JS-Kit Comments

Your Comments Are Welcome

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mysticism: Fleecing the Credulous

Look, I consider myself to be a spiritual person. Formalized religion is a subject I wish to tackle another time, when I am stoked full of Wheaties, warmed up and better rested. But there are a number of long cons being run under the many banners of mysticism, and I hate to see ignorant or desperate people taken advantage of because they need or want to believe. And by the way, I do believe that there is much in this world that is unseen and inexplicable. But for Chrissakes, some people will believe anything. Literally, anything.

Ehrich Weiss was a Hungarian immigrant and the son of a Rabbi. Between public appearances, Weiss, who performed under the better known name Harry Houdini, made it his business to discredit mediums and spiritualists. He delighted in reproducing the effects of séances using stage magic techniques, exposing the chicanery of charlatans whenever and wherever possible. Interestingly enough, Houdini started out with an open mind towards spiritualists, attending séances in an attempt to contact the spirit of his beloved and dearly-missed mother. Each séance he attended enraged him more than the last, since he was able to see through the tricks employed by quack mediums due to his extensive knowledge of illusion and stage magic. What began as a quest for new knowledge became a war between Houdini and the entire community of spiritualists, culminating in his testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives Judicial Subcommittee investigation of fortunetellers and mediums. He also started giving special lectures demonstrating and exposing these frauds’ techniques to the public. He wrote a book on the subject in 1924 entitled A Magician Among the Spirits. By contrast, another, more prominent author - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, bought spiritualism hook, line, and sinker. ‘I consider the psychic question to be infinitely the most important thing in the world,’ declared Doyle, ‘All modern inventions and discoveries will sink into insignificance beside those psychic facts which will force themselves within a few years upon the universal human mind.’ Doyle attempted to publicly discredit Houdini’s delving into the shady world of Mediums, but had little to offer in refutation other than pompous outbursts of temper and bluster. Finally, Houdini made a pact with his wife Bess to contact her from the other side exactly one year from the date of his death if there were any way possible to do so. On October 31, one year after his death, Bess held a séance with prominent guests in attendance. Unfortunately there was no sign from the late, great magician. Succumbing to the lure of false hope, poor bereaved Bess went on to hold such a séance every year for ten years after Houdini’s demise. She quit participating after that, but a séance attempting to contact Houdini has been held every year since the great man’s death. This, in reaction to the death of the greatest debunker of spiritualists and mediums of all time! Talk about missing the point. Why, you ask? Did I mention that people will believe just about anything?

I have a good friend who lived in California for a number of years. He shared an observation with me about a fundamental difference between their New Age Crystal Culture and that of our native Midwest. He told me, “You know how in Illinois you can always spot the crazies – they have a ‘wild look’ about them, or they are dressed strangely, pasty white complected, unkempt in appearance and unhealthy-looking in general? Well, here (In California) you can’t tell until they start to talk. A suntanned, muscular, fit-looking fellow with a great haircut and perfect white teeth, who is dressed in designer clothes will look you square in the eye and in a booming voice will say, ‘You see this crystal amulet I’m wearing? It has the regenerative power of seven pyramids in a crystal astral matrix and protects me from sickness, disease and my enemies on the ethereal planes!!’” Now that would send me edging towards the door, how about you? The President of the large insurance corporation where my friend was employed sat on a specially-attuned crystal in his office chair in order to focus positive energies and protect his aura. Good for the aura, maybe, but hell on the hemorrhoids, I should think. Happily, my friend eventually relocated to Texas, where they don’t put up with that shit. You start talking about your aura or sleeping under a crystal pyramid in Texas and you are liable to get your ass kicked real good. Score one for the cowboys, I say.

Notice how cult leaders all seem to have two things in common. First - they are always controlling, charismatic men, and second - sooner or later it becomes a necessary ritual or an article of faith for them to have sex with all the women in the group. This one is a no-brainer. “Okay, everybody – now that we have all sold our possessions and are living together under one roof with me in charge, I have some exciting news! The greater power spoke to me in a dream last night and gave me the divine revelation that I can spread my positive energies amongst all of you, simply by spreading my seed amongst all of the women!” I can only assume they concentrate on the hotties first, where they are sure to spend the most seed and thereby presumably to do the most good. Don’t the other men at that meeting take pause at that moment and think, “Hey! Wait a minute!” I’m just sayin’ – lying there alone on your cot in the darkened common room, listening to your wife moan and cry out whilst “receiving grace” from the Glorious Leader - wouldn’t it set off your bullshit detector? And if not, WHY NOT?

Another example is Channeling. Notice how everyone who channels has lived previously in their former incarnations as Alexander the Great or Cleopatra or King Tut or Charlemagne or some such. Gee, what are the odds? How come nobody ever goes through hypnotic regression and discovers they were Nob, the village idiot and stable boy, a young man of few ideas and fewer teeth whose hobbies included bestiality and making crude sculptures out of horse dung and drying them in the sun? Do people who channel have to avoid each other lest they get into a public argument over which of them was really Napoleon? So I suppose a national convention of channelers would be out of the question. “Cocktails will be served in the Dakota room for all persons channeling American Presidents until five P.M.” Regression through hypnosis, once briefly heralded as an exciting field of research has pretty much been discredited by anyone who requires a single shred of hard evidence in order to endorse a theory. Bridey Murphy wasn’t necessarily a hoax, just a sad example of wishful thinking and leading the witness under hypnosis. Oh, and by the way, we’re sorry Ms. MacLaine, you may be one hell of an actor and song & dance gal, but it turns out you are as nutty as a rat in a coffee can.

OK, so we’ve established that people will believe the craziest crap you can imagine, and then some. Why? Because most people are looking for authority figures to attach themselves to, leaders who have the answers and take the uncertainty out of life. Basically the same need that drives most organized religions (more on that another day). It ain’t easy working without a net. For one thing, you have to think. Asking for real proof is anathema to these con men, and they are con men. Any belief system that cannot stand up to any doubt or scholarly examination and questioning is a con. Period. Question authority, and please, oh please get a tiny shred of evidence to back up outlandish pseudoscientific or paranormal claims before going willy-nilly down the purple path with the next space-alien-contact-koolaid-suicide-transformation-nike-wearing-galactic-traveling cracker that opens a website claiming to be the Gate to Heaven. And tell them Jim sent you. Thank you for your attention.

© Copyright 11/12/2009 by James Clifford Dobbs

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Apex of Human Endeavor

What is the crowning achievement of humankind thus far in our existence? Some would say it is higher thought and the ability to reason. Many believe it is our capacity to love. Other contenders might include the discovery of Mathematics, the creation of Art, the legacy of Architecture or the fractal, ever-nesting theories of Physics. (I have personally met two different Turks who would have told you it is the Interstate Highway system and its attendant Scenic Rest Areas.) Wrongo. It is my sincere belief that the absolute zenith of human invention, creativity and applied intellect is the Pop Tart™. Frosted, of course. I doubt that most people will require much of a justification for this opinion, as upon reflection it seems quite self-explanatory, perhaps even facile. However, I would just like to tick off a few of the finer qualities of these delightful anytime snacks (No Virginia, they’re NOT just for breakfast anymore!)

First, some critics would point out the flat, nearly tasteless pastry itself. As to the “flatness”, we read in the King James Version of the Bible, Book of Galatians, Chapter 5, Verse 9 that “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” (which always reminds me of a girl I knew who had to quit High School – but I digress.) As any aficionado of kosher culinary pursuits can tell you, the effect of yeast on baked goods is highly overrated. In his masterpiece, Walden, Henry David Thoreau chronicles his experiences living off the land and by the “labour of my own hands”. In order to make his bread rise, he needed to keep a colony of yeast alive and well. Since the yeast required warmth to survive, he carried a cork-stoppered bottle of yeast in his pants pocket. He finally quit using yeast in his homemade bread, mainly because he got tired of the cork slipping out and sending a warm, pungent surprise running down his leg. Talk about your quiet desperation! Thus we see that whilst any lump can leaven, the inventor (dare I say - discoverer?) of the Pop Tart™ dares to be flat! As regards the tastelessness of said shortbread, I see it as a blank canvas upon which the artist may create a masterpiece.

Which brings me to the tasty synthetic filling. Whether ‘tis nobler to choose from the simulated fruit group or the even further removed from nature Chocolate, Vanilla Shake, Hot Fudge Sundae, S’more or any other petroleum byproduct based flavors must give us pause, indeed. The filling is the tonic note of flavor in the Pop Tart™ composition. I personally prefer the Blueberry or Strawberry, much as I appreciate Aaron Copland’s straightforward “Fanfare for the Common Man”, whereas other folks might enjoy a Chocolate Fudge-frosted, chocolate fudge-filled Chocolate Fudge Pop Tart™ while listening to the polyrhythmic stylings of Phillip Glass. If the filling were any thicker it would no doubt dribble all over the damn place, any thinner and it would lose that Pop Tart™ je ne sais quoi and become as mundane as its many imitators. It is apparent to me that considerable time, effort, research and trial and error experimentation went into the development of this, perhaps the most important layer of all.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, what did they add? That’s right, Frosting! In this area, people generally fall into one of two extreme groups. One group disdains frosting and all its works, while the other (of which I am a member) would have trouble resisting a cream cheese-frosted dog turd. By swiping the frosting onto each Pop Tart in a layer that is thinner than Oliver Twist’s gruel, both camps are appeased. The “Frostophobes” can hardly be offended by such a delicate layer of sugary goodness, yet the “Frostophiles” are pleased by what at least amounts to a token effort to satisfy their (read: our) specialized cravings. People unfairly malign refined sugar, but I’ll tell you this – I LOVE it! I have eaten as many as twelve Sugar Frosted Pop Tarts™ a day with no ill effects, and if I hadn’t acquired Type 2 diabetes I would still do so today!

Depending on whom you choose to listen to, either God or the Devil is in the details. From the Jaguar hood ornament to the star atop your Christmas tree, it is the final touch that completes and pulls together a design as a whole. A simple list of ingredients does NOT tell the tale: Sugar, rice flour, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (cottonseed, soybean), corn starch, cellulose gum, carrageenan, soya lecithin, FDA yellow #5, FDA red #40, FDA yellow #6, gum tragacanth, gum arabic, FDA blue #1, FDA blue #2, artificial flavor. However, when we put all those things together we get… Colored Sprinkles! A dash of these babies (which are without both taste AND nutritional value, thus a purely aesthetic choice) atop the Pop Tart™ while the frosting is still damp provides the piquant pièce de résistance to this amazing creation. The colored sprinkles create Fun in a way that is truly Wonderful – to coin a phrase, “Pop Tarts™ are Funderful!”

In conclusion, let us look beyond this simple and now thoroughly proven matter of the Pop Tart™ as the Ultimate Human Achievement. Sure, the Great Pyramid has lasted over four thousand years, but so will A Pop Tart™ in its original airtight foil-coated heat-sealed space baggie! And due to the preservatives it should taste the same and be just as nutritious as it was the day it rolled out of Battle Creek, Michigan. Would Thoreau have subsisted on Frosted Pop Tarts™ if that option had been available to him? Probably not. Could Copland and Glass have put their musical differences aside and enjoyed a shared Pop Tart™ brunch al fresco? I would like to think so. If a person can find joy and purpose in a humble pastry – who are we to deny them that right? Can Pop Tarts™ provide the answers to any of the many pressing questions or problems of our modern world? Not unless the question is, “What’s that burning up in the toaster?” The only remaining objection which could be raised by a (truly harsh) critic is that using a toaster to prepare a Pop Tart™ is too labor intensive when compared to, say, eating a Space Food Stick™. Just to let you in on a little family secret – we never told our kids that you are supposed to toast the damn things! As far as I know they still have no idea. Thank you for your attention.

© Copyright 11/09/2009 by James Clifford Dobbs

Introduction: Statement of Thesis

The big questions . Who Am I? Why Am I Here? What is the Meaning of Life? Why are we born only to suffer and die? Who or what is God and why can’t I ever get him on the phone? And what has he done for me - lately? These are the questions which have occupied the thoughts and energies of the greatest intellects who ever lived. I, on the other hand, haven’t the faintest clue as to the answers to ANY of that crap.

Rather, I am devoting my energies to trying to figure out that which I can actually touch, taste, hear, see and/or smell. I am an Empiricist and a Skeptic by nature. After a little more than half a century of looking around and trying to discern what the hell is really going on around me I have come to two rather unsettling conclusions; 1.) There is a whole bunch of stuff going on that is absolutely effing random. And, 2.) Our Culture is seriously screwed up. Life is seriously screwed up. People are seriously screwed up. Feel free to include yourself in that group, or if you prefer you can pretend that this is a little inside joke between you and I. But it isn’t. Because I happen to know that I am seriously screwed up, too.
(And P.S. You don’t look so good yourself.)
© Copyright 11/09/2009 by James Clifford Dobbs