Excursion to Perversions – I

This blog-journey was inspired by and liberally borrowed from a classic book and well-known 19th century American writer you may recognize. I’ve added my modernized twists.

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The Programme and Bombastic Hubbub

The travel itinerary had been released months earlier. The 163-day voyage would make port in The Azores, Britain’s Gibraltar, Marseilles, Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Odessa, Smyrna, Beirut, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Tangiers, Bermuda, and home to New York harbor. Only a few select passengers would be chosen for this fashionably grand journey across the Atlantic. It was to be a who’s who list of celebrities to far away places that most could only dream. Quickly the trip was the talk of the country as much as the names to be offered tickets of passage.

“It was a novelty in the way of excursions—its like had not been thought of before, and it compelled that interest which attractive novelties always command. It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale. The participants in it, instead of freighting an ungainly steam ferry—boat with youth and beauty and pies and doughnuts, and paddling up some obscure creek to disembark upon a grassy lawn and wear themselves out with a long summer day’s laborious frolicking under the impression that it was fun, were to sail away in a great steamship with flags flying and cannon pealing, and take a royal holiday beyond the broad ocean in many a strange clime and in many a land renowned in history!”

Victorian picnic

So how does one finagle himself past the stringent bowelless “Committee On Applications” and onto a prestigious vessel with numerous notable travelers? Voilà! Utilize a popular Shakespearian tactic known as inflated nothingness:

“I referred to all the people of high standing I could think of in the community who would be least likely to know anything about me.”

Having miraculously been selected as one of the traveling “select,” a supplemental programme arrived in the postal box. It informs the passengers boarding, the Quaker City will be graced by the celebrated Plymouth Collection of Hymns for heavenly song. A more joyous activity can scarcely be found. There were more pragmatic items to be addressed:

“This supplementary program also instructed the excursionists to provide themselves with light musical instruments for amusement in the ship, with saddles for Syrian travel, green spectacles and umbrellas, veils for Egypt, and substantial clothing to use in rough pilgrimizing in the Holy Land. Furthermore, it was suggested that although the ship’s library would afford a fair amount of reading matter, it would still be well if each passenger would provide himself with a few guidebooks, a Bible, and some standard works of travel. A list was appended, which consisted chiefly of books relating to the Holy Land, since the Holy Land was part of the excursion and seemed to be its main feature.”

Pilgrims excursionWith such acclaimed fanfare and America’s social prominents and acolytes, surely there was more ornation to be done! A renown physician and reverend upon the passenger list perhaps? Someone from the Ben Carson and Billy Graham family lines would conflate this voyage nicely and return America To Greatness in the eyes of the world, yes?

“Reverend [Carson] was to have accompanied the expedition, but urgent duties obliged him to give up the idea. There were other passengers who could have been spared better and would have been spared more willingly. Lieutenant General [Rex Tillerson] was to have been of the party also, but the [Russian deals and collusion] compelled his presence on the plains [of Siberia]. A popular actress had entered her name on the ship’s books, but something interfered and she couldn’t go. The “Drummer Boy of the Potomac” deserted, and lo, we had never a celebrity left!”

Alas, the August proportions of wonderous pomp and circumstance and snazzy names were pruned down or rescued despite the vivacious programme to the City of Amour, the Sultans of Constantinople, the enlightened Greek culture of Smyrna, the hallowed martyrs of Jerusalem and Jericho, concluding with native Bermudians. With such effervescent destinations, nay, what chance there be for any fuss?

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Final Preparations and Bon Voyage

Curious about the goings on at the slip where the Quaker City underwent some refitting, questions about the additions and non-additions were about and murmurings of why. As departure loomed the details of the steamer, amenities, and personalities of the “select” versus the unselective rattled ears and out of mouths. It seemed the adventure had already begun and the great ship had no more cargo than it had when her builders laid the keel, let alone cast off from port. What more could possibly add to the anticipation?

“I was glad to know that we were to have a little printing press on board and issue a daily newspaper of our own. I was glad to learn that our piano, our parlor organ, and our melodeon were to be the best instruments of the kind that could be had in the market. I was proud to observe that among our excursionists were three ministers of the gospel, eight doctors, sixteen or eighteen ladies, several military and naval chieftains with sounding titles, an ample crop of “Professors” of various kinds, and a gentleman who had “COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TO EUROPE, ASIA, AND AFRICA” thundering after his name in one awful blast!”

Clearly I have found myself outclassed and outgunned. If I hadn’t so little to offer, I would reconsider my risks among such company, but the allure and majesty of a Mediterranean excursion complete with all possible luxuries, history, spirit and drink had transfixed my compass beyond reason or caution. Why was this particular organic cargo necessary? How many enemies has this gaudy, trumpish man bred?

“I fell under that titular avalanche a torn and blighted thing. I said that if that potentate must go over in our ship, why, I supposed he must—but that to my thinking, when the United States considered it necessary to send a [trum-pity] dignitary of that tonnage across the ocean, it would be in better taste, and safer, to take him apart and cart him over in sections in several ships.

Ah, if I had only known then that he was only a common mortal [posing as an orange Zeus], and that his mission had nothing more overpowering about it than the collecting of seeds and uncommon yams and extraordinary cabbages and peculiar bullfrogs for that poor, useless, innocent, mildewed old fossil the Smithsonian Institute, I would have felt so much relieved.”

Soon enough the call went out, the Quaker City was ready to receive her illustrious seafaring men and women and those higher ranked. The pier was congested with carriages, luggage, porters, and hats of every sort all scurrying to unload, load, and embark. The traveling costumes were quite the unattractive sight as the rain and drizzle fell revealing molty wigs and toupees not even a Wall Street umbrella could hide. Even the glorious Stars-n-Stripes was limp along the ship’s flag pole. Yet, the time was nearer for casting the ties off the pier, the gangways retracting…

“Finally, above the banging, and rumbling, and shouting, and hissing of steam rang the order to “cast off!”—a sudden rush to the gangways—a scampering ashore of visitors—a revolution of the wheels, and we were off—the pic-nic was begun! Two very mild cheers went up from the dripping crowd on the pier; we answered them gently from the slippery decks; the flag made an effort to wave, and failed; the “battery of guns” spake not—the ammunition was out.”

USS_Quaker_City

USS Quaker City

Apparently, while threatening the North Korean leader with never before seen fire and fury, someone forgot to first check the inventory of gunpowder and shot. It was too late. All bark and show, but no bite or brains. And if that shouldn’t clamp a bigly Chihuahua yap closed:

“We steamed [ten minutes?] down to the foot of the harbor and came to anchor. It was still raining. And not only raining, but storming. “Outside” we could see, ourselves, that there was a tremendous sea on. We must lie still, in the calm harbor, till the storm should abate. Our passengers hailed from fifteen states; only a few of them had ever been to sea before; manifestly it would not do to pit them against a full-blown tempest until they had got their sea-legs on. Toward evening the two steam tugs that had accompanied us with a rollicking champagne-party of young New Yorkers on board who wished to bid farewell to one of our number in due and ancient form departed, and we were alone on the deep. On deep five fathoms, and anchored fast to the bottom. And out in the solemn rain, at that. This was pleasuring with a vengeance.”

Pleasuring with a vengeance indeed. All the steamy, drippy expectations of a grand exit, a phenomenal finale had all the pow and distance of a little trum-pity cap-gun. So much hoopla for hasty idleness. You might imagine how utterly relieved I was to hear the ring and hail for the prayer meeting and hymns to soothe our drab, wanting souls — like intestinal gaseouness sitting on a Buloke-wood seat atop a trotting donkey — I was thrilled.

Lulled by the to-and-fro sway of the ship, and the wavering chatter of voices outside my cabin hallway…

“I soon passed tranquilly out of all consciousness of the dreary experiences of the day and damaging premonitions of the future.”

Would tomorrow hold more tantalizing surprises, more peculiar intrigue? Was more even possible and of what recipe, what flavor? Sweet or sour?

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To be continued…

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Untapped Worlds – Departure

I pick up where I left off previously in Untapped Worlds — An Intro

Superstition

A rabbit’s foot, a rosary, black-eyed peas on New Year’s day, ghosts, witches, vampires, devils and angels, are all beliefs or superstitions which thrive in human brains. Why?

As noted in the previous post, our brains work on an average 12.6 watts per “normal” day awake. The brain must work very efficiently in order to maintain a good survival-rate for the rest of our body on a mere 12.6 watts of metabolic-energy. It makes deductions, connections, and inferences, spotting patterns and drawing conclusions, and makes predictions into the immediate and near futures. It stores this information for later too, sometimes accurate, sometimes partly accurate, and sometimes completely inaccurate. It also trashes or blocks information for what it perceives as the “best survival mode,” or the worst, for the moment or later, right or wrong.

Superstitions can bend or change history. In 1976 NASA’s Viking I orbiter took around 50,000 high-resolution photos of the Martian surface never seen in such detail by human eyes. The mission to the red planet was to find evidence of possible life. One particular image seemed to clearly show a giant face with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth that measured approximately 1-mile in width. Observers immediately began seeking answers, seeking meaning to why and how the face was there. Many of the explanations were that an advanced species of aliens had built the face. If anything this NASA photo convinced much of the public that extraterrestrial life was at least probable. A vintage 19th century photo of a couple became a sensation in art galleries because it possessed an oversized “Jesus-head” superimposed on the man (see slide show). Whether the gentleman in reality had his daughter on his knee, people could not see anything else in the image accept the large head.

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The imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it actually does not exist is called pareidolia. Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani of Harvard University says this neuro-phenomena has been hardwired over several 100,000 years into our brain. We try to detect faces from birth. Hadjikhani’s studies show that newborns direct their attention toward general facial features as opposed to random shapes. Neuroscientist Joel Voss at Northwestern University explains that to make sense of an image we “assign meaning to them — usually by matching them to something stored in long-term knowledge. But sometimes things that are slightly “ambiguous” get matched up with things we can name more easily — resulting in pareidolia.” This is a product of our own expectations or desires, also called self-generated illusions. And often, once you get them embedded into your head, it is very difficult to unthink them. We have an evolutionary tendency to construct order out of perceived chaos because chaos is seen as a threat to survival. Hence, “death” has a plethora of human illusions and superstitions attached to it. Can you name a few?

Ambiguity

Believe it or not, your brain lies to you a lot. And believe it or not, falsehoods and history go hand in hand, both on a personal as well as a global level. Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, it is practically impossible to know exactly what is fact or what is fiction, or a version of it somewhere in between.

New York Daily News archive via Getty Images

New York Daily News archive via Getty Images

A well told story can make a person believe in almost anything. Case and point, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air enactment of an alien invasion of Earth broadcasted on the radio in 1938. This mass hysteria caused by the radio broadcast was later retold as “never before seen in the annals of news broadcasting!” But in reality the numbers of panicked listeners were insignificant due to another much more popular radio show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour airing at the same time. Only a tiny audience was actually listening to Welles’ Mercury Theatre. The asserted “nation’s hysteria” was sensationalized and inflated by none other than the major newspaper corporations who had been losing large amounts of advertising revenue to radio. Seizing upon the retribution opportunity provided by Welles, they launched a discrediting campaign against radio newscasts. Otherwise, the “panic-inciting” War of the Worlds broadcast would have never become an overgrown myth. The Salem Witch Trials would be another case and point to the power of well told stories of fiction (fear) versus facts.

Why do political candidates practice public speaking, body language, and appearance to their TV or campaign-tour audiences? Why do major fashion and cosmetic companies hire celebrity endorsements for advertising their products and services? Why do sporting companies like Nike or Under Armour do the same? It is called the Halo Effect and it permeates our decision-making all the time.

The halo effect is not only evident purely by appearances either. It can be shown by personalities. For example, a job applicant with an outgoing friendly personality will on average be rated by an employer as intelligent, competent, and qualified more times than one with an introverted quite personality. And even being aware of the halo effect does not guarantee your perceptions or decisions can avoid it. Diminishing its influence takes a lot of disciplined cognitive training to counter it because our own sphere of influence and personal highly subjective life experiences often dictate our decisions between real, the possible, and the unreal or impossible.

What Must We Do?

courage fulfillsThe first thing we must do is to accept the reality that our brain and its perceptions and interpretations of our self, the world in which we live, and the nature of others can be irrationally conceived. Like it or not our brains are naturally narrow-minded beginning at birth, through our childhood and adolescence, and into young adulthood. To an ever-growing extent our perceptions and conceptions are solely dependent upon many variable factors. Factors such as social, environmental, educational, political, familial, or psychological, telling the observer (us) what is being observed or being sensed. This is known as extrapolation.

The only way to reduce extrapolation, variances, or estimation, and gain more truth and precision is to test, question, and verify, sometimes repeatedly with new or modified factors. And the only way to move beyond the relative known… is to depart for the unknown. Otherwise, our brains are more susceptible to deception, superstitions, ambiguity, and flawed memory which can lead to a life not fully lived, or worse lived falsely. Besides, what are you or would you be really leaving? After these two blog-posts of how extremely limited and flawed our brains are, do you even know, with certainty, what life would be best and what life worse…honestly? Untie yourself, depart, and find out.

The next post in this series will be Untapped Worlds — Entries.
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Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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Untapped Worlds – An Intro

12.6-watts average. That is it. That is the average electric power (i.e. metabolic-energy) the human body must supply the brain for one “normal” day says Scientific American magazine. Want to know what sort of items can be powered with only 12.6-watts and for how long? To help better understand this comparison, let’s pretend we have a 12.6-watt battery to run some common household items. A basic clock-radio you might see on a bedside table in a cheap hotel will run for approximately 3-hours, if the radio volume is soft; maybe 4-hours if the radio is never used. A Nintendo Wii game-console can run on 16.8-watts for an hour. A standard 19″ CRT TV, 55-90 watts for an hour. A camping range-burner requires 800-watts for 1-hour. The average household coffee-maker requires 900-watts per hour. Getting the picture?

Perception-InterpretationThe human brain must conserve metabolic-power and run as efficiently as possible in order to function “normally” for a 14-16 hour day awake. Naturally, when asleep the brain is using much less metabolic-power, but still consumes small amounts. Power efficiency becomes critical in abnormal circumstances; either the body has enough metabolic-energy stored or it doesn’t. When the body does not, the potential for serious or traumatic harm increases proportionately to the danger, correct? Without the necessary brain-power for higher or acute cognitive and motor reactions, the greater the bodily harm or mortality. We see this organ-power equation illustrated in the animal kingdom every day. For example, animals falling prey to predators. Those animals with a higher healthier organ-power coefficient typically escape death, or their chances of escape are higher than those hunted animals with lower or less-healthy organ-power coefficients. Roadkills are another example. Animals with a low coefficient (i.e. tiny brains with tiny metabolic power to that tiny brain) typically cannot cross a busy highway 10-times without being hit.

In different more complex scenarios, humans are no different. Place an ordinary 20-something year old person who has been raised in a peaceful, quiet, unpopulated region all their life with absolutely no training or education of weapons or warfare, into a violent war zone for a 6-8 week period, their rate of survival — excluding mental health of course — will be extremely low, if not fatal. Too drastic? Then replace the war zone conditions with modern traffic rules and complex motor vehicles, multiply all that by ten(?) depending on the site’s population, and make it a teenager or 20-22 year old driver, and no driver’s education whatsoever. What might or probably will happen after 2-6 months? Ask an auto-insurance underwriter what the statistics would be.

Here’s the point in this so far:  humans are surrounded, no… constantly bombarded, with a never-ending supply of stimuli to the eyes, nose, ears, skin, and tongue in a 24-hour period! It is impossible for our brains to receive, process, store, and use all the available daily stimuli when it runs on only 12.6 watts per day. What does the brain do to compensate…to cope? It prioritizes. For millions of years our brains have slowly learned what is critical to survive, what is needed to increase survival-rate, what is unnecessary but nice, and what is utterly useless. And it does this prioritizing FAST, real fast! It has to; 12.6 watts runs out quick, or in other words, cognitive fatigue, let alone physical exhaustion, leads to collapse. Perhaps the only exception to this metabolic law is drug use or abuse. The reliability or unreliability of drug-induced cognition, heightened or otherwise, I will leave alone or for another time. 😉

Suffice to say, our human brains are quite prone/susceptible to various degrees of ambiguity, superstition, memory-errors, and deception.

Deception

When success, advantage, surprise, control, victory, or secrecy are sought, one method of better assuring that outcome is through deception. You find it in many team sports, you find it in multimillion dollar business tactics against competitors, you find it in card games, you even find it among verbal human interactions. Deception is especially useful in combat and wartime. Perhaps one of the best examples of this was Operation Bodyguard.

Operation Bodyguard and its seven sub-operations leading up to the 1944 D-Day Normandy invasion of Nazi Fortress Europe, were highly successful operations of deception saving hundreds of thousands of American, British, Canadian, French, and other Allied lives. For several months prior to the actual invasion into Normandy, France, the Allied High Command under Dwight Eisenhower flooded the Nazi airwaves, radar surveillance with well-planned misinformation, and even inflatable tanks, artillery, and supply trucks creating a completely fictitious Army Group to deceive German reconnaissance planes. By June 6 and 7, 1944, the operations were so successful that Hitler and his élite commanders waited 7 weeks before fully responding to the Normandy invasion forces, much too late to stop it. Oh the power and usefulness of deception.

History is laden with examples of armies, sports teams, gifted magicians, and large groups of people being duped by simple tricks designed to divert and/or confuse the brain. Take for example, this clever trick play by a high school baseball team…

Magic tricks are plentiful with deception, diversion, and confusion, so many that there is no need to list the thousands or embed their videos here. But one poignant example of people or large groups being utterly fooled would be that of the Peoples Temple in 1978 at Jonestown, Guyana where over 900 men, women, and children committed mass suicide/murder following orders from their cult leader Jim Jones. Until 9/11 this had been the greatest loss of American civilian lives by a single act or day. What is important to remember is that our brains can be led to misinterpret information. Our limited senses can cause the brain to construct false perceptions of people and in the world we live.

Memory Errors

Fact:  the human brain has difficulty recalling an event in the past, and details are often distorted or incorrect. This applies to every single brain on the planet. Scientific evidence shows this fact repeatedly no matter how mundane or monumental the event, our human memory is not as good as we’d like it to be.

Our memory is not as fixed as we might perceive, but much more fluid. What does that mean? Conceptualization is the norm, errancy is prevalent… along with egocentricity I would think. 😉 This 17-minute TED video from award-winning Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist from Stanford University and UCLA, explains her ground-breaking research about the brain’s misinformation effect and its extremely imaginative capabilities for creating false memories. Dr. Loftus’ findings and talk are superb…

No matter how highly we hold our memory skills, the brain is simply not currently wired nor the metabolic wattage (12.6 watts) to be a precise 300-year DVR. Will it ever be? Ask that question in 10,000 or 100,000 maybe 1-million years. Right now the overwhelming scientific neurocognitive data suggests that our brain’s conceptualizing skills, including imaginative or experiential conjecturing, are far more dominant and gifted than fact-finding or fact-storing. Don’t despair though, we have the intelligence to improve this human condition…over a long, long period of course.

Superstition and Ambiguity

In my next post in the series Untapped Worlds — Departure, I will finish the Superstition and Ambiguity portions, establishing the/our brain’s faulty interpretations based on its limited (or very limited?) sensory feedbacks — it only learns what it is actually fed. Then move further (evolve?) to more impactful human experience. How can we upgrade our brains? How can we improve its immaturity before it’s too late?

Mmmm, we must leave port. To be well-traveled, more acutely aware, more precise, we must first depart from traditional cognition!

Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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