Monthly Archives: August 2015

When Smokers Ruled

I hear lots of you, especially my younger friends, express sympathy for smokers. I know you think that I am unduly harsh on them and that society as a whole is excessively severe toward smokers. But frankly you didn’t live through the smoky days when smokers ruled the world. If you had you might not feel we are harsh enough. Your misplaced concern is like expressing sympathy for those poor overregulated coal-fired plants now that the air is finally breathable – breathable only because they were heavily regulated in the first place.

smoker wearing crownTry to imagine the world back when smokers were completely unregulated. I grew up in the 60’s and in those days smokers had absolute uncontested sovereignty. They smoked wherever and whenever they wished and no one had any right to complain. You cannot appreciate how hellish they made the world. Thankfully you don’t have to live in it anymore. Movies glamorize it with dreamily wafting artificial smoke. Even supposedly accurate period pieces like “Good Night and Good Luck” totally sanitize the filth that was the 60’s. In reality, ashes stained every surface. Every table was cluttered with disgusting overflowing ash trays. The surface of every table and chair was riddled with burn marks and littered with butts. The air in any indoor space was a toxic cloud of fumes. Windows were literally browned-out with thick layers of tar. It was a time distinguished by disgustingly yellow teeth and smoke-reeked clothes and upholstery. You don’t see, smell, and feel those things in the movies. The movies don’t make your eyes sting and your throat cough.

smoking while eatingBack then, dinner at restaurants was like eating out of an ashtray. Adults smoked right up until their first bite, immediately after their last bite, and indeed some took a drag between each bite. They would then drop their butts into water glasses or into their leftover mashed potatoes even while others will still eating.

The inside of cars was a hellish torment as well. With all the windows closed in those cold Wisconsin winters, all the adults would smoke nonstop. Once I asked my mom to let me open a window. She refused. When I pleaded with her to stop smoking she answered, “I’m the one smoking, why should it bother you?” So I then flipped the radio switch to full volume. “Turn that off,” she shouted. I mimicked “I’m the one listening, why should it bother you?” My logic was lost on her and I was answered only by a solid smack across the face.

Even the great outdoors provided little respite from the tyranny of smokers. Mounds of ashes lined every curb. Every grassy park lawn was covered with butts, matches, and packaging. When us kids played on the beach we would shovel up handfuls of butts infesting the sand. In the winter the pristine snow was defiled with ashes, butts, and packaging everywhere you looked.

This is only a pale portrayal of everyday existence when smokers ruled the world. Frankly you cannot imagine it any more that I can really imagine the pollution in London during the height of the industrial revolution. So don’t feel sorry for smokers. Don’t give them any of that power back. If you let up, they will return life to the hellscape it was back when they had their way.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking it would not be that bad again. Smokers have not changed. Smokers today are not more enlightened and considerate than smokers back in the 60’s. This is obvious when you still see them blithely toss their cigarette butts on the ground anywhere they happen to be when done with them. They don’t care that you have to walk through them or that your kids play in them. They have not changed. They have no social conscience when it comes to their addiction.

Smokers in fact have turned the new outdoors into the old indoors. In NYC at least, we nonsmokers have to hold our breaths when we go outside and hurry past the gauntlet of smokers. We have to grimace in disgust when they walk ahead of us billowing out smoke like a coal locomotive. We used to escape outside to get a few gulps of fresh air. Now we have to rush inside to escape the smoke.

The only reason smokers still do these things is because we let them. If we let them smoke in restaurants again, they’ll once again smoke between bites and toss their butts into your water glass.

I went on a bus trip in Brazil not long ago. The tour guides laid down the law on the first day. “We will not allow you to stink up the bus and we will not clean up your disgusting soggy butts from the snow slush on the bus floor. Further we will kick you off the bus if you toss your butts all over Brazil.” The tour guides handed out twist-top vials and instructed smokers to only smoke off the bus and to keep their butts in the vial until they could dispose of them properly. The smokers were at first irate at this restriction of their right to litter at will, but did quickly adopt the practices and the trip was a joy for all, including the smokers themselves. Most importantly we were not embarrassed by those smokers flicking their butts our across every scenic place of beauty we visited.

Here’s my advice informed by history. Don’t give an inch to smokers lest they take a mile. Start a movement to make smokers everywhere adopt the eco-friendly tour policy and put their butts into a container until they can be disposed of properly. Even better, force cigarette manufacturers to provide a clever package that makes it easy for smokers to deposit their butts right back into the pack! Smokers and their corporate suppliers must be forced to do this through laws and/or social pressure. They will not do it simply because it is the socially responsible thing to do.

One last addition. At first I was annoyed by the emergence of e-cigarettes because they only encourage more smoking. But I now appreciate that they do have one huge unanticipated benefit. They eliminate a tremendous number of butts being strewn all across our shared spaces. For that reason alone, I think they’re a really, really good thing. If they would just lose the smoke effects and that silly LED on the end, I’d have little reason to complain about smokers except for their impact on my insurance rates!

Fighting the Malware Mafia

malwareI’d been plagued by malware on my home computer for a few months. It was one of those particularly malicious creations of evil and despicable “humans” – the kind that takes your browser hostage and extorts money from you to “fix” it. You know, like that helpful mafia guy who for a small fee will be happy to “fix” the problem with his shattering your kneecaps.

I fended off the extortionists for months by repeatedly going through a tedious process of removing these ad programs that got created, by removing browser extensions and add-ons that suddenly appeared, and by removing strange Windows services. It would go away for a while, only to suddenly reappear a day or week later with all new names like “digisales” or “turbodeals.” In short, it simply would not die. It kept recreating itself in seemingly endless incarnations. But they were all the same malware with the same extortion screen shown here.

Of course I tried running every virus, malware, spyware, and adware removal tool I could find to eradicate this vermin including Windows Defender, Malwarebytes, AVG, Bitdefender, Ad-Aware, Spybot, System Mechanic, and others. None of them found or fixed the malware.

Then I upgraded to Windows 10, hoping the problem would go away. It did disappear for a while and I kind of forgot about it. Except, I had this annoying problem in the Edge browser. Whenever I tried to copy a URL from the address box, my browser would hang for 30-60 seconds. To try to identify the cause of this, I removed extensions and changed options. At some point during the process, bang, my malware is back with a vengeance. I could not use Edge at all, even though none of the other browsers were affected.

Yet another round. Tried running all the malware programs again. No luck. How could they fail to identify such a severe virus?? Tried one more program with the somewhat silly name of SUPERAntiSpyware (found here). Their tagline is “Remove Spyware, NOT just the easy ones.” Well, I thought, let’s test that bold claim.

So I downloaded and ran SUPERAntiSpyware and viola! It found thousands of “malicious” cookies and cleaned them up. Total cure. Compete recovery. Poltergeist expelled. Problem solved. I’m clean! No more hostage lockups, no more problems copying/pasting in Edge, and my browsers seem much snappier to boot!

I happily paid for a subscription to SUPERAntiSpyware for all our computers. It is amazing that none of the other big names could find this malware. Clearly they all do just find “the easy ones.” Even more amazing is that Microsoft apparently cannot produce the best tool for cleaning up the system they know better than anyone.

And lest you think “lie down with dogs wake up with fleas” applies to me, consider that my wife joked about that. “What porn sites were you visiting?” I actually don’t visit any sketchy sites, but of course the best way to convince your wife that her suspicions are right is to try to deny them.

Well SUPERAntiSpyware had the last laugh. When we installed and ran it on her computer it found one malware program and almost two thousand adware cookies on her machine as well.

Bottom line. I’m sold on SUPERAntiSpyware. We had other products running when we got that malware and they didn’t help us. Of course, this is entirely anecdotal. You may contract a virus that only one of the other programs will find. But the evidence I have available to me says SUPERAntiSpyware is the one I’ll trust. Here is their link again: SUPERAntiSpyware.

Aspirational Advertising

angieHave you seen the latest Angie’s List commercial called “gutter?” Of course you have. Jeff is the inept husband who cannot even clean out his gutters because apparently he’s got a debilitating fear of ladders and an overwhelming aversion to touching yucky gutter gunk. His wise and sensible wife calls Angie’s List to hire a contractor to clean out the gutters for hubby. Jeff hugs her with joy and relief for saving him from the horror of gutter-cleaning. Another happy family thanks to Angie’s List. Nice good-natured humor, right?

Well first let me point out that this pro gutter cleaner obviously isn’t all that pro. Sure, he came equipped with the requisite work gloves, but then he set his muck-bucket on top of a slanting roof, reaching up over the edge to toss in the leaf-rot. The pro technique would be to safely hang the bucket from a rung. It would have been hilarious if he had tipped the bucket and it came sliding down in comically slow motion to dump the muck onto Jeff’s head.

But I’m not here today just to make fun of the Angie’s List pro gutter-cleaner guy, rather to illustrate a much bigger problem. Here’s the reality. It is overwhelmingly females who make most purchase decisions and most purchases. So naturally companies craft most of their marketing to influence women. Their typical formula to accomplish this has long been to depict men as big dumb babies and their wives as the smart, wise, and sensible ones who of course demonstrate their competence by choosing their product. This Angie’s List commercial just follows this tried and true marketing approach for consumer advertising – the stupid, incompetent guy and the smart, competent woman. Not picking on Angie’s List here. This ad merely follows the industry norm and is far from the most egregious example.

Is it any wonder that so many American women have the view that men are children who need a mother? One could argue that advertising doesn’t create culture, it just reflects it. But we all know that is a simple-minded cop out. Advertising amplifies and normalizes the cultural hot-buttons that they press over and over to instill the attitudes that become our culture.

Imagine the reverse. Image if Swanson had a campaign that essentially said, buy our frozen dinners because your wife is a cute airhead who can’t cook crappy Salisbury steak!

And I’m not merely defensive about the way advertisers portray men. I also get equally worked up by their typical caricature of elderly people and other groups. I’ve railed since my youth as a teacher about how advertisers contribute to our terrible anti-education culture here in America. Think back a moment. Think of all the famous ads targeting kids. Most of them sell their products by communicating anti-education messages. School is boring. Teachers are dumb. Bueller… Bueller… I’ve got the back to school blues. Quick get to Six Flags before your fun summer ends!

There is no reason that these companies could not sell their products in a socially conscious and responsible way that does not engrain negative cultural images through catchy jingles. Angie’s List could come up with plenty of good reasons to market their services without making men look like idiots. Lifeline could sell their emergency beepers without making the elderly look pathetic. Levi’s could sell jeans without making school look like a gulag. How about showing how well you’ll be able to focus on your great teacher while wearing those comfee new loose crotch jeans at your desk? I’ve occasionally seen a few companies like McDonalds sell their products through positive messages about education, but even they are sporadic.

So why do they all do it? Because it’s easy and it works. If advertisers can leverage the widespread feeling that men are idiots, that old people are pathetic, and that school is stupid, then they can then count on those campaigns working every time. But it amazes me that they do work so well. Do women really like to think of their man as such a pansy that he cannot even climb up seven rungs and pick a few leaves out of a gutter?  And do we really want to see our beloved father as a zombified husk? Do we really want our kids to see going back to school as some kind of cruel joke on them?

Apparently most do and advertising has spent decades reinforcing these memes to ensure that they will move product every time. But advertisers could do so much better as an industry, we could do much better as a society, and each of us could do much better as consumers. Advertising should be aspirational, emphasizing and reinforcing the most noble of cultural attitudes. I think it would sell product just as well, even better.

All we need to do is motivate them to change. We need to start rejecting cheap stereotypes that pit groups against each other and demand more positive, aspirational advertising campaigns. More fact-based arguments and fewer emotional ones. We should start by boycotting any company that sells their products to kids by reinforcing negative feelings about education. That is the most important priority.

Advertising both reflects and shapes our culture. But we can shape advertising too. If only a few more of us stop responding to these stereotypes, even start to actively boycott the offending products, companies and advertisers will change. And those changes in advertising tone will in turn snowball into an avalanche of widespread cultural transformation improving our attitudes about education, about men, about the elderly, and many other important issues and groups.

The Political Pickup Artist

mysteryIn 2007, a show called “The Pickup Artist” ran for two seasons. It was a reality-show contest format in which an elite Pickup Artist named Mystery mentored a motley group of misfits and losers in techniques for picking up women. Which dweeby kid would apply their lessons well enough by the end of the season to earn the title of “Pickup Artist?” Stay tuned!

People had lots of negative reactions to the unsavory methods taught in the show and by the suggestion that women are really that manipulable (though the same is certainly true of men). They were especially vexed by the fact that they could not completely dismiss the reality that the techniques promoted in the show really do work. By applying a few seemingly counterintuitive principles, these Pickup Artists really are able to pretty much walk into any kind of venue and walk out with the very willing phone number of pretty much any woman they choose.

Here are some of the important techniques taught by Mystery:

  1. Peacocking is critical. Even if you look silly, you need bling to stand out.
  2. You have to project more worth than anyone else in the room to be desirable.
  3. You have to establish outcome independence with an attitude that you really don’t care if she goes home with you or not.
  4. You have to project absolute confidence and not show a hint of self-doubt.
  5. You have to show the target you don’t particularly care about them. You need to even dis them and put them down in a mild way to make them want you more.
  6. You have to engage and actively listen.
  7. You have to be fun and actually have fun.

The series showed us that if you are able to execute these techniques successfully, pretty much any woman will give you her number. Even if she knows you’re bad news. Even if all her friends warn her you’re terrible for her. Even if she knows that there are way more sensible choices out there that would be far better for her. Despite all reason and common sense shouting “stay away” she’ll still want you anyway.

trumpNow The Pickup Artist reality show is back for another run. This time it stars The Donald as the Master Pickup Artist and he is schooling another motley group of misfits and losers in how to pick up voters. This season’s cast includes math club runt Bobby Jindal, pathetically desperate Jeb Bush, awkward twit Marco Rubio, sickeningly nice Rick Santorum, creepy-crawly Ted Cruz, messed-up-by-religion Mike Huckabee, tries-too-hard Rick Perry, and only-one-who-thinks-he’s-smart Rand Paul. None of these poor losers has a hope of getting a voter to give him their vote, let alone their phone number.

Here are some of the critical voter pick-up lessons that The Donald demonstrates this season:

  1. Peacocking is critical. That hair may look ridiculous, but bling is bling and he certainly stands out amongst the other stuffed shirts.
  2. Everything about Trump implicitly and explicitly shouts “I’m worth more than anyone else in the field and I know it.”
  3. Trump’s attitude of outcome independence says sure, I’ll be your President if you beg for it but I don’t need to be. I’m just as happy to move on to something better.
  4. Trump projects absolute confidence in everything he says and does. He never gives any hint of hesitation or self-doubt.
  5. In talking to voters whether it be women, Hispanics and pretty much everyone else, Trump is happy to put them down to make them want him that much more despite all their better judgment.
  6. Trump doesn’t hold press conferences; he holds conversations with the press and the public. Whether he cares what you have to say or not, he makes you feel that he actively engages with you and genuinely listens to you rather than delivering rehearsed pickup lines.
  7. He definitely is fun and actually sincerely seems to have fun out there playing The Political Pickup Artist game.

So, tune in this election season and see how many voters, men and women, despite all logic and reason and common sense to the contrary are nevertheless drawn like moths to the flame of The Donald. No matter how bad for us we know he is, no matter how self-destructive the attraction, we’ll secretly be drawn to him anyway. He’s the master political pick-up artist, the bad boy, the alpha male of the pack and we desire him regardless of how ridiculous that may be. It’s in our DNA.

Can you resist his repulsive attraction? Yea, right, sure you can…

Yosemite Sam on Target

Gun-related murders, particularly mass murders, continue to rise in America (see here).

yosemitesamBut gun spokesperson Yosemite Sam reminds us that guns don’t kill people. After all, as hunting enthusiast Elmer Fudd points out, even if there were no guns those kwazy wabbits would just murder you with carrots. Wile E. Coyote, acknowledged expert on absurdly dangerous weapons, adds that even without guns some deranged Tasmanian Devil could run amok hacking preschoolers up with an Acme™ turbocharged meat cleaver. The entire cast of Looney Tunes agrees that the obvious and best solution to the plague of too many guns is yet more guns in the hands of animated characters who really, really love to shoot them. They maintain that in their cartoon-view, guns are not actually the problem anyway. Mental illness is the real problem.

I could not agree more with our Looney Tune friends! Mental illness is the real problem and we should focus our attention on that. Even though so-called real-world “scientific” studies have shown that there is no correlation whatsoever between violence and a history of mental illness (see here), anyone who shoots up a school or movie theater must obviously be mentally ill. And what does “correlation” really mean anyway? No, clearly mental illness is the problem, not guns. Case closed!

So then the only real question is how to identify these mentally ill people BEFORE they rip through an abortion clinic using their legally-purchased semi-automatic weapons supercharged with Brownells™ high-capacity magazines. Hmm. Let me think a second… could there be some factor, some objectively measurable indicator, that clearly flags individuals as mental health risks to society? Anything at all?

I know! How about we red-flag people who buy semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines as dangerous risks by virtue of mental illness? Clearly, people who are so paranoid, pathologically fearful, and sociopathic that they feel compelled to buy semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity clips – especially if they buy many of them – are mentally ill and need help. Maybe we should “register” them somehow so we can “monitor” their activities and administer appropriate mental health services.

hunterWe should be reasonable about this of course so that those few non-crazy gun owners, or at least those few crazy but harmless gun owners, are not unduly monitored thereby wasting our surveillance capacity. We should restrict our high-risk group of crazy gun owners to those who buy more than, say four mass-murder machines. High capacity clips should earn them a double-red flag status.

How many people would this high risk group include? I took the liberty of doing some back-of-napkin calculations. Roughly 24% of American adults say they own at least one of the estimated 310 million guns in circulation in our country. So, out of a total 245 million adults that means that 59 million of us are gun-crazy. Of those, 48% own 4 or more guns. That means that roughly 12% (30 million) of Americans are profoundly gun-crazy. That list would be whittled down to the subset of those that own four or more high-capacity modern non-hunting weaponry who are therefore profoundly and dangerously gun-crazy.

This “registration” and “monitoring” of high-risk mentally ill individuals is clearly quite doable. Not only are these mentally ill gun owners readily identifiable simply by tracking their gun purchases, but the numbers are manageable too. The terrorist watch list monitors over a million people. Amazon manages upwards of 300 million customer accounts. We routinely issue and manage hundreds of millions of driver’s licenses without breaking much of a sweat. So clearly monitoring our population of profoundly and dangerously mentally ill gun owners is well within our capability.

So let’s start a movement. We don’t want to unfairly blame guns when mental illness is the real problem. So let’s focus on that and provide the mental help needed to all those individuals flagged as mentally ill by virtue of their insane gun ownership. Maybe we could start a White House Petition. Let’s force the government to help these mentally ill gun owners to get the help they need and the intervention they require.

Pro-gun is pro-murder.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

OK this post is outside of my normal blog cycle but I just have to toss up a quick review of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. No worries, no spoilers here, just appetizers!

In a word G.R.E.A.T. Go see it in a theatre where every great movie should be seen.

It was a stylish, seriously tongue-in-cheek load of fun. I did see the recent Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and yes I did love it too. Thought the script was brilliant – the best of the Mission Impossible series in fact. But Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a brilliant piece of writing as well. Plus it also offers fresh, brilliant acting, film-making, costumes, music, and set designs. It’s just fresh and brilliant in so many ways.

themanfromuncleBut perhaps the most brilliant is how well it honors the original show. As most of you probably know, the movie is based on the famous TV show from the 60’s. I remember it fondly as do most guys my age along with other shows of the time like The Avengers, Star Trek, Johnny Quest, and The Wild Wild West. But for those of us with fond memories of these shows, nothing causes a greater feeling of excitement and dread than a remake. We cannot help but form a crushing fear that yet another of our cherished memories will be blasphemed and desecrated like the horrendus Will Smith version of the Wild Wild West television series.

But not so with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It’s a perfect prequel to the television series. It tells the hitherto unrevealed backstory of the relationship between Napoleon and Illya that has already been cemented by the time the TV series starts off. Henry Cavill captures the distinctively polished secret agent Napoleon Solo to a tee; the mannerisms, the voice, and even the hint of detached humor that touches everything he does. Robert Vaughn would be proud. Armie Hammer is great as Illya also. The filmmaker has spiced him up with a bit of a troubled past, but it was necessary, not inexplicably gratuitous, and works perfectly. Even Hugh Grant is impeccably consistent with a younger Alexander Waverly.

As a fan of the TV show, I couldn’t be happier. My wife Beth did not grow up on the series and she loved it too. It has huge apparent cross-appeal for both men and women. I can’t imagine a better kickoff to a new franchise. Guy Ritchie proves he knows how to inherit a legacy. In the Sherlock Holmes series, he used a “show the audience what Sherlock is planning” technique very effectively. In UNCLE, he employs a similar “show the audience what just happened” sequence with equal effectiveness.

However, I did check Rotten Tomatoes just now and saw it didn’t get great reviews. The fan rating was higher than the critics ratings and that rings true because the normally sedate audience at our local theatre in Manhattan laughed and cheered throughout. Even after the credits finished rolling several groups of people remained just sitting around talking about how wonderful it was. I’ve seldom seen that happen, ever.

If this does not become a franchise I’ll be sadly disappointed. Do I expect it to compete with James Bond? To quote Goldfinger, “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

Christian Fem Therapy

FemTherapyIf you are one of the many unfortunate Christians who have been cursed with the birth of a female child, take heart. We at Evangelical Acres are here to help you during this, your trial of misery and shame. Following on the miraculous success of our patented Gay Away™ therapy technique, our theo-researchers have developed a powerful new curative program called Fem Away™.

The process starts by recognizing that this abomination is not the fault of the father. As proven by science, all babies are born of women. And we know from our Biblical analysis that all women are unclean, demon-possessed, befouled creatures. During gestation the demons inhabiting these females tempt the immaculate unborn male fetus into a life of sin. Only if the unborn child consciously agrees to let the demon into his soul does he transform into an unclean demon-possessed female.

But take heart. Our exclusive Fem Away™ therapy can help. After a totally voluntary tithing that demonstrates to God that your previous life of selfishness and greed is over, our team of transportation specialists will locate and secure your female-demon child. These professionals are trained to resist the temptations and manipulations of she-demons and relocate them safely at an Evangelical Acres treatment center.

After arrival at our secure facility, nestled in the lovely hills of a remote undisclosed location, our team of highly trained Faith Scientists will begin an intensive program of demonic expulsion, or exorcism at it is called by lay people. These treatments will be augmented by a strict regimen of sex reorientation therapy, conducted by our on-staff clergy and a large staff of dedicated male volunteers. The goal of this treatment is to show the child the disgusting nature of female intercourse and reveal unto them the joy and beauty of male sexuality.

But it’s not all serious therapy. Your child will also receive ample time to enjoy herself by engaging in a balanced recreational program of cleaning, housekeeping, and cooking activities structured to prepare her for a meaningful life after treatment is concluded when she embraces her true male nature.

During the entire course of therapy which may last many years or even a lifetime depending on the stubbornness of the demon infestation, the leadership committee at Evangelical Acres will keep you closely informed of your child’s progress through detailed prayer-based communications. You can take great comfort in knowing that through your loving donation and the grace of God, we will ensure that your evil-tainted female spawn will eventually be transformed into the pure, sinless male offspring it was meant to be.

Clobberin’ the Critics

FantasticFourThe Fantastic Four reboot premiered in movie theatres last weekend. Despite, or because of, the fact that I’m a huge superhero fan, I was really apprehensive about the release. The previews looked stiff, the casting looked highly questionable, it was yet another stupid origin story to “reboot” a franchise, and it was a completely “made up” origin story to boot. No one I knew was excited about it in the least. Even the director came out ahead of the release apologizing and making excuses for it. Without exception reviewers ripped it to shreds with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a disastrous 9% rating (one review).

So of course I went to see it.

This wasn’t unusual of me since I’ll see any superhero movie. And since I usually disagree with professional reviewers anyway, their unabashed bashing was a reverse-psychology encouragement for me. Moreover, I’d seen and greatly enjoyed the previous two Fantastic Four movies despite the fact that I’ve never met anyone gracious enough to utter even the most insincerely polite comment about those.

And – hey Mikey – I liked it! Although I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks so, I thought this reboot was worthy. It certainly didn’t fulfill all my preconceived ideas or hopes, but it wasn’t my tale to tell. How can I expect to enjoy any story-telling if I insist upon inserting all my own expectations? How can I ever be surprised and amazed if all filmmakers ever give me is exactly what I imagine in my limited imagination?

Which brings up a much broader observation… people are WAY too hard to please. It’s not even just that they’re hard to please; it’s that while they imagine that they want to enjoy things, they are really incapable of it. In short, often the problem is not the movie, it is us.

Maybe you just cannot appreciate the film.
I used to live in London and as a lonely bachelor I went to see movies frequently. I was continually amazed how all the Brits would go to see American comedies and chortle begrudgingly at all the most unfunny moments while sitting stone-faced though all the intended jokes. Then they would walk out of every film commenting on how unfunny it was. It’s not really that those films were not funny; they were just not funny to Brits. Similarly if you hate action films and go see one anyway, don’t complain that there were too many fist-fights and not enough kissing.

Maybe you have gotten too old and jaded.
When The Phantom Menace came out, all my coworkers complained vigorously and incessantly about how much Jar Jar Binks had ruined the movie for them. I found Jar Jar to be quite cute and funny, but most everyone universally hated him. I contend that Jar Jar was essentially exactly the same as the Ewoks those same people loved in their youth. It wasn’t the movies that changed, it was them. They have become incapable of enjoying movies through the same fresh and uncritical lens they used to, and they are continually disappointed that moviemakers don’t make any films that touch them like they used to.

Maybe you’re just a douche.
Too many people need to prove how smart and insightful they are by dissing everything. You know the type. They just can’t wait to impress their date or kids even as the credits are still rolling with their scathing critique. And if the movie is superb, they feel especially compelled to show that they are even more discriminating. “It completely ruined the whole movie for me that Gandalf’s staff had runes clearly etched in Valinor rather than ancient Moriquendi.” Really? How sad for you…

Now let’s be clear. I’m not suggesting that you should indiscriminately like everything and indeed some movies are deserving of unreserved ridicule. Battlefield Earth and Dune come to mind. But Fantastic Four has a lot to like. More often than not, your disappointments in life may say more about you than the movies or whatever other activity is disappointing you at the moment. If you don’t get something many others do, if you think nothing is as good as it used to be, or if you feel compelled to critique everything to prove your good taste, then it may just be you that is the only disappointing commonality in those equations.

I for one, am really, really happy that my standards are incredibly low. I can go see the Fantastic Four and enjoy myself while you lose out. How much better is that than setting seldom achieved standards and being disappointed in most everything life has to offer? And when it comes to people I associate with, I much prefer those rare individuals who can truly enjoy most everything, who can appreciate the filmmakers vision, rather than seek out the flaws and buzz-kill every bit of enjoyment for everyone.

  • There are few boring situations, just mostly boring people.
  • Interesting people can get interested in pretty much anything.
  • Positive people find the positive in most everything.

The Delusion Defense

In a previous article I made the case that all religious beliefs are delusions and should be called out as such (found here). I really do keep this view in perspective however and don’t actually feel particularly compelled to call out all my religious friends and associates as delusional at every opportunity. But I still maintain that it is absolutely necessary to do so without compunction when it comes to extremely delusional thinkers like Ken Ham (see here) who publically propagate a large number of very bizarre delusions.

Regardless of how accurate and justified it may be to characterize all religious beliefs as delusions, doing so is problematic simply because of the huge number of people who believe. If you call religious beliefs delusional, then all religious people are at least somewhat delusional. And that is most of us. And if believers are all delusional, that would produce profound ramifications in all manner of social and legal interactions.

In his book “Bad Faith” (found here), Paul Offit looks at the insane faith healing beliefs of Amish, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who feel compelled by their faith to commit murder through the withholding of medical care for their children and other loved ones. In a recent lecture I attended, Offit observed that our legal system essentially gives these families “one free murder” before the State is willing to characterize their beliefs as dangerous and harmful.

Sure they are clearly crazy. But non-religious people can be crazy too. Most normal religious beliefs are entirely reasonable.

Except it is not that simple.

In his book “Under the Banner of Heaven’ (found here), John Krakauer documents the insane history of Mormonism and the 40,000 Mormons who still believe much of it and practice polygamy. In particular, he documents the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, Mormon brothers who felt compelled by their faith to commit multiple murders. The defense in that case argued for an insanity plea based largely upon the craziness of their religious beliefs.

Their defense argued that the delusional beliefs of the Lafferty brothers rose to the level of insanity and that their clients were therefore not fit to stand trial. However, psychiatrists for the State argued that their beliefs were essentially no different in any qualitative way from any other belief considered “normal.” (It could be argued that no person who believes in an afterlife truly understands the consequences of their actions.)

In his book “Thinking About the Insanity Defense” (found here), author Ellsworth Fersch lays out the fundamental problem in the Lafferty case:

“Their strategy was to show that he was sane through comparison with other individuals. First, they pointed out all the similarities between his fundamentalist religious beliefs and the religious beliefs of people with ordinary religious faiths. By doing so, they made his seemingly outlandish claims and ideas seem much more normal. For example, Dr. Gardner compared Ron Lafferty’s belief in reflector shields to belief in guardian angels. This strategy was effective because it forced anyone who was willing to consider whether he was insane to also consider the larger question of whether any religious person is insane.”

Belief ties sanity and delusion into an almost inescapable Gordian knot. To uphold an insanity defense would be to imply that all religious believers are similarly insane. That would never be acceptable. But to exempt religious beliefs would make it extremely difficult to ever characterize anyone as insane or make any value judgment about any belief. It would make it difficult to interfere with any dangerous behavior such as faith healing when it is claimed to be based upon a “deeply held belief.” That in fact serves the narrow self-interest of believers.

DelusionDefenseThese are extremely vexing conundrums even for psychologists.  They have been completely muddled over this all the way back to Freud who suggested that all religious beliefs are delusional and that religion is a mass-delusion. On the more diplomatic side of the argument is the definition established by the American Psychiatric Association (codified in DSM-IV) which says essentially that a belief is a delusion – well unless enough people believe it that is. Clearly if Freud is right, then that conclusion leads necessarily to widespread clinical, social, and legal ramifications. However, if the APA is correct, then sanity is completely contextual. What might be sane in one society or in one group or at one time in history may be completely delusional and result in institutionalization in another setting. Precisely how many believers must I recruit in order for my insane delusions to be considered sane and immunized from ridicule? The APA view creates significant social problems for all aspects of society.

In his paper “Faith or Delusion? At the Crossroads of Religion and Psychosis,” Joseph M. Pierre attempts to review the psychiatric literature in order to find a sensible middle ground. Pierre points out that:

“Neither Freud’s stance that all religious belief is delusional nor DSM-IV’s strategy of avoiding mention of religious thinking in discussions of psychosis is an acceptable way to resolve the ambiguity between normal religious belief and religious delusion.”

One might think this question should be resolvable by simply looking at other criteria to evaluate sanity, not merely the presence of religious beliefs. But Pierre goes on in his paper to review the body of psychiatric works that attempt to distinguish faith from delusion using a wide range of possible criteria. None of these attempts prove to be satisfactory. Since every belief is inherently not based on any objective facts, it is impossible to make qualitative distinctions between “normal” beliefs and “delusional” beliefs. Attempts to measure their impact by other indirect measures, such as excessive preoccupation, conviction, emotional valence, claims of universal validity, and level of contradiction all fail to provide a satisfactory distinction.

So the situation we are left with is that we are precluded from ever admitting that religious beliefs are delusional, even though the APA defines beliefs as delusions held by a sufficiently large number of people. Instead we are forced to make mostly arbitrary decisions about when to characterize a belief as a delusion. But I think I have a suggestion to help with this problem. It seems to me that much of this Gordian Knot is glued together by a presumption, a prejudice, and a conceit that says that sanity and insanity are exclusive binary conditions.

As I argue in my book (found here), we each have a myriad of ideas that could each be placed along a wide spectrum from sane to insane. If someone has a lot of delusional ideas a lot of the time, that person may cross the threshold of clinical insanity, but we all still do have some insane ideas some of the time.

If we would only stop applying to word delusional to people and instead start applying it with less reluctance to ideas, recognizing that we all have some delusional ideas some of the time, then I think we go a long way toward reaching the balance we need to respond to mass-delusional thinking in a more reasonable and consistent manner.

But I’m out of room for now. I’ll expand on this in a future article.

Alien Life Exists!

Pollsters love to ask us whether we believe in alien life. It is an interesting topic because it straddles the line between fact and belief. So where do you stand on it? Take a minute to mentally answer the following questions with Yes, No, or Not Sure.

1. Do you believe that alien life exists?
2. Do you believe that intelligent alien life exists?
3. Do you believe aliens have visited the Earth?

Americans are pretty divided on these questions. About 50% of us believe there is some form of life on other planets (even if only akin to bacteria) while 33% are not sure. We are more skeptical about the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life with about 38% believing they are out there while about 42% are unsure (see here). Polls also generally report that roughly a third of us believe aliens have actually visited the Earth. Apparently most of us who believe in intelligent alien life also believe that those aliens are capable of reaching the Earth.

How did your answers compare? This may surprise you, but I am completely confident that the 50% of Americans who are believe that alien life exists are completely…. right! Regardless of what you believe, it would be understandable for you to ask, how can you be so certain? Have you seen aliens? Can you show me scientific proof of alien life?

The answer is that I have a particular kind of certainty here called a “statistical certainty.” A statistical certainty is something you can be confident is true even though you may never prove it in the conventional sense. For example, I can be statistically certain that right now as you read this most excellent article, someone somewhere is thinking about bananas. Can I prove this? Obtaining clear proof, finding even one such person may be theoretically possible but practically unlikely. Still, given the number of people in the world and the commonness of bananas, I can be quite sure of it nonetheless.

Similarly, we can clearly say with statistical certainty that life does exist on other planets. Even though I’ve never seen an alien, have absolutely no scientific evidence of alien life, and no expectation of ever meeting one, I do know that the rules of chemistry and physics that gave rise to life on Earth are equally applicable on every Earth-like planet. And all available evidence tells us that there must be a huge number of such planets in our universe. So therefore, I can bank on the statistical certainty that yes, some kind of life does exist on other planets.

Is this essentially the same as a belief then? Am I simply playing word games to rationalize my belief in aliens? Absolutely not. A belief has no basis in statistical certainty. A belief exists despite of a complete lack of any basis upon which to form a even a statistical plausibility. We have no basis upon which to believe in god or ghosts or gremlins, no consistency or conformity with observable evidence, on which to base any legitimate statistical confidence.

So let’s move on now to the second question, whether intelligent life exists in the universe. I think that the 38% who believe happen to be right again – even if for the wrong reasons. (Which brings up the side question, is one truly right if they are right for the wrong reasons?)

We can reasonably bank on a strong statistical confidence in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, even if it is not quite a statistical certainty. While my confidence in intelligent aliens may not be not quite as high as in alien bacteria, it is still a sensible default to assume that yes, intelligent alien life does exist somewhere. And again, this is not belief or wishful thinking, but an assessment founded upon the consistency of physical laws throughout the universe and the sheer number of life-sustaining planets that undoubtedly exist in it.

Finally, what about the third question as to whether those intelligent aliens (that we are statistically confident must exist) have ever visited Earth? On this question I go completely the other direction. There is no credible evidence that any have ever visited Earth in the past – and we would expect to find such evidence. Some alien Coke-cans littering the Nazca Desert or anything. Further, there is no logical mechanism to give one any confidence that aliens could visit us now or for that matter ever in the future. While allowing some tiny plausibility based on what we may not know yet, the tremendous gulf of time and space between us simply makes such interstellar travel diminishingly unlikely.

Many people would argue against my skepticism. Surely, they say, you’re too narrow-minded. You lack vision. Certainly a sufficiently advanced species could produce some technology to travel between solar-systems. At one time people scoffed that we could never reach the moon, and look we did it anyway!

AtomBut the problem here is our solar system is an incredibly tiny dot in an effectively infinite ocean. The gulf between stellar systems is literally astronomical. The barriers of time and space between civilizations are so fundamental that physical travel between them simply runs up against too many inviolate laws of physics. Interstellar travel is not comparable to crossing a vast ocean. It is more comparable to shrinking down to the size of a cell like Ray Palmer (The Atom) and swimming though a blood vessel. Barring some completely fantastical warp-hole technology, it is simply not happening, not ever, not for us or for any alien species no matter how advanced.

Belief that science will always find a solution to everything illustrates the fallacy of an unreasonable belief in technology. This is a dangerous belief when it delays or undermines more effective and necessary action, as it does now in the case of global climate change.

So in summary it is a statistical certainty that life exists on other planets and it would be highly surprising if some of those life forms were not intelligent. But it is extremely unlikely we’ll ever even detect signs of each other, let alone communicate or pay each other a visit. Nevertheless I fully support continuing to look for signs of intelligent life in the universe, even knowing that by the time we see such evidence they would almost certainly have been long extinct. Knowing that intelligent life existed somewhere else, even if only light-ages in the past, would change us fundamentally forever, and I think for the better.