paralysis and lucid dreams. These have very predictable effects on those who experience them and researches have observed that the experience itself seems to morph with cultural supernatural beliefs. For example, in the 17th century, those who experienced this condition attributed it to bewitchment–a witch or demon was vividly experienced as a result of this mental experience. In the 20th century, the same condition has been largely the basis for individual claims about alien abductions.

Research in this area has been quite extensive, and scientists know (via direct observation) that an individual can experience hallucinations that cannot be distinguished from reality, but that observers know did not occur. Of course, this doesn’t prove that ever such experience is an hallucination, but importantly, there is a known physiological mechanism that accounts for these kinds of experiences.

Rather than follow this argument into academic detail, I will instead relay my own account of a mysterious encounter. This is not related to sleep paralysis, which (to the best of my recollection) I have never experienced. This involves a hike through the Indiana woods late one fall, very close to Thanksgiving. I remember most of the leaves had fallen. I had recently watched a movie that involved a missing child that had disrupted my psychological well-being (i.e. it creeped me out.) One scene had a group of police with dogs searching the woods, very similar to where I was hiking. As I hiked up the ravine, I was thinking about this movie and the poor little girl whose body they searched for, when up to my right, on the slope of the ravine only about 20 feet away, I saw her. Vividly. Standing there in a dress, holding a little doll, looking down toward me. The experience was very brief, and as I shifted my focus to the little girl, she was suddenly gone. It was as ghostlike as it comes, and it was such a powerful experience that I still remember it vividly, many years later.

But there were a couple problems with this ghost. First of all, these obviously weren’t the same woods as the movie and secondly, as I mentioned, it was a purely fictional story. I stopped in my tracks for several minutes and definitely had that sensation of a presence, like someone was watching me, but as I studied the hillside where I spotted the girl, I noticed that there were a few bare saplings and branches that had a fair resemblance to a small human form. Of course, one wouldn’t ordinarily mistake this brush for a girl, but anyone who knows much about the mind, knows that it is quite capable of rather intricate constructions on a crude framework. One who knows even a little about these mind tricks understands that what I saw was an hallucination; one ignorant of such matters might easily attribute the experience to a paranormal encounter.

Since that experience, two additional ones have highlighted to me the brain’s capacity to construct things that are not there. On my bicycle, I fastened my odometer cable to the frame using a black tie-wrap. The way the tie-wrap was nestled with a bit of bunched up cable I had coiled together the keep out of the way ended up roughly resembling the legs of a spider. When I say roughly, I mean so roughly that it didn’t occur to me at the time that it looked like a spider. Now, I don’t particularly like spiders, but I certainly don’t have arachnophobia; they are just kind of creepy. Shortly after I installed the odometer, I was climbing aboard my bike, and I darn near jumped out of my seat when I saw what seemed like a huge spider right below my handlebar. I vividly remember getting that surge of adrenalin that comes from the fear reflex. After a second, of course, I quickly realized my error. Oh…yeah…that cable kind of looks like a spider. But a moment before it WAS a spider. Now the odd thing about this phantom spider is that I left that cable tied just as it was, and continued to experience the same phenonomenon for several years. It wasn’t every time I climbed on the bike, but once a month or so when I picked up the bike without thinking about it and boom! Spider fear. After the third time, I thought about rewrapping the cable, but I became curious about how long the hallucination would last. Interestingly, the experience would still occur, even after years of fully realizing it was a cable.

“Don’t move!  I got this...”

The second experience was more recent, and occurred during my run. I regularly pass a yard with a tall fence that pins a couple of dogs which will bark as I run past. Since the next house doesn’t have a fence, there is a ninety degree corner at the edge of this yard. One day, an oddly shaped branch had been left there, just behind the corner so that it was not visible until I had passed the end of the fence. As I ran by to the barking of the fenced dogs, my brain built an actual dog out of this branch and I literally veered away from it as if it were jumping out from behind the fence at me. Not only did my brain build a dog, but it manufactured motion as well. The same branch got me one more time before it was hauled away a few days later.

Thus, it is not surprising to me at all that thrill-seeking ghost hunters have memorable experiences as they tour abandoned mental institutions. The brain, I’m sure, is capable of fooling us in many ways and I’m sure many of them are much more amazing than my ghostly girl, phantom spider, and fence-creeping hell-hound; thus, it becomes particularly important to challenge those experiences that seem to defy the bounds of reality. Failing to do so, of course, makes us susceptible to fraud at a massive scale. This can range from huckster faith-healers to fortune-tellers feeding on our gullibility.

And, remember, your psychological state will often determine what patterns you select from the patterns you see. For example…

Click me!

Halloween and your Goddamned Soul

A Christian celebrating Halloween is like…uh…

A zombie celebrating Easter?

The British skeptic and illusionist Richard Wiseman recently published a book entitled Paranormality, which takes a pretty clear stand that paranormal phenomena simply do not exist. Much like a geologist writing a book about the earth’s geology doesn’t lend credibility to the idea that our planet is a young one, Wiseman dismisses the idea that strange happenings and observations are actually the effects of supernatural or paranormal causes, and the theme of his book is the development of rational explanations for such strange phenomenon.

Having done quite well in the UK (over half a million copies sold) along with eager publishers in other countries, Wiseman thought that he would easily be able to find an American publisher. This, however, was not the case. Strangely, no major American publisher was willing to take a skeptical project of this nature (although one suggested they might take it if he changed his message to embrace the possibility of the paranormal–which would be like telling Dawkins you’d publish The God Delusion if he put a pro-religious spin on it.)  As a result, even with an already proven commodity, he was forced to self-publish here in the states. Of course we know that there is a big market for the frontline ‘celebrity’ skeptics such as Dawkins, Harris, Shermer, Dennett, and Hitchens; however, this is largely because these skeptical activists are constantly exposed to their target audience (via debates, conferences, websites, podcasts, etc.) and the marketing of their books from publishers perspectives is practically effortless.

From Left to Right: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett
They want your soul too!

Additionally, all these authors (with the possible exception of Shermer who seems more balanced with regard to all the ) tend to focus on religious skepticism, and skepticism toward the paranormal seems to have significantly less market appeal in the states. This is not because Americans get uptight about criticism of the paranormal (in the way we get uptight about religious critique which generates controversy…which sells.) On the contrary, one can dismiss the paranormal until they are blue in the face and really meet very little resistance…it simply doesn’t seem to affect how the culture is enamored with supernatural and paranormal ideas. In fact, an entire industry has been built around our desire for spooky, invisible, magical things. Television shows which feature haunted houses, ghost hunters, UFOs, and cryptozoological phenomenon have become a staple of American television and can be found at just about any time of day while surfing through the typical cable schedule array of crap. Shows which challenge or debunk such phenomenon draw almost no interest, however, although there is an impressive body of criticism on the Internet; unfortunately, the relish with which the American youth seems to engulf this kind of belief indicates a steady decline in our capacity for critical thought.

At first you might be inclined to protest, “Wait, what about MythBusters?” but the MythBusters focus on questions of physics, they don’t spend too much time on spooks, aliens and Bigfoot.

From the other side, the religious credit the continued decay of morals to these brides of Satan who are able to infiltrate the minds and souls of our impressionable youth. The problem, according to the devoutly religious, is not our lack of critical thought, but the deterioration of religion in a secular society. And this is no more emphasized than the growing influence of Halloween in our lives!

The first commentator, John Weldon, gave his little speech about the dangers of participating in Halloween (to any extent) with a lit jack-o-lantern in the background, which I found amusing. The second speaker, James Bjornstad, says “The garments [you wear]…do carry some content, some understanding with [them]” while wearing that hideous tie–also amusing. This nuttiness from the hardcore religious should no longer be surprising; the Fundamentalist perspective on Halloween has long been whacky, as captured by the original Chick Tracts that specifically target Halloween.

Evidence: Harry Potter, Twilight, The View (oh wait, witches, scratch The View.)
Still, though, The View is a slap in everbody’s face.
(Oh no you di’ent!!)

I wish I had a dollar for ever time ole Pumpkin Head pulled
the bait-and-switch during the Halloween cat sacrifice. 

And Chuck Missler tells us (in his celebrated Halloween Sermon) that “For a Christian to celebrate Halloween is like having a Holocaust vicitim celebrate Hitler’s birthday.” Hmmm…so is Halloween more like Hitler’s birthday or a Klan parade?

This one (audio) is priceless…

and nicely captures the delusion of the average believer. The appeal of the paranormal doesn’t reflect a lack of critical thought after all, it reflects a lack of Jesus! (They probably weren’t too thrilled at Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.)

Many churches will have an alternate celebration during Halloween to lure their members away from the strong pull of the occult. For example…

Obvioulsy a Poe, but they nailed it…so to speak.

jk