The Truth Cop

Today’s guest blog is by Steve Grooms

America was in the seventh year of its war with North Vietnam in the fall of 1971. That fall I was a graduate student in the University of Minnesota. I wasn’t sure what degree I was seeking or what I’d do with it, once I’d graduated. I mainly had to maintain official student status so I wouldn’t be drafted to join the war.

I had hated this war since its start. Every night I shook with fury as various national leaders went on television to lie about the “progress” of the war. Every year, more and more people died—young and old, Vietnamese and American, civilians and soldiers. Every year, the official logic for the war looked more insane.

I finally decided that my hatred of the war might provide a plan for my life. The American public was not getting the straight story about Vietnam. Maybe I could become the sort of pioneering journalist who would show all my docile countrymen how wrong the war was. Even better, perhaps I could become a columnist with a courageous voice who would write op/ed essays showing my readers how stupid they were to believe the lies the U.S. government was feeding them about the war.

And so I decided to switch my major from American studies to journalism. I had a lot to catch up on, for I had never yet taken a journalism course. Unfortunately, I had a late registration date, so all desirable courses in writing and editing were filled before I could sign up for classes. In fact, the only promising course still open was “Public Opinion and Propaganda.” At least that course would relate to my intention to use journalism to open the public’s eyes to the madness of the war.

Things didn’t go as planned. That class shocked and confused me in a way no other event in my long educational history had done.

The first shock was learning how silly I had been to think I could educate people by telling them the truth. The first section of the course showed how diligently people protect their pet beliefs from anything that challenges those beliefs. One study we read showed that people have at least eleven different strategies for denying information or views that they don’t want to hear. Eleven! Although to tell the truth, any single one of those mental tricks will usually work to keep unwelcome facts or views at a distance.

For example, if new facts threaten the values people already hold, people have no trouble ignoring the new facts. Or they might encounter information they don’t like and simply forget it. Or they might misremember things so badly that they think that the new facts actually support their preferred view of things. Or they might summarily dismiss unwelcome views because they came from a suspect source. And so it goes.

The lesson was hammered home over and over: People are going to believe whatever they choose to believe.

Before I had been in the course for a week I could see that the world needed another angry young man with a typewriter about as much as it needed more communicable diseases. I wasn’t going to win the hearts and minds of fellow Americans with all the predictable liberal cant I planned to publish. People would never thank me for telling them my version of the truth. ”Oh, so this war is actually a tragic and murderous mistake? Gee, I wish I’d heard earlier, but thanks, Steve, for finally straightening me out!”

My first response to my new sense of public opinion and propaganda was a practical one. I dropped the silly plan to become a crusading writer. My graduate school major went from “journalism” back to “damned if I know!”

And yet the most significant impact of the course on me had less to do with an occupation and more with character. My course taught me that people were amazingly wily and energetic when their pet beliefs were threatened. But I was a “people” too! I had a belief structure, too, that I was surely defending with all the techniques I’d been studying. Like everyone else on earth, I was a shyster and a con man who could lie and forget and spin and misremember things so I wouldn’t experience the discomfort of doubting my own preferred version of truth.

Since 1971 I have tried to live with the uneasy fact that much of what I believe in—including things I passionately believe in—is probably not true. Of course, one can know that without knowing which core values and facts are bogus. Now I live with a sort of Truth Policeman in my head who knows every sly trick I use to protect my preferred way of seeing things. He cuts me no slack, that dirty copper! He catches me when I resort to mental tricks to preserve my comfort zone of faith.

And yet I have come here to praise him, not bury him with a lot of whining. It is healthy to be asked—or forced to—defend one’s pet beliefs. When I sense myself wanting to believe in something, I automatically become skeptical. The more I want to believe something, the more likely I am to be lying to myself. Oy weh and ish da! This kind of self-doubt can mess up your mind.

Ultimately, I’m not sure this kind of self-awareness can make a person better at seeing the truth. It is surely more realistic to hope that wisdom and self-awareness about these issues can makes us a bit more humble about all those things we think we know about the world.

Have you ever encountered a gifted teacher, special course or singular event that shook up your personal values and caused you to re-think pet beliefs?

Worst Tagline Ever

I know this latest wave of food-borne listeria is a tragic development that has taken lives and broken hearts. The situation is made slightly more awkward by the fact that primary agent of despair in this case is the cantaloupe, one of our funniest fruits.

You can get a debate on this, but in my view The Banana is (and always will be) the funniest fruit of all due to its prankish peel. The Kumquat comes in second on the strength of its unusual sound and spelling. And The Cantaloupe is third, partly because of that unexpected “u”, but also because it is firmly in the melon family, and all melons are comical.

They just are. If I have to explain it to you, you’ll never get it anyway, so what’s the use? Let’s just say that melons make people smile.

But one of the unfolding tragedies in this tale is the fate of the single melon producer responsible for the tainted fruit. Among other things, this story has given that company the worst possible advertising tagline, printed exactly this way in the Los Angeles Times:

“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,”
said Thomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC.

What a charming little jingle this would make.  Imagine being the marketing person who has to plan a comeback for Jensen Farms once this blows over. I recommend a re-branding that doesn’t include the name Jensen or the word cantaloupe. I would go for something that speaks to our greatest hopes and aspirations. Something optimistic and uplifting. How about “Stable Economy Melon Orchards”? Maybe not. At any rate, good luck to every Jensen family involved in agriculture, anywhere in the world.

When have you said ‘I think it’s something I ate’?

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Alien Crime Family Goes Free

I am appalled. Simply appalled!

Washington based apologists for a well-known group of galactic killers have managed to get the charges dropped in a case that might be the greatest unsolved massacre in history. Involved are two high-profile families of troublemakers, both of them familiar to anyone who loves popular entertainment.

The facts:

The Culprit

65 million years ago, an enormous explosion wiped out everybody in the famously lizard-like Dinosauria family. These were nasty characters whose offenses against plants, animals and each other, but especially against scientists, have been well documented in prehistoric-themed movies, with particular honors going to Jurassic Park.

For the past few years it has been suspected that this explosion and the ensuing global calamity was the work of one or more members of the Baptistina family, a rogue cluster of asteroids once described “aimless chunks of useless metal” known for their propensity to fall violently on unsuspecting planets and their moons.

According to the oft-repeated story, friction, infighting and outright collisions within the Baptistina family led to a violent split, sending certain members of the tightly knit clan into a headlong exile outside the comfortable orbit that had marked their brutal existence for so many years.

One of the renegade Baptistinas is said to have flown so far off course in its blind rage that it crashed into the only home the Dinosaurias had ever known, causing a huge dust cloud that fouled the atmosphere and choked off sunlight for eons, and leading to the death of every Dinosauria in the place, which was a lot.

But now the asteroid-loving excuse-makers at NASA say the Baptistina break-up happened 80 million years ago, too late to allow for one 6 to 9 mile wide disgruntled ex-Baptistina to go on a Dinosauria killing rampage as soon as 65 million years ago.

“The demise of the dinosaurs remains in the cold case files,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The original calculations with visible light estimated the size and reflectivity of the Baptistina family members, leading to estimates of their age, but we now know those estimates were off.”

I have no idea what Lindley Johnson is talking about, but I think at least one of the Baptistinas had the means (they’re huge and suicidal) and the motive (dinosaurs are incredibly ugly). But did they have the time? As for sequencing, I think it’s easy to under-guess how far an annoyed asteroid can go in 15 billion years.

But apparently no one is going to prosecute any Baptistinas from here on out.

“We are working on creating an asteroid family tree of sorts,” said Joseph Masiero, the lead author of the study. “We are starting to refine our picture of how the asteroids in the main belt smashed together and mixed up.”

Yes, asteroids getting smashed together is definitely the problem. All sorts of reckless things begin to sound like a good idea when you are an asteroid who has had one too many bumps. Don’t close the book on this, NASA! They’re hiding something!

The most annoying miscarriage of justice you can recall?

Two Nordic Bachelor Farmers and Their Tractors

Today’s guest post was written by Clyde.

In my childhood the few farmers of southern Lake County shared equipment and work. Many of those farmers were characters worthy of being remembered. Two of them were Nordic Bachelor Farmers.

The Swede

Ole, his real name, I promise, lived in the valley below us up a side road of a side road of a side road in a small house. I always wanted to get into that house, to see if it was as neat and precise as were his barn and garages and to see if it had any frills. I never made it in.

1948 Massey-Harris

In our early years on our perch above the valley, before the trees got too tall, we could just see his farm. It was three miles away, but by road it was seven miles. Ole owned a threshing machine. We would trade work or oats for him to come to our farm with “the separator,” as we always called it. Ole would putt-putt along at a much slower speed than necessary in his 1940’s era red and yellow Massey-Harris tractor towing the machine to and from our farm. Ole never rushed anything. Never. Ole never got excited. Never. Ole would talk . . . but . . . seldom . . . softly . . . with lots of . . . pauses.

He was slight of frame with massive hands at the end of long dangling arms. He always wore a cap, except when he came awkwardly into our house to eat. I waited for that moment when he stood at the door wiping his feet, cap in hand, calling my mother “Missus.” Powdermilk Biscuits would not have cured his shyness, nor given color to his pale skin, which somehow never tanned or burned, nor given thrust to his receding chin.

It was his head I waited to see. He had classic male-patterned baldness, and, here is what I awaited, five large bumps on his head. I do not know why he had them. They seemed benign, and he lived into his late 70’s. But what child could not be enthralled by those bumps!

The Norwegian

Noble—yes, that was his name—was my father’s best friend. And as opposite of my father in temperament as a man could be. He had been a Lake Superior fisherman until the coming of the lamphrey. He switched to farming, with which he needed much help from my father. I liked his name, and he did have a serene Nordic unpolished nobility. But I liked his brother’s name better, Sextus, which always made me giggle. Noble was short, stout of frame, and walked with small slow careful steps. He always bent his upper body forward and furrowed his brow as if deeply worried, which he was not.

Oh, how many stories there are about his kind, gentle, and implacable nature. For instance he once brought back 50 wild yearling steers off the Montana Range, and trustingly left a gate open, letting them escape. We got back 49, one of which died.
One was found as far away as Beaver Bay.

One day when he was about 50 years old sitting drinking coffee at our house, calling my mother “missus,” he casually mentioned that he had married the week before. My parents snorted coffee. It was a women we knew—brusque, demanding, fast-moving, and intolerant of incompetence. It proved to be a lasting, loving, and happy match.

After I moved back to Two Harbors, I often saw Noble. Once I mentioned to him that my backyard had a large pile of firewood which was too punky to burn in our fireplace. He agreed with my suggestion that it would burn in the large barrel stove in his garage, fashioned for him by my father.

Fordson Model F

One Saturday he showed up with a hay wagon pulled by his 1930’s era Fordson tractor, famous for its durability and utter lack of power. Noble had three tractors, one a powerful International Harvester, but he loved to use that old putt-putt Fordson. As he backed it down into the low spot in my yard where the wood was piled, I told him that I did not think it had the power to pull out the load. He thought a moment and said, “Yup, yup, probably not,” and started to load wood. Halfway through the job we went in for coffee. He took off his hat, wiped his feet carefully, and charmed my wife, calling her “Missus.”

As you can guess, the Fordson would not pull out the load. He did not get mad; he just laughed and said, “Yup, yup, you were sure right about that.” He drove the 11 miles home and 11 miles back the next day with the IH, which pulled it out easily.

That was, sad to say, my last meaningful contact with that exemplary man. But I picture him every time I hear the term “Norwegian Bachelor Farmer.”

Who do you know from Lake Wobegon?

If a Xylophone Falls in the Forest …

A friend sent this video. I find it fascinating that people will go to such lengths to create something unique. I admit I’m impressed by the patience and craftsmanship on display here. But the question that kept coming back to me while I watched was “why?” Think of skill required and the time invested. The music has been performed more beautifully by others – this is a glorified player piano in the woods, admittedly inspired and visually delightful, but there has to be another reason.

And there is. You’ll see it at the end.

So all this careful planning and detailed effort was really about creating a trap to capture your attention. And the ultimate goal was to get you to feel an irresistible urge to own a cellphone that looks like a big wooden kidney bean. The marketing strategy was to amaze people so they would start sharing the video online, and it worked! At least I passed it along to you, and you may share it with someone else, so I guess we fell for it completely. But I’m unashamed. Really, whether the purpose is creating great art or simply moving the product, I admire the work that went into turning this wild idea into something real.

Here’s another video showing some of the behind-the-scenes activity.

Are you an idea person, or the one who brings that idea to life?
Or is it possible to be both?

Happy Hensonday!

Today is Jim Henson’s birthday, which should be a national holiday where we get out our heavy old socks, decorate them with fringe, buttons and felt, stick our hands inside and start acting out stories.

I love it that he was drawn into puppeteering as a way to get into television, discovered the possibilities in textiles as part of a college class and wound up graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree that was not in communications or theater, but home economics. I wonder if his parents ever asked “what are you going to do with THAT?”

Henson was born in Mississippi in 1936. He would have been 75 today.
Google is observing the date by giving you a chance to animate their famous logo.

Here’s a look at some of Jim Henson’s work, as if you aren’t already familiar with it. The clip does point out something amazing about Henson’s fabric creations and the comic sensibility that brings time to life – namely how lasting these creations are. Is there any question that Kermit the Frog will outlast everyone alive today?

Henson argued that the frog was a lot more interesting than the guy with the beard, but we know that’s simply not true. Still, it is quite remarkable how easily we can look past the human with his arm up the back of a character.

There is something fascinating about an assemblage of talking felt.

Your favorite Muppet?

Ready, Set, Go!

The news from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Large Hadron Collider near Geneva and the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy that they have measured particles traveling faster than the speed of light is certainly exciting, puzzling news. We’re not sure exactly what position Einstein is in right now, but he might be turned on his head. The thought that something, anything, could travel faster than light, opens up a new frontier, which somehow got me thinking about one of my favorite sing-song poets, a bard of the vast unexplored spaces, Robert W. Service.

I looked over The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGraw to get that rhythm in my head, and wondered what Service might do with the latest scientific scuttlebutt.

In the Gran Sasso, below rock and snow
that’s where scientists discern
measurements of speed as they keep a bead
on the stuff that’s launched from CERN.

The monotony generates ennui
in the physics racing game.
When the flag goes down they bestow their crown
on one candidate. The same.

It is always light that takes home the bright
shiny trophy they bestow.
Light is faster than any beast or man.
Light to win, to place, to show.

That’s the racing line set by Al Einstein,
who gauged E and MC’s burst
The result, said he, with great certainty
is that light MUST finish first.

Still the races ran with nary a fan
for each time just like the last
When results were shown, ‘twas already known
‘twas the light, by far, most fast.

Then one darkling day down along the way
came a stranger small but game
As he whizzed around it was quickly found
That Neutrino was his name

When he challenged light to a race that night
oh, the merriment was thick.
But when all was said the speed meters read
‘twas Neutrino, by a tic.

Oh, the hew and cry. The Italian sky
was vibrating with the din.
For no one could say what it meant the day
when light raced, but did not win.

In what area are you unbeatable?