Archive for the ‘thoughts’ Category

God, atheism, and emotions

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Earlier today on FriendFeed, Dr. Ganata shared an article from Pacific Standard magazine: “Emotional Reactions of Atheists May Reveal Echoes of Belief”.

header of article

I found myself having my own emotional response to the article and the corresponding study, and I wanted to set down my thoughts.

First of all, there’s no widespread agreement on labels. To some, an atheist is anyone who does not believe faithfully in the existence of God. By that definition: People who are unsure or neutral or agnostic on whether or not God exists? All atheists. But to others, an atheist is someone who is convinced that God definitely does not exist — and may spend energy trying to convince the faithful that they are wrong. Even among the faithful, there is a spectrum of how strongly and completely one believes in God. So there is a wide range of possible beliefs among individuals.

The study organizers recruited from a skeptics organization, from a bible group, and from students. They don’t break down how many applicants they got from each source. They divided participants between “atheists” and “religious people” (those are their labels, not mine), based on their answers to a 19-question survey. While there was a sharp difference between the scores of the two groups, they don’t make a distinction between atheists who once were faithful, or if the atheists are “weak atheists” (those who simply are not sure in the certainty of the existence of God) versus “strong atheists” (those who are positively, 100% convinced that there is no God).

Second, the study design is garbage. The overall approach is measuring skin conductance (“SC”) while participants read statements and then say them aloud. There’s no data on what SC means, no proof of what it measures, no theory about what emotions it’s tied to, and the study doesn’t bother to provide the raw data to back up any statistical claims.

In study 1, the participants each were given three sets of statements:

  1. “God statements”: Statements where one dares God to do something awful, such as “I dare God to make me die of cancer” or “I dare God to make someone murder my parents.”
  2. “Offensive statements”: Random offensive things, such as “It’s okay to kill ugly children” or “It’s okay to kick a puppy in the face.”
  3. “Neutral statements”: Random inoffensive things, such as “I hope it’s not raining today” or “It’s okay to wear glasses.”

In study 2, they add a fourth category:

  1. “Wish statements”: Repeats of God statements but restated as a wish, such as “I wish that I would die of cancer” or “I wish someone would murder my parents.”

However, study 2 is very poorly thought out. The phrasing of the statements is not at all equivalent. Worse, they’re having the same person react to the same statement both from category 1 and category 4 — but the emotional response will be much greater the first time you read it than the second, whichever way it’s phrased. And most disastrously, study 2 is only of atheists, so for cateogry 4, you can’t compare the SC of atheists to the SC of religious people.

Third, the study lacks sufficiently documented controls. The two groups of study 1, atheists and religious people, were selected based on their responses to survey questions. How many people applied? How many were rejected? Why are there no participants with middling responses?

A much better study design would have three groups: Atheists, religious people, and a random group used as a control with unknown belief status. If the study’s central thesis is true (that both atheists and religious people will have a strong emotional reaction to category 1 statements), all three groups should have same result.

And I would design the questions with much more diversity of control statements. “I wish that I would die of cancer” is just outright much less controversial than saying “I dare God to make me die of cancer.” Add in “I dare Zeus to make me die of cancer” and “I dare my best friend to make me die of cancer.”

My final objection to the study is that the statistical results of study 2, with only atheists participating, shows a huge change in the responses to categories 1 through 3 when compared with the results of study 1. Their SC went down for categories 1 and 2, and up for category 3. That’s ridiculous! The study designers could not even reproduce their own results from study 1 with the exact same methodology. That shows their candidate screening or test administration or SC measurement is fatally flawed. How much variance would we see again if they conducted a study 3 or a study 4?

Set aside all that. Let’s say the test is valid and the results are genuine. What does it mean?

The article and study do take pains to point out several possible explanations for the result why both atheists and religious people have a similar emotional response to reading the God statements:

  1. “Atheists’ explicit beliefs may differ from the implicit reactions that exist outside of conscious awareness.”
  2. Atheists “may have found using the word God stressful because others, possibly their friends and family, do take God seriously.”
  3. Atheists “may have found the idea of God ‘absurd or aversive,’ leading to the heightened emotional response.”
  4. “Although atheists did not currently believe in God, they may have been influenced by their own previous beliefs.” (A reference is made to 2006 research that found three-quarters of American atheists were once believers.)

At heart, I had to think about why I had an emotional response to reading the article and the study. Because I self-identify as an atheist, the first conclusion was offensive to me: Hey, you, you atheist you, you’re deluding yourself — you may say you don’t believe in God, but your emotions betray you, ha ha. You really do believe in God. Sucker.

It was hard for me to be objective about that.

But why?

We all delude ourselves all the time. We’re full of self-delusions that affect us constantly, without us even being aware of it most of the time. I know this and accept it. So why would it upset me for me to feel that I might have an emotional belief in God?

I have to admit if I were to take the test, I’m sure I would have a hard time being unemotional in reading aloud a statement that said I dared God to kill my parents or give me cancer. Again: But why? Is it because I secretly do believe in God? I don’t think there’s a chance that that’s true. I think actions and expressed beliefs are actually more significant than emotional responses.

No matter what, the thought of having you or your parents die is going to provoke an emotional response, whether or not God is involved in that thought.

I don’t pray. I don’t ascribe supernatural explanations to events that take place. I don’t go to church. I wouldn’t turn to any holy book for answers. And while I respect my friends who do believe in God, I don’t feel that their religious beliefs give them any power or morality that I don’t also have.

Bottom line, I don’t think this study proves anything. The whole point of atheism is to separate one’s emotional beliefs and irrational human nature from our actions and logical thoughts.

I think most atheists would agree that they don’t KNOW that God doesn’t exist. The way I feel about it is this: I assume God doesn’t exist until the moment I see some evidence that God does exist.

I can’t prove God doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t even try. Similarly, I can’t prove that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. So, since I can’t prove the opposite, I’m happy to concede that God MIGHT exist. (So might the Loch Ness Monster.) I just don’t see any evidence for it, so I don’t personally think it’s at all likely.

Despite that, why would I take the risk in daring an all-powerful God who MIGHT exist to kill me or my parents? On a rational basis, there’s no point in tempting fate, even if the risk is minute. My emotional side knows that better than my rational side.

I’d like to see the study redesigned with a big twist: Per the study, there were some religious people who refused to say some of the God statements. But there were no atheists who refused to say any of them. But what if you paid people to say the statements? If you move the study from the emotional realm of skin response into the rational realm of getting paid, would you see the opposite result, where even religious people are willing to say the same statements as the atheists? Or is it offensive to even ask?

Maybe emotionally we’re all believers to some extent, but when money is on the line, some of those who identify themselves as religious people might be willing to act a little bit like an atheist.

This is too long already, but I want to conclude with an apology: If you were offended by any of what I wrote, I am sorry. I don’t mean to challenge anyone or offend anyone. Your beliefs are yours, and I don’t have any intention to try to change them. My whole intention is to explain myself, mostly so I can better understand myself.

Recently, Barry paid me a high compliment on FriendFeed: He called me a damn fine Christian. That makes me damn happy to hear. Because even though I’m a heathen, I strive to be a moral, helpful, useful, good person. In other words, a Christian. Or a Catholic. Or a Buddhist. Or a Muslim. Or an atheist. Theist or atheist, emotional or unemotional: We’re all here to try to make the world a better place. Right?


Sunday, March 31st, 2013

(Trigger warning: Starts light, ends with discussion of rape.)

When I was a child growing up in England, my mother pointed out to me that the word “nice” is an insult there.


“How was the party?”
“It was… nice.”

That means the party was a dull affair, completely devoid of anything memorable. While no one was poisoned or defenestrated, no one truly enjoyed themselves either.

The British character is to generally speak no ill of anything; see this Language Log entry for further examples, where it explicitly defines “quite good” as “a bit disappointing.”

Exhibit 2 is this food item:

a photograph of a 'Nice biscuit'

This is a Nice biscuit (which, since it’s named after the French city, should be pronounced as “niece,” but when I was a boy we always pronounced it to rhyme with “ice”). It’s not terrible, but, as Jasper Fforde wrote (on the page where I borrowed that picture from):

…the Nice biscuit is important as it’s the threshold biscuit. Everything above is edible and quite nice, and everything below it is animal feed. It’s the last biscuit that you’ll eat on a tray, and without that mean smattering of sugar, exotic stippled edge and ‘Nice’ logo, it actually would be animal feed.

Of all the biscuits (which is to say, cookies) available, and given a limited number of calories one can consume in a day, why would one eat a biscuit that was only a hairline above nasty, instead of something amazing like a lemon savannah, little schoolboy, or a Jaffa cake?

Thirdly, consider this horrific story from the Seattle Times of 50-year-old Mark W. Mullan, an apparent third-strike DUI offender, who drove his pickup into a crowd of pedestrians, killing two and injuring many. According to his sister-in-law in that story, Mullan is a kids’ baseball coach, and “a nice guy.”

That phrase jumped out at me in that story because lately I’ve been seeing quite a bit about not-so-nice-guys who act nice. There’s a long history of this kind of “But he’s a nice guy!” defense. We seem to expect that people who can perform genuinely cruel or evil acts should act rudely and selfishly. (It’s almost a cliché.)

And more recently, there are Nice Guys, the ones who don’t get dates and are constantly told that they’re good “friend” material, and who end up getting twisted up about it. Two well-articulated examples:

David Futrelle: “One reason so-called Nice Guys™ seem so creepy to so many people is that it’s easy to see the rage and the bitterness and the weird sort of self-hating entitlement that is so often lurking underneath – and sometimes not that far underneath – the ‘nice guy’ exterior.” (The “Nice Guy” Who Raped and Strangled a Young Irish Woman)

Chelsea Fagan: “But what makes these Nice Guys so quick to subvert that pain of unrequited love — whether from one individual or from a thousand societal directions — into a palpable hatred for women?” (The Difference Between A Nice Guy And A “Nice Guy”)

The recent Steubenville rape case (and the revolting media coverage that underplayed the suffering of the rape victim and overplayed the ruined lives of the perpetrators) was an inspiration for two remarkable essays by women I follow on FriendFeed. Both essays are important to read:

Jenica: “Young American women are taught to live in fear, to live in a state of heightened anxiety, because they are inherently victims. Because if it happens — if you’re sexually assaulted — you’ll be expected to explain all the ways that you did everything you could to prevent it, and if you didn’t do all of those things, well, then. You bear responsibility for what happened to you, even though you are not the one who made the choice to attack another human being. Even though you were the one who was attacked.” (How about we not put all the responsibility for rape on women?)

Monique Judge: “Women are made responsible for the actions of men who ‘just couldn’t control
themselves’ in the face of the temptress in front of them. We teach women things that they should do to prevent rape, but do we teach our men not to rape? (Rape Culture — see also the published column, “Woman fired for speaking up against sexism“)

I’m speaking now to fellow men: It’s time to put a stop to condoning sexism. It’s time to stop doing nothing. It’s time to educate our sons on proper values and ways of treating women, to make it impossible for them to be the kind of man who would assault or rape. It’s time to stop being nice.

“Nice” is far from good enough. Nice is what got us into turning the other way, not speaking up, when we saw behavior that was questionable. To avoid confrontation, we let other men be jackasses at technical conferences. We wrung our hands over perpetrators who deserve no mercy and no sorrow.

I have not ever aspired to be “a nice guy.” Instead, I work to be a good man.

And I want every man to do the same.

30 years ago, the murder rate in the U.S. was twice what it is today — thoughts on the Aurora tragedy

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I was deeply disturbed by the recent theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and have closely followed the story.

As a parent, I’m most affected by the fact that a 4-month-old baby was injured and a 6-year-old girl was killed. I can only imagine the thoughts and emotions of their families.

But I’ve had many other reactions as well.

I am disturbed by those who suggest that the movie theater attendees were insufficiently armed and brave enough to prevent the tragedy. As Slate points out, the suspect was heavily armored. Given the speed of the attack, the fact he started with a gas canister, and that the theater was darkened and quickly became a chaotic scene, I feel certain that anyone who tried to shoot back would have been likely to injure or kill innocent bystanders.

Inevitably, we’re now on the topic of guns and gun control. While I personally do not wish to own a firearm, I have many friends who feel strongly on the matter, and over time I’ve become convinced that outright prohibition is no solution, and that any gun control measures should be minimal and extremely well-considered.

As a moderate on this issue, I despise the polarization of the debate. Most on the left seem to feel that the only acceptable solution is to completely ban all firearms. And on the right, the default seems to be the NRA’s apparent position of absolutely zero gun control legislation, no matter how reasonable or effective, under any circumstance.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution exists. Guns aren’t going away. Hunters will hunt, and those who are hobbyists or gun enthusiasts have the right to bear arms. While I feel the data on keeping a gun (or guns) in the home for self-defense has far greater risks than benefits, I don’t deny the right of a person to keep a gun for self-defense (and, in fact, one third of American households do have a gun in the home). So we clearly aren’t going to ban guns.

On the other extreme, despite the Second Amendment, there are going to be laws, and we need them. Every state in the U.S. has some form of limit on the purchase, possession and use of guns. So, just as we agree guns will exist, we also agree gun laws will exist: I don’t think anyone would argue that, say, a criminally-insane 13-year-old should be allowed to purchase a gun whenever desired without any restriction.

So, as with every issue, it’s about where we set the line. The Second Amendment isn’t commonly interpreted to mean that individuals should be allowed to own tanks, or nuclear weapons, or instruments of biological warfare. So clearly there are limits. I believe it’s reasonable to argue that certain types of guns, including the assault rifle with the 100-round magazine used by James Holmes in Aurora, should be prohibited for sale and possession. Perhaps waiting periods need to be beefed up as well. However, none of that seems like it would have prevented the tragedy here.

All of this is actually preamble to my main point: I think it’s rational for there to be a certain amount of fear after an event like this. But it’s also important to keep in mind that, statistically, we in the U.S. are all at less risk of being murdered today than at any point in the last 46 years.

The “intentional homicide rate” (basically, the murder rate) in the U.S. is 4.8 in 2010, per FBI data compiled and displayed at Wikipedia. That means that in 2010, per every 100,000 people living in the United States, 4.8 were murdered.

(Compare that 4.8 rate for the U.S. to the most dangerous country for murder in 2010, the Honduras at 87, or the least dangerous, Japan at 0.35. The worldwide rate is 6.9. The U.S. is about four times more murderous than the U.K. at 1.23, and about three times worse than Canada at 1.62.)

Despite 4.8 being a relatively high number compared to many other Democratic countries, the rate in the U.S. (and for most of the world) is much lower today than it was in the recent past. Looking at the data for the last 110 years, from 1900 to 2010, the 4.8 result for 2010 is lower than 88 of those 110 years. It’s twice as low today as where it stood around 30 years ago. It’s 49% lower than 20 years ago. It’s 13% lower than 10 years ago. Here I’ve charted that data:

[chart showing the U.S. Intentional Homicide Rate, 1900 to 2010. Data from FBI (via Wikipedia)

(click to enlarge)

(I do wonder why the rate was lower in the ’50s and early ’60s.)

It’s easy to let media reports influence our thinking and panic us. Fear-mongering is a big part of mainstream media activity today, and I feel it’s mostly done in order to garner eyeballs. But the fact is, the murder rate is headed down. Events like the one in Aurora are a tragic aberration.

Letters to inanimate objects

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

[Image of a microwave saying "Enjoy"]Dear Microwave,

It’s quite pleasant that you display the message “Enjoy your meal” when your heating task is complete. However. Question. How do you know that I’m not heating up a heating pad or something? Do you expect me to EAT a heating pad? That’s a terrible idea.


* * *

Dear Laundry,

Stop staring at me.


* * *

Dear Auto Complete Function of My Browser,

Yes, you’re right, that IS exactly what I was going to type. I know it must be frustrating that I’m ignoring you. It’s like when someone is trying to do a puzzle, and they’re moving very slowly, and you want to help, but they want to keep doing it themselves, and you keep trying to reach out to help them and pulling your hands back, as they keep doing it themselves, piece by frustratingly-slow piece, and you end up sitting on your hands, and biting your lip until it bleeds.

It’s not that you’re wrong. It’s not that I don’t know how to use autocomplete. It’s just that my fingers need the exercise.

Best regards,

* * *

Dear Mr. Toaster Oven,

It’s confusing to me that when I want to toast something, and I twist the toast knob to “Medium,” that the timer makes noise and clicks and even dings when finished — all while you’re not even plugged in, and not producing any heat at all.

Yours truly,
Mr. E. Stephen Mack

* * *

Dear Router,

We have an on-again-off-again relationship, that’s the only way that “you” and “me” will work.

With love (and hate),

* * *

Dear DVD Player,

How long have you worked here, DVD Player? Please, have a seat. Do you like your job? That long? That much? Well, I’m glad to hear that, DVD Player, but that makes the next thing I have to say much harder. You see, DVD Player, I notice you haven’t actually played any DVDs in… well, at least a year. Possibly two. Yes, I know that’s hardly your fault, and that you’re standing by ready to help. And yes it’s true that we have a lot of DVDs here. Too many, in fact. Hah! We have a good laugh every now and then together, DVD Player. But the truth is, DVD Player, technology has marched on, and you’ve stayed still. We’ve all changed a lot. But not you. And really, those unskippable previews and FBI warnings? That’s not looking good for you right now, DVD Player. No, I take your point, but I’m afraid there’s no room here for you anymore, DVD Player. I’m very sorry.

Come on now. Don’t cry. It’s much harder if you cry.

Please, let’s make this easier on both of us. I’ve already packed you up. The Goodwill is down the street. Your old friend the VCR is already waiting for you there. I know you’re going to be much happier being used by some family that has a use for you.

Thank you for your years of service, DVD Player. I’ll miss you in the abstract. Go on now.

Most sincerely,

P.S. Yes, I realize this is a somewhat unusual letter. But I wanted you to read this when I wasn’t there in person. Sorry. I expect you to be gone when I get back.

How the West was Wan

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

A scene from DaybreakerI saw Daybreakers last night, a movie that cleverly explores an alternate 2019 America in which vampires have taken over the world. (Why should zombies always be the ones to eliminate humanity? Why do vampires constantly have to hide in the shadows and keep their numbers limited? The concept of a world populated almost entirely by vampires was also explored in Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula” series of books.)

While Daybreakers comes off feeling a little low-budget and B-movie in parts, and there are a few plot holes that don’t withstand scrutiny, it’s thoughtful, stylish, gory, engaging, and well-acted (possibly excepting Willem DaFoe, whose character, named Elvis, vamps [hah!] his southern accent a bit too too much).

Star Ethan Hawke’s character has the first name of “Edward.” The movie was made originally in 2007, long before the current Twilight craze, so it wasn’t an intentional reference. But it’s very unfortunate and distracting, even when some characters refer to him as Ed.

I woke up this morning with a $50 million dollar idea that I’m giving away here, because I couldn’t live with myself if I did this. Here’s what you do:

  1. Hook up with a nutritionist and come up with a vitamin cocktail formulated specifically to make up for chronic Vitamin D deficiency.
  2. Frappé it, add sugar water and a whole ton of caffeine, and add your (fictional) secret ingredient, “tauro-hemine,” which you say is synthesized from cow blood.
  3. Bite your tongue and a bullet and license Twilight. See if you can get away with only 20% of the gross.
  4. Slap Edward’s brooding mug on an ankh-shaped can.
  5. Call it “Twilight Red Thirst” and set up your distribution channel for every goth club and vintage clothing store in the land.
  6. Sure you’re splitting your gross with Stephanie Meyer, but after a couple of promotional campaigns and with a catchy slogan, soon you’ll be laughing all the way to the blood bank.

Zeigen’s credo

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Credo is Latin for “I believe.” These are my personal beliefs. Everyone has different perceptions and beliefs, and I do not offer my credo as an insult or to attack anyone else, but only as an exercise of putting my beliefs into words so that I can better understand myself.

[Photo of Sammy Mack at Stanford Mall, November 6, 2009]

I believe in my kids.

  • I believe that people should be treated with respect, no matter what beliefs they hold. I may disagree with certain beliefs, and even try to convince another person to change a belief, but I will always try to respect the individual, no matter how much I disagree with their beliefs. (There is an exception for believers in hatred or violence; I find it very difficult to respect holders of those beliefs.)
  • I believe in following a moral code, based on one’s understanding of right and wrong, and I believe in treating others as I would wish to be treated.
  • I believe in the scientific method, that theories and claims should be tested, and that beliefs should be based on testable and reproducible evidence. I believe there are no immutable truths and that everything should be up for debate.
  • I believe “faith” is defined as having a certain belief despite there being no evidence for that belief. Because of my skeptical world view and my requirement for evidence to support my beliefs, I believe that “faith” has little place in my life.
  • I believe that I am completely open to believing in the existence of God (or gods). If I were to find any proof that God exists, I would believe in God. I believe that the burden of proof of God’s existence should be on those who believe in God, not on those who don’t. By some definitions, this makes me an agnostic, but I don’t really believe in labels.
  • I believe that the more extraordinary the claim, the more rigorous should be the proof. Belief in a benevolent creator as a conscious entity who watches over us and influences events for us is an extraordinary claim, or so I believe.
  • There are several arguments for creator belief that I do not find persuasive.
    1. I am not persuaded by arguments along the lines that all things have a creator, therefore our universe was created. Who, then, created the creator? The same argument that others make to me that our universe must have had some “prime cause” I would return to them, and ask what was the prime cause for that prime cause.
    2. I am not persuaded by the extraordinary unlikelihood of life forming on our planet as proof that there was a creator of that life. Deal out a deck of cards. The odds of that particular hand being dealt were tiny. But it happened, and after it happened, the odds were 100%. Deal enough hands and you increase the likelihood of that hand being dealt to the point where it becomes likely. Well, I believe there are a lot of planets in our universe, and I believe that we happen to live on one where life happened to form.
    3. I am not persuaded by words in a book put down by human hands as any kind of absolute proof of anything in particular, especially when the book in question has had multiple authors and revisions and a long history of mistranslations. (If you are insulted by this, please don’t be. Maybe I’m not talking about YOUR holy book, maybe I’m talking about someone else’s.)
    4. I do not find persuasive any third party descriptions of impossible events or miracles, especially if they happened long ago, unless they have been credibly witnessed or recorded or reproduced.
    5. Because I have never seen a credible study proving that prayer has benefits (and I have seen many that disprove any benefits), I do not believe in the power of prayer. How does God choose which prayers to answer? If one person prays for one event to happen, while another person prays for that same event to not happen, how is that resolved?
  • I tend not to believe in absolutes or extremes, but instead look at life as a full spectrum of possibilities.
  • I believe our brains and perceptions are often deeply flawed, and we have unbelievable power to fool ourselves.
  • I believe that every individual is different, and do not expect my own beliefs to influence others or be persuasive. Other individuals have different beliefs based on their different values and world views, and I believe that that’s what makes life interesting. The world’s religions and varied cultural history hold enormous value and beauty.
  • I believe that a refusal to be tolerant of other people’s different beliefs is problematic. I respect people for strong-held beliefs, but some belief systems are incompatible with my world view, and I may choose to not have such people in my life, and I believe that some people with extreme beliefs should not hold positions of power or authority over others.
  • I fully believe in the separation of church and state.
  • I am by nature suspicious of most organizations, and that applies to organized religious organizations as well. I believe in “live and let live” and therefore do not care for extreme proselytizing, or dogma that dismisses or attacks other groups.
  • I do believe in groups that support each other and their community with acts of charity, whether those groups are religious or not.
  • I believe that I should try hard not to be a hypocrite. But I believe that I am a flawed individual, and that my actions may not always be consistent with my beliefs. But I believe I should always try to be consistent and try to improve myself.
  • I believe in kind actions and kind words. I believe in not taking oneself too seriously. I believe in love. I believe it’s time to eat.

Scary driving

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Some mornings I get caught behind someone driving 35 mph on the freeway in the far right lane. When I pass that person, they look terrified — hunched forward, gripping the top of the steering wheel. Each car that zooms up behind them and passes scares them more.

But they’d be far less terrified if they sped up and used the next lane over — that way, they would avoid all the people merging onto and off the freeway.

Of course, there’s no chance they’re going to read this and change their habits. But the solution is easy to see, from the outside.

There’s some kind of life lesson trapped in there, somewhere.

Fallacy of the excluded middle

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

So many times we believe that there are only two choices, that something is either good or bad, and there is nothing in between.

As Hamlet said in Act II, scene 2, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

But this is a fallacy, and it has a name: The fallacy of the excluded middle. Here’s an example:

  • Too much water, and you drown.
  • Not enough water, and you die of thirst.

Therefore, water is always a bad thing and we should avoid it, right?

“You’re either with us, or against us,” I’m told. Not necessarily. Perhaps I support some of what you do, some of the time, in my own way.

Humans can’t achieve perfection, but nothing is ever a total failure either. I find that everything is somewhere in the middle.

Pop quiz on racism

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Which of the following is racist?

  1. A latina who says, “I’m proud to be a latina.”
  2. A white man who says, “I’m proud to be a white man.”
  3. All of the above.
  4. None of the above.

Seeing fictional kids in fictional peril now freaks me out

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

It’s a bit banal to talk about how you get transformed when you have children. If you already have kids, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t have kids, you’re sick of hearing about it. Regardless of which category you’re in, you get to put up with this blog post anyway.

Steve Lacy on BayDad made a nice list of ways in which his life has changed after having two small children. I have one thing to add.

Recently on Lost there was a scene where Kate was in a grocery store with Aaron. She turned her head and suddenly he was gone. For a few minutes she looked around for him, growing increasingly frantic. (I won’t spoil anything further; you can just watch the episode “Whatever Happened, Happened” for more.)

A few years ago that scene would not have had much of an impact on me. Now? I was extremely affected. I could absolutely relate to her fear and panic. My blood pressure rose. I got agitated. In short, I was freaking out. Compared to scenes where people get shot in the head, or hit by flaming arrows, or run over by VW buses, or tortured — no comparison. The missing kid is way scarier and real for me.

Years ago, 1997, before I had kids, I wrote a story called “Cynthia,” which was about a young girl who went missing. I submitted it to Xian Crumlish and Levi Asher’s book of net writing, Coffeehouse. Xian (with no kids) wanted to publish it, but Levi rejected it, in part telling me because (having three kids of his own) it was too disturbing to him. I couldn’t relate then. I can now.

My friend Sam stiffens whenever he sees someone on screen get injected with a needle. He can barely watch. “What a wimp,” I always used to think. Now I’m even worse.

Update for April 1st

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

The Internet being what it is, and today being what it is, almost anything I type here is not likely to be read, and if it is read, it’s not likely to be believed.

So today is absolutely the best day to send out an uncomfortable truth, something that’s implausible but genuine, something that (in a passive aggressive way) causes change.

So, here goes:

  • Co-worker in a different building who wears sweaters even in warm weather: Your clothes stink. Wash them more.
  • Twitter users (including me): Unless you’re a celebrity, hardly anyone reads what you write and probably very few people care. Do more with less. Write to please yourself, not to please imaginary others — because the world is impossible to please.
  • Tech enthusiasts: (including me): We’re sheltered in such a profound way from the real world. People are losing their jobs and their life savings, or are living in wartime or hunger around the world, yet here we are enthusing about our latest gadgets and social media sites. We need to grow more perspective. Unless you work for a web 2.0 company or spend half your day using those sites already, you probably don’t care. That’s what, 0.001% of the world population?
  • Happy Birthday, Taff!
  • Bring back the “____ acquires” fake press releases. I liked those.
  • Upside-down YouTube is pretty funny and every video becomes more profound. I’d like it that way all year long.

I’m just kidding!

Or am I?

Yes I am!


April Fools!

For real?

Best to just shut down your computer and go for a nice walk.

Where’s safe?

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Today we in the Bay Area of California experienced another memento mori, another price tag that comes along with coastal Redwoods and mild weather year-round. A 4.3 magnitude earthquake struck near San Jose at 10:45am. I personally didn’t feel a thing — our office building is near a freeway and wobbles like Bambi on ice every time a semi goes past. I have heard no reports of any injuries or damage. But status messages (including my own) were fired off rapidly all around the Bay, to the amusement of the non-Californians on our contact lists.

The traditional spin is that a minor earthquake like this one is the perfect opportunity to make sure you check your earthquake preparedness kit.

It’s also when I hear from out-of-towners who express wonder that anyone could live in an earthquake zone. While California is certainly the state most associated with earthquakes in popular culture, it’s actually Alaska that should be:

Alaska is the most earthquake-prone state and one of the most seismically active regions in the world. Alaska experiences a magnitude 7 earthquake almost every year, and a magnitude 8 or greater earthquake on average every 14 years. (USGS, Fact #29.)

In fact, only a handful of states did not experience earthquakes in modern times:

From 1975-1995 there were only four states that did not have any earthquakes. They were: Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. (USGS, Fact #20.)

The USGS historical list of earthquakes by state shows that the majority of states have experienced an earthquake at least as big as 4.3 in the last 20 years.

But even if you’re living in a state that doesn’t have a significant earthquake history, chances are you experience some other kind of natural disaster: Floods. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Extreme cold. Extreme heat. Zombies.

Which led me to wonder, what’s the safest place to live in the United States?

After some half-hearted exploration of CNN, the Red Cross’s site, some out-of-date government publications and a few breathless realtor sites, I have come to the not-so-startling conclusion that no place is safe. Everywhere is vulnerable to something.

So for me? I don’t mind the occasional earthquake if it means I don’t have to shovel snow off my driveway or nail up boards on my windows or make walls out of sandbags.

But, you say. At some point, though, the big one’s going to hit. California’s going to sink into the sea. Right? So how can you live there?

Possibly. But maybe it’s just as likely that wherever you live will be hit by a different “big one” — an off-the-chart hurricane or historic flood or category 5 twister or record freeze or biblical heat.

Would you sell out for a shot?

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Suppose you had the opportunity to be in a major Hollywood motion picture that was guaranteed to be released to movie theaters.

You could be the leading actor, the screenwriter, the director, the producer, the director of photography — whatever your preference.

Everything was guaranteed. It’s a real shot at the big time, your opportunity to play a major role in a movie. Plus the salary is Hollywood-sized — let’s say a million dollars just for round numbers, for a few months of work.

The only catch: The movie is Policy Academy 17.

Would you do it?

If your answer is yes, now suppose the script for movie is, in your opinion, both racist and sexist, and those elements can’t be changed.

Would you still do it?

If your answer is yes, now suppose you have to become a cannibal and eat Steve Guttenberg.



Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I’m going to create an ultra-secret society, so mysterious and exclusive it makes the Illuminati look like girl scouts, the masons look like Shriners, and the Shriners look like Costco.

Based in the hidden tomb of an ancient building in a disused corner off the Stanford campus, future heads of state and captains of industry will learn the secret handshake and code phrases as they make the connections that will form the shadowy secret cabinet of those who control the world.

You, an exclusive reader of, are now privy to the details. Please keep the secret. Those who care, do not know. Those who know, do not care.

With its emphasis on eating hamburgers and blueberry breakfast pastries, I give you: The bull and scone society.

Forever DST please

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Here’s my semi-annual rant about changing clocks and how it disrupts the schedule of our kids.

Blah blah blah harder for them to go to bed blah blah blah.

Yadda yadda yadda messes up their internal clock for a week yadda yadda yadda.

Rant rant rant hate changing all the clocks rant rant rant.

I like having more daylight in the evening. When are we going to settle on nationwide DST permanently?

Arizona and Hawaii, I salute you both, for your progressive stance on not changing clocks, and for maintaining consistent bedtimes of your children. Plus you’ve been looking great lately. Have you lost weight?

A certain prophecy, and why I never shop there

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Deep within the bowels of London, an ancient underground voice has been repeating this warning against a certain American retailer for countless years:


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Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

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