[Cross-posted at https://medium.com/@bob.glickstein/outcome-fcfbc8f16e58.]

A man went skydiving.
That’s good.
His parachute didn’t open!
That’s bad!
He had a reserve chute.
That’s good.
It didn’t open either!
That’s bad!
There was a haystack below him.
That’s good.
There was a pitchfork in the haystack!
That’s bad!
He missed the pitchfork.
That’s good.
He also missed the haystack!
That’s bad!
He died and went to Heaven.
That’s good, considering.
None of his friends or family were there!
That’s bad!
But only because they hadn’t died yet.
Oh, then that’s good.
So the man waited, but when they died, they all went to Hell!
That’s bad!
What kind of Heaven separates you from your loved ones for eternity?
I already said that’s bad.
There was one woman there whom the man loved.
That’s good.
But in life she never loved him back!
That’s bad!
But this was Heaven so she did.
That’s good.
Since she loved him, the man wondered if it could truly be her, or just a likeness conjured for the sake of his happiness in the afterlife, while elsewhere the real woman loved whomever she had in life.
That’s… bad, right?
This doubt gnawed at the man until he was so miserable he realized he must actually be in Hell and all his friends and family must have made it into Heaven.
That’s good for the others, at least.
Then the man wondered whether a likeness of he himself had been conjured for their sake, meaning somewhere a version of him was enjoying a heavenly afterlife with the ones he loved.
Whoa, what?
If there’s a copy of me in Heaven with my loved ones, the man thought, then why is my consciousness experiencing this afterlife and not that one?
You’re asking me?
So with an effort of will, the man forced his consciousness to jump out of the afterlife with the woman and into the afterlife with his friends and family.
That’s good, mostly!
But he was wracked with guilt about the other consciousness he had displaced (and possibly consigned to Hell) by doing so.
That’s bad!
The man concluded this must still be Hell, since crippling guilt surely would not exist in Heaven.
Makes sense.
Maybe there was no Heaven and Hell, the man thought. Maybe this was all a fevered fantasy invented by his mind in the instant of death, and an instant later would be oblivion.
Now I know that’s bad!
He realized that oblivion would be no different from the billions of years of non-existence before he was born, and was comforted.
That’s… surprisingly not bad.
The only question was how long his experience of this instant would last?

Practice makes perfect

Here’s something my kids have that I never did at their age: a belief in the value of practice for getting better at things.

When I was young, a number of things came easily to me. In particular, I excelled in school and earned a lot of praise with very little effort. Nice as that was, there was a downside: I had little patience for things I wasn’t naturally good at, like sports or dancing or playing piano. Even though I longed to be able to play music, and even though I made a few sincere starts at trying to learn, when I perceived the gulf between my ability and where I wanted to be I gave it up.

Of course I’ve always understood intellectually that training is how people get good at things, but I was well into adulthood before the reality of that fact managed to sink in — just in time to have a job, a dog, a wife, a house, two kids, and no free time to myself for practicing things. Just think of all the things I could be good at today if I had believed at a young age that it was possible to be!

Happily my kids don’t have that handicap. They’ve seen for themselves — with piano, parkour, martial arts, soccer, fencing, and more (not to mention reading, writing, and arithmetic) — that real progress comes with practice. The secret to teaching this lesson was to recognize even slight interest by the kids in a variety of activities, and once recognized, to compel their participation in those activities until they were over the “I can’t do it” hump. After that, quitting for other reasons was OK, like genuine loss of interest, or prioritizing another activity. But again and again it happened that slight interest turned into strong interest once the “I can do it” confidence began to flow.

Greatest hits: Shame

The publisher Tim O’Reilly wrote in a Buzz post recently,

I’ve always loved the ancient Greek idea of shame – aidos – as that quality that restrains people from doing wrong

which inspired me to add the following comment:

In a biography I once read of George Washington, the author (whose name, alas, I can’t remember at the moment) pointed out that his virtues, and those of many of his contemporaries, seem almost superhuman by today’s standards. By way of explanation he pointed out that life expectancy was much shorter then, so the pressure to achieve renown that would outlive you was consequently greater (not to mention that in a less populous world, such renown was within easier reach). You were gonna die soon, that was almost certain — but shame could kill your legacy, a more thorough and fearsome kind of death.

I think this has something to do too with the decline of shame (in addition to other obvious causes such as the rise of privacy, isolation, and anonymity). By and large we now live long enough to get over anything shameful that may happen. We see it happen again and again on the evening news, as disgraced public figures make unlikely comebacks. VH-1’s “Behind the Music” has turned the familiar arc of shame and redemption into a cottage industry. Shame is no longer something to be avoided at all costs. More’s the pity.

Please please you

Some time ago I was talking with a friend who was having woman trouble. “I can’t figure out how to make her happy,” he said. Immediately he added the disclaimer, “I know, I know, ‘everyone’s responsible for their own happiness.’”

That’s a bit of pop psychology from the Me generation that has passed into conventional wisdom, but I think it’s wrong. It’s just one step from there to “Greed is good,” and you know how I feel about that one.

So I said, “That’s bullshit. When I married Andrea, I made her happiness my job.” Not that she didn’t bear some of the responsibility herself, of course; nor was I abandoning my happiness for hers. But I’ll be damned if our marriage doesn’t mean that she gets my help being happy when she needs it, and vice versa. My friend’s palpable gratitude at hearing someone explode the old chestnut told me I was onto something.

Not to get too crunchy-granola, but how would the world be different if the conventional wisdom said, instead, “Everyone is responsible for each other’s happiness”?

Greatest hits: The Forum

Prompted by a new article in Mother Jones about the Landmark Forum, my friend Spencer recalled my article on the same subject from my old website circa 1998. Here it is, resurrected for the 21st-century web.

The last line — “This remains the central mystery of my life” — no longer applies. It’s still a mystery, but not the central one of my life. That’s reserved for trying to figure out Sarah Palin supporters.

In December 1997, my close friend Steve, an admirably intelligent and level-headed person, announced that he was going to spend an entire three-day weekend at the Forum, a group awareness training seminar run by an outfit called Landmark Education. Cost: $325, and three solid days of his life.

We (that is, Steve’s friends) knew others who’d gone through the Forum in the past. A wave of Forum marketing swept the Carnegie Mellon campus back in the 1980’s. Those classmates who got caught up in it had been transformed into blissed-out zombies who smiled too much, were too understanding, were in touch with their inner whatevers, and went on and on endlessly about “I accept that” and “I’ve always <insert behavior here> but now I understand why I <insert behavior here>” and “I love you all” and so on. These were people who were adrift, who lacked competence in dealing with situations, who had unsatisfying connections to other people, and who generally were vulnerable to having their psyches manipulated. We knew that Steve was a paragon of competence, someone who always had a solid idea of what he thought about things and about people. What could he expect to get out of the Forum?

The ridicule came fast and furious. “Personally, knowing that I’m beyond the reach of profiteering New Age hucksters gives me all the empowerment, self-actualization, spiritual harmony, and inner quietude that I need,” I wrote. “$325? When you could spend all day masturbating for free?” wrote my friend Christian.

Steve promised he was going only for purposes of intellectual curiosity. His ex-girlfriend Carlyn was a Landmark enthusiast, and to Steve it was worth the money and the time to cut through the preconceptions and find out about it firsthand. When I learned his motivation, I provisionally withdrew my ridicule.

In researching Landmark prior to Steve’s Forum seminar, I learned that it is the current incarnation of est, the 1970’s touchy-feely self-help personality-deconstructing blissed-out zombie training which is related to Scientology. Landmark eschewed some of est’s more controversial practices, apparently in favor of wider marketability. Although Landmark denounces the more overt brainwashing techniques of est — including the confrontation, intimidation, and physiological stress that are also hallmarks of Scientology — I later learned that those methods are in fact still present in the Forum, they’re just toned down for subtlety. Unlike est, the Forum permits you bathroom breaks whenever necessary — but the long days sitting still in uncomfortable chairs under faintly buzzing fluorescent lights still induces physiological stress. The psychologically vicious personal attacks that est employed to make students admit their worldview needed fixing are replaced with a more insidious pressure to conform that comes from the Forum’s large group setting.

In the office on Monday morning, Steve assured us it had been worth every penny. In enthusiastic but frustratingly vague terms, he described what the experience had been like. We tried to nail him down on specifics beyond the simple logistics (lots of people seated together in a large room for many hours over three days), and Steve gamely answered our questions all day long, bringing his considerable powers of articulation to bear on the task of properly conveying what the Forum was all about. But each time we thought we understood him and tried to repeat our understanding back, he’d say, “No, that’s not exactly it.” I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a pattern that continues to this day: no one who’s been through the Forum can satisfactorily describe it.

The best we could get out of him was this: for three days, the charismatic Forum leader energetically delivers a series of connected lectures on limiting factors in human nature — such things as making decisions based on the past rather than on the future one imagines, and failing to really listen when another person is speaking because one feels one already knows what will be said. A great deal of interaction with the audience is involved; the Forum leader challenges one person after another in Socratic fashion to relate short anecdotes about how the topic of the moment relates to his or her life. The multitude of viewpoints is thus delivered at such a pace as to trigger a kind of synergy in the minds of the audience, allowing them to have “breakthroughs” about what has been holding them back in their lives.

Steve admitted that the content per se is nothing more than one could get from a good background in philosophy, or even a good novel. But the unique aspect that made it so effective for him was the participation of so many different people offering so many different outlooks, which audience members mentally “try on” for size at a frenetic pace. He claimed to have had a number of useful breakthroughs. One of the exercises assigned during the few breaks in the Forum is to call someone with whom you have some unresolved issue, and resolve it in the forthright way taught in the class. Steve said this exercise helped him overcome a hurdle in one of his interpersonal relationships.

Another of the exercises is a transparent marketing ploy. Upon returning to real life on the Monday morning after a Forum seminar, the Forum “graduate” is supposed to recruit a number of friends and relatives — a number that the graduate commits to on Sunday night while in the full flush of having completed the Forum — to return with him or her to a Tuesday night wrap-up session. Since most grads’ heads are in too much of a whirl right after the Forum, part of the Tuesday night session’s purpose is to educate their loved ones about what they just underwent with a minimum of excited babbling. Another (openly acknowledged) purpose is to try to sign up new students, and to persuade the old students to sign up for advanced courses. Still another purpose is to top off the weekend’s indoctrination after the grad has had a chance to internalize some of the ideas.

Steve asked me to attend. I didn’t want to; my skepticism about the Forum was not assuaged by Steve’s incoherent enthusiasm. But he persisted, and my enormous respect for Steve made me conclude that there had to be something to it that I was failing to see. For his sake, I broke an earlier Tuesday night engagement and went with Steve.

When we arrived, a little early, we milled about talking to people Steve had met during the course. One fetchingly attired woman declared to Steve, after he complimented her appearance, that before the course, she would never have gone out so daringly dressed. But the course had allowed her to overcome some self-esteem problems she had, and she was able to say “what the hell.”

Good for her, I thought, but self-esteem has never been one of my problems. I felt my preconceptions about the Forum strengthening, not the least reason for which was the blinding sea of beaming Stepford smiles on the faces of the many Forum volunteers ushering people around and handing out literature. Their ultra-friendly demeanors were clearly meant to put people like me at ease, but had exactly the opposite effect. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that responsible skepticism implies being open-minded, and I renewed my resolve to be so.

We took our seats in an auditorium filled with Forum grads and their many “guests,” some three hundred people in all. For a few minutes Steve left me alone while he went to find Leslie, his other guest for the evening.

Distinguishing me by my non-Forum-grad name tag, a fresh grad named Kerry sat down next to me and immediately struck up a conversation. He told me how wonderful he found the Forum to be, and I confessed my skepticism. My problem, I said, is that the things the Forum supposedly encourages one to do — examine one’s behaviors, understand one’s motivations, “inquire” into what it “means to be human” — are all things that I taught myself to do long ago, with perfectly satisfying results. No doubt others who are less introspective than I could derive many benefits from learning such mental disciplines, but as for me, it felt redundant. Kerry assured me that he’d felt just the way I did before the Forum began.

Steve showed up with Leslie around the same time that the session began. The Forum leader, Jack Schrop, a extremely magnetic middle-aged man who was a Navy SEAL commander in Vietnam (and with whom Steve was unabashedly impressed), took the stage and welcomed us. He said a few words about Landmark and the Forum, made a bit of a sales pitch, then invited some of the new grads to take the microphone to describe any breakthroughs they’d had since finishing the course on Sunday night.

Hands shot up all over the room. Jack picked out five or six speakers at a time, three or four times overall. The speakers took turns addressing the auditorium for a few minutes apiece. Most of them credited the Forum for their newfound ability to address such a large group, which before the course they wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to do. (I have no problems speaking in front of large groups, I thought to myself, further convincing myself that the Forum was probably not for me.)

Some of the breakthroughs reported by the new grads were more interesting. One man said the Forum helped him finally sever his ties with some old drug-dealing buddies. A woman described breaking through a twenty-year impasse in her relationship with her mother. One shy, introverted systems analyst found himself gabbing to everyone in sight when he went to work Monday morning. A man who’d been avoiding a difficult issue with a close friend finally aired it, ending the friendship but giving him closure. And on and on.

Jack interjected various comments throughout the unrehearsed testimonials. He explained how he got involved with the Forum, acknowledged the concerns of those (like me) who found the shining happy people of the Forum to be a little creepy and disconcerting, and sprinkled some Forum philosophy here and there. “We promise breakthroughs,” he said. “We offer the design principles of humanity,” he also said. “We don’t solve your individual problems; you do that.”

At one point, he offered a sample pithy Forum insight “for free”: “If you’re afraid that people think a certain thing about you — if they stop talking when you walk by an open office door — don’t worry: they do. They think the same things about you that you think about them. So what? That’s all.”

At one point, Jack Schrop asked all the guests to turn to their respective hosts and ask two questions: “Do you want me to enroll in the Forum?” and “Why?” Leslie and I did as instructed, asking Steve the two questions, and Steve replied “Yes” and “Because I think you’ll derive benefits from it,” which he briefly described in terms we’d already been discussing.

I told him that I was increasingly eager to be persuaded, but so far, no go. I repeated to him the business about how I’m already introspective, how I already solve my own problems in ways that sound like what the Forum people are talking about, and so on. I also assured him that, as skeptical as I was about the Forum, I was at least as skeptical about my own claims of being so well-adjusted. In other words, I was open to the possibility that I don’t cope with my problems as well as I think I do. Open to the possibility, but not convinced of it.

Apart from that, I said, there was the matter of not having a spare $325 to throw around.

Eventually, Jack Schrop announced that the guests would be divided into four smaller groups and led into separate rooms (to hear the Forum marketing pitch), while the new grads attended a special session of their own. But first, interested guests were invited to sign up for future Forum sessions, with the $325 tuition payable on the spot (of which all but $50 was refundable). A large handful of guests did sign up; then we broke up into the smaller group sessions.

The leader of my group was a distressingly enthusiastic fellow named Curt. He began by reiterating much of what Jack had said, particularly that the Forum promises “breakthroughs,” especially in the areas of “power” and “freedom.” Then he painted some scenarios that most people can probably identify with (not me, though). For example, he asked how many people felt their boss at work limits their self-expression? Dozens of hands went up. Who felt that they let life happen to them instead of making it happen? Again, dozens. Who ever made a New Year’s resolution they didn’t keep? Etc.

Curt explained that most of us allow our futures to be determined by our pasts; we get stuck in behavioral ruts that, after a while, we don’t question or revise. What Forum helps you to do, he said, is to take your past out of your future and put it into the past where it belongs. That leaves nothing in your future, which is as it should be; the future is what you make it.

This message all sounded fine to me, even if the setting and the messenger were a little off-putting, but again, it was nothing that I hadn’t already discovered from years of learning, living, and reflecting. As he kept talking about more and more of the same kinds of things, I began to feel pretty impressed with myself; was I the only one who had discovered these “secrets” for himself?

The session with Curt was highly interactive, with guests asking questions or responding to prompting by Curt. He worked the group well; after not much time had passed, several of the guests began spouting the kind of psychobabble that they believed was expected in response to his prompts. For example, while discussing one guest’s predisposition toward failure in many aspects of his life, Curt uncovered some detail of that guest’s self-destructive habits. When he asked why the guest didn’t simply discard that detail from his life, the guest obliged with, “It helps me maintain my self-image as a failure.” Whenever someone played into Curt’s hand in this way, he responded with a smarmy, “Yes! Thank you! Fabulous!”

We took a break and milled about for a bit. Interested guests again were invited to register for future Forum sessions, and at least half the room signed up on the spot. Meanwhile, Curt singled me out and struck up a conversation, no doubt sensing that I was a holdout. I explained my skepticism to him in much the same way I explained it to Kerry and to Steve. Curt deflected my objections by pointing out that only by taking the course could I discover whether I could derive any benefit from it.

I had other concerns, though. “Lots of people seem to act pretty cultish about the Forum, frankly,” I said. “When I have revelatory insights into myself, I don’t give the credit to the latest book I’ve read or to any other one thing; the credit belongs to me, the sum of all of my experiences. But Forum grads can’t stop talking about how it’s the Forum, not themselves, that changed their lives.”

Curt said that some participants’ cultishness about the Forum was a problem, because it was off-putting to others, but he said that I seemed to have the right attitude about it and he hoped I’d consider signing up.

The small group session continued in the same vein for a little while longer, then the evening was over.

I did not sign up to take the course.

A few days later, Steve announced, to the astonishment of everyone, that he would be attending the “advanced course,” the next step in Landmark’s curriculum (and twice as expensive as the Forum). The astonishment came from the fact that Steve had earlier said he would not take any other Landmark courses, now that he’d had the firsthand Forum experience he was after.

“It’s brainwashing!” we declared. “Can’t you see? You’d resolved not to give them any more of your money. Now you’re going to do it in spite of yourself.” Steve insisted he’d made the decision on his own because he expected to get more out of it than he put into it.

He returned from that course with a detailed personal agenda based on what he’d learned about “commitment.” He was through with caffeine and tobacco, he said. And he vowed to put an end to his absent-mindedness with the help of a pocket calendar, in which he thenceforth religiously inscribed even the tiniest appointments and duties.

(Steve’s absent-mindedness about sometimes very important things is well-known among his friends. On more than one occasion, for instance, he’s left people stranded, waiting for a lift from him that he’d promised and then completely forgotten about. A regrettable character flaw, but that didn’t detract from his charm. Paradoxically, it added to it.)

In his capacity as president of Zanshin, Steve’s Landmark training appeared to have some beneficial effects. Repeatedly he kept us moving forward by asserting total disinterest in the past — in why or how we had made some error or failed to meet some deadline. All that interested him was what we had in mind for the future. This was a liberating way to think.

On the other hand, Steve started to become more involved with Landmark. He began volunteering for administrative tasks surrounding the Forum and other Landmark activities. He took more courses. He trained to produce seminars of his own.

This started to become distasteful to some of the rest of us. “Doesn’t it bother you that a lucrative for-profit company is exploiting your uncompensated volunteer labor (and that of thousands of others)?” No, said Steve. He continued to believe he was getting more out of it than he was putting in, learning useful skills and making valuable new contacts.

Well, it bothered us, and discussion with Steve about Landmark-related matters tapered off. He continued to give time and money to Landmark, while the rest of us would sometimes discuss our frustration and worry — and confusion about what Steve thought he could be getting out of it. After all, once the blush of the first few months had worn off, Steve was back on cigarettes and coffee, and was occasionally committing appalling acts of absent-mindedness.

Steve continued trying to recruit others in our circle, and one of our friends, Pat, actually attended a Forum seminar — returning completely unimpressed. In an agony of puzzlement about the thrall in which Landmark held Steve — as undeceivable a fellow as any I know — I attended another Tuesday night session with him and with fellow skeptic Greg, this one with a slightly different agenda from the first Tuesday night session I went to. Greg and I felt we got a good understanding of the Forum, but were unmoved.

This remains the central mystery of my life.

What brings you here, 2007 edition

Here are some of the top queries from various search engines that resulted in hits on my blog during the past year or so, reproduced verbatim from my server logs. (Last year’s results are here.) Each related family of queries is listed with a main variant in bold and selected other variants, plus the percentage of query-hits represented by that family.

I was at first surprised to see that hits for “James Bond villains” outnumbers hits for “vampire lesbian girl scouts” (etc.) and “sex” (etc.) combined, but then realized: the percentages are a function both of the popularity of that search and of the ranking of my site in the search results. In other words, if you’re looking for anything about vampires or lesbians or sex I regret to say there are a lot of likelier websites for you to visit before mine.

James Bond villains; The Villains of bond; deformed bond villains; “james bond” +villains +clothes 10.2%
William H. Macy; william h macy photos; face de William H. Macy 5.0%
Vampire lesbian girl scouts; lesbian vampires; naked lesbians; lesbian girl scouts; naked girl scouts; kissing lesbian girls; zombie girl scouts; evil girlscouts; girl scout decorated cake 4.5%
Sex etc.; horsey style sex; lesbian masturbation; “sex positions illustrated”; vampire sex; lesbians having hot lesbian sex; lesbian sex soundeffect; “San Francisco Masturbate-a-thon”; squat girl masturbate -cock -man -boy -blow; dildo attached to wall; sex positions kitty style; attach dildo to floor; How to convince my lady staf for sex?; sex positions in alphanumeric; “park and ride” “sex positions illustrated” 3.2%
Jaws ride; Jaws ride construction; jaws hitchcock 3.1%
e to the i pi plus one; pi relation to e; mathematical constant e Euler comic; relating pi, e, 1 and 0; “amazing relationship” e pi 2.3%
Don Fanucci; vito corleone fanucci 2.3%
Honeybee/Bees in chimney; humming sound when close glass fireplace doors; honeybees in chimney; bees in fireplace; bees chimney flying down 2.2%
Star Wars; 5th august 1977; star wars remake; hoth rebel base; “your tauntaun will freeze”; exegesis “empire strikes back”; star wars ben kenobi ghost; was obi wan strong enough to defeat palpatine; In Episode 5 what is the insult of Leia to Han Solo which Chewie laughed that Han called him “fuzzball” ?; lego star wars millennium falcon; star wars cassette tape 1977; “bob glickstein” “star wars”; mark hamill car crash empire strikes back monster; han solo slices open tauntaun quote; HOW DID THE FREAKIN EMPIRE BEGIN?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!; August+5th+1977; star wars novelization 1977; What does yoda say when luke comments that he is not afraid; why didn’t Luke kill the Wampa; “asteroid field”+”star wars”; star wars allegories; star wars 1970 nerd; “time magazine” 1977 “star wars” 2.1%
Pirates of the Caribbean; pirate medallion; does elizabeth swann love jack sparrow; elizabeth swann’s red dress; jack sparrow character motivation 2.1%
Widescreen viewing area; “what size tv to buy”; “square inches” diagonal widescreen chart; determine tv width given diagonal; 42″ 16:9 square inches; 16:9 4:3 screen equivalence OR correspondance; DIAGONAL ASPECT RATIO FORMULA; pythagoras 16:9 screen size 32″ 1.8%
Godfather; Godfather part II poster; Godfather Part 4: Fredo’s Revenge 1.8%
Susan Oliver/Orion Slave Girl; vina star trek; star trek green orion slave; nude Orion slave girl; orion slave girls makeup; orion slave girls color correction 1.7%
Cathy Lee Crosby/Wonder Woman; cathy lee crosby wonderwoman film download; cathy+lee+crosby+as+wonder+woman; wonder woman drag; WONDERWOMAN TV MOVIE 1.7%
Rogaine; scalp conditions; itchy scalp; rogaine results; scalp exercise; rogaine effectiveness 1.7%
Ursula sex; ursula undress; ursula dildo; ursula sex disney 1.6%
Comcast; comcast removes channels; comcast turn off service; comcast losing west coast feeds; complaints over comcast hbo; disable speed reduction comcast cable; compression artifacts comcast; how do i delete channels i do not watch in comcast; comcast crappy broadcast; comcast reduction in service; do i get a rate reduction when comcast removes channels; I want both west coast and east coast feeds 1.6%
Bob Glickstein; gee bobg; “bob glickstein” +yoga; bob glickstein andrea; bob glickstein imdb; growing up Glickstein 1.4%
Trophy; ugly trophy; dna trophy; bezos trophy 1.3%
Dog; how to draw dogs; “remington dog park”; dog pee drives away evil spirits; veterinary dogs and chocolate 1.3%
Lulav; lulav and etrog; big picture of a lulav and etrog; lulav by its self; lulav etrog chabad; sukkot lulav without etrog 1.3%
Star Trek/Enterprise/Kirk/etc.; spock uhura; Uhura uniform; 60 star trek uniform; bonk bonk on the head star trek; Captain Kirk’s Insignia; enterprise blueprints; happy birthday star trek; Klingons-Star Trek; Atheist Star Trek; 1.2%
Amy Linker; what happened to amy linker; amy linker and tv land awards 1.1%
Jodie Foster; jodie foster bugsy malone; YOUNG JODIE FOSTER; +”give a little love and it all comes back to you” +foster 1.1%
Joseph Costanzo; joe costanzo restaurant; Joseph costanzo primadonna 1.1%
The end of Superman; superman reverse time; superman in the end; superman earth spinning; can superman go the speed of light; how many times can superman fly around earth in 1 second; +”it is forbidden for you to interfere in human history”; superman rewind time; how many times does superman fly around the earth in order to reverse its rotation 1.0%
Frank Pentangeli; frank pentangeli hit; roth corleone Frank Pentangeli assassination; frank pentangeli johnny ola 1.0%
Thai gem scam; thailand scam; majestic export jewelry thailand scam; gems profit thailand; thai sapphire scam; thailand conman; buying gemstones, thailand, blog; thai Export Center scam; selling thai gems; what to do if conned in thailand; david maurer thailand 1.0%
Evil cats 0.8%
Food photography; food stylist; food styling “pasta”; food stylists cereal; food stylist burger; tricks of a food stylist 0.8%
Each daughter has the same number…; In a certain family each daughter has the same number of brothers and sisters. Each son has twice as many sisters as brothers. How many sons and daughters are there in the family? Now there are two ways to do this obviously, you can do it the hard way or the easy way. 0.8%
Fizzies; what ever happened to fizzies drink tablets; how do fizzies work; fizzies that are new; Fizzie tablet sex aid; truckload of fizzies; FIZZIES FOUNTAIN 0.7%
James Bond; vintage james bond girls; james bond toys; the bond men; Live and Let Die Band James Bond 0.7%
Pez museum; pez incredibles violet; batman pez dispensers; pez guns; why didnt violet parr become a pez machine; headless PEZ dispensers 0.7%
Vincent Price; old photos of Vincent Price; Vincent Price gay; “the saint” vincent price; 0.5%
Candy; old time candy; “dylan’s candy bar”; Candy of yesteryear 0.5%
Entenmann’s; golden cake; entenmanns’ chocolate chip filled crumb cake recipe; entenmann fudge golden cake 0.5%
Adam Stoller; why i owe adam stoller an apology; fish adam stoller 0.5%
MoveOn; moveon.org bad; moveon.org founder; move away from moveon.org; moveon endorsements nov 2007 election 0.5%
Vertical speed indicator/Altimeter; static port; instrument dial Concorde speed; how does an altimeter work; pitot static instruments; ram air pressure pitot; how does the vsi work? flying 0.5%
Cigarettes/Camels/Still Life With Woodpecker; Joe Camel; tom robbins woodpecker; camel tom robbins 0.5%
Baron Munchausen; was baron munchausen an atheist 0.5%
Sharon Stone; sharon stone naked; sharon stone’ pictures, 1970; sharon stone en lingerie fine 0.5%
Computer; computers internet blog; “apple II home computer” 0.4%
xkcd; xkcd complex numbers; calculus xkcd; math xkcd 0.4%
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It’s an Incredible Life

The greatest thing my parents ever did for me was allow me to attend Hunter College High School after I took and passed the entrance exam. It meant letting me ride the subway alone for forty-five minutes each morning and afternoon from the time I was a scrawny and unstreetwise not-yet-twelve-year-old.

At the time I appreciated their confidence in me; but it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I understood the effort of will that must have been involved. The natural parenting reflex is to permit no risks at all; recognizing that some risks are necessary for growth requires consciously overriding that reflex. As I tell my kids whenever they’re about to get a shot at the doctor’s office: being brave doesn’t mean being unafraid, it means doing what you have to do even though you’re afraid. Faced with that decision in 1978, my mom and dad showed tremendous bravery. Keep in mind this was the bad old days of New York City in the insolvent seventies, the city at its grimiest, most broken-down, and most crime-ridden. Under the same conditions, would I let an eleven-year-old Jonah or Archer venture from Queens to Manhattan alone each day by subway when there was a perfectly good high school just a couple of blocks away? The answer would be, “Of course not,” if it hadn’t been for the example of my parents.

The lesson I learned from them received a boost from the film Finding Nemo, which is superficially a comic undersea adventure but which is really about overprotectiveness.

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.

The movie has a lot to say to parents about the dangers of sheltering kids from the risks and wonders of the real world, and coping with the unavoidable worry that entails. It teaches that worry is an inextricable part of parenthood, which is a comfort in a way. Thanks to Finding Nemo, when I encounter a worrying situation in my role as a father, I cope a little better. I know that it goes with the territory, that it’s universal, and that there’s a right way to deal with it. This is the mark of a well-told story: it addresses an aspect of the human condition and helps make sense of the challenges and complexities of life. Its lessons can be put to practical use, even if they’re nothing more than how to handle a difficult emotion. As long as language has existed, people have used storytelling as a guide for living.

So I was disappointed to read that our friend Vicky thinks that Pixar‘s movies “aren’t interesting if you’re above the age of nine or so.” To her, they’re colorful and diverting and not much else.

It grieves me to think that she and others like her saw The Incredibles unaware of its affecting subtext. As that film opens, two superheroes, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, get married — just as a wave of lawsuits by ordinary citizens against superheroes drives the “supers” underground. Most of the film takes place fifteen years later, when Mr. Incredible has a suburban house, an economy car, a terrible insurance-company job, three kids with Elastigirl, and a life of quiet desperation, longing for the glory days. Occasionally he sneaks out with his old superhero buddy to perform some good superdeeds. The deception threatens to destroy his family.

In the story, the timing of the lawsuits that end up criminalizing superhero activity is a coincidence, coming as they do right as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl get married. But in storytelling terms it’s anything but. For The Incredibles does not merely take place while its protagonists are middle-aged; it is an allegory about middle age. In our youth we develop and employ those attributes that attract attention, friends, and the opposite sex, and bring us glory — our superpowers. If happiness is “the exercise of vital powers,” then these are our happiest times. The moment we get married, though, those powers are promptly embargoed. They may no longer be used. They are driven underground, and we must learn to live without that part of us that made us happiest, even though the powers still lurk tantalizingly just beneath the surface. Many people fail at learning to live like this, which is where infidelity and mid-life crises come from.

Marriage and family are not without their compensations, however, in real life and in the film, where together, Mr. Incredible’s family is an even more formidable force against evil than Mr. Incredible ever was alone. Events lead to the middle-aged couple suddenly finding themselves costumed and battling bad guys together again. At the first lull in the action they fall into each other’s arms and proclaim, “I love you.” They have rekindled the spark of what attracted them to each other in the first place. The Incredibles teaches middle-aged couples the important real-life lesson that with luck and a supportive partner, the way to avoid pining for the glory days is to make these be the more-glorious days. All we have to do is trust each other to use our “powers” responsibly and we can thread the needle of remaining superpowered within the confines of family life — we can be sexy and committed. Everyone knows a supercouple or two like this.

Now, our friend Vicky is smart, beautiful, funny, a talented chef, and many other things besides, but there are two things she is not: a parent, and middle-aged. She may not be ready for the messages in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. I can hardly fault her for that, because of my own experience with It’s a Wonderful Life.

Somehow I managed to miss It’s a Wonderful Life throughout my entire childhood, even though — being out of copyright and therefore free for TV stations to air — it was broadcast about a hundred times each Christmas season, and I watched lots of TV. When I finally did see it, it was at age 19 in a college film class. At that age I could not help but identify with the young George Bailey, who was full of dreams about tremendous accomplishments. Time after time these dreams are thwarted, and in the end he has traveled nowhere, built no great bridges, amassed no fortune. Worse, he had to watch from the sidelines as his old friends and even his brother did do all these things. It was the most depressing movie I’d ever seen, and for the life of me I couldn’t comprehend the film’s devotees who found something happy in that tacked-on, insincere ending. What could George Bailey have been so deliriously joyful about, crammed into his living room surrounded by all those yokels? For weeks afterward, George’s desperate, bitter plea just before surrendering to a life of domesticity rang in my ears: “I want to do what I want to do!”

It was only a couple of years later that I saw It’s a Wonderful Life again, a little more mature, and was ready this time (for whatever reason) to receive its message in the spirit intended — and how! At the end of the film, my eyes strangely would not stop leaking. I was filled with a spirit of selflessness and community. And I was amazed at how much I could have changed in so short a time as to have the polar opposite reaction from my prior viewing of the film.

Just wait, Vicky. If Pixar’s movies don’t resonate for you yet, they will, in time.

Elementary, my dear human

On my commute recently I listened to a recording of the talk given last month by Vernor Vinge to The Long Now Foundation on the subject of alternatives to “the Singularity.”

Vernor Vinge is an acclaimed science fiction author and futurist. The Long Now Foundation is an organization of technologists, artists, and others dedicated to pondering the challenges facing society on very long time scales, on the order of thousands of years. And “the Singularity” is a concept invented decades ago by Vinge that says, in effect: technological progress is advancing almost unavoidably to a point (called the Singularity) where technology itself will exceed the intelligence and abilities of humans. After the Singularity, continued technological advancement is in the hands of technology that’s literally superhuman. It proceeds at a superhuman pace according to superhuman motives. Just as our laws of physics break down at the event horizon of a black hole, it is in principle impossible for us to make predictions about the future beyond the Singularity, when things will be as incomprehensible to us humans as, in Vinge’s words, “opera is to a flatworm.”

Although Vinge believes that the Singularity is the likeliest non-catastrophic outcome for the future of humanity (and there are many who agree and many who don’t), his talk to The Long Now Foundation addressed alternative, non-Singularity possibilities. What might prevent the Singularity from occurring? War and various catastrophes on a global scale are obvious ones. But there are two interesting non-Singularity possibilities that Vinge did not discuss.

The less interesting and less likely of the two possibilities is that there is some fundamental limit on the complexity of information processing systems, and human brains are already at or near that limit. If these two suppositions are true, then it is not possible for technology to exceed human reasoning or inventing power by a significant amount — though it would still be possible to employ vaster, harder-working armies of reasoning and inventing machines than it would be to recruit similar numbers of people. (Interestingly, Vinge posits just such a fundamental limitation in his science fiction masterpiece, A Fire Upon The Deep — a rousing and thought-provoking adventure, and the only sci-fi story I’ve ever come across that feels truly galactic in scope.)

Here’s the non-Singularity possibility I like better: though machine intelligence may exceed that of humans, human intelligence can keep up, like Dr. Watson arriving at a conclusion or two of his own while following Sherlock Holmes around, or like me surrounding myself with friends whose superior intellect and wit eventually rubbed off on me, at least a little.

Consider that a hundred years ago, it took geniuses at the pinnacle of human intelligence to devise the counterintuitive physical theories of relativity and quantum mechanics that, today, are grasped (in their rudiments) by children in middle school. Consider that the same race of beings that once gazed up at the heavens and made up fairy tales about the constellations has now charted and explained very much of the visible universe, almost all the way back to the beginning of time — and it took only a few dozen centuries.

Perhaps there are realms of thought and invention that require posthuman brainpower to discover. But I’m optimistic that where our future technology leads, we can follow.

Religion: another view

In previous blog posts I’ve been pretty down on religion. Well, on organized religion. Organized Western religion. But my actual outlook on the subject is more nuanced than I may have made it sound. Let me explain.

It infuriates me whenever someone tells me that religious faith is required in order to keep people moral. Apparently, if it weren’t for the fear of divine retribution, eternal damnation, etc., everyone would be a brute, stealing, raping, killing, and generally behaving badly. We would be in a Hobbesian state of nature. To keep society functioning, it is necessary for everyone to be ruled by fear. To be “God-fearing” is to be gentle and humble.

This is a very dim view of humanity — people can’t be good on their own? — and I’m happy to report that it’s as wrong as can be. In my experience, it’s the atheists and the agnostics who are by far the most moral and decent people: the most ready to lend a hand, the most reluctant to inflict harm, the most community-minded, the least selfish. They are guided not by fear for their immortal souls but by enlightened self-interest: sharing and caring buys you entrée to a culture that shares with and cares for you too. (Perhaps there’s a bit of San Francisco hippie utopianism in there as well.) For them, virtue may or may not be its own reward — it is for me — but at the very least it’s the currency with which a class of rewards can be purchased.

I submit that those who behave in a moral fashion for their own reasons instead of someone else’s are more moral. To such people, religion is probably irrelevant, especially if they’ve outgrown their simian need for a super-father-figure/tribal-leader/alpha-male.

What about everyone else? After all, it is lamentably true that not everyone behaves in a moral fashion on his or her own. Probably most people do not. For many of those, we see again and again on the local news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) how religion does not serve as an effective restraint on their darker lusts and passions, even in spite of occasional sincere belief in divine judgment.

Which leaves the remainder: those people who aren’t moral on their own but whose wrongdoing is effectively prevented by religious belief. They want to murder and steal and covet their neighbors’ wives and kick adorable defenseless puppies, but they don’t because God is watching.

Are there many or few such people? The Talmud says that to save one life is like saving the world. By that reasoning, if just one would-be victim’s life is spared by the inhibiting effects of religion on his or her would-be killer, then religious belief is a good thing. On the other hand, think of all the lives that runaway religious belief has cost over the centuries. In attempting to curtail one kind of evil, religion unleashes another kind. Which way does the scale tip? Does religion do more good than harm, or more harm than good?

Violent fanatics are the dark side of religious belief. Is it possible to have religion without creating fanatics? That would be the best of all possible worlds. I suspect, however, that, just like acting morally, acting fanatically is possible with or without religion to justify it.

…But without a religion to organize around, the damage they could do would be limited. Hmm, I guess I’m down on religion after all.

What brings you here?

Herewith, a selection of search-engine queries that resulted in hits on this blog, according to my server logs.

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