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Truth isn’t Truth

Or so said Rudy Giuliani to an interviewer last month. The interviewer responded with the typical level of shock, and even started to argue the point, going so far as to suggest that the statement would wind up an internet meme. It probably will spawn multiple memes, actually, and no two of them will have exactly the same motivation or meaning, and that, actually, is the point that New York’s former mayor was awkwardly attempting to make. It isn’t that truth isn’t truth, it’s that truth isn’t Truth. The capitalization is important, because it shows a subtle, but critical difference.

As for the context, They were discussing whether President Trump should or shouldn’t testify before the special counsel investigating whether or not the candidate Trump did or did not have contact with a Russian official and whether such contact involved discussing Russia’s alleged intervention in the election of 2016.Whew, what a mouthful that was. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as your preferences go for my readers, I’m not going to write an entire essay on the President or the investigation. I don’t care one way or the other, because it doesn’t really matter. Issues like this are, like the Lewinsky scandal, a show for the partisan viewers, the equivalent of a baseball game between the political parties where zealous partisans can ooh and ahh at each new twist in the case in the same manner as a sports fan when the home team hits a home run. If the Republicans win, they won’t be able to do that. That’s my take on that situation.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this entry is about philosophy. Indeed, I’m going to take Rudy’s statement on its face, because its something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. When I heard that Giuliani had made such a statement, it actually increased my respect for the man. I already respected him for his leadership of the city of New York after 9/11, but this showed me that he actually has a deeper grasp on the meaning of truth, the nature of humanity, and the inseparability of the two. You see, if we add the capitalization truth isn’t Truth, then Rudy is right, and almost inarguably so. Indeed, philosophers have been debating the fundamental question ‘what is truth’ for thousands, yes thousands, of years. There are dozens of schools of philosophy, each with divisions and subdivisions thereof. As you might expect, they don’t all agree. Some are religious, others not, some dodge the question entirely, while some posit that there is no legitimate answer. So, when Rudy Giuliani says that truth isn’t Truth, he is demonstrably correct. The search for Truth has been happening for millennia, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Many of you may not know I have considered myself a philosophical rationalist, since I’ve known the meaning of the word. Rationalism, broadly speaking, means I believe in searching for truth through meditation, logical thought, and careful consideration of the answers to fundamental questions. Rationalism stands opposed to empiricism which instead looks outside the self, to the physical world, for answers. It’s an argument that goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, and there are many, many variations under the broad umbrellas of rationalism and empiricism, but I came to my realization through a more plebeian vehicle.

What crystallized my position on the issue was actually a movie, “The Matrix”, a movie which posits a world where humanity has been placed in pods and fed an electronically simulated reality by machines which use the humans as a power source. It’s a suitably ridiculous concept subject to numerous reasonable logical objections, but we’re talking about a sci-fi movie. As often happens, a bit of real wisdom slips itself into the absurdity when a question is articulated by the character Morpheus. He asks of Neo, and of us, “How do you define ‘real’?” His answer is illuminating “If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, taste, and see, then ‘real’ is just electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” At the time, I was enrolled in a philosophy 101 class, and I had a teacher point out that we could all be in the Matrix, right now, and we wouldn’t know it. I’ve always been a skeptic, a doubter, by nature. I don’t trust easily. I don’t take things at face value, I ask questions. I question peoples’ motivations, their reason, their prejudice, their authority, and society as a whole. Most of all, I question myself, for how can I hold myself to a lesser standard. If I were in something like the matrix, how would I know, how would anyone ever know, how would science prove or disprove that particular hypothesis? Would the revelation come as the result of arduous scientific research, or of a vision from heaven easily dismissed as psychosis or drug induced hallucination? I didn’t seriously believe we were all in a simulation, but I couldn’t completely discount the possibility.

Over the years since, I’ve considered many other questions, both mundane and profound. I remain intrigued by philosophy and by the deep sciences that attempt to explain the nature of the universe, and though exploring those questions often leaves me physically tired and mentally exhausted, I am still drawn to it, perhaps as a way to challenge myself in a way most of  life fails to do. I encountered various points beyond which I can make no satisfying conclusion based on logical thought alone, intractable problems with no obvious solution, logical paradoxes, unexplained realities that defy what statistically ‘should’ be true. I started finding them everywhere, even in simple things.

Consider this statement. Either it will rain, or it won’t. This must be true, because it exhausts all possibilities. Both things can’t be true at the same time, except they actually can. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that it is raining, while simultaneously holding that it is in fact also not raining. This is not an example of doublethink, but rather a question of perspective. At any given moment in time, it is raining somewhere on planet earth, and it is also not raining somewhere. So, without further clarifying the statement, either it will rain or it will not, by specifying a particular area, the statement can be both true and false at the same time. I have discovered that many of the questions I asked myself depended upon my particular perspective. If I asked the question differently, it suggested different possible answers. Truth is, to a large degree, dependent upon one’s perspective, one’s individual thoughts, one’s philosophy, their underlying assumptions. As demonstrated by the above example, even the language by which a question is asked can change the answer.

Often the answer says more about the person giving the answer than about the question itself, or about any truth their answer might contain. We are all prisoners of our own assumptions, our experiences, our genetics, our heritage. I’ve often been wrong in life. I used to believe there was a person named Santa Claus living at the North Pole, but no more. My eyes tell me that the chair I’m sitting on is solid, but scientific inquiry tells me that it is not solid at all, but in fact composed of tiny particles which are joined together chemically, but are composed mostly of empty space. The chair I’m sitting on, scientifically speaking, is mostly empty space. If something as obvious as solidity is, in fact, illusory, what else might be wrong with our understanding? As humans, we are prone to error, our senses deceive us, we each hold unconscious biases, assumptions we’re not even aware we’re making.

Those are just the problems of individual perspective. How much more or less fallible are we likely to be collectively. The conventional wisdom would suggest that many people are more reliable than one, but why and how did we decide on conventional wisdom, and is it correct? If biases exist for individuals, why not groups of people? We know that people have a tendency towards conformity. We are aware of some of these biases, and we have names for them, names like racism, sexism, anti-semitism, etc. What other biases might exist within groups of people? Might some be so pervasive that they effect the whole species without anyone realizing it? It is possible. On a more fundamental level, what are the limits of our perception? What if the characteristics by which we understand our world, color, size, mass, energy, force, light, gravity are not the only characteristics of the universe? What if those are just the things we happen to be able to perceive and measure? These are just a few of the questions I’ve pondered over the years. No matter how I approach the problem, I can never reach a certain answer. My inability to ever finally settle on any one particular philosophy led me to a somewhat counterintuitive idea, and it’s rather similar to what was expressed by Mr. Giuliani, that truth isn’t Truth, or rather truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, a concept Mr. Giuliani tried vainly to explain to the interviewer. Many, perhaps most, are just convinced they are right, that their truth IS the Truth, the only Truth, the unquestionable Truth.

For someone like me, who believes exchanging and discussing our ideas is how we grow as people individually and collectively, the idea of all mankind uniting under a single Truth is anathema. I find there is a certain kind of arrogance, a haughtiness, in the declaration of Truth, a tyranny of Truth that enables the worst aspects of humanity to surface. If we decide there is an absolute, unquestionable truth, whether religious, philosophical, or scientific, it leads eventually to the denigration and ultimately the suppression of competing ideas. Every dystopian fantasy begins the same way, when one particular group decides to impose a Truth on others, and succeeds in doing so. This is where we get stories like 1984, where truth is decided by the party and tightly controlled. Truth becomes the motivation and justification for indoctrination, thought control, reeducation camps, and in the worst cases, the purging of all dissidents. We don’t have to travel very far in our history to find examples. I don’t need to name them.

Our modern technology and our current culture is not immune to this tendency. I’ve written before on the idea of ‘scientific heresy’ where dissenters to a popular theory are unceremonious labeled as lying heretics, and cast out into the wilderness of scientific thought. Like religious dissenters, they are assigned a derogatory label ‘pseudoscience’, and generally ostracized from the ‘respectable’ people. To the proselytizers of scientific truth, this is justified because they have evidence, but this raises further questions. It sounds reasonable, but who decides what counts as evidence? Why is a double blind study more reliable than the rantings of a madman? We all seem to agree that it is, but why do we think that? Ultimately, I think it comes down to the assumptions we make. In order to have a beginning point for any knowledge at all, we have to accept certain assumptions without question. We have to assume we’re not in the Matrix, or dreaming, or part of some kind of simulation, or, what I suspect is an endless list of other possibilities. We assume the measurements and conclusions we observe outside ourselves,  what we see, hear, smell,  and deduce through scientific study are a reliable way to uncover Truth. Put another way, in order to claim truth, or believe anything for ourselves or anyone else, we must make some leap of faith, however small. We all have faith, but most of us don’t have the courage to name it as such.

To me, the appearance of this same pattern in many different philosophies, religions, creeds, and nations, suggests the urge to elevate and promote some ideas while denigrating and exterminating, others is not a distinguishing trait of any particular creed, religion, or philosophy. Rather, it is a quality of humanity in general, and as it is a bias we all seem to share, we should be particularly wary of it, slower to judge others, and quicker to question ourselves.

In the news, one often hears of a “Post-Truth Era”. This is, I suspect, meant as a derogatory towards people whose ideas tend to question the absolute Truth of those who use the term. It seems to imply that the preachers of truth are unquestionably right, that they act solely for the good of all, that they alone know what is best for their fellow man, In a world of unquestioned Truth, all who disagree must be marked for the evil that they are, hated, reviled, and cast out. I would more accurately describe it as a “Polarized Truth Era”, where two sides, each hell bent on making sure its own Truth triumphs, fight with each other in every way short of outright violence.

It is also a very dangerous time, because regardless of who wins, we all suffer when ideas, even the most ridiculous ideas, are suppressed. What we seem to lack in this era is any degree of humility. Too many are too convinced of their own certitude. We really should understand by now, that regardless of how much evidence we collect, there remains the possibility, however great or small it may be, that we are wrong. Many who have come before us have been equally certain of their own correctness. They were certain the world was flat, certain the earth was the center of the universe, certain the ground they walked on was solid and continuous. What do we think of their certainty now? If anyone asserted such things today, they would be laughed at, but it begs the question, will future generations be laughing at us? To me, that seems all but certain.

If a real “Post Truth Era” were to come, I would be first to welcome it. You see, a world without absolute Truth is a world of absolute Freedom. A world without Truth is a world without reeducation camps, propaganda, or thought police. It is a world without excommunications, witch trials, heretics, or crusades. A world without Truth is a world where each of us, both individually and collectively, can look at the world around us, search our own souls, and decide what we want to believe. It is a world where we can talk to each other and explore each other’s ideas, rather than simply shouting at one another about what is or is not “True”. It is a world where we can accept and love one another, regardless of differences, where we can try to understand each other, rather than convert each other. It is a world where many different ideas can coexist, compromise, thrive, and grow from one another. It may be difficult, because diverse ideas encourage us to think, change, grow, evolve, and those processes are often frightening. We can make it better by consoling, rather than condemning, one another. This writer looks forward to a day when many more of us will accept the notion that truth isn’t Truth.

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Thoughts on the Food Police

I consider myself an independent, a libertarian, a free thinker, and sometimes even a radical. On some issues, I lean towards the Democratic position (gay rights, civil liberties, legalization of marijuana), while on other issues, I lean toward the Republican (gun rights, limited government, terrorism). On many issues, my own views don’t align with either of the major political parties and are based on my own understanding of issues, (climate change, energy policy, military spending, taxation, health care). Then, there are some issues that I consider unimportant (immigration), that I don’t know much about (trade policy, financial regulations), or that I don’t feel qualified to judge (abortion).

There are many problems, however, that I consider beyond the scope of what any government could or should ever attempt to solve. Some problems, like obesity, don’t have easy, straightforward answers. We don’t fully understand all the factors at the genetic level that contribute to a person’s tendency to gain or not to gain weight, and we don’t entirely understand how those factors combine with environmental factors like diet and exercise to contribute to a certain outcome. It’s often the case that two people with very similar diets will end up with very different body shapes, weights, and builds. That’s genetics. Figuring out all the permutations of genetics is going to take time. We only sequenced the human genome about twenty years ago. It will take many more decades if not centuries before we understand what each gene contributes to what health factors. I don’t understand much about it, other than the reality is a lot more complicated than Mendel’s pea plants.

Most of us are familiar with the monk Gregor Mendel and his pea plant experiments. It’s fairly standard, or at least it was in my day, to begin the study of genetics with his simple experiments. He was, after all, far ahead of his time. He imagined the mechanism for evolutionary theory decades before Darwin articulated the theory itself. Darwin himself was unaware of Mendel’s work. There’s one problem with this view. Most experts who understand statistics believe Mendel fudged his results. He also chose a notably small number of plant characteristics to experiment on, and his experiments only succeeded on that one pea plant species. Mendel got the credit because he had the idea first, regardless of his questionable methodology. Some genetic disorders are as simple as Mendel’s pea plants, like cystic fibrosis, or sickle cell disease. Most things however, even things as simple as skin color, hair color, and eye color, are not simple at all. Most factors, in fact, are not simple at all. Until the theory of evolution, which prompted scientists to actually look for factors of inheritance, Mendel’s work was ignored, and it gathered dust for half a century before being rediscovered.. The simple truth is that Mendel cut corners, maybe without even consciously realizing it. History tends to forgive people when they turn out to be right, regardless of how wrong their methods may be. I know I wandered off on a tangent there, but I love history, because of the lessons it can teach us. What better way to learn than examining ourselves. In this case, the lesson is that there’s always a temptation to cut corners, but history will forgive you, if you get results.

Nowhere is the temptation to cut corners greater than in the halls of government, where every minor event is drummed up into a civilizational crisis, and every blemish on our society is a plague to be relentlessly eliminated. A government can look at a problem like obesity from what they might call a macro level. They can gather statistical data from tax records, surveys, censuses, Medicare and Medicaid claims and expenditures. etc. and learn a lot about America’s eating, exercise habits, and healthcare. They can then take that data and draw statistical conclusions, figure out what foods are ‘causing’ the obesity epidemic, figure out what medical problems are related to obesity, and much more. You can draw all kinds of scientifically sound conclusions when looking at all that data. That’s where the modern dogma of the low fat diet came about. Pretty much everything we know about eating healthy originated from data like this. There’s just one problem. It’s not at all simple. One can look at all that data, and still not make a causal statement such as fast food hamburgers cause heart disease. It isn’t that simple. One hamburger isn’t going to guarantee a heart attack. Neither is one hamburger a week, or one hamburger a day. The only thing that we can say truthfully and responsibly is that these things contribute to heart disease, that people who eat lots of fatty foods have an elevated risk for heart disease. That’s it. We can’t put a percentage on it. We can’t say how it relates to other factors like genetics, exercise, or whatever else. It’s possible, indeed, it’s almost certain that there’s a few people out of the seven or so billion humans who could easily eat hamburgers at every meal and never have a heart attack. These guidelines are helpful in so far as they allow us to make educated choices about what we eat, but diet isn’t destiny. Neither is genetics. It’s not simple. It’s complicated.

Politicians, however, like things to be simple. They want problems that are easy to explain and easy to solve. They want to get credit for solving those problems. That’s what gets them elected in the short term, and gets streets and buildings named after them in the long term. That’s why we get government trying to restrict individual’s choice for the sake of public health.

One of the first targets was school lunches. The schools are an easy target, because kids aren’t yet smart enough to understand their lunch as a political issue, and the government already controls public schools. Since I left school, the trend has been towards encouraging (read forcing) ‘healthier’ menu items on school lunches. I know this is going to make me sound like a grumpy old man, but so be it. When I was a kid, the lunches served in school looked like cheaper versions of the food everybody ate every day. I didn’t like it, so I didn’t eat it. I either packed a lunch or just skipped lunch entirely. My parents learned fairly early on that ‘eat it or you’ll go to bed hungry’, wouldn’t work on me. The first time that was offered, I cheerfully accepted and went to my room to play. My mom showed up some time later and asked if I wanted a peanut butter sandwich. I recall my great confusion because this wasn’t part of the earlier agreement. Point is, if I didn’t like it, I didn’t eat it, period. When the previous presidential administration introduced new health guidelines for students, the results were predictable. The cost of the lunches increased, and the number of kids eating them decreased. Anybody surprised by that result? No, didn’t think so. Given the choice, most kids are going to eat what they like, or not. If they have another option, they’ll take it. They’ll sneak a snack cake from home in their pocket or maybe some peanut butter crackers. They’ll pick out the few things they like and toss the rest in the garbage. Some will probably skip lunch entirely. Is this result an improvement over how things were before? Does that justify the cost? Who really benefits most from school lunch food police; the kids, the schools,, the parents, or the politicians who, above all, want to take credit for solving problems?

It doesn’t stop there, though. The food police are expanding their crusade anywhere they can get a legislative toehold. In addition to the numerous sanitary and labor regulations that restaurant owners must endure, there are now cities adding to that with regulations on nutrition, bans on certain foods, and limitations on portion size. It’s not entirely a new phenomenon. We had a crusade in the 80’s to eliminate saturated fats from fast food and from our kitchens. These were largely replaced with trans fats like Crisco and margarine. Then we figured out trans fats were actually worse, so we had to have another crusade to undo the harmful effects of the first crusade. Those who know the history of the actual crusades may recognize some uncomfortable similarities. Crusades, whether against heathens or hamburgers, tend to end badly, but we never seem to learn the lesson. There was a time when cigarette smoking was considered healthy and companies advertised how smoking would make you thinner, and there’s actually some decent science behind that assertion (nicotine is a fairly effective appetite suppressant). One has to wonder if the decline in smoking over the past half century hasn’t contributed to the obesity epidemic? Maybe we should all start vaping. For those who don’t know, Vaping or e-cigarettes essentially deliver the same nicotine without the tars. Some of them (the cheapest kinds) do still contain some levels of some of the bad chemicals as regular cigarettes, but no sane person who knows anything about pharmaceutical science is going to say that e-cigarettes are anywhere near as bad as regular ones. Maybe we should go a different route and put nicotine in the water. We’ve already set the precedent with the fluoride that combats tooth decay? Why not add some appetite suppressing nicotine. We all eat less. Price of food goes down. More food for the poor. Less obesity. What’s not to like? I’m sure if some politician thought it would get a highway or a library named after him, it would suddenly seem like a great idea.

I know I’ve been rather harsh to the public health experts, government regulators, and talking heads who advocate for these types of policys. I’ve cracked a few jokes at their expense. I know they aren’t bad people. Some of them probably have completely pure intentions. They may well be better human beings than I am. I’ve never been particularly good at doing good. I’m good at thinking, writing, living frugally, and otherwise minding my own business. I understand the reasoning of the leaders. They probably do understand that they’ll never be able to point out any of the people their trans-fat ban will save, but they’re convinced they saved lives. Their reasoning is not wrong, at least not at the collective, macro level. The problem is that in order to get those collective results, they have to restrict individual choice. If everybody has unfettered access to bad foods, some people will abuse it, and they’ll get sick, and that’s bad, so let’s restrict people’s choices for their own good. The unstated implication is that some people shouldn’t have unfettered choices, and once we accept that implication, once that principle is established, we must ask ourselves, where will it end? When the next scientific study reveals the next horribly unhealthy food, will that be the next target? How long will it take before we’re choosing between different colors of government approved nutrition wafers? Where is the line drawn? If the ends justifies the means in this case, why wouldn’t it apply in the next public health scare, or the one after that?

A critic might naturally ask me what my answer is? What would I do about the obesity epidemic? My answer is simple, nothing. I would do nothing, because there’s nothing to be done, at least nothing that won’t do more harm than good. Obesity is a result of free human beings exercising free choices in a free society. One could well argue that it isn’t a ‘problem’ at all, but the sign of a society that has largely eliminated hunger as a social problem. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the trumpeting of these various public health ‘crises’ started at about the same time that government healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid became widespread. It’s a simple formula, the government now has a financial interest in restricting people’s choice. They are joined by lobbyists for health insurers, providers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, who are often the uncredited ghost writers of healthcare legislation. They spend money to form ‘advocacy’ groups, buy advertising time for public service announcements. They may mean well, but they cut corners. Actually treating patients at an individual level, understanding their situations, empathizing with their problems, that’s hard work. It’s not something that can be done by passing a law or buying an advertisement. But politicians want to be seen doing something, so they cut corners. Doing the job of a doctor, a personal trainer, a chef, and all those other niceties that the private jet crowd takes for granted, is really hard, and really expensive. Banning jumbo Mountain Dew, or forcing students to pick up an apple (whether they eat it or not), is actually pretty easy. What they’re hoping is some statistical evidence at the macro level that obesity is decreasing. That way, they can claim victory, or at least ‘progress’. Maybe the food police will succeed in lowering obesity. If they do, history may forgive them as easily as Mendel, but it’s just as likely they’ll fail, and create a laundry list of unintended consequences. If you’re going to be vindicated by history, you have to be right. A lot of people thought they were right throughout history, and cut corners to try to prove it. Not many ended up being right. I personally can’t think of any who were politicians, leaders, or lobbyists.

 

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Of Bullfighters and Bulls

Been a while since I posted anything on here. I have to admit, my writing has suffered as I’ve been adjusting to running a small business out of my home. It’s not from a lack of time, I have plenty of that, but rather that any change in routine takes time for me to adjust to. Changes in routine are, for lack of a better word, mentally disruptive. It’s a bit hard to describe but I end up being on edge for quite a while. I’m adjusting more and more lately, and I’m starting to feel comfortable again, so I’m trying to get back to writing more. I’ve gotten several more chapters of my book finished in the last couple weeks, and I’ve also been doing quite a bit of reading lately. One of the things I’ve been reading is the news, which is depressing as usual. Some things just make me roll my eyes and sigh.

We’re now two years into the Donald Trump administration, a reign prophesied by The Simpsons as a joke over a decade ago. One would think that the outrage would have died down. One would assume that people would get used to his outrageous tweets, his divisive rhetoric, his blatant pandering to his fanatic base, and his combative attitude toward the media. One would hope that the people who run things, politicians, business leaders, pundits, media executives, newspaper editors, and other intelligent people would have figured out by this point that Trump thrives on conflict, division, and hostility and attempt to counter with quiet dignity, well-reasoned arguments and sound compromises. Unfortunately, that’s not the America we live in anymore.

I don’t know whether to attribute the media’s latest bungle to overzealousness, or outright stupidity, but regardless of motive, several hundred newspapers led by the Boston Globe have joined together in a combined editorial response to Trump’s assertion that the press is the ‘enemy of the people’. In so doing, they play directly into his hand. Eighteen months into his administration, and they’re still playing Trump’s game. This isn’t new. This is how the man operates. This is how he got famous. This is how he ran his campaign, and it’s how he distracts people from his actual governance now that he’s President. The man says or does something outrageous and controversial, then sits back and waits for the predictable outrage from the media. Then the spotlight is on him, the attention is on him, and nobody is paying attention to anything else. Winning the war of words becomes an end in itself, and nobody is talking about anything substantive.

Defending a free press is all well and good, but responding en masse to an obvious provocation from a man who regularly provokes others on purpose to drive his agenda is colossally foolish. At best, it’s rising to the bait of a man who has manipulated the press to serve his interests from day one. At worst, it’s a reflection of their motivations, a disturbing possibility that they really are driven not by facts, objectivity, and reasoned criticism, but by a particular political agenda. Let’s face it. A large segment of the American people don’t trust the media. There’s some justification for this. The most visible media outlets, especially the big city newspapers, are fairly far removed from the everyday lives of most Americans. I doubt anyone on the New York Times salaried staff has ever worked a minimum wage job, worked in a factory, seen his job sent overseas to a worker making pennies a day, or been replaced by a robot.

Donald Trump knows that. He’s known that since before he ran for office. He catered to it during the campaign. His base agrees with him, and many Americans who don’t necessarily like him personally also agree. When the big city newspapers stand up as a group to denounce him, it makes him look right. It confirms his words and further erodes their credibility with Trump’s base and with an increasing number of otherwise impartial observers who see the press’s behavior as unseemly for them as an institution. Now he can say, “See, I told you so. I knew they were all against me.” He looks like the smartest guy in the room, because he accomplished the political equivalent of waving a red flag at an angry bull. Like the stereotypical matador, he taunts his opponent, then whips the flag away only to repeat the process in a new location. Like the bull, the press can’t seem to resist the urge to charge. Trump is running the show and probably somewhere in his own mind shouting ‘Ole’. It doesn’t matter if the newspapers are right or wrong, or whether Trump is right or wrong. What matters is that the media are being played like a fiddle by a master manipulator. Whether you agree with him, or them, his tactics are working. One would think somebody in the media would have had enough sense to figure that out by now.

I’ve never liked Donald Trump. I never believed he was a real populist who would actually challenge the corporate interests or ‘drain the swamp’. He’s not Adolf Hitler, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. Those people knew how to get power and to wield it effectively, often brutally, against their enemies. Those men were ruthlessly effective. Donald Trump is not them. He’s not a visionary or a revolutionary. He’s not a great politician, or even a particularly effective leader of men, but he’s no fool, either. He’s very good at what he does, and what he does is put on a good show. I believed, and still do, that Donald Trump is a masterful manipulator of public opinion, a genius at getting people’s attention where he wants it and keeping it there. He pretended to be a populist because that’s which way the wind was blowing, and he’s good at reading people. He read the outrage in middle America and played the piper’s tune all the way to the White House. The media missed the proverbial boat, either because they were too stupid or too shocked by the realization that there are people between the Rockies and the Appalachians whose lifestyle and opinions differ drastically from those on either coast.

One things for sure. I may not like Donald Trump, but I at least have some respect for him, because he’s good at something. He’s good at manipulating the media. He’s good at reading a room, playing to people’s emotions, and getting people energized.  He’s good at listening to people’s anger, understanding where that anger comes from, and then capitalizing on that knowledge. The media, on the other hand, don’t appear to be particularly good at anything right now. They failed to understand the rise of Donald Trump. They failed to realize their own role in facilitating that rise. They failed to understand the people who support Trump. They colossally failed in their many predictions for the election. They have failed to address the issues at the heart of Trump’s campaign, the plight of middle America, the job losses, the outsourcing, the exploitation of workers, both foreign and domestic in the name of ‘free trade’, the creeping inequity of an America, and indeed an entire world, marked ever more by a sharp division between a super wealthy elite who hold all the power in society, and everybody else. I have no respect left for a media that continues to charge blindly into every conflict that the master matador waves at them. Sometimes the right way to respond is not to respond at all. Until the media realizes that, they’ll continue as the unwilling and unwitting accomplices to Donald Trump’s presidency.

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Separating Fact and Fiction

You learn something new every day. It’s an old phrase we’ve probably all uttered at some point in our lives, perhaps when we learn about the latest electronic gadget, or when watching some obscure discovery channel special about the Amazon rainforest. I’ve always been a most curious sort of person, so Google and Wikipedia were rather like manna from heaven to a teenaged me. I like to think I spend more time learning than the average adult, and I consider myself mostly well informed on a wide variety of subjects.

Nevertheless, from time to time, I come across a piece of information that genuinely surprises me, not because it is new, but rather because it is old. None of us is perfect, and nobody knows everything there is to know. Even the smartest end up with gaps in our knowledge. I recently came upon one of mine.

I’m a writer of fantasy, specifically the type of fantasy that involves, wizards, faeries, demons, and knights in armor. I’ve immersed myself in such stories since youth, through books of course, but also through television, movies, and video games, other forms of storytelling. I certainly consider myself well versed on the subject, at least in fiction. I also consider myself a well grounded person who knows where the fiction ends and reality begins. I’ve never cast a spell or seen a faerie, and I don’t know anyone who as. Furthermore, I know the sword fighting we see in movies, TV, and video games is overdramatized to the point it scarcely resembles actual combat.

Reality, you see, is not that convenient. Swords are made of metal, and metal is heavy. Surely those big swords must have weighed over ten pounds, with the larger ones probably about like swinging around a small tree. We have the real world, and we have the romanticized world of storytellers.  Everything neatly packed in its corner and labeled appropriately. Reality is reality, and fiction is fiction, except when it isn’t.

Google, the undisputed authority on human knowledge and truth in this life begs to disagree. It seems that medieval swords, real ones anyway, were not actually heavy. This seems counterintuitive to me, because just about any object made of mostly metal always seems heavier than other objects. Then again, perhaps I don’t know much about metals either. Most medieval swords weighed around 2.5-3.5 lbs. with the larger ones weighing up to 5 lbs. Here’s my source so you don’t think I’m making it up.  www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm.

For the sake of comparison, I next Googled the weight of a common, everyday object, a shovel. The average shovel weighs three to six pounds. The average laptop computer weighs five pounds. Each is heavier than the average medieval sword. Each also weighs  much less than my family’s gas powered lawn appliances. The weed whacker has a shoulder strap because its so heavy, and then there’s the chainsaw, which is a chore just to carry from place to place, to say nothing of actually using it. All these years, I thought we modern folk were just wimpy, but maybe the average medieval knight would have marveled at our ability to handle such unwieldy tools on a regular basis.

I don’t know whether this comes as quite so great a revelation to my readers as it did to me, but I kind of sat here scratching my head for several minutes, wondering how I could have gotten that so wrong, for so long. I searched my memory for where I learned about how heavy swords were. I certainly remember seeing countless Robin Hood style sword fights in movies and television, where they dance around waving swords at each other pretending to fight. I can only recall one movie I ever saw, and a couple video games, that ever depicted swords as heavy. I even remember thinking ‘hey, somebody got it right for once’. Evidently not me. So why was I convinced otherwise.

I finally settled upon a rather discomforting answer. Since I’m a skeptical sort when it comes to media, I naturally distrust most of what I see on television. I don’t assume everything they say is absolutely true, even on the news, and certainly not in fiction. There are always reasons to bend the truth, or make it up entirely, and usually those reasons begin with the dollar sign. Put simply, I err on the side of cynicism in all things. Usually, that serves me pretty well. I’m not easily taken in by con men or phone scams. I don’t just parrot the political positions of the talking heads on cable news, and I certainly don’t believe anything in movies is remotely realistic. In this case, however, my cynicism actually worked against me. I suppose nobody’s perfect. No doubt Hollywood swashbuckling is still dramatized, silly, and unrealistic, but the weapons themselves are quite useful as what they are.

It certainly gave me some pause, and a dose of humility. It’s easy enough to be mistaken, even about something you have experience with. I wonder just how many misconceptions there might be in the world, for each of us as individuals, and for humanity collectively. It also makes me wonder whether the ubiquitous nature of modern media and the abundance of information available on the Internet will ultimately increase or decrease these misconceptions. It’s perhaps and unanswerable question, but perhaps it reminds us that the old phrase; ‘You learn something new every day’, might be missing a word or two. Perhaps, we should learn something new every day.

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Missing Pieces

I usually don’t pay much attention to the things I see on the news. After all, bad things happen to good people all the time. Whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or something entirely of humanity’s creation like a war, I hardly feel the need to be reminded the world can be a tragic place. It’s depressing, and for me particularly, it is quite unhealthy to dwell on things like that. This time however, I feel personally touched by tragedy, specifically the recent shooting at Marshall County High School. I graduated from the very place twenty or so years back, but that’s not really why it affected me personally. No, it affects me because one of the victims was a neighbor, someone who visited at Christmas, a young man who I’ve watched grow up for a number of years. Now he’s gone, and I feel the loss too keenly to ignore.

I tend to avoid overt displays of sympathy. I’m not so great at expressing my feelings in person. I’m not great at expressing anything in person really. What does one do to express sympathy for someone experiencing a terrible loss? The usual things, flowers, hallmark cards, pats on the back, all seem woefully inadequate to console a parent who has lost a child. It must be one of the most horrible, awful feelings a human being can experience. Words too, seem empty and hollow against a promising young life snuffed out in a horrible instant of evil. In the end however, words are all I have. I like to think my words are the best of me. I can only hope they come close to conveying the immensity of the sorrow that I felt when I heard the news. With that said, I offer these words for Preston.

 

It’s true that Preston was just a neighbor to me, and that I didn’t know him well, but I will still feel his loss. Often times when I was driving home, I’d see him in his yard playing baseball with his father or shooting baskets with his younger brother. When I made a trail through our woods to walk our dogs, he and his little brother made their own trails that connected to ours. My family made it clear that he and his brother were welcome to play in our woods. It brought me joy just to think of him out there playing in the woods the same way I once played in the woods behind my old house as a child.

Now, every time I walk that trail, I will feel his absence. Now, every time I drive by and see his brother and father out there without him, I’ll feel the same feeling of sickness inside me, the same emptiness, the same sense of injustice, the anger at being cheated out of something. The loss seems greater when a child dies. At thirty-seven, I’m not what most would consider old, but I’ve had my shot at life, and if God called me home tomorrow, I couldn’t say I was deprived. Children, however, are pure potential. Maybe Preston would have done something great with his life. Maybe he would have saved lives as a policeman or fireman. Maybe he would have brought us all joy by writing a book or making a movie. Maybe he would have even cured cancer or become President. One thing I’m sure of, he would have grown to be a good man, the kind we desperately need in this deteriorating world of ours. We’ll never truly know how much we’ve really lost, and that, most of all, makes me sad for this fallen world and angry at the person who wrongly took his life.

A wise man once said of funerals, “we don’t weep for the dead, we weep for ourselves.” I forget where I heard it and who I heard it from, but I have come to believe it is true. At times like these, I remember that saying, because it helps me cope. After all, the dead have passed into eternity, beyond the suffering and misery of this world. They walk on the other side, with God and with all the others who have gone before them. Their struggle is over. Ours continues. We remain.

It is we who feel the loss of our friends and relatives when they pass. We must struggle on without them, with a new emptiness in our hearts where they used to be. I remember when my grandparents died. I remember the tears. I remember thinking no matter how much I cried, it would never be enough to express the loss I felt. It felt like when they died, they took a part of my soul with them, a part of myself I’ll never be able to get back, at least in this life. Time and the worries of life may age our bodies, but it is these losses, these missing pieces, that weather our souls and make us feel all our years. Pets, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends. Every time we lose someone, we lose a little bit of ourselves, a little bit of the light in our life goes out.

All the wailing and all the tears won’t change the fact that he’s gone. There is no punishment our justice system can hand down that would balance the scales. No, not even the death penalty, if that is what is finally decided, would adequately redress Preston’s family and loved ones, nor any of the other victims, nor any of the other students who endured the tragic events. We will carry the loss with us, no matter what happens. I’m just a neighbor, and I know I’ll feel that a little piece of myself is missing. I can’t even fathom what his parents, his brother, must be going through. They must, as we all must, endure having another piece ripped cruelly away. We will go on, our heads lower, our hearts emptier. Our world seems to grow dimmer with every missing piece.

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On Heresies, Scientific

I had a conversation a few days ago, with my father. He contended that a particular public figure, whose name I won’t mention because it really isn’t particularly important to this essay, suggested that people who contend that climate change is not happening or that climate change is not caused by human activities, ought to be subject to criminal charges. My father is prone to exaggeration and even more prone to believe whatever drivel the media moguls are spewing this week, so I investigated the matter myself. Did the media exaggerate? Yes, they did, because that’s what they always do. Media are in the business of getting people’s attention. They stretch the truth as far as they do for the sake of viewers, readers, and ultimately dollars, but in this case, there was more than a grain of truth to my father’s contention. Said public figure did not outright call for climate change skeptics to be jailed, but he did compare climate change skeptics to enron executives, who are in jail for actually breaking the law, and tobacco executives, who are not in jail and may or may not have broken any laws, but who paid the government billions to settle a lawsuit. This is not the same as advocating people being jailed for espousing a particular belief, but it comes dangerously close, and when any person advocates anything remotely like thought crime, or questions the freedom of humans to say and think whatever they wish, I consider it repugnant, and alarming. That said, I will continue to refrain from naming said public figure, at this point because I believe him unworthy of any serious person’s attention.

The whole business got me thinking about a concept we don’t usually give much thought to, the concept of heresy. When one ponders the word ‘heresy’, one no doubt pictures red robed inquisitors standing over medieval torture devices, or perhaps black robed puritans burning witches at the stake. When considering the term heresy as it relates to science, the understandable first instinct is to think of the various scientific figures throughout history who have been accused of heresy. Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, and countless others have been subjected to hatred, ridicule, and worse, simply for the crime of disagreeing with, and challenging, the established dogmas of the dominant religion of that era. We think of heresy as something old, archaic, something long gone like the steamboat or the horse drawn carriage. We like to think we’ve progressed since then. We like to think we’re better than that. Whether we condemn our ancestors for their short sightedness or pity them for their woeful ignorance, we believe that words like heresy are buried with our past, that we no longer need the word but as a reference to a sad chapter or our history.

People like to believe in progress. It’s one of those concepts I occasionally come across that are rarely, if ever, defined or debated, but nevertheless everyone seems to behave as if the concept is unquestionably, unconditionally true. Perhaps the confusion is because the concept of progress is quite obvious in related areas. Technological progress, for example, is plain enough to any observer. We have electricity, nuclear weapons, automobiles, smart phones, and talking computers. All these seemed unimaginable just a few generations ago. That seems like progress, but let’s remember, we’re talking about machines, things we’ve built figuratively, and sometimes literally, on top of the machines and concepts of previous generations, machines and concepts which seemed just as astounding in their time.

Human beings, themselves, however, have not changed much. Any geneticist will tell you a human being born in the year 2018 is not markedly different from one born a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years ago. Yet, somehow, there exists a peculiar notion that modern humans are wiser, smarter, more compassionate, more tolerant, and otherwise ‘better’ than our ancestors. Such notions rest on the idea that the collected wisdom that has been acquired, written down, and passed down from generation to generation, somehow automatically produces a better kind of human than that of past generations.

It is, for some perhaps, a tenet of faith that humans progress along with their technology through some magical, mysterious, and unobservable force. If that is the case, then there is little more to be said in the matter. I am not qualified to judge and do not care to debate the truth or falsehood of what another person takes on faith. Whether a person believes in God, or gods, or human progress, or spaghetti monsters, the road to truth begins with the assumptions one makes without asking for proof. Even if one accepts our own reality, the things we see and hear, at face value, one must assume the reality we see is complete, accurate, and not some sort of elaborate deception. For most ordinary folk, that’s no great leap of faith, but it is, nevertheless, a nontrivial question for serious philosophers (If you were in the Matrix, how would you know?) and more than a few theoretical physicists (google holographic universe theory sometime).

None of this is particularly noteworthy or disturbing. There’s little to be gained and much to be lost by shouting at one another about who possesses the one true faith encompassing life, the universe, and everything. What is disturbing and noteworthy is when one group of people decides that their one true faith is so important, and the consequences of dissension so dire, that men and women are justified in enforcing one dogma upon all of humanity, hence the existence of words like heresy.

Humans, as I’ve said, don’t change much. Our tendency to enforce particular dogmas for the sake of social order and collective harmony is hard wired into our species. The only thing that changes over the course of our history is the dogma of the day, the doctrine of the moment. Whether we’re defending Christendom from the Muslim hordes or our species from a warming planet, it’s the same old story. We have to unite in the face of this existential threat. The future of our people is at stake. Failure means our ultimate destruction. We can’t afford dissent in the face of such an implacable foe. We must enforce orthodoxy for the sake of our survival. Fear is always the justification. There’s something horrible on the other side of the wall, and if you do what we say, we’ll keep it there. That’s what the authoritarian always says. Sometimes they’re not entirely wrong. Sometimes the boogeyman is real, but it’s never as bad as they say, and no matter what it is, it’s not worth surrendering our freedom of speech to the thought police, however pure and righteous their intentions may be.

Let’s have some perspective here. If the earth warms three degrees or thirty three, it won’t mean the end of life on this planet. Life has survived climate changes, asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, and God only knows what else. There are things living at the bottom of the ocean where the pressure would crush a person’s skull and there is no sunlight. I fail to see how global warming will eradicate these things. If we’re really trying, we could do far more damage with a global thermonuclear conflict than we would by burning all the fossil fuels that are in the ground now or ever will be, but even that would not destroy all life on this planet. It would destroy some of the life, and other life forms would evolve to replace what was there before, life forms that would be different than those from before. Not better, not worse, just different. I’m not sure where human beings got the idea that they could or should preserve nature as it currently exists, but I’m pretty sure it started with some particular human’s opinion, and I’m sure it isn’t testable using the scientific method.

No, we won’t wipe out life on planet earth. We probably won’t even have be able to destroy ourselves, even if we make an earnest effort. After all, homo sapiens as a species had colonized nearly the entirety of this planet, excepting the coldest, most frozen parts, well before we had airplanes, automobiles, nuclear power, or smart phones. Make no mistake, we can do a lot of damage, to ourselves and to the other species that live on this planet, and yes, that is something we should devote resources to addressing, but as in all things, we should refrain from allowing our decisions to be driven by irrational fear of the unknown. If we want to solve the problem of climate change, I think the best way is to devote the resources to building better machines so that we use less energy, finding better, cheaper sources of energy, and failing that, finding ways to adapt to a changing environment. Personally, I have a lot more faith in humanity’s ability to adapt to a hotter planet than I do in humanity’s ability to enforce the dogma of anthropogenic climate change, or any other dogma. If stamping out heresy is the answer, then the cure is far worse than the disease.

I’ll go a step further yet. In this writer’s opinion, addressing the issue of climate change is more important than building planes to bomb nations that aren’t really a threat to us or building a wall on the southern border that will have zero effect on illegal immigration, but that’s my opinion, whether orthodox or heretical. At the end of the day, I believe in freedom and democracy, not authoritarianism. Part of that means accepting that my ideas are not more important than anyone else’s, and I do not get to decide what is truth and what is unacceptable heresy, no matter how convinced I am of the absolute truth of my own dogma, no matter how much evidence I stack up in favor of my position. Whether we swear on a Holy Bible or Scientific American, let’s make sure we uphold at least the illusion of human progress, and leave heresy in the past.

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Nostradamus Says

Nostradamus is considered one of the greatest fortune tellers in history. Whether that makes him an exceptionally gifted psychic with the ability to see the future, or an exceptionally gifted con artist with the ability to sell gullible people a bunch of nonsense, is as much a question of what you believe about the world in general as it is a question about the man himself. Does one allow for the possibility, however unlikely, of supernatural abilities, however limited, or does one adhere to the steady creed of the empiricists, if it can’t be quantified, it isn’t real? Whatever dogma one chooses to embrace, the fact of the matter is, people will believe what they want to believe. Perhaps Nostradamus himself knew this, and perhaps he even counted upon it.

Most of Nostradamus famous predictions aren’t really predictions at all. He gives them in the form of quatrains (a fancy word for a particular type of poetry), so at the very least, Nostradamus is a poet. Poets, of course, are masters of words, or at least they are supposed to be. A good poet knows a lot of words, uncommon words that most people would never use or even know existed. More importantly, poets, and to an extent all writers and storytellers, understand the importance of how those words are used. Put a word in a different place within a sentence and the meaning changes subtly or profoundly. Something as common as punctuation can drastically alter our meaning. I dare say most of us had a particularly diligent grammar teacher who hectored us over the use of commas with such examples as “Let’s eat, grandma.” Vs. “Let’s eat grandma.” Anyone who writes for public consumption will also know that, despite an author’s best efforts, readers will interpret the words in their own particular subjective way, often wildly different than anything the author intended. I’m not judging mind you. You won’t find me lamenting how misunderstood I was, now or, hopefully, ever. I understand people will have their own interpretations, indeed, I count upon it. That’s part of the fun.

Such thoughts make me wonder if I don’t share something in common with the famous prophet. He didn’t write that Hitler would come to power in 1932 and eventually start the greatest war ever fought in the history of humanity. He did write some very vague poetry that people have interpreted as foretelling Hitler’s rise to power. For details, see pretty much any Nostradamus website on the internet, but do be careful what you click on while you’re there. Did Nostradamus see Hitler coming to power in a vision, or did he simply understand that he could write almost anything, then say he saw it in a vision, and know that, if his words were vague enough, later generations would declare him the greatest fortune teller in history. Is Nostradamus laughing at us from the hereafter, chuckling at a joke whose punchline he foresaw centuries earlier? He may not have made many concrete predictions, but I imagine he made at least that one.

You see, predicting the future isn’t all that difficult. We do it all the time without realizing it. I predict the sun will rise tomorrow, because it rose today, and has risen every day for as long as anyone can remember. Perhaps I’m wrong, and a giant meteor hurtling through the cosmos will obliterate the earth before that, in which case the question becomes a study of semantics, but if the prevailing pattern holds, I’m likely to be correct. Nature you see, follows patterns. We see them every day. We study and discover them through scientific experimentation. We quantify and describe them with mathematical formulas. We seek to divine their origins through philosophy and religion. We give them names like gravity, magnetism, entropy, equilibrium. We predict the weather, the stock market, the results of tomorrow’s NFL games, with varying degrees of success. We predict our own behavior as well. For the individual, we call it character, personality, or psychology. For the group, we call it sociology, economics, or simply human nature. Whatever we name them and however we describe them, the patterns are everywhere, if you know how to look. The patterns led us through the past, up to the present, and continually forge into the future. I wonder if Nostradamus had a sense of that, and relied upon human nature rather than otherworldly visions to fulfill his prophecies.

As for myself, I don’t claim to be a prophet, and I’m definitely no poet. I use rhyme, alliteration, and the other poetic devices rarely and sparingly in my own writing, because I’m far too precise to sacrifice even a little bit of meaning for the sake of a specific form. I believe that form should follow function in all things, and writing is no exception. I’m also writing mainly for people’s amusement, including my own, and fitting things into a form or finding words that rhyme is a lot of work I don’t particularly care to do. In that spirit, here are a few prophecies which are primarily humorous, are virtually guaranteed not to come true, and exemplify why real fortune tellers give as little specific information as possible, prophecies even Nostradamus would laugh and guffaw at.

  1. Donald Trump will be reelected in a landslide after the successful North Korean campaign, and go down in history as the greatest President of the 21st century.
  2. Within ten years, Amazon will attempt to purchase Wal-Mart, Target, or both. I offer no opinion on whether the bureaucrats will allow it. Some things simply have no rhyme, reason, or logic.
  3. Within ten years, Google will know more of the world’s secrets and have more amassed knowledge of people’s lives and activity than any government or intelligence agency in the world (assuming they don’t already).
  4. Lebron James will one day run for President. He will be elected in a landslide and go down in history as the 2nd greatest President of the 21st century.
  5. The world will continue to get warmer, and glaciers will continue to melt, regardless of whether or how much we lower emissions. People will still argue over the reasons, regardless of how much science indicates one way or the other.
  6. The sea levels will rise, and people will still erect buildings right up to the shoreline and build in places that are technically below sea level (whatever that level happens to be).
  7. By 2050, the world’s population will be in decline, and world leaders will earnestly debate how to fix the depopulation problem just as earnestly as they now debate the overpopulation problem. They will not enjoy the same success.
  8. North Korea and South Korea will be unified by 2025.
  9. By the end of the century, Russia will become the world’s dominant power, and people from around the world will immigrate there as they once did to the United States.
  10. The colonization of Antarctica will begin by 2150. The colonization of the ocean floor will begin by 2200. The colonization of Mars will begin when warp drive is invented or when pigs fly, whichever comes first.
  11. By 2050, there will be more robots than people. The number one occupation for unskilled workers will be assisting fallen robots that trip over cords, rescuing robots that get stuck in corners or , and rebooting the robots when they lock up in  their vain attempts to divide by zero.

Here’s a last one. This one comes not from me, but from my mother, who, despite being an otherwise rational and grounded person, holds some very peculiar affinities where literature is concerned. (Disclaimer: This opinion is not shared by the writer.)

Steven Drake will become a best-selling author and he will eclipse Stephen King as the author with the most fictional works adapted for television or movies.

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