Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Well, my son has a decision to make. It is time for him to open up the “Donate” section of his Money Savvy Pig and make his first real charitable contribution. For someone his age, there’s a moderately significant amount of money in there, probably around $20. Whenever he actually manages to earn his allowance, at least $1 (usually 25-33% of what he gets, as he earns it on a sliding scale) has to be put aside for giving.

Now, as we reach the end of the year, it’s time for this money to go. There are plenty of options, and I’ve tried to narrow it down to a few that would appeal to a kid. The first in my mind is Child’s Play, the charity established by the guys from Penny Arcade. It helps provide toys and entertainment for children’s hospitals around the world. This thing keeps growing every year, and I think my son would be glad to help give sick kids with something to play with. In addition, Child’s Play is very efficient about translating donations to goods; in fact, thanks to their rather unique setup, I can’t think of many that get more bang for their buck.

My wife suggested letting him bundle up the money and go put it in a Salvation Army bucket. I have to say that I liked the suggestion; I hadn’t even considered it as an option. It’s something he’s done before, and putting a lot of money in there, piece by piece, will have a visceral impact. The ringer is likely to enjoy it (I know I would’ve back when I volunteered for it). I’m generally not enthused by religious charities; it’s part of the reason I’m not really considering Worldvision, and am suspicious of Heifer International until I find out more. While both those groups do good, essential work, I’m wary of any group that mixes proselytizing with charitable endeavor. Again, the Salvation Army has a decent record there; while still a religious sect (odd how most people don’t realize the Salvation Army is an actual church), the focus has long since shifted toward the charitable efforts. I’ve got a soft spot for the Salvation Army. I’ve done work for them before, and a Salvation Army officer married my parents, because the person originally scheduled to preside over their wedding could not make it. So, I’m really considering this.

I originally conceived of doing this whole giving thing through one of the “catalog charities”. I think it’s just cool to consider sitting down with a kid and scrolling through all the things your money could buy for someone in need. It let’s them know exactly where the money is going, which has a stronger impact. Will it be vaccines, a working animal, or a water purifier? Those questions are things that kids can learn about and decide to answer on their own. That said, I’m somewhat less enthused after doing my own research. Most of the big guns in the “catalog” game mix the giving with religious proselytizing; in particular, World Vision bugs me. Heifer International was founded as a religious organization, but unlike World Vision, they don’t seem to emphasize it anymore. However, I have other complaints about Heifer (and these apply to most of the catalog charities). When you read the fine print, what it says is, “We’re actually going to spend your money wherever we need it, regardless of what you said you wanted us to use it for.” That whole “choose what you are giving toward” riff is just the hook to get the money. That is bloody disappointing, and I don’t want to get a kid excited about giving to something they really aren’t giving to. Now, I can understand it, to an extent. You don’t want to be overloaded with 10,000 cute little lambs when what you really need is a well pump. I can especially see it from back in the day when it was an actual printed catalog that people were choosing from. These days, I think the web allows you to keep a decent tally and adjust the elements available for giving. Take a little off the top for administrative costs, and you can probably run it as advertised (Although, as I check my facts before I go on, it seems that Heifer has altered this somewhat, and only redistributes funds after the need you have designated in general has been met. That puts them back in the running, possibly the lead.). The only one of these groups that I’m still really considering is Oxfam. It’s a secular charity, and while it still distributes your money as it sees fit, Oxfam is at least up front about it. Instead of burying it deep in the legalese, Oxfam puts it right out there that your “purchase” is a symbolic representation. Although, politically, Oxfam has been getting a little extreme. It fits their mission, I guess, but I frankly don't want my money going toward a protests in front of the G8 summit. If anyone else knows of a similar charity that actually uses the money exactly how you tell it to, I’d be glad to hear about it.

Those are really the big options. I’m still hunting around, but I think those are the ones I’ll let him choose from. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, it’ll take on it’s own appeal, and he’ll put more than he’s required to into his bank over the next year. Maybe it'll also spur me on. I don't give enough, myself.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Not this again...

I hate idiots. In particular, I hate idiots who promote this “War on Christmas” crap. Admittedly, a lot of the target audience for that stuff aren’t stupid; they are just ignorant of the origins of all their “eternal traditions from the beginning of time,” and how young most of those traditions actually are. Most of the people actually advancing the culture war crap know all this stuff; they’re just playing to an audience that doesn’t.

We’ll set aside the whole “savior half-god born of a virgin signified by a star in the sky” thing, as that’s a whole other round of cultural theft. Suffice to say, Yeshua bin Yosef ain’t the first in line for that story by a couple of millennia. Anyway…

First off, solstice celebrations have been around since people realized that the seasons changed. I can’t point to many ancient cultures that didn’t have one. The ancients liked them a party, too. This was the “last bash before the long dark winter” sort of thing, when you had eat all the stuff that you couldn’t store and make all the religious observances that were needed to ensure the spring would come. Lots of our “modern” holiday traditions have their roots in old-school paganism. Hell, the Christian bible specifically prohibits bringing in trees for the solstice as a pagan observance.

And that’s just one example. Talking about "Yule" is all about sacrifices and hunts and about moving from one season to the next, and is a Northern European tradition. Holly and mistletoe are deeply significant in old Celtic and other pagan religions. While the exchanging of gifts actually follows from the Christian story, they are by far not the only solstice celebration with a similar tradition.

A second round of issues stems from the fact that the only reason the “Christ Mass” is located at the winter solstice was when the old Roman church tried to co-opt the other celebrations going on at the same time. The Roman celebration Saturnalia just happened to be at the solstice, and it was a real party, from all accounts. Wild bacchanals, orgies, massive parties of all types; without something to compete, the early church was at a disadvantage. So, in response, they basically said, “Oh, yeah, our god was born around now, too. Woohoo!” This, despite the fact that from their own descriptions, the birth time was likely somewhere in the spring. Until then, Christmas was a fairly minor event; it was just another named day in the church calendar, like Michaelmas. It got scaled up to compete with other prevalent religions, and in the process, co-opted some of their aspects. These aspects were much more evident in the middle ages. The holiday tradition of wassailing (precursor to modern caroling) was basically a bunch of revelers going from house to house demanding food and drink. That’s no so much what the Christmas Warriors would like us to think the holiday was about. Other pagan observances continued, as well.

As we approach the modern era, Christmas diminishes even further in importance, particularly for the Protestant denominations. In early colonial America, groups such as the Puritans repeatedly outlawed it as a thinly veiled pagan festival. By the Revolutionary period, it was virtually uncelebrated beyond a household level. This changed due to Queen Victoria’s choice of husband. Victoria married a member of the German royalty of the house of Saxe-Coburg, who brought with him to England a mass of holiday traditions. Christmas was still celebrated across continental Europe, but it looked a lot more like Saturnalia than Easter. Yes, the church was treating it as a pretty major holiday, but the populace still ended up treating it like any other solstice celebration. Traditions such as the Christmas tree, Yule log, and general holiday decoration carried into the British royalty; as Victoria was the standard for behavior in the Empire, these traditions spread as the fashionable thing to do, first among the nobles, then the upper classes, then to everyone else. Combined with the immensely popular work of Charles Dickens, the image of the modern Christmas celebration was born in Europe. This eventually carried over to the United States, the citizens of which were just as crazy about emulating Victoria as anyone else at the time. And, ultimately, because of that emulation, Christmas as it is understood in the English-speaking world is little more than a thin veneer of whitewash over much older pagan customs. Even at the point that the U.S. established it as a holiday in the mid-19th century, it was done so in purely secular terms. Once twentieth-century commerce and marketing got involved, the revels were in full swing, and they had nothing to do with religion.

So, knowing all that, it’s hard to take seriously anyone who thinks that Christ actually had much of anything to do with our modern understanding and celebration of Christmas. Admittedly, a lot of people don’t know this; I can’t blame the ignorant for having a different understanding (though I can blame them for not understanding the history of their own damned religion). The ones that get to me are the people who know this perfectly well, and ignore that knowledge in favor of exploiting the ignorance of the former group. That pisses me off. While I’m not a religious believer, I still get angry at the manipulation of those that do believe. What bug me are the con artists sidling up to the average believer and saying, “That guy over there? He’s trying to keep you from even mentioning Christmas. It’s because he’s afraid of Jesus, and wants to drive him out of the public square. That way the devil will win. By the way, I have a TV show and a book where I talk about all this, maybe you should check them out, if you love Jesus, that is.”

It’s that kind of thought that drives me buggy. Nowhere has anyone ever tried to legally stop anyone from saying “Merry Christmas”. Sure, the majority of people in the US (religious or not) celebrate Christmas, and it’s appropriate to greet them that way. However, a significant minority celebrates other holidays or none in the same period. Recognizing this, many businesses use the term “Happy Holidays” so as not to make an inappropriate greeting to a sizeable chunk of their customer base. Many individuals do the same out of common courtesy, because you don’t know the affiliation of everyone you speak to. Hell, I didn’t realize one of my friends in school was Jewish until he left out of a conference to go to his Bar Mitzvah. A sizable chunk of the people around here are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate holidays in this manner. Throw in Muslims, adherents of the many varieties of Hindu faiths, Zoroastrians, etc, and there are frankly a lot of people to whom, “Merry Christmas” just doesn’t apply. And that, frankly, is great.

See, the United States is supposed to be a place for anyone who loves freedom, and wants a chance to be something. To facilitate that, we have a Constitution and Bill of Rights that guarantee equal protection under the law, regardless of extraneous factors like religion. Such guarantees are a protection of the minority from the tyranny of the majority (something many Jews and minority religionists can historically point to, given the history of state-sponsored pogroms and persecution throughout the nations of Europe that had official churches). While many may complain that this can result in a “tyranny of the minority,” I’ve never understood the idea. Ensuring that everyone has at least equal rights to belief and expression means that you can’t mandate or favor one over any other (or even none); that’s not a “tyranny”. The way we half-ass it in this country still barely makes it a “plurality”. However, many in a majority won’t see it that way. That’s where this “War on Christmas” comes in; rather than accommodate and be pleasant to a small minority, a chunk of the majority would rather act like jackasses. That’s what confuses me; no one has ever actually tried to legally stop someone from saying “Merry Christmas”. Sure, businesses may have a policy of using another phrase; that, however, is business, and most companies want to cover as many potential customer bases as possible. It’s the equivalent of being required to say, “Do you want fries with that?” It’s not a constitutional speech issue; it’s a company policy issue. An individual on their own time can “Merry Christmas” their ass off all over the public square.

A final place this comes up as a fight is where it actually becomes a Constitutional issue; government involvement. Usually, this takes the form of holiday displays on public ground, such as a public park or city office building. Since these places are recognized as representing the government, they can’t take a stance favoring or disfavoring a particular religion. That means that any public space allowing for holiday displays that are in any way non-secular (such as a crèche or menorah) must be open to all religions’ holiday displays, as well as secular displays. In effect, where they want to put religious speech, they have to allow all speech (I can’t believe the crapstorm that comes up every year when secularist and humanist groups put up signs essentially saying, “Be cool to each other” next to religious displays). This is, again, to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Even in a town that is 99.99% Christian, the government must not do anything indicating that it disfavors that .01% that isn’t; to do so could indicate that laws will be applied unequally due to religious discrimination. Coralius has a good post from back in the day as to why this is important. The ideal solution is for government functions and spaces to get out of the religious display business and get on with the work of governing. Some people just don’t seem to get that, though, and when you try to make them apply the law equally, cry about “persecution”. It’s not “persecution” to not get special treatment. However, people in the USA seem so ignorant of their own Constitution, laws, and history that they don’t understand what real persecution is. So to them, this is a “War on Christmas”. To everyone else, they just sort of look like idiots. It drives me nuts that people in such a diverse nation can be so provincial; this place is full of amazing and astounding people, and I really hope that the loud-mouthed and ignorant are actually a small minority. Extremists usually get the most press, in any case. The very fact that they have the right to yell about such things warms me. That’s what freedom is about; you have the right to act like an idiot, and I have the right to think you’re an asshole because of it.

Happy Holidays, y’all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Yeah, I'm strange

I get sentimental about weird things. Songs are the biggest category, probably – there are more songs that can take me back than anything else. It’s not usually actual memories that come up, though; rather, it’s more likely a fantasy of myself singing that song at an appropriate point in my life. This happens all the time. It’s probably the biggest remaining way that I obsess about the past. I’ve gotten over the specifics of most of my awkwardness, social gaffes, and missed opportunities – I’m much happier in my own skin than I ever had hoped to be. Still, my fantasy life often revolves around having had some socially acceptable talent back in the day: singing, playing an instrument well (as compared to how I actually did it), the ability to communicate with my peers…the list goes on. Writing and singing music tops the list, though. I imagine performances of virtually every song I like, or what it would have been like to introduce that piece to the world. The fantasies I’ve constructed also feed my anxieties about actual performance (see this), though I’m getting very slightly better there.

In any case, this came up because “The Rainbow Connection” just popped up on my player while I was looking for something to write about. The first place my mind went was to put me in the place of the artist. I know, of course, that singing along and enjoying the music is part of what it’s all about, but I invest so much possibility and regret into songs this way that they sometimes drive me to tears for no good reason. The habit is so entrenched with some songs that I break at the opening chords because I wish so badly that the song had been mine. I barely have any conscious control over it, because the fantasy has been ingrained for years.

Again, I’m weird. Of course, were I normal, I wouldn’t be half as interesting.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"How do we make sure he stays dead?"

So, Oral Roberts died.

Good riddance.

While that’s the general sentiment throughout the skeptical web presence, it’s almost amusing to see the handful of responses that say, in essence, “Don’t say bad things about the dead man! It makes us look bad!”

Fuck them. He was an evil bigoted shit in life, and that doesn’t change because he’s in the ground. I’ll say the same when Robertson or Popoff finally kick the bucket, too. I always knew Roberts and his ilk were scam artists, even long before I discarded what little faith I had. Badly-coiffed ministers in thousand-dollar suits begging for money because a 900-foot Jesus threatened to kill them? How does anyone fall for that? I guess if you had an abiding faith that a minister wouldn’t lie, or that these people were doing good work, I could see it, but their pitch is just so absurd. I understand the idea behind a regular tithe to a church. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Even as a kid, though, I knew the preachers on TV were weasels of the highest order. I guess that’s part of the reason that the majority of their donations came from the sick or elderly; these groups are looking for that desperate cure, or the “personal” attention from the mailing list.

I read Randi’s The Faith Healers a while back. It pissed me off in a way that little does. Oral Roberts was a prime example of everything that can be wrong with religion; he spent decades bilking the poor, sick, and desperate; he provided “healings” that at best did little more than waste the time of those involved; he used mass media to extort the faithful; and he passed on the apparatus to continue the scam on to his family.

I was discussing with a friend how these low-lifes could engage people so deeply, and I realized that they’re using the same tricks as any carnival barker. They speak in loud, attention-grabbing cadences; they promise wonders; they demand just a little sacrifice, not even really enough to cover costs, because they especially want you to have access. The analogy was close, but not quite there. Then, it hit me; these guys are wrestling managers, with a god as the client.

Managers in wrestling serve a couple of purposes; most often, though, they are charismatic mouthpieces for workers that have no skill on the microphone. They are there to make the threats, the boasts, the taunts, and the warnings for the silent worker behind them. You can take a basic wrestling promo, swap out some words, and get a standard TV sermon.

Manager: “Let me tell you something about Mad Max Blackman – he’s not here to make you feel good. He’s here to fulfill a promise, a promise made at WrestleSlam. Despite those who have opposed him, despite all the doubters, he’s still here. In fact, he’s more powerful than he’s ever been, and ready to take on all comers! When he arrives in the ring, all will know his power! He will bring down the wrath, his enemies will fall before him, and he will raise the WTW belt in victory! There are those who fear his return to the ring, as well they should! Those who have fought him, those who have conspired against him, even those who just stood aside and let the attacks on Max happen; these are the ones who have reason to fear the Madman! Only his faithful friends and allies will be spared when Max returns to the ring. But I’m here to let those others know that Max is a forgiving man; there is time to avoid his wrath. All you folks need to do is renounce any claim to the title belt that is rightfully his, and recognize that you are nothing before him. Do that, and Max will spare you when he remakes World Television Wrestling in his image! It doesn’t matter how you talked about him before, it doesn’t matter if you cheated him out of victory in the ring, it doesn’t matter how you may have worked against him in the past; Max will forgive all if you stand aside now. Don’t wait, because you never know when your name will be the next on Max’s list, and by then, it’ll be too late…

Do I even have to go through and substitute the words? It’s the exact same patter. Hell if you picture a big sweaty guy in a suit shouting those kinds of phrases into a microphone, it could be either a preacher or a manager at any given moment.

I think it’s just further evidence that the con artists of the televangelist game know exactly what they’re doing (aside from the mounds of documents, videotapes, investigations, and other proof showing that they are frauds, I mean). They know that they’re selling to the crowd. They are hunting the dollar in the kitty, a million times over. The new generation doesn’t seem to be as good at it; they didn’t hone their craft at the tent revivals and healings. They didn’t have the same competition for mailing lists, marks, and TV time; they aren’t the innovators. As such, they’re just as sleazy, but not quite as actively evil. There will always be someone in the healing and donation racket; it’s an easy way to turn a profit. Despite that, though, I’ll be happier when all of the old guard dies off. Those that didn’t have to fight for it aren’t as good at it; the selection is less strenuous.

In the end, I agree with someone over at Pharyngula that quoted Twain in reference to Roberts’s death: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Skeptical news

So Phil Plait is stepping down from the JREF presidency, to be replaced by D.J. Grothe (not a bad choice for the job, in my mind). Phil is stepping down due to an in-process TV deal; does this mean that The Skeptologists may finally be getting off the ground? I hope so.

Favorite holiday songs

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in music is what might be called “eclectic”. A thorough look at the Pandora widget over there could tell anyone as much. That varied taste extends to winter holiday music, too. I enjoy traditional religious carols and such, but few of those even come close to being my favorites. I tend toward songs that are both secular and less than mainstream. From top to bottom, here are the Christmas season favorites that I’ll always jump to the head of my queue:

Tie, 1st place:
Robert Earl Keen, “Merry Christmas From the Family”/ Mel Tormé, “The Christmas Song

Despite what I said above, the top spot is shared by the offbeat and the classic. Keen’s paean to the redneck in us all exhibits both a sense of fun and has elements that anyone from the country can recognize. This is the ultimate, “We ain’t like them city folks” song, but it conveys that without being insulting to the subjects. Tormé, on the other hand, penned a song aimed directly at the secular Christmas market. Conveying traditional images of winter, home, love, and good cheer, it plucks right at my heartstrings. I love the sincerity of the song, the mellow delivery, and the pure joy of it. No song makes me relive good feelings like this one.

Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano

A kitschy little novelty song, this one is just fun. There aren’t enough fun songs at Christmastime.

Little Drummer Boy” as performed by Bing Crosby and David Bowie

While this is an excellent arrangement between two spectacular vocal artists, the reason I like this one has more to do with the story behind it. Bowie was invited to appear on Bing’s Christmas special, discovering during taping that he was supposed to just sort of stand there smiling while Bing sang “Little Drummer Boy”. That didn’t sit well with Bowie, who expected to sing. One clash of egos later, we have this beautiful arrangement from two diametrically opposed artists.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Again, this song is just fun. Springsteen brings an exuberant flair to the table that’s rarely seen in holiday music, along with a rocking arrangement.

I am Santa Claus” by Bob Rivers

A takeoff of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, this song helps bring the out the brutal of a holiday icon.

Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms

This one lands on the list for nostalgia reasons. For some reason, this song just made me go nuts as a kid. I’d listen to it on loop for hours. All year ‘round. It must have driven my parents totally nuts. I still enjoy it. Just not that much.

Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC

One of the first mainstream holiday rap songs, and one of the best, in my opinion. Kind of the urban cousin to the Robert Earl Keen song above.

There are other holiday songs that I like, such as the carol created when the Beach Boys cannibalized their own “Little Deuce Coupe” to make a song about Santa, but none of those rate enough to listen to over and over.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Something I like

I really enjoy when I walk into a place of business and get recognized. It’s even better when they say, “It’s not [Saturday, Tuesday, etc.]. What are you doing here?”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vanity, thy name is Geek

It can be somewhat gratifying to find that something you’ve written or said has been memorable enough for other people to share. Geeky outcast though I was as a kid, I used to be greatly amused when I’d note other people picking up on some of my more idiosyncratic phrases or behaviors. I know for certain that this was sometimes just a coincidence; other times, I could trace how it moved from person to person.

Aside from this blog, I’ve participated in quite a few online forums and discussions (most of these have much higher traffic, as well). On rare occasions, I’ve said something that actually approached being unique or insightful, and I get some good responses. This feeds my deep-seated need for acceptance by people I consider peers (very ingrained thanks to not having it occur much in the past; thank you college and internet for allowing me to find others like “me”), and makes those writings particularly memorable for me.

Given that confluence of needs and ideas, I occasionally do some vanity Googling of things I’ve said that had some depth. Usually, I get nothing, as befitting an average schmuck on the interwebs. Sometimes, though, I find something quoted word for word in venues I’ve never visited (though often like-minded to where I originally made the statement). Even if it’s getting ripped apart, it gives me warm fuzzies to know that my thoughts made someone else think and respond. I don’t quite know what pathology that is, but I surely have it.

I guess that’s why I like forums or comment sections of large blogs for a lot of my online discussion. On the more intimate forums, I’m a well-known personality. On the larger ones, I’m a bit player. But, even a bit player can spark a discussion, and I’ve done that a few times.

I don’t know. In the end, I guess it’s one of the weird ways I have fun. I can handle that.


When you get as little traffic as I do (although it is much greater than, say, a year ago), you get to know your metrics. I can recognize the IPs and locations of most of my regulars. I know Coralius's visits. I can tell when my wife checks in from work; I know when one of my friends from Florida stops by. That makes it pretty clear when I'm getting traffic outside my normal readership. Usually, people search some weird term that I've managed to include in a post, or they venture over through a link in my signature from Scienceblogs or the Randi forums because I've managed to be mildly interesting in those venues.

All that, I can usually identify fairly easily. It's when I start seeing a pattern elsewhere that makes me wonder. I've apparently picked up two other local-ish readers, as well as a handful distributed elsewhere; given the number of folks who should generally know me as the owner of this blog, they shouldn't be people I know personally. They could be, obviously; a determined person with particular bits of information could sniff me out without much effort. I just don't know anyone likely to make the effort.

So, it makes me wonder about picking up new readers. I can understand how the one-timers flow in and out, but what makes someone come back? Who's the person in Redmond at Microsoft that drops by every once in a while? Not a bot, from my data. Who was it in California that actually Googled my blog name? Seriously. It's not a word you expect many people to come up with on their own. Hell, I still want to know how I interested some Scandinavians enough to keep them dropping by over the course of a year.

I wish some of this more diverse audience would comment. I would rather provoke a discussion rather than just blindly throw words at the wall. Admittedly, the wall serves it purpose as an outlet for things I don't know how to say otherwise, as well as honing my writing skills. Still, I’d prefer a discussion to a dissertation.

In any case, I'll keep looking at the numbers and wondering.


I can feel my skin tighten. It’s like it’s pulling taut and squeezing the sweat out of my pores. I flush, and can feel the heat on the surface of my skin. My throat tightens, and a wave of tension travels from my face down through my body and limbs. Any more, I can hold back the tears. It’s hard, though. I still get the catch in my voice, because of what’s happening with my throat, unless I use some iron self-control. Paranoia jumps in. My mind, so accustomed to racing ahead of me, begins figuring doomsday scenarios. I’ll lose everything: job, home, family. I’ve let everybody down. It’s all I can do to keep from collapsing in a heap and whimpering, like I used to do when I was younger.

Someone asked me a question earlier about something that got messed up 14 months ago, and not necessarily by me.

I consider myself in control of my anxiety, these days, because unless the stress is big, I can function. I may not function well, but I can function. When it’s big, though, I have to drive myself to do anything. I just want to collapse inward and let it take me, let the fear consume me. I almost want that fugue where I can’t eat, or recall where the last fifteen hours went, or whether I’ve moved. The fugue is better than the breakdown. The breakdown is what I get when I can’t just lock it all away; it’s uncontrollable paranoia and tears. Breakdowns, for me, are almost like seizures; I can’t control or stop them once they get started. It’s much more rare for them to happen, because virtually all of the coping mechanisms I’ve created over the years are geared toward preventing them. Collapse in front of a classroom full of kids a couple of times, and you’d work on it, too.

I’ve been thinking about it more lately, because my wife has been having some troubles with anxiety. I can empathize; for good or ill, my anxiety had a large hand in shaping who I am. I know that there isn’t much I can do for her other than offer support, and that kills me, because I know what kind of things she’s dealing with inside. She’s seen a doctor, and because the issue seems to be related to work stress that may eventually lift, she’s taking medication to help stabilize her until her environment stabilizes.

That’s one thing that I wonder if I could do. One of my biggest phobias has to do with brain function. I’m terrified of dementia altering who I am. While that doesn’t translate straight to “Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors are bad, mmkay?” it has been part of what drove me toward being as much of a teetotaler as I am. I can trace my original complete lack of alcohol or drug use to the idea that stuff like that affected my brain, and I felt that my brain was literally my only asset. Why would I do anything that could bugger up the only thing I had going for me? My reasons have evolved, but the idea of anything that could seriously affect my brain chemistry ranks right up there with an organic decline of brain function. What do I know, though? Quite a lot of the people I’m close to have really enhanced their lives and happiness by medically balancing their brain chemistry. I could probably use it myself; it’s not like there’s dearth of crazy in my family tree. Of course, I’d have to overcome my anxiety about brain chemistry to do something about my brain chemistry. Such is the Catch-22 of mental health.

Maybe I should just become a Scientologist and let a galvanometer solve all my problems. I doubt that would work, though. I may be a little crazy, but I’m not stupid.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Primer

It may often seem like skeptics are simply down on whatever we perceive as "woo", sneering and dismissing such things out of hand.

It would be so much easier were that the case. The thing is, many skeptics would love for things like Bigfoot, telekinesis, and alien visitation to be real. Let's face it; those things would be cool. Besides that, it would mean that there needed to be a complete re-write of the way we understand the cosmos. It would be thrilling and terrifying to thing that the most basic things that we thought we understood about the world to be wrong. Think about it. Piloted alien spacecraft doesn’t just imply “there’s someone else out there”; it means that physics doesn’t work the way we think it does. It means that faster-than-light travel is attainable, that power sources able to produce such travel are possible, that virtually everything we think we know about space, time, energy, and a whole host of other fields is wrong. That’s not bad to the mind of a skeptic. Utterly terrifying, perhaps, but not bad. It opens up new fields of study, new opportunities, and a whole new paradigm of thought.

But, first, the skeptic wants you to prove it. Skeptics aren’t a bunch of Fox Mulders. We don’t want to believe. We want evidence. Belief doesn’t cut it. I can believe my Great-Aunt Hattie takes regular jaunts to the moon and back. That doesn’t mean that I’m right about her lunar escapades, and that she enjoys tea on Tuesdays by the Apollo Rover. Frankly, my belief doesn’t even establish that I have a Great-Aunt Hattie. For that, I would need evidence.

Ah, evidence, the great bugaboo of woo-meisters everywhere. According to them, they have it. According to us, not so much. See, there are differing levels of evidence. I think Steven Novella covers a lot of the basics very well at his various blogging locales. I find that, at a basic level, there are several layers, from anecdote to experiment and a whole mess of sliding scales of effectiveness for each.


“I know what I saw.”
“Y happened after X, so I know that Y is caused by X.”
“My Aunt Hattie told me it happened to her.”

Anecdotes, despite the pithy skeptical saying, are evidence. They just aren’t good evidence. They are extremely inadequate for establishing the reality of most anything, for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these is that people will lie for their own gain. We’ve got plenty of evidence of this without even looking at woo; politicians, criminals, small children…the list includes most everyone at one point or another, but others make a living from it. Aside from that argument, which some are quick to deny (“My healer/pastor/uncle/mechanic would never lie to me. He’s a good person.”), anecdote suffers from the fact that human memory is, in general, exceptionally poor. Numerous studies have shown that human beings start rewriting history in their heads almost as quickly as they experience things. Such rewriting is heavily influenced by personal biases, previous experience, and knowledge of conditions outside the referenced experience; in addition, humans tend to idealize or denigrate their own past beyond what actually occurred. These same biases also influence initial perceptions of an occurrence, which are then further biased by memory.

This is not to say that everything anyone has ever remembered is a lie. Rather, what it means is that the scale of evidence cannot be tipped very far by anecdotal evidence. It’s the featherweight of the evidentiary boxing contest; it’ll probably land a huge number of punches, but it’s not likely to knock the other side out of the ring. “But,” one might say, “what about anecdotes and statements from someone who knows what they are talking about? What about, for example, all the pilots and military people who have witnessed UFOs?”

Skepticism demands multiple answers to that question. First and foremost, what is it about a pilot that makes them more likely to understand a UFO? Is it simply that they spend a lot of time in the sky? Is it that they can handle complex equipment? Or is it more that we simply expect them to know more about what goes on up there; secrets that we regular folk don’t experience. Given that, why should we expect them to know more? Barring a grand conspiracy, a pilot may be just as clueless as a train engineer as to what a light in the sky may be. Proximity does not equal expertise.

As a counter-example, astronomers as a group have a relatively low rate of UFO sightings. But key in that is what the term “UFO” actually means. People forget that it is an acronym, and that the first letter stands for “Unidentified”. Astronomers, by definition, spend a lot of time looking at the sky, sometimes orders of magnitude more than any other given individual. With that experience, they gain the ability to identify much more of what they see. An object that may be “unidentified” for a layperson could be something easily identified by an astronomer. That’s where a mismatch of knowledge and experience can make a difference. Getting back to the original question, assuming that someone knows what they are talking about, and them actually knowing what they are talking about are two different things. Once again, we are back to evidence.

Somewhat above anecdotal evidence is documentary evidence. Pictures, papers, letters, diplomas, copies, and anything else that has been written down starts to meet a better evidentiary standard. While these items can be forged, it takes more effort to do so. I recall a college professor of mine who gave a personal example of this (anecdote!). He was in a lawsuit with his previous landlord over damages to the property. His claim was that all the items were present when he moved in; his landlord claimed otherwise. Now, when this professor had moved in, he jotted down a quick list of the deficiencies so that he and the owner could go over them. When opposing counsel discovered that that this man had a seven-year-old handwritten list, they settled the case. Written words carry power. Given this power, one has the same concerns that come with anecdotal evidence. The source must be considered, both for reliability and subject knowledge. When the crazy hobo on the corner hands me a tract about UFO’s, I’m not likely to equate it to an article from Phil Plait.

Documentary evidence is a good place to explore another factor that affects the strength of evidence: plausibility. In general, plausibility is a measure of how likely something is to be a certain way. If you come across a small child sprawled next to a bicycle crying, is it more plausible that he fell off while riding, or that he was attacked by gnomes who beat him with the bicycle (Fun fact: the phrase "gnome attacks" gets 4500 hits on Google)? On first glance, you have no real evidence either way; however, the gnomes are not likely to be your leading hypothesis. Why is that? Most of us have previous experience with what a child falling off a bicycle looks like. We are unlikely to have had previous experience with gnome attacks. We’ve probably never even heard a report of gnome attacks. Perhaps gnomes are too extreme of an example. Perhaps the options that jump to your head are falling off, wolf attack, or hit by a car. Depending on the setting and visual evidence, any one of these items can be plausible. If you have knowledge that the child is a skilled rider, you are in a rural area with an established wolf problem, and there appears to be a bite on his leg, the wolf hypothesis may be most likely. Had you encountered a weaving vehicle just prior to seeing the child, being hit by a car has some evidence to back it up. With all the possibilities listed here, the truth is likely to be revealed with a little further investigation. When it comes to more bizarre events and claims, though, this is not always the case.

Documentary evidence usually plays a big role in the realm of conspiracy theories, and that’s where plausibility can be wielded to narrow the field possibility. Often, in the wake of a large event like the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, a flood of reports, investigations, documents, and theories emerge. Some of these are backed by large amounts of evidence; others rely on smaller pieces of information. When things sort themselves out, what often remains are official reports filled with reams of data, and the other guys pointing out inconsistencies in the official version. That phrasing may sound biased against “the other guys”; frankly, it is. The “other guy”, however, isn’t always wrong, as demonstrated by Richard Feynman in his minority report on the Challenger disaster. Feynman, however, was both a genius and a dogged investigator with no love of authority or propriety; it made him the perfect person to take apart an institutionalized bureaucracy like NASA, and he generated real data to back up his report (more on that later).

9/11 is perhaps the “big dog” of modern conspiracy theory. The Moon Hoaxers are rapidly losing ground; no one thinks much about Kennedy getting shot these days; and, to be honest, David Icke isn’t worth discussing. If lizard people are on the agenda, I think we can stop the conversation now. 9/11, for people in the USA, is the type of thing that leaves a psychological dent that goes beyond the obvious initial trauma. It reveals a vulnerability and lack of control that most people don't consider in their daily lives. Sure, a person could be hit by a car any time they cross the street; but you never actually expect it to happen. 9/11 has the same sort of mental impact, on a larger scale. A defensive mechanism for dealing with that kind of vulnerability is to imagine that there's some person or group with a grander purpose is in control of the whole thing. Following that logic, such a cabal can be fought or exposed. The thing is, events like 9/11 are sometimes perpetrated by conspiracies. The 9/11 conspiracy was made up of members of a small terror group headquartered half a world away. That reveals some vulnerability that a lot of people don't wish to consider. The idea that a couple of dozen people got together, planned, and executed such a large-scale terror attack is somehow unimaginable. The idea that 9/11 was performed by a shadowy government conspiracy to false-flag another nation, destroy secret records, steal gold, or achieve some other goal is perhaps less frightening than the idea that a handful of determined men could kill thousands and destroy major landmarks just to make a point.

The weight of the documents, however, is squarely on the side of terrorists. There is nothing implausible about what they did. The physics works. The movements of the parties have been traced to an astonishing degree of accuracy. The event, as qualified experts have investigated it, happened pretty much as the government says it did. Any political abuses performed by the government afterward have no bearing on how the original event transpired.

Many wonder how the government or military could be “caught sleeping”, and decide that an “inside job” is the only way a terrorist attack of that magnitude could occur. These people have more faith in both their government (and in other people) than I would normally ascribe to. The history of any major government is rife with blunders of astounding magnitude. The rule of thumb called Hanlon’s Razor applies: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” Now, that guideline is a bit of shorthand referring to plausibility. What the Razor is saying is, when something bad occurs, it’s more likely that someone was not doing their job correctly than it is that they were actively planning for the bad to happen. While many conspiracies do exist, most are brought down because people can’t keep secrets. The bigger the conspiracy, the harder it is to keep quiet. In terms of secrecy alone, a conspiracy of dozens to perpetrate 9/11 is more plausible that a conspiracy of hundreds or thousands (which is what a government-sponsored cover-up would entail). Even aside from that, most conspiracies are of the mundane variety; they are criminal activity writ slightly larger than usual. When ideas about conspiracies veer from that track, it’s often into the bizarre or unreal ramblings of a mentally ill person (Mind beams, alien landings, shadowy world-ruling cabals, etc.). While some large government conspiracies are in evidence (Watergate, for example), what must be noted is that these conspiracies did fall. Sometimes it’s through the accident of a security guard being where he wasn’t expected; sometimes it’s because someone breaks ranks and spills his guts to a reporter in a parking garage. That’s a demonstration of human nature; you can’t herd too many people through a lie all at once; someone, for some reason, will change their mind, slip up, or just fail through plain coincidence. That is far more plausible than completely silent, eternally vigilant rulers in darkness.

A good deal beyond the weight of documentary or anecdotal evidence is evidence obtained by systematic observation. I place this as separate from experiment because, while experiments require detailed observation, detailed observation does not require an experiment. Darwin’s notebooks are an excellent example of observational evidence; a detailed account of locations, forms, times, conditions, and patterns eventually gave rise to the theory of evolution through natural selection. Much of science is observational in nature; astronomy, as a field, is largely pursued through pure observation. It may take years of observing the same spot and comparing thousands of photos or radio recordings to note something new and exciting in the sky. Observational evidence is noting the fact that, while you were watching, a thousand people have stepped off the curb without falling into a hole. Not only that, but information such as that 75% of them were female, 30% were wearing blue, .3% only had one leg, and .1% got hit by a bus as they stepped off. Systematic observation produces reams and reams of data, which, under the right circumstances, can produce real discovery. However, as is often the case in the world of woo, the right circumstances can be hard to come by.

There are multitudes of ghost hunting shows on television these days. Observationally, pretty much all of them are crap, despite a mountain of cameras, EM field detectors, infrared imagers, and a whole host of other gizmos. Most of the “hunters” on these shows are reduced to jumping at vague noises, and generally looking like idiots, even with all the electronics. Why? Because they are making an assumption that has yet to be borne out by the observations. That assumption is that a “ghost”, should one exist, will be in anyway detectable by the junk they have brought along. Aside from this fact, they are wildly inconsistent in what their observations tell them. “It’s cold, so there is a ghost present.” “It’s hot, so there is a ghost present.” Certainly, after years and years of observation, they might have something; however, if the primary premise (that the equipment works) is flawed, the observations are flawed at their core. There are paranormal investigators out there that don’t make that mistake; one of the most famous is Joe Nickell. He approaches ghost stories with a rational bent, without the fancy equipment. Where some of the more “TV-oriented” hunters are likely to find that a strange knocking sound and a “hot spot” indicate a ghost, Nickell is more likely to discover that there’s an old boiler in the adjoining townhouse. This helps demonstrate another rule of thumb: Occam’s Razor. This idea is often mis-stated as “The simplest explanation is the best”. More accurately, it can be stated this way: “The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is more likely to be correct.” This is called parsimony, and it makes a great deal of sense. If you have two explanations for an event, one that requires two assumptions that are not in evidence, and one that requires four assumptions, the explanation with less guesswork involved is likely more accurate. In the ghost investigation example above, the “TV hunters” are making the assumptions that ghosts exist; that they are detectable by the equipment available; and that they actually produce the phenomena sought. Nickell, however, needs posit nothing of the sort. It is well established that old boiler systems can produce knocking sounds, and produce heat that can be detected through a wall, especially in an older building. Finding the mundane instead of the fantastic, however, is assumed to not be as exciting, and people like Nickell don’t get a lot of airtime.

One often encounters arguments based on unsupported premises in the world of alternative medicine claims. A huge amount of alt-med stems from premises that are either unsupported, or flat-out false. Homeopathy relies on both the “memory of water” (never demonstrated to exist) and the “law of similars” (out-and-out wrong). Subluxation-based chiropractic is based on vitalism (false) and the existence of “subluxations”. Physical anomalies known as subluxations do exist; I have them in both my knees. However, in the terms they are described by traditional chiropractors, they are not shown to exist. Rational chiropractors that reject the idea of subluxations do exist, and focus purely on musculoskeletal manipulation and therapy.

An examination of these kinds of claims can be referred to as “prior plausibility”. That’s another way of asking, “Does the claim make sense in light of what we already know?” When a claim is made that goes against mainstream theory, the first lens through which it must be examined is that of plausibility. The recently deceased Hulda Clark made a career of promoting the idea that all cancer (and I do mean all) is caused by a type of liver fluke. Claims like that, when compared to the weight of evidence behind the germ theory of disease and modern epidemiology, just fail at the start. From crystal “vibrations” to homeopathy to healing chants, skeptics often discount some things out-of-hand because the rest of what we know about doesn’t work that way. While that can be a dangerous attitude to take, leading to knee-jerk rejection of new ideas (some of which might turn out to be correct, if unlikely or counter-intuitive), an examination of prior plausibility should usually be the first step when considering a claim. In particular, one must consider if an alternative explanation is more plausible than the claim. Is that person speaking to the dead, thus rewriting everything we know about physics, death, and religion; or, alternatively, are they cold reading? Can that person really move a compass with their mind, or do they have a magnet on their thumb? While the former cases may be true, the latter are more likely. Again, Occam’s Razor applies; some of these possible answers require more assumptions than others.

The last level of evidence that I want to consider is generally the most powerful; experiment. A really good, scientific experiment is the systematic testing of ideas to answer specific questions while eliminating confounding factors. However, experiment is not necessarily that limited. Really, it’s just trying things out to see if they work or not, and then refining the idea based on the data. The Mythbusters are a prime example of this. While the format is often an excuse to blow things up in an ever-expanding variety of ways, a lot of what leads up to that point is experiment. There’s a lot of, “Will X do Y?” involved. The design may be haphazard (though carefully calibrated for maximum TV fun), but most everything they do is a test of a simple premise. “Can I run across this viscous liquid without sinking?” Yes. “Can you use dynamite to clean out a cement truck?” Under certain conditions, yes. “Can an fMRI detect lies?” Not reliably. They don’t follow the science to the point of narrowing down all the influences, but they do often go in for repeatability and eliminating as much variability as the TV format will allow.

A further example of that level of experiment is, well, frankly, anything Richard Feynman ever did. Aside from his actual work as a physicist, he performed experiments on everything from how ant trails are formed to how easy it was to break into the locked filing cabinets at the Manhattan Project. His experiment involving rocket booster O-ring material and ice water was the defining factor in determining what happened when a space shuttle exploded.

Those types of experiment are fine outside-the-lab examples, but are still subject to much of the bias that humans bring to the equation. We may mentally tweak conditions or data to fit our prejudices and preconceptions. A poorly designed lab experiment can have the same problems. A major example of this was the Jacques Benveniste publication on the memory of water. Though I won’t go into great detail here (it’s been covered repeatedly elsewhere), Benveniste and his lab produced a paper showing evidence for the claim that water could have a “memory” of substances it had previously been in contact with. Upon further examination, however, it was found that because samples were unblinded, and affected cells in the samples counted by hand, it left open the possibility that the lab technicians may have been introducing their own desired results into the mix. Following a properly blinded experiment involving James Randi, among others, the effect ceased to manifest. Randi, in his dogged pursuit of charlatans and con artists, has made a career out of applying principles to eliminate bias or cheating in claims of the extraordinary. While not a scientist himself, as a conjurer, Randi is familiar with the way the human mind can fool itself, and where many of the biases of observation lie. That is a magnificent skill to have when sniffing out errors in experimental design.

A scientific experiment is intended to do several things. First, it seeks to eliminate sources of bias; objective results far outweigh the subjective. Secondly, it should be designed to minimize confounding factors; for example, a drug trial has to account for effects that may be due to other medications a subject is taking. Finally, it should be designed to account for how the designer is wrong about the question. Being wrong is often more informative that being correct. Being wrong can reveal confounding factors; if it was a test for repeatability, it can indicate that something was wrong with another experiment. A negative result narrows the range of possibilities, bringing an investigator closer to a more accurate answer. This philosophy of falsification is what really sets science apart as a means of understanding the world. It’s also where one of the greatest misunderstandings of science originates. Scientists are often accused of having no doubt in their own work, and having an arrogance of knowledge. It is true that there are some aspects of science where you don’t hear a lot of professed doubt, such as the germ theory of disease. That’s because much of the doubt has been eliminated with repeated attempts at falsification; if thousands of people have spent decades actively seeking flaws in an idea, what’s left tends to be pretty accurate (even if the original intent was entirely different; see phlogiston). That’s not to say any theory is perfect; scientists argue with each other constantly. Depending on the field, the arguments are often more likely to be about details of a theory than they are to be about the theory itself. It’s the “big parts” that scientists are often accused of being inflexible on; this may well be true, as those tend to be the most well-studied and tightly tested aspects of an idea. No serious evolutionary scientist questions that DNA and natural selection are major components of the theory; whether or not a particular gene expression will affect development might be an ongoing fight. In any case, the fact is that mainstream science is constantly trying to figure out reasons why they might be wrong. This makes it a stronger system than one that only relies on positive results.

With this list of possible levels of evidence (not complete, by any measure), I hope I’ve provided some glimpse as to why skeptics are skeptics. It’s not that we push away the fantastic, close our eyes and ears, and try to block away what doesn’t fit our worldview. All the skeptics I know would love for some form of the fantastic to be real, if for no other reason that it would open up a whole new world to explore. It would be new and potentially frightening; but first we require it be real. Until then, the fantastic is for entertainment, not everyday life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

They called me "Maudlin" at the Institute...

Coralius said:
You're getting a bit maudlin, aren't you?

That's somewhat true. I've been nostalgic lately, and that's sometimes not a good thing. I worry about my mortality, what I've missed, what I've lost, etc. The antidote is the opposite, of course. By this same measure of going back and poking around, I came across some things that really brought a smile to my face.

I went back and found some of my responses to the "5 Questions" podcast, sadly no longer active. I think I found it through Mur Lafferty's podcast. We were there at the ground floor on that one; it was one of the first interactive podcasts, and we were on there almost every week. Coralius, me, and Philoman constantly emailed our excitement at having our answers chosen back and forth. That made me smile (and laugh -- Cor's response on dying "drowning in breasts" still makes me guffaw), and I think I'll go back and check the podcast archives out again.

Looking back like that also makes me realize how few day-to-day memories we really keep. I ran across an article the other day talking about keeping a day journal - not really an blow-by-blow account of every action, reaction, and emotion, but more of a "memory tickler" that took a couple of lines to say, "X, Y, and Z happened today."

Besides being a mnemonic aid, any time you write things like that down, they become something that lives beyond you. Old journals, letters, and photos connect us to the past. I may not have a great idea of what my grandfather was like when he was young -- but I have pictures. I've read the letters he wrote to my grandmother from an Army hospital, having lost a leg and been sent back to the states. I learned that he wanted to marry her, despite her father not seeing it as a good match, particularly with him being disabled. And I know she went to him anyway.

If I can even leave a fraction of something like that, I can breathe easier and let go some of my existential issues for a while.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Every once in a while I dig back through the years and years of emails that I have stored up in my first webmail account (yes, I'm still using the same Hotmail address that I had before Microsoft bought them out so long ago), just to see what I and my friends were saying. There's the usual jokes, quips, and interesting links. There are old forum registrations, sales receipts for online stores that don't exist anymore, responses from writers and artists from back in the "Wild West" days of the internet when you could write to just about anyone that was online and get a response. I suppose that last part may have come full circle with Twitter, but I digress.

I look back, and I get a solid glimpse of who I was, who I spent time with, and more. I see what made us laugh and cry, each with the original words. Someone may look in my "Inbox" and see thousands and thousands of messages, most of them from machines rather than people. As you go back farther and farther, though, and look at what has been kept, and you get a picture of me and of the people in my life. There are bits of excitement and sadness, long letters and short missives, all weaving together into a picture mirroring and sharpening my memories.

Included in that mass is some of the best character writing I ever did, fleshing out superheroes for an online fighting league. I don't write that well now, so I sort of wonder how I managed it then. I must have been particularly engaged in those things. I'm reading letters from people that are no longer here, remembrances from people I haven't seen in a decade or more, and things more melancholy. A friend emailed me with the revelation that her stepchildren were sexually abusing her birth son. I don't have that letter, though I remember the desperation, self-recrimination, and begging for help. I do, for some reason, have the response I sent, reassuring her and making the case that the actions of two little sociopaths were theirs alone.

For me, I guess it's the same sort of thing as going through old boxes of letters and pictures. It's a digital memory book. It's just as permanent as any other, I guess. Such things are subject to the hazards of time, and this one has at least once been on a failed server that could only partially be restored, so I don't have everything. Somewhere along the way, things fade away. This is just another way of fighting back.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Old Times

I'm the type of geek who is generally down on social networking sites. I am not a fan of the Mybook or Facespace, in general. In particular, the idea of reconnecting with those from my past is something I've held little regard for. Most of my personal history is not filled with what could be called "social success". While it isn't as bad as what blogger Mark Chu-Carroll went through, nor is it that I hold any real grudge at this point, I just don't feel that need to connect in that direction.

I do search for people from the past, sometimes, just by looking up the names, maybe throwing in a town I heard associated with them once. I don't have a real urge to talk, just to see if they have a presence so that I can, however briefly, be a voyeur. I want to see how they made out in the end. I've rarely found anyone I've looked for. There's one guy running a religious marriage counseling firm (not a surprise), a doctor (a surprise to some, probably, but not me), and someone just getting into student life. It's that last one that almost made me want to get in contact with someone from my past. She rather unknowingly influenced a lot of who I grew up to be, and planted some of the first real seeds of confidence I ever had.

We were, at best, friendly acquaintances. Lots of the same classes and clubs, a couple of mutual friends; that was the interaction level. We knew each other without knowing details; she was one of the few people with whom I could be myself without worrying about being accidentally antisocial, because she wasn't concerned with a lot of the high school status bullshit. She was an artist and writer, already better at that point than I ever aspired to be. She just liked people, and that made her comfortable to be around.

It's trite to think that anything you offhandedly say or do at that age can really affect someone, but she managed to do that with a couple of sentences in my senior yearbook. What she said was, essentially, "I wouldn't mind to be in a world run by you." There was more to it than that, but it came down to the idea that I was worth more than a "see you soon!" platitude.

I occasionally think about those words still today, 15 years later. In just dashing off that idea, she let me know that I wasn't just flailing about in my attempts to relate. She let me know that, despite my horrid self-image, I wasn't a complete loser asshole.

This wasn't a girl I was ever interested in romantically, though she was attractive enough. This wasn't flirtiness, or a response to same; it was just a kind thought. It was unique, though. I'd never heard the sentiment "You're a decent person" in those terms before. Hell, I'd only rarely heard it at all, at least directed at me. It gave me something to build on.

In the years since, I've heard that she fell on hard times. Drugs, illness, even prostitution. It's not what anyone would've expected. I've kept an eye out online, even if just for a police blotter. For a long time, there was nothing. Then, just a few weeks ago, I found her MySpace page. There's no question it's her; aside from the unique name, the pics are clear. She's starting things now that people would've expected from her a decade and a half ago. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to drop off an email to someone from back then.

I kept browsing, though, and decided against it. She's got a distinctly different life and outlook than when I knew her (time and experience do that, I know). She does have a small gallery of her old work posted, clearly labeled as "The past"; it seems that such things as linked us then have no place anymore. I doubt she'd even remember me beyond a vague recollection; such is how it often is with those who unknowingly influence us.

Given what this woman has been through, I was still tempted to at least send a note. I wanted to apologize for not managing to rule the world for the one person who thought it might be a good idea, and to thank her, because the part I've managed some control over is doing pretty good. Without her words, I don't know if that would have happened.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Existential pains

It's been a hard week. My company, and my responsibilities in particular, got hit hard by an outside audit. When it's all over, I'm expecting disciplinary action (though probably not a suspension; there's too much work to do to have me out). That's in part due to the fact that so many of the things were supposed to be maintained by fixed since the last audit, then maintained by me. Fixed, I did. Maintained, less so. I'm not good at ongoing projects (refer to my ongoing blog series). I tend to let everyday things go by the wayside for larger, more immediate projects. I suck at balancing them, partially because balance would add more time to the job I already work 9 or 10 hours a day for (excluding lunch).

I don't like that.

I'm paid well (probably better than I should be), the organization is a loyal one, and the company is headed in a good direction. It's the longest-term job I've ever had, by far. I also stopped enjoying it a long time ago. I mean, I still love delving into the numbers and producing a written work of art about a product. I don't like that my job has become a catch-all for problems, though. It often seems like nothing in the whole building is going right, and it's my job to look into each and every incident. Honestly, that's close to what I do, anyway, but add in every urgent report that anyone needs to make a customer, auditor, or government happy. Someone was instructed to take a couple of pieces of everyday work off my desk, and later asked, "How many of these are you supposed to do? There's not enough time." Time is what I'm short of. I'd love to have a career instead of a job, and that's sort of where I've been heading with this company, until recently. A career that takes time away from my family is too much, though. Yesterday, I completely missed my son. He was asleep when I left, and asleep when I got home. It was his first day of first grade, and after the hellish experience that we all had in his first semester of kindergarten, I wanted to spend some time with him and talk, sit, and relate. I did call him, when it became evident I was unlikely to make it, but it's not the same. I barely spoke to my wife after my 15-hour day before we went to bed.

That where the "existential dread" sorta comes in. I'm a high-anxiety sort of person, though not as badly as I once was. Ten or fifteen years ago, this week would have seen me huddled in a whimpering ball in a corner somewhere. Now, I just tend to not eat (as I'm writing this, the sum total of food eaten in the last 60 (correction because I was interrupted; 62) hours is 4 pop-tarts, one and a half bananas, a couple of glasses of milk, and a gallon or so of water), and not sleep well. What gets me though, is that it makes me realize that I've been mising out on my wife and kids. I was very happy some months back when my schedule altered so that I see them all before I leave the house. That doesn't happen so much, anymore.

The "existential" part of this sort of goes along with my godless attitude. I don't believe in an afterlife, so what I've got now is it. So when something forces me to miss out on my family, friends, and enjoyment, I get serious pangs of regret. I functioned rather well at work this week, overall, but when I tried to talk to my wife on the phone, I nearly broke down almost every time. I missed a milestone yesterday, one that I won't get back. There are a lot of those, but I have to wonder how missing any of them is worth it. I only get one chance to be a good husband and raise my kids. I screw that up often enough as it is; I don't need my employer to help out. But, again, it's a good job. It lets us live comfortably enough that we don't have to worry about money, which is a big concern for anyone right now. As hard as they worked. my parents had to raid my piggybank to buy bread and milk sometimes. We even got the proverbial "government cheese" on occasion. I know that killed them a little inside, because they had to sometimes worry about where the next meal is coming from. My kids have never had to face that, and I don't want them to while it's my responsibility (they can starve a little when out on their own; everyone should have to, for a while). So, I think it's a little selfish of me to give up (or screw up) a stable job to be happier with myself and my kids, when it may be hurtful in other ways. And, no matter what, I only get one chance to do it right.

With my track record, that scares the hell out of me.

So, it might be comforting to think that it's all going to sort itself out in the end, on a faraway shore, in a fairytale place where all is right and good. I don't believe it for a minute. People selling tomorrow always want payment today. And, aside from that, I know that today is here, so I should take today for me and mine. Tomorrow isn't a guarantee, regardless of the promises made. I've got to grasp what I know is real. When you can trust in something higher, it absolves you from making the wrong decision; I don't have that luxury. Consequences aren't out of my control (they aren't out of anybody's control, but I have to take responsibility for mine). That makes for a hell of a decision-making process, and the choices are as likely to be as irrational as any. I have to weigh different levels and kinds of harm, which means there's really no good option. It'll never get any easier, though. I'll just have to live with that, at least once.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Data Dump

I've been greatly negelecting the blog lately, for various reasons (bringing a lot of work home not being the least). One seems to be an inability to concentrate long enough to write (I've started about a half-dozen posts that are 50-75% complete, and most are now totally irrelevant); another reason is that I've been playing lots of video games, some online and some not (all free, though). I've been doing a ton of reading, as well.

So, with that in mind, I figure I might as well post about some of what's been distracting me from posting. Here's a listing by category, with commentary:

Video Games

TEW 2005, by Adam Ryland, published through Grey Dog Software

A lot of my time has been taken up with this wrestling business simulation game, recently released as freeware to help entice people into buying the more recent products from GDS. I'll state from the beginning that this game isn't for everyone. It's almost entirely text-based, most people I've introduced to the game hate the interface, and there's a mountain of details to manage.

I love it.

It's got a dynamic universe that takes into account local economies, tastes, the overall health of the wrestling business, the personalities and relationships of workers, and all that is before you even get near actively managing the business. For example, I took over one of the smallest "federations" in the game, and grew it pretty rapidly; however, the owner's mandated lifetime contractual salary was rapidly sinking the business (it was six or seven times the monthly take of the average person on the roster). I jumped ship to a newly opened group after eight months, and basically got to build it from the ground up. My former employer folded after just a few more months, but I had both time and money to build something big in the other place -- until a better opportunity comes along.

TEW '05 is a time-consuming game that I greatly enjoy. I own another game by Ryland, Wrestling Spirit II, which is a strategy game letting you take the career of a wrestler, fighting matches as if they were real, and trying to make whatever advances you could. The demos of his other, more advanced games are awesome in their details, and I find them really engaging. The downside of all Ryland's products, in my opinion, is a horrific lack of documentation. I'm the kind of guy that wants an inch-thick game manual, maps, tech trees, and the phone number of the lead programmer for asking questions. You don't get that here; I understand leaving some things for the player to discover, but there's a lot of stuff going on that would be better spelled out step-by-step. This seems to be more pronounced in later games, because it almost seems assumed that you've played the earlier ones and know everything already.

There are some help files, though, and a very active fan community filled with FAQs and helpful people. Ryland himself also frequents the forums, answering questions on a regular basis. He's even helped me with a technical bug that was crashing my WreSpiII game, sending me a module to help him observe what was going on in the code during the error. You don't get that kind of support elsewhere. I still want a manual, though.

My Brute

This is a fun little game, sort of like the "Vampire" Facebook and Myspace apps I see my wife playing. You have a little dude. He fights other little dudes, ocasionally getting new weapons, powers, or pets. You can do this a few times a day. A cute little time waster, overall.


Kongregate is one of the many online game portals out there, and is currently my portal of choice. They've got a pretty good selection, and it's fairly easy to navigate. They have featured games, a decent badge system, contests, some multiplayer options -- it's not a bad game site. Anytime you're in a game, a chatroom is available off to the side, either dedicated to the game, or a general room. You can swap rooms, though most people tend to have a "home" room that becomes like a small community. I'm generally found in "Sloth", which is fairly well-policed by mods, and overall a funny and civil group.

Online reads

I spend a lot of time just reading online. The links over to the right cover a lot of the places that absorb my time. Lately, though, I've been singling out a few not listed.

Not Exactly Rocket Science

Ed Yong produces a science blog for the layperson -- he takes really cool hard science, and explains it in exciting and accessible ways. I've never read a boring article there, and always, always walk away with some cool knowledge I didn't have before.


Another science blog, focusing on weird animal stuff, it works under the assumption that funny is as important as informative. Always good for a laugh and some awesomeness.


I've linked to some stuff about erv before (in fact...yup, on the list over there). Abbie Smith is a grad student and HIV researcher, who mixes LOLspeak with hard science. If you think that's weird, you should see some of the other stuff she gets up to. All in all, Abbie and her trusty pit bull Arnie make for a hell of a fun read.

White Coat Underground

PalMD is a science-based physician, blogger, and father practicing all three somewhere up in the north-center of the USA (I knowwhere, but it doesn't really matter, and I don't feel like looking it up while typing this). I like him. He's level-headed, entertaining, and doesn't put up with a lot of crap. He's one of the more unsung voices in the science-based medicine movement, in my opinion, and that's a shame.


Hell's Angels, Hunter S. Thompson

Hell of a read. It's a roiling look into the outlaw pschye, as well as a window into Thompson's own "gonzo journalism" movement. Highly recommended to anyone interested in people.

World War Z, Max Brooks

I just finished this. I think it excels at what it tries to do, creating a "zombie plague" with realistic consequences for individuals, governments, and the environment. It was engaging from the beginning. I wonder how they're going to work out the screenplay, though. Re-creating the human element that makes the book so engaging, while still preserving the overarching narrative of a zombie war, seems like a daunting task. I have some idea of which side Hollywood is likely to shortchange, and that makes me unhappy.

Infinite Typewriters, Jon Rosenberg

A collection of the first truly epic storyline assembled in the "Goats" webcomic, this sucker is engaging and funny. Typewriters shows off the typical surrealist edge found throughout the "Goats" timeline, while showcasing Rosenberg's growing talent for long-term narrative. Being a regular reader of the comic as it is published, it only gets better from here.


Shadowrun, 4th edition

So, I'm jonesing for some RPG time. We've got an occasional D&D game with fresh characters, which has been an enjoyable change of pace from our normal style of D&D (Us: "SMASH", DM:"DAMMIT!"). I ran some Call of Cthulhu a while back, but the experienced, cynical gamers in our group quickly hewed to the "Cleanse it with Fire" school of CoC thought. A hypothetical situation would be:

Me: "You approach the large building, quiet except for the occasional odd shuffle and cry. It looks like it may have been a church sometime in the past."

Me, five minutes later: "As you hear the last dying screams of the orphans, a nun, still covered in flames, flings herself from an upper window in a desperate bid to save her own life."

Player: "It was probably an evil nun, anyway."

That particular scene ever happened, but that seems to have been the growing consensus with anything they confronted. Enter Shadowrun, the system that exemplifies the famous line from Army of Darkness, "Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun." It's a game with a more anarchic streak, where the characters are looking out for number one. You can be a mass-murderer or a goody-two-shoes, your choice. Generally, though, you're just trying to make rent. If that means breaking into a compound to steal some data and leave a false trail back to the Mafia, well, that's what it takes. I'm wanting very badly to scratch this gaming itch.