Halloween Boos

As a fan of the dark side of life, I’ve always found Halloween an opportunity to reveal our hidden psyche. Not only Halloween, but all forms of celebration related to Death. These include All Hallow’s Eve, Day of the Dead, and even the wide variety of funeral and internment rites from around the world. All of them bring us face to face with the fact that our personal reality, everything we know and love, will someday become meaningless.

Our religions do their best to restore that meaning, telling us that death is a door leading to another chapter. Perhaps. That’s a discussion for another day. For today, it’s our visit with Death that reveals the most about our behavior, and not only you and me as individuals, but as a society.

Halloween has gone global, and people from all cultures have embraced the role-playing party-going festivities Halloween provides. In the US, we culture children to beg for candy. There was a time when mischief was expected, in the form of toilet paper in trees, soap on windows, and perhaps an errant egg or two. But the fun-loving Death-themed festivities have caught our imagination.

For you and me, Halloween mean different things. There’s a good chance you will use it as a chance to have fun, dressing up as something silly, scary, sexy, or a combination of these. You’ll have fun, act out in some way, preferably with friends watching, and eventually call it a night.

But what does Halloween tell us about behavior? What can the great picture of how our world deals with Dia de los Muertos reveal about our inner soul? A great deal, as we shall soon reveal.

A few decades ago, Halloween was a way to have fun by confronting Death. Blood, corpses, and ghosts were the norm, and a tinge of fear creating thrilling chills was enough to keep young children at bay, and teenagers occupied. The smallest children were kept away as the night’s events were considered too horrific. And the adult population – starting at 18 back then – found the entire episode too childish to care.

Childish? Halloween? To adults back in the 1930s and 40s, Death was real enough. There was a good chance your family knew of someone who had died in war, or of poverty, or in an accident. Our world didn’t have the same safety regulations, medicines, or even the same amount of world peace we enjoy today. To those adults, death was already a neighbor, they didn’t need any reminders.

Skip ahead to today. Death is no longer a neighbor, but seems to be a distant cousin who will visit someday. Someday, but not for a very long time. Not only that, but we will see him coming. Hardly anyone today, relatively speaking, dies unexpectedly any more. When it does happen, we’re surprised, and lament their passing all the more.

With Death so far away, what does an adult do? Forget the Grim Reaper exists. Find another excuse to party. Include the baby, dressed up like a pumpkin. The teenager can be a vampire, and the wife and I will go to a party as superheros, animals, or whatever suits our fancy.

And that, Gentle Reader, is our revelation. We as adults, and as a society, have forgotten that Death still lives nearby. We may treat him as a distant cousin, but he always sits at our elbow. Pretending he’s not there doesn’t make him go away. And the best evidence for this is our changing attitudes towards Halloween.

Is this so bad?” you say. “So what?” you wonder. Why does it matter how we consider Death? It means little to how we live, doesn’t it?

Our attitude towards Death lies at the very root of our culture, and is exactly the center of how we live each day. Our American ancestors came from established countries to a New World, not knowing what to expect. The first frontiersmen pushed West without knowing what lay beyond. Their means were meager, their only incentives were a better life for their family, and they had Death at their heels the whole time. They weren’t afraid to take risks.

Today it’s exactly the opposite. We’ll get arrested for not using seat belts or smoking the wrong kind of leaf. we have to carry identifications almost all the time and tacitly accept surveillance of almost everything we do. Finally, and perhaps most personally, we can’t eat something unless it’s in a cold package with a valid expiration date. And we certainly can’t touch anything without continuously dousing our hands in alcohol.

Halloween was a time when we had a little fun acknowledging and confronting our true fear of Death. We’ve lost that. Death is something we ignore, using this precious day as an excuse to dress up and drink.

We have become a culture, a country, a world of frightened children. Taking risks is what building a better world is all about, and who among us does not want a better world? All those things we do to reduce fear, from seat belts to smoking, are not bad in themselves. This essay should not be seen as arguing against their use in any way. That’s not the point.

What I’m arguing for is that our society has become risk-averse. though we appear to embrace Halloween, we are in fact, more afraid of Death than ever before. That fear translates into less innovation and more resources diverted to our peace of mind. And less innovation and fewer resources for risk means that there’s less to spend on our future.

What do you think?

Happy Halloween! Boo!


An Open Letter To Sir Richard Dawkins

Dear Dick,

You are an exceptional biologist with great insights into what makes evolution work. However, you’re quite the firebrand of late. Unfortunately, it’s in areas that don’t line up with your expertise. Please, forget your Quixote-like attack of God, and stick to forging better theories integrating genes with phenotype expression. Sir Richard, no matter how hard you try, God is going to be around as long as there are humans. Sir Richard Dawkins, you can’t kill God.

This mess started when your popular acclaim inflated your ego, such that you became an expert on so many things unrelated to your expertise. How you could do this to yourself is quite a trip of the imagination. Self annointment is the worst kind. In fact, any kind of ego-annointment isn’t good scientific practice. And, since you espouse the sanctity of science, why you should stoop to any kind of statement other than those in which you are expert is quite a stretch.

Let’s not dwell on your expertise in all things, instead let us dive right into what you seem to argue most stridently about, God. Now, to my mind, God, the big G, is everywhere. I’m not only talking about the big popular successful religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism – but all other religions from every social group ever studied.

Pretty much even the remotest tribe has created a theory of their universe. They use the theory to answer a variety of questions. Where did our world come from? How did we get here? What is our place relative to all other life? Where are we going? Where do we go when we die?

Dick, whether you like it or not, the myths and legends and theories these people use to understand their world work for them. They won’t change, no matter what you think or say, no matter how many misionaries visit them. If their God, or Gods, live in rocks, wind, or some unreachable place in the sky, then there they will stay. Dick, this is proof number one. All those Gods are there to stay.

Need more God? Let’s look no further than our own backyard. Truly, your backyard, my backyard, they are probably similar. From my backyard I can hear the church bells wafting through the trees. There are many people in both our countries that hold their beliefs rather strongly.

Now, you and I live in nations where belief systems are being influenced constantly. True, those belief systems focus primarily on our sex appeal, the vehicle we drive and the liquids we drink. Our belief system is under a constant barrage of media messages trying to change our beliefs and our behavior. Granted, these beliefs are seemingly trivial in appearance to the nature of the universe, but arguably, people care more about their breath than their God.

The advantage of living amidst this media melange is that we have extremely good theories as to how beliefs are best influenced. These theories are used for breath fresheners, cars, beer, and selling books. They work. The best evidence of their validity is the billions of dollars in profits made by consumer products companies.

Distilling these theories of belief modification to their essence leaves these steps. Identify what is most important to your customer, like breath odor. Point out the shortcoming of the current situation, like bad odors driving your friends away. Offer your alternative, like “Bob’s Brilliant Breath Beads.” Finally, show the customer how much better off they will be. We should see some lonely person using Bob’s Brilliant Breath Beads, and then immediately being surrounded by beautiful people.

Let’s look at your message in our sophisticated marketing terms, crudely summarized above. First, since you are trying to knock off the big G, who exactly is your customer? Prophets and priests perhaps? Pretty tough sell, that one! Zealous parishoners? Infrequent dabblers? Hypocritical naysayers? You’re going to have to be specific, because a message sent to everybody is a message heard by none.

Secondly, what’s wrong with the current situation? Sure, you can point to the crazy anti-vaccinationists or militant martyrs in general, but what can you say to your customer as to how it affects them personally? Personally! Does it mean they’ll lose money? Prestige? Sex? Doesn’t it all boil down to power and sex, anyway?

Incidently, does your message have a catchy phrase and memorable brand name to go along with it?

Thirdly, your message may be beneficial. With better breath I bag more babes; that’s a powerful message. What does your product deliver? Can you compete against omnipresent love and omniscient advice? Dick, I’m waiting!

Sorry Dick, I’m not hearing anything from you, and I happen to agree with you! If I’m not hearing it, then your intended customer isn’t hearing it either. No message, no benefits, no change. Fail.

Let’s see. So far this means the score is God, 2, Dick, nought. Don’t care? Naughty Dick. Let me try again.

Within our species there is a sub-species that is even more primative than those scattered tribes mentioned in the first argument. This sub-species has unique genetic abilities that the rest of our species has lost. Can you guess who they are?

They, Sir Richard, were you, long ago. They are still with us, and God willing, they always shall. They are our children. These newborn lumps of loveable flesh continue growing and learning at rates far exceeding the most ambitious graduate student. These special humans have to go from knowing effectively zero on the synthetic knowledge scale, to our current average level of, let’s say, ten. And they have to do this within twenty years. Pretty damn good.

Now, Dick, I’m willing to grant you a synthetic knowledge rating of, oh, what the heck, let’s say you’re a sixteen. You’re a genius compared to the rest of humanity. Yet, you know you didn’t start that way.

You began as we all began, as an ugly baby. You ate, pooped, grew, and learned like the rest of us. You asked questions. Lots of questions.

There’s the rub. Eventually you asked your first questions about the universe, about your place in the world, and about death. You probably asked them very early in your life. Your teachers told you what was appropriate for you, and for them. There’s a very good chance that they explained the universe to you using, here it comes, God.

Dick, that’s my argument number three. If that doesn’t convince you that God is unkillable, nothing will. How smart is that?

My point is this; our Big Bang super-symmetric stringy law-driven universe may not contain any actual Gods, but does it matter?

No, not one wit. As long as there are backward tribes, lazy people, and children, Gods will, and must, exist. You are not only tilting at a windmill, but doing your reptuation as a scientist a disservice by venturing into thoroughly unscientific areas.

As a behavioral scientist, we know God and Science can coexist very well together. They already do, in a fashion. God offers an extremely simple explanation for why things work, and a straight forward knowledge acquisition formula; that is, “I say so.” Science, way more complex and formal. But each has its place. So, Sir Richard, please relax and let God live.

Wishing you all the best,

Washing Our Hands Of Hospital Infections

Came across this Yahoo story about how gowns and gloves aren’t convincingly keeping down infections from antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. There are a bunch of bad bugs running around out there, and for some strange reason we can’t seem to keep them away.

Washing would seem to be a good approach, and washing our hands would be the first thing we should look at. Reading the comments in the article, I see that many older nurses and doctors were trained rigorously in hand washing. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization both recommend old-fashioned hand washing using soap. There is some mention of the alcohol based rubs, but when it comes to really getting your hands clean, there is only soap.

Here’s where our study of behavior comes in. Washing hands takes a bit of work, especially if you do it correctly. You have to find a sink, run water, apply the soap, rub your hands together both in and out of the water, sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” three times, and then dry off your hands. Very exhausting. If you’re in a hurry, you will want to take shortcuts.

Worse yet, if you make the outcome of the hand wash routine unpleasant, then you increase the chances of a nurse or doctor wanting to skip the whole sterilization thing. And that’s also bad, because, well, it’s important! And that is what has happened over the years. Because of cost cutting and industrial efficiencies, we’ve seen gentle, hand friendly soaps like Physohex (find it) disappear and be replaced by industrial detergents that do more damage to skin than help.

At the same time, the management of the hospital must bow to pressures from their owners, we need profits! The best way to increase profit is by decreasing expenses; and one big expense is the time doctors and nurses spend washing their hands. Imagine, if you will, a doctor washing her hands 60 times a day. In a normal world, one minute each time means an entire hour has been ‘wasted’ by hand washing. Now, being the enterprising manager you are, what if that hour could be reduced to 10 minutes? You’ve just added 50 minutes of reduced expenses for every doctor in your hospital, per day! You’re a genius. How did you do this great thing?

You placed alcohol dispensers every few feet in the hallways, and in every room throughout your hospital. They are everywhere. And even though there isn’t a whole lot of research saying alcohol is better for halting transmission of MRSA [2] than soap and water, they are still everywhere. Why? Because they save TIME. By the way, the alcohol still damages their skin! So everyone hates using the alcohol as well.

And there you have it. Because of the need for profits and saving time, the quality of soap has gone downhill and nurses are forced to spend less time getting sterile. As a result, a few more people contract opportunistic diseases. How many? Not really sure about that. The CDC website is down because the government is currently shut down.

So, going to the hospital? Take your own good soap and make everyone WASH THEIR HANDS! Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are …

[1] http://news.yahoo.com/gloves-gowns-don-t-stop-spread-infections-hospitals-152223468.html

[2] Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one of the more popular super bugs that we are worried about in opportunistic hospital infections. There are many others. If you happen to know of solid academic peer-reviewed research showing that alcohol based rubs are equally effective at reducing rates of MRSA transmission, let me know. I haven’t been able to find a single one.

Episodic Living™

Gentle Reader, I’ve hit upon a great lifestyle pattern that owes itself to the study of behavior and attention to detail and respect for our biological heritage. I’m calling it Episodic Living™, and trademarking it!

What? How can someone purporting to promote free and open scientific discourse go about setting up intellectual barriers to knowledge by using the copyright and patent system? Easy!

Like so many of you, I am seeking a greater degree of financial power and freedom through the creation of a powerful new lifestyle. With this power, I will promote even greater scientific inquiry into behavior and further the success of all mankind! But until then, you, and I, will have to be satisfied with these tiny insights into our behavior. So, here we go!

What does this mean, Episodic Living™? Well, it has two fundamental parts to it: getting away from monotony, and, pushing yourself to gentle extremes. Take these two parts and apply them to the two most important things we do in our lives, our most fundamental behaviors. Eating and moving, also known as dieting and exercising. Diet as in what we normally eat, not what we eat only when trying to lose weight. Exercise as in how we move every day, not only what we do at the gym.

I call these two components Episodic Diet™ and Episodic Exercise™. Since more people diet than exercise, let’s discuss that first. What we normally eat is our diet. That we need to alter our diet to stay healthier or lose weight is obvious, but what is the best way? Every other diet leans towards fewer calories, but monotonously so. They may be all about meat and cheese, or juice and veggies, but monotony reigns. No so for the Episodic Diet™!

Go ahead, eat your calories. If you can reduce them, better for you! But don’t be monotonous. Three squares? Try six smalls. Or the other extreme, only one meal a day! How about this, try fasting – for a night at first, then a whole day. Maybe even two days. Your body will react in its own way, some people can handle it, some can’t. Don’t push it! If it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t right for you. And don’t rush it. Fast six hours this week, then maybe seven the next week. What’s the hurry? You have a whole lifetime to perfect the system. As always, you shouldn’t practice any major changes in your lifestyle without your doctor’s participation.

Why is mixing it up good? For our animal ancestors, food came in spurts, so they would binge when they could. They would starve until the next bounty appeared. They survived and evolved on this system, so we know we can do it. It will make you tougher, and increase your will power so that even though we, today, are swimming in an ocean of food, you can hold off until that one morsel you really need presents itself. Your stomach will shrink, your will power increase, and yes, get this, even your cells will thank you!

What’s this? you say?, How can my cells thank me? It turns out that contented cells don’t do a good job of housecleaning. Yes, every one of your trillion living cells has to clean their own house. And if they don’t have a clean house, then they can make mistakes. Mistakes lead to malfunctions, and malfunctions can make you sick!

By making your cells hungry, guess what happens? They start cleaning their own house! They eat up the bad stuff floating about their insides, much like we throw out garbage from our own houses during Spring Cleaning. Perhaps this is one reason animals and even some people on calorie restrictive diets tend to live longer and healthier. Who knows, but it’s only one good reason to start the Episodic Diet™. If you want to know more, let me know.

There’s more. One good way to maintain the Episodic Diet™ during your transition to an Episodic Lifestyle™ is to start your Episodic Exercise™ regime. No monotony here. Are you one of those people who gets on the exercise bicycle and pushes the pedals three miles in thirty minutes at a three degree grade? Do you do this three times a week? STOP! Mix it up!

Stay on your bike, but for one of those days try for three point three miles instead. If you’re successful, try for three point six. One day a week, push it! It doesn’t have to be any day, and you don’t have to do twenty miles per hour all the time, do it in little bits.

What about the other days? Mix it up, even during your thirty minutes. Bike the random hills, or do one big hill and one valley. It doesn’t matter, just have fun and break the monotony.

There you have it, a new lifestyle rediscovered from our animal past – and branded Episodic Living™. I know it works because it’s worked for me for twenty years. Your diet will be more interesting, you’ll know hunger, and you’ll still be able to feast with the family. Your exercise will get more meaningful, you’ll watch yourself get stronger, faster, and go further, without trying to kill yourself every time you step on the treadmill.

Live your life like a great story. All great stories have episodes, so isn’t it time your life did too? Episodic Living, Episodic Dieting, and Episodic Exercise all add up to an Episodic Lifestyle™. Live it today, and every day, for the rest of your life!