Thread Catalog 2013-05-24

Thread Catalog is a new weekly feature rounding up links pertaining to the issues most relevant to Thoughts Involuntary: science, music, art, creativity, technology, etc.

Thread Catalog for the week ending May 24th, 2013.

Idiagram – The Art of Systems Thinking [systems science, complex systems, art, information science, processes] – Very interesting site that attempts to diagram the structure of various processes. Most interesting is the interactive diagram for The Art of Complex Problem Solving (pictured above).

Atheist State Lawmaker Quotes Carl Sagan Instead of Doing Prayer Before House Session [atheism, secular humanism, religion, politics] – An exciting and pretty revolutionary story about secular humanist/atheist representative Juan Mendez taking a calm and well-spoken stand to promote his beliefs. Hearing his words almost seems like the future, or a scene from a science fiction film where people no longer believe in religion, and are simply at one with the Universe and our existence in it. There needs to be so much more of this these days, rather than the infantile, religious zealots at one end, and the alienating, barking, proselytizing Atheists-with-a-capital-A at the other.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Asks Atheist Oklahoma Tornado Survivor If She ‘Thanked The Lord’ [atheism, religion, news] – Oh, well, there we go. Another civil, quiet, good-natured atheist making her stance known with no apology for herself and no derision for others.

Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics [religion, atheism] – Whoa. What is this, Atheism Awareness Week? Or did Catholics finally realize Jesus would have been more like the Buddha and less like a self-righteous douche?

24-Year-Old Receives Sage Counsel From Venerable 27-Year-Old [humor, The Onion] Fun fact: the guy on the left in the photo is Gabe Klinger, the director of the James Benning/Richard Linklater documentary I featured in last week’s Thread Catalog. A funny piece from The Onion, though I do in some sense take issue with it. Being young and thinking you’re in some sense perfect is certainly silly, but people who are comparatively young can often be wiser not just than people who are are younger than they are, but even those much older. Living through difficult circumstances or having a mind that can learn relatively quickly from mistakes can teach people at a young age how to deal with things more productively and maturely than people much older. The next link is a case in point.

Documentary on Zach Sobiech [human interest, miscellaneous, music] – An inspirational story of an 18-year-old who died from a rare form of cancer, but used music to touch others and show them what it means to be human. While many people might only see his fate as unlucky, I would disagree. He was actually quite lucky in the sense that he acquired much wisdom in his short life, and was able to come to peace with his situation and remain happy while also understanding his mortality. This is something many people decades older than him (and most people in general) are never able to do.

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers [writing, creativity, productivity] – “Kurt Vonnegut’s recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days. So I pored through various old diaries and interviews — many from the fantastic Paris Review archives — and culled a handful of writing routines from some of my favorite authors. Enjoy.”

Lost Lands Found by Scientists [science, exploration] – “A lost continent off the coast of Brazil may have been found, scientists announced last week.”

Still Charting Memory’s Depths A Conversation with Neuropsychologist Brenda Milner [science, neuroscience, psychology, neuropsychology, interview] – “In many ways, the Obama administration’s new plan to map the human brain has its origins in the work of Brenda Milner, the neuropsychologist whose detailed observations of an amnesia patient in the 1950s showed how memory is rooted in specific regions of the brain.”

‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War [music, technology] – “We all know music is getting louder. But is it less dynamic? Our ground-breaking research proves beyond any doubt that the answer is no — and that popular beliefs about the ‘loudness war’ need a radical rethink.”

What do we mean when we call music pretentious? [music, criticism, art] – “‘Pretentious’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing music. It’s a word that comes with connotations of stuffiness, condescension, willful obscurity, and needless intellectual complexity.”

I Want to Believe [conspiracy theories, history, sociology, politics, skepticism] – An interesting analysis of the Illuminati and the function of conspiracy theories in our society. “The appeal of conspiracy theories is simple. Whether its Lizard People, Ancient Aliens, Freemasons, Occupy’s “1%,” or the poor maligned Rothschilds, the conspiratorial mind clings to the comforting notion of a world controlled by a rational agent capable of exerting its will to guide human events. Somebody is driving this thing … anybody. To the conspiratorial mind we are not alone with ourselves, left to our own devices, which can be the most terrifying prospect of all.”

Wilmette twins break Guinness record with 24 sets in 5th grade class [human interest, sociology, miscellaneous] – “Twenty-four sets of twins at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette are thrilled they have broken the Guinness world record for having the most sets of twins in one grade.”

What’s Really Important


This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.

-Dalai Lama

Today is Easter. Easter is “a Christian festival and holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion at Calvary as described in the New Testament.” He was killed and then brought back to life. Abstracted from its context as the most important holiday for the world’s largest religion, we must see it for what it is. It is quite literally a holiday dedicated to a zombie.

I’m stating this in an irreverent way, but my intention is not to offend, but rather to bypass the contexts people frame Easter in – philosophical, spiritual, cultural, emotional – and focus on what people literally believe to be true. Some very high percentage of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world actually believe that a person was tortured, experienced biological death, then came back to life several days later. There is no scientific evidence to prove that this has ever happened at any time in history, so it can plainly be called a supernatural event.

So this supernatural resurrection event is proof for them (and was, at one point, for me) that this particular person is the descendent of a god – the one and only god – and that there is some existence beyond the physical life and death we are aware of. There are a whole host of other beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals associated with the holiday, but that’s the gist of it. It’s a holiday dedicated to a supernatural event that many people believe in but for which no one has any scientific evidence.

So, on a day when billions of people are looking to a fairy tale for guidance, and thinking a great deal about life and existence, I thought it might be a good time to take stock of what is ultimately really important in our daily lives.

Does any good really come from people believing in a supernatural resurrection event? Does taking part in rituals dedicated to a supernatural resurrection event have any measurably positive effect on the rest of the world? Once you believe in it, do you cure nearby people’s illnesses? Do you brighten the day of strangers and nonbelievers? Do you fight crime?

You may do some or all of those positive things, but I would argue it has nothing to do with whether you were convinced someone you heard about in a book magically returned from the dead.

What is really important on a day like today? Is it not just to be kind to those around you, to be peaceful, and to appreciate your life as it unfolds, moment by moment? As the above quote from the Dalai Lama so succinctly says, there’s no need for fanfare or complexity. In fact, you don’t even need a holiday. All you need to focus on is kindness, a little bit, every day.

When you cut through all the differing myths and doctrines of major world religions and philosophies, the true message, the most important and consistently recurring one, is that of kindness. It’s the Golden Rule: “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” The goal is harmony with the world and the other people around you. It’s a simple message that becomes clouded by many different, mutually exclusive clubs each trying to convince you that their history and mythology is more important and correct than the others.

But there’s no need for fairy tales or supernatural events to get to the core of what’s important. And that’s simply this: be kind to others. Everyone has a different path, and everyone has their own struggles. We all interexist and are all irreversibly interwoven into one another’s lives. The ideal world is the one where there is the least amount of suffering for the greatest number of conscious beings. How do we come closer and closer to making this world a reality? Be kind. It’s that simple. Kindness engenders kindness.

I’m not judging the people who believe in the story behind Easter as unintelligent or childish. I would certainly characterize the idea itself as immature, and no more valid than any other supernatural/paranormal myths. But I actually understand just how alluring the emotional security behind it is. A myth like this gives all who believe in it a taste of the sublime, a feeling that there is something more important, more glorious than our corporeal existence. Many smart, capable, and otherwise mature and inquisitive people believe in unverifiable religious things like this. They didn’t from the start, though. Their parents, teachers, and culture convinced them of it, and over time it became a part of their lives, a core belief of their very existence. I used to believe; I was raised Catholic. Over time, though, the myths just didn’t add up. Contradictions and supernatural claims could only go so far in my mind.

I understand that people will believe in supernatural religious doctrine their entire lives with no proof to support it, simply because they were raised in a family who belonged to a tradition that believed those things. That’s ok; it’s unlikely I’ll change many people’s minds. Those beliefs are things that people acquire, change, and renounce over long periods of time, in the privacy of their minds and homes.

My point is that being focused on an arbitrary ancient myth changes your focus from the very real present world, with all its difficulties and wondrous uncertainties, to a convenient, undocumented fantasy world where we can all be assured some form of eternal existence – provided we believe in arbitrary, unverified things.

No matter your religion, the bulk of your mental energy should be focused not on supernatural beliefs, which demonstrate few, if any, benefits, but instead on cultivating kindness. Kind thoughts lead to kind actions, and kind actions, no matter how small, make this world, the real world of today, just a bit better.

On 12/21/12, the World Will Continue to NOT End

A vision of the end of the World?

The world will not end in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.
– NASA, in an FAQ about 12/21/12

I love apocalyptic scenarios as much as the next person. Actually, probably more so. I’m an ardent fan of disaster-oriented sci-fi, as well as Lovecraftian cosmic horror. In my own conceptual poetry I’ve certainly alluded to versions of the end times before, and even made a video installation that dealt with it.

There must be something alluring to us about the idea of being overpowered by some vast, infinite, unknown natural or supernatural force. I certainly intend to research it more deeply, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

But let’s be real. There’s one week left until 12/21/12, and it’s clearer than ever that when it arrives, the world will continue to not come to an end.

Even more or less sensible people (i.e. the majority of the Earth’s human population) not drawn in by the apocalyptic nonsense are still often confused about the facts. I was recently invited to a New Year’s Eve party with the subtitle “Everyone Laugh At the Mayans.” Presumably this comes from the misguided notion that the Mayans actually believed that the world would come to an end on 12/21/12. This is not the case. That’s just the Gregorian date for the end of one cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Their calendar then resets, just as our does every 365 days, and the next Long Count cycle ends in about 400 years on March 26, 2407. Each such cycle, called a baktun, lasts 144,000 days.

So, in other words, not even the Mayans thought the world would end next week. In fact earlier this year, a Boston University professor uncovered the oldest Mayan calendar ever, which further confirms this.

Aside from clearing up some misconceptions about this Mayan myth, I thought it would be a good idea to post a link to a NASA round-up of answers from scientists explaining exactly why the world will NOT end on December 21, 2012. Their answers sum up very clearly and concisely why there’s no reason to be worried about any looming natural or supernatural apocalypse.

As for the unfortunate but inevitable natural disasters that have befallen human civilizations for many thousands of years, completely irrespective of any arbitrary man-made calendars, who knows what city will be next?