Friday, June 26, 2009


I'm trying to be a liberal; I really am. I spend as much time as I can pitying poor people, that sort of thing. But this can only go so far. The other day, I was rummaging in a liberal blog and found a definition of a liberal. As far as I can remember after the shock wore off, there were things like, "A liberal is for the weak rather than the strong, for the poor rather than the rich, for the..." you get the idea.
Gosh that sounds noble. But think about it for a moment. Let's take the weak, for instance. Now, weakness (in the political sense) is not an absolute. It's a moving target that has to be constantly re-acquired. So, who decides? Some poor fool out there may not realize that he is weak and needs help, pity, and a pat on the back.
Other questions: Who decides what to do about it? Who pays?
I am suspicious of persons who are willing to make decisions about how other people are to be classified. There is a disturbing whiff of Puritanism about the whole process. I remember reading once (And I wish I knew who said this): "There are two kinds of people, the righteous and the unrighteous. The classifying is done by the righteous."
Of course, Liberals are going to say, "We are the ones who should classify and take action." What they are not going to say, but which hangs in the air like some old ghost, is "You can do your share by paying."
And why should Liberals be the ones who decide? Because they care. They said so. Does it make your skin creep a little to know that a goodly section of the population assumes control of other people because "they care"?
I've come up with a philosophical premise that covers this. It's this: The assumption of responsibility is an assertion of superiority. If you assume responsibility for dressing Aunt Martha, it's because she can't do it herself.
So, we come to the ultimate reason that Liberals care for people: It is their responsibility as the superior beings.
Conservatives, of course, simply say, "Let them decrease the surplus population." (stolen quote)
Frankly, I don't know which is worse.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Magic, Still

We live in a universe with pretty regular laws. Oxygen is oxygen, even on Mars, and the absence or presence of oxygen can be pretty well and easily inferred from conditions on the planet. That is, if it has lots of oxygen, we can make a good hypothesis why. If we were able to travel to the center of the galaxy, we would find oxygen.
All these laws mesh together. The presence of oxygen determines what sort of life forms will evolve, whether or not things will burn, how much water there will be, and so on.
If I accept the postulates of magic, I have to assume a second set of laws, not connected to the ones we can verify. The laws of magic seemed to be based on an interesting concept: The word is the thing. If I can know the true name of a thing, I can control it. Similarly, the symbol for a thing is the thing. A doll is a person.
These laws of magic, on the other hand, seem to be spotty and not really uniform. Nor are they replicable. My best guess is that they are figments of the imagination. I will continue to think this until I am turned into a toad.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Magic Again

I saw a man do psychic surgery once. Psychic surgery is the removal of tumors and such like without anesthesia or instruments. The patient lay on a table, and I saw the surgeon, who is usually a holy man, stiffen his fingers, then push his hand into the stomach of the patient. I saw it go almost fully in, saw some blood seep from the wound, and then saw the hand withdraw with a bloody mess of tissue in it.
Then the surgeon told us how it was done. A scam, pure and simple. He'd concealed a blood-filled scrap of sponge in his hand, curled his fingers under to make it look like the hand was penetrating the stomach, and squeezed the sponge. Voila!
I think that there are two kinds of magic: Tricks and things we don't know about. About 99% of magic is tricks. Spoon bending, for instance, depends on certain tendencies of our visual system. That wonderful palm reading you got used a technique called cold reading. A friend showed me a picture of her and her aura that sure looked like clumsy PhotoShop.
But how about that 1% (assuming you believe me about the 99%). People speak in hushed tones, saying, "There are just some things that we can't explain."
That's a lapse in logic. Just because we can't explain them doesn't make them magical or spiritual. It makes them unexplained.
Take UFO's for instance. Believers admit that most UFO sightings can be explained. The rest, they say, proves the existence of UFO's. Well Duh. What do you suppose UFO stands for? Unidentified Flying Object. It does not stand for Flying Saucer or Little Green Men Who Abduct Cows and Credulous Persons.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


The human body has a remarkable ability to respond to invisible influences. For instance, let's say you stay out in the sun too long. Next day, your skin will be red, or if you're lucky, tan. Your skin, without your knowledge or consent, allows melanin to move to the surface of the skin in response to the ultraviolet invasion. Or, say, you are walking along and trip a little. Your body responds to the mysterious force of gravity in a very complicated way, starting with the movement of fluid in the inner ear, and you catch yourself.
Now, here's my point: any feelable force in the universe will be reflected in some bodily function that deals with that force. Take the magnetic flux that moves from pole to pole. Humans don't respond to it much, as far as we know, but birds do, and there are neurological indications of how they do it.
So, if there is a force, however mysterious, that acts on humans and that influences our survival, we will have developed a mechanism for dealing with it. The key word here is mechanism. We had melanin long before we learned about the ultraviolet. Much of our entire body mechanism is geared to coping with gravity (jellyfish don't have an inner ear). Bugs have a wonderful six-legged gait that keeps them on an even keel.
So, what about ki, mana, and other posited forces of nature? I believe that if they exist there is a discoverable, chartable, testable mechanism that responds to them. No mechanism; they don't exist. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Chaos made orderly

I read in my local paper that a 15-year-old girl won a national texting contest. For those of you who consider the whole texting/twittering phenomenon one more sign of the decline of civilization, take heart.
It seems that texting is not random after all. Not even semi-random. Listen to this quote from the paper (which is sometimes semi-random): "[The winner] had to text three lengthy phrases without making any mistakes on the required abbreviations, capitalization or punctuation."
Texting has moved very quickly from an anarchy to a rule-governed behavior. Which means that even adults can learn it. It's simply a different way of writing, with different rules. If this seems strange, consider that it's no stranger than the very stringent (and very different from each other) rules for documentation that the MLA, University of Chicago, and the APA put out.
The fact is that humans can't interact without rules of behavior. Linguists call them things like "conversational implicatures," and other long words, but all it means is that we can't behave randomly and be comprehended. Who was it who said "To be great is to be misunderstood"? It could be, because a great person may operate from a different set of rules. However, poets take heed: the converse is not true. It doesn't hold that to be misunderstood is to be great.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Civil servants

There are two types of civil functionaries. The first is the person who is not allowed to think. You will usually find them at counter windows or at a reception desk. Now, since many situations are at least slightly ambiguous, there are times when thinking is needed.
The other day, I dropped in at my local university's record office to get a transcript for my daughter. She had filled out the form correctly, and written in a comments box, "Please allow my father to take one copy with him."
When I requested my copy, the clerk told me, in that prim voice they have, "I can't give you one. You have to have written, signed permission to take one." I pointed to the comment. "It's written, it's signed, and it's permission," said I, with some hope that this would make sense.
Taken aback, the clerk strode toward the back of the room, into an office, and I could detect agitated motion back there. She returned and said, "We have to have a specific document. It's a federal regulation." She said it in a way that put federal regulations several rungs above the ten commandments.
Here's the kicker. She told me that she couldn't give it to me, but she could mail it to me. Here the adult in me took over and I realized that was as much as I was going to get. So, I shut up and gave her my address.
The second kind of civil functionary is the one who is allowed to think but refuses to do so. These two categories are all inclusive.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

School again

So, if American schools are so great, is there anything wrong with them? Hah!
When my son was in highschool, he came to me and asked, "Is there any reason I should study geometry?" I could have said, "Well, suppose you wanted to decide if two apparently identical triangles were actually identical. The Side/angle/side theorem would help." Instead, I simply said, "Nope." Actually, there is one geometrical rule that is very useful. It's the 3-4-5 rule, and I didn't learn it from geometry; I learned if from a couple of Hopi carpenters. It goes like this: If you have a triangle that is 3 units on one side, 4 units on a second, and 5 units on a third, then one of the angles is a right angle. Builders use it all the time.
There are two kinds of classes you can take. First, there are those classes that teach you how to process and use information: Reading, writing, rhetoric. Then there are those classes that give you information: geology, history, chemistry. I think that our schools should be strong in the first area. You gotta have the tools. The rest will come easier.
What do I propose after the readin' 'ritin' 'n' rhetoric? Elementary math, certainly. History, geography, science.
I'm an English major, but I'd go easy on the "classics." I was forced to read Silas Marner as a highschooler and hated it. Much later --loved it. Though it seems to me that, like most of 19th century art and lit, it's kinda melodramatic.
The creative stuff should be adjunct. Poets will be poets, dancers will be dancers, musicians will be musicians. It doesn't need to be "taught."
Finally, I'd have kids attend school all year, with two major holidays, June and December. They'd study hard half a day, and be apprenticed out the second half. Three hours study, three hours work.


Friday, June 5, 2009


As befits my inclination to lambaste both sides of any debate, today I take up going to school.
How can I say this? The American school system may be the best in the world, in at least one aspect.
First, all those folks who say that Americans are waaaaay behind other school systems in our ability to educate people. Not!
Let me tell you why. As far as I know, all education systems in the world beside ours use the schools to filter out people. In many cases, there's an exam given about when the kids are 15. If you pass, you go on to higher ed; if not you go to work in the lumberyard (Caddyshack?). So, the system tends to emphasize studying for the test. It really messes kids up, for one thing. In Japan, it's not unknown for a kid who fails the test to kill him/her self in expiation.
America is the only country I know of whose avowed goal is to educate everyone. Everyone. Do the words "No child left behind" ring a bell? Not only can you go to school, you gotta.
So, let me paint a scenario for you. Here's a kid who can't see any worth in school, drops out in his/her sophomore year. A couple of years out, the kid discovers a passion for chemistry. In any other country, this kid would be already in life's rut. In America, the kid gets a GED, takes classes at the local community college, gets an AA, finishes the BS in a state college, gets a MS at a state university, a PhD at MIT, and voila! A chemist.
Not only that, but you can wander in and out of the educational system, wait till you're a grandmother (like my mom did), change majors frequently (like my sister did), and finish when you've found what you're looking for.
A lot of people drop by the wayside. A lot of people don't give a damn and coast. But the remarkable thing is that the most unexpected things happen. You can go from the projects to the supreme court.
It's the opportunities that make it work. Check out the Nobel Prize roster, realizing that the Swedes give an American the prize only under severe duress (They've publicly stated that the U.S. is out of the running for any lit prize.