Thursday, June 30, 2011

Repo Man - In the Heat of the Night

Previously in my post titled “Repo man – First Blood” I shared one of my stories as a Repo Man during my first two years out of college working for a major Northwest bank. I had been doing this job for several months and had become fairly confident in role as an Outside Collector. Normally the job required me to make contact with delinquent car loan debtors during the day or early evening hours. The tougher cases, where my goal was to repossess the vehicle without customer contact, usually took place under darkness of night during the late evening to early morning hours.

This night was one such case. The debtor had been contacted previously and had not made good on their promise to bring the account current – upon being located, the collateral would be taken on sight. For most of these vehicles the bank had access to the manufacturer’s “key code”. With the code, it was a simple process to have a locksmith make a duplicate set of keys.

This night appeared like it would be just another routine repossession. I cruised the apartment complex were the delinquent debtor lived and quickly located the vehicle. Parking my bank car on the street, I quietly made my way to the collateral, slipped the key into the door, opened it and got in. Now before I would “steal” a car, I would lie down in the driver’s seat so as to not be observed then take a moment to familiarize myself with the controls so I could quickly get away without fumbling. For example, on stick shift vehicles, Reverse would be in different positions on the pattern depending on whether it was an American, Japanese or German car. Once I was ready, I would fire the ignition, throw it into reverse and back out, exit the scene then turn on the headlights when safely away. This had to be done quickly.

Confident I had familiarized myself with the controls, I started the car, sat up, put it in reverse and…. HOOOONNNKKKKK, the horn blared with an incredible noise! Unfortunately, the vehicle had been parked right outside the debtor’s bedroom window – I saw their bedroom light go on as I backed out of their parking space.

Now throwing the shift into drive I turned the vehicle out toward the street. HONK HONKKKK again the horn blared. As I glanced in the rear view mirror I saw the silhouette of the owner looking out the window witnessing their car disappearing into the night.

In preparation as I did prior to any repossession, I had previously located a pay phone booth at a nearby convenience store. I stopped to phone in the repossession report to the local police – they told me owner had already reported that their car had been “stolen”. As I got back into the collateral and gripped the wheel to deliver it to the storage facility, the horn honked again… and continued to honk randomly and unpredictably all the way to the storage lot.

After securing the car safely in storage I realized what had happened. This particular vehicle had been manufactured with a “Rim Blow” horn feature – rather than honking the horn by pressing the center of the steering column, the horn could be honked simply by tightly gripping the steering wheel rim. The idea of the designers at the time was to not have to require a driver to move their hands from the wheel rim to honk the horn. It was a convenience thing. During the tension of my executing the repossession I had been gripping the steering wheel rim tightly enough, causing the horn to honk.

This feature was later abandoned by car manufacturers after it was discovered that a vehicle parked in the hot sun would cause the vinyl in the steering wheel rim to expand, thus setting off the horn. I could imagine hundreds of unoccupied parked cars in Arizona or Texas, their horns blaring away in the heat of Summer sun.

Fortunately, in spite of the blaring horn, I successfully executed the repossession without incident. However, not all repos I did were without confrontation – that story I will save for another time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Usual Suspects

On a New York street witnesses were being interviewed by the police following a deadly subway shooting. When a woman was asked by the police investigating the scene if she saw who the shooter was, she pointed to the young man who had already been placed in the back of a police car. The young man was later arrested for the crime.

A former employee of an armored card company was arrested and put on trial for a brutal beating and robbery of his formal employer. When police questioned the robbery victims, they were shown a picture of their only suspect, the former employee. Yet even though the perpetrator had worn a mask, the witnesses identified him as the robber.

After looking through books of mug-shots, a rape victim was asked later to try to identify her attacker in a police line-up. She picked out the familiar face in the line-up. The man was later convicted for the rape.

All these are actual cases – in all three, eyewitness testimony resulted in the arrest, and in one case, a conviction. In fact, all three suspects were completely innocent of these crimes.

We tend to believe that eyewitness testimony is the most reliable form of evidence. But in recent years, findings are illustrating how fallible our perception and memories actually are. If you watched the video in my previous post, “Eyes Wide Shut", were you one of the many who completely missed seeing the gorilla stroll through the middle of the frame the FIRST time you watched?

Studies have shown that jurors often do not understand, as a matter of common sense, what makes some eyewitness identifications more or less reliable than others. For example, a witnesses’ assuredness in their confidence is not a good predictor of identification accuracy. Add to this the stress which may have been involved during the incident which can reduce the ability to recall details of the face. [1] Witnesses can also be influenced by cross-cultural bias or their memory influenced by information learned following the incident.

In the case of the subway shooting; the witness interviewed by the police did recognize the young man from the subway – but he, like her, had only been another subway passenger. However because the young man had been placed in the back of the patrol car, she made the assumption that the police had arrested the perpetrator. She was only trying to be helpful to the police during the initial investigation.

During the robbery trial of the former armored car employee who was apparently wearing a mask during the crime; his defense attorneys demonstrated that the witnesses were completely unable to recognize identically masked pictures of popular celebrities such as Harrison Ford. The suspect had been suggested to the witnesses by the police; they accepted the suspect’s guilt in spite of having no way to recognize the accused, or anyone, while wearing a mask.

The rape victim had been attacked in a darkened room. Later when presented with the opportunity to identify the suspect in a police line-up, she recognized one of the men she had previously seen in the mug shot book; they were indeed the same person - but he was NOT the person who had actually committed the crime. Interestingly after the man’s conviction was later overturned, he and the victim together went on tour throughout the country giving talks about the dangers and unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

The eyes can be deceived; memory is malleable and subjective. Internal biases and expectations can confirm or erode that which we believe we have witnessed. It is natural for our minds to attempt to make sense of what we perceive and paint a picture of reality. But a number of factors can color that picture with devastating consequences.

1. Schmechel, O’Toole, Easterly & Loftis, 2006, Beyond the Ken, Testing Jurors Understanding of Eyewitness Reliability

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wandering in the Wilderness

Being one of those people who are annoyed by door-to-door sales people and wandering religious missionaries in particular, I had placed a “No Soliciting” sign right above my door bell some time back. So then what do the unwanted visitors do? They knock on the door! Explaining the sign to sales people is fruitless; they plead ignorance regarding what “soliciting” is. Religious solicitors don’t believe what they are doing is “soliciting” either – after all, they are on a Higher Mission.

Back then I was very abrupt with visiting religious proselytizers; but not so today. While working on my documentary about magician and inventor, Jerry Andrus, I adopted his approach with missionaries. Jerry was a vocal Agnostic but a very sweet and engaging personality. He would invite visiting missionaries into his home and engage them in debate. Jerry had studied the bible thoroughly and often knew more about the book than the iterate evangelists. Neither, I am sure, believed they were going to change any minds, but Jerry at least hoped they would leave with some alternate concept to consider.

Shortly after moving into our new home, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door; I welcomed them filled with joyful spirit and rapture.

Had I heard about the testament of Jesus Christ, they inquired? I had indeed, was my enthusiastic response; in fact I had been motivated to make all manner of study of the Christian beliefs to such a thorough extent at which I became convinced that there is no such thing as god(s).

The gentleman’s hand froze as he was about to pull a copy of “The Watchtower” from his valise. But surely, the woman missionary interjected, I believed the bible was the “word of god”? “Which bible”, I asked? There are dozens of versions. Clearly none were penned directly by the “almighty” but were rather inspired in the minds of mortal men. I further explained that the people of Jesus’ time spoke Aramaic but the earliest fragments of bible copies (as we have no original) were written in Greek. Surely she didn’t think that Jesus walked around in his time uttering “thee” and “thou”… that is Olde English.

I explained to the woman that, unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon is claimed to be a “first-hand” account written by a known author, Joseph Smith. I inquired of them both if they thought the Book of Mormon to be a true testament of god? They strongly declined. I suggested that it certainly is easy to make up wonderful and fanciful stories, offering them as “evidence”. But I also reassured them that I didn’t believe that books written about Robin Hood and King Arthur were evidence that those characters were real as well.

By this time the gentleman had tucked his “Watchtower” pamphlet back into his valise; he clearly was not wanting to waste his booklet on the likes of me. As they attempted to back away I explained why I thought the concept of Heaven to be a silly idea and how boring it must be there for people such as me with such creative consciousness to have to spend eternity praising the glory of the lord. By the time I had launched into the findings in Stephen Hawking's new book explaining about Dark Matter and Dark Energy and pre-universe conditions, I clearly had lost them.

I wished them a hearty “Thank you for stopping by”, and sent them on their way with a smile and a friendly wave.

Now I have an inkling of what it must feel like to be filled with the rapture of the Holy Spirit.

Note: After this and a second encounter with Mormon missionaries, I decided to prepare my own pamphlet to hand out in future encounters. You can download a copy of my non-theist pamphlet from my web site. It is not copyrighted so feel free to adapt it for your own use.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gideon's Babble

Well my humble little blog seems to have attracted a troll. But rather than offer up my impression, I'll just let Gideon speak for himself:

(Note: The text in blue were my comments from another blog.)

"I love the way Condell cuts through the baloney of religious hypocrisy."

Seeing as how you male infidels are pussies, (unlike Lady Atheist, who at least lets my comments appear before she deletes them) I'll carry my answer over to here from that other pussy's blog.

Condell is a punk, pure and simple. A self-seeking, self-important, ignorant, racist little fop. And, much as it goes for the rest of the male anti-theist population, he's got no balls and runs and hides when he's challenged. I used to email the little prick. He answered once, in his condescending, knows-nothing style, then ran off and hid in true infidel fashion, once he understood that I wasn't there to compliment him or suck his cock.

I did a post on the punk, it's the truth, contrary to the way your little under-the-sheets buddy Infidel portrays him.

Enjoy... Pusscake!
In addition to hating Atheists, our little troll also hates Jews, Catholics, etc... and evidently he isn't all that fond of women much either:
You know, Bob, the only ones obsessed with sex, around here, are you infidels. Especially all of the female apes, here. I guess hubbo's not putting out enough for our feminist hellcats, huh?

Maybe I'll have to go visit some of those sex kittens on their blogs... seeing as how my comments aren't published here... don't worry, though, Bob, I'll make sure you get kudos for that move!

Yep, I visited some of your more 'interesting' friends' blogs, Bob. Gave you a plug, too.
He offers no argument to debate, no subjective perspective to consider... just pointless and repetitive insults. I'm not sure where else to go with these kinds of diatribes other than to just delete them. - RtS

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dick Does Denver

I'm thinking even my Christian friends might raise an eyebrow or two after listening to this nut guy. There isn't much more I can add here; the video speaks for itself... although I've always been curious why the uber-evangelicals seem to be so preoccupied with sex?
Runtime 3:50

Saturday, June 11, 2011

TV Journalism as Entertainment

As much as I disdain the nightly network news, I still find myself watching it by default while my wife and I have our evening cocktail and dinner. I don't know why I continue to subject myself to this media abuse, it's lack of substance aggravates no end. Often not for what they report but for what they neglect.

For example, several important still-ongoing stories have dropped out of the media consciousness. They had us trembling in fear over that radiation from the damaged Japanese nuclear plant was wafting over the continental US. As far as I know, the the problem persists. We also know nothing of what is going on in Iraq, and meager discussion of Afghanistan only resurfaced due to the killing of bin Laden. And in spite of record tornadoes, record heat, warming of the gulf, Global Climate Change is apparently a dead issue to the media, as are jobs, or the lack thereof.

On the other hand we are continually treated to the blather of Sarah Palin. She holds no political office... remember she QUIT her position as governor. Yet the media seems to be stumbling over each other thinking she has something significant to contribute to public discourse. The news described how the press was "chasing to keep up" with her latest bus tour - why? I would love to see the press ignore her, but then it's kind of like when there is a car wreck on the freeway... you simply can't NOT slow down and look.

I have always believed that the continual coverage of the Tea Party "movement" gave legitimacy to what would in the past (and higher journalistic standards) have been disregarded as the lunatic fringe and largely ignored. In Portland, "Hands Across Hawthorne" drew HUNDREDS of people to protest the attack of two homosexual men on the Hawthorne bridge; elsewhere in town, TEN people showed up for a Tea Party rally. Guess which stories received news coverage and which one ignored! I am not sure precisely when being stupid became in vogue.

Continual news coverage may even be harmful to one's health. One of my good friends was advised by his physician to limit his viewing of cable network news where every story is presented in "immediate crises" mode 24/7. He was having trouble sleeping at night.

I used to watch the CBS program "60 Minutes" regularly but I am seriously thinking of tuning in "America's Funniest Videos" during that time slot. Hmmm, I'm under enough stress already.
The following likely would never be produced in the US as it doesn't involve someone getting hit in the groin - leave it to the Brits to come up with a scathing critique of todays television journalism. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shrimp on a Treadmill - Bad Science?

Recently Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) went on record as critical of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for wasting taxpayer funds to conduct questionable research, such as: determining if spending too much time playing FarmVille had an impact on Facebook user’s relationships – and – designing a robot to fold laundry – and – running shrimp on a treadmill.

Senator Coburn appears to be stepping into the shoes of the late Senator Edward Proxmire who famously issued his “Golden Fleece Award”: “to focus media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars.” [1] On one occasion Senator Proxmire became incensed that taxpayer money was being spent for the apparently ridiculous purpose of studying the sex life of a fruit fly.

However as it turned out, understanding the sex life of a fruit fly had serious economic implications for fruit growers in Florida whose crops, and livelihoods, were being decimated by the pests. The study of their chemical sex attractants (pheromones) proved the be the most effective way of trapping and destroying the pest fly population. The senator was said to have earned a reputation for unfairly obstructing scientific research for political gain.

But a robot that folds towels? Really?
Robots are extremely adept at handling rigid objects in precise, repetitive applications, they are used extensively in industry for this reason. However robots are not well suited in handling “deformable” objects; non-rigid things in unstructured environments. Folding laundry is an excellent application to develop robots that can manipulate pliable three-dimensional objects then assess and formulate non-structured actions in order to complete the task. [2]

Ok, but shrimp walking on a treadmill? C-mon!
The shrimp treadmill, invented and built by [David] Scholnick [Pacific University], allows researchers to measure the activity of an exercising shrimp for a set period of time at known speed and oxygen levels. "These studies will give us a better idea of how marine animals can perform in their native habitat when faced with increasing pathogens and immunological challenges." [3]
I don’t know about you, but I am not enthused about eating sick shrimp – wood fired or deep fried!

However, in my opinion, Senator Coburn is certainly no Senator Proxmier. As he told the Wall Street Journal:
“As a practicing physician and a two-time cancer survivor, I understand the benefits of scientific research,” the senator said. “There is no question NSF serves an important – and legitimate – purpose in our society and has contributed to scientific discovery… Unfortunately, in some ways NSF has undermined its core mission through mismanagement and misplaced priorities.” [4]
Senator Coburn's intent seems to be emphasizing that, during times of economic deficit and budget constraints, he would like to see social sciences NOT be the primary focal point of the nations premiere science research agency. He believes that the NSF should take it’s funding more seriously by focusing on research that provides the highest benefit to the largest demographic.

Senator Coburn's point about the NSA needing to make judicious choices about how their resource dollars are allocated is both valid and reasonable criticism.
1. Wikipedia, Senator Edward Proxmire.
2. Towel folding Robot (Video and article),, April 5, 2010,
3. Scientists put shrimp on a treadmill,, Oct. 18, 2006
4. Sen. Coburn Targets Shrimp on Treadmill, Other NSF Spending, Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2011

Towel folding robot video

Friday, June 3, 2011

Eyes Wide Shut

During my analysis of my personal horoscope (see my previous blog entry) the person who prepared my horoscope and I exchanged discussions about the nature of science. My friend was somewhat skeptical of science itself, stating that all scientists are biased; therefore science really cannot be fully trusted.

My friend was correct – scientists ARE biased! Scientists are human; they have their pre-conceived ideas and perhaps even driven by conscious or unconscious motives. But the assertion that, therefore, science has little in the way of our seeking of truth is a greatly erroneous conclusion.

Let's take for example my analysis of my personal astrological horoscope. I admit that I am biased; I have investigated astrology sufficiently to conclude that it is bunk. However I had never had the opportunity before to have my own personal horoscope done. This presented me with a rare opportunity to conduct a first-hand analysis. Of course, recognizing my own preconceived bias, I had my wife also complete an analysis independently (though she is not a believer in astrology either). However, I am like most scientists, open to changing my view in the presence of new and convincing evidence. [Skeptics like to say we maintain an open mind... but not so open that our brains fall out.]

Unfortunately the horoscope failed to present findings different than what I already knew about these types of pseudo-sciences. In fact, the results of my personal horoscope fully confirmed that horoscopes simply engaging purely psychological ploys. But more to the point, my bias had no effect on the outcome of the data or the only obvious conclusion drawn from it.

There can be bad science, junk science, sloppy science, voodoo science and occasionally out and out fraud. BUT all this science has one shared fate: it is subject to scrutiny, parallel experimentation, duplication of results, in short – Peer Review. For every scientist hoping to promote a cherished theory, there are dozens others waiting in the wings to challenge their conclusions. If others conduct the same experiments under similar conditions and arrive at different outcomes, the theory can be called into question.

Recently news media has been in a frenzy about the declaration by the World Health Organization that cell phones can increase the possibility of a certain brain cancer. This issue had been brought up years previously; we probably had thought this issue had been laid to rest. These types of reoccurring controversies: caffeine is good for you, caffeine is bad for you; red wine is good, red wine is bad – these sorts of dichotomies can drive the non-scientific public nuts. What can you believe?

Of course the answer resides in the consensus of corroborating scientific evidence. Still, even though an overwhelming number of scientists conclude that Anthropogenic (human-caused) Climate Change or Biological Evolution are well established facts, the public is often presented with a contradictory impression (primarily by the media) that there are two opposing positions of equal footing.

Political as well as economic forces often (intentionally) skew our perceptions of what that scientific consensus is. Our own personal biases can color our acceptance or rejection of science's conclusions.

As I have explained in previous posts, our perceptions are often deeply flawed. Our eyes are not video cameras; our ears are not tape recorders. Everything we conclude from our perception is first interpreted by our brain… filtered along with its biases, expectations, motivations, fears and anticipations swirling unconsciously in the background. But science done often and done well can help us sort through what we wish to believe and lead us more closely to conclude what is likely true.
  • Perception experiment: Take a few moments to watch the following video. Be sure to comment on what you saw - but leave your comment before reading the comments of others. Enjoy!