Monday, April 16, 2018

Yes, They Are Trying to Control Your Brain: Brain Railing

Sometime close to twenty years ago, I was in the market for a Chihuahua puppy. I visited a few pet stores and searched the classified ads in the newspaper (I did say this was  early twenty years ago), and located some possibilities. At one pet store, I was shown a loving, mocha-colored short-haired dog that impressed me so much I even named him, “Latte,” for his coat color. The downside, which I mentioned to the owner of the pet store, was the price--$1,000. I wondered aloud whether or not such a dog could be obtained for a lower price (hoping the owner might make a substantial adjustment). The owner scoffed, and said, “These pets are certified purebreeds. We get them from legitimate breeders, not from some Arkansas puppy mill.”
This declaration caused my mind to wander off the present issue and to focus on what kind of sinister locus of animal cruelty and exploitation an “Arkansas puppy mill” could be. This was one of my first exposures to brain railing, a common technique for controlling the focus of a discussion. Brain railing introduces a compelling idea, embodied in a compelling phrase, that immediately becomes the center of the conversation. It puts your brain on rails that can move your thinking along in only one direction, the one that responds to the phrase.
Students of logic will recognize brain railing as somewhat related to red herring, where the discussion is led off topic by the introduction of a new subject that demands attention. Commonly, in the past, the red herring was an entire sentence or more:

“I think the shortage of electricity could be addressed by building more nuclear electric generating plants.”
“But nuclear power is dangerous.”
“Actually, it has a great safety record.”
“But what about Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

Suddenly, the subject changes from the desirability of nuclear power to the use of nuclear weapons.
In the past, a red herring was often only an off-the-cuff statement intended to derail the argument and move it in a direction that benefited its introducer. Now, though, the brain rail is more often carefully constructed as a memorable short phrase that obtrudes itself into the entire communication dynamic, changing the subject and forcing the focus of the discussion onto the new topic, as framed by the brain rail.
Brain rails can become part of the linguistic structure of our culture, serving as automatic, knee-jerk thoughts. As an example, a few years ago I was watching a quiz show where the object was for the contestant to guess a word based on a verbal clue given by a teammate. Thus, the word “waste” is a clue for the word “basket,” because “waste” and “basket” form a common pairing, so common, in fact, that “wastebasket” is now a single word.
But imagine my surprise when on the show the clue given was “religious,” and the teammate’s immediate guess, without a second’s hesitation, was “fanatic.” Not “religious service,” not “religious worship,” not “religious experience, “ not “religious book,” not “religious monastery,” but “religious fanatic,” now functioning as one of our culture’s habitual, preprogrammed brain rails.
Current brain rails sometimes have built into them the implication that the subject has been debunked, refuted, or otherwise discredited, so that it can be safely ignored. There is often an element of ridicule built into the phrase. In her book, The Smear, journalist Sharyl Attkisson says that the term “conspiracy theory” was created to allow easy dismissal of any explanation of events that conflicts with the official version. Referring to an explanation as “just a conspiracy theory” seems to imply that only toothless hicks and leftover hippies still smoking nontobacco products believe it. Other examples are “nuts and sluts” from the Bill Clinton era, “pseudoscience,” and, of course, “fake news.”
Many brain rails are constructed to force the discussion down a certain track, while ignoring or preventing an alternative discussion. A common example is “hate speech,” attached to any statement that the accuser disagrees with. Rather than a possibly fruitful discussion about a controversial idea, what follows is an attack on the character and motives of the accused, who must defend himself. Argument over terms ensues and the original topic remains unexplored.
Other examples of brain rails include “war on the poor,” “war on women,” “white privilege,” and “fair share.” In all of these cases, a controlling concept has been introduced that demands discussion under its own, biased terms.
We should strive to avoid adopting automatic response, fixed boxes to which we compulsively turn for our terms of discussion and our understanding of controversy. Concepts expressed in a phrase or a slogan are often contained in such boxes, unable to incorporate objective reality or measurable data into their ideological mass. While it is unlikely, in my experience, to move the discussion on to something profitable when interacting with someone insisting on following a brain rail down the road and around the bend, it might be an enlightening act to ask the railer to define his terms.
John: “I oppose affirmative action.”
Jake: “You’re a racist.”
John: “What is your definition of a racist?”
Jake: “You.”

This is a typical example of brain railing. Rather than engaging in a discussion of the pros and cons of affirmative action, the brain railer immediately changes the conversation away from an idea and onto a person. The subsequent discussion, if there is any, revolves around the guilt or innocence of one of the speakers, who feels attacked and defensive over the charge of racism.
Eventually, I bought two Chihuahua puppies, from a backyard breeder not far from my house. We just recently said goodbye to Bear after 18 years of joy and love. (His brother, Wolf, an equal source of joy and love, passed away four years earlier.) They weren’t pedigreed, certified purebreds, but one thing is for sure—they didn’t come from any Arkansas puppy mill.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Some Ideas to Help Prevent Mass Shootings and Gun Crimes

All people are rightly concerned over the school and venue shootings in recent times. We want to do something that will reduce or eliminate these tragedies. Similarly, many violent crimes like robbery are committed with guns. Here are a few ideas that together should help reduce these horrors.

1. Require gun owners to have gun safes. When someone wants to buy a gun, a proof of ownership of a gun safe large enough to house the gun must be presented, or a new safe must be purchased at the same time. A typical handgun costs about $500, and a rifle can cost from $500 to $1500. Small, portable gun safes could be prohibited, requiring the ownership of large safes fixed to the ground. These large safes cost from $750 to $2500, so on the lower end, a large, fixed safe is only about the price of a single gun. Many states have some kind of safe gun storage law already. Beefing them up to a large gun safe should improve things even more.
A. Children and mentally ill household members would not have access to the guns. Nor would visitors to the house (repairmen, housekeepers, guests).
B. Since many gun crimes involve the use of stolen weapons, a large gun safe bolted to the floor would keep those guns from entering the black market through a burglary.

2. Arm and train venue staff and school staff and faculty. Nothing deters gun crime, especially mass shooters, as much as knowing that they would meet armed resistance. Not every faculty or staff member needs to be armed; just enough to present the sense of safety and vigilance.  Latched holsters would prevent others from grabbing the weapon from the staff member.
A. Schools and entertainment organizations cannot afford to hire dozens of policemen working off duty, nor can municipalities afford to assign them to schools as an on-duty shift. But giving staff the necessary safety and use training would provide almost the same benefit.
A. What about the risk of being shot accidentally? The recent risk of being shot and killed accidentally is about 1 in 646,000; of being murdered by a gunman is about 1 in 29,000, and for context, the risk of dying in an automobile accident  is about 1 in 8,000.

3. Reascend to virtue training in the schools. The school system used to teach the virtues of kindness, compassion, respect for others, the value of human life, generosity, and many others. Certainly these are not so controversial that students can't be allowed to learn them.
A. If students learned to respect everyone else, there should be fewer disgruntled kids shooting their teachers and classmates.
B. As a bonus benefit, there should be less racism, sexism, classism, etc. as students celebrated their common humanity and the values that underlie that.

4. Improve mental health practices. This is the elephant in the living room. No one wants to talk about the millions of mentally ill people being ignored by everyone, especially the healthcare system. Most of the mentally ill are harmless, but a tiny few can be dangerous. Mental health laws need to be revised to allow for treating and monitoring persons with an identifiable illness--bipolar, schizophrenia), and, when necessary, medicated.

5. Connect the buyers database with  lists of known criminals, suspected terrorists, and people who have come to the attention of the authorities as potential threats. The list might be set up to include a large number of people, but they wouldn't necessarily be prohibited from buying or owning a gun. They would simply be subjected to additional scrutiny before being cleared.

6. Encourage Hollywood and video game makers to stop glorifying guns and first person shooter games. These entertainments produce heartless children who have no feelings toward those they kill.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Getting Life Backwards: Cultural Appropriation

It appears to be popular now in academic circles and in circles that vibrate out from them, to object to any person's use of anything not native to that person's culture. The crime is labeled "cultural appropriation." A yoga instructor had her class canceled because she was not East Indian, and therefore was guilty of cultural appropriation--which is evidently a euphemism for stealing. A white person wearing dreadlocks or making tacos are also examples of cultural appropriation.

But those who object to borrowing ideas from other cultures have it all backwards. Cultures grow into civilizations by aggregating ideas, practices, foods, and so on from other cultures. When one culture learns that another culture has a better solution to a problem, that solution is adopted.

If the adoption of better solutions from other cultures had been prohibited from the outset, we'd all still be using Roman numerals instead of Arabic numerals.

Cultures whose ideas are adopted by other cultures should celebrate with pride that their idea or practice was found to be superior to the previously reigning one.

It has been said that every great city is situated within 50 miles of the ocean or a navigable river because the international trade brings not only goods but good ideas to the city.

So, feel honored and not resentful when your culture is the source of ideas other people find useful.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

My Parkinson’s Disease is Not Progressing

My Parkinson’s Disease is Not Progressing

It’s one thing for me to notice that I’ve become a bit more unstable on my feet, or that I’m beginning to slur or stutter occasionally, or that my muscle control is lessening a bit. But when I’m told that this means that my disease is progressing, it gives me a headache.

I mean, look up the word progress in the dictionary. “Progress: gradual improvement, betterment, moving forward, ascension, advance, enhancement.” This describes my physical diminishment?
Wouldn’t it be better for me to say instead, “My Parkinson’s Disease is decrepitating”? Or how about, “My disease is dilapidating”? Or maybe declivitating? Imagine the use:

“Welcome to Walmart. How are you today?”

“I’m declivitating. And you?”


“Welcome to Denny’s. How many guests?”

“Two non-smoking and one declivitating, please.”

I mean, let’s be realistic and use the right words. Saying that our Parkinson’s  is progressing makes it sound as if it’s going to conquer us. And we won’t let it do that.

We know as Christians that the best part of life is ahead. We get new bodies in heaven, and they will obey our commands. They’ll walk easily, speak clearly, and feel full of energy. That confident hope sustains us, no matter how much our disease “progresses.”

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 
—1 Corinthians 15:51, 53

In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.
—John 16:33b

My Name Is Bob, and I Don’t Have Parkinson’s

My Name Is Bob, and I Don’t Have Parkinson’s

So they look at me and notice some things about me and say, “You have Parkinson’s Disease, don’t you?”

To which I say, “No. I don’t have Parkinson’s Disease.”

And they say, “Then why do you take little shuffling steps and sometimes freeze and can’t decide which foot to step out with next?”

And I reply, “Oh, my legs have Parkinson’s. That makes them often uncooperative. I don’t like it when they shuffle like that, but what can I do?”

So they say, “Well, if you don’t have Parkinson’s, then why do you sometimes slur your speech and drool and talk too fast and so softly that people can barely hear you?”

And I answer, “Don’t you see? All those effects are the result of my mouth having Parkinson’s. I keep telling it not to slur or talk too fast or too softly, but it just doesn’t pay attention. That’s common in mouths with Parkinson’s Disease.”

So they say, “Oh, I get it. I suppose the reason you no longer have a sense of smell is not because you have Parkinson’s, but because your nose has Parkinson’s; and the reason you have tiny, unreadable handwriting is not because you have Parkinson’s, but because your hand has Parkinson’s.”

And I say, “Yes, you’re catching on. Now you understand when I say that I don’t have Parkinson’s.”

And they say, “Then what’s wrong with you?”

And I say, “Nothing is wrong with me. After all, I’m still me. I’m not my body. I’m Bob.”

That is why we never give up. Our physical body is becoming older and weaker, but our spirit inside us is made new every day. 
—2 Corinthians 4:16

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Darxul Comments on Political Argument

One breezy sunny day at the park, the aging Darxul was approached by a young political activist who handed him a brochure supporting his candidate and attacking the candidate's opponent.
     "I don't believe I can support your candidate," said Darxul, "because he is a liar."
     "All politicians are liars," said the activist.
     "Tell me something," said the old man; "how much education do you have?"
     "I have a college degree," answered the activist, a bit taken aback. "Why?"
     "I was afraid you would say that. During your college career, did you ever study critical thinking?"
     "What are you implying?"
     "Your statement that all politicians are liars is a poster child for poor thinking."
     "But it's true."
     "Let' think about the statement. The first error is that the claim is unknowable. We simply cannot know in any objective way that all politicians tell lies, or that a certain percent do, and so on."
     "Just listen to them."
     "Second, the statement is a sweeping generalization that is almost certainly false, as many such sweeping generalizations are. There are certainly a few, and possibly many or most, politicians who are not liars."
      "I'd like to meet one sometime," sneered the activist.
      "Third, the claim implies a tu quoque type of fallacy. Your implied argument is that because other politicians tell lies, it is justifiable for your candidate to tell lies. If telling lies is wrong, it is wrong for everyone, regardless if other people lie. You wouldn't argue that because other people rob banks, it's okay for you to rob a bank."
     "You're changing the subject. We're not talking about robbing banks."
     "I was using an analogy. The logic of the argument about banks is analogous to the argument about lying. At any rate, the fourth logical problem with the argument is that it does not distinguish between degrees of the offense. For the sake of argument, let's say that all politicians do tell lies."
     "See? Now you agree with me."
     "Even if all politicians have at one time lied, their culpability is likely much less than that of  a candidate like yours, who tells one lie after another, many of which are enormous fabrications."
     "But all politicians lie," said the activist.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ten Things Parkinson's Disease Has Taught Me

10. I’m on the way to becoming irresistible to women.
They say women are attracted to men who are tall, dark, handsome, and soft spoken. Everyone keeps asking me to speak louder. So, I must be soft spoken. That’s already one-fourth of irresistibility. Sorry, ladies, I’m already happily married.

9. Even with a blunted affect, I still can’t play poker.
A blank facial expression might be good for poker, but for me, it makes people think I’m uninterested, when the fact is, I just don’t know how to play poker. But bored or thrilled, I just have the same poker face. Except when I laugh. I need to laugh more often.

8. I am not my body.
The person I’m talking about when I use the word I is not the same as my decrepitating body. I have to live inside it, and let me say it used to be a much more comfortable home than it is today, after so many years of weather. To change metaphors, my body is a car and I am the driver. The car is an older model—today, the radiator leaks, the engine isn’t running on all eight anymore, and the tires are going flat, but the driver is still fine. The driver just can’t go as fast as he used to. Sometimes he can barely get out of the driveway.

7. Feeling frustrated doesn’t make anything better.
You know, it’s kind of aggravating when my mind tells my legs to lift me up and all they can say is, “That’s above my pay grade. Let the arms do it.” I tell my legs that they are very muscled, but they say, “What’s it to ya?” And that chronic back pain; you feel it less was now that gets old after a while. And then there’s my diminishing ability to use my beloved tools. My right hand is getting increasingly uncooperative, so now I can’t seem to make a pair of pliers do what I used to do with them. But getting upset over all this doesn’t make a difference, so why bother to get upset? Besides, not many people like a grump.

6. I don’t take anything for granted.
My handwriting is already comical. Maybe I’m writing in secret code and I just don’t know it. I dare you to try to decipher it. But how much longer will I be able to type, even with my clumsy, disobedient fingers that insist on leaving out some letters and doubling others—even in the same word. But I can still type, sort of. This is a blessing. And those rebellious buttons that fight me every buttonhole. True, they no longer cooperate the way they did years ago, but, eventually, I can still button a shirt. This, too, is a blessing. In fact, I see every good thing as a distinct blessing, and not as an entitlement. Life is good—increasingly awkward, but good. Whether I eat a 99-cent taco or a prime steak, I’m content—no, make that happy. Grateful and happy. Some people take their health for granted. Big mistake.
5. I have a lot more compassion for the handicapped.
I’ve learned that we shouldn’t judge others by using ourselves as the standard of measure. We can’t fully understand what others are going through unless we ourselves have the same situation. I feel as if I’ve been put into a body that doesn’t belong to me. I ask, “Why is my body stumbling around?” and “Why does my tongue stumble, too?” and “Why is my handwriting so small? Is there a paper shortage only my hand knows about?” Yes, I feel awkward and conspicuous when I walk around. And now I know how other people feel who aren’t young and agile and “normal.” God bless them. So, less judgment, more empathy.

4. There’s no “Why me?” here.
When something bad happens to some people, they ask, “Why me?” when the real question is, “Why not me?” We’re told that in this world we will have tribulation. And while we’re quick to ask, “Why me?” when we get sick or hurt ourselves, how come we never ask, “Why me?” when we’re eating lobster on a vacation cruise or even licking an ice cream cone at home?

3. We can’t predict the future.
Seems as if every time we expect a high fast ball, we get a low curve ball instead. The fact is, only God can see around corners; we can barely see in a straight line. Maybe we should take the hint and trust God for our future instead of trying to outguess him.

2. I am now more aware of my mortality, and that’s a good thing.
Yep, we’re all gonna die. But we don’t think about it that much until the Lord calls our attention to it in a quite personal way. Gonna die. Check. Got it. Getting ready.

1. I still have hope.
I have hope—not that I will be cured, but hope for the kingdom of God. And hope for strength during the remainder of my stay here.
The Bible is a good place to find out about our hope. Isaiah tells us:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the whole earth.
He never grows faint or weary;
there is no limit to his understanding.
He gives strength to the weary,
and strengthens the powerless.
Youths may faint and grow weary,
and young men stumble and fall,
but those who trust in the Lord
will renew their strength;
they will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary;
they will walk and not faint.
—Isaiah 40:28-31 (HCSB)

Do not fear for I am with you;
do not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you; I will help you;
I will hold onto you with My righteous right hand.
—Isaiah 41:10 (HCSB)

How Much Did Abraham Pay Ephron for the Field and Cave at Machpelah?

Monetary equivalencies are quite challenging, because we need to take into account the difference in purchasing power of gold and silver, which are frequent monetary units.  I use some equivalency standards to get ballpark ideas.

Example 1: Ephron's field. Abraham paid Ephron 400 shekels of silver for the field and cave at Machpelah. What is the equivalent? Note first that we must avoid using the metal evaluation method: 1 shekel of silver was 224 grains or 0.512 ounces. As I write this, silver is selling for $18.50 per ounce. That makes a shekel worth $9.47, and the cave and field selling for $3030. Pretty preposterous, huh?

Now, let's take the labor equivalency standard. A shekel was worth 4 denarii. A day's labor paid 1 denarius. A laborer today might make $10 an hour. For a day's work, 8 hours, that's $80. Therefore, a shekel would have had $320 worth of purchasing power. The field, at 400 shekels, then sold for the equivalent of $128,000, a very possible amount.

Another method I use is the bread equivalency standard. In the eighteenth century in England, a servant, paid well, might earn 30 pounds a year. A pound this morning is going for $1.32 US. That would mean that a servant was paid only $396 a year. But wait. In, say, 1750 a loaf of bread sold for a penny. In that era, there were 240 pennies to the pound, making 7200 pennies in a 30-pound salary. An inexpensive loaf of bread today sells for $2.50, making a salary equivalent of $18,000. (And remember that servants had housing and meals as part of their compensation.)

So, what does that make a marriage settlement of 10,000 pounds a year in those days among the upper classes? 10,000 times 240 times 2.50 is 6,000,000. Six million dollars a year would put the couple on a budget, but is they shopped carefully, they could make it.

I'm sure there are other equivalences that might shed light on purchasing power for a given income in the old days. I remember in my twenties I could fill a grocery bag for $3.50. Now it takes $20 or $30.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Micrographia Tiny Handwriting Remedy (Parkinson's Disease)

If your handwriting has become tiny and virtually illegible (as is common with Parkinsonism and Parkinson's Disease), there are a few things I've discovered that might help you too. To return back to legible handwriting, do the following:

1. Get some Manuscript Tablets from the 99 cent store or other source. Alternatively, get some wide-ruled notebook paper. Use the lines, which are a quarter of an inch (one centimeter) apart, as guidelines for your lower-case letters. Each letter must reach from one line to another. Yes, a quarter of an inch tall.

2. Slow down. You'll notice that you can't scribble very fast when the letters are that large. I also noticed that with my micrographia I was trying to write in a hurry. By slowing down a lot, I could write legibly (when my meds were working). Slowly formed large letters can result. Writing slowly, for me, has proven more effective than practicing loops and swirls.

3. If you have Parkinson's Disease or Parkinsonism, try taking your medicine half an hour before meals or two hours after meals. It is said that food protein interferes with the carbidopa-levodopa.

I like writing on newsprint pads. (Newsprint is that brown, soft paper once common in elementary school. Its soft texture makes the pen glide across the page better. I also like PaperMate and Bic stick pens with the easy gliding ink. Some gel pens are good for ease of writing, too.