Mar 7, 2014

A Socratic Monologue

Who Would Live in A Hole Like This? by nembow, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  nembow 
Pssst! Come here.

Yes, you. I have something to explain. No, it's not going to hurt, I promise. Sit down, and look at me when I speak.

Here's a little mental puzzle for you. If someone tells you that they are allergic to a particular food, do you go out of your way to make sure to serve it to them when they come to your house?

"Hey, Sharon, I know you're allergic to peanuts, so make sure you have one of these peanut butter cookies that I made especially for you. Why are you crying? No, don't leave! Wait! I —" <slam>

Of course you wouldn't. You're a nice person. Relax. I'm not done, yet, though.

If you have vegan friends, do you make sure to put butter or yogurt in their food, but hide it from them until after they've tried it?

"Frank, I'm glad you enjoyed those vegan mashed potatoes that I made especially for you! I put butter and sour cream in them because I knew you'd enjoy it more. See, there's nothing wrong with . . . wait, why are you so angry with me? I didn't —" <slam>

I know, I know. It seems ludicrous to even suggest that, doesn't it? Again, you're a nice person. I like you. No, I don't think that of you. But I have another, more subtle one.

"Roger, thank you for letting me know that your daughter is terrified of dogs, but I assure you that we don't own any dogs. . . Sure, you can bring her over any time. I'd love to babysit." [later] "Well, no, those aren't our dogs; I told you, we don't own any! But I knew she was coming over, so I offered to babysit my brother's three pit bulls while he's out of — Oh, for Pete's sake, why's she screaming? Honestly, I didn't —" <slam>

I know, I know. You're shaking your head because you would never, ever do something like any of those things. You're a nice person who generally means well. But I have just one more exercise. Seriously, it won't take but a moment.

OK, imagine you've stopped at a hotel for the evening, and they don't allow pets. But you have a little chihuahua that's cute as a button and hardly ever has an accident in the house. Would you just, you know . . . ignore the hotel's rule about pets, because your chihuahua is so totes adorbz that it couldn't possibly apply to little fluffy-wuffums?

From your facial expression, I apologize for insinuating that you would ignore a sincere request just because you didn't think it applied to you. Calm down. Have a sip of water. Better?

A propos of nothing, were you aware that I'm severely arachnophobic? You know, from 'arachnid,' which means 'spider,' and 'phobos' which is one of the moons of Mars.

Ha! No, I'm just kidding. '-phobia' means 'fear.' So if you put them together, 'arachnophobia' means 'fear of spiders.' Usually given as 'an irrational fear of spiders.' Although the 'irrational' part is not the most important word in that phrase. 'Fear' is.

Yes, actually, it is a phobia, for me, and not just a 'don't like.' I 'don't like' Brussels sprouts. I 'don't like' roller coasters. I am absolutely white-knuckled, heart-rate-doubled, fight-or-flight-kicked-into-high-gear, fucking terrified of spiders. Just talking about them makes my skin crawl. If one were to actually get on me? Oh, Hell no. You wouldn't believe I could move that fast. I've actually harmed myself getting away from a small one that had the misfortune to crawl on me.

What's that? Even the little ones, yes. Those adorable fuzzy little dancing spiders that couldn't harm anyone? Yep. Freak me out only just a little less than those foot-across kinds that hunt down birds and eat them. And even things that aren't spiders but look like them freak me out. Like harvestmen or daddy longlegs or those whip scorpions. Evil, creepy motherfuckers that don't belong on my planet and need to get the fuck off it, and right now.

Oh, I know, and I'm sorry you're uncomfortable. But I do have a point. I was wondering why people who I can only guess are well-meaning — because I can't imagine anyone I actually like doing it with evil intent — post pictures or videos of spiders on their Facebook page and then go out of their way to tag me so that I have to look at the picture. Even just to unsubscribe or remove it from my feed.

I know, I can't believe anyone would do that, either, but you'd be stunned at how often it happens. Whether it's gigantic, five-inch spiders swarming with babies, perched in the corner of some unsuspecting person's bedroom, or a video of a guy trying to catch one on his bathroom ceiling using a swivel chair and a schlupperware container or an extreme close-up of a multicolored, 'cute' spider dancing for his mate, I've been forced to see them all. We will not even discuss the 'raining spiders' video.

Oh, believe me, if I knew spiders are involved, I wouldn't click the link! But it's often unsuspecting, because the person thinks it's funny to send me a link without telling me what it is. I basically don't trust links anymore.

Oh, I'm sure they do it to their other friends, as well. Like, they'll send pictures of mangled corpses to people who've recently lost a loved one in a car accident, or a movie of a clown convention to someone who's coulrophobic. Oh, look it up. I did.

Don't look so hang-dog. As I said, I'm sure that if you've done something like that, you meant well, or thought it was funny. I'm just explaining in the gentlest possible way to you — and anyone else who might also hear this — that it's not funny. And asking you to kindly cut it out. Maybe analogies will do more to help than merely asking has.

Oh, sure, you can go, now. Make sure to have one of those chocolate cookies over by the door on the way out. I absolutely promise there's nothing in them that would make you sick or swell up or run from the room screaming.

I mean, you know. Probably. I don't know what your particular . . . Wait, where are you go— ? <slam>



In all seriousness, if you ever put a spider on me, it better be the funniest thing you've ever seen in your life, because it will be the last time we ever speak. Some people actually do this to their arachnophobic 'friends.' There are videos on YouTube to prove how 'funny' it was. How do I know? Read the above.

Feb 17, 2014

A Rose by Any Other Name

Did anyone ever wonder why this blog is called "Philosophidian"? Or why the title is "Insert Something Pithy Here"? No?

Well, I'm going to tell you anyway.

I have a blog on LiveJournal that I've had since 2003. Sometimes, over there, I would come up with a blog topic that was too serious. I try to be either ranty or entertaining (or entertainingly ranty) over there. I wanted a place where I could write at length about longer, more serious topics. Posts I would have to work on for a while. Essays, as opposed to quick posts.

But it needed a name.

Now, I'm into puns. And I'm into Kaa (the snake from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling). I've been 'Kaa' or 'KaaSerpent' online since the early 90s. If you see a user 'kaa' or 'kaaserpent' on an online forum, there's a good chance it's me.

This was before the days when Google and Facebook and other sites were absolutely hell-bent on associating everyone's real names with everything they ever do online. I wasn't necessarily trying to hide, but I didn't necessarily want everyone I knew (or are related to, or work with) to know I had this blog, either. So I didn't pick my name or a variation thereof.

For the same reason, I also didn't necessarily want this one connected to the LiveJournal one. I was afraid that people used to seeing me be entertaining (at least to myself) might be annoyed or completely uninterested in seeing me be serious. Especially since I espouse a philosophy on life that is contrary to a good number of my friends and all of my family. i.e., that whole 'Atheist' thing. It makes some people touchy, for whatever reason, like they expect me to start chanting in Latin backwards or something. I can be pretty plain-spoken about the topic, here, whereas in my other online blogging homes, I am less in-your-face about it.

So my pun-loving mind starts to percolate names involving 'philosophy' and 'Kaa.' Nothing comes to mind. Until one day I was looking at a list of synonyms for both words and it hit me.

A snake is an ophidian. The presence of 'oph' in both 'philosopher' and 'ophidian' hit me, and thus was born 'Philosophidian.' Philosophical snake.

And I literally could not come up with anything for the title of the blog. I toyed with a lot of things, and finally, just to put something in the space, I typed 'Insert Something Pithy Here,' and it has remained that from day 1.

You'd be surprised at how many people use exactly that or something very close. Or at least I was. I thought I was being sooooo original. So funny. Laugh's on me. :)

If you want to see how my other two blogs got their names, you can click here (LiveJournal) or here (Wordpress).


This post is in response to The Writer's Post Blog Hop 2014 #4 prompt, Explain the Name of Your Blog. The host is Suzy Que. Other entries are linked from her blog post.

Sep 30, 2013

My Afternoon at the Mall

I was at the mall the other day to take my computer to the Apple Store. My Macbook has been having problems, and I figured it was time to let the Geniuses handle it. I'm not being snide, here; that's what the employees at the Apple Store are called: geniuses. I had an appointment, and I was about twenty minutes early.

I parked as close as I could, which — as usual — was at the Belk store closest to the Apple Store. I successfully threaded the competing displays of Halloween and Christmas (Honestly, does this not make anyone else sick?) and made my way upstairs so I could go directly from the Belk just around the corner to the Apple Store.

As I walked through the mall, I noticed a big crowd of people downstairs from me. There was a lot of murmuring, squealing, and flash bulbs. But I didn't have time to loiter.

I made it to the Apple Store just in time for my appointment. I gave The Shiny (my MacBook) to the nice, bearded young man (Is there some rule that male Apple Geniuses all have to have beards?) named Paul. I explained what was going on with the computer and he said he would plug the diagnostic tool into it and let me know if it was something easy, like the graphics card or a bad USB port. Something fixable.

The Apple store was crawling alive with people. Must be something about the end of the month or back to school or something. He told me it would take about an hour if I wanted to wait. Well, of course I want to wait. I can't leave The Shiny overnight.

The withdrawal would be unbearable. :)

I couldn't stand being in the Apple store with all those people, so I wandered back down toward where there are some couches to sit and read on my phone.

I heard that crowd down below again, and figured, "Eh, what the hell. I have time to at least take a look."

There was a large crowd of mostly adults, but some older kids, and frequent flashes from cameras and squeals of delight. "Gotta be puppies or kittens or something," I murmured. "Maybe the ASPCA is sponsoring adoptions."

Then I saw the bright pink sign. A big cartoon close-up of a smiling, toothless baby, its blue eyes practically luminous. Underneath, it said, "PHOTOGRAPH WITH A BABY - $15"

"What the . . . ?" I edged a little closer to see what was going on.

There was a large, fenced-off enclosure. Inside there was a floor that looked like Pergo or linoleum of some kind. The floor was scattered with assorted toys, all brightly colored. Also inside the cage were a bunch of babies.

Yes. Naked babies of all races and both genders. They all looked to be of crawling age, although quite a few of them weren't crawling. Some of them were piled together, dozing, in a big pile of stuffed animals. Others were crawling lazily around on the floor. Adults wearing pink shirts were on their knees cooing to the babies, shaking toys at them and trying to attract their attention.

Dumbfounded, I pushed in a little closer, and got called a very unpleasant name by an older lady whom I apparently offended. I was just in time to see a woman with a couple of older teenagers point at a little Asian baby girl hesitantly crawling away from one of the pink-shirted adults with toys toward the pile of dozing babies.

A man standing in the gate gestured to the baby the woman had pointed at and raised his eyebrows. "That one?"

"Yes!" the woman exclaimed, bouncing on her toes. The man turned away and I heard her say to her two children, "Oh, isn't she just the most adorable little thing?" The boy rolled his eyes.

The man went over to the baby girl and unceremoniously picked her up. She started crying, but the guy held her under her arms, bouncing her up and down, and blowing in her face until she grimaced toothlessly.

"I don't want that one if she's going to be crying," said the woman with the two kids. She was frowning and both of her kids were starting to complain.

"Mom, what if she spits up?" one of them asked.

"Hush," she said. "These people know what they're doing, honey."

The man inside the cage must have overheard her. He smiled. "Don't worry, ma'am. I'm resetting her, now. She'll be ready for your picture."

I looked at the baby girl more closely. I could see her ribs, and it was clear from her pallor that she wasn't healthy. Snot ran out of her nose, and from the look of it, she was either drugged or so sleepy that her eyes were barely open, and her head lolled.

Meanwhile, other people were pointing at other babies. Some of them were waked from a sound sleep and, if they cried, given the same treatment as the little Asian girl. A couple were slapped on their bare buttocks or on the face to wake them up.

At one end of the cage was a mock-up of an idealized nursery. Rocking chair, toys, building blocks — it looked like a perfect baby's perfect room, right out of a movie set.

The woman and her two teenagers were led into that end of the cage and the teenage girl sat in the rocking chair, first.

"How do you want her?" asked the man, still holding the feebly protesting baby girl.

"Ew. I don't want her all naked. Can you put a dress on her, maybe? Or a bonnet? Her hair is ugly."

Her hair was, indeed, ugly. Matted to her skin and patchy.

I watched while the man expertly draped a too-large "dickie" of a bright pink, frilly dress around the squirming baby, and then tied a bonnet over her hair. It looked to me like he tied it too tight.

He roughly wiped the snot from the baby's face with a towel of questionable cleanliness and handed the baby to the girl, who held her awkwardly under the arms with both hands, a look of terror in her eyes.

The man stepped up and said, "No, like this." And he showed her how to hold the baby on her lap so that her face was toward the camera. "Do you want a bottle, or just go like this?"

"Like this," the girl said firmly.

The baby's head lolled and I could tell even from where I was that she was sleepy. The man grabbed her roughly and bounced her until she opened her eyes and blearily looked back at him. He then handed her back to the girl, arranged the dress and bonnet, and quickly stepped back to operate the camera.

Just a second before he snapped the photo, the teenager shrieked. "Ew! Oh, my God, mom! She peed on me!" The girl shoved the now-dripping baby away from her at arm's length.

The man sighed and came and took the crying baby. "Do you want me to get another one?" he asked.

The mother looked ready to spit nails. "No, we do not want another one!" She grabbed her daughter's hand and said, "Come on, Chelsea. Let's go get you cleaned up." She practically dragged the girl from the cage, followed by her younger brother.

The guy inside the cage ripped the dress dickie off the baby, pulled off the bonnet, and tossed the sodden pair into a bin. He handed the now wailing baby to another man, who held her up by one arm and sprayed her with a hose. I could smell the disinfectant from all the way across the cage. The baby was now wailing and crying loudly. I guess the water was cold.

I felt faint and ill. What the hell was going on, here? Was this even legal?

I elbowed my way back out of the crowd and worked my way around to the side where another employee of whatever this place was stood. He was wearing a pink shirt like all the others, complete with a grinning baby-head logo on the pocket.

"Excuse me," I said.

"You'll have to go to the end of the line, like everyone else, sir," he said without even looking up.

"No, I'm not in line. I just have a question."

He looked up at me, annoyance clear on his face. "Yeah?"

"Where are these children's mothers? I mean, are they — ?"

"It's all in the brochure." He shoved a glossy brochure at me. I backed out of the crowd and went to stand a few feet away near a support column and took a look at it.

"VAN DUREN FOSTER HOME" was emblazoned across the top in neon blue lettering. I quickly thumbed through it. Pictures of happy, grinning, fat babies being held and fed by what looked like older teens. Nothing like what was going on scant feet from me.

I started reading. They claimed to rescue homeless teens. They provide them sanctuary — a safe place to live, medical care, room, board, and clothing. Help them kick drug habits. Educate them. And any children born to them during their stay are taken to foster care, and also "displayed for public education and entertainment."

What?

So that's what this was. I wondered if the parents of these babies even knew what was happening to their children. I felt sick to my stomach. I ripped the brochure in two and looked for a trash can. How on earth can they legally keep this up? Why aren't there laws?

"Sir?" I turned around to face the voice as someone tapped me on the shoulder. An older woman smiled at me, crows feet around kind, brown eyes. "You look like you could use this." She held out a cup of water.

I took it. My hand was shaking. "Thanks," I said, then took a sip.

She held out a hand and I took it. "My name is Tricia Phillips. We're here protesting." We shook hands and she gestured toward a small group of about seven people standing over to one side, carrying signs. And being ignored.

She led me over to her group. They all welcomed me warmly, then showed me pictures they had of the Van Duren foster home. Teenagers living in barbaric conditions, not much better than packing crates. Barely big enough to move around in. No heat or air conditioning. Mud everywhere. Open latrines swarming with buzzing flies. It looked like a third-world refugee camp. No trees or any kind of shade. The teens' eyes looked dull and lifeless in the photos. Haunted.

"Those were taken about a week ago," Ms. Phillips explained. "A couple of former employees of Van Duren smuggled the pictures out to us."

As I flipped through the pictures, I noticed that most of the girls were pregnant. I commented on it.

"Yes, well . . . where do you think these babies come from?"

I felt sick again. "They're breeding them?"

She nodded, compassion in her eyes. "Some of these poor children are related, but Van Duren doesn't even care. They encourage them do whatever they want. We suspect they're drugged most of the time and aren't even aware of what they're doing."

"Holy shit," I said. "Isn't this illegal?"

She smiled sadly. "Well, of course it is. There are all kinds of laws, but they're seldom enforced."

I couldn't take my eyes off the pictures of the pregnant teenagers. So young. "What happens when, when . . . ?" I choked on the bile in my throat.

"Turned back out onto the streets. The infants used in these awful mall things end up in foster homes or wards of the state or worse. There are child pornography rings that pay good money for children as young as eighteen months."




I'm going to stop here. At what point did you figure out I was writing fiction? Are you appalled? Disgusted? Infuriated? Do you want to call me terrible things for being sick enough to come up with something this disgusting?

Because guess what? Take out the human babies and the homeless teens being raised as breeding stock and substitute tigers, and it's all true.

You read that right. All true.

There are places that set up in malls that allow the public to pay to have pictures taken with tiger cubs. Cubs that are very young and need proper nutrition, enough sleep, and whose immune systems aren't strong, yet.

These poor, innocent creatures are bred ruthlessly by people who claim to be "rescues" who operate "sanctuaries" for big cats. They claim to be working with conservation efforts, and that the only way to raise money for their good work is to take these cubs around for public display.

They claim that the cubs enjoy it. That blowing in their face calms them down. That holding them dangling from under their front arms and bouncing them up and down "resets" them. (What does that even mean?) That constantly being poked, prodded, handled, and grabbed by dozens of people, day in and day out for weeks at a time isn't harmful to them. That bright lights and flash bulbs aren't harmful to their sensitive eyes. They claim that they're well fed. That's it's 100% safe for humans and the cubs.

That the exhibitor is doing this to "teach people" not to have exotic animals as pets.

And they tell people that the cats will go to good homes when they get too big for petting.

Lies.

The reality is very different. They're kept in tiny cages, forced to breed constantly, and since white tigers are popular, they inbreed their stock to produce more of them. When they get too old, the cubs end up in roadside "zoos" where they are forced to lie on hot concrete in direct sun year round in a cage barely big enough to stand up or turn around in. Fed insufficiently and incorrectly. Given no shelter.

Often, they are killed for their fur and the body is cut up and sold illegally. There is good money to be made on the black market selling tiger parts, where they are prized for their supposedly magical properties. There are still countries in which the fur trade has no limits to the types of animals that can be used.

These cubs are torn from their mothers too early, causing distress to both the cubs and their mothers. They're not allowed to imprint naturally on their mothers, but instead imprint on their human captors. Babies of any species need lots of sleep, but these are not allowed to get enough. They are constantly poked and prodded to be kept awake. Tiger cubs want to explore instinctively. But when they try, they're restrained. They spend hours in small cages inside trucks being carted from place to place so people can have their pictures taken while petting or feeding them.

The cubs are constantly sick and often have diarrhea, which goes untreated, so the cubs are irritable and in pain from the constant wiping by their human captors. Those cute little "roars" are screams of pain.

I get apoplectic with rage over this. I've been trying to come up with a way to show how awful it is, and I finally came up with this. I hope it makes you think, next time you hear of one of these events. If you've ever been to one, stop. If you know people who do, show them this post. If a mall near you advertises such an event, contact the owners. Let them know what is really going on. Encourage them to pass.

And hopefully, everyone who reads this will follow this link to an article entitled "The Truth About Tiger Cub Petting Displays in Malls" from Big Cat Rescue, which is where I got most of the details for my little story above. No infringement is intended. Any mistakes in facts are mine, not theirs.

I'm not affiliated with BCR in any way other than that I contribute to them, and try to spread the word like I'm doing right now. I love big cats, and it makes me furious to hear how they're being mistreated. They're such beautiful, powerful, amazing animals, and yet . . . we treat them like garbage. But I believe it's mostly out of ignorance that we still permit this kind of thing to occur. We still want to believe the best of people, and when we're told that it's safe for the animals and that they're being taken care of, and all the money is for research and conservation, we want to believe it.

There is actually one part of the fictitious tale of human baby petting zoos that is complete fiction and is not based on the plight of these tiger cubs. There are few laws against this, or very few. There are laws, for instance, that regulate the ages at which these creatures can be exploited: 8 weeks to 12 weeks. Yet it is commonplace for these tiger petting zoos to ignore the regulations, because resources for enforcement are limited.

But there are bills in Congress to prevent any private ownership of several species of big cats. You can help get these laws passed. Contact your congressperson and representative.

Thank you for indulging me this far, and I do hope you'll keep this in mind for the future.

Thank you for reading.

Disclaimer: All names used are fictitious and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is unintentional. The names Belk® and Apple® are used to set up the framing story and are in no way affiliated or associated in any way with the kind of practice portrayed herein. As far as I know, there is no such place as Van Duren Foster Home, and the fictitious name was picked at random. If any such place exists, I apologize and will change the name. Big Cat Rescue does exist, and as stated, I am not affiliated with them in any way whatsoever. They had no prior knowledge of this post and were not consulted before publishing.


Sep 8, 2013

Not the Message You Were Aiming for, Perhaps?

Bible by Zanthia, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Zanthia 
Shortly after I got up yesterday morning, I was sitting in my chair reading, and there was a knock at the door. It was Saturday, and I wasn't expecting anyone. I scrambled around looking for the key. (I have one of those doors that requires a key to open from the inside and outside. Convenient until you misplace the keys that are supposed to be in a certain drawer in the kitchen.)

Some people give up and walk away by the time I make it back to the door with the key, but not these.

I looked out and there were two people standing slightly off the porch and one standing on the porch at the door.

As I got the door open, I saw that it was a man on the porch and a woman and child on the sidewalk. I propped the door open and placed myself firmly inside the opening, blocking the entrance and sending the message, "You're not invited in."

The man — a Latino probably somewhere around 40 dressed in a snappy, navy blue suit complete with tie — introduced himself. I don't remember if he said he was a preacher or not, unfortunately. My housemate says he did not. She thought he was probably starting a new church. I don't know. But I did notice that he was carrying what looked like a magazine in one hand. He gestured to the other two. "And this is my wife Maria and my son, Matthew." [Not their real names.]

The woman, younger than him, was also dressed nicely in a matching navy blue dress, and smiled in a friendly manner, if a little shyly. The boy, maybe around 9 or 10, wore a matching suit as well. But he was not smiling. He was scowling. He was not happy to be here. He was probably wishing he could be anywhere else.

The man launched into some sort of lead-in I don't remember, and then asked me if I thought the situation in the world is going to get better. (It was smoother than I'm indicating; I wasn't taking notes at the time.)

Now, I'm no idiot. I recognized the open-ended, leading question immediately. If I were to say, "Yes," he has one script to follow. If I were to say, "No," he has another. Both of them would lead, inexorably, to whatever point he was here to make.

So I said, "I really have no idea," and smiled.

He once again launched into something that sounded rehearsed, and then I noticed that the "magazine" he was holding was something else entirely (it was a tract of some sort, but was very much not an issue of The Watchtower, which would have earned him a very fast exit from my yard). It was concealing a much thicker book.

A bible, in fact.

He whipped out said bible and began rifling the pages, clearly looking for something he had marked. He asked me if he could read me a piece of scripture that would answer my question (that I hadn't asked).

I said, "I'd really rather you didn't, actually."

That seemed to throw him a little. I glanced at the wife and son and saw the light go out in the wife's eyes. Similar to the last time this happened (see below), the bystanders seemed to get it before the main player did. The son's expression never changed.

The dad started to ask a question, and I said, "I'm really not interested, but thank you. And have a nice day." I smiled, and gently shut the door as they turned and began to walk away. I heard the man say, "Have a nice day," back to me. The wife and son never uttered a sound.



The last time this happened, it was two older men, both dressed in casual clothes, who knocked. The spokesman told me they were from some Baptist church up the road and wanted to know if I was interested in coming to their church.

"No, not really," I replied.

Spokesman asked, "Why not?"

"I'm an atheist." At this point, I saw the same look in the eyes of the second guy that I saw in the woman from yesterday: Let's just move on. 

These were probably three words he was not expecting to hear. I mean, there are hardly any pentagrams in my yard, and no chicken bones or backwards Latin written in blood. But he had read his How To Talk to Atheists About Christianity tract (a real thing that exists), and was ready with the standard reply, guaranteed to trip up atheists: "You don't believe in God? Well, aren't you afraid you're going to Hell?" He said this with a big grin on his face, as though he were telling a joke that he was just so darned amused by.

"Not really. See, atheists don't believe in that, either. Or in Satan. But you guys have a nice day." And I closed the door as they walked off. My friends, who had been inside listening to this entire exchange, were having a hard time keeping their laughter down.



The one yesterday reminded me of that earlier one a lot.

Except for one thing. Instead of another man, this one brought his wife and kid with him on his proselytizing mission. There are a couple of interpretations that I, as a card-carrying cynic, have on that topic.

First, he's much less threatening if he has a woman and child with him. As a Latino man in a mostly white suburb, this could have been a consideration, and that in and of itself makes me sad.

Second, they were all dressed for church. Again, people are generally more trusting of people who are nicely dressed.

Third, he was carrying a bible. Again, usually not something your average home intruder does. (Although the intersection of the set of 'people with bibles' and 'people who want to take advantage of you' is far from empty.)

Finally, as a cynic, I couldn't help but think he brought along his wife and kid because people are far less likely to be dicks to him if he has his wife and kid along. Call me a jerk, but . . . I think it's true.

But what struck me about the entire incident, and made me want to make this post, was what message this sent to his child.

He dressed his family in their Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes and took them door to door, peddling . . . whatever it was he intended to peddle. It's clear from the kid's facial expression and his body language that he didn't want to be here. He wanted to be . . . I don't know, watching TV, playing with his Nintendo, or playing soccer with his friends. The last thing he probably wanted was to see his father have door after door after door closed in his face. I really can't imagine anyone letting a strange family with a kid into their house on a Saturday morning, so I don't know what the father was hoping to gain.

I wonder if what the boy took away from all this was what the father intended. I'm sure the intention was to spread the word of Whatever and bring people into the fold, etc. To preach his gospel and all that.

But to a kid that age, what he probably got was, "This is stupid. I'd rather be playing Lego City Undercover."

And I couldn't help but think, "Keep that in mind, kid. Keep that in mind."

Aug 22, 2013

What Faith Means to Me

I've written before about what I believe might be the first, tentative steps into realizing what I consider to be one of the defining truths of my life: that there is no God or gods.

But that's only part of the story. There's also that moment when I realized I wasn't alone. That there was a name for people such as myself. And that there were a lot of us out there. And that word was "skeptic."

I have always read voraciously. It started at an early age. We'd get The Weekly Reader at my school, and a couple of times each year, they'd have a page where you could go through a bunch of books they offered and check them off. The teacher would collect everyone's order sheet — and a check from their parents — and send them off. A few weeks later, we'd all get our books.

The other kids in my class would get one or two. I'd get eight to ten. And I'd read them almost as soon as I got them home.

At around age nine, I became fascinated by the occult. Ghosts, aliens, poltergeists, bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, the Nazca lines . . . you name it, I probably believed it and read at least one book about it. (Well, except vampires and werewolves. Those were never on my radar.)

I scared the crap out of myself. Convinced myself that my house was haunted. That aliens were abducting people left and right and I might be next. That Bigfoot might be wandering around in the forest right behind my house. That every sound in my house at night was something unspeakable coming specifically to get me.

I didn't sleep a lot. :)

I eventually expanded my literary palate to include science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I read my first Steven King novel (The Shining) at age twelve. My pendulum swung all the way over in the other direction from belief and I started to realize that the things that seemed so plausible at nine or ten were silly and rather childish from the vantage point of the advanced age of twelve. I mean, come on. Erich von Daniken's ancient aliens were about as likely as . . . as a plesiosaur alive after 65 million years in a murky lake in Scotland.

I got completely away from non-fiction1 and consumed only fiction for many years. I must have been in my late twenties or early thirties when I picked up two books written by Carl Sagan. I had done another one of those turn-arounds and was now heavily into non-fiction2: science, psychology, self-help (I know, I know . . . skepticism is a process), that kind of thing.

Then, I read a book called The Demon-Haunted World, and the world made so much more sense. I had a category to put myself in. Not only could I confidently say, "I'm an atheist," I could also now confidently state, "I am a skeptic."

And then I read Pale Blue Dot.

There's one passage from the book that never fails to bring a tear to my eye. It is so beautifully, passionately written. It transcends science and literature and speaks directly to the heart, as it were.

But first, some background. The year was 1990. The Voyager 1 spacecraft had completed its primary mission after twelve years and was about to depart the solar system forever. Dr. Carl Sagan, realizing that it was likely we would never again get the chance to get a "family portrait" of the Solar system from that vantage point, managed to convince NASA that they needed to turn the craft around and have it take a picture of all visible planets (Earth, Venus, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter, and Saturn) from the perspective of six billion kilometers away from Earth.

That's 6,000,000,000 kilometers — approximately 3.7 billion miles. So far away, messages from Voyager 1 to Earth took nearly 5.5 hours to reach us at the speed of light.

NASA agreed. They captured images of the outer planets first, fearing that by aiming their cameras too close to the sun to include Earth and Venus, they would damage the camera. And then, finally, they aimed their camera at Earth.

The resulting image is the one we now call The Pale Blue Dot. You can see it up at the top of this post. Click it and you'll go to a larger version of it.

That brown streak is an artifact of how close to the sun the cameras were aimed in order to capture Earth. It isn't a real structure.

What is real is that tiny blue pixel in the streak. That tiny blue point of light — smaller than a full pixel — is Earth.

Here are Dr. Sagan's words. The ones that bring a tear to my eye.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

To me, those three paragraphs pretty much sum up my view of our place in the universe. Why it's so important to further our knowledge and turn away from unprovable beliefs and ideologies that do nothing but stifle progress in the name of petty arguments over what amounts to nothing. Belief isn't going to save mankind from whatever our species' eventual fate might be, whether it's extinction by our own hands or something we have no control over, like a new disease, environmental disaster, or a big rock hitting our planet.

Science might. There are no guarantees. But there is no evidence that anyone is watching over us, ready to save us if we just know the right words to use when asking. Or ready to punish the entirety of our species for the infractions of a small percentage because of some foolish, petty whimsy. "You don't deserve to live, because you ate meat on a Friday. Pushed a button. Wore two kinds of fabric. Ate meat from the wrong animal. Loved the wrong person. Didn't bow to the east to recite your prayers. Listened to the wrong leader. Drank the wrong drink. Thought the wrong thoughts. Believed the wrong things."

If we're going to survive, it will be because men and women of science, not faith3, figured it out. And that is what I have faith4 in.



Today's post is inspired by GBE2 (Group Blogging Experience)'s Week 115 prompt: Faith.
  1. I realize now that categorizing these books as 'non-fiction' is laughable, but at the time, that is how they were marketed. Which is one reason I probably had such a protracted period of time when I believed whole-heartedly in such nonsense: after all, "They" wouldn't allow a book to claim it was non-fiction if it wasn't, would They?
  2. Actual non-fiction! Like Carl Sagan's books and stuff by people with real edumacashuns and degrees from universities that aren't made up. People who have Science and Data to back up their claims instead of a lot of supposition and things they have extracted from their own asses.
  3. As in belief with no evidence — or even in defiance of evidence to the contrary — which is what is usually meant when used in this sense.
  4. Evidence-based trust, as in, "I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow," because we have scientific evidence, not because someone sang it into the sky or sacrificed a virgin to it or prayed it out of the darkness.

May 29, 2013

You Done STEPPED in it Now

Earlier this week, Pope Francis I made history by announcing that not only do all good people go to heaven (stating that, basically, good acts are what count), this included, of all people, atheists.

Gasp! The scandal!

A lot of atheists were quite amused by this. “Yay, we’re not going to the imaginary happy place instead of not going to the imaginary bad place!”

I, personally, view the Pope’s announcement as roughly equivalent to Bugs Bunny telling me I’ll go to Los Ang-ga-leez after I die, but only if I take a left turn at Albuquerque.

But not long after the Pope made his announcement, the Vatican contradicted this.

[T]he Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who know about the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.

(Translation: Atheists are going to Hell if they don’t accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.) [emphasis added]

I’m mighty glad the article provided that translation, because otherwise I might have thought he was implying something else altogether. If you know what I mean. Nudge-nudge.

But let’s ignore that. As I said, I find the whole thing kind of amusing. Sort of the same way a Christian would if a Native American shaman told them they would not be able to enter the Happy Hunting Ground because they were not Cherokee (or whatever). “Oh, that’s nice.” <polite smile>

What I’m curious about is this whole papal infallibility thing. You know, the doctrine that states that whatever the Pope says is what the church believes?

From Wikipedia, the bastion of all knowledge:

Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error "when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” [emphasis added]

<insert screeching tire noise here>

So, how does this work, exactly? The pope, Il Papa, The Dude with the Funny Hat himself, comes out and proclaims, “Anyone who does good can get into Heaven,” this should mean that from that point forward (Or is it retroactive?), this is the doctrine of the entire Catholic church. (Until the next infallible Pope says the opposite, anyway.) No ifs, ands, or buts about it:1 if The Pope says it, that’s the way it is.

Except that then the Vatican – represented by a priest who is not the Pope – comes out a few days later and says, “Wait, no. The Pope was wrong.”

<insert sound of game show buzzer here>

“Oh, I’m sorry. You forgot to state the doctrine in the form of a papal proclamation.”

To me, this is a much more interesting question than whether people who don’t believe are or are not going to a place they don’t believe in after they die. Is the church abandoning papal infallibility? Was it ever a thing? Am I misinterpreting something?2

Or is this, indeed, a big doctrinal, dogmatic deal?

What are your thoughts?


  1. I believe this is the basis for papal infallibility, or at least that’s what Professor Wiki tells me: Matthew 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [emphasis added, clearly]
  2. I am quite aware of this, also from Wikipedia: "A doctrine proposed by a pope as his own opinion, not solemnly proclaimed as a doctrine of the Church, may be rejected as false, even if it is on a matter of faith and morals, and even more any view he expresses on other matters." So, yeah, all they have to do is say it was his opinion or that he was not making a binding claim and they're off the hook, but I find this loophole kind of hypocritical. Don't you think? I mean, a Pope either is or is not infallible. If he can make one mistake, doesn't that mean he is, pretty much by definition, fallible?

May 26, 2013

Follow my blog with Bloglovin I'm trying out a new service that should allow me to replace Google Reader. Perhaps. This post is just to get that link on there, because this is how I claim MY blog. :) There is no actual content, here. Sorry.

Jan 31, 2013

It Gets Better

I read something online earlier today that inspired me to write this. This post is for one young man named Noah, to whom I just want to say one thing: Dude, it gets way better. Seriously.

I was bullied when I was in school. It was a small school, and I was the one everyone seemed to choose to pick on. A lot of kids from my own class and from grades ahead of me. Even some of the popular kids younger than me got in on the action. I never fought back, so I was a particularly easy target. It never got physical other than one time when I was de-pantsed in the locker room after PE and thrown outside in my underwear, yelling for the coach the entire time. But as I'm sure you know, the physical stuff is only a small part of it. I think maybe being punched in the face would have been easier. At least it would have been something visible that the teachers and principal couldn't ignore.

I don't know your situation, Noah. I don't know what reason the bullies are using to justify making your life miserable. I don't really care. Because it doesn't matter. I can tell you what it was in my case. I was a geek, unathletic, got straight A's, and liked learning just for the sake of learning. I was a bit of a late bloomer, as well. I liked reading more than sports.

But that's me. Your situation may be similar, or it may be entirely different. But here's the thing that I want you to understand.

Whatever. They're. Saying. Is. Wrong. Don't let them define who you are. Don't let them make you feel bad about enjoying or not enjoying something. Don't let them convince you that you deserve how they're treating you. Don't let them take away who you are because they demand that you be something else.

And please, don't let them convince you that the world would be better off without you in it. Because it won't.

I was constantly harassed: during homeroom, some classes, recess, lunch, and especially PE. I was not invited to parties. Or if I was invited, it was obvious that it was because their parents had made them. I was called names. I once had a "kick me" sign taped to my back, and even one of the teachers found it so funny that she had to laugh.

I wasn't laughing. It was awful. I wanted the people who were doing this to me to suffer the way they were making me suffer.

Somehow, though, I made it through. I had a couple of friends and we hung out and did our own thing. I found things I liked to do and people to do them with. In my case that was art classes after school. Piano lessons. Writing. Reading. Dungeons and Dragons. When I was doing those things, I didn't have those other people around me. The people who were constantly calling me stupid names and making me feel less than worthless.

After a particularly bad few weeks where the constant harassment got really bad, my mother came into my room after she got home from work. She said she needed to talk to me. She sat down on the edge of my bed. I sat next to her, my head down, sure I had gotten in big trouble for something.

What she said to me was that she knew some of what was going on at school (teachers talk). But that I should rise above it. Not listen to the people telling me I was worthless because I didn't do or like the same things they did. To "march to the beat of a different drummer." To do my own thing and not worry about what other people said or thought.

I know now that my mother was hurting, too. She saw what was going on, and she felt the pain, too. But she didn't want to make it worse. I still remember that conversation. I still think about it, and I still try to follow that advice.

Your mom is hurting, too. She wants desperately to help. She would move Heaven and Earth to make everything better for you.





But you know what? It got better. Things got a little easier as time went on. Maybe because I managed to stop caring so much what those people thought. Maybe because some of the people who'd been picking on me actually grew up a little and realized that what they were doing was hurtful, and stopped. Not all of them, but a few. It helped. I went to the prom with a pretty girl. We danced. We had fun. We went to a party afterwards and didn't get home until 2 AM. I was in the school play. I wouldn't trade any of those memories.

And then something truly awesome and amazing happened: I graduated from high school. And do you know what that meant?

I didn't have to be around those people anymore! I could choose to hang out with who I wanted. To do the things I wanted to do. I went to college. I made a bunch of friends who liked me for who I was. And here's the crazy part: they liked me for exactly the same reasons those kids in middle school and high school had picked on me, teased me, and harassed me.

I have incredible friends, now. I'm still very close to a lot of people I was friends with in college. But you know what else? I don't even remember the names of most of those kids in school who picked on me. I look at my yearbooks, and I think, "Who are you? Why did I care so much what you thought of me?" I haven't seen those people in 30 years (I'm old). And it doesn't bother me in the least. Those people are less than nothing to me, now.

My friend, you have some amazing things in store for you. Sure, there's going to be some awful stuff, too. And chances are, a lot of it is going to hurt. I'm not going to lie to you and try to tell you it's all laughs. But that other stuff is going to make up for it. Big time.

It gets better. It really, really does.

Jan 18, 2013

Improbability

"The universe is so fined-tuned for intelligent life that there's just no way all that could have 'just happened' randomly! There had to be a guiding force!"

Take a deck of 52 standard playing cards (remove the jokers and any ad cards), or, if you have them handy, you could use a standard deck of 78 tarot cards as well. If you want to be evil and possibly murder some random person.

I keed, I keed! You won't cause random murder with a tarot deck. Probably.

Shuffle them at least six times to ensure a more random order. (Seven if using the tarot deck.)

Cut the deck. Or don't. I don't really care.

Now, deal the cards out one at a time, face-up, on a table, floor, or other flat surface so that you can see all the cards.

When you're done, carefully examine the order of the cards that you've laid out, from left to right.

That particular sequence of cards that you laid out was so improbable that it was impossible, by all practical definitions of the word. It had roughly a 1 in 8.06582 x 1067 chance of occurring! (Or 1 in ~1.13243 x 10115 if you used the tarot deck.) If a machine that could sort and deal the entire deck of cards in one second were to start doing so at the moment of the big bang, it still would not have exhausted all the possible combinations of cards in the 52-card deck, much less the 78-card tarot deck. The universe is only a bit over 432 quadrillion seconds old. That's ~ 4.3233 x 1017 seconds. You'll notice that 17 is much smaller than both 67 and 115.

And yet, this extremely improable event occurred right before your eyes. You watched it unfold before you! How astounding! You've just witnessed something that has almost certainly never occurred before, and will almost certainly never occur again in the history of the universe.

Do you feel privileged? As though you've witnessed a miracle that requires a "guiding hand" from elsewhere so that it aligned just right?

Eh, probably not. I mean, it's just random card order, right?

People tend to ascribe higher "impossibility" to sequences of events that mean something to them. Like flipping a coin a hundred times and coming up with heads every single time. In reality, any sequence of a hundred flips of the coin is equally unlikely as a hundred heads, a hundred tails, or fifty of each, intermingled (HTHT . . .).

Admit it: if you did the shuffle-then-layout thing and the cards managed to be in order from ace to king by suit (spades, hearts, diamonds, then clubs), or in a similar order for the Tarot cards, with the minor arcana first by number and suit, followed by the major arcana, you'd be much more likely to get a cold chill up your spine. But those "special" arrangements are exactly as likely — or as unlikely — as any other one.

Or if you shredded a catalog into confetti, then tossed it all up into the air over a fan, and as the pieces drifted to the ground, it happened to form an image that looked like Jesus or the virgin Mary, suddenly, it's a miracle! Whereas, if it formed the equally unlikely picture of, say, Flo the cashier from those Progressive Insurance commercials or Pepe le Pew, the Loony Toons skunk, it would be kind of neat . . . but hardly miraculous. They only seem miraculous because the image formed means something to us.

If it actually formed the unmistakable image of anything, I'd be highly suspicious. That our brains see patterns where there aren't any is called "pareidolia," and it's a well-known explanation for such things as Jesus-tortillas or Virgin-Mary-grilled-cheese-sandwiches.1

This is why I tend to be scornful when I hear things like "the universe has to have had a creator because there's no way everything just happened to line up to allow our kind of life!" If you look into it a bit, you realize that there's more beauty to the universe without a guiding intelligence than with one, or at least that's how I see it.


  1. Frankly, the Virgin Mary grilled cheese (see the image at the top of this post) doesn't look like much of anything to me, but sometimes I can sort of see an image of Tracy Scoggins, if I look slightly to one side and squint. And it's dark enough. And someone tells me I'm supposed to see Mary/Tracy.

Oct 4, 2012

Facts

true / false (Mon/Thurs outtake) by Krista76, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Krista76 

I heard something disturbing on my way in to work this morning.

I listen to a podcast called A Way With Words. The hosts talk about language and take calls from listeners (it's also a weekly, syndicated radio show). One caller had a question regarding something the teacher taught his daughter.

He was taking his 8-year-old daughter to school, and she was reading the packaging of some product or other. She was going down the "page" saying "Fact. Fact. Fact. Fact."

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Practicing identifying facts."

"What do you mean?"

She replied that the teacher had shown them how to identify facts. And then she explained that the teacher had told her that "facts" are statements that could either be proven true or false. (They're doing a section in her third-grade class on fact vs. opinion.)

"Whoa!" he thought. "That isn't correct. Maybe she just misunderstood."

So he spoke with the teacher about it. The daughter hadn't misheard or misremembered. This public school teacher told this concerned father that the word 'fact' has changed its meaning so that it now means . . . a statement. Or perhaps an assertion. That could either be true or false. That the entire requirement of truth and provability is moot. The hosts disagreed, and so do I.

Every dictionary the hosts checked—and that I've checked—disagrees with this . . . monument to everything wrong with our education system. A "fact" must be true/exist. That's in the definition. If this idiot is teaching kids that a "fact" can be wrong, that explains so many, many things. (The media springs to mind.)

Has anyone else encountered this? Please say it's isolated . . .

Sep 10, 2012

Skepticism in Unexpected Places

Words of Wisdom

Back in June, I was accepted into a week-long writing workshop called Viable Paradise. It takes place the second week of October, 2012. I'm quivering with anticipation. Since then, I've been reading suggested works by the instructors (all published authors & editors) to get some idea of what their styles are like.

I was reading Theresa Nielsen Hayden's Making Book, a book of essays that I didn't expect to like, but which I do.

On pages 101 and 102, I came across these gems.

  1. Never take on the necessity of a negative proof, or argue with someone about their own thoughts and intentions.
  2. Causality is lots of fun to think about, but is never at home when you phone. Correlation isn't as attractive at first, but is friendlier; you can call up and make a date.
  3. Keep a close eye on violations of statistical probability, but bear in mind that you yourself must always constitute an inadequate sample.
  4. The tidier a story is, the less I tend to believe it. I can't demonstrate that this is necessarily effective, but so far it's never steered me wrong.
  5. And watch out for eyewitness accounts that, on consideration, require the eyewitness to have been standing in an unlikely position relative to the alleged events.
  6. Watch out for thought systems that have built-in explanations, valid within the terms of the system, for why someone disagreeing with that system is doing so and is wrong.
  7. You can't logically refute bullshit.

[Any misspellings or typos are entirely my own responsibility.]

Wow. There were a few others I left out that were less applicable to the idea of skepticism. And I'm quoting this without any permission whatsoever and if asked, I will take it down (albeit with much pouting).

But my point in posting it is that Ms. Nielsen Hayden says these points better than I see them explicated on many a skeptical website that spends many thousands of words saying the same things.

First, I cannot tell you how many times I've encountered someone online telling me what my thoughts and intentions are. Thoroughly convinced, these people are, of what goes on in my head; but it's obvious to me from the way they argue their case that they have little to no idea what goes on inside their own skulls, much less mine. You can doubt someone's stated thoughts and intentions, but keep your mouth shut. You do not actually know what goes on inside another person's mind. And if you can prove you do, please apply for the 1 million dollar prize offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The Nobel Prize will follow, as well.

The second one is brilliant. It humorously states the skeptical mantra of "correlation does not equal causation," but does it in a way that makes one smile instead of glaze over in boredom and oh look a butterfly and I need to pick up milk and bread and did I turn off the iron?

The third one I take as an exhortation against making the "Argument from Ignorance" fallacy and pareidolia, all in one admonishment. (Argument from ignorance shows up a lot. You can recognize it by listening for the key phrase, "I don't see how that can be true.")

The fourth one is also quite brilliant, to me. It neatly unties all the connections of every conspiracy theory that I've ever heard. All of them manage to explain everything from inside the bubble of whatever premise the believer adheres to. If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Real life is seldom (not never, but seldom) that tidy.

Number five is great. Sometimes, you'll hear someone talk about how they saw thus-and-such with their own eyes (Could they see it with someone else's eyes?) and therefore it totally happened exactly as I said so there. And then later, you find yourself in a position to examine the story and you realize that to have seen what they claimed to have seen, they would have had to be somewhere improbable or impossible, such as in two places at once, or hovering in mid-air above. This one is easy to fall into, as well. Our brains love stories – crave them, even – and if something doesn't make sense, our brain will conveniently fill in details that we never actually saw.

Number six, though . . . Number six is why I decided to write this post. OMFSM, I can't even estimate how many times I encounter this. "You just hate God, and you're lashing out at Him." "You had a bad experience as a child and now you're rebelling against the Church." "You're denying what you know in your heart is true. Why don't you just admit you're wrong?" Recognize it? I'll bet every atheist has heard one or more of those on more than one occasion. Because you don't believe what the speaker believes, they have to come up with some rationalization that fits inside their own belief paradigm to make it make sense to them why you don't agree with what they see as self-evident. Our brains hate cognitive dissonance, and will go to almost any length to get rid of it.

Or how about, "You've been brainwashed by the ______, and you just won't let yourself hear the truth." That one comes from most conspiracy theorists, and people who wholeheartedly believe in some form of quack medicine, like homeopathy or iridology.

Make no mistake, though: I've heard number six from atheists and skeptics, as well. We accuse believers of being too stupid or closed-minded to see what's so obvious to us.

And then we arrive at number seven, which I often hear stated as "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into." In other words, no amount of reason is going to talk someone out of their belief/faith. It just isn't. The very best you can hope for is to present your case to them and let them follow the path on their own if they're interested. It has happened. People have heard skeptical podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, for instance, and have sent letters later saying, "Something you said in an episode made me wonder, so I started researching, and now I'm a skeptic."

But the change had to come from within themselves, not from without. Another way of stating this one goes around FaceBook from time to time as a silly meme: "'Your constant yelling and screaming at me about how wrong I am totally convinced me,' said no one, ever."

So even if I remember not one other word Ms. Nielsen Hayden said, I'll always have these words of wisdom to remind me of this little book of essays.

Mar 19, 2012

Live Reading of "D Is for Dragon"

Dragon (the dragon bridge in Ljubljana, Republic of Slovenia) by Zoe52, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Zoe52 
Hi, everyone. I wanted to let people know that this-coming Thursday night, March 22nd, 2012, at 6 PM SLT (Second Life Time), I will be reading my story "D Is for Dragon" live.

Second Life Time is the same as US Pacific Time, so that's 6 PM on the west coast, 9 PM on the east coast, and 10 PM if you live in those extreme eastern provinces in Canada. You can probably do the math to find your local correct time.

The reading will occur in the Workshop building, on the second floor beside the traditional meeting circle. Our area is in the Pen Station region. The reading is a voice event, so attendees are encouraged to come with their "ears on" and their microphones off. Since the event is also being recorded, we request that you refrain from using audio "gestures" or other devices that create ambient noise.

If you get on, my name on Second Life is "Sathor Chatnoir." Contact me or "Timothy Berkmans" (our host for all things podcasterrific) for a landmark to the event site, or click on that link above (on "Workshop building"). Show up early (15 to 20 minutes, I'd say) so you can adjust your settings for voice.

The recording (or perhaps a cleaner one) will appear on our podcast in the next couple of months.

Those of you who are not already on Second Life can get on (For free!) by going to the web site (See that handy link earlier in this sentence?), downloading the software (For free!), and creating a character (For free!). Those of you who don't want to be on Second Life can wait for the podcast. (For free!)

Those of you who <sniff> don't want to <sniff> hear my story (that I worked so hard on), I <sniff> understand. Really. It's <sniff; wavering voice> OK. <sniff> Really.

For free! Did I mention that? (For free!)

[Crosspost note: I don't think there are many people who read this that don't also read my Facebook, LiveJournal, or writing blog from which this is cross-posted, but hey. :)]

Originally published at WriteWright. You can comment here or there.

Feb 29, 2012

Word Choices

I have this friend I'll call Jack. I've known Jack for more than twenty years. We're diametrically opposed on many topics. Over the years, we have developed a shorthand way of having entire hours of arguments—or "discussions," as we prefer to call them—without having to rehash the entire subject from beginning to end. We often know what the other is going to say before he says it.

It's a pretty comfortable place to be when you have a friend you can disagree with and have it not end the friendship, but actually make it stronger.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about one of Jack's favorite laments.

Jack is—or used to be—a bit of a news junkie. A Republican who has morphed into a Libertarian over the years I've known him. For the entire time I've known him, no matter his political affiliation, he's complained about how liberally slanted the news media is.

Now, I tend to disagree with him, but that's because I'm in many ways a bleeding heart liberal with some Libertarian overlays. I have often quipped that it's funny how reality is usually described by non-liberals as liberally slanted.

Oh, the humor.

Jack laments the lack of truly objective reporting. Unbiased, just-the-facts-ma'am, bare truth.

I've pointed out many times how this is simply not going to happen. We can't help but inject our writing and speech with words possessing connotations that indicate how we think about something.1


Connotations


Many (most?) words have one or more denotative meanings. These are the dictionary meanings of the words, themselves. But a lot of words also carry connotative meanings, as well. These are meanings that aren't stated, but are implied by the words, usually in context.2

It's not just our opinions that come through in our word choices. Words carry other connoted meanings, as well. To give an easy example, let's say there was a fire in an apartment building in a certain part of town and you're listening to a local newscaster tell about it.

"Today, a fire broke out in an apartment building in—"

The next words he speaks to describe the part of town the apartment building was in are going to convey not only the strictly informational geographic area of town in which the fire happened, but it will carry with it a blortload of connotations. Everything has connotations.

Let's say the next words were "Little Five Points." Here in Atlanta, that will immediately conjure up an image of the "type of people"3 the listener would expect to be in an apartment building in that section of town. We would see their wardrobe, their living spaces, the types of cars they drive, and could make assumptions about their lifestyles . . . it's all there encapsulated in the phrase "Little Five Points."

Let's say the next word had been "Dunwoody." This would conjure up a completely different image of a completely different "type of people" one would expect to be involved. With a whole different set of wardrobe, car, lifestyle, and living space assumptions.

If you talk to an Atlantan for any length of time, you'll likely hear the phrases "inside the perimeter" or "outside the perimeter." Interstate 285 completely encircles the city of Atlanta and effectively separates "metro" Atlanta from "the suburbs." Inside versus outside. But there are other connotations of the words "inside" and "outside," aren't there? I'm an insider if I live inside. I'm in the real Atlanta. But outside, I'm just a suburbanite. I don't live in Atlanta. I live in one of those lesser places that only touch Atlanta proper. OR . . . Certain types of people live inside, and they can have it. I live outside where a better class of people lives. (Disclaimer: I am neither espousing nor endorsing either of these opinions, but pointing out that they exist, although not for everyone in either location.)

Think about your own city. What parts of town would conjure up similar images for you? What's your "artsy/bohemian" district? Where do your "rich people" congregate? What's considered "downtown" and where do the "suburbs" start? Do you have suburbs with nicknames that immediately colors what people think of it? We have Chamblee which some people call Chambodia because of the high concentration of Asians that live there. The nickname "Chambodia" carries a plethora of connotations. (Not to mention being pretty insensitive and racist. I use it to illustrate my point.)

So, right away, anything that comes after the phrase above would have connotations. We cannot escape it unless we are new to the area and don't know what is implied. But that's temporary at best.


Word Choices


One of my favorite "jokes" I've heard over the years was, I believe, from Saturday Night Live back in its heyday. You know, when it was funny.4 The fake newscast had a fake story that went like this.
Today in Singapore, two loaded 747s collided in midair, killing 573 people. But that's okay, because there were no Americans aboard.
They were lampooning a particular style of story I used to hear a lot, but can't say I've seen recently. News anchors would always have a story of a plane crash—or volcano eruption, train derailment, bus going over an embankment, earthquake, tsunami, etc.—and they would say something like, "two hundred seven people were killed. Eight of them were American citizens." The implication was that the only eight people who mattered were the eight Americans. In that case, it wasn't a connotation but a denotation: they came right out and just said it. Is that what they meant? Probably not. But it certainly stuck in my head, and it was prevalent enough that SNL lampooned it. And they stopped doing it, as far as I can tell.

But what about subtle word choices? That one had all the subtlety of . . . well, two planes colliding.

Bare facts: John Smith was found guilty of the rapes and murders of 17 young women over the course of 5 years, although he pleaded not-guilty during his trial. He is currently serving a life sentence, but his parole hearing is about to come up.

Reporter 1: "Some of you may remember this man, John Smith, who twelve years ago began a five-year reign of terror over the Atlanta community with the brutal rapes and murders of seventeen innocent victims, all young women. Channel 21 has an exclusive interview with him on the eve of his potential release onto an unsuspecting Atlanta."

Reporter 2: "Coming up, Channel 17 has an exclusive interview with this man, John Smith, who is currently serving a life sentence for the alleged rapes and murders of seventeen young women over a five-year period. His parole hearings are tomorrow, and we wanted to get his thoughts."

Each version gives the facts, but you may have noticed an ever-so-slight </sarcasm> bias in the first one. The reporter interjects opinion using words like 'reign of terror,' 'brutal,' and 'unsuspecting.' Also, by bringing up the word 'innocent' in relation to the victims, the implication of 'guilty' is laid out there for Mr. Smith. This reporter also does this by directly stating that he committed the acts, when in reality, he was only found guilty of having done so, but maintained his innocence. Those are the only "charged" phrases, but what phrases! With just a few well-placed phrases, the reporter has told us what we are supposed to think about this story. You would likely be more inclined to think John Smith guilty and hate him after listening to the first reporter. The second reporter doesn't do that, so we are free to think what we want to think. (Or are we?)

The first reporter also does something subtle with the opening statement, "Some of you may remember . . .". By saying that, the reporter is gently chastising anyone who could possibly forget what this man did to all those victims. S/he is also subtly giving you a pat on the back if you are one of the smart ones who remember. "Oh, yes, I do remember that despicable, low-life murderer!"

A lot of pundits and talking heads use these tactics. Watch Nancy Grace, Rachel Maddow, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, or Keith Olbermann for any length of time, and you'll see them manipulating how you think about the facts they're presenting using words both subtle and blatant. Hell, Limbaugh (and others) invents words. "Feminazis," anyone?

Okay, so those still weren't terribly subtle. How about something more subtle?

Here's a random headline I took straight from a news website on the day I happened to be typing this particular paragraph. Well, not really random. I carefully chose it from dozens because it can be used to illustrate my point. :) But by telling you it was random, I was leading you to believe that there might have been dozens to choose from, when in reality, I had to search very hard to find one I could play with.5

Dr. Oz Slammed by the FDA Over Apple Juice Arsenic Investigation
Now, let's rewrite that a few times to change your reaction without changing the information.
Dr. Oz Criticized by the FDA Over Apple Juice Arsenic Findings
Dr. Oz Chastised by the FDA Over Apple Juice Arsenic Allegations
Dr. Oz Scolded by the FDA Over Apple Juice Arsenic Claims
They all say basically the same thing, right? But each change in the two words I altered changes the tone of the headline. "Slammed" implies a hard punch to the face, whereas "Scolded" suggests them holding up one finger and shaking it while saying "Naughty, naughty!" In the same way, "Investigations" implies that there was foul play, whereas "claims" suggests that the whole thing was of no importance. To me, the "criticized" and "findings" one is the most neutral. What do you think?


When it Goes Awry


It used to amuse me greatly when I'd peruse6 my friends page on LiveJournal the day after a political speech aired the previous night. I would often read three posts back-to-back from different friends with different political affiliations. One would be praising what the politician said, another would be blasting the same speech, and a third would be somewhere in between. The funny thing to me was that each one would use the same quotes; they'd just interpret them through a different set of filters to glean completely different meanings. Words occasionally mean different things to different people, and there's not a thing you can do about it other than trying to explain your meaning, which can get tedious.

Of course, I had to mention my amusement on my own journal. It was just before the 2004 elections, and I opened this way.
I haven't watched any of the debates. I'll just get that out of the way up front. I'm not interested in blah-blah about how horrible a person this makes me, so keep it to yourselves.

That having been said, I've found it amusing to read other peoples' critiques of what went on during the debates. You know, who won them, how well each candidate came across, etc.
This angered one of my friends who read my tone as mocking. Which it may have been, at some level, but I certainly didn't consciously attempt to mock him or anyone else. It really did just amuse me that three people could hear the same speeches and get such different things from them. He reacted to my (perceived) snarky tone rather than the point I was trying to make. I communicated badly, because I allowed something else to show through (I'll explain what shortly). Here's what my friend said in response.
Ya know what?

No, you dont get to scold people who watched the debates, and pontificate about how stupid we all are, when you have no interest in the process. At least, not without some mention of how absurd this position is, in itself. How incredibly arrogant to pass judgement on people trying to see some good in the world, trying make the process work and talk about it.

I'll defend your right to say whatever you like, that's American, but that doesnt mean I agree with it. And I dont. They're completely different scenarios on dozens of points.

Laugh at someone else—someone who doesnt actually give a damn.
Did he have a point? Eh, I don't know. I can see a little 'you humans amuse me so very much' in my tone, but . . . well, humans do amuse me! I wasn't intentionally calling anyone stupid (I in fact never used the word 'stupid' at all). But he read something into my words. I was a little defensive with the 'I'm not interested in blah-blah' comment. (And if you read my first comment, you'll see the fledgling beginnings of this very post. :)

And looking back on the incident from 7 years later, I think that was partially because of Jack. :) Jack has been on me for decades because I have a high apathy quotient toward politics in general and elections in particular. I guess I just view the world more cynically than he does, but he berates me about not caring about the future of America, baseball, mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet (you should imagine Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" playing under this; I always do). I do care, of course. But it was the frustration of the argument I imagined in my head that Jack and I would have when we talked that I was responding to when I penned the "blah-blah" part. My friend who responded up there titled his reply "Blah-blah?" It was that choice of words that apparently got under his skin. My dismissal of his entire opinion summed up in only eight letters and a punctuation mark.7

The first time my friend Jack and I got into a discussion about anything remotely political, we'd been friends for . . . maybe a year or two. He called me one night and had me turn on the TV to see something he was watching. (This was in the days before IM. We used to have these things in our homes called "telephones" that were actually wired into the wall and you had to stay in one place while talking to someone. Some of you may have seen them in museums or perhaps on reruns of ancient television shows on Nickelodeon.)

Now, I stress here that he didn't give me any cues as to whether I was supposed to be amused, appalled, angered, or whatever by what I was about to see. Had I been in the same room with him, I might have been able to use his facial expression or body posture to figure it out, but with just the neutral words, I didn't know how he wanted me to take it. So, without any cues, I had only my own background as a filter.

It was Rush Limbaugh's show, back before he let his own unfiltered speech get him in trouble several times. This particular night, he was comparing some politician—I neither remember who nor do I care—to a gorilla. The gorilla clips were displayed in kind of a picture-in-picture manner that he used to use a lot. The gorilla clips were obnoxious. Aggressive, teeth bared, roaring, staring . . . the very epitome of a raving beast who is about to rip your head off.

Which is not what gorillas typically are. I responded in instant anger. "That idiot! Gorillas are nothing like that! He's portraying them as savage beasts when in reality they're gentle vegetarians!" (I probably didn't say it all grammatically correct like that, but dis my blog; I get to look better than I was. :)

I didn't care a whit what Limbaugh was saying about whomever he was lambasting at the moment. What disgusted me was his blatant, manipulative use of the images of gorillas behaving aggressively—which they only do when threatened or when trying to intimidate a rival male gorilla—and—I thought at the time—implying that all gorillas are like this all the time. Misleading his audience deliberately to make whatever point he was attempting to make.

I have hated Limbaugh's guts out since then, even though I occasionally find myself agreeing with certain of his opinions from time to time.8 And certainly not solely because of the gorilla incident. I find him reprehensible. But it occurs to me only now as I type this that Limbaugh was probably using the gorilla footage purposefully to mock the empty posturing of the politician he was making fun of. Gorillas tend to look big, threatening, and scary, but they often rush at an opponent as a feint, then stop and back off to do it all again. It's all intimidation and . . . well, posturing. (Probably) Exactly like the politician in question. And it was, in fact, probably a valid point. Hmm.

Anyway . . .

Jack didn't get my furious reaction. I honestly thought he'd be as appalled as I was. (Another post idea I've been playing with is how we all project ourselves onto others.) But he thought it was funny how Limbaugh was making fun of whatever Democrat he was making fun of that night. He wanted to share the amusement with me. My extremely angry reaction surprised him.

This small incident colored my view of Jack for a while. He (unwittingly) had to overcome my initial political impression of him that was formed in the 30-second clip he had me watch. Without even realizing I was doing it, every time I heard Jack express his political opinions, I'd push back against whatever Jack said, even if I sort of agreed with him. I called it "playing devil's advocate" for a long time.

There is no such thing as an unbiased story, be it fiction or nonfiction. Our subtle word choices—or not so subtle—betray our opinions no matter how hard we might try not to. And sometimes, when those words are not there, you're not giving your reader/listener enough information to get more than just the bare facts, if you want to communicate more.


Convincing Speech


A couple of years ago, Bad Astronomer Dr. Phil Plait was the keynote speaker at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada. His speech caused quite a stir. It was entitled, "Don't Be a Dick."

His message was simple: if you want to convince people that they are wrong and you are right—or at least have a reasonable position—the way to do that should never include calling them stupid or belittling their intelligence.

Yes, that simple. But it caused a splash in the skeptical community. Plait called out several big-name skeptics by name. Dawkins, Myers, Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Their styles are/were in-your-face and confrontational. Dawkins has publicly stated that he considers bringing a child up in the religion of the parents a form of child abuse. They call a spade a spade—or perhaps it's better to say that they call a perceived idiot an idiot—when they see one.

How many times in your life has someone gotten in your face and yelled at you that you're an idiot and changed your opinion? Go on, try to remember. Every day, right?


Conclusion


I started writing this post back in May of 2011. It has taken me the better part of nine months to get it to the point where I will consider posting it. Why? Because I kept thinking of one more point. I kept finding places where I either unwittingly used a loaded word or phrase or could purposefully use one to illustrate a point.

Is this post perfect? No. Bias abounds. Because I believe it is very nearly impossible to write without bias and still have what you're writing mean anything to anyone.

And I'm still likely to piss someone off with something I've said. Both Jack and the friend who took me to task over my "blah-blah" wording are friends of mine on Facebook, where this post will show up. Will they see it and recognize themselves? Probably. I can only hope they realize I'm not trying to belittle or scold them with this post, but to point out my own mistakes. In Jack's case, he was also the inspiration to write this rant. :)

My hope in posting this—for the few people who will read a 4100-word rant—is that you—and I—will think about our word choices more when we’re trying to write something persuasive. Or critical. And when reading other people’s opinions, try to overlook the manipulative language that they either accidentally let creep in or purposefully chose and think about our responses. Are they emotional or intellectual? Are we basing our response on the facts or the wording used to convey them? Are our words going to be received the way we intend for them to? Will the way we word our message obscure or overshadow our intended message?




  1. Exercise: How did my use of the word 'simply' affect how you feel about what I said? What if I'd said "likely" or "probably"? Or how about "demonstrably" or left it out altogether? I said that I've pointed out "many times," which probably made what I said have a kind of eye-rolling sound, as though it's something I wish we could move past. What if I'd chosen to say that I've pointed it out "over and over and over" or just left it out? What impression would you get from the same basic sentence, imparting the same information, but with slightly different word choices with slightly different connotations? Speaking of connotations . . .
  2. Or sometimes by the means in which the words are delivered. Exercise: When you're reading a blog post, do you remember that the presence of the post on someone's blog connotes that everything said is in that blogger's opinion? I think sometimes—all too often, perhaps—we all forget this, including those of us who write the blogs. :)
  3. Why did I put that in quotes?
  4. How many of you think I'm talking about the 70s? 80s? 90s? I thought I was conveying a specific time period; you may have thought the same thing, but we could be thinking of completely different decades. Have we communicated, even though I gave you just the facts as I see them?
  5. Now that you know it wasn't random, how did your feelings toward the headline I'm about to present change, even before you see it?
  6. Exercise: What does 'peruse' imply for you? If you're a native speaker of American English, probably something the word doesn't mean. I chose it on purpose to convey both meanings: the connotative one and the denotative one. "Peruse" means to examine or consider with attention and in detail, but in everyday usage, it has come to imply something much more casual, like "scan" or "skim." So I've just told everyone reading this the same exact thing, but a percentage of you interpreted it denotatively and a percentage went with the connotative meaning. And they're polar opposites. Which did I really mean? Have we communicated effectively?
  7. Exercise: Do you see that word 'just' in the third sentence in this paragraph? "Just" used in this manner trivializes—with one word—someone else's opinion. "Oh, he's just a liberal. [unspoken but implied: . . . therefore, his opinion doesn't matter.]" We hear it all the time in software development: "Can you just add another button to the app that [does x]?" "Just" belittles the amount of work it takes to do that. I happened to notice my use of it in one of the dozens of times I edited this post before posting it . . . and thought I'd leave it there to make a point. And while I'm making that point, the word 'berates' is a little belittling, too, now that I think about it.
  8. Sheesh. Did you see how I used the words "occasionally" and "find myself" and "certain" and "from time to time" to push myself as far back as humanly possible from a position of actually agreeing with Limbaugh? And then I used "actually" the second time to further distance myself. Clearly, I don't like Limbaugh, and it is distasteful for me to "be forced to" agree with him. Did you get that loud and clear, or should I state it more openly? :)