Thursday, May 28, 2009

Believe It!

Mankind emerges more or less on the scene,
Via evolution by natural selection or alien seeding;
Out of blood and rust or mud and breath;
Volcanic explosions may factor in, but most likely
We arrived by train, because I have had motion sickness
Since the day I was born.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Change Your Own Oil!

One of the most useful things I’ve gleaned from my study of psychology has been an understanding that there are mechanical reasons for our emotions. We are like cars, and require regular maintenance.

When I got my first car, my dad showed me how to change my oil and my tires. He tried to teach me how to fix the breaks so I wouldn’t have to go to mechanics all of the time as an adult. ‘Why not just go to the mechanic?’ I asked. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Sometimes you will have to go to the mechanic. Some things are going to be too big or require equipment that is too specialized for you to fix on your own. But for a lot of this stuff, it’s pretty easy to fix it if you just understand it. Mechanics will charge way too much, and will try to trick you into getting other things ‘fixed’ that aren’t actually broken.’

I think the licensed holy man is pretty much like the mechanic. They can provide a service, but often that service costs too much, sometimes coming with bells and whistles that are either irrelevant or occasionally malignant, and are not doing anything you couldn’t do for yourself with a little bit of study, or possibly counseling*.

There is no voodoo in science. Not real science, anyway. When something causes us any kind of psychic pain, when the gears start to grind, there will always be a practical mechanical solution that will typically get you back on the road soon enough.

For instance, a Christian may tell you that the reason you are uncomfortable is because you are a fallen being. You have an inherently sinful nature. You are drawn to anger quickly by disagreeable events because of these chafing facts about yourself. You must submit, and acknowledge that no good can come from you, and you must surrender yourself to God. Clear yourself out of yourself! They will say. Make room for Him. Is it as painful for you to read this as it is for me to write it? If so, there’s a reason for that: It’s bullshit.

Our amygdale is the passion center in our brain. Our frontal lobes are our more rational zones. It turns out it’s not because we crucified Christ that we are sometimes quick to anger. It’s because—much as a person wears a footpath in grass by regularly walking through it—we create these neural connections by regularly treading through the same areas of our brain. As it turns out, the best way to curb your anger is to do some math problems, and to buy yourself some time by exiting anger inducing scenarios in order to give the frontal lobes a chance to assess the situation before the wrecking crews go to work.

Knowing how the vehicle works is such a boon to understanding many of our problems. How many of us would be more careful about punishing our children if we realized that the frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until we are in our mid twenties? Kids have poor impulse control, because those zones of their brains are under construction. How many fewer teenage suicides would there be if more people grasped the reality that there’s a lot of uprooting and rearranging going on in the brain during puberty?

Consider this: It’s been demonstrated that prepubescent children are better at empathizing with the facial representation of different emotions in others than are pubescent kids, even though kids in puberty are older. There are mechanical reasons for this.

So, there’s no reason for people to throw themselves off of bridges because their blood sugar is low. No need for me to punch my neighbor in the face when I’m angry about his dog’s incessant barking. It is good to have a positive, personal philosophy. There are many good values to be derived from a wide swath of religious and artistic thought. But it is also very important to know on a nuts and bolts level how the damned thing runs in the first place.

*Much like the mechanic, I would never advise you to turn away advice offered to you informally by a member of the holy class that you may know personally. When they’re not on the clock, I imagine the assessment of your problems is probably going to be more frank, and practical. Advice and counsel offered from one human to the other in the name of genuine empathy and concern is a wonderful thing. When one person, however, begins channeling that advice, empathy and concern from some ‘on high’ source, I say, watch out! And keep an eye on your wallet.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Skilled Labor Needed

Yesterday, while I was driving into the city, I saw a bestraggled looking young man holding a sign that said, 'Out Of Work. Donations appreciated. God Bless' standing on the side of the road. About a block down, near campus, there was a young woman with a sign that said, 'Help, Homeless'. She looked pretty down on her luck too. Then, not a street later, there were some clean (slightly bored, yet rested) looking college aged people holding up signs advertising for a local pizza joint. '2 pies for 10 dollars'. When I drove past the pizza joint, there was a help wanted sign in the window.

If you're going to be a liberal in this country, stock up on mouthwash.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Same Three Songs

Whenever I'm working, showering, doing dishes, or just feel the need to burst into song (which is quite often), it's always one of the same three songs that pop into my head: 'Little Wing', by Jimi Hendrix, 'Satan Is My Motor', by Cake, and 'You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You' by Dean Martin.

Why these songs? What does it mean that it's always one of these songs that I'm singing, whistling, or humming? Does it mean something about my life? Am I walking through the clouds on wheels of polished steel, trying to find myself somebody to love? Or maybe I know that gold won't bring you happiness when you're growing old, so all I ever talk about is riding with the wind, and Satan is the only one who seems to understand?

It's always these three songs, with very little variation. For awhile, 'Explosivo' by Tenacious D was heavily in the mix, and the theme song for 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' got in there for awhile (it's fun to whistle), but largely, these are the big three, and I don't even regularly listen to them. I can't remember the last time I heard 'Little Wing'. These songs are such a regular part of my repertoire that my oldest son often pipes in when I start singing one of them, trading lines with me although I don't think he's ever heard 'Little Wing' or the Dean Martin tune, and has only heard 'Satan is My Motor' a handful of times.

So, that's a question. Another good question would be, when I am compelled to sing, why am I so often compelled to sing in either a silly opera voice, or a silly swing voice?

Oh well. You knew these were coming. My memes:

"Little Wing"

"You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You"

"Satan Is My Motor"

Friday, May 15, 2009

Okay, Honey.

I think it may be because Cincinnati is a part of the Union that is very close to 'The South' (I think the transition from 'North' to 'South' happens somewhere around Louisville), but there are quite a few women in certain parts of our good city (usually working in the restaurant/gas station/retail industry) who refer to customers as 'honey', 'sugar', 'babe', and 'sweetie'. Usually they're older women, but sometimes they're younger.

I find this speech disturbing, especially coming from younger women. I expect the woman who calls me 'honey' to be in her mid forties/early fifties, with a cigarette damaged voice. When a young woman begins taking on such mannerisms, it's slightly surreal. I associate 'honey' talk with the assumption on the part of the speaker of some kind of hard earned wisdom, and her use of words like 'sugar, etc.' to be a sort of motherly compassion for the kind of knocks life is bound to toss my way.

I don't know why I'm disturbed by this kind of talk, but it always makes me cringe. Maybe it's the familiarity. Maybe it's because I know the implications of their mannerism is correct, and I have no idea what life has in store for me.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Medicine Cabinet Recommends

1.As a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, I'm very happy that Star Trek is getting such good reviews. I haven't had time to check it out yet, but I'm encouraged by most of what I've read, and everyone I know who's seen it has been impressed. Star Trek:The Next Generation was a big deal for me back in the day. I'm sure that Gene Roddenberry's view of a secular-humanistic quasi-utopia was influential on my developing mind. Report that Roddenberry's philosophy is more present in the restart is equally encouraging.

2.Thieves Jargon is up and running again. Looking forward to the appearance of a poem called 'Over', by Dan Ames. It's a good one.

3.The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembersby Daniel Schacter. I'm currently devouring this book. If you're interested at all in memory, this is an awesome exploration of some of the ways in which memories get lost, manipulated, and created by our mind. Good stuff.

4.Ten Principles For A Black-Swan-Robust World, By Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Some solid principles to consider as we move boldly into 'Capitalism 2.0'.

5. Lately, it's been hard to listen to Sean Hannity without feeling a little bad for the guy. First of all, Robert Gibbs wounded him deeply when he cooly and humorously put the lie to Hannity's guilt by association/Obama=Ayers tactic during a pre-election interview. Hannity can't pass up a chance to call Robert Gibbs 'the stupidest press secretary ever', often dwelling on it longer than he should, often attempting to bring guests and callers into the revealing name calling. It has to be embarrassing for Hannity to know that he was owned (on his own show) by 'the stupidest press secretary ever'. So, there's that reason to feel bad for Hannity. Another reason to feel bad for him: Glenn Beck. Beck is the new star at FOX. He's got hordes of adoring fans who attempt to integrate Beck's message of preparedness and faithfulness to God & country into every aspect of their lives. You can tell that Hannity feels the heat. He's even gone so far as to try to co-opt some of Beck's revolutionary imagery and emotionalism, somehow creating something even lamer than Beck's 9-12 project. This new development has thus far been best parodied by Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sean Hannity's Liberty Tree
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage

6.Religion, Agnostics, and the Cure For Baldness, by Matt Taibbi.
First of all, why is that no professor alive can make it ten feet from his front door without sticking an a priori into a sentence? Is there some kind of subterranean lair where academics are beaten with whips and clubs until they learn to write alliterative book titles (”Pus, Primates, and Pessimism: Jane Goodall’s Descent into Septic Shock”) and lard up perfectly good sentences with epistemological catch-phrases? Weird. As for the actual argument, it’s the same old stuff religious apologists have been croaking out since the days of Bertrand Russell — namely that because science is inadequate to explain the mysteries of existence, faith must be necessary. Life would be meaningless without religion, therefore we must have religion."

7.Do We Need to Go There Again?, By Ron Bel Bruno. "Because of Dad's Alzheimer's, I had to come out of the closet twice. We got it right the second time."

8. Alright, Bowie. Let's get our Monday on:

PS: I've always thought David Bowie's bass player was incredibly hot. The boots. The bass. The baldness. Very nice. I also like that she always seems totally unphased to be on stage with David Bowie. What could be cooler than that?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Teaching the Kids How to Think, Not What to Think

Many families are ruptured when children come to different ideological conclusions than their parents. Dad and Mom are Maoists, and Jr. is a card carrying member of the John Birch Society. The parents are anti-choice, the kids are anti-life*. The kids are out scrubbing oil off of starfishes while mom and dad are having a Styrofoam bonfire in the backyard. These kinds of software discrepancies can lead to loads of in-fighting, and often end up in mutual alienation.

To me, being a parent is the most important job I could (and do) have, and there’s nothing I spend more time thinking about. The happiness and resilience of my children is of the utmost concern to me. This being the case, I want to make sure I’m offering them the best tools to achieve this happiness and resilience that I can. Often times, the discovery of the best tools come at the end of a significant amount of reflection.

I’ve observed and participated in the kinds of ideological differences that can upset families. The fallout from the expression of these differences can often take a long time to clean up. Sometimes the mess is never cleaned up, and all parties involved carry around an open internal wound for the rest of their lives. The solution to this problem--seems to me--is that parents should be more concerned with the hardware that they’re installing in their children, rather than the software. It’s more important that we offer our children lessons in how to think, rather than simply telling them what to think.

Children will pick up our most personal values by watching us interact with the world, not necessarily from our words. While it may be good to remind ourselves and our children of the values we aspire towards just to keep ourselves on track, our actions will do most of the leg work for us in that area.

What seems to be of the utmost importance--in this age when we are constantly bombarded with information and opinion—is skepticism. Skepticism is hardware thinking. It’s a framework within which we can do all of our other reasoning. Most children are taught to believe things upon Authority, or Revelation. When we’re children, there are certain Authorities we are told never to question, and the Truthiness of revelation often seems to hold sway over the actual facts. Richard Dawkins included a moving letter to his ten year old daughter on this subject in his book A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love.Skepticism is simple, yet profound. I introduced the idea to my children through a book by Dan Barker called Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics,which very simply instructs children to seek evidence. When someone approaches you with a bit of information, requesting that you believe it, the skeptical answer is ‘Maybe yes, Maybe no. Let’s look at the evidence.’ I’m teaching my children that their personal integrity is important, and thus it’s good to be careful about the things we claim to know for certain. There are people out there who claim many things to be true without sufficient evidence. These people should lose their credibility with us if they continually make unsupportable claims about the nature of things. It’s important to keep an open mind to new evidence, but it’s also important not to follow too many rabbits down too many different rabbit holes.

I will try to teach my children to be compassionate, to experience wonder, and to work hard. I will seek to encourage and validate them while I’m here, and will try to teach them to encourage and validate themselves as well, in preparation for the day when I’m here no longer. I’ll share my opinions with them, but won’t insist that they absorb them. After all, I arrived at most of my opinions by investigation. How could I expect my children to accept my beliefs without a thorough investigation of their own? Everyone must go through their own personal Rumspringa, but it doesn’t have to end in alienation. If we’re not married to our beliefs, then no one gets hurt too bad when one of those beliefs is challenged, or even proven false.

I can see why parents don’t want to allow their children to challenge certain institutions. ‘Because God said so’ is an easy response to a ‘why’ question, but it won’t sate a curious intellect for long. There has to be a reason why something is the case, and even a child not raised to think critically will get around to exploring the logic behind even the most banal of commandments. Usually, if the commandments don’t seem applicable anymore, the kids will abandon them. That is evolution. I want my kids to succeed. I don’t want them to be needlessly burdened by superstitions that still linger in my mind, or the logical or dogmatic errors I am bound to make. I want my kids to ask questions, and to be content with knowing that some of their questions are not going to have answers. I want them to understand that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfect answer in lieu of good evidence.

Mostly, I just want the kids to be happy and resilient. With the tool of skepticism in their mental toolboxes, and with their Mom and myself cheerleading for them, I think this is an attainable goal. To be a skeptic is to have an open mind. It’s to ask questions, and to be glad when we discover errors in our own thinking. A skeptical mind need not go down with the ship of unfounded belief. It’s free to inquire, and free to get off and explore at any port it chooses. I like knowing that my kids will have this kind of freedom of intellectual movement, and I like knowing that their explorations are bound to keep me growing too.

Teaching your kids skepticism is a win-win.

*I am using Penn Jillette’s terminology for these positions. It's much more fun, because it doesn't make either side happy.
**”Preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary”-Augustine.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dental Memories

I don't go to the dentist as often as I should. In fact, the last time I went to the dentist, it was the one year anniversary of 9-11. I got my first filling that day as well. The dentist gave me a shot of novocaine, and went to work doing his thing. "Spencer." he said not long after he had begun, "You're making faces at me. Are you feeling too much pain?" I didn't understand the question. Wasn't this supposed to hurt? "How much pain am I supposed to be feeling?" I asked with a suction device impediment. "None." The dentist said. "Well," I said, "Then I'm feeling too much pain". So he gave me a couple of more shots of novocaine, and I got my first filling. 9-11-02 was an emotional day for me for several reasons.

Well, I just got back around to seeing the dentist again, and it was another filling. Luckily, my new dentist didn't try to hold a conversation with my while he was mutilating my mouth, and he was kind enough to take me seriously when I asked for the largest dose of novocaine allowed by law. "Give me an amount of novocaine that would make another dentist--if they were in the room right now with us--arch their eyebrow at you in concern." I requested, and he obliged.

I forgot how unfun the dentist's office was. The anxiety didn't hit me until I sat down in the chair. Everyone was cheery and helpful, but sitting in the chair reminded me of the truth of what would soon be occurring. A man you have never met before in your life is going to drill your teeth. This nice woman, she's going to stick a needle in your gums. It was really quite fantastic, and I laughed at myself and the nervousness I was feeling. We have these archetypal fears passed down into our genes from our ancestors. Snakes, darkness, fire. All of these things resonate deeply in our beings. They are things to be feared, respected, wielded with care. I can't help but think that millions of years from now, there will be some kind of dentist archetype at work in our collective consciousness. Those needles. Those blue gloves. That mask. That labcoat.

There is definitely something deeply disturbing about the smell of burning teeth.

The archetype is already under construction:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

If We're Going to Claim the Mantle of Good Guys, We Should Probably Act Like Good Guys

I appreciated Andrew Sullivan's take on 'enhanced interrogation', or, to be explicit (and honest),torture. My best argument against torture was always to quote Nietzsche: "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one." Perhaps Sullivan's argument is only an unpacking of that Nietzsche quotation, but it's a good one:
One way to look at how the Bush administration redefined torture out of existence, so that it could, er, torture human beings, is to compare their criteria for "enhanced interrogation" with those for rape. Raping someone need not leave any long-term physical scars; it certainly doesn't permanently impair any bodily organ; it has no uniquely graphic dimensions - the comic book pulling-fingernail scenarios the know-nothings in the Bush administration viewed as torture; and although it's cruel, it's hardly unusual. It happens all the time in regular prisons, although usually by other inmates as opposed to guards. It barely differs from the sexual abuse, forced nudity and psychological warfare inflicted on prisoners by Bush-Cheney in explicit terms...So ask yourself: if Abu Zubaydah had been raped 83 times, would we be talking about no legal consequences for his rapist - or the people who monitored and authorized the rape?


Read Christopher Hitchens' first hand account of his mind changing experience of the subject, or watch it for yourself:

PS: For someone who seems to be so concerned with the way the U.S. is viewed in the rest of the world, does anyone else find it questionable that President Obama has stopped using 'The T word' as frequently, and has switched to using the less prosecutable 'enhanced interrogation' in his public statements instead? If there is one consistent complaint I have with this administration, it's the constant attempt to rebrand any descriptive term that might make anyone the least bit uncomfortable. Give it to us straight, please. I've never been much of a cocktail guy.