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Stretched Thin, Part 1

As some of you may be aware, during my more prolific days on the ‘Kog, I decried the decline in the quality of journalism, a trend which I directly attributed to the establishment of the 24-hour cable news stations. The need to fill airtime has superseded the need to inform, and has led, not to a better-informed viewership, but to an audience that lives on a steady diet of supposition, fluff masquerading as news, and political partisanship. 

Now, the phenomenon has reached a low point that even I didn’t think possible. CNN, the Turner-owned Cable News Network, which at one time had at least a veneer of respectability by comparison to its laughable competition, has now embarked on a journey into the realm of fantasy. 

Image

 

I’m going to have to go with a ‘no’ on that. 

 

CNN’s Headline News Channel has seen fit to inflict upon the public the idea that psychics could be enlisted to find the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which is at best disrespectful to the families of the victims and at worst an insult to the intelligence of everyone within a 5-mile radius. The interview contained the following immortal quote: 

“Naturally, I don’t have hard, concrete evidence,” Lisa Williams confessed. “I think any psychic who has hard, concrete evidence can’t do their job correctly.”

That’s certainly the best description of how psychic abilities work that I’ve seen. Add to this indignity the theories that a black hole was responsible for the disappearance, as well as the all-time classic explanation: god did it. As The Daily Kos points out, “One of the problems with non-stop coverage of a particular event is that eventually… you run out of things to talk about.”

And that, my friends is the problem in a nutshell. The need to fill the endless hours have led to this type of idiocy, and the fact that the public feels better informed as a result is an indication of just how numbed our minds have become by the constant influx of background noise. This has led to the rise of ‘equal time’, which is in reality just filling time. Any scientific or authoritative claim that is made is supposedly in need of balance through the granting of airtime to representatives with an opposing view, no matter how ludicrous. This leads to the phenomenon of the ‘false equivalency’, a timeworn holdover from the proponents of postmodern thought that assert that all beliefs have validity, and we are evil white men to even question such things. 

The difficulty I have with this should be obvious: while people are indeed created equal*, ideas are not. If an engineer says “Evidence says that we should shut down this nuclear reactor due to the risks involved”, that should without question be taken orders of magnitude more seriously than “God says we should keep it operating”. Unfortunately, the distinction is lost on many more people than I am comfortable admitting. Ideas are created by human beings – flawed, weak, venal, selfish, greedy, virtuous, and generous human beings. We are hardwired by evolution to seek out the best possible advantage for ourselves, and if creating an ideology that serves our interests is the way to do it, then it’s as good as done. People are flawed, therefore ideas alone are not proof of anything other than the depth of conviction of the believer.

Add systematic testing of ideas to the mix, however, and you are onto something – the realm of theory. Do tests that are reliable enough, consistently get results that are repeatable under a wide range of circumstances and settings, and the system of checks and balances on the discovery of information we call ‘science’ is doing its job. Do all this well enough and you can shift long-standing paradigms in some fields. These are ideas, but they are ideas that are independently verified by a systematic, objective method and by a community that practices that method. The opposite to this? Guesswork, sloppy attempts to imitate the scientific method to manipulate results and find exactly what you are seeking, ideology, and dogma. Not fact in any sense of the word. Is science perfect? Probably not – there are good and bad physicists, as is true of any social group; it’s nearness to perfection lies in the ability and the willingness to open up your data and your methods to scrutiny by others in your field. In time, it’s the weight of accumulated evidence either proves or disproves a theory, not popularity or volume. 

Witness one of the best and most touching moments I’ve seen, wherein a scientist receives word that his life’s work in examining and trying to explain the origins of our universe in the Big Bang has been verified. He was right

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You, sir, get a cookie. 

Nobody needs this ridiculous circus of misinformation thrown at them at all hours. We are less-informed rather than better-informed, and as a consequence our lives and our society are suffering. Being open-minded is a virtue, but keeping it so open that the wind whistles through on a blustery day is dangerous – and encouraging it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week is irresponsible and criminal. 

 

 

*No. People are not created. Relax. 

entertainment, general silliness, Lighter Things, Things We Should Know

From the Blevkog Archives – April 21, 2006: Cultural Relativism: An Example

Note to readers: I’m not entirely sure why, but this has always stood out for me as one of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve done on Blevkog. This particular frivolous item comes from the prior incarnation of the blog. I may have written better entries since then, but I don’t think I’ve ever written anything more memorable. It has been edited slightly to remove what must have been evidence of a sale on commas and to add a photo at the end. Fortunately I am no longer so prone to being Captain Subordinate Clause. Enjoy.

Apropos of nothing except the spirit of Friday afternoon, I present the following.

As regular readers may know, in a rather lengthy comment to my compadre kevvyd’s item here, I made reference to the concept of cultural relativism. Simply put, it is the unfortunately rare ability to judge a culture or its members on its own merits, and not on the basis of another country’s cultural norms. The opposite of cultural relativism could therefore be called ethnocentrism.

Other cultures are different, that’s pretty much why there are other cultures. It makes the world an interesting place to live, all too often in the sense conveyed in the Chinese curse.

Japan, as a culture, has some interesting and unique qualities similar to our own, but just different enough to make us cock our heads sideways like a dog when you make a funny noise. For example, comic books are for the most part intended for adult consumption, and many cartoons are also so intended. The output of the anime culture, as it is called, is immense.

For quite a while, different business interests have made deals to bring some of these products to North America – the comic books are experiencing an unprecedented surge in popularity, for example. The cartoons have enjoyed a longer history, with Astro Boy closely followed by Speed Racer. Japanese cartoons, as a rule, have often seemed badly animated and poorly dubbed, which is partly true: often the dubbing is a result of the stories needing to be changed to more appropriately, shall we say, North American values.

Which leads me to this: many of my generation look back with an embarassed fondness on a show called Battle of the Planets. You know, the one with the flaming spaceship. In said battle of the titular spheres, Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop and Tiny save the world each weekday (or whatever) from the forces of the evil Zoltar, from the planet Spectra.

With me so far? Great.

Not long ago, I was excited to find at my local library a copy of the Ultimate Collection of B.o.P. (if you’ll excuse the acronym). What intrigued me, however, was the inclusion of the original Japanese episodes of the series that became, after the meaty paws of Sandy Frank was finished with them (anybody else thinking about the ‘Sandy Frank’ song from MST3K?), Battle of the Planets.

Originally, the series was entitled ‘Science Ninja Team Gatchaman’. In this series, Ken, Joe, Jun, Jinpei and Ryu battle the forces of Galactor (from somewhere on earth, not from space), represented by the evil Berg Katse. In this series, the characters, particularly Joe (the moody one), swear a fair bit, using the ‘S’ word more than once, per episode. As I said, these things were relatively easy to remove, since the dubbing process would change the language anyway.

Further to this, the show is considerably more violent – in one episode, we are shown the corpses of victims of one of the monsters, and people obviously die by the hundreds in some of the attacks on cities. This content was cut to reflect the North American culture at the time, and since it resulted in a considerable amount of material being cut, the U.S. producers hastily animated the robot 7-Zark-7 to act as a narrator and time waster.

This is going somewhere, honest.

As I watched one of the original Japanese episodes, I was completely surprised by something. We open the episode in a fictional country, in which there is a large peak, Blue Mountain. Upon said mountain are carved the faces of three of the country’s past presidents (sound familiar?). The work has taken three generations to complete, and the young lady is just about to finish the fourth head, that of Jesus. Yes, Jesus.

The Gatchaman episode is, in the original translation from the Japanese, “The Magma Giant: Emperor of Hell”. One of the heads from the mountain is used by Galactor as the head for the roughly 500-foot tall lava monster. Can you guess which one?

Cultural relativism: the ability not to totally laugh your ass off at any culture in which this phrase is even possible:

500-Foot Tall Molten Lava Jesus.

GATCHAMAN_VOL_5-9

Excuse me sir, do you have a moment to discuss YOUR FIERY DEATH?

atheism, christians, education, health care, justice, Mormonism and other forms of child abuse, religion, religious right, Things We Should Know, willful blindness to absurd extremes

The Ultimate Responsibility

I am not a parent. It’s not that I didn’t want to be, I love children, and they seem to tolerate me well enough; events in my life have thus far prevented me from being a father. Which, of course, does not preclude it from happening in the future, and as time marches on, I have come to realize that I will in all likelihood become a ‘step’ to an older child or children, perhaps even adult children. I look forward to whatever life brings in that regard – I feel like I would have something to offer in terms of support, love, and guidance should the opportunity present itself.

I have great admiration for my close friends who are parents – you know who you are, and you know I admire you for persevering when times inevitably got tough and for producing incredibly intelligent and just thoroughly fantastic kids. Some of you have faced incredible hardship and adversity and still managed to bring up some resilient and loving children. You are the reason I feel like the future is in safe hands – your children will grow up to be independent, thoughtful adults who grew up to be just like you. Take that, Harry Chapin.

As proud as I am to know some amazing parents, and I know there are many more, I am still incredibly pained to hear of incidents like this. It is completely heartbreaking that parents would follow the pseudo-religious, Spanish Inquisition-like parenting style described in this abhorrent book.

book cover

As the article describes, some of the techniques advocated include:

  • Using plastic tubing to beat children, since it hurts a lot but leaves fewer marks to alert authorities
  • Wearing the plastic tubing around the parent’s neck as a constant reminder to obey
  • “Swatting” babies as young as six months old with instruments such as “a 12-inch willowy branch,” thinner plastic tubing or a wooden spoon
  • “Blanket training” babies by hitting them with an instrument if they try to crawl off a blanket on the floor
  • Beating older children with rulers, paddles, belts and larger tree branches
  • “Training” children with pain before they even disobey, in order to teach total obedience
  • Giving cold water baths, putting children outside in cold weather and withholding meals as discipline
  • Hosing off children who have potty training accidents
  • Inflicting punishment until a child is “without breath to complain.”

That children have died is horrifying, although frankly not surprising. A childhood should be a time of joy and learning about the world, it should never resemble a reign of terror. Any “parent” who decides this type of parenting is acceptable is not fit to lead a child into the world.

The fact that it is couched in religious overtones is not in the least surprising. Not only do some of the faithful adhere to the above child torture techniques (I’m the first to admit that not all do, however), some will also refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. The only way we have to prevent abuse like this is to remove faith-based exemptions based on religious belief when a child’s health is at stake. Prayer in all its forms and manifestations have never, ever been proven to be effective in treating illness of any kind, and medical science has been proven unequivocally effective in saving lives, preventing infant mortality, and relieving suffering. Some of the cases listed here are absolutely horrifying. There is no excuse that could justify denying a child a chance at life simply because a parent believes illness is a test or part of a divine plan. Listen up, sunshine, if there were a deity, he created doctors and health care professionals as well as your weak-willed, deluded self. Get in the internal-combustion tool of satan horseless carriage and get your unfortunate spawn to the hospital. If you are lucky, the child will live – if we’re lucky, you’ll never see them again.

I realize I am not going to change anyone’s mind if they choose to follow an abusive religious creed, but if enough of us express our outrage at these types of abuses, perhaps the ruling classes will dilute the opiate just enough to prevent this from happening – even once. Religion, as a phenomenon of human behaviour, should never play a role in determining social or legal responsibility for anything. Marriage is not a religious ceremony, it is a legal one sanctioned by the state – they just let guys in weird dresses officiate. Voting is not a religious duty, it is a social one. I have no objection to religious faith as a private expression of a need for security or a need to feel special or to feel part of a community; however, when you start making decisions on other people’s behalf – what they can or cannot do or say or wear or who they can love – then, I object in the strongest possible terms. This applies to the act of parenting as well. If we value our children and want them to be responsible adults, let them choose to follow or not follow whatever creed works for them. When it comes to a child’s heath, however, your duty as a caregiver always supersedes any doctrine; the need to keep a child alive and to ease their suffering and seek a cure from sources that are proven to be effective is and always should be the moral imperative, not service to some imaginary, insecure dictator.

Religion be damned, if you’ll pardon the expression.

general silliness, Lighter Things

The Sound of… Silent?

It occurs to me that the use of the phrase “silent majority” implies some sort of misguided supposition that the person using the phrase is correct and others who constitute the more vocal (and generally ‘liberal’) constituents are really uninformed and in reality only have small numbers behind them despite the significant number of voices speaking out on an issue.

Has this ever been proven to be true? Why, if you are in the majority, are you and your compadres not speaking up, given you have the supposed moral high ground? Why stay silent? Are you sneaking up on us? Are there secret armies of right-wing ninjas out there somewhere? (geez, I hope not)

I suspect the opposite to be true: “silent majority” actually means “I recognize that nobody else agrees with me but I’m going to pretend to be on the winning side anyway to make myself feel better.” It’s actually the verbal equivalent of thumb-sucking.

culture, environment, International News

Human vs. Nature vs. Human Nature

There’s nothing like nature to provide a clear reminder that all the political scandals in the world are irrelevant in the face of human suffering in the wake of natural disaster.

The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda is already nearing 2,000, and the official toll is expected to be somewhere in the region of 10,000. Already the scale of the disaster has led to crucial delays in bringing aid to the country. The suffering of thousands continues, and will be abated only through the hard work and dedication of aid agencies and volunteers from around the world – aided by donations from millions around the globe.

The damage and loss of life are terrifying, and the response inspiring – but this is the time when another phenomenon starts to emerge, one that is a demonstration of the darker side of humanity. It was probably less than five minutes after the storm had passed that the first scammers raising funds in the name of typhoon victims started to emerge. Fortunately, various news and information outlets are cautioning people about the danger of falling for these scams, and some valuable resources exist for the public to educate itself, but the question remains: how can people do this? What kind of a person could undertake such a despicable act?

The psychology off criminals is, I must admit, somewhat difficult for me to understand; this is likely a good thing. Lex Luthor I ain’t – I’m reasonably clever on a good day, but I certainly couldn’t come up with some of the ideas that scammers do. It reminded me of the following exchange from the first Bond movie, Dr. No:

Dr. No: I’m a member of SPECTRE

James Bond: SPECTRE?

Dr. No: SPECTRE. Special Executive for Counter Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion. The four great cornerstones of power headed by the greatest brains in the world.

James Bond: Correction. Criminal brains!

Dr. No: The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be!

I don’t know that it is superior, but it is obviously unfettered by any sense of empathy for victims or any moral qualms about taking advantage of the generosity of others. From what I know of psychology, I suspect that the ideal personality trait for a con artist is narcissism – the need to aggrandize oneself, often at the expense of others. Narcissists at their worst are ruthless, manipulative, and focused only on their own gain. The inability to internalize and a callous disregard for the norms of society is also a symptom of antisocial personality disorder, which I would refer to as sociopathy. I offer the following helpful illustration:

badbunny

I guess the point is that there are some bad people out there who will not hesitate to profit at the expense of others or exploit the pain of thousands for personal gain. This should never stop us from doing what we can to help. Donating to well-established charities is the best way to ensure that help will go where it is truly needed. On a daily basis, all of us need to recognize that others are less fortunate than we are, there is suffering on our own doorstep, and we have the power to effect change. Volunteering is a great way to give back – giving of yourself can be more valuable than throwing money at some problems.

Right now, however, the people in the Phillippines and Vietnam need help, and I would urge you to lend a hand. Here are two suggestions: