Category: Critical Thinking

Reality Check – A Recommendation

Reality check. That was a buzzword a few years back, and like any buzzword it quickly lost any real meaning and became just something printed on t-shirts and bumper stickers.

But in truth, everybody needs a reality check.

Everybody needs a standard against which to gauge one’s own perceptions. Without it, we would tend toward fiction, denial, or delusional thinking.

I remember hearing once a story (possibly apocryphal) about Pygmy people in Africa. They had spent multiple generations living day by day in a dense forest where you could not have a clear line of sight for more than a few yards. On some occasion, a Pygmy left (or was taken from) the forest, where he then saw elephants at a great distance. His companion tried to explain that these were the same elephants that lived in the forest, but the Pygmy did not believe it. They were too small. They must be something else.

But they are the same elephants. Reality check.


I don’t remember how I came across Greg Fallis’ blog, but Greg has become one of my reality checks. He writes things that I could not write, or am not qualified to write, or simply had not thought about from quite that perspective.

Yet he does so in such a way that it clarifies an issue for me, makes it have more sense than it did.gregfallis

I admit that Greg and I share similar politics, which helps. But he doesn’t just validate my perception. Rather, like a good college professor would, he challenges and provokes, and yet seems to get it right most of the time.

I urge you to visit Greg’s blog. It can’t hurt.

And you may also find him to be a reality check.


Random Scribbles: Another crackerjack journalist

[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]

A year ago, I discussed some of the shortcomings of modern journalism. And not much has changed in that time.

Today, I can add to the list of inept professionals who fail at the most basic skill in news reporting: asking the hard questions to get to the facts. In the spotlight is Jeanine Pirro, a “television personality” with Fox News.

While broadcasting a segment on terrorism in Western Europe, Pirro allowed her guest, an alleged “expert” on terrorism, to spout a complete falsehood about how Birmingham, England, has been entirely taken over by Muslims.

Jeanine Pirro

Jeanine Pirro doing crackerjack work on Fox News.

Pirro didn’t question his statement at all. She just looked on with an “I can’t believe it” expression on her face.

How these people get hired–and stay hired–boggles my mind.

Want to Stop Government Spending? Start With the Pentagon

Our illustrious and compassionate Speaker of the House, John Boehner–who has called unemployed people “lazy” and has fought hard to deny affordable health care coverage to millions of Americans–has been known to have a problem with wasteful government spending. He blames this spending squarely on Democrats, with comments such as this:

This is reflective of a decades-old belief by Democrats that Washington politicians know how to spend our money better than we do. Democrats won’t even let us see where they’re spending tax dollars anymore – we’re just supposed to nod and smile, and understand that they know what’s best for us. Well I don’t buy it.

Thanks John.

Unfortunately, in the three years that Boehner has been Speaker, the Republicans have tried to balance the budget by cutting social programs and benefits for those who need it–such as the disabled, the elderly, and the unemployed–and by routinely blocking anything proposed by President Obama and the Democrats. In the meantime, one government agency that accounts for $600 billion in pure government spending goes untouched and unchallenged.

The Pentagon.

The Pentagon

The Pentagon

In a recent column, CNN commentator and journalist Fareed Zakaria points out just how out of control the Defense Department is, with a budget larger than the gross domestic product of Poland and higher spending on weapons than China, Russia, and six other nations put together. Zakaria says this:

The Pentagon resembles nothing so much as some kind of gigantic socialist enterprise, run according to its own principles, shielded from market discipline and accountable to no one. How does it continue to function and perform?

Zakaria’s analogy is appropriate. The military is one of the most socialist institutions that we have in America, as I have pointed out before. Which is ironic considering that most service members consider themselves to be conservative on most issues and frequently vote Republican.

If Boehner and his party are serious about cutting wasteful government spending, the place they have to start looking is at the Pentagon. Rather than letting our national infrastructure collapse because they refuse to fund highway construction, or letting our workforce continue to be hobbled by ineffective health care policy, they should take a hard look at the wasteful spending that is going on right under their noses.

Random Scribbles: The action of curation

[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]

Curate–and its cognates “curated,” “curation,” and “curating”–has become a buzzword.

Here are some recent examples:

If you want to understand how fast curation is growing on the web, just take a look at Pinterest. (Fast Company)

The database includes 6,000 curated Wikipedia articles, thousands of Khan Academy videos, a deep database of health and wellness content, thousands of K-12 text books (most including teacher editions), world literature, and a variety of other educational content. (Forbes)

DMA opens up to consumers a library of over 400 titles from these three major studios and lets them preview upcoming releases and enjoy hours of free new and exclusive short-form content, and discover content curated to their individual preferences. (Animation Magazine)

Several artists have complained that they can’t pull their music off Pandora, a service that curates music but doesn’t offer on-demand listening for specific songs. (Washington Post)

Except that “curate” is not a word.

According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary (Second College Edition), it doesn’t exist as it is currently being used–as a verb. And the spell check in Microsoft Word flags “curation” and “curating” as misspelled.

I was surprised to learn this. Having read the word so often in the media, I had assumed that it passed muster.

However, curate–when used as a verb–appears to be a back-formation* from the noun curator, similar to how the word “edit” (verb) was invented from the word “editor” (noun).

Language evolves constantly, I realize, so I should get off my high horse. But I guess I didn’t expect it to evolve not only within my lifetime, but just since I graduated from college. The addition of the word “selfie” to Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary recently created a bit of a brouhaha (itself a word adopted from the French as a corruption of a saying in Hebrew). But when the dust settled, it does make sense.

I’m thinking that “curate” will be coming soon to a lexicon near you.

*Back-formations are when an existing word is mistakenly understood to be a variation on a nonexistent word.

The Involuntary, But Inappropriate, Giggle

Photo: Australian War Memorial Collection

Photo: Australian War Memorial Collection

Thirteen years ago, my wife suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. It was a horrible time for us, which I’ve described elsewhere. She was pregnant with our second child, and the doctors weren’t sure right away what the problem was.

After she was initially hospitalized, I had to contact her dentist to cancel an appointment that she clearly would be unable to make. So I called, saying that I had to cancel my wife’s appointment because she’d had an aneurysm. And the woman on the phone whom I was speaking to…laughed. It wasn’t an outright guffaw, just a short spurt. “Ha-ha…really?” she said. “Yes, really,” I said.

She did it. I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too. The involuntary, but inappropriate, giggle.

I was upset for a long time about that phone call. But I’ve come to realize that it probably was an uncontrolled reaction, and that there was no intentional malice. So I’ve let it go.

Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder. Why is it that sometimes we produce socially inappropriate laughter? I decided to find out.

Robert Provine, in his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (2000), discusses the results of 10 years of research into when, how, and why people laugh. The professor of neuroscience and behavior found several key features of laughter that shed some light on my question.

  1. Laughter is undeniably a social activity. Provine’s study found that people almost always laugh in social situations and almost never when alone. In fact, people laughed about 30 times more often when with friends than when doing routine tasks by themselves. “The sociality of laughing was striking,” he writes. He also says that laughter serves the purpose of creating bonds with other people, solidifying friendships, and making acquaintances. “Laughter is about relationships,” he states.
  2. Laughter is an “unconscious response to social and linguistic cues.” In fact, we have little control over our laughing. We cannot create a genuine laugh on command–it usually sounds phony–and we often burst out laughing when we have no intention to. We can stifle a laugh, but it’s not always easy.
  3. Laughter is frequently used to punctuate speech. During informal conversation between friends, both the speaker and the listeners will laugh. Surprisingly, they almost always laugh at the right time, and listeners usually wait for the speaker to complete a phrase before laughing (consider how you feel when someone is laughing while you’re trying to say something). Laughter can punctuate both a statement and a question, and doesn’t necessarily follow a phrase that is obviously funny, Provine found. It’s more about the rhythm and timing of social conversation.
  4. Laughter is related to crying in that they are both innate emotional responses. Laughter and crying “are neurologically linked and share … features” such as heaving, rhythmic vocalizations, Provine writes. I’ve heard people being asked whether they are laughing or crying because the two expressions can be so similar.
  5. Women, both as speakers and listeners, laugh more than men in social conversation. Provine’s study found that female speakers laugh more than 80 percent of the time, and female listeners from 50 to 70 percent of the time. “Females are the leading laughers,” Provine says. Provine theorizes that there is a genetic neurological basis to laughter, over which we have little or no conscious control.quote

Once, I was having lunch with a friend. We’d covered all the chit chat, and the meal was almost over, when she sort of blurted out “I think my husband’s an alcoholic.”

And I let out a snorting kind of laugh.

I wasn’t really sure what she’d just said, but I’d already chuckled, and was beginning to realize that that was the wrong reaction, as her words sunk in. I felt awful. I tried to cover it with more humor, but it felt inadequate. Later, I apologized by e-mail. She said not to worry about it.

Based on Provine’s insights, here is what I think happened: We were in a social setting, only the two of us in conversation. It had been mostly lighthearted topics about work or kids up to that point. Something about our conversational rhythm cued me that her statement was going to be more of the same. Unconsciously, I punctuated her statement with a laugh, but I chose the wrong emotion.

As for the phone call to the dentist, I think she was just ready to respond to an everyday complaint, and simply let loose the laugh. It usually works. Except when it doesn’t.

We can’t be too hard on ourselves, though. Provine points out that only people can laugh. It’s part of being human.