One reader's rave

"Thanks for the newspaper with your book review. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this terrific piece of writing. It is beautiful, complex, scholarly. Only sorry Mr. Freire cannot read it!" -- Ailene

Help the Honey Badgers in their fight for freedom of speech and thought!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Quote of the Day

"It's not a God-shaped hole, it's a hole-shaped God." -- ciphergoth,

Monday, December 22, 2014

I wrote about a week ago ( about giving myself an exposure to help train me not to be controlled by social anxiety. My thinking of this, and overcoming my own resistance, were doubtless facilitated by the fact I was reading Scott Stossel's book My Age of Anxiety.

An aspect of anxiety I learned about while reading it is that anxious persons tend to have a higher level of "interoceptive awareness," meaning sensitivity to their internal physical state. Combined with their predisposition to worry, this results in an increased likelihood of noticing things that they construe as signs of anxiety, causing them to worry about behaviors that may result from that anxiety, spawning further anxiety in a vicious cycle.

This must have been on my mind last Friday evening shortly after work, while I was in a Rite Aid to get a couple things before going home. I detected what I thought was a moment of faintness that might be attributed to having eaten lightly that day. I thought of buying a piece of candy to "tide me over" until I got home, but then cross-examined this impulse. I realized I didn't really know if what I'd felt was faintness, or just sleepiness. Further, even it was a very slight faintness, there was no reason to think there's be any catastrophic consequences if it recurred during my ride home.

In other words, I was applying one of the routine questions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety disorders, "What's the worst that could happen?" which serves to counter anxious people's tendency to catastrophize. As a result I chose not to buy any candy, saving me money and hazard to my physiology while teaching myself not to be controlled so easily by minor sensations. And I didn't, in fact, feel faint again on the ride home.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Quote of the Day

Equality is no more than an empty shadow so long as monopolies give the rich the power of life and death over their fellow human beings. -- French revolutionary Jacques Roux, quoted in Albert Soboul, A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799 (London: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 86-87

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Canonical Gospels

Early last year, I got into a longish conversation with an evangelist. This is unusual, as I generally would regard this as a waste of time. What made him different from most was that he was able to talk about things other than Christianity, and showed some actual curiosity.

I was periodically walking back and forth in the food court to stretch, and every time I passed him he noticed my "Secular Values Voter" button. So eventually he stopped me to ask what this meant, and that led into a discussion about Christianity and various more or less related topics. Nonetheless, he did eventually zero in, before taking his leave, of how he really thought I should read the Gospel, and was sure that if I did so I would be convinced. I'd always figured I'd get around to this sooner or later, in view of the books' historical and cultural significance, but never had. So I told him I would, and within a couple months did so. I took a bunch of notes with a view to writing a review here before sending it to the evangelist, but recently decided to write him off the top of my head before he forgot our encounter (or changed his email address). What I wrote him is below (fittingly in red, since he used the sender name "jesus christ" -- no kidding).

Dear Pete,

After getting caught up on already planned books, I followed your suggestion and read the four canonical Gospels (KJV). That was over a year ago, and I meant to write a thorough review for my blog, but haven't managed to get around to it yet. Rather than delay any further, I decided to just go ahead and write you about my experience.

To aid me in understanding the material, I concurrently read the corresponding chapters of Asimov's Guide to the New Testament. (Since he discusses the books in their traditional order, that's how I read them, even though I knew that Mark is generally regarded as the most "primitive" Gospel and was probably written first.) But even if I hadn't, I think I'm sharp enough that I would have made many of the same observations on my own.

My most striking impression when I was finished was that there was "no there there." It was really anticlimactic. My whole life I'd been hearing that Jesus had this incredible message that I had to read the Gospel to get, yet I could find hardly any message at all. Most of his preachings seem to have taken the form of parables, and most of these were sort of meta-allegories about the importance of the message, without actually telling you what the message is. About the only substantive message I could find was the Golden Rule, and even that -- as I also had already known -- was not original with Jesus. For instance, his older contemporary the Rabbi Hillel had said something quite similar, not to mention sages in other parts of the world.

Although I'd heard previously that there are inconsistencies between the Gospels, I had no first-hand experience with these until I read them at your prompting. The biggest ones are between John and the other, so-called Synoptic Gospels. One concerns where Jesus recruits his first disciples: John puts this by the River Jordan, whereas the earlier books place it in Galilee. Another is his relation to John the Baptist. The Synoptic Gospels have him and Jesus competing for followers, while John says he told his followers to leave him for Jesus.

Most importantly, Asimov illustrates how the discrepancies between the Gospels aren't random, but actually reflect pretty well the theological evolution of Christianity from a Jewish sect -- one whose leader initially denied being divine -- to a Gentile religion holding this same figure to have known he was God from the outset.

I thank you for motivating me to read these books after so many years of procrastination. While doing so hasn't changed my fundamental view of Christianity as a product of human imagination, it certainly has deepened my understanding of it.


P.S. What prompted me to finally write you was having looked at a web site making the case for Jesus' not having been a historical figure at all. It argues that Christianity was the product of a gradual syncretistic fusion of Judaism, Greek Cynicism and Platonism, and other traditions, which became institutionalized before deciding on a unifying theology, including the idea of an incarnate God. While this is an intriguing idea, I haven't studied sufficiently to have an informed opinion, so for the time being I'll remain agnostic on this question.

Motte, Bailey, and Rape

One of Thom Hartmann's recent "The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly" segments -- in which he seems to be less careful about his facts than elsewhere in his programs -- criticized some statements by Tammy Bruce in a superficial, nearly puerile way. I made the following comment on his website:

With all due respect, Thom, your comment isn't a serious critique of what Bruce said. Suggesting that the public image or status of victimhood is being romanticized isn't at all the same as saying that actually being victimized is "cool." For instance, there's widespread admiration for POWs, especially those like John McCain who were tortured. This is why some politicians have been caught making false claims along these lines. You could call this a romanticization, but it in no way implies that anyone thinks it's cool to be tortured.

I've attended a few Take Back the Night rallies, and I've noticed that typically, after someone gives their personal testimony about being sexually assaulted, they're applauded. Of course participants will say that it's not their victimization that's being applauded, but rather their courage in coming forward to talk about it. Nonetheless, it could be argued that this is a social environment in which people are given an incentive to self-identify as victims, even if the facts may not warrant it.

In fact, at the first TBTN I attended, one of the participants implied a man had drugged her to unconsciousness in order to take her, even though the very fact that he called her about it the next day, as well as what he said in that call, indicated he'd perceived her as conscious and willing, and had expected her to remember the encounter. When I wrote the campus paper about this discrepancy, the reply by a student anti-rape leader consisted of stock rhetoric while ignoring or distorting all the factual points I had made, such as by pretending that my pointing out the difference between blacking out and passing out was somehow equivalent to saying no one ever passes out from drinking. She was too preoccupied with reaffirming a party line to actually read my letter for comprehension. (You may be able to find these letters, along with my rejoinder, in the online archives of the Daily Pennsylvanian on or about 4/9/05.) Similarly, it seems the Rolling Stone reporter was too doctrinally sure about what had happened to the woman she interviewed, to remember the normal journalistic standards about fact-checking.

I must say I noticed a similar two-step in the remarks of your recent NOW guest. I'd heard previously about traumatic memories' being stored differently -- but never from feminist representatives in the context of an actual rape trial. In those circumstances, what you always hear, without any qualification, is "Believe women," "Women don't lie about rape," and cries of outrage any time a defendant is found "not guilty" in spite of the victim's (traumatically unreliable) testimony.

This could be considered an example of what's been called the "motte-and-bailey doctrine" ( the strategic equivocation of making a very dubious or totally indefensible argument to those who are sympathetically inclined; then, when criticized for it, saying, "All I mean is [something totally uncontroversial and obvious]"; then going back to the extreme and indefensible claim as soon as the critics go away.

Yesterday I checked out a party at one of the office buildings I visit regularly. I'd seen it announced there as an Open House a couple days before; nonetheless, noticing from the outside how classy it looked, I worried that I might not be admitted since I'm not a tenant. I'd thought of going there before visiting the credit union to make a deposit, but turned away out of feeling intimidated. While making the errand, I realized this was an instance of my principle, "If you're afraid of something for no good reason, that's a very good reason to do it," and that this was an opportunity to give myself an exposure to help me learn not to be controlled by social anxiety. I decided to put myself in something like the "little kid trance" that I discovered several years ago, looking at everything wide-eyed without anticipation, only curiosity. In this way I got myself to walk in. As a further exposure to the possibility of rejection, and preempt any sense that I was "sneaking in," I stopped to ask the security officer, "So, what's all this?" He said it was a Christmas party. He then asked if I work there, and I said "No, I deliver payrolls here." He nodded but said nothing else. So I walked a little further in and looked around. Lots of people were talking, eating, and drinking. Together they were making a lot of noise. I could have served myself food or a drink, but didn't see much point in that by itself. I might have felt differently if I'd seen someone I recognized. I'd have probably at least spent a moment greeting and making small talk with them. But since I didn't notice anyone I knew, hanging around just for some free food and drink didn't seem very interesting. And I had other things I meant to get done before going home. In the last analysis, I felt the most important thing was that I had given myself an exposure to something that was triggering my social anxiety, and showed myself that I could manage it. So after a moment I left.

Monday, December 08, 2014

"Why Does Power Corrupt?" by Eliezer Yudkowsky

This seems like an excellent summary of the question. I'd intuited the general idea but never thought it through so thoroughly.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Quote of the Day

If you are hearing an argument for the first time, and you are only hearing one side of the argument, then indeed you should beware. In a way, no one can really trust the theory of natural selection until after they have listened to creationists for five minutes; and then they know it's solid. -- Eliezer Yudkowsky, What Evidence Filtered Evidence?"

Friday, November 28, 2014

America's Deadliest DA

For those who may have forgotten, that's what many have called former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, now running for Mayor:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Moneyball for Government

The authors of a new book suggest taking an evidence-based approach to deciding on government policy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

If consciousness is localized, why does my mind keep wandering?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Quote of the Day

"Weltanschauung Schmeltanschauung!" -- James Morrow, *The Madonna and the Starship*

Monday, November 10, 2014

Scientists are undertaking to cure deadly mitochondrial disease with germ-line engineering. Hopefully, if proven feasible this will be treated as a social good rather than a commodity, so that it doesn't result in speciation between haves and have-nots.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Harvard Study: 70% of Non-Reciprocal Domestic Violence Is Initiated by Women, But Reciprocal Violence Causes More Injuries

This study pertains to young heterosexual couples:

Monday, October 13, 2014

An Interview That Doesn't Deserve to Be Loved

Last night I watched Mike Wallace's 1959 interview of Ayn Rand. It's probably most notorious for the part where Rand says "most people don't deserve to be loved":

The obvious problem on a political level, of course, is that, contrary to her fantasy world, most large private fortunes were not created in any substantial part by the owner's own labor -- either manual or intellectual -- but, rather, by exploiting that of others: workers prevented from accessing the means of production created mostly by past workers, or keeping the full fruit of their labor thereupon, "at the point of a gun" as libertarians like to say -- not thanks to the kind of special government favors she liked to denounce, but through the enforcement of private property itself. I recall that, where in her writings she presents her cartoonish idea of what pre-class society was like, she asserts that the creation of private property in land was the prerequisite of civilization, but conveniently glosses over the question of how this creation occurred. You could call this the "shabby little secret" of her philosophy, to borrow the phrase she used for the state power backing paper legal tender.

On the philosophical level, this interview reminded me of how thoroughly, behind the rhetoric of "reason" and "objectivity," Rand based her doctrine on superstitious premises. For one thing, she repeatedly talks about "free will." I've never even seen an empirical definition of this concept, let alone verification of its reality. Second, there's her assumption that there are objective moral values and objective duties. Since moral statements, unlike physical statements, are assertions of what "should" be rather than of what is, they can have no empirical truth value. So to assert their objective existence as principles, independent of individual human brains, is essentially just a more abstract version of a belief in ghosts.

Given the above statement, you may wonder what my objection is to her saying most people don't deserve to be loved. It's that she's trying to impose her pseudo-objective definitions of "achievement" and "deserts," which simply reflect the bias of her class background, on a species which has evolved the emotion of love for a function that her definition ill-suits. Wallace points out its ridiculousness as applied to infants who haven't achieved anything yet but tend to receive our most unconditional love -- a point she never really answers -- although it was well spoofed in a *Simpsons* episode depicting the "Ayn Rand School for Tots" ( The *objective* fact is that we humans have an instinctual urge to help each other that is completely independent of "achievement." This is widely practiced not because of any philosophical doctrine but because it's human nature -- and it's human nature because it's beneficial for our species, and hence has been favored by natural selection. The only reason that, in spite of this, Rand's doctrine enjoys such a large megaphone now is that there's a minority exploiting class with both the means and motive to misdirect people's anger at the institutions this same class dominates -- church and state -- toward further strengthening their own domination over the rest of us.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Nothing Unusual

"False memories are universal, even without prompting or much passage of time. Post-crime eyewitness accounts routinely contradict each other. A poll taken right after JFK's assassination showed that somehow he had picked up an additional 10 million votes."
-- Michael Fumento, author of *Science Under Siege*, *Polluted Science*, and *BioEvolution*, in "Runaway Hysteria," *Skeptical Inquirer* volume 38, issue 5, p. 46.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Regulatory Capture at the Fed

Thom Hartmann had a guest on last night's The Big Picture who laid out some structural impediments to making the Fed independent of the institutions it's supposed to regulate. Of course abolishing capital markets, or at least statizing credit, would render these concerns moot.

The Most Boring Limerick Ever

Completing a bank deposit originating from Limerick, PA, has inspired me to compose a limerick of my own:

Rothman once made a deposit
Of some funds they had found in their closet
Mellon said, "Keep it coming.
All that cash we'll keep summing.
There's absolutely no need to pause it!"

So unfunny it's funny, wouldn't you say?

By the way, Rothman (in)famously sends funds other places too. They were the largest source of donations to the Romney campaign.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

I spent a couple hours taking part in today's March to End Rape Culture by Slutwalk Philly in alliance with other groups. Here's a sign I saw, along with both sides of my own.

One person's sign called the term "friend zone" an "attack" on women who say no. I informed her that the term is not an attack, but simply a factual statement of how one person feels (or doesn't) about another. Wherever I see it, it's made very plain that it's a man's responsibility to try and change how a woman feels about him, if he can; it's not her fault she doesn't feel what she doesn't feel.

Biggest Number Yet for a Lower Number

Here's an assortment of pictures I took at the People's Climate March.

This was with Ben and Jerry's contingent. Words around the base: "If it melts, it's ruined!"

To the point:

This one reminded me of a sign in front of the Supreme Court for George W. Bush's Counter-Inaugural. It incorporated an official Mars Society placard in a banner that suggested, "Send Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas to Mars!" apparently with the idea of solving two problems at once. The man holding this sign, a member of a group from Bennington College whose father is a big space enthusiast, was tickled when I recounted this to him. (Technically the slogan might have better been, "Terraform Mars, don't Veneriform Earth," since Venus appears to have suffered the kind of runaway "greenhouse" effect we're trying to prevent here.)

This screen reminded people that this was a global day of action -- 2600 separate actions in 150 countries, as I heard after getting back to the bus.

I liked the sense of humor here. "Cut emissions, or we sleep with the fishes."

This float promoted the campaign for natural history museums to drop donors who promote climate denialism.

Before I had to go back to my bus, I panned as much of the march as I could from where I was standing.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Philly vs. Comcast

Philadelphians rallied today against a Comcast/Time-Warner merger and to preserve net neutrality.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Update on Mental Health First Aid

Good news. The community outreach coordinator responded to my comments and we have a meeting set up for Friday where I can elaborate on my concerns.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Ask Candidates Where They Stand on a Constitutional Convention

Now is the time, as the campaign season starts, to challenge candidates to take a stand on government's ultimate accountability to the people through the Constitutional amendment process. A good case can be made that Congress has been remiss on this point for over a century, but as this may seem like a rather arcane and technical argument, I have not chosen to focus on that aspect for now. I've started by writing Ruth Damsker, a candidate for the PA state legislature who spoke last week at a meeting of Philadelphia's Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club. Copied below is what I wrote.

Dear Ms. Damsker,

I heard you speak at Liberty City's State of the Races meeting. I am pleased that you are running as a supporter of our community.

There is something I like to ask all candidates for the state house or senate. Many people are dissatisfied with the way our government works these days, even if there's no consensus on what the solutions are. People may focus on overturning Citizens United, or Hobby Lobby, or some other Supreme Court decision. They may want to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment, or DC statehood, or to repeal the Second Amendment. The Constitutional process for making amendments one at a time may seem laborious, but there's an alternative, specifically intended for times when most people are dissatisfied even though they're not sure yet what the answers are.

One of the Framers (I think it was Madison) commented that the new Republic's government ruled by the consent of the governed, and that the people can withdraw this consent at any time by petitioning Congress for a Constitutional Convention. This is provided for in Article V, which says that Congress, "on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments." It goes on to stipulate that any amendments so proposed must still be ratified by three-fourths of the states, the same as if they had simply been passed by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.

The advantage of this process over the other one is that it creates an open forum in which every aspect of government that might use revision can be looked at with fresh eyes at one time, in a coherent way, instead of piecemeal. The other advantage is that it provides a way for everyone who's dissatisfied with the status quo to work together, instead of at cross purposes, on the common project of "withdrawing our consent" through the Article V process, and then have a collective discussion at the Convention through which we can seek consensus on what kinds of changes we want.

I am strongly in favor of having the PA legislature petition Congress for an Article V convention, and hope that if elected you will introduce a motion for one. If you need more information, visit Friends of the Article V Convention at, where you will see that this is an issue supported by people from all parts of the political spectrum. I look forward to hearing your opinion on this matter.

Thank you for your attention.

Having sent the above to Ms. Damsker, I will now write my current state representative and senator as well as anyone who may be running to fill their shoes. I encourage others to do likewise, borrowing as much or as little of the above as you like.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Quote for the Day

"Taking the second half of the [20th] century as a whole, even allowing for the longer holidays won by the European workers, the reduction in the hours performed annually by a worker varies from almost nothing to, say, 30 percent. During the same period production, depending on the country, climbed by 400 to 500 percent. The contrast is instructive. Free time, though indispensible to allow people to develop their personality, is not an important item for our society, which is more preoccupied with the commercialization of the limited leisure time available." -- Daniel Singer, Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Correcting Mark Segal's Confusion: A Letter to the Philadelphia Gay News

A major confusion appears in Mark Segal's piece "LGBT history, LGBT hypocrisy," where he says, "Some members of our community want to support Hamas and boycott Israel."

I don't know anyone, LGBT or otherwise, who supports Hamas. On the other hand, I know many people who support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This has nothing to do with support for political Islam, and everything to do with opposition to a whole panoply of policies -- occupation of the West Bank, economic blockade of Gaza, and discriminatory official practices within "Israel proper" -- that all derive from Israel's character as a colonial-settler state founded on the ideology of ethno-religious nationalism known as Zionism (or "political Judaism" if you will).

A bit of history Segal seems to forget is that Israeli leaders, back in the day, rather openly sought to foster Hamas as a "counterforce" to the socially moderate, secular PLO. So it is to a significant degree a monster of Israel's own making.

In much the same way that Al-Qaeda's atrocity on 9/11 brought out some of the most regressive attitudes among Americans, such as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, so the daily brutalization of Palestinians living under occupation, where the only Israelis they get to meet are military oppressors, inevitably fosters anti-Semitism and helps to make a group like Hamas more attractive to them.

While volunteering in 2002 with the International Solidarity Movement (, one of our hosts, a schoolteacher in Middle Gaza, told me he had asked his students, "How do you feel about Jews? Do you love them or hate them?" They answered, "We hate them!" Then he said, "Now, what if I told you that some Jewish people support us? Now how would you feel about them?" Answer: "We would love them!"

The more Palestinians see Americans -- especially us of Jewish descent -- supporting their human rights by boycotting Israel and by pushing Uncle Sam to take his hand off the scale and stop subsidizing the Israeli war machine, the less attractive a group like Hamas will be to them. At the same time it would remove both the material and psychological support that enable Israel to persist in its current colonialist actions and world-view.

The United States repudiated our racist origins a century and a half ago when we adopted the Fourteenth Amendment. It is time for Israel, with the help of some limit-setting from us, to do likewise.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Motion to Amend

This past Saturday, 9 August 2014, the groups Move to Amend and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign co-sponsored a gathering titled People's Movement Assembly: Re-Visioning the Constitution to Serve the People, in Philadelphia to contribute to the US Social Forum process. This seemed a perfect occasion to promote the alternative conception of economic freedom that I've dubbed individualist socialism, so I drafted a motion to amend the Constitution along these lines, which I've published on this page:

As it turned out, it seemed most people there were more of a mind to propose a general sort of vision statement rather than a concrete mechanism for implementing rights. Nonetheless many participants seemed interested in it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Gaza's Ark Deliberately Targeted by Israel

Gaza's Ark Deliberately Targeted by Israel

It is with sorrow and outrage that we announce that Gaza’s Ark was totally destroyed by a direct hit from the Israeli Occupation Forces at 2:00 AM local time on Friday, July 11th. It caught fire as result of the hit and was damaged beyond repair. In the context of all the death and destruction caused by Israel, the material damage to our project pales in significance.

However, it is now clear that Gaza's Ark was deliberately targeted by Israel (for the second time). Israel is not worried about its security as it claims, what it is worried about and afraid of are peaceful projects like ours that expose its atrocities.

The good news is that no one was killed or injured in this attack as we had decided to pull the guard off the boat two days earlier, for his own safety.

We would like to thank everyone who contributed towards the $300,000 raised for Gaza's Ark, and reassure you that, despite the loss of the boat, your money has not been wasted.

We have employed several Palestinians in the refurbishing of the boat over the last year and a half, providing some employment for boat builders, carpenters, plumbers and electricians. With unemployment at over 40% in Gaza, we were glad to offer some employment, if only to a few people. We have also contributed to the efforts of reviving boat building skills in Gaza and passing experience to new generations of craftsmen. Gaza's Ark also inspired and empowered Palestinians in Gaza - those who worked on it, contributed to it in any way, or supported it. And most important it sent a clear message to Israel: The world is and will continue to stand with the people of Gaza.

So, Gaza’s Ark steering committee and the Freedom Flotilla Coalition are currently in intense discussion as to what we will do next. We have many ideas, but on one point we are unanimous: we will continue to challenge the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza, one way or another. We found it particularly symbolic that, although the boat was badly destroyed, the name and the logo, survived intact.

The minimum we all should do now is make our voices heard. Call, or email, our governments, our members of parliament and also call the Israeli embassy or consulate and protest the attack on Gaza, the killings and the destruction, and the targeting of the peaceful Gaza's Ark, that belongs to all of us.
Our motto is “Building Hope” and we will not give up until Gaza is free, and Palestinian rights are fully restored.

In continued solidarity
Gaza's Ark Steering Committee

Quote of the Week

"You know I have no patience with nonsense," said the Northeast's leading wholesaler of chattering windup mandibles. -- Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Comment on *Atlas Shrugged*

This isn't a thorough review. Rather, it's a reply to a post about the book on the Kinky Intellectuals' Book Club group at

I had mixed feelings when I read the book. On one hand, its valorization of individuality has understandable appeal for anyone who's been conditioned to accept a coercive and inauthentic "altruism" that says thinking and caring for yourself are "selfish." (I call this inauthentic because it results in behavior motivated by guilt or fear of criticism, rather than an actual desire to help others.) The problem is that it falsely implies that that's the only kind of altruism there is, and uses this false dichotomy to justify an equally unbalanced sort of egoism. It thereby misses the point that humans, by our social nature, can only realize our individuality through sociality, just as surely as we can only really contribute socially by being individuals. It then conflates general values like rationality and independent thinking with the historically contingent social system of capitalism.

There is irony in the fact that, on account of insistence on such faulty logic, and notwithstanding all the lip service Rand gave to independent thinking, she actually brooked none in her own personal circle, which has often been likened to a cult. And this problem didn't end with Rand's death. In fact, some groups that pay homage to her seem to engage in worse forms of psychological manipulation than any she practiced herself -- in particular, the practice of "de-FOOing," or cutting off one's family of origin, as promoted at the website you linked to. Because this is encouraged in followers who are mostly college or even high school-age, and don't yet have extensive social networks, it's a very effective way of bringing them under Stefan Molyneux's control.

As a survivor of a different cultic group, I have met (through the International Cultic Studies Association, people who were cut off by their children for years at Molyneux's instigation. Fortunately, some have broken free of his influence and reunited with their parents.

If you want to explore anarchocapitalist ideas, check out, where many ex-FDR and other libertarian people congregate online. These ideas aren't exactly my cup of tea -- I'm more of a libertarian socialist myself, a la Rosa Luxemburg or Noam Chomsky. But debating ideology with you is less urgent to me than ensuring you can explore the ideas that interest you in a way that won't endanger you psychologically through processes of undue influence. Not to mention that the more democratic atmosphere at the non-FDR site will let you explore all of these ideas, and not just those that are amenable to Molyneux.

As a side note, I thought parts of *Atlas Shrugged* were, in literary terms, atrociously repetitive. I felt that if I had a nickel for every time I read "the face without pain or fear or guilt," I'd be wealthy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mental Health First Aid: A Good Start, but Still Has Some Kinks

I posted the following comment on the Facebook page for the city's Mental Health First Aid training program ( after a class last Saturday:

I took the first half of an adult MHFA training today. In most respects it was very good, especially the emphasis on being non-judgmental. But one part troubled me, precisely because it wasn't consistent with that principle. The problem was with an "alphabet" exercise in which people were invited to volunteer possible signs of mental illness starting with different letters, and the instructor wrote them down on a whiteboard. Because she subsequently made no reference to the resulting list -- and especially because she sometimes appeared to question them before writing them down -- this gave the appearance of an endorsement of items in the list. This was troubling with respect to a couple words: "kinky" and "unusual." These are often associated with pejorative connotations, and to list them as signs of mental illness helps to perpetuate prejudice against those perceived as "unusual" or "kinky." But even when I pointed out to the instructor the presently total lack of civil rights protections for kinky people, she couldn't acknowledge the point, apparently blinded by her own defensiveness. Instead she initially tried to claim that "kinky" and "sex" are synonyms. (They're not even the same part of speech! And in any case the main symptom she quoted from a Web page, loss of libido, has nothing to do with what most people mean by kinky.) When that failed, she claimed the word's appearance on the list didn't imply endorsement. That would be a fair point if she'd told the class that -- but she never did. So what was the point of the exercise? At *best* it's a waste of time since it isn't being used as a teachable moment when people's suggested signs are incorrect. But at worst, as in this case, it's actually helping perpetuate a stigma that hurts people -- and may sometimes make them mentally ill.

Study Finds More Suicides Under Conservative Rule


Thursday, June 19, 2014

When People Act Like You're Twelve

One of the things I find most irritating is when people talk to me as if I've never thought about something, even when it ought to be obvious that I probably have.

An example occurred last night. I'd come to a symposium on Labor and Climate Justice, and people were still signing in and getting noshies before settling down for the event (which itself was very good, by the way). So I see Elizabeth Fattah for the first time in years because, as she explains, she's in California now. Elizabeth is with The Greens/Green Party USA, which some may describe as the "fundi" wing of the Green movement.

When I mention that this event may provide an opportunity to get some signatures to put Paul Glover on the ballot as the Green Party of Pennsylvania's candidate for Governor, she dismissively says she doesn't know why we waste our time on this "lost cause." She explains that we should boycott elections because "they only give the system legitimacy" and suggests we follow the example of those who boycotted the election in Egypt.

Now, I know this point of view exists. But what makes her think that merely repeating it to me is going to change my thinking? I may be younger than her, but she's known me since the Nineties, and surely realizes that I've had time to think about such questions. In this context, it's even more absurd that she mentions the recent Egyptian election. Does she have any evidence that those who boycotted it actually accomplished anything in terms of weakening the regime? It's doubtful that they even made inroads into its legitimacy for anyone but themselves, considering the enthusiasm with which many voted for the winner. So how on Earth does she think citing this example is going to persuade me?

In this case, of course, it has a lot to do with the sectarian style of politics, in which self-righteousness (especially in the eyes of fellow group members) is more important than measurably accomplishing anything. But it can occur in other contexts too.  Several years ago I had occasion to mention to someone I encountered in a food court that I'm a socialist (the conversation may have been started by some button I was wearing). His reaction was to inform me that that idea had failed and was discredited. This was the mid-Nineties. Did he *really* think I had never heard that opinion before? It had only been drummed into my head a thousand times by the mainstream media and politicians. Yet he apparently thought he was the one who was going to enlighten me to this "truth."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Your Brain on Lovecraft

This is Lovecraft

This is your brain on Lovecraft

Any questions?

Monday, June 09, 2014

"To the Revolution of the World"

Yesterday the American Humanist Association, meeting in Philadelphia, and the local Freethought Society held an event on Independence Mall commemorating the 20th anniversary of the City's first proclaiming Thomas Paine Day.

One of the interesting things I learned is that Paine's favorite toast was, "To the revolution of the world." This has a familiar ring to those of us schooled in the concept of "the world revolution" as an ongoing process. And the same speaker confirmed the idea that it' s ongoing, describing events in places like Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square, and the Maidan as continuing Paine's revolutionary-democratic legacy.

Although I suspect most of those attending the Happy Hour afterwards aren't yet revolutionaries in the way Paine was, it was gratifying that they all joined in when Stephen Gulick, who'd spoken as his admirer as well as an impersonator, raised this same toast.

To the revolution of the world!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Some Surprising Oversights by Snopes

I just heard today about an urban legend which I couldn't find on -- rather surprisingly, since it turns out it' s nearly fifty years old, including twenty online. While I was at it, I also filled them in on another rumor, over a decade old, that I encountered a couple years ago. Below are links to articles about both.

"Willie Lynch letter":

"Nelson Mandela's first memo to Thomas Friedman":

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

One of Those Times You May Feel Like Kicking Yourself

Ever had a sudden insight, and then found yourself wondering why it took you so long? This morning something made me recall a local magazine that was around briefly about eleven years ago. I saw it at bdsm events, and it was focused on the bdsm scene.

What puzzled me was its title: ObZine. What did the letters OB have to do with bdsm? It was a mystery.

When I recalled it today I immediately  realized that it was a pun on "obscene." In retrospect this seems obvious. So why hadn't I thought of that before?

I have an idea why. Because it was a kink publication found in kink settings, I thought of it exclusively in that connection. This was probably accentuated by its being the first bdsm magazine I'd seen, whereas vanilla erotic publications were already familiar. So, when I wondered about its title, I was focused exclusively on its bdsm character, and didn't think to "pull back" and view it more broadly as a publication that was erotic and therefore, in some people's lights, "obscene." It's a good illustration of the power of a "mental set."

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Penn Summer Course: Science and Fiction

A Summer Session course is coming up at Penn which may interest many people, titled Science and Fiction. A description and the website for registration follow.

Course Description: 

This class will consider the science fiction novel and story as developing genres. We will read work on the origins of the form, where science blurs with the fantastic. We will consider the alien as trope, both benevolent and ferocious, as well as science as practiced by humans itself escaping our control. We will read writers such as H. G. Wells, Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clark, Kim Stanley Robinson and others from a number of cultures beyond the U.S.  We will also read examples of science fiction used as a device to imagine other ways of human being, embodiment, sexuality, and gender such as in the work of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, and Ursula Le Guin. In addition, we will study the way the genre allows us to imagine and work through fears and new ideas about ourselves. Students will gain a sense of the development of the literary genre and narrative as well as exposure to the mutant discourse that strains of scientific forecasting and less linear narrative create. Students will complete assignments including two short papers and will contribute to classroom discussion. Please feel free to email the instructor with any questions you may have about the course:

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

You're welcome!

I've completed my first workday as Majority Inspector on my precinct's election board.

For the most part, things went well. There were fewer problems than I seem to remember from my time as Machine Inspector in 2012. Of course this may be because it was an off-year election this time. And it may also be that I was less stressed simply on account of knowing from the previous experience that what snafus might arise could be managed.

Some time in the PM, a fellow poll worker got news that turnout was exceptionally light. This came as a momentary surprise, since he'd been commenting previously on a surprisingly good turnout in our division. But after a moment's reflection I understood.

You see, yesterday I distributed to nearly every house in my division (I couldn't access apartments except those in my own building) a letter I'd composed reminding people about today's election. I also included information about the location of the polling place and how to find the entrance, plus the fact that there were a Special Election and ballot questions on which all registered voters could vote regardless of party affiliation, and the Green Party's positions on two of the questions.

In the course of the day, a couple voters thanked me for this -- the first of them volunteering, even before knowing who I was, that "if it hadn't been for that letter from the Greens" he wouldn't have known where to vote.

As there's no other apparent reason why my division had an unusually high turnout at the same time turnout elsewhere was exceptionally low, it's reasonable to infer that the letter I delivered to my neighbors is what made the difference.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Reporting On Scientific Research May Warp Findings : NPR

Richard Feynman defined science as a set of procedures we've developed to avoid fooling ourselves. It's welcome, if long overdue, that scientists are starting to apply this kind of critical spirit to the functioning of their own institutions.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Quote of the Week

"A society that censors is a society that lies to itself
about its nature." -- McKenzie Wark, The Australian, 8 January 1997

Monday, April 21, 2014

Another Fairly Exciting Weekend

Saturday was busy. The Greens had our second door-to-door canvassing day, combined with petitioning, when someone answered the bell, to put Paul Glover on the ballot for Governor. (Paul and I had also gathered signatures at the $15-minimum-wage rally Friday.) We noted people's responses on a 1-5 scale for future reference.

That afternoon I attended a refresher election board training class. In addition to fulfilling a campaign promise (I'd said on my flyer that I'd do this if elected), showing the receipt will add a bonus to my pay after working on election day.

On the way to work this morning, I again saw a young woman visiting from Germany to do volunteer work this year. This time, after updating each other on recent activities I invited her to share her contact info. Just a few years ago I would not have had the nerve to do this; so, although in this case I didn't get it, the ask still gave me a feeling of accomplishment. And of course it did signal my interest,  which is important.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Today's March for 15 Now to raise the minimum wage provided a good opportunity for petitioning, and I got a number of signatures toward the 16000@+ (!) needef to put Paul Glover on the ballot as the Green Party's candidate for governorv of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cass Sunstein Speaking at the Constitution Center

I found his book Nudge (co-authored with Richard Thaler) quite thought-provoking; likewise his paper "Conspiracy Theories."

Friday, April 11, 2014

My Recordings Are Now Online

I've finally created my musician account and uploaded two recordings: my reading of Chuck Stone's children's story Squizzy the Black Squirrel: A Fabulous Fable of Friendship, and my filk song "Trinity," based on Lois McMaster Bujold's novel The Curse of Chalion.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I swear!

After election to the position of Majority Inspector for my voting precinct (the first position to which any Green has been elected in Philadelphia), I wondered whether I might get any grief for my intention not to swear on the Bible, or any other religious book, when taking office. When I put this question to City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, some of whose classes for candidates for neighborhood office I'd attended, she said her understanding is that the law requires one to be sworn -- not merely affirmed, an option mentioned in the Constitution -- but doesn't specify on what.

I decided that I wish to be sworn in on Rights of Man, Thomas Paine's defense of the early events of the French Revolution, which lays out many revolutionary-democratic ideas still relevant today. I've just ordered a copy from the online store of Powell's books, the Oregon-based union bookseller, through their union's portal.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Been too long since you saw the Addams Family?

Here they are, posing in front of their namesake building (Penn's Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall) at 36th and Walnut Streets.

I can't stop thinking it's funny that there's a car called the MKZ...

That was the name of a disease in a story by Zenna Henderson.


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Is Sasquatch a Relic of Bicamerality?

Yesterday I was recalling the fact that, purportedly, Native Americans had often spoken of Sasquatch (a.k.a. Bigfoot) in a very matter-of-fact way, much like any species of animal or tribe of people. This is cited as evidence that Sasquatch is real, notwithstanding the elusiveness of physical evidence. The way the argument goes is that an imaginary creature of legend would be spoken of differently, in tones of awe and mystery.

I was recalling this in the wake of being reminded about a book I heard of way back in college days but haven't gotten around to reading yet (though I intend to correct that soon now): Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The essential idea is that in ancient times -- before about 1200-1000 B.C.E. in the Near East, and up to more recently in the New World -- people's subjective volitional selves were not integrated with their rational, analytic side, being in different hemispheres of the brain (hence the term "bicameral"). Consequently they lacked self-awareness, and most of the time acted out of pure relexive habit. When faced with a situation of crisis or high stress falling outside what their habits prepared them for, the rational mind would perform an analysis and then verbally instruct the volitional self on what to do. But, since these parts of the mind weren't integrated, this would be experienced not as personal decision-making, but as an auditory hallucination (perhaps sometimes embellished with other sensory modalities) from an invisible entity that would be interpreted as a god or ancestor in accordance with the individual's culture.

A chief piece of evidence cited by Jaynes is the Iliad: in its entire voluminous length, there's not a single description of any character's engaging in inward reflection. Instead, whenever they face a tough choice, a god appears and tells them what to do. Jaynes holds that Homer tells the story this way because that's exactly how people in those days experienced things.

Another story cited in support of this view concerns a man traveling to a Greek city-state who encounters the god Pan on the road and has a conversation with him. Upon arriving he promptly informs the city's senate of Pan's advice, which is heard with complete seriousness and not a hint of skepticism nor suggestion that the man is crazy. And, indeed, in a bicameral world such as Jaynes depicts, one would have had to be some kind of crazy not to believe in gods, when they were a regular part of everyone's personal experience.

I'm no expert on Sasquatch lore, but it seems to me that the casual tone of some accounts is very much like that story about Pan. This matter-of-fact quality could be totally consistent with the lack of evidence for Sasquatch as a physically distinct entity, if what it actually is (or was until some relatively recent past) is a cultural interpretation of a separate module in people's own heads.

Monday, April 07, 2014

RIP Chuck Stone

I heard this morning that Chuck Stone, longtime columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News and first president of the National Association of Black Journalists, has died.

On a personal note, a few years ago I recorded a children's book he wrote onto tape for a shelter run by Women Against Abuse. It's titled Squizzy the Black Squirrel: A Fabulous Fable of Friendship. I'll try to upload this shortly. (Thanks to Jim Tigar for copying the recording onto disk for me.)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Pixelated Bullseye

Here's a piece of math art I just completed (colored pencil on graph paper).

Saturday, March 29, 2014

I joined several members of the Philadelphia Area Atheist Meetup Group and the Peace Advocacy Network to protest an event by the anti-gay "conversion" "therapy" group misnamed Courage. My hand-made sign read, "True Courage Is Accepting Who You Are."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Medieval Monk?

I was rather appalled by an episode of *Monk* aired last night on MNT, in which he becomes distressed by his childhood TV idol's autobiography, about which his chief, if not only, complaint is that it reveals her as a "whore." I've written the following to the originating USA Network at

"I generally love the show, but am dismayed at the regressive sexual attitude expressed in your recently aired episode about the former child star of Monk's favorite TV show. It's bad enough that Monk himself feels betrayed by his idol's "promiscuity"; that might be chalked up to an idiosyncrasy of his, perhaps related to his OCD.  Far worse is that it seems that everyone else in the show feels the same way.  The implicit prudery and sexism in this was quite off-putting."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cosmos: There's No Place Else Like It

I just saw and loved the first episode of the new Cosmos. A particularly favorable impression was made when, right in the opening, Neil deGrasse Tyson outlined the rules of scientific method as the key to the Universe. Also noteworthy was that, even with all the snazzier special effects, there were some features of the original that couldn't be improved on -- like using a calendar to illustrate comparisons in cosmic time. Or directly quoting Sagan's line, "We are all made of star stuff." So it came as no surprise that he concluded by citing an early meeting with Sagan as an inspiration.

One quibble: Tyson presents, but doesn't critique, Giordano Bruno's argument for the infinity of the Universe. Although he later calls it only an educated guess, he never actually explains what's wrong with it. This is unfortunate inasmuch as it's an example of the sort of "argument from intuition" that people often need to resist in order to accept the counterintuitive findings of modern science.


Saturday, March 08, 2014

15 Now! Campaign Comes to Philly

For International Women's Day, thirty or forty people rallied this afternoon in Center City for a $15/hr. minimum wage. It was the first such action locally for this movement, which got started in Seattle. In addition to comments by various speakers interspersed with chants, we broke up into groups that went into low-wage establishments to bring the message of the movement and give flowers to the women workers. My group chose a McDonald's.

Particularly gratifying was the way a meme I generated got copied by one of the speakers. He was making reference to "the so-called job creators" running corporations. I piped up, "We're the job creators. They're the job excluders!" referring to the ideological fiction whereby capitalists, who use their property  rights to limit who can work, are credited with creating that work, when it's really the working class that builds all the equipment making productive activity possible. When I'd barely started my second sentence,  the speaker repeated the fIrst one. He followed up with an off-the-cuff explanation of why it was true, which got it more or less right. Hopefully it also got him and others thinking, since, if fully appreciated,  this insight may help people overcome the dependency psychology that limits people's horizons to what's possible under capitalism.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Putting a Human Face on an Inhuman System

Weekend Edition Sunday had an interview today with a federal prosecutor misleadingly described as "an attorney for young victims." Here's the comment I left:

"The problem is as time goes on, people start to want to heal."

What does it say about someone's job when their "success" depends on other people's being emotional rather than rational? Add to this that such proceedings often *delay* a family's healing. The guest disguises this issue by calling herself an "advocate for the child." But in reality nothing can be done for someone who's already dead.

However she may see herself, objectively she's an advocate for a state that parasitically manipulates and feeds off people's grief and rage to expand the resources and people under its carceral control.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Quotable: Timaree Schmit on "Objectification"

"In our culture, we have a notion that a woman can be either an object or she can be a person worthy of respect, not both. We let men exist in both those spaces; a man can be sexy and also considered respectable but we have difficulty conceptualizing that a woman might be sexy and sexual and intelligent and kind and worthy of listening to and respecting." -- Ph.D. sex educator Timaree Schmit  in the 2/13 *Philadelphia Gay News*

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Quote of the Day

You show me a kid who doesn't like danger, and I'll show you someone with a library card." -- Danny King, School for Scumbags.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Rejoice! It's National Science Fiction Day.

In honor of which, I've signed the Philadelphia Weekly's petition for a historical marker at 50th and Spruce, where he lived for three years and wrote some of his most important work.