Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tales of the Weird

When I was in high school, my friends and I used to play a little game. We would stand outside the cafeteria doors before lunch, and roll pennies and the occasional nickel down the crowded hallway. The objective was to see whose coin could go the farthest before it hit someone or was stepped on. This was before the Gameboy was invented, so we did what we could to amuse ourselves. Like most schools the hall emptied out quickly when the bell rang, so that signaled the end of the game. So on this one day, I found my arm cocked back to throw when the bell rang and, what the hell, I threw it anyway. This is how I got to see my coin roll the entire 70 or so feet of the hallway and disappear into a stress crack in the opposite wall.

The gross improbability of this result led to my first independent hypothesis about the nature of the universe. One could roll pennies down an empty hallway, aiming at that crack, and never hit the mark before one’s arm fell off from fatigue. My 17-year old mind pondered this, and thought that maybe, just maybe, the universe existed in such a way that any possible act, no matter how improbable, would occur somewhere at least once before the end of time.

What happened between last Thursday night and Friday evening brought this back to me. See if you can come up with a number small enough to measure the probability of this chain of events.

Last Thursday night, there was a thunder storm. A bolt of lightning struck close enough to overload the two circuit breakers that feed power to outlets in the back yard. On Friday morning, I discovered that the land line phones were knocked out too. The handsets reported “line in use” on the display, but there was nothing but a few crackles on the line, like it was disconnected. As unusual as this was, I assumed that the storm had knocked out a transformer or a repeater or something. By evening, when nothing had changed, I began to suspect that the problem was in the house. I disconnected all the devices from the wall jacks and replaced them one by one, starting with the wireless base station. The problem persisted until I disconnected that and connected another phone. At first, I thought the base station was fried, but upon examining the RJ11 connector that plugged into the wall mount, I saw that it had a blackened look. One of the two contacts was completely missing. I immediately assumed that it had been fried in some kind of an electrical short. Much to my surprise, what at first looked burnt turned out to be something entirely different.

Last Fall, my kitchen was renovated. The renovation included a granite counter top, and moving a wall-mount for the telephone from the kitchen into the adjoining dining room. While this work was taking place, the Panasonic wireless phone system was removed from the wall mount and plugged in elsewhere. A plastic bracket was removed to convert the base station from a wall mount to a table-top configuration.

Some time after the wiring part of the renovation was complete, there was an ice storm, and the accompanying power failure lasted more than a day. This is how my only analog phone with wired hand set wound up plugged into the wall mount in place of the wireless system. This configuration was allowed to remain in place until Spring.

Meanwhile, the renovation completed, the contents of the kitchen were moved back into the cabinets. In the process, the bracket for the Panasonic base station found its way into the DJD (Designated Junk Drawer) in the new kitchen. Also during this process, a bottle of soy sauce was dropped and smashed on the granite. The junk drawer happened to be part open at the time, and the contents were splattered. During the clean up, several drops that had landed on a 3/4” x 2” upper surface of the plastic phone bracket were missed and remained there. Eventually, the bracket and the base station were reunited with the wall mount in its new home in the Dining Room. Once again, the semi-dry and sticky drops of soy sauce were overlooked.

Prior to the electrical storm, it had been raining here for a week straight; the humidity was through the roof. For the two days leading up to the thunderstorm, the temperature hit 80 degrees for the first time this Summer. At some point, the sticky soy sauce “melted” and dripped directly onto the phone jack. This was the dark substance on the RJ11 connector. Did the vibration from the clap of thunder cause it to fall or was it already there? Was the salt content sufficient to corrode the contact, or was there a final push from a current spike caused by the lightning? Was it sheer coincidence that the phone crapped out at the same time as the lightning strike? I’ll never know, but no matter how you add it up, it’s just weird.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Mob Psychology Part II

My intention is to edit this post over the week end (or maybe over the week) and throw out a bunch of little snippets as examples of mob behavior and mob manipulation.


Today on Yahoo News:

"Web Mourns Two Deaths - The Internet faces the tragic loss of a young athlete and a beloved actor. (link) Sadness dominates the week"

This refers to the deaths of Karine Ruby and David Carradine. My first reaction was, "Oh no, the Internet is so young! I wonder if it's ready to face a double blow like this one! Maybe there's grief counseling, like for high school students."

Beyond the lazy construction however, there is the comfort of knowing that, not only am I being told how to think and feel, I've just been told how I was supposed to feel all week! Gee, now I feel guilty. I'm such a cold-hearted bastard. I gave Karine one raised eyebrow for succumbing to the Law of Averages for doing something stupid, egotistical, and dangerous. I gave Carradine one raised eyebrow for the rope. I've got a good friend down the street with a wife and two kids in college who is probably going to die from cancer sooner or later, but if things don't improve, sooner. This shouldn't happen to a dog, but he is a great guy. He didn't do anything intentionally dangerous to purchase this fate. Too bad he's not famous, or the rest of the world could be told how to feel about this situation. Good people die every minute. I don't mourn because I don't know them. I don't know these celebrities either; I know of them.


January 23, 2008, Birmingham.

After leading police on a high-speed chase, and attempting to run over one officer at a road block, the perpetrator rolls his minivan and is ejected from the vehicle. Several police officers proceed to beat the perpetrator, who appears to be unconscious. Story and video here.

In the eyes of the law, all are equally chargeable with the crime of assault. In psychological terms, two of the officers are more guilty of starting this beating frenzy than the others. First, there is the obvious choice, the one that struck the first blow. The second cop to join in created a psychological trigger point. By imitating the actions of the first beater, number two simultaneously established the first cop as the alpha, and established the scenario as a mob action. The rest joined in by reflex, without much, if any, conscious decision. Something tribal and ugly was fired off here. Emotions were at a fever pitch. The Blue Skins joined forces against a common enemy. It is probably a source of personal shame to these officers that they were unable to resist such a soft target. They are however, the warrior class of the community tribe. They are the man-hunters. That scene is not unique. It has been repeated in every major city throughout the years. If it resembles the monkey scene from 2001, a Space Odyssey, this is no coincidence. The tribal programming is there, courtesy of our ancestors, natural (and unnatural) selection, and instinctive behavior. We have only our fore brain to discriminate between impulses with desirable and undesirable consequences. Sometimes it's not enough, and the consequences follow. This is not an excuse for the officers' lack of vigilance. It's just a reason.



Master manipulator. Oprah says, "Look under your chair!", get a reward. Operant conditioning. Do what Oprah says, get a reward. She creates a nice, carnival atmosphere, and engages in the kind of generosity and philanthropy that has a huge pay-back in terms of her own image. She did not get super rich by giving it away or finding the cure for cancer. She's selling. The only difference between her operation and that of the Televangelist of your choice is her product mix is broader and includes very emphatically herself.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Mob Psychology

The name of this blog is “Confusion of Ideas” because it’s devoted to the theory that, given enough conflicting information, the human mind will completely lock up. Rather than sort through the evidence backing up a particular claim, the multitude of claims will make that process appear to be an overwhelming task before it is even attempted. At this juncture, the individual will choose the theory that is best liked, or most insistently asserted, regardless of basis or lack thereof. This is the basic abdication of reason, and is helped greatly along when one is surrounded by others equally willing to abdicate and be told what to think. Not only does it then seem like the thing to do at the time, you are surrounded by people beaming approval at your decision.

Knee-jerk mob psychology was a survival mechanism at first. Mobilizing the tribe against a common threat without a long debate has obvious advantages. When it works the way it’s supposed to, abdicating your judgment and following the orders of a social leader can insure the common good, and enrich the community. When it doesn’t work, often the consequences are dire. One of the roles of the capricious gods in early society was to explain away the blunders of social leaders. “The gods were against us. We were screwed from the get-go. It’s not my fault. Sacrifice a virgin and let’s move on.”

Mob psychology is a valued commodity in modern society. The fear and mistrust required to throw a given group into “us versus them” mob mode is carefully nurtured in various ways. Here is a South Park clip describing one of the more subtle ways we are continually being divided against one another. All the while we are being separated out, we are repeatedly being required to re-identify with our designated or chosen sub-groups. What is the purpose of injecting the National Anthem into the beginning of sporting events? And why, as George Carlin asked, must we remove our hats? What does a hat, or lack thereof have to do with patriotism? What is this tribal ritual bullshit? Can someone get me a picture of one of those grease-painted, half-naked idiots standing solemnly with hat on chest? Meanwhile, if I removed my hat to reveal a little revolving propeller on my head, there would be outrage. I would be “making a mockery” of this sacred ritual. Why don’t we cheer an excellent play made by “their” team? In one-on-one sports like tennis, golf, or billiards, excellent play is acknowledged no matter who pulls it off. It’s all about belonging to the mob and letting your emotions go along for the ride.

We are constantly being played, and being played off against each other by people who know how this works and who want something from us. People who, for one reason or another, do not trust us as individuals to make a decision in their favor. Instead they resort to tricks of impulse and fear. The individual goes along with the group because he/she fears ostracism. The group holds itself apart from others for fear of loss of identity. It’s like a Mexican standoff, and no one will drop their guns first.

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