Apr 152015

When I was a child I had a wild friend that I’ll call “R.” I’ve written about him before, and he was the subject of many of my wild and dangerous childhood adventures. This adventure started out prosaically, with a shopping cart.

R told me that he knew of an abandoned shopping cart, stashed under a building near the Clark Fork River in Missoula. This would have been the early 70’s, when stolen shopping carts were not as prevalent in the world as they are today. Back then I never saw a homeless person with a shopping cart. R suggested that we could transform this ordinary shopping cart into a go-cart. This sounded like fun to me, and we set about to do it.

Arriving at the building I discovered that R was speaking the truth; there was indeed an abandoned shopping cart under a building which I believe was used for cutting grave stones. We used wrenches to disconnect the wire basket from the underlying frame and wheels. We left the basket there and took the frame back to R’s house. Seen from the side, the shape of the frame was a sort of “J” shape, with the “J” laying on its side. From the rear, there was a gap between the two rear wheels. About 12″ above this gap was a cross-bar, which formed the curved part of the “J” shape. I could see the legitimate fun this vehicle could have, but it was clear that a board needed to go between the gap between the two rear wheels. We found a board, and I recall it was either bolted down or in some way firmly attached. Not surprisingly, there was no adult supervision during this process…

From here things began to get weird and dangerous. I imagined that one should ride this go-cart by kneeling on the board while holding on to the crossbar. R suggested that one ~sit~ on the board, and use the crossbar as a “roll bar.” We quickly tired of simply pushing each other along, and decided to take it to the next level. We enlisted the help of our friends John and Chris. We headed for Mt. Sentinel which as you can see by the photo on the Wikipedia page is largely grass covered. Of all all four of us, R was the only one of us crazy enough to actually try riding the go-cart down the hillside. R insisted on sitting on the wooden plank, which made “bailing out” virtually impossible. We tried launching R down the hillside several times, but each time the clumps of grass which covered the hillside stopped his progress. The wheels of a shopping cart are small, and easily stopped, sort of like how a small pebble can stop a skateboard wheel. On the final attempt R gained escape velocity, and began to roll down the hillside on his own. Soon enough the clumps of grass plus his “roll bar” proved his undoing and he began to lose control, first in great bumps, then by CARTWHEELING down the mountain side. Eventually his cartwheeling stopped, but he was still sliding down the mountain, face down. We ran down after him as fast as we could, but we couldn’t catch him. He managed to stop just a few feet before a small cliff.

Thankfully R was more or less unhurt; no broken bones or bleeding that I remember. Needless to say, that was the last time I remember using the go-cart. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how kids use their free time these days, but I suspect this sort of thing doesn’t happen too much during modern supervised “play dates.”

Apr 132015

When I was a child our family experienced a strange series of events involving a telephone. I was probably about 10 when this happened so it must have taken place in the early 1970’s.

One day I answered the telephone in our house. Our phone was a landline, probably a model 500, and owned by the “phone company.” The caller hung up immediately. Not an uncommon experience, of course, but it began to happen several times a day, for days on end. It became obvious to all of our family members that we were the victims of some sort of crude harassment. One of my parents, probably my father, decided to contact either the police or the “phone company.” To their credit, Mountain Bell took action, and put a “tap” on our phone line. Here is where the story gets weird.

The representative of Mountain Bell told my father that what we must do upon receiving any phone call was to pick up the receiver and immediately put it on a pillow. From there we were to make no noise in the house at all, and in fact whisper as we spoke. We were to keep the phone on the pillow for several minutes, at least. A bit of a hyperbolic over-reaction in my opinion! I don’t think telephone receivers have ever been that sensitive. We had to call all our friends and ask them to cease and desist from calling our house for several days. In some way, the relative silence of the open phone line would facilitate the “tap” of the phone to determine the caller. In the end it turned out to be a female friend of my mother’s, a woman who we believed had become mentally ill.

The really strange part of the episode is that the Mountain Bell representative told my father that the “tap” occurred almost instantaneously, and that the receiver-on-the-pillow protocol was essentially overkill. The weirder thing about this was that the Ma Bell rep told my father that this was “secret” information, and that we should keep it a secret!

This makes total sense, as if one made a long distance phone call back in the old analog days, the “phone company” would need to know the number to which the call was made, and the duration, to properly bill the caller. Back then “long distance calls” were a BIG FUCKING DEAL as they were expensive, and not to be utilized frivolously.

For many years, I’d watch TV or movies in which the “bad guy” made a telephone call and had to be “kept on the line” for some dramatic amount of time, though he usually delivered his key lines just before the “trace” was made. Complete and total bullshit, of course, but it goes to show how effective the corporate propaganda of Ma Bell was back in those days. But why would they engage in such a propaganda campaign in the first place? Why would Hollywood voluntarily go along with it? It’s the same sort of thing as not showing a tension wrench used to pick pin tumbler locks. Perhaps some taps recorded the caller’s voice, and could be used in court as damning evidence above and beyond the originating telephone number. Perhaps Ma Bell chose to err on the conservative side, and promoted the fiction that ALL tapped called needed to be of a substantive duration.

For those in Seattle interested in analog telephones and switching equipment, there is a telephone museum in South Seattle, though they do a terrible job of self-promotion.

 Posted by on 04/13/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off
Apr 062015

People concerned about the existence, or non-existence, of free will usually acquaint themselves with the issue by reading philosophical literature. The literature on the subject goes back hundreds of years, often intersecting with theological interpretations. There is a growing body of scientific literature on the subject, which can be categorized as the “neuroscience of free will.”

I should like to propose a self test for free will, that is an exercise that an individual can perform that may have the end result of convincing one that “free will” is ultimately an illusion. Unlike testing for things like exoplanets or novel viruses, this test requires no esoteric machinery, as the perception that one has “free will” is purely subjective. We don’t even need the sort of exotic devices used in the tests performed by Benjamin Libet and others.

First off, the exercise requires that one meditate. For those who already meditate, this should be no problem. For those that don’t simply sit comfortably in silence, in a chair or comfortably cross legged. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. There is no need to modify how you breath; simply pay close attention to the rise and fall of the breath within the chest. Relax as many muscles as deeply as you can. The goal here is to try to pay close attention to the somatic sensations of breathing, in real time, instead of the thoughts, perceptions, words, and images that naturally enter our stream of consciousness. It’s an amazingly difficult exercise! To be free of words entering the mind for even a few seconds is hard. Nevertheless, with perseverance it becomes possible, at least for moments.

Now become aware of the ~nature~ of the thoughts entering the mind. Most will be associational in nature, that is they will be copies of thoughts you had earlier in the day. You may be considering the tasks you need to do today. You may be imagining a pleasant event that is scheduled to occur later, or mulling over an event that continues to preoccupy you. Mulling over is essentially creating modified copies of thoughts, an associational process. It’s a non-optimal sort of association. Imagine a word association exercise in which one repeatedly answers “cat” to the stimulus of the word “cat” instead of “dog” or “fur.” This is natural, and attests to the less than optimum software that runs our minds. This software was not designed by an “Intelligent Designer” but is a product of evolution. Why do we need to “tell ourselves” things we already know? Why do our minds repeat the same idea over and over again? At the very least this form of largely associational mental functioning, even during meditation, is familiar. It’s unlikely any productive insight will occur during this sort of habitual process.

Most likely, a truly novel word, image, or impression will eventually present itself in your stream of consciousness. It may take several attempts at meditation for this to occur, if one is not already practicing. I still remember the specific image that occurred to me that produced the insight I’m trying to share: During meditation, a memory, tempered by imagination, entered my mind. I saw the shoreline of the Bitterroot River in Missoula, but from the perspective of being in the middle of the river. I had been on the shoreline before, but not in the water. The image was a hybrid of true memory plus imagination.

At this moment my meditation was completely disrupted by the insight that free will is an illusion. For “I” simply did not “chose” this unique visual image at all, it simply entered my mind. The image of the river was striking because of its utter uniqueness. There was no preceding cogitation of rivers, rafting, water, shorelines, or any sort of similar thought. At this moment it was crystal clear to me that there was simply no act of “choice” that occurred in my mind. The notion of choice is integral to the concept of free will, as if we do not choose what thoughts enter our minds or choose what actions to perform we concede that we are, in an ultimate sense, deterministic. If one counters that “free will” is the ability to choose amongst multiple behavioral or cognitive pathways, then indeed we have that ability. Yet the choice to act is yet another impression that simply enters the mind, just like a visual impression of the Bitterroot river. The choice itself has deterministic antecedents, albeit highly complex ones. This is the ultimate sense in which “free will” is illusory.

Why must this exercise occur during meditation? Because meditation is a very effective way of reducing the barrage of stimuli that enter our minds. Meditation is a way of reducing that barrage so the insight of how the contents of our minds simply ~enters~ the stream of consciousness, and is not “chosen” can occur.

Consider that most of our daily thoughts are associative or repetitive in nature. Isn’t this more or less a concession that those thoughts are essentially habitual and mechanical, and thus far less “chosen” than truly unique impressions? Once one becomes more perceptually attuned to “where” ideas come from that enter our streams of consciousness, it becomes easier to notice this process happening in our prosaic day-to-day lives, not just during meditation. I should like to propose that the FAMILIARITY of our habitual associational thoughts is largely responsible for producing the illusion of “free will.”

For those wishing to research this novel, and admittedly counterintuitive, idea further, I would highly recommend the work of Sam Harris. He is the author of a small book on the issue, as well as a 12 minute video now on YouTube that explains the idea very clearly.

 Posted by on 04/06/2015 Opinion, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off
Mar 272015

Some time after my father died I held an estate sale. This was last summer, in 2014. Some people will tell you to not attend your own estate sale, but I chose to stay at home and sort of seclude myself in my room. A woman whom I had not seen in many years showed up, and we spent time catching up. Though I’d been in Montana taking care of my father since 2012, I had no contact with this woman, as I didn’t find her on Facebook, Twitter, or the internet at large. I didn’t even know if she lived in Missoula.

After the estate sale I stayed in Missoula taking care of things until early September. I quite enjoyed spending time with my friend, whom I’ll call “C” just as much as I had back in the 80’s. Back then I’d discovered that C was quite a fan of astrology. This was before the internet enabled easy access to skeptical resources, and I had no quick rejoinder to her claims. This time around, she didn’t promote astrology as much as “electromagnetic sensitivity.” She made interesting claims, including that cell phone or wi-fi antennae installed on top of one of the large dormitory buildings on the University of Montana campus were adversely affecting the mental health of University district residents. This was the primary reason I had not re-connected with C during my time in Missoula: She was essentially frightened of electronic devices such as computers and cell phones. She spent very little time online. At one point she showed me a small black plastic box with two small metal plates that were perhaps 5mm in diameter. She asked me to guess what it was. I thought it might be a sensor of some kind, perhaps for galvanic skin response, like a “lie detector.” Yet there was no output, no speaker, light, or gauge that would display information. My guess was wrong, and she told me it was a “healing” device of some sort, that it was powered by a battery and produced a small current. She would hold it against her skin for a “healing” effect.

While she and I had various even-tempered disagreements about Catholicism and mysticism, I really didn’t argue the point about “electromagnetic sensitivity” simply because I knew virtually nothing about it. But things came to a weird climax on this issue one summer night.

We were walking through a field in Missoula, discussing weird stuff. Evidently she had not heard of the vaguely Fortean case of the severed human feet that had washed up on ocean shores of the Pacific Northwest. As I was telling her about this I remembered there was a Wikipedia page about this. I realized I could simply ~show~ her that this was a real thing, using my Samsung S4 mini smart phone. I pulled my cell phone out and started to look up the page on Wikipedia. We had been walking through a field between a street and an athletic field. The field was not planted grass, but it appeared to have been mowed, as it looked to be short wild grass stubble. C stood next to me looking at my cell phone, which was inside an Otterbox two part plastic shell. She may or may not have been lightly touching me as she stood beside me. I can’t remember. Suddenly she recoiled violently from me, and told me she had been “shocked.”

Several thoughts went quickly through my mind. My first reaction was to consider she had picked up a “static” charge by walking on the dry grass stubble. I also noted that I did not get “shocked” as I would if she picked up a static charge and touched me. I thought that maybe she picked up a small burr in her shoe, or her clothing pinched her. Perhaps she contacted something on my belt…

I said nothing, as I was still taking in this weird encounter. Perhaps I failed to be empathetic at that moment, as I suppose I could have honestly told her “I believe you.” But she launched into a defense of her behavior on the grounds that it was rational. “You just don’t know about electromagnetic sensitivity.” “There really are people who suffer from this.” I simply listened to what she was saying, as she had positively concluded that my cell phone “shocked” her.

Ultimately, I don’t know what caused her reaction. Perhaps she experienced a sudden nerve pinch or contacted a foreign object that had stuck to our clothing. But it wasn’t my cell phone. The attribution of her reaction to being “shocked” by my cell phone is pure delusion.

This was an epiphany of sorts for me, as it was one of those moments in life when you realize that this was not some prosaic interest in a woo subject but a LIFE DEFINING DELUSION. Her own irrational fear of electromagnetic radiation created a limitation on her freedom and power to thrive socially in the 21st century.

As I say, I never did argue the issue of “electromagnetic sensitivity” with her. With something like that, where does one even start?

Mar 212015

Previously on this website I’ve recounted how Ivan Sanderson investigated large anomalous tracks in Florida claiming they were made by a 15 foot tall penguin. Sanderson was also known as a proponent of the biological reality of the sideshow exhibit known as the “Minnesota Iceman.” My impression from these two incidents was that Sanderson was excessively credulous.

Recently on Facebook I encountered a number of comments about Sanderson from Ron Pine. With his permission I’ve reprinted those comments, which suggest a deeper problem with Sanderson than simple credulity. I asked Dr. Pine to introduce himself.

My background is as follows: I am a mammalogist whose primary interest is taxonomy. I have also had a lifelong interest in cryptozoology and various other “fringe areas” (as an out-and-out skeptic). My BA is from the University of Kansas, my MS from the University of Michigan, and my Ph.D from Texas A&M. I have conducted field work in 20 countries, sometimes as an expedition leader, for various natural history museums, and named a number of new species of mammals. I went on my first, official, scientific expedition, which was to Mexico, when I was 19. At 22, with only my bachelor’s degree, I led an expedition to Kenya, for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. My youth and lack of degrees must have set a still-standing record for one given such a role. At the time that I was being made aware of what was going on with John Napier, Ivan T. Sanderson, and J. Edgar Hoover, I was a curator of mammals in the Smithsonian Institution.

Here’s a story that I don’t think has ever found its way into the annals of Bigfoot lore, although I’d like to see it picked up somewhere. I have previously written a bit about this in a Facebook thread of Jay BizarreZoo Cooney’s. Back when John Napier and I were at the Smithsonian, the “Minnesota Iceman” was getting a lot of play in the media. The “Iceman” had been manufactured in such a way that it appeared to have suffered one or more bullet wounds. Amazing as it may seem, J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary director of the FBI, which was then located just across the street from the Smithsonian’s natural history museum, where we worked, thought that an actual human homicide might have played a part in the “Iceman” exhibit, and asked us what we thought. Napier, as the museum’s primatologist, got the job of replying. Because Ivan T. Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans had examined that “Iceman,” but only through the ice, of course (hmmm, I wonder why the exhibitor didn’t take it out of the ice so that people could see it better), Sanderson was asked to supply what information he could about the thing. Heuvelmans had named it as a new species, Homo pongoides. Sanderson wrote a letter to Napier and Hoover, saying that the “Iceman” was a fake and that, among other things, some partially decomposed dog tissue had been involved in its construction, to give it the realistic odor of an actual dead thing. (For the mammalian taxonomist, this would make Homo pongoides a nomenclatural “junior synonym” of Canis familiaris.) Sanderson never admitted any of this in any of his published writings, which is one reason that I regard him as a charlatan. I know about all of this because Napier shared with me all the correspondence between him and Hoover and Sanderson. The account of all this, as given in Napier’s book “Bigfoot” is totally different from what you have just read. I assume that this is because it would have been a very bad idea to portray the very, very powerful Hoover as being credulous and because Napier didn’t want to write anything critical of Sanderson, who he seemed to regard as a friend and for whom he had more respect than Sanderson deserved. Also, the correspondence was all supposed to be confidential. Wikipedia also gives a somewhat different account

In Sanderson’s autobiographical book “Animal Treasure,” which took place in West Africa, he reported seeing an eagle-sized, black, batlike animal flying with its mouth open and revealing a semicircular row of teeth. The local, tribal people were represented as being terrified and fled when he mentioned having seen this apparition. No such animal exists. In the same book, he reported a skink (that is to say, a kind of lizard), that produced an unearthly, eerie whistle, “I have never met a louder sound caused by an animal” he wrote, and he likened this sound to “a really powerful fog-horn.” The lizard exists, but it is mute. In one chapter, he reports an extended period he supposedly spent one evening, watching a steady parade of myriad kinds of forest rats and mice, gamboling, and playing with one another in the most delightful fashion. As one who has spent his career in large part devoted to studies on tropical rats and mice, including such work in West Africa, and who knows that one will seldom be so lucky as to see even the streak of a running mouse, it’s quite clear that this was a fabricated story. There are also some things I could mention in his later books on the times he spent in the field, but he had apparently caught on by that time that you shouldn’t lay it on too thick, so they are less egregious.

It made me sad when I got to be old enough and had had enough field experience myself to catch Sanderson at his prevarications, because, as a young kid, I regarded him as the person I’d most like to emulate in my own career, as a result of reading his books about his animal collecting in the tropics, “Animal Treasure,” “Living Treasure,” and “Caribbean Treasure.”

 Posted by on 03/21/2015 Bigfoot, Hoaxes, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off