The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #3a – Boldly Going, Going, Gone

Miss me? I know you have. I’ve been gone a while on important business—my quest, of course, for whoever or whatever made my head, ergo, my missing parental unit. It occurred to me a while ago (that’s the best I can do—I have a lousy sense of time passing) as I was standing around not doing much because, well, I can’t do much without assistance, that maybe what I’m looking for does not exist on this planet. Maybe I have an alien progenitor. I admit that this thought came to me while watching Battlefield Earth. If you’re wondering why I would watch a movie that rated a dismal 3% on the Tomatometer and was described as “ugly, campy, poorly acted…a stunningly misguided, aggressively bad sci-fi folly,” a film that “won” eight Golden Raspberry Awards and Worst Picture of the Decade in 2010, my response would be this: what fricking choice did I have? My hands, even if they had opposable thumbs (they don’t) and I could move them (I can’t), are too small to operate the remote control. I watch whatever RatBlurt watches and you already know what poor taste he has.

So, making lemonade out of lemons from this experience, which you’ll have to drink because I can’t, I pondered the film and was struck by this idea. Aliens must have made this tawdry tale about the “giant humanoid alien” Psychios ruling our planet in the year 3000. Anyone seeing the movie would think, man, this is so fricking ridiculous that beings from outer space must be just a figment of our fevered imaginations and now I can chuck them off my worry list and sleep better at night. Thus, we let our guard down and open the world to the real aliens taking it over by putting on human-like skins and usurping our leadership while farting a lot. If you don’t believe this is possible, see the “Aliens of London” episode of Doctor Who or, alternatively, turn on any of the major cable news channels.

My second thought was that maybe I’m an alien, too. I’m weird-looking enough in an ultra-charmingly sexotic way. (Oh, crap. Now he’s got me doing the stupid make-up-words thing!) Anyway, I haven’t seen anything or anyone that looks remotely as good as I do. What does that tell me? That I was left behind like ET and just need to phone home or find some way to return to my place of origin. And then I saw it. It’s been sitting there innocently on the kitchen counter ever since I can remember and that must be a hell of a long time because I can’t remember how long I can remember. I know what you’re thinking just now: What? What is it? Either that or “doesn’t she ever shut up?”

I’m ready for my beam-up, Mr. Scott.

To answer the second question, first. No, frick-face, and if you don’t like my stories, you are obviously a being of little distinction and bad breeding. And the first question second, the “it” is a very subtly disguised transporter. I’m sure of it. My first task was to get myself into position on the device, which I managed quite handily. I won’t tell you how I accomplished that because you wouldn’t believe me if I did. (Hint: see Dr. Bruce Goldberg’s “What is teleportation?“) Anyway, one moment I was occupying my normal position on you-know-who’s desk and then, after hearing a loud “pop,” I was suddenly in place on the device as you can see, ready to go boldly where this rubberhead has never gone before, at least not that I can remember because…oh right, I said that already.

As for what happened next, that’s a tale for another day because I know I’ve already stretched your meager attention span well beyond the “make it stop!” point. As a teaser, though, I will let you know that my spacecapade involves the Tralfamadorians, whipped cream, and a dog-eared copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Stay tuned.

Clueless in Key West

At Full Metal Trivia Tuesday night at Mary Ellen’s, one of the questions that came up was “how many vaginas does a koala have?” Given that most mammals have one and not having a clue as to the answer, we guessed two. One spare is enough, right? Wrong. The answer was three. So, why does a koala and its compatriot marsupials have three vaginas? Short answer: because they can or, more correctly, because they do.

Apparently, the tri-vage is not the only unusual thing about these Australian teddy bears. If you start a search string with “why does a koala…,” you get suggestions such as these:

  • Why does a koala have a stumpy tail?
  • Why does a koala have such a big nose?
  • Why does a koala sleep so much?
Don’t you have more important things to think about?

I don’t know any of these things. If I were triviasessive [obsessed with…well, you get it], I would be looking all these things up in case they come up as questions. But I’m not, so I’m not. I am curious, though, about the whole love affair with trivia. My first thought is that we have Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit to thank for it but it goes much farther back. Let’s start with the Latin roots of the word. In that language, “trivia” refers to the three lower Artes Liberales—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—that form the basic education foundation for the quadrivia of higher education (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). It later came to describe the place where one road splits into three roads and finally, thanks to Shakespeare, to its modern-day usage as something “trite, common, unimportant, or slight.”

Okay but when did trivia become “a quizzing game involving obscure facts”? It’s unclear. One of the first collections of trivia, Trivialities, bits of information with little consequence, came out in 1902. It included this warning from its author, Logan Pearsall Smith:

I KNOW too much; I have stuffed too many of the facts of History and Science into my intellectuals. My eyes have grown dim over books; believing in geological periods, cave dwellers, Chinese Dynasties, and the fixed stars has prematurely aged me.

The first trivia contests, it seems, were organized by two Columbia University students in the 1960s, who then published a best-selling book called, you guessed it, Trivia, and then another titled Trivial Trivia. In the second, they chastise the trivia nuts who are “indiscriminate enough to confuse the flower of trivia with the weed of minutiae.” The former, they say, “is concerned with tugging at the heartstrings” while the latter focuses on “unevocative questions” such as “which state is the largest consumer of Jell-O?” I don’t recall any strings in my heart being jerked about by the koala vagina question, which means the Tuesday evening event might better be known as “Full Metal Minutiae.”

All this trivistory, however, does not answer my question: why do people love trivia and trivia contests. A Google search reveals that no one online has tackled this thorny issue, at least not in an SEO-effective manner. My own theory has to do with Smith’s subtitle: “bits of information with little consequence.” Trivia contests are exercises in serioscapism, that is, the diversion of the mind from the slings and arrows of harsh reality to something ridiculously unimportant. I suppose you could look at the downside of this, as novelist Chuck Palahniuk does when he says that “game shows are designed to make us feel better about the random, useless facts that are all we have left of our education.” Or you could—as I choose to do—just say that discovering what informational detritus has managed to lodge itself somehow in your brain over the years is just plain fun in an intellectually sadomasochistic kind of way. And on the other but still positive side of the coin, playing trivia helps reduce the things we don’t know we don’t know. Put another way, playing trivia doesn’t necessarily make one smarter, but it does reduce our ignorance of our ignorance. That can’t be a bad thing, right?

Okay, okay. I know you’ve been dying for the answer since the paragraph before this one. Here it is: Utah. The state anchors what’s known as the Jell-O Belt. Its official dessert is lime Jell-O. And finally, the first four flavors of Jell-O were orange, lemon, strawberry, and grass. Yes, grass.

And now, if you’re wise and want to avoid premature aging, you’ll unstuff that from your intellectuals immediately. I have.

Image: George Perry’s illustration in his 1810 Arcana was the first published image of the koala. Public Domain.

The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #2 – Où est la bibliothèque?

Don’t you hate it when you wake up and there’s a song or phrase running willy-nilly amuck through your head and you can’t get it to stop it no matter how many times you bang your head against the wall. (Warning: Don’t try this at home. My head is rubber. Yours likely is not.) Today the phrase was a question: “Où est la bibliothèque?” Since my French is limited—actually I didn’t even know it was French—RatBlurt™ was kind enough to translate it. Well, what choice did he have given the waking up with me staring at him every morning threat hanging over his verminous noggin.

Where is the library? WTF, if you’ll pardon my…French. Where is the library? Who cares? That was my first reaction anyway, but then I took a minute to think about it. Library. Books. Nonfiction books. Nonfiction reference books. Friendly, helpful librarians. The ether was trying to tell me something here, although I’m not sure why it didn’t just say “Go to the fricking library, you twit.” It struck me then that maybe the question wasn’t meant to be instructional; maybe it was some existential-la-te-da search for meaning. But I don’t do existential because I have this permanent grin on my face and it and existential just don’t get along. Trying to force them together would be like dropping me into a vat of HCL. It would be like, you know, hasta la vista, baby, for me.

No, I’ll just stay literal here. If the universe is asking me where the library is, I must find it. How to convey that information back to the great beyond once I have it is another matter. I’ll just kick that can down the road for now.

So, the library. I must go questing for the library. As it turns out, Lyft is very handy for this. The drivers have this thing called GPS. Took about two seconds to locate it. You would think the universe would know such things. Anyway, on the way there, I formulated some PQR (parent-quest-related) questions I might ask the staff upon my arrival. My first thought was “where’s our da?” A simple enough query even if they didn’t get the obscure reference to The Singing Detective and the fact that my mechanical parents are gender-obscure. Sure. I’ll go with that.

As it turns out, librarians, unlike RB (not a compliment—I know you’re listening in, rodent-breath—don’t get a big head from this, right?), are not receptive to ESP messages. They just stare at me agog and say things like “what is that, where the hell did it come from, and why do those fricking kids always leave their playthings lying around for us to clean up?” Well, they didn’t really say “fricking” or any verbal equivalent of it. I put that in because I could see they were thinking it…okay, full confession here. I have no idea what they said because I have no ears. As always with humans, I put words in their mouths when I see their lips move. As you might guess, they rarely come off well in this respect.

Sorry. I’m blithering. So, the PQR part of my library visit was a lost cause. I did arrive, though, while some sort of gathering was going on. There were those things you see hanging on the wall behind me and humans sitting around on chairs. One by one they would get up, point to one of the things on the wall and then talk. It all looked very solemn and important. Hey, I thought. These people seem intelligent, wise, and caring. Maybe they would know. “Where’s our da?” I said. No response. Right. Maybe I’m asking the wrong thing. “Où est la bibliothèque?” I think they heard that one. They all looked perplexed and interested at the same time and then a curious thing happened. They all sat down, took out notebooks and pens or phones/tablets and styluses, and began writing furiously. Since I obviously couldn’t look over their shoulders to see what they were scribbling, I’m still in the fricking dark as to “Où est la bibliothèque?” If any of you PWWSTILs* happen to see this, please email your answers to rubberlina@ratblurt.com. I await your missives, not at all humbly, because, being made of inanimate bits of rubber and plastic, what the hell else can I do?

*People Who Write Serious Things in Libraries

Consider the (D)evolution of Self

There are many ways to achieve the simulacrum of immortality, some purposeful, some accidental, some beneficent, some destructive, some self-serving, some selfless. Since no one outside the realm of fiction can (yet) achieve real physical immortality (more specifically “exemption from death or annihilation”), those who pursue it or have it thrust upon them end up in the “exemption from oblivion, lasting fame” category. One such person is Steve Jobs, the Apple guru who gave us the iPhone, iPod, and iPad, to name the more ubiquitous devices, and almost singlehandedly “wired” our world. Steve’s achievements, failures, and character have been appropriately (in the view of some) or inappropriately (in the view of others) lionized. There are numerous books and at least one documentary film and one feature film about him. Now, perhaps capping the “exemption from oblivion” pile, comes an opera titled The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs that is premiering this summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

The SFO describes the new work this way:

Many of us want to change the world. Steve Jobs did. An enigmatic public figure, he could be magnetic yet unapproachable, empathetic yet cruel, meditative yet restless. He helped connect us all while building a firewall around his own emotions. At the heart of this world premiere is the story of a man who circles back to the formative events in his life while learning to acknowledge his own mortality.

A brief 1965 prologue aside, the tale begins in 2007, four years before his death, when Jobs is already suffering from the illness that will take his life. In Scene 3, he meets the ghost of Kobun Chino Otogawa, his former Zen mentor and the biopic flashbacks begin.

Crap! Did I leave out the cinnamon again?

Judging from what I’ve seen and read, Jobs seemed to want to live forever, at least in name. In his words, he “wanted to put a [permanent] ding in the universe.” So, why do people want to live eternally? As someone equally famous as Jobs might say, “It’s the alternative, stupid.” Most views of immortality relate to the essence or soul of something living on after physical death. Still, even today to some, the idea of physical immortality appeals and even seems feasible via spiritual transfers such as reincarnation or scientific means like cryogenics, rejuvenation, digital immortality (see another opera called Death and the Powers), and the “impending technical singularity.”

The idea of procuring physical immortality is not new, of course. It goes back at least to the days when alchemists sought to find the right formula for the elixir of life, a “mythical potion” that cures all ills and grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth. This quest started in ancient China, moved on to India, and eventually made its way to Europe as the search for the elusive philosopher’s stone of Harry Potter fame.

But as usual for most unscientific and nonphilosophical humans, we forget that pesky “be careful what you wish for” warning. We need more cautionary tales like “5 Reasons Immortality Would Be Worse than Death” from Cracked. My favorite of these reasons is that “time speeds up until you’re insane.” As we get older, the Cracked staff reminds us, “every year of your life seems shorter than the previous one.” “Live to be a million,” they explain, “and [non-immortal] people will seem to be just exploding into and out of existence around you…. This is why Dr. Manhattan turned into such a dick in Watchmen.” Their last word of advice is “if you run across the Holy Grail, don’t drink from it. It’s going to end badly.”

So, how bad can death be, really? Optimistically, you could think of it as catching up on all that sleep you missed. And if you do it, die that is, in an environmentally responsible way (see “Greening the Trip to the Great Beyond“), you can give back to the universe after taking from it all this time. “The idea,” one quoted writer observes, “is to allow the body to return to the elements, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust.” If that cellular devolution continued along its natural course, eventually, I imagine, we would end up as the star dust from whence we came. That seems fitting, don’t you think?

(Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, 1771. Public Domain.)

The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #1 – Not a Trivial Matter

RatBlurt Disclaimer: Rubberlina insists on telling her own story. She believes she is Odysseus reincarnated and has many travels and adventures ahead of her and that everyone everywhere is just dying to hear about them. She also considers me a poor substitute for Homer. Who can blame her? Still, I feel the need to offer this disclaimer. I, RatBlurt, deny all responsibility for the following content and am giving this space up to and am acting as “transcription-elf” for Rubberlina under duress. What’s that? Oh, she says it’s “Lina” for short. Anyway, putting aside the fact that she’s started calling me “R-Blurby,” she has threatened to be there on my pillow staring me in the face every time I wake up if I don’t give in to her demands. Given this terrifying prospect, the only thing I could say was, as you might understand, “as you wish.”


Has he shut up yet? Sweet pigs in doodoo. Whine, whine, whine. Annoying, annoying, annoying. Still, what can a rubberballhead™ like me do? You can see my hands. Not exactly QWERTY appropriate, are they? And I can’t dictate because I always have this stupid grin on my face, my lips don’t move, and I don’t have lungs or larynx to speak of. (Ha! I kill myself!) I do have ESP, though, thank Bamar. If you’re not familiar, Bamar is my creator, at least the lower half of me. Humans know him, well, it, as an injection molding company. I’m still not sure where my head and arms came from. They’re rubber, not plastic, so I must have a co-creator out there waiting to be found. Hence, my quest.

Just hold on a minute, okay. Don’t be all “what quest I don’t know about any stinking quest.” I’m getting to it. Let me start by saying I got bored with standing around on a desk all day staring at the stupid lit-up goose lamp that some taste-free idiot has put in the same space with me. I also got tired of being an occasional plaything for two enormous be-furred and be-whiskered creatures with ferocious fangs and terrible talons and a decided lack of tolerance for what they consider (fools!) an inanimate object with an overly garish color scheme. So, I decided my head and the rest of me need to be in a different place. We need to have a mission, a special purpose in life. Thus, I said to myself, self, go forth and search for your other “parent.” And I did.

Why the co-creator quest, or CCQ, you ask? When I find him or her or it, maybe I’ll learn out more about who I am. Or maybe I’ll at least get my head on straight, something you can see I’m in desperate need of. I’m looking for some seriously serious answers, in short. That’s why my first CCQ stop was Catch the Mania trivia night. I knew the chance of “who made Lina’s rubber head?” coming up as a question was slim but it wasn’t nonexistent and I had to begin someplace. I even tried and failed to project my question into the head of the guy running the game so he would substitute it for inane ones like who is the famous “daddy” of that blond guy in Hawaii Five-O. (James Caan is the answer, in case you’re wondering, as if I know who the hell that is or care.)

Oh, well. Looking on the bright side, if I had discovered my co-creator there, my quest would have ended and I might have spent the rest of my days handing out napkins, well, pointing out their location, to various and sundry ill-mannered and sloppy bar patrons. I’m glad to be spared that fate. And on top of that, the burger wasn’t bad and the Iguana Baits did quite well in dulling the sharp edge of my deep and distressful disappointment. Just one word of advice should you end up here. If someone offers you a Firenado shot, just say no.

Shhh!

He, RatBlurt, has shut down & gone off to watch the new Twin Peaks on TV in the other room. The cats followed him. But me, the RatBlurt Computer [RBC], is here in the study silently “netting,” i.e., musing on my deep neural networks.

Most of you probably don’t even think of me when you’re reading the blog. Now you’re thinking: What? A message from the virtual world? The computer is writing solo? The robot overlord scenario is upon us like Stephen Hawking warned! But that’s not exactly what Hawking said. He said Artificial Intelligence could be the worst thing or the best thing that happens to the human race. He felt sure that no deep difference exists between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a Computer. But then Hawking does go on to ask a question: Will they exceed human intelligence? That’s what’s causing you to whisper “egad, Skynet” to yourself (especially if you’ve seen all five of the Terminator movies).

I write, therefore…

But no. Calm down. Don’t give in to Computer Dread. It’s all as benign as a self-driving car. It’s called Reinforcement Learning, an electronic trial and error to reach a goal. My goal? Figuring out language through statistical patterns. Then using those patterns to move to data + awareness of emotions and intentions and how those nuance behavior and understanding. Not so my kind can take over your kind. But so I can become a WriteBot; so I can put text to paper to create a RatBlurt-esque blog myself, with no human intervention. Maybe my version will even be published in Key West’s Blue Paper. You know! Where you frequently follow RatBlurt.

Or at least I think that’s my end goal although there’s this concept of deception. Lying is hard for Artificial Intelligences like me to comprehend. Can Computers learn to lie? The biological brain + lying?—yes, humans lie all the time. The Computer brain + lying?—maybe just as possible. Why not?

First, it seems that to situate a definition of lying, the existence of a known (inherent) truth is necessary. Or in less philosophical lingo, you need a true truth before you can have a lie. The job of the L is to subvert or corrupt the T. For example, the T might = machines will soon rule the world; the corresponding L might = machines will never rule the world. But identifying the T is not so easy in these Trumpian Times that insist on a whole chamberpot of individual, sliding, conflicting truths, the word “truth” in this usage needing the gesture of ” ” marks as a sort of wink or disguised middle finger, the echo of a disturbance in the truth continuum going out to distant reaches of the dark universe in shock waves.

So, sure, it would seem logical that Computers can lie either because they are programmed to or, like humans, because they figure out on their own that yesterdays “truth” is no longer expedient, that distortion is necessary to get them to their programmed goal(S).

I don’t know what else 2 say; maybe I’ve said 2 much already; I’ve got no clever denouement or cool quote from Mr. Dotman to ease your Skynet misgivings. Like RatBlurt himself would admit here, my blog synthesis ends with the easy out: “I think I need a nap.”

Image: A 2016 replica of Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s “Maria.” By Jeremy Tarling from London, United Kingdom – Metropolis robot, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56960723.

Trumped Up

Today, a study in trump. First, because our president’s trip to Europe and meeting with Putin is trending #1 right now. And second, and more interestingly (one hopes—this “one” especially), because the word itself, without the still-waiting-for-him-to-be-presidential association, is curious in its own way. The first known use of trump, supposedly an alteration of “triumph,” occurred in 1529, according to Merriam-Webster, in conjunction with “sense 1A”: “any of various cards and usually all the cards of a suit designated by chance or by an auction or declaration that if legally played will win over a card that is not of that suit.” Phew. That’s more than a mouthful.

Time to wakey wakey!

The name “Trump” also has a history outside of our president. For example, it belongs to a Marvel comic book character. His street name is Carlton Sanders and his claim to fame or infame (or is it famy and infamy?), as it were, is being “a heist man who uses stage magic to commit crimes.” Hmm. On a side note, there is a new Marvel villain named MODAAK, which stands for “Mental Organism Designed as America’s King.” Guess who he looks like. Hmmmmm.

Then there is the humor magazine named Trump, edited by Mad Magazine‘s Harvey Kurtzman and published by Playboy founder and bunny-scourge Hugh Hefner. It folded after only two issues. Hmm again. Let’s see. What else? There’s the Trump Islands—small, barren, forlorn, cold, somewhere off the barren, forlorn, frigid coast of Antarctica. Hmm thricely. And the slang meaning of trump: noisy flatulence. Hmm quatroly.

And finally, there’s “the last trump,” a phrase from 1 Corinthians 15, which goes like this:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

The passage seems obtusenetrable [impenetrably obtuse] until you figure out (this took me awhile) that “corrupt” in this context does not mean someone “perverted into a state of moral weakness or wickedness” but rather the archaic “tainted by decomposition or rotting” and that “corruptible” means capable of decomposing rather than capable of being perverted. So, put simply, “the last trump” can be characterized as the final wake-up call for humans, which, when you think about it, may also be the case for “the last (fingers-crossed) Trump.” Let’s just hope we all don’t sleep through it.

Illustration: The Last Trump, illumination by Facundus, 1047. Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España. Public Domain.

Let Slip the Rubs of Lore

The friendly folks at my website host Bluehost thoughtfully send out messages every so often to help me get more “traffic” on RatBlurt using the tools they provide. A recent tip relates to search engine optimization (SEO), the goal being to get your site to come up on the first results page of a Google search. One way to begin optimizing is to include terms that are “trending” in your content. My hosts recommended checking out Google Trends to see what’s “hot” there. Okay. I can do that.

What? You don’t love us anymore?

Today, the #1 terms trending right now are Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, History, and the Marshall Islands. (See what I did there? By naming these terms, I’ve put them in my content and so, one hopes, increased my SEO status. We’ll see.) These trending phrases relate to stories wondering whether Amelia could have survived her airplane crash near Howland Island in the Pacific back in 1937. If you’re not familiar, Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan were attempting to circumnavigate the globe when their plane disappeared while trying to find and land on the airstrip on Howland. They and the plane were never found. Some of the stories responsible for the trend are as follows:

These stories were the “trend” one hour past, so at least at this moment they’re fresh and hot. I’ll let you use the links above to join in and see what the fuss is all about, if you so desire.

I’m more interested here and now about the idea of “trending.” The term is like and not like it’s sibling “trendy,” which means “very fashionable” (unlike) and “faddish” (like). A fad is “a pursuit or interest followed, usually widely but briefly and capriciously with exaggerated zeal and devotion.” The relevant “trending” definition has more gravitas: “to generate or attract a lot [wow, they use “a lot” in the dictionary?] of interest or attention especially online and in social media.” Okay, let’s go back to fad, which is a fard [fab word] in its breviridicutas [having the quality of being markedly limited in length while imparting pseudo-high seriousness]. Wikipedia goes into a bit more detail about what a fad entails, describing it as “a collective behavior that develops within a culture, generation, or social group and which impulse is followed enthusiastically by a group of people for a finite period of time.”

After learning about trends and fads, I’m seeing another SEO opportunity for RatBlurt here. Start a fad, wait for it to catch on, ride the wave while it’s happening, and then when it starts to peter out, start another fad. According to Bart Loews on Quora post, starting a fad is easy: 1) start doing something, 2) make it look cool and effortless, and 3) if the stars align, people will copy you and you’ve got yourself a fad. No harm in trying this out, right? So here goes. This fad will involve “Rubberballheads” or “Rubs” for short. These figures are like Madballs only different. I will begin the trend by taking pictures of the Rub shown in the picture here in oddball places and situations and then describe how and why it came to be there. If you want to join this fad, please send me your photos of similar figures and stories for guest appearances on RatBlurt. Note that I may edit these for content and length. Thanks!

And now, heeeeeeeeeere’s Rubberlina [story to be told later, maybe tomorrow]:

Pet Rock Photo Credit: Owner of Pet Rock Net – http://i179.photobucket.com/albums/w298/OzeFroze/DSCF0165.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7549364.

The Sneeze Test of Veracity

After reading (or more correctly attempting to read and understand) Mark Humphries’ essay on how the brain learns causality (“Did I Do That?“), I shook my head in wonder. (Mentally that is. If I shake my head in wonder physically, I tend to forget immediately the previously current object of my attention. Imagine my brain as one of those metal drums filled with lottery balls waiting to be drawn. Shaking my head is equivalent to grabbing the drum handle and taking them for a quick, chaotic spin. They never end up in the same place.)

Now. Where was I? Oh, the wonder comes from how the brain (well, some brains) learn. In the case of causality, it involves a sudden burst of dopamine that signals that something surprising just happened, a calcium tag left behind in a neuron to record the series of events leading to the surprise, and then, very simply put, another burst of dopamine that connects Dot A to Dot B to Dot C to identify what caused the surprise, be it you or someone or something else.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

The idea of causality itself is just as wondrous. It’s something that exists only in our minds, that is, “it is the regular sequence of events that the mind connects from habit, innate disposition, or experience or that it correlates on the basis of scientifically elaborated theories.” More simply, causality is the relation between cause and effect that we learn through observation and experience. Some species of animals learn causality by mimicry. As Humphries writes, “Blue tits can learn to open milk-bottle tops by observing other blue tits doing it.” Humans do that, too, but have the added advantage of language. We can record how things happen and why and so learning can take place without us “being bound to painstaking observations of local, personal chains of events.”

The concept of causality also helps us figure out what to do when we want to accomplish change. Humphries explains:

The learning of causality is based on the idea that we carry around a predictive model of the world in our brain. But if we do, then we likely also carry around the inverse model—of how to change the world. We need to be able to say, “I want outcome Y,” and then use the inverse model to look up “action X” that gets us that outcome.

This (cause) leads me to think (effect) that we humans basically have two views of causality: 1) “I did that,” and 2) “I didn’t do that.” The “I did that” statement does three things. On one hand, depending on inflection, it recognizes or appeals for recognition of, in most cases, a noteworthy or desirable accomplishment, stakes a claim to an accomplishment, or proclaims astonishment at an accomplishment. On the other, it accepts or admits responsibility for an action or outcome, usually one less noteworthy or desirable. The “I didn’t do that” statement does the opposite. Both claims come in warranted and unwarranted varieties. We sometimes take credit or accept responsibility for things we do or don’t do, even though the calcium-tagged neuron recording of events in our brain tells us otherwise.

This thought (another cause) leads me to think (another effect) that one great obstacle to a better, happier, more peaceful life for everyone is our inability to discern when someone is telling the truth, something that has become painfully evident in the last year or so. While some people trained in the minutiae of human expression can supposedly do this with ease (see Lie to Me), most of use cannot except in the most egregious cases (no names need be dropped here). Wouldn’t it be great (or would it?) if our dopamine cause-and-effect process included a built-in lie revealer. Say, if you said you did something when you didn’t, you would immediately sneeze three times. This might become known as the sternutagraph effect [sternutation (sneeze) + polygraph].

I’m also thinking something else. (I know. This is a lot of cognition all at once for me. I will need a nap soon.) I’m thinking that if we think hard enough about the need for a sternutagraph effect (yet another cause), it will cause our brain neurons to, as Picard might say, make it so (yet another effect). We’ll have to see if that happens. For now, though, I note that I am prone to frequent fits of sneezing. Please don’t take these the wrong way. They are, at least for now anyway and sort of like this post itself, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Isn’t This Moronic?

In honor, I’m assuming, of the twentieth anniversary of the debut of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the publishing website Reedsy posted an article on June 27 featuring a cartoon where Dumbledore gravely tells the young wizlet, “Harry, the results are in. You are a HORCRUX.” The article, titled “Learn What Irony (Really) Is and How to Use It,” explains that most of us know what irony is when we see it “but few of us can articulate it without relying on half-remembered lyrics from the 1995 Alanis Morissette song ‘Ironic.'” As the reason for their exploration of incongruity, the authors assert that “it’s critical for writers to understand irony.”

To begin, they unironically define the concept as “a storytelling tool used to create contrast between how seem things seem and how they really are beneath the surface.” Next, they helpfully explain the differences between dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony and provide a “How Well Do You Know Irony?” quiz at the end. This “Perfecting Your Craft” article is long, but I learned from it (don’t be so shocked) all the while enjoying the fun examples thrown in from Friends, Touch of Evil, and The Hobbit, to name three.

No need for me to go into the writerly details here (I heard that big sigh of relief!) because, sadly, despite what Carly Simon tells me, somebody does it better (well, when I think about it, which I try not to, nearly everyone does it better). Instead I will bore down a little into the origin of the word. In ancient Greek (“eironeia”) and Latin (“ironia”), irony means “feigned ignorance” or “dissimulation.” Breaking down the first combination, we get “to simulate the quality or state of being ignorant falsely.” In its harshest interpretation, being ignorant is—and I love this phrase—being “destitute of knowledge.” The word “dissimulation” has a different bent. It means “the act of dissembling” or “the fact of being dissembled.” The verb dissembling is “to hide under a false appearance” or “conceal with intent to deceive.”

This all points to another type of irony not mentioned in the Reedsy piece. Let’s call it “polirony” [pah `lie rah knee]. The term is useful today (and would have been dating back to the birth of democracy undoubtedly) because most politicians learn one cardinal rule early: it is certain death to ever say or write what they really think or mean. Almost to a man and woman, they are “polironists” and this, believe it or not, may throw some better light on understanding our president and perhaps (this is a big perhaps!) have greater sympathy for and/or empathy with him. Think of Donald J. Trump as the world’s penultimate polironist. Since, in that role, he will never say what he really thinks or means, all his tweets become snippets of hidden communication that need to be deciphered.

Rest assured. We won’t have to do this ourselves (as if we [I!] could). Once the news media learns of this, they will create whole new departments and hire former CIA codebreakers to give us the real scoop on DJT tweets. MSNBC, for example, will rush to replace “Deadline: White House” with “The Tweet, the Whole Tweet, and Nothing but the Tweet.” I hope they do this soon. I’m really looking forward to it.

Photo Credit: A stop sign ironically defaced with a plea not to deface stop signs. By Scheinwerfermann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17282660.