Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

Late Night Thoughts: Richard Feynman, Flirting, Contrary People, Big Ideas, and More

(About a 13 minute read)

To oppress a mother is to oppress a democracy, for it is mothers who teach the value of democracy to their children.

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Some years ago, if I heard a pounding on my door around 11:30 on a full moon night, I could reliably guess it was Suzanne come by to demand that we go for a midnight hike in the mountains.   I always went for — after all — how often do you get to risk becoming a mountain lion’s next meal?  Besides, the mountains are magic at night.

Suzanne was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative, beautiful, and resilient.  At the time we were taking midnight hikes, however, she was also largely dysfunctional due to an untreated bipolar disorder.  That kept me from developing a genuine emotional intimacy with her, for it’s difficult to feel genuinely intimate with someone who — for whatever reason — is wrapped up in themselves.  Nevertheless, we did pretty good as casual friends.

One crisp night, we set out for a trail head, but when we got there, a noisy group of about seven or eight people were setting off down the trail, so we decided to drive on.  That eventually landed us on a dirt road high up in the mountains.  Since it was about two or three in the morning, and no one was likely to be traveling that narrow road but us, we parked the car in the middle of the road, put the top down, and threw a blanket over us in order to stargaze.

The moon soon enough went down behind the mountains.  The sky blazed with what seemed like five thousand stars, and Suzanne and I fell into silence.  After 45 minutes or an hour, Suzanne spoke.  “Why do I have to be in love with Jeff?”

“I don’t know.  Have you figured that out?”

“Not yet.  I just don’t understand why I get along with you better than I get along him, but I’m in love with him.”  After a moment, she went on,  “I love you too, of course; just not in the same way.”

Jeff was Suzanne’s boyfriend.  Like Suzanne, he was highly intelligent.  He was also abusive.  Whenever we were together, Suzanne would sooner or later start talking about him.   Usually, she spoke of his most recent outrages.

I knew, by that time in my life, that criticizing someone’s partner — even someone’s abusive partner — would most likely achieve nothing more than cause them to rally to the defense of their partner, so I carefully avoided giving Suzanne any hint of how profoundly I loathed Jeff for his abuse of her.   “That does seem strange”, I said as evenly as I could, “I mean that you get along with me better than him.”

“I do love him.”  She turned to look at me.

“Is he good for you?” I replied, looking at her and trying my hardest not to make my question sound like a challenge.  I thought that, if only she would ask that question, sincerely ask that question….

“But I love him!”  She protested.  “That’s got to count for something, right?”  She’d done exactly what I feared: Taken my question for a challenge, rather than genuinely think about whether he was any good for her.

Suzanne was twenty years younger than me.  She had yet to learn the difference between genuinely loving someone and merely being emotionally dependent on them.   Nor was there anyway I could have explained those things to her that night.  Although she never would have expressed it this way,  on some level, Suzanne believed the world was fair and just, and that Jeff had to sooner or later come around if for no other reason than she loved him so much.

In time, Suzanne came to her senses and dumped Jeff.

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Today, May 11, is the anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth.  He was born 1918 and died 1988.  Probably, I think, not only one of the greatest physicists of the 20th Century, but also one of wisest people of that century.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.  — Feynman

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I think Sarah was fifteen when I met her.  She and I were both regular customers at the coffee shop and we often enough sat together at the sidewalk tables.  Sarah was one of a small handful of girls who would keep me company even when I was not sitting with any handsome boys their own age.  She also struck me as generally cheerful, optimistic, and sensible.  The sort of level-headed, but occasionally mischievous, young person who gives you hope for the future.

One sunny morning,  about a year after Sarah and I first met,  I was sitting by myself when I happened to glance down the street towards the local high school.  About two blocks away, a woman was walking towards the shop, and though I couldn’t make out her face at that distance, there was something in the way she walked that made me recognize it was Sarah.  I think it might also have been the style of skirt she wore, for Sarah favored long, flowing skirts with a certain kind of print — almost paisley.

As I had guessed, it indeed turned out to be her.

When she arrived, she came straight to my table, and we were soon discussing her jewelry for no other reason than to pass the time of day.   “I have the worse luck, Paul.  Every piece I own has lost its partner.  This ring — see the naked man?   This silver ring had a naked woman that went with it.  That way you could divide the ring into two pieces, and give one piece to your lover.   But I lost the woman.  An ex of mine wouldn’t give it back when we broke up.”

“And you see the man in the moon in my earring? I used to have another earring just like it, but I somewhere lost it.”  She grinned.  “Now I have the moon in one ear, and a dragon in the other.”  She turned her head one way and then the other to show me.

We went on like that for an hour or two it seemed: Simply enjoying the sunny, but cool weather.  Eventually, she had to go back to school, for though her high school had an open campus policy, she was of course expected to attend classes if they were not study halls.

A few weeks later, Sarah and I were again at the coffee shop together.  At some point in our conversation, she decided to draw a dragon for me.  She explained as she was drawing it, that she had practiced and practiced drawing the dragon until she could almost draw it blindfolded.

“Ah! Well executed!  I know you like dragons.”  I remembered her earring.

“Oh yes!  Did I tell you about my dragon lamp?  I have a lamp that a candle fits inside.  When you burn the candle, it casts dragon shadows on the walls.  I love it! I use it as a night light.”

It all came together for me one evening a few months after that.  Sarah and I were once again at the coffee shop, but this time it was towards dusk.  Another man had joined us  — a guy about my age, which was twenty-five or so years older than Sarah.   He and Sarah were flirting with each other, which rather more bored me than anything else.  I became absorbed in watching the sunset.

Presently, the man left to go home, or go to his job, I don’t quite recall which now.  Sarah soon turned to me, “I love flirting with older men”, she said.  “I know I won’t let it go anywhere.  The age difference makes that impossible.  But you can learn so much!  Should I be ashamed of myself, Paul?”

I don’t remember now exactly what I said to her, but she responded by almost pouting — a very unusual expression for her — and then playfully suggesting that I was a public killjoy for refusing to flirt with people, especially with her.  That so surprised me that I felt I needed to make amends!  Hence, within a few days, I composed a simple poem just for Sarah.

She’s a woman in the grace of sixteen summers
With skirts flowing in the morning sun
And she speaks of the silver man ringed naked
A dancer who dances alone
For her jewels have all lost their partners
But the moon still laughs in one ear
And she sleeps in the shadow of dragons
With a heart uncorrupted by fear

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Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.  ― Richard Feynman

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Some “religious” people are just contrary.  They profess to be Hindus or Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhists or Taoists, but their real religion is simply to find fault with other people.

God, enlightenment, the Tao are to them little more than concepts that they imagine give them ultimate permission to condemn folks, to dehumanize them.  “I speak for God”, they imply.  “I speak for the Tao.”  Such strange people: Always hiding behind some pillar like “God”, peeking out only to snarl!

But such people are not confined to religions.

No, you find them in the lunatic fringes of every political and social movement, every ideology — including the better ones.  What sort of person makes it their life to condemn others?  What sort of person lives for it?

It is part of the comedy of our species that we often give them the time of day.

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The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.  ― Richard Feynman

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To me, the ultimate goal in life is neither meaning nor happiness, but to be as true to yourself as you can be in a socially and environmentally responsible way.   The way I see it, if you shoot for that, then you’ll find what meaning and happiness there is for you in life, like icing on the cake.  But I don’t see how living falsely can bring about either meaning or happiness.  Of course, all I really know is that it works for me.

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I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.   ― Richard Feynman

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Top 40 Lovers

I listen to the radio play those old two songs:
“How I love him more than life itself” and “How she did me wrong”.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple lover
If the goal’s a cosmic truth.

And I think it’s hard to be a simple friend
If we’re lawyers in the end.

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Humans are natural born cartographers.  We make maps of the world, which we call “beliefs”.   It’s what our species does.

Sometimes, our maps are more or less accurate.  And sometimes, they are fantasy maps, like the ones we made as children to show where a pirate’s treasure lay buried in our backyard.

The accuracy of our maps often matters less to us than the fact they are ours.  Because, for most of us, our maps are something we think of as us.

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I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.  ― Richard Feynman

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“Hullo?”

“Don, this is Paul.  We’re rich!”

“We’re what?”

“Rich, Don, we’re richer than our wildest dreams!”

“Are you kidding me?  What happened?  Did you win the lottery?”

“Lottery?  You can’t depend on lotteries, Don.  This is so much better than a lottery.  This is Big!  Huge!  I’ve had an idea, Don.  An idea!”

“Paul, I have always believed you are capable of having good ideas.  Which is why I am still patiently waiting after all these years for you to actually have one.  But if this is like that last ‘good idea’…”.

“Don’t worry, Don, this one can’t miss.  It’s huge!  What is the number one complaint people have about foods, Don?  The number one complaint?”

“Paul, where is this leading?”

“Don, I’ve been researching this, and nine times out of ten, when people complain about food, it’s because they don’t like the taste.  It’s a scientific fact, Don.  Nine times out of ten!”

“So what?”

“Six words, Don, six words:  Spray-cans filled with liquid nitrogen!  Zap that awful taste right out of your mouth!  Instantly!  Never worry about a bad tasting meal again!

“Don we are going to get rich here!  We are going to get so rich!  I’ve already called some architects, asked for designs on our office building.  Are you excited, Don?

“Don?  Damnit, Don!  You’re a going to have to get a new phone.  Yours keeps dying on me!”

Signaling Jupiter

(About a 2 minute read)

Signaling Jupiter

Her parents had cruelly raised her to believe
She was the adopted child of wandering space aliens,
And not their own flesh and blood, which led her
From an early age to spend nights at her window
With a flashlight signaling Jupiter.  Years later
I found her, still not disillusioned by then, working
The streets as a freelance jumper-cable consultant
Who for a fee would tell you which cable went where.

By then I couldn’t save her from her entrenched insanity,
But I brought her home anyway under the pretense
Of needing a house maid when in truth I was looking
For cheap labor to help me genetically engineer the cats
That I planned to sell as designer pets — once I had
Gotten them to glow in the dark like jellyfish.

Yet, it was not until the months had leaped past nearly a year
Before we became friends, for one night she came to me
Dressed in her tragic aluminum foil hat and pajamas to ask
If I wanted to stay up and signal Jupiter with her.  Better yet,
I said, let’s coax the moon to look in through your window
And upon your white sheets where we’re making love.

The happy years rolled by then
Like plump sausages off an assembly line
Until the day I lost her when
Her aged parents returned to claim her as their own.
And the last I ever saw of my love was her wave to me
From the ramp of her family’s saucer.

The Dedicated Blogger

(About a 1 minute read)

The Dedicated Blogger

While visiting late one night,
She was overcome by the fumes
Snaking out of my empty beer cans,
And tearfully confessed:
Her career as an important social critic
Specializing in scathingly witty and erudite
Twenty-seven word essays on contemporary trends
Meant nothing to her
If she could not satisfy her lust for a man,
For she’d been raised unholy to think
She was incomplete, scarce half made up,
Without a companion.

Though my heart surged and boiled
Like whitewater at the least thought
Of entwining her nubile body with mine
I could not bring my tongue to speak,
Nor open my arms to embrace,
For I was possessed by a fierce desire
To render the moment as a captivating
600 word blog post, and by the time
I’d written, edited, and published,
She was gone.

Why Pay for a Retirement Home When It’s Cheaper to be Committed to an Insane Asylum?

(About an 8 minute read)

As nearly everyone knows by now, the internet is the greatest danger to sanity yet devised by that mischievous and often self-defeating ape, Homo sapiens.

Case in point: There are now estimated to be well over 100 million bloggers in the world.  A number that by itself, and without any need of further evidence, provides absolute proof a sizable chunk of humanity has, since the invention of the internet, gone grass-eating crazy.

Yet, strange as this must sound to you, blogging actually might not be the very worse the internet has done to undermine sanity.  For the internet has also made it possible to find — at any minute of any hour, and at any hour of the day or night — someone, somewhere who has just said something that is certain to drive you insane.  Possible?  The net has made it all but inevitable.

The obvious example of that would be when someone publishes a statement they claim to be absolutely true, and which you know to be absolutely false, but which — and this seems to be the key here — the statement is so fundamentally flawed that you realize even in advance it will require you working something like a total of eleven hours in your spare time over three days, while skipping at least four meals, and posting in excess of 24,000 words, to correct.  But correct it you will.

That is, you can be sure someone — and possibly an entire army of someones — will at least try to correct it.

The fact that so many of us humans can so easily get drawn into nearly endless internet kerfuffling would suggest to any sane person — assuming there still exists a sane person — that the world will end, not with a bang, but on that day a zillion face-palming smilies are tragically posted at once, thus totally depleting the world’s vital supply of pixels, and crashing the net once and for all.   The net, after all, is the world these days.

Now, I myself thought I was above such foolish kerfuffling.  I imagined my tendency to quickly get bored with debates protected me.  I thought, “You are too wise to be drawn into posting more than three or five times.”  Of course, all that false pride ended a couple days ago.

A couple days ago, I ran across fourteen words.  A mere fourteen words!  Fourteen (14) lousy words.  But they have been my doom.

What exasperates me about the situation is I really have no quarrel at all with the fourteen words.  None.  I figure they are, if taken lightly, true enough.  Every day I run across at least 100 far more ridiculous statements than the statement in question.  And, at least a third of that time, they’re my own statements.  Nevertheless, I have to date filled several notebook pages with painfully belabored handwritten commentary on those words.  And I might fill several more.

I just might.

I’m dangerous like that.

What are the words?

[S]cience, which goes where the evidence and analysis indicate, and [which] is anti-mythical in nature…. [brackets mine].

I fully realize that I have just lost whatever respect and affection you once had for me.  In the column to the right of this post, you will find a blogroll.  In that blogroll, you will find a number of bloggers who are far more sane than me.  I urge you to click on anyone of them — now! At once! I myself am done for.  I’m finished.  Kaput.  Crazy as a one-legged jaywalker crossing the Chicago Eisenhower Expressway during rush hour.  But you might, if you act in time, still save yourself.

If on the other hand — if you are my brother-or-sister-in-crazy, if you are already beyond redemption, if “hope” is a meaningless concept to you, if sanity is something even an American Congressperson possesses in comparison to you — then I embrace you, my friend! My brother!  My sister!  Let us go laughing over the fields of the moon together!

So, what does the statement, “Science, which goes where the evidence and analysis indicate, and which is anti-mythical in nature…”, what does that mean to you?

The very first thing that struck me about that statement was — that it is passably true.  That it’s true enough.  And a sane man might have left it at that.

Have I mentioned that I’m not sane?  Not even close.  So, the next thing that occurred to me was science might in the end go where the evidence and analysis indicates, but it often enough goes kicking and screaming.  That is, the statement implies — at least to me — a far less rocky journey for new scientific ideas than is often the case.

I agree with those people who point out that scientists, on the whole, are to be counted among the world’s foremost skeptics.  As a group, they tend not to accept new ideas until those ideas are supported by a weight of evidence and analysis.  Sometimes that weight of evidence and analysis must be so great, before a theory is widely accepted, that it has become a juggernaut.  A new idea can be given a pretty hard time of it.

Moreover, I don’t accept the notion scientists are always and ever rational.  I recall Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,  argues that scientists at times tend to resist radically new ideas in their fields almost to the point of fanaticism.  Especially the old guard.  They can — and sometimes do — resist a new theory with such stubbornness that they go to their death beds unconverted.  In which cases, it has only been after the old guard has died off that the new theory passes from controversial to widely accepted.  So, I think it might be a myth that scientists always go happily down whichever roads are the most substantially paved with evidence and analysis.

Now, again, I don’t have a profound dispute with the statement, “science goes where evidence and analysis indicates.”  I think the statement is a gloss.  But I mostly agree with it.  Of course only a stark raving lunatic such as myself would argue with a statement that he agrees with.  Yessum.  I sure do like this lunar landscape.  And you still might have time to flee to that blogroll if you act at once.

It happens I have a about a half dozen other quibbles with the statement, “Science, which goes where the evidence and analysis indicates, and which is anti-mythical in nature…”.  But this is getting to be a long blog post, so I will offer only one of those quibbles to you.  Very briefly put: Scientists have often begun by accepting one or another popular myth of their day — and they have then only rejected that myth after first affirming it — sometimes affirming it for as long as several generations.  But if that’s the case, can science be properly called  “anti-mythical”?

Naturally, I think it’s passably true to characterize science as “anti-mythical”.  I mean, I’m crazy.  Thus, I am all but obligated to object to it.  After all, I agree with it.

It all is becoming clearer and clearer to me.  Clearer and clearer.

So! Five sets of questions for you.  Pick a set, any set, and run with it:

  • Have you ever gotten into an internet kerfuffle that you later regretted having gotten involved in? And if so, what was it that made you regret your involvement?
  • What’s the craziest online argument you’ve ever gotten into in your life on the net?  Were you, by any chance, arguing with yourself?  And, if so, will you marry me?
  • When, if ever, is there any worthwhile purpose to getting profoundly involved in an internet debate?  And what is that purpose?
  • Who is the craziest blogger on the net that you’ve yet to come across — but crazy in a good way?  Where do they blog?  Link, please! We wants their link!
  • Please quote the single craziest statement anyone has ever posted to the net. Ever.

Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;
good night, good night.


Originally posted May 16, 2011 as “Science, Sanity, and the Internet”, and last revised April 26, 2017 for clarity.

Late Night Thoughts: Infatuation, Invention, Creativity, Pragmatism, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

It snowed last night.  Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them.  Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.

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Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration.  If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation.  But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.

Because of Janet.

I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her.  That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love.  I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.

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Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.

I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.

There had been about a dozen.

Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.

And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.

“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul.  We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea.  Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it.  People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.

Two years later.  “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”

“Oh, those are something new.  Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago.  We call them, ‘Phone Cards’.  Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.

“Why are you crying, Sir?  Can I get you a towel?  Um…maybe a few…?”

“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked.  It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”

“Sir?  Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”

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I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.

Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence.  There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.

One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.

The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting.  Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.

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A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful?  Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame.  Why is that, Paul?”

“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”

“Because you know everything, Paul.  You’ve told me so yourself!”

“Oh, that’s right!  Yes, I did.  But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’.  For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”

“You’re such a real man, Paul.  Such a real man.”

“Thank you so much, Sophie!  Your lavish praise is so annoying.”

“Just get on with it.  What’s your opinion?”

“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology.  Maybe it’s still current.  According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”

“Figures.  It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”

“This time it’s about you women, too.  You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex.  And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted.  Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”

“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”

“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.

“Shuddup Paul!”

◊◊◊

It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.

 ◊◊◊

A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath.  “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.

Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo.  You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.

We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.  It was a real conversation, too.  I made a point of that.  When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.

◊◊◊

It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems.  Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.

The problem was tackled with scientific precision.  Hundreds of studies were done.  Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations.  Guard rails installed at key places.  Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds.  Seat belts made mandatory.  Driving tests required before licensing.  Air bags.  Child safety seats.  And so forth.

None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem.  But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%.  And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up.  Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.

That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems.  Pragmatically.  But the exception has always  been “human problems”.  Then the Puritan rears up in us.  We become, not pragmatists, but moralists.  Not rationalists, but irrationalists.

Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms.  Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.

And some of us wish to do exactly that.

But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much.  The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America.  We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.

It isn’t sex that’s shameful.  It’s moralism.

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.