Remarks That Sound Great Until You Think About Them – Part 1

As the next major election cycle ramps up, both parties will be throwing out sound bites, most of which are already well worn even though not all of them stand up well under scrutiny.  I think it would be good to take a closer look at some of these, in the hopes that maybe we could put a few to rest and force our politicians to come up with better material.  The loftier goal of forcing a discussion

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by which I’m referring to the ancient definition that involved all parties actually listening and responding to the comments of others to either build on those comments or point out their shortcomings as the case may be, instead of the modern habit of just hurling memorized slogans in the other’s general direction in parallel soliloquies
on the issues may be out of reach for the moment.  Due to personal biases, the ridiculous remarks of the Republicans seem easier for me to spot, but I’m counting on my readers to keep this discussion balanced.  I have no allegiance to stupidity, however, so once you point out a Democratic gaffe, I like to think I would be able to contribute to the analysis. The questionable remarks will be presented in no particular order.  The first one goes like this:

“I Don’t Believe In Throwing Money At A Problem”

On its face, that’s a statement I’m pretty sure everyone can agree with, but in practice, what exactly does that really mean?  Assuming that the problem is worthwhile and significant (meaning it’s too big to take care of all by oneself but needs to be fixed anyway), how do I implement that philosophy?  After calling a plumber over to your house in the middle of the night on a weekend to stem the flood emanating from your bathroom, how many of you have ever had much luck after they present you with the bill of convincing him or her to pay you instead for the opportunity to solve your problems?  Me neither.  Does that have anything to do with the fact that I’m not a politician?  Maybe we live in different worlds.  I’m as frugal as anybody, but I can’t think of a single problem in this class that didn’t require a worthwhile investment on my part.  So what am I missing here, overD?


DIn many forms of radio communication, “Over” means “I’m finished talking and eagerly await your reply”.  It would not be used in the same sentence as “Out”, which means “I’m really done; don’t bother calling back”.  Outside of Hollywood, the combination “over and out”, which translates to “please respond immediately so I can ignore you” is usually considered too rude for normal conversation.

“It’s The Light”

The Problem

Photographers have a mantra – “It’s all about the light”.  They can talk endlessly about what makes good light and bad light and most live for “the golden hour”, which is never actually an hour but occurs just after sunrise or just before sunset.  Most people don’t realize that there are photons

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the smallest wave/particle units of lightD
bouncing around at all times of the day and night, and if you put your camera on a tripod and leave the shutter open long enough you could make your midnight photo look like the middle of the day (albeit an overcast day, since there will be no shadows).

With all of this emphasis on the light, it is interesting to note that looking at most photographs gives you very little information about the source of the light, but a great deal of information about the subject of the photograph, which is reflecting light that it has (heavily) filtered from that original source. And so it is with most human intercourse. Politics is rife with examples. When your friend is ranting about Obamacare, which he or she probably hasn’t even read, you will invariably learn more about their hopes or fears than you will about any of the President’s policies. This is a fact of life that critical thinkers and skeptics routinely take into account.

How To Cope

Probably the most extreme example for discovering an indirect, heavily filtered truth would be the old logic problem of “The Island of Truth tellers and Liars”A. In one of the various versions, there is a remote island that has two separate tribes. At one end of the island is a tribe of cannibals that always lies, while at the other end is a more civilized tribe in which everybody tells the truth. From a landing at the middle of the island, a traveler moves inland until he comes to the fork in the road leading to the tribe at each end. There he finds two natives, each in distinct tribal dress, but he doesn’t know enough to determine which native comes from which tribe. He asks the one dressed in yellow which tribe he is from, but doesn’t understand the answer. He asks the one in blue “What did he just say?” to which he gets “He said he was a truth-teller”. What did the traveler just learn and from which person should he ask directions to the civilized tribe?

If you’ve already heard this problem, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph right now.  The second of the above two questions is the easiest; the traveler has no choice but to ask the only native that he can understand.  The real question is “Can Ms. Blue be trusted?”  In this case she can be.  It really doesn’t matter that the traveler couldn’t understand the first native because the first question will always have the same answer.  If Mr. Yellow is a truth-teller, he will tell the truth; if he is a liar, he will lie about it.  Either way, he will always say he is a truth-teller, meaning there is no way to know the tribal affiliation of the first native.

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On the positive side, if you are a mediator, a diplomat (as opposed to today’s politicians), a negotiator, or anyone that needs to work with people as part of their job to get things done, this should be encouraging evidence that it should always be possible to find something about which two radically different factions can agree.
 You can learn the tribe of the second person by comparing their answer to that known constant.  Since Ms. Blue accurately reported Mr. Yellow’s answer, it is she and not Mr. Yellow that is the truth-teller.  You may follow her directions when she points to the tribe of the truth-tellers.  Had she reported that Mr. Yellow claimed to be a liar, you would have thanked her profusely before heading in the opposite direction of her pointing finger.

Unfortunately, in this problem the most extreme case is actually the simplest to solve.  In real life, one’s truthfulness (or lack thereof) may not be as dependable.  In that case you must carry both possibilities in your mind until you have finally gathered enough evidence to rule one out.  Knowing the right questions to ask would be a big help, but all answers should be regarded with suspicion.

I realize that’s not much of an answer, but things aren’t always as simple as black or white.  If you were expecting simple answers to life’s hard questions, maybe you need to grow up.  But then again, I may be only scolding you to hide my own inadequacy in providing useful information.  That’s why it would be good right now to open this up to give my astute readers a chance to provide a better perspective to the problem.  (That’s your cue).  Thanks for listening.

Rules Of Engagement

“Real men”, or those who no longer need to prove their manhood, no longer have a need to fight all foes and have learned the wisdom of choosing their battles.  Whether that title would include me or not is subject to debate (or maybe just wishful thinking), but here are the rules I follow.  There are only two rules, and each has just one exception.  I suppose any “real man” would have to set his or her standards even higher than this:

  1. Never fight someone smaller than you.  This would be a public relations nightmare.  Should you win, you will receive no glory (since that is what you were expected to do), and most likely would receive ridicule for choosing such an easy target.  Should by some chance you lose, you will never ever hear the end of it.  The exception to this rule would be that if you were attacked you would be allowed to defend yourself as necessary.  But even then you may use only enough force to subdue or dissuade the attacker.  Keep in mind that exactly how much force is necessary to accomplish that will always be subject to later review by armchair quarterbacks everywhere.
  2. I don’t recommend fighting someone much bigger than you, for obvious reasons.  (If the reason is NOT yet obvious to you, then you may disregard this rule for as long as it takes to discover a good reason.  If you are winning all of these fights, then you are conveniently clueless about the definition of “much bigger than you”).  As the exception to this rule, you may proceed if you are fighting for a good cause.  One question, which some attribute to the U.S. Marine Corps (but may in fact go back much further) that you may always want to consider when choosing a cause is “Is this the hill I am willing to die on?”  For me, ‘feeding my own ego’ just doesn’t make the cut.  ‘Proving your manhood’ probably shouldn’t either.  Some people get a lot of satisfaction out of their support of causes much larger than themselves.  Besides their effectiveness rating, the grandness (or the smallness, even pettiness) of the causes for which they are willing to fight might be a much better way to judge a person than the more traditional characteristics of size, color, sex, or religious/political/social affiliations.

That’s all there is to it.  But this is just one person’s opinion.  If you think I’ve forgotten something, speak up.  I would be particularly interested to hear what a “real man” might add to the discussion.  Thanks for your time.

How Long Have I Been A Skeptic?

I have no idea when all of this started, but this may shed some light on the issue.  It is the earliest memory I have of me questioning conventional wisdom.

The Story Of The North Wind And The Sun

I was in elementary school in southern California – I don’t remember what grade – when we had an assignment to read this short story.  It’s one of Aesop’s Fables.  If you missed it, or can’t remember that far back either, you can find it at, among other places.  As the story was explained to me, it was supposed to illustrate the superiority of persuasion over force or, at the very least, that the sun is stronger than the wind.  However, that’s not the way I saw it then.  And now that I’ve had years to develop my experience and wisdom, that’s not how I see it today.  Even back then it  was clear to me that both the sun and  the wind had their individual strengths and weaknesses.  The north wind, although not feared in the same way as his cousins, the tornado or the hurricane (a.k.a. cyclone, a.k.a. typhoon), is no slouch and has sunk ships, caused massive amounts of damage ashore, and taken lives.  The sun may seem benign, even benevolent to those living north of the 40th parallel, but large swaths of land have suffered due to his excesses, and in fact he can only be tolerated at distances greater than around ninety-three million (93,000,000) miles.  At the time I read this story, I was not aware of all of these statistics or the full power of either of the contestants, but even then “I wasn’t born yesterday”.  We didn’t get snow in southern California, but it can get windy enough to appreciate the north wind’s power.  And then there was that story about the three little pigsA, which showed the destructive force of wind (caused in this case by a lone wolf).  On the other hand, in the summer the sun was so strong that people used to say they could fry an egg on the sidewalk.  By the way, nobody in southern California ever claimed to be using the power of persuasion when they are trying to fry eggs.

It was clear to me back then that the sun was obviously smarter than the north wind, and designed the rules of this friendly little contest to take best advantage of his own talents.  The goal was to get the man to take off his coat.  Had the contest been to get the man to put ON his coat, most of us can see that the sun wouldn’t have had a chance.  The first lesson for the north wind might be to be wary of letting your opponent make the rules.

Secondly, it is crucial to be aware of your own limitations.  For the north wind to think that a strong, cold breeze could force somebody to part with their coat is delusional.  One can never improve if they don’t even know where they are deficient.  And even if it is not possible to correct a particular flaw, as long as you are aware of it, there may be a way to compensate.  Odysseus was an excellent example of this in his dealing with the sirens (scroll down to the eleventh section of “The legendary story of Odysseus”).  By taking the advice of a women (Circe) and making allowances for his weaknesses, Odysseus was the first person to listen to the Siren’s great song and live to tell about it.

The final lesson to be learned from this story was that a good public relations team is worth its weight in gold. The way they put that spin on the sun’s use of force was masterful. Unfortunately, this is a lesson I’ve had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around, to my own peril. Even today I don’t put enough effort into public relations, continuing to hold on to the naive belief that if you work hard, your efforts will automatically be noticed and you will be rewarded – even though experience has disproved this theory time and time again.  Seemingly, some people never learn. Being able to learn from your own mistakes is crucial.  If you could learn from the mistakes of others, you would be well ahead in the game.