Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Church of Cannabis" to Test Indiana RFRA

And here I thought it would be The Satanic Temple.

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act has continued to draw criticism since it was signed into law last week. Supporters of the law contend that it is no different than RFRA laws on the books in twenty other states, though The Atlantic has a good article up explaining why that's not the case. CNN reported yesterday that Indiana's top legislators now plan to amend the law to include the anti-discrimination clause they originally voted down, so the problems with it may yet be fixed.

Anyway, all of that has already been hashed out in numerous online discussions, and while it's on-topic here at Augoeides, it's kind of technical and just not all that funny. This is. Activists in Indiana have chartered the "First Church of Cannabis," a religion based on love, understanding, compassion, and smoking up. They plan to assert their right to violate the state's marijuana statutes on religious freedom grounds.

The church’s founder Bill Levin said he filed paperwork in direct response to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law last Thursday. Secretary of State Connie Lawson approved the church as a religious corporation with the stated intent “to start a church based on love and understanding with compassion for all.”

Cannabis is listed as the church’s sacrament in its doctrine, Levin said, and he will set up a church hierarchy. The church will plan to grow hemp, he said, though it will not buy or sell marijuana. “If someone is smoking in our church, God bless them,” Levin said. “This is a church to show a proper way of life, a loving way to live life. We are called ‘cannataerians.’”

Levin does have a fairly strong argument here if the law remains in its current form. The federal RFRA, for example, protects the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies, even though the drug is otherwise prohibited. And his proposal is funny for precisely that reason. It's unlikely that the legislators who passed the law meant it to be used in this way, and it effectively highlights a big unintended consequence of it.

So either the legislators change the law, or it stays as it is and there's a chance that Levin may get to keep his cannabis church. There are a number of ways he could lose, of course, if the government can prove a "compelling interest" in marijuana prohibition, but no matter what it seems certain to generate a lot of publicity and keep the ramifications of the law in the public spotlight.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Get Your Yeti Cave Air, Right Here!

Yes, this amazing new product is exactly what it says on the tin - you know, if you can read it and all that. The image above shows tins of "yeti cave air," which in fact do contain air from a cave associated with the yeti myth. I have no idea who's buying the stuff, but the fact that it exists at all is equal parts hilarious and disturbing. For only $3.00 you can own a (very) small piece of the yeti myth - air the creature might have breathed!

If the recent news that purported samples of "Yeti hair" were actually sourced from ordinary Himalayan brown bears is still bumming you out, here's a novelty item to cheer you up: canned air from Azasskaya Cave, ground zero for Abominable Snowman sightings in Siberia.

The region has, in the past, been known for using its cryptozoological legend to drum up publicity. According to the Siberian Times, the cans are sold for $3 and come complete with some rather dubious claims:

"Vladimir Makuta, head of the local Tashtagol district, said the areas are 'famous for stunning mountain scenery and crystal-clear air'. The air is 'full of goodness and has a healing effect, helping to strengthen the immunity and positively impact of the mental state'."

Let me just point out here that Reinhold Messner showed pretty convincingly that the Nepalese term "yeti" does refer to the Himalayan brown bear once you get past the language barrier. If that's the case, "yeti hair" from a Himalayan brown bear is in fact totally authentic. But I also realize that cryptozoologists are still holding out for the yeti to be some sort of giant ape, so to them Messner's findings were disappointing.

If you're one of those cryptozoologists, maybe breathing in a fresh can of yeti cave air will help cheer you up. At the very least, it's a great conversation starter for all your monster-hunting friends.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Indiana "Religious Freedom" Bill Signed

It sounds like The Satanic Temple may have a new target, and it's a big one. Today Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into a law a bill that prohibits state or local ordinances that "substantially burden" religious beliefs. The bill was modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which activists have used to promote non-Christian invocations at government functions and non-Christian holiday displays based on the Supreme Court's ruling that the law must apply to all religious beliefs equally in order to be constitutional.

The bill, co-authored by State Sen. Scott Schneider (R-Indianapolis), was approved by the Indiana House of Representatives Monday with a vote of 63-31 and the Senate concurred Tuesday, voting 40-10 along party lines. The bill that would prohibit any state or local laws that "substantially burden" the religious beliefs of an individual, business or religious institution.

"The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action," Pence said in a statement.

The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed by Congress in 1993. Supporters say it protects religious liberty from government intrusion, but opponents say it's a license to discriminate.

The bill was widely opposed by a number of organizations on these grounds. Both the Disciples of Christ and Gen Con threatened to relocate their conventions if the bill passed, so now we'll see if they follow through on those threats. Software vendor Salesforce has likewise cancelled all programs that might require travel to Indiana.

While the bill's advocates claim that it won't be used to promote discrimination, I'll believe that when I see it. Generally speaking, the Poor Oppressed Christians come in and ruin such laws for everyone by insisting members of other religions, even other Christian denominations, "substantially burden" their religious beliefs by merely existing. It doesn't get much more discriminatory than that.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ground Broken for Icelandic Pagan Temple

Back in January I announced that construction plans were underway for a new Pagan temple in Reykjavík, Iceland, which will be the first such place of worship built in any Nordic country in almost a thousand years. Last weekend ground was broken on the project, and the construction phase is now underway. This was preceded by a ceremony timed to coincide with Friday's solar eclipse that fell on the Vernal Equinox.

Ásatrú, which is registered as an official religion in Iceland, posted on Facebook that the chapel marks a milestone in Northern European religious and cultural history.

The chapel will be 350 square meters and have room for 250 people. Construction is expected to be completed in September next year. High Priest of Ásatrú, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson described the breaking ground ceremony as, “A big day for us. This will change everything for us as we have never had facilities big enough for what we do.”

The ceremony began at 08.38, at the start of the eclipse, whereby the boundaries were ceremonially marked out, candles lit in each corner, and local landmarks honored. When the darkness was at its height, at 09.37, a fire was lit in what will be the center of the chapel.

“There we can create an iconic Reykjavík building. It will be a place of congregation first and foremost, but we will also have office facilities,” Vísir quoted.

This is a big step for religious diversity, in Iceland as well as the rest of the world. A dedicated temple facility will enable the Icelandic Ásatrú community to expand services, put on more elaborate events, and operate in a more business-like fashion as its congregation grows. It also will serve as a landmark to raise awareness of the religion. I wish the Ásatrú community the best, and I am happy to see this project underway.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Catholic Warrior" Charges Dropped

If anybody out there still believes that Christians are oppressed in the United States, I draw your attention to this story. Remember Susan Hemeryck, the "Catholic Warrior" who destroyed a holiday display put up by The Satanic Temple? Even though Hemeryck admits that she deliberately destroyed the display, and there's even security footage of her doing it, prosecutors dismissed all charges against her on the basis of "lack of evidence."

Hemeryck in a statement said "I am very grateful to God for giving me the grace to take a stand against Satan and those who invoke his name even if they do not fully know what they are doing."

"I was not afraid of going to trial," she added. "I wanted the jury to know that I did not act criminally as wrongly portrayed, but a devout Catholic following the Church's teaching for non-violent and peaceful opposition of evil."

No, Hemeryck did commit a crime - a hate crime. She destroyed a symbolic display belonging to a religion that she just didn't like, and the fact that she apparently has gotten a free pass is a complete travesty. Can you imagine what would have happened if a non-Christian had destroyed a nativity scene, or I suppose for that matter even made fun of one? You don't have to, because thanks to this story we have a pretty good idea.

As you all know by now, a 14-year-old boy from Pennsylvania has been the subject of a lot of media attention over the past few weeks because he took pictures with a local Jesus statue as if he were getting a mock-blowjob from the Lord.

He was facing up to two years in prison for this supposed desecration, a charge that was wildly out of proportion for what he did. As I said before, I don’t condone his actions, but bad taste and immaturity aren’t crimes. And this blasphemy law had no business being in the books in the first place.

The good news is that the boy managed to escape prison, but he was placed on probation for six months and ordered to perform 350 hours of community service. He did no damage whatsoever to the statue, he just took some stupid photos with it and shared them on social media. And this is the sentence he received from juvenile court, so had he been tried as an adult he likely would have gone to prison.

This is always the way situations like these go, and that's why I make so much fun of the Poor Oppressed Christians. They totally don't get that they can get away with all sorts of stuff that members of minority religions can't, and as long as they claim to be "acting on their beliefs" they get free passes to commit whatever sort of criminal mischief they find appropriate against members of other faiths.

That's not oppression, that's privilege, plain and simple.

UPDATE: I have been informed by a friend on Facebook who is a defense attorney that prosecutors commonly use the phrase "lack of evidence" as a catch-all for various behind-the-scenes deals and so forth, even when said evidence does exist. So it may be that there's more to this story, and I'll keep you all posted if I learn that something of that sort went down.

I still contend, though, that had Hemeryck been a Satanist who wrecked a Christian display, she would have been treated with far less leniency.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Not That Kind of Sasquatch

There are many stories told by hunters of encountering the legendary sasquatch in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, and I'm familiar with a lot of them. This one, though, is among the weirdest I've seen, and not because it involves any actual cryptozoology or paranormal phenomena.

Oregon hunter Jeff McDonald was looking for deer when he spotted a naked man wandering in the woods carrying a pruning saw. McDonald assumed the young man was confused and asked what he was doing in the forest. The naked man, Linus Norgren, explained that he was a sasquatch. Then, when McDonald offered to help the man find his way out of the woods, Norgren tried to kill him.

In October 2013, 58-year-old Jeff McDonald ventured into the woods of Manning, Oregon for a chance at bagging some venison. It was an area that he was familiar with, and known to be popular with other hunters as well. That was why when McDonald first saw 22-year-old Linus Norgren, the hunter’s initial reaction was to wonder why Norgen was dressed in tan clothing in the middle of deer season. However, it turned out that McDonald mistook Norgen’s completely nude body for flesh-colored clothes. The only thing the other man carried was a pruning saw in one hand.

“I was armed with a high-powered rifle,” McDonald told The Oregonian. “I thought he’s probably not going to do anything.” Staying calm, McDonald asked the young man his name and what he was doing in the forest. Norgen simply responded that he was a Sasquatch from a family of Sasquatches. At this point, the hunter recalled making sure his gun was pointed away from Norgen to avoid upsetting him. McDonald even offered to help guide Norgen out of the woods. It was a bad idea. As the two men turned to leave, Norgen struck McDonald in the back of the head with a rock and the hunter lost consciousness.

When McDonald came to, he was on the ground and Norgen was attempting to strangle him. The hunter said that Norgen tried to gouge out one of his eyes and even shoved a fist through his mouth. With his shoulders dislocated from the fall, McDonald had a hard time fighting back, but managed to keep his attacker from inflicting further injuries. When the older man asked why Norgen was trying to kill him, the 22-year-old replied chillingly that “Sasquatch kills the hunter.”

Last week Norgren was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to ten years in prison. At sentencing, he claimed that the attack was motivated by untreated mental illness and that he was irrationally terrified of McDonald when the two met in the woods. He made no mention of his sasquatch heritage. But I suppose it would explain why sasquatch are so hard to find. Apparently they look just like everyone else.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ten Commandments Attacker Explains Himself

Back in October the Oklahoma City Ten Commandments monument was destroyed by a man named Michael Reed, who rammed the display with his truck and shattered the stone tablets. At the time there was speculation that Reed was somehow involved in the ongoing dispute between the state legislature and The Satanic Temple, which was suing the state to allow a "competing" statue of Eliphas Levi's Baphomet, who is often (incorrectly) identified with Satan.

However, in a letter recently issued to the local press, Reed explained that he suffers from schizo-affective disorder, a serious mental illness, and was under the influence of delusions when he attacked the monument. Also, the attack was not the extent of Reed's bizarre behavior that day.

After watching a movie about the fictional Dracula, Reed states he was convinced to follow Satan. “The voice kept having me do things to show my obedience starting with my hair being shaved to next tearing up my guitar my father gave me,” he wrote.

Reed blamed his missing keys on a theft by an angel and ended up walking to a river to throw in his wallet, phone and shoes. Once getting to his mother’s home, he destroyed all her electronics. His sister was able to calm him. But after she left, he headed to Oklahoma City after withdrawing all his money from a bank. He was convinced he was the reincarnation of British occult leader Aleister Crowley.

Reed states how to ran into the monument, set the cash on fire before running away and drawing a symbol on his forehead to reach Satan’s priestess called Gwyneth Paltrow. As he walked around the grounds, he saw a dinner occurring in a Capitol room and a person waved him away.

“I thought it was the church of Satan awaiting me so I made a gesture of (Crowley’s) to identify myself,” he wrote. “I left and kept thinking I would be taking (sic) up in a UFO and given a new body.”

Reincarnations of Crowley are basically a joke in the Thelemic community, as so many of them have come forward and most have turned out to be suffering from mental illness. It's not clear to me why Crowley is such a magnet for such individuals, but it probably has something to do with his largely exaggerated reputation as "the wickedest man in the world" (he was a contemporary of both Hitler and Stalin) and a Satanist (which he certainly was not in the modern sense, as the Church of Satan was founded decades after his death).

I have to admit I do find it amusing that a "Crowley reincarnation" went ahead and smashed the monument, completely defusing the controversy. It's totally something Crowley himself would have done, so perhaps Reed really was in contact with the man's spirit after all.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Trouble With Faith Healing

One of the big tenets of magick that gets pushed over and over again here in the blogosphere is that in order to obtain the best results, you need to combine your magical operations with as many mundane steps toward your goal as possible. In terms of probability this is easy to understand. Magical powers have limits in terms of the probability shifts that they can produce, so the key is to use mundane steps to bring the likelihood of success within that range. Then you employ a magical operation to push the odds the rest of the way.

Magical healing works exactly the same way, whether it's being practiced by ceremonialists or churches that employ various forms of faith healing. The problem with some of those faith healing groups, though, is that in addition to teaching that spiritual techniques can be used to heal, they also insist that their methods must be used in place of conventional medicine. I see it as a failure of their theology, in which the notion of spiritual faith gets extended to encompass mundane connotations of belief.

Specifically, the teaching appears to be that any use of mundane medical technology constitutes "doubt" in what they perceive as the power of God. And in any other context, that's just dumb. Let's say that you have a friend who agrees to help you out on some sort of project. If you then continue to seek help from other friends on the same project, does it mean you "lack faith" in the first friend? Of course not. Spiritual healing can certainly help with medical problems and issues, but it works best when combined with every possible mundane treatment. And on its own, it's generally far less effective than conventional medicine.

With that in mind, the state of Idaho is considering limiting faith exemptions to the state's child neglect laws for medical care, after a string of preventable deaths among the children of the Followers of Christ, a faith-healing group that eschews conventional medicine. But state representative Christy Perry, who represents a district in which many members of the group reside, claims that this policy would violate their religious rights.

Friday, March 13, 2015

But God Needs a Gulfstream G650!

These days it's not that surprising to see evangelists using their position not just to make money, but to amass ridiculous amounts of it. What surprises me about this story is that the congregation of Atlanta megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar ever expected him to do anything else. I mean, the guy has "dollar" right there in his name.

On a recent trip, one of the engines on Dollar's private jet lost power. The pilot landed the plane safely, but Dollar apparently decided that this meant God wanted him to have a new one. And, of course, it also meant that God wanted his congregation to pay for it.

Dollar is the pastor of World Changers Church, International, a sprawling megachurch complex located in the hard-bitten south Atlanta suburb College Park. The pastor and his family, however, live in a $2.5 million mansion in tony Sandy Springs. Dollar — whose estimated worth is somewhere around $27 million — is one the top proponents of so-called “prosperity gospel,” which preaches that God rewards the righteous in this life with affluence, which His chosen children have an obligation to flaunt as a show of how richly the Lord has blessed them.

On Dollar’s website, he said, “We are asking members, partners, and supporters of this ministry to assist in the undertaking of an initiative called Project G650. The mission of Project G650 is to acquire a Gulfstream G650 airplane so that Pastors Creflo and Taffi and World Changers Church International can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace. We are believing for 200,000 people to give contributions of 300 US dollars or more to turn this dream into a reality—and allow us to retire the aircraft that served us well for many years.”

A Gulfstream G650 is a top-of-the-line private jet that costs $65 million dollars, twice the evangelist's entire net worth, so it's no wonder that he has to raise the money from his followers. It seems that rather than evaluating the possibility of a more frugal replacement, God - that is, Creflo Dollar - deserves only the best. I suppose that a cheaper plane might undermine his whole "prosperity gospel" schtick, which is one of the most outlandish interpretations of Christianity that I've ever heard.

The thing is, the principle that "God rewards the righteous" only works when "the righteous" are good at getting other people to send them money. For everyone else it's far less reliable.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

NPR Seeks Possessed Dolls

Or, at least, stories about them. NPR has recently issued a request for stories about dolls that are thought to be haunted or possessed. They apparently plan on selecting some of the submitted stories for on-air interviews in an upcoming segment. The linked page has a form where you can submit your story and see if anything comes of it.

“Haunted” or “possessed” dolls are sold – sometimes for thousands of dollars – on Etsy and eBay. We want to know your experiences: Have you ever thought the doll in your attic was possessed? Ever wanted to buy one? If you've got a story for us, fill out the form below and someone from NPR’s Weekend Edition may contact you for an on-air interview.

I've seen a lot of these items come up for sale over the years and I have to admit I have trouble seeing why anyone would buy one. It's not just that as a magician I know how to bind spirits into objects. Even if I couldn't do that, the idea of bringing some sort of sinister spiritual presence into my home seems unwise, or at the very least pointless. That's especially true when it comes to paying thousands of dollars to do it.

Reading about haunted dolls reminds me of the old Disturbing Auctions website, which is where I found the image that accompanies this post. It hasn't been updated in awhile, but it has a whole section dedicated to "terrifying dolls." I don't think any of them were specifically advertised as possessed back when they were being auctioned off, but some of them sure look like they might be. And many of the write-ups are hilarious.

So do any of you, my readers, have such a story? If you do decide to submit one, feel free to share your account here as well.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ancient People and the Color Blue

Lately an article from Business Insider has been making the rounds on the Internet with the seemingly bizarre contention that ancient people may not have perceived the color blue. The article notes that "blue" does not appear in surviving ancient texts, with Homer for example describing the sea as "wine-dark." There has apparently been much debate in academic circles about whether Homer was blind, using the term poetically, or describing something he was really seeing.

The article seems to be making a case similar to that found in Julian Jaynes' 1982 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes hypothesized that since the narratives found in surviving ancient stories generally have to do with people blindly obeying "the words of the gods," this implies that ancient people literally experienced consciousness in the same way. Instead of unified awareness, they perceived "voices in their heads" as external presences that directed their actions, much like some schizophrenics.

The problem with this hypothesis should be obvious in this day and age, but it was less so in 1982 before the rise of modern brain research. It depends first of all on the assumption that popular writing styles directly reflect the awareness of the readers and writers. This would suggest that when fiction writing transitioned from the flowery prose style of the Victorian era to the minimalistic style of writers such as Ernest Hemingway the thinking of people in general became simpler. Needless to say, there's no cognitive research whatsoever that supports this idea.

Furthermore, we have such a tiny sample of ancient literature that drawing any conclusions about ancient people in general from it is hardly representative. We have no idea if all ancient writing resembled the texts we have, and we have no idea why those in particular were passed along. There seems to be no detectable anatomical difference between the brains of ancient and modern people that might explain differences in cognition, so neuroscience doesn't support Jaynes' hypothesis.

Finally, we can't discount the notion that ancient schizophrenics who heard voices and saw visions were thought to be in contact with gods rather than mentally ill, and thus compelling protagonists for stories. The actual incidence of schizophrenia is around 1%, so it's likely there were a fair number of them in every ancient society. We have no way of knowing if they were marginalized or pathologized by those societies the way that they are in ours, and there is some evidence that at least a few of them were considered prophets and so forth.

Where this relates to ancients and the color blue, the Business Insider article tries to make the point that since ancients don't seem to describe the color blue and use different words for phenomena that we describe as blue, maybe they didn't see the color at all. To support this argument, the article refers to research done by Jules Davidoff involving the Himba people of Northwestern Namibia. The Himba language does not have a distinct word for blue, and Davidoff hypothesized that because of this they might have more difficulty distinguishing it from other colors.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Recovered Memories are False Memories

As a follow-up to my piece on the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's and early 1990's, I present this recent article from The New Yorker. Freudian psychology has become so embedded in our culture that many people still believe in the concept of "repressed memories" that can be "recovered" by psychotherapy. But as recent research has shown, this entire model of how the mind supposedly works is fundamentally flawed. Notably, even our conscious memories are less reliable than than we generally expect, and material that we have difficulty recalling is not being "repressed" - much of the information such memories seem to contain is actually gone.

The human brain does an admirable job of coping with this missing information, to the extent that we seem to be able to recall it. But what the brain is really doing there is filling in the gaps with what it considers reasonable assumptions about reality. But as many of those assumptions are context-dependent, it is surprisingly easy to manipulate circumstances in such a way that completely inaccurate recollections can be manufactured. This was the basis of the "recovered memory therapy" that led to the Satanic Panic and produced so many outlandish accusations.

The article deals with this issue from a different perspective, that of law enforcement. One of the problems with the way that suspects in criminal cases are often questioned is that interrogators can manipulate those situations in order to obtain false confessions of criminal activity. Furthermore, in some cases this manipulation can be so complete that suspects come away from questioning believing that they did in fact commit the crime in question.

In television shows and movies false confessions generally only come about because the suspect is protecting someone else, or because they are mentally disturbed and seeking attention. But the truth is much scarier. According to recent research discussed in the article, by the time interrogators finish their questioning, an innocent suspect may in fact believe themselves to be guilty, because they have been manipulated into creating a new memory of themselves committing the crime.

In the early nineteen-nineties, American society was recuperating from another panic over occult influence; Satanists had replaced witches. One case, the McMartin Preschool trial, hinged on nine young victims’ memories of molestation and ritual abuse—memories that they had supposedly forgotten and then, after being interviewed, recovered. The case fell apart, in 1990, because the prosecution could produce no persuasive evidence of the victims’ claims. A cognitive psychologist named Elizabeth Loftus, who had consulted on the case, wondered whether the children’s memories might have been fabricated—in Münsterberg’s formulation, involuntarily elaborated—rather than actually recovered.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Piety Versus Physics

When piety and physics come into conflict, physics always wins. And according to a recent ruling, filing suit won't help. A New Jersey man tried to sue an Applebee's restaurant because he was burned by the food he ordered while praying. When I first saw the headline I wondered how that was possible, but apparently the man must have bowed his head low enough that his face was right over the plate. Nobody needs to pray like that, unless they're trying to show off. At any rate, he claimed that he was entitled to damages because nobody warned him the food he ordered was hot. But the appellate court found the suit without grounds.

The man, Hiram Jimenez, claimed a waitress didn't warn him the dish was hot, but the lower court found the hot food posed an "open and obvious" danger. The incident occurred in March 2010 at the Applebee's restaurant in Westampton.

Jimenez said he bowed his head close to the table, then heard a loud sizzling noise followed by a grease pop. He then felt a burning sensation in his left eye and on his face.

The man said he then panicked and knocked the food on his lap, causing more burns. But none of the burns left any scarring. In their decision, the appellate judges said Jimenez described the skillet as "real hot" and smoking and therefore the potential danger was self-evident.

The dish Jimenez ordered was a "sizzling steak fajita skillet." That's right, it has "sizzling" right in the name that is written on the menu. But apparently he tried to argue that he had no possible way of knowing that the food was hot and therefore was entitled to damages. I'm glad that the court ruled the way it did, because otherwise it would mean our society would pretty much be subsidizing stupidity. Not only was Jimenez dumb enough to stick his face on top of the food, but if you do that and are burned no smart person then proceeds to dump the food in their lap.

I might be more sympathetic if Jimenez was actually injured, but it sounds like that isn't the case. He just did something really, really dumb and wanted the restaurant to pay up. So keep in mind that when you order an incredibly obviously hot dish at a restaurant and the server tells you it's hot, they're not implying they think you're an idiot. They're just trying to protect the restaurant from such individuals.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Brain Waves, Memory, and Magick

A recent MIT study has found a link between brain wave patterns and the formation of new memories. The researchers tracked the brain wave patterns in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of monkeys as they were trained to associate pairs of images. What they found was that the brain waves in those regions rose when the monkeys got the association right, but dropped when they guessed wrong.

Intrigued by previous research in the area, a team led by Earl Miller and Scott Brincat, both from MIT, decided to study how the brain waves of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex - two regions that are crucial to learning - changed while the brain was trying to learn to associate two unrelated objects.

What they found was pretty, well, mind-blowing - whenever the brain correctly linked the two items in question, the brain waves oscillated at a high, “beta” frequency, but when the guess was wrong the waves oscillated at a lower, “theta” frequency.

"It's like you're playing a computer game and you get a ding when you get it right, and a buzz when you get it wrong,” said Miller in a press release. “These two areas of the brain are playing two different 'notes' for correct guesses and wrong guesses.”

"Brain waves had been ignored for decades in neuroscience. It's been thought of as the humming of a car engine. What we're discovering through this experiment and others is that these brain waves may be the infrastructure that supports neural communication," he added.

The researchers now believe that this brain wave feedback system could actually reinforce correct guesses while suppressing the wrong answers, helping the brain to learn the correct answer.

There are a couple of interesting points here that could be related to magical practice. We know from studies of advanced meditators that experiences subjectively described as samadhi correspond to particularly high brain waves in particular areas. One of the practices employed by many modern magicians is the memorization of correspondences, which are then employed in the construction of rituals. It may be that combining a set of previously associated sensory impressions facilitates these heightened firing frequencies and contributes to the effectiveness of the practice.

On a more speculative note, a number of researchers have hypothesized that consciousness may be linked to quantum-level interactions within the brain that exhibit interference patterns similar to those exploited by quantum computing. While it's a big step from brain waves, which simply map the frequency at which neurons in a particular region are firing, to wavelike behavior at the quantum scale, finding a connection there could constitute a big piece of the puzzle that currently is described as the "hard problem" of consciousness.

Hopefully I will soon be in a position to do some of this research myself. I am one of the Kickstarter backers for the Emotiv Insight headset, a next-generation EEG device. Critically, the Insight includes reference sensors that provide some data on the location of the brainwaves it is tracking, in contrast to current models that simply track aggregate activity. The release date for the device is more than a year behind schedule, but Emotiv has announced that they plan on having the first run ready sometime this spring.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Opposing Hinduism Because Reasons

Idaho State Senator Steve Vick outed himself this week as a Poor Oppressed Christian when he made a big deal of his opposition to opening a state legislative session with a Hindu prayer. While Vick admitted that non-Christians have a right to offer invocations under the First Amendment, he nevertheless treated the upcoming event as an occasion to whine to the media about how awful it was.

Poor Oppressed Christians are so obnoxious because the mere presence of other religions mortally offends them, even though it in no way inconveniences them. As a member of a minority religion I have no problem listening to Christian prayers. I actually find that many Thelemites know the Bible better than most Christians. But I do have a problem with those Christians who aren't even willing to exhibit basic politeness in the presence of religions other than their own.

State Sen. Steve Vick (R-Dalton Gardens) admitted that the First Amendment permits prayers by non-Christians, but he did not think Hindus, in particular, should be allowed to pray in the statehouse, reported The Spokesman-Review.

“They have a caste system,” Vick said. “They worship cows.” Hindus do revere cows as a symbol of life, but they do not worship them.

“To invite other religions in that aren’t represented in the legislature I don’t believe does anything to strengthen our state or our country,” Vick said.

He said the United States was “built on the Judeo-Christian not only religion but work ethic,” and Hindu prayers might “undermine” that.

Frankly, that last statement is complete bullshit. The United States was very deliberately not built on any one religion. The majority of the founding fathers were Christian, but their explicit goal was to create a nation in which people of all faiths could worship as they saw fit. Second of all, the idea that a "work ethic" is unique to Judaism and Christianity is so out there that it's even difficult to mock. I'll bet there are at least a few hundred million Hindus in the world who work a lot harder than Steve Vick does.

What amazes me about these people is how shortsighted they are. Don't they realize that members of minority religions feel excluded like Vick presumably does whenever one of the Poor Oppressed insists that Christians are the only "real Americans" and their religion alone should be represented in the public sphere? The whole point of religious freedom is that it has to apply to all religions equally, or it's not religious freedom.

In fact, I suspect in many cases like these what's going on is political gamesmanship rather than abject stupidity. But the power of stupidity being what it is, sometimes it's hard to tell.