Apr 302015

I remember the popularity of the Book of Lists. It came out when I was in high school, and I believe my friend Dave Peterman had a copy. I seem to recall a list of famous alcoholics, with Ambrose Bierce being listed as an “eminent tankardsman” but I could be mistaken. Despite its sensational and easily digestible format, I feel that lists are a useful way of organizing one’s thoughts. It’s also useful to write things down. I suspect, but do not know, that many people besides myself think in a similar way, particularly about rock bands, TV shows, or certain movies. We discover something we really like, and wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t feel the same way. Ultimately of course, it comes down to “matters of taste” so it’s difficult if not impossible to count these as objective esthetic facts. In any event, here’s my attempt to organize my own thoughts on things I’ve discovered which other people don’t seem to venerate to a similar degree.

1. Baked beans for breakfast. Popular in the UK, not so much in America. Americans are certainly willing to embrace sweet things for breakfast, particularly pre-sweetened breakfast cereals, or perhaps donuts for adults, but not baked beans. Ultimately of course, the argument is that they are delicious, not that they constitute “health food” as they are full of sugar.

2. The Leatherman tool. Jesus God in heaven, how I have tried to promote this meme. I have saved my own bacon and the bacon of others so many times since my first Leatherman tool in the late 80’s I have lost track. Just last weekend I helped fix a folding chair owned by my friend Alex using my Supertool 300. I keep it on a belt pouch so it’s always within reach, yet doesn’t weigh down my pocket. I also keep a “Micra” on my belt in a pouch. It has a small folding scissors, which is eminently useful. I have wished for years that Leatherman would scale up the Micra to a “full sized” unit, but this has not happened.

3. Net t-shirts. Way back in the stone age of the 70’s “net” shirts had a period of popularity. Many were made of synthetic materials, which I suspect may have led to their decline. That, coupled with the vaguely transgressive display of seeing men’s nipples…

I happened to discover a particular brand sold at K-mart that was sold as a t-shirt, and had very small holes, perhaps only a millimeter across. They were the most comfortable shirts I’ve ever worn. I suspect they were a cotton and polyester blend, or perhaps all cotton. They don’t even seem to have come back as hipster retro style, as big beards have. If I found net shirts as comfortable as the ones I wore in high school, I’d wear them again in a heartbeat!

4. Cutting food, usually meat, with the knife in the right hand whilst holding the fork in the left hand, then moving the food directly to the mouth with the left hand. This is a “Continental” or “English” style of eating, as opposed to the American style of eating, which sets down the knife in the right hand, swaps the fork to the right hand, then uses the fork in the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. Not surprisingly, I changed my behavior while in Europe. I was helped along by discovering the utility of using both hands to manipulate tools while working on cars. There are situations where it makes better sense to hold a tool in the left hand than in the right hand, usually due to cramped quarters. People often think of their “handedness” as a binary; either right or left. Yet it’s really just a matter of habit: I’ve found that I actually underestimate how poorly my left hand functions. Yes it feels less capable, it feels strange, but it’s really not as uncoordinated as I anticipated.

5. HP sauce, or brown sauce. Another quirk I picked up from Europe. Americans love ketchup, which I find sort of middling in value. Most American supermarkets have a section devoted to barbecue sauces which might include a tiny bottle of HP sauce, which is only one brand of brown sauce. Brown sauce is distinctly different from ordinary barbecue sauces, and compliments both beef and baked beans. Ultimately I don’t use it on a regular basis, as it’s full of sugar, and it no way could be defined as “health food.”

6. Bulgur. I love this stuff! Classified as a “whole grain” I find it cooks up easier than rice, or at least is less finicky. I like the coarser versions, which are given numeric gradations from one to five. I’m spoiled here in Seattle, as I’m not far away from an ethnic food paradise in the form of the DK Market in Renton. They sell a plethora of bulgur. Why is this wonderful grain not more popular?

7. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. Years ago when I started working on cars, I didn’t wear gloves. My hands would become utterly filthy, often a thick sort of grease mixed with dirt. At the time, I believe that liquid soaps that included pumice as a suspension would be the best, sort of like good old Lava soap. One day a gear head friend of mine suggested Dr. Bronner’s and I thought he was kidding. Amazingly enough, it worked better than the pumice style liquid soaps. I shower with the stuff, and it’s even possible to shave with it, but it doesn’t quite have enough emollients in it to properly shave with. It rinses off very well, and leaves no lingering perfume odor. Fantastic stuff, despite it’s hippie connotations and psychotic religious texts.

8. Coconut syrup. I had this over pancakes while in Hawaii. Delicious! With the current popularity of coconut “water” and “milk” I am befuddled why coconut syrup is not better known. Most Americans use maple syrup on pancakes, with sorghum and honey following in popularity. Why not coconut? I’ve seen it for sale only once here in Seattle.

I’m confident I will think of additional items, which is really a testament that we don’t always categorize disparate concepts in our minds under tidy category headings. I suspect that many people think the same way but may not have drawn up an itemized list. I encourage everyone to do so.

 Posted by on 04/30/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Why Doesn’t Everyone Like This?
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.

UPDATE 4/25/2015:

In Sam Harris’ latest podcast, a more direct statement of this notion is given at about an hour and 5 minutes into the presentation:

Q: How often should we be aware of the illusion of free will? Should it serve a more reflective function, rather than happen in real time?

A: Well, for me a direct awareness of the illusoriness of free will, the very clear sense that the notion of free will doesn’t name anything in my experience this is more or less coincident with a moment of mindfulness or a moment of meditation where I’m clearly aware of how thoughts and intentions and desires and their subsequent actions arise spontaneously. Something is not there a moment ago, and then suddenly it’s there. And all of one’s mental life, even the most voluntary behavior has this character when you look at it in a fine-grained way. But I think the most important understanding of it is reflective, certainly the most important ethical implications are born of reflecting on this truth about us. It is just an understanding that people are operating on the basis of everything that has made them who they are, and that they are not agents in the deepest possible sense.

 Posted by on 04/06/2015 Opinion, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on A Self Test for Free Will
Feb 262012

Have you ever wondered how sweetness equivalence is measured? When we read that aspartame is “200 times as sweet as sucrose” what does that actually mean? Does that mean that 100mg of aspartame on the tongue will produce a sensation that is 200 times as intense as 100mg of sucrose?

I’ve wondered about this for YEARS. Consider other bodily sensations, like sound. If you sit quietly in a perfectly quiet place, you will begin to hear internal “noise” like your own breathing and probably some level of tinnitus. Consider that a baseline. Now compare that with the LOUDEST sound you have ever heard. In my case it would probably be my first rock concert, Van Halen. The range of internal sensation for sound is enormous.

Unfortunately for humans, the range of sensation for physical pain is also vast. Our other senses have ranges much greater than that of the sensation of sweetness. But even with taste, the range of sensation is great. Consider hot sauces, and what an enormous physical sensation that capsaicin and other capsaicinoids can produce. But perception of sweetness is different. The range from barely detectable to pure-sucrose-on-the-tongue is not very great. Why is that? Why does the human body have such a disparity in the ranges of sensation that we can perceive? Why do hearing and pain have ranges of sensation so vastly greater than the perception of sweetness? How did evolution “work” to create this situation?

When aspartame was first released as Equal brand by Searle, an advertizing campaign was run which claimed that Equal “tastes great straight.” I seem to recall Cher pouring the contents of a blue paper packet of Equal onto her tongue. Indeed, a similar test with a pink packet of saccharine produced a miserable and bitter result. From there I began to wonder what putting PURE aspartame on the tongue would be like. If you notice, you can’t buy PURE artificial sweeteners.

I long suspected that what it actually MEANS when the statement is made that an artificial sweetener is X times as sweet as sucrose is that a solution of the sweetener diluted X times is EQUIVALENT IN TASTE to a solution of sucrose. Indeed, a bit of Google-fu gives the result. In fact this is similar to the “Scoville scale” of heat in chili peppers. The Scoville scale is not a measurement of PPM of capsaicin but a dilution equivalence.

I do wonder though, if our tongues and brains were wired so that our sweetness range was like that of hearing or chili heat. Would chemicals like aspartame or sucralose become controlled substances? Consider how “abused” sweetened food is right now; what if your chocolate bar or pancake syrup was two hundred times as intense as it is now? Would we have pre-employment screening for sucralose?

 Posted by on 02/26/2012 Opinion, Science Comments Off on How Sweet is Too Sweet?
Jan 072012

Some years ago I watched an old interview with Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls. There was a literary reviewer in the audience, and he offered his opinion that he didn’t think much of the book. This led to some jeering, and Susann seemed somewhat caught off guard. She responded by asking if he had read the whole book, and he admitted that he had not. Zing, got him! So it seemed, until he added something to the effect of “how much soup do you have to taste to know it’s bad?”

Frankly I rather liked Valley of the Dolls, but the analogy stuck with me. It’s valid for things like soup, which are by and large homogenous. As time went on I began to think that many things in life are homogenous, at least human behaviors and esthetic productions. Certain things like the output of performers or favorite TV shows have remarkable and very public declines. A few things have remarkable advances. I remember in the mid 1980’s when I first encountered the RE/Search books. I was sort of shocked to see the humble beginnings of RE/Search as a tabloid magazine. I was amazed at how much the production values and depth of research had increased. Did they sell their souls to the devil to get that good?

I think people naturally use the soup metaphor even if they don’t know it, especially on the Internet. There is so much information generated daily that to even sample a day’s content one has to give things a “taste test” before consuming the entire thing. If you have a YouTube account you can see how long a particular video of yours was watched before the audience departed. Popular websites like Reddit commonly post stories from users that are a few hundred words long. These are later edited down to a sentence or two with the obligatory “TL;DR.”
Long before the Internet people understood the power of a “first impression.” Again, this follows the “soup” analogy, as it assumes that an individual’s long term behavior is relatively homogenous. At the opposite end of this homogenous model of human behavior is the fantasy of domestic violence victims who believe their abuser is “turning the corner” or “getting better.”

You can see the tacit acknowledgement of the soup metaphor when people admonish others to “wait for it” when posting videos. If it’s not happening in the first 10 seconds your instinct tells you it probably won’t get better.

It’s popular these days to claim the Internet is killing our attention spans. There may be truth to this, but I believe we are simply doing a lot more sampling now before deciding to assimilate the whole thing.

Obviously there are things of value that grow on us. It would be foolish to make long term judgments about everything in life from initial reactions. There is a huge class of things that are “acquired tastes.” But over time, I tend to thing that there are many more soup-like things in the world than there are acquired tastes.

 Posted by on 01/07/2012 Opinion Comments Off on The Soup Analogy
Jan 012012

This morning I read an essay on Pharyngula by the popular blogger and prominent atheist PZ Myers. Someone sent him photos of a funny shaped rock and asked him for his interpretation. This reminded me of an episode that occurred to me some years ago.

First off, some background. Some years ago I interacted online with a man named Anton Wroblewski. At the time we were both interested in elements of the Bigfoot issue. Dr. Wroblewski is perhaps best known as the individual who analyzed the Skookum body impression as that of an elk. As you can see by his CV, he has a PhD in geology as well as masters in stratigraphy and vertebrate paleontology.

I finally met Dr. Wroblewski in March of 2010 when he visited Seattle.

It’s great to know people with genuine expertise, as you can ask them questions! Some years back I had been walking along Alki Beach here in Seattle. I started noticing funny shaped rocks, or perhaps teeth, in the sand. I picked a few up. Since my educational background is a BS in pharmacy, I really didn’t know what I was looking at. Were they rocks? Were they fossils? Were they eroded teeth? Why did they have little pits? I’ve always been a curious person so I decided to follow up on what I found. I sent Anton a photograph of the specimens. He thought they were intriguing, but wouldn’t speculate further without examining them. I packaged up the strange samples and sent them off. He examined them and suggested they were not fossilized shark teeth as I had fantasized, but simply funny looking eroded rocks. Well, no harm no foul.

I was appalled to see how differently PZ Myers chose to react to someone who sent him photos of a strange rock sample:

“He also sent me these photos in much higher resolution. Why? Because he’s an ignorant nudnik. These things look nothing like the brain of any creature that has ever existed, unless maybe it’s the lopsided lumpy non-functional excrescence found inside the crania of creationists.”

I’m sure that a celebrity such as Myers is often the target of cranks that send all sorts of things. Yet how do we know that this individual was an “ignorant nudnik” or a legitimately curious person?

It’s doubly disturbing to consider that Myers is an instructor at the university level. Does he behave like this to his students? There is already an enormous social pressure in classrooms against asking questions. No one wants to look foolish by asking a “dumb” question. You can see this social pressure in action when people add meta-data to their questions with the preface “this may be a dumb question but…”

There are excellent resources on the Internet for those without personal access to PhDs. One that comes to mind is AskMeFi or Ask Metafilter. One of the things that keeps a resource like that functioning is close moderation. Personal attacks like asserting the questioner is an “ignorant nudkik” are not tolerated. I’ve used AskMeFi to help me gather information about such strange things as “Mountain Marbles.” For those who are particularly wary of publicity, it’s possible to ask questions anonymously.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to dismiss those questions that are not asked in good faith, it’s unfortunate to see mockery and dismissal used by someone like Myers who should know better. Of all people, Myers should be well aware of how much pain and misery in the world is caused by ignorance. Inherent in asking a question, ANY question, is the admission of ignorance. When the very act of admission of ignorance is mocked, as Myers is doing, it creates a chilling effect for those who might wish to learn.


While out exercising today, it occurred to me the individual who sent the photos may have not specifically ASKED Myers what the rocks were. Upon carefully re-reading the post, it appears that the individual concluded that the inorganic sample was “mineralized brain.” Heck, I can relate, I thought I might have found “fossilized shark teeth.” Without specific clarification, we can’t know what exactly the individual claimed.

 Posted by on 01/01/2012 Opinion, Personal History, Science 4 Responses »