Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lost Day in Paradise

Seventeen years ago today, on December 31st 1994, almost 9,000 residents of the nation of Kiribati found themselves in January 1st 1995. For those people the date of December 31st 1994 would never exist.

This was not a natural phenomenon.

The nation of Kirabati consists of some 726 square kilometers of land spread out over 33 million square kilometers of ocean. Half the nation (including the uninhabited Starbuck Island) was on one half of the international data line, and the other half, including the capitol were west of the line. This was somewhat inconvenient, so the line was moved over from the 180th meridian to just east of the 150th meridian.

To put this into perspective New York City is just east of the 75th meridian, and Los Angeles is just east of the 120th meridian.  The date-line was moved two thirds of the distance from LA to NYC, or roughly the distance from LA to Chicago.

Kirabati is one of the least developed nations in the world. Their easternmost island, formerly Caroline Island, became the first location to see the sun on January 1st 2000, and so was the first location headed into the new millennium. Caroline Island was re-named Millennium Island. Caroline Island is home to a large population of potentially endangered Coconut Crabs, and no people.

The residents of Kirabati face the consequences of another potentially important unnatural phenomenon. Since most of the islands are at sea level any significant rise in sea level would make them disappear entirely.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Holodomor

Seventy-nine years ago today, on December 28th 1932, Pavel Petrovich Postyshev called for the installation of New Year trees (Yolka; literally “spruce”) in schools, children's homes, Young Pioneer Palaces, children's clubs, children's theaters and cinemas. The New Year Tree should not be confused with the Christmas tree left up till New Years (or if an artificial tree till Midsummer’s Eve); though they are both similarly decorated. The Yolka had been banned since 1916; first by the Ukrainian Synod because it was seen as German (the enemy in WWI), then by the Russian SFSR because it was “bourgeois and religious”. Resurrecting the tradition invigorated a resurgence of New Years Day celebrations across the USSR. It was party time, and people thought this was a “good thing”.

Pavel was not your typical early 20th century Martha Stewart. Five years before his Yolka letter Pavel had been secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) in Moscow where he was in charge of propaganda. I think he kept a little of the propaganda flair when he moved to the Ukraine (he would eventually head the Kyiv Oblast) because in 1932 fancy new media items began popping up there.

The first were a series of Agitprop films which depicted peasants as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at the time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving. At the same time (late 1932) Pavel had State police and party brigades scouring the Ukrainian countryside collecting up anything that looked like food. The name Agitprop came from “Department for Agitation and Propaganda”, which was part of the Central and regional committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The department was later renamed Ideological Department. People in the Ukraine began to go hungry. In January 1933 Ukraine's borders were sealed in order to prevent Ukrainian peasant from fleeing to other republics. 190,000 people were forcibly stopped at the border.

The depictions of Ukrainian peasants as counterrevolutionaries was not just the product of good character development as Stalin was convinced that the Ukraine was a hotbed of "nationalist deviation". Stalin wanted Pavel to clean this out. Pavel started out strong by ousting 100,000 people from the Ukrainian communist party in his first year there(he would oust another 168,000 by 1938). In order to weaken any popular support for this huge number of defrocked communists Pavel hatched a plan to thin out the Ukrainian population. Eventually the implementation of that plan would be called the Holodomor.

In 1933 the soviets began putting up catchy propaganda posters which read “To eat your own children is a barbarian act”. Over 2,500 people would be convicted of cannibalism during the Holodomor.

From 1937 on a marvelous New Year Tree was erected at the Moscow Palace of Unions. An invitation to the Yolka at the Palace of Unions became a great honor for Soviet children.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Techno Hippies

Nine years ago today, on December 27thy 2002, the lovely Brigitte Boisselier (a Raëlian bishop and CEO of Clonaid) called a press conference in Hollywood Florida. She had died her usually platinum blond hair a light red for the press. The purpose of the conference was to announce that Clonaid had just successfully cloned the first human baby. The baby had been named Eve.

In March of 2001 Clonaid had announced that a woman would become pregnant with a cloned fetus in April, then the Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigations raided Clonaid's lab in Nitro, West Virginia. Shortly after the Announcement of the birth in December Korean prosecutors raided the offices of BioFusion Tech; Clonaid's Korean branch. Legislators began climbing overtop one another to outdo the severity of the other’s anti-cloning laws. Some began calling for Eve to be removed from her mother and placed with special guardians. Compliance agencies made it clear that they would be exploring the information Clonaid released for any illegality that might exist. It should have come as no surprise that Clonaid released no additional information; even refusing to identify the mother.

The Raëlian’s that Brigitte was a bishop of are often described as a UFO cult. They were interested in cloning because they saw it as a first step in human immortality. This idea is not inconsistent with their view that extraterrestrials called the Elohim created life on earth as a scientific experiment. From time to time the Elohim have returned to earth to guide the experiment. Most people know these extraterrestrial guiders by names like “Jesus” or “Buddha”.

The Raëlians are officially active on social issues. They support the use of GMO foods, as well as topless rights for women, and they are strongly anti-war.

If the cloning ever hits full output we might be overrun with lovely GMO-corn fed topless techno-hippies. Too bad the world is going to end so soon.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Leftovers

One hundred and sixty five years ago today, on December 26th 1846, a pioneer named Patrick Dolan stripped off his clothes and danced around naked in some fresh Sierra Nevada snow.  After running through the woods for an undocumented length of time he returned to his friends’ party and died.  His friends were hungry so they ate him.  In this way the most famous story of Christmas leftovers in the American West became legend.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Prelude to Civil War

One hundred and eighty-five years ago today, sometime after 10 pm on the Christmas Eve 1826, a group of nine cadets began drinking whiskey-laced eggnog in room 28 of the West Point United States Military Academy’s North Barracks. Before long the party expanded to room 5, and the two gallons of whiskey smuggled into the Academy were gone. Some of the cadets immediately left to procure more whiskey; a trip which would prove successful.

Dozens of drunken cadets on a campus where possession of alcohol could lead to expulsion eventually drew attention; even on Christmas Eve. At around 3am Christmas morning the superintendent of the North Barracks interrupted at least eight cadets in room 5 loudly singing, and very drunk. One of them was named Jefferson Davis.

Attempts to silence the Christmas party eventually sparked a small riot, which was fueled by the timely arrival of the third gallon of whiskey. Twenty people would be court-marshaled, but Jefferson Davis was not amongst them.

Thirty four years and a few months after the eggnog riots Davis would come to the forefront of another uprising against the US. On February 1st 1861 Jefferson Davis would be named president of the then month-old Confederate States of America.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Neo Feudalism

So…This blog has been up for about two years. I have subjected you to a couple hundred posts; some way too long for a blog. In that time I’ve also gotten a couple hundred comments; though almost half were from one delusional Serbian. My tracking scripts show that the blog has garnered around 25,000 hits. Some people have spent hours reading over the content I’ve written up.

Mostly this blog has been evidence that I’ve got something to say, and I can say it. I cannot emphasize enough how the idea of an audience has shaped my message of love and humanity that I type into a void of electrons. Sure I’ve gotten a lot of personal flac and support from those who know how to contact me directly, but those are from people who have every invitation to exploit their treasured position in my life. Most of you have read this in spite of who you might be to me, and I should take the time to let you know that you are precious to me also.

Why this outpouring of gratitude? It does not mean that I’ve discovered where you live and have been stalking you. I will not show up at your work with a mangy puppy and a look of threadbare delirium pleading to borrow your used socks. A cup of coffee would be nice, but only for your company. I digress.

I have been struck by changes in the US political and economic system. It was not the OWS movement that initiated my concern, but it got me to thinking about doing something about it.

I’m thinking about lending my squeaky little voice to the idea of re-instituting progressive taxation and instituting universal healthcare in the US. This blog would suffer.  

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." -- Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2 William Shakespeare

 I do so like writing love notes to the wind; knowing there is no invisible deity to intercept them, and prevent them for getting to you.

Whoever you are.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flat Earth Darwinist

I am a lucky enough person to be able to run during my brief lunchtime at work. I enjoy more than simply the luck that comes from realizing the grace of a tolerant work environment. When I run I escape into a wilderness where the curvature of the earth can be seen over dry land. Buildings, and for that matter anything manmade, refuse to contaminate the horizon. I can see forever, and then the world simply ends. If I were inclined to be a flatlander the scenery through which I run could be used as stark proof for my beliefs.

I am not inclined to believe the earth is flat. It is true that before I escaped puberty the first grainy images of the earth from space were popularly displayed. It is true that many hundreds of years before I was born the idea of a flat earth had already been largely discredited. Maps and globes that proudly displayed a spherical (or pretty darn close to spherical) earth were the standard means of representing our planet for a very long time before I ever saw one. Yet, if we go back in time far enough, we will find people who honestly believe that the earth is flat. How can this be?

When I look out to the edge of the earth I know there is something beyond it. When I look out to the edge of the earth I also realize that it is just not all that far away. When I put the farthest thing I can see in reference with something, like a mountain or a big rock, I realize that the earth disappears at a distance I could walk to in a day. It would be a really long walk, but the distance is easily grasped. When I try to think of the distance between earth and Alpha Centauri I become dizzy from the use of unimaginable orders of magnitude. When I try to think of the horizon I am ticked with the idea that a good marathon runner could span that distance in a few hours, and that even I could run it in just a couple hours longer than that.

The Marathon derives its name from a historic battle fought in the summer of 490 BCE. Around that time there were supposedly large numbers of people who thought that the earth was flat. Not only did Pheidippides run farther than the edge of the world, but the battle of Marathon itself was against an enemy who had traveled in ships from a distance many times greater than the distance to the edge of the world. If the ancient folks really believed that the earth was flat then the whole “falling off the edge of the world” element was probably not so important. There must have been some set of explanations for why the horizon existed which were sufficiently untestable that they filled the need for explanation. The edge of the visible world could be explained away as an annoying phenomenon; deal with it and move on.

The reason we can be so easily convinced that someone like Pheidippides thought he was running on a flat earth is that we can easily see how a flat earth theory works. When we build, conceive of distances, or do most any mundane manipulation of geospacial coordinates we can treat the earth as flat with impunity. Most of our lives can be productively spent treating the worlds topography as an “I don’t care”. Though modern civilization has created many thousands of activities that require the realization of a spherical earth most people would be unaffected if they were forced to believe that the earth was flat. How could you force them to believe such nonsense? How about threatening them with something nasty…like eternal damnation? Just get someone to write a book, or pretend to discover some hidden plates which have the flat earth gospels on them.

You may think I am being mean spirited in suggestion of even imagining pulling off such a whimsical intellectual falsehood. What good would it do? Hmmm…let me think about that one.

Isolating a large group of productive individuals on the basis of self-limited understanding of the universe might produce a useful well-defined cadre of like minded individuals. Here you would have a cluster created by mutually supported gullibility. What else would they believe? What lengths would they be willing to go to in order to protect the underpinnings of their mutually held delusions? The flat earth gospel would be an effective screen for ideas that might disrupt the cluster. Belief that the earth was round would be a good indicator of the potential presence of other contaminating ideas. Converts? Converts are great! If you can really be convinced that the earth is flat you should be able to be convinced of anything!

I think that the potential use of flat earth ideology is too damaged by centuries of contaminating thought to be of much use. It would be better to find a gentler, softer, less invasive concept to use as a ideological filter. Racism and nationalism have been used to great effect, but by design they are limited in their scope. A scientific concept would be best. One that has only been around for a few hundred years at most would be ideal. The concept should have little impact on most of the population if it is abandoned, but should be sufficiently well known that people can actively discredit it.

I know just the one:

The theory of Natural Selection (i.e. Evolution)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Placebo Effect

The use of placebos in the clinical treatment of disease conditions would appear to be a no-brainer. Since the pioneering work of Henry Knowles Beecher, and his defining paper of 1955, the placebo has been a concept of great note. The placebo (Latin: "I shall please") effect is the production of a measurable response to a medical intervention which has no physically therapeutic elements. The placebo effect has been observed with drugs (sugar pills), surgeries (sham interventions), and psychotherapy (lies). The unifying feature of placebos is the misinformation given to the patient; they are told they are receiving competent medical intervention when they are not.

The idea of lying to patients in order to improve the prognosis of their treatment raises all sorts of moral questions. There is a lot of literature discussing these moral dilemmas; this entry is not part of that discourse. I try to avoid writing about morality except in cases where I want to. However, one can imagine how a potentially powerful positive effector that just happens to be a great excuse to lie gathers more support than a simple treatment that does not encourage untruth. Some of that collection of untruth concerns claims of the effectiveness of placebo treatments.

The idea of a strong placebo effect has survived for decades with only sporadic targeted examination. Placebos are typically used as negative controls in medical tests; there are rarely placebo negative controls. The placebo effect is usually examined relative to a generalized out-of-test population. Over the past decade the placebo effect has been more carefully examined. The results are interesting.

1) Placebos do not cure cancer or set broken legs.
2) They are generally ineffective in situations where a clear binary (either cured or not cured) outcome is clearly defined.
3) They are good pain relievers, causing an almost 7% decrease in perceived pain.
4) They only work against pain in 35%-40% of most populations.
5) They are wildly effective in some people.
6) They are effective anti-depressants.
7) They are much better than no treatment for many psychological illnesses.

These data suggest that claims of disappearing kidney stones and vanishing brain tumors are no more common after lying to a patient than giving them the straight dope. On the other hand the severity of the pain caused by passing the kidney stone can be reduced with lies.

The conditions most demonstratively affected by placebo use are those with a neurologic component. That the brain can change itself is a repeating motif of this blog.

The questions of how the benefits of a placebo effect can be more robustly applied to susceptible conditions is worthy of more intense examination.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Big Rod's Taco Time

I was recently part of a conversation where someone was choosing a name for a yet-to-be-born baby. They were sure (without any evidence) that the future baby would be a boy. Certain attributes of the pregnancy were interpreted as clues to the baby’s gender. Apparently some relatives were interpreting the same clues as indicating that the baby would be a girl. I mistakenly thought that the disagreement over the gender of the child (due just as winter imagines itself in 2011) was good natured fun. Gender assignment is apparently serious business for some folks. I should issue a general warning to be careful in all matters concerning the gender of a yet-to-be-born fetus.

I should also state that the statement: “Why don’t you name him Richard because everyone will be calling him Dick” may not be well received.

This sensitive minefield of interpretation lies in the frequently irritating landscape of cultural sensitivity. The misinterpreted borders of this undiscoverable country lie where languages assign different meaning to similar phonemes. In Norway the term “Sakte Fart” refers to slowing down, and has nothing to do with inhaling flatulence.

Names often create the most difficulty. I knew a young lady who spelled her first name “Bich”. She insisted that it be pronounced “Bick”, and we often complied with her wishes. I found a coffee mug imported from China with the slogan “Shut up Bich” printed on it. I think the coffee mug’s slogan was misspellt.

A former acquaintance had a roommate named “Yu Suc” who pronounced his full name as: “You Suck”.

These, of course, are simply disconnects of sound and meaning. These are examples of actual cultural difference. These can easily be humorous should attitude rise to the occasion. The most sensitive areas of culture do not hide behind veils of noise.

Cultures are made of people, and many people will defend their inclination to ignorance with great force.

Near my house is a fast-food restaurant called “Big Rod’s Taco Time”. Here is a snapshot of its street sign:

Once, while driving by this establishment in a vanpool peopled with three Mormon bishops (one former) I asked:  "So if you saw a film called 'Big Rod's Taco Time' what do you think it would be rated?"

The question -which I thought was a clever joke- was met with blank stares.  Should I try and explain or  should I just let it go?  Which would be more amusing?

"Do you think such a movie would be shown as a double feature with the lion king?"  I asked.

"Sure" one of the bishops replied "Why not?"

This was not getting anywhere "OK if one of the lion king characters were to have the nickname 'Big Rod' would it be the warthog or the meercat?"

"That doesn't make sense" replied the one bishop whose attention I still barely had "None of them were named Rodney, and Rod is a nickname for Rodney"

"Did any of you go to the  stake party at the farm?" the last bishop whose attention was now lost to me asked the others "That piglet put down a real steamer.  I thought someone was going to step in it.  I watched for 15 minutes, and people came close, but nobody stepped in it"

"Yeah, I think I saw that doodie" replied another bishop "It looked like it was a person's"

"My Brittany [which is breed of dog] made a pile out front of the church last week"  The former bishop looked up from his iPhone and chimed in  "I'm was sure from the smell that someone tracked it in."

They went on till the van-ride was over about poop smells, people stepping in poop, what poop looked like, and more things "poopy" than I was prepared to imagine.  I was stunned.  Here I had shyly tread out a phallic innuendo joke and found myself drowning in scatology.

The squeals of laughter and wild eyed enjoyment of the bishops made me nervous.  I could not keep up with the rapid-fire use of anything but the word s**t to describe poop.  I was a pre-teen once so I've got an extensive scatological vocabulary, but I found myself confused in the presence of these practiced masters.  When one of them responded to a loving description of a pizza-generated-canine 'number two' only to be asked if they had ever seen a pizza 'number three' I was lost.  What is a 'number three' anyway.  I was afraid to ask.  What if there were fractional equivalents and a scratch-and-sniff training set to tech the intricate spectrum of deification to children?  I did not want multimedia poop props pulled out in an enclosed van.

 It just goes to show that it is dangerous stepping into the minefield of human communication.  You never know what you will step in.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Blue Jello

So, I get hit with the anger issue again.  This time I was talking with someone who assumed I was a Mormon.  This assumption stems from the fact that I don’t drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and religiously avoid the ingestion of any psychoactive materials.  There are people (who might be called pissants) who point out that caffeine is a powerful psychoactive chemical, and I ingest lots of coffee and the like.  There is usually not coffee at events where I might be confused as a Mormon so that lack of purity was not immediately obvious. 

There is a type of conversation where two Mormons will test each other’s status by listing their vices.  When I am being honest in such a conversation it can appear like I am touting the robustness of my mormoness.  Usually the conversation segues into a listing of church duties and it becomes obvious that I am not LDS. 

When I make statements like: “I don’t do anything for the church, in fact I don’t even attend,  because I am not LDS, and I have no intention of ever becoming LDS” the statements are carefully dissected by the LDS listener who sometimes gleans a hint at the possibility that I am not Mormon.   

If they get the hint they usually ask: “So you are NOT LDS?”. 

“No” I say “I am not LDS”. 

Then, and they always do this, they say: “That’s OK”.

I often find myself wanting to retort with: “I think so too”, and sometimes I do.

Occasionally the Mormon conversant is less than pure in his (invariably a white male) mormonhood.  When they admit to “tasting a few beers on the weekends” the conversation shifts from further delving into our mutual purity reports into other matters.  Often the matters are political.  I once got a detailed description of the nuts-n-bolts of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair; I should have resisted my urge to ask if he had bought his wife a blue dress.  On the occasion that precipitated this blog entry the conversation shifted to atheists; I successfully resisted the urge to proclaim that I was an “Adult Onset Atheist”.

“What about that Richard Dawkins fellow, he is so mean and angry” said the pasty middle-aged man who thought I was a mormon.

“Dick?” I replied.

“HaHa good one, yeah these atheists just hate everything good in the world” he chuckled back.

“I hate it when that happens…” I said “But I always pictured Dawkins as a soft spoken English person with an agreeable somewhat pithy disposition.  I don’t think I would like to have him on my dissertation committee, but can’t really say why without giving the idea more attention than it deserves.  Why do you think him so angry and mean?”

“I know he appears nice and well mannered” he replied. 

I found myself thinking “He seems some way, but you have inside information to the contrary?"  You, who have been talking to me one-on-one for ten minutes and still think I am a tithing member of the LDS church?  OK, bring it on.

“He is just hiding his extreme anger, sometimes it even comes out in what he says” He continued.

“What did he say that you found particularly angry or mean?”  I asked; thinking at the same time that it would not be very hard to tease angry mean and lowbrow comments from me out of this blog.

“I can’t think of any” he said “but he is always saying such mean things”

It was time to end the conversation about unidentified ephemeral somethings that conclusively proved poorly-defined evilness in somebody I’ve never met.

“Have you seen the deserts?” I asked “I hope they have some Blue Jello; It is my favorite!”

Blue Jello?” he replied “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Blue Jello.  Are you sure they make Blue Jello?”

“Yes, Its my favorite.  I’ll have to go pop into the kitchen and check” I replied while edging away “The Blue Jello…is…y’know….Blue

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Herding Cats

Herding cats is difficult on a good day. Problems arise due to the disconnect between a person’s desire to communicate and have their needs understood, and the cat’s utter ambivalence to the very existence of the human. Because of the complexity of the human emotional mix it is often easier to experience emotional validation from a pet cat than to get it to travel as a member of a pack towards a waiting cat trailer.

Perhaps it is the loneliness of the open prairie or the confined cat-smell of the great feline holding pens of the Midwest, but men’s minds wander while out herding cats. The concepts of personal validation get mixed with more tangible expressions of understanding. Did kitty refuse the tinned catfood because she dislikes tuna-seafood offal surprise, or is my sofa throw too frayed? Cat herders begin to imagine feeling and reason behind the spindle-shaped cat pupil. Die-hard cat herders blur the line between manipulating the behavior of cats and their own moral condition.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly committed themselves to herding cats. Those who do not are people who cannot or will not completely focus themselves on the task of cat herding, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing the deep understanding of cats which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them can herd cats if they have the capacity to be honest.” – Manual of Cat Herding 1st edition

The inability of most cats to follow direction is immediately obvious to those who work amongst them. Over 10,000 people go to the emergency room every year due to cat-related injuries; most of these are caused by tripping over the cat. Do cats trip humans on purpose? Some believe so, but how can one tell?

There are two cats that live in my house. By repeating my mistake of regularly feeding them I prevent them from running away. That is where the control ends. Every morning I shuffle out to the kitchen in the pre-dawn dark; every few months the household is awoken by a terrifying squeal. If the cats are attempting to channel my activity they are doing using what appears to be an unacceptably dangerous method. I think it more likely that the cats are acting out independent of the possibility that they might be irreparably stepped upon.

It is easy to convince oneself that there is comprehension in the activities of many things in our lives. The best measure we have for how comprehension works is our own mind. This leads to false conclusions.

On October 22nd 1901 Annie Edson Taylor put her cat in a barrel, and threw it over Niagara Falls. It took a while to retrieve the barrel, but the cat was generally unharmed. Annie decided it would be safe to go over Niagara Falls herself; in the same barrel. Unfortunately for Annie the sounds of impending death coupled with the erratic movement of the plummeting barrel took hold of her sanity. In short it scared the bezeebus out of her.

“If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat... I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.” -- Annie Taylor, shortly after being removed from her barrel

Annie, despite making a living as a clairvoyant in her later years, was unable to see terror in her cat’s eyes. She made the mistake of thinking that her trip would prove as inconsequential as her cat’s.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Friday's Underwear

I’ve been told that there is going to be a rapture again this Friday. The information I’ve gotten is mixed on whether one will be raptured with clothing on:

Or if one’s clothing will be “left behind”. Whatever your heavenly wardrobe might be it is never a bad time to do a load of laundry, and remember to wear clean underwear on Friday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Might Be Awesome

The last time someone said “if things had been different they would not have been the same” to me it was about a sports event. It was said with a look of serious contemplation about the latest University of Utah vs. BYU football game. The game is called the “holy war” because BYU is owned and operated by the Mormon Church and the University of Utah represents the rest of secular America to the largely Mormon residents of Utah. Utah beat BYU 54-10, and this was cause for some serious consideration. Somehow spectator sports justify the most blatantly foolish statements.

I have, in all seriousness, made the statement: “if things had been different they would not have been the same”, and it was not about a sporting event. I made the statement in reference to one of the seminal events in the formation of science as a philosophical discipline. To clarify I need to backtrack a tad; back to some unspecific year around 1590.

"Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science" -- Stephen Hawking,

Galileo Galilei had just gotten an appointment to chair of Mathematics in Pisa, and was performing his experiments on acceleration due to gravity by dropping baseballs off the leaning tower of Pisa. He dropped the balls from each floor, and then plotted the velocity. This is what he saw:

Galileo did this with bowling balls, and golf balls, and they all had exactly the same curve. This proved that Aristotle was wrong. Aristotle was (perhaps incorrectly) quoted as saying that objects accelerated to a constant velocity that was proportional to their weight. They did this because they wanted to be closer to objects of their same type, and apparently there was a limit to the effective acceleration of their desire.

We are accustomed to the notion that years add knowledge to the collective social “knowing”. Just think of the idea of zero. For thousands of years mankind could count, but apparently did not know what zero was.

There must have been word problems on ancient arithmetic tests like this:

Ezekiel has seven scrolls in his basket. He gives five scrolls to Mathew, and two scrolls to John. How many Scrolls does Ezekiel have left? Well I don’t know either; it’s magic!

Perhaps Ezekiel’s apparently empty basket was full of the desire for more scrolls. Perhaps it was the same palpable desire that Aristotle knew held him to the earth. The ancient world must have been a much more passionate place for its great thinkers to see desire in all things.

Many of you know that the story of Galileo dropping assorted sports balls off the leaning tower of Pisa is apocryphal. Not only were the sports I suggested he pilfered equipment from not invented till many years later, but he had no reliable mechanism for measuring the large velocities generated by free-fall. Instead he used some “spheres” and inclined planes.

Worse yet is the fact that if he had been able to conduct the Pisa experiments as described he would have gotten very different results. A baseball dropped from a height at sea-level air density reaches a terminal velocity of 80.4 ft/sec at about 100 feet of fall. The terminal velocity is where the friction of the air equals the acceleration due to gravity, and the falling baseball just can’t go any faster. Instead of the previous graph Galileo would have seen this:

What is worse is that the denser bowling ball would have a greater terminal velocity. Galileo would have proven experimentally that Aristotle was correct. Instead of forces and vectors science would be speaking the language of desire and love.

More specifically I should have said:
“If things were more amazing then they might be awesome”
Sounds much more reasonable.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What's this NOMA for anyway?

There is nothing that can be obtained through deity worship which cannot be accumulated faster and more efficiently without it.
One of the major problems with the practice of deity worship is that it halts, or at least seriously impededs, many types of forward progress. Technological progress has been, at least for the last couple of centuries, one of the least impeded; progress in the disciplines often lumped together as “the Humanities” are the most. With recent trends in anti-intellectual, and especially anti-science, rhetoric in the USA it might appear that I’ve gotten it backwards. Let me take a couple of minutes from you to explain.

Many of the attacks on science are attacks on “basic science”. Although all technological progress can be attributed to basic science we are still making significant technological advances based on very old basic science. In order for basic science to become a rate-limiting step in technological advancement it would be necessary to first establish a several-millennium Nuevo-dark age. Applied scientists and engineers are the true drivers of technological progress. Applied science is far enough removed from the philosophical musings of basic science to protect it from most attacks. Attacks on engineers and applied scientists are usually personal, or based on the basic science they support.

The fact that we are still making major technological advances using the basic science of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is strong testament to the fact that the basic science we already know still has a lot of useful advancement left in it.

It may appear that some embattled basic science is needed to form a comprehensive picture without which applied science is incoherent and impotent. The concepts collectively known as evolution (1865) immediately come to mind. There are two reasons, besides the fact that I can accurately describe myself as an evolutionary biologist, that evolution so quickly comes to mind. The fist is that the attacks on evolution have generated a false controversy surrounding it. Since it is so often being spoken of it is on the tip of the pointy mind of mine that it comes to. The other is that modern medicine operates using well-worn comparative understandings of structure and function; the relationship of the structures is organized through our understanding of their development through the evolution of species. Modern Medicine is a major grouping of positive technological advancements.

How would we maintain our comprehensive picture of life that facilitates modern medicine without the basic science of evolution? We would use magic of course! Things just are the way they are as the result of the unknowable and apparently capricious motivations of a creator. Similarities are just part of the divine mystery.

It is interesting to note that “Intelligent Design (ID)” creationists have recently created a dogma-approved subclassification of evolution called “Micro-Evolution”. Micro-Evolution (MiE) describes the adaptation of strains of fast reproducing organisms, like bacteria, to selective pressures. Since the adaptation of bacterial strains (like enterococci) to selective pressures (like antibiotics) result in many thousands of deaths worldwide it is significantly disadvantageous to force ignorance of the phenomenon. When the applied technological importance of even the most embattled of basic sciences becomes undeniable the useful bits can be extracted for assimilated.

I’ve often thought that a well-educated ID’er could devise an effective alternative hypothesis to MiE. Mixing uncomfortable definitions of bacterial species with elements of synergy and horizontal gene transfer one could develop a Gaia-like localized response hypothesis. If talk of evolution becomes illegal I will author such a hypothesis using a rude-sounding pseudonym.

Technology can progress with torturously mutilated basic science, but the humanities cannot.

I have been quoted (even in this very blog) as admiring the artistic and moral accomplishments of religious society. Even basic science has experienced tremendous advances within rigorously religious structure. Isaac Newton, for instance, was a fringe-idealed religious nutter, yet he created concepts in mathematics and physics of unparalleled importance. These great accomplishments are independent of religiosity.

For centuries accomplishments by the non-religious were severely restricted as non-religiosity was illegal. If something was to be accomplished it would be by a religious person; if it was to be a highly regarded accomplishment it would most likely have to come from a highly religious person. Only after the rise of secular movements did the religiosity of the accomplisher have any possible affect on the genesis of the accomplishment.

Science appears to many to involve only non-religious things:

"A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

- Albert Einstein
"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but both look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect."

- Freeman Dyson
"Science makes major contributions to minor needs. Religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes

The humanities, however, have long been the undisputed domain of religion. But what progress has been made in creating a more humane society except where religious views have been re-forged, or at least tempered, by secularism? It is a compelling observation that: as religions abandon religiosity they accomplish more of that which they supposedly do best.

I might strongly disagree with the assertion that compulsion by a powerful deity is an effective tool for achieving social morality, but even if it is effective; is it the only tool? If we appreciate the sentiment in the biblical commandment 8 (“thou Shall Not Steal” Ex 20:2-17, Deu 5:6-21) haven’t we accomplished most of what we have accomplished for personal property rights by devising ways of protecting them, and prosecuting civil laws curtailing theft?

The essence of religion has been compared to poetry and art:

“Religion is poetry plus, not science minus." -- Krister Stendahl
"Religion is the art of the poetic. Science is the art of the provable. Politics is the art of the possible." -- Paul H. Carr
Compare the languid verses of the twelfth century with Ginsberg or Corso. Compare the cartoonish medieval iconography with even such mundane works as the mass-pulp Japanese mangas. You will not see an essence in the earlier works that services any purpose greater than being a seed that the later works developed from.

Great works may be possible based simply on creative answers to the question: “What does the deity think about this?”. A still greater body of work is possible from answers to the question “what does the human mind think of this?”. The human mind is shaped by the inputs it perceives, and especially those inputs in which it perceives artistic design. By making art for people we change them, and change the type of art that has the most impact on them. Culture can therefore “progress” faster.

Even if we have not exhaustively realized the potential of religiously-motivated humanities we have certainly demonstrated that it will take increasingly unacceptable amounts of time to get the last good bits out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sunscreen and Love

Since yesterday was “National Coming out day” I think today should be “National closet organizer day”. Everyone in the US can ceremoniously tidy up their closets. We can pull out our warm jackets from storage, and question once again if we will ever really wear those shoes. You know the shoes I’m talking about. Perhaps we can donate them to a good charity. Then we can imagine someone unknowingly “walking a mile in them”. It is advisable to have a notebook handy while cleaning out one’s closet in order to jot down any stray metaphors one can identify out of the clutter.

In Salt Lake City yesterday a few hundred folks dressed in pink shirts and gathered together for a group hug. I learned about the gathering late last night (early this morning?) via a large picture on the Salt Lake Tribune’s website. The idea was to form a human pink dot to show support for LGBT folks who are considering coming out of the closet. I would have loved to have been in that crowd. I even have a pink T-shirt I obtained as the result of an unfortunate laundry incident.

The kids were in school, and I never get invited to these types of things by myself. As a pasty middle-aged man I am the image of the type of person who locks people into closets –both literal and metaphorical- and keeps them there for his pleasure. I would think the celebration of coming out of a closet would be severely dulled if coming out simply meant changing closets.
Pink Dot

Sometimes it is difficult for people to “come out” about what they feel about themselves. A young (25 year-old) woman in Hildale Utah “came out” of her polygamist relationship with Warren Jeffs yesterday. She ran away to a neighbor’s house (the neighbor just happened to be the self-proclaimed leader of a rival polygamist sect) with little more than the clothes on her back. The FLDS men surrounded the house, and the resulting standoff went on for some time. Eventually the Sheriff and deputies showed up and transported the young woman to safety. She should be welcomed out of her closet too.

I think “National Coming Out Day” should be extended to embrace almost anyone leaving a metaphorical closet. I can imagine a world where the act of declaring one’s sexual preference is less controversial than declaring ones political party, and not because of an extreme inflammation of the already too violent partisan rhetoric. I can imagine a time when the question of what type of person someone might be interested in is less important than the question of whether they are interested in me; for me that time is now.

“Come out into the sun, we’ve got sunscreen and love”

Unfortunately one of the things we remember on “National Coming Out Day” (October 11th) is the last day 21-year-old Matthew Sheppard lived. He died on October 12th 1998 after a week-long battle to survive injuries he incurred while being tortured on October 6th. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson convinced Matthew that they were gay so he would accept their “ride home”. When they were done torturing Mathew they tied his body to a fence to serve as crow-food. When they found him 18 hours later (a passing cyclist thought he was an interesting scarecrow until he looked closer) his face was covered in blood except for two thin tracks where his tears had washed his face clean. Matthew never recovered from his coma.

It is somewhat insensitive of me to dilute the denunciation of such horrific acts with a vapid call for some sort of general peace, love, and understanding. This is probably one of the reasons why I don’t get invited to these things.

The other is my general lack of interest in some particulars. As a scientist I’m asked questions about the validity of evidence to support a biological basis for homosexuality.

“Why does it matter?” I ask: “If it is a choice or not? Shouldn’t people be able to make these sorts of choices without being harassed?”

I don’t like looking at people's adult choices as a congenital defect. I don’t think we need to expend resources researching LGBT as if it is a disease that may someday be cured.

I know there are people hamstrung by questions about morality. Even if I take off my shoes and socks I will run out of digits counting just the churches I can think of that define homosexuality as a sin-thing. How can anyone come out knowing that god thinks their lifestyle is an abomination? Well…I’ve got an idea…Try Atheism.

“Come Out Come Out Wherever You Are”

That’s right! You too can live a moral adult lifestyle of your choosing. Learn to cast off religious guilt by casting off religion. No need to talk to your invisible friends in the dark. We are waiting in the sunshine with sunscreen and love!

And if you still have those voices you might want to see someone about them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

It probably snowed in 1492

I “knew” it would snow. I may have been a bit fuzzy on the prospect of the first snow occurring the first weekend in October, but I “knew” it would snow eventually. I couple this to the fantastic belief that the very solid surface I'm standing on is actually a rather insignificant speck of matter flying unaided through a vacuum-like void called “space”. This planet wobbles as it spins around a continually ongoing nuclear explosion, and that wobble causes seasons. All these increasingly astronomical explanations couple to provide a belief system that my belief in allows me to “know” that it will snow. Some people call that belief of mine “faith”.

One very common definition of faith that I'm given is: “Faith is belief in something without evidence”

This is often extended by degrees to: “Faith is belief in something without enough evidence”, or: “Faith is belief in something without direct evidence”, or even further to: “Faith is belief that the evidence is true”

My operational definition of faith is: “Faith is belief in something despite evidence to the contrary”.

I sometimes extend my definition (especially for my deist friends) to: “Faith is the knowledge that something exists when all the evidence cannot refute it's non existence”. I like to meditate on the double negative in the extended version; it is not a good definition to use late at night or in trivial conversations.

I have been abused by belief in things whose evidence was faulty; mostly faulty evidence purposefully provided by other people. I don't think my disillusionment in these cases was a crisis of faith; it was a crisis of trust. Sometimes I have had faith in trust. Sometimes I have hung onto the notion of trust long after the “evidence to the contrary” has almost buried me.

This early snow will not bury me. Though it has caught every leaf on every plant by surprise. The Ginkos had not even turned yellow, and now they are white. I “know” this early snow will melt before the leaves turn, but the leaves will turn and fall, and new deeper snows will fall and cover them.

I would like to have a way to tell what is going on in another person's mind; preferably a way that did not involve a power drill. Instead I have a faith like something that will not scrape off my shoe. I have a faith that leaves a scent once everything is gone. Simple words will send me. When the words are gone the memory of them will send me still.

The snow is mostly gone now. It fell while melting, and attained at least two inches of stable depth before it stopped falling, and the melting became dominant. Now there is rain, and the snow is vanishing even faster. It will snow again. It will probably snow again before November.

It is the wobble of the earth which does it. This wobble takes a year, which is much too slow for my 30 minute attention span, and so I have no direct evidence for it. I live close to the great Bonneville salt flats so I have seen the curvature of the earth over dry land. There are few places on earth to do that. I can say that I know the earth is not flat without the use of scare quotes.

A couple hundred years BC a man called Eratosthenes of Cyrene proved that the earth was spherical, and even calculated the circumference of the planet. He observed the sun's reflections at the bottom of wells in the cities of Aswan (which sits on the tropic of cancer) and Alexandria (which is quite a bit north of Aswan). On the summer solstice the sun's reflection was in the center of the Aswan well, and not in the center of the Alexandrian well. Measuring the amount of off- centeredness of the summer solstice sun in the Alexandrian well he calculated that the sun was 1/50th of a circle off of being directly overhead. He then hired someone to pace off the distance between Aswan and Alexandria, which turned out to be about 800 kilometers (about 500 miles). Multiplying 800 by 50 gives 40,000 for the circumference of the earth. The current value (measured using all sorts of fancy high-tech gadgets) for the circumference of the earth is 40,075.16 kilometers.  Eratosthenes was off by 75.16 kilometers (almost 47 miles). 

On Monday the USA celebrates Columbus day. I learned in primary school that he proved the earth was round. He did it in 1492.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nuthins gonna change

This is the third of what looks to be a three part series on atheism in recovery.  The other two parts can be found here, and here

The biggest problem with methods of recovery from addiction is that they are too often unsuccessful.

The most common interaction people have with drug addicts is when the addict has done something to turn them into victims. Whether this is because the addict has actually perpetrated a crime to obtain money for drugs, or more commonly simply because the cumulative psychological effect of the drugs has rendered them emotionally numb in a world full of feeling humans, the addiction is often an excuse rather than a focus for treatment. Often the victims will not even know addiction is a driver in their victimization unless the individual has been caught outright or if the victimizing behavior is the result of a relapse. Usually when one knows that they are the victim of a relapsing addict's behavior it is not the first relapse the addict has had.

A reduction in the magnitude of addicts' impact on society is a poor indicator of a particular treatment approach's success rate. Certainly it is the most important measure as far as a faceless culture’s attention is concerned. If addicts quit behaving so inconveniently then –as far as society was concerned- they would cease to have a problem. This is a criminality approach to viewing drug addiction; it does not address the numbers of people who suffer from in the downward spiral of drug dependency.

Treatment effectiveness can be measured using metrics like one-year and five-year outcomes post treatment. Most treatment options involve a traceable client-patient relationship involving beds and money. Data has been generated from several treatment options. The data varies enough to support the fully salaried efforts of numerous experts, but much of it falls into the 50% effectiveness range. This means that 50% of the individuals completing a treatment remain drug-free (although many data sets focus only on particular chemicals) for a year or five.

The problem with these data is that the selections of their sample sets are highly discriminatory. It is likely that people who would be likely relapsers would not make it into a program, or would not graduate. How much of the data is actually stating that “people who are identified as unlikely relapsers have only a 50% likelihood of relapsing”.

It is interesting to note that two of the major drug-addiction-focused 12-step groups (AA and NA) conduct semi regular “membership surveys”. These suggest that it is a little more than twice as likely to have a person respond that they are in their first year of recovery than that they have been drug-free for one, two, three, four, or five years. This suggests that the success rates are similar for 12-step and medical treatment options. However, there is much overlap in the sample sets; most patients from medical treatment facilities attend a 12-step group after graduation, and many 12-step group members went through a medical treatment facility.

Since addiction is a treatable disease there should also be a background remission rate. Some place this level at 5%. So 5% of people recover from active addiction without identifying a particular treatment. Many of these untreated and cured folks report the ability to use social quantities of drugs like alcohol after their spontaneous cure.

Those addicts whose disease prevent them from ever rigorously seeking help are poorly captured by any data set. Some data has suggested that certain groups (like cocaine-addicted prostitutes in Los Angeles) may on average seek help over a dozen times a year with very low-rates of success (<5% per attempt). Attempts to statistically capture these populations have resulted in hyperbolic assumptions that adjust overall success rates down to levels similar to published spontaneous cure rates. In other words vigorous hand waving while appealing to the degradation of an emotionally-vulnerable community allows all treatment options to be rendered statistically worthless.

To some this appears like an exploitable week point common to available treatment options. Disingenuous comparison between a concrete treatment option and the hand-waving adjusted general data should show that any specific treatment option is ten times as effective as all of the options in the general pool. Since addiction treatment is profitable these comparisons do not go unchampioned.

Since most options in the adjusted general pool take advantage of 12-step programs the 5% impotency statistic has been cited as the effectiveness rate of 12-step programs. Though capitalistic competition is seen in this use of the 5%-12-step statistic, the most common use I’ve seen of this is by religious groups attempting to secure converts.

The “god” of the 12-steps is too secular. Several 12-step groups have splintered from AA in order to establish more rigorously religious groups. It is worth noting that attempts are being made to establish non-religious recovery groups that translate the 12-steps into more rational principles of recovery. I should really write more about them than I do. However, the classic theistic approach to psychological issues is quite different than that practiced in any 12-step group.

In a 12-step group one does not find people chanting or “laying-on” of hands. There is little fasting or burning incense. Some meetings have candles, but none have Ouija boards. In short the amazing magic is missing. There are however, damaged minds willing to accept fantastical explanations for mundane occurrences. And that is prime convert material for most theistic religions.

Recently there was a very minor protest at a major meeting of a 12-step organization. Several young men in bright yellow shirts denouncing AA handed out fliers, and engaged anyone who would listen. They were pushing the 5%-12-step statistic as proof that only their divine solution would cure addiction. These guys even went so far as to pronounce that since the succsess rate of 12-step groups was equal to the spontaneous cure rate that everyone in 12-step groups would burn in a lake of molten sulfur. I hate it when that happens!

12-step groups have been around long enough to be a stable and recognizable pool of potential converts. Usually the fishing for converts is not attempted via the dissolve the 12-step group for god dynamite fishing technique the guys in yellow shirts would like to attempt. Instead the convert is wooed from within the 12-step group. It is not unheard of to have organized cadres of missionaries attempting to surreptitiously harvest converts, but most attempts are made by the divinely inspired individual.

You can imagine the damaging effects an internal holly war could have on any organization, In order to minimize certain things that could harm 12-step groups they have each also adopted principles of group conduct they call the “12 traditions”. Number 6 reads:
“6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.”

It is widely understood that any specific religion is an “outside enterprise”. To the devout individual their actions may not be connected to a specific religion, and are therefore exempt.

While the yellow-shirted protestors randomly wandered around outside the main meeting of the conference was going on inside. 20,000 former-addicts gathered to hear the motivational words of two carefully-chosen individuals. Here is a carefully-chosen sample of what they heard:

You want a laugh? I'm watchin' TV last night; the PBS special. Now they must think I'm stupid, or you're stupid, but I'm gonna share it: It was the discovery of -humans- of mankind. They had a little Lucy thing y'know. This little skull. This, this monkey they found then all of a sudden we all tied to it. I'm just bein' sarcastic. And they're sayin that's us; right? They've got a new one, a baby one, called Salam. I'm getting somewhere, trust me. This is a new one. So I'm listening to them. They say that NOW from Lucy to Salam that the monkey came out the tree. Jumped out of the tree. Learned how to stand upright. They also went on to say that the arms of the Salam and the Lucy were monkey's so they could swing in the trees to stay away from predators. If the predators is on the ground why the hell would I want to learn how to walk? THAT DON'T MAKE NO SENSE! Y'know I was sittin' up there like: Are you for real? Y'know like who you tellin' this to? Are you kidding me? The whole thing about [a specific 12-step group] is that what we tell you is what it is in the book! Nothing is gonna change. Lucy ain’t gonna manifest from swingin' no tree!

Apparently either the big stage proves too strong a temptation for some undereducated proselytizers seeking to make a big haul of converts, or the 12-step fellowship’s vetting process for main speakers is beginning to select for a strongly theistic message.

I’m not sure this is a trend more than it is evidence of what has been a long-standing threat. There are no secular institutions that are not potentially under attack from those who would crush them into more theistic dust. Those institutions that are seen as consisting of the most intellectually week are probably the most attractive targets.

Just look at what’s happened to the GOP!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Belladonna Bill

This is the second of a hopefully three-part analysis of atheism in recovery.

The linkages between human hallucinogenic experience and belief in a theistic god have roots that extend deeper than recorded history. The interaction is twisted and complex. At times (like with the Salem witch trials) hallucinogenic material conjures visions of evil. In the 70s it was popular to interpret sections of revelations as promoting the consumption of blotter acid. In November of 1934 Bill Wilson took massive doses of a strongly hallucinogenic drug mixture, saw what he thought was a manifestation of god, and then laid the foundation of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

In the 77 years since Bill’s big trip AA has helped millions of alcoholics and –despite their insistence on focusing only on alcohol- drug addicts recover from their active addictions. The twelve steps that Bill Wilson was instrumental in developing for AA have been adopted by numerous other self-help organizations. Collectively those groups are called “12-step groups” and cater to problems with everything from gambling addiction to a problematic propensity towards loving other humans. The 12 steps of AA contain two references to “God as we understood him” (Steps 3 and 11), two references to “God” (Steps 5 and 6), one reference to “him” (Step 7), and one reference to a “Power greater than ourselves” (Step 2); half of the steps mention god. Bill Wilson began AA by understanding god through a hot flash and a strong feeling of ecstasy mixed with serenity.

The Towns-Lambert cure for alcoholism that worked so well for Bill Wilson involved the administration of a mixture of two herbs: deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). The alkaloids in both these plants are severe digestive irritants in addition to being potent hallucinogens. The Towns-Lambert cure also contained large amounts of prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum americanum) which was used at the time to counter the purgative effects of cholera. Dosage of the mixture was determined by administering it to the patient until their eyes dilated and they became visibly flushed. The cure required that the mixture be administered every hour –day and night- for 50 hours. The cure was considered complete when the patient’s bowels cut loose, at which time they were given large amounts of castor oil to help them “purge and puke”.

"All at once I found myself crying out, "If there is a God, let Him show himself! I am ready to do anything, anything! Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me in my mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay there on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness... and I thought to myself, "So this is the God of the preachers!" A great peace stole over me." – Bill Wilson

Most people would quickly connect the huge doses of hallucinogenic drugs with the onset of a hallucinogenic experience. Bill would not try and recapture his chemically-induced spirituality for another 15 years. In 1950 he engaged in “clinically controlled” LSD experiments. He apparently liked them so much he talked many people into joining him for experiments, and may have continued them into the 1960s. The LSD may have influenced some of his later writings (through a supernatural bond with a 15th century monk named after Saint Boniface who was martyred bringing Christianity to the Frisians), but it had no effect on the initial incorporation of god into AA. By the time Bill started dropping acid regularly many other 12 step groups had begun the process of splitting off from AA. The god they would take with them was the nightshade god not the acid dream.

Perhaps even before Bill Wilson stopped attending AA meetings, and certainly before he died in January of 1971, the god of AA began undergoing a subtle change. The god became more secularized, and less definitively theistic. Today it is just as likely that an AA god will be defined as “Good Orderly Direction” or “Group Of Drunks” as “Christ who died for our sins”. AA has always been secular, but early on that operationally meant that they would even allow Catholics into their initially all-Protestant organization.

Some of the splinter groups formed from AA members adopted the 12 steps in an entirely religious setting. Any secularization was unacceptable. Though each of these numerous “Faith-based” 12-step groups probably has an interesting history they are of little and less importance in this essay.

On its official website AA advertises that: “A.A. is not a religious organization; it is not allied with any religious organization, and requires no religious belief as a condition of membership. Members include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists.” Which suggests that all beliefs are equivalent to no belief in the practice of AA’s principles.

However, in the chapter titled “We Agnostics” in the central literature for AA (The “Big Book”) we get a different story. Here the unabashedly theistic AA god is described as: “an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence” underlying everything. The chapter continues to describe an atheist's conversion to a theistic belief, and underscores how this allowed the former agnostic to find fulfilling recovery. How can an atheist not feel like a second-class member after reading this material?

Perhaps even more damning is where –later in the “Big Book”- the alcoholic is given advice on how to treat atheists: “If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him. The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles.”. Is this advice to lie to atheists in hopes of converting them later?

Most people who attend AA meetings are struck by the religiosity of the Lord’s Prayer which is used to end most AA meetings. To the controversy surrounding the Lord’s Prayer Bill Wilson replied: “It is also true that most AA’s believe in some kind of god and that communication and strength is obtainable through his grace. Since this is the general consensus, it seems only right that at least the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer be used in connection with our meetings. It does not seem necessary to defer to the feelings of our agnostic and atheist newcomers to the extent of completely hiding ‘our light under a bushel.”.

Thousands of atheist alcoholics have stayed sober for longer than Bill Wilson ever did. This calls into question the dogmatic requirement for a theistic conversion in order to reap the benefits Bill Wilson describes in his writings (he wrote most of the “Big Book”). Because so many atheist alcoholics entered AA because they were (even if disingenuously) offered full membership, and then stayed sober, it would appear as if the collective understanding of AA would cause it to become increasingly secular. Unfortunately AA is fused to the theistic articulations of Bill Wilson, and can only undergo a secular transformation at its edges.

Some splinter groups have been able to continue the obviously-needed secularization of the AA doctrine. Some groups even go so far as to categorically define themselves as “Not Religious” at the start of their meetings. However these splinter groups are still 12-step groups which mention god in half their steps.

There was a move in some Toronto-based AA groups to secularize the 12 steps. When the region found out what they were doing they removed mention of the meetings from their meeting lists. Once off a meeting list a meeting becomes a private group with no area support for attracting new members; in essence it is no longer an AA meeting.

What can an atheist honestly gain from any group that insists on upholding a concept of god in its central premises? Is it possible to have a concept of god that does not contain a god in it?

The god of the 12-steps is the non-existent hallucinatory god of Bill Wilson. However, this tool is credited by many as being the essential element that helped them in recovery from their active addiction. Is there anything in Bill Wilson’s god concept worth salvaging?

Addiction is a condition characterized by the obsessive use of drugs (and I mean mind-altering drugs when I say drugs in this essay). Drugs –by definition- affect the ability to reason. This places the addict in a situation where their personal reason is incapable of responsibly assisting them. The subtle workings of a disease-embolden system of self-deception actually allows the warped reason of the addict to destructively work against their own self-interest.

Few would take the screaming delusion of Bill Wilson’s 1934 encounter with god as proof of any god’s existence.  Most would not have to closely examine a slobbering Bill Wilson with toxic levels of hallucinogenic plant alkaloids in his blood to realize that there might be a drug problem at work. What might be obvious from the observer’s perspective is clouded by drug-fuelled delusion in the mind of the addict.

Where can an addict get the observer’s perspective that they need? It is almost everywhere that isn’t in their mind, but who will they listen to? From the social amalgam of the addict's environment the information will come as bits and pieces from a collective set of intelligences whose parts are distinguished only by the seemingly random choice of which will be heard. This differs from a theistic god only in that it is a convenient construct designed to describe something that cannot be operationally defined, but need not -in the conventional sense- actually be real. In this case it is confusion that makes sense of the god concept rather than any god making sense out of confusion.

As the clouding dissipates (due in large part to drugs physically leaving the body) the addict can begin to focus on their personal self-deception in a more organized way. In steps 4,5, 6, and 7 the addict lists and then examines what goes on in their head. Hopefully the well-practiced mechanisms of self-deception become apparent here. By step 7 the 12-stepper has dealt with five of the six mentions of god in the 12 steps.  God becomes increasingly less theistic as the addict develops a reasonable sense of self. In steps 8 and 9 the focus shifts to how the addict deals with other actual people.

11 is the last step that specifies a theistic-sounding god, but in this step the god is rather deistic in ability. The 12-stepper is instructed to pray: “only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”. For many the spiritual awakening described in step 12 was the understanding that there actually is no real god.

Drug addicts have thrown themselves off buildings because they thought they could fly. Some have drowned believing that they could breathe water. The magnitude of a delusion is no impediment to its use by a drug addict in the manipulation of their perception. As the addiction progresses it becomes harder for the drug addict to constructively tell the difference between delusion and reality. The forces that must work together for an addict to realize recovery of  are indistinguishable from an interventionist god to that addict. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mike's Equinox

The following is a story related to me by a good friend who I will call Mike for no particular reason.  He has looked it over and agreed that it is an accurate rendition of his story; except for the parts that aren’t. There are many atheists who have drug problems, but due to intense pressure by Christian groups they are often unable to be openly honest about their problem. Since self-deception is such an important aspect of drug addiction any impediments to honesty are particularly damaging to recovery. Mike has been clean for many years, and it was a rare treat to have him relate his conversion to atheism.  This is not simply because of the enviable importance he places on my impact in his conversion. I happen to relate strongly to Mike, and I hope you find something in this severe abridgement of his story. I think you’ll see why I held out till today to publish it. 

Because of flak I will receive I should point out that the VAST majority of Christians are not directly responsible for the pressure I mentioned above.  This is a story about the impact of the pressure not a story about those that apply it.  

This is also the first of a hopefully three-part analysis of atheism in recovery.

Mike’s Story:

It was a couple weeks shy of 27 years ago that a friend [let’s call him Chris] came up to me and asked how long it had been since I had gotten high. I had been hanging out in the back of meetings of some 12-step groups for over a month.  I was attempting a knowing inclined slouch in a folding chair near the door.  I had effectively repelled almost everyone with my non-confrontational disposition , but Chris had known me from Jr High School so the pathetic failure of my attempt to look cool was familiar to him. 

It seemed like everyone in the room that night had some effusive boast about the “tools” they had gotten at a detox, or a sober living house, or some other credible establishment.  I knew that I would be called out for not having gotten the right “tools”; perhaps that was Chris's purpose in confronting me.  I wasn't surprised that my lack of fitting in would become unacceptable eventually.  I had somehow hoped that it would have take longer for them to notice.  I found Chris’s question especially disturbing because I had no idea when I’d last gotten high. No “tools”; no idea when I’d last gotten high…Chris was going to politely ask me to leave, and probably also ask me to pay for all the coffee I had drunk.

I spent a good portion of each meeting wondering where I would be sleeping that night; eventually I knew I would run out of couches. The people in the circle were dressed in freshly-laundered clothes, and looked like they owned their own couches; couches I was sure that I would never be welcome on. I shoved my hands as deep into my pockets as they would go. I had a student ID in one of them. No keys. No money. No wallet.

“I don’t know” I told Chris “I didn’t go through anyplace so I didn’t get an official date.”

Chris twitched an eyebrow slightly. “Did you use today?”


He smiled slightly. “Did you use yesterday?”

“No” I replied

Chris smiled a little more broadly, turned, and walked away. I began slinking out the door. If Chris did not officially give me the polite “don’t come back” talking-to I could pretend I never knew what was coming. And besides ... I didn’t have any cash for the coffee.

Chris caught me just outside. He was clutching a calendar. “We need to figure out your clean date. When did you last get drunk?”

“I was at a Labor day party at the University….” I trailed off in mid sentence. Most of what I remembered about the party was what people had told me, and that it was outdoors. My eyes glazed with a toxic mixture of bewilderment and embarrassment. I had dropped the second half of the sentence, it broke into a million sharp fragments, and glistening shards of it were sent skittering across the floor.

Chris eventually realized I was done. He flipped the calendar to September, and put his finger on Labor Day (September 3rd). “Okay…did you use after then”

“A couple of days later I had a couple of bong hits.”

He moved his finger over to the 5th. “Is this when you used last?” he asked.

“I don’t know” I replied.

I noticed that the calendar had various astronomical events printed on its squares. Monday the 10th of September was a full moon.

“How about I choose that day” I said; pointing at the 23rd of September. Its square was marked “Autumnal Equinox”.

When Chris left I had a date: the autumnal equinox.  Some years it is on the 22nd of September, and some years it is on the 23rd.

I somehow felt like I now had an official endorsement to sit in the circle. I abandoned my back of the room seat (I later learned that those seats near the door were called “death row”). I listened and heard people talking about sponsors and steps.

Apparently I needed to get a sponsor.  I asked this old dude to be my sponsor. He said that our backgrounds were too dissimilar for him to be my sponsor, but that I “Could call him my sponsor till I found a better one”. I never spoke with him again.

I asked another old dude to be my sponsor. When he found out I already had one he told me I should just stick with one sponsor. I was apparently set for both clean date and sponsor.

The steps were another thing entirely. The steps mention a “higher power”, and to be even more specific call it (him) god a couple of times. Chris explained that I could have a free ride on the god concept; I could choose whatever I wanted. I could even choose a doorknob if that worked. I knew he was lying, but if I did not question him on it too deeply I could slip by without anyone questioning it. If anyone asked I could say that: “I was trying out doorknobs”.

Things were going better for me. I was back in school. My mom was letting me crash at her house most nights. I did some odd jobs which earned me enough money to ride the bus wherever I wanted AND take up chain-smoking.

I remained confused on the god issue. Somehow I knew the next step to accepting a particular god was a trip up north to a dirt-farm in New Hampshire where I would spend my days digging roots while dressed only in soiled orange bed sheets. At times I thought this would be a good idea.

Several times I heard the refrain “I’ve heard some people choosing doorknobs for their Higher Power. This makes no sense, and will not work. You need to find a loving god. I know my higher power –whom I choose to call Jesus Christ- loves me.”

What’s this thing with doorknobs? Why doorknobs? I told Chris I thought an ashtray would work better for me. Since I had taken up chain-smoking I caught myself searching for ashtrays all the time. He tried to explain the “concept” of higher power that I was maybe not getting. I told him that ashtrays would make for a better metaphor; for me at least.

“OK” he said tentatively.

By this time I had moved into a group house and actually had a successful semester at school.   

I understood that the idea of a separate frame of reference was needed to handle the self-deception that was such a destructive force in my life. I understood that it was important to create that frame independent of flesh-and-blood people because each person came packaged with their own set of problems. I knew that the limitations of any particular inanimate object rendered it insufficient as a foundation for any robust frame of reference. However, the ashtrays would work for a while. I could use the time to search out some true godhead. I had begun to decide that I would prefer not to end up in New Hampshire marveling at grotesquely shaped potatoes. I devised a plan.

I obtained several religious texts:
  1. A King James Bible (They give these things away)
  2. The Bhagavad-Gita (Free from the Hare Krishnas who also gave away free lunch at school)
  3. The Book of The Law (A book by Aleister Crowley I had lying around)
  4. Naked Lunch (I still cannot explain this one)
  5. Beelzebub’s tales to his grandson (which I had lying around)
  6. A translation of the Dhammapada
  7. A translation of the Sefir Yetzirah
I remember there being nine books, but I can’t remember the other two titles.

Each evening I would lay the books out in my room, strip naked, and read random passages from each. In retrospect I think the nakedness had more to do with my poor laundry skills than any mystical ritualism, but it felt ritualistic so I kept it up. I also enrolled in a Hebrew class at the University. I wore clothes to the class.

As I read more and more of these texts I became less tolerant of the folks telling me to choose Jesus over doorknobs. First of all they did not realize I had already traded my doorknobs for ashtrays. They also did not realize how hard I was trying to figure this whole everything-god-higher-power out.

Now that I was bathing more regularly some people asked me to go to church with them.  When I refused I imagined them giving me reproachful looks. 

I lashed out at times. For a few weeks I would counter the “my higher power who I choose to call Jesus Christ ...” with a “MY higher power who I choose to call the prince of darkness ...”. I was individually lectured for having disruptive ideas, but eventually the excitement I got from that special attention wore off.

I came to understand that the frame of reference I needed to combat my self-deception existed everywhere that I wasn’t. When I let go of the petty fury over inappropriate religious intervention I realized that this inappropriately named god thing was just one of the "tools" I needed. I now had tools, and I effusively boasted about them at meetings.

Clarity and truth became actions that I could practice at.

For a long while I clung to what I’ve come to refer to as a deistic god. I argued that there was some force that permeated everything for some unknown purpose. Its unknowability became an asset when I was called upon to defend my higher power against the legions of Jesus. The ephemeral force stood up so much better than the ashtray-god; especially after I gave up smoking.

Then, a few years ago, I met AOA. Talking to him I began to realize that the deistic god was more of a crutch used to get people off my back. If I actually believed in this deistic creation it was a form of self-deception. If some self-deception worked then why couldn’t more intricate lies?

Chris -who was (and probably still is) a practicing Christian- gave me one rule about choosing a 12 step god; that it couldn't be me.  Despite how much I tried I could not find an imaginary friend who was not simply a part of me who I lied about being something else.  It was the perspective that I needed; not the fantasy.  I've found that god works best for me when it is not god at all. 

Relieving myself of this burdensome construct has been strangely liberating.

There are so many things I can do with an enhanced clarity now that I’ve gone full atheist. I can love. I can trust. I can be more Mike than I would have thought existed.