Taking stock

“The world isn’t getting worse — our information is getting better.”

-Ray Kurzweil

On insults in debate


Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Indefinite hiatus


My writing has become dry and un-fun and rather than persuade people, the facts I present are perceived as hostile. I should have known better. My goal was to foster critical thinking, to participate in a second Age of Enlightenment. Instead, I’ve caused the very minds I would open to become even more doxastically closed. This makes me tremendously sad. I have further harmed the journey to reason and failed in my goal.

It’s time for self-reflection. Maybe I’ll try my hand at writing fiction, for a change. I need to re-learn how to tell a story. I’ll be back when I can improve the silence.

Fear, psychology, and politics

There’s a growing body of evidence demonstrating the difference in brain structure between liberals and conservatives (which just might explain why each side thinks the other is brain damaged).

Conservatives tend to have a larger and more active right amygdala [1], a part of the brain associated with fear, for lack of a better word. This isn’t to say conservatives are cowardly. Instead, it manifests as more active fight-or-flight responses or a focus on preventing negative outcomes rather than working toward positive goals [2]. Conservatives learn better from negative stimuli and are more risk avoidant than liberals [3].

Liberals’ brains tend to have a greater volume of the anterior cingulate cortex [1]. The ACC appears to monitor conflicting information and allow one to tolerate uncertainty. While they’re more open to new experiences than conservatives, they’re also less orderly [4].

Remember- this is not an either/or thing. Conservatives can be open to new things and liberals have fight/flight responses. This is simply physiological explanation of one’s tendency toward a behavior.

What I found really interesting in the video below was considering the brain’s plasticity- it makes the political tendencies and the brain structure a chicken & egg question. Brain structure is a more accurate predictor of political affiliation than even the affiliation of one’s parents. So do we think the way we do because of our physiology? How much does our brain structure change from our thoughts/experience? To what degree can a person really change their ideology? It’s a great example of remembering that correlation is not causation.

I think back to when I taught concealed carry in Arizona and carried a pistol with me everywhere, despite never having been violently accosted. While I still think firearms are cool, I quit worrying about worst-case scenarios because they’re so exceedingly rare that they’re statistically implausible. But back then, confirmation bias had me poring over case studies of violent self-defense to the point it seemed to be everywhere. I’m guessing my right amygdala was pretty healthy.

This also explains the politics of fear we see today, specifically the completely untrue statements of Donald Trump being taken seriously. “Make America Great Again” implies that this isn’t currently a great nation- which is a completely subjective value statement but faces me to ask what people really think is so wrong. How have Trump supporters actually been harmed? The fear-mongering about illegal immigrants flies in the face of reality- that population has been on the decline since 2007 [5]. Saying we “lose” in trade deals with China is another false, fear-based bit of rhetoric based in ignorance- Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange (not a Chinese exchange, or Dubai, or European) because America is the financial hegemon of the world. The jobs farmed out to China are low-tech, low-skill menial labor; we have them make our stuff because we’re too wealthy and educated to those jobs anymore.

But fear-mongering is effective. It’s handed Trump the GOP nomination without a whit of fact to his claims. It’s led to a fight over public bathrooms in North Carolina, despite that fact that no transgender people have ever been arrested for sexual misconduct in a bathroom, but three Republican lawmakers have [6]. I’ve already placed my bet that news ratings have more to do with sensationalism than anything, but let’s expand on that topic.: The only thing that outsells fear is sex, which is why women on cable news all show their legs while discussing the next big threat to America. Ratings double whammy.

The problem with fear-based thinking is that it’s Type 1, which means it’s not rigorously analyzed. Fear-based reasoning is rarely sound, but there is a sound reason it happens.

[1]Kanai, Ryota, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth, and Geraint Rees. “Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults.” Current biology 21, no. 8 (2011): 677-680.

[2] Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. “To provide or protect: Motivational bases of political liberalism and conservatism.” Psychological Inquiry 20, no. 2-3 (2009): 120-128.

[3] Shook, Natalie J., and Russell H. Fazio. “Political ideology, exploration of novel stimuli, and attitude formation.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45, no. 4 (2009): 995-998.

[4] Carney, Dana R., John T. Jost, Samuel D. Gosling, and Jeff Potter. “The secret lives of liberals and conservatives: Personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behind.” Political Psychology 29, no. 6 (2008): 807-840.

[5] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/20/what-we-know-about-illegal-immigration-from-mexico/

[6] U.S. Senator Larry Craig, FL state Rep Bob Allen, MS Congressman Jon Hinson.

Our first trip to Paris

The following is a transcription of my physical journal entries after our recent Paris vacation. I’ll punch it up with photographs because this is the internet, but there may still be some short-hand style writing. The difference between this post and my journal entry is the legibility of typeface vs. my scrawling on paper, & some privacy edits.

Day 1, Wed, May 18

Arrival. The crazy cab ride to the hotel reminded me of comic scenes in movies where a passenger is terrified while driving in Europe. It was… haphazard. We’re exhausted- we got no sleep on the plane because of George. Too much activity on the plane distracting him, so the little poor little guy just wouldn’t drop off & neither could we. Fits and temper tantrums, and eventually I took him inside a bathroom so his screaming would be muffled to other passengers. He had to be exhausted and cranky, because I know I was.

photo used without permission

Passage Jouffroy. Photo used without permission.


Our first view of the Eiffel Tower.

we got to the Hotel Chopin and the address finally made sense: 10 Blvd. Montmartre is the street address for the passage, and 46 Passage Jouffroy is the address w/in the passage. Paris has covered passages that are open on either end for pedestrians, with shops in them and glass-like covered ceilings. It’s really cool. Once we got checked in we bought 5-day metro passes and made our way to the Fat Tire bike tour meeting point. We were exhausted, didn’t want to be late but also didn’t know the timing and were in an unfamiliar city, so we wound up getting there an hour early and waiting in the cold and wind. Not fun, though we did see the Eiffel Tower on our way there, and the tour itself was great! We saw a lot of sights and got some great history that I’ll actually remember. Quips like “Louis the XIV built it all, Louis the XV spent it all, and Louis the XVI paid for it all”. And learning Paris still stands because Dietrich von Choltitz disobeyed Hitler’s order to detonate charges planted all over the city after he fell in love with it. We cut our tour short because George was  too upset in his bike trailer, and we became concerned because he kept holding his right arm and wouldn’t put any weight on it to stand up or lift anything with it. We made our way to the American Hospital where he was seen, got x-rays, and taken care of for about $300 cash without insurance and in-and-out in 90 minutes. If that’s socialized medicine, I say bring it on! He seemed to have somehow dislocated his elbow, but he got put right as rain in less time than we’ve waited to just to be seen back home. Dinner was steak and frites (Kendel’s uncle George’s recommendation) at Cafe Zephyr. Not a bad first day.


Day 2, Thurs, May 19

I went out early and bought Kendel some macarons from a pastry shop in the passage, then we had breakfast in the hotel w/ fresh squeezed orange juice. (We had a lot of fresh squeezed orange juice on the trip. It’s like France is Europe’s Florida. Have to Google that when I get home.) I got an Orange SIM card for my phone so we could get maps and info, then we took off for the day.

The only way to take a toddler into a museum: asleep.

The only way to take a toddler into a museum: asleep.

We went to the Louvre and were surprised to find the lines weren’t too long at all, possibly because it was a gray and drizzly morning. I didn’t realize it was also a natural history museum, I thought it was just art, so we went through the wing with Egyptian stuff. I can’t figure out how they got Rameses III sarcophagus down where they did, or how they’ll move it again. It was impressive.

Grandma sewed together a Hobbes that George cuddles for comfort.

Grandma sewed together a Hobbes that George cuddles for comfort.

George woke up at the end of the Egyptian wing and started crying, so we made our way to a cafe for lunch. We happened upon a weird park of black/white pillars Kendel had read about and went to a music box store nearby. For dinner we had crepes. I forgot Kendel’s birthday until today and feel like an idiot. We left the states on the 17th, but got here on her actual birthday and I completely spaced it. I feel like such a jerk right now.


Day 3, Fri, May 20

Photo used without permission

The Grand Palais. Photo used without permission.

We went to the Cafe Indiana for breakfast (later discovered it appeared to be a chain). George loved the sausage and more fresh squeezed OJ. We took the metro to Notre Dame. I always find cathedrals both impressive and bewildering. The immense scale of the architecture always impresses me, and I can’t believe they could build like this back then. The treasury and sheer amount of wealth seems questionable. “Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter heaven” and all that. Afterward we meandered around the area, I bought a scarf, and relaxed in a sandy park behind the church. George loved playing in the dirt and watching pigeons.

Apparently selfie sticks are really a thing. That’s so strange. The Grand Palace (Palais) has a beautiful glass panel roof and I wanted to see the inside but there was an exhibit we didn’t want to pay for, so we went to the Eiffel Tower instead. Baguette, croque monsieur, and gelato. Walked along the Siene, under the tower, to the park, played soccer with Mateo, walked to the metro. Packed metro back to hotel was hot and sweaty.

At the risk of seeming racist, the guys hawking mini tower souvenirs and selfie sticks for 1€ are always black.


Day 4. Sat. May 21.


The Hall of Mirrors.

Versailles. Holy cow. Photos can’t capture the sheer scale of the place. It’s truly amazing. We did another Fat Tire bike tour except it’s not cold and rainy today- it’s a clear, humid, sweltering day and the sun really beat down on us. We had a great picnic on the grounds of the palace, at the far end of the Grand Canal. One mile east-west, one kilometer north-south, 12 feet deep the entire way, and took 10,000 men over a decade to dig out by hand, iirc. The grounds are over 2,000 acres and we had more fresh squeezed orange juice at a stand in the Peasant’s Village (Marie Antoinette’s bizarre fantasy recreation of what she thought peasant life was like).

If Notre Dame was impressive, the palace here is stupefying. It’s not just the scale but the sheer amount of detail over every square foot of it.

I’m remembering the distinct lack of a/c in England. I love the cars in Europe, but I miss the comfort of the states.


Day 5. Sun. May 22

Layabout day to recover after Versailles. Hard Rock Cafe for lunch because we missed burgers and refills on cold drinks with ice. George is having really bad temper tantrums- we don’t know if it’s exhaustion, a toddler phase, or something related to his meds. Carry out pizza for dinner in the room was pretty tasty. Always get margherita here.


Day 6 Mon May 23

IMG_1774Weird sauce on Starbucks “English muffin” breakfast sandwiches. RAIN. We walked to Passage Vivienne and were disappointed with the lack of shopping. I intentionally didn’t pack enough shirts to have an excuse to buy some stuff here. Walked to Les Halles (a nice shopping mall) when it started to pour, and poor Kendel got soaked- she had me keep the umbrella since I was wearing George in the Lillebaby. Bought shoes and shirts. Mall McDonalds had rows of touch screen kiosks for ordering and the “royale” from Pulp Fiction is real! Bought shoes and shirts and a second umbrella, which George loved carrying around like a big boy when he woke up. I love how he always wants to help- it’s so cute! We bought some crazy fancy eclairs on the walk home- very expensive but very tasty. Dinner at Chartier and I tried escargot. Not bad, but not worth the $ to do it again. George liked it because he’s too young be grossed out by the idea. Kendel promised to never kiss me again. LOL.


Day 7

Big Bus tour, just to see more than we could on the metro. We forgot headphones for the first half, so we just watched Paris go by. It’s such a beautiful city. We found headphones and listed to the tour for the last half before George woke up and was fussy. Great tour, lots of interesting info.

photo used without permission, because mine was terrible

Institut de France. Photo used without permission, because mine was terrible

For instance, we saw the Institut de France, home of the Académie française, which is the official authority of the French language and tasked with publishing their dictionary. We also learned they dislike cognates and urge people to use only French words rather than “email” or “weekend” (which are in common usage because they’re simpler than the Académie alternative). The street along the Seine was lined with green boxes used by roadside booksellers.


Palais Bourbon. Photo used w/o permission.

We also saw the Palais Bourbon, from which we derive right wing and left wing as descriptors of political affiliation. It started there in the 1870s.

When George woke, we changed tour lines to get home but it was too slow so we got off at Pigalle station to take the metro and stumbled onto a Kebab shop.

Late afternoon cruise with Fat Tire again on the Sienne, and the Eiffel Tower at night to see the lights of Paris. I was embarrassed to ask but I finally did- why were all the tchotchke hawkers black? It turns out that most of them come from countries that were French colonies, but they’re not allowed to get official jobs (taxable income) while they’re waiting for residency paperwork. It’s a legal thing. So to make ends meet until they can get a “real” job they do this. That changed my view of them instantly (before it was just opportunist bothering of tourists) and I was struck by their desire to improve their lives, so we bought some toys from one before heading back to hotel for the night. Pretty great last night in Paris, but I’m sure we’ll come back again in the future. It’s an easy city to fall in love with.

(note- the fast clacking noise at the beginning of the Tower video above is a mechanical flying toy bird one of the souvenir hawkers would toss in the air as demonstration.)

Skepticism is key to uncovering truth


from The Economist Espresso app

Ed. note- Since I’m publishing more regularly over the summer break, a bit of a rhythm is beginning to occur. The increasing number of views seems to correspond with publishing frequency, so I decided to publish three times a week instead of just twice. Maybe because I’m compulsive, I’ve realized a way to theme each day to incorporate my interests. Mental Mondays will relate to psychology or critical thought in some way. Witticism Wednesday will be a quote from a greater mind than mine. Free-writing Friday will be anything goes- from travel to my obsession with gadgets. I’ll try to maintain this schedule until classes resume in August or it becomes evident it’s not working.

The neuroscience of enlightenment

I’ve written before that our brain is everything that makes us who we are. That big “a-ha!” moment or revelation we have has specific and predictable brain activity. That life changing experience is brain activity- and the re-writing of neural pathways. Fascinating stuff.

Ed. note- Since I’m publishing more regularly over the summer break, a bit of a rhythm is beginning to occur. The increasing number of views seems to correspond with publishing frequency, so I decided to publish three times a week instead of just twice. Maybe because I’m compulsive, I’ve realized a way to theme each day to incorporate my interests. Mental Mondays will relate to psychology or critical thought in some way. Witticism Wednesday will be a quote from a greater mind than mine. Free-writing Friday will be anything goes- from travel to my obsession with gadgets. I’ll try to maintain this schedule until classes resume in August or it becomes evident it’s not working.