Sep 112015

I finished reading the Quran today. I was motivated to do so by a question posed to Sam Harris regarding what five books he would recommend that everyone read, one of which was the Quran. If I recall correctly, Harris suggested that one could read the Quran in a weekend, which suggests to me he either reads quickly, or more likely, is simply willing and able to hunker down for hours with a particular text. It took me much longer than a weekend to read it, but this was because I really didn’t enjoy doing so. But I kept at it, and eventually finished it.

I’m struck by a number of characteristics of the book. First off, it’s highly aphoristic, in that the thoughts in particular verses stand alone, and don’t really lead into other verses. In this way it’s an ultimately simplistic text, in that there’s really not a lot of development of complex concepts taking place. Complex ideas require sentences that flow into each other, which build into paragraphs and create chapters.

Clearly I have a bias reading this book, as I’m an atheist. Nevertheless, I’m willing to be persuaded by argument and evidence. What arguments and/or evidence does the Quran present to the non-believer to convince one of the existence of Allah? Well, first off, it seems to largely assume that the reader simply accepts the Old Testament accounts of the patriarchs. That Moses had a relationship with the Creator of the Universe is sort of presupposed. While I don’t doubt that the patriarchs really believed in YHWH, I’m simply not willing to believe myself on their say-so.

The other sort of “proof” of Allah that the Quran seems to offer is, roughly, what we would now call an Argument from Design. We are asked to notice how the day is “given” to humans for work and the night for rest. That dates are edible is suggested to be a design feature created by Allah for the sustenance of humans. We are asked to look at a camel and wonder how else a camel could come to be other than the creation of a Supreme Being.

It should be immediately obvious to anyone with any sort of proper scientific education living in the 21st century that the author of such claims was writing from a pre-Darwinian and pre-Copernican level of understanding. No, camels and dates were not “provided” for Homo sapiens, but were the products of evolution, just like ourselves. That the nature of the cosmos was mysterious to iron age peoples should come as no shock. It’s a classic case of “we don’t know, therefore God did it.”

It should be clear that such simplistic “proofs” for Allah are not persuasive.

Above all, I was aghast at the relentless demonization of “unbelievers.” The Creator of the Universe seems absolutely obsessed with telling the reader the fate of the unbelievers in the afterlife. A great deal of imagination and creativity is given over to lurid descriptions of Hell, which is in great contrast to the paucity of descriptors for Paradise.

There are certainly moral messages which we should all applaud, such as the virtue of charity. Yet like certain strains of fundamentalist Christianity, the afterlife is where it’s REALLY at, not the life we know we have here and now. There is very little if any material that promotes human thriving, or even touches on what we might call “numinous” experience, whether achieved through meditation, psychedelic drugs, or simply exercises which promote universal love. The grievously truncated version of Paradise (gardens in which rivers flow) given in the Quran suggests to me that Muhammad probably never consumed magic mushrooms, nor meditated, nor simply had any sort of genuine spiritual experience in which the “oneness” of the human experience was perceived. I could be totally wrong about this, but the obsession with “us vs. them” seems born of the very sorts of mental states that are antithetical to what I understand true spiritual experience to be.

The Quran contains passages of utter hate, direct admonitions to engage in physical violence such the infamous 8 12 and 47 4. It gives the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy a run for their money in this regard.

How does one come to believe this stuff? Like Christianity, or most religions, indoctrination starts in childhood. Questioning the veracity of the Quran is taboo, and is genuinely dangerous depending on the setting. I have to really wonder how Western adults, exposed to at least elementary or secondary levels of education, and not raised as Muslims, could come to be persuaded by this book. I know personally two men, both white Americans like me, who converted to Islam. I suspect, but do not know, that elements besides the Quran itself constituted the draw into conversion. Again I’m generalizing, but conversion to Christianity is usually not accomplished by reading the Bible cover to cover. Potential converts are given highlights and interpretations, not the straight text.

In the same way that oceans of human energy have been devoted to Christian theology, I understand that similar devotion has been given to Islamic theology. I absolutely concede that my understanding of this text is at an ignorant beginner’s level. Nevertheless it should be clear to anyone not indoctrinated into this belief system as a child, with a reasonable level of scientific education, that the Quran is very much a product of an iron age understanding of the cosmos with a relentless moral message of “us vs. them” that we should all find morally abhorrent.

 Posted by on 09/11/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on On Reading the Quran
Aug 272015

Yesterday I floated in a tank of water infused with enormous amounts of epsom salt at a place in Seattle called Float Seattle. I had long wondered what this experience was like, as somewhere along the line I’d “heard” that people might experience meditative states while floating.

We arrived shortly before the flotation session was scheduled to start, to have time to receive a short orientation. There were four tanks at this facility, each behind a sturdy wooden door with a handle that locked on the inside. I chose a physically larger tank, as I imagined a greater amount of “fresh air” above me while floating and perhaps a slightly less claustrophobic experience. Inside the room behind the door was a shower, and we were asked to shower before entering the tank. Inside my tank was a button that actuated a small blue light, which was useful for seeing what to grab and where to put one’s feet during entry and egress. Ear plugs are worn to keep the hypertonic solution out of one’s ears, which would otherwise leave a nasty residue inside.

I took all all my clothes off, showered, and entered the tank. The session was booked for an hour. The tank was fairly shallow, and one could easily sit up or touch the bottom. I was told that if I kept my hands above my head my spine would be more relaxed than if I kept my hands at my sides. At points during the float I tried keeping my hands at my sides, but I didn’t notice any change to the feeling in my spine or back. Mostly I kept my hands clasped at the top of my head.

I was hoping, and frankly expecting, to be able to enter a meditative state. Sadly, this didn’t occur for me. Because a variety of somatic sensations which would otherwise be present were not, I was essentially forced to concentrate on my breathing. One might expect this to be conducive to initiating meditation, but it never happened. I suspect this was because the heat and humidity of the air above me that I was breathing was so strong.

I must have drifted off into an early stage of sleep at about 10 or 15 minutes into the session, as I was startled awake by the dream, or vivid imagination, that I was Patterson or Gimlin, and that I had come upon “Patty” the Sasquatch at close range. Though Patty had her back turned to me, I found this frightening in that moment, and I experienced the only moments of anxiety during the session. Startled awake, I began to concentrate on my breathing again, and the mild anxiety quickly subsided. After about a half an hour I resigned myself to probably not experiencing a meditative state. Frankly I indulged in the productions of my own stream of consciousness with the explicit goal of recalling as much about the session as I could, with the goal of writing it up for this blog!

I realized that a flotation tank can be thought of as the closest one might get to experiencing the micro gravity of space. It’s the ultimate sort of mattress pad, or the ultimate pillow, in the sense that one’s body is being perfectly supported, rather than supported irregularly at multiple points. I began to realize my lower spine, the sacral area, was “dog tilted” as they say in yoga, more than it would be even with a “memory foam” mattress pad. Whether that’s a result of my own beginner-level yoga practice, or that’s a reaction that is common to many I can’t say.

I let my hands stop supporting the top of my head, and allowed my head to fully recline. It’s weirdly counter-intuitive to do this, as it’s a liquid medium after all. But there is so much epsom salt in the water that it will support one’s head without any muscular tension at all! Again, a flotation tank becomes the “ultimate pillow.” My guess is that this would be a wonderful relief for those who experience chronic back or neck pain. A drug free form of relief, albeit if only for an hour.

I’d “heard” that some people hallucinate during flotation sessions. I did not, though I saw a mind’s eye reddish afterimage blob rather vividly at one point. As with being in a bathtub for an extended time, one’s enjoyment of even fundamental somatic pleasure begins to wane. At about 45 minutes into the session I began to divert my attention, simply by moving my hands and legs into novel positions, just for something to do.

Though it might sound like I’m being dismissive of the value of this experience, I remain open minded that individuals might learn to enjoy it more profoundly through repeated use. Imagine dismissing meditation the first time you tried it simply because you didn’t achieve an altered state of consciousness. I’ll probably try it again, at least one more time.

 Posted by on 08/27/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Flotation Tank Experience
Aug 052015

Learning about a subject is often trivially easy, but changing one’s mind is sometimes more complex, and can make an interesting story. This is the story of how I came to consider the subject of male circumcision.

Back in the stone age of the late 80’s, before the World Wide Web, getting information on unusual topics was often difficult. Shortly after I moved to Seattle in 1987 I met Tim Cridland, who published a fanzine called Off the Deep End. It was a compilation of really far out subjects, including coverage of esoterica such as the musings of Richard Shaver. Tim did the hard work of writing letters to people who had real familiarity with these subjects, and maintained a large archive of exotic literature. It was Tim who introduced me to a wonderful book entitled High Weirdness by Mail. It was a catalog of unusual individuals and organizations, with the underlying premise being that one could send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to them with the payoff being the receipt of “weird” literature. It seemed such an easy and inexpensive action, though with today’s internet one which is grievously quaint.

I recall sending out a number of letters, simply asking for information. One topic that caught my eye was an anti-circumcision crusader, a preacher located somewhere in the Midwest. Of the numerous inquires I sent out, this individual was unique. I began to receive overstuffed #10 envelopes every few weeks or so. He would photocopy any article in a newspaper or magazine about the subject of circumcision, and pass it along. I suspected this is why Ivan Stang, the author of High Weirdness by Mail, chose to include him, namely his fanatical interest in the subject.

Despite his fanaticism, I took at least a cursory interest in his message. Before he sent me his material, I hardly gave the subject of male circumcision a second thought. I knew in a round about way that Jews were traditionally circumcised, but really didn’t wonder why most American men, including myself, were circumcised. Frankly I dismissed the issue as one too trivial to be worth of debate.

The epiphany in my thinking on the subject was simply learning about the history of American circumcision, namely the insanity of John Harvey Kellogg. Unbelievably, he promoted circumcision as a way to prevent or inhibit masturbation. Realizing this was not only to realize how wrong in practice this was, as virtually all circumcised men masturbate anyway, but how pathologically anti-sex his mindset was. This fact alone was enough to instantly persuade me that male circumcision was complete and total bullshit. Most people’s minds change slowly, especially on deeply held subjects. Perhaps because I had an open mind on this issue, namely that I was genuinely ignorant of its history, that I had no preconceived ideas to overcome. The more I learned about the dangers of circumcision, and the utility of the foreskin in human sexuality, the more galling the practice seemed to me. I found it shocking that such a barbaric practice could persist in a supposedly medically enlightened society like 20th century America. Like religion itself, a great deal of intellectual and behavioral inertia kept it rolling forth, despite its harms and irrationality.

The Midwest preacher must have sent me material for several years, until he eventually stopped. At one point in his mailings he included a bumper sticker, which was a line drawing of an infant held down during a circumcision. The baby’s genitals were covered with the surgeon’s hand so there was no nudity. The caption read “Circumcision: The unkindest cut of all.” I decided to put it on my 1987 Dodge Daytona. The results were mixed. In hindsight, I really didn’t understand what an emotionally charged, polarized, hot-button topic this was. On more than one occasion I had people pull beside me and gesture to me approval, and in one case a man ran up to the driver’s side window to applaud me. Because I didn’t expect these reactions, I found them startling and unwanted, even though they were positive. With hindsight, I would only ever put bumper stickers on my car of the most benign nature.

One day I took my Dodge Daytona into a shop to have a tune-up. I told the employees that I would wait next door in a sandwich shop. While sitting inside the sandwich shop waiting, one of the automotive technicians came inside. He needed to tell me that since my car was fuel injected, their shop could not do the job, and that I would need to take my car somewhere else. But of note was how he addressed me, as he needed to determine I was the owner of the Daytona. As he entered the sandwich shop he said “Are you the owner of the car with the gross bumper sticker” in an aggressive manner. Much taken aback, I responded in the affirmative. As a parting comment he added, “I had my son circumcised.”

To this day, I remain somewhat dumbfounded as to how any individual with any sort of reason and moral sense wouldn’t agree that circumcision is a bad idea after learning the simple facts about it, including its pathological history. I suspect it’s a often a testament to the behavioral inertia of tradition, in which certain human behaviors are continued, again and again, regardless of whether or not they are intrinsically rational or good. I wear dry socks not because of tradition, but because it’s intrinsically valuable to do so. Contrast this with wedding traditions, which memetically propagate themselves, year after year, simply because people are unwilling to buck tradition.

Because routine circumcision is still practiced in the 21st century, advocates for reason must continue to oppose it. I was gratified to learn that my friend Spoony Quine’s extensive essay on the topic had gone viral. It represents a detailed and minute analysis of the many problems with male circumcision. Part of the recalcitrance of people to stop advocating circumcision, in my opinion, is simply that they may have already had their boys circumcised, and to denounce circumcision afterwards is to admit that they made a significant mistake. Perhaps the most fertile minds to convince are those that have NOT had children, who can avoid making an irrevocable decision that affects the entire life of their boy.

I suspect, but do not know, that the internet itself is a force for reason in this matter. No longer do the facts about circumcision have to stay buried in history and medical texts. I believe that others like me are out there, ready to be convinced simply by moral revulsion to the beliefs and actions of John Harvey Kellogg.

 Posted by on 08/05/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Learning About Circumcision
Jul 222015

Mental illness has a stigma. The term “crazy” is certainly a pejorative, even if it refers to an incorrect idea, and not genuine mental illness. We often recoil from strangers in public who behave erratically, as we assume they may be mentally ill. Some homeless people are significantly mentally ill, and because of this appear physically disheveled. These are not people with whom we would breathless anticipate going on a first date.

Where do the mentally ill homeless fall on the social spectrum? That is, how do they fare in opinion polls of things like trustworthiness? Some advocates for movement atheism like to point out how low atheists fare as far as electability to public office, or as candidates for their children to marry. Indeed this is a significant problem, but as Ryan Bell pointed out, our society includes an “untouchable” class of people that are not even included in opinion polls, namely the homeless. Would you want your daughter to marry a homeless person? Would you vote for a disheveled schizophrenic living on the streets for president? Yes, atheists face silent shunning and prejudice, but nothing like street people.

Because mental illness is now seen as an illness, and not a result of demon possession, at least in 21st century America, we can study it and treat it. The current gold standard text on the subject is the DSM V, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version five. Within that text is listed the criterion for major depressive episode. Major depression is thus “officially” a form of mental illness.

So it is with some degree of trepidation that I have decided to write about my own struggles with depression, and how it eventually intersected with pseudoscience. Weirdly, I am far more uptight about discussing my own struggles with anxiety and depression than being “out” as an atheist. But there is simply no good reason to consider major depression to be anything other than a result of events not of our own choosing. There is no act of “free will” involved; by no means did I choose to become depressed. I think I retain some inhibition about discussing anxiety, which, if sustained and untreated, can most certainly lead to depression. Anxious behaviors are often perceived by others as demonstrations of being “uptight” or emotionally rigid. We all want to be thought of as cool, whatever that means, and avoid “uncool” people. When I was younger, I’d worry I was “hung up Mr. Normal” from the rock opera Tommy.

Hey hung up old Mr. Normal
Don’t try to gain my trust
‘Cause you ain’t gonna follow me
Any of those ways
Although you think you must


My first bout of significant depression occurred during my first year in college. I was living at home with my parents, and attending the University of Montana. Our family lived a block and a half from campus. The situation was a perfect storm of multiple emotional problems. I was never a particularly good student in grade school or high school, and college is certainly a more demanding academic environment. I retain the conceit that I’m an intelligent person, but I willingly concede that I simply didn’t work very hard in school. My hand printing is poor, and I never took good advantage of the notes I took in class. I attended class regularly, but relied on reading textbooks to pass classes. I was not failing my classes, but I was not thriving, either. Some of my good friends from high school had gone to other colleges, and thus my social circle was diminished. My relationship with my mother was becoming chronically antagonistic. She constantly derided the rock music I loved, and my deconversion from Christianity added a new layer of criticism. I was not aggressive about finding good summer jobs, and the ones I had in college were really poor. My parents gave me little or no spending money. Because they had grown up in the Great Depression, the idea of discretionary income for kids was anathema, particularly for my mother, who controlled the family finances. I had not had sex at this time, and I had to deal with raging hormones. To this day, I have to wonder how men can attain anything higher than a bachelor’s degree without regular sex. Even the hours of concentrated attention to dry and abstract concepts needed to earn a bachelor’s degree seem to me threatened by virtually continuous sexual ideation. I consider it possible that I simply have a higher sexual drive than other men, but this verges on a humblebrag. It’s possible that other men more academically successful than me have similar or even greater sexual drives, but that they have greater powers of concentration. Sexual frustration is clearly more than not experiencing sexual pleasure, as it factors deeply into one’s sense of sexual value to others. Who wants to have sex with someone deeply unattractive, or grossly uncool? If one is not having sex, the mind easily flows into considering the deeply upsetting prospect that this is because one is ugly or grossly socially maladjusted. “Hung up Mr. Normal” indeed.

Because I was living at home at this time, my social life was limited in ways that those living in the dorms did not experience. Thus I fell into the easy trap which we see on Facebook today of imaging that everyone else is having more fun than me. Everyone else is going to parties, driving around in cars, having sex, and going out to bars.

I discovered a University program ostensibly designed to help academically struggling students with study skills. The man who ran the class was also one of the student psychological counselors. One day I approached him to ask if I could see him privately for psychological counseling. He agreed, and we began to meet in his office. I believe he was not an MD, as we didn’t discuss psychiatric meds. Frankly, I remember very little about our conversations, and my real take-away memory is that he smoked a fucking pipe in his office.

My conflicted and depressive emotional state was somewhat lifted by moving into the dorms the next year. I ~literally~ moved out that previous summer, as I had a marginal job doing maintenance at a motel, and living with my mother was becoming intolerable. I had actually rented a room, and planned to keep my job. I think I went so far as to buy dried beans and rice to live on…

Not surprisingly, my father quickly interceded. The boiling emotional conflicts with my mother which he knew nothing of were publicly voiced, and he allowed me to move into the dorms for the next year. I abandoned my plan of living in a basement room and living on beans and rice.

While still in college a few years later I experienced another bout of depression, probably triggered by ongoing academic struggles. I recall making an appointment inside the student health service to see a psychiatrist after a particularly grueling emotional situation in pharmacy class. The appointment was weeks in the future, and when the time came I canceled, imagining that to see a psychiatrist was a sign of weakness.

Eventually I graduated with a degree in pharmacy and moved to Seattle in 1987. I was free of depression for a number of years, but it came back with a vengeance in the mid 90’s. I believe this bout was triggered by a number of factors, which include a relationship with a physically abusive woman, transition away from a dream job, excessive alcohol use, and simply job stress. In the late 80’s and up to the mid 90’s I was involved with a woman who physically assaulted me on multiple occasions. Domestic violence is one of those situations that people imagine will never occur to them, or that they are too smart or cool to befall them. I believed that. I fell into the trap of believing that she was the only woman for me, that I was simply too weird to be loved by any other woman besides her. The first time she assaulted me was in our Mountlake Terrace apartment, and I called the police and she was arrested. I do not know the outcome of that arrest, and I believe she escaped any sort of legal punishment. But as the abused often do, I rationalized that she “turned a corner” on her behavior, and that she wouldn’t do it again. We moved into my house in South Seattle shortly thereafter. I believe it was on my birthday in 1994 that she hit me again, after a night of carousing at Moe’s bar on Capitol Hill. A neighbor call the police, and she was arrested again. I remember the indignity of going to work afterwards with a black eye. I didn’t achieve cognitive clarity about this person until about a year later, when I demanded she leave, and in fact obtained a restraining order against her.

I had a “dream job” of being a sideshow performer from 1991 until 1994, and going back to pharmacy was a giant emotional let down. I went from being treated as popular performers are treated to facilitating the insurance claims of people who don’t want to be in the pharmacy in the first place. While it’s a well paying and esteemed job, retail pharmacy is a grueling, anxiety provoking, and demanding job. I still have nightmares to this day about having to “fill in” for a day at a pharmacy!

I started drinking when I was about 19, and by the time I moved to Seattle it became a nightly ritual. Alcohol is deadly dangerous for the depressed, as it provides momentary chemical solace, but in a crude and rather addictive way. For years, most of my days were spent in vaguely hungover states, which acts as another stimulus to drink again that night. I never missed work because of alcohol, unlike my brother who lost his job because of it and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver.

The first psychiatrist I saw during this period gave me a long multiple choice quiz to fill out. I remember crying while doing this, as it felt like I had ended up in such a worthless and degraded state as to necessitate filling out a form to ~quantify~ how degraded I was. My shrink sat behind the largest and most imposing wooden desk I had ever seen in my life, which was positioned between us in his office. At some point he obtained the results of this test I’d taken and advised me, essentially, that I was depressed because I was an asshole.

I found this weird and dispiriting, as I genuinely don’t think I’m an asshole, but someone who suffers from a condition I was powerless on my own to correct. I was put on Paxil, and probably dosed too high, as I found myself suddenly experiencing anorgasmia. I decided to find another shrink. I asked Giant-Desk-Guy for my medical records, of which I was legally entitled, as I wanted to understand how he came to conclude I was an asshole. Even the direct intervention of my new shrink, and my own registered letters requesting my records were stonewalled.

My new shrink’s office was on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and I drove my 65 Mustang there on many occasions. Despite hours of conversation and thousands of dollars, my only real take-away wisdom from the experience was that untreated anxiety can easily result in depression. I believe this to be true. I was prescribed Serzone, an SRI which did not result in anorgasmia, and clonazepam, a benzodiazepine for anxiety. While the efficacy and wisdom of using pharmacological therapy in depression is controversial, it must be conceded that the drugs really work. They do abate unnecessary suffering. In retrospect, my great failure at this time was to understand the detrimental effect of alcohol, whose use it took me until early 1998 to stop. Depression is a condition that often resolves on its own, but my recollection is that I discontinued treatment because I became “sick of being sick.” I became sort of ~angry~ that I was participating in this process, and simply chose to stop.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, there is a stigma about mental illness. I was frightened, probably irrationally so, that other pharmacists might discover I was being treated for depression. I would read the law book of Washington State regarding pharmacy practice, and worry if I could be disciplined or stripped of my license for “moral turpitude” which is a term literally on the books. Despite the meds and the psychiatric counseling, this episode of depression was especially dour and dark, and resulted in significant suicidal ideation.

I was free of depression from the time I discontinued that period of psychiatric treatment until about 2007 or 2008. This bout was triggered by the breakup of a significant relationship. I contacted a doctor I knew in Seattle for a recommendation for a psychiatrist, as the shrink on Capitol Hill declined to take me again. I don’t know why he declined.

The new psychiatrist advised me straight away that he didn’t engage in psychotherapy, but simply prescribed meds. I was OK with this, because as I mentioned earlier, I simply don’t recall that I assimilated much therapeutic wisdom in the long run from my previous shrink. I believe he prescribed nefazodone, the generic version of Serzone, and clonazepam. At this time I was working at a local metal fabrication plant, as I had given up pharmacy in 2002. Less money, obviously, but less job stress. Eventually I left the fabrication plant and returned to school at South Seattle Community College.

The climax of this story should be of interest to skeptics. One day I arrived at my psychiatrist’s office and was expecting a routine and prosaic session. This was anything but. He began to describe how a female patient of his was entirely refractory to pharmacological therapy. The drugs didn’t work for her. But something else did, and he wanted to show me!

What was this magical thing? A Power Balance band!


There is a significant power imbalance between any sort of doctor and their patient, especially in the doctor’s office. This was made overt by my previous shrink, with his brobdingnagian desk, and more disturbingly, his unwillingness to relinquish my medical records. While I’d love to tell a courageous story of reason battling nonsense, I simply acquiesced to participating in his bizarre performance.

He produced a Power Band, complete with magical hologram, and asked me to stand up. I engaged in at least some of the usual demonstrations, using my arms as levers to demonstrate strength and/or flexibility. It was a surreal experience, sort of like when Mandrake is forced to listen the psychotic ravings of Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Neither Mandrake nor I considered it reasonable to dispute their interlocutor in that moment. I can only speculate why he did this. Did he truly believe it worked? Did he know it didn’t work, but believed that a placebo effect might help some people? Did he no longer want me as a patient, and was “clowning” me so I would leave? I have no idea.

To be clear, Power Bands are not evidence based, nor effective medicine. His behavior is an example of egregious malpractice.

I was so angry with this treatment I decided I must do everything to stop the therapeutic relationship. As a person obsessed with losing weight might do, but in an unhealthy way, I went on a “crash diet” by abruptly discontinuing my meds, albeit not both at the same time. The side effects of sudden withdrawal are nasty, and produce a weird phenomenon in the case of SRI’s know as “brain zaps.” This is a sudden sensation akin to being severely startled or electrically shocked. The more serious side effect is simply a continuous and deep malaise. I remember driving to a Super Bowl party in heavy traffic during my SRI withdrawal period. While traffic jams are no fun, this took on Apocalyptic seriousness, as though I was in Hell itself.

Yet the depression abated, largely because I found meaning in moving back to Montana and helping my father near the end of his life.

I am like all other human beings, and wish for happiness. We spend the majority of our lives trying to manipulate our circumstances to augment this sensation. I can’t claim to have discovered a magical formula for happiness, or even claim to know how to avoid depression, but I’m currently convinced of the virtue of meditation. I’ve only been meditating for about three years now, and in moments of meditation, I experience an anxiolytic effect as profound as that of benzodiazepines. Even as a beginner, it’s a sensation that’s eminently reproducible. I never experienced euphoria from benzodiazepines, as some evidently do, but in meditation I can experience an altered state of consciousness and euphoria analogous to that of cannabis.

Clearly other fundamental processes must be in order for one to experience real happiness. These include financial security, exercise, good health, freedom from physical pain, mobility, social connection, and sexual health. I recognize that I still remain in a higher risk demographic, being single and having no family. For this reason, and the reason of my history, I take the pursuit of happiness quite seriously and find myself something of an evangelist for the virtues of meditation.

I do not believe in “free will.” In an ultimate sense, I believe depression is something that simply occurs to us, in the same way as catching a cold simply occurs to us. Nevertheless, I’m also convinced, at least in my case, that we have it within ourselves to avoid or mitigate anxiety. Learning to “key in” to states that meditation can produce enables one to “fall into” these states in the real world. I am now convinced that real happiness is largely the ability to be mindful, to experience states of “flow” and to learn how to live in the moment. It takes real work, just as exercise is real work. My promotion of this comes at a time in history when meditation and yoga have a certain faddish quality about them, which might be reason enough for some to reject them, but this would not be based on the reality of the virtues of meditation.

For those unfamiliar with meditation, I highly recommend Sam Harris’ book Waking Up.

 Posted by on 07/22/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Pseudoscience in the Treatment of Depression
Jul 072015

A recent local news story featuring a short video of a UFO caught my attention. “Hector Garcia, of North Philadelphia, went outside for a smoke Sunday, looked in the sky, and noticed something blowing in the wind above the corner of 7th and Tioga. He captured video of a nebulous flying blob with his phone and it is attracting attention.”

Garcia’s short cell phone video was also uploaded to YouTube. Being that local news stories, and sometimes YouTube videos, may not stay on the internet for very long, I’ve included two screen captures of his video to illustrate what he saw.



Garcia’s video seemed familiar to me, as on two occasions I’ve seen similar things in the sky. The first occasion was with my friend Alex. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Seattle, and we were standing in Kerry Park enjoying the view and taking photographs. Suddenly I saw a diaphanous blob in the sky, moving westward. I had my DSLR camera on a tripod, and I tried to grab it to take a photo. By the time I got my hands on the camera, the object was gone. My friend Alex had much less of a psychological reaction on seeing it, believing it to be a balloon. My memory was that it was clear, or translucent, which is unusual for balloons, which are often brightly colored. Ultimately, I don’t know what it was that I saw, and is thus (for me) a genuine UFO.

In May of 2014 I was in Missoula, Montana. One sunny afternoon I drove up to Miller Creek, not far outside of the city. I brought along a Canon DSLR camera with a good telephoto lens. It was a nice day, but a bit breezy. I saw a black plastic bag, or perhaps a very dirty plastic bag, tumbling along, just above the tall grasses of an open field. I know it was a plastic bag, because I was close enough to it to get a good look at it. I watched it gain altitude, and I began taking photographs. I probably watched it, intermittently, for perhaps 20 minutes. It’s hard to judge altitude, but I would guess it gained several hundred feet, as it floated aloft and drifted away. It was certainly not a helium balloon, as its shape was irregular. Click on the photos to view them in full resolution.



UFO Three

I strongly suspect that the object Garcia recently recorded was a plastic bag. It moved slowly, its shape was irregular, and it appeared to be either white or translucent. It may have been catching sunlight at different angles during its flight. Being that Garcia used a cell phone, and probably zoomed in, the object may have been slightly out of focus which would enhance the mysteriousness of the event.

Post Script: Mick West, curator of the excellent Metabunk website, has suggested the object is helium foam.

 Posted by on 07/07/2015 Personal History, Pseudoscience, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on Plastic UFOs