Jack the Ripper and Our Love of Closure

 Jack the Ripper

I see headlines all over the news about how Jack the Ripper has finally been conclusively identified. I heard radio talk show hosts talking about how wonderful it was that we finally knew Jack the Ripper identity. I was immediately skeptical but I would guess the majority of people were not so. I just read a wonderfully written article from Ars Technica indicating my skepticism was well-founded. Exceptionally good work, Jennifer Ouellette!

In any case, I leave it to you to read the article yourself and come to a conclusion. I don’t really want to talk about the guilt or innocence of Aaron Kosminski but instead the seemingly inherent human desire for closure. People want closure and, to a large degree, don’t really seem to care if it comes at the expense of critical thinking. Judging by what I’ve heard and read in media articles most people are thrilled to know that a conclusive result has been determined in the Jack the Ripper murders. Spoiler if you didn’t read the article, the case is far from closed.

Why do people care? The murders happened a hundred and thirty years ago. Solving the murders isn’t going to help or hurt anyone in any way. The descendants of victims are not going have their lives changed in any way. The descendants of the supposed murderer, who was a prime suspect to begin with, are not going to be arrested or punished. Yet, it’s clear to me, people are absolutely giddy with the idea that Jack the Ripper has been identified. Despite such knowledge having no practical effect.

I think the underlying cause is the satisfaction we get at a job well done, whether it is solving a murder or mowing the grass just right. Humans enjoy accomplishment and the identification of Jack the Ripper is just that. Not directly for me, not directly for anyone reading the article, but indirectly, very indirectly for people as a group. The case remains in the public conscious all these years later and there is a satisfaction derived from solving it.

I understand why people are happy with the news but I warn you to be aware of this human tendency and take it into account. Yes, you would be happy to know that Jack the Ripper has been identified but take into account you want this outcome. Be skeptical of people who understand human nature, in this case the people who released this supposedly conclusive proof. They are taking advantage of your desire to see something come to completion. The evidence is terrible and result is largely unsupportable. You’ve been duped.

In conclusion, be skeptical and do your research, particularly when it comes to something you want to believe.

Tom Liberman

Timothy Morrow and Stop Insulin Advice for Diabetics

Timothy Morrow

A fellow by the name of Timothy Morrow thinks insulin is a toxic agent that doesn’t help diabetics but instead hurts them. He recommends herbal remedies. He also promotes not giving children vaccines. He suggests alternative medical treatments for brain tumors and cancer. One of his clients had a child with diabetes and, on the advice of Morrow, didn’t give the boy insulin or call medical services. The child died. The question becomes if Morrow committed a crime.

This case reminds me in some ways of the Michelle Carter case in which she cajoled a friend to commit suicide. What Morrow did and continues to do is immoral and disgusting. He is dispensing bad medical advice for financial gain. The death of the young man in question is not the first time someone has died because they followed Morrow’s advice. However, is it criminal?

The herbal remedies that Morrow sells are labeled in a way indicating they are not approved for medical treatment and they are not intended to be used as medicine. He certainly advises people not to get vaccines, not to take insulin, not to go to doctors. His mantra is that the medical community is not interested in curing people but simply getting them sick and taking their money. Ironic to be certain as that exactly describes his own practice, but criminal?

It is reasonable to suggest that any person told not to give her or his child insulin for the child’s diabetic condition has plenty of information available to explain the folly of this advice. If the parent chooses to follow the bad advice despite ample and easily accessible proof to the contrary, who is at fault? The person who gave the bad advice or the person who followed it? Both?

Morrow pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse and has to pay for the cost of the funeral and an extra $5,000 in fines. The parents are not being charged with any crime at all.

Should the state met out punishment for people whose beliefs are unsupported by evidence and result in harm to a minor? Should the state seek criminal charges against those who offer medical advice that while perhaps heartfelt, leads to the death of a minor? These are important questions in this era when people forego vaccines and other life-saving medicines for their children because of, to be frank, completely ridiculous beliefs.

If I told you to drive off a cliff to cure your myopia and you did it, am I guilty of a crime? What remedy does the state have for people who do stupid things and people who dispense bad advice?

It’s a difficult question and cases need be evaluated individually but I’m not one to shirk away from a tough answer. In this case I’m sad to say I think the wrong people were charged. Don’t get me wrong, Morrow is vile, but he didn’t commit the crime, the parents did.

As I’ve said many times before, Freedom is free, it’s just not safe.

Tom Liberman

Pizzagate Chuck E. Cheese Style

Chuck E. Cheese

Chuck E. Cheese is the center of a new conspiracy hypothesis making the rounds all over the internet thanks to popular YouTube personality, Shane Dawson. The basic idea is Chuck E. Cheese employees are putting together leftover slices from various tables, reheating them, and then serving them as a new pizza.

The evidence for this is pizzas often come out with rough edges and slices that don’t appear to match up. Any number of pictures displaying this are readily available. The explanation put forward by various Chuck E. Cheese employees is pizzas are sliced and then put on a larger pan where they shift about haphazardly on their way to the customer. It is also put suggested that sometimes the slicer miscounts and makes five cuts instead of the required six, Chuck. E. Cheese insists each pizza have twelve slices, and kitchen workers then slice the two largest pieces in half to make up the difference.

I’d like to go after this conspiracy hypothesis with a line of critical thinking that I’ve had success with in the past. When discussing these ideas with believers I think it’s quite useful to point out what would have to happen in order to make it true. I’m of the opinion this forces the person advancing the hypothesis to walk it through in a rational fashion. In this case, the question is how would Chuck E. Cheese employees go about making such a pizza.

Basically, the bussers would have to collect every slice of uneaten pizza left on each table. These slices would then have to be arranged in the kitchen by pizza type until exactly twelve slices remained of a particular type. Then they would have to put those slices back in the oven and reheat them. The first problem becomes actually finding twelve slices of a particular kind of pizza. This seems to me to be a rather difficult task considering people generally eat most of their pizza leaving crusts perhaps but not entire slices.

The next problem is where you would store the uneaten slices waiting for an entire pizza to be assembled. Space restrictions in a kitchen would seem to make this not particularly easy.

A third problem would be keeping the entire thing a secret from the outside world. In order to make this work every employee at every Chuck E. Cheese would have to be part of the conspiracy. This particular hypothesis has been around for at least ten years, likely because of the various misshapen and oddly sliced pizzas as discussed earlier. I find it all but impossible to believe every employee of the franchise is loyal enough to keep this a secret.

Is it possible the slices are being collected, stored, and assembled while all the employees are keeping the secret? I don’t argue that it’s impossible, just incredibly unlikely. Therefore, I choose to accept the explanations offered by former employees and the company itself.

And you?

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Tom Liberman

Paul Whelan a Speculative Analysis

Paul Whelan

Paul Whelan was recently arrested and charged with espionage by the Russian government and this is making many headlines. There is a great deal of speculation as to whether or not Whelan was acting as a spy and I have my own thoughts about it which I’ll express here. I do want to be clear; my thoughts are largely speculative based on a limited amount of evidence. I could easily be wrong.

First a few facts about him. Whelan joined the marines as a young man but was given a bad conduct discharge for check fraud involving the use of someone else’s social security number. He visited Russia during this tenure and reportedly enjoyed his time there. He has tri-citizenship in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Irish Republic. He has made any number of trips to Russia over the years. He was reportedly in Russia at this time to help a friend plan a wedding party.

Now comes the speculative part of my article. Whelan strikes me as someone who has an inflated sense of intellect and importance. He also strikes me as someone with delusions of grandeur. This is the sort of person Russian Intelligence, Federal Security Service, loves to exploit, see Paul Manafort. What I imagine happened is that intelligence agents became aware of Whelan and his ego. They sent someone, likely an attractive woman, to get a sense if he could be manipulated. They quickly discovered he was susceptible to such tactics.

From there it was relatively straight-forward. Have someone approach Whelan claiming to be disenchanted with the Russian government. Have that person claim to know important intelligence information. Whelan then plays the fool. He goes somewhere the FSS has wired for video and sound. He solicits this agent for secret information. The agent turns over a thumb drive with said information to Whelan. Whelan leaves thinking he has pulled off a major spying victory for the United States. He will be a hero! The CIA will welcome him with open arms, maybe he will get to visit President Trump. Boom, down come the clamps.

I repeat, I’m speculating based on the limited information I have. It’s entirely possible Whelan is completely innocent and was picked up by the FSS and a fake thumb drive is being used as evidence. That he is going to be used by Vladimir Putin to trade for Maria Butina or Russians held here in the United States.

It’s also possibly Whelan was actually working for the CIA. That he was on some covert operation and the Russian’s caught him.

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Still, I think my explanation has the ring of truth to it. It’s quite likely we’ll never know the full truth. What do you think?

Tom Liberman

Bread and Water because Mom Did it that Way

Bread and Water

I just read an intriguing article about the elimination of Bread and Water as a punishment in the United States Navy. I’m not amazed by the punishment itself but rather how it started and why, until recently, it was still being used.

Bread and Water is a disciplinary action available to captains of naval vessels where they can punish a sailor by restricting her or his diet to simply bread and water. The modern terms of the punishment limit the amount of time to three days and ensure that the sailor in question is given as much bread and water as they desire. In 1909 the maximum time was reduced from thirty days to seven and sailors could no longer be chained while undergoing the punishment.

The bit I found most interesting is the idea for Bread and Water punishment was derived from a similar practice in the British Navy. At the time that naval power was largely considered the finest in the world so adopting some of their practices made a great deal of sense. However, the British Navy outlawed the punishment in 1891. That’s not 1981 in case you are a little bit dyslexic, as am I. It was banned in the British Navy over one-hundred years ago. Yet the Bread and Water punishment persisted in the U.S. Navy until 2019.

This is the equivalent of doing something for the sole reason that your mother or father did it that way. That is, to a large degree, an enormous component of human psychology. I wrote sometime ago about why so many people feel it should be required to teach cursive writing in school when it has little practical use in the modern world, particularly when it takes so much time from other, more useful, subjects.

We do many, many things simply because they have been done that way in the past. It’s not necessarily wrong to do something the same as it’s always been done, but it is important to examine what you are doing, why you are doing it, and the results generated therein. The fact that it’s been done a certain way for a hundred years or more has no bearing on whether or not you should continue to do it. True though this may be, it is not something most people are willing to accept.

If it was good enough for my father than it’s good enough for me. Wrong. If it’s good, then it’s good. If it’s not, then it’s not. Sometimes something that worked well in the past just isn’t useful today. Sometimes it was awful back then and it remains awful now. We must take the time to examine why we are doing things and the results generated from doing so.

The fact that U.S. Navy finally got around to fixing this is a good thing. The fact that it took a century to do it is a lesson for us all. Just because mom did it that way doesn’t mean you should as well.

Tom Liberman

Cyber-Security Minister Never Used a Computer

Cyber-SecurityThere’s an absolutely fascinating story hitting the news about the Cyber-Security minister recently appointed in Japan. Yoshitaka Sakurada was unable to answer relatively simple computer related questions, eventually said he had never used a computer in his life, and went on to say he didn’t think it would be an issue.

Is he right? Is he delusional? Must the minister of Cyber-Security have intimate knowledge of computers? Must any manager have a strong understanding of the job her or his workers are performing?

At first glance it would seem a manager is in the best position to succeed if she or he has firm knowledge of the work being done, but management philosophy doesn’t necessarily support this idea. It is generally considered a good idea to promote an excellent worker into a management position over a project with which she or he is unfamiliar. The idea being that if the manager is overly hands-on it is detrimental to the project. The job of a manager is to get the most out of people, not do the actual work.

It’s quite possible Sakurada will be an excellent Cyber-Security Minister. His specialty might be in managing people and that’s good enough. It’s also possible that his lack of knowledge over the division he is managing might prove a liability in the minds of those working under him. He might end up being a terrible minister. The point is, we don’t know. That’s what performance-based evaluation is all about.

The person who promoted Sakurada to Cyber-Security minister needs to accept responsibility for the outcome of this move. That’s the way it should be. We can certainly say a person appears to be unqualified for a position. We can argue that a recent trade involving our favorite sports team was misguided. We can criticize or praise any such decision, that’s well and good. But we can’t know the outcome until we see the results.

What is vitally important is to assess the results with critical thinking skills. The person who appointed Sakurada wants him to succeed and we see, all too often, excuse after excuse, spin after spin, justification after justification, to explain why failure is actually success. That’s the real problem. Not the hiring of Sakurada or anyone else for that matter.

It is important to make the hire for good reasons rather than political expediency. That being said, it’s also important to withhold judgment until a body of evidence is presented. Good hires turn out bad and bad hires turn out well.

The best strategy is to hire the person you think best qualified and if they are unable to handle the job, accept responsibility and move on. The worst strategy is to hire someone not particularly qualified and make every excuse in the book to keep them in the position. Sadly, when it comes to politics, we often see the latter.

In this case, we’ll see.

Tom Liberman

Are the Samburu Heroes and Horrors?

SamburuAn animal rights activist friend of mine recently shared a Facebook post about the Samburu tribe’s conservation efforts in Northern Kenya, particularly in regards to Samburu National Reserve. If you were to read just this article you might think the Samburu people as astonishing heroes. Should, however, you read the Wikipedia article about their tribal practices in regards to young girls and women you would almost certainly come to the opposite opinion. Which is true?

This question dramatically illustrates the divide facing the people of the United States and those of the western style republics around the world. I’m here to tell you that Samburu are both heroes and horrors. I need not choose, nor do you.

I’m certain if my friend knew of the practices of Female Genital Mutilation and Child Rape associated with the Samburu she would never have shared the article about their wonderful efforts in conservation. Yet both the horrific practices and the heroic conservation efforts are part of the same package. As things currently stand, you do not have one without the other.

There is nothing wrong with my friend’s lauding of Samburu and their efforts protect the animals that share their little part of the world. They have done good and wonderful things. There is also nothing wrong with the many who lambaste them for their vile practices in regards to young girls.

Likewise, we should applaud a politician who does something that works and lambaste her or him when he or she does something wrong. This is, sadly, not the world in which we live. It seems we are becoming increasingly uncaring of actual deeds and the cause and effect of hateful words. We care more about who is delivering the message than the words themselves. We make any excuse to exonerate someone we support and find any sliver of blame to eviscerate those we oppose.

The Samburu are not completely vile nor wholly exemplary. They are a bit of both. We might weigh one against the other and come up with some sort of final balance but why not laud the good and oppose the bad? At the height of election season, I see ads claiming the wonder and glory of one side and the degenerate evil of the other.

Consider voting for the most decent human in the election. That would be the one who treats their opponent with dignity and respect, for isn’t that the way they would care for the nation?

I would, you might say to me with a sad shake of your head, but there aren’t any. I’m sad to agree. Do try to remember, there are more than two political parties.

Tom Liberman

Angry and Intolerant this is Who We Are

Angry IntolerantA number of angry, intolerant, unreasoning, and disgusting attacks have taken place recently and everywhere I see politicians and others talking about how “This isn’t who we are.” The reality is that this is exactly who we are. We might not like looking in the mirror. We can certainly pretend we don’t want this, don’t fuel it by passing along intolerant rhetoric without regard for truth, but the reality is this nation has become increasingly angry and intolerant.

Not a day goes by without a friend of mine on social media, people who undoubtedly consider themselves to be decent, moral, and kind; saying something nasty about a person who disagrees with them on some social or political issue. Moron! Idiot! Sheep! Trying to destroy our country!

Not a day goes by when a media personality doesn’t angrily denounce and make outrageous claims about the fate of the nation if a particular person is allowed to get away with their agenda.

Not a day goes by without an angry politician vilifying someone from the opposite party for their vision of the United States.

We are angry and intolerant. That is what the people of our nation are today. Perhaps it was different in the past and maybe it will change in the future but not today. This is exactly who we are as a people. If you agree with my politics then I will support every vile thing you say, I will excuse every disgusting action you take, I will pass along any lie that supports you. If I disagree with your politics there is nothing about you worthwhile. You are out to destroy this nation and there is no lie, no misinformation, no twisting of the facts that I won’t pass along in an attempt to hurt you.

This is exactly who we are. This fact is displayed loudly by the politicians we elect, by the news shows we watch, and by our own vitriolic and unreasoning mindset available on display at the social media platform of your choice. I see it every day, over and over again. You cannot convince me with your meaningless words, spoken only after horrific tragedy, that you, that we, are not in some way enabling the violence.

The more the anger rises, the greater the chance for violence. We are angry, we are intolerant, and some people are twisting this irrationality into violent and deadly assaults.

Don’t tell me what we are not. Show me.

Tom Liberman

Pluto is What Pluto is

PlutoIs Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? This question has roiled both the scientific and public world for the last twelve years. When it was discovered way back in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh it was given the designation of planet. In 2006 the definition of what is a planet was changed and the little, relatively, world was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

I well understand the need to classify things so that we can communicate. Without definitions we have a difficult time expressing meaning to one another. In this case the reality is the only thing of importance. The designation means nothing. Pluto was discovered by humans back in 1930 but it has been galivanting about the solar system for billions of years in largely the form it is today. There is no name we can call it that will change its nature. Planet, Dwarf Planet, Kuiper Belt Object, whatever, it is the same. It is only we people who are upset about the classification and that is, to my way of thinking, somewhat telling.

Why do we care? Will it make any difference in your life? If Pluto is a planet are you better or worse? Is Pluto any different? The designation is merely so we can communicate effectively and the reality is in this case it doesn’t make any difference. The only chance of any confusion occurs if we are talking about the Disney character rather than the orbital body.

The question becomes why is it such a contention issue? Why do people have their own self-worth wrapped up in the fact that Pluto is or is not a planet? I cannot say for certain but I suspect the cause is related to our ego. We want to be right. We want to be better and smarter than the other people. We find like-minded allies and pat ourselves on the back at how smart we are because we know Pluto is one thing or another. This somehow validates our feelings about ourselves and that’s a shame.

Pluto is what Pluto is, regardless of the designation we give it. You are who you are, with no importance given to what others may call you. Nothing changes. The kind of person you choose to be is defined by other things: The way you behave towards others, the things you say about other people. Your behavior defines you. Your existence. Not the names people call you, that’s their problem.

What makes you a better or worse person has nothing to do with how others designate you. You are you and so Pluto is Pluto.

Tom Liberman

Good Intentions with Johnny Bobbitt and Kate McClure

Johnny Bobbitt*EDIT*

I’m sorry to say, it now appears this was a scam involving all three parties. There never were any good intentions at all. Still, much of the blog is applicable.

*END EDIT*

About a year ago there was a feel-good story in the news about a homeless man named Johnny Bobbitt helping a woman named Kate McClure when she ran out of fuel. Bobbitt, a homeless man living under a bridge near where McClure was stranded, walked to a gas station and spent his last dollars purchasing a canister of fuel to get her home. The aftermath is a study of good intentions when there is no plan.

McClure started a GoFundMe campaign in order to help Bobbitt out of his situation. The news went viral and soon enough they collected $400,000. Bobbitt is a drug addict. McClure and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico now had a pile of money to manage and no plan. They aren’t financially savvy nor did they have any idea how to deal with a person in Bobbitt’s situation. They paid for rehab but, as is often the case, he relapsed.

Perhaps McClure and D’Amico had the best of intentions and for the moment let’s assume they did. D’Amico said much of the money from the fund going to Bobbitt was being spent on drugs. D’Amico pointed out that if they gave all the money directly to Bobbitt he’d probably be dead not long after. It’s a valid point. So, they had to manage the money. This takes time and costs money in and of itself. They missed work trying to organize it all and spent time and effort ferrying Bobbitt to his addiction meetings. To make up for this, McClure and D’Amico paid themselves from the GoFundMe campaign money. They took trips, purchased an expensive car, etc.

GoFundMe has launched an investigation into the idea the entire campaign was fraudulent. If the couple can’t account for the money they might well be facing prison. The donors who gave all that money are understandably upset much of it went to the couple instead of Bobbitt.

Meanwhile, Bobbitt is back to living under the bridge and panhandling because he doesn’t have any money. What’s the lesson in all of this? Good intentions are not enough. Grand ideas are not enough. You must make pragmatic and realistic plans. McClure and D’Amico should have immediately hired a financial advisor and a drug rehabilitation specialist to organize their efforts. This costs money, naturally. They chose to handle it themselves and now they face serious legal consequences.

This pattern of good intentions without a realistic plan is part and parcel of the fabric of our everyday life. Look no further than Washington D.C., your local government, or your church. You might well be a good person, a decent human being, and want to help. If you don’t plan you will most likely do far more harm than good.

Tom Liberman

Vaginal Rejuvenation, Chipotle Gift Cards, Ginger-less Ginger Ale, and Critical Thinking

Critical ThinkingA plethora of news stories in recent days reminded me why I’m of the opinion that the solutions to many of the problems we face today lies in teaching Critical Thinking skills from an early age. Solutions will never come from government warnings and the illusion we are safe because of such intervention does more harm than good.

Let’s take a look at the trio of stories that caught my attention. The Food and Drug Administration is now attempting to shut down various Vaginal Rejuvenation clinics whose services have no known efficacy and, if improperly performed, can cause harm. Many people have been fooled by a fake $100 gift card for Chipotle. Finally, a woman is suing Canada Dry because there is no ginger in their Ginger Ale despite advertisements that suggest there might be such.

What do all these things have in common? The people who are harmed lack Critical Thinking skills. In the first case, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has been vociferously lambasting Vaginal Rejuvenation as a scam for over ten years. Anyone who goes in for treatment of their body without doing at least a cursory investigation of the procedure about to happen is clearly not engaged in Critical Thinking.

At least some of the people who fell for the Chipotle scam gave away personal information to the scammers in order to get a free $100. Probably the motto of the Critical Thinking movement should be: Nihil est in vita liber. Nothing is Free in Life. If you thought Chipotle was going to let you purchase $100 worth of food for simply passing along a web link you are clearly lacking in Critical Thinking skills.

In the case of the ginger less Ginger Ale, the ingredients are on the bottle. Certainly, the advertising is designed to fool but if you want to make sure you get your daily dose of ginger, then it is imperative for you to look at ingredients.

All three of these problems require no government intervention. Certainly, if a medical procedure is botched there should be ramifications and the legal system can be invoked, but that would be for doing damage, not for you getting a stupid procedure that doesn’t work when there was readily available information to that effect.

We may look at the people fooled in all three cases and happily pat ourselves on the back for being too smart to avoid it but the reality is more sinister. As more and more people exhibit an inability to engage in Critical Thinking, the fabric of our society becomes unwound. Those of us capable of making good decisions are increasingly harmed by those who cannot. When a certain percentage of people in a society can no longer think critically, the society will most certainly be crushed.

More and more people entertain ludicrous conspiracy theories and act in ways that can potentially harm us all. This is dangerous for me and that’s the person I care about the most. I don’t really care that a bunch of idiots are harming themselves, that’s the way the world works. I care they are harming me.

How do we solve this problem? There is no way to account for everyone’s gullibility and stupidity. Some people will be foolish no matter how much we warn them. However, if we start teaching Critical Thinking skills at every step of the schooling process I’m of the opinion we will do far more good than any number of government regulations designed to protect us.

Nihil est in vita liber.

Tom Liberman

The Interesting Origins of a Witch Hunt

Witch HuntThe idea of a Witch Hunt is much in the news lately and I realized I didn’t really understand the origin of the practice. Off I go to find out more. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the modern usage in regards to politics but the ancient usage wherein people were accused, tried, found guilty, and murdered by the hundreds of thousands for doing something they could not possibly have done. If you aren’t fascinated by that, well, stop reading.

Witch Hunts date back throughout recorded history and likely beyond with the Code of Hammurabi being the first written instance of legal remedies. The code commands throwing the person who has had a spell cast upon them into the river. If they don’t drown, the person accused of casting the spell should be killed.

The impetus for a Witch Hunt, which we see widely across the globe in a variety of cultures, seems to be straight-forward enough. If misfortune befalls someone we look for a reason behind this occurrence. It is largely the same when fortune favors someone. We humans are pattern finders extraordinaire. We see shapes in clouds and rock formations. We look for cause and effect in virtually all aspects of our lives and this serves us exceedingly well for the most part.

Sadly, pattern recognition also leads us to see associations that don’t exist. If I lived in the middle ages it’s quite likely I would imagine that exceptionally crazy, er, passionate, girl at the gym to whom I am attracted to like a moth to the flame but who is currently in a relationship with some other poor sap was under some sort of spell. After all, how could she be remotely interested in someone besides me?

If I lived in Ancient Babylon I would throw myself into the river, first taking a few swimming lessons and taking a trial run or two, and, having survived, would have her current beau put to the fire while I took his house and hopefully her love. Win!

Interestingly enough, in ancient Greek there were no Witch Hunts but the Romans were not so logically inclined and persecuted and murdered those thought to cast evil incantations or spells. This was curtailed, believe it or not, by the introduction of Christianity. The Old Testament has the famous Exodus passage thou shall not suffer a witch to live but early Christians frowned upon witchcraft as it was considered blasphemous to suggest people could cast spells. Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds.

By the late middle ages this sensible approach was abandoned when witchcraft was determined to be a result of Satanic Worship. Those people who worshipped the devil were, in fact, capable of casting evil spells. After this various European communities went through periods where the Witch Hunt was common and at least tens of thousands of people were put to death.

By the 18th century such murders were dying out in the western world although are still taking in certain places in Africa, South-Central Asia, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia. People are still executed in all of these places.

The lesson to be learned from all of this? To me it’s fairly obvious. Just because something happens that doesn’t have an obvious explanation is no indicator of a supernatural cause. As an Atheist, I’m willing to go further. There are as many people of casting malevolent magical spells in this world as there are gods. That is to say, none.

Tom Liberman

The Red Hen and Masterpiece Cakeshop

Red Hen Masterpiece CakeshopRecently the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked to leave a restaurant called the Red Hen because they didn’t like her political ideology as expressed in her job. Before that a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple because of their sexual orientation.

The two stories are intertwined in an interesting way for this Libertarian. The battle lines have been drawn, as they say. For me the two cases do not present any sort of ethical dilemma. As far as I’m concerned, the ownership of both The Red Hen and Masterpiece Cakeshop have every right to serve, or not serve, who they want as long as they do not run afoul protected classes. Neither homosexuals or political appointees are guarded by the Constitution, so far. From a legal standpoint, I support both businesses.

From a professional perspective and from a human level I would not have done the same if I was the owner of either the cake shop or the restaurant. I think if I am going to start a business of any sort, I should respect both myself and my customers, regardless of their sexual orientation or political philosophy. From a personal standpoint, I oppose both business owners.

It’s really that simple for me. I don’t have to think much about it. I don’t have to worry about my political ideology or my personal distastes. I have a job and I try to do it as best I can regardless of other factors.

I’m aware we can get into nuance here. What if a group of Nazis wanted to have a birthday party at my restaurant? Would I allow it? Particularly if they were going to display paraphernalia supporting hatred of Jews. I’m actually of the opinion that I’d have them although I’d probably require modest, rather than overt, displays of their beliefs.

If a person with a white supremacist or a rainbow tattoo wanted to dine at my establishment I think I’d have no issue and attempt to serve them the best meal possible. I think we’d all be better off if we treated each other fairly and with decency regardless of personal convictions.

Now, if the same person was loudly and belligerently expressing their hatred of Jews or heterosexuals while dining, I’d feel within my rights to ask them to please express their beliefs in a more subdued fashion. If they refused, I’d consider asking them to leave. As long as they were polite and treated my business with respect, I like to think I’d keep any problems I had with their philosophies to myself.

Certainly, many of the people who I helped with software development were of deeply held religious beliefs. I’m an Atheist. I didn’t let that stop me from doing the best job I could. So, I have some evidence to support my convictions as expressed here.

I do find it extraordinarily interesting that, to some degree, those who support Masterpiece Cakeshop are opposed to Red Hen and vice-versa.

I think this is where critical thinking and a consistent philosophical outlook can make the world a better place. Where everyone gets to have their food or cake and eat them too. A boy can dream.

Tom Liberman

Yanny and Laurel and the Nature of Reality

Yanny LaurelThere has arisen a large kerfuffle amongst people who hear either Yanny or Laurel when a particular sound is played. It seems impossible to those listening and hearing one of the two that those who claim to hear the other are being completely honest. This gives us an interesting opportunity to peer into the realm of what we think of as Reality. Of Subjectivity versus Objectivity.

There is both an objective and subjective reality in this situation. The sound being played is propagating through the air as an audible wave of pressure. Devices can measure this wave and display it visually as a wavelength. With some small variances depending on the sensitivity of such devices and also the variance of the sound projecting machine this Yanny or Laurel wave has an objective reality.

However, every human ear is of a different shape and the tiny bones that detect those audible waves are not the same from person to person. Everyone likely hears the sound slightly differently. Our brains are all configured differently and interpret the sounds with slight variances. The fact people seem to hear one of the two, Yanny or Laurel is interesting but not surprising. We have no problem accepting the fact that groups of people have various levels of color blindness. That many groups see green in one way and others in another fashion.

The reality of the sound wave is objectively true. The reality of our interpretation of that wave is subjectively true. I might hear Yanny and be perfectly correct while another person might hear Laurel and be equally without error. A third person might hear something completely different or relatively close to Yanny or Laurel, they also would be right.

This presents me no discomfort. Communication is not at all about the sound wave but, instead, the meaning behind it. Words are merely grunts to which we assign meaning in order to communicate ideas with one another. It’s difficult for me to order lunch if the waitperson doesn’t speak the same language as I do. This is the entire purpose of communication and, to a certain degree, defines our reality.

The sound wave that generates Yanny or Laurel is the same either way and yet what we hear is slightly different. As long as we can come to some mutual understanding of the sound and its meaning, then everything is perfectly fine. Now, let’s imagine I’m having a conversation with the leader of a belligerent power and I use a word meaning one thing to me but she interprets it to mean something else. Then we’ve got a problem.

When we speak different languages, we are using two completely dissimilar sounds to convey the same idea. As long as the idea is effectively communicated that is the entirety of our concern. The objective reality of the sound wave is meaningless, it is our subjective understanding of it that is of paramount importance.

Much of the life we lead follows this exact same principle. A red light means nothing without our interpretation of it to stop the car. The red light is objectively what it is. It is a truth. In our society we have learned to stop at a red light but other societies might have completely different rules in regards to traffic. Both are subjectively right for the circumstances.

This is not to discount objective reality. There is such a thing and our common understanding of it largely determines the subjective reality we experience. Most words don’t have the duality of Laurel and Yanny. Most words are understandable to everyone and have particular subjective meaning that aligns directly with the objective sound wave. When two different people hear the same word, they assign the same meaning to it. This is important.

It’s possible for someone to interpret the word, “Hello” to mean something derogatory and punch me in the face after I utter it to them. Subjectively they might be hearing the derogatory word but objectively it has meaning and law is based upon that meaning. When the ensuing court case, or my return fist, lands, the law will be on the side of the objective meaning of the word. Consequences will be meted out.

What does all this mean? You hear what you perceive but it’s not reality. It’s your interpretation of the real sound. Or, to be more succinct: It’s fine either way. Go have an ice cream.

Tom Liberman

The Woodchuck Conundrum

woodchuckI usually write articles about topics of little importance relating to Libertarian ideals but I thought I’d get serious for a moment and consider the age-old Woodchuck Conundrum. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The problems largely lie within the question itself and make it all but impossible to answer. Not that some more intelligent minds than my own haven’t made the attempt. The first problem lies in the nature of the marmot in general. What exactly is a woodchuck? The generally accepted culprit is the groundhog. We might accept this as our answer but there is a thin layer of mistrust already hovering over our final answer. Might it actually be a beaver or even a termite?

Now, the groundhog is a fine fellow to be sure but according to Wikipedia its diet consists of grasses and berries. This becomes an issue when we examine the nature of chucking. What is it to chuck? Eat? Vomit? Excavate? Hurl over a fence? There seems to be no consensus on the issue and groundhogs in general don’t seem to have a particularly compelling correlation to trees or even lumber. Clearly chucking involves wood in some form. However, the riddle itself seems to indicate the groundhog might not able to perform the activity. That is to say, “if” a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Were we to ask, if Tom Liberman could date Jennifer Aniston, how long would they kiss? You might say, well, Mr. Liberman, handsome and witty as he might be, is not capable of dating Ms. Aniston. I beg to differ. While the odds are somewhat in the same realm as randomly guessing a 128-bit encryption key, they are not, to say, impossible. It could happen. So, perhaps, in the same way, the groundhog can chuck wood. This throws yet another difficulty at the feet of our query.

What if the woodchuck was actually a termite which does interact with wood? This leads us to our final problem. There is no timeframe in evidence. Even if we assume the nature of the beast and its relationship with wood and ability to chuck therein, we still can’t properly answer. Are we chucking for an hour? A day? A month? A year? Without this vital information we cannot with good conscience assay an answer to the conundrum.

This brings a light upon many such questions. If you ask a question in a certain way that makes it impossible to answer, and yet you demand an answer anyway, is not the problem your own? Should the burden be upon the questioner to ask a good and fair question? I think so.

The next time someone asks you a question that cannot be properly answered, insist they reword their query. Refuse to play their game!

Now, having arrived at this revelation, I think there is but a single conclusion to the Woodchuck Conundrum. For us to answer properly and fairly; Ms. Aniston must give me a call. I’ll be waiting.

Tom Liberman

United Airlines and Would You Trade a Quarterly Bonus for a Chance at a Big Prize?

United AirlinesUnited Airlines recently announced they were doing away with a quarterly bonus of $300 to all eligible employees and instituting a lottery wherein those same employees have a chance to win $100,000 and other prizes. What I’d like to ask is if you would want such a plan at your place of work?

Let’s look at the metrics. United Airlines employees almost 90,000 people although we have no way of knowing how many of those get the incentive bonus of $300. It is based on things like attendance so it doesn’t sound particularly difficult to achieve. I’m going to say that about a quarter of the employees get the bonus. That’s 22,000 bonuses of $300 awarded each quarter for a total of $6.6 million in payouts.

We have to do a bit more guesswork on the value of the remaining prizes United Airlines is giving out but let’s say the total package is worth $2 million. That’s a saving of $4.6 million dollars for the company. Pretty nifty. It might be more, it might be less, but I think it’s fair to say the new policy is designed to save the company money. United Airlines executives claim it will generate employee excitement but I think it’s reasonable to infer this line is somewhat disingenuous.

Under the old plan an employee who met the standards receives $300 each quarter. That’s not a life-changing sum by any imagination. A bonus of $100,000 and trips are, obviously, of significantly greater value to an individual employee. The employee who wins the bigger prize is quite happy while all the employees who gave up the $300 for nothing are not as thrilled. From a metric point of view that’s about 21,900+ employees who are angry and 100, depending on how many prizes are offered, who are happy, each quarter.

Will this mean more employees seek the bonus? Fewer? These are interesting questions to me. They speak to psychological motivations. Would you do more for the chance at a greater prize or do less because your chance of getting something is greatly diminished? Would it not change your work behavior at all?

What do you think?

Would you be for or against a plan like United Airlines?

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Tom Liberman

Will Study Disproving Fish Oil Health Benefits Dissuade Believers?

fish oilA study involving 78,000 people shows taking Fish Oil supplements does nothing to prevent heart attacks or in any way reduce heart disease. No surprise there. The American Heart Association came to similar conclusions in a study last year. That being said, I’m fairly confident the study will almost certainly not change the purchasing habits of the almost 21% of United States citizens. Why?

A quick perusal of the internet shows me that a bottle of the pills can cost as little as $10 and as much as $40. Why would anyone continue to make the purchases when there is clear, empirical evidence they are completely ineffective? There are a number of reasons including something called Confirmation Bias but what I’d like to discuss today is the role pride has in all of this.

Pride seems to drive any number of poor decisions. By concluding all the money spent on fish oil supplements over the years was wasted, we are admitting a certain level of stupidity. There has long been a great deal of skepticism about supplements in general and fish oil in particular. It is quite likely most of the people taking fish oil supplements have been spoken to by friends and family expressing doubt about the efficacy of the product. The women and men taking it, and spending money on it, over the years have almost certainly defended the practice.

Many aficionados have likely read about the supposed benefits of fish oil touted by the manufacturers and decided to believe these claims despite the skeptics. There is some sense of their own self-worth tied up in taking the supplements.
This pride will be manifestly displayed in people who continue to take fish oil pills even after being confronted with incontrovertible evidence of their ineffectiveness. What does this tell us? It suggests that Pride is indeed one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The entire thing is really just an interesting study in human nature. We don’t like to be wrong and when I say we, I include myself. That being said, it is important to attempt to engage your critical thinking skills as much as possible when presented with information of this nature. If you take fish oil supplements, take a moment to consider the implications of the test. Take a few seconds to think about alerting your like-minded friends that the benefits do not exist, that taking the pills is not helpful to your health or to your financial future.

It is only when we can take our pride out of the equation that we can hope to make better decisions.
And to finish things up, an informal poll. If twenty percent of people in the United States are at this time taking fish oil supplements then certainly a few people that read this article will be among them. Will this study, and the one’s the preceded it, dissuade you from future purchases?

What is your take on Fish Oil Supplements

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Tom Liberman

Bob McNair was the Apology a Lie?

Bob McNairThe owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair, recently made a comment for which he later apologized. A National Football League player named Richard Sherman thinks the original statement was a true indication of the feelings McNair has and that the apology is merely pretend. What I’m going to discuss is not the nature of the comment itself but the reality of Sherman’s analysis.

To get you up to speed, there is an ongoing issue in the NFL in which players are kneeling or otherwise protesting during the playing of the national anthem. The owners largely do not like this. McNair was quoted as saying something along the lines of: We cannot let the prisoners run the asylum. This equates the players in the NFL to incarcerated people. McNair was apparently confronted shortly after making the statement and he apologized.

Sherman believes McNair truly meant the statement, that he associates the players with inmates. People who should have no say as to how the team is managed. Sherman believes the apology a lie motivated by politically correctness.

Sherman believes McNair is not alone in his opinion. Sherman thinks other NFL owners feel the same way, players are to be used as best as possible and discarded when their productive years are behind them. Sherman also believes not all owners think like this. He thinks the owner of his team, Paul Allen, does not think this way about his players.

We cannot know for certain if McNair’s original statement is his true opinion or not but I think it’s an interesting question. Did McNair mean it when he compared NFL players to prisoners in an institution? Is he bowing to business expediency and political correctness by pretending to apologize?

I think Sherman’s opinion is legitimate. I think there is quite a good chance McNair truly believed what he said and, upon reflection, realized it was a terrible thing to say. Or perhaps McNair is simply pretending to apologize. That he, in his heart, believes what he original said. Again, we have no way of knowing the answer to this question, only McNair can tell us.

Sherman goes on to make an incredibly interesting point. He says he would rather McNair tell the truth, even if it is antithetical to Sherman’s own beliefs. Sherman would rather know the honest opinion of McNair and thereafter avoid him.

Let’s imagine I know someone whose opinions on a subject are deeply offensive to me. Would I rather they pretend not to have those opinions when around me, or would I prefer if they told me exactly what they were thinking? I find myself in complete agreement with Sherman. If you have an opinion, state it. If I don’t like it, well, it’s up to me to decide if I want to be around you in the future. Sure, when you make a statement I don’t like, I can speak up. Trust me, I do. If you refuse to back down then we are at an impasse. The ball is in my court. I can choose to associate with you in the future or I can choose to avoid events at which we might meet. If we do meet, I can choose to circumvent topics of conversation where I know we conflict and focus on areas where we might agree.

I do not disagree with anyone about all things nor do I agree completely with anyone on all subjects. I, like Sherman, would prefer to know you true opinions. Then I can make judgments and take actions that I deem appropriate.

My opinions are in my blogs and my novels for all to see. I’m an Atheist. I’m a Libertarian. I don’t suffer fools lightly. If that offends you, and there are many who are offended, then the ball is in your court. You can choose to engage me or avoid me. You can choose not to be friends with me on Facebook so you don’t have to see my thoughts on various topics. That’s cool. I respect that.

I think that’s Sherman’s point here. He wants McNair to be honest. If they disagree, so be it. What he doesn’t like is saying one thing while behind the scenes doing something else entirely. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t apologize if you say something and upon further examination realize it was truly awful. You are allowed to change your opinion. I certainly hope McNair is truly sorry for what he said, that he realizes the condescending nature of his statement. Then the apology is warranted and should be accepted.

I’m sure Sherman, and others, will be watching McNair more closely in the future. Will his actions down the road support his original statement or the apology? That’s the true test. We can say anything we want. It’s our actions that prove the integrity of our words.

Tom Liberman

Taylor Winston and the Case for Relative Morality

taylor winstonAs an Atheist, one of the things I talk about frequently is the relative nature of ethics. My religious friends believe their morality is handed down from god to them. I argue that morality is not fixed by any being, be it god or the government, but is subject to interpretation. This reasoning usually does not find purchase with such friends. I hope the case of Taylor Winston and stealing might make the point clearer.

Stealing is wrong or stealing is usually wrong. The former statement is an absolute statement of morality and is found pretty much verbatim in the bible. Thou Shall Not Steal. There are no caveats. This is the argument made by my religious friends. The second statement is not so stringent. Stealing is generally wrong but it circumstantially could be the right thing to do. This is the argument often made by Atheists.

I think the case of Winston might resonate with my religious friends. He was attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. He was among the crowd, along with friends, when the gunfire began to rain down upon them. He managed to escape over some fencing while helping others do the same. Then, seeing the many wounded, he went to the parking lot and found a vehicle with keys. He illegally entered the vehicle, started it, and drove it to the hospital with victims of the attack. He then returned and ferried more people in the stolen truck.

The public reaction to Winston and his actions pretty much proves the point of relative morality. If stealing is wrong without question, if we follow the word of god’s morality; there can be no question Winston was in direct violation of the 7th or 8th commandment, depending on the version. Winston should suffer whatever punishment a society based on religion should choose to enforce, perhaps chopping his hands off.

My question for anyone reading this blog post is what did you first think about the story of Winston and the truck stealing? What was your immediate and instant reaction? I’d be enormously surprised if anyone thought Winston committed an immoral act, including the owner of the truck.

I suppose some argument can be made that he simply borrowed the truck but the reality is Winston saw a situation in which he needed something that did not belong to him and took it. It’s that simple. In this particular case he did the ethical thing, the right thing. Not only should he not be punished but he should be rewarded.

This is one of many reasons I’m an Atheist. Please feel free to join me.

Tom Liberman

Pascal’s Wager is all about Integrity

pascal's wagerI was watching my favorite Atheist Based show, Atheist Experience, when they once again took on the topic of Pascal’s Wager. For me it all comes down to integrity. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Pascal’s Wager?

The idea is an interesting study of probability and decision theory. The premise is that a belief in god will bring an almost infinite reward, eternal happiness in heaven. If, on the other hand, you do not have such belief, you suffer eternal damnation. This is where the wager becomes a true bet rather than a religious argument. What is there to lose or gain in belief or lack thereof?

Let’s say you could wager a penny to win a million dollars. No matter how long the odds of the bet, you’d most likely take that gamble. It’s essentially the same thing as spending a dollar on a lottery ticket when the reward is hundreds of millions of dollars. The single dollar you spend has no real effect on your life and the reward is so enormous, it’s worth taking.

Even if you are almost certain god does not exist, the reward of believing and the punishment for not believing makes it silly to do anything else. Why not believe? You don’t have to go to church, you don’t have to express that belief to others, your life doesn’t really have to change all that much. You just have to believe to get the reward and barely give up anything at all.

Well, that is if you don’t value your integrity. For me the loss in believing is that I’m lying to myself, I’m lying to my family, I’m lying to all my friends. I don’t believe in god. I think the very idea is rather silly. I am certain there is no heaven and if it existed, I wouldn’t want to go as it is run by a misogynistic, murdering, despot.

If I decide to believe in god in order to get a reward although it is against everything my rational mind derives; I have no integrity. What won’t I do? Lying, stealing, cheating, raping, murdering are now on the table, as long as doing so likely benefits me. Why wouldn’t I kill my parents to get the money I’d inherit, particularly if I was certain to get away with it? Here is some news for you; I wouldn’t seek to murder anyone, or rape anyone, or steal from anyone; no matter how certain it was that no one would ever find out. Because doing that to other people is wrong, just as if they did it to me.

Pascal argues that believing in god doesn’t hurt me in any way. That is where he is wrong. Stating that I believe something that I do not destroys my own sense of self-worth. I would be living a lie. My integrity would be gone. If I were to do such a thing I would loathe myself for the rest of my life.

The idea behind the wager itself is worth discussing. The concept of risk-reward is something you should think about when making decisions in your own life. What have I to gain and what is there to lose? Those are questions that should be answered before making major life decisions.

In this case the potential loss is greater than the reward, at least for me. The question is valid, I hope my answer is clear.

Tom Liberman