Author Archives: Tyson

About Tyson

Love writing all kinds of stuff including fiction, non-fiction, editorials, etc. But writing software is the only writing I do for love AND money!

Scooby-Doo Set a High Bar

Most everyone knows that Scooby-Doo is an entertainment franchise that started as an animated television series back in 1969. In a nutshell, it consisted of a group of four teenage mystery investigators and their dog, a lovable Great Dane named Scooby-Doo.

The series had, and mostly still retains, a very rigid storyline structure. The kids arrive in their Mystery Van to investigate a report of strange occurrences. After disregarding dire warnings from creepy eye-witnesses who attempt to warn them away, the teens eventually encounter the actual vampire, ghost, alien, or fill-in-the-blank monster.

Hijinks ensue as the team alternately chases, and is chased by, the monster through the usual hallway doors or warehouse barrel gags. Eventually, often with the inadvertent assistance of Scooby-Doo, the team eventually corners the monster.

Here is the important part. Every episode, without exception, ends with the big reveal. The fake mask comes off and the teens gasp, “It’s groundskeeper Ed!” It invariably turns out that some trusted guy was faking the entire thing, typically in some scheme to profit from peoples’ superstition and fear. What seemed like such a compelling and terrifying monster suddenly gets exposed as just some greedy old guy in a cheap homemade mask.

The show should be required viewing as an essential part of every sound educational curriculum. It taught kids that even if something is seemingly inexplicable and scary, even if trusted adults tell you that you should be frightened, you can be assured that the answer is knowable and that it will turn out to be something quite simple and mundane once you discover it.

Scooby-Doo teaches kids the critically important lesson that if something seems inexplicable, they can be confident that “there is always a trick.” This is especially true in the case of any purportedly paranormal or supernatural mystery. The reality behind every supernatural account is always, and can only be, something quite unremarkable. Most likely, it is merely some greedy scammer trying to trick you out of your money.

And those greedy scammers are often television producers.

It is deplorable that ostensibly educational television networks like “The Science Channel,” “The Discovery Channel”, and “The History Channel” are not as educational and socially-responsible as are the Scooby-Doo Adventures. All of these supposedly educational channels not only fail to educate, but indeed they feature supernatural “investigations” without ever getting to the big reveal. They show us the scary stories and the tense chase but never the unmasking. Instead they convince many that these stories might be real and leave them with the tantalizing promise of further revelations in the next episode.

This is not harmless entertainment. This is the socially irresponsible perpetuation of nonsensical thinking that does great damage to our capacity to reason effectively, both individually and collectively.

It is a truly sad that these supposedly educational networks are no better than those dastardly Scooby-Doo villains. It is even more sad that a cartoon Great Dane named Scooby-Doo is a far greater force for reason and sanity in the world than all of those involved in manufacturing this entertainment and representing these paranormal “investigations” as educational reality-based television.

It is even sadder to realize that these networks do not need to broadcast these irresponsible ghost-hunter type shows to make a buck. Scooby-Doo proves, as do highly successful shows like Mythbusters, that you can be socially responsible and create a beloved and very profitable entertainment franchise at the same time. Like Scooby-Doo, they could unmask the real source of each supposed “mystery” — but they choose not to.

Like Scooby-Doo, they could end with a dramatic reveal which exposes how these stories get started, how we get fooled, and how they perpetuate — but they choose not to. Instead, unlike Scooby-Doo, the producers of these shows, the people who make them, and the networks that promote them choose to be socially irresponsible.

Scooby-Doo… where are you?

Wisconsin’s Fall From Grace

I was always proud of being from Wisconsin. I cited my Wisconsin upbringing as a testament to my good Midwestern values.

But for a while now I’ve increasingly felt like, if forced to admit I am from Wisconsin, I need to rush to explain that, despite being from Wisconsin, I’m really not crazy or stupid. To salvage my dignity, I quickly point out that I went to school at Madison (now I know how those Texans feel when they rush to point out that they are from Austin).

It isn’t me that has changed, it’s Wisconsin.

I am a product of Wisconsin as much as Miller Beer or its favorite son, The Crusher (see here). The Crusher was the stage name for a pro-wrestler who reportedly used to train by jogging around South Milwaukee with a barrel of beer on his shoulder. My friends and I used to go to watch the wrestling matches at “The Arena.”

So I have solid Wisconsin creds. I spent my Elementary and High School years roaming the near South side in Milwaukee and camping out in a pup tent at Mauthe Lake. I dragged my overloaded wagon through unplowed snowdrifts to deliver the Milwaukee Journal after school and at 3 am on Sunday mornings. My undergraduate years at Carroll College in Waukesha were challenging and exciting, living in a welfare voucher flop house across from the library. While attending the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, I managed a large [reportedly haunted] apartment complex and parented a group home for a great bunch of mentally disabled residents in nearby Ripon. I taught High School in Wisconsin farm country and was particularly proud to attend Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the historic and vibrant epicenter of Midwest progressivism at its best.

Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of beyond beer and pro-wrestlers. It has a long history of bold and progressive leadership.

Throughout the twentieth century, Wisconsin led the country in devising pioneering legislation that aided the vast majority of its citizens. In 1911, the state legislature established the nation’s first workers’ compensation program, a progressive state income tax, and more stringent child-labor laws. The following year, former President Theodore Roosevelt described Wisconsin as a “laboratory for wise, experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.”

The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman (see here)

The proud historical legacy of Wisconsin was hard-earned by courageous populist leaders like “Fighting Bob” La Follette (see here) and his sons. But the Wisconsin that birthed and raised me is no more. The sane and compassionate Wisconsin that the La Follette’s worked so hard to build was murdered back around 2016 when Conservatives took control.

While Trump’s victory may have shocked the media, it merely heralded the final stage of Wisconsin’s dramatic transformation from a pioneering beacon of progressive, democratic politics to the embodiment of that legacy’s national unraveling. Powerful conservative donors and organizations across the country had Wisconsin in their sights years before the 2016 election, helping Governor Scott Walker and his allies systematically change the state’s political culture.

The Undoing of Progressive Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman

Wisconsinite Dan Kaufman, the author of that article in The Progressive Magazine, also wrote a book on this topic called The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics (see here).

The Fall of Wisconsin is a deeply reported, searing account of how the state’s progressive tradition was undone and turned into a model for national conservatives bent on remaking the country. 

Kaufman is certainly correct in what is essentially his obituary for the quirky and loveable Wisconsin we once knew and loved. For me, it is viscerally sad to see Wisconsin laid so low by the Trump-fueled Conservative movement. Wisconsin may not be as Red on paper, or at least not receive as much attention, as other states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida. But when one considers how quickly it has been taken over by extreme Conservatism, and how far it has fallen from its former grace, it is particularly shocking. The prognosis seems to be that extreme Conservativism has entrenched itself deep into the very spine of Wisconsin, and that it will not recover back to a sane and rational state for a very very long time.

This one is personal for me. I think of the folks around me when I grew up in Wisconsin. My community was mostly working-class Polish or German stock but there was considerable diversity. Racial or ethnic animus was pretty minimal for that time. Yes, my grandmother locked the doors when we drove through a Black neighborhood, but that was the extent of it. Politics was mentioned after the Packer game, but it was not a particularly divisive issue.

My family were all moderate Conservatives. They complained about welfare, but mostly they treated their politics like their religion. They were Catholics. Now, if you know Catholics, they are very mildly religious. Yes, they believe in god, or profess to for the sake of the kids. They go to church once a year on Easter and Christmas and they figure their souls are safe. It’s all pretty laid back. My uncle who sponsored my First Communion took me to celebrate at the local corner bar afterwards.

These Wisconsinites were pretty much Catholic in their politics too. Yes they were Conservative, but not radically so.

But today, most of my friends and relatives back in Wisconsin are no longer Catholic in their religion or their politics. They are Evangelical Christians and they are MAGA true believers and they are tirelessly active in advancing both. When I spend any time with them they quickly tell me in the strongest terms that my atheism is going to damn my child to hell and that Donald Trump never, ever told a lie.

Their religion and their politics seem linked like two sides of the same coin. They always were, except before it was a moderate Catholic attitude and today it is a radical Evangelical one.

When I look back at Wisconsin, I remember it as that nice State who always brought the best potato dumplings and plenty of Blatz beer to the potluck. But somehow, tragically, got radicalized online and ended up storming the Capitol to lynch our political leaders in praise of god and Donald Trump.

R.I.P. Wisconsin. I hope you can somehow recover from this fever of evangelical religion and radicalized politics and return to the reasonable and sensible Midwesterners that would honor the great ghosts of Wisconsin past.

The Motorcar-Rights Amendment

1885 Benz Patent Motorcar

Back in the year 1900, there were only 4,192 passenger cars manufactured in the United States. Those 4,192 turn-of-the-century car enthusiasts could freely putter along their dirt roads with little concern about speed limits, driver training or tests, licensing, stop lights, traffic cops, seat belts, or fatal accidents. I’m sure some still managed to get into bouts of road-rage fueled fisticuffs, or run over the occasional slow-reacting pedestrian, but these incidents, while vexing, were not unmanageable.

Fast-forward to 2022 and there are now over 284 million motor vehicles operating on the roads of the United States. Today we absolutely do have to worry about things like speed limits, driver training and tests, licensing, stop lights, traffic cops, seat belts, and fatal accidents. Not only are there far more cars today, they are far more densely packed into confined spaces, they are dramatically heavier, and are far faster. To fail to regulate car ownership and to strictly circumscribe their use in today’s world would not be merely vexing, it would be insanely dystopian.

In this, I think any even the most passionate car enthusiast would agree.

But what if one of the drafters of our Constitution was also the proud owner of a 1886 Benz Patent Motorcar? He might have honestly believed that motorcar ownership is a right that should never be curtailed by the government in any way. And further, he might have argued that the personal mobility offered by the motorcar was essential to civil resistance against an oppressive government. Therefore, what harm could come from including a Motorcar-Rights Amendment to ensure that some future tyrannical government can not seek to oppress us by curtailing our ability to move about and associate freely?

What would likely have happened if we did have such a “Motorcar-Rights Amendment” in our Constitution?

Likely we would be in much the same situation we are in with guns.

Like gun owners, car enthusiasts would have tenaciously invoked their Constitutional Right to block any regulation that in any way restricted their use of cars. No seat belts, no speed limits, no competence tests, no police enforcement–no slippery-slope regulations of any kind. Certainly the American Automobile Association, funded by the car industry, would unfailingly argue in front of the Supreme Court that even the most modest car control regulation or liability exposure is unconstitutional. Regardless of the number of horrific high speed accidents, heedless of death and injury counts, the Supreme Court would steadfastly insist that we adhere to the original intent of the Constitution. “Responsible” car owners would buy ever bigger and more dangerous vehicles in order to defend their rights, to defend our liberty, and to defend themselves from all those “other” reckless car drivers.

Over the decades, as cars got bigger, faster, and more numerous, our dogged protection of that right would have gradually transformed our county into a vast and deadly demolition derby with 284 million rhinoceros-sized death-machines all trying to outdo each other by buying even more deadly elephant-sized death machines.

And our only response would be to continue to send our thoughts and prayers to all the victims of that insane car-nage even as we were quick to reaffirm our commitment to protecting “responsible car ownership” and advocating for inconsequentially modest reforms.

And guns have incomparably less value to society than do cars.

What a more sane and rational Supreme Court would and should do about guns is to drastically reevaluate or even better abandon this primeval Constitutional right in recognition of the real world we live in today. But regardless of that, any ethical and responsible individual would and should voluntarily elect not to own guns of any kind for any reason and refuse to defend or support any private gun ownership whatsoever for any reason.

Loss to Follow-up in Research

In my scientific evangelism, I often tout the virtues of good scientists. One that I often claim is that they do not accept easy answers to difficult problems. They would rather say “we do not have an answer to that question at this time” than accept some possibly incorrect or incomplete answer. They understand that to embrace such quick answers not only results in the widespread adoption of false conclusions but also inhibits the development of new techniques and methods to arrive at the fuller truth.

When it comes to clinical research however, many clinical researchers do not actually behave like good scientists. They behave more like nonscientific believers or advocates. This is particularly true with regard to the problem of “loss to follow-up.”

What is that? Well, many common clinical research studies, for example how well patients respond to a particular treatment, require that the patient be examined at some point after the treatment is administered, perhaps in a week, perhaps after several months have passed. Only through follow-up can we know how well that treatment has worked.

The universal problem however is that this normally requires considerable effort by the researchers as well as the patients. Researchers must successfully schedule a return visit and patients must actually answer their telephone when the researchers attempt to follow-up. This often does not happen. These patients are “lost to follow-up” and we have no data for them regarding the outcomes we are evaluating.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, these follow-up rates are often very poor. In some areas of clinical research, a 50% loss to follow-up rate is considered acceptable – largely based on practicality, not statistical accuracy. Some published studies report loss to follow-up rates as high as 75% or more – that is, they have only a 25% successful follow-up rate.

To put this in context, in their 2002 series on epidemiology published in The Lancet, Schultz and Grimes included a critical paper in which they assert that any loss to follow-up over 20% invalidates any general conclusions regarding most populations. In some cases, a 95% follow-up rate would be required in order to make legitimate general conclusions. The ideal follow-up rate required depends upon the rate of the event being studied.

Unfortunately, few studies involving voluntary follow-up by real people can achieve these statistically meaningful rates of follow-up and thus we should have appropriately moderated confidence in their results. At some threshold, a sufficiently low confidence means we should have no confidence.

So, given the practical difficulty of obtaining a statistically satisfactory loss to follow-up, what should clinical researchers do? Should they just stop doing research? There are many important questions that we need answers to, and this is simply the best we can do. Therefore, most conclude, surely some information is better than none.

But is it?

Certainly most clinical researchers – but not all – are careful to add a caveat to their conclusions. They responsibly structure their conclusions to say something like:

We found that 22% of patients experienced mild discomfort and there were no serious incidents reported. We point out that our 37% follow-up rate introduces some uncertainty in these findings.

This seems like a reasonable and sufficiently qualified conclusion. However, we know that despite the warning about loss to follow-up, the overall conclusion is that this procedure is relatively safe with only 22% of patients overall experiencing mild discomfort. That is almost assuredly going to be adopted as a general conclusion. Particularly so since the topic of the study is essentially “the safety of our new procedure.”

Adopting that level of safety as a general conclusion could be wildly misleading. It may be that 63% of patients failed to respond because they were killed by the procedure. Conversely, the results may create unwarranted concern about discomfort caused by the procedure since the only patients who felt compelled to follow-up were those who experienced discomfort. These are exaggerations to make the point, but they illustrate very real and very common problems that we cannot diagnose since the patients were lost to follow-up.

In any case, ignoring or minimizing or forgetting about loss to follow-up is only valid if the patients who followed-up were random. And that is rarely the case and certainly can never be assumed or even determined.

Look at it this way. Imagine a scientific paper entitled “The Birds of Tacoma.” In their methodology section, the researchers describe how they set up plates of worms and bowls of nectar in their living room and opened the windows. They then meticulously counted to birds that flew into the room to eat. They report they observed 6 robins and 4 hummingbirds. Therefore, they conclude, our study found that in Tacoma, we have 60% robins and 40% hummingbirds. Of course, being scrupulous researchers, they note that their research technique could, theoretically, have missed certain bird species.

This example isn’t exactly a problem of loss to follow-up, but the result is the same. You can of course think of many, many reasons why their observations may be misleading. But nevertheless, most people would form the long-term “knowledge” that Tacoma is populated by 60% robins and 40% hummingbirds. Some might take unfortunate actions under the assurance that no eagles were found in Tacoma. Further, the feeling that we now know the answer to this question would certainly inhibit further research and limit any funding into what seems to be a settled matter.

But, still, many scientists would say that they know all of this but we have to do what we can do. We have to move forward. Any knowledge, however imperfect is better than none. And what alternative do we have?

Well, one alternative is to reframe your research. Do not purport to report on “The Birds of Tacoma,” but rather report on “The Birds that Flew into Our Living Room.” That is, limit the scope of your title and conclusions so there is no inference that you are reporting on the entire population. Purporting to report general conclusions and then adding a caveat in the small print at the end should be unacceptable.

Further, publishers and peer reviewers should not publish papers that suggest general conclusions beyond the confidence limits of their loss to follow-up. They should require that the authors make the sort of changes I recommend above. And they themselves should be willing to publish papers that are not quite as definitive in their claims.

But more generally, clinical researchers, like any good scientists, should accept that they cannot <yet> answer some questions for which they cannot achieve a statistically sound loss to follow-up. Poor information can be worse than no information.

When <real> scientists are asked about the structure of a quark, they don’t perform some simple experiments that they are able to conduct with the old lab equipment at hand and report some results with disclaimers. They stand back. They say, “we cannot answer that question right now.” And they set about creating new equipment, new techniques, to allow them to study quarks more directly and precisely.

Clinical researchers should be expected to put in that same level of effort. Rather than continuing to do dubious and even counterproductive follow-up studies, buckle down, do the hard work, and develop techniques to acquire better data. It can’t be harder than coming up with gear to detect quarks.

“I have to deal with people” should not be a valid excuse for poor science. Real scientists don’t just accept easy answers because they’re easy. That’s what believers do. So step up clinical researchers, be scientists and be willing to say I don’t know but I’m going to develop new methods and approaches that will get us those answers. Answers that we can trust and act upon with confidence.

If you are not wiling to do that you are little better than Christian Scientists.

Game Theory and the End of Democracy

Asian cultures tend to create games and systems that are inherently cooperative, in which everyone wins or loses together as a team. America, by contrast, is an explicitly and proudly antagonistic culture that pits one side against the other in most every aspect of life. Win-lose competitions drive our society starting with our board games, through our sports competitions, our educational system, our legal system, our capitalist financial system, and right up through our highly prized political system of checks and balances.

But in a system where one must lose so the other can win, it’s tough to be a gracious loser and sometimes just as hard to be a gracious winner. Win-lose competitions often do not end well. Yes, once or twice a gracious loser will walk across the field and congratulate a similarly gracious winner. But if the game is imbalanced, that good sportsmanship cannot be maintained. If one side keeps losing and sees no hope of winning, the game quickly goes sour for both sides. That thrilling boxing match suddenly turns into a repulsive beatdown that forces every feeling person turn away in disgust, and neither the winner nor the loser walk away feeling good.

Win-lose competitions are great fun as long as both sides believe they can win. But when one player starts to fall behind, they might try to distract the other player so that they can shift a chess piece, or they might grab some monopoly money from the bank when no one is paying attention. As the game becomes more lopsided, cheating becomes ever more irresistible. Sometimes the cheating becomes so intense that the entire game is corrupted and sometimes, by tacit agreement, both parties just abandon the rules altogether.

If one player finally becomes convinced that they can never win, why should they continue to play at all? When a chess player finally accepts that they cannot compete against world-class masters, or a runner accepts that their knee injuries make them unable to compete and win, why continue to participate? Of course, they lose interest in the game, they decide it’s stupid anyway, they might even angrily claim the other side cheats, upturn the game board, and insist we play some other game.

That is analogous to what has been happening in our real-life competitive game of politics. The Right has long seen that they are losing at this game of democratic elections. They tried cheating, they engaged in the political equivalent of unsportsmanlike misconduct, they exploited and abused the rules of the game, but it is still clear that they will not win another fair electoral match in the foreseeable future. Obviously, their natural inclination is to overturn the board, to declare that Democracy is stupid anyway, to turn it into a WWF version of political performance art, and even to embrace dictatorship.

From the perspective of the side that has no hope of winning in a fair democratic election, a totalitarian dictatorship that is hopefully more aligned to your perspectives is a rationally desirable alternative. Even if that dictatorship does not serve your own self interest, overturning the chess board at least denies your opponent a win.

So the message here is that the Progressives have finally succeeded in their generational effort to convince Conservatives that they can no longer win the game election game in America. It should be perfectly understandable that, once internalizing that stark reality, the Conservatives tried to cheat, tried to change the rules, and are now engaged in overturning the entire game.

This impulse to abandon the game rather than keep losing is aggravated and reinforced by a simultaneously lopsided win-lose economic system in which it is clear that the ultra-wealthy have claimed the winning cup so completely that none of the rest of us, but particularly rank and file Conservatives, can ever hope to do more than pitch in the minor-leagues.

What, did we think that Conservatives would just walk across the Continental divide, shake our hands, congratulate us on a well-earned victory, and accede to the increasingly progressive will of the majority?

Of course not. Of course they prefer to overturn the game, and end Democracy altogether, rather than lose at the competitive win-lose game that we have made it.

Coming For Your Guns

Before I start this article about guns, I want to assure you that I’m not here to take away anyone’s gun. I respect the Second Amendment and I myself am a gun enthusiast and an avid hunter. I’m only here to advocate for some small, common sense regulations to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people, not to in any way infringe upon the rights of the millions of responsible gun owners like you and me!

Do you believe that? Do you want the truth?

What I just said was complete, utter bullshit. I don’t actually mean any of it. It is simply the mandatory apology that some unwritten consensus has dictated must preface any suggestion of even the smallest, sanest gun regulations.

“First sir, let me assure you that in no way do I wish to suggest that you do do not have every legal right to spit on the floor, and I respect your traditions and in no way want to abridge your enjoyment of our restaurant, but could you perhaps, please agree to at least spit into a napkin – if it is not inconvenient in any way…”

Here’s what I actually believe. I believe that if you want a gun, you have failed the mental health test and are too crazy to be allowed to have one (see more here). I believe that if you can rationalize that somehow your right to own a gun is worth the life of even one child blown to bits in a mass shooting, you are morally sick and should never call yourself a Christian. I believe that your gun doesn’t demonstrate your strength, but rather it exposes how pathetically cowardly and insecure you really are. It is not merely that bad people use guns, guns create supervillians (see more here).

Further, I believe the Second Amendment should be abolished. Erased. There should be no private gun ownership at all. If I were Thanos, I’d click every single gun out of existence. If I were a benevolent dictator, I’d end all private sales and then go house to house, confiscate every one, and melt them for scrap. Guns should be limited to law enforcement professionals or temporarily checked out, like ski rentals, from regulated gun rental agencies for limited-time hunting or recreation (see more here).

As I write this, I can feel all the common sense gun reform advocates clutching at their pearls and gasping for breath. Oh my, oh my, now he’s done it! He’s put in writing exactly what the gun advocates have been saying we really think all along! He’s set our long struggle for modest gun reform back 50 years!

In reality, the gun nuts are both right and wrong about this.

They are wrong that gun control advocates want to come after their guns. I don’t know how many, but I suspect that the vast majority are sincere in their Stockholm syndrome defense of gun rights. I think the most prominent leaders of the movement are especially sincere, because you cannot get to be a leader of a mainstream gun control movement today if you are not authentically supportive of gun ownership as an inviolable right.

At the same time, the gun nuts are correct however, because they instinctively realize that none of the “sensible” gun control measures put forth will actually make much difference. They intuit that the only solution to increasingly horrific gun carnage is to drastically limit gun availability. They know, even if gun control advocates do not, that as “sensible” controls prove inadequate, even sympathetic gun control advocates will be forced to advocate for more restrictive measures.

Look here. Beyond all the time-worn, rehashed arguments, this gun debate really just falls in to two positions. There are those who, like me, believe it is unethical, selfish, and cowardly to cling to guns in the face of all the devastation they cause. And there are those who somehow rationalize their desire to own weapons of murder, regardless of their tragic cost to individuals and to society.

In between those two are the practical, sensible, gun control advocates who, sincerely or as a tactic, bow and pledge allegiance to fundamental gun rights before making any qualified suggestion for modest gun reform. As to their sincerity, I put that down to a lifetime indoctrination into the gun culture of America. As to their tactics, I only point out that deference to gun rights has not worked for them or for us despite decades of trying.

Perhaps it is time that more people, particularly leaders, grow a spine and say enough is enough. We are not going to genuflect before the Second Amendment any more. You should not have guns and if you do you are crazy and immoral in that regard. We should try playing hardball instead of softball. Force the gun nuts to accept some limited concessions when the alternative is ending private gun sales in America and making the industry liable for the damage their products inflict.

Hey, could a hardball stance really be any less effective than the deferential, milksop approach we have taken so far? We need more leaders willing to stand up and denounce guns utterly and completely and without equivocation (see more here).

Any less from gun control advocates is tantamount to collaboration in mass murder.

Let’s Stop Glorifying Soldiers

Today is Memorial Day. This holiday does make me reflect upon the many soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the military. Without doubt it brings great comfort to many. But for me, those thoughts unavoidably drift far beyond merely acknowledging and appreciating their sacrifice. I’m forced to ask, is this level of glorification justified? Is it a good thing? Does it go too far? And does it cause unanticipated and undesired harm?

How justified really is the extremely high level of recognition we ascribe to soldiers on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, at more routine events, and in the many popular references and acknowledgments that are so pervasive throughout our culture? Many may say it’s far too little and too perfunctory. But many others feel our reverence for and romanticization of the military is borderline pathological.

Yes, some soldiers die during their service. But we have many professions that suffer from similarly high death rates, in fact much higher if you only count combat deaths (see here). And if we look at harm to health and well-being more generally, the terrible cost suffered by other professions is even far more pronounced.

But even while acknowledging the actual numbers, we still like to think that military service is special; that soldiers didn’t merely make the ultimate sacrifice in the course of earning a paycheck. We imagine their sacrifice to be more noble because they were selflessly serving their country to protect our freedom and liberty and our democratic way of life.

In reality, that may at times be the big picture result of military service, but many professions likewise serve those same greater goals. But for individual soldiers, claims of noble motivation are highly exaggerated rationalizations. Many studies have shown that the primary motivation for joining the military is simply money. One such study by RAND (see here) identifies five primary reasons that people join the military:

  • Adventure and Travel
  • Benefits
  • Job Stability and Pay
  • Escaping a Negative Environment
  • Job Training

None of these driving motivations have anything to do with defending freedom and democracy. They are all simply based upon personal gain. Now, that’s not to say that serving a noble cause is not important to many in the military. But for most it’s secondary at best and a rationalization at worst.

That is not as true of many other service professions. Teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers, and many in legal, medical, or other service professions do often cite helping others as primary motivations for working in difficult, low-paying, and sometimes dangerous careers. Not so with most of the soldiers who are so honored by our culture.

So then we ask, what’s the harm? Certainly we should not fail to honor one group simply because we cannot similarly honor all deserving groups. Recognition is often not fair. It never can be. And maybe the goal of inducing soldiers to join the military is indeed so important to democracy that honoring them is a necessary pragmatic white-lie we maintain for the greater good.

Well, my concern about this kind of pragmatic logic is two-fold. First, it is not at all clear that the good accomplished by our huge military overcomes the bad. But secondly, I am pretty confident that our glorification of the military does real, profound harm to our social fabric by propagating guns, military dress and equipment, and paramilitary behaviors that are incredibly damaging to our country. Beyond mass shootings, our fetishizing over everything military has become inextricably intertwined with the greatest dangers to our democracy emerging from within.

I have to think that our exaggerated romanticizing over soldiers is a significant enabling factor in the marketing of the real dangers and threats we face as a people. Glorifying soldiers, their equipment, and military solutions only models and ennobles this kind of behavior in civil society. We see this distorted and dangerous military mimicry escalating almost daily.

Maybe military behavior, however noble in theory, has become so corrupted in popular society that it is time to reevaluate our long-standing military traditions and their increasingly theoretical and irrelevant positive values.

So what should we do differently?

My suggestion is that we treat Memorial Day more like a remembrance of people who died in natural disasters or mass shootings. We remember these people as victims, not heroes. Rather than creating romanticized narratives of altruism and self-sacrifice, we should mourn the tragic, often needless, loss of friends and family. We should show icons of hope and renewal rather than parading our flags and shooting off rifles in militaristic displays. We should mourn the foreign policies that have put so many in harm’s way, dismantle a military-industrial complex that drives so many into the military, and stop feeding the delusions of so many disturbed, gun-crazy individuals in our society who are driven by the distorted ideas of military honor that they take away from Memorial Day and other military exhibitions.

Animals are Little People

Like many, I opine quite a bit about the harms caused by social media. Let’s be clear; those harms are real and profound. But it would be wrong not to acknowledge all the good it does. Social media has many well-acknowledged benefits as related to social networking and support, I’d like to point out two less obvious benefits, namely as they relate to science and animals.

For some quick background, I always heard that people spend lots of time watching video clips online. I assumed they must be endlessly entertained by “guy gets hit in balls” videos. But my son sent me some links to clips on the “InterestingAsFuck” subreddit (see here). They were really engaging and gradually I started to watch them more and more. Now, my wife and I ravenously consume the clips daily and can’t ever seem to get enough.

The first great thing is how many of the video clips involve science. These clips tend to demonstrate science principles and phenomena in incredibly engaging and inspiring ways. Some are certainly presented by scientists, but most of the presentations feel accessible, home grown, like real magic that you could be doing too. I have to think that this tone and style of presenting science has a tremendously underappreciated benefit in advancing or at least popularizing science and innovation.

The second benefit of these videos is their effect on how we relate to animals. Throughout history, we have seen ourselves as separate and above animals. While we might acknowledge theoretically that we are animals too, we still view them as relatively primitive creatures. We have zoos that are intended to help us to appreciate animals, but while they offer some exposure and appreciation, they generally just make us feel like we are in a museum, watching uninteresting stuffed figures behind bars and glass required to keep us safely away from their dangerous animal natures.

But then we go to InterestingAsFuck, and we see video after video of animals relating to humans and other animals in compellingly “human” ways. We see animals playing, teasing, problem-solving, sad, fearful, happy, proud, generous, and yes, sometimes selfish and even vindictive. And not just dogs and cats. We see videos that focus on behaviors of and interactions with the full spectrum of animal life on our planet, from eagles to microbes. They all demonstrate profoundly “human” behaviors.

We see videos of animals helping other animals, even ones that are traditional enemies or prey. It is incredibly gratifying that humans are included in this. We see videos of humans helping animals and animals helping humans. In fact, we see almost entirely positive interactions between humans and our animal cousins.

You could visit a hundred zoos or spend your entire life on a farm, and not be exposed to the tiniest fraction of incredible animal interactions captured in these videos. But once you watch enough of them, I find it hard to imagine how people could not be changed by them. It is hard to imagine how, having seen so many extraordinary examples, one could continue to dismiss animal behavior as just “mimicking humans.”

I hope, perhaps I am naïve, but I hope that after exposure to positive social media like this, most people will come away understanding that humans did not just suddenly appear on Earth; that all of our behaviors and emotions evolved and can be seen in our animal cousins. Animals are more like little people, like toddlers on the evolutionary ladder. As such, they deserve far more respect and appreciation than has traditionally been afforded to them.

If you don’t agree, follow InterestingAsFuck for a while, and see if you can still continue to dismiss any due recognition of animal feelings and emotions as mere projection.

Perhaps, just perhaps, social media can inspire us to engage with science, and with the real world around us, in ways that documentaries, and safaris, and zoos, and college courses have never been able to achieve.

The Demise of Superheroes

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the imminent demise of the superhero movie genre.

You should care and I’ll tell you why in a bit.

As a superhero fan for most of my 60 plus years, this saddens me greatly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so happy that I got to see all my comic book heroes come to life on big screens. But all good things must end.

It’s been a great run. While DC has always struggled to find its zone in live-action films, they still have offered some shining gems like the Dark Knight, Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and Aquaman.

Marvel, despite some duds, has been brilliant in offering an entire “universe” to “marvel” in. Hey, how many movie producers can you name that have given us dozens of epic movies and shows that you can watch in order like one continuously unfolding saga?

But even the amazing Marvel machine must eventually run out of gas.

Yes, Avengers: Endgame made nearly a billion dollars, and the more recent Spider-Man: No Way Home has come close to that, but these franchises have run their course. Most of its great heroes have been retired, killed, or have just become too familiar, too tiresome, telling their same origin stories over and over like some senile old grandparent. The James Bond franchise took great pains not to oversaturate their market and even they became tiresome, no longer exciting even young viewers.

Whether through desperation or sincere woke consciousness or both, Marvel’s current Phase 4 is overtly all about gender. Phase 4 represents the intentional female takeover of the genre, with female versions of pretty much every character, major and secondary, taking the reigns. Clearly a wokeness agenda is not to blame for killing the genre, but just because the genre is struggling to remain fresh and interesting doesn’t mean we should sacrifice it on the altar of a woke agenda (see here).

Comics have long demonstrated strong threads of social awareness, responsiveness, and leadership. As early as the 1970’s comics took on a lot of difficult social issues like drug abuse, sexuality, racism, and yes even gender inequality. But if the writers only care about the characters as vehicles to promote a social agenda, the stories suffer and fans see through that. That is how the proudly agenda-driven CW network has ruined most of the great DC heroes that they have been entrusted with.

And frankly female heroes are not going to revitalize the industry. It’s not that men don’t enjoy watching female heroes, particularly if wearing tight spandex, but they are not interested in a contrived She-Hulk. Fans can suspend reality enough to accept superpowers, but not enough to accept tiny Natalie Portman as the new Thor. Even Black Widow was a huge box office disaster.

The doubling down of gender in Phase 4 is only going to drive male fans farther away and it will not induce one new female to become a fan. Women who are not fans will pressure and fight to demand that there be more female superheroes, but they still won’t watch their movies let alone pay for them. Wokeness will only accelerate the demise of the industry.

You may ask, I’m not a superhero fan so why should I care?

You should care because not so long ago everyone was predicting the death of the movie industry. Soon, they said, all movie theatres would become extinct. That has not yet happened and superheroes have been a huge part of defying those predictions. Action/Adventure movies represent nearly 50% of movie revenue and the superhero genre represents the lion’s share of that revenue and excitement in general.

It has arguably been superheroes that have saved theatres and have kept it possible for you to still see Downton Abbey and all those Oscar winners on the big screen. If the superhero genre dies, movie theatres and much of the big-budget industry will likely soon follow.

I for one, will lament a world without blockbuster superheroes. And if you care about a vibrant big screen film industry, for yourself or for your kids to marvel at, you should not take any joy in their passing.

In the greater scheme of things, this should be a cautionary tale that coopting creative or other advocacy domains to serve wokeness or any other particular social cause, acts like a destructive parasite that only destroys its host and creates backlash against the cause being promoted.

Atheists Cannot Succeed in Life

Atheists cannot hope to accomplish great success in life.

This is the expressed opinion of someone who has been nominated for the Supreme Court as presumably being one of the wisest and most learned people in America (see here).

At the very top of her nomination speech, immediately after thanking the President and the Vice President, Ketanji Brown Jackson stated:

“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey. My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.”

There can be no misreading or misunderstanding of her words. Again, she stated clearly that “I do know that one can only come this far by faith.” Only. There is no ambiguity there. There is no modifying context. She thinks this.

Further, this is clearly extremely important and fundamental to her. She chose to put it at the very top of what was certainly the most critical, the most visible, and the most carefully considered speech of her life thus far. She clearly not only thinks this but must think it very, very profoundly.

If this is something she thinks she knows, it must make one wonder what else she thinks she knows.

This revelation must come as a great shock to the many, many highly accomplished and successful atheists to learn that their success cannot be real. They must be imagining it.

More seriously, her considered conclusion must come as a great disillusionment to the many, many children who are not deluded by religion. It is undoubtedly disheartening to hear that they cannot accomplish great success in life unless they find Jesus.

It is disappointing to have a supreme court justice who a) does not appreciate or care about the effect of her words on non-believers and b) doesn’t recognize that her assertion is simply, utterly contradicted by actual facts.

Further, her statement isn’t as much a window into her religious humility and thankfulness as much as it is a window into a self-aggrandizing Prosperity Bible worldview in which god rewards the chosen few with great worldly rewards and success. That kind of self-righteousness does not bode well for a Supreme Court Justice in a secular nation.

Lastly, I’ll point out that I had good feelings about this nominee right up to these statements. When she uttered them, I slammed off the live video and shouted “Fuck!”

Within a minute my phone rang and the first word from my associate, a fellow atheist was, “Fuck!”

I’m sure that this was the response of millions of atheists who are Americans too. That this nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was apparently blind to that response or did not care does not bode well for her ability to act as an empathetic and fair arbiter in decisions that affect ALL Americans.

If, as Justice Brown Jackson, she holds a deep conviction that success is only accessible through faith, and she wishes the best for all Americans, how can she morally do anything other than make decisions promoting religion and diminishing atheist, even simply secular activities?

As a final note, I’ll point out that the most discouraging and aggravating thing about this incident is that Ketanji Brown Jackson is, to a large degree, absolutely right. Atheists cannot reach the highest levels of success in this country. Not because god rewards the faithful, but because our nation is filled with, and critical decisions that affect us all are made by, religiously compromised people like her.