Amorphous Intelligence

The Wand in the Stone: Harry Potter and the Social-Equality Allegory

Posted in Cinema, Current Events, Humanism, Humor, Literature, Logic by amorphousintelligence on November 15, 2010

Recently [Author’s note: that adjective was more accurate last year when I originally wrote this—AI], I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the seven-volume epic by J.K. Rowling.

I realize I’m quite possibly the second-to-last person living to do so (which is why I don’t feel too inclined to point out this review does contain spoilers, but only for that one dude, who probably can’t read anyway). But at least I finished it. And before the corresponding movie (which was wisely done in two parts). Now that I’ve read all seven, my thoughts:

It started off weak.

By the time I clued in to the enormous popularity of the books, the first movie was already released and the fourth volume was in print. Following the herd, I saw the cinematic adaptation…and enjoyed. Not necessarily in my top 50…but enjoyed.

Naturally, it was about that time I felt if I was going to amount to anything at all in this fast-paced, cold, unforgiving world, I had to read the Harry Potter books—or otherwise with certainty be left in the cut-throat, fantasy-world dust trampled mercilessly underfoot.

So I read the first one…first. It was kind of a letdown. I’m not saying it was bad. Just with all the built-up hysteria, it ended up seeming like a pretty straight forward, simple narrative for the youngsters; not the complex, brutal, and—so far—untouchable Lord of the Rings’ reincarnate I was envisaging. True, it had smatterings of clever wordplay (“Diagon Alley”/“diagonally”). But in the immortally pithy words of music-critic Simon Cowell, I was like, “So what.”

To be fair, I reminded myself there were more stories yet to come. I couldn’t honestly critique until I’ve read all.

So I trudged on, usually neck and neck with the release of the corresponding theatrical interpretation. Sometimes I read a book before the motion picture; sometimes after. And each tome progressively got thicker, more complex, more mature, and, frankly, better. (The movies don’t necessarily progress that way, but such is the curse of the inflexible time-limit of the cinematic format.) By the time I was on the third or fourth volume I started to comprehend the public’s hype. From there on, the books’ waxed pleasurably, and I was hooked.

My mind started to grasp minor metaphors: Harry Potter as an archetype of the young King Arthur; and the mighty wizard Albus Dumbledore? An archetype of the great wizard Merlin (the wise, powerful, white-bearded old-man being a typical archetype of many a story, including, but not limited to, Gandalf, Santa Claus, or the ubiquities God). I read somewhere or other (probably in Wikipedia) the understatement that Rowling is fond of T.H. White’s children’s tetralogy The Once and Future King (whose first book published in 1938 is the familiar The Sword in the Stone, which was more like the sword in the anvil on the stone, and is, obviously, the same upon which Walt Disney based his classic 1963 animated film).

White is by no means the first to write about the Arthurian legends. But he may be the most popular and influential for the past century. His influence on Rowling (not to mention Monty Python; and perhaps Bernie Taupin/Elton John; i.e. The Candle in the Wind) is apparent when comparisons are drawn—and I don’t just mean the obvious use of her initials as her penname: “T.H.,” “J.K.” Both stories largely take place in the English country; in and around an ancient castle furnished with four-poster beds, paintings that animate to life, and surrounded by deadly forests; with wizards, witches, & mythical creatures surrounding the plot (ogres, griffins, unicorns, dragons, talking trees, giants, etc.); and themes vacillating between times both ancient and modern.

The hero of White’s story, “the Wart” (a.k.a. King Arthur), like Potter, was orphaned and raised by relatives who treated him as less important than their own son, Kay (whose loose counterpart in the Potter stories could maybe be Dudley). Wart was friends with the pet owl named Archimedes; whereas Potter had a pet owl named Hedwig. Archimedes was Merlin’s pet bird; Dumbledore’s pet bird was the phoenix named Faux. Wart lived at and was educated in the Castle of the Forest Sauvage; Potter lived at and was educated in the castle Hogwarts (itself having the name “Wart” in it). Wart had the opportunity one day to morph into a fish and swam in the mote around the castle; Potter one day grew gills and webbed appendages and swam as good as a fish in the lake adjacent to the castle. Wart morphed into a peregrine Falcon one day, a thrush another, learning how to fly; by comparison Potter also learned to fly, whether by broomstick, enchanted car, hippogriff, or a dragon. Another day still, Wart spent time as a snake speaking snake talk with another fellow legless reptile; Potter spoke fluent parseltongue (snake talk) and frequently inhabited the body of Nagini, Voldemort’s personal pet serpent. On that same day, Wart spent time in “a secret chamber;” whereas Potter spent time in “the Chamber of Secrets.” And a different day altogether, Merlin used his magical powers on himself and Wart to instantly swirl them both to a different far-off place (teleportation; White calls those who do this “apparators”); Dumbledore and Potter also instantly swirled to different far-off places, whether by touching port keys, going through the flu network or, as most closely resembles White’s story, by what Rowling calls “apparition.” When Wart pulls the sword from the anvil (on the stone), it is pointed out how it chose him; by comparison, Potter’s wand, it is explained piecemeal throughout all seven books, chose Potter. The three main protagonists, close friends, and quarreling lovers of White’s stories are Arthur, Guinevere, & Lancelot; using a similar dynamic, in Rowling’s stories it’s Potter, Hermione, & Weasley. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at one point famously retrieved the near-unbreakable sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake; similarly, at one point Potter and Weasley retrieved the near-unbreakable Sword of Gryffindor from a lake. When Potter, Weasley, & Granger retrieved the horcrux that was a gold cup, it seemed reminiscent of King Arthur and his Knights in search of another gold cup, more famously known as the Holy Grail. White’s slimy character Mordred (whose name sounds morbid since it literally sounds like the word “morbid”) could easily have been inspiration to Rowling for such comparatively slimy characters as Snape (sounds like “snake”) and the Malfoys (similar to “malfeasance,” i.e. wrongdoing or evildoing; not to mention the morbid name Draco which is Latin for dragon, though some have suggested Rowling meant it to connote with the ancient Athenian ruler Draco and his cruel Draconian laws). In White’s stories, King Arthur married Guinevere who was called Ginny by her closest friends; Rowling’s stories end with Potter also marrying a Ginny, which was the nickname derived from her true first name: Ginevra.

Although fantasy is not my favorite speculative fiction, at times I enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, and The Once and Future King. But I feel more comfortable about the genre if I know the author is aware it is make-believe and doesn’t think this kind of supernatural magic exists in the real world (such as the case with the realist Phillip Pullman). And I’m even more comfortable if the author at least sort of tries to hint at that to their readers. (Although J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis knew their respective stories were make-believe, they thought of them as allegories to reality when in fact they are mostly allegories of mythologies. At least Lewis was open about the allegory; Tolkien denied his was—but, like the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Gandalf the Grey was risen from the dead as the more powerful Gandalf the White. Need I say more?)

Although on the surface the Potter stories don’t seem it, the more I read the more I was of the opinion Rowling is (like Pullman) mostly on the side of reality. One example to illustrate this is Hermione Granger, which character I suspect Rowling has written, perhaps, as a reflection of how she envisions herself when she was that age: a studious know-it-all, adept in sound logic. If we can truly infer Rowling’s view of reality through the prism of her descriptions of Granger, there is a superb example in chapter 21 of Deathly Hallows when she is reading from The Tales of Beedle the Bard out loud to Potter, Weasley, and Xenophilius Lovegood. Potter seems surprised about the book’s personification of death. Granger responds, “It’s a fairy tale, Harry!” Perhaps Rowling knowingly saved the use of that simple expression for her final Potter book to remind her devout fans to apply it themselves to her books lest they get too piously carried away in delusion. These stories are only fairy tales, not to be taken literally.

Granger goes on in that same chapter to demonstrate her reasonable grasp of logic when she asks Lovegood how the Resurrection Stone could be real. “Prove that it is not,” he curtly and matter-of-factly answered. Lovegood’s belief in the Resurrection Stone is based on the logical fallacy dubbed argumentum ad ignorantiam; that is, the argument from ignorance, or the appeal to ignorance (which can be read about more in-depth here, here, and here). This fallacy is often summed up with the phrase, “You cannot prove a negative.” What that means, is, negative (or non) existence of evidence is not evidence (or proof) of existence; or, the converse, as Carl Sagan famously said it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” These are ultimately statements of inconclusiveness—not proof either way. Statistical probabilities can be inferred, however, depending on the subject matter. For instance, the existence of life beyond earth and the solar system, though currently no direct evidence exists, many scientists consider not necessarily plausible but at least statistically probable based on the extrapolation of circumstantial evidence (i.e. we know life exists in this solar system, we know there are billions upon billions of other galaxies and stars in the seeable universe that obey the same laws of physics we do, and we now have direct evidence some of those stars have planets similar to ours in the “Goldilocks Zone”). Lovegood’s Resurrection Stone, like Russell’s Teapot (below), however, while their existence may or may not be possible, the lack of even circumstantial evidence makes them statistically improbable. With that in mind, Granger calls Lovegood out on his argumentum ad ignorantiam (though, alas, without calling it by name):

But that’s—I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn’t exist? Do you expect me to get hold of—of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!

Rowling via Granger seems to be channeling the well-known parable called Russell’s Teapot. It was explained in 1952 (five years before the first human-made object was launched into earthly orbit—Sputnik 1, 1957—nine years before the first human in outer space—Yuri Gagarin, 1961—and thirteen years before the first spacecraft flyby of Mars—Mariner 4, 1965) by scientific philosopher Bertrand Russell:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Nonsense, indeed. Or, as Granger smartly noted with Lovegood’s rationale for his belief in the Resurrection Stone, “completely ridiculous!”

If Rowling truly is a realist, then, why write stories about unreal things? Answer: I think she simply utilizes fantasy as a hook; as sugar to help the medicine go down (to borrow a phrase from another Disney movie). It’s a means of conveying a coming-of-age story; and a brilliant tactic to get the younger generation—who are used to stories being presented via the multisensory, multimedia formats of TV, movies, and video games—to simply learn to enjoy the written word; and to recognize the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white.

No doubt Rowling enjoys the notoriety and enormous wealth, too. But I suspect her primary motivation was at first the sheer joy of writing stories. With success, that may have shifted to her concern of combating declining literacy, which is a noble cause. She seems to have made a sizeable dent in that arena, too, to which I applaud her.

But it wasn’t until the sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, that I finally clued into a much deeper message—something more profound that, I suspect, Rowling has been trying to convey in these stories all along, whether consciously or not.

I realize now these stories are an allegory for real-world conflicts of social inequality and discrimination of races, ethnicities, and minorities; inhumane treatments of animals (the non-human kind); and the social injustices of, perhaps, this planet’s worst nationalistic conflict: World War II, Hitler, and the Nazi regime.

Allow me to explain:

The stories loosely divide the characters into two groups, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” or the socially fair and the socially unfair. This division is also reminiscent of the Allied Forces (good guys) and Axis Powers (bad guys) of World War II. The protagonists of the story, although not without faults, largely are fighting for equality. Whereas the antagonists of the story, though not necessarily in lockstep (or goose-step?) or even in alliance with one another, are fighting for power for specific groups of people at the exclusion of others; i.e. discrimination.

I will list three examples that I think demonstrate my points:

1) The family that raised Harry Potter, the Dursleys (being “muggles”—or non-magical—who would roughly be part of the antagonistic group), constantly make negative remarks about wizards and witches, the group our main heroes of the story—Potter, Granger, & Weasley—belong to. This sub-plot is a constant theme of tension, particularly in Potter’s life. It serves as a microcosm of the much larger macrocosm throughout this fictional world of tension between muggles and magicians (not to mention the tensions between humans, giants, centaurs, dragons, dementors, succubi, spiders, werewolves, merpeople, goblins, etc.). And it strikes me as suggestive of the real-world tensions of racism in all its various forms. Potter serves as the epitome of a minority group of one born as a magician, of which he had absolutely no choice, forced to be raised by the majority group of muggles who dislike magicians, epitomized by the Dursleys. If Potter himself was the one in power, he would love more than anything for magicians and muggles to get along in harmony and equality, but he’s forced to live with discriminatory treatment under the hands of the bigoted majority entirely because of his magical…race? ethnicity? (Rowling seems to think of magicians as a race as the stories use the phrase “the magical race.”)

2) There is the cause that the lead heroine of the story, Hermione Granger, takes up beginning with volume three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and is carried over into the proceeding books. She is of the very minority opinion—even her own best friends are not terribly supportive—that house-elves are treated not only unfairly, but inhumanely. She starts up an organization to counter this, called SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). This, to me, smacks of at least two organizations in the real world in the last couple of decades fighting for more humane treatment of animals, whose acronyms bear much similarity: The SPCA (Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and perhaps PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals…er, I mean, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

(Though I myself prefer humane treatment for animals, I’m not a fan of PETA’s tactics as lead by Ingrid Newkirk, who seems to be more interested not in equality—which alone might be pushing the matter a bit far—but placing animals in greater importance above humans, which I don’t agree with. My animal sensibilities are more in alignment with the SPCA, a division of the Humane Society. We should strive to treat animals humanely, but they are not necessarily equals. Whether in the real world Rowling is more of a PETA or SPCA supporter, I know not.)

3) This third example is the biggest source of conflict throughout the story and hits me as quite connotative of the Allied Forces versus the Axis Powers of World War II. The dark wizard Lord Voldemort, the pinnacle bad guy of the Potter stories, seems to be an allegorical character for German chancellor and dictator Adolph Hitler, largely perceived in the real world as the pinnacle bad guy of the twentieth century. Voldemort raises an army of Death Eaters whose sole mission seems to be to use whatever means possible, including murdering innocents ruthlessly, to have ultimate power over everyone else. The criteria that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has set to join his army seems to be 1) having magical powers, and 2) be a “pure blood,” meaning none of their ancestors can have been muggles (i.e. non-magical). This last criterion, being the most stringent and socially unfair, is, oddly, at odds with Voldemort personally, who, as it turns out, is a “mudblood” himself, an epithet often thrown at Hermione Granger. (While Voldemort is of mixed magical race or ethnicity—i.e. one parent being magical, the other muggle—Hermione was born with magical powers even though both of her parents are muggles. This pejorative “mudblood” is a recurring insult throughout the stories, especially as frequently invoked by the school bully Draco Malfoy, who later joins alongside his father as one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.) The power-hungry contradictions of Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters can be likened to the power-hungry contradictions of Adolf Hitler and his army of Nazis. Hitler, as it is well known, wanted a Germany and ultimately a world controlled by what he thought of as the pure “Aryan race,” a sub-race of the larger Caucasian race. He is most notorious for the systematic execution of those not of his pureblood race, particularly the attempted genocide of the Jews, a race which, apparently, Hitler himself—like Voldemort—had ancestral ties to.

A couple more thoughts that also support my points but are of much minor themes in the stories and not expressed in allegory: Clearly having Hermione Granger as the lead heroine of the story, Rowling, a woman herself, was interested in showing that the female population should be viewed as socially equal and as capable in many if not most areas to the male population. Surely this has not gone unnoticed by many girl readers. And lastly, by revealing during a Q & A that in her mind Albus Dumbledore (without question the pinnacle “good guy” of the stories and seemingly without a married partner) is a homosexual, Rowling seems to be expressing, albeit timidly, her support of antidiscrimination and social equality for those of minority sexual preference; i.e. gays, lesbians, etc.

To recap, the Harry Potter books are, on the surface, fun coming-of-age fantasy stories, perhaps most inspired by T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, understood to be works of fiction (“It’s a fairy tale, Harry!”) They progressively get more mature, complex, deeper, and better with each volume. They have inspired a whole new generation to simply love to read, and have overtly taught them the importance of hard work, courage, & sacrifice, getting a good education with critical thinking skills, to learn to think independently yet interdependently, and to recognize that dealing with problems is not always clear-cut or black-and-white. (And the discussion of God and religion, unlike White’s stories, are seemingly absent from Rowling’s pages. Without quite crossing the line into the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy, it is reasonable at least to ask if this silence is a timid, covert commentary by Rowling? While a professed Christian herself, does she regard those beliefs as personal and to be kept discreet? Perhaps fundamentally unnecessary for the good society at large?) But in conjunction with that, the real genius of these tales is they serve as allegories of the current real world which has been and continues to struggle for social equality, antidiscrimination, and justice for all.

As a secular-humanist, that’s a cause I can stand behind. And I bow down to Rowling for having subtly and covertly influenced (perhaps) a whole younger generation to think this way—even if they are not fully aware of it yet, and while simultaneously being under the radar of those who are opposed to such social fairness.

Such is the advantage of metaphor and allegory. (There are disadvantages, too, like misinterpretation. But that’s a different story altogether.)

Into the Rectum and through the Bowels of the Universe with Stephen Hawking

Posted in Current Events, Humor, Science, Technology, Television, Timeless Issues by amorphousintelligence on June 18, 2010

Just finished Into the Rectum and through the Bowels of the Universe with Stephen Hawking, my more-titillating and slightly-longer made-up title of what is really called Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. Which is a new 2010 cosmology series on Discovery Channel (and not to be confused with Hawking’s also-good but slightly outdated 1997 PBS six-part series Stephen Hawking’s Universe, nor to be confused with the so-so Jon Krakauer book and utterly pointless film adaptation Into the Wild).

It appears, as far as I can discern at this point, to be in three parts: 1. “Aliens” (1 hour), 2. “Time Travel” (1 hour), and 3. “The Story of Everything” (2 hours). It seems to me the order should have been the other way around, but I was not consulted.

Regardless, for those intrigued by the big questions of the universe, where it came from, where it’s going, our place in it, what science currently has to say about such things, and if you have four hours to spare, I highly recommend watching. (Unfortunately, science is unable to answer the “why” question as of now, but many—yes, there are many other highly intelligent scientists alive today who are equal to Hawking in brain-power, believe it or not, they just aren’t as high profile because they don’t have badass synthesized voices—who are working hard at cracking that tough nut, and some exciting breakthroughs seem to be just on the cusp.) It’s well grounded while also being imaginative. With computer-generated imagery of rational extrapolations of possibilities of alien life (highly likely, both primitive and intelligent, though we haven’t found either, yet, sorry V fans), time travel (highly unlikely, or at least possible but traveling back in time does not seem to bode well for the living, sorry Back to the Future fans), and what the future may hold (both good and bad in the short to long term, depending, and definitely bad in the 30-billion-years-away really long term, sorry Jehovah’s Witnesses fans).

I’ve been following Hawking like a hawk since A Brief History of Time in 1988. (I realize this is ambiguous and could just as well mean: 1. I’ve been following Hawking’s work since 1988; 2. I’ve been stalking Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair-bound corporeal body since 1988; or 3. I’ve been following Hawking’s work since I read A Brief History of Time sometime after 1988—maybe 2000ish—which was published in 1988. You choose.) Science has learned much since then (1988? 2000ish? When I allegedly began stalking? Again, you choose)—and will continue to learn much more henceforth. Hawking stays on top of these latest developments and weaves it all together in a sensible framework of empirical realism mingled with childlike dreaming. This documentary also seems to be the pinnacle of his efforts over the past few decades to make these grand, sweeping, complex questions-and-answers easier to understand for as many people as possible. (I say “pinnacle” as I’m unsure he has much longer to live. We’ll see.) He uses the hooks of aliens and time travel to draw us in. Then he sustains that attention by using simple, every-day language, up-to-date analogies, and new cinematic techniques to engross us all visually and stimulate us intellectually.

But if you don’t give a damn about being engrossed or stimulated by a man with no self control over his bodily functions due to an incurable motor neuron disease causing him to drivel incessantly over his personal pictures of Marilyn Monroe (no joke, look it up), then never you mind, my child.

Never you mind.

Death and Taxes…and Tips?: Why Mr. Pink Got It Right

Posted in Current Events, Humor, Politics, Timeless Issues by amorphousintelligence on September 15, 2009

In 1726 in his The Political History of the Devil, Daniel Defoe penned, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.”

Benjamin Franklin’s wording, however, in his 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, is the more recognized expression: “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

In truth, there is literally nothing that can be done about the inevitable certainty of death.

Taxes, however, aren’t as solidly set in stone. They just seem to be, which explains why the humorous proverb has endured all these centuries.

Some, however (Wesley Snipes comes to mind), call into question this enduring adage by simply not paying the revenue collectors. These same upstanding citizens usually end up paying, instead, with jail time (again, Wesley Snipes pops into my head), just not in dollars and cents.

Some pay, but inwardly protest (unlike Wesley Snipes). And others pay, but outwardly protest. (Again, excluding Wesley Snipes here as there’s a conflict with the actual paying part.)

These days, some of these outward protests take the form of the extravagant “tea bagging parties” in commemoration of the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773 (which was neither a party nor did it involve Boston tea).

I’m not terribly thrilled about paying taxes, either. But I pay. Nor am I ecstatic about the prospect of a painful demise—though I look forward to a potentially painless one.

Believe it or not, however, these days there’s something just as inevitably certain as death and taxes, but sticks in my craw far more….

I’m genuinely, wholeheartedly appalled—nay, disgusted—at our commonly accepted culture, the unyielding social pressures, and the near full-throttle coercion of the restaurant industry to pay tips.

Here’s a tip for ya: Expect to get paid what your menu lists your prices for—no less, no more.

My grandfather—when he was alive, bless his soul—hated to pay tips. He got ragged on about that a lot. While there are many things I can rag on my late grandfather over, his objection to tip-ation without representation is not one of them. In fact, that is one of the few—if not perhaps the only—issues he and I really agreed on. Seriously. And who can deny that rare bond between a grandfather and his grandson? What demonic beast dares shatter that one, truly good memory a lone grandson clings to over his deceased grandfather?

Let me tell you a true story. I had a co-worker once who worked part-time for our transportation company and part-time elsewhere waiting tables. He told me he was going to go full-time waiting tables since, in his words, he made four times as much from tips than in the business of which he and I shared. He did go full-time at the other job. And I shortly thereafter visited the restaurant. By chance, he served me. And in light of his previous (and somewhat secretive) divulgence of making four times— four times!—what I did, I almost felt like asking him to pay me the tip. But I guess he already did.

Lest I sound like a monster, though, I in fact did—and do—pay the standard gratuity. (It is still 10%, right?) But when I get home afterwards, I invariably vomit and convulse for several excruciating hours. Usually each hour of writhing in agony on the floor is in direct proportion to each dollar of tip I involuntarily left. It’s almost enough to drive me to a tip teabagging party.

But my usage of “teabagging” here is that of the youngsters. Unlike those who use the tea bag as a symbol of that historical event where actual bags (or chests, technically) of minced herbs were dumped into the harbor of Boston all those centuries ago, I, on the other hand, don’t mean this kind of traditional beverage that you drink. Well, you sort of drink it. But it’s more like a hard, hairy, and sometimes sweaty, swallow. (Here’s a mildly censored live demonstration, if you need one.) Yeah, I know. The thought of it sends a piercing chill down my spine, too.

But then again, so does the thought of paying tips. The difference? The teabagging—whether the kind you drink or the kind you swallow—is, by all intents and purposes, not socially coerced.

Like Defoe and Franklin of old, I’ve come to accept the certainty of death and taxes. So I guess it boils down to the slow but inevitable loss of those social liberties that never used to be so certain.

I think if Mr. Pink and William Wallace had a baby together, they would have spawned something like me. Because when it comes to tipping, damnit, all I want is my…

…FFFRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEDUUUUMaaaaaaaagggggggghhhhh!!!

Sugar and HFCS and Obesity, Oh My!

Posted in Current Events, Logic, Rationalism, Reason, Science, Skepticism by amorphousintelligence on July 17, 2009

About 4 or 5 years ago (2004 or 2005), my dad told me (among others) that his elder brother (a chiropractor) had shown him some charts or graphs or something. These allegedly indicated that the growing trend of obesity in the United States in the past 20 or 30 years or so correlates with the growing consumption of high fructose corn syrup. (Here’s a 2004 CBS news video I just found showing charts/graphs making the same correlation, so I’m speculating this is similar to what my dad was shown.)

For a bit of context, high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) is partly a misnomer. One would think by its name alone that it is pure fructose, or nearly pure. But it is actually only about half fructose, the other half being glucose. This is nearly the same chemical blend of sucrose (regular granulated white table sugar): half fructose, half glucose. But with HFCS the molecules are not bound together as in sucrose, hence the liquid texture compared to the crystalline granular texture of sugar. But the sweetness is similar. However, HFCS, as the name suggests, is derived from corn, whereas sucrose is derived from sugarcane. Since corn is grown more abundantly in the United States than sugarcane, then several decades ago many U.S. food manufactures (helped along by tariffs) realized it is less expensive to use HFCS in the food supply. (Since sugarcane grows more abundantly in Central and South America, then sucrose is used more abundantly in that food supply.) This cost decrease alone was a compelling enough business reason to make the switch, but additionally as an added bonus HFCS keeps food moister and it blends better in drinks.

Getting back to my dad’s point, though: HFCS appears to be a big cause, if not perhaps the main or only cause, of why so many Americans are fat these days.

At the time I heard this I had very little knowledge of HFCS. Nonetheless, my gut reaction to this singularly direct cause-and-effect claim was that I wasn’t so sure I bought it. Based solely on my life experiences, I was of the general opinion people are overweight largely because they don’t exercise enough and/or eat too much, whether it be too much HFCS, or too many hamburgers, or pizza, or ice cream, or broccoli, or whatever. Even so, I put this bit of information in the back of my mind and didn’t bother to do anything with it since I didn’t take it too seriously.

But then 60 Minutes aired a segment on this very issue, I think sometime in 2007 or 2008. (I’m unable to find it on the web, so this paragraph is only as good as my memory, which is highly suspect.) I perked my ears up mildly hoping for some closure since I remembered what my chiropractic uncle had apparently convinced my father of. 60 Minutes’ conclusion? As best as I can recall, HFCS alone is not likely the culprit of the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S.

I was content with that so, once again, promptly lost sight of the issue.

Then my interests were roused while listening to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid (one of my regular podcasts I listen to) last month. He too addressed this issue and had even more insights than 60 Minutes (I think), but basically the same conclusion (I think).

This in turn led me to the issued report of the American Medical Association (AMA) that their review of the scientific literature shows that “it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose [i.e. regular white granulated table sugar].”

I later discovered that Consumer Reports published an article in October 2008, also with about the same conclusion.

Then last week I read a blog post by Yale neurologist Dr. Steven Novella (one of my regular bloggers I skim) that also addressed this issue, with again the same general conclusion. But he peaked my interests the most as I felt he summed up the science best, with the right emphasis on the right spots, in an easy-to-read post.

Although I had not specifically discussed the HFCS issue with my dad since that one occurrence, I surmised he still believed its causal connection to obesity, so decided to forward him Dr. Novella’s NeuroLogica blog post thinking he may find the simplified clear science writing interesting food-for-thought.

He responded and because of our ensuing communication, I decided to do more research, including searching more science/medical blogs, magazines, searching the government dietary guidelines, and even the PubMed database for the ultimate sources of medical truth: the highly rigorous, non-conflicts-of-interests, double-blind studies, peer-reviewed scientific/medical journals. I wrote him my personal summary of the issue, paraphrased as follows:

HFCS and sucrose (i.e. regular white granulated table sugar) are in essence the same chemical make-up and all the best scientific studies show that they don’t effect human health differently from one another which is contrary to many widespread un-scientific claims in recent years that HFCS alone is to blame for the cause of the U.S. obesity epidemic. (This claim stems from the common error of confusing correlation with causation, in logic it is the “post-hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, so it’s a perfectly understandable error.) Singling out HFCS as the main (or sole) cause to obesity is both untrue and unhelpful. However, HFCS, like sucrose, certainly can be A contributing factor to obesity by virtue of the fact that they both are highly caloric and taste very good and therefore people consume more (and thus more calories) than they metabolize/ burn. Obesity is caused by a simple equation: more calories consumed—regardless of where they come from—than burned equals more fat build up.

I had won my father over to good science.

With that issue between us resolved, though, another cropped up. In one of my dad’s e-mail responses, he wrote, “Doesn’t HFCS, just like sugar, contribute to cellular inflammation that contributes to aging?”

This presented a whole new challenge for me (which I wasn’t too thrilled about since the last one took me 4 or 5 years to intelligibly respond to). I had never heard or read anything about this. I don’t even know for certain what “cellular inflammation” means or if it really exists. So I decided to put forth several more hours of research effort to see what I could learn. Naturally, I set out again to find the scientific/medical consensus since that is the most reasonable approach for a layperson such as myself to take on such issues.

In part, here’s what I wrote back: I searched all the science/medical blogs, magazines, journals, and government dietary guidelines I could think of and found no specific reference to the words you used. But the consensus among the sources I searched was to consume sugar/HFCS, but very little (something like a few teaspoons a day). The consensus continued to say that consuming too much sugar/HFCS (I guess more than a few teaspoons a day) can lead to too many over-all calories being consumed, and thus lead to obesity, and thus lead to diabetes and potentially many other medical conditions caused by obesity, such as heart disease. (They also agree that too much sugar/HFCS can contribute to tooth decay.) So in that sense, then yes, I suppose you could say sugar/HFCS contributes to aging. But I don’t think that is the sense you were thinking of as none of my sources said anything about “cellular inflammation.” Anyhow, that’s the best I can sum up the scientific/medical consensus on this issue as I understand it.

Nonetheless, amid our ongoing conversation, I learned from my dad that he still feels there is some validity to the claim because he said Dr. Oz had written or spoken about it. (He also mentioned another doctor, a dermatologist I believe he said, whose name has slipped my mind.) This connection is, of course, a well-known logical fallacy called “argument from authority.”

Dr. Mehmet C. Oz (a.k.a. “Dr. Oz”, who does have his M.D., from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and has also obtained his undergraduate degree from Harvard, and is currently a professor of cardiac surgery at Columbia University, therefore a person who commands much authority indeed) has recently become widely popular with the general public since he is featured regularly on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I honestly don’t know much about him other than what I read at Wikipedia, what Bob Carroll wrote at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and a few glimpses of what I’ve heard and read here and there. Before I read the Wikipedia and Bob Carroll criticisms leveled at him for promoting some quack medicine, I already had red flags pop up in my mind of him potentially straying from mainstream science and medicine if he is endorsed by Oprah Winfrey.

She has a reputation with the scientific/medical establishment for promoting a great deal of health and medical quackery and pseudoscience. Newsweek printed an article on this last may. And David Gorski at the Science-Based Medicine blog took it even further with a post in June. She is most infamous these days to the scientific/medical community for allowing her media outlets to be a massive soap box for Jenny McCarthy to promote the claim that childhood vaccinations lead to autism. Science and medicine has not only conclusively shown this correlation to have no causation, but also this claim to be harmful to society. In recent years since Jenny McCarthy began her ill-informed anti-vaccination/anti-science pronouncements, many diseases that vaccines were successfully wiping out are on the rise again in pockets of communities in which parents choose not to vaccinate their children due to this unsubstantiated fear. (I spoke with a co-worker recently who personally told me he declined to vaccinate his son because of this fear.) The Jenny McCarthy Body Count website is exclusively dedicated to trying to counteract this unfortunate and harmful burgeoning trend.

However, I will concede that to say HFCS and sugar do not lead to “cellular inflammation” because Dr. Oz promotes it because he is endorsed by Oprah Winfrey because she notoriously promotes quack medicine is about as un-scientific of an argument as possible. It amounts to several classic logical fallacies on my part, such as the “ad hominem,” the “straw man,” and perhaps even the “non-sequitur.” Fortunately, that argument is not my position.

My position at this point is this: the Dr. Oz/Oprah/quack-medicine connection merely raises a red flag of skepticism in my mind. I will happily accept that HFCS/sugar contributes to “cellular inflammation” (whatever that means) regardless of whether or not Dr. Oz, Oprah, Jenny McCarthy, or whoever else endorses it, so long as the science shows it is so. And if science DOES show this is so, then it has to address the next issue of whether this is bad or not, and if the cons outweigh the pros, and whether the risks are greater than the benefits. But since at this point all my research indicates that science/medicine does not show this is so, then I am basically unconcerned with the claim. Just as I’m unconcerned with a whole endless slew of other untested claims that are spewed forth non-stop on a daily basis all over the world and have been going on, it seems, for millennia.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue enjoying consuming HFCS and sucrose in my regular daily diet. But I will try, as always, to do so in moderation (while brushing & flossing my teeth after), since that is the best scientific/medical consensus I can determine as of now.

Angels & Demons—Facts & Fictions: Kind of a Book and Even Less of a Movie Review

Posted in Cinema, Current Events, Literature, Logic, Rationalism, Reason, Science by amorphousintelligence on May 17, 2009

Synopsis:

Don’t waste your time with the book Angels & Demons. See the movie instead.

Argument:

BEAR IN MIND: SPOILERS AHEAD!

In 2003 or 2004 I remember walking into Barnes & Noble. Out front on display I saw a book that caught my eye: The Da Vinci Code.

Curious, I thought. Da Vinci? As inLeonardo da Vinci? The great Renaissance artist, sculptor, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, and inventor? And now he’s associated with some…code? I picked it up. Thumbed through it. Fiction. With a cunning marketing name. Not so curious anymore.

Shortly after, however, I heard more—in conversation, on public radio, seemingly everywhere. All positive. Next thing I knew, little Opie Cunningham’s turning it into a feature-length movie starring Forrest Gump. Well damn, I thought, I’d better read it…lest I be left out 

So I did. And enjoyed it. ‘Twas suspenseful.

 

But the next question was how much of it was based on reality. Yes, the copyright page says, “All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” But Dan Brown, the author, placed a page in the front of the book headlined as “FACT.” Among those listed: the European secret society the Priory of Sion, with Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci listed among its more illustrious members. He ends this with, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

 

Okay, so the characters are fictitious, but what about everything else? Are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections Brown makes in his story between the so-called facts…plausible?

 

I didn’t have enough free time to personally research all these questions. So I was grateful 60 Minutes did. At least they covered the biggest question, that of the authenticity of the Priory of Sion with those renowned members. I mostly trust 60 Minutes as good journalism because they have a track record of basically asking hard questions and expecting good evidence before they draw conclusions. So their conclusion? Well, admittedly they didn’t give a hard conclusion, more of an implication. Which was? The evidence for the existence of the Priory of Sion is not compelling.

 

I was satisfied with that. (I’m simplifying, of course, as I did a little independent research which verified this.) I felt a bit betrayed by Dan Brown and his publisher for misleading people with their “facts” since for something to be designated as such it should have extremely compelling evidence. But my betrayal was not deep as there are far greater slights in this world. I mostly see the book as what it really is: a work of fiction. And as such, it is a compelling, suspenseful read (which didn’t translate well to the big screen, says I, and the lion’s share of movie critics).

 

With all this in mind, it turns out Dan Brown wrote another novel with the same protagonist, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (a.k.a. Tom Hanks), called Angels & Demons. He actually wrote (or published) it in 2000—three years before The Da Vinci Code. (As such, it is technically not a “prequel” even though Brown seems to think so according to his 2006-edition “Dear Reader” page.) But now, nine years later, since it, too, is being made into a feature-length movie, again with the power duo of Howard and Hanks, it is growing in enormous popularity.

 

My dad read it before I did and told me that, in comparison to The Da Vinci code, it was “just as good,” but added it’s “more violent.” Excellent, I thought. So I finally read it this past month wanting to beat the movie. (I partly anticipated the same lackluster translation to the silver screen, but having now seen it, this is not the case, in my humble opinion, regardless of what the film critics are so-far saying. More on that later.)

 

Here’s my assessment on the literary quality:

 

Frankly, I think this is the kind of book that would largely be ignored if not for the hype surrounding a high-profile movie and a more popular book by the same author, which is exactly the scenario that has played out before our very eyes. I felt like I was reading the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. True, it is more violent, and true, it largely takes place in Rome rather than Paris, but the characters, the plot, the twists and turns, the surprises, the red herrings, and the all-around feel is rather similar. As such, the twists and turns were not so twisty and turny for me. The surprises were not much of a surprise. And the red herrings were not so red (or whatever red herrings are supposed to be.) What’s worse, the narration and dialogue at times were rather lame. Was it a total lousy read? Not totally. It was subtly different enough to be a tad suspenseful. I mean, it isn’t really the rough draft of The Da Vinci Code. That’s just a rhetorical analogy I used because it had that ambiance. If you have not read The Da Vinci Code, though, then that’s not likely to be an issue for you. But the cheesy dialogue and narration should be.

 

And so should the fact that some of the story’s plot are highly suspect of their believability. Particularly a scene near the end where our hero Robert Langdon jumps out of a helicopter some two or three miles above Vatican City with only a windshield tarp clenched in his hands to slow his fall. A windshield tarp! Clenched in his hands! Seriously? He lands in the Tiber River and survives virtually unscathed. True, he is knocked silly and taken to a hospital. But within hours he comes to with no broken bones or any serious physical damage and goes about saving the world (or the Vatican) as if the fall had never occurred. AS IF IT HAD NEVER OCCURRED! (Thank the Lord this nonsense scene was excluded from the movie.) When I got to that point I realized the suspension of reality was being invoked much as it would have for such absurdly, unbelievable characters as the sequels to Rocky, Rambo, and every James Bond movie ever made. But that’s strictly an entertainment issue. Lots of persons enjoy absurd unbelievability (i.e. escapism) in their entertainment. I can, too, if the story is consistently unbelievable while remaining intriguing. But when the story vacillates between believability and unbelievability I find it blatantly, internally inconsistent and thus annoying. I enjoy my fiction the most when it’s as firmly entrenched in believability as is practical, from beginning to end. But that’s a personal artistic choice.

 

Now my assessment on the fact claims:

 

Yes, Angels & Demons is a work a fiction. But once again (though actually the first time since this came out before The Da Vinci Code) Dan Brown and his publisher have added a page headlined as “FACT,” in which he talks about the international science institute CERN making antimatter that could conceivably become “the most deadly weapon ever made.” And there is a proceeding page titled “AUTHOR’S NOTE” in which Brown claims that, “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today. The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.”

 

Regardless of the personal artistic choice of wanting believability or unbelievability of the characters, their dialogue, and their actions in this story, the next big questions that arise in my mind (and I suspect arise in many readers’ minds) are: are these “facts” really facts? And if so, are the fuzzy connections the author makes in this story between these facts …plausible?

 

After all, his story does take place in real-life locations: Harvard in Massachusetts, CERN on the Franco-Swiss border, and Vatican City and Rome in Italy. He does not list those locales as facts. Why should he? Most persons already recognize them as such. So when Brown goes on to describe these places in finer detail and what goes on inside, the demarcation line of what is real and what is not is blurred. I suspect this was deliberate. It fuels more interest in the story. It reminds me of how the producers of The Blair Witch Project marketed the movie in such a way as to guide the general unsuspecting public into thinking this fictional movie was, just maybe, possibly, a documentary under the guise of fiction. When people hear phenomenal stories and are led to believe they are, just maybe, possibly, real, it sparks enormous interest, and hence generates great financial profits.

 

So what is real and what is not? The movie, fortunately, really tightened up the story and cut out a lot of the crap that is in the book. But the movie, alas, still had to leave in the two biggest gripes I have with the book’s fact claims. I don’t blame the movie makers for keeping these, though. If they’d cut those out as well then it would not have been Angels & Demons but a totally different story altogether. So while there are dozens of gripes I have with the book, to keep this brief, I’ll focus mostly on the main two that remained in the film.

 

First, the issue of CERN, antimatter, and potentially the “most deadly weapon ever made.”

 

The quick answer is: Yes, CERN (or the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a.k.a. the European Center for Nuclear Research) is a real science facility with a real particle accelerator (the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, even though it is not yet fully operational), and yes, CERN has created antimatter (as well as has other science research institutes such as Fermilab in Chicago). But no, there is no bomb or even the reasonable potential for one. The production of antimatter is so slow it would take an estimated several billion—billion, with a ‘b’—years to create enough to have the energy of a typical hydrogen bomb, of which several thousand already exist. Considering the Universe itself has been around for about 13 to 14 billion years then we’re quite safe from antimatter bombs for now. To put it in another perspective, if CERN or Fermilab could somehow assemble all the antimatter ever created (which they can’t) and annihilate it with matter, it would be just enough energy to power one incandescent light bulb for a handful of minutes. Turns out CERN was kind enough to dedicate a page on their website to illuminate on these very issues brought up by the novel.

 

Second, the issue of this claim that “The brotherhood of the Illuminati is also factual.” Well, this is a very general statement commingled with some very specific details in the actual story. Where is the line of reality and fiction drawn? Technically, Brown is correct that the Illuminati is factual. But his specific description of them in the story and who some of the illustrious members are (Galileo Galilei, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini) does not seem to be rooted in fact. What’s more, Brown fails to clarify that there are multiple organizations who call themselves “Illuminati,” most of which are not associated with one other.

 

Without going into detail so I can sum things up, I will quickly add some bullet points of other gripes I have as well as potential issues I question:

 

·         Brown’s claim that “References to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual.” Entirely?

·         The hermetically sealed vaults at the Vatican archives.

·         As an advocate of science, though I’m glad popular attention is being brought to CERN because of this story, I felt Brown’s narration and dialogue describing that community was in places inaccurate and sloppy. (I’m glad, though, Ron Howard actually filmed parts of the movie at CERN cleaning up some of Brown’s inaccurate descriptions of the place, as well as making the scientists and scholars seem more the part).

·         I was particularly agape in astonishment at Brown having scientists make the non sequitur logical fallacy by claiming the creation of antimatter proves the existence of the Christian God (or any religious “God” for that matter).

·         Brown’s description of the placebo effect is grossly exaggerated and based on urban legends.

·         His claim that the Swiss Guard uniforms were designed by Michelangelo is a common misconception as the current uniforms were designed by Jules Repond in 1914.

·         His astonishment at the Illuminati ambigrams should not be so astonishing, especially considering they are not actual Illuminati symbols but designs his typographer friend John Langdon created (and who the protagonist Robert Langdon was named for).

·         His use of the HSCT (High Speed Civil Transport) is based on a NASA conceptual aircraft that ended the year before the novel was published. The concept plane was designed for Mach 2, not Mach 15 as in the book.

 

And if I put more effort into it I’m sure I could come up with others. But I’ll leave it at that.

 

Conclusion:  

Don’t waste your time with the book. But see the movie. (Pretty much the opposite of how I feel about The Da Vinci Code.) Yes, the story is basically the same. But the movie-makers took the liberty to make some changes by basically removing some of the absurdities, re-writing more convincing dialogue, then executing it with fine acting, beautiful cinematography, and apropos music. Other than the big problems with the antimatter and the existence of the Illuminati’s Path of Illumination (and maybe a few others), the movie feels more believable. I probably wouldn’t put it in my top 50, but it was worth watching. 

ScienceDebate2008, President-elect Obama’s Weekly Radio Address, And The New Science Department Appointments

Posted in Current Events, Politics, Rationalism, Reason, Science by amorphousintelligence on December 20, 2008

 

I joined ScienceDebate2008 on-line back in early September of this year. Since then they have regularly sent me e-mails updating me with their progress in advocating to get real science back into mainstream thought and government in general, and into The White House in particular. Well, the fruits of their labor was realized even further over this past week as President-elect Obama appointed several ScienceDebate2008 supporters (and genuine scientists) to the various executive branch Science Departments. And today in President-elect Obama’s weekly radio address he gave the speech the scientific community (myself loosely included) has been waiting for for quite some time. Check it out: