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Archive for September, 2015

Did you ever wonder why people speak in innuendoes? Why they sometimes speak in riddles when they don’t come out and say what they’re really thinking, forcing you to decode their actual intent?

I do. Or at least, I used to. Now I think I know.

I think it’s because it’s an attempt to subvert common knowledge, because sometimes elevating something into common knowledge does more harm than good.

Huh?

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What is common knowledge?

Suppose that me and my neighbor are both politically active. I vote for the Giraffe Party, and my neighbor votes for the Buffalo Party. What these two parties stand for is irrelevant.

Now, I vote Giraffe. In a typical democracy, since it is a secret ballot you and only you know who you vote for and keep it a secret from everyone else unless you advertise it by joining a political party or babbling about how much you hate Buffaloes on Facebook. I vote Giraffe, and my neighbor knows I vote Giraffe.

But my neighbor’s voting pattern is Buffalo, and I know he votes Buffalo. So, we both know how each other votes.

But while my neighbor knows I vote Giraffe, I know that he knows how I vote. In other words, I’m fully aware that he knows my voting patterns. Furthermore, he also knows that I know he’s aware of how I vote. It’d be like him saying “Yeah, I know how Terry votes and I bug him about it that he should switch to the Buffaloes. It’s all in good fun.” Obviously, if he teases me about my voting patterns to my face, then there’s a level of awareness.

He knows something about me, and I know that he knows, and I know that he knows that I know, and so forth. And I know things about him and the pattern is the same. Humans can keep these sorts of knowledge awareness in their heads up to around 4 or 5 levels deep, perhaps a bit more. But this awareness of knowing how others think, and they being aware of it, and you being aware of their awareness, and they being aware of your awareness of their awareness, is called common knowledge.

If you’re marching in a protest with a bunch of other people, it’s common knowledge that you all share the same views because you’re expressing it.

And I think this is related to innuendo.

There’s the story the sculptor who is hosting an exhibit and has been talking to an attractive young woman and says to her “Would you like to come up to see my etchings?”

In context, at face value, he’s asking if she’d like to see his other works of art in a private display that he doesn’t normally show to the general public and that it’d be a privilege to her to see it. But that’s not what he’s asking, he’s asking for her to come up and spend the night by sleeping with him. He’s using an innuendo.

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So why doesn’t he come out and say it?

I think it’s because speaking in innuendo allows us to save face.

The common knowledge here should be that he is saying to the woman “Would you like to come up and see my etchings (but what I am really asking for is for you to sleep with me, an attractive artist).”

And, she needs to interpret the first question as “Do you want to sleep with me?”

And, he needs to know that’s how she interpreted his question that way; that is, that she had to decode the innuendo to get to his real intent.

And, she needs to signal to him that she understands his true intent. “I know you’re asking me to sleep with you.” She then has a couple of options:

  • If she understands what he means, she can either says Yes or No. If she says Yes, she goes upstairs under the pretext of viewing his other sculptures but really is signaling her intent for a night of amour.

  • However, if she doesn’t want to sleep with the artist, she can say “No, I am not interested in your other pieces of art but thank-you for the offer.”

Look at what her saying No does – she wasn’t interested in the artist and didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him straight up he isn’t attractive, but she can pretend that she wasn’t interested in seeing any of his private art collection.

He gets to pick between the option that either she wasn’t interested in seeing his art because she’s not really into that sort of thing, or she wasn’t interested in sleeping with him. If it’s the second option, it would undermine his ego because it’s well known that men take pride in work and in making these sorts of offers to women and having them accept. The artist has to choose between those two choices, and while the second is more realistic, the first gets to protect his ego. He simply shrugs it off and says “Well, the next one will want to see my etchings because she’ll understand what I meant.”

He gets to save face, and she lets him save face, thanks to innuendo.

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And I think this is why people talk in innuendoes. It’s not because people can’t communicate in a straightforward manner, but because we are aware of social circumstances. Much of human interaction forces us to delicately navigate our relationships with other people to make sure we don’t jeopardize them.

If the artist asked her straight out to sleep with him, that would make it common knowledge about what his intent was. But by concealing it in an innuendo, people get to maintain certain social niceties because you can’t necessarily be sure what the other person truly meant.

Obviously, we don’t talk in innuendo all the time in order to conceal our true intentions. But I think we learn it at such an early age that it comes naturally. And it comes naturally because evaluating your relationships with others and following social customs to maintain those relationships is critical, even if on face value they seem counterintuitive.

It’s because sometimes common knowledge is not necessarily a good thing.

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Last year, I wrote a blog post about an old friend of mine who competed on Britain’s Got Talent and came in fifth place. Before the finale, I wrote that he probably wouldn’t win because magicians can’t beat musicians. Furthermore, I wrote that while I like magic, I picked an art that doesn’t connect at the same emotional level that music does and as a result, trying to compete in a talent show probably results in magicians coming up short.

Well, I was wrong about that.

In 2014 on America’s Got Talent, magician Mat Franco (a 26-year old magician at the time) did win America’s Got Talent. He now has a regular show in Las Vegas. I went to his site and watched several of his YouTube videos of when he was on the show, and he’s good. He’s better than I was at that age… or any age. But not only did I think he had good technical skill but he also had good showmanship, a bit of an “Aw, shucks” personality most similar to Lance Burton.

So, I guess magicians can win the talent show. But, that was a fluke, right?

Nope.

In 2015 – this year (!) – there were several magicians that made it to the final or semi-finals:

  • Oz Pearlman did mentalism performances (hey, just like me!) and I can (almost) do many of the effects that he did.
  • Piff the Magic Dragon is a comedy magician that I first saw on Penn and Teller Fool Us
  • Derek Hughes is a comedy magician
  • Aiden Sinclair didn’t make it to the semi-finals but still appeared on the show and impressed all of the judges

In the past, I’ve always thought that magicians couldn’t make it far on the show, getting past the audition but getting eliminated in the round thereafter. Or, only a single magician would go far on the show. But this year, there are a lot of magicians making it through.

I guess I was wrong. A magician can do well, he just has to be really, really good.

Hmm, maybe that explains why I didn’t get through.

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I’ve written on this blog that I often have trouble finding clothes that fit, especially pants. This is not only true of pants, but also shorts and even underwear. The last one is the worst because size small is a bit too small for me (28” – 30” waist), and the size up is a bit too big (32” – 34” waist) and I am in the middle!

But over the past few months as I listen to podcasts to and from my way to work, I’m frequently inundated with ads for a company called MeUndies. They sell underwear.

Underwear? Really?

On their podcasts, the podcast owner will give a blurb about how comfortable they are, and I’ve always said “Really? It’s just underwear. There’s a startup company that specializes in selling this? Really?”

And so I ignored them.

But recently I decided it was time to upgrade and replace my existing underwear because why not? And I decided to give MeUndies a try.

I bought a pair and the first set didn’t fit that well so I wrote them and they sent me another type (trunks) at no charge. I was impressed with the service. And the ones they sent me fit well! So well, in fact, that I was like “Wow, maybe all those podcasters are right and these are the most comfortable pair of underwear you’ll find!”

Not that I am an aficionado or anything, but they do feel and fit better than the ones I got from the local Fred Meyer (a set of Hanes). Hanes claimed that the ones I bought were their most comfortable ever (but seriously, how much effort were they putting into it), and the MeUndies have surpassed them.

I decided to buy several new pairs and retire my old ones. It was time for them to go and for me to move on with my life. And I think I may have developed some brand loyalty, too.

Not that I’m trying to convince you to try them, of course. I’m just pleased that for once I’ve purchased clothing that fits well.

‘Cause that rarely happens.

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This past week, I got the mortgage on my condo down to over 50% paid off.

Finally!

I bought the place in 2008 and didn’t make much progress on the balance of the mortgage for 5 years. But since then, I’ve started paying it off more aggressively thanks to the wife who also contributes some funds.

We’ve been paying it off even more aggressively this year (2015) than last year (2014). And, if we keep up this pace, it should be paid off by August 2017.

If we keep up the pace.

It’s hard to do that because it feels like by doing this we are using up capital that we could spend on other house projects, or by investing the money so that it grows quicker and we have something to live off of in our old age.

But whatever. It’s nice to see debt decreasing.

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I’ve commented on this blog in the past about evolution (that is, that humans evolved from earlier life forms) and how there isn’t as much support for it in the United States as the rest of the developed world. Much of the opposition to evolution is because of the strong influence of evangelical Christianity which staunchly opposes it because it contradicts its interpretation of its holy text. This interpretation is not universal among all Christians; for example, many Catholics believe in evolution, as do many mainline Protestants. However, evangelical Christians are committed to opposing it.

This is to evangelical Christianity’s detriment for two reasons:

  1. It creates a major credibility gap.

    The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s not as if there is a debate in the scientific community about whether or not it happened; it did. Instead, the debate is about how it happened and the factors that influenced it.

    By trying to portray the science as arguing about whether or not it really occurred, rather than the specific factors, the against-evolution movement undermines their own credibility. It makes them look like they are willing to sacrifice clear evidence in order to maintain a specific religious belief that is not grounded in reality.

  2. It misses out on some powerful insights.

    By looking at evolution, Christians who reconcile their beliefs with our own species’ developments gain insights that you just can’t get by believing in a “The world was created as-is” model. I’ll explain what I mean below.

I just finished reading the book The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. In it, he looks at the development of our own species and how similarly we are related to chimps and pygmy chimps. The reason we humans are called the third chimpanzee is because our DNA is 98% similar to chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee DNA. We are more closely related to chimps than we are to gorillas; but chimps, too, are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas.

The book looks at the evolution of human sexuality, humanity’s great leap forward, and why we get addicted to drugs. However, the part that recently blew my mind what the section on genocide.

One of the things that irks me about evangelical Christianity is its insistence of pointing at itself as a compass of human morality but then gets certain things about morality completely wrong!

Specifically, it gets genocide completely wrong.

There are parts in the Old Testament where God orders the destruction of foreign people by the Israelites. He orders the mass killing of men, women, children, and infants of the Amalekites in Joshua 15:1-3.

He also orders the destruction of city after city after city in Judges (it was such a common occurrence that each destruction gets a single verse; only Jericho has more to the story because it is unusual that Joshua left some people alive – for some of the inhabitants helping the Israelites). For any group of people that borders Israel, the Israelites are to destroy every single inhabitant including the animals. For distant cities, they are to kill all the men but can keep the women and children for themselves (Deut 20:10-14).

Modern Christians often gloss over these passages, and rightly so. They are hard to read and we usually dismiss them as “Well, that was a different time.” Skeptics challenge Christians to say “How can you believe in a God that orders these types of atrocities?” Christians are frequently forced to demure or say “Only God knows” which is an honest answer, but seems to concede the point to the skeptics in hopes that there is a really good reason for it somewhere out there.

Unfortunately, there are some Christian theologians who defend God’s actions. One of these is Norman Geisler, one of evangelical Christianity’s theological All-Stars. He’s written numerous books and appears in Lee Stroebel’s “A Case for Faith.” In the book, Stroebel flat-out asks Geisler how he could believe in a God that order such cruel atrocities.

Geisler then gives what I think is one of the most cringeworthy defense in modern Christian apologetics.

“God didn’t order any atrocities.” He goes on to say that the Amalekites were evil so God has to destroy them. Furthermore, he even has the audacity to say that it was an act of mercy.

In that thoroughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children.  This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person’s leg, and God had to amputate the leg […] In a sense, God’s action was an act of mercy

That is, killing all the men, women, children, and infants was an act of mercy.

When I read that, it makes me angry. It makes me madder than a yak in heat.

Steaming mad

It makes me angry because genocide is always wrong. It makes me think “What the hell is wrong with you? How can you call something so evil as something that is actually good?” The targeted killing of an ethnic group is not an act of mercy, it is a whitewashing of history; the Israelites wanted the land so they killed the locals and then later rationalized it by saying that God told them to do it.

Geisler has to do the same thing. Because he believes in Biblical inerrancy – an ideology – he has to rationalize his own beliefs. He believes:

  1. The Bible never makes a mistake.
  2. God is good.
  3. God ordered the genocide of the Amalekites.

Since we usually think of genocide as morally wrong (which it is), Geisler experiences cognitive dissonance. When our brains experience cognitive dissonance, it throws out what is causing it. Since the “genocide is wrong” is causing the dissonance, Geisler tosses it out and rewrites it as “genocide is okay” and then comes up with a bunch of reasons to justify it. This is common in human psychology and is known as “confabulation.”

But notice what happens here – clinging to Biblical inerrancy is more important to Geisler than standing up against genocide. He’d rather maintain his ideology than stand up for morality.

And that’s what sometimes makes me so mad about evangelical Christianity – this clinging to ideology. If you can’t even get it right about genocide (which is pretty much black and white) because ideology is more important to you than anything else, how can we trust you to get it right about any other moral issue? How do I know that you’re not blinded by your ideology on every issue?

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But hold on, it doesn’t stop there.

I was reading Jared Diamond’s book and there’s a section on genocide. It turns out that genocide is common in our species’ history. It has occurred time and again before Columbus’ discovery of the New World, afterwards up to World World 2, and even since then (Rwanda in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s, Cambodia in the 1970’s, Bosnia/Croatia/Serbia in the 1990’s, Bangladesh in the 1960’s, and so forth; there are too many to name). Many of these have over 100,000 victims.

It is so common in our species’ history that it can’t be considered an anomalous aberration. It seems to be a regular occurrence (but fortunately is declining according to The Better Angels of our Nature) and is probably encoded in our genes, a byproduct of evolution that we are still living with today.

The problem of genocide is that we bystanders are not good at stopping it. Think about it for yourself – out of all the victims of genocide, how many do you identify with?

There’s probably only one group – the Jews when they were massacred by the Nazis in World War II. You may also sympathize with the only other group that gets attention these days, the Armenians who were targeted by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. All the other groups we have some sympathy for but not a lot.

Why do we sympathize with these two groups?

Diamond has three reasons. The first is that the victims in World War II were white, just like us. The second is that the people doing the atrocities were our enemies in war so we are conditioned to hate them. The third reason is that there are articulate survivors in the United States who go to a great deal of effort to make us remember.

So that’s depressing. I admit that I don’t identify with too many other groups of genocide survivors other than the victims of World War II.

What causes it?

There are a few things that unleash genocide:

  1. The first is that we humans are good dividing the world into groups of “them” and “us.” We take care of members of our own group and view members of “them” with suspicion. However, over time, attacking people because they are “them” but not “us” has fallen out of favor.
  2. The second way that we justify our attacking other people is by blaming the victim. We sometimes use self-defense as a reason for pre-emptive attack. Even Hitler claimed that the Poles were attacking the Germans as a reason to attack Poland.

    Another way we blame the victim is saying they don’t possess the right race or religion or political belief, or that we are civilizing them. Because they are wrong or backwards, they need to be destroyed so we can cleanse that society. This is one of the reasons that the Germans attacked Russia – because the Russians supported communism. But it’s also a reason that the Khmer Rouge emptied their country of intellectuals – they didn’t believe in the same things the regime believed in and therefore had to be purged.

    If you read through some of the American leaders’ views on the native Americans, they justified their extermination by saying that they weren’t civilized. The British settlers in Australia said the same thing about the native Aborigines and Tasmanians. They succeeded in eliminating the native Tasmanians in the 1800’s.

Look at how Geisler’s defense of genocide perfectly aligns with modern times. He both identifies with the aggressors (the Israelites) by dividing them into “them” (the heathen) and “us” (the chosen), and then rationalizes the genocide by saying that the others didn’t have the right set of beliefs, and denigrated their own customs and cultures. They were not civilized.

Geisler’s defense of genocide is not an example of how God’s orders were really an act of mercy, it is instead an example of how people rationalize their own actions even when they are evil, and the patterns Geisler uses are no different than anyone else’s.

In other words, Geisler is just another human.

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But, here’s the thing. My point in all of this is that Norman Geisler is just another human.

Like you.

And like me.

Evangelical Christianity thinks that these passages are in the Bible and need to be defended as morally right.

I have a different interpretation. It’s probably not the right one, but it’s the one I am going to use.

These passages are in the Bible as an example of how bad human nature can be – we people are capable of committing acts of evil and then rationalize that they were good by attributing them to God. These acts of evil are part of our nature, they are hardwired into us.

Thus, these passages are not warnings to the heathen nations that they are on thin ice with God, but rather that we are on thin ice with ourselves because we are all human. We all inherited the same nature because it’s encoded in our genetic profile. It’s something that has stuck with us from evolution. Time and circumstance has shown repeatedly in our history that this is something we do over and over again. Worse yet, we use God and morality to justify it. These passages show us what can happen if we don’t actively curb these impulses.

I think Norman Geisler and evangelical Christianity are wrong to defend these passages as morally good. Instead, we should look at them as a warning to ourselves as that which lurks beneath the surface.

It’s almost as if the writers are saying “How well do you know yourself?”

If you think these passages mean that God punished the wicked, you don’t know yourself well at all. If, however, you think that either one of these groups of people could have been you, then you know yourself a lot better.

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Lest you think you and me are off the hook, we’re not.

Why don’t we identify with the victims of genocide? The answer seems to lie in the fact that genocide introduces a deep psychological numbing on the victims and the perpetrators. Victims often experience Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, and perpetrators become numb to doing it. While attackers at first have to overcome their inhibitions, over time they don’t need to anymore. They are like robots that go through the motions. Trained psychiatrists have a hard time dealing with and after hearing it over and over again, they experience less distress and more distancing of themselves from the stories. If trained professionals can’t handle it, how can we expect the average layperson to deal with it?

Yet deal with it we do by rewriting history. We romanticize the old country by envisioning cowboys and indians, something I did (I think) as a kid. But more than that, I think of cultural and anthropological genocide as something my ancestors did, and I was not responsible for. I wasn’t around to do it, even though I’ve benefited by the 90% reduction in native population that resulted from my ancestors landing in this country (or, to be more fair, arriving in the 1900’s to find the land mostly empty – wait, did I just do it again?). After all, what were the natives doing? Were they developing the land?

But these rationalizations are how I distance myself from genocide. I am doing the exact same numbing thing that everyone else does.

I myself am a normal human.

I used to think that since I didn’t agree with people like Norman Geisler that while I may not know everything, at least I didn’t think that genocide could be morally justified.

But it turns out that I do distance myself from historical genocides, both in my own country and from the sufferings of others around the world.

And that gives me pause.

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