Big Zig Zag Canyon

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Big Zig Zag Canyon

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Ever since I can remember, I have enjoyed hiking. Where I grew up, in Northeastern Ohio, woods, fields, streams and hills provided the typical backdrop. I still cannot deny that every new vista, every turn of the path provides a coursing-through-your-body pleasure…unless of course, the path becomes actually dangerous rather than simply breathtaking. People differ a lot on where that boundary lies between thrilling and insanely stupid. Personally, I find that I get plenty of “adrenaline rushes” simply from being a driver or pedestrian or cyclist. Walking across a fallen log 50 feet above a ravine has never been my idea of a good time. I would, of course, try it if necessary but I wouldn’t enjoy it. On the other hand, speaking in public has always seemed pleasurable although it is definitely nerve-wracking. In any case, it has always seemed to me that there are millions of interesting, beautiful, unique paths, in just America’s own 50 states, that have very little intrinsic danger. All of them are worth pursuing.

I never saw “real” mountains till I visited the West Coast. I hiked a few times on Mt. Ranier with my brothers-in-law. When some of them attended college at Reed in Portland, we decided to take a hike on Mt. Hood in order to take advantage of the clear day. The odd thing about climbing a mounting, at least in the Pacific NW is that often your view of the mountain becomes more and more obscured as you come closer to the parking lot where you begin your journey. By the time you park, you actually possess zero sensory evidence that you are anywhere near a mountain and have to believe it must be there somewhere because of your general orientation in space and because of your belief in social cooperation in providing actual rather than false trails, accurate maps, compasses that more or less work, etc.

Imagine instead that we lived in a society where it was more common to make false trails than real ones; a society where it was more common to publish false maps than real ones; a society where compasses were all digital — and regularly hacked. Would you still bother to try to climb a mountain for pleasure? At the very least, you would build a completely different strategy.

For our actual hike, however, we lived in a society wherein we could generally trust people. We had a map and headed out for what we estimated to be a hike to get us back to the car right before dark. We were not attempting the summit, but it certainly appeared to be a serious hike. We were basically doing a kind of helical partial circumference trek. The scenery began as spruce and pine gradually giving way to more scrub and less forest. Occasionally, we were rewarded with glimpses of the summit. A fair amount of the hike soon consisted of taking zig zag paths up and down small canyons. As we continued these became larger. And larger. And larger. Now our elevation map indeed warned us of “Little Zig Zag Canyon” and “Big Zig Zag Canyon” but we weren’t precisely sure where we were.

As we encountered ever larger canyons, we kept revising our idea about where we were. As we finished one canyon, we would always say, “Well, that must have been Big Zig Zag Canyon, so we must be *here* on the map.” At one point, after just deciding that we had conquered Big Zig Zag Canyon, we emerged from a grove of hemlock to a gaping maw of the mountain. It completely dwarfed anything we had seen before. Obviously, the much lesser giant we had already conquered was only “Little Zig Zag Canyon” and we were only now facing “Big Zig Zag Canyon.” It probably took at least an hour to descend and re-ascend. As those of you who have ever climbed on a mountain know, changing elevation is much like traveling in time. As we descended, the cold frozen ground of winter gave way to the first signs of spring. As we continued our descent, weeds and flowers abound and trees bud and leaf.  At the bottom of the ravine, it felt like a summer day. And, again, on the way up, there was the feeling of time travel compression. We were climbing through weeks of season change in minutes.  At last we reached the top of the trail and looked back at this canyon which would have been much better named “Gargantuan Zig Zag Canyon”! One last look and we turned back to the path into another forests. At the entrance to the forest, I noticed there was a small wooden sign oriented toward people leaving the forest and entering the canyon. Curious, I ventured forth and looked back to read: “Little Zig Zag Canyon.” What!!?? That enormous chasm in the earth was little Zig Zag Canyon?

Up to this point, our hike had been vigorous but not dangerous. However, now a small and subtle danger did present itself. We might be lucky to make it back to the car by dark. We had not bought provisions for an over-night stay. Hiking in the dark is dangerous. And, it gets really cold at night. So, now the question was, could we still cross the next canyon and still get back by dark? We decided we could. We did make it back before dark, but barely. Clearly, “Big” Zig Zag Canyon was a name chosen in a paroxysm of understatement while “Little” Zig Zag Canyon was just a bald-faced lie.

Like it or not, we journey now on spaceship earth. We are traveling together with everyone else on the planet. Neither a single person on the planet nor all of us collectively have a guaranteed comprehensive well thought out plan for how to avoid any one of a number of ecological disasters. Throughout the planet, there are numerous religions and cultures. Getting along with each other is critical, even if many countries did not have nuclear weapons, which we do. To enhance the adrenaline rush, these various countries and cultures and religions are associated with many different languages and stories about how we got to where we are today. Everyone, in other words, has a different map. There are no posted signs. And no-one owns a compass.

I could say, “Fasten Your Seat Belts Folks. We are in for turbulence.” I could say that to bend the spaceship metaphor. But if we think of ourselves as passengers on a plane that someone else, perhaps even someone competent, is piloting, I believe that stance pretty much guarantees that humanity’s day’s are numbered. No, I think a vigorous and potentially dangerous hike is more in order. Sometimes, it will feel as though you are going backwards in time and sometimes forward at lightning speed. Everywhere along the path, you will have to watch your step, even as you take the time to appreciate the beauty still surrounding you. And just when you think you have conquered the biggest challenge we have ever faced, a still larger challenge will appear.

I am hopeful.

 

panorama of Big Zig Zag Canyon

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Parametric Recipes and American Democracy

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On the Value of Parametric Recipes and American Democracy

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Most people are familiar with the concept of a recipe. It typically lists a set of proportions or amounts of various ingredients and the steps that should be taken in producing a food item for consumption. The goal of a recipe is to encapsulate a “best practice” which has been developed over time. Following the steps is important for a good result. If you cook a cake too little, it will be gooey but if you cook it too much, it will be burned. If you put in too much sugar or too little or too much flour or too little, the result will not be as good in terms of texture or taste.

If you stray from a recipe, there are many ways to go wrong. My mother used to make peanut butter cookies. Homemade peanut butter cookies still warm from the oven are amazing! And, this wonderful taste treat was repeated every time…except for the time that she accidentally put in salt instead of sugar. Randomly replacing one ingredient with another typically results in a recipe for disaster.

A “parameter” is something that can be changed from one situation to another. While randomly changing ingredients does not often work, there are many recipes which allow for huge flexibility among some of their ingredients. For example, I often make a salad for lunch. On top of the fresh vegetables and greens, I use pepper and one teaspoon of olive oil along with one teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. But which greens and vegetables are in these salads?

That depends. In every salad, I include vegetables according to which ones are the freshest. I also include a variety of colors. To me, a green salad that is all green is not so attractive as one with bits of color. Adding red peppers, radishes, tomatoes, yellow peppers, carrots, red onion, radicchio, or cheese makes it more appealing. To some extent, that is probably just because variety itself is interesting. Beyond that, people may react to the bright colors that typically signal important and biologically useful phytochemicals.  While people have long known the value of vegetables, more recent research has confirmed that brightly colored fruits and vegetables often contain substances that help prevent cancer among other benefits.

A salad is more interesting, at least to me, when there is a variety of textures as well as colors and tastes. A carrot, cucumber, tomato, lettuce and snap peas all have quite different textures and this adds to the pleasure of the salad. So, when I “create” a salad, I take care to include a variety of textures as well as colors and tastes. The only substances which are “measured” are the olive oil and vinegar. I do not need to follow a strict recipe regarding the vegetables. Since I typically shop and prepare food only for two people, I need to “use up” ingredients while they are still fresh. Indeed, the choice is even more complicated. I know from experience approximately how long various vegetables will still be fresh and so choose, not just the very freshest, but also vegetables that are fresh today but may not be so tomorrow. Parametric recipes, when appropriate, prevent boredom, are economical and healthy.

Salads are not the only example of a “parametric recipe.” I also use such a scheme for making an omelet. My omelet always contains eggs and cheese but could include any number of a host of other vegetables. There are “constraints” on the vegetables. I would not typically make an omelet with only hot peppers, onions, and garlic for example, because it would be too hot for my taste. I use a variety for color and texture, but to a large extent, the omelets I make are never the same twice. I also use a variety of cheeses. I suppose if I had access to numerous types of eggs, I could also vary the egg type but I do not do that in practice. Other common “parametric recipes include stews, soups, fried rice, beans and greens, curried vegetables, baked potato with vegetable/cheese toppings, burritos, tacos, fruit salads, bean salads, and pizza. To be sure, some parts of these “recipes” are more parametric than others. The pizza dough must be prepared according to much stricter “rules” than the selection and proportion of toppings.

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Needless to say, many recipes require very strict adherence. Many recipes for baking must be followed closely in terms of ingredients, proportions, and the steps taken in preparation. Even more vitally, you do not want your pharmacist improvising in compounding your prescriptions. In other words, there are cases where parametric recipes are extremely useful and practical. There are other situations where strict adherence to recipes is better. And, there are many situations where certain aspects of the recipe require strict adherence while other aspects of the same recipe can be varied quite a bit. When you use a parametric recipe, some attention is required along the way. Simply adding different vegetables to an omelet or salad will always add variety, but for best results, you need to think about what you are adding in order to optimize color, texture, etc. as well as individual tastes.  While my wife and I both love kale, collard greens, garlic, onions, and cilantro, for example, I know that not everyone likes these ingredients so when making an omelet for a guest, I enquire about the vegetables and cheeses that are incorporated.

OK. So what does the culinary conundrum of “parametric recipes” have to do with American Democracy?

Everything.

Anarchy is much like grabbing a handful of ingredients that are closest at hand and simply throwing them in a pot and cooking them for a random period of time. There is no structure and there is no learning from best practices and there is no accountability. On the other hand, fascism is like finding one recipe you like, if you are the one in power, and insisting that everyone like it because you like it. Imagine you were a guest in my house and I insisted you eat my blue cheese and shiitake mushroom omelet even though you hated blue cheese and hated mushrooms. I could say, “Well it’s my house! Eat what I make!” Some people were pretty much brought up that way. At the other extreme, some parents will end up making four omelets for four different people because they want to please everyone. With infinite time and resources, this may not be a horrible way to go. But most people are limited both with respect to time and with respect to resources so when it comes to making an omelet for four very different people some compromise may be necessary. Indeed, in some cases, omelets may not be the best option.

The problem with a purely fascist approach is not simply that it is mean and mean spirited. It is worse than that. First of all, if you never get the omelet you want (or indeed any omelet you can even stomach) eventually, you are going to try to “overthrow” the damned chef and make your own omelet. You might not like omelets at all and prefer cereal for breakfast. In “normal” American Democracy, that’s fine. I can make an omelet for myself and you can have cereal. But if I have forced you to eat omelets for a year even though you hate them, you can bet that once you’re in power, you’ll be forcing me to eat your ridiculous cereal for at least a year. Fascism leads to power grabs and ultimately to violence.

The second problem with fascism is that only a very few people in power are really happy with the results. I force my “optimal recipe” omelet on everyone all the time and more and more people get sick of it over time. The person in power, I suppose, gets some kind of pleasure from “forcing” their will on everyone else, but it is nothing compared with the pleasure that normal people get from creating something that “works” for all the people involved. Fascism is not about love, cooperation, or pleasure. It feeds on fear, hate, and meanness. It doesn’t really matter whether the fascism has some quasi-religious affiliation (like the Taliban who outlaw music and trees) or some racial bias like Hitler’s Germany. Such a regime is not conducive to people’s pleasure.

Third, fascism is ultimately not very practical. At first, it might seem “efficient.” Someone in power gets the “best” recipe for an omelet and then everyone has to fall in line and eat that kind of omelet whether or not it tastes good. If the omelet calls only for asparagus as the vegetable, then the entire supply chain can be geared toward asparagus. Efficient! But only under extremely limited circumstances. Suppose that the lack of crop rotation and variety helps cause an asparagus mold plague. Asparagus first becomes very expensive and then non-existent. Or, suppose a foreign agent, knowing everyone has to eat asparagus, finds a way to poison the supply chain. Now, instead of only a few people dying from the poison, everyone will. Or, suppose science discovers that asparagus actually causes kidney stones. Even worse, fascism hates change. In order to prevent change, fascism hates news, science, opinion variety, free speech etc. So, under fascism, when science discovers that the state-approved asparagus is actually poisonous or causes kidney stones, rather than changing the omelet recipe, fascism imprisons the scientist who discovered the problem and tortures him or her until then recant their findings. Problem solved! Recipe unchanged! Efficient! But meanwhile, people are dying from being required to use the recipe.

If everyone is an island unto themselves, there would be no information sharing and people would have to come up with their own omelet recipes. Instead, imagine a world in which people trade recipes informally, are free to discuss, restaurants introduce people to a variety of tastes, people write, publish and read cook books. In that world, people are free to improvise, experiment,  find what works, share the information, cater to the situation of what’s available, cater to their specific guests, and so on. All this culinary activity is carried out in a very broad context of rules that cannot be broken without penalty. You cannot willingly poison your guests with your omelet without going to prison. You cannot even cook in peanut oil when you know your guest is allergic to peanut oil. People are not allowed knowingly to sell you tainted eggs. This is a good system. This is, essentially, American Democracy. We have collectively decided that some rules are necessary. (Don’t poison people). But we don’t demand that everyone use the same recipe. We don’t demand that everyone eat the same food. We do not try to enforce our preferences on other people, even when we have the power to.

To me, the advantages of a Democracy over fascism are so obvious that I never imagined for an instant that we might get rid of Democracy in America in favor of fascism. Until now.

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Now, we have elected a mean-spirited egomaniac who wants to tell us what to eat, whose clothing to wear, what facts we’re allowed to pay attention to, who we are allowed to be friends with, who we can have sex with, and who we can marry. Democracy is not yet dead, but it is already severely wounded. The Clown has limited powers so long as Congress has the guts to limit the powers of the Clown. So far, they haven’t. But they can. We all need to learn which people in Congress are “ours” and make sure they reign in the Clown immediately. Anyone who fails to do that needs to be voted out as soon as possible and never elected to any public office ever again. Even if you agree with some of the Clown’s executive orders, you have to understand that without a Congress willing to check the Clown, the Clown becomes the Dictator. The Clown has already surrounded himself with people who are chosen because he believes they will enhance his power completely irrespective of whether they have the slightest experience or ability to do the job. You must do what you can to make your Congress accountable to you. If you let the Congress be accountable only to the Clown, then you are dooming your children and your children’s children to live in a Fascist Circus run by a demented Clown. And, in another four years, you won’t have a say in Congress. And, you will be required to eat the omelet made with rancid cheese, moldy asparagus, and bad eggs. Every morning. Forever.

constitution

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https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable

http://www.truthtable.com

http://tinyurl.com/ng2heq3

The Crabs are Biting

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My dad led the design team for the electrical system of the original Goodyear Blimp. One summer, between the third and fourth grade, his work on airships called him away from Akron and we spent the summer in Tom’s River, New Jersey. After returning from Portugal, we had stuck close to Akron so was looking forward to a trip that took us hundreds of miles to the sea-side.  I could smell the ocean when we still an hour away from Tom’s River. Our small apartment in Tom’s River sat a mere two blocks from the public library, a library that contained the “Powers of Ten” book which takes the reader on a journey from the innermost workings of the atomic nucleus to the outermost regions of the galaxy.

While my dad worked at Lakehurst, my mom and I spent part of the day watching the “McCarthy Hearings.” I was too young to understand it thoroughly, but I could quickly discern that McCarthy was a liar. I had a harder time telling whether he was genuinely a very hating hateful person or whether he just appeared to be full of hate in order to popular with other hating people. Hating others has never come very naturally to me. I always felt connected to my family, my friends, other people and even other forms of life. So, hating, to me, has always consisted of nine parts self-loathing plus one part prideful ignorance. Don’t get the idea that I am a saint. I’m far from it and anger comes quite easily to me when I’m frustrated. My parents claimed that, as a toddler, frustration would propel me to run across the floor and smack my head down on the floor. By the time I was nine, I had developed less self-destructive ways to express anger. But whether McCarthy really was a tiny person filled with hate or simply a person who tried to impress those who really were haters in order to win their support, I couldn’t tell. I have no idea how “large” McCarthy was physically. I call him “tiny” because it seems essential in order to hate that you must pull in your sense of wonder and appreciation to the boundaries of your own physical skin. When people hate, something has happened to them and it shouldn’t happen to them because, after all, they are the center of the universe. Apparently, haters have never seen the book, Powers of Ten.

Probably so they could have some adult time, my parents also enrolled me in summer church school. I became friends with one of the kids in church school and he invited me onto his Cabin Cruiser. My parents met with his parents before accepting this and they ended up being invited too. A bright sunny day and off we sped onto the sparkling ocean! At some point, the kids, under the supervision of my new friend’s dad, went crab fishing. Although I had never gone crab fishing before, I understood the basic concept from several fishing trips with my Uncle Karl. Karl lived in a fancified log cabin on Comet Lake near Akron. Fishing consisted of going out into the lake on a row boat, putting a live worm onto a hook, putting a fishing pole over the side of the boat and then sitting quiet and still for hours on end. I think I may have caught one small fish in my three trips. It seemed frankly like a huge amount of boredom for a very small reward. So, when crab fishing was announced as the next activity on the Cabin Cruiser, I tried to steel myself for hours of boredom. I didn’t want to end up running across the deck and smacking my head in frustration.

The baiting was easier and instead of poles, we put out some lines with multiple baits. Over the side of the boat they went. That wasn’t so bad as pithing the worms. Now would come the endless hours of waiting for a nibble. Two or three minutes later, for no reason I could discern, we started pulling up the lines. They were filled with crabs! While the trout, bass, perch, and bluegill in Comet Lake were shy and crafty little critters who would try stealthily to nibble away the worm without getting barbed on the hook, the crabs of the Atlantic seemed to have no greater goal in life than to clamber into our boat as fast as possible. This fishing sped along more in synch with my natural rhythm. No need for head-banging here! Line after line went over the side and minutes later, back each one would come with a meal’s worth of crabs. Now this fishing was more like it!

After sunset scattered scarlet shards across the ocean, the kids went down below to sleep in the bunks. There were portholes in the bow and we could see through those portholes into an ever-darkening starry sky. We could hear the murmuring of the alcohol-plied adults above discussing whatever it was that adults discussed back then; perhaps the McCarthy Hearings; perhaps something about a popular movie or TV show. We kids below however had more serious things to discuss. Mainly, we discussed the fact that we could see stars that were (or at least had been) far, far away. We speculated whether, at this very moment, there might be a planet circling one of those distant stars. It seemed that if there were planets, they too might have oceans and Cabin Cruisers and kids. And those kids would also be looking up into the night sky seeing a faraway star — our sun! And, they might well be thinking, those alien kids, of how there might be a planet circling Sol and how on that planet could be kids looking up at the night sky at them…or at least at their sun. Of course, we might be years or even thousands of years “out of synch” which only added to the mystery.

These possible aliens might be like us in every way. More likely, they would be like us in some ways and unlike us in some ways. They might be wondering whether we would be friendly to them just as we wondered whether they would be friendly to us. And, probably, we concluded, a lot would depend on the particular alien you encountered. For some reason, that particular small group of kids didn’t talk much about “categories” of people. It seemed to me, and to my new-found friends, that everyone was quite different. We had learned in school that every snowflake was different. If something as simple as a snowflake is unique, how much more true that must be of people. And, it seemed completely and obviously true. My Aunt Emma and my Aunt Mary were completely different from each other as each was from my Grandmother Ada. Of course, people were all different. As I listened to the voice of the other kids, I could see that person’s face in my mind’s eye. Yes, we all had one nose, one mouth, and two eyes, but we were all really different. We sounded different. We looked different. We moved differently. We were from different states hundreds of miles apart. But we all were interested in whether there were aliens and what they would be like. Though we were somewhat mindful of the potential danger, we were much more excited about learning about them and from them than protecting ourselves from them. And we all understood that all the thoughts and feelings we were having about them were quite possibly mirrored by their thoughts and feelings about us even if separated by lightyears of space-time and by biological lineages.

None of our group of nine-year olds were such “scaredy cats” that we were terrified of the aliens and therefore filled with hate for them. It never occurred to any of us. I don’t think that’s just because we were all going to “church school.” It’s just more natural to assume that the kids on the faraway planet would be wondering about us in much the same way as we wondered about them regardless of the number of eyes and legs they might have. I think that in order for us to have hated or feared the aliens, an adult would have to come into our cramped quarters to tell us that all the aliens were the same; that they were all out to get us; that they should all be hated and destroyed. Maybe McCarthy would be good for that job. It’s honestly hard to believe any of us would have taken him seriously. But, I suppose, if we heard that hate day in and day out, complete with fake news features filled with fake facts and fake figures, we might eventually find ourselves in a state of hate and fear.

Of course, no such adult came down below decks to sell us that particular bogus bill of bads. Why would someone like McCarthy decide to make their fame and fortune by filling young minds and hearts with hate and fear? I still don’t know whether he was really so filled with hate and fear himself that he couldn’t help it. I did, years later, read a biography of Joe McCarthy and something his wife said made me very much think it was all fake and he didn’t actually believe any of it. That just makes it all the more disturbing. A hate-monger such as McCarthy, who does it all as an act to gain power, does not just hate communism and communists. He also hates the people he is hoodwinking. He totally disrespects them through his dishonesty and dissembling. Eventually, Joe McCarthy soon found himself completely discredited and disgraced but not before wantonly laying waste to the lives of many innocent individuals.

Of course, in the right circumstances, almost everyone lies on occasion. What most people do when they are caught in a lie is apologize and try to explain why they lied. What a McCarthy does, however, is quite different. Instead of apologizing, they simply shout the lie more and more loudly. On other occasions, they will deny ever having told the lie in the first place. The screaming gets louder and louder. When no-one believes their lies, they are left with the only recourse left to them: violence. War, incarceration, murder — all of these seem a nothing compared with the ego bruising hurt of admitting that they had been lying. In the meantime, Joe McCarthy did provide a summer’s worth of entertainment. It’s too bad it came with ruining innocent lives.

I wonder whether those far planets we hypothesized as revolving around those far suns in our night sky hold their own McCarthy-like beings. It seems hard to believe an entire species would survive if they were all McCarthy-like. Imagine a river full of piranha that attacked each other! The species wouldn’t long survive. Is there some utility to having a small proportion of the population of an otherwise intelligent species be McCarthy-like? I don’t really think so. At least I haven’t been able to come up with a scenario yet in which actual witch hunts are useful to the group as a whole.

A partly related phenomenon might be called “Cassandra-like” in which someone thinks they see a danger which no-one else does. But such a person is useful to the society as a whole only to the extent that they are willing to share their concern and work together with others to determine whether the danger is real, how to assess it, how to protect against it etc. On the other hand, if the person simply insists that there is a danger regardless of whether others see and just tries to prove it by screaming more loudly, that is not very helpful. If the “danger” is premised on something which is absurd on its face (e.g., because you were friends with a communist, that meant you must be communist as well; or, because some communists wanted to overthrow the US government, if you were a communist, that meant you were a traitor as well) then, it can’t lead to very effective action. A McCarthy-like person is completely unhelpful in locating and protecting against actual danger because their cognition is too damaged to be helpful in itself and their communication style is so warped that it actively interferes with the attempts of others to do actual problem solving.

In the years after the summer of McCarthyism, I worked with kids in many capacities. For instance, I worked as a child care worker and camp counselor. I can tell you that kids often engage in conversations about deep topics. They are concerned about their world and other worlds that might be. Kids care passionately to learn about the world. But despite their passion, they tend to be pretty careful about discriminating the bait from the hook. In my experience, they are more like the Comet Lake trout, perch, bass, and bluegill than the crabs off the New Jersey coast. However, if people of any age are desperate enough; if they are told the big lie often enough, many will stop acting like discerning vertebrate fish and just latch on to the first shiny thing that appears before them. Perhaps that is why the McCarthy’s of the world, if they had their way, would outlaw public libraries, gut public education, and discredit the independent press. They wouldn’t want the fish to be able to discriminate the bait from the hook. They are much too impatient for trout fishing. Throw a line over the side of the boat and make sure that people are so desperate that they clamp right onto the empty line. Who knows what exactly goes on in the mind of a crab? Perhaps that clamp on in hate. Perhaps they latch on in fear. Perhaps it is a little of both. But what we do know is that whatever motivates the crab to grab hold of that shiny line, it is always the crab itself, not its enemies, who ends up in the belly of the beast. One can still hope that this will be a good year.

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@John Thomas, 1/16/17

https://www.amazon.com/author/truthtable 

McCarthy in Wikipedia

Trumpism is a New Religion

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(This blog post is a temporary departure from Schooled Haze and contemplations of AI/HCI).

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Trumpism is less a political offshoot of Republicanism than it is a new religion, at least for a substantial number of Trump supporters. I keep seeing posts from various liberal friends recounting nasty infantile things that Trump has done or said as though as to say, “Well, now! That is so completely outrageous, stupid, mean-spirited, vain, or evil that surely you Trump voters will now see how you were wrong.” No. That is never going to happen. I think the “mistake” is to think that Trump is a political leader when he is actually, for many, a religious leader. 

As Trump himself once famously bragged, he could shoot people in the middle of the street in broad daylight and his followers wouldn’t desert him. It doesn’t matter what he does. His value is taken as a given and everything else flows from that. You won’t convince people who are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim to change religions because you claim to have “facts” about how bad some particular religious figure is. It will simply mean they will discount your facts and their source.

Why and how could Trump become a religious figure? He seems offhand to be the complete antithesis of what most of the major religions espouse. Well, yes, but those religions I mentioned earlier arose in earlier times…much earlier. In the USA, 70% of the people claim to be Christians. But what really matters are people’s actions, not their claims. The evidence is all around us that for many people, the real religion of America is quite different from Christianity.

We have a TV culture and a popular culture and what many people really value (as measured by their actions) are things like money, greed, vanity, self-promotion, immediate gratification, superficiality, anti-intellectualism, self-righteousness, fame, and arrogance. We call people who hold high positions in a company “business leaders” regardless of whether they are or are not actual leaders. We have articles written about which colleges are “best” when the entire analysis is about the ROI of your tuition dollars. Social media are filled with “top ten” lists of ways to advance your career that take three minutes to read. We talk about someone’s “actual worth” when what we’re really talking about is their financial worth. We rank order tennis stars, golf stars, baseball stars, and basketball stars according to how much they earn. Where is the list according to their skill, elegance, mentorship, or how much they build team spirit? These things are still talked about on occasion but many people accept that the only “objective” measure of value is money.

We have taken what are essentially cooperative activities like dancing, cooking, dating, and singing and made all of them into competitive contests on TV.  Many of us have accepted as “normal” that all a corporation is expected to do is make the most money possible. What used to be “beyond the pale” ethically is now treated as just taking care of the bottom line. A few random examples follow. It is “normal” business practice now to send snail mail that appears from the envelope to be a check or official government business when it is advertising. E-mail and snail mail are labelled as “In response to your query” or “As you requested” when there is no such query or request. Drinks that consist of high fructose corn syrup and water with dyes (and quite possibly FDA-grandfathered addictive ingredients) are labelled as “Natural” and “Healthy.” Did you know that “Unscented” is the name of an actual fragrance? So if you buy cat litter or fabric softener that is “unscented” thinking that you are avoiding the nasty chemicals, you are simply buying stuff that is scented with a scent called “unscented.” Recently, Wells Fargo which you don’t typically think of as a “fly by night” outfit, was caught charging customers for setting up accounts that were never asked for. Minors cannot purchase cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana. However, your ten year old can go into any grocery store and get “air fresheners.” These typically contain ingredients which include a known carcinogen, a chemical known to mess up your hormone balance, and a chemical which deadens your sense of smell. Essentially, an “air freshener” does nothing of the sort. It pollutes your air; it doesn’t “freshen” it whatsoever. Meanwhile, sports figures such as Lance Armstrong, who vigorously denied doing performance enhancing drugs apparently not only did them but threatened other athletes as well.

I do not want to overstate this. Most people most of the time are still honest, hard-working, and fair. The media gets paid by advertising dollars however and is therefore motivated to report only on the worst of human behavior. Very few will buy a newspaper whose headline reads, “2.5 million US Muslims worked peacefully today.” But if one goes on a shooting rampage, you can bet it will be a headline. Do you recall any headlines about Timothy McVeigh being a Christian?

Our elections and politicians are bought and paid for largely by a few multi-billionaires. A long term campaign to encourage people not to trust “intellectuals”, scientists, educators, and journalists has left people believing in fake news and social media instead. In some cases, even such blatantly obvious absurdities as “January 2017 Friday the 13th! — There will not be another Friday the 13th for 666 years!” are posted and reposted on Facebook. “Mars will never be closer to the earth!” (This with a picture that shows Mars the apparent size of the Moon). The only reason for such things is basically to serve as click bait. “Copy and Share if you are against the senseless killing of helpless kittens.”

That is the background against which we need to understand Trump and Trumpists. It doesn’t matter to Trumpists that he made more money by stiffing people. It doesn’t matter that he bragged about being able to grab women by their private parts. In fact, these are seen as plusses. He embodies the values and behaviors that symbolize a new “religion.” The problem with Christianity as a religion is that it (at least in many versions) champions the downtrodden, teaches humility, asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves, warns us not to judge lest we be judged, encourages us do to unto others as we would have them do unto us. That’s okay for a couple hours on Sunday. But it really doesn’t jibe with perceived success in the modern business world. Actually, you certainly could run a business and be successful that way. But being merely successful isn’t enough. If you want to be sure to be a billionaire despite having only mediocre talent, then the path of lying, cheating, and stiffing people seems more promising. The tension between what the Bible says is good and what society actually rewards is too much for many people to bear. As a result, some churches, ministers, and practitioners focus on little slivers of decontextualized Christianity such as homophobia or a prohibition about birth control. Some even promulgate the idea that if you are rich in worldly goods, it is proof that God is smiling on you. And these tactics kind of work a little bit. But it doesn’t work nearly so well for some people as embracing a new religion that celebrates the same values as our “civil” society.

How does this perspective on Trumpism help? First, it helps us understand that Trump supporters will not be shocked if he fills cabinet posts with second rate people who appear to be joining government to line their own pockets. This is expected behavior by adherents to the new religion. Trumpists may well discount evidence of this as being fabricated by liberal media or they simply think it is evidence they are “hard-headed business people” who will make government “more efficient and effective” like private enterprise. Well, I have interacted with government agencies. And, I have worked in some of the best companies in America. You know what? They are both “inefficient.” How is your Montgomery Ward stock doing these days? How about Enron? Borders? Companies go out of business all the time. They have no magic formula that makes them efficient and effective. The idea that government is “inefficient” and private enterprise is “efficient” is just nonsense invented by people who want to send more of your dollars to private enterprises in which they have a vested interest.

Second, seeing Trumpism as a religion explains the passionate fire of many Trump supporters. It also explains how they can rationalize hate crimes in their own minds. As the religious leader of Trumpism, Trump has given permission and even encouraged violence in his name.

Third, Trumpism as a new religion explains the shallowness of thought that pervades it. Most major religions have centuries of debate and discussion about how to interpret various passages in sacred writings etc. During many parts of the history of these religions, many of the smartest most thoughtful people ended up studying — even devoting their life — to these older religions. There hasn’t been time for that yet with Trumpism. Whatever Trump tweets is the on-going gospel to the Trumpists. Trumpists themselves do not typically call it a religion. They may think their extremism is patriotism. Others may think it is simply practical. In any case, the shallowness and sloganism of Trumpists is seen as a feature, not a bug.

Fourth, understanding that our society is so ripe for Trumpism suggests that simply voting out Trump or even having him impeached, while it might prevent or delay atomic war or dictatorship, is not the complete answer. Our entire society needs to become more patient, less greedy, more cooperative, less competitive in matters that don’t require competition, more accepting and less self-righteous. We need to celebrate the people of substance and ability in every field from bricklaying and carpentry to science and teaching. We need to stop celebrating people simply because they are in the news or have inherited a lot of wealth. Trump and Trumpism are symptoms of something much more pervasive. Trump may be the cancerous tumor in the body politic, but our immune system is badly compromised or that tumor would never have grown so fat and ugly. We must also understand that our body politic still contains many healthy cells! Don’t despair! Instead, repair! Be one of those healthy cells. Survive and thrive. Civilization hasn’t fallen yet. During 2017, we can collectively perform a Billion Acts of Compassion and Kindness. #BACK2017.

Sticks and Stones

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As no less an authority on the universe than George Carlin pointed out, parents like to make rules. They supplement rules with various bits of seemingly sage advice. One of my mom’s favorites was “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” I cannot recall the precise circumstances when I first heard this old saw, but from the very first it bothered me. I have a vague memory, perhaps confabulated, of coming in from outdoor play around the age of six because one of the neighbor kids, probably my friend Homer, had called me a “bad name.”  I’m not sure whether I expected mere sympathy or whether I thought my mom would go and extract some sort of retribution. But I didn’t get either kind of satisfaction. Instead, I got this saying quoted at me.

So, one reason I probably didn’t like it was that I didn’t find it at all satisfying in the way that a hug might have been and certainly not in the self-righteous and smug way that having Homer being punished would have done. Was this the harbinger of a new chapter in our parent-child relationship? (No, I probably didn’t use the word “harbinger” back then, but I knew what “change” meant.) Instead of comfort, my parents would now dispense wisdom? Beyond that, this particular saying hurt my artistic sensibility. “Sticks and stones will break my bones.” Now, there was a rhyme scheme and scan I could related to. Nice even rhythm. Nice rhyme. But then it kind of goes to hell. “But names will never hurt…me.” ? How does that end with “hurt me.” Which syllable is unaccented? And what does “me” rhyme with here? You may as well just jam your hand down on C,D,E,F, and G at the same time and maybe the black keys between as well. By the way, my parents absolutely objected to that action on my part. I had to play piano “nicely” or not at all.

Beyond that, the “message” of this aphorism appeared quite cloudy if not opaque. Was my mother suggesting that if I wanted to “get back at” my buddy Homer, I should not come to her with my complaints but find a way to break his bones — perhaps using sticks and stones? I couldn’t see myself doing that. Even then I knew broken bones took a long time to heal. If I broke his bones, it could interfere with baseball, hide and seek, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. Perhaps “names can never hurt me” provided the crux of the message and the sticks and stones were just there for contrast effects. Taken by itself, “names can never hurt me” seemed patently absurd. If I hadn’t felt hurt, I wouldn’t have bothered to tell her about it.

Even at six, the logic implied by this aphorism offended my aesthetic sense even more than the bad poetry. Yeah, true enough, sticks and stones could break your bones. That made sense. But that didn’t mean that these were the only weapons of bodily destruction. I already knew people could get hurt by guns, knives, cars, and disease. Why are the sticks and stones there at all? Why not just say, “If someone calls you a name, just ignore it.”? More subtle for a young child might be, “If someone calls you a name, whether or not that hurts you depends on how you take it.” Yeah, I might use that one today in psychotherapy with adults. I don’t think it would make much sense to a six year old. At least, I don’t think it would have made much sense to me.

As I mentioned, the sticks and stones part did make sense. Yet, I found it surprising that my mom would even mention them as possibilities. Whenever she — or any of the other moms — found us “sword fighting” with sticks, they would warn us that someone was about to lose an eye. This sounded extremely scary and yet a little intriguing. How could you “lose” your eye? Wouldn’t you just use your other eye to go find it? Did they mean you could have your eye injured? Anyway, none of us had the least intention of trying to stab someone else’s eye. And we certainly were going to to prevent our own eye from being stabbed. So what was the problem? It seemed as though adults found it very difficult to say what they actually meant. When it came to rock fights, parents seemed to focus on the same concern — losing an eye. Almost all of the boys I knew participated in both “sword” fights with sticks and in rock fights. Yet, none of us had ever lost an eye. In school, I searched the faces of kids from every grade (up to sixth) and none of the kids in the entire school had ever lost an eye. So, this seemed to me, and apparently all the other boys, to be a rather far-fetched fear.

When we had stone fights and stick fights, none of us tried to poke out an eye. Indeed, none of us tried even to break a bone. We tried to inflict a little damage on each other; we did want to make it “hurt” but not enough to break a bone. The little damage we rained on each other mostly constituted collateral damage. Our main purpose: re-enact the “battles” we had seen on TV. Drama, not pain, and certainly not injury, provided our main source of joy when it came to fights just as when we played “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers” we had no intention of putting a bullet through someone’s heart.

Even the nicely rhyming first part of that aphorism disturbed me. It hinted to me that a far meaner and crueler world existed out there. In that world, kids didn’t just want to throw stones and hit with sticks in order to have some dramatic fun; in that world, kids actually wanted to break each other’s bones! What neighborhood was that? I had occasionally heard my parents and grandparents talk about “tough neighborhoods.” Were those neighborhoods the ones where kids wanted to break each other’s bones? What would be the point? Wouldn’t that just make the other kid less fun to play with? If they had a broken leg, they couldn’t run. If they had a broken arm, they’d have to swing the bat with one hand. It made zero sense. Zero.

The application of any term leaves gray areas. We like to think that definitions are clear-cut, but seldom indeed does nature provide us with chip chop clarity when it comes to classes and definitions. For example, is a baseball bat a “stick”? Sometimes, baseball players refer to their bats as sticks, but in the case of well-muscled professional ball players, I always thought this provided a kind of joke. Indeed, with a (mere) “stick” they can hit a baseball over 300 feet! But, after all isn’t a baseball bat a kind of “stick”? It’s made of wood. It’s more or less in the shape of a branch of wood.

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Well, whether you call it a “stick” or a “bat”, I can tell you that when a baseball bat gets swung at you and hits you in the chest full force, it is more than a little painful. Homer managed this deed. We were playing baseball with nearly a full set of players down the block at a vacant lot. Homer was at bat with my baseball bat and my dad drove up telling me we had to go immediately. I walked over to get my bat but Homer stood resolute in the batter’s box. The pitcher threw and before I could back away, Homer swung the bat, swinging for the fences. Despite his name, Homer did not hit a home run or even a foul tip. He completely missed the ball although he did manage to make extremely solid contact with my sternum and ribs. It hurt. It hurt quite a bit actually, but the scarier part was that I couldn’t breathe. My dad came hurtling through the vacant lot and grabbed the bat from Homer. I still couldn’t breathe but I could tell I was still alive. I wasn’t so sure whether Homer would be for long. My dad had a very hot temper and, hit or no-hit, the idea that he would kill Homer sprang into my head and scared me more than the prospect that I would never be able to breathe again.

Indeed, I did breathe again (this should be obvious to you) but did get to spend some long hours in the “emergency room” waiting for X-rays. Nothing was broken. Homer and I stopped hanging out. Eventually, Homer’s dad come to talk with me and explain that it was an accident. He pointed out that Homer and I played together a lot and we were both missing out. Forgiving Homer seemed pretty easy actually. I myself hate to leave a game half finished or lose a turn at bat. In baseball, you only *rarely* get to bat. If full teams are playing, you only get to bat one out of 18 times!  We seldom had a full complement of players in my neighborhood, but it was still rare that you got a chance at bat.

Indeed, “sticks” can break your bones, although luck sided with me that day and no ribs were broken. It could have been worse. Much worse. The red mark of the bat was directly over my heart. I suppose a piece of rib could have gone shooting into my heart which would not have been particularly good for anyone. But while we’er on the subject of hearts, how can anyone say, “names will never hurt me”? Of course, it hurts when people call someone a hurtful name. Kids call each other names. When they do it on purpose, they are generally doing it to precisely to hurt the other kid. That isn’t universally true. When I had met my neighbor a few years ago and called her a S***A**, I had no idea what it meant. It was just her way of saying hello. And, sometimes, even adults call people names and mean it as a compliment when it is actually not taken as such.

For example, when I was very young, I had a hard time gaining weight even though I wanted to. This is certainly no longer true; now, I have the opposite problem. But I still don’t take kindly to people (generally women) calling me “skinny.” In fact, I don’t think any guy I know wants to be called “skinny” but women seem to think it’s a complement. Needless to say, men are far more likely to say various things to women that are not appreciated at all. Most guys would love to be called “sexy” and find it difficult to understand why a woman would not just take this as a compliment. That’s basically because guys are typically taken “seriously” while women have to fight their whole lives to be taken seriously; that is, to be treated as a person with intelligence, goals, a unique viewpoint and so on and not simply as a “thing” whose main purpose is to please men and propagate the species.

Imagine that you overhear a guy saying something that is clearly meant to be derogatory to a woman. What would you do? Well, I guarantee that you will not win many points if you walk up to the woman right away and say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I don’t recommend it. I especially don’t recommend it if the woman happens to have a large stick or stone in her possession. Now, let’s imagine instead that there is one particular guy who makes a habit out of calling people derogatory names. He calls many women derogatory names on many occasions. In fact, whenever anyone disagrees with him about anything, he calls that person something derogatory. In fact, name-calling seems to be the most sophisticated type of argument he can muster. In school, we had a few kids that occasionally acted like this and we had a name for them: bullies. The few kids who were “bullies” were never very popular. They were pretty much outcasts.

Bullies act nothing like heroes. A bully is typically driven by a deep fear of being nothing. Quite probably, their parents either spoiled them silly or beat them senseless or both. Bullies had no self-esteem and so any time things didn’t go their way or someone disagreed with them, it brought up deep feelings of inadequacy. The only mechanism that they had for dealing with these feelings was to try to overpower the opposition. They would lie, steal, and cheat and scream bloody murder until they got their way. Sometimes in grade school, a bully would be particularly strong physically, but it wasn’t really a necessity. In junior high and high school, a girl was just as likely to be a “bully” as a guy although they would go about their name calling and power trips in a different way. Sometimes a whole gang of kids would get together and be bullies together. Their idea of a fun time was to pick a fight where the odds were five to one or ten to one. The whole gang would beat up someone because that way they could insure a win. Unless something happens to change such a person fundamentally, they typically graduate from being a child bully to being a teen bully in a gang to being a criminal in a criminal gang.

But not always. Sometimes such folk end up being a “boss.” They don’t primarily work as a boss because they like to make good things happen. No, they enjoy being the boss because they can order other people around. Sometimes such people end up as police and what they enjoy most about the job is ordering other people around. Because they have no confidence in their ability to solve problems or, indeed, do anything productive, they shake down others who can actually produce things. Now, please understand that most bosses just want to get things done and most police really want to help people. The “bullies” in these positions are a small minority. Sometimes, the bullies grow up to be wife beaters or child beaters or child molesters. On rare occasions, they become dictators. In this role, they use their power to enhance their power. They enjoy having things their way. They enjoy shouting down their opposition. They enjoy getting rid of their opposition. They cannot stand the idea that they may be wrong or lacking in some ability.

To give just one example, consider the case of Altshuler, a Russian who invented a way of inventing called TRIZ. (You can find it on google). He was a Russian inventor who wrote a sincere letter to Stalin suggesting that Russians needed to be more inventive. To the thin skinned bully Stalin, this suggestion for how to *improve* Russia becomes an implied criticism and Altshuler was sent to Siberia where he got to cut trees into sticks and break rocks into stones. This is one essential problem with bullies. They cannot face facts and instead insist on their own version of the truth. At long last, every such bully becomes more and more dissociated from reality. Essentially, they are insane, but they are not called by that name, because no-one wants to go to Siberia. No-one wants to give them an honest assessment of a military situation so, despite their military ambitions and initial successes, they ultimately must fail. Of course, on the way to their personal failures, such people become responsible for many deaths. They would rather sentence millions to die rather than face their own fundamental inadequacy.

A bully like Stalin or Hitler, however, cannot possibly be a nation-wide bully without arousing the bully in many of his countrymen. Stalin himself didn’t put 50 million of his own countrymen to death. He had to rely on the actions of many “sub-bullies”; people who would carry out his wishes or face the consequences (which, without the collaboration of many of his countrymen would be nothing; but with the collaboration of other sub-bullies would be significant, even deadly). So, here we have an interesting conundrum. The bully wants absolute power but cannot achieve that power without the active cooperation of hordes of other sub-bullies. The dictator needs to set up a system to help him be the biggest bully he can be. Without that help, he is forced to face up to how weak and powerless he is personally.

These types of national bullies have arisen many times in many eras and in many different nations. So we cannot blame the “Russians” or the “Germans” or the “Spanish” or the “French” or the “English” for succumbing to being a sub-bully who joins right in on the name calling, the stone throwing and the stick wielding. Nope. Too easy. And too inaccurate. We all need to look within to discover how and  why we might ourselves become a sub-bully and then to determine how to thwart that tendency. If you and I would like to become and be called something other than sub-bullies, we need to appreciate our own unique perspectives and abilities and celebrate them. As professor Mad-Eye Moody once famously said, “constant vigilance.” Look for opportunities to give, to cooperate, to provide, to learn, to commit acts of compassion and kindness to every person regardless of what they are called.


This post is another in the series called “Schooled Haze” — each is a short story illustrating how people reflect back on earlier experiences in the hope of making sense of them in the light of subsequent experiences — something an Artificial General Intelligence system would also have to be capable of.

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Nancy the Nurse

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Our second grade teacher at David Hill Elementary School loved contests. She had contests on naming classical pieces of music that she played on a phonograph. I won. She had contests for knowing facts about the world and about the USA. I won. She had contests on spelling. I won. She had contests for math facts but I did not win. Why? Because even though I knew all the answers, she didn’t call on me so often as she did some of the girls in the class and one of them won. At the time, I thought this wildly unfair though looking back on it, she might have been trying to encourage some of the others not to give up. She had a reading contest. I won.

And, unlike any of the other contests, the person who won the reading contest would receive a prize from her. That prize consisted of choosing whatever Golden Book we wanted. Golden Books, for those who do not recall, were small books for kids, each bound on the edge with gold. Well, it probably wasn’t actually gold, but it was gold in color. The front and back covers were also rimmed with a gold pattern. So, right off the bat, Golden Books were pretty cool! Each Golden Book also featured, on the back cover, a list of every Golden Book!  What a clever marketing ploy. Anyway, after I won the reading contest, she handed me a Golden Book so I could pick my title from the back cover. I scanned the list very carefully. One and only one came with merchandise! Yes, Nancy the Nurse, the index promised, came with real band-aids!

In order to understand the appeal of this feature, you need to understand where my family lived. Our family’s small one-story two bedroom house sat on a busy street.  Most of the block contained other small, one-story two bedroom houses like ours although they differed in the color of the roof and the siding. Our house was white with green trim. However, as luck would have it, at the very end of my block were three vacant lots! These were not mere fields of weeds or turned up dirt clods like most of the vacant lots in the area. Huge trees! Grape vines! A few dirt paths criss-crossed this forest, wilderness, jungle. It was Eden. And without any adult supervision.

And therein lay both the beauty and the danger. At the end of the block, in those ancient verdant stands of oak and beech, we lived or died by our own wits every day. Well. Every day until our parents called us in for supper when it got dark. But meanwhile, we needed to fend for ourselves and prepare for every emergency.

So, a book — that is one thing. But a book that came with *real bandaids*! That meant that I could construct an emergency medical kit for our wilderness adventures! So, of course, I chose as my prize, Nancy the Nurse!  

My teacher, Miss Hall, looked at me for a moment, paused, and then quietly suggested, “I think you probably mean Tommy the Doctor.” She slid her gnarly finger down to show me the title. Well, Tommy the Doctor did sound pretty cool. Indeed, my own nickname had once been “Tommy.” However, there was nothing in the description of Tommy the Doctor that gave even the slightest hint of real bandaids so I said, “No, thanks. I’ll take Nancy the Nurse.

My teacher, Miss Hall, paused, raised her voice just a tad and asked, “How about this one? Mike the Mechanic.”  Clever the way her voice reminded me of victorious trumpets when she mentioned the name. Still, again, there was nothing there about the book being accompanied by a toolkit or indeed even a bandaid. So, again, I repeated, “No, thanks I’ll just take Nancy the Nurse.” Miss Hall made a few more attempts but all to no avail. I was puzzled by all of this. She had made it very clear that the winner would be able to chose any Golden Book.  At last, she grew weary of the game as had I and she took a different tack.  “Well, I will have to check with your parents.” And so she did. To their credit, my parents had no qualms at all about my choosing Nancy the Nurse. 

Soon the book came. I do not recall, but I am guessing that I did read the book. I read most everything I could get my hands on. But I recall nothing about the book. It did really come with bandaids however, and I found an old lunch pail to hold my emergency wilderness kit. However, as anyone knows, an emergency survival wilderness kit needs more than bandaids. For example, a method of remote emergency communication could prove vital. Kids back then did not have cell phones; mainly because they had not yet been invented. So, I needed another method. Something brightly colored would be good. In TV shows and movies, someone in danger often shot off a flare gun. Sadly, my parents did not own a flare gun. However, what they did have was a typewriter. And that typewriter had a ribbon with dark black on one half of the strip and a bright red on the other.

My parents never used the typewriter. And they had been very supportive of part one of my plan for the emergency kit; namely, the bandaids. I had no inkling they would be any less thrilled by my appropriation of the typewriter ribbon. And, sure enough the very first day, I had reason to use it. One of the kids found a gigantic caterpillar. I had already shown everyone my “flare” and explained its use. I removed the ribbon from my kit holder, took the ribbon cartridge in my right hand and gave a *tremendous* underhand throw. Sure enough, the red and black ribbon deployed beautifully rocketing sky high. Maybe none of the other kids were looking and maybe as a consequence I had to yell to them to come see the caterpillar but that misses the point. The point is, it had worked. I carefully would the ribbon back up for another emergency.

I can’t recall how long life went along in this idyllic condition, but somewhere along the line, to my great surprise, my parents claimed an interest in using the typewriter. This, in turn, proved difficult precisely because there was no ribbon. They seemed perturbed to learn that the ribbon was intact, but meanwhile, rather than just sitting in the typewriter doing nothing for weeks, I had used it on multiple occasions to send emergency flares into the sky.

I suppose, by adult standards, none of the emergencies really “counted” because we were never really hurt, or lost, or attacked by wild beasts, but my point was that if any of those things had happened, we were prepared. Thanks to me. But thanks is not what I got. What I got was incredulity. What I got was yelling. What I got was a spanking. What I got was a lecture about not taking things that don’t belong to you, at least without asking.

The problem was that in my parents’ minds, the use of the typewriter ribbon was the typewriter, pure and simple. They had what I now know is called “functional fixedness.” They failed to see that a typewriter ribbon can be a typewriter ribbon when needed, but meanwhile can also be used as an excellent flare gun. They seemed to have a similar problem regarding the siding on the house. Yes, it could be used to form a wall that kept warm air in but it could also be used as a partner in a ball game if no-one else was around.

On the other hand, sometimes my parents teamed up with innovation. They didn’t seem to have any problem with my using old cardboard boxes and paper towel rolls to make castles or the use of short Lincoln Logs as soldiers. Using marbles as soldiers caused no problems. Using sticks and stones to make homes for toy dinosaurs was okay too. So, I’m not sure “functional fixedness” precisely named the problem. I think our main difference was that I saw things primarily in terms of their uses. Well — especially, my uses. Sure, the typewriter ribbon might be an important part of a typewriter, but if no-one ever used the typewriter and therefore never used the ribbon, why not let it become more useful by being an emergency flare gun?  If no-one ever actually wore the diamond ring in my mother’s jewelry box, why not give it to a girlfriend at school instead? My mother found out and marched up to school to demand the ring back, quite rightly pointing out that the ring had not been mine to give away.

Many years later, I discovered that the ring in question was an engagement ring from my mother’s first husband. My mother and dad fell in love in college. But when World War Two came to America, my dad lied about his age and volunteered. My mother was both angry and heart-broken. She married another older man who hadn’t volunteered to go off and fight a war. Yet, in life’s inimical and ironic ways, he was almost immediately drafted and went off to fight the Nazis himself. One day she had Army Officers appear on the doorstep to inform her of his death. Meanwhile, my dad was having his own trials and tribulations. He received a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound in his shoulder but went back into combat. He and his squad were again shelled and my dad’s lower leg was shattered. His buddy was severely wounded and they were under fire so my dad hobbled them to safety further injuring his shattered leg. His fighting days were over and he shipped back to the USA where he and my mother were reunited. She still kept the ring as a remembrance but never wore it because, after all, she was now married to my dad.

At the time when my dad volunteered to go into the Army, he, like most Americans only knew that we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and that we were now at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. Although people were certainly aware of Hitler’s rhetoric against Jews and his “White Supremacist” non-sense, the full horrors of the concentration camps and pogroms were not revealed until later. Even with all the alt-right propaganda panderings of Goebbels, the German leaders may have still have been ashamed to let the world know precisely what they were doing. It might seem difficult to believe that the German people didn’t know. However, we must remember that one of Hitler’s first moves was to eliminate the free press and put a “Minister of Information” as one of his top aides. Rather than having his second in command someone who actually knew how to make Germany more productive and wealthier, his primary  job was to make it seem as though this was happening, that Germany was winning the war, etc. and that any small remaining problems were due to a lack of patriotism and the “Jewish Problem.”

Of course, I didn’t know any of this in the second grade. All I knew was that to be fully effective in our corner jungle, we would have to have a medical kit and a flare. And, I suppose when my dad was under fire in North Africa and in Italy, his unit did have medical kits and flare guns and a lot more beside. But it wasn’t enough to prevent hot shrapnel from flying through the air and maiming and killing people. And, I honestly don’t know at this juncture what can help keep people safe from the clouds of hate that threaten to hurl us back into a second Dark Ages.

You don’t need a medical degree to know that some wounds cannot be staunched with bandaids. Flare guns, we definitely don’t need. Signs and signals aplenty like bombs bursting in air overhead shot out into the night sky for months and months. But people apparently dismissed them as normal atmospheric disturbances. So that now, after the dictatorial excesses of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s led to so many millions of deaths — German, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Canadian, French, English, American and others from virtually every continent, now we stand poised to do it all again. We are ready to beat every last one of our plowshares into swords. We are sick of science and making progress on disease and understanding the earth and exploring space. Instead, we want to wallow and wade in the wickedness of self-righteous bigotry. We are ready to fray the fabric of America. Something precious has been given away. And it wasn’t even ours to give away. It belonged to the heroes of other eras. And, unlike the diamond ring, this stolen gift will not be easily retrieved.

Of course, you might want to stock up an extra supply of bandaids. I doubt it will help much, but it can’t hurt. The jungle now will not be filled with oak trees and grape vines. And it won’t just be a few vacant lots of the end of the block. Vacant lots will waste away on every block as society unravels. Even the lots with massive iron-barred mansions will only populated by the vacant-eyed. Diamond rings will all have been confiscated as gifts for a chosen few.

Well, what about “Nancy the Nurse”? Well, Nancy earned her M.D. and became head of surgery at a prestigious University teaching hospital. But when it came right down to having her perform life-saving operations, the patients opted instead for Timmy the Technician. It turned out that Timmy didn’t actually have any technical or medical expertise. But he was big and brash and beige. Patients may die but no-one will be sued for wrongful death. Indeed, every death all along that long, loveless lane will be deemed as a righteous death. After all, every righteous death shall become just another … brick …  in … the … wall.

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There’s a Pill for That!

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In the first grade at David Hill Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, a classmate of mine literally broke out in measles right in front of me. Sure enough, a few days later, I got the measles. I don’t recall its being too bad except that I had a high fever and I began seeing “floaters” which I had never noticed before. Unfortunately, right after getting “over” the measles, I came down with pneumonia and had another high fever. Whatever the reasoning, I found myself in a hospital ward with probably 15-20 other kids. Initially, the worst part of the experience was that I had to lie there in what was essentially a crib. I had outgrown a crib years before and it was humiliating to be caged up in a crib.

At that point in time, the medical community had decided that the best thing for everyone concerned was to limit parental visiting hours to a half hour in the middle of the day and an hour in the evening. Although I certainly enjoyed playing with my friends at school, being deprived of friends or relatives for all but an hour and a half a day was disheartening. None of the kids could touch each other in the hospital but we could talk a little, and sometimes scream. One of the kids in the ward had been badly burned and they periodically came to change his bandages. Before this, I had mainly heard kids scream as a kind of protest or to get attention from their parents or teachers. This guy’s screams arose from a different place in his throat and reached an altogether different acoustic plane.

Occasionally, a kid would get better and be released from the prison-like hospital ward. Or, perhaps they let them out early for good behavior. I wasn’t sure, but I reckoned that good behavior couldn’t hurt. I tried, therefore, to lie still for my penicillin shots twice daily. I pretty much failed at that endeavor. It wasn’t so much that the shots were painful as that they were invasive. I still hate the idea of a needle with chemicals being plunged into my body. There is a reason, after all, that human bodies come with skin!

I soon discovered, however, that there are even worse things than shots. In the morning, a nurse came by and placed a capsule into an empty drinking glass beside my bed. Because I was so “sick” I was only allowed a very soft and bland diet. I did feel sick. But I also felt very much that I would have been capable of eating a hamburger, hot dog, or slice or turkey. But no. I was stuck with jello, gelatin, bouillon and juice. But my first course for the day was to be my little pill. About a half hour after the first nurse had deposited a capsule in my empty water tumbler, another nurse would come by to “give me my meds.” Her first act was to lift up the pill so carefully laid in the water tumbler. However, when she went to pick it up, the capsule stuck and then disintegrated.  “No problem,” said the nurse cheerily. “We’ll give it to you with orange juice.” Indeed, she then mixed the contents of the capsule with orange juice. I had to drink it all. And so I did. And it stayed down. For about 30 seconds. Then I threw up. There was something about this particular mixture taken on an empty stomach which I could not stomach.

The next day, before breakfast, a nurse came in and placed a capsule into my empty water glass. I explained to her that this was not a good idea because the second nurse would break it when she tried to lift it up. She pooh-poohed that as nonsense and went on her way. About an hour later, the second nurse came by to give me my meds. I explained to her to be very careful or the capsule would break. “Nonsense,” she said, “the capsule won’t break.” So, she lifted it up and the capsule broke. “No problem,” said the nurse cheerily. “We’ll give it to you with orange juice.” Indeed, she then mixed the contents of the capsule with orange juice. I had to drink it all. And so I did. And it stayed down. For about 30 seconds. Then I threw up. There was something about this particular mixture taken on an empty stomach which I could not stomach.

And, so it went. Every day for ten days the same exact thing happened. Looking back, it is rather amazing I even survived. Eventually, either the doctor gave up on me or my parents missed me or the hospital needed the bed for a patient that provided a higher revenue source. Whatever the reason, I was eventually paroled. It certainly cannot have been for good behavior. My release, whatever the reason, was right before Easter and I weighed 48 pounds nearly seven years old. We had ham and yams and mashed potatoes and gravy for Easter dinner. I ate and ate. No doubt, the penicillin helped kill the pneumonia germs. But I really think the Easter dinner is what cured me — that, and being home in a warm house rather than caged on a ward with the screams of a burn victim and worse, the friendly banter of nurses who would never listen to a mere kid. There can be no doubt that pills are often a cure for disease. But sometimes, whatever the scale of the disease, it isn’t so much a little pill as a nourishing environment that restores the balance of health.

On today’s TV one can find advertisements for pills that promise to cure every ailment that humanity ever had as well as hundreds of other ailments no-one ever realized were ailments. “Do you suffer from wrinkly elbow skin when you straighten your arm? There’s a pill for that!” “Are there calluses on your feet? There’s a cream for that!” “You are eighty years old and you look eighty years old? No problem! We can fix that with operations and injections!” And, then, whilst someone tip-toes through a sunlit host of golden daffodils with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy playing in the background, there is a rapid recital of side-effects. “Some patients may experience slight exploding of the liver. Tell your doctor if you have ever had a beer. Cure-it-all isn’t for all patients. If you experience sudden blindness, deafness, or death, stop taking Cure-it-all and seek medical help immediately.”

I have no doubt that there have been real advances in medicines for a number of real diseases both deadly and more minor. But how much of our health care costs are really vanity costs? You have a body that adapts to the situation. If there are calluses on your feet, there’s a reason!  Many millions of dollars are spent on advertising to get small children into the habit of eating lots of refined sugar even though we know this is bad for kids and helps insure that they will overeat and likely be sick in adulthood. Many millions of dollars are spent on advertising to get adults to eat unhealthy foods. Then, millions more are spent to make you think you are a weak-willed blob if you are overweight. Then, millions more are spent to make you think that a pill will make you skinny despite a bad diet that you initially got into largely because of the advertising dollars.

What if people instead spent money and time making really nutritious meals? What if, instead of watching pro football, people went for a hike with their kids? Maybe we wouldn’t need quite so many pills, capsules, shots, and operations. Here’s the dilemma. Some pills are really useful under certain circumstances for some people. But profits will be greater if the pills are used by every person in every circumstance. The CEOs of drug companies are paid on the basis of their company’s profits. They are not paid on the basis of their company’s products effectiveness or of the cost/benefit ratio of their products. Nope. Profit. That’s it. If you were the CEO of a drug company and suppressed results about the negative or even deadly side-effects of one of your profitable drugs, that would be seen as “good business.” If, as CEO, you cornered the market on a class of drugs and then jacked the price up so that people could no longer afford a life-saving medicine and nutritious food and a warm house, tough! On the other hand, if you were an employee in a drug company and stole a couple pens, you might be fired. Most large companies these days require their employees to take ethics training which explains, for example, that you shouldn’t lie or steal. Typically, such training is “introduced” by a signed letter from the CEO explaining how they take ethics very seriously and that you should too.

If a system is broken, it should probably be fixed or replaced. Unfortunately, doing so is a little more complicated than just taking a pill. Often, the people taking actions and making decisions are far removed from those suffering the consequences. Nurse One puts a capsule in the bottom of a water glass and rushes off. Nurse Two comes in later and tries to pull up the capsule spilling the contents and concocts a nightmare-flavored orange juice. Orderly One cleans up the mess. Neither Nurse Two nor Orderly One ever tells Nurse One about the mistake. Of course, Kid One might mention it day after day, but who cares what a mere kid says?

Imagine a pill called a “Step-Back” pill. If you took this pill, you might actually listen to what a mere kid says. If you took this pill, you might take a look at the whole system of which you were a part. If you took the “Step-Back” pill, you might find yourself questioning why things are done the way they are and how they might be improved. If you took the “Step-Back” pill, you might even find yourself wonder why it is, exactly, that when very very rich people who head up drug companies and banks cheat millions of people there is no penalty but if someone robs a drug store, they will likely spend a good portion of their life in prison. Rumor has it that the “Step-Back” pill was actually invented many years ago but the drug companies were too worried about side-effects to attempt bringing it to market.

The most severe side-effect of the “Step-Back” pill is that you may well stop playing the game of behaving so as to limit your own health. But if you did that, you would not have to buy various potions, pills, and capsules to regain your health. Why rock the boat? Unfair-Status-Quo is a bitter capsule to swallow, but luckily it’s sugar coated. I’ll just rest it here at the bottom of your water glass. Someone will be along in an hour or so. They will lift up the capsule and spill the bitter insides into the glass. But you know what is really an excellent emetic on an empty stomach?

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Seeing Seeing Double Double

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As I recall, a bunch of us first-graders were waiting for to take our turns in some kind of race. While we waited on the edge of the playground to be called, I looked at and then through the hurricane fence in front of us. I discovered that I could look through the fence and see another fence. This second fence was gigantic and far away. Yet, it was also quite close! Indeed, it seemed as though this was no ordinary fence, but a magic fence that I could place where I liked just by changing something in my head. I know I tried to share this information about the magic fence with the other kids waiting with me but I failed to get them to see the magic fence. I didn’t have long. It was my turn to race.

And race I did — but rather badly. I was amazed to discover that I was not the fastest kid in first grade. It had always seemed to me that I ran extremely fast!  That’s how it felt inside. But many kids in my class ran faster than I did. Even many girls ran faster than I did which seemed at the time absolutely impossible. How could it feel so fast to run and yet be slower than so many other kids? Even the fattest kid in the class ran faster!

Later in first grade, upon returning from ten days at the hospital, my parents bought me bunk beds and the bunk beds were covered with a green bedspread which had a repeating pattern of identical and quite stylized white flowers. I could lay on the bedspread, look at the pattern and then look through it to another larger bedspread father away. In fact, I could find several bedspreads at various distances. I experimented by getting closer or father away from the bedspread and by fooling with my eyes. I did not understand exactly what was happening, but one thing was clear. The world that I had thought was “out there” proved very changeable under my own actions and volitions. I could “change” the world out there — or at least how it appeared — by what I did in my own head.

My grandmother supervised the Sunday School at the Methodist church my family attended. Sunday School proved fairly neat. For instance, I memorized the most verses from the Bible and as a result, won a glow-in-the-dark cross. I was supposed to look at this at night and derive comfort from it. I don’t recall that working but what I did discover, which was really cool was this: if I put my eye right up to that cross in total darkness, I could see tiny flashes of light. The cross, like so many “glow in the dark” items back then included both phosphorescent paint and radium laced paint. Same with my “glow in the dark” watch. When the lights first went out, these items would glow quite brightly from the phosphorescence. But even hours later, when that effect had completely vanished, there was still a faint glow from the radium paint. When placed directly on the eye, however, there was an effect like looking at a blurry bout of heat lightening.

Our Sunday School teacher told us that when we prayed, we went to heaven! That certainly seemed kind of cool. I wasn’t exactly sure what heaven was like, but in at least some of the pictures, there were some beautiful angels and it would certainly be fun to meet them. So, I decided to test out our Sunday School’s promise. I would sit in the pews, close my eyes, and pray just as sincerely as I possibly could. When I was praying up a storm, I would suddenly snap my eyes open! And there I was! In Sunday School. I hadn’t even moved to a different seat. No clouds. No heaven. And worst of all, no angels. I would try it again. Same result. I wondered whether opening my eyes could somehow instantly bring me back from heaven to Akron, Ohio. That seemed unlikely. But I tried a few experiments where I would pray hard and then not open my eyes, but just notice whether I still felt the hard wooden pew, and smell the same musty curtain smell and hear the same kids breathing and fidgeting around me. Well, in case you are wondering, it didn’t matter which sense or senses I used, I never got the slightest hint that I had gone to heaven. It not only didn’t look like heaven; it didn’t sound like it, smell like it or feel like it either. This was disappointing because one of the angels pictured in my “Red Letter Testament” Bible Study book looked out of that book right at me! Her beautiful eyes seemed to invite me to join her in heaven. But how? I don’t think I had quite figured out that this was an “artist’s conception” of what a beautiful angel might look like (e.g., a girl and just my age!). No, I knew she was there and I wanted to meet her.

About this time, I began to notice that my grandfather never joined us at Church. This seemed odd. At last I asked about it and he said he didn’t go because he didn’t believe in God! What? This seemed pretty inconceivable to me because everyone else around me kept talking about God as though He were real and definite. The way people talked gave not the slightest hint that God was something only some people believed in. God was portrayed as definitely there. There were paintings of God, for instance. Some of the illustrations in my books looked almost photographic in their realism. It made no sense that people would treat God as real if He were not.

My next door neighbor on Johnson Street played all sorts of games with me. I don’t recall her name; she was cute though occasionally mean. She liked to tie up people or put tape over their moths. But I really didn’t have that many choices of people to play with. One day, on the way to Sunday School, my parents and I ran into her and her parents. We were all dressed, as they say, in our “Sunday finest.” So, I did the polite thing and greeted her warmly, “Hello, little S*** A**.” All at once everyone’s faces including the little girl’s exploded into horrified expressions. I just used one of the main greetings that she used. I had no idea what the phrase meant or even the individual words. Later, after I was punished, I still persisted to try to find out how these words could possibly have so much power. My parents couldn’t even bring themselves to tell me. My mother delegated this task to my grandfather. Perhaps looking back on it, his being an atheist meant he could say words like this or at least explain them.

He took me with him into the landing area in the stairway to the basement. Grandpa’s house had some of the coolest features including a “Root Cellar”, a “Coal Cellar” and a “Disappearing Stairway.” In addition, Grandpa had a rock garden, a vegetable garden, a staircase and the house had three doors. There was a front door into a small entry off the living room. The back door went directly into the kitchen from a passageway near the garage. And, there was a third door that led off the basement stairs onto the patio near the apple tree that my mom had planted as a kid. My grandfather kept that door locked and no-one was allowed to use it. And that seemed a shame because our house only had two doors. It seemed to me, if you had a house with three doors, you would want to use all three! Anyway, it was near that door as he was emptying some trash that he explained what those magic words referred to.

He did not explain why they were powerful. He did not explain why my companion acted shocked when I used the words when I had learned them from her and she often referred to me and other playmates with this phrase. He did not explain why everyone had been upset. Once he explained what it referred to, I could kind of understand why she might not want to be called that although that was what she called everyone else. But why had her parents been so upset and why had my parents been so upset? It was one of those “explanations” that only explained the surface of a complex tangle of issues.

With a longer perspective, I can say that most so-called explanations are like that. They tell you  why someone picked a particular color to paint their car. They don’t explain how cars work or why we have so many cars in this country and such limited public transportation. When it comes to religion, most explanations seem very much about the color of the paint. It’s very hard to dig beneath that to find out how people really relate to their religion. And, this too always struck me as odd, especially for people who claim that their religion is a central part of who they are. Perhaps, it is not so much that people are unwilling to explain how religion works for them as they are unable to explain it.

After all, I was able to alter my perception of the hurricane fence and the repeating pattern bedspread long before I understood how I was doing it. In fact, I never found anyone else who either could or wanted to use this technique until much much later. In college, I read a book (I think by John Dewey but I’m not sure) and discovered that this author had also learned this same trick at an early age. Indeed, I still find it a useful skill many years later. For example, if I am sitting somewhere across from people at a table, I can “merge” the images of their heads to make a composite image. That’s kind of fun. In grad school, before “COMP” functions, I found it useful to compare hexadecimal disk dumps by putting them side to side and crossing my eyes until the two dumps overlapped character by character. Anything that changed from one disk dump to another popped out instantly. While I thought it might be a useful skill for others and explained how to do it when asked, I never felt the slightest urge to make everyone learn this skill. I never claimed it was the only way to look at the world or even the best way to look at the world.

I never seemed to get into an argument with people about forming clear double images. If I decided to see two apples — one image with each eye — instead of converging my views to see one image, it never seemed much of a big deal to me or to anyone else. If I said, “It looks to me right now like there are two apples” and someone said, “Yes, but there is really only one” then I would just say, “Yeah, I know. But it’s kind of fun to see double sometimes.” If they didn’t feel like doing that, why would that bother me?

Of course, one could argue that seeing double is just a private exercise but that religion comes into play when it comes to cooperative endeavors. For example, in a complex society like ours, there are laws, rules, customs, taxes, and all sorts of systems that require cooperation. If there are going to be taxes, there have to be some rules about the taxes. If some people believe that cigarettes and booze are “evil”, then they might argue to tax these things more heavily than say, a health club membership. This makes a certain amount of sense in the abstract, but specifically, it does not seem to explain much. For example, though America has never been nor is it a “Christian” nation in the sense of a state sponsored religion, 70% of the population identify themselves as “Christian.”  Although I have forgotten the many Bible verses that won me my radium painted glow in the dark cross, I still know that a main message of the New Testament is to love your neighbor as yourself; to turn the other cheek; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet, the United States has more billionaires than any other country. And the highest incarceration rate. Odd. Meanwhile, China purports to be a “Communist” country and one of the main tenets of Communism is “from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs.” And China has the second highest number of billionaires. So, in the very places where coordination is necessary, there is a huge disconnect between what people claim are central principles guiding their lives and what they actually chose to do.

The mystery behind seeing double clearly is basically this. Our eyes adapt as we look at something near or far. When we look at something far away, our eyes are pointed at infinity. At the same time, we allow your lens to “thin” and the eyes are also focused at infinity. (There isn’t much difference in either of these beyond forty feet. When I look out my office window at the ocean, I can tell the ocean if father away than the palm trees because of other cues such as interposition (the palm trees partly obscure my view of the ocean so they are closer than the ocean) and aerial perspective (the ocean is slightly “fuzzier” than the palm trees because there is more distortion due to the air). If we look at something close, normally our eyes converge (point inward slightly toward the object) and we focus at the same time; that is, we make the lens thicker. However, it is possible to “train” oneself to separate these two actions. For example, I can converge (“cross”)  my eyes to look at my nose but accommodate (to the extent I still can) to distance so that objects in the distance look “sharp” — it’s just that there are two of them. Even though I am capable of seeing double, I don’t walk around seeing double all the time. It would be very impractical and inconvenient.

So, perhaps religion is like that for some people. Looking at things from a “Christian” perspective is, for some, something one learns to do at church, but it is too inconvenient or too impractical to keep doing it when it comes to actually interacting with other people. When you meet someone dressed in their “Sunday Finest” and they call you a S*** A**, you act really offended and shocked. But that doesn’t mean you can’t call them that the other six days of the week. And, if you own a factory where you hire young girls to paint the dials on glow in the dark watches, you encourage them to use their tongue and lips to repoint the little camel hair brushes that they use. And after a few years, they may not look much like angels any more. But you can still deny that your radioactive paint had anything to do with it. Because, apparently, although Jesus may have said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that has nothing to do with killing actual human beings in order to maximize profit. After all, “Business is business” trumps the Golden Rule. If you’re having trouble understanding that, maybe it will help if you learn to cross your eyes. Don’t learn to see too clearly though. No, we wouldn’t want that.

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Inventing a New Color

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Inventing A New Color — from Schooled Haze

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After my dad returned from World War II, he married my mom and nine months later, I was born. We lived in a number of places, but when I was about three and a half, we moved to Portugal. My dad headed up a tire factory there. I don’t remember much about Portugal, but I do recall going with him to some of his fancy dinners. For reasons I did not understand at the time, when I was five, my mother and I took the long ocean liner ride back to America without my dad. Mom and I lived with grandpa and grandma at their house. I attended a kindergarten in Firestone Park and had a very nice teacher. I loved kindergarten.

I missed my dad but liked grandpa and grandma. She told me “Old Pete” stories and we listened to radio shows such as Roy Rogers, Hop-along Cassidy, and Tom Corbett and the Space Cadets. “Little Grandma” lived there too. She was my grandpa’s mom and stooped over very tiny, very old, and looked like a Native American. Much later, I learned that that was because she was Native American or perhaps half Native American. I loved “Little Grandma.”

Grandpa worked as an engineer and designed airplane wings, among other things. Grandpa was also a painter and his beautiful and detailed oils hung in large wooden frames throughout his house. Mostly, these were landscapes but there were also portraits and my personal favorite depicted two warships firing cannons at each other while being tossed on giant waves. Grandpa taught me many things. Naturally, I wanted to return the favor. When I was about five, I overheard him saying that it was impossible to invent a new color. Well, I could definitely teach him something about that! I loved the idea of being an inventor.

In the middle of kindergarten, my dad returned from Portugal and re-united with my mom. He bought a house and we moved away to a different neighborhood. I had to start school in a new kindergarten with all strange kids. The very first day, my new teacher decided that I would lead the parade and draped the rope of a large drum around my neck. I didn’t want to play the drum and I made that about as clear as I could to her, but nonetheless, I ended up marching around the room with the heavy drum around my neck. I hated kindergarten.

My dad worked as an engineer and my mom was a teacher so both of them were gone all day. They hired a housekeeper to take care of me. And, somehow, after the first day, I convinced my housekeeper that I did not need to go to kindergarten any more. This was fine with me because she was nice enough to give me my favorite lunch every day — a jar or maraschino cherries!  They were so sweet and such a pretty red. And, not only were the cherries themselves delicious. The jars proved to be perfect for my experiments! So, in the second half of kindergarten, I stayed home and instead spent my time inventing a new color to show grandpa. I had a paint set and I water and I had lots of empty cherry jars. It was all a matter of time and careful work. At last, I would be able to teach grandpa something. I love teaching.

After many weeks of careful work, I finally created a new color. When grandpa and grandma came to visit, I was ready. Under my bed were about 40 little jars of diluted paint. Thirty-nine of them were failed attempts. But one of them contained the prize. I carefully crawled under the bed and located my invention, pulled it out, and scampered into the living room where the adults practiced their buzz-talk. Buzz-talk sounded serious and low but didn’t actually mean anything so far as I could tell. Surely, no-one could mind if I interrupted buzz-talk by announcing my invention. I proudly held out my prize to grandpa. Surprisingly, because grandpa was very smart, he did not immediately understand the significance of the watery liquid in the maraschino cherry jar. “Grandpa! It’s a new color!” He glanced at it and said, “I’ve seen it before.” And just like that, he went back to buzz-talk!  Crest-fallen, I wandered back to my bedroom and placed the prize beneath my bed with all the failed experiments. Apparently, this was just another one. Despite this terrible turn of events, I hardly gave up. I just redoubled my efforts. I knew there was a new color out there somewhere and I would find the perfect mix and next time be successful! I loved the challenge.

Grandpa had already taught me that red and yellow paint made orange; that yellow and blue paint made green; and that red and blue paint made purple. So, obviously, most of my experiments involved various proportions of red and green, purple and yellow or orange and blue. Most of them ended up as fairly similar shades of gray-brown. But if I mixed very carefully, I produced not dull gray-brown but something with a slight tinge of something…new! I somehow found other jars because I needed more than just the supply offered by one a day lunch-time maraschino cherry jars. I didn’t think bigger jars would have anything to do with inventing a new color, but it was possible. After a few weeks, grandpa and grandma came over to visit again. And again, I interrupted their dull living room buzz talk by showing off my latest creation. This time, I was more apprehensive. The first time, after all, I had known for sure I had a new color. This time, I was uncertain. I waited for the right opportunity — that slight pause in the buzz-talk — to display my new creation.

“I’ve seen that,” Grandpa said and turned back to buzz-talk. I wasn’t yet old enough to argue. And, even now, years later, if someone claims they have seen a color and you think they have not seen the color, I am still not sure how to argue. Convincing other people is seldom an easy task and convincing them that their own perception is limited — that is extremely difficult. Many times, I have heard the old saw, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” I actually doubt that. I suspect in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is more likely to be declared in league with Satan and gets stoned to death.

Let’s think about this. Suppose you are the one-eyed person in the land of the blind. Say everyone is hungry and you see a berry bush a couple hundred yards away. Now what? Well, you could say, “Hey, everyone! I see a berry bush over there (uselessly pointing). Let’s go pick some berries.” Everyone else says, “What berry bush? I don’t feel one. I don’t hear one. I don’t smell one. There’s no berry bush. Be quiet and stop talking non-sense.” Alternatively, you could just quietly walk over to the berry bush and bring back a small quantity for everyone to share. Of course, if everyone went, you could bring back a lot more, but no-one wants to follow you. You bring back some berries but people would be suspicious. They might well think you had been hiding these and had many more you failed to share.

Similarly, if you saw a pack of hyenas headed your way and warned people, the blind might well think you were in league with the hyenas. After all, you were the first one to know about them. You must have told the hyenas where everyone was. At long last, if you were the one-eyed person, you might be pretty tempted to put out that other eye. Life would run a lot smoother for you. Alternatively, you could leave the tribe and live on your own. And, many people do make this choice, essentially. But it’s a pretty lonely life. You could try to patiently explain that just as sometimes they could smell things they could not feel and feel things they could not smell, and hear things they could not yet feel or smell, that you could “see”…ah, that’s the sticky bit.  How do you explain sight to the unsighted?

Of course, my grandfather was not blind. Far from it. He was not only an adult, with more power and experience and knowledge than a five year old kid. He was, in fact, an artist. He was an expert on color. I could see evidence of his expertise everywhere. His paintings adorned our house and his own. So, he probably was right about the particular colors I had shown him so far.  But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t invent one next time that was truly new. So, back to the lab, I went. I failed a few more times and eventually gave up. Inventing a new color really was impossible.

Or was it?

Many years later, I attended an art exhibit in Pittsburg. It featured many kinds of “modern art” including a very cool kinesthetic art exhibit. In one exhibit, I simply stood on a platform in front of a large rotating disk. I watched the disk rotate until quite unexpectedly, the disk was quite still and I was rotating the other direction! But of particular interest were some extremely large extremely brightly colored canvasses which featured huge swaths of complementary colors. If I stared for a good long time at the super bright red and then moved my eyes over to the super bright green, the combination of temporal and spatial contrast produced an unearthly bright green, a “supersaturated” color impossible to produce by merely using one pigment. While I had not invented this, at least I now had experienced a color it was likely my grandpa never had. I could not really check this out though because he was long dead. Of course, I have met him in dreams many times and in the dreams he’s not really dead. It was all a big mistake. And, in my dreams, there are often landscapes painted in supersaturated colors that even he has to admit are new inventions. I love it when even the wisdom of elders may be mistaken and changes over time.

My grandpa knew that we humans are all mortal but he also knew that we still had some fragmentary art that was thousands of years old. Perhaps art provides a kind of immortality. When I was about ten, grandpa visited Europe and saw many of the oil paintings of the “Old Masters” that he had admired so much. He saw with his own eyes that, over time, the oil that they used turned yellow and the colors that they had used were transformed. Father Time himself invented new colors for these artists. When, he returned from Europe, he switched from oil painting to water colors. Beyond that, he limited himself to using only three pigments all of which were oxides of metals. He was also very careful in his choice of canvas for the same reason. He stuck to these constraints so that his paintings, unlike those of the “Old Masters” would not yellow or fade with time.

Grandpa’s paintings were designed by an artist/engineer to be stable and unchanging over time. When Grandpa died, I inherited quite a few of my favorite water colors and I can testify that the colors were extremely stable over time. They remained stable, that is, up until the time we moved to California and almost everything we owned was burned up in a moving van fire. What was burned up included all our furniture, electronics, papers, and almost all clothing and paintings. All the carefully laid pigments of metals were altered forever. All of the work and effort were now white ash floating somewhere in the sky near Continental Divide Arizona. A little carelessness on the part of a trucker in too much of a hurry, perhaps, to check the lubrication and the whole truck went up in flames. Robert Burns comes to mind.

It seems to me that our country once comprised a long-standing collaborative work of art involving many artists and many colors. This was a painting of scale and magnificence, though not yet completed. Every shade of the rainbow and more besides swept from sea to shining sea. The painting combined portraiture and landscape, scenes of war and peace, city, country, rivers, lakes, deep woods, and shining plains. Yet, somehow, people became impatient with the progress of the painting. Maybe, they thought, the work would go faster if we just painted the whole canvas white. They no longer cared what the end result looked like. They just wanted to get done so we could move on to the next project. We really couldn’t take the time to make sure the bearings were lubricated. And, now, the transport burned up along with the painting. What’s left are scattered white flakes snowing down on the countryside. I love irony, but I loved the paintings more.

At some point, grandpa said something else to me about color. He said that most people look at color in the light but that there is also color in the shadow. And, so, despite the deepening, darkening shadows, I am trying to see the color hidden there in those shadows. It is too soon to know whether I am inventing a new color, inventing a new way to look at color, or just seeing what is actually an after-image, beautiful for now, but sure to soon fade to the dull white gray of old and sooted snow. Maybe one of us can invent a new color or a new way of painting or a new way of looking or a new way of helping people be less impatient with the slow careful progress required for a timeless, collaborative work of art. Inventing new colors is not easy work; that I can say for sure, as is restoring true color that has faded to a uniform and pasty gray. Perhaps I’ll buy a jar of maraschino cherries.

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After the Fall

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NOTE: The following is the first of a series of short stories. The collection is called “Schooled Haze.”  Readers might also enjoy other works of fiction and non-fiction available at the link at the bottom of the page.


 

I have only a few scattered memories from the time before I learned to read. Like Ohio autumn leaves, early memories are often brightly colored but randomly assigned far from their tree. The sight of swelling giant green ocean waves over the railing of the ship lacks attachment to any origin or destination of the voyage. The shiny red toy gun appears but no stem attaches to a giver or an occasion. My father’s quavery voice as he hunkers down in the bow of the paddle boat, cautioning us to do the same because of the airplanes overhead, held no connection to his time in the army, his wounds, or where we were.

Once formal schooling began, whether because of age or training, memories began to connect to a framework. Whether this made my memories more accurate or less accurate still causes intra-psychic debate, but that they were different — this is not in doubt. In the first grade, we began to learn to print. I actually already knew how to print. I had taught myself before school began. I suppose that was part of the problem. Even now, I don’t make my letters and numbers with the same “strokes” that most people do. Anyway, we were supposed to be learning to print, and since I was there, I wanted to play the game along with everyone else.

With our giant awkward green pencils poised above our cheap, lined, gray-yellow paper, we were to copy our teacher’s printing. At that point, blackboards were still black and chalk was still white.  Miss Wilkins had neatly printed: “TODAY IS TUESDAY. TODAY IS TUESDAY. TODAY IS TUESDAY.” We were to fill our paper with this vital all-caps phrase. Indeed, it was Tuesday, but I really only needed to print it once to remember that. In fact, zero times would have sufficed. But, you see, there were rules in school. There were rules at home as well, but by comparison, very few. Home rules almost always made some modicum of sense, even to a six year old. School rules seemed part of some elaborate, religious, magical ritual or game imposed without explanation or exception.

Of course, this only surprised me a little because home and school smelled quite different. The black slate board had a smell. The chalk had a smell. The cheap shiny paper had it’s own cheap shiny smell. And, if you took the time to notice (which most kids did), the bare wood of the giant green pencils smelled quite nice and much better than the shiny green paint part of the pencil. In fact, volunteering to sharpen pencils was a job most people were eager for, not only for the wonderful woody odor but also for the idea that we were making our own tools, and possibly our own weapons.

I understood the task at hand. I needed to fill up the page with “TODAY IS TUESDAY.” And, so I began. First I made a long vertical line for the “T” letters. Then I crossed every “T.” Then, I made a long vertical column of “O’s” and another long vertical line for the “D’s.” I began to add the bows for the “D’s.” Just as I was about halfway done with my “D-bows” however, the teacher yanked me out of my chair. She screamed as she marched me out into the hallway. Then, she grabbed me by my shoulders and shook me. As she screamed, she began to sob. I felt kind of bad for her, but I honestly had no idea what she was so upset about.

Sadly, this was not my only run-in with my first grade teacher. We also had a long debate about whether heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. She seemed quite satisfied that her example of the rock and the feather should leave any sane person convinced, but whether sane or not, it didn’t convince me. My father and grandfather were both engineers and my grandfather subscribed to Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, and The Atlantic Monthly. I probably mostly perused the pictures, but I also read articles from a very early age. Whether from reading or from talking with Dad and Grandpa, I somehow had heard about Galileo’s little experiment on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I explained this to her as best I could, but she refused to believe it. Again, she gave the example of the stone and the feather. She must have thought me a bit dense.

Perhaps that is why she thought so little of it when one of my classmates pushed me down the concrete steps in front of our school door. Such a head over heels tumble presents the oddest sensations! I recall being astounded by the seemingly random jumble of images swirling by. My head didn’t feel too great either, but I think the lack of control over what I was seeing was even more disconcerting. Typically, one of the few school rules that did make sense to me was that we were not allowed to hit, kick, bite or shove other pupils. I have never felt that much inclined to injure others so I didn’t mind following this rule at all. But here I was, not having been punched or kicked, but victim of a potentially far more dangerous rule violation. At the time, as well as I can recall, I didn’t think of it so much as dangerous as it was rude. And, beyond that, it clearly constituted an egregious violation of the rules. If we were going to have all these school rules, why should they not apply to everyone? Why should someone get away with pushing me down the concrete steps when I had seen the mildest of pushes and punches get punished mightily?

At the time, I could generate no coherent explanation. The cognitive confusion about how adults failed to meet my expectations simply added to my perceptual confusion from free-fall tumbling. It seemed as though the world were saying to me, “All Bets are Off” and “Adult Authorities are Not to be Trusted” and “You never know.”

Who could be trusted, then? Well, my beautiful dog Mel for one. My Dad brought Mel back from Portugal. He was a beautiful honey-colored Cocker Spaniel. Mel loved me no matter what. A few weeks earlier, however, I had heard my parents talking about giving him away because other kids in the neighborhood were teasing him and he, tied up, was snapping at them. He had a wire lead connected at one end to his collar and the other end was looped around a horizontal wire. Some kids quickly saw just how far he could go and found great pleasure in getting him to run to the end of his lead and then watch his neck snap back as he reached the end. This infuriated Mel and he snarled and snapped at them. My folks were worried that a bite could lead to a lawsuit.

I made them promise not to sell Mel. And, they didn’t. When I got home from school one day, he was gone. But he hadn’t been sold at all. Not at all. He had been “put to sleep.” Our small two bedroom bungalow had one main hall closet with a blue quilt folded up at the back. That’s where I went to hang out for the next hours. I didn’t much want to talk to my parents. Not about Mel. Not about anything. It seemed to me, that if anyone should have been “put to sleep” it would be the kids who were teasing him. I just sat in the dark on the cool blue quilt crying for Mel.

Despite what my first grade teacher might think, sometimes small, light things — things even so light as a soul — can fall very fast.


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