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           September 5, 2003 ... Ping ................................... (Permalink)

Still around. Got back from camping three nights ago; getting my film from the trip developed, and working on writing up a summary. Halfway through the write-up of the Relay for Life two weeks ago, and will have it posted soon.

It's ironic, really. For years I've wanted to have the patience to tackle longer-term projects instead of only being able to effectively fling myself at things which I could finish in a single sitting. Now -- since June -- it seems from here like that's turned itself on its head completely, and all of the things I'm currently working on are longer-term, more involved projects, and there's very little to show for it on a regular basis except the sporadic site features like the recall time machine, battle of rat corner, or getting the TTU story "Snow" posted.

Of course, that sort of features output was unheard of back when I was posting journal entries. So I guess there's something of a tradeoff involved. But ... here's the irony ... now that the goal of pouring my energies into larger pursuits seems attainable for once, I'm getting extremely frustrated at my lack of enthusiasm for shorter, more casual writing. Things like my journal.

           September 6, 2003 ... Name-dropping .......................... (Permalink)

Okay, this is officially the oddest use of my name I've seen to date: "How Baxil spread the word" (appears to require Javascript)

Baxil is the light green, introspective and environmentally sensitive one. In case you haven't been paying attention here, the author's three for three so far. They took some liberties with the body shape, though. I haven't looked that chubby since three lifetimes ago.

(Aside: Baxil lives on planet KAPX. Should I go put on my sunglasses now?)

For the record, I think I'm going to make "Hello human boy! I am Baxil, from planet KAPX!" my new signature quote.

           September 8, 2003 ... The relay .............................. (Permalink)

Two weeks ago, I took part in one of the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life" events. The event itself was more about unity than pushing limits -- participation in the relay itself required nothing more than walking. But for me, the evening turned into a marathon.

Part of the background to the story is that our company's team of 24 divided the day-long event up into 24 one-hour "shifts" of walking. I signed up to walk the 1 a.m. shift because -- as I figured at the time -- that way I could just go to the event after work. As Saturday nights are my last workday before the two days off in a row that comprise my "weekend," this meant that I'd be able to go to the event free of work sress and not have to worry about the consequences the next morning if I pushed myself past the bounds of sane sleep schedules by sticking around at the relay after my shift ended.

It was very good reasoning. Somewhere on the road to implementation, though, it got waylaid.

Saturday morning found me hustling in to work for a typically hectic day. I got absorbed in page layout, ate dinner at my desk (as occasionally happens), and wrapped up the Sunday paper layout at deadline -- then turning to the special project that had crept up on us with virtually no warning and no planning, which was to distill a few hundred kilobytes of educational testing statistics down to one and a half printed pages. The news editor and I worked feverishly on it until I had to leave for the event or risk missing my walking shift. I told him to go get some sleep and promised I'd come back and get it finished before the night was out.

The Relay for Life itself made a pleasant first impression. I drove the mile down the road to the Gold Country Fairgrounds, securing a parking place that was just a few steps away from the half-mile oval of pavement that participants were walking around. The track was lined with large pavilions, tents, and campers; at 1 a.m., the majority of participants were asleep, and many had chosen to stay on-site overnight through the event. I stepped out onto the track in search of our team, and found the Journal's area in fairly short order (the news editor, who had walked his shift a few hours earlier, had given me directions).

Donna gave me a quick orientation and two T-shirts -- one with our team logo of a smiling anthropomorphic newspaper on it ("Relay the News for a Cure"), which I put on, and one with the event's logo and sponsors. Linda, who was walking around the track to cover for a team member who had failed to show up, approached, passed off our "baton" (a rolled-up newspaper covered in plastic wrap) to me, and promptly dropped straight into bed, followed by Donna, which left me as the sole representative of our team on the track. It was definitely the point of the morning at which most people were hitting a wall.

Despite that, the track seemed fairly crowded. I say "track," but really, it was about a half-mile loop of pavement in the middle of the Gold Country Fairgrounds, threading between buildings and, at one point, behind the stadium. I settled into a comfortable pace the first lap, trying to take in the circus that had converged on the area. Anywhere there was a spare patch of grass, it seemed, tents and tarps had been set up, and bodies lay sprawled on the ground everywhere, sleeping under the sky. It was a crystal-clear night, comfortably warm, stars bright despite the electric lights illuminating the site. As I approached the south end of the loop, I began to hear music.

Most of the people still awake were the ones walking on the track, but some of the teams' sites were hubs of activity. One, just a few paces away from the Journal's, had a table overflowing with paperback books, free for the taking. Further on, two women with event staff T-shirts were handing out raffle tickets as people on the track passed them by, for drawings which would continue every half-hour during my time there. The source of the music, as I approached, resolved into a boom box blaring out tunes from the 1960s and '70s -- surrounded by the "Health Hippies," who (for the fourth year in a row, I later discovered) had dressed up as their namesakes and were having a grand time getting into the act. As the evening wore on, they would prove to be tireless, encouraging walkers as they continued their slow circles around the loop.

Past the hippies' brightly lit enclave of cheery sound, the loop swung left into the darkness, and it was there that the full impact of the luminarias first hit.

The track -- the entire half-mile track, I discovered -- was lined at regular intervals, maybe six inches or less apart, with small paper bags filled with a handful of sand (as a weight) and a burning candle. Every single one of those bags had a note taped to the outside -- a remembrance by some relative or friend of a cancer victim. The luminaries burned all night, a silent tribute to the purpose of the event. But in the back half of the track, they (and the stars) often provided the only light -- and walking down a dark, silent path with several dozen fellow travelers, lit only by the paper lanterns at our feet, was a very powerful experience.

The event, even at that late hour, was represented by a solid cross-section of the community. A group of young children scampered underfoot as I neared one of the camps on the far side of the track. At one point, a band of teenagers walking at a slightly slower pace than me handed me a flag for a local title company, which I promptly shouldered for over half an hour, until I passed them on the track again and gave it back. I passed adults of all shapes and sizes, both men and women. Several men jogged past me. A handful of senior citizens walked around the track, often solo, many seeming lost in thought, perhaps thinking of those who had recently lost the fight. Among the adults, scattered T-shirts proclaimed "Survivor" -- anyone who had battled cancer and beat it back was singled out for extra recognition at the event.

Once I had gotten my fill of the surroundings and was starting to focus in on the walk itself, I burned a little time while walking by twirling our team's baton in several juggling moves. It made a fairly well-weighted juggling club, and the clear, crisp night was keeping my spirits high and my coordination excellent. Two laps crawled by, and felt like they took my full hour, but when I checked my pocket watch, only 15 minutes had passed. I took another lap to stretch my legs out and to try to time my trip around the track for a better idea of its distance, then unloaded some of my extra possessions back at the Journal's area (keeping the baton, as was my responsibility) and started jogging.

The movement felt great. I focused on the exertion, and time slipped by. Conscious that I normally tend to pace myself too fast and burn out quickly, I deliberately held myself to an easy pace, one which I felt I could maintain more or less continuously. It worked better than expected. I managed six full laps -- three miles, and about 25 minutes -- of taking the loop's gentle slopes and single hairpin turn at a full jog (except for a short stretch near the Journal area, where I slowed down to a fast-walk each lap in order to stretch out and catch my breath). I pushed through the typical runner's side stitch (stomach cramps about a mile in; never can make those go away entirely), and it wasn't until I briefly stopped my jog to watch a raffle drawing that I felt any pain at all. The leg muscles loosened back up after a few more minutes on the track, though. What ultimately stopped me was that my feet were starting to hurt badly enough that even pushing a walking pace was starting to get uncomfortable. I took that as a sign that I really shouldn't have relied on my cheap street shoes for an activity so strenuous, and slowed back down. It was gratifying to do so well on the run, though, considering my near-complete lack of practice or training in that department.

That took me most of the way through my shift. I hung around the team's area briefly at 2:00, waiting to see if my replacement was going to show up -- then walked another lap and checked back in five minutes later. As it became increasingly apparent that it wasn't to be, I shrugged and set out on the track again. Linda had said to wake her up if the 2:00 walker didn't show, since she was the official "cover person", but I couldn't be bothered to get her up when I felt perfectly fine to continue on, and she looked like she needed the sleep.

As for me, I spent the next hour counting luminarias.

It settled into a routine. Point, point, point, point, point, point, point, point, point, TEN. ... More pointing, then TWENTY. The tens digit was registered in my head. Every hundred, I'd reset the count and stick out a finger on my right -- non-pointing -- hand. Every five hundred ... necessity being the mother of invention, I shifted some debris around from pants pocket to pants pocket. (After the first time around the track, I grabbed a notebook and recorded the hundreds that way. It made it a little less mind-boggling.) Although I was able to keep up a respectable walking pace, I did end up becoming the slowest person on the track, and my cadence of numbers seemed to amuse everyone who walked by. Most of them got it. Several asked me how many there were. After my first count, which took up 40 minutes, I was able to tell them with some confidence, "1,841, give or take a few."

I still had some time left in the 2 to 3 a.m. shift, so I set out to verify my numbers. The second counting lap turned up 1,837. My replacement showed up as I was wrapping up; Linda, who had been awoken again, thanked me profusely for covering the extra hour. I was a little fatigued, but even after the three-mile run, left the fairgrounds feeling not so much drained as disappointed that I had to go. I wasn't, after all, heading home. I was going back to work.

After the exhilaration of movement and quiet power of the track full of luminarias, it was hard to return to an empty office and stare at a computer screen, trying to place rows and columns of statistics into boxes. The work didn't come easy. I'll spare you the details; suffice it to say that I finally stopped, about three-quarters done, three hours later as the sky was beginning to lighten, and headed back to the fairgrounds, leaving the editor a note saying I was going to go take a nap and get it finished in the morning. (On my day off, mind.)

Linda welcomed me back -- there were still about three hours left in the event, and with the wee hours of the night behind them, more walkers had flooded back onto the track and more pavilions were being manned. The Journal had delivered several hundred complimentary copies of that day's paper -- with the relay coverage from the night before -- to the site, and they were disappearing nearly as quickly as they could be offered out. I laid it on the line for her: "Look. I've been awake for about 20 hours straight at this point, and have spent nearly all of that at my desk at work. Home is 45 minutes away. I've got more to do back at the office. I need to grab a blanket and take a nap. Wake me for the event breakfast." She nodded in sympathy and pushed me over to an unused air mattress behind the pavilion.

Next thing I knew, the sun was shining down on the track -- many of the luminarias were, incredibly, still burning -- and I was getting an 8 a.m. wake-up call. I changed shirts and staggered over toward the main fairgrounds building along with the other die-hards of the team who had either walked morning shifts or stayed for the entire event. A local service club was serving up several thousand helpings of pancakes, eggs, and sausage; I scored a half-stale donut and some odd orange-like fruit juice substance to go with it, and managed to get enough energy back to keep up my half of a conversation I remember nothing about. Bethany, the Journal's newest hire, had arrived at the event as a reporter to cover the closing ceremonies; I relayed the luminaria total to her (it made it into the article she wrote) and ended up caravaning back to the office with her. As it turned out, the remainder of the test score work was about half an hour of plugging in data -- I'd gotten all of the templates ironed out, and had the page layout completed -- and she volunteered to wrap up the job so that I could head for home.

I finally made it back into bed sometime around noon. It took my sleep schedule some time to recover.

If I had the opportunity to do it again, I'd definitely do it differently. It ended up feeling not so much like a special event as it did some sort of weird work field trip -- a brief jaunt out of the office with my co-workers in between my other work duties. In the broad, abstract sense, it was all worth it -- and, certainly, it was a memorable event. But ultimately the crazy overtime did end up putting a bit of a damper on things for me.

On the other hand, this last week, due to the joys of comp time, I only had to work a half-day on Friday, which allowed me to meet up with my dad and sister for dinner before she had to go back to college for the school year. On top of that, I got a long weekend for Labor Day, which allowed me to go camping -- a write-up of which is next on my agenda; and, yes, I have pictures.

           September 9, 2003 ... Defending 'irrationality' .............. (Permalink)

One of the most fascinating articles I've read in weeks: Michael Huemer's "Why People Are Irrational About Politics." It's ostensibly about politics, of course, but really, at its base, it's about the methods of human thought.

Although the entire thing is well worth reading, I think Huemer gets right to the crux of the problem at the beginning of section 4:

... the theory of Rational Irrationality holds that people often choose -- rationally -- to adopt irrational beliefs because the costs of rational beliefs exceed their benefits. To understand this, one has to distinguish two senses of the word "rational":
Instrumental rationality (or "means-end rationality") consists in choosing the correct means to attain one's actual goals, given one's actual beliefs. This is the kind of rationality that economists generally assume in explaining human behavior.
Epistemic rationality consists, roughly, in forming beliefs in truth-conducive ways -- accepting beliefs that are well-supported by evidence, avoiding logical fallacies, avoiding contradictions, revising one's beliefs in the light of new evidence against them, and so on. This is the kind of rationality that books on logic and critical thinking aim to instill.
The theory of Rational Irrationality holds that it is often instrumentally rational to be epistemically irrational.
My observations of people -- both in the political arena and in the personal sphere -- suggest that everyone strives for both goal-attainment and truth, and that we all strive for both of those things all the time -- it's the rare person indeed who is capable of saying, "I have chosen to believe something which I don't think is true because it is useful," or vice versa.

So these are the horns of the sapient dilemma. When we make decisions about what things to believe -- especially about inherently unprovable things such as the meaning of life -- we must consider not only the likely truth values of the answers to evaluate, but also their consequences. To do otherwise risks madness -- in both directions. Chasing a theory with disregard for its actual correspondence to facts opens the door to any number of bizarre results; chasing a theory with regard only that it is objectively and impersonally true opens the door to meaninglessness or oversimplification.

To make things worse, as the theory of rational ignorance points out, our decisions are generally made on the basis of only as much information as it is time-effective for us to find out. Even those of us deeply interested in philosophical, spiritual, or epistomological questions have to go play the game of society to take care of our bodies' physical needs, and it's just no fun to study the same single question all your life, so any approach to any meaningful question is going to be necessarily, perhaps fatally, crippled by simple pragmatism.

So the judgment we make, every time we approach an issue, is which side of that Truth or Consequences debate to err closer to. This is different for different people, different at different times, and different for different topics -- and can vary widely even within an individual.

(It's tempting to cite myself as an example by pointing out that I'm a person who believes himself to be a dragon in spirit, and simultaneously urges humanity to collectively work toward a better understanding of logical deduction and the scientific method -- but it's a pretty poor reading of the scientific method that comes up with the a priori assumption that holding beliefs about unprovables such as the nature of one's soul is necessarily unscientific. A better example might be my belief in magic; a purely reductionist world doesn't pass my "smell test" even if objectively true, but neither does a purely subjective universe generated spontaneously out of our willpower and expectations pass my "truth test" even if perfectly aligned with core expectations.)

One of the more interesting parts of the essay is when Huemer slides an idea by in the conclusion. He stipulates that "the problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces" (albeit with no evidence beyond the fact that it leads to ... well, politics), and offers ways to combat it -- at one point suggesting that an optimal strategy is not to shift people's beliefs, but get them to abandon the debate: "the important point is that, in most cases, neither party to the debate has any data of this kind. Upon realizing this, both parties should agree to suspend judgement on" the issue.

I think he tries to hurry this one through because, frankly, a robust implementation would mean the end of politics as we know it -- and, beyond even that shocking (and possibly positive) suggestion, the abandonment of "instrumental rationality" into purely "epistemic rationality." E.R. is, of course, a good thing, as far as it goes -- but saying that we should suspend judgment on everything for which we have insufficient data? That kind of forced agnosticism sits unwell with me.

It's often smart, of course, and in many cases is indeed the most rational thing to do. I use the concept fairly broadly myself -- for example, I haven't heard enough from the UFOlogists to convince me that we're being visited by ETs; I haven't heard enough from the skeptics to convince me that it's improbable enough to dismiss; and I don't have the time or desire to research the issue myself; so I maintain a pointed lack of opinion. But as a political tool?

The problem is that political problems are not like scientific problems. If you want to remain agnostic on whether e^(i*pi) equals -1 or not, the world will keep turning while you wait to pick up a math textbook. But if you (and other decision-makers) decide to remain agnostic on a complex political issue -- say, welfare reform -- in the absence of hard data, the continued turning of the world is, in effect, settling the debate for you. Inaction in politics is in itself a form of action. It's a vote in principle for the status quo. And I think it's safe to say that nobody's entirely satisfied with the status quo. Even on those topics which most people don't have a reasoned opinion, those same people often feel something should be done about it beyond just sitting back and letting it occur.

Should more people be more reluctant to reach political conclusions, waiting to make up their minds until they're more satisfied with the position's epistemic rationality? Undoubtedly, yes. But we have to hold that up as a trend to follow to push us toward a healthier balance -- not an ideal to always blindly approach. We must act on what information we have, when it's necessary to act.

Understanding our universe better is a life-long process and life-long goal, and we shouldn't be content to rest on our laurels just because we think we've got everything figured out ... but we also need to recognize that "irrational" decision-making is part of the sapient condition, and it's gotten our species this far without self-extinction, and while we're waiting for some better method of thought to come along, we've got to believe in something.

           September 12, 2003 ... Trash talk ............................. (Permalink)

Baxil: Although if you want to complicate things later, we'll have to set up a rematch. After I thoroughly trounce you, of course. ;)
Rene: Mmm-hmm. You and what alternate universe? :}
Baxil: Why, this one, right here. *points*
Rene: The ol' universe in a pocket gag is so 1999.
Baxil: That was the point. Because now I can whup your butt into the next millennium.
Rene: Ouch! Oh, I feel teh burn.
Baxil: Amazing how magic changes the face of trash talk. <G>
Rene: *G*

           September 17, 2003 ... Stranger than fiction .................. (Permalink)

When bills are introduced in the California Legislature, they are given a number. As far as I can tell, these numbers are consecutively assigned, not chosen. There's no real potential for gaming the system, short of just waiting to introduce a bill until the proper time -- generally not worth it when an actual legislative need exists.

So it was with some bemusement that I discovered earlier this week that the official number of the medical marijuana reform bill that was passed on Friday by the State Senate was ... SB 420.

I'm telling you. You can't make this shit up.

(For those who lived under a rock during their college days, or are even more clueless about pop culture than I am: "420" has time-honored stoner significance.)

           September 17, 2003 ... Man in black ........................... (Permalink)

Country music star Johnny Cash died this last weekend. This has been noted in passing by many of my journaling colleagues, and given the proper frenzied treatment by the news media in general. A star has fallen -- a singer with cross-generational appeal, a voice for the Everyman, a groundbreaking artist, yadda yadda.

Yes, we've lost all that, and I think people are right to note it, and have the right to be hurt by the loss. But I don't think enough people are pausing to mourn the passing of one of the world's fiercest rebels.

[The famous flip-off ad] I was, very nominally, a fan of his music -- which is to say that I had heard it, mostly back in my days in my alma mater's newsroom, and liked it. I'm no drooling fanboy, and in fact I have basically nothing to say about him that isn't secondhand. But it doesn't take being a fan of his music to recognize his contributions to the world. And I wonder why he hasn't gotten more attention in counterculture circles as -- dare I say it? -- a role model.

He was one of those rare artists with both a strong inner compass and a strong moral compass -- both admirable qualities on their own, but powerful when combined. He wasn't afraid to be controversial, or alienate his fans, if he thought it would move his message -- as his arguably most famous stunt shows. He took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine upon winning a Grammy for his album "Unchained," literally flipping off the country music establishment for its lack of support of older artists.

And, of course, his music was motivated by a life-long commitment as a Christian; many of his hits, like "Ring of Fire," were overtly religious, and even in his autobiographical anthem "Man in Black" he explained: "I wear the black for those who never read / Or listened to the words that Jesus said / About the road to happiness through love and charity / Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me." I don't happen to agree with the particular religion behind his faith, but he sang because he was passionate about it -- and that sort of passion, plus his unwavering dedication to his craft, show us what we can accomplish when we have a message we want to bring to the world. He didn't have a silver voice, or Justin Timberlake looks, or Danny Elfman orchestration genius; but he had perseverance, and a message, and the balls to flout social convention if it meant getting heard.

More importantly, he knew his intended audience. He was never about the mainstream music-buying public. He spoke out, reached out, to people with problems, and connected with them -- the highest aspiration of someone trying to make the world a better place. He's known for songs like "Folsom Prison Blues" and his recent cover of the Nine Inch Nails metal anthem "Hurt" -- speaking about the problems of the alienated, the lost, the fallen. He gave concerts frequently at prisons, and recorded at least two live albums there.

Bob Gendron, in this article, sums it up best, I think, offering perhaps the most profound eulogy anyone could write for a man whose music transcended his life:

If you stop and think about it, Cash has been making music since 1955 -- 1955! Consider: Never once has he fallen prey to convention, trends, or commerce. He's had bouts with painkillers, uppers, and alcohol, but not once did he sell out to anything. He's embraced prisoners, soldiers, blue- and white-collar workers, and championed civil, human, and equal rights in his music and conduct. ... His extended middle finger is the subject of the most quintessential rock and roll photo ever snapped. He's been celebrated by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono to Wyclef Jean. It's only fitting that Johnny Cash be recognized as the first punk, music's longstanding rebel, the bearer of truth. Cash's music is America, as through his songs, we see a reflection of ourselves, our history, fears, and hopes.

I hope Cash's legacy -- both musically, and as a celebrity willing to give the world a kick in the ass it still sorely needs -- carries on.

           September 21, 2003 ... Questionable marketing ................. (Permalink)

There must be something about religion that changes the rules of marketing.

Actually, having said that, I just realized that it is absolutely, completely the opposite of what the facts indicate. What brings the subject up is a pair of religion-related sales pitches that I recently came across (and which I will describe shortly). One was clever, and one was merely insulting; both of them were slick, polished examples of our short-attention-span culture -- pitches certain of their target audience, and trying to convince you that you're part of it.

This isn't some aberration. This is the way marketing works these days. So religion doesn't bend the rules; it's just learned to follow them. What disappoints me is that it should be different. We're not talking about dish soap or sunscreen here; we're talking about truth, about identity, about spirit, about community -- about things that matter, things that should not be packageable in pre-shrunk plastic wrap and subject to double coupons on Tuesdays.

And yet that's exactly what's happening to the Bible in "Revolve" -- it's been transformed into a supermarket-checkout-stand teen girl tabloid. Ignore for a second that the visual design makes it look like it came out of the 1970s -- the intent is to bring the Bible glitter and hipness, and appeal to a very specific demographic. The Bible isn't something you can rewrite to fit your audience (well, okay, people do it all the time with selective quoting and interpretation, but the words themselves are static) ... so the glamour is purely a style update. One hundred percent packaging.

Even that isn't necessarily a bad thing -- every attempt to present the Bible in a new format, whether it's "Jesus Christ Superstar" or a Chick tract, is repackaging. But a teenage girl magazine, filled with features like a quiz on "Are you dating a Godly guy?" And beauty tips? Beauty tips? (Presumably it's a bait-and-switch and they discuss being "spiritually beautiful," if I know how these things work. But still.) Repackaging is repackaging, yes, but it's not all created equal.

My first reaction on discovering the existence of the magazine was that it was extremely clever but profoundly disturbing. Clever, because conservative Christians have been complaining since before I was born that popular culture is to blame for all of our society's ills; after decades of holding the line and trying to stand still while society dashed ever further away in pursuit of empty slogans, they're now turning their attention to the same tools that have proven so effective against them. This shows adaptability, and perhaps even a hint of post-modern irony.

But I think that in the process of co-opting pop culture, perhaps these people forgot why they stayed away from it in the first place: It's shallow. It's soundbite-driven and catchphrase-driven. It's custom-built for marketing -- and while it works very well for marketing, it doesn't work for communicating. Evangelism, outreach, has to have some depth behind it; there has to be some hook behind the bait, or else people get drawn in by the idea, look around dubiously, and wander off disturbed.

Disturbing? Well, there's a whole 'nother level to that, above and beyond the idea of the Gospel of Mark as giggly slumber party reading. I find myself agreeing with the appraisal of the Toronto Sun's Marianne Meed Ward, who unlike me has read it:

The really scary thing is that this Bible, like all packaged versions, is heavy on interpretation. It's a combination commentary and Bible: It tells you what the Bible says, then it tells you what to think. (And sometimes it misses the first part.) A Revolve Q&A includes a question about how to tell a guy you like him. Revolve's advice: "You don't. Sorry ... God made guys to be the leaders. That means that they lead in relationships." Hmmm. Where, exactly, does the Bible say girls shouldn't tell boys their feelings?
(-- From her Sept. 7 column, which I'd link if the Sun archived them)
So it's not just designed to appeal to kids who look for shallow marketing glitz, but also designed to feed them soundbites disguised as answers, presented so as to discourage rather than stimulate actual research into the issue. Great! Yeah, sign me up for a dozen.

Speaking of soundbites disguised as answers -- that's the sort of thing one traditionally associates with religion, but apparently the other side isn't content to let them keep their monopoly on the act.

I got a letter the other day from Free Inquiry magazine, the mouthpiece of the secular humanist movement. Now, I am predisposed to be sympathetic to them, because I strongly believe a secular government and a strong separation of church and state benefit everyone -- two positions for which they strongly argue. I don't like "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and I don't like "in God we trust" on the money -- it's not good for anyone, even Christians, because it's making God into a symbol, an idol, rather than an entity with which one can have a mutual relationship. And secular humanists have been in many cases leading the charge against these things, despite the fact that taking a stand on such issues tends to make one a political martyr.

But the pitch they sent me for their magazine went too far. I pulled it out of the envelope and was greeted with the headline, "Do you belong to the 'Thoughtful 39 Percent'?"

The letter clarified as it went on (emphasis theirs):

According to recent surveys, 39 percent of Americans -- 111 million of us -- belong to no church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious institution. That number has never been higher. Here's another record: an unprecedented 14 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they are atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, or simply disinterested in religion. That's about 40 million Americans who live without religion! ...

... Maybe you're one of what I call the "Thoughtful 39 Percent." Maybe you're among the brightest and boldest of the estimated 111 million "unchurched" Americans.

Now, these people pride themselves on a rational, scientific worldview (the letter refers to living ethically "without superstition," and, heck, the name of the magazine itself is "Free Inquiry"). Their selling point is that they believe what they do based on facts, not dogma; logic, not doctrine. So why are they deliberately and blatantly spinning statistics in order to make their pitch?

I have no reason to doubt the poll numbers they cite (even though they don't source the survey -- but it's a sales letter, not a research paper, so I'll let that slide). My complaint, rather, is in their presenting the numbers in their proper context and then proceeding to ignore the context completely whenever it helps their image.

Secular humanists, the letter says gently, "believe that this life -- and this world -- are all we have"; and that "it takes courage to live 'without invisible means of support.'" That is their target audience. Atheists, agnostics, and -- I'll be generous here -- the disinterested in religion, those who haven't come to a decision about spiritual matters but rather ignore the question entirely. This is the 14 percent number that they mention above. But they talk about the "thoughtful 39 percent." That's a gap of 25 percent. Who are these one-quarter of Americans that make up the remainder of the "thoughtful" category?

They are not self-identified atheists. They are not self-identified agnostics. They are not even "disinterested" in religion -- all of those fell into the 14-percent group previously mentioned! These are people who are interested in religion, people who believe in some sort of spiritual system -- remember, agnostics are the "undecided." These are people who, in short, are religious. The big qualifier is that they have no church (or other institution).

The "Free Inquiry" secular humanists, in short, have declared approximately one-third of religious people "thoughtful," and the rest presumably "not thoughtful," because of arbitrary institutional associations.

This makes me, an eclectic pagan who believes himself to be a dragon in spirit, "thoughtful" -- because I'm too finicky about social interaction to be interested in joining a coven or grove or meet. Meanwhile, Isaac Bonewits, one of the most authoritative scholars on magic out there today, fails to make the cut because he's a druid. My father, who spends significant amounts of time studying "A Course in Miracles" and is a very devout man, is "thoughtful" because he doesn't have a building to drive to on Sundays. My sister, who is equally devoted to her spirituality but listens to a pastor every week, doesn't make the cut. Millions of blue-collar, red-state, deeply conservative Americans are "thoughtful" because they sit at home and watch televangelists for their weekly dose of religion; millions of Unitarians and Buddhists? No dice.

In short, their "39 percent" figure is pure and complete bunk. It measures nothing. It means nothing.

If they want to call their 14 percent of nonbelievers and non-carers "thoughtful," that's better; it's still insulting, but at least it's consistent. But "thoughtful 39 percent" is an empty slogan -- and an offensive one, not just because of its implications about the rest of us, but also because it so obviously falls apart upon any examination, and is therefore an insult to the intelligence of its readers. We're expected to nod dumbly and not read between the lines? I could understand that coming from a 2,000-year-old piece of dogma disguised as a teenage-girl rag, but this is ridiculous behavior from people who make it a point to pride themselves on their logic!

I'm not nit-picking here -- the phrase appears seven times in the four-page letter. This is one of their selling points. This is something that's important to them. Why? Because, I suppose, it makes more of an impact than 14 percent. 39 is edging up toward half -- imagine, you can be with the smart half of America! But their actual audience is a fraction of that -- still impressive, but hardly the movement on the brink of a revolution that they want to imply.

And make no mistake, there's not much appeal beyond that 14 percent for their magazine, if the contents of their Web site are any indication. I clicked on a link at random, Richard Dawkins' "Now Here's A Bright Idea!," and was greeted with an essay enthusing on the possibility of the materialist (i.e., "non-supernatural") movement commandeering the term "bright" in the same way that the homosexual community has taken over "gay." That properly deserves a rant of its own, but I'll leave it at just the main point: What's the opposite of "bright" ... and what does that say about their opinions of people who find fault with the idea?

           September 23, 2003 ... Preview ................................ (Permalink)

It's 6 a.m., the sky is starting to lighten on the eastern horizon, and I have just now gotten home from a bona fide adventure.

It involves one good deed; four hours in the darkest depths of night; extreme inebriation; driving through unpaved roads in a national forest; and astronomical navigation.

Rest assured that I'm alright, and that I will be typing up my story at the first opportunity at which I don't immediately have to get to bed for work the next morning.

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