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For DummiesI am a pretty smart guy.  The tests that are usually used to measure these  things tend to place me somewhere in the smartest 5% of humanity, depending on the particular test and what kind of day I’m having.  I am also smart enough to know the flaws inherent in these tests and am very much aware that they are not always accurate (unless, of course, you just want to run comparisons of middle-class, white guys of European descent).

So let’s allow for the less-than-perfect nature of intelligence testing.  Let’s say I’m considerably less intelligent than the tests are wont to place me.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that I actually place just inside the smartest 20% of humanity.

This means that every time I initially encounter another human being, there is an 80% chance that they will be dumber than I am.  Although even the most determined moron isn’t stupid all the time, I think if we took the time to crunch all the numbers (and allowing for the relative nature of stupidity), we would end up with something like a solid 20-25% chance that any time another human being opens their mouth in my presence, something stupid will come out of it.

By now you may be thinking that I am arrogant.  While I feel arrogance is too strong a term, I am the first to admit I possess an ego the size of Louisiana.  However, my ego has nothing to do with with my intellect.  Rather, it is a result of my upbringing.  My family took pains to see that I developed a strong self-image.  They did not foresee the monster they would create.

My intelligence, to the contrary, tends more often to have a humbling effect.

The smartest human being I have ever met (and believe me, children – she’s really fucking smart) once explained it to me this way:  The universe is an enormous place full of stuff we don’t know.  Somewhere in that immensity, we live inside miniscule bubbles made up of our knowledge.  When we learn new things, the size of our bubble expands, but the net result of this is that the surface area of our bubble (the interface where our knowledge meets our ignorance) increases.  Therefore, expanding our knowledge exponentially increases our awareness of just how much we don’t know.

This is why those who posses truly superior intellects are usually not prideful about it.  Real intelligence instills humility.  Real intelligence knows that it has arrived where it is through a certain amount of luck and is thankful for it.  And real intelligence knows what it is – it needs no validation.  This is why most people who are truly intelligent view their intelligence as just another physical attribute, like being tall or having blue eyes.

And then there are those who just think they’re smart.   Those who are, in fact, not smart at all, but they believe otherwise because some test or web site or TV show told them otherwise.  To be fair, they probably clock in at the smarter end of mediocrity, but they don’t actually ever cross over into the realm of intelligence.  And stupidity that thinks it’s smart is the most dangerous form of stupidity.

You know the type – there’s no humility in this crowd.  They’re oblivious to the vastness of their ignorance, mainly because they never look up from the shiny baubles of their amassed ‘knowledge’.  They actually believe that they ‘know’ things.  They speak of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ that is ‘proven’ and ‘undeniable’ as if such things actually exist.  And what really drives them crazy is when someone has the gall to question their so-called ‘knowledge’.  This is when they leap to the attack, and their attack always takes the same form:  they must prove you wrong.  This is the only manner in which they can believe themselves to be right.  The fastest – hell, the only – route to intellectual superiority lies in the ability to point to another human being and convincingly declare: You are wrong! It’s kind of sad, actually.

But here’s the thing that pisses off the genius wannabees the most:  that it is unacceptable in our society to walk up to others and say “I’m really smart”.  I mean, what’s the point of possessing a superior intellect if nobody notices? How will everyone else know they are inferior unless their betters point it out to them?

So the wannabees found themselves in a bit of a pickle.  How can they show off their intellectual superiority without just coming out and saying it?

After applying their mediocre intellects to the matter, they eventually decided that the way to show off their brains was to be annoying.  You know – needlessly correcting grammar.  Obsessing on minute, meaningless detail.  Memorizing acronyms and using the complete term instead.  You’ve been exposed to the behavior.  You’ve probably wanted to knee a groin over it.

Eventually, though, they managed to see through the fog of their mediocrity and noticed that all they were accomplishing was to piss everyone off.  While they may have been exhibiting their superiority, the inferior masses were clearly not ‘getting it’.  A new method was called for, and after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, one member of this ‘intelligentsia’ stood up and said “Um…what about this ‘God’ thing?”

After a brief fight, he managed to clear enough space around himself to offer an explanation:  “I meant that we should profess ourselves as atheists.  Everyone knows religion is for idiots.  If we say we don’t believe in God, everyone will know we’re smart.  And society allows us to go around saying we’re atheists.”

The rest – as they say – is history.  Now the creme de la mediocre have adopted atheism as their own personal religion.  And they cling to a few studies that support their primary idiocy, i.e., ‘smart people tend to be atheists’.

But what the mediocre minds really hate most is me.  I show up and declare my atheism in complete (usually well-constructed) sentences, and they welcome me with open arms.

And then I go and ruin everything by explaining a few things to them.  Like evolution is a belief, not a fact.  Like unbelief is as much a matter of faith as belief.  Like atheism is, in fact, a form of religion, as is science.  And my personal favorite, the one they hate most:

The universe is a really big place.  There’s enough room in it for more than one Truth.

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Windows Live The other night my wife and I watched the last episode of Glee (great fun.  I highly recommend the show).  The program takes place in a high school and, as such, much of the storyline revolves around the social aspects of that purgatory of the teen years.  Halfway through the program, I realized something about my own high school experience:

I have no idea who the popular kids were.  Additionally, I have no idea who the unpopular kids were.  In a nutshell, I have no recollection of the social life in my high school of any kind.

I have my closest friends to thank for this.  We all met while attending (or rather, while we were supposed to be attending) high school, and one of the things that first brought us all together was a shared disdain for pretty much anything society had to offer.  Even at 16 years of age, we had realized that the status quo was not ‘quo’ (as Dr. Horrible so succinctly put it) and our collective response to it was to pretty much opt out.  I really miss my teenage omniscience.

I bring all this up because my lack of experience with the high school social scene has left me ill-equipped to deal with vast portions of the internet.  In case you haven’t noticed , much of the so-called ‘Social Web’ is simply a substitute for the popularity contest that was high school.  With one important difference:  The popular kids on the internet are usually the ones who were unpopular in high school.  And they’re generally pretty angry about it.

Sometimes the popularity contest simply manifests itself as comparing numbers of ‘friends’ (a quaint euphemism for people you’ve never met).  This is the kind of score-keeping you see at Facebook and Twitter.   For the most part, it’s pretty harmless (especially at Twitter, where no one ever seems to care how many ‘friends’ you have.  One of the reasons Twitter is the only corner of the ‘Social Web’ I regularly visit), pretty much just amounting to a method of keeping score.

Other times, though, the popularity contest results in gang-like behavior.  This usually manifests in the comment sections of popular web sites, particularly those that are self-moderating.  While crowd-sourcing can be a very good thing (see OpenStreetMap and/or Wikipedia), any time you put power into the hands of the mob, you run the risk that it will behave like – well – a mob (see Lord of the Flies).  There is a very popular tech website that is a perfect example of this.  I will refrain from mentioning it by name (suffice to say it can be referred to using only punctuation).  This site used to be the source for most kinds of technical information, so when I was writing a post about Google Wave I paid the site a visit to see what the geeks were saying about it.

I was greatly disappointed to discover that the site has been largely taken over by juvenile idiots.  Sadly, I left having learned nothing of value about Wave. (I have since learned that disagreeing with the ‘wisdom’ of the mob at this site gets you quickly relegated to the status of ‘Troll’.  I proudly admit that I am currently considered a ‘Troll’, and I stop by every now and again to disagree with someone, thereby maintaining my ‘Trolldom’.  I know – my own little bit of juvenile behavior.)

Some sites avoid this.  One such is Lifehacker, a site I’ve been visiting for years.  I’ve found it to be a good source of ideas and advice (you know – life ‘hacks’), but they also regularly point their readers to good sources of (usually free or cheap) software.

Which is what all this has been leading up to.  The other day Lifehacker had a post about Windows Live Writer, which is part of the whole Windows Live suite.  Based on that post, I decided to download Live Writer and give it a whirl, which I am doing at this very moment.  And I have to say I’m quite pleased.  I’ve always been a fan of WYSIWYG editors, and Live Writer really delivers on that score.  It feels very much like writing directly to my blog.  I could get used to this. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with WordPress’s built-in editor.  Live Writer has a better interface, though, and just plain looks better.

And I was very pleased to see the fashion in which Live Writer was packaged.  The installer offers a suite of applications, most of which Windows users will be familiar with.  Apps like Messenger and Mail (neither of which I use, both of which I was happy to see as no longer being included in a standard Windows install).  I was especially happy to see Windows Movie Maker, the unsung hero of Microsoft products.  While it doesn’t pack a whole lot of punch (as video editing software goes), its lack of cost and ease of use make it one of the home movie enthusiast’s best friends.

I have to admit, though, that I would be using Live Writer even if it didn’t have a pleasing interface and was difficult to use.  Why?  Because it lets me easily do this:

Map picture

Makes me a happy Map Dork indeed.

Update:  Looks like I can do this with Google Maps, too:

Unfortunately, though, not with OpenStreetMap.

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Okay.  Let’s try this again.  There are still a bunch of people pissing and moaning about Google Buzz.  What this circumstance tells me is that there are far too many people out there using the internet who don’t know squat about the internet.  So let’s give it another shot.

First, go read this web page.

Got it so far?  Good.  The important things to remember here is that the internet is NOT a large building somewhere in the midwest that can be seized and controlled by the government (although some governments have tried), and that the internet itself is kind of stupid.  However, the stupidity of the internet should not lead us to believe that web sites and/or servers are stupid.  They are not.  Some of them are quite smart, actually.  And your computer doesn’t see any need to keep secrets from them.

Let me repeat that:  Your computer does not see any reason to keep secrets from any other computer. As stated in a previous post, every time your computer connects to another computer (which includes every time you visit a web site), they communicate with each other.  This means they tell each other about themselves.  And the first thing they tell each other is their respective IP (Internet Protocol) addresses.  IP addresses are uniquely identifiable and traceable.  That’s how some websites know where you are.  IP addresses are so individual and identifiable that it has been argued in court whether they are ‘Personally Identifiable Information’ (like your street address).  The communication between computers is also how some websites know what operating system you’re using and what browser you’re viewing their pages through.

This is why there is a general lack of anonymity on the internet (it can be achieved, but you have to really know what you’re doing).  Computers are intensely open and honest.  And please don’t confuse anonymity with privacy.  I’m sure you’ve heard of a ‘Right To Privacy’, but no one’s ever heard of a ‘Right To Anonymity’.  Think about that.

I have often compared the internet to America’s old west.  Like the old west, the internet is largely a lawless place.  There is some level of security, but it is easily broken.  There are gunslingers (of a sort) wandering about – some are good guys, some are bad guys – and you should choose whom you trust with extreme care.  The only real regulation in place is a form of social contract, but it is still in its infancy and is therefore quite fragile.

In other words:  There is no authority on the internet.

I cannot stress this point enough.  We are all used to living in a society that has some form of governing body with machinery in place to enforce their authority.  The internet has no government, nor does it have any police.  This means that it is up to us – individually – to protect ourselves.

Citizens of the United States of America have a certain amount of rights.  One of them is a right to privacy (at least, I think we do.  It may have been one of the rights erased by Bush/Cheney while most of America looked on and cheered).  This means that our privacy is protected within the bounds of the United States of America. Logically, this protection extends to anywhere the United States of America has jurisdiction, or at least enough political clout to throw some weight around.  And I’m here to tell you, boys and girls, that the internet is not such a place.  Your government (be it the U.S.A. or otherwise) has no enforceable authority here.  They cannot protect you – especially not from yourself.

I’ll put this as simply as I can:  Your rights – to privacy or otherwise – stop at your modem.

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So I got the Buzz in my Gmail, and my first thought was pretty much the same first thought I had when I got the Wave.  I immediately realized that people were not going to realize that Buzz is a public venue.  So I Buzzed a Buzz about this, and even went so far as to Tweet a Tweet on the subject.  Then I pretty much just forgot about it.

But this morning, I saw a Tweet that linked to this blog post, (see below) detailing a person’s issues with Buzz.  Go ahead – follow the link and read the post.  I’ll wait.

Read it?  Good.  Now go back and read it again, only this time, instead of thinking of the author as a victim, think of the author as computer user in the new millenium.  I’ll wait again.

Done?  Okay – let’s look at the scorecard, shall we?

First off, I don’t subscribe to the idea that victim-hood earns anybody any sort of preferential treatment, but in this case I’ll make an exception:  +100 points.
Next, for confusing privacy with anonymity:  -50 stupid points.
For failing to read terms of agreement and privacy statements but bitching about them anyway:  -50 stupid points.
For thinking the internet is an anonymous place:  -50 stupid points.
For thinking you could remain anonymous while blogging:  -50 stupid points.
For having your abusive ex-husband in your Gmail contacts:  Okay, this one is beyond stupid.  I see this happening one of two ways:  either the author is still sending e-mail to the abusive ex, or the author failed to change e-mail address after getting rid of abusive ex.  In either case, we’re looking at something like -1,000 stupid points.
For bitching at Google for failing to protect your anonymity when you yourself have been actively working in the opposite direction:  -100 stupid points.

So our grand total is -1,200 stupid points.  Congratulations – you’re stupid!

I mean – really.  Can we use our brains just a little here, folks?  I feel for the author.  I really do.  I feel for all victims, and I believe that in the case of rapists, the logical thing to say is:  “Bailiff – plug in the chair.”  But Google did not victimize the author, and the author’s anger toward Google is inappropriate and misplaced.  If anything, we should be thanking Google.  Buzz is serving as a timely reminder of the realities of the internet, realities that often escape the modern social-networker and/or blogger.  Let’s review:

The internet is a public place.
There is no anonymity on the internet.  I cannot stress this one enough.  Every time you go online, your computer is talking to other computers AND THEY ARE EXCHANGING INFORMATION.  Haven’t you ever noticed how many websites know where you live, despite the fact that you never told them?  That’s because your computer did tell them.
Don’t ever send anything over the internet unless you’re willing to share it with the world.  Seriously.  While there IS some level of privacy on the internet, it can rather easily be invaded (just like in the real world).
Privacy and anonymity are not the same thing.  And almost no one promises to protect your anonymity online.

All I’m saying is that you should have some idea what the internet IS before you start playing with it.  And don’t bitch at Google because you approached the internet with incorrect assumptions.

And 50 bonus points if you get the reference in the title of this post.

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Update: Looks like somebody finally figured out a thing or two about the internet and privacy.  The blog linked to above is now inaccessible.  A smart move, methinks.  If you want to read the text of the original post, it can be found here.

Pluto

Update:  The boy and I just watched Interplanet Janet, from Schoolhouse RockShe considers Pluto to be a planet.  Who are we to argue?

Okay – here’s the deal.  I’m getting a little tired of this Pluto’s-Not-A-Planet crap.  Why, I ask, would Pluto be considered to be anything other than a planet?  ‘Why?’  The answer goes, ‘Because it doesn’t fit the definition of “planet”‘.

Huh?  When did this happen?

2006.  That was when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided (for whatever reasons) to write a new definition of ‘planet’.  Their definition is as follows:

1)  Have an orbit around a sun.

2)  Have enough mass to assume a (mostly) round shape.

3)  Have cleared the neighborhood in its orbit.

The third is the one Pluto falls short on, and for this reason they’re now referring to it as a ‘dwarf’ planet.  There are some in the profession fighting this (mostly because expecting Pluto to clear out the neighborhood is unreasonable, due to the enormity of its orbit), but so far they have been unsuccessful.  My take on this is that the IAU is going at this ass-backwards.

Years ago, the archaeological world had a list of criteria they used to define a ‘civilization’ (much like our planet-defining list above).  If I remember correctly (and I usually do), there were 5 items on the list, the pertinent one being possession of the wheel.  It was thought that a group of humans couldn’t reach the lofty heights of true civilization without first developing the wheel.  Then one guy, who had spent his life studying the Inca, raised his hand and said: “But – the Inca never developed the wheel”.  He was told that the Inca, having failed to measure up to the definition, couldn’t have been a ‘civilization’.   “But,”  he argued, “They Built Machu Picchu.  They had a trade network that spanned a continent.  They had suspension bridges, for Christ’s sake!”

“Hmmm,” said his colleagues, “Maybe we should re-think our definition.”

This, my friends, is how science is supposed to be done.  A good scientist does not look up on a overcast day and say:  “It’s not blue, therefore it cannot be the sky”.

Pluto has enough of a gravitational influence on our solar system that it’s presence was known decades before anyone actually ‘saw’ it.  It has three moons (that we know of), putting it ahead of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.  Most importantly, in the decades during which Pluto’s existence was known but it had not yet been ‘seen’, it was known as “Planet X”.  This alone gives it more celestial street cred than all the other so-called planets combined.

It’s a friggin’ planet.  Just fix the definition, already.

Besides, we don’t really want to piss off the god of the underworld, do we?

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Sun Tzu's Art of War

“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

No it isn’t.”

The other day, I found myself once again engaging in an argument with some random internet bonehead.  This seems to happen to me with ridiculous frequency, and I think I may be starting to understand why.  This particular bonehead tried to tell me that ad tracking leads to ‘identity theft’ (the quotes are to illustrate my general disdain for the term.  What is commonly referred to as ‘identity theft’ is most usually simply credit card fraud.  Nobody ever showed any interest in buying insurance against credit card fraud, though).

Anyway, when I first encountered this idea, I did what I usually do when I come across an idea that seems a little odd to me – I researched it a bit.  I discovered some interesting things: that ‘identity theft’ has actually been on the decline (at least as of 2007, the latest figures I could easily find), that slightly less than 12% of ‘identity theft’ occurs online, and that law enforcement agencies recommend conducting business online as a means to prevent ‘identity theft’.  I explained to bonehead that I didn’t share his fears regarding ad tracking, and he basically told me that I’m wallowing in my own ignorance and that if I could achieve the lofty heights of his superior knowledge, I would be quaking in fear just as he was.  This time, I pointed him to the information I had learned earlier, asked him to explain it, and asked him to point me to one single documented case of ‘identity theft’ that had been attributed to ad tracking.  His response?  Once again, I’m accused of idiocy based solely on the fact that I will not accept whatever he says at face value.  Did he actually attempt – in any way – to back up his statements?  Nope.  So I called him on it.  His response to this was the best of the lot.  Told me he wouldn’t ‘pander to my demands’ (really – he used the word ‘pander’), told me that I should go out and find his proof for him (I’m not making this up), that I was calling him a liar unless he offered up some proof (I called him no such thing.  I didn’t call him a bonehead, either.  I just think he is one) and, finally, that he was wasting his time by discussing something with a person who calls him arrogant (yup, I did call him that.  Call me crazy.  I can’t help but think a guy who tells me to do the necessary research to back up his idea is just a wee bit arrogant).

Anyway, this latest encounter with an internet pundit got me to thinking.  Specifically, about the nature of argument.  As I always seem to be doing these days, I spent a fair amount of time thinking it through with an eye toward it being A Discussion I Will Have With My Son.

I am not, by nature, an argumentative kind of guy.  I do, however, like a good argument.  These two statements are not contradictory.  They only conflict with each other if you don’t understand the nature of arguments.  Michael Palin (quoted above) quoted the definition of argument, virtually word-for-word, from the OED.  In a nutshell, an argument is much the same as any other form of discourse between humans:  it’s simply an exchange of ideas.  The problem some people have (and the place where misunderstanding creeps into the mix) is that, in the case of arguments, the ideas being exchanged are opposing and often seemingly contradictory.  I say ‘seemingly’ because it is difficult for some people to wrap their brain around the idea that opposing points of view can be (and quite often are) equally valid, equally ‘right’, and equally ‘correct’ (or ‘incorrect’, if your worldview demands it).  An argument is not a competition (when competition is added to an argument, it becomes a debate), nor is it a conflict.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop people from thinking that an argument is something that you ‘win’.  So far too many ‘arguments’  get treated as some sort of conflict, a conflict that needs to be ‘won’ by proving one’s own point of view to be the ‘right’ point of view.  Sadly, insecurity often drives people to believe that the only way to be proven ‘right’ is by pointing to someone else as being ‘wrong’ (this often becomes intertwined with the irrational fear that admitting to your own mistakes causes your penis to fall off).  Those who are subject to this confusion usually collect what they perceive to be the Holy Grail of arguments:  the endgame.  The verbal equivalent of checkmate.  The Statement With Which There Is No Arguing.  Sometimes, they’re quite effective (“You’re not a woman, so you can’t possibly understand”), but usually they’re just sad and transparent (“I’m not going to pander to your demands of sourcing information on such cases”).  In any case, they all just indicate that someone has either run out of ideas, or they have realized that their position is indefensible but find themselves emotionally unable to abandon it.  Some people have a very hard time letting go of an idea once they have embraced it.

One of my favorite Professors at college explained scientific theory thusly:  “Start with an idea.  Then do everything in your power to punch holes in that idea.  If it stands up to that onslaught, hand the idea to all your colleagues and have them do everything in their power to punch holes in it.  If your idea also stands up to that onslaught, then you might – just might – be on to something.”  I took that explanation to heart, and I apply it to every new idea that comes my way.  Upon first encountering an idea, I scrutinize it and decide whether to embrace or reject it.  Now – if you are the person who happened to present that idea to me, and if you (for whatever reason) wish for me to re-examine my initial decision about the idea, then you would be well advised to give me a reason to do so.  If you are unwilling (or unable) to bring anything to the table aside from your initial idea, don’t be surprised when I fail to take either you or your ideas seriously.  I do not – and will not – apologize for this behavior on my part.  I feel that it is every thinking being’s right and duty to question ideas.  Unquestioned ideas are dangerous.  They are the stuff of which tyranny is made.  Even – especially – tyranny of the self-imposed variety.

When I attended Oxford, a classmate and friend of mine took a class on Parliamentary Debate.  The class divided in half and debated a variety of issues, and they opened up a couple of their debates to the general public.  I attended these public debates, and they were vastly entertaining and informative.  The topics of debate were chosen carefully, so that there would be as little ‘right vs. wrong’ as possible.  The idea was to teach a set of skills, not to prove a point.  Debate is pretty much just formal argument.  It is a competition, with a winner and a loser.  A debate is not won, however, by proving oneself  ‘right’ or ‘correct’, nor by proving one’s opponent ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’.  Either of these, given the nature of debate, is impossible to do.  The way a debate is won is by presenting your own case more effectively than your opponents present their case.  An argument is ‘won’ (if there absolutely has to be winning involved) the same way.  It is not ‘won’ by mindlessly repeating your initial statement.  It is not ‘won’ by mindlessly contradicting the statements of those who disagree with you.  It is not ‘won’ by asking someone else to back up your statements for you.  And it is definitely not ‘won’ by failing to present a case at all.

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Arrrrrrrrr!I hear X-Men Origins was leaked.  So now copies are spreading about the internet like wildfire.  And the studio is squealing like a stuck pig.  I even saw one pundit (I don’t remember where) who tried to tell me that illegally downloading movies takes food off the tables of all the poor schmucks who work in the industry (in a word:  Bullshit.  I used to work in the industry – there are obscene sums of money involved in even low-budget films.  We don’t have to worry about the paychecks of the working class of the film industry.  Especially because their jobs are well over and paid for long before there’s any kind of product to be ‘pirated’).  But the studios want us all to sympathize with their pain.  Want us to see the ‘problems’ that internet ‘piracy’ causes.  Their argument, in a nutshell, is that people who download movies are stealing from the studios because if they (the ‘pirates’) couldn’t download the movies, they would purchase them instead.  Setting aside all the inherent flaws in this argument, let’s take a quick look at the legal process of purchasing a movie.  Our case study will be the Disney film Bolt, my two-year-old’s current favorite movie.

First off, we have to pay the studio just to find out whether or not we like the movie (there was a day, you know, when record stores would let you listen to an album before buying it.  Really).  In this particular case, the question isn’t  whether we like the film, but rather whether our son does.  We are careful and conscientious parents, so we don’t let our boy watch movies until we’ve seen them first.  So it’s off to the in-laws’ so the boy will be well taken care of while we check out the show.  Thirty-five to forty dollars later, my wife and I have learned that the movie is fine for the boy to watch.  Cost breakdown:  $20 for our tickets, $15 to $20 for refreshments (when it’s just the two of us, we ALWAYS get refreshments, because we love them so, but also because refreshment sales is the only real profit our local cinema makes.  You DO know that the overwhelming majority of ticket sales goes to the studios, right?).

Now we can move to the next step, which is finding out whether our son likes the film.  This time we go to a matinee, and we bring some of our own snacks (no theater sells any form of snack food we’re willing to feed our son), so we spend less money.  Let’s say 15 to 20 dollars.  When it’s all said and done, we find out that our son does, indeed, like the movie.  And it’s only cost us somewhere in the area of fifty to sixty dollars to learn this.  Let’s call it $55.

Since we’ve learned that the boy likes the movie (loves it, actually.  He’d watch it 5 times a day if we’d let him) we now have to buy the DVD, to the tune of $25.  This brings us to the nice round figure of $80 invested in this movie.

Then, my wife reads an article about marketing in movies, and she tells me about it over dinner.  So the next time we watch Bolt, I watch with a more discerning eye.  I notice that, during the course of the movie, we repeatedly see a U-Haul truck.  Not a made-up company, but U-Haul.  And I realize that this is happening because U-Haul gave Disney a great deal of money for it to happen.  I also realize that this particular marketing campaign is not directed at me, but rather at the two-year-old sitting next to me.

A smart and long-term investment on U-Haul’s part, actually.  Someday – years from now – my son is going to move somewhere.  And when he does so, he’s going to rent a U-Haul.  He won’t do so because they offer a better product than anyone else, or better customer support, or better prices.  He’ll do so simply because he feels kindly disposed toward them.  Because during this formative time of his life, those trucks and that company are becoming intricately associated with things (and people) that he loves dearly.

And when he moves again, he’ll rent from U-Haul again, even if his previous encounter with them entails sub-standard equipment, half-assed customer service and over-inflated prices.  And he’ll have no idea why he’s doing so.

In a nutshell, Disney got paid a lot of money to program my son. And many, many other children.  Even worse, I paid eighty dollars to have this occur.  And my family is just one of tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?  Millions?) of families affected just by this one studio and this one film.

And the studios want us to believe that someone else is the bad guy.

Got into a discussion/argument with a random Internet pundit yesterday.  He did a post on his blog about Islam, in which he stated that he thinks ‘Islamophobia’ is understated.  He seems to feel that we should all live in mortal fear of Muslims.  I wasted a few minutes of my life trying to reason with the poor guy, but realized that I was being stupid when he professed to have read the Koran, specifically referring to ‘the nasty parts’.  He actually tried to convince me that within the pages of the Koran lies adequate reason for all right-minded global citizens to fear the ‘Muslim Threat’.  Painfully obvious that he had never actually read the book.  Or if he had, he had done so with extremely prejudiced eyes.

I actually kind of like the Koran.  As religious texts go, It’s not too terribly offensive.  It’s extremely dull, but not too offensive.  The fact that it belongs to a western religion is a strike against it, but it’s actually more interesting to read than the perennial favorite of the western religions:  The Bible.

Two quick facts, little-known to most Americans:  1)  The Koran is not the only scripture of religious import to Islam.  The Old Testament also plays a prominent role.  2)  The word ‘Jihad’  makes an appearance a grand total of four times in the Koran.  In none of those instances does it refer to an armed conflict (or a conflict of any kind).  In the Koran, the term ‘Jihad’ refers to a struggle – specifically a spiritual struggle.  And any idiot can tell you that a spiritual struggle is, above all, a personal one.  It’s not something you do with a group.  Especially a group with machine guns.

Anyway, this guy I was arguing with kept trying to convince me that Islam poses a threat to the world, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Eventually, I realized where he was coming from.  He had pretty much told me everything I needed to know with the first word he used.  Or, rather, the second part of that word:  phobia.  The guy is just plain living in fear – even abject terror – of Islam.  Or, more accurately, of Muslims.  And his fear is irrational, a fact that obviously bothers him.  So he professes to a knowledge of the Koran, which gives him the ability to claim his fear is a rational, reasoned fear.  It’s kind of sad, actually.

Since I’m aware of the fact that this guy is not alone in his fears, I started to wonder about the nature of those fears, and their genesis.  To be sure, they have roots that go back to the Crusades (you remember the Crusades – when the Pope saw that too many Christians were being killed by other Christians, so he invented an outside enemy for his flock to focus their considerable homicidal energies on), but while the seeds may have been planted in the Middle Ages, the Bush-Cheney cartel did a fine job of pouring Miracle-Gro on it.  But the propaganda alone doesn’t really explain the fear.  What – exactly – are so many Americans afraid of here?  What is it about Muslims that strikes so much terror into the heart of Joe Sixpack?

Belief.  Real, intense, white-hot belief.  The Kind of belief that Americans never see in their own lives.  The kind of belief that can drive people to obliterate themselves because they feel their faith demands it.  Americans don’t get this.  America has a different kind of belief – the kind that just asks you to show up on Sunday and perform the proper rituals.  Americans feel drawn to religious institutions not out of any spiritual drive but rather out of a simple need to belong.  And when we Americans are confronted with people who are willing to die for their beliefs, they scare the crap out of us.

Before anyone starts shouting, let me just say that I’m not talking about ALL Americans here.  Just the majority of them.  I know there are people in this country who are truly religious.  I also know that there are people in this country who are truly spiritual.  And I know that sometimes these are the same people.  But I know that these people are – by far – the minority.  Most Americans subscribe to one religion or another out of fear.  Simply because they’re afraid that the Beard In The Sky will punish them if they don’t.  Which is also the only reason most Americans behave themselves.  The average American (possibly the average person) is lying, thieving, raping, murderous scum, and the only thing keeping them from acting upon it is the threat of retribution.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at any situation in human history in which the rules were removed.  Riots.  Wars.  Show me any break-down of the social order, and I’ll show you the true face of human nature.

Now, this all got me thinking about the nature of belief.  Specifically, the nature of American belief.  What, if anything (I wondered) do Americans believe in strongly enough (or love strongly enough) that they would be willing to die for it?  Religion?  Not likely.  Sure – there have, on occasion, been Americans who have willingly chosen to die for their beliefs – but they are so rare as to be statistically nonexistent.  Their country?  Another big ‘no’.  While there are (and have been) plenty of people who will stand in line to fight and kill for America, those who have actually willingly died for it are intensely rare.  Family?  Sadly (and inexplicably, to my mind), also no.  Hell, I know many, many people who can’t even be bothered to give up their bad habits for the sake of their family.

Which brings us to the True American Belief System:  Hedonism.  This is the belief that burns strongly enough in America that its adherents are willing to die for it.  Americans have proven – repeatedly – that the one thing they are more than willing to sacrifice their lives for is their own pleasure.  Here we drug and drink and smoke and eat and sex ourselves to death every day.  Here we willingly risk our lives just to achieve the pleasure of the moment.  This, my friends, is the true American object of worship:  Personal pleasure.  It is this, not money, that we – as a people – love most.

While in college, I took a stats class.  The guy who taught it, a good friend, had a saying that emerges from my subconscious every now and again.  The saying was “Numbers will saying anything you want, if you squeeze them hard enough.”  What caused the saying to pop into my head today was this video:

I received the link to this video in an Email from my wife, who had forwarded an Email from her father, who had forwarded it from a friend (the viral nature of the internet at work.  Or – if you prefer – the domino theory in action).  My initial response was to get a little irked when I reached the end and found out that the whole thing was, in truth, nothing more than propaganda against downloading music.  My wife’s response was “Interesting info, but I wonder how they got some of the stats.”

The answer is, of course:  They made them up.

I don’t have the time or the inclination to go through the video point by point, but I will draw attention to my personal favorite.  It comes up around 28 seconds or so in:

The 25% of India’s population with the highest IQs…

…is GREATER than the total population of the United States.

TRANSLATION:

India has more honors kids than America HAS kids.

Try again, boneheads.  Statistics at their worst.  “Since A is larger than B, C must be larger than D.”  It’s bad enough that C and D are only remotely connected to A and B.  What’s worse is that A and B are treated as though there exists some sort of meaningful relationship between them.  It never occurs to these morons that while the first half of the statement may be accurate, it would be equally accurate if the smartest person in India had an IQ of 60.

In truth, all the first part of that statement is actually saying is that 25% of the population of India is larger than the total population of the united States.  It does not in any way state or even imply that Indians are, as a people, smarter than Americans.

The moral here, people, is:  Don’t everEVER – trust stats.  They LIE.

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