Nov 042016

I recall that when I was a child I would occasionally become embroiled in arguments. This being the days long before Google, the notion of “fact checking” in real time was a science fiction fantasy. Nevertheless, I recall using the term “physically impossible” as a knockdown argument in rebutting claims. I wish I could remember where I picked up this term. I don’t recall it was from Star Trek, so perhaps it was my mother. If one of my little friends walked into an argument that could be countered with “that’s physically impossible” then I won!

Not surprisingly, as time went on I found myself using the term less and less. I honestly don’t recall the last time I adjudged something to be “physically impossible.” Nevertheless, over time, I’ve given the notion of things being “impossible” some degree of thought. I’ve concluded that possible vs. impossible is not a binary, but falls on a continuum. I’ve come to this conclusion partly because I believe there are different ~kinds~ of impossible, or different “flavors” if you will.

Consider the assertion “it’s impossible to eat the sun.” Indeed, that’s a good example of something that’s physically impossible. Now consider a different sort of assertion: “I could be President of the United States.” Sadly, with the nomination of Donald Trump, the strength of this argument is weakened, as Trump so lowered the bar of what would traditionally be obviously disqualifying behavior. Yes, I am ~legally~ allowed to be President, but beyond that I possess a set of social and cultural characteristics that would disqualify. We see that “legitimate candidacy” falls on a spectrum, and is not a binary, thus the possibility of Presidency also falls on a spectrum.

Consider the assertion “It’s possible that I’ll have sex with Elizabeth Taylor.” This is obviously IMPOSSIBLE, but impossible in a completely different way than eating the sun or becoming president. Death is a binary, as is time travel, as far as we understand the laws of physics and biology.

Consider the assertion “I could run a marathon race.” That may not be physically impossible. I would have to achieve many small goals before attempting the main goal. I have two legs, I can run, and I’m generally physically fit. Many in my cohort have achieved this goal. So we see that this example falls on a spectrum much closer to “possible” than “impossible.”

So why discuss this issue at all? Why analyze the notion of “impossible?” What is the value of thinking out loud about this issue? I believe it’s possible to make profound changes in one’s life for the better. It’s possible to change one’s emotional and physical well being. Sadly, some people simply label reasonable goals as “impossible” when they really are not. I suspect they may be conceiving possible and impossible as a binary when it should be viewed as a spectrum. This is a much more realistic way of thinking about the subject. Rational solutions to problems entail utilizing the best models of reality we can muster.

 Posted by on 11/04/2016 Culture, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Different Flavors of Impossible
Oct 132016

Here’s a counter-intuitive argument: Cultural appropriation is a good thing.

What, exactly, is being appropriated when cultural appropriation is said to occur? It’s a nebulous thing called “culture” which is to say it’s an idea, process, or behavior, rather than a physical artifact. Were the Hope Diamond to change hands, we would identify it as a purchase, gift, or theft, not an appropriation.

To argue that cultural appropriation is a good thing we start with the moral intuition that good ideas deserve to be spread and acted upon, while bad ideas should be stopped. If you accept that smallpox is a bad thing, then you should accept that smallpox vaccination, a process, is a good thing. We could define “good ideas” as those which lead to furthering human health and aesthetic joy. If you accept that human sacrifice to appease the gods is a bad idea, we should work to stop it and thankfully for our species we largely have.

Ideas, processes, and behaviors are not zero sum entities. Your vaccination against a dread disease in no way reverses or “steals” my vaccination.

Unless you suppose that a particular idea, process, or behavior occurred simultaneously to a group of people, it’s most likely that good ideas start with particular individuals. Most likely, at some point in our prehistory, some hominid decided to pad their foot with an animal skin, creating the first shoe. The utility of this good idea would have been evident to other hominids, and copied. We are all descended from humans who have “culturally appropriated” from this first group of enlightened hominids, who themselves probably copied it from an individual.

There seems to be a deeply human impulse to share good ideas. We love to express to those we care about our aesthetic discoveries, whether it’s food, clothing, music, movies, or really any stimuli which makes us feel good. This good and natural impulse is countered by those who define it, incorrectly, as “theft.”

Ideas, processes, and behaviors which are claimed to be “appropriated” are ones which are held to be positive values. Behaviors such as “black face” are acts of mockery, not appropriation. Caucasians who wear dreadlocks do so because they think it looks cool, not as an act of mockery. Thus the ~intention~ of what is held as “appropriation” is that of reverence. Intentions matter.

While I’ve been thinking about this subject for some time, I’d like to thank Peter Boghossian for the clothing metaphor. I fully support honest acknowledgment of where good ideas, processes, and behaviors come from.


 Posted by on 10/13/2016 Culture Tagged with:  Comments Off on Cultural Appropriation is a Good Thing
Jan 122012

I asked Roger Knights for permission to reprint this letter he submitted to Fate Magazine. His letter was printed in the September, 2005 issue. Knights had coined the word “scoftic” some years earlier and had used it on the internet, but I believe the Fate magazine article was its first use in print. I’d forgotten about the zinger of the “rational shell containing an inner nut.” Ha!

Roger Knights

During every vigorous and prolonged controversy each side invents nicknames for its opponents to indicate their errors, wrong-headedness, and bad faith. The best ones are so pointed and barbed that they “stick,” permanently damaging the public image of the other side. One such term is “woo,” another is “pseudoscience.” They effectively suggest the enemy’s rational “shell” conceals an inner “nut.” The further implication is that pseudoscientists are not only biased but untrustworthy. In thrall to their Inner Nut, they are prone to Believers’ Blather: exaggeration, omission, evasion, obfuscation, absurd reasoning, etc.

Our side’s comebacks have lacked its punch and pizzazz. Neither fundamentalist materialism nor pseudo-skepticism nor pathological skepticism nor sneer-quoted “skepticism” can match it as a Tenacious Taunting Tag. But my term, “scofticism,” fills the bill. It too implies its targets are posers: their posture of Rational Doubt (“Show me the evidence”) masks Die-Hard Denial (“I’ll see it when I believe it”). Its further implication is that scoftics are not only biased but untrustworthy. In thrall to their Inner Nut, they are prone to Slimy Scoftic Subterfuge: exaggeration, omission, evasion, obfuscation, dissimulation, etc. (Bills of particulars can be found on anti-scoftic websites. Start here and follow the links. My thumbnail definition of scofticism is “UNhealthy skepticism.” This is a play on the common phrase, “a healthy (dose of) skepticism.”

My coinage (which I’ve used since 8/13/03 on Bigfoot Forums. derives of course from scoffer and skeptic, hence the spelling (please retain!). It floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, so I urge its widespread adoption. However, it shouldn’t be applied to every disbeliever, only to those who are far from fair-minded, and who justify themselves by citing certain scoftical Doctrines of Denial. (An examination of which would require a longer article.)

You may (and should!) freely reproduce this article. [This line wasn’t printed in Fate.]

 Posted by on 01/12/2012 Culture Comments Off on The Origin of the Word Scoftic
May 022011

Way back in 2007 I had my first sighting. It was a bright, sunny day and I was walking on the footpath around Seward Park here in Seattle. Suddenly I saw it; a serpentine form sticking its slimy neck out of the water! Thankfully I had my camera with me and was able to capture this remarkable image:

I didn’t know what to do exactly; was there some sort of Lake Monster reporting center where I could log my encounter? Would they think I was a crypto-crank, a crackpot, a wanker, a chain-yanker, and mock my slithering serpent sighting? This beast was no beaver, or even an otter as some scoffing skeptics have suggested. No, it was the real deal, whatever it was.

But time moved on, and I began to doubt that I could ever see the Seward Park serpent ever again. But the fickle finger of fate has a way of appeasing the prepared, and lo! I saw it again! This time I was even closer, and managed to get off this quick pic:

I know it’s going to take a specimen on a slab for the skeptical scientists to take this seriously, but until that time I’m going to give it the tentative title of “Sewardsaurus.” Note that the second specimen seems to sport some sort of muzzle, or perhaps it’s licking a Frappuccino from a Starbucks cup. Though it’s no Ogopogo, a perfect palindrome like Aja, Aoxomoxoa, or Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas, we see that “Sewardsaurus” is at least alliterative, like “Dover Demon” or “Fence Fiend.”

 Posted by on 05/02/2011 Culture, Hoaxes, Pseudoscience Comments Off on Second Sewardsaurus Sighting!
Jan 222011

Several weeks back, librarian and MetaFilter moderator Jessamyn West contacted me and asked for my mailing address. She wanted to send me a surprise gift. I soon received a copy of a novel by Joseph A. Citro entitled The Gore. Jessamyn was curious as to what I thought of the book, so by way of thanks I thought I’d jot down this review.

First off, I think Jessamyn was aware of my interest in Bigfootery, as the book incorporates Bigfoot into the story, albeit in a somewhat tangential way. Citro is a New England author of both fiction and non-fiction, whose subject matter is largely Fortean or supernatural.

Unfortunately, I may not be the best person to give an incisive analysis of a work of fiction, as I’ve read very little of it during my lifetime! My favorite author of fiction is Joseph Wambaugh, who writes about police work in Southern California. In the late 1990’s I went absolutely ga-ga over his masterpiece of burlesque and tragedy, The Choirboys.

Here I’ll put in the obligatory disclaimer that the following review contains spoilers. I think today’s de facto alert is supposed to look like this:

**************************SPOILER ALERT************************

The book’s title itself is a great teaser, as one naturally thinks of horror fiction as incorporating “gore” in the sense of blood and dismemberment. But Citro works in a clever double entendre, as “gore” can also mean a triangular plot of land that is a sort of irregular leftover from roughly orthogonal land division. Indeed, our story takes place in a forested Vermont gore. The novel was first entitled The Unseen, so the title change worked well.

The story starts tragically, as “Lunker” Lavigne sees something in the gore that so disturbs him he commits suicide. We don’t get to learn the identity of what he saw until the end of the book. A variety of characters intersect socially and geographically to investigate the gore’s goings-on.

Citro incorporates two Fortean elements into the novel to create his boogeyman. Native American legends about the “Wild Man of the Woods” are as varied as there are tribes, but one of the more well known is the “Windigo.” This monster is malevolent to be sure, and fits in well in a horror novel. But some of the human characters in the novel can’t be sure of what they saw, and suggest it’s our old friend Bigfoot.

Citro has managed to glean enough from the subculture of Bigfootery to know that some Bigooters, particularly Kathy Strain, have seriously proposed that Native American Wildman legends such as the Windigo are actually derived from a biologically real Bigfoot. It’s amusing to me as a resident of the Pacific Northwest to have witnessed the steady growth of the putative habitat of the Sasquatch from the late 1960’s until the present. Back in the late 1960’s, the dominant Bigfoot advocate argument was that the forests of the Pacific Northwest offered a habitat sufficiently vast and rugged to allow a cryptid megafauna like Sasquatch to evade human detection. But as time went on, reports from areas outside the Pacific Northwest began to come in. This presented a conundrum for the advocates, as the argument from habitat had to be quietly set aside. As one Sasquatch skeptic who posts as “LTC8K6” on the James Randi Educational Forums succinctly put it: “Bigfoot is everywhere, yet nowhere.” Indeed, anecdotal sightings of Sasquatch are now recorded for the entire North American continent. If Bigfooters dismiss sightings from states like Missouri or Kansas out of hand, then the same logic could be applied to sightings in the Pacific Northwest…

As far as the novel goes, Citro is accurately depicting the current state of affairs; people in places like Vermont or New York occasionally report seeing Bigfoot, despite the ludicrous lack of biological evidence for such an animal.

Citro works in the theme of the Underground Railroad, which is of course an historical reality. But that too is the subject of exaggeration and mythology as well. Like all works of fiction, you start with something real, then augment and fine tune it.

Certain story elements didn’t quite work for me, as numerous human characters survive horrific and violent encounters only to recover and go back for more. For me, this had a bit of a Wylie Coyote feel to it, lacking only the Acme anvil. In real life, even a sprained ankle can be deadly out in the woods, yet Citro’s characters survive much worse injuries.

I’m sorry to report that Citro made a glaring technical error on pages 209 and 211 by including a safety on a snub nosed .38.

The dues ex machina of the novel is that the Wendigos are really humans after all, reduced to living in a feral state. Interesting but implausible; I think I would have enjoyed the monsters remaining Windigos.

An even stranger literary genre than Fortean horror fiction are books about Bigfoot “habituation” in which individuals periodically encounter and interact with Sasquatch. Despite the best efforts of individuals like Jeff Meldrum or the producers of TV’s Monserquest to legitimize the oft-mocked topic of Bigfoot, these books push the envelope of credulity to the outer limits. These accounts often become ripe objects of scorn, even within the subculture of Bigfootery itself.

In the end, I’m probably not the best candidate to review a book like The Gore, as I’ve read so much literature on the subject of Bigfoot that Citro’s novel just doesn’t seem that striking to me. The “fringe” of Bigfootery is so vastly weirder and wilder than Citro’s novel that what’s claimed as fact by some outshines even Citro’s fiction.

Thanks again for the book, Jessamyn, the world needs more spontaneous gift giving!

 Posted by on 01/22/2011 Bigfoot, Culture, Opinion Comments Off on The Gore