Thursday, May 28, 2009


When I was about twelve years old my scout troop and I went down to Emory University to assist in a study that some of the students were doing. We were told that the study was to test reaction time. They sat us in a chair and them they moved the chair into a very dark box with a monitor on the far side. We were then given an Atari joystick. None of the directions worked they just needed us to push the fire button on the top. We were asked to stare at a small X in the middle of the screen and to push the button when the X changed to an H. They started the test and I was eager to show that I had really good reaction times so I stared intently at the X in the middle. When it would change to an H I would hit the button as fast as I could. This went on for about ten minutes.
When the test was over they pulled me into another room and asked me some follow up questions while the next scout was actually taking the test. The follow up questions really surprised me. They didn’t ask me about the X changing to the H at all. The questions seemed to last longer than the test and they kept asking me about things that were happening outside of the task I was given.
“Did you see the large monkey at the top right of the screen?”
“What word was inside the large circle that kept going around the screen?”
“I didn’t see it.”
“The M just to the right of the center of the screen changed color at least five times. What to colors did it change back and forth from?”
“Um, I didn’t see an M.”
“Do you remember any of the other words that appeared around the screen? There were over a hundred?’
“Um, I thought y’all were testing reaction time so I didn’t pay any attention to that other stuff.”
As we drove home that night I felt that I’d been dupped. I talked to my Dad about it. He told me that the joystick probably wasn’t even plugged into anything. The test seemed to be a test of peripheral vision and not about reaction time at all. They basically had to lie to me to get me stare at the center of the screen. Had I known it was to test my peripheral vision I’d have not been focusing on the center and I’ve have been looking all around the get the right answers. So If I’d have known what the test was about I’d have given them faulty data.
Nurses frequently use a similar ruse. When they take your vital signs to put on your report one of the things they measure is your breathing rate. Do you ever remember being asked to sit back and breath normally? No you probably don’t. If you have been asked that, the nurse more than likely did not get a normal breathing rate for you. Most nurses are trained to take you pulse for 15 seconds while looking at their watch and then multiply that number by 4 to get your pulse. But they actually hold your wrist and appear to be looking at their watch for at least another 15 seconds. For those last 15 they are actually watching your chest rise and fall and counting your breaths. Like the joystick, the watch is just a misdirection.
So, why do I bring this up? Well lately I’ve been experiencing a lot of the same frustration that I felt as I left that Emory study. I feel like I’ve been concentrating on everything that I’ve been told was important. Yet now I’m beginning to wonder if many of these other details are just the misdirection so I can be tested on what the testers were really looking for. I’m afraid that when the test is over and they start asking me the follow up questions I’m just going to be stammering like I did when I was twelve.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Party Differences

This quote goes along nicely with my previous post.

"The Republican Party is the party of nostalgia. It seeks to return America to a simpler, more innocent and moral past that never actually existed. The Democrats are Utopians. They seek to create an America so fair and non-judgmental that life becomes and unbearable series of apologies. Together the two parties function like giant down comforters, allowing the candidate to disappear into the enveloping softness, protecting them from exposure to the harsh weather of independent thought."

Jon Stewart
America: a Citizen's guide to Democracy Inaction p.107

Using your Brain

The hardest part about not really identifying with any major political party is that I actually have to use my brain. I’m not complaining. You see unlike many people I enjoy that. If I didn’t it would be much easier to just sit back and wait to see what my party leaders have to say about an issue. By party leaders I don’t just the official leaders. As we’ve seen far too much of lately the real party leaders are sometimes clueless celebrities and talk show hosts.
I’ve always been kind of a Supreme Court groupie and I’ve made it no secret that I was looking forward to President Obama getting the chance to make a Supreme Court appointment. For decades I’ve felt that the high court was drifting too far to the right and too frequently siding against personal liberties. In particular I’ve been rather disturbed at the extreme dilution of our fourth amendment rights by the likes of Scalia and those who seem to echo however he votes.
So yesterday I was eager to get to work to researching Obama’s choice. Since I had only heard of her once or twice before, my opinion about Sotomayor was pretty much a clean slate for me. For the record I still haven’t decided how I feel about her. I’m still doing my research. But rest assured that when I do form an opinion about her it will not be based on her gender, her race, her height, religion, or whether she eats grits or cream of wheat. It will be based entirely on whether or not she shares my opinions on what a Supreme Court Justice is supposed to do.
What is really frustrating is the water cooler conversations, that were conspicuously silent about this subject yesterday, today are all about how she is a racist. When I inquired why they felt that way all lead me to one single comment that she had made. After very little research at all I found that this is the same quote that all the conservative talking heads have picked up on and are taking out of context to make their point. She may very well be a racist, but this quote taken out of context doesn’t prove it anymore than a similar quote from Justice Thomas taken out of context makes him a racist.
I just find it very sad that so many people are so willing to surrender their thought processes over to a perceived authority. Many of our founders did not like the idea of political parties at all. Perhaps this is exactly why. Personally, I think that the current system in the United States is unnecessarily polarizing and discourages people from thinking for themselves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Live Like They Were Dying

Live Like They Were Dying

You know a phrase has transcended even being a cliché as soon as they make a sappy country song out of it. For years people have encouraged us to live each day as if it were your last. Several events of the last week or so have had me wanting to put a different angle on this view. In the last month death has seemed very real to me. Not that I’ve personally been in any life threatening situations, but several people that I know have either died, come real close or had loved ones die. Last week I got a email that a co-worker at another office had a seizure and died on the bus on the way to work. He was 29. Two other co-workers had parents die. A family friend has been hospitalized. My mother-in-law had a stroke. Just today I found out that another co-worker who I worked with for months died over the weekend. Last week was also the 7th anniversary of my father’s death. Also, in the last week somebody has erected a large cross at the scene of the fatal accident that I witnessed on New Years Day. So like it or not I’ve been forced to think about death more than I cared to lately.
My brother-in-law sent us an email that really got me looking at life from a different perspective. His next door neighbor passed away this weekend. He was being rather introspective because he and my sister were the last two people to see her alive and conscious. In the email he brought up the idea that you never know when it might be the last time you see somebody. That got me thinking. Rather than living like the country song as if you were the one dying, what would it be like if we treated everybody as if this my be their last day here?

Just a thought.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Angels and Demons

As most of my readers will know, I really enjoy exploring issues of science, politics and religion. I particularly enjoy looking into where they overlap. Some of the best books I have read are on exactly this subject. Whether fiction or non-fiction I enjoy seeing how different characters balance these sometimes conflicting priorities in their lives.
With this in mind I was really apprehensive about Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons. The book was very well done and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It seemed that each and every character in the book had a slightly different way of balancing science and religion in their lives. New details that were revealed in the process of the story unfolding forced these characters to have to reevaluate their decisions. How each of those characters responded to this problem was what gave depth and reality to the book. It was a very cerebral book.
As many others have pointed out, Brown does take a very liberal interpretation of what he refers to as facts. As he did in The DaVinci Code and all of his books he frequently twists the facts a little to make the codes and mysteries in his story work. I don’t really have a problem with this as long as he doesn’t claim that those details are facts. Brown does claim that those details are facts and it gets the church and others outraged and just draws publicity to the book. I enjoyed his books as fiction and something to provoke thought and further research but they are fiction so I’m not going to get too hung up on those details.
Anyway, I was apprehensive about seeing the movie because I really was unimpressed with Howard’s interpretation of The Davinci Code. Now I’m not one of those who gets all upset just because every detail and nuance of a book that takes days to read isn’t spelled out in a two hour movie. I understand the differences and the strengths of both mediums and I enjoy them both. Although I typically enjoy reading the book better than the movie I have seen a few movie versions that I enjoyed even better than the books. Jurassic Park and Contact are the first two that come to mind.
I just thought that Howard left out far too much of Angels and Demons. The depth of each character in the book was defined by how they responded to their internal conflict regarding the balance of science and religion. The movie avoided this conflict completely with most characters and only hinted at it with one or two. Sure the chase through Rome to find the killer was a good action story but without the internal struggles of the main characters you didn’t understand or even care why the chase was important. One of the main characters in the book was a prominent scientist who you suspected may have even been the one behind the murders was left out of the movie all together. His internal struggle and ultimately his decision to assist the church was one of the more dramatic character conflicts in the book. I have no idea why he was wholesale written out of the movie as well as nearly all of the other character’s internal struggles.
In the movie and in the book you really grow to love one character who comes across very likable and reasonable. At the end of the book his positive attributes are rewarded. However in the movie adaptation this character does not get the same reward. I can see no reason at all to make this change in the movie. It would have cost no extra film time and would have been a nice way to reward a likable character.
I've seen a few book to movie conversions where I liked the movie much better. This just wasn't one of them. I wish I’d have waited for the DVD.

Monday, May 04, 2009

More on Internal Consistency

A few years ago I wrote a post about internal consistency. Even if I disagree with the position stated I tend to take it more seriously if the logic in the argument agrees with itself. One of the examples that I brought up was a talk show host who will grasp at any position that goes against Al Gore’s position on global warming. However, sometimes he defeats his own argument. Will point to a Solar survey that says the Earth is hotter because or changes in the sun. So he admits that it is getting hotter on Earth but shifts the blame to the sun rather than to Human causation. This is a respectable position that many have taken. But to his detriment he goes on to point to colder temperatures on Earth and then suggest that it’s not getting hotter here after all. Although at first glace these claims do both go against Al Gore’s position, they also contradict each other. It’s hard to take them seriously together. It seems obvious to me that the host here was just taking every fact that supported a position other than his opponent’s and assuming that they would, by default, support his position. Or more likely he knew his argument was self contradictory but just hoped that his audience would ignore it.

I had a similar internal consistency issue with a lesson that we had in church last week. All the adults and youth over 12 were called together for a special meeting to discuss internet pornography. I have some issues with the format that was used but none the less I admit it’s an issue that needs to be discussed. Most of the presentation was in the form of an audio file over a PowerPoint presentation. Both were a companion file to a book. The author of the book gives several statistics and then goes into the neuroscience of why teenagers are more prone to have negative effects from pornography. He makes the claim that there are fewer connections in teenage brain between the logical section and the emotional section. Without these connections it’s harder for teenagers to gauge risk and to respond logically to situations. Using neuroscience he very effectively showed how teenage brains can be more adversely affected by pornography than more mature brains.

Up until now his argument has been consistent and rather well thought out. However later on in the presentation he cautions adults from viewing this material too. For the record I don’t condone it either, but this is where his logic goes south and become internally inconsistent. He asked the rhetorically questions, “Why do you think you are any stronger than those teenagers? Do you think your brain is better equipped to handle those images?” To answer his question, I don’t think that. But he does. He effectively explained an hour earlier how a teenage brain is more fragile. By also explaining how the connections between the logic centers and emotional centers are more developed in an adult he made a strong case against his own point that adults should stay away from these images too. He should have just left off the rhetorical challenge and his arguments would have been much stronger. I wish he had gone with a “lead by example” analogy rather than defeat the initial point. I think that this author just knew his audience and felt that most would take any argument against pornography as valid and was counting on them not connecting the dots to see if the arguments were consistent. For the most part I’m sure that is exactly what happened. But he’d have gained more points with at least one audience member if his arguments had all been internally consistent.


As always when I criticize someone’s logic I run the risk of coming across as a supporter of what they were arguing against. Nothing in this post should be construed as condoning the viewing of pornography in any form by adults or teenagers.