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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Prayer for Agnostics

When I wrote the blog entry “Prayer for Atheists” I did not even think about whether its contents would cause doubt to be cast on the strength of my atheist convictions, but it has; three times at least. I must admit that the core of my atheism rests upon very little. To be transparently honest I do most of my not believing in any god by simply not believing, and this is an activity of very little substance.

As far as the “Prayer for Atheists" post was concerned I was outed for not presenting evidence that prayer does not work. There have been multiple studies done on Prayer. Francis Galton conducted some of the first published studies on prayer in 1872; he found it had no effect. In the almost one hundred and forty years afterward prayer continues to show no effect in controlled studies. Why did I not present this information? Shouldn't I take the time to point out the false promises of a central religious ritual in an entry named for it?

The main reason I did not effectively champion the anti-prayer studies was that I did not really think about doing it. I was too busy not thinking about magic sky-buddies to get around to pointing out how silly it is to try and talk to any of them. However, there is another reason to not champion the prayer efficacy studies. That reason is that they are all fatally flawed.

I have not worked at NIH for fast approaching two decades. One of the exciting new features on the Bethesda campus when I last did was the mysterious National Institute of Alternative Medicine. Quacks or not the NIAM folks were much more interesting with their incense and rattles than the other researchers whose centrifuges and scintillation counters seemed to continually leak.

The research of the NIAM appeared to involve more emotion than reason, and the researchers were more often heard singing, laughing, or yelling than their more stoic counterparts in real medicine. Those of us who would venture across campus drive from the National Library of Medicine to see some magic tree or bush-planting ceremony would swap stories of strange NIAM antics. One story of two intercessory prayer researchers has stuck with me.

They were arguing about mechanism. Was it some theist central power or some diffuse star-wars-like “force”? The discussion heated to an argument that filled the multistory glass-window-walled foyer with echos and recriminations. As the one researcher stormed off the other issued this fateful threat:


I realized that this self-centered fool would not have been the first person to pray for that group. At sometime someone would have prayed that all good things would happen to everyone for all time. Why would that prayer be any less important than any prayers following it?

This gets to the heart of the studying prayer problem. Since it is supposed to act by mechanisms that cannot be measured -or even observed- it is impossible to know what is going on in an experiment. It is so untestable that it is unknowable.

In order to test prayer one would have to design a system of prayer efficacy. Some prayers would have to be more effective than others. Perhaps it is the language the prayer is spoken in? Perhaps there is a inverse square law that relates the distance of a prayer to the amount of effect one might have on a prayeee? We can create intricate possible theories of the transmission and reception of prayer magic, but since we make them up they have no intrinsic validity. What does it tell us about anything if we can disprove a notion we know was woven from fantasy and imagination?

A rational mind would look at this quandary and state that if anything is this unknowable then there is nothing to really know about it. Even people who pray cannot ever know if their prayers work any action ever. Even if prayer did perform magical actions their frequency, direction, and magnitude would be indistinguishable from random events. In other words even thinking about the magic of prayer is a waste of time.

There are schools of theology that maintain that prayer has a special effect on a supernatural realm that is unencumbered by reality. I do not blame those people for not reading my blog. I'm sure they have better things to do, and I hope they do those things away from sharp objects or busy roads.

Those who read my blog are more critical. If you think that prayer does amazing intercessory magic I can provide no argument that would be more effective than just asking you to examine the details of what you think prayer does. Ask yourself: “Self: How can I know this?”, and the foundations of belief will start to erode.

If you are able to open yourself up to the idea that prayer doesn’t do anything real you are a prayer agnostic. Realize that even asking the question: “does it do anything magical” is in itself the product of flawed reasoning. If you then ask yourself “it must have some use even though it is not magical” then you have become a prayer atheist.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Not Alone

Yesterday was September 11th; a day that will be known as nine-eleven for the foreseeable future. Ten years ago religious fanatics flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington DC. One hundred and fifty-four years ago a bunch of religious fanatics attacked a few hundred pioneers on a sagebrush studded mountain meadow in what would become the state of Utah. 9-11 is an important day for religious fanatics, but this year it fell on a Sunday so many possible memorials (at least in Utah) were cut short.

Only one person was ever convicted of the slaughter that occurred on nine-eleven 1857. The tight-knit authoritarian Mormon community whose residents slaughtered the non-Mormon pioneers were able to pull off a conspiracy of silence protecting all but one of those nineteenth-century terrorists. To this day residents of the towns near mountain meadows insist on the innocence of just about everyone who could have been involved.

The 2001 nine-eleven events have spawned hundreds of conspiracy theories. On most days I find them amusing, but the tone of their insistence on the anniversary reached a sickening pitch. It was like eating too much of a rich sweet desert; it is hard to think of them without burping up a bit of their now unfortunate flavor. Good people died and we mark the suffering of their families by the cacophonous wailing of internet sleuths who “discovered” this or that hidden in TV footage?

It is at these times, when I am over-imbibed with truther quacking, that I am tempted to say: “I am only interested in your conspiracies because they sound so amusingly stupid”. This would unfortunately get me labeled a “hater” or a “non”, and I would be deprived of my more direct source of sweets when the flow of stupidity ran thin. However, the synergy of teabaggers and the current election cycle is probably not going to stopper that flow anytime soon.

To avoid the onset of some intellectual diabetic condition in these coming times of plenty I have begun reaching out to other atheists in Utah. They do exist, and they are interesting!

Recently they put up a billboard advertising their existence. Here is a picture of it:
I'm in this picture.  Can you spot me?

The billboard is on 2100. Just the other side of the impressive heap of spent ore from the Bingham canyon copper mine is a still-standing billboard advertising the end of the world on May 21st 2011.

On September 10th I had the marvelous opportunity to see Victor Stenger talk at the University of Utah. The event was organized by SHIFT; a student group of secular humanists. Though his talk was intelligent to the point where I felt measurably smarter after it my attention was captivated by the audience.

The look of informed question in a person's eye is an extremely attractive feature. I could have spent hours just listening to the questions, and staring in awe. I guess I'm just kinda creepy that way.

We are not alone!

Friday, September 9, 2011

GOP Antivax

I avoided the GOP debates because I thought they might cause violent headaches.  Unfortunately I did not dodge the headache bullet as well as I dodged the debates. However,  I'm surprised it took so long for someone to enlighten me on the antivax stand of some of the candidates.

HPV vaccine is an effective preventive measure for some very common types of cervical cancer.

HPV-associated cervical cancer rates by race and ethnicity, United States, 1998–2003

In 2007 (the most recent year numbers are available)—
  • 12,280 women in the United States were diagnosed with cervical cancer. 
  • 4,021 women in the United States died from cervical cancer.
Without widespread use of the HPV vaccine tens of thousands of women will die. 

"It is wrong for government, whether it’s state or federal government, to impose on parents what they must do to inoculate their children." -- Michele Bachmann 2011 GOP presidential debates

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Soggy Brain

I do not have a hard and fast rule against working on the computer when I have a headache. I use little pearls of wisdom to gently guide my activities:

Do not move too quickly or you will feel like throwing up

Stay away from the powerdrill

Same goes for the benchvise

People may need to be yelled at, but don't

STOP YELLING … ow...where is that f**king powerdrill

Yes, everyone on the internet forum is stupid, but not as stupid as you are right now.

Sometimes I open up things things that I've associated with feelings other than this raw-sewage brain feeling that's left this itch of bile at the back of my throat.

Today I re-read something sad that usually brings up a tear when I know I'm alone. Salty bile is only slightly more tasty.

Today I opened a special story someone special sent (yes...that's five 's'-words in a row, and saying it fast feels icky)  me just about a year ago. Reading it has conjured smiles out of my face when my mood was as black and hard as obsidian frozen beyond memory of its birth fire. Instead of wanting to whisper sweet secrets into the ears of the protagonists, or tell them of the joys beyond the troubles they would fall into, I am stuck wanting to get them out of my head where their rotting bath-towels are short-circuiting already sparking neurons.

I'm left with little to do.

Perhaps I should watch an old movie so I can ignore the dialog until it doesn't make sense?

Maybe I can take a bath so I can weld wet onto my whole-body feverish sensation? Then I can jealously curse the sodden towel as it lies comfortably wadded on the floor.

I remember one boat-trip from Catalina Island to Long Beach CA where the waves picked up en-route. The boat's deck was crowded with well-fed college-students. One-by-one they took their place at the rail till their stomachs were empty and they stained to puke up any viscous dregs of bile they could muster. The dry-heaved bile formed bubbles on their lips. The brisk sea breeze caught the bubbles and they drifted over the boat darting through the complex navigation equipment studding the cockpit. They would then delectably pop in the hair of the students leaning over the leeward railing.

At least writing on the computer is safer than using a sharpened pencil.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Golden Shower of Pits

When I see large numbers of people at events I often-times wonder about the internal control-elements of the crowd. This July I took myself and a friend to see Interpol at DC’s 9:30 club for my birthday. The audience was strangely lit by the glow from a thousand smart phones. Every screen I was able to make out was tuned into the internet-based social network called facebook. Perhaps one could write a facebook app to synchronize the interaction of people in crowds?

Humans are often called “social” animals, but they are not eusocial (“true social”) animals. Two species of eusocial mammals have been identified: Fukomys damarensis and Heterocephalus glaber. These rodents live in large colonies that resemble a pit full of rats. Within these colonies the division of effort is accompanied by a diversity of physiological forms reminiscent of hive insects. Lording over the colony is a queen that can be more than twice the size of her non-fertile offspring. The queen induces the physiological polymorphism by peeing hormone –laden urine on her children, and then aggressively threatening them.

There are reports of humans using chemical signals to create socially synchronized structures. The McClintock effect involves the synchronization of menstrual-cycles around that of a dominant menstrual pacesetter. Researchers swabbed the armpits of pacesetter women and then rubbed those swabs on the upper lip under the nose of the test subjects. The periodicity of the test subjects' menstrual cycles became like that of the menstrual pacesetter.

H. glaber is the cooler of the two eusocial mammals. The common name for H. glaber is “Naked Mole rat” or “Saber-toothed sausage”.

One invasive way to synchronize a crowd would be to implant glowing electrode-tentacled robotic squids into the brains of those to be synchronized.

Music has a calmative effect on most mammals. Rumor has it that H. glaber is most responsive to techno and Jimi Hendrix.

A very non-invasive way to induce group synchronization would be to mechanize the function that was to be synchronized, and thereby bypass the fickle control-processes of the human brain. One Japanese-English artist called Sputniko designed a robotic menstrual cycle stimulator. It induces cramping via an electric current and then sends a dribble of blood down the inside of the thigh. The possible genesis of a cyber-McClintock effect was probably not the singularity that Vernor Vinge envisioned.

Males may also be able to affect the menstrual synchronicity of women’s menstrual cycling. In mice males can adjust the menstruation periods of nearby female mice by peeing on them. This is called the Whitten effect. It seems like –when it comes to sex and society- rodents pee on each other an awful lot. There are humans who pee on each other, and for many of them this also has something to do with sex.

I can’t help but imagine the intricate machinations of biochemical signal and countersignal confused into the madness of crowds. Each beating heart pounds out a message of throbbing humanity that builds into the day’s gamelan of culture. I can’t help but see some crowds and know that something is going to happen; something interesting that draws me in.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Prayer for Atheists

I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In my younger and more vulnerable years I could measure the value of life in amounts of hoardable material. Living could be tallied and assessed. Then at some point I noticed that love had coated the machinery of reason with an insistence of intangibles. The arbitrary basis for value eroded the illusion of precise transitions from one level of measure to another.

Events fought each other for importance across the swaying span of my attention. Some events dislodged by more powerful images would scream as they plummeted into the yawning abyss beneath that span. Sometimes an event that had barely edged out onto the span before being flung over would bounce against the stony walls that anchor the span; in the sound of the impacts (and often a muffled splash) would be a name that I had forgotten. I've always been very poor at remembering names.

How can I look into someones eyes long enough for minutes to turn awkward and back again yet not remember the color of those eyes? How can I remember the warmth of a quickening pulse, yet not remember the temperature of the room, or the color of the room, or even if there was a room at all?

Some of the more powerful events that cross the span of my attention are armored in irritation and insult. This armor acts like the magic plus-ten possession of some upper-level Dungeons-and Dragons hero who slashes across the span knocking level one players to their death; he gains levels and power at the expense of the more delicate events.

I would like that span to be wider, and more solid. There are so many events that I would have coaxed across that span that I would be better served with a golden-gate Brooklyn bridge of an attention instead of the rope-and-plank footbridge with which I make due. It would also be nice if it could better accommodate two-way traffic.

This past long weekend I spent many hours talking to people who called themselves Christians. I was reminded repeatedly of why I do this blog. I do not want to attack Christians; I want to tease out from Christianity those human qualities better served through reason. One of the things I would love to steal from Christians is prayer.

Talk to a Christian about an emotional subject for a few minutes and they will bring up praying. One might get the impression that every good Christian must pray a dozen or more hours a day. Some give to prayer a magical power to effect reality, but even those who equivocate on the idea of breaking the law of gravity with a few hail-Marys are convinced of the usefulness of prayer. The atheist will usually ask (and reasonably so): “How useful can something be if it does not do anything”.

The most common use of prayer is as an expression of powerless interest. The statement that “I will pray that [something good] will happen to [someone]” expresses interest in some positive future without commitment to the activities required to realize that future. I say things like this all the time. I would like many things to occur in the future which I am unable (and often simply unwilling) to substantively help realize. Such statements are a nice part of a conversation, and they sound more genuine when the word “pray” is used instead of something flaccid like “hope”. I would love to have a cool word like “pray” to use in conversations.

However, prayer is more than a knockoff phrase. It is a practice. Using it in reference to special events helps to secure their passage across the span of attention. Resolving the details of an event in order to pray for its resolution helps speeds it's passage. Making time to re-examine a day's events may widen the span a tad, and increase the safety of an event's passage.

There are so many people who touched me this weekend. I would like to write about every one of them in detail, but I cannot.  There too many folks who I would love to write about touching me in detail this weekend, but I missed them.

One man told me of a story involving motorcycles and kids. It was a bikers-for-Jesus gang that brought nurturing and attention into the lives of marginalized kids. On-and-on he went about the differences they were trying to make. When he mentioned Jesus and I mentioned being an atheist the conversation did not skip a beat. He spoke of praying for these kids, and of how he remembered their names. I would tell you his name, but I've forgotten it.

One older woman told me of her second diagnosis of breast cancer. It had been a decade since her first. I may remember her name, but the particulars of her children and grandchildren and loved ones who would be affected were lost behind the film of air that held back her watery eyes as she described her tentative fear. She spoke of praying for strength, and the ability to “make it through”. When I touched her hand and said “you've made it here, and from here you will go places that will be better because you are there” she found a misplaced smile. When she mentioned Jesus and I mentioned being an atheist the conversation did not skip a beat.

Because we have evolved to know each other there are bonds between people.

Some people have suggested that the span of attention can be propped up with moderation in  emotion.  That if we rigidly sandwich our attention between abortive sorrow and short-winded elation it would serve us better.  In some ways it may be poor logistics management to allow a crushingly diverse press of bodies to try and cross my span of attention.  I do not know how many more dreams lie broken at the bottom of that abyss because of my aversion to closing my eyes, but it is no small quantity.

Not everything from this weekend has made it across my attention span. I would like to have brought more across. Perhaps I should more closely examine one psychological tool that might help facilitate that.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Mongolian Bar-B-Que

Seventy years ago today, on September 3rd 1941, six hundred soviet POW’s (many of whom were selected on the basis of their “Mongolian” characteristics) and 250 sick polish prisoners were put in an airtight room where pellets of the insecticide Zyklon B were then added. This followed a successful, but far less disciplined experiment, on a few hundred Roma children from Brno conducted in early 1940.

The experiment took 20 hours even though it was estimated that the subjects expired within 20 minutes. Johann Kremer (an SS doctor) dispassionately described following the progress of the experiments: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives.". These original experiments may have become protracted through an unsophisticated means of airing the chamber out. The commercial Zyklon B had an odorant added to it (Methyl-2-bromoacetate which smells like bad eggs or flatulence) which may have lingered longer than the active hydrogen cyanide component.

The chamber clean-up crews reported that: “the victims were found half-squatting, their skin colored pink with red and green spots, some foaming at the mouth or bleeding from the ears.”

Later batches of Zyklon B were made for the gas chambers specifically by omitting the odorant.

Zyklon B was so much more effective on humans than lice that, by tracking bills of sale, it can be noted that only 5% of the insecticide delivered to Auschwitz was made for use in its gas chambers.

Zyklon B was not the only gas used by the Nazis in their gas chambers. Carbon monoxide from directed engine exhaust might arguably have been more efficient. Zyklon B remains the iconic source of gas and it’s generic cousin, hydrogen cyanide gas, is still used in single-person gas chambers today.

In a little under four years the Nazis would use Zyklon B, and its competitors, to exterminate a variety of people. Though the Nazis apparently preferred to exterminate Jewish folk they continued to select Mongolian soviets, like those in that fateful first group, whenever the opportunity arose.

In recent years holocaust deniers have pointed to the lack of Prussian blue residue on gas chambers as proof that the all the Zyklon B stories are just made up. Prussian blue is a dye that forms when prussic acid (another name for hydrogen cyanide) reacts with some materials. I would think that this would be a perfect sort of experiment for some re-creationist engineers –like Myth-Busters. That is it would be perfect for them if not for the fact that even suggesting it might acknowledge some hint of validation for holocaust denier hate-speech.

I am amazed at how neo-Nazi groups have sprung up around the world. With them the rate of holocaust denier literature publishing has also risen. When the truth behind holocaust itself is denied the details easily become lost.

One geographic hot-bed of recent neo-Nazi activity (with a major upsurge in 2008) is in Mongolia. The Mongolian neo-Nazis are apparently quite violent.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Walkin' on the Golden Shore

Well, soon I’m off to CA again (actually I should be almost there by now...ROAD TRIP!). What wonders will the golden state regurgitate up on me for this trip.

The sea throws up wonders on its shore. California collects these things like a memory of some past high tide.

Some of my fondest memories from CA are of low tide. In sheltered back-bays the sea reveals for only those few hours treasures that it nurtures there. Mud-flats gurgle with life. Exposure to air mates the ooze with the vital scent of decay. One bright morning while I was fighting Sol’s intrusion for a few extra minutes sleep my partner rubbed cod liver oil on her teeth and breathed sultry breaths into my nostrils; it was low tide all over the world.

“But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand -- miles of them -- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues, -- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Once more. Say, you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent- minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries -- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.” -- Herman Melville from Moby Dick chapter 1

There is a rhythm to tides which resonates with the beating of my heart. The tide comes in to leave its traces high on the beach, and then slides away to reveal tide-pools and the tender surfaces of mudflats. When I watch the sea I am drawn to its edge. I follow it out, and then retreat from it as it comes in. It is a slow motion version of a child dancing away from waves breaking on a pebble beach. One could smile and dance with the sea through many layers of its rhythm.

What changes in my life lead me towards, and then away from, the California shore? Is there some great tidal flux in my mental state that lets me oscillate to the rhythm of obfuscated motivations?