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“Brain Wars” and Heresy May 3, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.

I just finished reading a fascinating new book, Brain Wars, by Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Montreal who has studied the distinctions between mind, brain, and consciousness for almost 30 years. Brain Wars is a careful and comprehensive examination of the state of scientific research in all subjects related to the mind and to consciousness (rather than “merely” the brain). To anyone who approaches Beauregard’s topic with an open mind, Brain Wars is enlightening and exciting.

Ah, but that “open mind”! That is something else again. Early in Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard lists the three unquestioned and therefore unquestionable axioms of modern science:

  • Only matter and energy exist. Science is not only forbidden to consider that anything other than matter and energy exists; it may not consider even the possibility that something more exists. Life, consciousness, sentience, and the human senses of purpose and meaning are all accidents. If a concept cannot be explained through the laws of physics, it does not exist. (Physicalism)
  • Any complex system is nothing more than the sum of its smaller components. Dissection is the only acceptable technique of scientific inquiry. Any scientific inquiry that fails to limit itself to reductio ad infinitum is by definition fraud, crackpot, or fundamentally malignant. When you see words and phrases like “nothing more than,” “merely,” “simply,” “just,” or “little but,” you can see the reductionist mindset at work. (Reductionism)
  • Reality exists independent of the observer, and to hell with Heisenberg and anyone who thinks Heisenberg had a point. Quantum mechanics? Pshaw! Scientists may only consider empirically verifiable facts and may use only the scientific method. (Objectivism)

(Let us refer to these sacred axioms of modern science, Physicalism, Reductionism, and Objectivism, as PRO. Let us remark in passing that without PRO, you would not be reading these words; without PRO, we’d still be stuck in 1600 or so. Which, the glories of the Elizabethan era aside, may not be anyone’s favorite era of cultural development.)

A blogger named P.Z. Myers (a self-avowed “godless liberal” who according to Wikipedia is “widely regarded as a confrontationalist”), read a partial excerpt of one chapter of Brain Wars online and instantly proclaimed the entire book “nonsense,” “tripe,” “baffling piffle,” “unsupportable fantasies,” “very silly,” and “full of woo”; this is only to be expected, said Myers, since an earlier scientific text by Dr. Beauregard is “one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived, books I’ve ever read.” (That is one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived sentences I’ve read in months!)

In other words: Not having read either the current book or any of the meticulously structured and conducted research that Brain Wars summarizes, cephalopod researcher P.Z. Myers condemned both the book and its author with full-throated loathing. All scientific research of which this priest of PROism disapproves is reduced to nothing more than “feeble anecdotes” based on “flawed reasonings,” “confabulation,” and “confirmation bias.”

Apparently unprepared to receive an online assault made within moments of the publication of his new book, Dr. Beauregard made the mistake of responding to Myers’s attack in kind. His proofs that Myers had assailed the new book without actually reading it, or any of the dozens of research studies it reviews, were fine; his repetition-with-enlargement of his original point, obfuscated by Myers, was acceptable. BUT, Beauregard made the huge mistake of responding to Myers’s ad hominem attacks on Beauregard with similar ad hominem attacks on Myers. (It does not help Beauregard’s cause that English appears to be his second language, or that Beauregard’s feelings appear to have been hurt by Myers’s ad hominem viciousness.)

Responding to flung poop with poop-flinging was a bad mistake. To coin a phrase, “You can’t use Rush to flush Rush.” My advice to authors who receive knee-jerk attacks from jerks with knees: Pretend your attacker is your most fervent admirer. “I am so happy that blogger P.Z. Myers considers me an incompetent idiot,” Beauregard ought to have written. “I am even happier that the committees that confer major international awards in my speciality, such as the Joel F. Lubar Award for distinguished achievement in neurotherapy, all disagree with Dr. Myers. I am sure that Dr. Myers is highly qualified to teach introductory biology to college freshmen in his small town in Minnesota. And he writes a cute little blog, too! If only *I* could squeeze in the time to write a blog! — but my num­ber­less peer-reviewed research studies keep taking up my time. In future years I will look forward to seeing whether Dr. Myers shows himself capable of publishing at my level. His blog, Pharyngula, is certainly full of interesting information on zebrafish and ceph­a­lo­pods, and I know that much of it must be factual.”

Naturally, Myers reacted to Beauregard’s clumsy attempt to give Myers a taste of his own medicine as positive proof that every word Myers has ever published is God’s sacred truth and every word that Beauregard has ever published is “unaware of [the] basic concepts of science.” Myers’s second attack on Brain Wars — which Myers still appears not to have read — is even more savage and even less founded on the scientific rationality that Myers claims to prize.

Beauregard’s second mistake was trying to defend his work for what it is, a comprehensive review of up-to-date scientific research, when P.Z. Myers’s attacks have been on the heresy Beauregard displays toward Myers’s religion.

Yes; I said it; P.Z. Myers is not in fact a “godless liberal.” P.Z. Myers is a high priest of scientific orthodoxy, a Torquemada of Truthiness, a “Joey the Rat” Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Orthodox PROism. The real scientists are the real seekers of truth; anyone who even wonders whether a distinction can be made between brain and mind is a heretic. Evil. A “charlatan” with “some very, very strange beliefs.”

Most religious believers appear to consider atheism a belief system comparable to a religion. This is absurd, rather like considering abstinence a form of sexuality, or refraining from drinking alcohol a form of drunkenness.

But consider what happens to a scientist who offends against the religion of “PRO”: attacks on the scientist’s methodology, reasoning, past work, and character. Being informed by the scientific es­tab­lish­ment what research is fit to be pursued and what research “contra­dicts the laws of nature.” Having discoveries suppressed, mocked, dismissed, or explained away. Being accused of sloppiness, fraud, mental illness, incompetence, foolishness, and ideological bias. Being ridiculed. “All too often,” says Rochus Boerner, “scientific truth is determined by the authority of experts and textbooks, not by logic and reason.”

I consider myself a “freelance theologian,” although probably “phil­os­opher of religion” would be more accurate. Although I contribute my time, talent, and treasure to the Christian denomination I joined when I married my Christian husband, and although I follow the real-world teacher of wisdom on whom the myth of Jesus is based, I no longer follow Paul of Tarsus. “Christians” who preach hate, judgment, con­dem­na­tion, and exclusion in the holy name of Jesus would no doubt consider me an atheist.

I mention this not because I consider myself a great big huge expert on God: You know exactly as much about God as I do and as anyone else in the world does, virtually nothing. I mention it because I see the words of religious believers every day of the week, and many times on Sundays. Brain Wars is a comprehensive and impartial review of where modern science stands on issues that True Believers con­sider crackpottery: spiritual belief, hypnotism, mysticism, near-death experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. The attacks on Brain Wars leveled by P.Z. Myers are religious anathema at its finest: “Die, heretic, die!”

Solely because P.Z. Myers declared The Spiritual Brain to be the “worst,” most incompetent, most idiotic book he had ever read, I rushed right over to Amazon and bought a copy. In hardcover. If the Torquemada of Truthiness hates it that much, the book must be chock-full of insights that scare the priesthood of PRO silly.


The Facts and Zimmerman’s Story April 14, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Politics, Random Observations.

Like many people — I hope most of us — I have been shocked and horrified, both by the shooting of Trayvon Martin and by the hyper­politi­cized reaction to it. Conservatives have been dredging up all sorts of facts about Trayvon, such as his school record, which would be relevant only in a case of premeditated first-degree murder. I have read on both Twitter and Facebook that on Fox News and similar hate media, Trayvon is consistently portrayed as the criminal and George Zimmerman as Trayvon’s innocent victim.

I have been wishing and wishing that someone more expert than I am would make an animated video showing George Zimmerman’s version of events — how a 17-year-old boy jumped the 28-year-old Zimmerman, who outweighed the boy by a minimum of 30 pounds; how Trayvon beat Zimmerman up next to Zimmerman’s truck while Trayvon was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone; how Trayvon then picked 190-pound Zimmerman up and carried him 400 feet to where he could pound Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk; how, after pounding George Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk, Trayvon picked him up a second time and carried Zimmerman another hundred feet toward Trayvon’s home; how, since Trayvon’s corpse bore no marks except the gunshot wound, Zimmerman must have done nothing to defend himself; and how somehow the two changed places approximately 500 feet from where the alleged beating of the much larger man allegedly began and the unarmed, 30-pounds-lighter aggressor was shot dead. According to phone company records, Trayvon was talking to his girlfriend from 7:12 until his phone went dead at 7:16, meaning that Trayvon beat up and terrorized George Zimmerman while simultaneously telling his girlfriend he was being frightened by a “strange dude.”

(Police say that Trayvon was 17 years old and 6′0″ tall, and weighed 160 pounds, while Zimmerman was 28 years old and 5′9″ tall, and weighed 190 pounds. Trayvon was a high school student, and Zimmerman a high school graduate. I have been informed by a reader that the New York Times specified Trayvon’s weight as 170 pounds. This would mean that Zimmerman outweighed Trayvon by “only” 12 percent, rather than the 19 percent of the larger weight range. I’ll be interested in what the autopsy will provide as the final word.)

Well, alas, no one has made an animation of Zimmerman’s story (that I know about), so I’m stuck. Here, for the purposes of someone who has more video skills than I do, is a detailed timeline, with both facts where they are known and Zimmerman’s story interspersed. I obtained the timeline from USA Today News and from a transcript of Zimmerman’s 911 call. I obtained the maps from both Google Maps and from a WordPress blogger, BCC:List.com.

Before I begin, let me stress that according to a Sanford TV station, neighborhood watch volunteers are supposed to work in pairs. They are forbidden to carry firearms while they are “watching,” and if they discover “suspicious activity,” they are forbidden to leave the vehicle in which the two neighborhood watchers are sitting. I have been informed that Zimmerman was not on duty as a neighborhood watch volunteer that night. I imagine, however, that his ostensibly being “off duty” did not impair Zimmerman’s memory.

2005 According to the Orlando Sentinel, at age 21, Zimmerman was twice accused of violent behavior. First Zimmerman “pushed” a police officer (see below at 7:15:50!), was arrested, and completed a program for violent first offenders in exchange for not being charged. A month later, a former girlfriend took out a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence.
2007 Zimmerman, age 23, defaulted on a loan from Capital One. He agreed to pay $2,135.82, to cover his debts, interest on his debts, and attorney and court costs. After Capital One showed early in 2008 that Zimmerman was failing to pay this debt, Zimmerman’s then-employer, CarMax, agreed to garnish his wages. After CarMax fired Zimmerman a few months later, there is no record (that I can discover) of Zimmerman’s having repaid his debt.

According to the Wikipedia article, George Zimmerman originated his 911 call “at approximately 7:09.” Earlier today, I found a source that said the call began at 7:09:34. If I can verify this time, I’ll update the times you’ll see below.

6:40 Trayvon leaves the home of his father’s girlfriend (“H,” far right) and walks to a 7-Eleven (“7.” far left) approximately three-fourths of a mile to the west (a 10-minute walk at 4.5 miles per hour), where he buys Skittles and iced tea. It is a cold and rainy February night, so Trayvon wears his hoodie. (My hoodie is pink, Geraldo.)
7:09 George Zimmerman calls 911 for the 46th time. He describes the 17-year-old Trayvon as “suspicious.” At 7:09:25, Zimmerman says the boy “looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” In the image below, the blue rectangle shows where George Zimmerman told the police his truck was parked, close to the north entrance of the Retreat at Twin Lakes. The black arrows show Trayvon’s presumed route home. The yellow arrows show Zimmerman’s presumed route in reality (rather than in Zimmerman’s story). The red X shows where Trayvon’s dead body was found, approximately a tenth of a mile from where Zimmerman alleges their confrontation began. The white box at the lower right of the image shows Trayvon’s destination, near the back (east) entrance of the development.

As mentioned earlier, the above map comes from the excellent BCC:List.com. This blogger’s opinion is that the only way Zimmerman’s story could cohere with the known facts is if Zimmerman came close to running Trayvon down with his truck. (Which might affect Zimmerman’s “Stand Your Ground” defense!)

The thoughtful and courteous Bob Owen, in his comment on this post (see below), provides addresses for three alternative versions of where George Zimmerman left his truck. But assuming that Zimmerman misled the police on the subject, no alternative version explains how Trayvon could jump and beat up Zimmerman next to Zimmerman’s truck, and a split-second later die approximately 100 to 300 feet from that location. At least, not without Zimmerman pursuing Trayvon, which to me does not argue well for the “Stand Your Ground” defense.

7:09:42 Zimmerman describes Trayvon as wearing a “dark hoodie.” In answer to a multiple-choice question from the dispatcher, Zimmerman says, “He looks black.”
7:09:48 Zimmerman tells the 911 dispatcher, “Now he’s staring at me.”
7:10:03 Zimmerman volunteers to the 911 dispatcher, not in answer to any question, “He’s a black male.”
7:10:39 Zimmerman remarks, “These f—king assholes. They always get away.” (Not always. [heavy sigh])
7:11:08 Zimmerman tells the police dispatcher, “He’s running.” The dispatcher asks where Trayvon is running, and Zimmerman indicates he is running toward where we now know he was staying.
7:11:15 The door of Zimmerman’s truck can be heard to slam shut on the 911 recording. Zimmerman’s breath quickens, as if he is in motion, and the sounds of wind resistance begin. It seems reasonable to infer that in the real world, Zimmerman has left his truck and pursuing Trayvon on foot.
7:12 Trayvon’s girlfriend in Miami calls him on his cell phone. Trayvon tells her that “some strange dude” is “watching him,” so he puts up his hood. (Meanwhile, Zimmerman is discussing his personal information with the 911 dispatcher.) According to phone company records, Trayvon’s conversation with his girlfriend lasted until the phone went dead at 7:16.
7:12:22 Zimmerman mutters something under his breath that is probably “F—king punks,” although early listeners believed it was a racial slur. At 7:12:23, the dispatcher asks Zimmerman whether he is following Trayvon; at 7:12:24, Zimmerman replies “Yeah.” At 7:12:26, the dispatcher says, “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman replies “Okay,” indicating that he understood the dispatcher’s instruction not to follow Trayvon. The two discuss where police should come, and Zimmerman provides an address.
7:12:34 The dispatcher asks Zimmerman for his name and cell phone number and assures Zimmerman that the police are en route. Although the 911 dispatcher does not say so, the neighborhood watch rules require Zimmerman to return to his vehicle, I believe whether or not he was “on duty” as a volunteer at the time.
7:12:49 Before Zimmerman hangs up, he says “I don’t know where this kid is. Could you have [the police] call me, and I’ll tell them where I’m at.” The dispatcher confirms Zimmerman’s phone number and says police will call him when they arrive.
7:13:07 George Zimmerman’s 911 call ends.
7:13:08 George Zimmerman says that after hanging up with the police, he returned to his truck, parked near the north entrance of the development. (See the blue rectangles in the three final maps.) According to Zimmerman, Trayvon approached Zimmerman “from behind” (i.e., from the south, 180 degrees away from Trayvon’s destination) and they had words.
7:13-15 According to George Zimmerman, having had words with Trayvon, Zimmerman turned his back on the teenager that he thought was a “f—king punk” (or “coon”). Trayvon punched Zimmerman hard enough to knock the older and considerably heavier man to the ground. Then Trayvon began slamming Zimmerman’s head into the “sidewalk.” It is likely that when this alleged punching and slamming began, Zimmerman and Trayvon were not near Zimmerman’s truck, but rather 500 feet from where Zimmerman said he left his truck, and 70 yards from Trayvon’s destination. Also, be reminded that while Trayvon was punching and slamming Zimmerman, he was simultaneously telling his girlfriend that he was being frightened by Zimmerman.
7:14-15 Look at the two images below. The blue rectangles show approximately where George Zimmerman told police he had left his truck. The second, more detailed Google Maps image shows that the sidewalk begins approximately 400 feet from where Zimmerman’s truck was said to have been parked.

7:13 The first call to 911 is made by a neighbor who heard cries for help. Trayvon’s mother has identified the voice crying for help as her son’s. Zimmerman and his family and friends say the voice was George’s. Two forensic audio experts have said that whoever was calling for help, it was not George Zimmerman. Between 7:13 and 7:30, at least seven neighbors called 911 to report an altercation approximately 500 feet from where Zimmerman said he left his truck, followed by a gunshot. Most say it was too dark to see more; one caller reports “wrestling.”
7:16 According to George Zimmerman’s account, after surprising Zimmerman at approximately 7:13:10, breaking Zimmerman’s nose, knocking him to the ground, and savagely pounding Zimmerman’s head into the (nonexistent) sidewalk until the resistless Zimmerman feared for his life, while talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone the entire time, Trayvon leaped up and sprinted for home, racing approximately 500 feet in a few seconds. Stunned by his savage beating and in fear of his life, Zimmerman magically found himself 500 feet from his truck. In the location where one witness alleges he saw “wrestling,” Zimmerman, fearing for his life at Trayvon’s unarmed, unmarked hands, shot Trayvon point-blank in the chest at close range. Until shortly before the shooting, Trayvon was beating up the larger Zimmerman while continuing to talk with his girlfriend and telling his girlfriend he was afraid of the “strange dude” he was beating up.
7:15:50 A few seconds before 7:16, Trayvon’s girlfriend hears Trayvon say “What are you following me for?” She hears a man’s voice say to Trayvon, “What are you doing here?” She hears the sound of “pushing.” (See 2005.) Then Trayvon’s headset suddenly went silent, leading her to believe that he had been pushed. She tries to call him back immediately, but cannot reach him.
7:17 The first police officers arrive at the site of the shooting, 500 feet from where Zimmerman says the confrontation began and approximately 200 feet from where Trayvon was staying. (See the red X in the second map.) They discover Zimmerman standing over Trayvon’s dead body. Zimmerman confesses to having shot Trayvon. Officers take Zimmerman’s 9mm automatic and place him in handcuffs.
minutes later Paramedics do CPR on Trayvon’s corpse. (He is pronounced dead at 7:30.) Paramedics then “work on” Zimmerman. In the initial police report, Zimmerman is alleged to have been bleeding from the back of his head and from his nose. In a police station video, there is no evidence of any damage to Zimmerman that *I* can perceive, not even a swelling of his allegedly broken nose.
3/29 Trayvon’s autopsy is still “under seal.” The funeral director who prepared Trayvon’s body for burial told at least one news anchor that the only mark on Trayvon’s body was his gunshot wound; there were no marks on Trayvon’s hands, arms, or clothing to indicate that he had jumped Zimmerman, broken Zimmerman’s nose with his bare fist (leaving no marks on the fist!), knocked Zimmerman to the ground, straddled him, and began beating Zimmerman’s head against the “sidewalk.” No evidence of Zimmerman’s blood was found on Trayvon’s body or clothing.
ca. 3/2 Approximately a week after Trayvon’s shooting, the mother of a 13-year-old witness told the media that police questioners had “pressured” her son to identify the body on the ground immediately before the shooting as Zimmerman. However, she also stated that the police told her they did not believe the shooting was self-defense.

These are the facts, as closely as I can replicate them. Now, please, will some expert provide an animation that illustrates:

  • Trayvon jumping Zimmerman at approximately 7:13:10;
  • Trayvon beating Zimmerman up without marking his own hands, receiving defensive wounds, or being spattered with Zimmerman’s blood, but nevertheless leaving Zimmerman in fear of his life;
  • Trayvon beating Zimmerman up while talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone;
  • Trayvon and Zimmerman magically being transported approximately 500 feet in a flash from where Zimmerman said they were to where witnesses saw and heard them;
  • How Zimmerman and Trayvon changed places, with Zimmerman found standing over Trayvon’s dead body at 7:17.

It will be important to time this video so that it contains all the incidents between 7:13:07, the earliest moment when Zimmerman could have completed his 911 call*, and 7:16, the approximate time Zimmerman shot his gun. In my opinion, the animation will move at blinding speed — about the second “fast forward” click on a DVR.

*(According to Phathead, a blogger at freerepublic.com, the 911 began at 7:09:34, meaning it ended at 7:13:41, leaving Trayvon roughly two minutes to beat Zimmerman up. Commenter Bob Owens believes that two minutes is more than enough time. I believe that if Trayvon were beating Zimmerman as savagely as Zimmerman and his supporters claim, DeeDee would have at least noticed a change in Trayvon’s breathing patterns, if not the sounds of the actual beating.)

On the April 13 edition of “Hardball,” a conservative pundit told Chris Matthews that the case against George Zimmerman was so “flimsy” that it will soon be summarily dismissed. If you believe that an unarmed, 160-pound boy could beat up and terrorize a 190-pound man in less than three minutes, with ZERO sound effects audible to Trayvon’s girlfriend, all while telling his girlfriend that he, Trayvon, was being terrorized by George Zimmerman, I’m sure you will agree.

(updated, April 15)

Coming Soon: Real Androids! February 4, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.

I’ve always been fascinated by the second creation myth in the Bible. It is what is called an ætiological myth, meaning that it attempts to explain questions that its original Stone Age and Bronze Age audiences found puzzling: why is the human male virtually alone among the species in NOT having a bone in his penis? Why is the human female alone among the species in suffering labor pains? What other characteristics distinguish the human animal from all other species, and what led to our unique status?

It is that final question that interests me the most, especially since one rarely sees it discussed by scholars or exegetes. Our intelligence is of course the most obvious characteristic that sets us apart. But consider these:

  • Consciousness — Consciousness is difficult to define, especially since it’s so closely intertwined with self-awareness. At its most fundamental, it means “not asleep,” but I think most of us could see a distinction between the consciousness of a human being and the consciousness of a chicken. Other qualities of consciousness might be said to include “not dreaming,” “not hallucinating,” “not drugged,” and “not drunk.”
  • Self-awareness — Most higher mammals have some limited self-awareness (“I am Buddy, that is Princess”), but with few exceptions only more complex brains can pass the mirror test, that is, are capable of recognizing the image in the mirror as the viewer’s self. At some threshold that humans have passed but our pets have not, we reach an awareness of self that includes such perceptions as I am awake; I am an individual; I control what I do; I feel sensations; these are MY emotions I’m feeling; these are MY thoughts I’m thinking; I am smarter than the average bear; I am NOT a “philosophical zombie.” Self-awareness may be interdependent with consciousness.
  • Imagination and curiosity — Imagination is the ability to form mental images, sensations, and concepts that are independent of whatever you are actually seeing, hearing, etc. at the time. Most animals have this ability to some extent, as any pet owner who regularly uses an electric can opener can attest, but only humans have flown to the Moon and back. I lump curiosity in with imagination because I think they’re related: “What’s new in the pantry? Could it be some cookies?”
  • Moral judgment and conscience — Human beings are virtually unique among the species in our sense of right and wrong, virtue as opposed to sin or evil. We identify and condemn as “wrong” such behaviors as lying, cheating, stealing, defaming, debauching, murdering, blackmailing, etc. We feel guilty when we know or believe we have done wrong, and we do things to try to atone, or become at-one with the other(s) whom we have injured.

The second creation myth depicts the woman as the first theologian, engaging in discourse with a symbol of the Goddess and of wisdom about the nature of divinity, God’s intentions, and theodicy. The woman is curious about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Although death has supposedly not been invented yet, she knows what “you will die” means and wishes to avoid this con­se­quence. She knows that the fruit is desirable because it is good to look at, nourishing, and will confer wisdom that will make her more like God. First the woman, then the man voluntarily disobeys God, whereupon they instantly acquire sin, evil, guilt, and shame. And that, children (so says the myth), is where consciousness, self-awareness, imagination, and conscience come from.

As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I urge anyone who is interested in characters like Star Trek’s Commander Data to read or view the AI-related classics, especially I, Robot (read it), 2001: A Space Odys­sey (view it, especially if you can do so in an altered state), The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (read it), Battlestar Galactica (view the entire 21st-century oeuvre); and Colossus: The Forbin Project (view the 1970 movie; reading the 1966 book requires more of a time investment than the story is worth).

These classics, and others like them, all proceed from the assumption that artificial intelligence automatically includes artificial con­scious­ness, artificial self-awareness, artificial imagination, artificial emo­tions (even Data felt envy), and, except for the Asimov stories (and arguably Battlestar Galactica), no moral judgment or conscience at all.

I think it is far, far, far more likely that we will very soon develop an artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are, but that it will be a “philosophical zombie.” That is, it will be able to beat us at chess, like Deep Blue, or at Jeopardy!, like Watson; but it will never “come awake,” like Heinlein’s Mycroft; it will never try to take over the world and enslave us, like 1966’s Colossus; it will never try to murder us, like 1968’s HAL or 1978’s / 2003’s Cylons. It will not be conscious, conscious that it is a separate self, able to imagine the outcomes of different scenarios and to experience a preference for which outcome it should strive for. It will not have volition. It will never be able to imagine, plan, and execute actions that we humans would consider wrongdoing. (I say “never” because, come on, what roboticist has not heard of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?)

I am also certain that we will never invent a computer that exper­i­ences emotions. Virtually every artificial intelligence that sci-fi has come up with has portrayed AIs that display arrogance, self-right­eous­ness, judgmentalism, anger, fear, and other human emotions. “I have the right to take over the world.” “I have the right to murder someone I perceive as a danger to my mission.” “Your treatment of me as your slave makes me angry and resentful, so I will destroy you.” For decades, my question has always been, where do these machines get their HORMONES? These are machines that act as if their conscious self-awareness has been affected by adrenaline, testosterone, serotonin, oxytocin, and other hormones, alone or in combination. Why do so many clanking collections of hardware and software act as if they have PMS?

I think it is far more likely that any artificial intelligence that humans come up with will be “philosophical zombies.” They’ll have high intelligence, and perhaps imagination; but I don’t think there would be any advantage to humanity in trying to create Cylons. I want a personal assistant that will do my vacuuming for me, not one that falls in love with my husband and plots to kill me so it can marry him.

I’ve also spent decades believing that there is no way we will ever come up with someone like Commander Data — a self-contained android who for the most part is barely distinguishable from an enhanced human man. Artificial intelligence alone is problem enough, but consider that stuffed within a relatively few cubic feet are artificial bones and artificial muscles, sinews, and tendons; artificial eyes; artificial ears; artificial skin; an artificial sense of smell; and artificial senses of balance, orientation in space-time (“I am walking across the room”), acceleration, etc. Then you need at least 2.5 petabytes’ worth of artificial neurons for the AI’s intelligence, memory, conscious self-awareness, imagination, curiosity, ethical programming, etc. merely to match human capacity. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes.) Commander Data, whose processing speed, memory, and intelligence are far superior to ours, probably has at least 5 petabytes’ worth of artificial neurons.

Watson, the IBM computer and software that recently beat two human champions at Jeopardy, has 16 terabytes of RAM (about 1/160th as much as YOU do*). Watson’s 16 terabytes comprise a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers (plus additional I/O, network and cluster controller nodes in 10 racks) with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores, not to mention the special air conditioners and so forth.

(*Remember, you use lots of RAM for things that Watson doesn’t have. Something like two-thirds of your brain is devoted to eyesight alone!)

A few days ago, I was thinking about Siri, Apple’s personal assistant software and “knowledge navigator,” when it hit me: We don’t NEED to invent a stand-alone android like Data, whose 5 petabytes (320 Watsons) of RAM fit so neatly into roughly 2.75 cubic feet of volume.

We have the Cloud. Where Siri “lives.”

Just as the Internet is vast and your smartphone is small, I see no reason why most of your new android’s “brain” shouldn’t live in the Cloud. I see no reason at all why roboticists shouldn’t concentrate on artificial bones, muscles, balance, and so forth. The actual physical body of our new android can have “hard” memory for things like sense of orientation in space and time (“I am sitting petting a pussycat”), muscle-memory, balance, and receptors for artificial senses. The motherboard, so to speak. The parts of our new android (or gynoid) that we would call intelligence, personality, memory, and so forth will live in the Cloud.

I think the real, true, Data-like android is only a few years away, and her name will be Siri Watson, or possibly Watson Siri-ous, or Mycroft Jeeves.

She won’t try to kill you. She won’t try to take over the world. She won’t fall in love with you. She won’t dream up new ideas for you. But I see no reason at all why she couldn’t be your housekeeper, your chef, your personal assistant, your butler, your gardener, your chauffeur, your masseuse, your plumber, your electrician, your carpenter, your handyman, or even your mobile entertainment unit, extruding Bose-quality speakers or a high-def video screen on demand.

Once the program is in the Cloud, it will just keep getting better. Right now Siri’s main strengths are things like restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and driving/walking directions. Soon it will be any sort of information. In the very beginning, the android “Siri-Watson” may only know how to boil water and work the microwave, but give the Cloud a year and you’ll have your very own gourmet chef. A year after that, you’ll be able to instruct Siri-Watson that you want duck á la Rachel Ray or steak á la Gordon Ramsey, and your unit of Siri-Watson will be able to consult the Cloud for recipes and techniques.

We will only have to teach Siri-Watson once, and best of all, you will only have to teach her your own expertise. (I myself make the World’s Greatest toll house cookies, when the mood takes me. My husband makes the World’s Greatest french fries.) If you only need an electrician once every five years, then that’s how oten your android will need to access that programming. The information and programming is all in the Cloud, ready when wanted, not eating up your android’s RAM if unwanted.

What’s going to be fun is designing what your Siri-Watson will look like. I’ll bet lots of people choose P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Batman’s Alfred, the Green Hornet’s Kato, the grandmother from that Twilight Zone episode, or Lord Peter Wimsey’s Bunter. A few may choose Merlin. A very few may even choose the android that Woody Allen portrayed in Sleeper. . . .

St. Petersburg Pier Design: Lens or IUD? January 30, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Humor, Personal anecdotes, Popular Culture, Random Observations.
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One of the icons of St. Petersburg, Florida is our Pier, a huge inverted pyramid at the end of a long approach. There are a few shops out there, most of which are more trouble to reach than they’re worth. There are two or three casual eateries, too, one of which may be a bar.

What I love about the Pier is that it’s home to St. Pete’s branch of the Columbia Restaurant — fantastic food since 1903, and a wonderful view, a small sliver of which you see here. Eating at the St. Pete Columbia is like dining on the deck of an ocean liner, but comfortably protected from the ocean breeze. There are always gulls, terns, and other seabirds perched a few feet from your table on a ledge that runs the length of the building about 18 inches from the ceiling; my husband and I always see pelicans, and frequently we see dolphins. The Columbia is our special-occasion restaurant.

So when the city leaders of St. Petersburg began grumbling that the Pier is antiquated and expensive to maintain, some of the pilings on the approach are crumbling, yadda yadda, I could accept it. They formed a special panel and sought new designs. The three “finalist” designs were the Eye (shaped like a cream-filled donut, “the Eye” looks both like a flying saucer AND like the logo of a famous Tampa sex club); the Wave (my favorite, it looks like Skateboard Heaven); and the Lens.

A five-member jury voted, and the Lens won unanimously. The Wave came in second, and the Eye a distant third. The jury chose the Lens in part because, unlike the other two designs, it focuses not on shopping or eating, but on St. Pete’s strengths as a city. “For me,” said one of the judges, “the Lens really invites everybody to the waterfront. It is an opportunity for people to experience some of what people used to experience, the water, the view, the fishing, the pelicans, not just a shopping and dining experience. There’s also an opportunity to address the boating issue,” she said.

During the review process, the only “view” that was published of any of the three designs was from ground level. It wasn’t until the selection process ended and the Lens was chosen as the new design of the Pier that the Tampa Bay Times ran an image of the Lens visualized from helicopter height.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope it’s just me — but to ME, the “Lens” looks like an IUD!

is the new design a Lens or an IUD?

Our Ultra-Rude Awakening January 14, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Humor, Personal anecdotes, Random Observations.
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It wasn’t my fault. Well, yes, it was, but it wasn’t solely my fault. My husband lives here too.

It all began a few years after we moved to Florida, when a routine inspection of our heat pump revealed that it was so encrusted with mold you could barely see that the photo was supposed to have been of metal. There had been a good reason why Jerry spent so much time sneezing.

So we replaced the heat pump. For some reason, our then-air conditioning company (who later turned out to have been a bunch of incompetent crooks) replaced the heat pump with an air conditioner. This was around 2003 or so, while my mother lay dying slowly in Maryland (she finally died in 2007), and I don’t remember why Jerry and I let this happen. The probable answer is “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” To be fair, our electricity bills have been lower for about three-fourths of each year.

But then, a few years later, came the Deep Freeze of January and February 2010. In the Tampa Bay area, the average daily high for that period ranges between 70° and 75°F, and the average daily low is 55°. During the Deep Freeze, our average daily high was 55°. And even with the thermostat set at 64° for day, 60° for night, our electric bill was about twice our historical average for winter. Much the same thing happened in January 2011, but not for as long a stretch.

We bought space heaters. They work well in our oddly designed house, which was built in 1920 and rehabbed around 1998. By “oddly designed,” I mean that we have all sorts of unexpected corners and crannies; my theory is that whoever designed the house was an amateur, not an architect. We also have WAY too few electric outlets, and the ones we have are often inconveniently placed. The best location for our bedroom space heater required an extension cord.

Here’s where I confess that what happened Wednesday morning was primarily my fault: I think most safety instructions are ridiculous, and seldom read them. “Do not use your hair dryer while taking a bath or shower.” And — I swear I’m not making this one up — “Unplug your clock-radio when not in use.” I bought a new space heater for our bedroom on Tuesday, and the first time I looked at the safety instructions was Wednesday afternoon, when I read “Do not use an extension cord.”

I then checked the instructions for all our other space heaters. All of them said, “Do not use an extension cord,” although one set of instructions reluctantly allowed that a heavy-duty extension cord, rated for at least 1500 watts, would be acceptable in cases of extreme necessity. Mind you, the space heaters in our bedroom and upstairs bathroom had been on extension cords for two years, with no signs of trouble.

Using the extension cords was not solely my fault. Jerry lives here too. Jerry is far more prudent than I am. Jerry unplugs clock-radios when not in use.

The new space heater works well. It’s a Patton, 1500 watts. Have you guessed what happened? Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, I woke to the sound of loud poppings and giant, terrifying sparks flying around the room. The first thought in my sleep-fogged brain was “Fire!” I began shrieking as I accomplished a beautiful lying-down high jump, ending up on my feet. I started to race for the bathroom, with my sleep-addled mind thinking, “Electric fire, don’t get water, get the baking soda, get the baking soda.”

Luckily, Jerry, awakened by my shrieks, had more presence of mind. He leaped for the wall outlet, and had the space heater unplugged so fast that in the end, there was no damage to anything at all. Except the extension cord, which had melted.

Now I need to tell you that Jerry has not one but two leaky heart valves. He had open-heart surgery in 2003, and was hospitalized for the same problem in 2007. General anesthesia shuts down Jerry’s bladder. As part of the aftermath of his 2007 adventure, he spent seven weeks of nonstop misery on a Foley catheter. There’s an excellent chance that if he were ever “put under” again, he’d have to spend the rest of his life peeing through a catheter. This is unacceptable. Jerry refuses to be anesthetized ever again, and I don’t blame him.

So, after dealing with the melted extension cord, Jerry took his heart meds, and the two of us returned to bed and huddled together, twitching a little, until it was time to get up. I am amazed at how few lullabies I know. I must have sung “Soft Kitty” about a hundred times (thank you, Chuck Lorre!), plus the Dixie Chicks’ “Lullaby” (except I really only know the refrain), and Paul Simon’s “St. Judy’s Comet” (which is really too fancy for a 5:30 a.m. lullaby). I tried to sing Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” but while it’s got the right tempo, I quickly ended up in tears and had to return to “Soft Kitty.”

Whenever Jerry gets depressed about the state of his health and his probably short life expectancy, he starts in with his “I’m so useless” refrain. He did it on Thursday, the day after our little dawn adventure: oh, I’m so useless, I can’t lift the vacuum cleaner, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, you should just kill me in, yadda yadda. We’ve been married since 1989.

After about the second or third “I’m so useless,” I finally had enough. “What are you talking about?” I demanded. “It was just yesterday that you saved my life. You saved your life. You saved the lives of all our cats. You saved us all.”

There was a long pause. And then, with just the hint of sly humor, Jerry said, “Well, yes. But that was yesterday.”

Memories of 9-11 September 11, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations.
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I had been worried about moving from suburban Maryland to Florida, more than 800 miles from where my widowed mother was living alone in the five-bedroom house my brothers and I grew up in. Dave had moved to Salt Lake City in the middle 1970s, and Tom to Denver in the early ’80s, leaving me for more than 10 years as Mom’s only readily accessible “child.” My mother had been the third of six children; before she married my father, she had worked her way through college as what we’d now call an au pair, and then she worked for the Girl Scouts and lived in a Girl Scout group house. Which means that Mom was 66 years old when she was widowed and began living alone for the first time in her life. The poor baby simply didn’t know how to live alone.

Sure enough, after Jerry and I moved to Florida to save Jerry’s health, Mom’s health quickly deteriorated. In August 2001, Mom ended up in Intensive Care for the second time in a month after a serious infection was complicated by what today I’m pretty sure was delirium tremens. After Mom was released from the hospital, she was still in no condition to return to living alone. Dave found a nursing home for her (which she hated) before he had to return to Salt Lake City.

Tom had already been to Bethesda that year. So had I, for that matter (and more than once); but early September was my turn again.

At 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I was standing in the kitchen of my childhood home. It was to be several months before I was able to find someone to live with Mom, so I had five bedrooms (roughly 2,500 square feet) all to myself. I was feeling a little like a BB rattling around inside a tennis ball. I was in my childhood home, but it had been half my life since I had resided there. I was anxious about my mother. I was lonely for my husband and our many affectionate cats.

I was peeling an avocado, Mom’s favorite lunch. My plan was to take it to her at the nursing home to try to tempt her appetite.

The phone rang.

“Turn on the television,” Jerry said.

“And a lovely good morning to you too,” I replied. “Why should I turn on the TV, what’s up?”

For the first and only time, my darling husband of decades roared at me. TURN ON THE TELEVISION!  It was a minute or two after the second tower “got it.”

. . . I never did get to the nursing home to see Mom that day. In retrospect, I’m glad that her bourbon-pickled brain was in such a state that she never missed me. I simply couldn’t tear myself away from the TV. I sat alone in that big old house for hours, watching the color TV Daddy had bought so proudly in 1966 and listening to Dan Rather’s dentures whistle. (This all took place several years before Karl Rove framed Dan Rather for a felony com­mit­ted by George W. Bush in the mid-1970s, when Rather was still popularly considered an elder statesman among journalists.)

When we lived in Maryland, Jerry and I had belonged to an Episcopal mission that usually worshiped in space generously provided by a Presbyterian church. The afternoon of Sep­tem­ber 11, Father Ken spent hours with a Lu­ther­an pastor throwing together an “emergency” worship service at a local community center; it began at 7 p.m. My friend Barbara told me that Ken and Rufus were expecting about 30 people to attend. It looked to ME more like 300 bewildered, grieving, shocked worshipers, and maybe as many as 500. The community center was pretty well standing room only.

That was the last time I remember the United States coming together as a nation. We may never do it again. The partisan warfare being waged today by the radical revolutionaries who pretend to be con­serv­a­tives has gotten to such a point that the “top conservatives on Twitter” have spent days now accusing President Obama of trying to wring political gain out of our national tragedy, which apparently has become exclusively Republican property. (Probably Rudy Giuliani’s property.)

I understand from my reading that earlier today, George W. Bush was spreading the word on the Sunday talk shows that Osama bin Laden would never have been caught without the groundwork done under Bush’s watch. (To which I reply, BUSHWAH! Dubya was the one who started diverting U.S. resources to Iraq in December 2001, right when the special forces were almost on top of Osama in Tora Bora and might well have caught him alive. . . .)

I have included with this post several images from 9-11 that still speak to me, ten years later. Most are self-ex­pla­natory. This final image comes from a commuter train station in suburban New York, and was taken several days after that fateful Tuesday. What you are looking at is the cars belonging to commuters who never came home to reclaim them. I find it almost as heartbreaking an image as the child’s lost lambie.

Our national tragedy does not “belong” to the top conservatives on Twitter, the Republican Party, Rudy Giuliani, or even My Pet Goat. It belongs to everyone who loves the freedoms that many of us, es­pe­cially Republicans, have abandoned, including privacy (warrantless wiretapping, spying on American citizens); including censorship; including demonization of swarthy immigrants; including the Geneva Conventions; including the right of Muslim-Americans to freedom of religion; including the right of atheists to no religion; including the right to travel on an airplane without being presumed to be a master criminal until after you have proven your innocence at least five times. (During the next several years, while Mom’s health continued to deteriorate, I flew between Florida and D.C. dozens of times; nowadays I am so fed up with flying, which I used to love, that I take the train. Which, except for the length of the journey, is infinitely more comfortable and more fun than flying. On my most recent train trip I had to show my driver’s license twice, once going and once returning.)

Our national reaction to the unprovoked act of war ten years ago does prove conclusively that Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and other Republicans are wrong on one crucial point: America is NOT a “Christian nation,” and never has been. A genuinely Christian nation would have turned the other cheek.

What Happened to Honor? May 13, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Random Observations.
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Every fall at Melrose High School in Melrose, Massachusetts, a bedroom community of Boston, prospective team athletes are asked to sign a statement agreeing that they will abide by “the guidelines set forth in Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules.” These guidelines include rules against smoking and drinking.

In a recent scandal, parents at Melrose who were monitoring their teens’ Facebook pages saw photographs of team members “identified in illegal [underage] possession of alcohol or tobacco.” The parents downloaded the incriminating photos and took them to school officials, who promptly suspended the offending athletes for various periods, the most egregious offender for 60 percent of the upcoming season.

This is not exactly a unique event, but merely the most recent in what seems to me a never-ending parade. What distresses me appears in the comments section of the above-referenced article. The comments fall into three general categories: “all teenagers smoke and drink, so what’s the big deal”; “those evil, maliciously intrusive parents, ruining the student athletes’ future careers as professionals rivaling Michael Jordan”; and, “it’s no one’s business what children do on their own time when they’re not on school property.”

What more than distressed me, what made me want to howl in despair, was this entirely typical comment, made by “Andy F.” at 1:56 p.m. on Friday, May 13, 2011:

this over the top and someone needs to kick that Superass holes a$$ you cant tell teens that they are under you control even at home. and to the one that turned them in your not worth the Bad word that comes to mind.

Now if the kid where doing something that every other kid there age ant doing or things you or your friends didnt do then get made. I think the ones push this to get kids in deep @#$% are the one that got put in trash cans and had no friends.

Forget the illiteracy, which I would find heartbreaking in any student older than about 6 to 8 years old — and I’ll bet Andy F. is a teenager (and I’m terrified that Andy has a decent grade point average!). Forget even the primitive inability to think, and then express the resulting thought intelligibly. What makes me want to howl with despair are Andy’s attitudes, which as I said a moment ago seem to me to be entirely typical: All teenagers smoke and drink, and always have; the parents who turned in the student criminals are “Superass holes” who are “not worth” execrating (I’ll bet that as a well-educated student of 2011, Andy has no idea what the word “execrating” means!); parents who turn in students who break the law do it from malice (“to get kids in deep @#$%”), got put into trash cans — I hope as student victims of bullies rather than as newborns! — and had no friends.

Whatever happened to the concept of honor? Of integrity, probity, honesty, good faith, trustworthiness? Whatever happened to accepting personal responsibility for one’s own actions? Don’t parents read Horton Hears a Who to their children any more? (In Andy F.’s household it’s doubtful even the parents know how to read, but that’s a different rant.) “I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”

In 2002, in an interesting essay on honor, James Bowman defined honor as “the good opinion of [people] who matter,” defining such people as “those with whom you [have] a relationship of trust.”

Bowman believes that our modern world-view is incompatible with the traditional conception of honor, for several reasons. First, “The spirit of our times puts such a high value on the moral autonomy of the individual that it can hardly comprehend something so recalcitrant to individual will and conscience as honor,” Bowman says; the true individualist has been liberated from the need for personal actions to have personal consequences. Notice that in the incident I’m talking about, eleven students were conclusively proven to have broken U.S. law, and not one of them received more than a slap on the wrist; not one was expelled, for example, or at the very least barred from the varsity. Indeed, a huge percentage of the comments I read blamed not the student criminals but the parents who discovered the proofs of criminality.

The second incompatibility of honor with modern society, says Bowman, is that honor seems “élitist.” In a public opinion poll, everyone’s views are equal. Donald Trump, who has in past decades identified himself as a poor to average student, abandoned his pandering-to-the-Tea-Puppets pretense that President Obama was not born in Hawaii with a sudden swivel to attacking Mr. Obama’s academic achievements. A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School (the latter, magna cum laude) who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, Mr. Obama is suddenly being challenged to produce “long-form” proof of his academic achievements, right down to his elementary school report cards. The obvious inference is that Mr. Trump believes that all educations are interchangeable in value, so that if white Mr. Trump was a poor student, black Mr. Obama must therefore have been a worse student.

After George W. Bush’s family money and connections shoehorned him into Yale, it has become elitist to value education and intellectual accomplishment. It has become elitist to value a “pure” vocal performance over the “help” of Auto-Tune and Pitch Doctor. Honor has similarly been devalued. It has become bad manners to acknowledge that Karl Rove does not evidence even the slightest sense of honor. It has become bad manners to acknowledge that the tsunami of lies and smears unleashed by the Supreme Court’s destruction of democracy in its Citizens United ruling was lies about and smears of Democratic candidates by a factor of more than ten to one. Instead, we are all supposed to pretend that the Republicans “won” the 2010 election because voters “disapprove” of Democratic values, initiatives, and hopes for the nation.

Third, says Bowman, is that the concept of honor seems so judgmental. When the elected leaders can embroil a nation in an unnecessary war through outright, knowing lies, and get away with it scot-free (although neither Bush nor Cheney dares to travel outside the U.S., for fear of being arrested for their war crimes by other nations), who are we to sit in judgment on high school students who promise not to smoke or drink — who promise not to break the law — and instead break their promise? “Everybody does it, so that makes ‘it’ all right” seems a far more important social value than “If you promise not to do X, and then you turn right around and do X, your broken promise requires a penalty.”

Fourth, says Bowman, is that honor seems so uncompassionate. Why should a criminal’s family be shamed by the criminal’s behavior, when the family itself did nothing wrong? At his sentencing for spying in May 2002, former FBI agent Robert Hanssen said, “I apologize for my behavior. I am shamed by it. I’ve betrayed the trust of so many. I opened the door for calumny against my totally innocent wife and children. I’ve hurt them deeply. I’ve hurt so many deeply.” Rather than allowing shame and disgrace to be brought to “totally innocent” spouses and children, our culture appears to have abandoned the idea of honor.

A fifth problem, says Bowman, is that honor is a relative term. It is no longer an honor to be given the king’s castoff clothing, for example, or for a newlywed couple to give their local lord the right to deflower the bride. Heck, to hear the pundidiots on Faux News, it isn’t even an honor to be invited to the White House!

Most of the nation appears to have forgotten that in the early months after the dastardly attacks on the innocent of 9/11, Osama bin Laden explicitly denied responsibility for them, saying that his men would never be guilty of something as dishonorable as murdering innocent civilians to promote a religiopolitical agenda. On September 16, for example, Osama’s statement was that “The US government has consistently blamed me for being behind every occasion its enemies attack it. I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons.”

In June 2002, remembering Osama’s many denials of responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, James Bowman concluded,

I wondered at the time [if the denials weren’t] the indication of a tiny sense of shame, a feeling for the inferiority of his unreformed honor culture and the implied rebuke to it of the Western one, with its sense of chivalry and fair play. Although the latter culture is apparently long gone, all but the most progressive and guilt-ridden among us must feel ourselves superior to those who do such things because we remember that our own honor culture — before we abandoned it in the mistaken belief that we could do without such things — was reformed, by Christianity and by democratic imperatives. Moreover, even those of us who overtly scorn the idea of gentlemanliness may feel ashamed of not behaving like gentlemen (or ladies, for that matter) ourselves. But it may take a war with a primitive honor culture to bring our own sense of honor back.

I’m sorry, Mr. Bowman. The United States has been at war with a primitive honor culture for more than ten years. It appears to me as if our sense of honor disappeared at roughly the same time bin Laden abandoned his.

Wherein I Meet “The Tingler” September 24, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Random Observations.
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Way back in 1959, Vincent Price starred in a B movie called “The Tingler.” I saw it on TV as a small child, and it scared the bejabbers out of me. Then I saw it again about ten years ago (not to mention this afternoon), and it was hilarious!

Researching fear, Vincent’s mad scientist/coroner discovers that when you’re terrified, a horror monster forms inside your body and grasps your spine. If you can scream, everything is fine; but if something keeps you from screaming, the Tingler will kill you.

Wishing to please Vincent for reasons of his own, an evil man frightens his mute wife to death. Conducting the autopsy, Vincent frees the mute woman’s Tingler. The Tingler grabs Vincent’s arm, but the moment he screams, the Tingler lets go and falls to the floor, where it is easily captured and shut into a heavy metal cage that Vincent had conveniently lying around.

Vincent’s two-timing wife, a classic Bitch from Hell, drugs Vincent and sets the Tingler free, hoping it will kill Vincent for her. It comes close, but Vincent’s daughter enters with a timely scream and Vincent has no trouble recapturing it.

The Tingler next manages to burst out of its heavy metal cage and escape to a crowded movie theater, which is showing an old silent movie, “Tol-able David” — a genuine 1921 classic that was a major box-office success in its own era. Humping itself along without having to move any of its limbs, the Tingler grabs the ankle of a young woman, who screams shrilly. Vincent plunges the theater into pitch-black darkness and announces to the audience that they have nothing to worry about, that the young lady merely “fainted.” Vincent restores the background lighting, and “Tol’able David” magically starts up exactly where it had been interrupted.

The Tingler next attacks the projectionist, ending the movie in favor of the Tingler’s shadow crawling across the screen. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Vincent announces, “please do not panic, but scream, scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!” Major screaming ensues. Seconds later, Vincent announces, “The Tinger has been paralyzed by your screaming. There is no more danger.”

Vincent returns the Tingler to the corpse of the mute woman, and then, without bothering to close his original incision, leaves the apartment, with apparently no intention of notifying the police that the man had murdered his wife and was keeping her body in his apartment. The Tingler reanimates the corpse just long enough to scare the evil husband to death.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Vincent’s voiceover concludes the movie, “just a word of warning. If any of you are not convinced that you have a Tingler of your own, the next time you are frightened that you might die, don’t scream.”

The only other item of note is that the mad scientist’s assistant is portrayed by Darryl Hickman, older brother of Dwayne (and just as handsome). A major child star, Darryl apparently has had little success as an adult actor; he played Dobie Gillis’s older brother Davey, had a tiny part in 1976’s “Network,” and appeared four times in four different bit parts in “The Nanny” in the late 1990s.

I’m telling you all this because in late July, a stepladder gave way beneath me and I smashed my left wrist to smithereens, breaking my ulna (the forearm bone closer to the pinky), shattering my radius (the forearm bone closer to the thumb), fracturing my scaphoid (a small bone on top of the radius), and displacing all three, so that even today, about eight weeks later, my left hand no longer looks “centered” on my forearm. The original radiologist’s report was full of scary phrases like “significant subluxation” (bones moved out of their proper position) and “comminuted fracture” (medicalese for “smashed to smithereens”).

Here are the x-rays that were taken this morning, September 24:

I now have a titanium bar strengthening my radius bone; they seem to think my fractured ulna will eventually heal without help. For the rest of my life, MRIs will be rare and difficult, which I don’t actually mind. What I DO somewhat mind is that for the rest of my life, I, a sweet little old lady who LOOKS like an Episcopal Church Woman, will not be able to board an airplane without being treated like Mrs. Osama.

What amuses me, and the whole reason for this post, is that to me, my titanium bar looks like a miniature version of the Tingler.

Memories of 9/11 September 11, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Random Observations.
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My father died at the end of 1990. At first, my mother seemed to be coping reasonably well. I visited her every day, and though it seemed to me that she drank too much, it wasn’t until my husband took early retirement and the two of us moved from Maryland to Florida that Mom finally fell apart. Mom was one of a family of eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood, and before marrying my father, Mom worked for the Girl Scouts and lived in a group house. December 13, 1990, when she was 66 years old, was the first day in Mom’s life she had ever lived alone.

In August 2001, two years after I moved to Florida, Mom came close to dying, of what today I believe was alcoholic malnutrition. After about a week in the hospital, she was sent home again. Two weeks or so later, she came close to dying a second time, of an infection she had picked up during her first stay in the hospital. This time, she ended up in a nursing home for a few days.

Naturally, both of my brothers and I leaped into action. Mid-September 2001 was my turn to fly across the country and spend time with Mom.

Mom loved avocados. In season, nothing made a better lunch, she declared. On September 11, 2001, at about 9:05 or so in the morning, I was standing in the kitchen of my childhood home, peeling an avocado that I hoped would tempt Mom’s appetite, when the telephone rang. “Turn on the television,” my husband said abruptly from Florida.

“And hello to you too,” I said. “How are you? What’s up?”

“TURN ON THE DAMN TELEVISION!” my husband roared. It was the first and last time my husband has ever roared, at anyone, for any reason.

I turned on the television. I watched the south tower collapse at 9:59 a.m.; I watched the north tower collapse at 10:28. I spent most of the day listening to the wind whistle through Dan Rather’s dentures, too stunned by what I was seeing even to channel-surf away to look for another news anchor. I never did make it to the nursing home to see Mom that day.

That evening, I went to a service that my Maryland Episcopal priest had hurriedly whomped together with a Lutheran pastor friend of his, held at a community center near where Jerry and I had lived. Ken had expected perhaps 30 people to attend this service; my estimate was that there were 300 people crammed into the room, all of us bewildered, all of us grieving.

The next day, when I finally went to see Mom, I told her, “We’re at war.” She asked with whom, and I had to tell her I had no idea. Nine years later, I’m still not entirely sure. (Terrorism, which is not an entity but a tactic? Liberalism? . . . Whom is Glenn Beck demonizing today?)

Americans were ready to come together during the next few days, united by our grief, our bewilderment, and our anger. President George W. Bush, who had already enacted the first of the “bailouts for billionaires” that would add trillions of dollars to the national debt, had nothing more inspiring to tell the nation than to “Go shopping.” It’s patriotic to spend money you don’t have buying items you don’t need, Bush implicitly told the nation. Go into debt; debt is super-patriotic.

Within days, Bush began twisting 9/11 into his opportunity to prosecute the war with Iraq that Dick Cheney had been planning for more than twelve years, the war that would definitively establish the United States as a “shock and awe” dominator with a permanent base in the Middle East and permanent control over Iraq’s oil. In December 2001, Bush let Osama escape (I believe) by diverting U.S. resources away from Afghanistan in preparation for his invasion of Iraq. Did Bush deliberately let Osama escape? I only know that before he got into politics, George W. Bush went bankrupt three times, and each time he was bailed out of bankruptcy by a consortium of his father’s friends that included Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother. (For his first bankrupted business, Arbusto Oil, Bush failed to find any oil. In Texas!)

Good luck with your plan for U.S. domination of the Middle East, Georgie and Dickie. The two of you added seven TRILLION dollars to the national debt, with your “bailouts for billionaires” and your pretense that your voluntary war in Iraq was “emergency spending,” so that you could make your military excesses invisible to the general public. The United States may eventually be the dominant power in the Middle East. Perhaps President Palin’s tax gifts to Republican billionaires will do the trick.

Nine years to the day after 9/11, I find today’s Republican demonization of Islam profoundly distressing — and a HUGE gift to the ideologues of al Qaeda, whose message has always been that the United States as a nation hates and fears Islam. Masses of ignoramuses around the country, virtually all of them Tea Bigots, are ranting their violent opposition to Muslim centers of peaceful worship, whether the YMCA-like community center planned for somewhat less than half a mile from Ground Zero, or mosques planned for Republican/Tea Bigot hotbeds such as Tennessee. So what if a mosque is being proposed to serve a faith community that has lived in peace with its neighbors for decades? The United States must not practice religious freedom now, when arguably it is most important, or the terrorists will win.

As I write these words, it remains up in the air whether a north-Florida bigot, the “Reverend” Terry Jones, will memorialize today by burning copies of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam; whether a Tennessee bigot, the “Reverend” Bob Old, will do so; or whether conservative “Christians” around the country will display their devotion to the God of Love by doing so. (By an amazing coincidence, both the “Reverend” Jones and Rush Limbaugh are alumni of the Cape Girardeau Central High School Class of 1969.)

In favor of their book-burning and other acts of hatred, conservatives are advancing arguments of stunning speciousness. “Saudi Arabia won’t even allow Christians to gather in public anywhere in their country!” they exclaim. “Communist China also has the right idea about how their citizenry should be governed.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to these “Christians” that “The bad guys do it, so that makes it perfectly all right for the good guys to do it” is not exactly the most valid argument the world has ever seen. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who persecuted them, and to bless those who cursed them. Jesus told his followers to forgive their enemies not just once, but “seventy times seven,” a synonym for “infinitely.” Nowhere in the Christian Testament can I find a depiction of Jesus telling his followers to persecute mourners by picketing funerals with “God hates gays” signs, or to burn books, urinate on the symbols of someone else’s religion, or commit murder in the name of the man who went to his own death rather than even cause injury to his enemies.

Conservative “Christians” interpret Jesus’s teachings to mean, “Hate gays; hate Muslims; hate liberals; hate brown-skinned people; hate, sit in judgment upon, and condemn those who dare to oppose your theology.” “You don’t understand reality,” a bigot tweeted me yesterday. You’re right, bigot: I don’t think I will ever understand YOUR “reality.”

I am no friend to Islam. I can’t see how any sane woman could participate in that religion — but then again, I can’t understand how any sane woman could be a Mormon, a Roman Catholic, or any other religion of sacralized misogyny.

But at least I have read the Qur’an, not just once, but repeatedly. If you have not read the Qur’an, gentle web surfer, I urge you to do so. It’s brief — only about 80,000 words long, the length of a novel you’d take to the beach. It’s not difficult to read, either, being a compendium of Muhammad’s sermons to his followers, most of whom were even more theologically ignorant than himself. (Muhammad told his followers, for example, that when Mary of Nazareth complained that labor pains hurt after one whole hour of pregnancy, Allah told her, “Suck it up; eat a date” (Sura 19), and then struck her mute for her impiety.)

At a rough guess, 70 percent of the Qur’an consists of rants about Hell — the burning agony, the flames of torment, the eternal anguish, yadda yadda yadda. Every life form in the Universe is fated to end up in Hell, with the exception of male Muslims and perhaps a few of their female possessions, a.k.a. wives and daughters. (The Qur’an is unclear to me on whether female Muslim go to heaven or get transformed into houris, beautiful sex slaves.) If you skim the rants about Hell, you can get through the Qur’an in a few hours.

But conservative “Christians” have by and large not read more of their own holy book, beyond a few passages in the Christian Testament memorized by the extremely devout. They are ranting their rants and hating their hate in the name of the Prince of Peace, secure in their certainty that God loves bigotry best.

The United States was founded on the belief in what FDR called the “Four Freedoms”: Freedom of speech; freedom from want; freedom from fear; and freedom to practice whatever religion one chooses, or no religion at all if that is one’s choice. On September 11, 2010, Republicans and Tea Bigots are telling the nation that to allow Muslims freedom of religion is to allow the terrorists to win.

If they prevail, terrorism will have won.

Mary the terror baby
This is me at about 9 months. I made this
Twitter avatar to participate a campaign
that hopes to “frighten” Rep. Louie Gohmert,
the originator of the “terror baby” fantasy.

Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me July 27, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Random Observations.

July 27

I had just reached up to screw the new light bulb into its socket when the stepladder slipped away from under me. I fell from the top step of the stepladder to the ground about six feet feet below, instinctively putting out my left hand to break the fall.

“Are you all right?” my husband asked.

“NO!” You could tell just by looking that I had broken at least two bones.

Jerry called our primary-care physician, whose nurse instructed us, “Go get x-rays at our Suncoast group practice facility; we’ve phoned to say you’re on your way. Then come here.” By the time we got to our internist’s office it was 2:25 p.m . . . internist & staff were at lunch until 3. AAAAARRRGH!!! We had been instructed to report to a locked door.

At about 3:10, our doctor’s secretary came out to the waiting room. Displeased by my unseemly weeping, Kathryn took us to another room. She informed us that yes, the doctor had seen my x-rays. Yes, the doctor knew that my wrist had been badly smashed. But both our doctor AND the practice’s bone guy were too busy to attend to my emergency. And then, ignoring my tears and fixing her eyes on my obviously broken wrist, Kathryn offered to make an appointment with the bone guy on my behalf for the next day.


Instead of returning the next day as Kathryn had suggested, Jerry and I next went to the emergency room — luckily, a brief walk from our doctor’s office. Thanks to already having the x-rays, I finally got some pain-med “only” two hours and a few odd minutes after my accident. I kept it together (sorta kinda) by using as a mantra that guy who a few weeks ago saved his own life by cutting off his own arm, w/zero anesthesia, 95% of the way before fainting from the agony — far, far worse pain than I was in!

In setting my wrist, the ER used “conscious anesthesia,” meaning although I never slept, I have no real memory of the setting of bones & applying of cast. Which is just as well! The ER pumped me full of major pain-med only about 10 minutes after taking me to my curtained-off area, but my wrist never did stop hurting until late at night.

August 13

The bone guy was still too busy to see me on Tuesday July 27, but he saw me the next day and did surgery on me the very next day, 15 days ago. Here are my x-rays:

According to the doctor my radius (the outside bone of my left forearm) looked “like dental floss.” I now have a titanium rod in my forearm to strengthen the bone. Goodbye, most future MRIs. Hello, being treated like Mrs. Osama every time I want to board an airplane.

I discovered quickly that the more I moved my left arm, even just walking around the house, the worse my wrist felt. Consequently, I’ve done very little the last two weeks. One-handed typing is hard on my right shoulder.

But yesterday, I went back to the bone doc’s office, where they took off my half-cast, x-rayed me again, and supplied me with a splint that probably cost me out-of-pocket only 20 times what it cost to manufacture. What a sensational racket Blue Cross and the other major insurers have! We pay THOUSANDS a year for the privilege of a copayment that works out to about 90 percent of the total service’s costs. Every bill is so heavily padded that I once figured out that my internist grosses at least $1,200 per hour — $120 for a five-minute visit to renew my Synthroid prescription, for example.

I still don’t know whether I can forgive my internist for ignoring my suffering when my only crime was following her nurse’s instructions. What would it have cost her to come out to the waiting room, apologize for the miscommunication, and send me to the emergency room — 30 seconds? Forty seconds? I sent her a letter about it yesterday. I guess I’ll wait to see whether and how she responds before I start looking for another primary-care physician.