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Archive for the ‘Recent reading’ Category

The Difference Between the Theoretical and the Practical

Posted by c. wagner on February 1, 2010

Scientists such as Thomas Huxley and the anatomist Carl Gegenbaur found lungfish to be essentially a cross between an amphibian and a fish. Locals found them delicious. [page 33]

What’s important depends on your perspective.

(from Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish)

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Laugh and the World Laughs

Posted by c. wagner on January 28, 2010

“Laugh and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone” is not an ancient proverb. It is the opening two lines of the poem “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox which was first published in 1883. Strange, but apparently true.

[found on page 60 of When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish by Martin Gardner]

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Back to Blogging with a Movie Commentary

Posted by c. wagner on January 27, 2010

So, it’s about time I get back on the blogging bandwagon. Since I’m home sick with a sore throat and runny nose (the same one that put my girlfriend out of commission for three days), it seems like a good time to start back up.

I went to see Avatar the other night….

That was a long three hours.

Of course, part of the problem may have been that I was reading Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish at the time. Shubin’s book shows how you can track evolution through the similarities between humans and other animals in body design and structures. His major point is that all forms of life have something in common, especially the more complex the animals are. He writes:

When you see these deep similarities among different organs and bodies, you begin to recognize that the diverse inhabitants of our world are just variations on a theme. [page 80]

For example [my example], just about every animal non-insect land animal has its air intake (otherwise known as a nose) in its head. The air then follows a tube to a pair of lungs in the chest. The humanoids in Avatar have this arrangement. But some of the major animals (the flying lizard-bird things, the “horses”) on their world have a different setup. Their air intakes were in their chests. I couldn’t make sense of this and it distracted me from what there was of a plot. How does one explain such radically different body plans? Were the scientists studying this? Was there even an evolutionary biologist on staff? We sure didn’t hear about him or her.

They also didn’t think about the unlikelihood that an alien planet would have DNA (or something compatible with DNA) as the encoder of genetic information, how odd it would be for so many Earth-like plants and animals to evolve in an environment with a radically different atmosphere, how the tidal forces of being a moon in a gas giant / multi-moon system might make the planet violently volcanically active (like Jupiter’s moon Io), or the odds against the dominant life form being a large-brained, bipedal mammal, like humans.

Of course, the answer is that Avatar is just a movie and some creature designer thought nostrils in chests looked cool (“like jet intakes” according to the girlfriend) and didn’t really think about the evolutionary biology necessary to create that sort of structure. Darn.

Somehow, I think that movie would have been more interesting than the one I saw.

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Probably my last Scientology post

Posted by c. wagner on November 20, 2009

For a relatively small church (or relatively large cult), Scientology takes a lot of bashing. Not that the organization doesn’t deserve it, of course. But, you know, I should be able to find something else to whine about on this blog. Bigger fish to fry and all that. So, I’m going to get all the Scientology stuff out of my system at once.

I just finished two books on Scientology–Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman and A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack. Here are some of the highlights of what I came across.

James Stewart has been put in a Condition of Doubt for having [epileptic] seizures in public thus invalidating Scientology. If there is any reoccurrence of these either consciously and unconsciously on his part he will be placed in a Condition of Enemy.

Stewart’s real crime, having had a seizure, was telling the hospital that he was a Scientologist, thus supposedly giving Scientology a bad name. [Blue Sky, page 184]

Getting out of the Condition of Enemy generally involves heavy manual labor and a high level of shunning. Yup. That’s nice and compassionate. Just what you’d like from your religion. Of course, since illness is a sign of improper application of Scientology principles, maybe Mr. Stewart deserved what he got. … Ummmm, no.

[Scientology agents infiltrated the Coast Guard, DEA, and IRS.] This was not a matter of a small persecuted religion infiltrating government agencies to expose immoral actions committed by those agencies. In reality, it was a matter of protecting Hubbard from any inconvenience, let alone any litigation. [Blue Sky, page 210]

And while they were infiltrating, they were also stealing documents about ongoing investigations and about people who challenged Scientology. Pretty sure the ends don’t justify those means.

Hubbard alleged the psychiatrist [sic, mine], “who have been on the [time] track a long time and are the sole cause of decline in this universe” had invented sex as a means of entrapment eons ago. As a result of Hubbard’s diatribe, some Scientologists stopped having sexual intercourse with their spouses. [Blue Sky, page 288]

Ooookay. The part about sex as a means of entrapment sounds an awful lot like what’s taught in some other, more mainstream, religions. So maybe I can give them a pass here. Speaking of sounding familiar:

Ron claimed that every word he ever wrote held just as good today as when he wrote it: nothing he ever said needed changing. [Inside, page 179]

Huh. Where have I heard that before?

And another familiar thought:

Most of the Scientologists were culturally green, interested only in Hubbard’s pronouncements. Many were reactionary, almost Fascistic, in their political views. The attitude of this breed was that the poor and oppressed of the world, the dwellers in mud villages and ghettos, were suffering solely from their own inadequacies; they were dominated by their reactive minds and were getting exactly what they deserved. [Inside, page 31]

Sounds like the crud that’s preached from some megachurch pulpits these days. Whatever the source, blaming the victim is always cruel.

For six months, Gulliver had been a top executive in the Commodore’s Messenger Organization U.K. which controlled all other Scientology organizations in Britain. He rated himself one of the top four executives in CMO U.K. He was fourteen years old. [Blue Sky, page 322]

Yowza. I barely trust a seventeen-year-old to feed my cats. There’s no way I would trust one to run my religion. This is just a bad idea. As well as probably qualifying as child abuse.

And speaking of child abuse:

At one meal, I noticed a little boy eating at a small table off to the side. At first I thought he was alone; then I recognized him as one of the children of an American couple who were on SBC and acked everything said to them in the approved way, with sonorous “Okays” and “thank-yous.” His mother had found in an S&D that he was suppressive to her (perhaps she hadn’t wanted him in the first place), and she had had to disconnect from him; and so they sat at separate tables. Now and then she ran over and gave him a love-pat because, as she maintained, “I can really only half-disconnect from him.” He was the saddest little boy I ever saw, his pinched, bewildered features in complete contrast to those of his sunny little sister, who always sat with her parents. [Inside, page 97]

There are no words. I could just spit.

On a lighter note:

Having decided in 1952 that most science fiction is actually a recounting of real past-life experience, Hubbard’s own preoccupations as a science fiction writer became the cosmology of his religion. [Blue Sky, page 375]

So much for the predictive nature of science fiction. It’s actually history, not futurism. I never would have guessed.

Okay. I think I’m “clear” of this now. Thank goodness.

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Hypnotism, Scientology, and cults

Posted by c. wagner on November 20, 2009

Inside Scientology by Robert Kaufman is one of the earliest books about what Scientology teaches and how it does it. Written by someone who joined the–dare I say it–cult in the early days and followed its teachings for years in the hopes of self-improvement (and profit, of course). One of the more interesting phenomena he describes is how Scientologists, like many cults (and, honestly, other groups) put the initiate into a suggestible state that allows the more bizarre teachings to go down more easily.

It had been so ingrained on our minds at orgs and franchises that auditing was specifically geared to dispelling the hypnoid state we were in, that any Scientologist would scoff at the idea he was being methodically hypnotized from the moment he picked up the cans [part of the ubiquitous Scientology E-meter]. Yet there it was, on paper, in my own hand writing: “This is the session,” at the beginning of each audit; the unyielding stare; the repeated command, always in the same tone of voice; and “That’s it!” to end session, the equivalent of the hypnotist’s snap of his fingers. Felicia had had no more notion of what she was really doing than her preclears; it had been done to her first. It was such a good thing, a beneficial thing, that she would teach it to others. I recalled the Dianetics class and TRs with Margo. That people were being taught to hypnotize each other without realizing it would have seemed too bizarre for this world. Later, on the Clearing Course, we were given an imaginary light to spot, an approximation of the candle a hypnotist holds in front of his subject’s face. There was no end to it. [page 254]

Kaufman also points out how the initiate’s own desire to improve him- or herself and his or her need for approval intensifies the effect.

A very general type of question is repeated several times. At first the preclear does not see a cut-and-dry answer. Nonetheless he tries to answer the question to the best of his ability (although he will usually try to qualify his answer). He feels pressured, coerced, trapped in a minor way; but his next reaction is a greater desire to answer the repeated question, because he gets a small prize every time he opens his mouth, in the form of an acknowledgment. Finally, he wants to feel that he can answer any question so that he may receive as many prizes as he can, and to that end is willing to fabricate answers. If he hesitates in answering (a comm lag), the question is automatically repeated again, so he begins to answer more quickly. He is now behaving.

After all, he does wish to get better. After a while it ceases to make any difference to him what he says. His mind is treated as a computer, and what he says is a computation registered on the E-meter. The invariable acknowledgment and the non-evaluation of his responses by the auditor imprint this tellingly on his mind. He is never actually told what to believe during processing, but it a surprisingly small step from stating what one may never have intended to state to believing in one’s own statement. To begin with, the preclear wants to believe that what is happening is helping him. An auditing session is precisely geared to capitalizing on his desire. [page 17]

If this sounds silly and far-fetched, I’ve got some videos for you. In a couple of (probably shortened and heavily edited) clips, Derren Brown exploits human suggestibility and desire to please to make some fairly strange things happen. First, he convinces a woman that certain colors aren’t what she thought just by talking to her in a very specific and skilled way and by using the prolonged eye contact Scientologists are known for. Second, and probably more frightening, he uses little more than stage hypnotism tricks, excellent salesmanship, and a bit of good acting (He’s a committed atheist and skeptic) to cause a roomful of people to reconsider their ideas of the existence of God. (He sets the people back the way they were after the filming finished.)

Brown is very good at what he does, but, as he’ll freely admit, he’s an entertainer. He doesn’t believe that what he’s doing is going to save the world. He doesn’t have the sincerity of a true believer, such as the average Scientology auditor, that what he’s doing reflects the truth about the world, nor are his targets necessarily looking (or desperate) to make the changes he suggests. Nor is there a group of people making a hard sell to the target. Yet, he gets striking results. If he can pull this off with just his skills and the reinforcement of  a couple of cameras, think of what an organized network with books, tapes, machines, techniques, peer pressure, celebrity support, and a target desperate for help could do.

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Evolution according to L. Ron Hubbard

Posted by c. wagner on November 20, 2009

What to Audit lists a series of incarnations or a “time-track” from the beginnings of the universe to man: the evolution, or “genetic line,” of the human body. According to Hubbard, the “time-track” runs back to a point where the individual seemed to be “an atom, complete with electronic rings.” After which came the “cosmic impact,” then the “photon converter,” and then the first single-cell creature to reproduce by dividing, the “helper.” Passing quickly through “seaweed,” the evolutionary line moved on to “jellyfish” and then the “clam.” … The next stage in Hubbard’s evolutionary theory was another shellfish, the “Weeper” (also the “Boohoo,” or as Hubbard jovially refers to it at one point, “the Grim Weeper”). This creature is the origin of human “belching, gasping, sobbing, choking, shuddering, trembling.” Fear of falling has its origin with hapless Weepers which were dropped by predatory birds. After a few comments on “being eaten” (which allegedly explains diet fads and vegetarianism), Hubbard moves forward in evolution to the sloth. It seems that none of the incarnations between shellfish and the sloth was unpleasant enough to cause major psychological damage. From the sloth, Hubbard moves on to the “ape,” and the Piltdown man (who had very large teeth, and a nasty habit of eating his spouse); then the caveman (who presumably had smaller teeth, and used to cripple his wife instead of eating her). From there, usually “via Greece and Rome,” Hubbard’s theory moves to modern times. [page 131-132]

Whoa. I had no idea one of my ancestors was a creature whose skull contained a lower jaw from an orangutan and a cranium from a modern human that was buried by a hoaxster in a gravel pit in England in 1912. That’s what the Piltdown man was. So, technically he should come after “Greece and Rome” on the Scientology evolutionary tree. Sheesh, he’s young enough to be one of my grandparents.

Way to go, higher Scientological higher intelligences!

(quote from A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack)

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Disney, status, and clothing

Posted by c. wagner on November 19, 2009

Interesting reflection on determining the status of Disney characters based on what they look like:

I would later learn that if you are a Disney character who wears clothes, no matter what your species, you can then own pets, who themselves wear no clothes at all, except perhaps for a collar. Pluto runs around naked except for a collar that says “Pluto.” Mickey runs around with yellow shoes, pants, white gloves, and the occasional bow tie; The haberdasheral hierarchy is clear. [page 15]

Clothes make the man? Or mouse?

(From Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files)

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Astrologers and Kuiper belt objects

Posted by c. wagner on November 18, 2009

Astrology is a “discipline” notoriously immune to change. So, what are astronomers to do as more and more good-sized objects, some of them bigger than that formerly-known-as-a-planet … thingie, Pluto, are discovered at the fringes of the solar system?

The article ends with Vanity Fair astrologer Michael Lutin saying that he will consider the newcomers, but remains skeptical of their influence on our daily affairs due to their location at the outer reaches of the solar system: “UB313 is never going to tell you whether Wednesday is good for romance.” [page 149]

Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson declares the discussion over Kuiper belt objects moot, saying

Actually, neither will anything else in the sky, unless it’s an asteroid headed toward Earth, scheduled to hit on Wednesday. [page 149]

That is one forecast I wouldn’t like to find in the newspaper. Sheesh.

(Quotes from The Pluto Files.)

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