The Symbolism of Conspiracy Theories

In his YouTube channel The Symbolic World, Jonathan Pageau has an interesting video about the symbolism of conspiracy theories:

It’s a very interesting video and very much worth watching. He talks about how conspiracy theories have a tendency to be symbolically true (at least from the vantage point of the conspiracy theorists) even though they tend to be factually wacko.

For example, consider the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Actually executing such a conspiracy in a way that would usefully fool the Russians (who were the primary audience for the moon landing) would be absurdly difficult. This Mitchell & Webb sketch isn’t terribly accurate, but it will suffice for my present purpose, and as a bonus it’s funny:

The idea that the moon landing was faked on a sound stage is ridiculous if you try to think it through, but it’s interesting what it means if you take it symbolically. Doing the moon landing on a sound stage symbolizes that going to the moon was not a real capability. Not in the literal sense that we couldn’t do it, but that we couldn’t keep it up. And, indeed, we couldn’t. Going to the moon was a cold-war flex on the Russians designed to try to win that war without resorting to nuclear weapons. If you want to know why, in 48 years, we haven’t been back to the moon, the real reason is obvious if you just look at a picture of NASA’s budget over time (moon landings took place from 1969-1972):

Going to the moon is extremely expensive. Absent dunking on the Russians, it’s really hard to justify spending a ton of money on it. Following the few years where we did it to dunk on the Russians, we in fact haven’t spent a ton of money on it. So, was the whole “We can go to the moon! We can do anything!” thing a lie? Yes. In a sense, it was.

There are an awful lot of things that we, as a society, could do if we decide to allocate a large fraction of our national resources to it. We could bell every cat to protect the song birds. We could build high speed trains connecting every city with at least ten thousand people in the country. We could give every person their own pet robot elephant, if we wanted to. However, none of these things—and many others—are worth the trouble. There is some technical sense in which we could do these things, but we can’t do them in the very practical sense that we won’t do them. We don’t want to do them. We might airily daydream that they would be nice. Especially the robot elephants. But when it comes to the actual things rather than merely a passing thought about them—we don’t want them if we’d have to actually do them in order to get them.

And so it is with going to the moon. It is possible that in another decade or two SpaceX and its competitors will have brought down the cost of massive rockets enough that someone will consider the few hundred million dollars it will probably cost worth it. If so, it will not really change things; going to the moon was supposed to usher in the space age. Instead, we’ve stayed firmly on the ground because, quite literally, there’s nothing in space and therefore no reason to go there.

In short, there were people who hoped that the moon missions meant that we’d soon be building these:

The conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked basically means that we aren’t. And that part—the practical part—is right. We’re not building a Stanford torus anytime soon.

There’s no earthly reason to.

Video Conference Call Parody

From the same people who brought us Hotel Inn, we have a video conference call in real life:

Amusingly, despite having worked from home for over 10 years, I’ve never done a video call for work. It’s funny because in theory they should be superior, but I can count on a single hand the times I’ve been on a conference call at work and wished that we had video to go with the audio.

One tip I can give about conference calls over the phone for anyone new to them is to invest in a high quality set of headphones that puts sound into both ears. It was way easier to understand people when both ears are hearing the same thing and your brain can process what it hears in the way it’s used to. The quality is important, too, because if there is no distortion on the audio, it’s much easier to tell what people are saying. This applies not just to the fundamental frequency which their vocal cords are producing, but also to the higher frequencies produces by the mouth (called “formants”) which help to distinguish sounds like “ba” “ta” and “da” or “eh” and “ee”. A high quality speakerphone (which can do full duplex) will work, too. Cheap speakerphones are almost worse than nothing, though.

The People That You’ll Meet

I recently met an oddly aggressive person on Twitter (a shock, I know, please pardon me, dear reader, for not having warned you to sit down first) and that made me think of a line from the delightful song, I’ll See Your Six.

The line I’m thinking of is

The things you will run into
the people that you meet
Walking all alone along
a New York City Street.

Twitter can be much like New York City streets. You meet the strangest people there. For much the same reason; just as in NY during the time the song is referring to crime was rampant and largely not prosecuted, there are very few repercussions for being unnecessarily aggressive with people on Twitter. I don’t mean that as a call for greater policing of Twitter, mind. Just an observation on the relationship between inducements and behavior in our fallen world.

And possibly also the observation that, like in the song, it is well to travel armed—as is appropriate to the circumstances—in such places.

Still Gonna Die

I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a really great song:

There’s a slow intro that takes about 50 seconds before it gets to the song, which is upbeat and fun. The basic theme is it doesn’t matter what you do or how healthy you get, you’re still gonna die. The whole song is fun, but I’ve got two favorite lyrics:

You can search for UFOs, up in the sky.
They might fly you to Mars, where you’re still gonna die.

The other is in reference to the idea, popular for a while, of cheating death by disease by using cryogenics to become frozen and being thawed out at a later date when the disease is finally curable, to be able to live out the rest of one’s natural life then.

You can have yourself frozen, suspended in time.
But when they do thaw you out, hehehe, you’re still gonna die.

My third favorite lyric is probably:

You can get rid of stress, get a lot of rest, get an AIDs test, enroll in Est, move out west, where it’s sunny and dry,
and you’ll live to be 100 but you’re still gonna die.

It’s not a perfect song; the ending, in particular, where the moral they draw is that you should have some fun before you say bye bye, is so much less than it could have been. Still, the song is so well constructed you don’t need them to draw better conclusions for you; that’s easy enough to do for oneself.

The Man Who Gave Up Swimming

If you’ve been around a while, you will probably have encountered some form of this man, who gave up swimming:

There are obvious religious parallels to a certain sort of atheist, but you’ll find this sort of thing in hobbies, in friend groups, even the occasional person who keeps hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend or boyfriend to boyfriend or even marriage to marriage. It’s a pretty universal phenomenon.

The Evolution To a Parody

If you missed it, back in 2012, Gotye released the brilliant song Somebody That I Used To Know:

As a side note, it’s so good I made a video about the ideas in it:

What’s important to the moment, however, is that it was covered by a band called “Walk Off The Earth,” playing in an unusual and resourceful style:

Then, finally, The Key of Awesome parodied this version of it:

I think my favorite line from the parody is “Tony is addicted to a wide array of narcotics. He says they help him write, but we’re a cover band.”

A Great Map Projection Joke

Today’s XKCD on the South America map projection is pretty funny:

The thing is, you have to read the alt text to really get the joke. It is:

The projection does a good job preserving both distance and azimuth, at the cost of really exaggerating how many South Americas there are.

(If you aren’t familiar with the debates over map projections, the fundamental problem a map has is that it’s impossible to correctly project the surface of a sphere onto a flat (uniform) 2-dimensional surface like a piece of paper. Something must be distorted in order to do it; the typical Mercator map greatly exaggerates the size of things at extreme latitudes. Other projections, such as the orange peel projection, tend to get relative sizes more correct at the expense of not being able to measure distances accurately. There are other kinds of map projection with other tradeoffs, too, each with those who strongly favor them while criticizing the rest.)

Chuck Norris Facts

I recently introduced my children to the style of humor called Chuck Norris “facts”. If you don’t know who Chuck Norris is, here’s him as a young man fighting Bruce Lee:

And here is an older Chuck Norris playing Walker, Texas Ranger:

Since he (that is, his character) eventually loses in the fight with Bruce Lee, I presume that Walker, Texas Ranger has more to do with Chuck Norris’s reputation. Be that as it may, there is a popular style of humor which is a list of facts about Chuck Norris that describes how tough and good at fighting he is. For example

A cobra once bit Chuck Norris on the leg. After five agonizing days, the cobra finally died.

Another great Chuck Norris fact is:

Chuck Norris’s periodic table only has one element on it: the element of surprise.

My boys (at the time of writing, 10 and 7) have really taken to these facts, and even tried inventing their own. The seven year old understands the element of exaggeration, but he (unsurprisingly) has difficulty with the element of setting up an expectation. So his versions tend to be things like:

Chuck Norris can punch a black hole and blow it up.

I’m not normally one for puns, but it lacks punch. Anyway, there are a lot of great Chuck Norris facts. I’m not going to reprint an entire archive of them (many of which can be found with a simple google search), but here is a selection of my favorites:

  • On a math test, Chuck Norris answered “violence” for every problem and got an A+, because Chuck Norris can solve every problem with violence.
  • Chuck Norris can speak French, in Russian.
  • Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird.
  • Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.
  • Chuck Norris can pick apples from an orange tree and make the best lemonade you’ve ever tasted.
  • Chuck Norris tells Simon what to do.
  • When the Bogeyman goes to sleep at night, he checks under his bed for Chuck Norris.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t cheat death. He wins fair and square.
  • Bigfoot claims he once saw Chuck Norris.
  • Superman owns a pair of Chuck Norris pajamas.
  • Chuck Norris once won a staring context with the sun.
  • Fear of spiders is called arachnophobia, fear of confined spaces is called claustrophobia, and fear of Chuck Norris is called common sense.

A Modern Inventor At Work

I’m fond of Joerg Sprave’s YouTube Channel, called The Slingshot Channel. He’s a former strongman who is very into slingshots, as well as pretty much any device which stores muscular energy in order to fire a projectile.

He has often made various sorts of slingshots, which he has sold, but recently he’s been getting into bows with magazines to enable rapid fire. From there, he’s recently developed a magazine-fed slingshot. This reminds me a great deal of the sort of inventions one often saw in the 1800s, except he’s developing them right now.

Here is his video where he presents his first prototype of the “instant rufus”:

It’s very interesting indeed to see someone develop a novel machine that can be made from parts one can buy at a hardware store. It’s quite a bit of creativity on display, here.

For the Math Nerds

I was just thinking about the song Finite Simple Group (Of Order 2), and if you have studied graduate level math and haven’t heard it, you really should:

If you haven’t studied graduate level math, the many, many puns will not be funny—in many cases they get the meaning at least approximately correct in both senses, which is the ideal form for a pun. There is something interesting to contemplate without watching the video, though.

It is curious how context-dependent humor can be. This can, of course, become a problem. For about a year after I left grad school, I could barely make jokes which other people would understand. In fact, I often could barely make jokes because I was constantly interrupting them with, “oh, wait, that won’t make any sense to you.”

The problem was not that I couldn’t think of things to joke about that would be of general interest, but that all of the similes and analogies which sprang to mind were esoteric. Since the essence of wit is making suddenly obvious connections which are normally hidden, it proved disastrous because I couldn’t find the things which would make the connections obvious to others.

One of the things necessary for the skill of comedy, then, is to keep familiar with the things one’s audience will be familiar with, whatever those are. As can be seen by the laughter which Kleinfour (the a cappella group in the video) got, this can be esoteric if your audience happens to be made up of people who all share that esoteric knowledge.

Just a subset of the dictum, know your audience, I suppose.

A Michaelmas Book Sale

My friend and publisher, Russell Newquist, is having a Michaelmas sale this weekend on his books since they feature a modern day paladin who fights with the sword of Saint Michael (the archangel). If you’re in the mood for Catholic action-horror (Amazon calls it “Christian fantasy”) check out:

“Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden collides with Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter
International in this supernatural thriller that goes straight to Hell!”

Also, the sequel:

“There’s a dragon in the church.”

I have to confess that these are still on my shelf waiting to be read, but I have read Russell’s short story Who’s Afraid of the Dark? (which is about a character who appears in War Demons and Vigil) and it was very good. So if you’re not busy writing murder mysteries and have time to read other people’s work, I strongly recommend checking them out.

This weekend the sale prices for War Demons are:
Ebook: $0.99
Paperback: $9.99
Hardcover: $19.99

The sale prices for Vigil are:
Ebook: $0.99
Paperback: $4.99

Bishop Barron on Giving and Receiving

In an interesting review of a book/movie called The Gold Finch, Bishop Barron talks about the subject of giving and receiving:

It’s a good video and I recommend watching it.

I’d like to add that people (not Bishop Barron) tend to view giving as if it is somehow the enemy of having, but it is, in reality, the receipt of something else. People too often take the idea that we are made in the image of God to be exclusively about how we are rational. It is, certainly, about that, but I think people too often neglect that, in the words of Saint James, God is love. Love being the willing of the good of the other for his own sake, this can also be translated that God is gift.

To be made in the image of God means not only that we can rationally understand the nature of creation, and not only that we have the intellect and will to choose good or evil, but that we partake in this divine nature of giving. In us, who are contingent creatures, we must first receive in order to give. But in giving away what we’ve been given, we are receiving the gift of taking part in the divine life of generosity.

Too often, people think of giving things away as reducing the self. As a noble self-sacrifice, it is true, but none the less as a form of self sacrifice. As if it is good to diminish ourselves. But this is not right; it is not good that we become less. The key is that in giving away, we become more, because giving is participation in the divine. It is a privilege to be able to give.

For us finite human beings it is complicated, of course, by the fact that we are surrounded by more recipients than we have ability to give to. This is probably magnified a thousand fold in modern life where we are surrounded by strangers and only a phone call away from a few billion people. Figuring out what it is given to us to give and what it is not given to us to give is an enormous challenge. In fact, much sin has at its root grasping at something we were not given to give.

Looking at life from the right perspective does not make it easy to get right, but it does at least make it possible to get right.

Pretty Good Advice

In this view, JP Sears gives some pretty good advice on how become depressed:

It should be noted that he concentrates on the things within one’s control. The death of loved ones, loss of a job, etc. would all work too, but they’re outside of one’s control.

Oddly, fixating on the possibility of them would probably help to get further depressed, then, but he forgets to give the advice of focusing only on what one cannot control.

No one’s perfect, I suppose.

(NOTE, SINCE INTERNET: this is all humor.)

Interesting Video On Why Germany Lost World War II

In an interesting video, TIK talks about Germany’s access to oil and oil supplies and why these dictated its actions during World War II, and why they made its downfall all but certain:

It is said that when it comes to war, amateurs think in terms of tactics and professionals in terms of logistics. This is related to the saying that an army fights on its belly, that is, if it’s not fed, it doesn’t fight.

Feeding and watering an army—both men and horses—has been the concern of generals for thousands of years. (Horses were often relatively self-sustaining, since they eat grass, but they do better on grain if you want them to be constantly working.) Thus tactics like burning crop fields during retreat, so as to starve an invading army.

World War II was in many ways the first truly mechanized war, and thus the problem of logistics expanded into the economic sphere. Machines are produced only by a thriving economy, and machines run only on oil. In order to fight an effective mechanized war, one must have a strong economy and lots of fuel.

This, by the way, has strong social implications outside of war. In order to remain in peace, one must have the strength to defeat attackers. In order to do this in the modern context of mechanized warfare, one must have a high-production modern economy. One doesn’t need to be able to produce the weapons of war oneself, but one must be able to buy them. That requires a modern economy, which requires at least much of modern social organization.

Those who want to bring back the good parts of traditional social organization need to understand this well. Whatever form modern society takes, it must be one that powers a modern economy which can power a modern army. If it’s not, it will be short-lived.