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psychology

Rant: If It’s Not Aliens…Then What Is It?

If you’re anywhere in the greater nerd universe, you’ve doubtless seen recent reports of Navy pilots spotting objects zipping around the sky and sometimes diving into the ocean. The Feds have declassified three videos of unidentified thimgamajigs doing their airborne calisthenics in the vicinity of US Navy fighter pilots.

So what is a reasonably sane person supposed to think about this?

UFOs as a phenomenon are not a new thing. It’s older than I am, and I’ll be 69 in a few weeks. Early on, the mythos crystallized around the theory that such objects are spacecraft (or aircraft) created by and piloted by intelligent beings from some other star system. There was (and still is) big money to be made on alien-based entertainment. Independence Day is one of my all-time favorite movies. The aliens myth (and I’m speaking in a Campbellian sense of the word “myth” here) is strong. I’m an SF writer. I should be a big aliens guy. I’m not.

I’m actually a Rare Earther. There are so many possible terms to the Drake Equation that I’m pretty sure we as a species are a vanishingly unlikely fluke. There are either hundreds of millions (or more) intelligent species in the universe, or there is only one. I reviewed an excellent book on Enrico Fermi’s question and its possible answers. It’s definitely worth reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question since I read that book back in March. So what I’m going to do in this entry is list all the possible explanations for the Navy sightings that I can come up with, irrespective of their likelihood. Note well that I don’t “believe” in any of them. I offer them as hypotheses. And yes, some of them are batshit nuts. I’m an SFF writer. Batshit nuts is just one more thing we deal with every day.

Buckle up, kids.

Tonight’s question: What are those things the Navy pilots caught on film?

My hypotheses fall into three general categories:

  1. They really are made and piloted by aliens. I cite this for completeness only. I have reason to think it’s not the case, since I have a hunch we are alone in the universe. I won’t discuss this category further. It’s long since been discussed to death.
  2. They are made and piloted by Hungarians. (This is an inside joke. Look it up.) What I mean by it is that the objects were created right here on Earth, as a result of top-secret research into novel physics. (Ok, here’s a cheat.)
  3. They are the result of…weirdness. Patience. I’ll get there.

So. It’s possible that the objects are in fact aircraft of some sort, piloted or drones, created in somebody’s lab somewhere under truly deadly secrecy. Physics is not as complete and airtight as physicists would like the general public to believe. The big glitch in physics currently is dark matter and dark energy, about which I have some quibbles, but set those aside. Darkstuff (my coinage) may be a telltale of novel physics, novel enough to give us “thrusters,” that is, engines that don’t depend on action/reaction; e.g., throwing stuff backwards.

If that’s the case, the apparitions may simply be a show of force by whoever developed the thrusters. Let’s hope those developers are American.

That’s the entirety of Category 2 in a nutshell.

So let’s take a look at Category 3. This is the fun stuff. I’ll give you another list, of explanations that seem absurd on the surface…keeping in mind that we as a species have been wrong before, and we will doubtless be wrong again.

1. They are aircraft from Earth’s own future, piloted by human beings who have figured out time travel. I like this one, as there is a whole series of novels buried in the premise. (Somebody may have already written them.) As I understand the physics, time travel, while difficult, is more possible than faster-than-light travel. It may require some of that darkstuff to make it work, but however it works, those Tic-Tac travelers could be somebody from a few hundred thousand years in our future. What they’re up to is unclear. Maybe they’re just testing their machinery. Maybe they’ll announce themselves eventually. Maybe they’re trying to stop us from making some really bad mistakes. (If so, they should have set their meters to 1900 and prevented us from creating Communism, which killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century and is still killing them.)

2. They are glitches in the simulation that we here on Earth call The Universe. Glitches–or beta tests of new features. Maybe bugs–rounding errors, or off-by-one errors. Reality-as-software is a scary notion to anybody who’s done any significant programming. Supposedly we could determine if we are in fact existing in a simulation, but I’m skeptical of that claim.

3. They are evolved but not intelligent organisms, originating in our solar system if not necessarily on Earth. (This is a variation on Category 1, but I put it here because it’s way weirder than canonical big-eyed Aliens.) If exotic physics yielding thrusters are possible, they could emerge via evolution from conditions that could be radically different from what we have on Earth. Who knows what could cook itself up in the atmospheres of Jupiter or Saturn? What I mean here is something like an animal, not self-reflective, but posessed of the means to cross interplanetary distances. Maybe they thrusted their way here, zipped around for awhile sampling the local environment, and finally decided it’s not fun and went home. It’s humbling to admit that they may not have noticed our presence at all while they were here.

4. They are poltergeist activity. (Hey, don’t zone out. I warned you!) This is tough to describe, but it’s a scruffy box into which we could place all sorts of “paranormal” phenomena–some of which look suspiciously like reactionless motion. Telekinesis, psi powers, all that stuff. A friend of mine was confronting poltergeist activity fifteen-odd years ago, and Colin Wilson has written about it extensively. Objects fly around the room, appear and disappear, with no known force behind any of it. Peculiar mental powers seem to exist. I’ve experienced a couple of those things that I still can’t explain. But they happened. (I can’t go into any of it here.) Maybe our UFOs are just astral travelers, out for a ride without having any suspicion that they can be seen or perhaps any clear notion of where they are.

5. They are irruptions from the collective unconscious. Some might choose to toss this in the poltergeist box as well, at least those who think poltergeists are irruptions from the collective unconscious. I don’t. I’ve read extensively about Marian apparitions like Lourdes, Fatima, Zeitoun, and many others. There is something called the White Lady archetype in Jungian thinking. Humans have a thing for luminous women popping up in odd places. (The white is their overall color, not their skin color–I have to say that in this race-nutso era.) Christianity shaped that archetype into the Mother of God in Christian visions. However, white ladies were originally a pagan archetype and are still being seen all over the place in contexts without any religious framework at all. Seeing odd things moving around in the sky is also an archetype. It gained strength in the first half of the 20th Century as popular culture embraced predictions of space travel and people from other worlds. In 1947, assisted by movies and TV, the archetype got legs. Note that these aren’t purely mental glitches in the minds of the Navy pilots. These are disturbances in the physical world that generate/reflect light and can be photographed.

6. They are intrusions from higher spatial dimensions. Now, this hypothesis could also be tossed in that scruffy box with the poltergeists, but I mean it in a more rigorously geometrical way: If there are in fact more than three spatial dimensions (I’ve heard people talk about as many as nine) then suppose some four-dimensional being is poking at our planet with a stick. Imagine Flatland here, with a 3-D being poking at the surface of the plane or sphere or whatever 2-D surface you like. Moving that stick will appear to the denizens of Flatland as a cross-section of the stick moving around without any apparent cause. The cross-section of a four-dimensional stick would be a three-dimensional lump. Its motive power would be off in hyperspace where we can’t see it. All we would see are the cross-sections of 4-D objects moving around like crazy, unimpeded by Newton’s laws. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s the hyperspatial equivalent of skipping stones on a quiet lake, done simply for fun. Again, it’s possible that whatever entity is holding the stick has no knowledge of us at all.

That’s what I have so far. If I had to choose one to hold as most likely (and I don’t) I would choose an application of novel physics by human scientists and engineers right down here on Earth. Secrets of that sort are very hard to keep, and I wonder if the leaks have begun, and the Feds are feeling their way toward eventual disclosure of the technology. It would be perhaps the most wonderful “unsettled science” ever discovered, as it would open the solar system to human exploration and habitation.

Remember that this is a rant, and I have my SFF writer’s hat on. I embrace Haldane’s Law: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine–and I can imagine a lot.

The Numbers Game

COVID-19 is a numbers game. Trouble is, we don’t know what any of the numbers are. Yes, we can tote up test positives and deaths, but that tells us surprisingly little about the things that matter in this case: How contagious is the virus? How many people are infected but don’t know it? How many people had it but thought they had the flu? All of that matters.

None of it is known.

We’ll learn more as new tests are devised, particularly for antibodies. Knowing how many people have caught the virus but threw it off would put a number of things into perspective, especially the critical issue: How close are we to herd immunity? That’s the most important known unknown in a big greasy sack of mixed unknowns.

In the meantime, people worry. I’m one of them. I’ve read others online. The worried ones tend to be older folks. And yeek! It was a little disorienting to internalize that I’m an older folk. I’ll be 68 in two months. I don’t care if 60 is the new 40. We have decent stats on whom the virus is taking out. And that curve heads for the sky at age 60.

As an aside, there’s the complicating factor in that anybody who dies with the virus in their system tends to be counted as a COVID-19 fatality, even if they had heart disease or stage 4 cancer. Sometimes the corpses aren’t even tested for coronavirus. If it looks like the virus, coughs like the virus, or kills like the virus, then…they write COVID-19 on the death certificate. That may be unavoidable in some cases, but it certainly does not help in our current numbers game.

This may all seem obvious, but I’m not done yet. The country has to open up soon. People are burning through their savings trying to keep the lights on and food on the table. (Alas, the people who are keeping us under house arrest never miss any paychecks.) Businesses are failing. My local art supplies store has closed forever. A lot of restaurants are not going to make it. Smithfield closed its ginormous pork-packing plant in Sioux Falls, SD, and the firm is supposedly working with the CDC to determine how and when the plant will reopen. Too much of that and we’ll have food shortages.

We’re not there yet. My local groceries have fresh meat again, at least. My hunch is that the hoarders have already filled their chest freezers, at least those hoarders who can find their chest freezers behind the mountains of toilet paper piled up in their basements.

I recognize that there will be a cost in letting people go back to work, particularly in monster cities like New York and Chicago where getting around is mostly done on jam-packed buses and subway/commuter trains. More people will be infected. Additional people will die. Those numbers can’t be known yet. (Computer models riddled with unknown parameters are utterly worthless.) Being my ever-hopeful self, it looks like the numbers won’t be nearly as bad as early models suggested. The big upside is rarely mentioned: Herd immunity happens because people catch the virus, develop antibodies, and throw off the virus. Some of that has happened already. It’s happening. More needs to.

We’re a ways off from a vaccine, though one will happen. In the meantime, we need to consider any drug or drug combo that shows promise through clinical experience. The media seems…peculiarly…opposed to hydroxychloroquine plus zinc and an antibiotic. Still, observational studies are being ramped up as quickly as possible, and early clinical experience looks good. If I suddenly got hit hard, I would ask for that first. When you’re looking death in the eye, you may not be as insistent on bureaucratic niceties.

People like me will probably have to stay home for awhile longer than those younger and not yet retired. I’m willing to do that…to a degree. Carol and I walk in local parks. If we need something at a store, we mask up and go. How effective are the masks? Nobody knows. But it’s worse than that. No matter how much you wear your mask, a virus or seventeen may land in one of your eyes. The mask reduces the likelihood of catching it. But it never reduces the likelihood to zero. The same goes for cleaning surfaces, which is harder now because the hoarders have snapped up all the cleaning supplies. Miss something with that soapy rag (you’d use alcohol if you could find some) and you could pick up the virus. Less likely, but possible. No matter what measures you might take, your chances of catching COVID-19 will never go to zero. And your chances of dying will never go to zero. We do not and cannot and will never know. Carol and I have had our family trust and wills together for awhile. We take whatever protective measures we can. That’s about the best we (or anybody) can do.

Irrepressibly perky gonzo optimist that I am, I do see something to be optimistic about: Evolution is a thing, and it works. Viruses that immobilize/kill their hosts quickly eventually lose out to related strains that infect and cause fewer and less severe symptoms. Over time, newly discovered viruses mutate toward more innocuous forms. It worked that way with HIV. It will work that way with our current coronavirus. It’s already working that way, even if we can’t measure it. How long will it take? No one knows. Get over it.

It comes down to this: Whether you like to gamble or not, you’re damned well gambling, and you will never know the odds. Come May 1, if we don’t begin opening up our economy, the virus could well become the least of our worries. Those odds are greater than zero. Greater, in fact, than you may think.

Friday Night Locust Report

Carol was running out of cottage cheese, which she eats every day for breakfast. We shopped last weekend and forgot to get it, so I cruised up 64th Street to Greenway, where there are two supermarkets: Fry’s (the local Kroger chain) and Safeway. We were also out of milk, and since we still have half a box of corn flakes I figured I’d get a half gallon, which would see the corn flakes through to their final destination. We generally shop at Fry’s to get their gas points, with Safeway as a (rarely used) backup. (For certain things we go to Costco, if not as often.)

Well. Fry’s was a madhouse. I had to bring a cart with me from the parking lot. The store was busy when we were there a week or so ago. Now it was insane. I went to the back of the store to the dairy case, dodging frantic suburbanites with carts piled high with sodas, bagged rice, canned goods, crackers and chips, booze, and Kleenex. Nobody had any toilet paper in their carts, because there was no toilet paper in the store. There were a few packages of paper towels. No bleach. And (oddly) no vinegar.

There was no real milk. There was 1% and skim, which I don’t consider real milk. And there was almond and soy milk in abundance, but that is really not milk. There was no Daisy cottage cheese. So I picked up a bottle of the sugar-free creamer that we like, plus a pint of the expensive organic cream, with which we dilute the sweetness of the creamer.

The produce department was pretty bare. No fruit. Some potatoes and onions, plus plenty of certain vegetables that I’m not sure people ever actually eat, like squash.

I did not look for hand sanitizer. We have plenty of hand soap, and hand soap, being an emulsifier, is a better antiviral than alcohol.

There was plenty of meat, but our supply is still reasonable, and the last thing I want to be seen as is a hoarder. I needn’t have worried; I was surrounded by hoarders. The line for the do-it-yourself checkouts was long, but the lines for the real cashiers were considerably longer, I think because the carts were all piled eyeball-high with what their purchasers doubtless considered survival goods.

I still wanted milk. So after checking out at Fry’s, I went across 64th to the Safeway. Safeway is usually pretty quiet; so quiet that I’ve sometimes wondered why the store is still there. This time, it was–you guessed it–a madhouse. Same deal: Shoppers with carts up to here, the paper products aisle bare, most of the produce gone, and although there were some eggs, most of the cartons had been badly handled and had one or more broken eggs in them. However, they still had the fancy organic whole milk for $5.79 a half gallon. The cheap milk was gone. Surprisingly, they had at least the small cartons of Daisy full-fat cottage cheese. I grabbed one. I was tempted to grab two, but there were only four or five left, and I’ll be damned if I’ll be a hoarder. There are plenty of actors in this production of The Tragedy of the Commons. I refuse to be one of them.

So I came home with cottage cheese, milk, cream, and creamer. Four items. Now, Carol and I don’t eat much, and the fridge is reasonably full. I’ll probably visit Fry’s again this coming Thursday, and get some ham steaks if the locusts haven’t cleaned them out. We’re OK with toilet paper for awhile, because we get it in quantity at Costco, and picked up a big package about two weeks ago before this whole business blew up.

Which leads directly to the question: How long will this go on? The answer is pretty simple: It will go on as long as our wretched media continue to incite panic. Panic sells clicks. Panic turns ordinary Americans into hoarders. In other words, panic pays.

We don’t know the mortality rate of coronavirus. We can’t know it, because we don’t know how many people have it. Dividing deaths by confirmed cases may yield a worst-case percentage, but until we test almost everyone (which won’t happen) nobody will know the true mortality rate. Three quarters of the deaths in the US are from a single nursing home in Washington State. Fatalities are mostly people over 70, and among those largely over 80. Now, at 67 I’m edging into that demographic, but I’m a lifetime nonsmoker with no pulmonary issues and a strong exercise regimen. Carol and I are washing our hands a lot, and avoiding crowded places. There’s not a great deal more we can do.

What we will not do is panic. Nor will we hoard. Nor (I think) will we ever watch or read mainstream media news again. I’m smart enough to know when I’m being played for a…locust. Not gonna happen.

Rant: The War That Nobody Dares Explain

HarryDuntemannArmy1917-adjusted-500 wide.jpg

Armistice Day. I call it that in this entry because 100 years ago today, The Great War (now called World War I) ended. We’ve broadened the holiday to all those who have served in war on our behalf, but until 1954, the day was named after the armistice that ended WWI.

My grandfather Harry Duntemann served in The Great War. (See the photo above, from 1917, location unknown. He was 25.) I never got to talk to him about it because he died when I was four, or I would have asked him what caused the War. I’m not entirely sure he could have told me. Degreed historians have been unable to tell me. I’ve read a pile of books about it, but as close as I’ve come to an answer is simply that Europe’s leaders were about ready for a war, and when the assassination of a second-shelf political figure provided them with an excuse, they went for it. Four years and sixteen million deaths later, the armistice was signed, Europe was rearranged, Germany thoroughly humiliated, and all the pieces put in place for an even greater war a generation later.

Bad idea, top to bottom.

Here’s my theory, which I offer as speculation based on a view from a height: WWI was a pissy argument among Europe’s ruling elite, made deadly by industrialization and technologies that hadn’t been dreamed of during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Certain members of this insufferable boys’ club took offense at other members’ reaction to crackpot Princip’s terrorist attack, leading to others taking offense at their offense, leading to a wholesale loss of face among the elites, who threw the inevitable tantrum and leveled half of Europe in the process. They’re still digging up live ordnance in places a century later. Lots of it. Sometimes it explodes. In terms of casualties, WWI has never really ended.

The common element here? Inbred ruling classes who cannot conceive of being wrong about anything. In 1914, they were elite by virtue of aristocratic birth, or sometimes having risen through the local equivalent of civil service. That era was the transition from “the King can do no wrong” to “the government can do no wrong,” which was perhaps a step in the right direction, but…

…we still have ruling classes, and they are dangerous. Graduate from an Ivy and you’re set for life. Along with the diploma you’re given the impression that you’re just…better…than people who go to state schools, or who eschew college altogether. This leads to a pathological inability to doubt your own view of the universe, and in most cases, your own expertise. Given too much power, such people can, have, and will continue to destroy entire nations.

Self-doubt is an essential personality trait. I consider it the single most reliable indicator of people who are high in both rational and emotional intelligence. A modest amount of self-doubt among Europe’s elites could have stopped WWI. Stopping WWI, furthermore, might well have stopped WWII.

I don’t honestly know what one can do about ruling classes. Not supporting political parties would be a good first step, because political parties are mechanisms that make the elites rich and keep them in power. But you know how likely that is. Redistribuing power (not wealth) would be another good step. Again, this would mean broadening access to the Ivies (ideally by some sort of entrance lottery) and limiting the powers of government far beyond the degree to which government would allow itself to be limited. (I have a good political novel on the subject in my notes that I won’t write, because political novels are depressing.)

And even that might not work. Once again, we run up against the primal emotion of tribalism, from which most of our current troubles emerge. That’s a separate topic, but not an unrelated one.

My advice? 1. Shun the ruling classes. You’ll never be one of them (no matter how much you think you deserve to be) and fostering ordinary people’s desire to be among the elites is how the elites keep ordinary people under their control. 2. Limit government power at every opportunity. The less power our elites have, the less damage they can do. 3. Read history. Granted, I read a lot of history about WWI and still doubt whatever understanding I thought I gleaned from those books…

…but let me tell you, I understand the Jacobin mindset completely.

/rant

Odd Lots

Scary Mary and the Bicameral Mind

Well, the bookshelves got themseves full, and I still had three boxes to empty. So once again (I don’t know how many times I’ve done this!) I emptied piles of books onto the floor and flipped through them, in part for charge slips used as bookmarks, and in part to decide what books just had to go. Found a lot of charge slips, business cards, promo bookmarks, and other odd (flat) things tucked between the pages, including a small piece of brass shim stock. I built a pile of discards that turned out to be bigger than I expected.

One thing that went were my Scary Mary books.

Twenty years ago, I was very interested in Marian apparitions, and did some significant research. There’s a lot more to Marian apparitions than Fatima and Lourdes. The Roman Catholic Church approves only a tiny handful of apparitions. The rest don’t get a lot of press, and for good reason: The bulk of them are batshit nuts. The reason I was so interested is pretty simple: Perhaps the most deranged of all Marian phenomena occurred in Necedah, the tiny Wisconsin town where my mother grew up. Although she moved from Wisconsin to Chicago after WWII, she used to go to a shrine in Necedah (not far from Mauston and the Wisconsin Dells) light candles, and pray. She bought the full set of books detailing the Blessed Mother’s conversations with a woman named Mary Ann Van Hoof that began in 1950. As best I know she never read them. (My mother wasn’t a voracious reader like my father.) That’s a good thing. There was enough heartbreak in her life without her having to face the fact that Mary Ann was obviously insane and increasingly under the influence of a very shady John Bircher type named Henry Swan. From standard exhortations to pray the rosary and live a moral, Christ-centered life, the messages became ever more reactionary and eventually hateful. Some were innocuously crazy; Mary Ann dutifully reported the Blessed Mother’s warnings against miniature Soviet submarines sneaking up the St. Lawrence river. But many of her later messages described a worldwide conspiracy of Jews (whom she called “yids”) rooted in the United Nations and the Baha’i Temple in Chicago. Oh, and the Russians were planning all sorts of attacks, most of them sneaky things like poisoning food, water, and farm animals.

The local Roman Catholic bishop condemned the apparitions in 1955, and soon after issued interdicts against Mary Ann and her followers. Still, Mary Ann stayed the course, and continued writing down Mary’s messages (with plenty of help from Henry Swan) until her death in 1984.

The first thing I learned about Marian apparitions is that the Lady gets around: There have been lots and lots of them, most occurring in the midlate 20th Century. This is the best list of apparitions I’ve found. (There was even one here in Scottsdale in 1988.) For every apparition approved by the Church as acceptable private revelation, there are probably fifty either ignored, or (as in Necedah) actively condemned. The second thing I learned is that they’re almost always warnings of dire things to come if we don’t straighten up our acts. The third thing I learned is that the craziness was not limited to Necedah, though Henry Swan did his best to make it a cultural trope. The late and lamented (but still visible) suck.com did a wry article on the topic in 2001, highlighting the Blessed Mother’s ongoing battle against communism. The apocalyticism got utterly over-the-top at some point, with warnings against “three days of darkness” during which devils would be released from hell to scratch at our doors in an effort to steal our souls.

At that point, I figured I knew all that I cared to know, and the Scary Mary books went back on the shelves, where they remained, mostly untouched, until we packed our Colorado Springs house in 2015.

So what’s going on here? There’s a very good book on the subject by an objective outsider: Encountering Mary by Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz . Most of her discussion centers on approved apparitions, but she does touch on the crazy stuff, including Necedah. She takes a sociological approach, is very careful not to be judgemental, and never implies that we might be dealing with psychopathology here, even in the crazy phenomena like Necedah.

I won’t be as courteous. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with the mechanisms of charismatic religion here, which can be fine until a certain line is crossed. I have a theory about the crazy ones that as best I know is original to me: Visionaries like poor Mary Ann Van Hoof are indeed high-functioning schizophrenics, but more than that, are relics of an age described by Julian Jaynes back in the 1970s as the age of the “bicameral mind.” Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousnes in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is a slog but still worth reading.

It’s complicated (what isn’t?) but Jaynes’ theory is that until around 3000 BC, human minds worked differently than they do today. The left brain was somewhat of a robot, with little or no sense of itself, and the right brain was where everything important happened. The right brain gave the left brain orders that took the form of voices heard in the left brain’s speech centers. Primitive humans first thought of the voices as those of their deceased relatives, and later as disembodied gods. In a sense, Jaynes is claiming that humans evolved as schizophrenics with a much thinner wall between the two hemispheres of the brain. At some point, the left brain became capable of introspection, allowing it to take the initiative on issues relating to survival, and the wall between the hemispheres became a lot less permeable. According to Jaynes, ego trumped schiophrenia in the survival olympics, and the bicameral mind was quickly bred out of the human creature.

I won’t summarize his arguments, which I don’t entirely accept. I’m looking at it as a potential gimmick in my fiction, which is the primary reason I read in the category I call “weirdness.” However, the similarity of Jaynes’ bicameral mind concept and what happens in many ecstatic visions (in Christianity and other religions) struck me. We still have schizophrenics among us, and we may have individuals where schizophrenia lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for a high-stress event to crack a hole in the hemispheric barrier and let the voices come through again. The key is that Marian apparitions are almost always crisis-oriented. Mary never just drops in to say “Hi guys, what’s going on?” In a Marian context, the crises are almost always moral and sometimes ritual, warning against the consequences of abandoning traditional beliefs and/or sacramental worship. The occasional gonzo apparitions (like Necedah and another at Bayside, NY) plunge headfirst into reactionary secular politics as well. A threat to the visionary’s deepest beliefs can trigger apocalyptic warnings through voices that the visionary interprets as Mary, Jesus, or some other holy person.

Whether all or even the greater part of Jaynes’ theory is correct, it’s pretty likely that there are mechanisms in the brain that we have evolved away from, and these “voices of the gods” may be one of them. The right brain is a powerful engine, and it doesn’t have much in the line of communication channels to the left hemisphere right now. Writing can be one of them. I’m what they call a “pantser” on the fiction side. In fact, I’m a “gateway writer,” meaning that I write whole complicated scenes without a single bit of planning aforethought. I don’t outline my novels. I vomit them onto disk, jumbled in spots but mostly whole. How does that even work?

And what else could we do if we could crack that valve a little wider?

My gut (which is in fact my right brain) whispers, “Nothing good. The left brain evolved to protect the right brain from itself. Evolution knew what it was doing. Not all of those voices were gods.”

Was 2016 Really That Deadly?

John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!

I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.

It’s certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn’t have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can’t finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:

  • Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
  • There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
  • Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.

All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That’s not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.

Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:

  • Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
  • Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
  • Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.

John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I’ll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as “weird” and memorable in a grim way.

Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can’t pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I’m not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.

The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.

The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it’s still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we’re producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don’t understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I’ll return to at some point. I’m starting to run long today and need to focus.)

Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn’t seen somebody’s Twitter post. I didn’t much care, but I saw it.

There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year’s races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.

Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I’m guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won’t know until we get there.

To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.

Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.

Anger Kills

Anger literally killed my grandfather. I mean literally literally here, not figuratively: My grandfather Harry G. Duntemann got furiously angry, and he died. This is one reason I’ve tried all my life to be good-natured and upbeat, and not let piddly shit (a wonderful term I learned from my father) get me worked up. This worked better some times than others. (Once it almost didn’t work at all. I’ll get to that.) Practice does help. However, in the wake of the election, a lot of people whose friendship I value are making themselves violently angry over something that may be unfortunate but can’t be changed. This is a bad idea. It could kill you.

Consider Harry Duntemann 1892-1956. He was a banker, fastidious and careful, with a tidy bungalow on Chicago’s North Side, a wife he loved, and two kids. One was a model child. The other was my father. Both he and his son were veterans of the World Wars, which is one reason I mention them today. My grandfather, in fact, won a medal for capturing two German soldiers in France all by himself, by faking the sounds of several men on patrol and demanding that they come out with their hands up. They did. He played them good and proper, and nobody got hurt.

He had an anger problem. Things bothered him when they didn’t go his way. Family legend (which I’ve mentioned here before) holds that my father comprised most of the things that didn’t go his way. His anger isn’t completely inexplicable. Harry worked in a bank, and was for a time the chief teller at the First National Bank of Chicago. You don’t get to do jobs like that if you’re sloppy, and if you spot errors, you track them down like rats and kill them.

Harry was the sort of man who really shouldn’t retire, but retire he did, at age 62. He bought a lot in tony Sauganash and had a fancy new house built. I honestly don’t know what he did with his time. He golfed, and taught me how to do simple things with tools when I was barely four. He worked in his garden and his vegetable patch. My guess: He was bored, and what might not have bothered him when he oversaw the teller line at Chicago’s biggest bank now preyed on his mostly idle mind.

One day in August 1956 a couple of neighborhood punks vandalized his almost-new garage, and he caugfht them in the act. He yelled at them, and they mocked him. He yelled more. They mocked more. Finally he just turned around, marched into his house, sat down in his big easy chair…

…and died.

He was healthy, a lifetime nonsmoker, trim, not diabetic, and not much of a drinker. I suspect he was more active in retirement than he had been during his working life. He had no history of heart disease. He had no history of anything. Anything, that is, but anger.

I ignited a smallish firestorm on Facebook yesterday when I exhorted people who were angry over the election to just let it go. Most of them seemed to think that “letting it go” meant “accepting it” or even condoning it. Maybe in some circles it does. I don’t know. To me it means something else entirely, something that may well have saved my life.

As my long-time readers know, I lost my publishing company in 2002. It didn’t die a natural death. I can’t tell you more than that for various reasons, but Keith and I didn’t see it coming, and it hit us hard. I put on a brave face and did my best. Once I was home all day, though, it just ate at me. I was soon unable to sleep, to the point that I was beginning to hallucinate. To say I was angry doesn’t capture it. Depression is anger turned inward, and I became depressed.

I had a lot of conversations with Bishop Elijah of the Old Catholic Church of San Francisco. He was getting worried about me, and in late 2002 he Fedexed me a little stock of consecrated oil, and told me quite sternly to anoint myself. I did. (After I did, I laughed. Would Jesus haved used FedX? Of course He would. Jesus used what He had on hand to do the job He had to do. Catholicism is sacramental, but also practical.) Elijah diagnosed me pretty accurately when he said: You’re hoping for a better yesterday. You won’t get it. Let it go.

It took awhile. It took longer, in fact, than Bishop Elijah had left on this Earth, and I struggled with it for years after he died in 2005. The company wasn’t piddly shit. It was the finest thing I had ever done. How could I let it go?

I thought of my grandfather Harry every so often. And eventually it hit me: Those little snots didn’t kill him, as I had thought all my life. They played him, and he killed himself with his own anger. “Letting it go” cooked down to protecting myself from myself. I’ll never get my company back, but I can now see it from enough of a height to keep my emotional mind from dominating the memory. I learned a lot as a publisher. I made friends, and money, and reputation. I supervised the creation of a lot of damned fine books, and won awards. Losing it was bad, but life around me was good. (Carol especially.) I could choose to obsess, and probably die before my time, or I could recognize the damage my anger could do and turn the other way. I’m not sure how better to describe it. It was a deliberate shift of emotional attention from my loss to new challenges.

This isn’t just a theory of mine. Anger kills by keeping the body awash in cortisol, which causes inflammation of the arteries. The inflammation causes loose lipids to collect in arterial plaques, which eventually block an artery and cause an infarction. Plug the wrong artery at the wrong time, and you’re over.

Anger is a swindle. It doesn’t matter if it’s “righteous anger,” whateverthehell that is. Anger promises the vindication of frustration and disappointment, and delivers misery and early death. When I’ve seen people online turning bright purple with fury the last couple of days, that’s what I see: Good people being played by the desire for a better yesterday. It won’t kill most of them. It may well kill a few. It will lose them friends. It will make other people avoid them. It may prompt them to eat and drink too much. It is basically making them miserable, to no benefit whatsoever.

When I say “let it go” these days, I mean what I said above: Protect yourself from yourself. Call a truce between the two warring hemispheres of your brain. Turn to something else, something you can change, something that may earn out the effort you put into it with knowledge, skill, and accomplishment.

Believe me on this one: There is no better yesterday. Don’t go down that road.

You may never come back.

What Just Happened?


Note well: I don’t talk about politics on Contra very much. When I do, I impose what I call heroic courtesy on myself. I suggest that you do the same in the comments. Furthermore, I demand civility. (This is not the same thing as courtesy, and not as good, but with some individuals it may have to do.) There will be no hate words like libtards, republithugs, deniers, or anything stupid of that sort that wasn’t even funny the first time. If you use playground logic like tu quoque, I will allow it, but I will call you on it. If you’re a purely emotional thinker who simply wants to vent, there are other, better places for that. Go find them.


I boggle. I was ready to admit that this was a disturbingly weird election, and beats the runnerup, 1872 (go look it up) hands-down. I took notes over the past six months and privately predicted a number of things, including a clear Clinton victory (if not a landslide) and either a tied Senate or Democrats by one or at best two seats. Didn’t happen, and what was disturbingly weird now takes its place as the weirdest single event that I have ever witnessed. So, indeed, what happened? I took some notes last night. Let me share them with you.

  • Hate loses. Yes, it does. I now understand the psychological purpose of online hate, though it took a few years to figure it out: In counseling circles it’s called journaling, which is a mechanism for the release of tension and frustration. Venting or griping are other common names for the process. People who have no way to journal often die young, like my grandfather Harry Duntemann. So it can be a useful, nay, lifesaving mechanism. However, it has to be done in private. Either do it with your likeminded friends over a few beers, or in the private online echo chamber of your choice. Just don’t do it where the larger world can see it. You will be silently tagged as a hater and marked down. You will persuade no one. In fact, a growing number of people look at online hate and say, This smells of fear. Fear implies a force worth understanding, and sometimes that understanding changes minds in a direction away from the fear behind the hate. By hating, you may be persuading others that your side is either a lost cause or bogus to begin with. Do you really want to do that?

    My analysis suggests that three words cost Hilary Clinton the Presidency: “basket of deplorables.” It’s one thing to use verbalized hate as a means of dissipating tribal fears and frustrations, directed at an opposition candidate. It’s quite another to explicitly express hate and (especially) contempt for millions of voters, right there in front of every TV camera in the nation. The right took the phrase and turned it into a badge of pride. “I’m deplorable and I’m OK. I sleep all night and I work all day.” Etc. Like nobody on the campaign could have seen that coming? I’ve never entirely understood this business of “energizing your base” by calling the other guys names. You already own your base. Why drive away people who might give you a hearing if you just. remained. civil? Why? Why? Why?

    There are admittedly other issues at play too complex to go into here, like Ms. Clinton’s alleged mishandling of classified information, or this general demonization of whites and the working class by the fringes of the progressive left. Ms. Clinton did not reach out to working-class whites. She bowed to her fringes by insulting and marginalizing them, and did not take up the issues that concern them. This was entirely avoidable. Her base would have voted for her anyway, apart from a handful of Jill Stein fans and Berniebros. (BTW, I was much impressed with the campaign of Jill Stein, and of the candidate herself. I offer her as an example to progressives trying to win future elections.)

  • The mainstream media lit a funeral pyre and jumped gleefully into the flames. The media has always leaned left; it leaned left when I was in college 45 years ago, and we all understood how journalism selects for a certain idealistic and largely emotional mindset. What happened this time is that the media abandoned all pretense of objectivity and went full-in for the Democrats. I knew about push-polling (publishing deliberately skewed polls to demoralize your opposition) but have never seen it mounted as broadly as it was. Worse, a lot of journalists let their inner haters leak out on social media, and whether they were merely venting or not, those who saw their posts took it as naked, hateful bias of the media as a whole. Never forget, anybody: What you say online reflects on your industry, whether you issue disclaimers or not. Better to just shut up and do your job.
  • Media analysts lost the ability to question their own assumptions. How could the pollsters get it all so wrong? I’m a journalist, and I learned from the best. Fortunately, it was not political journalism, so emotional thinking and tribalism didn’t really come into play. I learned the importance of checking facts, evaluating sources, and looking for different ways to come at any given topic. Most important, I was taught to leave my preconceptions at the door. In political journalism, preconceptions generally come in the form of tribal narratives, and questioning tribal narratives can have awful consequences for tribal operatives. So journalists and pollsters kept repeating their narrative-respecting explanations until those explanations became indistinguishable from reality. Then real reality intruded, and made them all look like incompetent goofs.
  • Alternate news sources are now ubiquitous, and mature. Nearly all of these are online, and even those supposedly stupid deplorables out in farm country now have broadband. So people did not have to rely on mainstream news sources that made no secret of their biases. The Wikileaks drama was surreal, especially FBI Director Comey’s flip-flop-flip on whether or not Ms. Clinton performed actions that broke the law. Other details that I have not yet verified (like whether Chelsea Clinton used Clinton Foundation funds to pay for her wedding) would not have been covered on mainstream outlets at all, but the alts put it up in lights. Ditto evidence of vote fraud in many places around the country. I’m a Chicago boy, and we saw it happening on a large scale fifty years ago and ever since. Denying that it happens is simply a lie; the big questions are where, how much, and how to stop it. Without the alt media, those questions would never have seen the light of day.
  • Nobody wants to be a lightning rod. The mainstream media and most people on the left have made their hatred of Mr. Trump clearly known ever since he turned up on the scene. If somebody like a pollster asks you whom you support, are you necessarily going to say the guy that everybody on the news clearly loathes? To some people, politics is like life itself. To many people (myself included) politics is a disease that robs people of their humanity and turns them into killer apes. Dealing with combative political people is not fun, so the best strategy is to avoid the topic entirely. This is the great magic of secret ballots: You can lie or make excuses when asked about your preferences, and then vote your private position in private, with no one the wiser, and nobody to roll their eyes and write you down. I always lie to pollsters because I hate the very idea of polling and want it to go away. Stick a pitchfork in polling; it’s done. Post-2016, polling will be seen as either worthless twaddle or backchannel campaigning. The delicious irony is that the pollsters did it to themselves, by forcing ordinary, non-political people to hide or mis-state their true but private positions on things.

That’s my note pile, scribbled after a long, bleary night reading and viewing election analysis and trying to cut through the blather and outright nonsense that passes for political insight these days. Take from it what you will. Note that none of this is to suggest an endorsement of any candidate, party, or position. I’m a contrarian, so I take pride in pushing back at the pushers, even if I have sympathy for the pushers. I do not like to be pushed. After almost twenty years of Contra, you all should understand that by now. Nor do I ever talk about the specifics of how I voted. It’s a secret ballot. Can you keep a secret?

I can.

Kreepy Klown Kraziness

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Attention Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea! The White House has issued a statement on the Creepy Clown hysteria now gripping the nation. Although the Press Secretary wasn’t sure the President had been briefed on the Clown Crisis, he did say that the White House defers to the FBI on clown issues. A Bay Area paper has an interactive map of clown sightings. Police in Utah have warned the public not to shoot random clowns. (There’s been no mention of polite, orderly, or non-chaotic clowns.) It’s still three weeks to Halloween, and clown costume sales are up 300%.

As Dave Barry used to say (often): I am not making this up.

Ok. I have an interest in scary clowns. I was still in Chicago when John Wayne Gacy AKA Pogo the Clown was strangling teen boys and stuffing them into his crawlspace. In fact, I lived a little less than two miles away from him. (One of Carol’s high school friends lived only three blocks away.) A guy I met once but didn’t know well (he was the friend of a friend) used to go to movies with Gacy, but somehow managed to stay out of the crawlspace. I saw portions of Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV once, in part because it was filmed in Santa Cruz, California, while Carol and I lived there. I consider It to be Stephen King’s best work; so much so that I’m planning to lampoon ol’ Pennywise in a future Stypek novel.

In 2011, I finally realized a longstanding goal of building a short novel around scary (if not evil) clowns. In Drumlin Circus, circusmaster Bramble Ceglarek has four clowns who are also his bodyguards. In the first chapter we get a very good look at how scary they can be, when they capture an assassin sent by the shadowy Bitspace Institute. The novel can be seen as a sequel to “Drumlin Boiler,” though the only common character is Rosa Louise Kolze, the tweener girl who has a peculiar rapport with the mysterious Thingmaker alien replicators, and the “drumlins” that they produce. It’s available on Kindle for $2.99, and includes a second short Drumlins World novel, On Gossamer Wings, by Jim Strickland. (You can also get a paperback for $11.99.)

So what precisely is going on here? Is it just the latest moral panic? If so, why clowns? Why now? Or is it something entirely different?

There are some theories. One is that our secular society rejects traditional religious images of devils/demons/evil spirits, and somebody had to be the face of Demonic 2.0. Clowns were handy.

Another: Clowns may scare small children because they violate the template of what a human being should look like. We’re hardwired by evolutionary selection to recognize faces (which is why it’s so common to see Jesus’ face in a scorched tortilla, or generic faces in smoke marks on a wall, etc.) and as a consequence we’re repelled by facial deformities. Clown makeup is calculated facial deformity.

Yet another: We’re watching the emergence of an archetype in the collective unconscious. Evil clowns are not a brand-new thing. Pennywise, Stephen King’s evil-incarnate clown from the fifth dimension, got a whole lot of play in the midlate 80s, and started the nasty clown idea on its way to cultural trope. He may in turn have been drawing on “phantom clown” sightings, popularized by Loren Coleman, who wrote several book-length compendia of “unsolved mysteries” and other weirdnesses in the early 1980s. Coleman lent support to the notion that clowns are the new demons, though the whole business (like much else in his books, entertaining though it might be) sounds like a tall tale. He’s on Twitter, and has been covering the clown thing in recent days on his blog. (Coleman figures into this in another, more serious way that I’ll come back to.)

But first, I have a theory of my own: The nature of humor is changing. What most people think of as “clowning” is physical comedy, which goes back to the dawn of time. A lot of physical comedy down through history was hurtful. In our own time, the Three Stooges were considered hilarious, and most of their act was slapping or poking each other in the eyes. Much humor involves pain. “Punch & Judy” goes back to the 17th Century, and a big part of it is Punch slugging people with a club. Tormenting animals (often to death) as entertainment was common in past centuries. A lot of people saw it as funny.

Why? Humor appears to be a coping response to pain and suffering, confusion and disorder. (“Twenty years from now, we’ll all laugh about this.”) At least in the West, we’ve gone to great lengths to minimize pain, suffering, and disorder. At the same time, we’ve achieved near-universal literacy. In consequence, a great deal of humor is now verbal rather than physical, and much of it stems from incongruity and confusion rather than pain.

So the image of guys in exaggerated costumes and facial makeup tearing around being random, honking horns, falling on their faces, and sometimes engaging in sham mayhem among themselves is just not as funny as it used to be. It’s a short tumble from “not funny” to “nasty,” and that’s I think what lies at the core of the fall of clowns from grace.

Now, there’s something else. Loren Coleman published a book in 2004 called The Copycat Effect. It’s not about clowns or Bigfoot or urban legends, but about the media’s ability to take a concept, twist it toward nastiness for maximum effect (“If it bleeds, it leads”) and then be surprised when reports of violence or other crime take on a life of their own, sometimes spawning violence or criminal activity of a similar nature.

I have a hunch that this sort of feedback loop is behind Kreepy Klown Kraziness. The concept has gone pedal-to-the-floor viral, to the point where Penn State students went out on a frenzied nocturnal clown hunt that only lacked torches and pitchforks to be considered a lynch mob. Social networking barely existed when Coleman’s book appeared in 2004. Today, Facebook and Twitter turn the dial up to 11.

Between the transformation of clowns into unfunny secular demons like Pennywise and the amplifying effect of clickbait sites and social media, we find ourselves with a genuine case of national hysteria. It may take some time to burn out, but if #ClownLivesMatter becomes a real thing, the phenomenon may be gone sooner than we think.

In the meantime, leave your rubber nose in a drawer until the heat dies down.