Fast Forward Programming

Think about how many commercials vie for our attention. 150 years ago there were billboards and weird young kids yelling on street corners to sell papers, but if you chart the amount of advertising in the world you’ll notice an exponential upward swerve so severe it is hard to comprehend where we will be in another 150 years.

Billboards crowd our urban highways and city streets, radios run commercials as often as music, and television programming seems almost to be entirely dictated by advertisers. But an interesting thing has happened to television commercials in recent years.

The PVR, or DVR, has given the audience the ability to skip commercials. Provided one isn’t watching live TV, I see no reason anyone would consciously subject themselves to commercials when they have the opportunity to ignore them.

But I don’t like using the “Skip” function on my remote; I like to come back to a program clean after a commercial break, not accidentally skip twelve seconds into the show and then have to rewind. So I use the fast forward function and zoom through commercials until I know I’m close.

So instead of seeing the commercial narratives and hearing all that noisy advertising, I hear nothing and see a flash of images that usually culminate in some logo or slogan. I sometimes wonder what effect this has on me. After all, these images have been carefully selected by professionals to produce results, and it’s well documented that the subconscious responds to imagery even if we don’t consciously notice it. Could I be accidentally making commercials more effective by circumnavigating my conscious mind?

When I see a commercial normally, my guard is up. Nobody likes to be manipulated, and we all know this is what commercials intend to do. So generally we can watch a commercial and feel like it won’t have any coercive effect on us. Naturally we don’t have any idea what effect the commercial will have on our unconscious, but with the conscious mind mediating the commercial, we at least feel like we’re making our own decisions when we’re shopping.

When I hit fast forward I shut my conscious critic off (unless I notice something hilarious or outrageous, in which case I usually rewind to watch the full commercial, as is often the case for drug commercials). So if a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m cramming my subconscious with millions of words without tempering them by logic or common sense. Because my subconscious was exposed to a pretty, smiling girl eating a Big Mac, I might be more inclined to “spontaneously” feel like one. Plus, I might be more inclined to rationalize that behavior; if I haven’t noticed the external influence I might assume my McWhim came from “me”. (In case you were worried, I haven’t eaten a Big Mac in about fifteen years.)

Social forces like Adbusters or Mad Men have made us hip enough to recognize that advertisers specifically target our unconscious wants. Usually our only conscious want while we’re watching television is to be entertained, so commercials are meant to be entertaining to keep us on our couches. The real intended effect, where the money comes from, is often a combination of images, sounds and specific words meant to embed in our unconscious. They hope when we experience something related, we will correspond it to their specific product. So when we’re hungry we think of a specific burger chain.

Those unconscious desires are insidious because they rarely come with a list of pros and cons. Consciously I can deliberate a cost-benefit analysis and outsmart the charlatans. But the unconscious doesn’t seem to argue with itself like the conscious mind does. The unconscious mind seems to wait until the conscious mind is off guard before it goes after its desire. Otherwise our unconscious desires manipulate our conscious minds into justifying that want.

So when we think about the amount of commercials we see, and the ever-increasing skill with which they manipulate our wants, we should expect our society to consume more and more advertised products, to become more and more conflicted in its wants, and to fall more easily into the consumer lifestyle that is dictated by media images. Does this seem to be happening?

Fortunately we have reason, which gives us higher-order thinking and veto power over urges. I thank reason for the fact that I’m not buying Lunesta sleeping pills or Geico insurance. The other thing I have going for me is that I almost never buy products, outside of the ones I eat and drink while watching television…

“Lunesta is different, it keys into receptors that support sleep. When taking Lunesta, don’t drive or operate machinery until you feel fully awake. Walking, eating, driving, or engaging in other activities while asleep without remembering the next day have been reported. Abnormal behaviors may include aggressiveness, agitation, hallucinations or confusion. In depressed patients, worsening of depression, including risk of suicide may occur. Alcohol may increase these risks. Allergic reactions such as tongue or throat swelling occur rarely and may be fatal. Side effects may include unpleasant taste, headache, dizziness and morning drowsiness.”Lunesta commercial


Nice Nihilism

I recently read James Steinhoff‘s review of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by Alex Rosenberg and it got me thinking. I consider myself a form of nihilist and I’ve noticed that many people are shocked by the notion. It seems like our culture has a phobia about nihilism. So to temper those fears, Rosenberg puts forward the idea of “nice nihilism”.

I don’t see why we need an apology for nihilism. Think through history about the people who have been killed or injured in the name of Nothing. Now think of the people killed in the name of some belief. Let the believers apologize if they want. Nihilism gives me no anxiety.

I consider myself a nihilist because I make a conscious effort to hold no fixed beliefs. I can watch the sun rise six days in a row and “believe” that it will rise on the seventh. But this isn’t a fixed belief, it’s just memory and understanding. I definitely do not hold the fixed belief that the sun will rise forever. As a matter of fact, I know this is impossible.

Many people assume nihilists are automatically immoral. They have no grounds to do so. I recently read a moronic tweet asking an atheist why he doesn’t just kill and rape anyone he wants? The atheist responded, “I do.” Of course he does, and so do I, because normal people don’t kill or rape. Let’s disambiguate the term nihilist from “asshole” forever. A better synonym for “asshole” would be “fanatic believer”.

Rosenberg takes a staunch materialist view of everything, it seems. He thinks that matter and energy and strict causality created all of reality, and that absolutely everything can be answered by physical facts. I find this ridiculous on a few levels. At exactly what point in history did science gain all the answers? It is a perfectly true fact that science has never had all the answers.

In the early days of the Newtonian revolution, everyone thought his system was The System. Of course Einstein proved that he was completely wrong. Sure, Newton’s theories were a huge jump forward owing to their usefulness, but let me just reiterate, he was wrong. The idea that there is some absolute space and absolute time is pure fiction, false to the facts of the universe. To assume physics will ever have all the answers is to disregard history with a faulty intellectual hubris. Not surprising since Rosenberg believes history is meaningless.

Everything that science has illuminated, it has done so through the human nervous system. There are no cold, hard facts sitting out there in a vacuum. Everything we understand about reality happens as a result of some nervous system interacting with the universe, of which that nervous system is a part. We can talk about the material basis for thoughts and feelings, but in order to express the uniqueness of each individual, we need something more.

Every one of us lives in our own unbelievably complex semantic environment. We interact with symbols, languages and feelings all the time, and all of these experiences become uniquely related to the observer. Even contemporary material science recognizes the effect of the observer on an observed physical system. Of course life loses meaning and purpose when you only consider the material side of reality. The semantic side is full of meaning, and inextricably linked to everything we know or can know about the universe.

Somehow Mr. Rosenberg thinks he can speak for the universe by eliminating the human experience. Then again, I haven’t read his book. I’ve only read the review. Anyway, it’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

I liked the bullet point Q & A that outlines Rosenberg’s position, so I’ll just give a quick rundown with my first reactions for your reading pleasure. Naturally snappy answers to big questions are oversimplified.

Is there a God? No.

“Yes” or “No” doesn’t matter much to me without any attempt to define God.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

Physics itself says nothing. Physics is the name human beings have given to our own scientific observation of the universe. But even physicists don’t agree. There is still no fully developed model of our universe that doesn’t contain huge contradictions. Loop quantum gravity, string theory, etc., are not compatible. Even the Big Bang is just a theory, and one that no monolithic scientific community can get behind. To assume our current science is on the right track to discover everything is ridiculous. As our powers of perception continue to increase there will be always be more unknowns in the universe.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

The question is a teleological error. Teleology, the doctrine that final causes exists, is nonsense to most modern philosophers, so the question is a silly one. The answer is correct though.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

I dare Rosenberg to define the word “meaning”. If he chooses to define his words with other words, and to define those words with still more words, he will eventually come to either a circular definition or ambiguous nonsense. Meaning is a function of the semantic structure of some human experience.

The term meaning is related to the level of abstraction taken into consciousness. Rosenberg wouldn’t admit that his book is meaningless, while most people should agree that a kitchen sink has no ‘meaning’. Meaning involves a cohesive structure of symbols, interpreted through a nervous system, reason, emotion, intuition, etc. As a writer, I consciously create meaning through the manipulation of symbols. Meaning is what we make it.

Of course if he’s talking about some objective meaning for all of life, I agree there’s no master plan at work here outside of our own.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Yes. Good call.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

On this point he is actually wrong. There have been numerous studies that show results from prayer and meditation. Even if prayer only serves to focus one’s attention on certain concerns, it has had an effect. This type of answer reeks of dogmatic atheism, a fanatical belief which I have no time for.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Are you kidding? Once again, asking ambiguous questions, making no attempt to define the topics, and writing them off. Forgivable in this short-form index.

Is there free will? Not a chance!

Hmm. It’s tough to define consciousness, but among its criteria is the ability to apply different responses to stimuli. The more responses an organism can have to a given stimulus, the more conscious it is. This is a very reduced and ambiguous definition, but broadly acceptable to my mind. Strict determinism makes a lot of questionable assumptions about why different reactions would be given to the same stimuli. Chaos Theory and quantum effects might form a material basis for an answer, but that level of reality is effected by observation.

It’s very easy to feel from daily experience that the decisions we make come from thinking and not because of material, deterministic factors. To say that thoughts are only the results of electronic impulses is to completely disregard the human experience, to disregard quality over quantity.

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.

To be fair and literal, nothing ever just goes on as before.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

This may sound controversial, but I agree. I do not believe in moral absolutes, and as there is no such thing as a teleological expert, all moral systems are of equal value. Obviously going around killing people isn’t helpful to oneself or anyone else, and so is simply stupid. I do agree with his assumption that people are naturally inclined to be good and nice.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

I more or less agree here. I think personal happiness is a good goal for life, and everyone’s personal happiness is connected with mine.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

To quote the creed of Hassan-i Sabbah “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Sabbah was the founder of the Assassins…so he’s probably not a great example for “nice nihilism”.

What is love and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.


Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

History is a collection of data on the experiences and interaction of organisms similar to myself. If I can glean anything about what motivates people to act, I can apply this knowledge to my own decision-making process.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).

I have no reaction to this one.


P.S. I was reminded of a scene from The Big Lebowski that highlights the absurdity of this phobia towards nihilism. Three extortionists threaten to cut The Dude’s nuts off. Walter refers to them as Nazis but he is corrected by The Dude – they’re nihilists. Walter gets serious and says, “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos.”

Playing In Chaos

There is something thrilling about drawing cards or rolling dice. We always want to beat the odds, but chaos is a force of nature that ensures very little goes exactly as planned.

In high school I played poker constantly, hosting a weekly game and even playing at school with friends and teachers. Around the time I turned 19, a casino opened up in my hometown and I got a taste for table games such as Mini-Baccarat, Blackjack, Let It Ride Poker, etc., and for a couple years I gambled regularly and ended up with what I remember as a net win (though I didn’t keep records of my play back then so I can’t say for sure).

But I quickly realized one can’t make a living at those table games because, put simply, they are “house games”. This means the mathematical structure of the games ensure the casino will win more than it loses. Unless you can count cards at the Blackjack table, or you have enough of a bankroll to play as the bank in Baccarat, the only casino game you can win at regularly is poker. In proper poker you play against other humans, rather than playing against the rigged probabilities of the house. Of course the casino makes automatic profit on poker, but if you can make better decisions than your opponents you’re almost guaranteed a profit over the long term.

I basically eliminated house games from my repertoire and was always happy to point out to friends why they shouldn’t play them. Around this time I took the attitude that our provincial lottery is a kind of tax on the mathematically deficient. Of course everyone who plays realizes the odds of winning the lottery are basically nil. When people play they are not doing so because it’s a good mathematical proposition; either they are ignorant of the math, or they are ignoring the math.

For a long time I would automatically assume they were ignorant of the math. What I was missing is the fact that gambling is a legitimate form of entertainment. The odds-against can reasonably be justified as the cost of that entertainment. I know how exciting it is to draw out against a better hand. Even when we lose, those indeterminate moments where we’re waiting for a card to fall have our rapt attention, and for a good reason; trying to win out against the chaos of nature has been a pastime of humanity forever.

Cards, dice and boardgames are a great analogy for life. It’s a challenge to ride the waves of probability to success. Games of chance mimic the unpredictability of life. But never mind the philosophy; it’s just fun.

My rule of thumb is to play games where the decisions I make during the game alter the outcome. The lottery and bingo are out because if the game is truly random, no decision I make can increase my chances of winning. Same with Roulette; if I bet on the number 6 or “Even”, it has no affect on where the ball lands. All Roulette wagers are equal underdogs. The exception to this rule is sports-betting or proposition gambling. Here you can out-analyze your opponents, even if your wager won’t affect the game or proposition.

The more decisions I can make during a game that affect the outcome, the more opportunities I have to outplay my opponents. This is why I’ll take poker to Blackjack any day. It’s also why I’ll take Risk over Monopoly, and Axis and Allies over Risk. Naturally when there’s no money on the line, my rules don’t hold very much water. Sometimes it’s just fun to stick your hand into the chaos and take your chances.

Inside, Outside, and “The Real”

Atheism is on the rise thanks to progress in empirical sciences and reason. This movement of un-belief is popular in our social media due to the satirical efforts of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately it seems that these outspoken atheists cannot argue against the devoutly religious using reason, and so resort to a campaign of constant ridicule. Besides being generally distasteful and disrespectful, their comments have the effect of polarizing people, getting laughs from like-minded people while causing believers to dig in their heels. They generally do not promote dialogue.

When confronting this disrespect of religion it’s helpful to remember that religions maintained their power for centuries by the systematic persecution of all those who disagreed with them. This is much worse than ridicule, and entrenched power structures still pull this nonsense today. It’s only now that U.S. politicians are taking a second look at the religiously-inspired intolerance of homosexuality. (And just this weekend, BBC reported that a 60-year-old woman was tortured for alleged witchcraft in Nepal, which assault was apparently sanctioned by the local village council. Last year a different woman was burnt alive for the same reason.)

The problem seems to be that everyone is so sure of themselves. I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that mocked a Newsweek article called “Heaven Is Real”, in which a comatose neurosurgeon claims to have visited the afterlife. Bill and his panelists scoffed in their usual manner, claiming the account was unscientific and unreal. While the account was definitely unscientific, its reality is debatable.

The scientific empiricist laughs the experience off as a hallucination, as unreal because it is not verifiable in a laboratory. They say that such an article is harmful to science, and therefore to society, because it promotes belief in the supernatural. They would argue rightly that belief in the supernatural leads away from belief in empirically-testable phenomena and hence towards insanity.

Of course there is no doubt that Dr. Eben Alexander’s experience was real to him. It reordered his conception of reality and was a transformative experience with obvious subjective value. He is not wrong to write about his experience, though he is wrong to call it scientific. The whole method of science is to root out those variables that are purely subjective.

This debate brings me to one of my favorite topics: The Real. I get a lot of personal joy from the fuzzy definitions of the word “real”. Individually the definitions of the word are unbearably limiting because they fail to acknowledge the multi-ordinality of the word (to borrow a term from Alfred Korzybski). The definition of the word “real” depends entirely on its context and the structure of the argument in which it is used.

Through our entire lives experience is the primary datum. We can’t even properly speak of the universe without reference to our experience of it. Scientific advancements are valuable to us because they can make the macroscopic, microscopic, or sub-microscopic realms intelligible to our experience, just as a telescope is merely a technological extension of our sense of sight. A telescope does not measure the reality of far away places; it is the empiricist who proclaims “I see it, therefore it is real.”

“The empiricist…thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.” – G. Santayana

I am comfortable in proclaiming the reality of subjective experience. However, subjective experience has the insidious tendency to colour our perceptions of the outside world. William James says the mystic has every right to his or her visions, and that no outsider can refute this. However the corollary to this is that mystical realities are valid only to the one experiencing them and do not extend beyond the subjective realm. The connection between the inside and the outside cannot be perfect.

This is where I can get on board with Bill Maher: theism and atheism aside, when purely subjective experiences leak out into the objective world, the objective world is made insane. When religious metaphysics shape our social policies, the politicians are out of touch with the external reality they ought to be governing. It is only when subjective experiences are true to the facts of the external world that they should be used to dictate external laws. To do otherwise is a confusion of planes; what is real externally may not be real internally and vice versa.

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, which states we can never make it to our destination because we have to first travel half way there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum, is silly and insane because it disregards the external fact that we don’t travel according to logarithmic principles. I simply walk to my destination and arrive without noticing when I’m half or three-quarters of the way there. Zeno puts mathematics before experience, but mathematics is a priori and doesn’t refer to nature.

When empirical policies must be formed, empirical laws must be obeyed. When we decide our own personal code of beliefs and ethics, the subjective experiences of our life will be determinative. To regulate belief from without would also be a mistake. As for religion, if a subjective, personal connection to the divine becomes good enough for everyone, I bet these atheists won’t have much to say about it. It’s mainly belligerent evangelism they’re trying to tear down.

Pictures of Infinity

With black paint he traces a long arc across the canvas. The painting was meant to be purely abstract and intuitive, but standing back now he recognizes his life’s work. The streaks and explosions before him are collisions of matter and antimatter, streaking away to infinity. Funny, he thinks, but he doesn’t laugh.

Almost finished. Twenty-three years of study, thousands of nights wrestling math, and his life is an acknowledged waste. When he was fired he knew exactly what to do. He would paint, and he would kill himself. His life of analysis and logic was for nothing. He would leave behind illogical beauty.

He had fought bitterly about infinities in functional mathematics. You damn well can’t multiply it by q[E + (v x B)], so how his replacement pulled the wool over their eyes is a mystery.

It’s done, he decides. Door unlocked, note on table, he climbs out onto the ledge looking down thirty-one stories. No anxiety now, no pain.

Accidentally, he falls. When he forces his eyes open he realizes something is wrong; he’s falling sideways, and he’s not alone. Everything not nailed down flies sideways, rocketing over the Atlantic Ocean. His painting flies past him and disappears.

In a split second he realizes he’s falling towards Switzerland. Then it dawns on him; his young replacement has fudged the math, and the fine scientists at CERN have opened a black hole.

So it wasn’t for nothing, he thinks, and laughs all the way to the Event Horizon.


[On the one year anniversary of my blog I’m glad to be posting some fiction for a change. Most of the stuff I write floats around between me and various speculative fiction magazines and posting it on this blog might make it ineligible for publication. I submitted Pictures of Infinity to the Lascaux Flash Fiction contest (250 words max.) and since it didn’t win I’m happy to publish it here instead. I hope you got a kick out of it.]