Sunday, December 31, 2006

What You Already Own

Organized religions offer a morality structure, a contact system for the Divine, and the architecture of an afterlife.

In return for one's soul.

Because all of them acknowledge that there is a soul, and that we have it no matter what religion you follow. It's the custody of that soul, now and forever after, that religions jockey for. By signing up with one or another, we transfer custody. From us, to them.

So they admit we own our own souls.

What we do, worshipping in some organized way, is sign up for the program as laid out in the brochures. By following their bylaws, using their communications equipment, we will arrive at our eventual destination, sort of a time-share where we get it all at once, at the end. Because they all say souls go somewhere. By signing up with one or the other, we are paying into their version. Which is always much more appealing than the other kind.

The part I've always disliked about time-shares, condominiums, and other shared ownership schemes, is that we really don't own it. We don't have the freedom to paint it anyway we like, or have parties after a certain time. We park where we are told and plant the flowers that are acceptable to all. So you are paying to own something that you don't really own.

They are selling the illusion of ownership. You are really renting with equity.

Religion takes it a step further. Follow their moral laws, use their communications equipment, and get their afterlife. What is kind of insidious about it is this: we already have, by virtue of being a human being, moral laws, a line of communication, and some kind of afterlife.

Anyone who thinks about morality can formulate their own moral laws, which can be more flexible, more understanding of changing circumstances, and more moral than a lot of the rules of organized religion. Why not eat ham, have a drink now and then, and live with a significant other instead of getting married? What is truly wrong with that?

And the communications hookup is all around us, if we simply pursue our own relationship with the Divine, whether nature, or kindness, or beauty, or all three? There's no reason why not. Spirituality is part of our nature, and it is our nature to contemplate it and find how to communicate with it.

And the afterlife... who can say? If it is truly a matter of belief, why not create one's own? Since there is not a lot of people coming back to say what's it's like, anyone's conception is as good as any other.

The only assurance organized religion offers is a safety in numbers. So many others think this way. Some find that soothing, even though huge groups of people can be wrong, even more easily than one person can. Huge groups of people can foster even greater delusions than a single person can, because the support of the group prevents dissension. We know that.

Some people are glad to pay rent with equity, even though they might live with a lot of rules and restrictions that make no sense, because they are paying for a lack of responsibility. What color, where to park, what flowers? It's out of their hands. And everyone else is doing the same thing. And we don't have to mow the lawn.

But it is an illusion of ownership. Be aware of what we are trading away.

Because religion gets you to buy something you already own.

And that's the greatest sell of all.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

About Apple Pie

As American as apple pie.

For decades, apple was the top-selling pie. But then bakeries scaled down the size. They offered an 8" pie.

And apple was no longer the most popular pie.

It turns out apple is America's most popular compromise pie. When you had to buy a big pie, everyone could agree on apple. But when it was possible to buy two smaller pies, other flavors edged out apple.

And thus it always is. People want choices. The complacent conclusion, "Apple is America's favorite pie," is now open to consideration of other factors. Did apple reach the peak because apples keep much better than other fruits? Thus allowing them to be accessible pie material more months of the year? Or was it just the compromise factor?

Before Bill O'Reilly gets wind of this and starts with the "War on Apple Pie," I must say apple is a fine pie. It is simply not my favorite. All it means is, after years of compromising, people want to enjoy other pies.

When they have the means, people make choices.

What I'm getting at is a celebration of diversity. Freedom is the ability to make choices. Yet, sadly, there are always elements in society who fear and reject choices. It arises out of a reluctance to actually take the responsibility for one's choices. What if no one likes your choice? And, so what?

There's no comfort in the fact that we are pretending.

The recent mid-term elections were a clear indication of how people act when given the choice. For years we have been told that "All Americans agree" on recent policies, and those who do not are a small minority who shouldn't be listened to. And so some Democratic strategists fell for that, and encouraged candidates to be more like the majority party. Which is stupid.

It's like giving people a choice between apple, apple crumb, and apple raisin. In this election, it was candidates who were clearly different that had the competitive advantage. Because people wanted a change in policy. If it isn't offered to them, they cannot choose it.

Because when you offer apple, apple crumb, apple raisin, and strawberry rhubarb, all the people who are tired of apple go for the strawberry rhubarb.

So on this Thanksgiving, let's be thankful we have choices. As you choose turkey breast or the drumstick, mashed potato or yams, or all of the above, remember:

It's not a feast if there's no choices.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Tipping: An Index to Character

There are many shortcuts to ascertaning someone's character. My grandmother was a big fan of the "pinkie ring" school of man signals. (Hint: Men who wear jewelry are insecure and a little bit lavender, per Grandma.) Men tend to like the hard-to-get woman, according to folklore, because no man wants a woman who's "easy." But there's one I go by that applies to everyone.

How they treat people they don't have to be nice to.

"Nice" is a put upon word, often evoked by the bystander neighbors who have belately found out the "nice" young man next door has been stashing dismembered prostitutes in momma's basement. But "nice" is also a valuable word, no matter how many times a psychopath uses it to fool others. "Nice" is what we all should strive to be. Because without a generous helping of "nice," the world as we know it would cease to exist.

That's why I am such of fan of clear moral directives disseminated by every possible authoritarian source. When hate speech, such as so frequently spouted by Ann Coulter and her ilk, are allowed to become a winked-at source for behavior, we all lose. Because there is no end in sight. It's easy to hate our enemies, but that leads to atrocities. We have to be "nice."

We have to be good to those we have no reason to be good to.

Because that's the essence of humanity, isn't it? What makes a person human is debated roundly by many philosophers, but in daily life it comes down to knowing it when you see it. Letting the person with one item ahead of you who have more items. Acknowledging competing points of view and looking for common ground. Recognizing humanity even when it doesn't take a form exactly like you.

Empathy, in short. Maybe you've led a life of exceptional privilege and ease, or have come to that point from a different state. You don't have to be someone who is struggling with identity issues, or poverty, or just a pile of recent bad luck. No one is so privileged that they were not once behind the eight ball, no matter in how small a way that turned out to be. Empathy is the ability to imagine across gender, social, monetary, or circumstantial divides. To realize, "there but for the grace of God, go I." And then, in a great act of humanity, treat that person the way we would want to be treated.

It's the mark of being a good person.

It's the insecure person who takes advantage of a situation and takes more than they are entitled to, because they don't want to ever think that they would be in a positition where they must depend on the kindness of strangers. They don't trust the kindness of strangers because they know they would extend no kindness to anyone they don't have to.

Their world is raw power, and they enforce it.

And that is simply wrong. They are not acknowledging the kindnesses that got them where they are. They'd like to think there were none. That gives them a world where everything is under their control. And there is no such world.

So mark them out. Where ever you may be. Call them on it. Let them feel the withering heat of humanity's expression.

Because the dignity you save, may, one day, be your own.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Here's a tip for you.

Be a good tipper.

As many people who wait tables in the world, you'd think the Word would be carved in stone by now. But here it is.

If you are waited on, you tip decently. Period. The End.

Maybe I'm a wee bit prejudiced, having been on the other side of the aisle myself. But I do think this: under-tipping your server is a vile act.

One of my movie-going joys is recalling the scene at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs wherein Steve Buscemi's character is called on his lousy tipping. (Don't remember it? See the movie. My nightmares {of Michael Madsen} have almost gone away.)

Sure, in Europe they just add in on the bill. And maybe servers should get paid decent wages instead of relying on tips. And maybe they declare their tips, or not. It's all excuses, aka bullshit.

You like the European plan? Eat out there. Servers don't get paid decent wages. And what they do with them is none of your business. Capiche?

It's the cost of eating out. If you can't handle the cost, you shouldn't be scamming the restaurant. You should go to a fast food place and eat in your car so no one can see what bad manners you have. That's the social contract. Don't like it? Then march in the streets, put out petitions, become a labor lobbyist. But don't take your whining bullshit excuses to the table where someone waits on you and then stiff them on the tip. It's baaaaad karma.

Because what is comes down to is this: the server is waiting on you. And depending on your largesse. There aren't any laws about it. So what it comes down to is the kind of person you are. Are you the kind of person who takes advantage? Who will take the work of serving you as a given and not pay for it?

Hmmmm. Let's see how you act when the chips are down. That's the measure of a person's character. How do you stack up?

Because some people do take advantage of the fact that servers are polite to everyone and are struggling to make everyone happy. There are some bad service people out there. But stiffing them on the tip is not the way to go. You call over the manager and politely explain the problem and leave it up to them. That's the way to handle it. Because, believe me, everyone knows when someone isn't cut out for the work, because they pile the work on everyone else and they are, one way or another, soon gone.

Many Visible Christians(TM) are terrible tippers, and have added a new, atrocious, wrinkle to this already un-Christ-like behavior: the practice of leaving tracts that look like money at the table instead of a tip.

Gee. How would you feel if you took a job and at the end of the week you got a tract instead of your paycheck? And what if you worked for someone who wasn't of your faith, and left you a tract for their faith in leiu of money? Uh huh. I know in my heart that Jesus not only tipped at least 18% after the Last Supper, he also said please and thank you.

Because that's the kind of guy he was.

So whatever your reason for thinking that you, precious YOU, is exempt from the social contract while dining out, let me be the first to inform you that you are not THAT special. The way it works is: the server waits on you and you tip for that service. The restaurant gets its money for the room, the decor, the cooks & their helpers, the meat & two veg, and all the other stuff you enjoy while dining out. That's the way it works. If you don't like it, don't dine out.

Because it's really about the kind of person you are. When there aren't any laws about it. Get it?

The Stained Apron: Listen to the other side of the table.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Breaking the Unbelief

I was laid up with a nasty case of flu today, and my usual pattern is to re-read good books and re-watch good movies. Given the short attention span that runs concurrent with feeling crappy, it's the most soothing thing I can do for my brain.

So I re-watched Fargo with as much delight as I have the uptyump other times I've watched it. And this time the scene where the wife gets kidnapped had a special resonance.

She's sitting on the couch, knitting and watching one of those cheerful morning shows. Through the patio doors, she can see a man in a ski mask, carrying a crowbar, climb onto her deck.

And she just watches him.

Because she is already a victim, a victim of Unbelief. She's a well-off housewife in an upscale Minneapolis suburb, and the figure of a masked man with a crowbar on her own deck does not compute. Her brain simply refuses to process it.

It isn't until he breaks the glass that she reacts.

And that's what I hope is happening now.

I, too, reacted with unbelief to the beginning salvos of the Republican Party vs. Everything Good & Decent. I remember how slowly it washed over me that these people didn't care. About security, about safety, about fiscal responsibility and the Armed Forces and the Constitution, about the elderly, about children, about morality.

Because it was hard to believe. It goes against everything we want to believe. But it was undeniably true.

I got over it relatively quickly. But a lot of the country was still mired in it. They couldn't believe it. While some were able to jump around and scream There's a masked man on the deck with a crowbar!, waaaaay too many were still making excuses for the Republicans.

But now the patio door has been broken.

That's the real impact of the Foley Scandal. The Republicans aren't acting any differently than they ever did; reflexively blaming Democrats while simultaneously claiming it just isn't that bad, everybody is getting all shrill about nothing.

But after Katrina, the whole Middle Eastern Mess, and seeing our President massaging the shoulders of the German chancellor like a tipsy salesman copping a feel at the Christmas party, I think those same people were starting to build up some water pressure behind that brain dam that keeps back Thoughts We Don't Want to Believe.

And once it goes, it goes. All the doubts flood in, from every corner they've been hiding. The cheated on spouse can keep denial up for quite a long time, but once the Unbelievable is Believed, all the pent up power is unleashed. That's what leads to running over one's husband several times with a Mercedes.

I think, I hope, I wish the Foley scandal is that dam buster, that denial cracker, that shocking revelation that just hits too hard for the dam to withstand.

Because most people don't know about Foreign Policy, airline safety, and Constitutional rights. They don't know how to make up their own minds, and are vulnerable to letting others make up their minds for them. Say the right things, and most people won't notice that they aren't doing the right things.

But there isn't a parent in America who doesn't know about Sexual Predators on the Internet. The Republicans have been hammering on it and whipping up legislation against it and the media has been running specials on it for years.

On this subject, people feel capable of making up their own minds.

And they will.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

I'll take "Hypocrisy" for 8 Million, Alex

Mark Foley (R, Florida), a former chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, used the Internet to solicit sex from teenaged male Congressional pages.

In an irony no novelist would dare try, he recently sponsored the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act of 2006, with increased penalties for adults who use the Internet to discuss or solicit sexual acts with "minors" (defined as an "individual who has not attained the age of 18 years.")

Freud is vindicated! I firmly believe there are few instances in the history of humankind that screams "Projection Defense Mechanism" as much as this one does.

Projection. Attributing to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts and/or emotions.

And wait! There's more! The Instant Messaging in question was released to the public! Thus dynamiting, with extreme prejudice, any possible hope of spinning this as friendly interest or "my mentoring attempts were misconstrued."

It's clear that Foley understands he was wrong, and, now caught, he is remorseful. (Probably about being caught.)

But the Republican Congressional Leadership is where the deliberate cluelessness lies. At a minimum, they knew about the three emails that were brought to their attention last year. And did, basically, nothing.

And all the spin in the world can't conceal the facts.

Either they are so negligent that they didn't care Foley was preying on pages, and thus should not be trusted with the running of the goverment,


they are so stupid that they didn't know Foley was preying on pages, and thus should not be trusted with the running of the goverment.

I can't think of a third alternative.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Chowing of America

There's a downside to economies of scale. It's when you produce things people don't want. Small scale, you have a bunch of things people don't want. Big scale, you have a TON of things people don't want.

Theoretically, companies figure out what people want before they produce a ton of them. The drawback to this is that it is difficult and requires intelligent, capable people. The current corporate environment is such that they don't do difficult things well because they have trouble keeping intelligent, capable people.

What's a corporation to do? Why not just tell people what they want, which is what they happen to have a ton of!

And thus, the "Chowing" begins.

Look at what happened to Ben & Jerry's. The "cool" ice cream guys. Ben & Jerry's on Wikipedia: After a failed attempt by Ben Cohen to return the company to private ownership, Ben and Jerry's was purchased in August 2000 by the Unilever conglomerate...

What was told to me off the record was that Unilever muscled the company. They would buy the shelf space for their own brand, and crowd Ben & Jerry's off the shelves and into bankruptcy. To keep the company going, they sold it. And now what happens?

However, in 2002, the Center for Science in the Public Interest accused Ben and Jerry's of abusing the "All Natural" label for using artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils, and other factory-made substances in their products. Ben and Jerry's official response was that they used a different definition of "all natural" than the CSPI. In August 2006, Ben & Jerry's came under criticism from the Humane Society of the United States for using eggs in its ice cream that come from hens confined in battery cages.

I'm here to tell you, it just isn't the same. As much as we love Cherry Garcia, some weird stuff's been creeping in. Look at the most recent ingredient list, and I bolded what used to NOT be in there: Cream, Skim Milk, Liquid Sugar, Water, Cherries, Egg Yolks, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Coconut Oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Cocoa, Natural Flavors, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Caramel And Red Cabbage Juice Extract (For Color), Guar Gum, Milkfat, Soya Lecithin, Carrageenan

It's a crying shame! "Natural flavors" are not. They are made in labs. Just FYI.

And that incredible, vast range of flavors? Shrinking since 2000. I was told that the shops get half the flavors they once had.

Thanks, Corporate America. Just another cool thing you've destroyed to make another penny per unit. Because that's the sick part, isn't it? That we would pay a nickel a unit to have the old Cherry Garcia back. I'd pay another five or ten bucks so my jeans would be sewn by a union worker in this country. Corporations are making it harder and harder to hunt down quality stuff. The kind of stuff I want, and am willing to forgo stuff I don't want, for.

But that is not the way it works for Corporate America. The plan is: drop the price per unit by decreasing quality. Then the Consumer has to buy more for the same level of satisfaction. The jeans wear out sooner. The coffeemaker breaks sooner. The ice cream does not satisfy.

Modern corporations would vastly prefer consumers without choice. This is why Neopolitan ice cream was invented in the first place. Produce was the first to fall into line. They won't offer a tasty tomato, when the tasteless ones ship better. Why do you think they used to load up baked goods with trans fats? So they can sit on the shelves longer.

Their goal is to remove all that different food from the supermarkets, and replace it with People Chow. Want music? We have Music Chow. Want to read? We have Book Chow.

We have more and more, and enjoy it less and less.

Aren't you excited? It's Chow Time.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ya Gotta Pick One

In the Seinfeld episode "The Wig Master," Jerry tries to return a crested jacket, and when asked his reason for the return, answers, "Spite." When he is told that is not an acceptable reason, he claims he never liked the jacket anyway, but it's too late. He only gets one reason.

Because that's the way it works.

The Religious Right claimed their objection to stem cell research was that the blastocyst had to be destroyed in order to harvest the stem cells. Now that the news is full of the latest innovation, which extracts stem cells without destroying the blastocyst, are they satisfied? Apparently not.

A quote from the NY Times (behind the firewall, so no link, sorry) sheds some light: But Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, suggested that the new procedure would not satisfy the objections of Mr. Bush, who vetoed legislation in July that would have expanded federally financed embryonic stem cell research. Though Ms. Lawrimore called it encouraging that scientists were moving away from destroying embryos, she said: "Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions. This technique does not resolve those concerns." Their concerns are that someone, somewhere, did cause the death of a blastocyst to persue stem cell research, and that renders the whole thing ethically iffy.

I do admire principles. And I think they should stick with them. They shouldn't take antibiotics, because people have died from antibiotic reactions. They shouldn't have anesthesia for surgery, because people died while anesthetics were being developed. In fact, they shouldn't have surgery at all, because every procedure meant someone died while it was being developed.

They won't go that far; apparently there is a limit to principles. But that's really beside the fact. Because they had a reason to object to stem cell research. That reason was addressed.

And you only get one.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hope for the dim.

In 1997, I received a kitten from a Christian biker filmmaker. (That's another story.)

Smokepuff was and is a gorgeous ball of fluff. Due to his intense camera-phobia, I have terrible pictures of him, but this turned out to be his breed of cat, The Tiffany, which he resembles physically.

These cats are known for their gentle nature and loving devotion.

I have to say this description also fits him perfectly. The breed standards do not go into detail about their intellectual faculties, so while this is a clue, I don't know how he stacks up as mentally typical of the breed. We adore him, but there is no doubt that Puffy is also extremely dim.

How dim is he? the audience asks.

Well, he has a tendency to panic when my husband and I wear hats. This apparently changes our profile in his head enough for him to doubt that he recognizes us. Since strangers make him panic, the reflex operates even after he gets a good look at us, sans hat. While his face brightens happily, his legs still try to run away, though usually in different directions.

We think he has tenuous connections throughout his nervous system. He is capable of grace once all his limbs settle on a plan, yet tends to fall off even the most large, flat, and stationary objects. His tongue, especially, seems to operate independently. He will lick his chops after a treat past all possibility that any residual flavor remains.

One night his tongue, post-treat, went a little wild, in the fashion of a broken windowshade. It continued its motions so long that even he noticed, and thus he kept putting his limbs in front of it, apparently thinking that he had been interrupted mid-cleaning. He seemed incapable of reining it in.

When I realized what was going on, I had to perform a "Puffy Reset" which is accomplished by gently and firmly pressing down on the top of his head. This reboots the system and restores him to tranquility. (When we received a visit from my mother's Papillon puppy, Puffy hid under the bed for several hours until my husband crawled underneath and reset his head.)

Last year it was time for Puffy's teeth cleaning. I dropped him off with the usual procedures. (If I carry him clamped to my chest, he is happy to be transported to and through the gates of Hell itself. A carrier, on the other hand, brings on panic, and the effect is eerily reminiscent of the famous "Mindbeast of the Id Breaking Down the Door of the Krell Laboratory" scene from Forbidden Planet.) He passed his preliminary exam and was handed over to the technician, which he mysteriously never minds. So I was shocked to get the phone call that told me the teeth cleaning had uncovered a serious problem that called for emergency surgery. His eyeteeth, which had always protruded from his mouth in charming vampire fashion, had gotten infected to the point where it was threatening to invade his circulatory system. I immediately authorized his surgery and was happy to bring him home, sans fangs, where he made a quick and complete recovery with the help of vitamins, antibiotics, and kitty morphine.

My discussion with the vet reassured me on several points. He wanted to know if I had seen any changes in Puffy's behavior. I had not. He ALWAYS spent a lot of time hiding under the bed, and he ALWAYS had a good appetite. The vet agreed with me that cats are particularly good at hiding their illnesses. There wasn't anything to tip me off, even with the drooling, which is something he does a lot of the time, anyway, especially around Cherry Garcia ice cream.

And no, his occasional ice cream indulgences hadn't caused the infection; the rest of his teeth were in great shape and Puffy was cleared for future tiny treats. It seemed to be a congenital problem lurking since birth, waiting for a random gene (and Puffy has no other kind,) to activate and cause problems.

The vet told me that we had caught it in time, and it wasn't a possibility that it had affected Puffy's intellectual capacities, except that he probably had been in pain and feeling crappy for those past few months. And indeed he must have been, because Puffy's dimness has actually lightened since his surgery.

This isn't a Flowers for Algernon story, wherein Puffy suddenly begins solving quadratic equations. He still panics when people come in. He still barks (yes, he barks, he grew up with dogs) at people from our third floor window, because he's not afraid of them when they are two inches tall. He still sticks his head into the cat food can and gets gravy all over his ears. He still needs to be rebooted at times.

But he's getting into our laps a lot more often, and staying longer. He appears more quickly when he's called. He's still Puffy, only more so, and now even more of a joy.

So there's hope. Hope for the dim among us. The point of my admittedly long story is that what happened to Puffy can happen to all of those whose brains have been clouded by negative emotions so ably stirred up by Rovian tactics. We've seen signs that people are not falling for the fear so readily. When the fear clears, people are able to think again.

Just as Puffy retreated into dimness when his system was under attack, so did much of the population when it perceived itself under attack. As Puffy got better, his system actually rebounded, so he was capable of being better than he was before. And maybe, just maybe, the rest of America can wake up from this nightware with some lessons learned, and rebound.

To be Americans again. Only more so.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What Mel Gibson tells us about politics.

There's perception, and there's reality.

It's a private theory of mine, well supported by casual research, that the best villains are played by actors who are actually sweet people. Boris Karloff played monsters, and yet was widely regarded by all who knew him as a kind and generous soul.

On the other hand, from the same era, there's Wallace Beery, who was best known for playing lovable slob types. Jackie Cooper: Cooper later gave the real story. He said Beery was a violent, foul-mouthed drunkard who was disliked by those he worked with. Cooper even said Beery had been abusive towards him and he could not stand working with him. He said Beery was one of the cruelest most sadistic people he had ever known.

And why does this common dichotomy disturb so many people? We are talking about actors, who make their living by pretending to be someone they are not. It makes sense to me that, at the highest levels of craft in this profession, the best actors are those who are capable of playing someone who is 180 degrees from their actual persona, and doing it well.

In fact, my theory about the best villains contains a corollary; that it is freeing, again craft-wise, to play someone who is not like yourself, so that you can be objective about the best way to convey the required persona.

And just what does this have to do with Mel Gibson and politics? It's about a very common phenomena that causes extensive misery: loving the illusion.

For a few decades now, Mel Gibson has successfully projected a loveable guy. A little hot-tempered, sure, and maybe not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but oh-so-funny, and on the side of truth and justice, fer sure. And in one drunken rant, this image has been upended.

And there has been no end of people rushing to the rationalization. From "you can't take drunks seriously" to "yes, the Jews are behind it all!" the outpouring in defense of shattered illusions has been large and strident. And utterly misguided.

It is undeniable that Gibson has revealed a side of himself that has been successfully kept hidden. And I think it's undeniable that impaired judgement played a part, but it does not excuse the sentiments expressed.

I may be wrong, but based on my personal experience, what a person does under the influence of alcohol is a reliable guide to what they are really like. For instance, I am what is known as a "happy drunk." If I have a few glasses of wine, I get philosophical, opinionated, rabidly interested in psychological structures, and empathetic to the point of sappiness. But then again, I'm like that sober.

Gibson didn't get drunk and rave about aliens infesting his tighty-whities. And if he had, the explanation would be written off as a delusion. Sure, this would alienate the aliens, who would not finance his movies in future. But it wouldn't necessarily upset his image. And if we discovered that his father was well-known for his own theory about underwear-aliens, we would nod to each other and say, "That's where he got it from."

I think this same explanation covers what Gibson actually did. Unlike alien-paranoia, which could, with judicious attention to undergarment purchases, be kept under control, anti-Semitism is a virulent and unexcusable prejudice. It's a little more understandable in a Midwestern farm family who might not have met an actual person of the Jewish faith in generations. It's inconceivable in a person whose professional career involves working with people of all persuasions, some of whom are Jewish.

So the reality has to be: Gibson is an anti-Semite. He does hold unreasoning prejudices against a certain group of people, and maybe more, for all we know. And the fact that he's admitted to substance abuse problems does not change this fact.

In fact, it explains it. It must not be easy being Mel Gibson, having to hold two irreconcilable facts in his head at all times. He hangs on to his anti-Semitism as a link to his father, a professional Holocause debunker. And he is confronted, day after day, with people who are Jewish and yet do not fit his preconceptions.

It's enough to drive a man to drink.

It's a fact of Hollywood that harsh truths about real actors can cause career ripples. And the same applies to politicians. There are few cliches more enduring than the public face of piety and goodness being ripped away to show the real monster beneath the mask. It's enough to make cynics mistrust any public face.

But just because a public face can be manipulated doesn't mean they all are. Because if we are willing to look for the signs of the real face, they are always there.

This isn't the first time Gibson has been accused of anti-Semitism. It's just the first time the evidence has been so stark. And from the time I heard about George W Bush's mocking imitation of a death-row murderer pleading for her life, a request that was met, out of many possible responses, with an absolute relish for ensuring her demise, I knew about Bush.

It has nothing to do with pros or cons about the death penalty, or guilt versus innocence, or Texas politics.

"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me." The Houston Chronicle, August 10, 1999

The mask slipped. We saw how Bush uses power. And there's not enough rationalizations in the world to explain away how easily Bush revealed himself to a newspaper reporter. By his own claim, Bush was not drinking at this point in time.

Whether you are voting for the Leader of the Free World or choosing a date, it's important to remember to look beneath the illusion. We all try to put our best face forward. How closely does the reality match that face? Clues abound. We only have to look for them.

Instead, too often, we settle for the comforting illusion. It's so much nicer. It makes us feel so much better. And when we go for a drive down a dark road with an oh-so-charming person, the moment when the mask comes off is lit by the flash of hindsight.

Of course! It's so obvious now!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Happiness: It's all in your head. - Unhappiness has risen in the past decade: 'Happiness has a very weak relation to the events in our lives,' Haidt says. 'Your happiness level is determined mostly by the structure in your brain -- not by whether good or bad things happen to you. Negative events hurt or feel bad, but they are not usually as bad as we think and don't last as long as we think.

Gee, I guess the fact that "unhappiness has risen" is simply that brain chemicals have changed in the last decade.

Ya think? That the chains of amino acids that have been doing their thing for millenia just up and changed around in the last decade and that's why people are more unhappy?

Oh, YEAH. That must be it.

This beanhead really ticks me off. (I'm not wishing on him a cancer scare. The thought occurred, I admit it, but I didn't DO it. Can't control those pesky brain stuctures, ya know.) While I am a big fan of perspective, this nihilist "it's all in your head anyway so what does it matter" outlook is truly reality-ignoring at its worst.

By saying happiness has a very weak relation to the events in our lives the person is implying that we could be just as happy living in a tarpaper shack with a demented relative as we could be in a mansion with a devoted rich spouse, all else being equal. And yes, that's theoretically possible. But it sure would be easier in the second instance, wouldn't it?

He goes on to say, Happiness is an individual thing, like a thermostat in our brains with a baseline that's predetermined by genetics. So there's really not a lot you can do about it, though apparently he's written a whole book on giving it a shot. If you come from a glum family, that's why you are glum. And they are glum because of that genetics thing, instead of your father losing half his torso in a mining accident, and Granny using her .22 on potential dates, and Momma keeping it all together with the Bible and a smile, even though her drinking is getting a bit out of hand.

Naw, getting away from your family won't help the glum.

There is a kind of depression that is not related to life events. And that kind of depression is related to whacky brain chemicals. And those people should be helped. But there's much more depression related to all kinds of tragedies that originate HERE, in the all-too-real-world, that will impact a person regardless of their brain chemicals. In fact, we have a word for somebody who is cheerful despite losing loved ones.

That word is sociopath.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The "Stained Polo" Paradox

In economic thought a paradox is the unintuitive outcome of a theory, which points up an unsupported assumption in its logic. It illuminates a weakness in the theory, a warning that its structure does not reflect reality. The "Stained Polo" Paradox is staring American corporations in the face, and they refuse to see it.

In her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, writer Barbara Ehrenreich describes her undercover stint as a Wal-Mart employee. Because Wal-Mart requires their "associates" to report to work in collared shirts, a co-worker had been keeping tabs on a polo shirt that was due to be marked down. When the price adjustment went into effect, she examined the shirt and discovered a stain. She and Barbara agreed that the stain should result in a further markdown. A manager rejected the deal. Even with the employee discount, the co-worker was unable to afford the marked down, stained polo shirt.

Let that concept sink in for a moment, as it did not sink in for Wal-Mart: their employees cannot afford the goods Wal-Mart sells.

They obviously don't see the paradox. After all, a yacht broker may not be able to afford a yacht themselves. But they should be able to afford a motor boat, a small sailboat, or even a Zodiac dinghy. Yachts are the top of the scale, and it's understandable that a yacht-related employee would move down the scale for their own personal use. And they don't have to own a yacht in order to sell yachts.

It is an entirely different matter for an employee of Wal-Mart to not be able to afford a shirt required by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, by its own proclaimed goal, is the bottom of the scale. There is nowhere else for an employee to move down except off the retail map entirely, and "shop" at the local Salvation Army.

It puts a whole new meaning into the term "race to the bottom."

American business is busy slashing wages. They assume a closed system, where their slashing wages exists in a vacuum, separate and unequal to their base's buying power. But that is not the reality. The reality is that with lowered wages, income shrinks inexorably. And sales are inexorably based on income.

The true bottom line here is not the recent quarterly numbers, which show profits going up after the latest round of slashing. The result of their slashing, in the next quarter, is lowered sales. The true bottom line is: Who Can Afford to Buy What They Have to Sell.

They are shrinking that pool of consumers themselves, with all the speed and efficiency of a flu outbreak. It's an infectious disease they are spreading with no thought of how the ripples will roll back. It's not just the people who lose their jobs who can't afford to buy the things they used to make. The people who get those jobs, at the lowered wages, can't afford to buy the things they make.

The very top of American business feel themselves immune. They aren't slashing their own wages. They are murdering their workforce to keep from slashing their profits. But they can't murder the workforce without murdering their own consumer base. Don't they realize the workforce IS their consumer base?

The American economy is built on mass production and mass consumption. Mass, as we know from physics, is energy which can be converted from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Mass production has to have its equal and opposite force, mass consumption.

Taking the mass out of consumption will also take the mass out of production. Now economy of scale no longer works to lower prices, and they go up. The mass is less able to afford goods at the higher prices, which drives the prices up more for those still able to buy. Which reduces the pool of those able to buy, pushing production down still more.

It's not even economics at this point. It's physics.

What are the consequences of ignoring The "Stained Polo" Paradox?

Soon the ones at the top are the only ones left, and they grab the money and run, letting the company itself, and the pensions with it, sink beneath the waves. They don't start a new company and make new jobs, either. They will whine about the "unfavorable business climate" they created themselves. They will sit on capital, as they are doing now, and complain about how it is shrinking because the economy is not growing.

They will hide in their gated communities, guarded by security personnel getting the tiny minimum wage so that the uniforms have to be bought by their employers, yet another expense that is devouring their stolen capital. They turn up their stereos, hideously expensive now that there is not enough workforce to support economy of scale. They listen to electronic classical, not for the status or the trends, but because out-of-copyright compositions played by one musician on a computer is all that can be produced within the collapsed music industry. They wake from drugged sleep, from nightmares lit by mobs with torches, to push the volume in their sweatshop speakers ever higher, to drown out that sound, that terrible sound.

That sound of Madame Defarge's knitting needles. Click, click, click.

Will they remember The "Stained Polo" Paradox? That warning that their assumptions are not in line with reality? Perhaps.

That woman pawing through the Salvation Army bin, before the bags get sorted, because she can't even afford the pittance the Salvation Army would charge her for the privilege of buying something on a hanger. That woman who once worked for them, until the company went under, and she couldn't get medical care for the child who died in her arms.

That woman's face, in their nightmares, by torchlight.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Unskilled, and Unaware

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

This reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut quote: "The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart."

The study holds out hope. By improving their abilities in humor, logical processing, and grammar, the participants were able to more easily recognize when they were being incompetent. Without this knowledge, improvement is not possible.

It would seem that recognizing when something is not working would be the easiest thing in the world. And it is, if one's reality skills are working properly. Yet the world is full of battered spouses who insist there's nothing wrong with their marriage, disastrous political decisions that the makers insist were right, and Wars on [Insert Favorite Social Problem here].

How can anyone tell? By recognizing that Excuses are Useless, but Reasons are Valuable.

• If it weren't for the killings, Washington would have one of the lowest crime rates in the country.
• Mayor Marion Barry

See the difference? If alien frogs landed in Washington, DC, and started blasting away, the murder rate would go up. There would be a Reason. But what Mayor Barry offered is an Excuse.

And Excuses are bullshit.

If one is late for work because they kept hitting the snooze and sang along with seven songs in the shower and stopped to get a latte even though they were already late, those are Excuses, because one had control over these actions. Being late for work because traffic was clogged from the refugees fleeing the invading frog-aliens, now that's a Reason!

And what we have control over is the key.

We usually have control over our Excuses. That is what makes them so. And we can change them. Even if it would take great effort, we can change them.

Reasons are not so easy. Reasons are supposed to come from reality. While we can't always change Reality, we can try. And sometimes we succeed.

But we always must adapt to reality, and not live in the illusion that it is the other way around.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Alphabetical Discrimination

What's in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success: Economists at Stanford and Caltech find that economists whose last names begin with letters earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top universities, more likely to become fellows of the top economics society and more likely to receive the Nobel Prize and other prestigious awards.

The comic actor Don Adams was born Donald James Yarmy. According to Wikipedia, he took the name because it was the same as his then-wife's stage name. He claimed it was to get to the head of the line in an alphabetical casting call for Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.

It turns out that when economists publish papers, the authors are listed alphabetically. When psychologists publish papers, they don't follow this convention; and there is no alphabetical advantage for psychologists.

As someone who has moved up the alphabet through life events (from "T" to "R" to "M") I can attest that it is real, though when one gets away from large, externally ordered, groups, it lessens.

Anyone who, like me, has sat through the seemingly endless array of last names which begin with "S" feels this effect. It creates a bond with that little band of "U," "V," and "W's," along with the quirky band of "X," "Y," and "Z's." This is where I found my friends, and even now, I have more at my end of the alphabet that I do at the other.

Perhaps now, as an "M," my horizons will broaden.

Or perhaps not. Those early years have set the mold. When confronted with an alphabetical list of choices, I find I automatically go to the bottom and work up. I reject the blandness and ubiquity of the "A," B," and "C's." I love to lurk in the hinterlands at the bottom of the alphabet.

They've had plenty of time to think.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Unmasked Id

The simplest way to think of the id is to hang around a toddler in the concept stage that is after "possession" but before "empathy." It's the stage where they go around grabbing everything they want and yelling "Mine! Mine!"

Life is never that simple again.

Unfortunately, some people stay that simple. Some of them become criminally violent, as in this study: CJO - Abstract: The present results suggest that violent offenders show dual impairments in inhibitory cognitive control. First, they are deficient in shifting attention from one category to another. Secondly, the ability to alter behaviour in response to fluctuations in the emotional significance of stimuli is compromised. These deficits might constitute cognitive reflections of the biological prefrontal alterations observed in this group of people.

Nutshelling it, the study found that, because of prefrontal lobe deficiencies, this group could not move out of a groove very well. Once the idea of "I'm going to punch somebody" appeared in their heads, its expression was well-nigh inevitable. In addition, all new ideas would appear in the same emotional framework. Once "belligerence" became the default operating mode, it would be expressed regardless of circumstance, be they the orginal annoyance, police officers, or Mom with an apple pie.

These people are worst-case, but there are lesser degrees of the same syndrome walking among us. It's expected in a toddler. It's disastrous in an adult. Because these people are only adult in body. Their mind has not progressed past a basic id stage. Their mind cannot process reality.

Don't mistake the adult body for the adult mind. So many times we are baffled by people's behavior because it does not make sense... and that's because it does not. We have to change our own frames to realize we are not dealing with another adult. We are dealing with someone who is stubborn, angry, and hurtful because they are out of their depth. They are constantly expected to act in an adult way, and they are incapable of doing so.

That's the reality, and we must act accordingly.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown IV: The Small Box

Outside-the-box thinking is so vital a part of the human experience that one comes away from the study of the concept with two ready amazements: first, it is amazing how much civilization strives to suppress it, and, second, that civilization continues to be unable to do so.

After all, we are born with no box at all. We have senses, reflexes, and embedded coping strategies, but no box to put them in. That's how Harlow was able to tease out the seemingly monolithic "mother concept" into food and comfort as separate concepts.

Civilization is a process of building a big strong box to put everything into. Why the sky is blue, what mommies and daddies do, how the whole world works, all of it is a box of varying sizes we all run around in. The more our boxes overlap with others, the better off we usually are. Sharing a common concept of car driving lets us all get to the store and back, safely.

The bigger and better the box becomes, the harder it is to think outside of it, because strategies inside the box work so well. Following the circular motion laws of physics, however, the opposite is also true. That is, the smaller the box, the harder it is to think outside of it, because there are fewer and fewer strategies in the box with us.

Thus, the key to proper box building is this: when a wall is encountered, it's time for outside the box thinking, which in turn makes the box bigger. Even as the box expands, the ability to think outside of it expands also. The goal of infinity boxing is, itself, infinite... but a person's reach should exceed their grasp. Or their box never gets bigger.

What cult thinking does is keep shrinking the box to contain only the concepts beneficial to the cult. They are presented as beneficial to the recruit, to engage their willingness to shrink the box. It seems like box expansion at the time, of course.

Tightening the circle of relationships to only those in the cult doesn't look like box shrinkage when those cult relationships are so gratifying.

Shrinking the possibilities of action to only cult-approved actions doesn't feel like box shrinkage when the cult-approved actions are so fulfilling.

Restricting one's internal thoughts to cult-approved thoughts doesn't make a recruit unhappy. Their thoughts feel like happy thoughts because the recruit relieves the tension of cognitive dissonance when they adopt cult thinking.

Better relationships, positive actions, doubt-free thinking. It's wonderful! The recruit feels loved, supported, and clear-headed in a way they never felt before.

When reality intrudes, as reality always does, boxes are threatened. People with box expansion capability push out on the walls, incorporate the lessons of reality, and have a better box to live in.

However, the whole point of cult-supported box shrinkage is to atrophy box expansion capability. It is literally inconcievable to go outside the box for new ways of looking at reality. Simplistic reflexes have replaced every possible avenue for box expansion.

"My friends and relatives seem worried about me." They're wrong! They don't support me the way my friends in the cult do.

"This action isn't something I thought was right and good." But I was wrong to think that! My new actions are what everyone else does.

"I have doubts about my decisions." Doubt is wrong! It's just outside-world/bad-programming/Satan putting these thoughts in my head. I must banish them!

In November of 1978, cult members in Guyana, picking up their latest shipment, found a drum of chemicals that they hadn't ordered. They were told it had been sent by Temple headquarters. They discovered that it was full of a cynanide compound with no conceivable agriculture or manufacturing use in the society they had carved out of the jungle.

And they brought it back to Jonestown.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown III: The Breakdown

There's another essential element in the development of any cult member. It usually isn't enough to create a new world for the recruit. It's also vital to destroy the old one.

As nice as the new world can be, withdrawing from it is infinitely easier if the old world is still sitting there, unchanged and familiar. So while the new world is being created, the old world can't just suffer only by comparison. It has to be dismantled, inside and out, so when the cult asks for a big thing, there's nowhere to go.

The outside of the old world is dismantled by ENEMIES. Oh, that old world actually was teeming with enemies, lurking with pits for the unwary, actively working against the recruit in ways they hadn't even realized at the time. Didn't get that job, diploma, significant other or new toy? It wasn't their fault. It was that dang outside world working against them.

This is a seductive thought when formulated in the privacy of one's couch. It becomes well-nigh irresistible when other people say it constantly. All past disappointments are recast as a monolithic conspiracy to keep one down. All past triumphs are all the greater when they are wrested from the grasp of the ENEMIES.

The recruit is a new, more heroic, beset person than they ever dreamed. They are now more valuable and valiant than they had ever concieved. And this new person changes with these new concepts.

The internal changes are put on greased rails with the ever-popular cult trifecta of peer pressure, intimidation, and threats.

The new world is made up of people who never show their doubts. So the recruit does not.

The new world is made up of people who want to help the recruit see things in a new way. If the recruit does not want to be helped, a little pressure is a good thing among friends. And soon the recruit joins in the circle of pressure.

And the threats just keep coming. Threats of withdrawal, of disapproval, of rejection. And key here is how the recruit responds to threats.

All abusive relationships test the waters first. The first time a boyfriend demands that his girl break off her conversation to get him something, the first time a boss asks for unpaid overtime, the first time a cult leader asks for a sacrifice for the greater good; it's easy. It seems easier to comply than make a fuss. Until the effort of making a fuss is so overwhelming the recruit is almost unable to do so.

They are literally no longer the person they were. The world has changed, inside and outside.

Simple steps, impossible for others to comprehend. "Why didn't you leave?" is the number one question that gets asked. Lost in the echo of the question is the obvious: By the time the person wanted to, leaving no longer looked like an option.

Looking back, they often can't even tell when the box lid closed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown II: The Investment

Jim Jones used "the ends justify the means" to pull his followers into highly immoral acts. How can this happen with people who joined his Temple in the pursuit of moral goals? How does someone come to accept such a twisted philosphy?

Through the magic of "investment."

Investment is a deeply embedded coping strategy that evolved to keep humans on track. The man or woman who came up with the wheel probably reached a point where their efforts did not seem to be paying off. Without the concept of investment, they would have given up. It keeps marriages together, gets parents past the "terrible twos" stage with their children, and allows old people to have a cranky license. But like all deeply embedded coping strategies, it can be misused.

Jones had carefully orchestrated receptions for new Temple prospects. They would be shown the glories of membership, tailored to their individual motivations. Idealists would have the lure of social progress. The lonely would have instant family and friends. The insecure would have the promise of being cared for by the Temple. And all would be a part of a bigger, greater, something.

Once a prospect came to enjoy these goals, the first request would be made. A tiny one. A tithe could be donated to the poor and sick. A few hours of unpaid labor in the service of the Temple. Taking a newcomer under their wing. An investment in a system that gives so much.

Then, a little more. Can't the tithe be higher, can't they work a little longer for this big new project, can't they bring some friends and family to Temple next time?

By the time the request reaches a moral tipping point, the outlook has changed. The subject has invested so much that the benefits of Temple membership has become greater than the drawbacks of what they are being asked to do. It's just passing on information from their job, or convincing a possible defector to come back in the fold.

And so, step by step, inch by inch, people find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into moral quicksand. But it doesn't feel like quicksand. It feels warm, embracing, loving. The outside world recedes in importance. They don't need approval and reinforcement from the outside world. They have more and better in the Temple world, where everyone else is approving and reinforcing what they are doing. Where they have invested so much.

So when the big request comes, something so big and uncomfortable to contemplate that they want to pull back, they have gone past their feet into the quicksand, past the point where one big step could get them out. They've gone past their knees, where it would require the effort of their arms and a strong rope. They are up to their hips in it, and to struggle out would require their entire body. It would require relinquishing their entire Temple life.

Or, instead, all they have to do is a mental adjustment; to look at what they are asked to do as an unpleasant task, to be sure, but one they can justify in terms of survival. To keep their life.

And self-preservation is the most deeply embedded coping strategy of them all.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lessons from Jonestown

One of the joys of used bookstores is finding some gem caught on the shores of the sell-stream. In this case, it was Raven: The Untold Story of Reverend Jim Jones and His People: By Tom Reiterman & John Jacobs

The Jonestown massacre was almost thirty years ago. Yet the lessons from the book are just as fresh, showing that the psychos are always with us.

The phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" has caught on to describe willful rejection of reality to embrace a soothing lie. (For the record, it was grape Flavor Aid. Truth is important.) And that is what Jim Jones did. The echoes of his obsessions are part of national discourse today. Even though Jones lured people in with socialistic and communist ideals, the main points of his philosophy are with us now in the rantings of the Republican Right.

Because it doesn't matter what goals grifters claim to have. Grifters are about the grift.

Jim Jones had mental problems, and coped with them by using his charisma and psychological knowledge to pull other people into his fantasy world. There's nothing inherently wrong with fantasy worlds, or getting people to join them. The whole Star Trek phenomena has not only provided employment for thousands of creative workers, but provided millions more with a way of thinking about the world that fosters scientific and humanistic goals. Even for the people working on dioramas in their basement, it provides creative energy and a social framework.

However, Jim Jones' fantasy world only pretended to be about other people's welfare. It was really about Jones' welfare. While the first steps into the Temple were benign, carefully orchestrated events, everyone was soon confronted with a moral conflict that would determine their future path. They would be asked to do bad for good.

The end justifies the means. This is probably Jones' most repeated excuse, which he used to justify deceptive faith healings, financial scams, and physical, mental, and sexual abuse of his followers. In turn, his followers would use this to excuse their own immoral behavior in the service of the Temple. In a way, this was the biggest lie of all. It has a distinct way of turning on the practioners, until the ends become subsumed in the means and they are indistinguishable. For the love of humantity, there's a reason ends and means are different concepts! Use them accordingly.

This deliberate blurring of idealistic goals and the goals of Jim Jones in the minds of followers led to the insane acts committed by people who joined the Temple to be Good. From the outside, it looks properly twisted. From the inside, justification was exercised on a daily basis, and just like our deltoids, any muscle constantly exercised gains power and grows. Even to the extent that it pulls the body out of shape and lets other muscles atrophy.

Once a person has accepted "the ends justify the means," any act, no matter how heinous, is now justifiable. That's one heck of a slippery slope, straight down with no handholds.

That's how it happens.

Lessons from Jonestown II: The Investment
Lessons from Jonestown III: The Breakdown
Lessons from Jonestown IV: The Small Box

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Name that delusion.

Worldandnation: Hitting the trail with nation's cyclist in chief: Standing on the driveway outside his home, President Bush explains the rules for people who go mountain biking with him. It will be a vigorous workout. It is not a race. And no one, the president says with a smile, is allowed to pass him.

So which delusion is this? So often, when I regard this man's behavior, the word "infantile" comes to mind. It's no different that playing with a pre-schooler who insists on rolling the dice until they get a number they like. As we mature, we realize that changing the rules is cheating.

And the man has a well known, and well documented, reality problem.

As parents, it behooves us to explain cheating and rules to our children. That's because mommy and daddy and big sister may relent and let them roll the dice as much as they like, the greater world does not have the same indulgence. It's a shock to discover that in your twenties, instead of when you are five.

What really matters in life: When the going gets tough, which will invariably occur, will these products of elite private schools have the wherewithal to confront adversity, tenaciously fight the good fight, maintain dignity and optimism, and cling to truth and other moral values while facing the maelstroms of existence?

Apparently not.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Fox News Effect

The Fox News Effect: The test found Republicans preferred to get their news from Fox -- even when the news stories were about subjects far removed from politics, such as sports or travel.

As Mr. Spock would say: "Fascinating." He wouldn't say, "Logical." How could he? It makes no logical sense at all.

While it's understandable that people with strong political leanings would feel more comfortable getting their political news from a source that they feel shares their outlook, what possible reason could there be for getting sports and travel news from a source who shares their political outlook?

Can it be, for some, the personal is this political? This same study showed that ... Democrats didn't have as strong a preference on non-political stories, Iyengar found.

And what does this mean?

It means Democrats didn't find non-political stories to have a political slant. Despite all certain thinkers might prefer, Democrats and Republicans are not from radically different gene pools. This means the only explanation is that Republicans, and not Democrats, live in a highly politicized world, wherein even where one vacations, and what sports figure does what, are considered through the lens of party affiliation.

It becomes a "when everything is significant, nothing is" kind of situation. In other words, the rankest and lowest sort of superstition. When one doesn't believe how many home runs were batted by someone if the count is reported by an "unreliable" source... then, by golly, a person has really gone over the edge of paranoia.

Maybe it's so that paranoiacs are right about people being after them. But maybe... it's the people who are supposed to be on their side.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Trap of Idealism

Beware of ideaology.: Any system of ideas with an abstraction at its center--an abstraction which assigns you a role or duties--is an ideology. An ideology provides those who accept it with a false consciousness, a necessary component of which is other-directedness. This leads those who accept the ideology to behave as 'objects' rather than 'subjects,' to allow themselves to be used rather than to act to attain their own desires. The various ideologies are all structured around different abstractions, yet all serve the interests of a dominant (or aspiring dominant) class by giving individuals (though the term hardly seems appropriate--'members of the herd' is perhaps more accurate) a sense of purpose in sacrifice, suffering, and submission.

I couldn't have said it better myself. (I did try.) Abstraction is a great thing to have floating around in one's thoughts. And that's where abstractions belong.

There's nothing wrong with being idealistic. One should have ideals, and ideally, strive towards them. But being idealistic is not the same as being ideal. Therein lies the catch.

Regarding oneself as an abstraction ties in with this problem of idealism. An abstraction can be perfect, because it does not have to be human. It is great to have high goals. It is not great to berate oneself so badly for not reaching them that one is rendered incapable of achieving any goals at all.

This problem reaches a peak when one starts to feel that one is expected to be perfect. When one blames problems on not being perfect. "If only I were the perfect mother/ son/ employee/ driver/ shopper, I wouldn't be having these problems." Perhaps so. But any system predicated on someone being perfect is doomed to fail anyway.

The enduring trap of idealism lies in its expectations. Ideally, everyone should behave. But it is not ideal to have no mechanisms to encourage people to behave, or penalities for when they do not. This is where idealism reveals its limitations. Yes, it would be ideal if teenagers didn't get emotionally and physically involved in relationships before they know how to handle them. Yes, it would be ideal if people married their true love early in life and never had to divorce. Yes, it would be ideal if people conducted their lives in such a way that they didn't have to wrestle with moral dilemmas.

But they don't, and they never will.

Ideals are for striving towards. It is foolish to have no fallback plan for when we fail to reach them.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Too much of what can be a good thing.

It's sort of like clams. Good clams are very good. Bad clams are very very bad. But we can't pursue our spiritual goals only in the months with "R" in them. (That would be like the people who go to church only on EasteR and ChRistmas.) How, then, is one to tell that they might be following the wrong path?

Our religious urges have many good goals. There's leading a moral life, finding spiritual satisfaction, and coming closer to whatever our conception of Godhood is. That's a place to start.

It is entirely possible to lead a moral life outside of the boundaries of organized religion. Due to the institutional nature of many organized religions, it is sometimes easier. There's the Inquisition, Puritan intolerance leading to the founding of several states, and jihad, for instance. There isn't any doubt that people who oppose these practices are more moral than those who practiced them.

It seems counter-rational to argue this when religions are supposed to be about leading moral lives. But it's an unfortunate side effect of organization that it tends to cement all decisions; even bad ones. This is difficult enough when it's a relatively small group with a clearly defined goal. The March of Dimes started as a charitable drive to eradicate polio. In 1958, with two successful vaccines against polio virtually wiping out the disease as a public health problem, the March of Dimes recreated itself by using its existing infrastructure to prevent premature birth, birth defects and infant mortality. The discovery that folate supplementation can prevent spina bifida is a more recent expression of the organization reaching a new goal.

It's a different matter when an organized religion feels the pressure to adapt to change. Admitting they were wrong about something is much more difficult when God was supposed to be in on the process. While the March of Dimes had a problem with success, it's hard for a church to rest on its laurels when sin is always with us.

It's actually an easier determination to figure out if a path is providing spiritual satisfaction. One is either satisfied, or one is not. What is the really sticky part is recognizing that one is spiritually lacking, and doing something about it. If at one time a person truly believed they were on the path to salvation, recognizing that they might not be is a perilous decision that is often suppressed with ruthless will.

This is when people redouble their efforts, and develop religious intolerance. It's one thing to admit one's religious authorities may have made mistakes in the past, which one feels confident are now rectified. It's entirely another thing to admit one's own self may have made mistakes in following this path. Especially if the penalty for doubt is spiritual death. We have a strong urge to avoid death in all its forms.

Religious intolerance comes from doubt. And if doubters aren't around, suppressing doubt is so much easier!

A Mr. Pearson wrote a book about his own spritual journey. After I started identifying that my problems were not based on the fact that I wasn't good enough, that certain things weren't happening not because God wasn't rewarding me, but just because we all have certain limitations as people, I began to outgrow many of my hyperreligious traits. Hyperreligiosity: Identifying and Overcoming Patterns of Religious Dysfunction: R. S. Pearson

An honest man with honest concerns. And rightly so. He recognized that he didn't feel close to his conception of Godhood, even when he applied his utmost efforts. And he was right. Like true love, true spirituality comes without effort.

How can one tell is their religion might be leading them astray? Another deep thinker has come up with several "Ways to Tell":

Whenever a religion emphasizes that it holds the absolute truth-the one path to God or the only correct way of reading a sacred text-to the exclusion of the truth claims of all other religions and cultures, that religion is becoming evil. Other warning signs include blind obedience to religious leaders, apocalyptic belief that the end time will occur through a particular religion, the use of malevolent ends to achieve religious goals (e.g., the Crusades) and the declaration of holy war. When Religion Becomes Evil: Charles Kimball

Oxymorons are a good way to tell if one's thoughts are tangled. "Holy war" is one.

Another is "Doubting God." God IS.

And our doubts are trying to tell us something.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dumbing Down

The Dumbing Down Of The American Mind: There is a very dangerous phenomenon that seems to be occurring in the United States of America; something that I refer to as 'the dumbing-down of the American mind,' a nearly willful tendency for Americans to forgo reality in favor of believing what they want to believe.

I don't think this is a recent tendency, is all. I think everyone, always, has this tendency. What might be different, in this point in time, is the hearty approval and enabling of our public institutions towards that end.

If we look back through the mists of time, we see the Red Scare of the 1950's, when many people were whipped into a frenzy at the idea that Communists were going to take over our government. Even further back, the Civil War was fought over the unconvenient truth that slavery was wrong, and economies based on such were not going to last. In each period, there were a great many people who would rather believe a comforting lie than the harsh truth.

Basically, it's just human nature to do that.

But, just like bloodlust and the desire to skate through red lights, this is a destructive tendency which must be curbed. Usually, there are enough people around to keep the truth inconveniently hanging around. And there still are. But more and more, our own sources of authority have become corrupted.

Our own government acts like abstinence education for teenagers really works. It pressures NASA scientists to insert the word "theory" after each mention of the Big Bang on their website. And it's pretty clear by this time that our President simply lies like a rug.

We all get our sense of working reality from our external world. In the century just past we saw how a even a sincere belief grounded in wanting to help people went wrong. Communism had an idealistic goal of distributing what was needed to everyone who needed it. So far, so good.

There were oppressive people who had more than they needed, and deserving people who had less than they needed. This was true. Everyone who had more than they needed were treated as oppressive, and everyone who had less than they needed were treated as deserving. This was not true, but it was useful to act as if it were so, or they would never get this process off the ground.

The next stage assumed that everyone would still work as hard as they did when getting what they needed depended on it. But since getting what they needed did not depend on it, this did not happen. But it was essential to the belief that everyone act as though this were so. When people did not act as though this were so, strong measures had to be taken for everyone to at least say it was so.

Thus the oppression, censorship, torture, and murders began.

I'm sure some people supported the goals of the conservative movement out of genuine conviction. Even now, they claim everything they tried to do has been distorted. But what were their goals? How did it go wrong? Are they really sitting down and thinking things through, seeing if Reality supports their contentions?

Because in Whole Grain Reality, it is massively messed up. Or we wouldn't have the oppression, censorship, torture, and murders.

That's a clear clue something has gone horribly horribly wrong.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Theory & Practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
• Yogi Berra

In Reality, we all use the scientific principles, whether we know it or not. It is better to know it, and apply them with full knowledge of what they can do for us.

The scientific method is the process by which we, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world. Recognizing that personal and cultural beliefs influence both our perceptions and our interpretations of natural phenomena, we aim through the use of standard procedures and criteria to minimize those influences when developing a theory. As a famous scientist once said, "Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view." In summary, the scientific method attempts to minimize the influence of bias or prejudice in the experimenter when testing an hypothesis or a theory.

All righty then. What does this have to do with our daily lives? Everything.

We drive to the store to pick up a loaf of bread. First of all, we drive according to a collectively recognized set of rules that have been proven to get us there without hitting anything. We don't drive on the median, or drive without putting the key in, or any number of other variations which we may prefer, but has shown to be, in actual practice, unworkable. Likewise, upon reaching the store, we look for the bread in the bread aisle, which everyone has agreed where the bread should go, and more importantly, is where the bread actually is.

Upon leaving the store, we may prefer to just walk out with our bread. If we do, we run into a lot of real world complications. Most of us have agreed to a transfer of assets that will let us peacefully leave with what is now recognized as our loaf of bread.

This is an uncomplicated transaction, and yet many episodes of Cops will show that some people have problems with every element of this scenario. We shake our heads at such people, and wonder where their sense of reality is. Yet, writ larger, this problem can affect anyone.

Many of our struggles in life come from a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that we are not operating from an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world. Consider the fruitless pursuit of love, which has resulted in actual stalking laws that attempt to explain to the wrongly besotted person that when the object of their desire changes their phone number, moves to a new place, and takes out a restraining order, this means said object does not want to date them.

Most of us are not stalkers. But we do pursue relationships with no realistic expectation of working. We toil in jobs we don't like instead of breaking out into something else. We gnash our teeth over parts of our life we feel we have no control over, and yet most of the time we struggle because we do have control over it, we are just not exercising it in the right way.

We keep expecting things to go the way we want them. That's the theory. But in actual practice, it is not going that way. We have to change our theory and proceed on the new one if we have any hope of getting what we actually want.

But instead, too often, we just cling to our theory. And come up with elaborate explanations about why it's not working.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Religious Scams & Other Metaphors

People of faith vulnerable to 'affinity frauds,' 11/17/01: Religious scams may be the most common, lucrative and insidious of all, authorities say.

In a previous post I stated the fact that some people of religious faith are more vulnerable to con artists.

"I thought I had the best of both worlds. Here was an organization that was doing good and was offering investment returns that I couldn't match anywhere else," said the 73-year-old Southern Baptist from Palestine, Texas. Bomar said he was told, '"Your money is protected by the Lord.' They were parading under the guise of a Christian cause, and it turned out to be anything but."

Herein lies the kicker. The more one's religion encourages its participants to ignore rational thought, the more they are going to get smacked in situations that require rational thought.

That's just a fact. But it escapes some people. When one thinks about it, (rationally, of course,) it doesn't make tremendous sense to ignore rational thought in a religious context, either.

Spirituality deals with things that are unseen, but not undemonstrated. Science has reached a point where they can see how "love" and "hate" light up different portions of the brain, but are no closer to sticking these concepts in a petri dish than they ever were. Spirituality helps close this gap by giving us a structure in which to think about huge emotional and philosophic concepts and how they relate to our lives.

It was never meant to be taken literally.

Trying to wrestle these huge concepts into a literal box destroys both the concepts, and the box. When metaphors about life and love and our commitments to our fellow folk turn into literal people striding around the cosmos, personally checking our return rate, things have gone horribly horribly wrong.

It just goes to show what I have always felt: that if one can't expand to fit the divine, one will shrink the divine into something that they can fit into.

Which is an insult to the divine.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Gullible People

Gullible People: Why are we so gullible? One reason is modern man's loss of religious faith. That loss creates a vacuum ready to suck in some new form of belief. The eminent British broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge (1903 ~ 1990) had this to say on the subject, 'One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we've developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.'

I don't understand how this theory is supposed to work. Especially since in many religions, they ask you to believe some pretty bizarre stuff themselves. As far as modern man's loss of faith, there's a lot of clear evidence that certain segments of modern man have way too much faith, in that they are using faith too much to try to solve Real World problems. And it is an established fact that con artists love to target the religious. Because they have so much practice in believing the inexplicable.

Gullibility results from wanting to believe something that has no external evidence to support it. Look at the people who fall for the famous Nigerian Email scam. Urban Legends Reference Pages: Crime (Nigerian Scam): A wealthy foreigner who needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland promises a hefty percentage of this fortune as a reward for assisting him. In order to fall for this one, a person needs to have two things in place: a staggering ignorance of banking laws, and a strong desire for money.

Since those two things are quite abundant, the scam keeps going. In fact, if we look at any of the spam clogging our mailboxes, we see how much of this unwanted email rests on the same foundation. The emails offer to transform our lives by slimming us down, enlarging certain body parts, and making us rich, all with very little effort on our part.

It sounds too good to be true.

Because of some people wanting so much for it to be true, we all get the spam clogging our systems. Sure, I blame the spammers. But they are just exercising capitalism, and they are going to do it as long as there are victims out there. To solve it we need to target the spring they tap from. I blame the people who fall for it.

THEY are the ones clogging our mailboxes. THEY are the ones enabling the current government to pursue worthless and dangerous policies. THEY are the ones who blunder around and mess good things up for the rest of us.

So we see that gullible people are not just dangers to themselves.

They are a problem for all of us.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Taking Responsibility

Have the courage to use your own understanding!
• Immanuel Kant

Some people seem to prefer being screwed up, and not take the blame.

Than to be successful, and take the credit.

This usually happens when people get the idea that they are unable to handle their own decisions. This is sort of like the definition of insanity: if you worry about who should have the responsibility, you are probably capable of handling it yourself.

This gift is ours, free, with no cost or obligation. If at any time making our own decisions does not offer its own reward, we can return this gift at any time. Manipulative, selfish, greedy operators are standing by.

This fear of responsibility is responsible for many of the stupid decisions people make about how they live their life. The well traveled path seems safer, since it is lined with signs indicating that many people have come this way before. This is only a bad thing if we don’t really want to take that path, but have chosen it simply because of all the signs. Choosing in this way becomes not our own choice, but a willingness to let Other People choose for us.

We are the only person who can decide what are our right choices. It’s not that we can’t listen to advice, it’s that we have to filter the advice according to the source, the intent, and the appropriateness.

When we make the choice, we have to take the responsibility. This is where many people draw back and give it up. Letting Other People choose for us lets us shift the blame if things go wrong. Is it really worth it? Living screwed up lives because, "It isn't our fault?"

After all, it is us who has to live the screwed up life.

One of the rewards of getting older is that we no longer have to cope with Other People having unavoidable control over us. If we act as though they still do, that is an illusion.

Once we reach adulthood, we have the responsibility for ourselves, whether we like it or not. No matter what lapses in your upbringing, or limitations we are struggling against, there is someone out there who overcame the same problems. By becoming the best they could be.

We are, ultimately, our own creation.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

How Belief Differs from Reality: The Jell-O Example

Don't get me wrong. Belief is a vital step. But only the first one.

Belief alone is not reality, anymore than Jell-O in the box is the same thing as Jell-O in a mold with marshmallows. It’s both Jell-O. But it’s Jell-O in different states. Jell-O in the box is potential Jell-O, just one of many essential elements of the actual Jell-O.

We are often told that if you want something enough, this will make it so. Which is true, but only if you go about it in the right way. If it were that simple, there would be no such things as gridlocked traffic, painful diseases, and stalkers.

Belief is a potential reality. But do not confuse the two.

This state often comes about because we want something very much. To bring it into reality we have to open the box. To either make the Jell-O; or realize the box is empty.

Oh, the horror, if the box is empty. So we avoid opening the box. And we don’t ever make Jell-O.

We have also damaged our ability to tell a box that contains Jell-O from one that does not. We could have a hundred boxes in the cupboard, and the hope that if we need Jell-O, we have it. We believe we have Jell-O.

But all of those boxes could be empty.

This is not something we discover until the moment we need Jell-O most; the morning of a dinner party where we have promised our famous, special Jell-O. This is not the time to find out we have nothing but empty boxes. But because of our reluctance and our inability, this is when we will find out.

That is the true horror.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It's Almost Real

Technology has reached the point that, now, you don't have to be very bright to have a fantasy life.

There were always storytellers, and then there were books. Even radio still required our imaginations to take fire. With only the words, people still had to build the stuff in their heads to feel that they could experience it.

But, now, it's laid out for them.

And more people are indulging in this marvelous pastime. Because it is both marvelous and a pastime. From the wheel to the Apollo 11 moon landing, stuff had to be imagined before it could come into being.

But it also has to come into being.

The only explanation for the huge segment of the population that keeps the celebrity worshipping culture alive is that this has become their fantasy life. Don't have a mansion, personal assistance, and a helicopter on call? Let's play pretend.

Reality shows are self-explanatory. Video games now have the ability to pass for real at a distance. Movies have gone hyper-real with CG wizardry that can get shots impossible to create with actual actors and sets.

But it's only an illusion. All of it. It's not a substitute for real life, and it's not supposed to be. Yet I think that too many people use it that way. Because it's easy now. We no longer have to build it and populate it ourselves. Even Conan the Barbarian pulp stories had only the words and maybe a cover illustration to help one along. The rest had to take place in the imagination.

But now no one has to exercise even that. It's obsessively laid out to the tiniest detail, and some people just sit and dream. Not even aware that what they are experiencing is only a shadow show, because in their input stunted state, the fantasy seems as real as it gets.

There was an emergency room doctor who did a rotation in an inner city emergency room. He said the strangest thing was the people who came in after getting shot; and they were amazed that it hurt. Of course it hurts, he would say. But it didn't look like it in the movies, the victims explained, where the hero just wrapped his wound in a handkerchief and carried on.

That's a serious reality disconnect.

In legend, the Lotus Eaters lost touch with the reality where their body dwelt, and through neglecting that element, they died. We haven't reached the point (and I'm saying yet,) that fantasy can get so compelling it blots out the Real World. But what it has reached is worse in a way. The fantasy is compelling enough that some consumers forget that it is not real, and they can only assume experience and emotions that they do not actually have.

And we all know what happens when people assume.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Using Both Halves of the Brain.

Rational people condemn actions taken without proper forethought. Yet a reverence for rationality can obscure the equally powerful contribution of sub-rational thought, the kind of "thought" that goes on beneath our stream of consciousness.

Even people who are not James Joyce fans have experienced the “jingle channel” (as psychologist Martin Seligman calls it)—that steady hum of of what goes on in our heads that we tune in and out of. Driving home we run through our rational litany: "I guess it has to be laundry time this weekend... unless I've really been good and can fit in those khakis at the back of the closet... I did get a salad for lunch Tuesday... or was it Wednesday... I was finishing that project... got to get those stats... now's a great time to remember... I could really use a latte." And we consciously drift over to the drivethru window at our favorite coffee place.

All very rational. Or was it? We were consciously reminded we wanted to cut down on treats, yet we consciously order the latte with whipped cream on top. Unless we become aware of what drives us, we will continue to be baffled by our own behavior. Later, when those khakis are still too tight in the waist, we will berate ourselves over that latte.

What went on? It was something like this:

"I guess it has to be laundry time this weekend (don't really want to) unless I've really been good and can fit in those khakis at the back of the closet (I really want to fit in those again!) I did get a salad for lunch Tuesday (I sacrificed!) or was it Wednesday (it's been a long week) I was finishing that project (and my boss is asking about it) got to get those stats (Gee, am I the only one who works around there!) now's a great time to remember (why didn't I make that call) I could really use a latte (because dang it I've worked hard all week and something has to give!)"

And since pleasure is the antidote to pain, the the simple, unthinking part of us clamors for a treat. And since we haven't noticed what has happened, we are truly helpless to apply rational thought to it.

If we did pay attention to where that thought came from, we could follow it to a more rational conclusion. Whether it's getting an expresso instead, deciding to go for a walk to relieve tension, or just buying a new pair of khakis, we could apply our rationalization processes to the problem. Instead of thoughtlessly reacting, then berating ourselves for reacting, and being so busy feeling bad about ourselves we don't stop to think.

Because our instincts are thinking, too. They are simply the thinking that goes on in the right side of the brain, the intuitive, non-verbal side that can't speak. The side that can't jump into the jingle channel and make its wishes heard. The side that nonetheless manages to exert its influence in ways that are baffling, unless and until we make an effort to listen to all sides of ourselves.

This is the core of the Zen concept of Living in the Now. Because our instincts are always in the Now, making decisions nanosecond by nanosecond while the rational brain is speculating on the future and rampaging through the past. We need to use both halves of our brain, because they are equally important.

The rational half will tell us to step carefully out into the street.

The instinctual half will get us out of the way when a car comes unexpectedly.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Christianity: Simplified

"I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious sensibilities of anyone." Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species, 1869

I agree with Darwin. There aren't any good reasons. Spirituality is a wonderful thing.

Like many wonderful things, such as Key Lime pie, people manage to muck up perfectly simple concepts. (It's not green, people. And the right topping is whipped cream, not meringue! Find some other use for those egg whites.)

There is considerable science behind the idea that we have parts of our brains designed for spiritual experience.

"Are we 'hardwired' for god?":The term 'hardwired' suggests that we were purposefully designed that way. Neuroscience can't answer that question. However what it can say is that the brain does seem to predisposed towards a belief in spiritual and religious matters. The big mystery is how and why this came about.

The beauty of it all is the great range of experience which can trip our spirituality switches. Buddhists get it from their rituals, Catholics get it from theirs, and anyone can get it from a sunset. We get it from art, nature, and even intellectual insight; anything that brightens and and links different parts of our brain as we contemplate things divine in shape or concept.

It's what makes us human. Whether we call it God, or a Higher Power, or my personal favorite, the Life Force, it must be celebrated, and enjoyed, in every sense.

Don't take my word for it. Listen to the words of a Great Teacher:

Matthew, 22:36-40 (KJV)

"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?"

Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'

This is the first and great commandment.

A second likewise is this,'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'

The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Love IS the whole of the law. And the rest, as they say, is commentary.