Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas 1955

Christmas 1955 - I was seven years old and my little sister was age two when this photo was taken of our Christmas tree and all the loot underneath it. My Dad was a veteran of WWII, he had just gotten a good paying job as an engineer and we had moved out to the San Francisco suburbs only a few years earlier. My Mom was the stay-at-home kind.

The motivations for practicing Duck-and-Cover drills at grade school were beyond my comprehension; I was living in total middle-class heaven. Needs I didn't even know I had were met with excess. I could look through the Sears Catalog toy section and be reasonably assured that some of those treasures would end up under our tree. The only downer for the season was when I opened a gift that turned out to be a shirt or sweater - I felt gypped.

I must have gotten an new bicycle every-other Christmas. The toys were always cool - Erector sets, Tonka trucks, Lionel train, even an Atomic Canon once. These things made up for my Dad drinking too much on Christmas Eve and my Mother going to be crying. I took the toys in my room and played by myself with the door closed. These were times of excess - materialistic and alcoholic... and everything in between.

My parents struggled. My mother went to a psychiatrist and took Milltown. My Dad drank. There were no marriage counselors (other than the Catholic priest) and no self-help empowerment books. My parents foundered in guilt, self-pity, anxiety and cruel words between them.

A Christmas of "stuff" never really seemed to make up for it, though it did provide escape. I wasn't able to truly escape until I went away to college. And even then, I had to return home during Christmas break. Nothing had changed.

Today my wife and I spend practically nothing on Christmas; we don't buy gifts and we don't even attempt to compete with the other grandparents showering our grand kids with toys. We put up lights on the house and a lovely Christmas tree... it even has an angel on the top. We Atheists celebrate the holiday like most everyone does, with family and friends and good food, wishing for peace on earth and good will toward us all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Media Generated Empathy

The following type of stories appear repeatedly in the news: A person or family, down on their luck due to unforeseen circumstances, perhaps due to illness or economic downturn. The story airs on national news... and suddenly they become the recipients of a huge outpouring of contributions of money, job offers and scholarships.

For example recently the CBS news show “60 Minutes” ran a story about homeless children in Florida; parents laid off work, living in their car, using a gas station restroom to clean up for school. The story had a huge impact on viewers; so much so that a follow-up story was broadcast about viewers sending in nearly one million dollars in contributions. One of the little girls in the story was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of a university – that particular university offered the girl a full scholarship. [1]

I see these stories and think: "Great… but what about the hundreds of thousands of other families who weren't lucky enough to appear on '60 Minutes'. What do they get?"

The answer is, they get nothing! People see these stories in the context of an isolated incident. They know that there is widespread poverty and deprivation in the world, in their community. But until it becomes personalized, most people are blind to issue.

Yet oddly we recognize that most humans are generally obsessed with a sense of morality. Granted how we each of us personally defines morality varies widely from individual to individual. But a sense of morality infuses a large percentage of how we interact with others. A number of scientific studies have actually been conducted in an attempt to find a biological basis for our sense of morality. At the biological level, we know that when levels of oxytocin are raised in the blood stream, we feel more magnanimous and interested in moral abstracts.

Interestingly the mere acting or invoking of empathy actually causes the oxytocin; some have begun to call it it the “moral molecule”. But oxytocin has a very short half-life and our ability as humans to summon empathy is equally short lived. Empathy rapidly attenuates as the demand for it becomes more widely spread. A story about four specific homeless children in Florida strongly evokes empathy in a large population of television viewers. But a story instead about the hundreds of nameless, faceless homeless children, often entirely misses the empathy bulls-eye. In fact often the opposite happens; the sense of morality instead generating indignation and the feeling that empathy is undeserved.

I often find myself dealing with negative emotions when, confronted at some check-out counter at a store or restaurant, there is the seemingly ubiquitous slotted can next to the cash register: "Help little Timmy get that liver transplant, his parents have no insurance." I’ve even dropped spare change in such cans myself. But I wonder what would that store would look like if there was a slotted contribution can for every needy Timmy, Johnny, Sally… all the thousands of needy people just in my area alone? Slotted cans would be stacked on every surface up to the ceiling, all over the floor and rolling out the door!

I find outrage in the realization that most people are unable to generate even the remotest sense of empathy, and remote sense of morality, to those they have no way of individually connecting to? Who decides who has earned a donation jar or nightly news story in their name and who will continue to suffer silently in anonymity?

1. Homeless teens on "60 Minutes" get free college, December 3, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fear of Flying

In the course of five minutes, Air France flight 447 dropped from cruise altitude down into the Atlantic Ocean; none of the 228 passengers and crew on board survived. There was nothing mechanically wrong with the aircraft until it hit the the surface, sinking two miles to the ocean floor.

The opposite was true of US Airways Flight 1549 whose twin engines flamed dead out after climbing through a flock of birds during takeoff. The captain and first officer ditched the plane in the Hudson river; all 115 passengers on the flight survived.

The reasons for the diametrically opposite outcomes between these two airplane crashes reside entirely within the differences in the brains of their pilots. It involves the response of the human mind to situations of stress, fear and cognition.

Statistically half of all airline crashes can be attributed to “pilot error”.[1] However, these statistics are not entirely unequivocal. For example there are cases of what is termed: “controlled flight into terrain” where pilots, completely unaware of a dangerous situation, believing that they were fully in control and on course, still crashed their aircraft. Then there are fatal incidents directly resulting from the pilot’s incorrect responses to emergency conditions; disregarding warnings or not following accepted procedures.

The latter was the case of Air France 447. While at cruise altitude and on automatic pilot, ice caused the plane’s airspeed indicator to read incorrectly. Unable to reason through the situation, the co-pilot did the unthinkable – failing to consult the checklist for this situation, he disengaged the autopilot. Attempting to fly the aircraft manually at that altitude, he pulled back on the controls, placing the aircraft in a stall condition.

Student pilots learn from their earliest training that pulling back on the control is exactly the WRONG response to a stall; a condition where the nose is lifted up to the point where the plane loses all lift. Even through every pilot knows that placing ANY aircraft in a nose-down attitude is the proper recovery procedure for a stall, the Air France co-pilot continued to attempt to pull back on the controls until the plane hit the ocean. Why?

Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder revealed that the co-pilot in command at that moment (the pilot was away from the flight deck) was apparently overcome with fear, unable to stop and reason through the predicament. Psychologists who study people’s reactions during periods of extreme fear sometimes refer to this inability to think a situation through as a “brain lock”. Deep within our brains the Amygdale processes our fear responses. If these responses override the Frontal Cortex, the “reasoning” portion of the brain, the person mostly likely will respond using instinctive behavior.

The crew of Air France 447 had almost five minutes to attempt to diagnose and recover control of their aircraft. Conversely, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger in command of US Airways Flight 1549, had mere seconds. But Sully did possess the benefit of both years of experience and specific training which had been programmed into his cognition. When the engines flamed out on his Airbus, his rational frontal cortex overrode the fear. By thinking and responding rationally Sully and his First Officer saved 115 lives. Reacting to fear without thinking cost the lives of 228 Air France passengers.

Fear can cause us to believe things that are not true, to draw to incorrect conclusions and take inappropriate actions; fear often is a response out of ignorance. The antidote to fear is knowledge – education, training, experience and critical thinking.
In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a U.S.-made MD-80 were attempting to land in northwest China when the aircraft crashed on approach killing all on board. The pilots were baffled by an audio voice alarm from the plane's ground proximity warning system. Recovered from the wreckage, the plane's cockpit voice recorder picked up the Chinese pilot's last words: "What does 'pull up' mean?"

1. accident database and represents 1,300 fatal accidents involving commercial aircraft, world-wide, from 1950 thru 2009 for which a specific cause is known.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods...

Recently some friends were visiting us from out of town. The evening wore on and it was getting late; they had about a two hour drive ahead of them if they were to make it home by midnight. A couple of days later they called to thank us for the lovely evening and relate how their late evening drive home ended up being a 4-hour ordeal.

When my wife and I head north to Portland, we generally make the 12 mile jaunt over to the Interstate then cruise the remainder of the trip North at freeway speeds. But this is not the most direct route to Portland: Highway 99 is the old highway.

From our house, our friends had programmed their GPS to home and simply followed the device’s directions. Calculating the most “direct” route, it took them off the old highway, routing them along rural county roads until they reached the banks of the Willamette River. However, there was no bridge across the Willamette at this point on the route!

The GPS program didn’t know that the point where that little yellow line transverses the Willamette is actually the Buena Vista ferry; a small car ferry that stops operating at 7:00 PM. Our friends had to back-track on windy rural country roads to make their way to secondary roads which would eventually lead them home.

This isn’t the first time people have been led astray by errant GPS systems. In 2009 an Oregon couple on their way to Reno was directed up a remote Forest Service road by their GPS; it looked like the shortest route. They spent three days stranded in the snow before being rescued. These are not isolated incidents; there are countless stories of drivers being led astray by blindly depending on their onboard navigation systems. They may calculate the most “direct” route, but that may not necessarily be the quickest or most efficient route.

If I use Google Maps, for example, to direct me to the beach about an hour west of our location, the directions have me taking a circuitous route of twisty rural back roads before connecting into main route to the coast. But I know that if I drive three miles out of my way to the main highway, I can make it to my destination more quickly and comfortably.

I prefer to depend on maps. But even maps can lead one astray. I’ve seen bright yellow printed lines on a map that, in reality, don’t go where they indicate they do. Still maps give an overall perspective of starting point and destination. This allows you to strategize your trip rather than rely on simple “turn here” directions. Frankly, I like to see the the big picture, and I like to know roughly where I am at any point during a trip.

I appreciate that some people like not having to have to pull over and consult a map; and perhaps having that reassuring voice confidently directing them on their journey is comforting. But I probably won’t get a GPS anytime soon. Besides, I'm sure it would just keep asking: “Are we there yet?”

I love this Allstate Insurance ad:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Robert Reich: "The REAL Public Nuisance"

I recently came across this video by Robert Reich. I believe his is as significant a warning about the hijacking of our Democracy as the George Carlin video I have posted previously.

Please invest 2 minutes and watch this video, then pass it on.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Principles of Self-Defense

Earlier this summer, a pair of very violent criminals, 31 year old David Joseph Pedersen and his 24-year-old girlfriend, Holly Grigsby , went on a criminal rampage through our area. They allegedly killed a young man who had attended a concert in Newport, his body was found in the coastal hills a few miles from where we live. The pair continued their killing spree until they were apprehended in California. [1]

In 2004, college student Brooke Wilberger was abducted from a nearby apartment complex. Her body was found in 2009, again, in the nearby coastal hills; her murderer was convicted and is serving a life sentence. [2]

These dangerous criminal surely had driven on the same road that passes just blocks from our house. Yet we don’t live in a crime ridden urban inner city; we live in a small university town known for it’s academics, science and engineering. Still, these crimes, and others just as horrid have happened here in the past, as they do everywhere in the country.

We tend to hold mythological ideas about our probability of being victims of violent crime. We may wrongly think that we are safe at home while or while on vacation, or that we are in danger of harm when we may be perfectly safe. We may also believe that we are safer by having a loaded gun in our home – though statistically, the overwhelming majority of gun violence victims were family members rather than the extremely rare (0.5%) unknown intruder.[3]

So I recently read with great interest a blog posting by Sam Harris titled The Truth about Violence. I believe this is very important information about the reality regarding our personal safety; so much so that I sent the link to my wife and children to read. I am now passing this on to my readers as well as I think it provides some very CRUCIAL and PRACTICAL information about how to survive personal attacks of violence. I urge you to read it and to pass it along to others.

Among the most important points of the article are:
Avoid conflict:
This is a tough one for adult males whose ego is often difficult to disengage from their self image and whose provoking words can quickly escalate into physical combat. In truth, there is nothing anyone can say to you that would justify instigating physical violence. Unless you are clearly defending yourself from physical attack, you could be charged with criminal assault and potentially civil lawsuit.

Do not defend your property:
Your stuff is only stuff. When I worked in bank operations we repeatedly advised tellers to hand over the money quickly and politely to bank robbers. There is nothing in your wallet or purse or in your home that is worth your life or injury or the life or injury of another person. Let it go.

ESCAPE at all costs:
This is a difficult one, if you are approached in a parking lot, for example, and someone tries to force you into a car, RESIST AND FIGHT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT. Yes, you may be injured trying to escape, but if someone exerts their control and gets you to a remote location, you are probably going to die anyway and likely in a more horrible way if you don't do everything in your power to prevent being taken to an isolated location.

Lastly, and this is a very tough decision; but if someone takes a family member hostage and demands your compliance – ESCAPE, even if you leave the family member behind. If the criminal takes control of both of you, it will not end well. By one of you escaping, the criminal has lost control and knows now that help may be soon on the way.
Here is the link to the article. Read it, pass it on, and be safe!

The Truth about Violence - 3 Principles of Self-Defense
by Sam Harris.

1. Pair can face trial in Washington in three-state killing rampage, Los Angeles Times.

2. Brooke Wilberger Found: Killer Gives Location of Remains to Avoid Death Penalty,

3. Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home, New England Journal of Medicine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eye of Newt

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

clueless — adj
helpless; stupid, ignorant, uninformed

I haven’t been blogging much about the political climate, primarily because my blood pressure is currently under control without need for medication; but seriously, far many other bloggers cover politics much more eloquently than I can.

However, I was forced to do a double-take as I caught a glimpse of a clip of Newt Gingrich railing about the Occupy Wall Street protesters – specifically when he said this about them on national TV:
“… get a job right after you take a bath!”
Hello Newt… anyone in there? You have got to be absolutely without question most blatantly f*#king CLUELESS politician on the planet!

Newt, Baby, the OWS protesters would absolutely LOVE to have a job… some of them at this point would take pretty much ANY job! I know it’s a bit over your limited intellect to understand but, as it turns out, the lack of jobs is EXACTLY WHY they are occupying Wall Street!

You see, you and your conservative cronies and their corporate handlers have systematically dismantled the working class in this country over the last 30 years. You guys basically sent their jobs to China, remember?

But hey Newt, I am in agreement with you; let’s get those lazy louts with their hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid student loan debt, out of those parks. How about asking your “Job Creator” friends, you know, the Bush Tax Cut recipients, to let us all know when all those unfilled jobs you want the OWS people to take will be kicking in? We're all still waiting, you little rascal "Job Creators" you.

I’m thinking I need to write to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Company to suggest a new picture to be associated with their definition for the word “Clueless”. Unfortunately I’m having a bit of difficult deciding which of the two pictures above best illustrates that definition. Perhaps my readers could help me decide.

Which is more stupid; being stupid or being stupid on camera? You decide.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wandering in the Desert

The "shock and awe" of having survived a rather nasty open-heart surgery earlier this year has pretty much ebbed; as a result, I find myself now somewhat adrift in the doldrums (isn't that a great word?) Acquiring focus or grasping onto anything even moderately interesting eludes me at the present moment... obviously blogging and following my friend's blogs among them. I have a new shot at life, but for the moment, I don't quite know where to aim.

I have avoided browsing my Huffington Post app on the i-Pad and have opted for watching Jeopardy and Seinfeld reruns over the nightly news. The whole of America's strategic long-term planning extends no further than November 2012 - as a result, my predictions for our future are as remarkably easy to predict as they are dismal... and this is regardless of which party snatches the Oval Office. It looks like the NBA players and owners cannot come to an agreement so there will be no basketball season this year. I am completely bored by basketball anyway, so there ya go!

On a lighter note, this last weekend my granddaughter accompanied me to the Portland Humanist Film Festival where my short, The Fairy Scientist, starring my granddaughter Lydia, won an award. During the short Q&A session following acceptance of our award, most of the audience wanted to know if Lydia still believed in fairies. Her answer: she doesn't have enough "proof" yet. She is so bright!

So for the time being I'm just lurking. For those of you who inquired if I was "alright", (Nance, Ohren and others) thank you... Although I will add that I have had my fill lately of doctors and procedures. I am fine.

Regarding the header photo. I tried to find out if this sign was a hoax; I found nothing on or anywhere else so I am guessing it may be legit.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Are You Talking to Me?

A few years ago if you were to stroll by the First Baptist Church in town a sunny Saturday afternoon, you might see two older white-haired gentlemen in dirt-stained baggy slacks, un-tucked shirts, doing simple landscape maintenance around the church grounds. One might easily take them for a couple of homeless men; possibly earning a nights meal in exchange for manual labor around the church.

In fact on this day, as the younger of the two elderly men was flinging fertilizer pellets from a coffee can over the lawn and shrub beds, a nicely dressed gentleman walking by the church stopped to watch. Then man then addressed the two older gardeners in a condescending manner, admonishing them: “You guys shouldn’t be putting that stuff on that lawn.”

Stopping their work, the man continued lecturing the two older groundskeepers, “You shouldn’t be putting harmful chemicals on the lawn; you should be using ‘Natural’ fertilizers instead.”

The two older landscape workers smiled and took off their worn work gloves; holding the coffee can to the face of their self-appointed Sidewalk Supervisor, one of them spoke: “This can contains Carbamide, a synthetic combination of ammonia and carbon dioxide, a Nitrogen fertilizer more commonly known as Urea. Mister, if there’s anything more ‘natural’ than Urea, please correct me!”

Sharing a smile between them the two old men in soiled clothes turned away from the man and went back to their work on the church landscaping. They were Dr. Melvin Westwood and Dr. Albert Roberts, both highly published research scientist and distinguished professors of Agriculture at Oregon State University.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Atheism Is Work

There are many critics of Atheists but one charge one can’t level at atheists is that they are lazy. It is believing that easy – it requires no thought, preparation or investment of time or energy. Believing carries with it a huge payoff; it is comforting, reassuring, and removes the mental discord of stress, doubt and concern. Many believers wrongly think that Atheism comes to us easily; we simply dismiss acceptance of a deity. But this is not true; Atheism is difficult and demanding, quite often lonely and occasionally even disquieting.

On any Sabbath in our small Liberal town with several dozen churches, multiple Mormon ‘wards’, a synagogue and a mosque, hundreds of faithful convene to praise their versions of god. Conversely, only once a month does our local secular society attract a dozen or so non-believers. In The USA, ‘none-of-the-abovers’ are estimated to make up perhaps 20% of the US population. This fact contradicts those who charge that Atheism is, in itself, a religion. If that were true I would ask where is the Atheist Church located, who runs it and what is its tax exempt status? Or as I like to respond to this assertion: if stamp collecting is a hobby, is not collecting stamps a hobby as well?

Many believers hold myths about Atheists: that we are angry or disappointed at god, that we are closed minded about the possibility of his existence. To try to address these myths our little organization hosted two public forums we titled “Ask and Atheist”. Instead of being in lecture format, we would instead open the floor to comments and questions from believers to try to educate them about our position. We conducted two of these public forums, handing out survey forms which attendees turned in at the end of the sessions.

What we found were only a very small number of believers actually showed up. It was obvious who they were; the two or three who quoted from the ‘holy book’. They weren’t interested in why we were Atheists; they were there in vein attempt to save us from damnation. The majority of the audience, we found, were already other non-believers. We were preaching to the choir, it seemed. We had hoped that our little public forum might at least serve as publicity and perhaps draw new member to our group. That was a disappointment as well. Unlike believers, Atheists don’t need to regularly convene to reassure one another of their non-beliefs. It is simply a non-issue.

Like many before me, my path to Atheism has been difficult. It’s work! A recent Pew Research Center poll found that among the general population, Atheists and Mormons were more knowledgeable about other religions than religious people knew even about their own particular religion. Atheists may know more about Catholicism than most Catholics, for example, because they have taken the time and effort to find out. Atheism is driven by their need to find out the Truth. We ask the hard questions and demand answers.

Still Atheists understand people finding comfort in belief. In fact, comfort is the answer most often given as the reason people cling to religious belief. Belief affords the (illusion of) hope; hope that things out of your control are under god's, hope that you will live beyond death, hope that prayer will divert the natural course of events which appear threatening.

There is a comforting social component to being a believer, particularly if one attends church. Churches are communal, convivial; here one can associate with like-minded people with whom you share a common connection and bond – here they are part of your “tribe”.

But there is news recently that religious belief is on the decline. Clearly it was much easier to attribute to god(s) back in a time when man did not understand how clouds, weather and storms were formed; that bacteria caused disease; how the earth, planets and stars were formed and move throughout the universe.

Every day science adds to the body of man’s knowledge regarding the context of our existence – religion adds nothing new. Man is driven toward knowledge... and to achieve this, one must venture away from the desire for comfort.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The photo at the left is of a five inch high stack of unsolicited (junk) mail credit card solicitations accumulated since the start of this summer. This is not all the junk mail I have received; the stack pictured represents ONLY bank credit card solicitations, primarily from Chase and Citi banks.

Pictured next to the pile of credit card junk mail is a coffee mug gift from our former mortgage company, Washington Federal Savings and Loan. Not to be confused with Washington Mutual Bank which was the largest bank failure in US history in 2008 and eventually taken over by JP Morgan Chase, the much smaller Washington Federal Savings and Loan has completely survived the financial mortgage breakdown of 2008 and continues to prosper during these tough financial times. They haven’t taken a cent of government stimulus buyout or been acquired by another company; to my knowledge they are not hemorrhaging under the cloud of excessive home foreclosure nor have I heard of them laying of a single employee. Why?

A bit of personal history first – During the first half of my professional career I worked in banking. My entry level job with the bank was repossessing cars from people who couldn’t make their car payments. The idea behind that training path was to ensure that future loan officers had intimate knowledge of what a bad loan was… so as not to make any themselves.

Later one of the first loans I ever made was to a couple who had previously declared bankruptcy. Each morning the branch manager would review the loans made by his officers the previous day. When he saw the loan decision I had made he sternly asked me to justify my decision. I explained that even though this couple had had their loans forgiven in bankruptcy, once back on their feet, the repaid their debts even though they were no longer required to. The sense of ethic this customer had shown convinced me they were a worth risk; my branch manager accepted my decision.

Back in those days interest rates were controlled by Federal and State regulations. There were “usury” laws on the books; it was illegal to charge excessive amounts of interest, fees or penalties. If you bought a car from a car dealership, you needed 20% of your own cash down for bank financing. A mortgage loan on a home required 10% down unless it was a federally guaranteed loan; 20% if it was not owner-occupied. There were strict debt-to-income and loan-to-income ratios in which a loan applicant needed to fall within for the loan to be approved.

Savings and Loans (like Washington Federal) carried mortgage loans on their own books as long-term investments. Banks such as my employer sold their mortgages on the “secondary market” at a discount for funds which they could turn around and lend out commercially for shorter term at higher interest rates. The system worked, and more importantly, it was stable.

But after I left the banking industry, the whole financial industry changed radically. “Whatever the free ‘market’ would bear” became the new rule. Usury laws were scrapped; credit card rates soared to amounts that “Loan Sharks” previously extorted from hapless debtors. Banks dropped completely out of car lending as the car companies (GMAC, General Motors Acceptance Corporation, Toyota Credit, etc.) could provide new car financing for 0% down over five years. Mortgage brokering took off as brokers, hungry for lucrative commissions, helped unqualified borrowers “fudge” their applications to make them appear that they qualified. Housing prices soared as demand from a new class of borrowers flooded onto the market. People were “flipping” houses, buying and reselling them for a profit a mere month or two later. It was the Wild West of Finance – the rule was that there were no rules.

Washington Federal Savings and Loan still makes loans the “old fashioned” way. They recently gave my wife and I each a lovely coffee mug as a thank-you gift for the half-dozen or so now paid off loans we have had with them over the years. If we ever need another loan or another mug, we know exactly where we are going to go.

The other day there were only four items received in our mail box; two pre-approved credit card solicitations from Chase Bank, two each for my wife and me. I added them to the recycle pile pictured above. I am going to keep adding to the pile until the November 2012 election.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

My few followers may have noticed a gap in my usually regular posting. I confess I have been going through somewhat of a “why bother” phase. I have written down some thoughts but have discarded them as not truly worthy of your consideration. During this period I have not visited my follower’s blogs as well.

Of late my mind has been occupied with pondering how both lucky and unlucky sets of incidences had brought me to, and pulled me back from, the brink of death. These experiences has jelled within me with certain finality that any belief in a “higher being”, god, whatever one wants to call it, is both extremely infantile and monumentally ludicrous. Any sense of awe and appreciation and wonder and purpose in my life I find most profoundly among the people who make it WORTH living – my wife, my children, my friends and more. And it is the ultimate finality of those important relationships that makes them so critically vital and worth embracing NOW.

I recently stumbled upon a talk by naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. He was speaking about the eminent extinction of various animal species, specifically about the number of reports and studies which have pointed to these causes; global climate change, destruction of habitat and so on. But what he found remarkable in each and every report was the one basic common contributing factor NOT mentioned:

Fifty years ago (when I was age 12) there were 3 billion people on this planet. Today there are 7 billion, more than doubled IN MY LIFETIME – world population increases by 250,000 people a day, by 10,000 an hour. Each and every one of these individuals will require space – room to live, eat, survive. But as a Naturalist, Sir David points out in stark and undeniable truth: “there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed”. Sir David refers to the concept of “sustainable growth” as an oxymoron.

True, increases in productivity and food sciences have fed billions; and likely more advances in this area are forthcoming. Yet these advances only hasten the inevitable. Sir David quotes economist Kenneth Boulding:
“Anyone who believes indefinite growth in anything physical on a physically finite planet is either a madman or an economist.”
The key ingredient driving the advances in food production is energy, specifically energy from petroleum. Petroleum provides the chemicals to enhance food production and distribution. Petroleum is a finite commodity the demand for it is increasing and the supply of it is becoming more expensive. The cost of petroleum, and therein food, is manipulated by economic interests. The demand for food will only increase and with it, the cost. Those who will, and are now bearing the full brunt of this inevitability, are the poor… a number which is also steadily increasing world wide.

I note with increasing disgust the amount of time and energy that is wasted on the banality of the political process in this country and around the world. The “N-word” painted on a rock at Rick Perry’s hunting lodge, fear that same-sex people will get married, that elected official, Mitch McConnell has stated his sole purpose in Congress is to ensure against President Obama having a second term… All this meaningless nonsense saps our energy - while these morons fiddle, Rome burns.

Between now and the 2012 presidential election, 98,500,000 (ninety-eight million, five-hundred thousand) more people will exist on this planet. Their fate will be either in the hands of an invisible omnipotent benevolent/malevolent being - or more likely, Not.

Sir David Attenborough’s full talk can be viewed here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Future Is Here, Tomorrow

I'm no blogger "purist" so I have no hesitation about falling back on content from YouTube on occasion. And because I recognize that most followers have short attention spans (at least I do) I try to keep video segments short.

Such is the case with this gem which I stumbled upon recently: "Eve, AD 2000!" A news reel clip from the 1930's showing the fashions women will be wearing in the "future" (eleven years ago).

Hey I'm still waiting for the flying car and personal jet pack that, back in 1957, promised to get me to and from the office! Enjoy!

Runtime: 1m:30s

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Endless Summer

Events in the news recently, in particular the latest sickness to come out of the Republican Debates earlier this month, has me avoiding wasting any precious brain cells on anything happening outside of my property line. As a result, I decided to build that garden shed I have been promising, and putting off, all summer.

So for the time being I have abandoned the computer to re-familiarize myself with power tools, lumber and other masculine objects of interest.

Oh and the picture - yes, it really is a garden shed and not a 4th bathroom.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Deputy "RD" Westwood

Pictured here, my wife’s Nancy’s great grandfather, Deputy Sheriff Richard Dallin Westwood. “RD” as he was known in Moab, Utah, had been elected as the first sheriff of Grand County. Back then the county had no jail, so Sheriff Westwood would bring the prisoners to his home. The desperados were incarcerated in one room of the two room cabin, separated from him and his wife by a thin curtain in the doorway between the rooms. Mrs. Westwood provided the meals to the prisoners.

RD stepped down as sheriff but was often pressed back into service over the years when the county needed him. It was then on the fateful day of September 5th, 1929, RD was serving as a deputy under then Sheriff J. B. Skewes when he was killed – gunned down in a jail break by two escaped bank robbers.

This area of Utah was made famous after the release of the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Butch and Sundance were real outlaws and passed through Grand County after their heists to take refuge in a secluded fortress like area of red rock backcountry called Robbers Roost. The Butch Cassidy gang was more of a nuisance to the citizens of Grand County; rustling the occasional cow for food or stealing a fresh horse should they encounter one. For the most part, then Sheriff Westwood had little contact with the famous outlaws.

Still the Utah backcountry was a haven for men on the lam. Such was the case in 1929 when bank robbers R. H. Elliott and Dilbert Pfoutz wandered into the mercantile store on the main street of Moab. The two men handed the clerk a bag of coin asking if he could change it into bills for them. A second clerk, suspicious of the men, called the sheriff; Skewes and deputy Westwood arrived on the scene.

Lawmen Skewes and Westwood had been alerted by Mesa County Colorado Sheriff that a bank had been robbed in Grand Junction. Westwood checked out the men’s Chevrolet parked in the street; it was full of camping gear and it had Colorado plates.

Back in the mercantile Sheriff Skewes asked the men if they were carrying any guns. No, the two men replied. But their suspicions aroused, Skewes had Westwood take the two back to the new jail and hold the men until deputies could arrive from Grand Junction. RD, now age 66, was put in charge of watching the prisoners while Sheriff Skewes went home to eat dinner. Within a half hour, the sheriff received a frantic call from the jail.

Skewes arrived at the jail and broke through the throng of people huddled around the door. There on the floor in a pool of blood lay deputy Richard Dallin Westwood, two bullet holes in his shoulder, one in his left side and one in his arm.

The desperados had hidden a stolen gun in their pants. Once they were alone in the jail with RD, as he opened the cell to give the men their dinner, they murdered him with the hidden gun, bolted for the door and ran for the Colorado River hoping to find a boat in which to make their escape.

As dark was falling a posse was assembled to ride out at dawn to look for the killers. The two had split up, heading in different direction. But cold, wet and hungry, and fearing they would be shot by the angry posse, the men surrendered after being found some miles down river.

Fearing another escape attempt, the men were lodged in the more secure Carbon County jail in Price, Utah. The men eventually were tried and convicted of murder and given long prison sentences. One of the men died in prison, the other was eventually released on parole.

Deputy Richard Dallin Westwood is memorialized by the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial, in the “Fallen” section. Nancy’s father was 5 years old when his grandfather was shot and killed in the jailbreak. He says he can still remember the funeral.

This article was written with the help of remembrances of Nancy's father, Melvin Westwood about his grandfather and from a photocopy from an old "Startling Detective" magazine article, date of publication unknown.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fading from Gray to Black

My wife is witnessing the gradual but steady decline in her father’s mental capabilities. She often refers to herself as the “Social Worker for Her Family” and such is true. She helps her sisters, her children and now her father who cared for her all those years.

Her father lost his car in the inevitable car accident earlier this summer. It is a relief that no one was injured. Any illusions about him continuing to drive were hauled away along with the crunched vehicle. But more and more is being heaped on her shoulders as friends and family call to speak with her about their concerns following their interactions with her father.

The anecdotes now come in daily; he doesn’t remember the names of his fellow staff from the Horticulture department when they meet for their monthly coffee. He recognized a photo as being his nephew, but he couldn’t remember the boy’s name. Memories of events only months ago he places instead decades back in history. She wonders on what day it will be that he will take his daily walk and forgets how to find his way back home. These weigh on my wife; loving daughter, watching her father sink ever deeper into a murky mental abyss.

Her choices are none; she can only keep on and try to keep up. Likely soon she will take over writing his bills as she cannot find any remote semblance of order in his random piles of paper and clutter. She drives him to his appointments and the few social events he can manage; the Hort department meeting, no longer on campus, might as well be on the moon now as far as her father knows. She takes him there but he doesn’t know where he is.

He continues to work in his yard, push mower and hand held hedge clippers. Keeping the yard up is his measure of his independence. Plants he gathered on collection expeditions from all over the globe now planed in his yard he for which he no longer knows their names. The ladders have been taken away as a precaution.

I am of even less help to my wife; all I can do is watch. We bring her father over for dinner once a week where he endlessly repeats the stories of his research at the university and his experiences during WWII. I have heard them all so many times; but all I can do is nod and hope he doesn’t notice that I have long since stopped listening.

“I’ve lived too long”, he remarked to his daughter recently – a tacit acceptance of his realization that his brain is declining more rapidly than his body. All we can do is watch as the inevitable unfolds and prepare what we can; what he will allow. All that he was is in the past; he has no future – and sadly, he knows this as well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Death with Dignity

I have absolutely no patience with telephone solicitors, and even worse “robo-calls” Who in their right mind would listen to an unsolicited cold call RECORDING!? So much for jobs creation, even Boiler Rooms are now outsourcing jobs to technology.

If you are on a No Call List, people or institutions you have done business with in the past are still allowed to phone you. So I listened to the spiel when the guy identifying himself being from the Oregon Death with Dignity organization called.

In 1994 Oregon passed a landmark law allowing people with terminal illness to end their lives; this is sometimes referred to as physician-assisted suicide. The law was brought into effect through citizen initiative and handily passed the popular vote. However, in 1997 the law’s opponents (primarily the religious) mounted strenuous opposition, eventually placing a new ballot initiative attempting to repeal the law. The attempt failed, the repeal was voted down. Oregon voters had now made it abundantly clear, TWICE, that people should have the right to determine their own quality of life and chose the terms and time of their death.

The opposition was vehement; claims were made that the law would lead to euthanasia – a wholly preposterous claim as a patient must be terminally ill with a life expectancy of six months or less. The patient must be mentally competent and able to understand the consequences of their decision. Two physicians must review the medical request of the patient prior to approval of the application.

It was then claimed that Oregon would become a Mecca for terminally ill patients, flocking to the state in droves to take advantage of this law – It’s NEVER happened. Critics even charged that the law would be applied disproportionately to the poor, physically disabled, psychiatric patients, even racial minorities – Not even remotely true. Opposition rests solely with religious belief; who believe only god has the right to end a life. But such restrictions should not apply to the fifth of the population (and growing) who don’t believe in god.

Still George Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, an evangelical Christian who “speaks in tongues”, in 2002 petitioned the got the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to approve the suspension of medical licenses of doctors who prescribed life-ending drugs to dying patients. But in 2005 the US Supreme court ruled 6 to 3 that Oregon had the right to regulate the practice of medicine. Oregon’s Death with Dignity law “survived”.

Neighboring Washington State has since passed their own Death with Dignity law in 2008. A similar law is now being proposed by the people of the State of Massachusetts.

On its web site, the Oregon Death with Dignity maintains an information page on “Religion and Spirituality”, listing all the major religious institutions and their official position regarding suicide. Not surprisingly the vast majority are in opposition. Religion, you see, not only wants to dictate how you live your life but when and how you are allowed to end it. But then religion is seldom about choice.

I told the caller that I would contribute to help with the campaign to pass a similar law in Massachusetts.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's a Miracle

Earlier this month 12-year-old Dale Ostrander was swimming in the cold Pacific Ocean; pulled from the shore by a dangerous undertow, he nearly lost his life by drowning. The boy, visiting the beach with his local church camp, was finally pulled from the frigid water after a second earlier unsuccessful rescue attempt, given aggressive life saving first aid, then rushed to the emergency room.

The three major national media networks reported the story but with a decidedly different publicity spin - focusing on the AP photos of Dale's distraught friends praying for him on the beach, the term “miracle” was repeated over and over by the news anchors. The overtly clear implication: the boy was alive through the result of "divine intervention" – it was a Miracle.

It was estimated that Dale Ostrander was under water for as long as 20 minutes. However there have been recorded incidents of people being revived after being submerged in freezing water for a much as an hour. The Pacific is cold, about 56º F in this area of the coast.
Dr. Mark Morocco, an emergency room doctor at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles: “Your chances of surviving are better if you’re young… when people are plunged into cold water. The heart rate slows down and blood is diverted to the brain and other core organs. This so-called diving reflex is more pronounced in children, allowing them to better survive in frigid water.”

“Swift treatment helped." Morocco credited the rescuers for continuing resuscitation efforts even though Ostrander had no pulse and appeared dead.
Dale was received CPR from rescuers immediately upon being pulled from the water. Emergency Medical Technicians then on the scene continued to ventilate him until he arrived at the local hospital. There he was placed on a respirator until he was taken by Life Flight to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, part of the Oregon Health Sciences University Medical Center.

The doctors at Doernbecher were unsure if Dale would continue to be able to breathe on his own. Having been on a breathing tube myself, I know there is only one definitive way to find out if a patient can breathe for them self – remove the breathing tube. Fortunately young Dale began breathing on his own.

Weeks later when Dale was released from the hospital the story was updated by the national media. Though Dale will continue to need physical therapy to full recover, the Media continued promoting the “miracle” story, repeating how Dale’s fellow church members knelt on the beach praying for him during his moment of peril.

I pose this question about claims of divine miracles: what most likely was the significant factor that saved young Dale Ostrander from death ...


Or This?

Photo credits: AP News
Watch the "miraculous" ABC News Coverage of this story.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The End of Work

In 1995 economist, Jeremy Rifkin, wrote his book, “The End of Work” in which he predicted the global decline of the work force in the industrialized would. This happy occurrence, he predicted, would then result in people having more “leisure” time. New industries revolving around this new leisure market would then flourish. When I heard the initial buzz about this book the first thought that occurred to me was: Wouldn’t people working less hours therefore have less disposable income? Who is going to be able to afford all these “leisure” activities?

Fast-forward to the Recession of 2008. To a great extent Rifkin’s prospective has indeed come true. Rifkin had accurately had predicted the eventual demise of the middle class. Increased productivity, including “automation” (the old term) has indeed lessened the demand for labor. Even the “new” economies that are touted as the future economy do not necessarily require a lot of human labor.

The newer profitable companies with huge market capitalization, such as Google and Microsoft, don’t really employ a lot of bodies. The same is true for financial institutions; they too don’t require a lot of people to generate wealth. The hottest consumer items on the market today, mostly technological products like phones, touch-pad devices – None of them are manufactured in the USA. Even the Chinese are aggressively outpacing our “innovations” in solar and battery technology.

I think back to my first job out of college, working in a clerical unit in Greyhound Bus Lines. The manual sorting tasks required in my job back employed several dozen people to manually sort out paper ticketing trails. This kind of tedious work has been now wholly replaced by simple bar codes, scanners and computers. One can easily imagine how this simple technology across the board of bureaucratic functions alone has easily replaced millions of jobs that were once completed by humans.

Later after I landed a “real” job working in banking, I embarked on what I assumed would be a career. The assumption was that you worked your way up through the bank eventually becoming a loan officer. I am not sure how many of you have applied for a loan at your local bank recently, but if you have, you may have noticed a lot “empty space” where all those bank employee desks used to be. Today your application is faxed, or e-mailed up to a centralized loan approval center where a few designated “loan officers” actually make those decisions. Seriously, why would the bank want to staff all those highly compensated suit-and-tie bodies in the local branch bank when instead they need only lower-paid staffers to assemble and pass along your loan paperwork to the few main office employees empowered to make those decisions?

It is true that technology itself spun has off new career paths – and I followed one of them. When I later worked for the state Department of Human Services as a Welfare Caseworker, much of the paperwork was eventually shifted over to software running on networked personal computers. This productivity change opened up a new career path for me as a Computer Network Technician… and at a nicely increased salary. But even technology is subject to productivity enhancements. Eventually the work I did in the local offices was “centralized” elsewhere; less and less of the work I did as a technician in the field was deemed necessary. By the time I retired I felt like my job was little more than as a “PC mechanic”.

The national and global economies are still reeling from the aftermath the Debt Ceiling Circus. Economists are talking confidently of Double-Dip Recession and postulating on how long it will take for the economy to pick up again. Of course the two major political parties are even now strategizing on how the prolonged recession will play out to their respective advantages in the upcoming election of 2012.

My longer term prediction is much darker: It won’t matter which party prevails. The economy will never get better more than marginally or temporarily. To me, the fate of our standard of living on this planet boils down to a simple math problem:
  1. World population will soon hit 7,000,000,000.
  2. Increases in productivity in every sector (agriculture, technology, finance, etc. will continue to require fewer people to perform them. The living standard of middle class will continue to shrink and economies based on consumer spending will founder.
  3. Income disparity between the very rich and the middle and lower classes will increase.
  4. The last of the “easily obtainable” natural resources have (or will have) peaked during our lifetime.
  5. Food will become more expensive as bio-fuels consume more of the food producing land and resources needed to produce it.
  6. Global climate change will continue to have a negative impact on all of the above regardless of whether people “believe” its happening or agree on what the root cause is.
I have stated countless times that I believe that my generation, the Baby Boomers, has lived during the best times man ever has, and ever will have, on this planet. I feel sad for my kids and my grand kids; they're going to have a Brave New World to contend with.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Karl Friedrich Hieronymus Freiherr von Münchhausen (1720–1797) was a German nobleman known in his time as a weaver of tall tales and humorous anecdotes. Over the years many anonymous authors republished Münchausen’s stories; then in 1785 Rudolf Erich Raspe published “The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, an unflattering collection of Munchausen tales which forever labeled the German story teller as a liar.

Fast-forward to 1951; Dr. Richard Alan John Asher published a paper in the medical journal, "Lancet" describing a particular psychosis whereby patients were intentionally making themselves ill in order to gain attention and sympathy. Dr. Asher named the disorder: Munchausen’s syndrome after the old baron.

At the Skeptic’s Toolbox, forensic psychologist and clinical professor, Loren Pankratz, gave a talk about Dr. Asher and the ramifications of the discovery of this interesting psychosis. Munchausen’s syndrome, and in particular its derivation, Munchausen’s by Proxy (whereby parents cause their children to become ill in order to gain attention and sympathy) has become a controversial topic in recent years. As physicians and social workers became educated about this syndrome, it began popping up with increasing frequency in their practices. So much so that soon child protective services workers were removing children from their parents amid accusations of causing their children’s illnesses.

So were physicians and social workers truly witnessing a monumental increase in child abuse through Munchausen’s by Proxy? As a forensic psychologist, Loren Pankratz has been called as an expert witness in the defense of parents accused of causing their child’s illness. Over the years of treating patients for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Pankratz had encountered significant numbers of patients who lied about their own illnesses. During this time the VA was investing significant mental health resources in treating Vietnam War veterans who claimed they suffered from PTSD resulting from horrific war experiences – only to find, upon reviewing their service records, some had never even served overseas.

Pankratz found that medical professionals were now suddenly diagnosing Munchausen’s by Proxy precisely because they had become aware of it in lectures and journals. However the problem was that the physicians were not adequately trained to conclude such a diagnosis; it was not their field of expertise. The result was that mothers genuinely concerned about the health of their children, and often aggressively advocating for their child sometimes to the point of irritating the doctor, were having charges of Munchausen’s by Proxy leveled at them.

This is yet another way in which intelligent people can go wrong; assuming that if they are competent in their chosen field of study, they will be equally competent in another. It is not uncommon for even scientists to check their rationality at the door when venturing into fields where they lack expertise.

Occasionally possessing a little knowledge, incorrectly applied, can be outright dangerous. Or as the old saying goes: “Sometimes when one has a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Intuition - More Science from the Skeptic's Toolbox

From the TV sitcom Cheers:

Norm: Woody, do you believe in intuition?

Woody: No, though I have a strong feeling that someday I might.
Intuition is a very common decision making process, most of us at some time make use of our “gut instincts”. Often intuition is assumed to be the opposite of thoughtful rational thinking, and it is – however, sometimes our intuition serves us remarkably well.

Intuition is defined as “the direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process; immediate apprehension.” Where rational thinking can be slow, reflective and involve a lot of work, intuition can be applied quickly and with much less deliberation and cognitive investment. Intuition relies heavily upon perception; unfortunately our perceptions may often be false. Upon going with our gut, reasoning may then simply come into play in rationalizing our decisions. This causes us to use our cognition instead to support a bad decision based on the misperceived or incorrect observation.

However, studies of decision making based on intuition have shown that this rapid-fire and low cognitive cost thinking process can yield effective results. Over time much of our decision making is based on our previous experiences. For example, let’s say you need to determine how many gallons of paint will be required to paint your living room. Knowing the square footage each can of paint covers, you can measure the room and calculate the number of gallons required depending on the total surface area of wall to be painted. However, a professional painter may be able to more accurately predict the number of gallons required simply upon walking in and looking at the room. Here a low cognitive investment has yielded an accurate result.

The dangers with relying on intuition are obvious, however. Decisions can not only be rendered based on misperception, but also our cognitive bias’ can come into play as well. The implication is that intuition can be strongly influenced by wishful thinking; driving our decisions toward satisfying a possibly unconscious desire.

Here is where the importance of reasoning comes into play – humans are not well adapted to applying logic, probability, and decision theory without special training. More abstract problems are not easily linked to personal experience. It may also be subject to other outside influences such as peer pressure; the “Band Wagon” effect.

Consider, jury duty, for example. In a criminal trial the bar for rendering a guilty verdict is confidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”. I have served on juries where it was abundantly clear to me that some jurors took “reasonable doubt” to mean that they believed in their heart-and-soul that the accused was guilty. Yet when asked to justify their decision, they were unable to articulate any factual elements which supported their decision – they just “knew” the accused was guilty.

We all have been exposed to the differing responses expressed by different factions of public opinion from some of the more prominent criminal trials in recent history – from OJ Simpson to Casey Anthony, they illustrate the critical importance of distinguishing difference between intuition and rational thinking.
Intuition and Reasoning: A Dual-Process Perspective, Jonathan St B T Evans

Sunday, August 14, 2011

When Smart People Go Wrong

I attended the Skeptic’s Toolbox this year put on by the Center for Inquiry (CSI), an organization dedicated to promoting scientific inquiry and critical investigation of extraordinary claims.

The topic of focus this year was “How Smart People Go Wrong”. Society generally regards intelligence (IQ) as the measure of how “smart” people are. And yet, very intelligent people can often go very wrong in their thinking and behavior. One need only look at the supposedly smart investors who were suffered monumental financial losses by trusting their money to the likes of swindler, Bernie Madoff.

But history is replete with examples of smart people gone wrong. Take for example Sir Isaac Newton, who is credited with developing the most elemental foundation laws of physics, who essentially invented calculus and theorized (correctly) that light was composed of many different wavelengths (colors). And yet, this monumental genius devoted significant amounts of his time in the pursuit of Alchemy.

Then there is Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who worked with equally strong conviction to support the Theory of Evolution. Yet this brilliant scientist also working tirelessly, attending and recording his observances at séances to promote what he held strongly was the validity of the spirit world and a “fourth dimension”.

Few of us don’t know about the legendary forensic detective, Sherlock Holmes, created out of the imagination of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. The mind that conjured up the brilliant intellectual detective, who used observation and science to solve crimes, was also a believer in spirits and fairies. So much was Conan Doyle a believer that two school girls from Cottingley England fooled the author, and many prominent scientists of the day, with their pictures of actual fairies taken in their garden with their father’s camera. Most interesting, even after the girls confessed that the fairies were merely cardboard cutouts, Doyle and others continued to believe in fairies.

So what is going on here? If intelligence is a measure of “smarts”, how is it that intelligent people can be so easily fooled? The answer is both complicated and multi-faceted. As it turns out, IQ is not necessarily the best or only measure of “smartness”. It is possible for intelligent people to not properly apply Reasoning Ability. Or to put it another way; if Intelligence is the measure of mental “capacity”, Reasoning is the process of employing that capacity. And often times we don’t do a good job of that; often because we take shortcuts.

Consider the following problem – try to answer it before reading the solution:
Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?”

A) Yes ~ B) No ~ C) Cannot be determined?
As it turns out, more than 80% of people incorrectly answer the question “C”. The problem does not reveal if Anne is married or not, so people take the easiest inference without fully thinking through the problem; they are effectively being Cognitive Miser.

But if one applies reasoning the correct answer can be obtained: If Anne is married, then the correct answer is “A” – Anne is the married person looking at George who is unmarried. But if Anne is NOT married, the correct answer is still “A” – Jack who is married is looking at the unmarried Anne.

This type of thinking is called “Fully Disjunctive Reasoning" – it considers all the possibilities. Rather than accepting that we do not know Anne’s marital status, we instead consider the possibilities to determine the answer to the question. The suggestion that we do not have enough information causes us become Cognitive Misers, (Dysrationalia) and take the easy way out.

IQ tests are often employed as a measure of smartness, but to fully understand how smart someone is, tests measuring Dysrationalia provide a more widely encompassing measure.

Next: More from the Skeptic’s Toolbox and how Smart People Go Wrong.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Death of a Statesman

Oregon’s former Senator Mark O. Hatfield died yesterday at the age of 89. I recall voting for him back when I too was a Republican. He was a man of Conscience; a man of my father’s Republican Party… quite unlike the Borg Collective of today's GOP.

Hatfield was the sort of statesman that allowed for a Republican to hold the governorship and senatorial seats during both long term political careers in this quite Liberal state of Oregon. He is often most known for differing from his party in his opposition to the Vietnam War. A devout Christian, he did not fully support his party’s embrace of Christian Evangelicals who he believed represented intolerance and divisiveness.

There are any number of well-written and thoughtful obituaries and remembrances of Senator Hatfield that one can easily Google, so I won’t even attempt to do so here. I will just say that it was intelligent, moderate and caring men like Hatfield that made me feel good about my Republican Party back then. And it is the loss of statesmen such as Hatfield, the party today of John Boehner, the Tea Party and the vitriolic Fox News collective that have turned me away from my Republican roots.

Sadly there seems to no longer be room for statesmen like Senator Hatfield in today's GOP. This is a sad indictment for our country on so many levels.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Witch" Way to the Water?

The other day I was waiting for my gas tank to get filled (I live in Oregon where the citizens are not considered sufficient competent to pump their own gas), when I noticed a landscaping project being conducted at the church on the opposite corner. The grass had been sprayed out (dead), a couple of dump piles of topsoil here and there. But what caught my eye were the two guys wandering back and forth over the dead grass – They were “dowsing” presumably to locate the underground irrigation pipes.

One guy held two bent L-shaped metal rods, one in each hand; the other had a can of orange spray paint. The guy with the metal rods paced a few steps forward then backward. He would then direct the guy with the spray paint to mark the ground in front of his feet. These guys then wandered to another area of the dead grass and repeated the dousing – each time the dower was satisfied there was an irrigation pipe under his feet, the spray paint guy would mark it.

Had I the time I really would have loved to stop and talk with the guys and have them demonstrate for me their dowsing “skill”; unfortunately I had other time constraints. As I watching them dowsing and marking, the thought occurred to me that I would fully expect to find irrigation lines under a previously planted lawn. So what’s the surprise here?

Dowsing is among the more thoroughly debunked psychic phenomena. Most dowsers will provide enthusiastic confirmation that dowsing works. This is because they usually find water (or whatever they are dowsing for) where they expect to find it. This type of fallacious conclusions is called “post hoc” reasoning. Dowsers often will also misinterpret statistical results of their dowsing success. For example, a dowser may feel that if they successfully find water in 2 or 3 out of 10 tries, this is confirmation of their dowsing success. Of course such results are less than what one would expect from random chance.

Controlled scientific tests have been conducted on dowsers; not surprisingly, their success is never better random chance. Dowsers don’t just attempt to detect hidden water; dowsers claim they can find oil, gold or treasure or even detect illicit drugs. Modern dowsers have even tried to sell bogus dousing equipment to the US Military… to dowse for roadside bombs. Considering such dangers, unscientific bunk such as this tips the scale from the realm of silliness to being outright deadly.

I drove by the church landscaping project a few days later, there were holes dug up randomly all over the dead lawn. Perhaps they were just experiencing an invasion of over-sized gophers. Their psychic should have warned them about that.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Summertime Blues

Summer is my favorite season – always has been. And for most of my youth, my parents put great effort into trying to ruin my summers.... every year they always sent me to Summer School.

I recall when I was growing up people often telling me I was “smart”. That was nice to hear but I was never sure what they were talking about? School was difficult for me; math in particular was always problematic. English was strange as well; I couldn’t figure out why we needed to spend so much time “diagramming sentences”. Who cares what the difference is between an adjective and an adverb is if you can use them correctly. [Those of you among my followers, who are professional writers, please cut me some slack here.]

In either case, I was a mediocre student during most of my school career, grade school and middle school in particular. As a result of my poor grades, my parents figure the best remedy for my poor grades was that I simply I needed MORE school. So each year I was forced to attend Summer School.

I viewed Summer School as punishment by my parents for not doing well in regular school. Summer School was horrible. For one thing NONE of my friends ever had to go to Summer School. So while they were out having fun, I was stuck in “school”. Summer School only ran half-day, so we were out of there by noon. But by the time I got home my friends were long gone who-knows-where! I spent many of my afternoons alone.

My parents were easily swayed by the propaganda about how much “fun” Summer School was going to be. Pictures on the brochure showed kids at the swimming pool, kids jumping on the trampoline. Bulls#*t -- The trampoline was only brought out ONCE; by the time the my turn in line came around the period was over and it was time to head back to math class. I never did get my 2-minutes of trampoline time. Oh and the pool – it was drained every summer for maintenance.

But finally Summer School term would end and I would luxuriate in the brief period before the regular term started up again. Finally I could ride bikes and hang with my buddies. But soon the “Back to School” ads would air on TV reminding me of the impending return to regular school.

By the time I was in High School my parents had stopped sending me to Summer School – probably because it didn’t exist for high schoolers. Most of my friends by then had summer jobs, I had one as well; picking prunes in Northern California. We worked in the mornings, spent the heat of the day swimming in the Russian River, and then we worked again in the cool of the evening. I loved it.

My grades in high school were all over the chart. I got “A’s in Architecture and Physical Education. My PE grade was an enigma to me as I was always the smallest guy in class and sucked at performing any sport except track. I think they gave me “A's” either for my effort... or more likely everyone got an A. I flunked Algebra three times in a row. But I did great in the sciences, Biology in particular.

It was expected in my family that I would go to college. But my GPA was pretty weak. At that time the Vietnam War was ramping up and lots of young guys my age were going into the military. On my 18th birthday I was obligated to visit the US Post Office to register for the Selective Service. It became very clear that if I didn’t get into college, and pronto, I would likely be invited by Uncle Sam to take an all-expenses-paid visit to exotic Southeast Asia.

College took on a new meaning for me – it served as my primarily deferment from being drafted into the Army. My grades were still mediocre but good enough to keep me in school and out of the Army. During those college summers I worked a clerical job for Greyhound Bus Lines. As I would sit at a desk surrounded by inane clerical people for 8 hours a day, I would reminisce about how much I missed getting out at noon back when I was going to Summer School.

I was never drafted.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End of a Long Road

My father-in-law, Melvin, was an accomplished scientist. He remains one of the more highly published researchers at the Oregon State University’s school of Agriculture. He has traveled the globe collecting rare plants and was instrumental in setting up the National Clonal Germplasm Repository network; a virtual Noah’s Arch of plant genetic material. The first was in Corvallis – there are now repositories all over the globe.

But this great mind at age 88 is being ravaged by the early stages of Alzheimer's. Mel can recall the intimate details of how he discovered the treatment for the plant disease “Pear Decline” but he cannot remember what he did yesterday… or even earlier that day.

Mel learned to drive his Dad’s Model-T as a kid. As he tells it, the old rig wouldn’t make it over Utah’s LaSalle mountains in one run. He and his brother would sit in the back of the truck with a big rock between them. As the T chugged up the hill and over-heated, steam boiling from the radiator, the brothers would jump out and put the rock behind the back wheel to keep it from rolling back down the hill. Once it had cooled down, they would grab the rock and chug up the hill as far as they could go, repeating the process chocking the tire of the overheated T with the rock until they reached the summit.

Two weeks ago while on his way back from his monthly Hort department coffee meeting with other retired professors and technicians, Mel was involved in a car accident. Fortunately for all involved, nobody was injured. But Mel’s car was totaled; too old to be repaired, it ended up being scrapped. Mel later received a letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles – he would need to be tested for his continuing ability to drive or lose his license.

Mel recognizes his mental faculties are in decline so after a day of mulling it over, he decided the best thing to do was surrender his driver’s license. This decision was a monumental one for Mel; it marked a milestone in his life… and a blatant reminder that he doesn’t have many more milestones more to go.

In many ways the decision was an easy one for him. Mel's“world” has been rapidly shrinking; he could no longer see to drive at night and he only remembers how to get to a few places like his church or the university campus. He doesn’t remember how to get to our house or even to his wife’s grave site.

Despite the stereotypical metaphor of the DMV as an example of inefficient government bureaucracy, his business with the agency went smoothly and courteously. No long lines or horrendous wait. A few minutes later, when Mel handed the clerk his paperwork with the box checked that he was voluntarily giving up his driving privileges, he told her: “I’ve been driving for seventy-three years and four months.”

He will get his new color picture state ID card in the mail.