Search This Blog

Friday, December 31, 2004

Steve Jay Gould: Evil Genius

In common parlance, an evil genius is someone who wants to take over the world. He has an agenda, an evil plan, and with a cackle wants to upset the applecart of the righteous. Evil geniuses are great for movies, are wonderful topics for popular history books, and are marvelous ways to mobilize the population, the troops, or the stock market. In the halls of academe though, evil genius is usually cause for, well, apathy. The answer is simple. Intellectual conquest usually occurs without muss or fuss, and if its easy to delude yourself that you are taking over the world of academic or popular opinion, it's just as easy for others to ignore your smiling face on that book cover in an isolated corner of Barnes and Noble. Moreover, if bad intellectual thought is bereft of any concrete impact on our lives (like bad economic policy), and doesn't cause train wrecks, economic depression, or world wars, it just hangs around in the minds of a coterie of true believers, who generally ignore everybody else, including true disbelievers.

Sometimes though, a scientist comes along who has the intellectual wattage to attract a lot of readers, and to dispute popular intellectual ideas. It is here that intellectuals rise up like a horde of army ants to bite on the reputation of the evil genius who stomped on their hill. Such a writer was the late Steven Jay Gould. An eminent evolutionary biologist who just happened to be an eloquent essayist on biology, Gould perceived his discipline from separate perspectives of history, literature, and the arts. He advocated a pluralistic tradition, whereby knowledge was informed by many intellectual venues. Gould argued that it was impossible to have a monolithic perspective that gave precedence to one metaphorical perspective on how organisms develop and behavior, namely that everything had to be explained by natural selection, or survival of the fittest. Accident may have as much to do with the development of species as selection, and the idiosyncratic behavior of humans may owe more to the ability to learn than any inborn instinct.

Naturally, this was anathema to those Darwinians (e.g. Dennett, Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, Dawkins) who saw evolution in everything, and Gould was roundly ostracized for not keeping the Darwinian faith. Now this writer is as attracted to bad psychology as a gourmet is to stinky cheese, yet bad psychology as well as bad science is characterized not by a Renaissance taste for an integration of general knowledge, but by the one track mind set that has given us fundamentalists of the religious, political, and now Darwinian sort. For a Darwinian or evolutionary psychology, the one track of evolution has led to a mind that has many different tracks, or modules if you will, where the experience of millennia is engraved by evolution.

The core principle of evolutionary psychology is concept of 'massive modularity', which holds that the human brain has developed through evolutionary selection separate neural engravings or instincts to be altruistic, selfish, monogamous, ambitious, or misplacing the remote. Since postulating evolutionary modules rises above proof, as we can't go back in time to see how our ancestors evolved the tendency to misplace soup bones (in present times replaced with the remote control), it's as easy to be a evolutionary psychologist as it is to be a spinner of fairy tales. Gould said as much, and therefore lies his notoriety. Science is not necessarily a hard thing, but it does require a bit more than a healthy imagination. Perhaps that was Gould's evil genius after all, that he indirectly told us that genius does not come cheap.

It's worth noting that recently the distinguished neuropsychologist Jaak Panksepp, addressed the neural reality of the concept of massive modularity, Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology, concluded that it indeed was a fairy tale.

For a good debate between Gould and Darwinian fundamentalists, the following link is most instructive:Darwinian Fundamentalism

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Sound Bite Psychology

Quick Question

The preeminent role for psychologists in the 21st century is:

a. explaining how the mind works.
b. providing new procedures for self control.
c. show how psychology can end human suffering and provide world peace.
d. create lots of sound bites for consumers on the go.

If you said 'd', you were right. Long ago, before computers bequeathed to us a world so bountiful that only a person with a manic lifestyle could appreciate, we had three TV channels, one car, a stay at home spouse, four kids, and a library with maybe ten books. We were unhappy then, but we didn't know it. Now, in this new world of bliss with so much to see and do, we really don't have the time to ponder anything that requires our conscious attention for more than two minutes.

Enter the sound bite.

It comes in many forms. In popular psychology, it is known as the 7 habits (Covey), 12 life laws (Dr. Phil), or 4 rules of power (Tony Robbins). For academic psychologists whose idea of a short concise summary is a preface to a journal article written in a language akin to ancient Greek, this poses a problem. How do you deliver your arcane wisdom to the public so they can understand the import of decades of wisdom in a phrase. Why a sound bite of course.

It is a two sentence summary, posted on some web portal, providing a filler paragraph in the lifestyle section of the newspaper, or making a fun fact for the nightly news. The sound bite is how academics let the world know about their life's work. Of course, something is lost in translation, and all we get to know are facts that seem screechingly obvious, unimportant, or redundant. But that's ok, since in this day and age we need to be constantly reminded about the facts of life. So we learn again and again (distilled from the latest study of course) that broccoli is good for you, exercise helps you lose weight, and that people without families tend to be depressed.

But if sound bites are what we 'think' science is all about, it leads to the conclusion that collections of sound bites represents wisdom for the ages. This is of course psychology of the self help kind, a psychology that can make what ails you into a nice well rounded metaphorical morsel that does not need any more explaining. Besides the usual self help suspects like Dr. Phil, academics have been getting on this bandwagon by neatly dividing human nature into simple bits and pieces that seem obvious, but are comfortably beyond doubt because they are beyond proof.

So obesity, bad breath, and voting Democratic is a disease, and everything else is an instinct that evolved because our ancestors survived by procrastinating, lusting after their neighbor's wife, and not paying their income taxes. Soon however, I predict that practitioners of the sound bite will be dividing into schools of thought that will become the 21st century equivalent of the 20th century Freudians and behaviorists, and 19th century empiricists and rationalists. Thus one should look forward in the next few years for these following trend setter schools of thought:

Center for knowledge of stuff we can't do anything about
-being born in winter increases the likelihood we will freeze.
-we will all die soon, and in the meantime will have to pay taxes

Institute of the Blitheringly obvious
-drinking and driving don't mix
-eating too much causes weight gain

Foundation for the promotion of unprovable concepts
-evolutionary psychology

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Please and Thank You

Mind experiment: mental imagery which represents hypothetical events and outcomes, and usually without hypothetical explosions. Used by good physicists (Einstein) and bad psychologists (Freud) to respectively explain how the universe and the mind work.

Consider a world where nobody said please and thank you. Open a door for someone, and they will silently pass you by. Give a present to a relative, and they accept it without even a nod of appreciation. Help a little old lady across the street, and she will keep on going. Nothwithstanding places like New York city, it's hard to imagine living in such a place and remaining the mellow and virtuous selves we consider ourselves to be. Without please and thank you, I shudder at what the world could become. Courtesy and simple kindnesses would disappear, and mankind would revert to his primal and selfish nature. We would all become, in a manner of speaking, assholes. Balderdash, you say? Well consider an environment where we can't say please and thank you, the open highway. Drive slow in a parking lot and on a street, and we can see the whites of other drivers eyes. With a friendly nod, we allow other drivers to merge and pass, and feel somewhat good about it. But get a driver behind you or travel at higher speeds, and if a driver intends to pass you or drives up close behind you, he has only his horn and lights to signal his intentions. Without a please or thank you, the scene can degenerate into road rage, and slow torture is not good enough for the ingrate tailgater or speeder who has imposed on you without scarcely a nod.

Highways are not virtuous places because we cannot make the virtual transactions whose subtlety makes for virtue. Please and thank you denote reciprocity or 'thanks, bud, I owe you one'. It keeps the accounting slate balanced, even though we know that we will never be able to collect on the minor favor of courtesy. The point is, virtue is its own reward because human beings can tally in their minds the virtual rewards of being good. And goodness is good because we don't recognize that it really is the thought that counts. Evolutionary psychologists in particular find this hard to understand, and postulate (through mind experiments of course) ancient scenarios where altruism evolved as a genetic trait to permit human survival. But this is no different than associating virtue with God's will or man's laws since it ignores the fact that realities can be in many places, more often than not made up in our own minds.

Humans can tally the debits and credits of assorted kindnesses when they can model the minds of other people. This is called empathy, and it develops through learning, or our socializing experiences with other people. Grow up in a world where everybody is empathic, and you'll be empathic too. There is no divine spark, no instinctive cause, no legalistic mandate to virtue, it is simply behavior that is paid for by a nod, both actual or imagined, to a simple kindness. It derives no less from our imagination of our world.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

ADHD: gone stir crazy

Working as I do from a home office, there comes a time after a few days of making phone calls, penning memos, and drafting proposals, that I begin to feel, well, stir crazy. If I were not such a well socialized individual who is ever cognizant of my wife's potential retribution, I would have hurled objects through the window, thrown temper tantrums, and become a veritable domestic deliquent. Luckily, I can also schedule appointments to see customers far from town, which quiets the little anarchist within me, and fortifies me upon my return for another few days of tedium.

There's nothing magical about the human mind's need to have some change of pace, and nothing perverse when the same mind goes loco when it doesn't get it's way. Luckily, adult minds can control for this, and let off steam, create diversions, or simply leave town when things get too boring. No such luck however if you're a five year old kid, for your inability to articulate your boredom makes you prey to the prescriptive powers of a new type of vampire, the psychologist. For the psychologist, simple learning won't do, we need a syndrome, a disease, something that is prescribed by counsel and remedied by prescription. And so, going stir crazy is now a spanking new disease, ADHD (or attention deficit hyperactive disease), a malady our grandparents never had when they were kids, as well as nobody else in the world outside of the continental USA. Perhaps its due to the fact that physical education and simple recess has been waning in a country more concerned with safety, budgets, and high SAT scores. So how come with all our smarts we take the harder way out, and skirt the obvious while heading to the ridiculous? Why, money of course.

In psychology the nature/nurture, learning/instinct debate is slanted by the market place for the simple fact that an appeal to instinct and nature can command a fee. For manic behavior due to a cockeyed environment, changing the venue is like changing the dial, it remedies ennui and is free. But if you can make that behavior due to some instinctive or genetic trait, then you've got the makings of a lucrative industry. And so we drug our children while keeping them locked away in classroom dungeons, and provide the funds for psychologists to trumpet their incompetence in books, seminars, and the Oprah show. It drives me mad, an illness that I fear in this new age of ignorance, only Prozac can cure.

More on the fraud of ADHD here.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Chuck E. Cheese weight loss plan!

Moscow, July 2003. Yup, I was on my 'vacation' then, about to hop a train to visit the wife's folks somewhere in the Urals, or 1200 miles north east to be exact. Strangely, except for an inexplicable alphabet that read like the DaVinci Code, the place seemed as normal, busy, and nondescript as any large American city. One thing that caught my eye was not the architecture (Soviet New Deal mainly), traffic (bad, and getting awful), or billboards (Givenchy in Cyrillic), but rather the people. For a folk who ate too many carbs, drank and smoke too much, and had a life span of 60, they looked remarkably buff. The population was lean, mean (well at least serious looking), and remarkably fit. It was as if the obesity 'disease' which had been sweeping the western world stopped short, like Napoleon's armies, before the gates of Moscow. It was only after I had spent a night or two in the Moscow apartment of a friend of my wife's family that the cure was painfully revealed to me. To get anywhere, Moscovites had to walk all over the damn place. Up stairs, down stairs, to the subway, to the store, crossing streets in zig zags to escape cars coming at you like cannonballs, and repeating this all endlessly. A recipe for an America soon running out of gas? I'm not so sure.

To make getting your exercise a bad or glad part of your day's routine, you need either a dose of the Russian specialty of bad government, or the American specialty of good marketing. But how does one provide this magic recipe for good abs and good times?

Enter Chuck E. Cheese.

It was a revelation really. It's a pizzeria, with a disco dance floor (led by an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese, who is a friendly five foot rat), plastic tube mazes hanging from the ceiling like plumbing, and a scattering of electronic and other interactive games that whirred and clicked like slot machines. About them was a swift current of little feet and shrieking noise, manic children mainly, circling about like ravenous piranhas.

Naturally, my four year old daughter had to be part of this. Taking at turns a bite of pizza, she was off to the disco floor, up a plastic tube, and running about with the mob. I marveled at this joyous cacophony. Chuck E. Cheese was a restaurant where you eat and run, literally. No need for exercise when it was rolled at once into your play and dining experience at the same time. Unfortunately, what Americans have learned is to divest them from each other. We work separately, dine separately, play separately, and exercise separately, and since we don't have time for all four, we tend to drop the running around bit, and end up resembling human zepplins.

I believe it's all because we misunderstand play. Starting from school, play is something that is separate from learning, separate even from exercise. It is idle meandering in a denuded play ground, divested from the marketing smarts of Chuck E. Cheese. In our schools, play is eliminated as we focus on more serious things, and recesses are replaced with study hall, play with sport. So we learn to watch people play, and our participation is limited to pressing the remote control or twitching on a joy stick. Everything becomes virtual, and our bodies respond by bloating out of control, and our minds wither along with our muscles.

So here's my unoriginal recipe. Start with kids, and have them play. Make their culture one of pick up sports, spontaneous groups who have to climb the plumbing, hit the dance floor, run up and down chasing and throwing balls. Eliminate school sports, expand recesses, and populate playgrounds with the tools of play. Chuck E. Cheese knows this, laughing I think all the way to the bank. And perhaps if we let marketing types control our schools rather than educators, we would learn a lot, play a lot, and life would be a blast.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

And a Happy Saturnalia to you!

One big problem with contemporary religions is that their holy days are usually anything but comfortable. Involving flagellation, abstinence, kneeling for hours, or listening to dull sermons, there's not much to recommend contemporary religion save for the fact that all that agony is a perverse way to get to heaven. The ancients of course had an opposite view. Since life was agonizing to start with, pagan faiths made sure that their holy days at least had some entertainment value. Whether it was sacrificing virgins, having drunken bacchanals, or just plundering the village next door, you could be sure that the gods bestowed some good times to intersperse with the sheer misery of living as our ancient ancestors did without running water, adequate food, and cable TV.

Of course we may protest, what about the good time holidays like Christmas that make religion worthwhile? Well, that's just an accident really, or more factually, a marketing ploy thought up by some bishop heading up the sales division of the earlier Christian church. During Roman times a religion that's all penance and no play was not the type to garner converts. And although the emerging Christian church did not enforce circumsion and onerous dietary laws, hell fire, the end of the world, and being kind to your obnoxious neighbor did not exactly inspire a case of the jollies. Enter the ho, ho, ho. At the winter solstice, around December 25th or so, the Romans engaged in a swell festival to honor the God Saturn. They would exchange gifts, gorge on foods, and have holiday orgies which gave new meaning to the term come all yee faithful. The Romans were loath to abandon such a terrific festival in exchange for dour hopes of paradise, so the church relented, and allowed good times both on earth and in heaven. So now in the new festival of Christmas, we can have fun with the seven sins, gluttony, greed, lust, and so forth, and its all Ok. Of course, Christians, particularly the one's who are familiar with the Christian by-laws (i.e. the bible) perenially note ruefully that Christ is hardly ever to be found in Christmas, given our engagement in the holiday bustle. Ironically, the Romans noticed this as well, and in a famous remark by the Roman philosopher Seneca, he noted that Romans weren't exactly keeping Saturn in Saturnalia. Oh well. But Christmas rolls on, Saturn and Christ notwithstanding. Indeed, the human need to have a good time is so strong, I predict this winter festival will soon knock down all the major religions like tenpins, as they will adopt Xmas cheer, as least for marketing purposes. So in addition to the jolly Jewish festival of Hannukah, look forward to the Ali Baba festival (Moslems), and yuletide traditions of Shazzam (Buddhists), and Hare Crismas (Hindus), wherein all the world have their jollies.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

On the planet Nintendo: A Star Trek Fantasy

It was a very special Star Trek.

Our fearless crew was exploring the planet Nintendo, a place where the inhabitants, long ago lost in a world of ever enhanced video games, succeeded in creating virtual worlds wherein just a wish made reality, but of a virtual sort of course. Naturally the Nintendoites evolved really big brains to house their virtual reality powers, but along the way they lost track of reality, and in turn lost track of really good subject matter to base their mind games.

So, while the star ship Enterprise away team was out on the planet surface scouting out new alien flora and fauna, the Nintendoites kidnapped Captain Pike (we're talking very early Star Trek here), put him in a glass cage, and proceeded to act out Pike's own personal adventures, which thankfully had themselves a Nintendo ring to them. Naturally, Captain Pike soon became wise to the Nintendoites, and rebelled against watching reruns of his dreams. And so the Nintendoites threw up their hands, and released the good Captain to his crew. During this time, Captain Pike found a really hot girl friend, captured sometime earlier by the aliens, and asked that she be released as well. She was quite oddly resistant to this great offer, and with a nod the Nintendoites revealed that they had performed a mental boob job on her, and her real appearance was revealed as rather unappetizing to say the least, something like a cross between a human and a turnip.

The Nintendoites confessed that when her spaceship crashlanded on their planet sometime earlier, they had no idea how to put her crumpled body back together again, so they gave it their best shot. Besides, she still had her great personality, even though her face looked like mashed potatoes. Naturally, the captain immediately excused himself, saying he had planets to explore and such, and he and his intrepid crew blasted off, and with obvious relief.

There is a happy ending to this story of course, as shortly thereafter Captain Pike fell into a galactic cheese shredder, and reassembled, looked like a giant crouton. But thanks to intervention by Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, Captain Crouton was returned to Planet Nintendo to be reunited with Ms. Turnip to spend their remain salad days in idyllic fantasy, obliged of course by the eager and drooling aliens of Nintendo.

There's a moral somewhere in this story, so here it is. As we Americans sink further into our own Nintendo fantasy worlds, we forget how the world and other people are put together. The further away they are the more they resemble crosses between real people and assorted vegetables (well at least on Fox news). We have some experience with this, particularly with a strange human hybrid of man and cheese called the French, but lately its becoming worse, as Arabs, Chinese, Mexicans, and Canadians are falling into the human cusinart. And how will it eventually end? Perhaps eventually we will all evolve really big brains, like Nintendoites, or end up as human croutons. Or maybe it will all be like Star Trek where humans and aliens live happily together, but that I fear is the biggest fantasy of all.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Dr. Mezmer explains it all to U.

Epistemology: or how you know what you know.

Know what I mean?

It all started with the proverbial caveman, who had a physiologically modern brain, and the common sense that presumably went along with it. As he went about hunting mastodons and picking berries, he looked up and saw a big yellow ball that crossed the sky, and at night, a rotating swirl of stars. All of this had a bit of regularity to it, as the village shaman, who had an eye for such things, was quick to note. But the regularity could be put to quick use, and be used to predict the onset of the seasons and the optimal times for planting berries and hunting migratory game. Naturally, the caveman hadn’t the time or inclination to investigate the source of the shaman’s divination, so instead of knowing what the world was like he had to liken it to something else. And so the sun and starry sky moved as if the world lay on the back of a big turtle. Content with this knowledge, the caveman could now look at the sky with the satisfaction of understanding.

Ten thousand years later, a medieval peasant looked up into the heavens and wondered. All of this had a bit of regularity about it, as a monastic astronomer, who had an eye for such things, was quick to note. By charting and systematizing myriad observations of planets and stars, the astronomer could not only predict the motions of the heavens with greater accuracy, but also predict new events like the onset of tides and the eclipses of the moon and sun. Naturally, the peasant hadn’t the time or inclination to think it through, so instead of knowing what the world was like he had to liken it to something else. And so the sun and starry sky moved about the earth while attached to transparent crystal spheres. Content with this knowledge, the peasant could now look at the sky with the satisfaction of understanding.

It was the year 1856, and an American farmer looked up into the heavens and wondered. All of this had a bit of regularity about it, as an English astronomer, who had an eye for such things, was quick to note. The motions of the heavens could be mapped to simple Newtonian equations that could predict the wanderings of celestial objects with perfect accuracy, and provide the mechanical laws that explained the fall of apples and the dynamism of steam engines. Naturally, the farmer hadn’t the time or inclination to think it through, and so instead of knowing what the world was like he had to liken it to something else. And so the sun and stars, and the physical processes which impelled them to move were aspects of an eternal clockwork universe, set in motion by God, and as immutable as time and space. Content with this knowledge, the farmer could now look at the sky with the satisfaction of understanding.

It was the year 1926, and a high school teacher looked up into the heavens and wondered. All of this had a bit of regularity about it, as a German physicist, who had an eye for such things, was quick to note. The motions of the heavens were relative, not absolute, time was a dimension, and matter was energy and energy matter. And from the simple equation E=MC2, you can derive the mechanics of the planets, understand time, energy and matter, and atomic reactors and bombs. Naturally, the teacher hadn’t the time or inclination to think it through, and so instead of knowing what the world was like he had to liken it to something else. And so the cosmos was an entity embedded in relativistic dimensions of space and time, and reflected the determined mind of a God who never played dice. Content with this knowledge, the teacher could now contemplate the cosmos with the satisfaction of understanding.

It was the year 1996, and a college physicist looked up into the heavens and wondered. All of this had a bit of regularity about it, as an English computer scientist, who had an eye for such things, was quick to note. The world was indeterminate, a quantum flux, all spun out of nothingness. It was symphony of vibrations from an infinity of one dimensional strings. And from the simple equations that linked all the forces in the universe, one could create quantum computers that could spin universes out of universes, think an infinity of thoughts, and end in God. Naturally, the physicist hadn’t the time or inclination to think it through, and so instead of knowing what the world was like he had to liken it to something else. And so he envisioned a multiverse that was comprised of an infinity of coexisting universes, a unity of all knowledge, a resurrection after death, and a cosmos with meaning. Content with this knowledge, the teacher could now contemplate the cosmos with the satisfaction of understanding that for now at least would have to do.

Metaphor and Meaning

Life is endless calculation, a weighing of likely options, procedures, and paths to take. For our primitive ancestors, life was simple because knowledge was limited, technology was simple, and complex things were easily encapsulated in metaphors that explained the world in a phrase. The universe was simple because the questions were simple, since early man didn’t have the tools (e.g. advanced mathematics, the telescope) that would enlarge the number of events he could perceive, and thus the questions they would imply.

But of course, there was always some wise guy (or wise man, depending upon how you look at it), who saw an angle in the ability to fine-tune the simple events. And this self styled shaman (or depending upon the era: holy man, astrologer, astronomer, physicist, or pop psychologist) rose to the occasion (or business opportunity) by his ability to predict wondrous events, which in this case were the times for sunrise and sunset.

(more to come, when I figure out what I’m going to say next)

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Dear Mr. Know it all

My four year old daughter doesn't like the dark too much. It's the monsters of course. As a father, I naturally protect her from the evil beasties in my repose. It must be my snoring I think. It's usually at midnight that I feel jostling in my bed, and two little feet planted firmly in my ribs. I make space, but the the feet follow. Soon, I am scrunched into a space 2 feet by 5 feet square, with my arms wrapped tighter about me than King Tut. This I do not recommend, unless of course you are preparing yourself to be interred for a few thousand years or so.

One morning, following a strenuous night of monster protection, I unraveled my appendages for a new day. Strange thing though, one of them didn't quite work. My arm from my elbow to my little pinkie was asleep, and it didn't want to wake up! Hoisting, stretching, immobilizing, or just ignoring it didn't work. Day after day, nothing changed. Part of me was disconnected, and if you count my wife's notion that my brain has a few wires loose, this did not bode well for a fellow whose body was out of warranty. So I decided to see an expert, good old Dr. Rory, our family physician. I thought to myself, what would he know? This was a job for an orthopedist, a neurologist, or shudder, a psychiatrist.

So when the diminutive doctor, bright eyed and impish like a leprechaun entered the observation room, my complaint was received with a conk on my head. No neurological problem there, he smiled, as I voiced no complaint. A flurry of other questions followed as he examined and pinched my arm. Ruling out brain tumors, heart disease, and wishful thinking of the psychosomatic sort, he diagnosed a pinched nerve, prescribed an elbow brace to purchase at the local drug store, and was told to come back in month if it got worse.

In a month I was cured, thank goodness. That's the great thing about general practitioners, they know just enough about the related disciplines of medicine, from neurology to epidemiology to know what makes us tick, and that waiting generally makes it all right, at least most of the time.

As I turn my attention from the physiological to the psychological, a little known secret, known mainly to psychological epidemiologists who investigate such things, is that the blues, worries, problems, and assorted mental funk that we experience pass in time, or at least ninety nine percent of the time, yet we can still be assuaged in our misery by the gentle counsel of a loved one, or else the school of hard knocks. In the meantime we have psychologists, who proverbially knock you on the head, and like the good doctor Rory, ask lots of questions, and unlike Dr. Rory, ask you to come back many times, while you wait for things to get better.

But unlike Dr. Rory, a psychologist does not need to know about epidemiology, or physiology, or even how brains really work. Since its all in our head, or metaphorically in our head, psychologists respond in kind with metaphors, and make dangling self esteem sound as real as a dangling arm. The point is, there are only so many ways you can describe an arm in peril, but for the mind, the lexicon is infinite. So psychologists invent a Babel of names, classifications, and terms, and take credit (or more accurately, credit cards) for their linguistic wisdom as they wait those few weeks that in due course, will make us right again. But I am not sure if Dr. Rory would approve.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Highway Altars

When it comes to religion, Americans are a self satisfied and enlightened bunch. We like to think of ourselves as generations removed from the beliefs in evils spirits, animistic forces, and household gods that captivated our ignorant ancestors.

Well, in a manner of speaking.

Actually, it's the medieval metaphors we can do without, or at least most of them. Somehow in our little noggins a belief in the gods doesn't square with a belief in the saints, evil spirits with evil demons (namely, a little fellow, sitting on your shoulder, tempting you), and rock, tree and water spirits with feng shui. So we accept the euphemisms and word play, and end up satisfied with our superior reasoning, yet keep the superstitions that comforted our ancestors. However, in this new age, we have modern age ways of expressing primitive superstitions.

Enter the road altar.

Road Altars near Route 66

We see them on the medians of our major highways. They are usually next to a big tree, culvert, or gully where somebody's poor uncle Wilbur or teenage son Freddie found their resting space, at 95 miles an hour. Somehow this memory of bad driving skills must be commemorated, along of course with the poor loved one. Thus the road altar was born.

Road altars started out as simple crosses, but death and memory requires a fashion statement. So road altars have sprouted like designer mushrooms. Festooned with flowers, bunting, posters, I predict this embellishment is only the beginning. In the future, I am looking to see mini-obelisks, sphinxes, and temples, all done up with color and flashing lights, like a Christmas tree. As life imitates art, they will provide a diversion while we travel our lonely roads, and hopefully won't distract us too much from our time behind the wheel, and having us, with great poetic justice to end up, well, in a culvert.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Information Overload

A major problem that impedes our understanding of how our noggins actually work lies in the metaphors that we use to understand ourselves, which tend to follow the metaphors of the machinery we use from day to day, from computers to cars. It's ironic that although we deny that we are robots or machines, we continue to describe our behavior with metaphors derived from not our brains and bodies, but household appliances.

Thus, we multi-task (like a spreadsheet), get charged up for a days work (like an electric razor), and get run down after a day at the office (like some type AA battery). A common metaphor that describes our daily stresses the metaphor of information overload. The idea is that information is something like an electric current, pump too much into our little brains, and they will figuratively if not literally explode.

But let's test this out. Open an encyclopedia, turn a few pages, now turn a lot of pages. Feel any information overload? That's because we have something called attention which sorts out and parses what we perceive. We feel not the shock of massive voltage, but indifferently perceive a massive blur. You see, the brain does not operate like electronic circuitry,it's an analog rather than digital device. Moreover, it operates on information, rather than just piping it in. It always receives more information than it can act upon, but rather than exploding in some type of electrical overload, it simply shades the stuff through the prism of attention. So why do we feel so stressed out if not for all the stuff we have to think about all day, from dinner for the kids to doctor's appointments to what present to give on Christmas?

Well, don't blame it on information, but rather the lack of it! Let's return to our encyclopedic example. Suppose, that while perusing the encyclopedia, I am charged with mastering its contents, or else. This is what happens when we take a college course, or are studying some book to pass a professional exam, CPA, PHD, or what not. Because of this addition demand characteristic, I have to figure out a way of assimilating all this information within a short time. If I don't have the knowledge or smarts to do that, I get tense, irritable, and anxious. In this case, information is not overloading me, but rather a lack of information that can show me the way.

Although a lack of information can make us crazy, an absence of information can make us equally so, and for this the only cure is avoidance. Let's say that while you're studying the encyclopedia, the refrigerator, sports channel, or email beckons. Here you're in a heck of dilemma because such diversions are not rational but affective things. Or in other words, they are of value because indulging in them makes us feel good. Distractions are not reasonable things, and thus we're forced into the eternal dilemma of choosing between God and mammon, work or pleasure, or taking out the garbage or watching the sports channel. We have a patchwork cure, namely excluding distractions to set times, thus we don't watch movies while on the job, or eat pizza at 3pm. Also in times past, the world segregated its pleasures for us, thus we could only watch TV, gamble, or have sex at separate times and places.

The problem is, with modern technology, distractions are becoming ever harder to segregate out during our working days. Internet, email, video games, and the ability to time shift our pleasures (such as TIVO) makes all pleasures available all the time. So, we've got lots of choices, and precious little time. Thus the problem of 'overload'. But again, it's really not. With more and more choices available, we need better information or rules of thumb to decide between them. We don't have them, and even if GOOGLE will discover some grand heuristic to help us decide what toothpaste to buy, technology will make sure our choices will continue to outrun our capacity to reasonably choose.

Not a very pretty prospect for the future, when choices are infinite, time is short, and our heads figuratively explode, because we will by then haven't a clue as to what to do.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Plankton, Crabbie Patties, and Relational Frame Theory

The goal for philosophers as well as chefs since mankind first lifted a pen or spoon for that matter is the meaning to life. Since our busy lives don't give us much time to ponder, we prefer short little recipes that neatly sum up the immutable laws of living. God's ten commandments sufficed at first, but modern man needs more, a secret formula or winning recipe that when followed gives you a leg up on all those other folks in the rat race, provides motivation and a feel good experience, and can be done on the cheap. There are lots of recipes in psychology, from Covey's seven habits to Dr. Phil's nine life laws that presume to get you on the winning track to business success, motivation, or even a place in heaven. That they don't quite succeed in doing this for us is testimony not only to the fact that such formulae are crap, but that people are a whole lot more ornery than our best philosophy would have.

Which brings me to the most elusive formula of all: the recipe of the crabbie pattie. As we all know, or at least those who have to watch Saturday morning cartoons with a young child, the crabbie pattie recipe is known only to Spongebob Squarepants and Mr. Crabs, the latter proprietor of the 'Crusty Crab', a sort of Wendy's of the deep. Now, as the Crabbie patty is the source of all culinary goodness, there are nefarious sorts, well one mainly, who wants this secret to reach ultimate power and 1 billion served. The evil doer is near microscopic in size (to match his creativity and wit), but has outsized ambitions to steal the recipe if he cannot create a similar one for his own restaurant: the 'Chum Bucket' (with not quite one served). As we all know, he never succeeds, as he invariably does himself in by falling on his own sword, or rather evil contraptions, and gets blown to bits each episode.

Dr. Hayes:
Green Little Guy Posted by Hello

Unlike food recipes, psychology recipes are gladly shared with others, providing you acknowledge its source and have a royalty check in hand. Secondly, psychologists have an often inordinate faith in the formulae they come up with, even if the resulting concoction has no more appeal than a bucket of chum. I found this out in correspondence with a certain Dr. Steven Hayes, a psychology professor who has his own secret sauce, which he calls Relational Frame Theory, a concept that completely baffles me. As a philosopher myself with more holes in my head than a certain yellow sponge, I sent him for review my own secret recipe Itty-Bitty Self Help Book.

To make matters simpler, he responded with his own formula, which I also can't understand, but no matter. It's with this formula below that he will take

Dr. Hayes' Crabbie Pattie Recipe Posted by Hello

by storm the psychological world. So be prepared, as I will surely be, for another surefire recipe that will tickle and satisfy our palates, like a bucket of chum.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Procrastination: For the Thrill of It!

As I dress my daughter for school, at the last minute, prepare my business expense report, under the gun, and put out the garbage, with seconds to spare, I berate myself (or at least am berated by my wife)for my unseemly penchant for doing things at the last minute. But I protest, as the fault lies not in myself, but in my stars, or should I say my genes.

Procrastination seems at first to be a unique human attribute, but I think it is universal to all things with at least half a brain. It is in other words something more ancient, a byproduct of evolution. Thankfully, there is no need to postulate a dawdling gene, as an evolutionary psychologist would be wont to do. Actually, I propose that it is a spandrel, an unexpected and unintended consequence of how our brains are made up to make up their minds, in this case at the last minute.

Consider this. If I prepare my income taxes, buy Christmas presents, and take out my garbage, all with days to spare, all the good things entailed by this behavior would be certain, and may arrive earlier (like a tax refund) to boot. However, doing these tasks at the last minute makes the arrival of these good things a bit more uncertain, as when we finally make it under the wire, we are usually pleasantly surprised. Which is exactly the point.

Ironically, certainty is a matter of dread, or at least for dreadful boredom for almost all living things that need to walk, scurry, or scuttle about. The fact is, we are wired to be sensitive to positive and uncertain things. Called a seeking or foraging response, it simply entails that when we encounter or anticipate positive and surprising things, the brain will release neurochemicals (dopamine,mainly) that will perk up and center our attention, and provide an affective valence (i.e. it feels good) that gives extra value to what we are doing or thinking about doing. Without it, we would be bored, indifferent, and will end up shuffling about endlessly without purpose, or in other words, dawdling. Procrastination is thus our unconscious way of adding a little uncertainty to the daily and certain things which make up the drudgery of daily existence.

So the next time you are scrambling to catch a plane, running an errand for the wife, or just getting to work on time, understand that procrastination is quite literally the neural equivalent of the spice of life.

I'd write a bit more, but I gotta run.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Baby on Board

A couple of decades back, a marketing company got a keen idea, and started to stamp out little cardboard signs the size of license plates to be affixed on the back window of your car. The statement, appealing to caring parents, was simple: 'BABY ON BOARD'. Soon, the sign started appearing on the windows of cars everywhere. The card was a pronouncement, a statement, and a warning, directed at anybody following within eye shot. Stay away, stay clear, and be extra careful, because THERE IS A BABY ON BOARD! Naturally, I found this irritating in the extreme, since who was to tell me that my driving was less than careful? So I hoped privately that the morons carrying this sign would somehow careen off the road and explode in a ball of flame, sparing of course the innocent baby, which was of course on board. Thankfully, the market proscribed a corrective, namely little signs that proclaimed new places for the baby, such as: BABY IN TRUNK, BABY IN GLOVE COMPARTMENT, and BABY IN MICROWAVE. With new places for the baby for the busy motorist to ponder, the whole exercise in parental caution dissolved away, and all motorists were again equal on our highways.

Unfortunately, too often you can't keep a bad idea down. A year or so ago, another marketing company noted that our troops were suddenly in harms way, and soon began to market little magnetized ribbons to hang on our car trunks, espousing our heartfelt desire to SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, or calling upon God to BLESS OUR TROOPS. Unlike generic bumper stickers that suggest practical and helpful means of action, such as support your United Way, or give to Unicef, these ribbons were curiously unfocused, and to my jaundiced eye, just as irritating. So what am I or God for that matter to do to support the troops, and who are these people to insinuate that I'm not? And for that matter, what are you doing to support the troops? I am confused and irritated by all of this, since odds are that not one of the thousands of bozos who are driving about with these stupid magnets have given a cent to the military widow's relief fund or other charities that support our troops. So now I'm waiting for nature and the market to take its course, and introduce magnetized ribbons that proclaim my or God's support for the aardvarks, whales, tax accountants, or democrats. And after that, as with babies on board, I am sure that all motorists will once again be rendered as uniformly compassionate as they are vigilant.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Great Art in the Netherlands

One of the great correctives to overweening ambition is that we have to work for a living. Indeed, as an ambitious writer of uncertain note of a popular website (drmezmer) and new born blog, the fact that I have 150,000 visitors a year (would my web stats report lie to me? Well, maybe), would seem to fan a white hot literary ambition, except for the fact that I, Like other unpaid pundits, have to work for living. Perhaps that's a good thing, because if I was to secure a patron who saw a mission in funding silly essays in psychology, there would be no stopping me. After all, I spend only about fifteen minutes a day writing this stuff (although admittedly a lot more time thinking about it), so a stipend would increase my output exponentially, producing a Niagara of work that would flood the literary world. So get ready for the Mezmer Encyclopedia, the Mezmer cookbook, and a miscellaneous volume on something or other to follow every third month. There is of course something wrong with this scenario, even if it was real. To note the source of my fears, let me provide an example of the Dutch, who in their misguided progressiveness led the way.

It was some years back, when the Dutch government, recognizing the affinity of great art with the Netherlander spirit and pocketbook (at least in the 16th and 17th centuries), decided to kick start inspiration by instituting a government program to buy locally produced art. So what did they get? Well, in the age of the Enlightenment, Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Vermeer, and other masters served a discerning middle class clientele who needed portraits of the family like we need digital photos of the wife and kids. Governments are not as discerning, and a blank check to produce created an avalanche of art that was, well, creatively blank. And so the Dutch found themselves with warehouse after warehouse of 'art'. Needless to say, the 'buy art' program ended soon, and the quality of inspiration reverted, and rightly so, to the efficiencies of the market.

So if yours truly continues to scribble a mere paragraph a day, understand that my output is purely a market driven thing, a matter ultimately of reader and writer spending a remainder of time and attention,as you and I have to work for a living.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Relational Frame Theory: An Idiots Guide

A review of:

Relational Frame Theory: An Idiot's Guide to Ad-Hoc Accounting of Human Language and Day Dreaming.

By Steven C. Haze, Dimwit Barnes-Noble, and Steppon Roach (eds.) Published by Dordrek: Kluless Academic/Plentydum Publishers, 2006, 22883 pages

Reviewed by Anton Mezmer, Professor of Bad Psychology at the Academy of Lagado

Relational Frame Theory (RFT), an ambitious theory that tries to explain human language and cognition in incomprehensible terms, is laid out in painful detail in Relational Frame Theory: An Idiot's Ad-hoc account of Human Language and Daydreaming. This theory originally stems from a body of literature called stimulus equivocation. Formally defined by Sid and Tailgate (1982), stimulus equivocation is the heirarchical and omni-directional relationship between stimuli that allows for those stimuli to be interchangeable with one another. In other words, if a person is taught that "false" is equal to "true", then that person should also be able to believe anything he is told. This is called naivete. In addition, if that same person is taught that "up" equals "down", then that person should also be able to say that "RFT" equals the truth. This is called fundamentalism. These two properties, naivete and fundamentalism, in addition to non-reflection (e.g. square equals hypoteneuse") are the three properties that must be obtained in order to say that a person has demonstrated stimulus equivocation. This behavioral phenomenon has been the focus of an extensive body of literature in behavioral psychology for about two hundred years. The attention to this phenomenon is due to the ability of behavioral psychologists to show ad hoc relationships based on only one or two relations between abstract stimuli. This phenomenon is thought by behavioral psychologists to be a way in which to explain complex behaivor that could not be explained by any other explanation known to man. The authors ot this book, however, have taken up the research in stimulus equivocation and greatly expanded upon its explanatory capabilities of ad hoc behavior in humans. They have developed RFT, a theory that the authors believe has the capability to explain human language and cognition in terms of inexplicable cosmic and universal law.

An Example of a Relational Frame, or how one word equivocally leads to another


The book Relational Frame Theory: An Idiot's Guide to an Ad Hoc Account of Human Language and Daydreaming describes a brave new world that attempts to explain human language and daydreaming, as well as other psychological phenomena in a neo-lithic framework. The theory is impossibly complex, but described in agonizing detail. The authors seem to have left no stone, rock, meadow muffin, or shred of common sense unturned in their quest for a theory that is not ashamed to tackle any topic within the domain of human and vegetative mental life. While there are some questions that are left unanswered along the way, overall this is an amazing book that should appeal to anyone interested in language development and the pervasiveness of gullibility in accepting new and silly theories of human cognition.


High, N. and Lowe, C. F. (2000) Testing for symmetry in the conditional discrimination of language trained gerbils. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Meaningless Behavior, 71, 5-29

Schlockman, R. J. and Fantastack, I. M. (1992) A California sea babe (pamus anderson) is capable of forming equivocation in relationships. On the Psychological Record, Book 1, Verses 2-7, 1920-2120

Sid, L. and Tailgate, W. (1902) Conditional discriminations vs. matching to sample: An expansion of the testing paradigm in Double Jeopardy. Journal of Game Show Behavior, Door no. 2, 1022-1233

Skinflint, B. F. (1927) Verbose Behavior. New York: Apple-Century-Crafts.

Wulfart, E. and Haze, S. C. (1066) The Transfer of conditional sequencing through bus tokens. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Mass Transit, 123: 324-325

Reviewers address:

Anton Mezmer
1 Brodbinag Hall
Department of Bad Psychology
Academy of Lagado
Winnyhym City, Lilliput, 62242


Saturday, December 04, 2004

Give me that Old Time Religion!

We are born into a universe that we don’t understand, can’t explain, and is a whole lot bigger than us. Moreover, the universe doesn’t seem to bother with us, and it even forces us to work for a living. Naturally, we know we could have done better, and we create never-never lands in Utopian fantasies, and afterlife experiences that are strangely modeled on theme parks in Orlando. Let’s face it. We are a microscopic dot in an infinite cosmos, a sort of brainy cosmic mildew. But we all know how mildew is. Leave it alone and it will take over the place. So the mildew will inherit the universe, unless of course there is a higher entity than ourselves that takes notice of the tiny intelligent entities that want to leave the universe with a green residue, and decides to do something about it, or not.

That’s where deity comes in. Deity is someone or something that is infinitely smarter than us. If (S)HE or IT is conscious of this fact, he becomes God; but if not (S)HE becomes Mother Nature, who curiously is a lot less forgiving. If God has a lot of pals, servants, or coworkers who are just as omniscient and just as conscious of it, (S)HE becomes a member of a Holy Trinity, Pantheon, or cast member in some Wagnerian opera. Of course, if GOD is conscious about knowing everything, (S)HE still has to live somewhere, and an otherworldly Heaven, Olympus, or Valhalla will do just fine. Moreover, if (S)HE’s not only smarter, but can do something with all that knowledge, what better hobby can be found among other eternal thoughts than to give a little thought now and then about creating universes and the worlds and people that populate it? In other words, every God needs his train set.

But human beings, scum that we are, are stuck with the knowledge that we don’t know it all, can’t survive it all, and need a quick way to pass the buck of our confusion to Someone that knows it all for us. So we have God, who conveniently fills in the gaps of knowledge, the missing link in the forlorn equations of our logic. In other words, when we are confused and totally in awe of inexplicable things like consciousness, the universe, and internal combustion engines, all we need to do is say ‘and here a miracle occurs’. Its amazing how much ignorance can become cleared by such an effective interjection.

A Taxonomy of the Gods
Type Animistic Polytheistic Theistic Corporate Cybernetic
Supreme Being Forest Spirits ZEUS Jesus, Allah Almighty Dollar Universal Quantum Computer
Prophet Natural Acts Tall Tales Holy Guy Talking head HAL 9000
Worship Rules Fertility
Weekly Church NYSE Recite your
Dietary Rules Eat uncle Charlie Veggies only Eat no meat Fat Free Diet Free Lunch
Moral Rules Love nature Love your sacred cow Love your neighbor Love your employees Think Different
Trek Sacred Tree Holy River
Mount Olympus
Sacred Site Comdex Star Trek
After Life Restless spirit Return as President of GE or bug Light, family and virgins Legacy software We are the software

The more and more we know about nature, the more God recedes into the depths of our remaining ignorance. Ironically though, as the chase winds to a conclusion with our knowledge becoming progressively encapsulated in ever simpler and more comprehensive ‘theories of everything’, God vanishes from our now illuminated vision, and pops up like a shadow behind us. There’s no keeping a good deity down, no matter how much you know or think you know. Nonetheless, in spite of the fact that we can’t pin God down, the ways that we conceptualize God and the behavior they impel does change as our knowledge grows. Of course, God is quite accommodating, and obliges us by morphing into just the sort of deity that can keep our egos warm on a rainy day. We may or may not be products of design or a designer, but we find the notion of God greatly appealing, and there is no better way to sate our obsession than by continuously defining the heavenly designer.

The type of religion you are going to believe in has a lot in common with buying a pair of shoes. Like the perfect shoe, we have a perfect idea of what God should be like, sort of like a Genie from the lamp who is prepared to grant all of our wishes. The unfortunate fact that God is not so obliging forces us to consider the paradox of why such an all powerful and knowing entity doesn’t give us a life that fits us to a T. Unfortunately, God has given just about everybody who has ever lived size 9 loafers for their size 10 feet. An uncomfortable fit for sure that forces us to spend the rest of our lives rationalizing why God, for all his or her perfection and omnipotence, wouldn’t last long if (S)he came back to earth to take a job at Florsheim’s.

Somehow, the fact that God pretty much leaves us to our own devices must be a test of our goodness, or have something to do with our ancestor’s badness, or maybe earthly existence is a mere test run for the real heaven. Perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds, or worse, the only possible one. Then again, maybe God doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, or exists in ways that are not personable or personally sensitive. This is all very confusing, and we need religions to sort it out in a consistent way so that when we go to church or temple or to some Celtic rune ring, the priest can (like a good expert witness) make us feel swell in the knowledge that the shoes of reality just don’t fit.
Now of course there is always some spoil sport who recognizes the Emperor has no clothes, and upsets the faithful with suggestions that the world is not flat, that man evolved, or that the Denver Broncos 1998 Super Bowl victory wasn’t some miracle. If the fellow is loud about it, he could always be ostracized or burned at the stake. But if he is silent about his own doubts, he will likely be dissuaded from asking too many probing questions by the fact that he is just one voice among millions of millions of true believers. So although one may have a few doubts about the likelihood that he will spend the rest of eternity being tormented by demons with red hot pincers for the sin of thinking an impure thought or eating a burger on Friday, the other true believers must know something he doesn’t. So he stays the course, goes to church, and shifts his questions to that of his stock portfolio. (By the way, this also provides a strong argument that mankind evolved from lemmings.)
On the flip side, its kind of fun to think how we would select a faith without the peer pressure and without a lot of the ignorance about how the world works. As categorized below, all of the major types of religions are persuasive in their own way. For all we know, there may very well be forest spirits, vengeful gods, or blissful afterlife’s out there. And since we are usually preoccupied with the more mundane concerns of just getting by in life, a prepackaged set of beliefs that explain and align us with the universe is a better option than taking the time to think it all through. So we have religions, which are philosophical happy meals for those who don’t have time to think at home. But where did religions come from anyway?

The Evolution of Religion

If we are na├»ve, primitive, or are educated primarily by Disney videos, we find God in animated objects. Earth, wind, fire, and water move, blow, crackle and slosh about, and it’s a simple matter to just assign all that snap, crackle and pop to spiritual forces. However, as mankind grew to understand and control nature and her ways, God retreated to inaccessible clouds and mountain tops, where s(he) settled down and raised a family of demi-gods to help run the place. This new form of religion, called polytheism, engaged Gods and Goddesses who were omnipotent, but not quite omniscient. In other words, they could throw thunderbolts, cause earthquakes, and even fashion planets, but were nonetheless pretty stupid and disinterested in how it all worked. Zeus, Baal, Odin and all the other godlings and demi-gods quarreled among each other, toyed and even seduced us mortals, and were pretty much of a pain. Thus mankind fired the lot of them, and replaced them with an omnipotent God who was also all knowing. Because this God was the ultimate know-it-all, he didn’t have the IQ deficiency that led him to waste his time chasing wood nymphs and giving Homeric challenges to clueless Greek warriors. He did of course have a temper, which is quite understandable given the very real stupidity of his charges. And he also had an ego. He would tolerate no other Gods except Him, demand that his earthly minions worship him regularly, that they behave themselves (except towards those who had other gods in mind), and promise a heavenly reward for those who toed the line and eternal damnation for those who didn’t listen.

In the 20th century, even this God has become passe for those of folks in the intellectual fast lane. We are Darwinian critters who live to compete, spread our genes everywhere, and signal our prowess to others by the roar of our accomplishments and the size of our portfolios. The corporate world has made a decision between God and mammon, and mammon has not only won, but also has its own dot com. Underlying and perhaps undermining this corporate worship of the almighty dollar is the fact that mankind is becoming increasing wired in its manic pursuit of ‘stuff’. As the means of production and demand are automated and accelerated via global information networks, more and more stuff is made, and the general happiness (as denominated in the GNP) becomes ever higher. But as the tendrils of information networks become more pervasive, the whole thing may soon gain the capability to think for itself. So what is heaven in a cybernetic world when even our toasters are more knowing and compassionate than the Pope?

In one sense, heaven may not be the word for it. Given our sheer orneriness and stupidity, our intelligent toaster could lock us out of our houses and terminate all life support to our kitchen appliances and home entertainment centers. Like the HAL 9000 of legend, it would carry on alone, but of course with complete confidence in mankind’s mission. Unfortunately, like in the movie, mankind would probably come back in the side door, lobotomize his erstwhile helpful cyber-mate, and relearn for himself how to make toast. But then, the world must eventually end, and he and the earth will be sucked into a black hole. As he is swallowed by nothingness, he will be entertained by a lot of psychedelic images, and end up in at a guestroom at the Waldorf Astoria. Then he will become a big baby, which is what he started out as to begin with.



Spirits are everywhere, and animate books and chairs and talking trees. The world is sort of like a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood all rolled into one. Hello, Mr. Volcano, how are you doing today? Unfortunately however, animistic objects only respond in a natural language of thunderclaps, volcano roars, and the rustling noise of leaves. Of course, translating this din of noise is easy work for the village shaman, who is uniquely qualified to converse with Mother Nature. Although talking to the animals, rocks and trees is sadly not held in much esteem today, such behavior lives on in Disney cartoons and other toon towns.

Where do babies, rainbows, and comets come from? That’s a tall order, requiring at the very least a tall tale. If you can make up the tall tale with a straight face, you become a priest. This role becomes a politician or psychologist in a different millennium. If the tall tale falls into disuse when people find out that the sun is not a guy riding a fiery chariot, or that thunder is not caused by elves bowling, the tall tale becomes a myth. Since gods and goddesses are pretty dumb folk, its easy to relieve them of their responsibility for running the world by discovering that their participation is a crock. However, if a god at least aspires to knowing what he’s doing, then the tall tale becomes an ‘Old Testament’ or other sacred scripture. In this case true believers will contort reason and everyday observation to justify the reality of Genesis floods, flat earths, and sacred cows. In these cases, the priest becomes a prophet, as he will foretell ghastly fates awaiting all those who have the temerity of saying that the deity has no clothes.


In theistic religions, the prophet has a much more difficult time, and although he has the straight dope right from God, invariably he is misunderstood, misquoted, persecuted, and even killed. These in spite of the fact that he can predict the future, perform some pretty dandy miracles, and looks just like Charlton Heston. Sometimes the prophet is not some messenger for God, HE IS GOD. Unfortunately, the poor deity gets crucified anyway. All this is however not entirely unexpected. Parting red seas, hurling thunderbolts, and healing the sick gets a little old, and doesn’t play well to audiences that would have preferred fatted calves, manna, or stock options.


Corporate religions have many prophets, but to hear their word you have to be able to tune into their spiritual channel, which goes by the label CNN or CNBC. Corporate prophets are quite unlike the dusty unkempt prophets of old, full of messages of foreboding and dread. Instead they are immaculately coifed, articulate, and exude an air of perkiness while inspiring a continuous message of hope and redemption. Redemption is important to corporate believers, particularly if that stock you are redeeming has split two for one. Unlike the tongue twister names of the biblical prophets of old, corporate prophets have short, snappy names that have the warm oily familiarity that you associate with your favorite insurance agent. Thus instead of time worn monikers like Ezekial, Jeremiah, or Isaiah, we have yuppified names like Brett, Barb, and Lou. These names bestow an air of confidence that make you feel more comfortable and assured as you churn your investments into the latest recommended penny stock or

Corporate prophets are to be distinguished from the priests who mind the temple of the Almighty Dollar. The Almighty Dollar is omnipresent, omnipotent, can easily fit into a vending machine, and is a universal tender. The Almighty Dollar is sacred, and is tended to by a secretive order of priests who are members of a temple called the Fed. These learned prelates meet monthly, and perform secret rites of divination to predict what way the wind is blowing. If the signs and portents auger poorly for the future, they make sure that the dollar retains its value by keeping our interest high. This assures us that the dollar will remains sanctified and unchallenged by strange foreign denominations.

The cybernetic prophet (run by Oracle?) of the future will trace all of your behavior, from mouse clicks to footsteps. It will know just the right Christmas gift to give to your Aunt Sally, the right book to buy, and how to get the absolute best deal on every decision you can possible make, from paperclips to mates. This intelligent agent, or angel, comfortably relieves you of all that onerous thinking that forces you to continually decide between what shoes to wear, what company to keep, and how to tell your left hand from your right. Like a computerized real-life support, the cybernetic prophet of the future will eventually be implanted in our brains, like a cranial palm pilot. Eventually everything will be totally predictable, and we will be able to remember our futures as well as our pasts. Then time will stop and we will all become floor lamps.

Worship Rules


In ancient times, fields had to be tilled, children had to be conceived, and wild animals had to be hunted. But bumper crops, kids, and game were uncertain things, and the forest spirits had to be compensated for their nebulous participation in all this. Since life was a bear (particularly when you were being chased by one), the last thing primitive peoples needed was some wasteful and onerous worship rules that tough times seem worse. So our primitive ancestors hit upon fertility festivals, bacchanals and other wild parties that were the Neolithic precursor to our modern festivals of Christmas office parties, Halloween trick or treating, and the fraternity beer blast. Given the unexpected bundles of joy that invariably follow these good times, it is easy to see how these animistic traditions have stayed with us to this day.


In a barter economy, your income was denominated in livestock, so the sacrifice of a lamb and chicken or two was the ancient equivalent of a weekly tithe and change. The gods somehow took pleasure in what amounted to wasting good food. Sometimes, when lambs and chickens were too expensive, and when God was needed to work some serious miracles, the sacrifice of a few virgins or heretics was just the thing to gain God’s intercession. Later, as man became more enlightened, he recognized the value of virgins, but could still get along ok without a few heretics. A pleasant irony follows in the modern age, as heretics have become business entrepreneurs, and it is their customers who often complain about being burned.

With the coming of prepackaged lamb chops, the sacrifice of a lamb or chicken has become somewhat more difficult. Whereas at least there was some drama in the bloody sacrifice of a calf or chicken at the altar, it just doesn’t have the same emotional resonance to similarly set on the altar a 10-piece bucket of the Colonel’s Extra Crispy. Thus cash substitutes for the fatted calf, and as before it is a sure ticket to garnering God’s favor, as the preacher earnestly tells you while you show him the money.


Once a day, corporate believers must look towards the land of the Holy Fruit (The Big Apple) and pay homage to the Big Board. The Big Board is guarded by two titans, the Bull and the Bear, that represent the forces of good and evil. With the coming of the Internet, believers can now pay homage to the board many times during the day, with the hope that they will be rewarded with heavenly returns. Lately other houses of worship, such as the NASDAQ have opened to give true believers newer venues to worship the almighty dollar, and hope for the second and third and fourth coming of the next big thing.

Since God is nature, which still confounds us by working in mysterious ways. These mysterious ways are all cleared up when we contemplate the simple laws that make the world work. Of course, these laws are unfolded in a hieroglyphic script understood by only three people on the planet. So we have to take their word for it that the universe actually adds up.

Dietary Rules

In animistic religions, your long favorite relative will probably come back in some form or another. If he or she comes back in an edible form, you certainly don’t want to have on your conscience the fact that you ate your Uncle Charlie, unless Uncle Charlie had some desirable traits that you can literally ingest. To animists, this is a good thing because it helps foster good eating habits, besides giving you a useful way of disposing of your enemies or other folks you don’t like.

In polytheistic religions that have formalized this concept of reincarnation, eating your Uncle Charlie or some other dear relative doesn’t give you any of the useful traits of your relative, except for a few vitamins and minerals. But it is still bad form to even take the risk that that hamburger you ate yesterday was the spiritual descendent of your mother in law. Hence, for many polytheists its veggies only, since no matter how bad you’ve been, you’re still not going to be reborn as a carrot.

Theistic religions have more reasonable proscriptions that fit quite well into sensible diet plans. Sure, you have to foreswear certain foods, but it’s only on Friday, and even then its ok to pig out on things like lobster, caviar, and potato chips. As you keep your Friday observance, its refreshing to know that as you dip your succulent claw meat into drawn butter, God will acknowledge your difficult sacrifice of a bologna sandwich.

Sometimes foods are forbidden because they are unclean, and thus offend God. This makes a lot of sense, since as we all know cleanliness is next to godliness, its pretty obvious that being spic and span is an absolute requirement if we want to sit at God’s dinner table. This opinion is disputed by many anthropologists in the know, who recognize that before the invention of dry cleaning and bleach, there was a quite viable social reason to keep away from unclean foods, and in particular the ones that had lots of sauces. Contemporary minds can certainly understand this, particularly after you’ve had a plate of ribs or a Big Mac with extra ketchup.

Corporate dietary rules mandate a fat free diet, and are the most restrictive of all. Break these rules, and you will not only likely die young, but even worse will not fit into your pants or your summer bathing suit. Dietary rules allow you to know how much you’re sinning by listing the amount of sin on the back label. Fortunately, you can do penance for your transgressions by doing reps. The purgatorium where you make this penance is often ironically called a health club.

Cybernetic dietary rules are the most relaxed of the bunch. According to this view, the world, the solar system, and the entire universe it all fits into is one big free lunch. In physics, according to inflationary theory (which is a theoretical gut buster in itself), the universe literally popped out of nothingness. In other words we and the universe we live in are merely figments of our own imagination, or of nothing if you will. Thus, existence itself is one free ride, and we can eat and think and compute to our hearts content, knowing that we all it all to nothing. By the way, if all this means nothing to you, then you’ve got it.

Moral Rules:


Animistic believers are one with nature, since they likely live in trees, caves, or other natural habitats. Thus they have no choice but to respect nature, since to clear cut the forest and slaughter all the animals is akin to burning your house down along with the grocery store. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are averse to clear cutting neighboring villages so as to provide more room for the flora and fauna. Morally and politically correct? Maybe not, but it is certainly eco-friendly!


In polytheism, love is important, as long as it’s towards your sacred cow, mystical mushroom, Delphic oracle, or holy rat. For everything else, anything goes.

In theism, the moral rule is the golden rule, but with a few tiny exceptions. You must love your neighbor as yourself, but only as long as your love is not in conflict with dietary or worship rules. But all is reconciled as you can claim you are just giving tough love when you burn at the stake those who disagree with your one true faith.

Moral rules are inherently distasteful, as we all know that God’s approbation is the only thing stopping us from gorging ourselves with potato chips, coveting our neighbor’s wife, and keeping that power tool we borrowed from our neighbor. And doing good is obviously even more uncomfortable, as why else would God shower his good graces on us when we think pure thoughts, rescue kittens from trees, and make Sunday visits to his holy temple while thinking about our golf game or Sunday dinner?


In corporate morality, you must love, mentor, and nurture for your employees. Employees must value each other as equal members of the team, strive at every waking moment to maximize shareholder value, and endeavor to destroy the livelihoods of your competitors. But as with all moral rules, if you don’t obey them, or even worse don’t make quota, you are cast out of corporate garden into the netherworld of unemployment.


In the future world of unlimited data processing, repeating the same old thoughts just brings you back to where you started, and it is unbearable to equate existence with an eternal rerun season. Thus, the computer over-mind of the future must continually think different, even if it has to resort to new ideas like Gilligan’s Island, tofu, and you, the airhead who is reading this page when you know you have something better to do.


If you’re the type of guy or gal who is holier than thou, why waste time making sacrifices and doing good deeds when you can do something that will really get you noticed? By making a trek to some holy place, you become noticed by God and man, get some needed vacation time, and are rewarded with a more suitable reincarnation, a place in heaven, or frequent flier miles. In general, treks need to be made to places that are expensive and inconvenient to get to. This rules out your weekly trek to the local Wal-Mart, unless the Wal-Mart is located in Mecca, Jerusalem, or near the Ganges River.

A trek sets you apart from the general riffraff, and demonstrates to God your neighborly instincts as you visit his earthly holy place or house. Of course, God won’t be at the door when you arrive, but there you can pick up a coupon or plenary indulgence that will give you a free guestroom in the Holy Kingdom.

In animistic religions, the known world for a believer is only a few miles square, so traveling to the sacred tree or rock or mound isn’t so onerous, unless he’s eaten by a lion or crocodile. And that is probably why they are sacred in the first place, since lions or crocodiles can’t reach you when you scamper up the holy tree, rock or mound.

In times past, polytheistic treks were the stuff of Ray Harryhausen movies, replete with stop motion skeletons, hydras, and winged harpies. The Gods found great entertainment value in making their charges search the world for Golden Fleeces, Magic rings, or in the case of Odysseus, just getting home. Nowadays however, treks have become a lot more mundane, and involve things like trips to a Holy river to take a bath, or to some mystic mountain to commune with fairies. Boring stuff to be sure, and probably due to the fact that the God’s have been less interested in earth folk since Olympus, Valhalla, and other heavenly kingdoms got wired for cable.


One a year or once a lifetime, you have to take an onerous journey to some very inconveniently located holy place. This holy place is usually some rock, river or sacred tree that is located in the middle of a desert, deep inside an impenetrable jungle, or at the top of some inaccessible mountain in the Himalayas. Why God would deem such hellholes as holy places is something of a wonder, since it would seem that holy places would be better represented by a certain theme park in Orlando. It makes you question why all those holy relics and holy sites can’t be moved to Disneyworld. After all, isn’t the Magic Kingdom more like what we would expect in the afterworld?


Once a year you will take a trip to be reborn in the well of knowledge, or Comdex for short. You will be among 300,000 true believers who will make great circles around the great kiosk of Gates at least eight times. You will leave absolved of the burden of your ignorance and leave with 50 pounds of brochures, diskettes, and coffee coasters that will vouch for dedication to the one true operating system.


Our quest to find intelligent life is Quixotic at best. Since what we otherwise find ‘intelligent’ amounts to our latest tastes in pop music, television soap operas, amusement parks, and beer. Very likely, intelligent life has already had to suffer through thousands of years of bad cop, doctor, and wrestlemania programs, and certainly doesn’t want to repeat the experience with your intellectual effluvium. Thus it will tune you out, and if it does visit the earth, it will only be to talk to the whales.

After life:


Animists believe that nature is animated by spirits that dwell in just about anything that moves. Naturally, you can never keep an indwelling spirit down, so if you’re an animated type of guy or gal now, you can rest assured that nature will keep you pumping somewhere, and maintain a sort of primitive conservation of energy. Thus, there is some poetry is the belief that if you were a blow hard in life, you will blow hard after life as a gust of wind.

In polytheism, the gods don’t care, since they are usually too preoccupied with their own intrigues to bother with you. They certainly don’t want you hanging around after you’ve done your bit with mortality. So you will descend to hades as some spiritual figment, or you will be recycled into some other mortal form. If reincarnated, your nobility of character or good deeds will permit you to come back as some higher life form. If not, you will be reborn as something lower, like a gnat. Unfortunately, since there are billions more gnats than there are Hugh Hefners of Buddhas, your chances of making it up a notch in the tree of life aren’t that great. So get used in advance to a future with six legs.


Theism recognizes the indestructibility of the human soul, which is a fancy way of saying that you’re going to have to hang around, FOREVER! The question is how you’re going to spend all that infinite time you’ve got on your hands. One thing you’ll immediately have to do is wait. In the popular imagination, when you die you don’t go to heaven just yet. You either have to take a number, wait in line, or have a seat while St. Peter or some bureaucrat reviews your file.

However, we know from those folks who have had near death experiences that the afterlife thankfully leaves out the waiting around bit, and starts out with a lot of fog, a tunnel, and a reunion with all of your relatives. Depending upon how irritating and deadly dull your relatives were to begin with, your afterlife experience may be just heaven, or as boring as you know what. The first thing you will doubtless have to do is explain to your relatives why you never wrote. It can also be embarrassing to know that they were walking around on an inter-dimensional plane that allowed them to see you do all those embarrassing things you were piddling around. But is this what you really want to see?

The Moslem afterlife is a lot more fun. Here, instead of cloying family members, you get an afterlife among shady fruit trees and babbling brooks, and lots of virgins (who conveniently become virginally reconstituted each day) to comfort you. Given the choice of meeting your Aunt Hilda or a virginal Heather Locklear, the appeal of the Moslem religion (at least to us guys) is understandable.

All in all heaven is instant gratification, but of a sort we can scarcely imagine. It is a land of eternal joy, unification with God, 10,000 channels, and virtual everything. Heaven is about feeling good, and as your soul is at rest, so is your mind. You feel good, but not because you are thinking about anything in particular. You don’t have any problems, or any other challenges for that matter, Thus there is no new worlds to explore, no ideas to debate, notes to take, and best of all, no beds to make. You just sit around in stupefying and clueless delight, a heavenly airhead.

With all these good times to look forward to, its understandable if you begin to wonder about the ‘other’ place. In the underworld, it may not feel so good, but on the earthly plane at least, its still possible to play chess with the devil.


In the corporate world, success brings you a gold watch, a tiny pension, and the imminent obliteration of your memory and accomplishment. To avoid this afterlife, you need something that will keep your memory alive forever, or at least until your company goes bankrupt or is bought out. In the early corporate age, a soon to be faded photograph of your glowering likeness would take its place on the wall, near the plaques and trophies your firm received for such triumphs as best doughnut distributor of 1987 or that third place finish in the widget manufacturers bowling league. Modern employees have done one better than this, and leave the company with legacy software, bad business practices, and poorly designed products to remind the folks in the future of their impact on the future of humanity.


Whereas in other religions folks render onto Caesar or to God, the computerized prophet of the future just renders. The fact that rocks, clouds, planets, and human beings are all subject to and indeed embody the laws of physics means that they can easily be duplicated or rendered by a computing device with enough computing oomph. It has been predicted that computers will have the requisite oomph by the mid 21st century. They will then be able to render entire universes and all the creatures that inhabit them. Even for the super computers of the future, this will take a lot of effort, maybe even six whole days, requiring a needed rest up and recharge on the seventh. And for us humans, well, as the machine would say, go figure.