Casey Smitherman and Doing Good to Make Yourself Feel Better

Smitherman

The story about Casey Smitherman who made a false insurance claim to help a sick student has been much in the news lately and gets me thinking. Thinking about what, you might ask? Thinking about people who try to do something good largely for the purpose of making themselves feel better, not the person they are supposedly helping.

First the situation. A student in Smitherman’s school district, Ellwood Community Schools, missed some days of school and Smitherman went to the home of the student and took the boy to the doctor. There she used her insurance card and claimed the student was her son. This is insurance fraud.

I would guess the average person reading this story will laud Smitherman as a hero. While what she did was illegal, it was with the best intentions of the student at heart. This demonstrates an idea I wrote about a while back called Relativistic Morality but I don’t want to rehash that topic in this blog. What interests me in this case is that Smitherman has resigned and at least one family member of the boy who was treated is happy about it. Why? Because Smitherman came into the family home, took the boy, got medication, and gave it to him without permission from his guardians.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know all the facts about the case. I don’t know the circumstances of the boy’s life or the responsibility of his guardians but that fact bring into doubt Smitherman’s motivations. Basically, it’s possible she was simply doing it because she wanted to feel better about herself and was less interested in helping the boy. That’s the idea I’d like to examine in this blog. People who claim to be helping others when in fact they are trying to make themselves feel like better human beings.

How many of us are guilty of the same thing? We see something that appears to be an egregious situation and step in, without permission, to right the wrongs. How many of us stick our noses in the business of others where it does not belong?

If we see a parent disciplining a child in a way we deem to violent, should we step in? Most people want to be helpful and kind. It makes us feel good to help others. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads people to overstep their authority and place. We jump into someone else’s life with the hope of aiding them but in reality, we are just trying to make ourselves feel like a good person. They did not want nor need our help.

There are no easy answers here. Sometimes it’s very important to step in and help people. Other times we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we are making a situation worse. One of phrases I like to think about in these circumstances is: Don’t criticize the way another person goes about doing her or his business. Before intervening, I suggest you consider why you are doing it. Is it to help the other person or is it simply to make yourself feel like a good person?

I think Smitherman crossed onto the wrong side of the line when she took the boy without permission and her actions should be taken in that light. You may feel differently.

Tom Liberman

Russia and the Battle for Soft Power

Soft Power

I just read an interesting article about how Russia is advancing their political cause by opening up educational opportunities to foreign students, this is an element of something called Soft Power. In the last twenty years Russia and China, perhaps realizing the United States military is largely unassailable, have been ramping up their use of this method of acquiring power in the world and we need be aware of this strategy.

I’ve written about how the United States is losing their edge in the education world more than once and you might want to peruse those articles here and here. Meanwhile, I’ll continue with this one.

The idea of Soft Power essentially means getting other nations to want to be like you. For the entire history of the United States we have enjoyed an enormous advantage in Soft Power simply because our Constitution guaranteed us freedom and with this freedom came upward mobility on a scale never before seen in the history of the world. Our colleges attracted foreign students in enormous numbers, and still do. These students went back to their home countries with stories about the plentiful opportunities the United States has to offer.

The effectiveness of this Soft Power was demonstrated particularly after World War II when it defeated the Soviet Union who, at the time, was much more interested in Hard Power. The United States offered hope and opportunity, a lady with open arms and a welcoming smile in the Upper New York Bay. When the United States came into existence there were very few nations in the world where the people were free, that has changed, largely because of our use of Soft Power rather than military exercises. Freedom has spread.

Success engenders imitation and the leaders of China and Russia, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, are spending a great deal of time, effort, and money in that flattery. They see it works and are now implementing various strategies across the globe designed to demonstrate the value of China and Russia to the people of other nations.

Meanwhile the United States is going in the opposite direction. We have fewer foreign students than we had ten years ago. We are actively attempting to reduce the number further. We are sanctioning more and more countries making it difficult or impossible for our greatest Soft Power asset, capitalistic ideology, to do business with foreign states.

The United States is still a leader in propagating Soft Power throughout the world but we are heading in the wrong direction while our chief rivals are moving to supplant us. An America first plan ensures that we will become America third before too long. Relying on Hard Power didn’t work for the Soviet Union and it’s not going to work for us.

Tom Liberman

Yoga Mayhem Generated by Loss of Routine

Yoga

This morning in my yoga class there was something wrong with the environmental controls and I’m fascinated by how this relatively minor problem created a situation of so much unease. We humans like routine and when that is disturbed it can completely change our entire disposition. Let me explain.

At my new gym the yoga room environment is controlled by an automated system based on the class schedule. There are free-flowing advanced classes, called Vinyasa, in which the practitioners build up a good sweat. In such classes the room is generally kept cool. There is yoga in an intentionally heated and steamed room, called Bikram, in which the room is artificially turned into a sauna-like environment. And there are others, all with their ideal temperatures. Because the instructors of the previous class sometimes forgot to change the temperature to a setting comfortable for the next class; it was decided the new classroom should do it automatically. Hurray! Except when it doesn’t work.

This was the case today. When I arrived, it was clear the room was anticipating a Bikram class as there was a strong sense of moisture in the air and the yoga room was quite hot. The system began to cool the room not long after I arrived but that didn’t stop a virtual hurricane of anxiety as each new person came into the room and commented on it thus triggering replies from those already there.

About ten minutes into the class the steam came on and the room became decidedly warmer. The instructor kept her head, turned on the fans, propped open the door with a block, and largely remained calm. That being said, she was thrown off her game and the feeling of uneasiness crept into the room. I can only imagine how bad it might have become with a less calm instructor.

The class flow itself lost cohesiveness as the instructor attempted to keep the students calm while adjusting various exercises for the new paradigm. We took a Child’s Pose in the midst of active maneuvers because our instructor was concerned people might be overheating. Eventually the temperature ameliorated and the steam shut off.

Still, I found the entire episode instructive. It’s amazing how quickly a situation can turn from calm control into utter chaos. Luckily, in this case, our instructor was level-headed and the situation only mildly degenerated despite the feeling of panic that was hanging in the air for a little while. I can only imagine what might have happened with a less professional instructor.

It doesn’t take much to throw people out of their routine and into panic. It’s important in such situations to remain as calm as possible and carry on.

I’m not saying there was the potential for disaster but I can easily imagine some yoga classes degenerating into chaos under similar situation, with everyone babbling and losing the flow entirely. That would have been a waste of my morning and I’m glad it didn’t happen.

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

Mike Gundy and Kids Today Nonsense

TMike Gundyhe head coach of the Oklahoma State football team, Mike Gundy, is not happy the young football players under his charge are allowed to transfer from his school to another without his permission. Gundy made his displeasure known by claiming, among other nonsense, that kids today don’t have the toughness to stick with difficult things.

Hey, I can just do what I want and I don’t have to really be tough and fight through it.’ You see that with young people because it’s an option they’re given. We weren’t given that option when we were growing up. We were told what to do, we did it the right way, or you go figure it out on your own.

This is not the first time I’ve heard an older person wax poetically about their youth. How they all paid attention to their elders, how they all knew right from wrong, how all kids today are spoiled and soft. How it was my way or the highway world. It turns my stomach every time I hear it. First off, Gundy is a liar. He knows darn well he, and lots of young people he knew, did not always do what they were told or do things the right way. That coaches often cut them slack. It’s utter crap and everyone knows it. You know it, I know it, and Gundy knows it.

Young football players work harder and longer at their craft than kids did when Gundy was at school. The National Championship team of thirty years ago would be blown off the field by a good team today. The players are stronger, faster, and most importantly, far more educated in their craft. I say this not as a knock against former players, who were great kids also, but they didn’t have access to the training resources available today.

Young players today spend countless hours studying film. When you explain to a football player why this technique in this situation is better and then show them on film, you get better players than if you just say, do it this way. Not only do the kids work harder but having an understanding of why they are doing something makes them better players and better humans. Kids today have lots of stick to it, just as much as kids from bygone years.

As for the underlying reason for Gundy’s moronic statements; the fact a football player can’t simply decide to go to another school without the permission of the first school is antithetical to all my Libertarian thoughts. Coaches can, and frequently do, transfer schools without permission in chase of higher paychecks. The young football players just want a chance to play. Most transfers occur because the player in question is not getting playing time in his or her current situation.

Can you switch jobs without getting your current employer’s permission? Answer me that and then explain what about your personal life philosophy wants to take that freedom away from others.

Kids today, they’re great. Adults with bad memories and a chip on their shoulder, not so much.

Tom Liberman

Del Potro and the not so Bad Life of being Not the Best

Juan Martin del PotroI was watching the Rafael Nadal versus Juan Martin del Potro tennis match in the Wimbledon Quarterfinals when it occurred to be just how good is del Potro, this despite the fact he is not the best. I started to consider the life of the people who are exceptionally good at their chosen profession but are not the best. It’s not so bad.

Del Potro has never been ranked higher than fourth in the world of professional tennis. He won the 2009 U.S. Open but that is his only victory in what are considered the Major events of tennis. He has defeated all the best players in the world from time to time but has a losing record against the three men considered the finest of his generation: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal (listed in alphabetic order to avoid anyone chastising me).

Del Potro is better at tennis than I will be at anything in my life. He is better at tennis than the vast majority of people will be at anything they attempt. He works harder at his craft than I have ever worked at anything in my life. He works harder than most people. For all his efforts he is not even a consideration when ranking the best tennis players of all-time or even of this generation.

Despite not being able to attain the pinnacle of his profession he has managed to earn over $21 million in prize money and certainly a substantial amount in endorsements.

What separates del Potro from those who are considered the greatest? It’s impossible to say. His mental toughness, not quite enough accuracy, his physical conditioning, his strength? There are no answers here. The difference between del Potro and those considered the greatest is so small as to be undetectable, but it is there nonetheless. This means he will never be spoken of in the same terms as those others. This is reality.

Throughout the history of sport people like del Potro have always existed. Players of such tremendous skill and ability that bench warmers like myself can never truly understand exactly how good they are at their chosen profession. Even if they are not the best.

This is where I delve into philosophy. Is that so bad for del Potro? Maybe not being under the same microscope the greatest must face is in some sense its own reward. He has achieved great and wonderful things for which he should be immensely proud.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best. I want to be the best writer in the world. It’s virtually certain I will never be so. That’s ok, I’m of the opinion the attempt is of vital importance to happiness. Success is wonderful. Failure is painful. Happiness is the goal.

I’m willing to guess in many, if not all, ways del Potro is just as happy as the other, better, tennis players. Good for him. In the end no one keeps score. You’re dead. How much did you enjoy yourself whilst alive?

Tom Liberman

Of Physical and Metaphysical or an Examination of God, Love, and Tables

metaphysicalAs an Atheist I think about the nature of god as described in various religions and by those who are true believers. One of the issues that comes up is the nature of god as both physical and metaphysical or otherwise described as natural and supernatural. There are things in this world we can detect and there are things we cannot. There are things that exist in a physical way and things that are merely constructs of the human mind.

I’m going to start with the obvious, a table at my side. It is a physical reality in this world. We can see a table, we can set things upon it and see they stay where they were placed. We can measure the length of the table, we can weigh the table, we can chip off a piece and put it into a spectroscope and make many physical determinations as to its base nature. A table is made up of particles that can be detected in a variety of ways.

Now to the less obvious. Love is a word we use to describe a sensation we get from chemical and biological reactions in our body to various stimuli the world provides. We cannot detect it with scientific instruments nor measure it in any way other than description. Numbers are likewise human constructs which have only a metaphysical presence in this world. This is not to say that love and numbers are not extraordinarily useful in this world in which we live. Both allow us to communicate and understand one another. Both allow human society to function at levels it could not without them. They exist but as human constructs, not as physical entities.

If all humans were to be eradicated there would be no more love or numbers. It is the argument about the tree falling in the forest if no one is there to hear it. In the physical world the tree exists and the sound waves created from its falling and impacting on the surrounding terrain can be detected, even if there is no one there to make such measurements. If no one is there to express love or talk about numbers, they simply don’t exist. They are not available to be measured. The table still exists even if there is no one to see it. It is there in a way love and numbers are not.

The problem with a deity is that it is largely agreed we cannot detect it any way. This is a more modern attribute assigned to an all-powerful entity but is a natural outgrowth in our scientific ability to understand the nature of things. The greater our capability to see the hidden the more god must hide, simply because such an entity is a construct of human minds. It is equivalent to love and numbers. Useful, certainly, but not physically real.

A deity can no more inspire people to write a book than the number zero can inspire Stephen Hawking to write a paper on black holes. The number zero comes from humans, not the reverse and the same applies to god. Both are metaphysical.

Those things that do no physically exist are simply constructs of the human mind. Sherlock Holmes certainly has an existence but it is not physical. We can talk about Sherlock Holmes in the same way we can talk about god and people know to whom we reference. Communication is impossible without these constructs.

We cannot, or at least in my opinion should not, assign physical characteristics to things constructed by the human mind. Those things come from us, they don’t have an existence outside those we’ve assigned to them. They cannot take action upon the physical world. We cannot rest a cup of coffee on god’s shoulder nor can we put a glass of water upon love or an infinitely long list of numbers.

That which we construct in our minds as non-physical cannot interact in the physical world. This seems self-evident to me. The number zero cannot feed me physically.

God can, and most certainly does, exist in the minds of many people. People have done and continue to do many things based upon that metaphysical construct. This is unimportant.

God is not physically real and can have no influence upon this universe, this galaxy, this solar system, this planet, or me. Any such influence is undertaken by people who assign attributes to such a deity and modify their own behavior accordingly.

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

Landon Donovan should Root for Anyone and So Should You

Landon Donovan MexicoThere’s an interesting story in the world of sports involving Landon Donovan starring in a commercial that urges United States soccer fans to root for Mexico in the 2018 World Cup. There are fairly many people angry at the former star of the United States Men’s National Team and about an equal amount supporting him. I think this story has implications for all of us beyond sport that speaks directly to my Libertarian sensibilities.

The gist of this situation is relatively simple. The soccer, I’m going use soccer throughout this article rather than futbol, team from Mexico is the traditional rival of the U.S. team. The fans of El Tri include a number of hooligans and they have engaged in disgusting and distasteful displays against the U.S. team in the past. There is a great deal of animosity between the two teams. Because of these facts those who dislike or even hate the Mexican team feel betrayed by Donovan and his support for them.

On the other side is the simple reality that the U.S. team didn’t qualify for the World Cup this year leaving fans without a team to support. Mexico is our neighbor and many people who live in the U.S. can trace their heritage back to Mexico. These are reasons enough for many to embrace Mexico and wish them well in the World Cup.

For me, it’s not a difficult question to answer. I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan and as such my feelings toward the Chicago Cubs is quite similar to many fan’s thoughts for the Mexican team. In the 2016 World Series I was most decidedly not rooting for the Cubs, darn it all.

Those who are lambasting Donovan might think this means I’m on their side in this debate, they’d be wrong. The most important factor in all of this are the concepts of liberty and freedom. I should root for and against the teams I want, and so should you. I have no say in your decisions. Whether or not you root for Mexico hurts me in no fashion and is none of my concern. Just as it was when my sister was rooting for the Cubs to break their long drought.

This simple understanding of freedom goes far beyond sports. If a PGA Tour player or a NASCAR driver doesn’t want to visit the White House when President Obama is there or if an NBA or NFL player likewise chooses not to go when President Trump is in residence, that’s their choice. It’s not my decision and I absolutely should do nothing to coerce anyone into adopting my position.

It is the same for whom you should cast your ballot. It is the same for how you choose to listen to the National Anthem before the game. It is the same for who you decide to marry, what gender your decide to be, which bathroom you use, or what chemicals you put in your body. Our lives would all be better if we stopped worrying so much about what other people are doing.

I respect your freedom to decide matters as you desire. I’d certainly appreciate it if you’d do me the same courtesy.

Tom Liberman

There is a Last Number and also Infinity

InfinityI’ve decided while the concept of infinity exists so does a final number. Full disclosure: I’m not good at math and I’m hardly a mathematician. That being said, the subject of infinity and numbers proves to be an endlessly fascinating subject for me. I assert that infinity and a final number can coexist. Any mathematicians care to tell me the depths of my stupidity? I’ll be reading the comments.

It would seem at first glance the two concepts are incompatible. If there is a final, last number, then infinity cannot exist and vice versa. Here’s the factor that existing theory, in my opinion, fails to take into account. Neither numbers nor infinity are real. That is to say they are both incredibly useful constructs but they don’t actually exist. In the same way the words you are reading don’t really exists, that emotions like love and hate don’t have physical form.

Sure, we feel love. I’m not denying we have emotions. Nor do I pretend the words I have written and you are reading don’t have meaning. I’m just saying they only exist as constructs of the human mind that help us organize our world in convenient ways. Words are merely jots on a page approximating sounds. We give those sounds meaning in the same way we give letters and groupings of letters meaning they do not actually have.

Numbers are wholly constructed to make life easier to understand and move through. Time is likewise a human construct that simply does not actually exists in a physical way. You cannot weigh an emotion, a number, a word, or a unit of time. These things are all incredibly useful. We would not have the world we live in without these constructs but they are simply that, constructs.

If numbers don’t actually exist, which is my assertion, then the last number is simply the largest number we have so far named. Certainly, a larger number can be imagined but until that moment; it does not exist, even in a constructed fashion. Currently we can say that Graham’s Number is the largest number in the world. That being said, the concept of infinity is also a human construct and exists as such side by side with Graham’s Number.

Pi does not really exist and therefore the last digit of Pi, base 10, is the one we have most fully calculated. Thus, Pi has a last digit but is also infinite.

What are the practical implications of my hypothesis? Nothing, really. The world is the same whether or not we consider numbers to be real or simply constructs. My life does not change nor does yours. However, once I accepted this idea, that time, numbers, words, and emotions are merely names we associate with constructs in order to make our world more orderly, the less importance they have. They are tools to be used to achieve results but I need not worry about their bounds or origins.

Who created the numeric constants of the universe? Us, simply because they don’t actually exist.

Tom Liberman

Immediacy of Consequence and Faith in the Improbable

faith-and-reasonWith the plethora of stories involving things along the lines of Flat Earth I’ve been thinking about why people are willing to believe certain things on faith while being much more pragmatic in other areas of their life. For example, the belief in alien visitors is, so far, a faith-based ideology. Whereas the belief in the chair you are sitting in is based on strong physical evidence.

I understand people make what they think are rational arguments for a Flat Earth, Pizzagate, Aliens, and many other theories; but the evidence for these things is universally lacking. Those same people would look at you quite askance should you tell them there was a comfortable chair ready for them to plop down into right behind them. They would look for said chair and confirm visually that it did exist. They might reach their hand or foot through the area to confirm nothing was actually there. They would then dismiss your assertion and refuse to sit.

Why are people much more likely to believe fanciful accounts of a Flat Earth but universally unwilling to believe something about a simple object in front of them? I believe the answer is the immediacy of the consequence associated with the belief. A more immediate and greater penalty for the belief inevitably leads to a sounder thought process.

Should you believe the person claiming the chair is actually there and sit down, you face a rather painful and embarrassing fall. Should you believe the Earth is flat you risk no physical harm although you might face some ridicule. Many enjoy the ridicule. They enjoy coming up with improbable or impossible arguments to prove the attacks of September 11th against the World Trade Center and other targets were actually orchestrated by some conspiracy minded organization aside from the actual perpetrators. Such improbable beliefs actually set them out and give them a sense of individuality. They actually feel smarter and better about themselves for refusing to be fooled, even though they are actually quite stupid.

Belief in such things entails no immediate risk. Belief that aliens are secretly directing our actions doesn’t really change your life in any tangible way. You still go about your daily business in pretty much the same way you would if the notion was false. There is no immediate punishment for such beliefs.

However, if someone tells you that the car you are planning on purchasing is a fantastic car, most people will not accept this advice. They will do some research to make certain the automobile meets their desired needs. The same goes for any major purchase. The more money you are planning on spending the more likely it is you will spend time in pragmatic research to ensure the product is exactly what you need.

Many people are happy to spend a few dollars on a product advertised as a miracle drug without much thought. Scam artists rely on this facet of human nature. Imagine a group of 100 people was asked to spend five dollars on a product that guaranteed fresh breath. I would guess at least half would do so. However, if the same product was offered for five hundred dollars I suspect only a few people would be willing to make the outlay.

Where do you think you fit in on this scale of faith? I would guess most people, myself included, consider themselves pragmatic thinkers requiring good evidence. I think most people would be wrong.

On the Bell Curve of Faith Based Thinking where would you put Yourself?

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Tom Liberman

Sorry to say but Connie Yates and Chris Gard are Evil

yates-gardPeople who do horrible things to other people are evil. Connie Yates and Chris Gard are stealing a bunch of money from people and using it to allow a zombie baby to take up space and resources in a hospital that could be used to help someone else. That’s evil.

They are parents and they love their child, Charlie, that I don’t deny, but they have let that love become twisted into something horrible. Something that borders on, and in my opinion, crosses into a realm we call evil. Those who support them are not just enabling this situation but contributing to it.

Charlie was born with a terrible disease that left his brain destroyed. He is unable to breath or move. He is blind and deaf. Even if the cause of this tragic disease could be treated, and it can’t, his brain is dead. He is simply a lifeless zombie. I can only hope Charlie doesn’t have nerve activity and he is feeling no pain. Still, there is tremendous pain being intentionally inflicted by Yates and Gard playing to people’s heartstrings with the impossibility of the boy’s recovery. They are stealing money from people, not for themselves, but for doctors offering an experimental treatment that will do nothing to reverse the brain damage.

One of the most fundamental issues of this situation is the reversal of normal morality. In many cases it would be immoral to allow a sick child to die. If the child had a disease which can be cured, it would be despicable to place that child in the woods and allow it to die. This was done throughout history but medical care has improved to the point where children who were doomed to horrific lives until a few hundred years ago, can now live full and fulfilling lives. Thus, when we hear about a sick child whose parents are trying to get medical care, we are predisposed to think of them as heroes and those who are opposed as villains.

In this case it is the reverse. Keeping Charlie alive is the immoral act. The professionals at Great Ormond Street Hospital are the ethical and kind players in this story. The judges who have made their rulings are moral.

What I’m saying is brutal. It’s not nice. I’m not a nice guy. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll be happy to confirm I’m often times quite a jerk, quite forceful, when it comes to putting forward arguments. Be that as it may, what I’m saying is true. Keeping Charlie alive is the immoral act. That’s the bottom line. The parents are engaged in behavior that I can only describe as evil.

There are a number of people in Social Media and other places who supported and continue to support this behavior. They encouraged the parents to take money from many people for the pursuance of an immoral act. They encouraged the people to keep poor Charlie on life-support for the last ten months when they could have ended this entire ordeal, and saved a huge amount of pain and suffering. Those who support Yates and Gard are contributing to the evil.

If that’s you, I won’t apologize. Get your act together.

Tom Liberman

I am a Strange Atheist

atheistNot that I’m a strange person, which I am, but the more I encounter other Atheists the greater struck I am by how I came to be an Atheist. I’ve rarely run into an Atheist who wasn’t religious first. Someone who found that what they were being taught didn’t correspond with their experiences of life. I wasn’t necessarily born an Atheist but I was raised in a largely non-religious household. I was never religious and I never believed in a god.

I thought today I’d talk about my experience in coming to Atheism. As I said, I was born in a non-religious family. My mother dabbled with Buddhism but there were no religious ceremonies in my house and I never went to any sort of religious service. My parents were divorced when I was very young and my father married an Orthodox Jew. So, there was a lot of religion when I was over there every other weekend, but I wasn’t asked to take part for the most part. I read the section during the Seder reserved for the young boy of the family, the Four Questions, but that was pretty much the extent of any indoctrination.

I never even really thought much about religion growing up. I suppose I called myself an Agnostic because I didn’t really want to tell anyone there was no higher power. People seemed so sure. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I started to learn about Critical Thinking, Ayn Rand, Libertarianism, and that sort of thing. Up until then I pretty much stuck with the Agnostic line.

One day I asked myself why I didn’t believe in Zeus at all but was willing to accept the idea that god might exist. So, then I was an Atheist and I’ve been one ever since. I didn’t come to it by studying the bible and many of the logical problems therein. I think that makes me rather unusual. I’ve learned in the ensuing years about all sorts of issues with the bible but not until after my epiphany.

My knowledge of the bible, the koran, and the torah is pretty weak. I’ve learned a fair amount simply by having to perform research in order to counter particular religious arguments and by watching more well-versed Atheist discuss the subjects.

I think one of the important things about me being an Atheist is that I simply cannot believe in god or whatever. It’s not really a matter of choosing to believe or not; I don’t, I can’t, I’d be lying if I said anything else. To my way of thinking there is clearly no higher power. The various interpretations of that higher power don’t make any sense and are largely filled with vile stories of awful atrocities committed by said deity. If your god revealed himself to me in some undeniable way, I’d tell it to bugger off, I want no part of you. Frankly, I’d assume it was some jerkoff alien with sufficient technology to be indistinguishable from magic trying to yank my chain.

Life hasn’t been tough as an Atheist. I don’t think I’ve ever faced discrimination or ostracism because of Atheism, or Agnosticism from when I was younger. I’ve never had a friend refuse to talk to me or associate with me because of my thoughts. And my thoughts were not secret. I went to college in Idaho and many of my good friends were very religious. Some of my great friends even today have quite strong faith.

I’ve definitely faced ostracism but mainly because I’m a socially awkward fellow, I don’t blame my lack of religion, just my lack of social skills.

That’s pretty much it. I’m not trying to convince anyone to be an Atheist. I’m not complaining or bragging.

Tom Liberman

Steve Harvey and the Message vs the Delivery

steve harveyI just read an interesting story about entertainer Steve Harvey and a memo he released to his staffers. It’s getting a lot of bad press. What I find fascinating is that his basic message is perfectly reasonable. It is the delivery that gives rise, and reasonably so, to the criticism.

That difference between the message itself and the manner in which it was delivered is what I’d like to examine today. Let’s pretend we are on the receiving end of the memo in question. Let’s imagine our reaction depending upon the way it is written, rather than the content. We are an employee of Harvey or perhaps a perspective employee reading the memo in the news. How would we react? What actions would we take depending if we heard the basic premise or, instead, read the actual memo?

Now, as to the memo itself. Apparently, Harvey is often approached by staff while in his dressing room and during his time in the makeup chair. These disruptions make it difficult for him to focus on his job and cut dramatically into his free time. That makes perfect sense to me. When you are the lead talent on a television show, it’s important to manage your time properly. You can’t have unscheduled meetings throughout the day or you will find your performance suffers. Harvey is completely right about this.

Yet, his message repeatedly states the same point over and over again. He starts off in an extremely friendly tone but quickly degenerates into all capital shouting including threats of removal for as much as opening his dressing room door.

The first five paragraphs of the new rules basically list the same rule five times. Please don’t do A. If you do A, I will be angry. Don’t do A. If you do A you will be punished. Has anyone ever sat you down and told you the same thing over and over again? It’s incredibly condescending and annoying. The entire message could have been delivered in short but coherent memo not more than three paragraphs long. It could have been sent in a polite fashion or perhaps a firm fashion. That would be up to Harvey to decide.

It’s so fascinating to imagine myself on the receiving end of such a memo and my reaction to it. I’d like you to do the same. Let’s say you actually get the ranting, repetitive, all cap filled memo. If it was me I’d be thinking about a new job. The person who wrote it is clearly unstable. The person who wrote it most likely has anger management issues. It’s clear to me the person who wrote this doesn’t have impulse control and working for such a person is a nightmare. Even if I desperately needed the job, I’d immediately be putting my resume out there. I’d certainly think twice before taking a job for the person who wrote that memo. I would imagine anyone working for Harvey pretty much lives in constant fear of a mercurial and autocratic maniac.

On the other hand, if someone simply told me that Harvey doesn’t like being approached while in his dressing room or during makeup, I’d simply shrug my shoulders and say it sounds pretty reasonable. I’d go about my day without as much as another thought.

Now, maybe I’m fooling myself. I don’t actually work for Harvey. But the stark difference in the reaction I think I’d have is profound. If you are angry about a situation and thinking of writing a memo, I’d urge you to think about the situation. What impression do you want people to have of you?

It’s much more than the message itself, it’s the manner in which it is delivered.

Something to consider at least.

Tom Liberman

Is Discussing an Unanswerable Question a Good Idea?

philosophy-discussionYesterday on Facebook my friend posted a philosophical question about the nature of reality and I replied with a long post. He responded this morning with another interesting question. Is it worth discussing at all?

It’s a good question. The original query is largely unanswerable. Yes, we might be living in the Matrix but there is no empirical way to determine if this is true. Perhaps we are living in the Matrix or some other construct. On the other hand, maybe the evidence we gather with our senses and repeated trials is real. Arguments can be made endlessly but, in the end, neither side can prove their point.

So why bother with the argument, or dialectic, my friend asks?

Why indeed.

If the question cannot be answered, isn’t it a waste of time and energy to discuss it at all? Shouldn’t we move on to something more productive?

This time there is an answer to the question and one that is emphatically true. Yes. We not only should, but essentially must, have such debates. This despite the fact we are aware there is no final answer.

The first reason such debates are useful is because they exercise your mind in the same way a physical workout exercises your body. Riding a stationary bike, lifting weights, participating in a yoga class; all these things make you stronger and better in any number of ways. I’ll not diverge into a discussion of cardiovascular health, I think we can all accept the idea that physical exercise is a good thing.

This training of the mind helps you analyze situation through critical thinking and contributes greatly to your ability to find resolutions. In this case there isn’t one, but frequently in life when presented with a problem, there is a correct solution. It is imperative to think through any obstacles and derive a resolution. This behavior will help you navigate life successfully.

Another reason to engage in such civil discourse is to practice having disagreements without resorting to name calling and general rudeness. People are going to disagree with you on a fairly regular basis. We see all too frequently today an immediate and angry descent into attack dialog. Anyone who dares disagree with me on any point is the enemy. They must be ridiculed and destroyed! This sort of behavior is being exhibited virtually everywhere you look, and it is leading to unthinkable divisions in this nation and the world as a whole. When people can no longer disagree with civility, we are in trouble.

Another reason to have such discourse is that it teaches you to listen to ideas that you might not have considered. When we just shout at each other, there is no learning going on. When we engage in the back and forth of discussion we sometimes learn new things, we sometimes change our opinion, and that’s a good thing. New information doesn’t always change an opinion but sometimes it does. It’s important to get into the habit of listening to those who oppose your point of view, not just to avoid angry confrontation, but to actually increase your own understanding of the situation.

The answer to my friend’s question is simple. Yes. Have the discussion. And maybe a tumbler of Booker’s bourbon while you’re at it.

Tom Liberman

How do We know there is an External World?

kant-external-worldA philosophically minded friend posed an interesting question on Facebook about the External World that I’d like to take a moment to examine.

I’ll try to summarize his basic question in more layman terms than he used. As we live our lives certain things happen to us. We react to these events as if they are external to our own imagination. At its simplest level; when I set a cup of tea down on the table and it doesn’t fall to the ground, I learn something. My behavior is modified. In the future, I confidently set that cup of tea down on the hard surface knowing it will not fall and make a mess.

This could be something I’m making up in my mind. There are almost endless possibilities. First among these is that cup and tea simply don’t exist at all. Another possibility is that both exist but I’m living in some sort of controlled environment where the cup levitates at level equal to the height of the hard surface upon which I thought I set it. I’m sure you can think of many other explanations that indicate my conclusion, that a hard surface supports a cup full of delightful oolong tea, is false.

This is a question examined quite thoroughly in The Matrix, a movie my friend enjoys greatly. In that movie, external reality did not exist at all. Everything was internal to the electronic signals coursing through the brains and bodies of the imprisoned populace.

That is largely my friend’s question. I shouldn’t say just his question; for it is something philosophers like Kant and Descartes spent considerable time and energy examining.

The response to that I find most appealing is: Any answer is irrelevant and the question itself is an exercise in mental gymnastics. It’s not wrong to engage in healthy exercise for the mind or body but we get about as far as if we ride twenty miles on the stationary bike. The tea mug stays on the table because that is the reality in which I live. The tea cup will always stay on the table and no amount of doubt will change that fact. I admit any of the alternate explanations listed earlier are possible, I just don’t care. I’m putting the tea cup on the table regardless. Everything I do in my life is based upon experience driven repetition. I know behaving in certain ways will return the desired result. My goal is achieved.

I suspect my friend will not like that answer. He will demand proof these external events that I think I’m witnessing are actually occurring.

He suspects, or at least I believe he suspects, the world is not as we see it. That some external agency, be it machines as in the Matrix, aliens as in They Live, or some other force, controls our lives. Makes us imagine we are seeing and doing things when in fact we are not. He might believe our lives are some sort of mix or reality and illusion created by this external force. He might think these otherworldly things are placing obstacles and rewards in front of us like scientists with a group of mice.

He will dazzle you with philosophical terms and rail against the seeming impossibilities that occur around us on a daily basis. Let’s say you see three cars in a row going the other direction; one a Porsche, one a Lamborghini, and the final one a Ferrari. This is all but an impossibility from a statistical standpoint. You can name any three makes and models of cars and the chance those exact three will be the next three to pass in the other direction is highly unlikely. And yet, every moment on the road, three particular cars pass in a configuration that is all but impossible.

Impossibilities are not an indication of an external reality beyond our perceptions. They are simply the natural course of random events taking place, as they always do.

That, I think, is the answer my friend hopes to find. Impossible is happening all the time. We must not confuse this for external influence on our lives. We must learn to distinguish improbably normal from impossible.

In conclusion, my answer comes in two parts.

  1. It doesn’t matter.
  2. It’s not as weird out there as you think.

Mozart vs Salieri Talent or Hard Work

mozart_and_salieriI was browsing through YouTube when I came across a clip from the movie Amadeus where Mozart plays a piece written by Salieri without any effort and then improves it within seconds. In the comment section below, someone mentioned how talent is better than hard work.

A number of other people immediately lambasted the original poster saying that talent was nothing more than a lot of hard work. I thought I’d examine the idea here today.

Let me relate a personal story. I was a pretty decent athlete as a young fellow. I had excellent hand-eye coordination, was moderately strong, and had decent foot speed. I loved sports and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. In sixth grade I was playing flag football with some other kids and doing quite well when a talented athlete took the field. He literally ran circles around me. No matter how I tried I was unable to grab his flag. He was faster, quicker, and plain better. Not by a little either.

It was then the realization dawned upon me that I was not nearly as good as I imagined. I suppose this happens to almost everyone as they progress in their chosen field; athletics, music, sciences, writing, or anything else. As you get better so too does the competition. Hard work can only take you so far in this world.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge advocate of hard work. The superstars of the world combine both hard work and talent. Hard work will get you many places in life that talent alone will not. Plenty of talented people don’t work hard and fail to succeed. I’m just pointing out the reality of talent. You know it when you see it and you can’t get there by hard work.

What’s the lesson in all this? I think it’s important to understand your limitations. It’s fantastic to reach your maximum potential through hard work, study, and practice but it’s also good to recognize there are things beyond you. Understand these things you will never achieve, playing shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, are not personal failures. I just didn’t have enough talent to play major league baseball. That’s reality.

If I had worked harder I certainly could have done more with my athletic talent but I moved on to other things. I like to think I’m a pretty good writer and I work hard at that. I study the structure of good writing. I practice my craft regularly. I hope that I will enjoy success. That’s a good model to follow in life.

Do the things you enjoy doing. Work hard at them. Study and understand the best way to perform these things. But understand sometimes someone else is just better than you. And that’s ok. And so are you.

Tom Liberman

Lots of Hate for Julia Stephenson on Being Too Beautiful to be Faithful

julia-stephensonIn case you’re not fully aware, the Internet is filled with people willing to express their opinion. In the case of Julia Stephenson that opinion is almost universally negative. Stephenson wrote an article for the Daily Mail in which she lamented her physical attractiveness led to unfaithfulness and the end of her marriage.

As you can well imagine, the comments generally lashed out at her for not being particularly attractive and for laying the blame of her failed marriage on her beauty rather than the choices she made.

I decided I’d read her original article and get a feel for what she wrote. Not surprisingly the headline summations don’t really tell the real story. Yes, Stephenson blames her blossoming and the attentions of handsome men for the end of her marriage but she also accepts responsibility for it.

What’s interesting to me is the complete lack of objective reality that most of those commenting display. Someone who is good-looking is absolutely going to have more temptations to be unfaithful than someone who is less attractive and those temptations will be with people, well, more tempting.

I’d recommend reading Stephenson’s original article all the way through for it is not nearly as shallow or delusional as the headlines suggest. However, what I’d like to address is something called the Moralistic Fallacy. This fallacy is behind much of the criticism of Stephenson.

The idea is:

It is wrong to leave your spouse because someone else more attractive is suddenly available. Therefore it does not happen.

The only reason Stephenson left her husband is because she chose to do so. Her blossoming, gaining confidence, and having men of a social station and appearance that never before looked at her giving her attention had no bearing on her choice to end her marriage and engage in a series of short-term relationships.

This is simply people pretending that reality does not exist because reality is unpleasant. Certainly Stephenson chose to end her relationship and bears the responsibility for doing so, which she admits in her article. But it is clear that when suddenly presented with opportunities not available earlier, we all face difficult temptations. Certainly some resist, many do not.

I’m saying it’s absolute nonsense to pretend that changing circumstances do not influence behavior.

Stephenson left her husband for several reasons. One of which is that she had new opportunities available to her that she did not when she married him. It is not the only reason, of course. But it is certainly one of them and to pretend otherwise is to engage in a Moralistic Fallacy.

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Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Gray Horn
April 2017 Release: For the Gray

Debbie Reynolds is not with Carrie Fisher

debbie-reynolds-carrie-fisher-minShe’s not. Debbie Reynolds might well have believed when she died she would be reunited with her daughter but she wasn’t. There’s a lesson here. For all of us, Atheist or no.

Debbie Reynolds was with her daughter. She raised Carrie Fisher to be the woman she became, flaws and all. She was with her every day of her life and she made a difference. She influenced Carrie Fisher. She shaped her. Carrie Fisher was her own woman but she was also a product of those who influenced her, and Debbie Reynolds was one of the most important.

You are a product of your life’s experiences but you are also your own person. You make your own decisions. We make your own way in this world and yet all those decisions, all those results are based to some degree on our friends, our family, our mother.

I’m an Atheist. I know there is nothing after life. There is nothing. Carrie and Debbie have not been reunited. Some might consider me a cold-hearted bastard. Perhaps I am. That doesn’t stop me from knowing that Carrie and Debbie are bound together, as are we with those we love. Those we admire. Those who influence our decision.

Does it make you feel better to think that Reynolds has been reunited with Fisher? Why?

Such fantasy does not soothe me nor will it ever.

Life is what we have. Make the most of it. As did Reynolds and Fisher.

That is what I conclude from events of the last two days. Life is what we have. Live it.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Gray Horn
Next Release: For the Gray

Tim Tebow and the Power of Self-Delusion

tim-tebow-patriotsThere’s an interesting story in the sports world about a fellow named Tim Tebow that is drawing a considerable amount of attention.

First a little background. Tebow was a star quarterback in college although his skills did not translate very well to the NFL. Many people predicted that, for various reasons, he would never make it as a quarterback in that league.

He was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos well above where scouts had rated him to be picked. His performance with the Broncos was statistically poor although the team won games with him at the helm and went to the playoffs. Eventually he was replaced by Peyton Manning and tried to gain employment with various other teams. It is this part of his story that garners my interest. Tebow was eventually signed by the New England Patriots who are quarterbacked by Tom Brady. Brady is considered by many as one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.

In excerpts from his soon to be released novel Tebow expresses the idea that he thought he was going to be the quarterback of the future with New England. That he would learn from Brady, take over the team, and lead them to Super Bowl championships. Most people who watched Tebow play and practice consider this opinion delusional. By almost all standards of evidence they were correct. Tebow was cut by the Patriots in the preseason proving those doubters correct. But there’s more to it than that, I think. That’s what I want to examine. Is there something to be said for boundless optimism even if the evidence strongly negates hope?

It’s good to be confident in your abilities and to take on challenges that seem beyond your current skills. People who have this delusional belief in self often end up succeeding where those of a more grounded nature, me for example, would never even make the attempt. Of course, they end up failing spectacularly as well. That is the more general result of taking on a challenge that is beyond your skills.

It’s clear Tebow’s dreams of becoming a great quarterback and winning Super Bowls, just as his chances of being a major league baseball player, were and are extremely unlikely. But the idea of being a player in the NFL was not. He was a player in the NFL. He had high goals but went about achieving them by working at lower level goals. Making the team. Learning the offense. He’s a hard worker. He doesn’t quit easily.

I write my novels and I work hard at it. I’ve written nine. I dream of my books selling millions of copies. I dream of movies and television shows being fashioned from them. Those dreams are about as likely as Tebow’s Super Bowl dreams. But I won’t quite writing. I’ll keep trying to become a better writer. I’ll try to write better novels. I’ll try to promote my novels and my blog.

Dream high but act realistically. Work hard but have alternate plans in case of failure. People who have delusions about their own abilities often succeed beyond all realistic expectations.

You never know, sometimes that self-delusion might somehow result in amazing success. Some of the greatest stories in history were made by people who were more than a bit self-delusional about their abilities.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Ideology
Current Release: The Gray Horn
Next Release: For the Gray