Category: Get Smarter

Friday the 13th: What is the origin myth of our calendar horror?

Friday the 13th: What is the origin myth of our calendar horror?

Sometimes I dive into topics and get disappointed. Mention Friday the 13th to any Freemason, and you’re going to hear about Jacques De Molay and the Knights Templar.

The Templars — formally, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, were founded in 1119 as the military arm of the Catholic Church. They were central to the Crusades, and as they grew in fame, they grew in power. As they grew in power, they became less of a military organization — though they remained elite fighters, at the height of the Templars’ power fewer than 10% of their numbers were part of their forces.

They became protectors of the people, and then protectors of the people’s stuff. They created complex financial systems and eventually grew a little too powerful for the comfort of sovereigns in the area.

As the Muslim world started to overcome the Crusades, the Church and rulers throughout the Christian world started to come down hard on the Templars. In 1305, Pope Clement V took over. He was based in France, and he brought Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay there to discuss a merger with another organization, the Hospitaliers. The grand master of that organization was delayed by several months and de Molay asked King Philip IV to reverse some older charges against a Templar.

On Friday the 13th of October, 1307, King Philip IV ordered the Templars arrested, de Molay included. The grand master would be executed seven years later.

The boys organization related to Freemasonry is named after de Molay, and there is a rumored link between modern Masons and the Templars.

Many people believe the Friday the 13th raid on the Templars was the beginning of the legend of Friday the 13th as a day of bad luck, but alas, it appears it’s nothing so dramatic.

So how did paraskevidekatriaphobia come about?

It seems fear of the number 13 has been around some 2700 years or more.

Hesiod warned against sowing on the thirteenth of the month.

The 13 guests — with the traitor Judas Iscariot being the 13th — at the Last Supper are thought to be reminiscent of a story in Norse mythology when Loki causes chaos as the 13th guest.

Legend holds that if thirteen people meet in a room, one will be dead within a year.

Chaucer declared Friday to be a day “of misfortune” in The Canterbury Tales.

In his 17th century play A Match at Midnight, William Rowley wrote about “A plague of Friday mornings — the most unfortunate day in the whole week.”

Snopes lists an array of Friday-related ills, from warnings against starting a new job on Friday (even before we had weekends off) and the disposition of children born on Fridays.

But none of these bodes for an unlucky Friday the thirteenth.

Where did it come from? A novel by Thomas Lawson called Friday, the Thirteenth, published in 1907.

That’s right, the mythos of Friday the 13th dates back barely over a century, and it was a work of fiction.

In the novel, Lawson — a stock trader in his own right — invents a trader who intentionally crashes the market on Friday the 13th.

Yep, that’s it. That’s the origin of the Friday the 13th bad luck myth — sort of. I mean, one novel that’s basically been forgotten to time is no basis for a myth of that proportion.

A year later, Sen. Robert Owen of Oklahoma introduced 13 bills on Friday, March 13, 1908. The New York Times declared there was no hope for any of them.

There you have it. One year, a novel about someone intentionally crashing the stock market, and the next year, a senator filing a bunch of bills unlikely to pass.

Suddenly, people are calling the 13th floor the 14th floor, even though it’s clearly the one after the 12th floor, and seven decades later, Jason is slaughtering camp counselors.

So disappointing.

Hey, at least Alfred Hitchcock was born on a Friday the 13th.

Labor Day: Where did it come from and how should we celebrate?

Labor Day: Where did it come from and how should we celebrate?

On September 5, 1882, some 10,000 people marched through Union Square in New York City. Organizers were hoping for about twice that many, but some of the workers decided to take the day to take their families out to Coney Island and other local attractions.

Those who showed up, though, were generally well-dressed and orderly; there was a large police presence but no reported arrests.

Marchers carried signs that said things like, “Labor Built this Republic and Labor shall Rule it;” “The Laborer Must Receive and Enjoy the Full Fruit of His Labor;” “Down with Convict Contract Labor;” “Labor will be United;” “Labor Pays All Taxes;” and “The True Remedy is Organization and the Ballot.”

Another march was held on the same date the following year.

Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day a holiday on September 5, 1887.

In 1894, the holiday moved to the first Monday in September and was celebrated by 30 states (there were 44 in the U.S. at that time). Congress declared it a federal holiday that same year.

It seems Labor Day was chosen as the federal holiday to celebrate workers in an effort to avoid celebrating May Day as a holiday. In 1886, a bomb exploded at a union picket and a riot ensued, and seven policemen died.

While today Labor Day is often celebrated as the unofficial end of summer — the last day for beaches, vacation seasons and outdoor pools, and in some cases the last day of summer break for public school systems — its intended purpose is to celebrate the contribution of the labor force.

The U.S. Department of Labor details the celebration outlined when Labor Day was first proposed as a holiday:

A street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.

The initial marches weren’t just to draw attention to the usefulness of American workers. Laborers worked 12-hour days. There was no minimum wage and there were no safety regulations. There were riots and strikes and workers wanted change.

If you’re one of those people who gets the day off and will celebrate with a swim and some hot dogs and beers, remember to take a minute and remember some unions are still fighting for workers. From the AFL-CIO:

This Labor Day, working people in every corner of the country have good reason to be proud. Our movement is on the rise. We are marching and striking and organizing. We are refusing to accept business as usual.
For decades, corporations have rigged the economy to work for the few at the expense of the many. They have tried to destroy our unions. And too many of America’s leaders have done their bidding, waging an assault on our most fundamental freedoms.
But we have never looked to corporations or politicians to validate our movement. The rights of working people have always been won and sustained by our own desire and passion for change.
We have the power to create the fair economy and just society that we deserve. And that means making our voices heard loud and clear on the campaign trail and defeat corporate-backed politicians and fill the halls of power with genuine allies of working families.

Agrippa’s trilemma: Beliefs aren’t facts and some things simply aren’t provable

Agrippa’s trilemma: Beliefs aren’t facts and some things simply aren’t provable

I don’t know. Something about philosophy gets me thinking about pondering chimps.

I forget where I heard about Agrippa’s trilemma. Looking back through my podcast feed, it was probably Naval Ravikant on Joe Rogan’s podcast, since that looks like the smartest one I’ve heard lately.

I’m probably wrong.

Anyway, I had to figure out what this was; it seemed like a Pascal’s triangle sort of thing.

For some reason, Agrippa’s trilemma is more frequently known as the Münchhausen trilemma, even though Agrippa lived about 1,700 years before Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen.


Anyway, I’ll call it Agrippa’s trilemma, because that’s how I first heard it, it’s easier to spell, and I’m a stubborn little shit.

The trilemma presents three arguments against the provability of any philosophical truth (specifically, the trilemma is the decision which one to use).

In science, we use the principle of falsifiability in our search to prove (or, more accurately, support) hypotheses using the scientific method.

Basically, in science, if there’s no statement that would negate a hypothesis, it’s not a valid hypothesis. Wikipedia offers an example:

The claim “all swans are white and have always been white” is falsifiable since it is contradicted by this basic statement: “In 1697, during the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh expedition, there were black swans on the shore of the Swan River in Australia”, which in this case is a true observation.

Now, a statement doesn’t have to be proven false to be falsifiable, you just have to be able to test it. “All fish live primarily in water” is falsifiable, but isn’t false. There are a couple of fish that can move on dry land between bodies of water (snakeheads, for instance), but they still live primarily in water.

“All birds fly” is both falsifiable (we can test it) and false (ostriches and emus, for example, don’t fly).

“There will never be a purple cloud” is not falsifiable. We can’t test the future.

“All mammals have hair” is also not falsifiable, since that, by definition, is true (a mammal is an animal with hair or fur; that’s not an argument or hypothesis).

Moving out of the realm of science, we head to philosophy to examine Agrippa’s trilemma.

The assertion is that there are three types of arguments to prove some piece of knowledge, and the trilemma is picking which one, even knowing all three are inadequate as proof.

The three types of “proof” are: circular arguments, regressive arguments and axiomatic arguments. Formally, these are called, respectively, coherentism, infinitism and foundationalism.

A circular argument is something like, “A is true because of B. B is true because of A.” There’s no external facts outside of those presented to prove your assertion. For example:

Wellington is in New Zealand.
Therefore, Wellington is in New Zealand.

Another example (paraphrased):

(1) The Bible affirms everything in it is true.
(2) Everything in the Bible is true.
(3) Therefore, everything in the Bible is true.

You’re using the belief that the Bible is true to claim that the Bible is true, without presenting any facts.

Believe what you like, and without judgment; belief is different from provable science.

If you know any three-year-olds, you’re probably familiar with the regressive argument. There’s a reason this is called infinitism: it just goes on and on.

It goes something like this: You make an argument. You have to prove that’s true with another argument. And then you have to prove that argument is true with another argument.

To our hypothetical three-year-old:

“Don’t touch the stove.”
“The stove is hot.”
“Because electricity heated the coils.”
“Because I turned the stove on.”
“So that I could cook dinner.”
“So that we don’t get trichinosis.”
“Because we don’t want to be sick.”
“I’m going to throw you out the damn window if you ask why one more time.”
*Defenestrates child from first-floor window, voluntarily commits to psych ward to get a good night’s rest.*

Infinite regression arguments often end with “because I said so” or “fuck you.”

The axiomatic argument is a little more difficult. Scientifically, we’d accept it, but philosophically, it’s not that easy. The argument goes something like this:

“Such-and-such is true.”
“Because it is, just look at it.”

An example might be the commutative property in arithmetic. Remember that one? Of course you don’t. You probably learned it in fifth grade then filled your head with a bunch of garbage. It reads:

a+b = b+a.

This doesn’t hold true for subtraction unless a=b.

Substitute 5 for a and 3 for b, we get:

5+3 = 3+5


5-3 ≠ 3-5.

So the argument structure looks like this:

“Addition is commutative.”
“Here are 400 million cases where it works.”
“That’s not an answer.”

Responses to Agrippa’s Trilemma »

From the standpoint of Better Humanhood, there are some things to point out here.

One is, if your belief — be it political or religious — is not falsifiable, understand that it’s just that: a belief. We can argue our different positions all day long, even tossing in stats and facts, but we still have no scientific basis for our beliefs.

Another is, facts are facts, other things are not. You can’t claim a moral truth, because morals aren’t backed by anything other than belief (see the previous paragraph).

Finally, tell the truth where you can. Where you can’t, back up your beliefs on as solid a foundation as you can.

Getting in your head

Getting in your head

Toward the end of his appearance on Duncan Trussell’s podcast, Dr. Drew notes that he needs to spend more time in his head.

It got me thinking about silence.

Meditation has been an on-again, off-again habit for me (it’s on-again right now; if you’re curious, I use the Oak app (for iPhone).

One of my favorite things to do is to visit my friends at Remedy Float and climb in a float tank. Also called “sensory deprivation chambers,” these are light-less, soundless rooms about 4 feet across, 8 feet long and 7 feet high with 13 inches of water heated to 94 degrees (roughly skin temperature) and 1,000 pounds or so of Epsom salts, so you’re definitely going to float, no matter who you are.

It’s 60-90 minutes of about as quiet as you can get.

That’s just a starting point, apparently. Much longer in silence than that, you might actually start growing new neurons.

Crazy, right? New brain cells for being quiet for a couple of hours! Some people think that means silence might be a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases.

In a study testing music in both musicians and non-musicians, rate of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure all went down when there was a pause in the music. Musicians more easily synced their breathing to the rhythm of the music, but otherwise, pauses in the music — the silent parts, in other words — were the bits that people were calmer during.

It’s not just for calm, though. During silence, we work things out. A couple of Australian scientists discovered that our brains are actually more active when not dealing with stimulus than when they are. The space between the stimuli is when we figure out what the stimuli mean.

We’re just starting, over the past couple of years, to understand the groupings of which neurons handle which stimuli.

Working things out during periods without stimulus, by the way, is the same reason we need to dream: we process what happened during the day and learn from it.

Silence can be so hard to come by that over the past decade, Finland has made solitude a central piece of its marketing to attract tourists.

Now, not everyone meditates in silence, but meditation can, in fact, quiet our brains. We discussed the benefits of meditation as it relates to increasing both happiness and patience.

We also know that meditation can make for better sleep, can help with self-relational feelings like personal empowerment and staying in love and help improve learning.

Silence leads to better focus. And there are a host of other benefits.

One of those benefits I want to discuss specifically is creativity. We’re going to have a series on creativity later this year, probably as fall approaches. Creativity isn’t just about art, or writing, or comedy or podcasting. It’s also about scientific innovation. Creativity allows us to see where we can combine fields or jump a gap.

Peter Gasca puts it simply:

If we are always focused on information input, it becomes even more difficult to force your brain to produce any output.

In other words, if you have to process noise (sounds, words, music, etc.) coming in, it’s hard for your brain to create some output.

If you’ve ever heard the term “content zombie,” you know what I mean. These are people who read a lot, listen to a lot of podcasts, squeeze in some audiobooks, take online courses, watch videos, and then … they can just spit back what they read or heard or watched but never put any of the knowledge or wisdom they absorb into practice.

There’s just so much input, they can’t seem to create any output.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a ton of great content out there. We’re producing a ton more every day. It’s easier than ever to publish content, in text, audio, video or even a combination of those.

Thomas Oppong notes that collaboration can be important for creatives (where would a lot of musicians be without Quincy Jones as a collaborator?), but, at the same time, it’s solitude that allows is to get into flow (we’ve written about flow before, and there will be much more coming on it in the coming months), and, he notes, Einstein and Newton, among others, worked almost entirely alone.

Oppong also offers an important reminder: you can choose solitude. While you may be forced into collaborative situations at work, there are plenty of ways to get some silence in your day. Get in early, he writes, or find time before your family wakes up or after they go to sleep. Turn off your phone. Get away from anything that can give you notifications.

Let me offer up three action items, if you’re looking for a place to start.

1. Download and start with a meditation app. You can use Oak (my app of choice), Calm, Headspace, Omvana or any of the dozens of other apps available. Just pick one and do 10 minutes, every day for a week. If you find trouble finding the time and space in your house, grab some headphones and lock yourself in the bathroom for 10 minutes (not kidding).

2. Ditch your phone. Even for five minutes. Just turn it off, tuck it under your pillow, and go sit on the deck or the porch or the balcony or, again, the toilet. Just shush and don’t scroll through anything.

3. Block stuff out. I’m not saying get in float tank for an hour (though I’m definitely not not recommending that), but get yourself a nice sleep mask and some ear plugs (total under $25, if you didn’t click on them). Wear them for five to ten minutes, and don’t be scared of what runs through your mind.

Now, go do something awesome.

Patience, success, confidence and happiness: What’s up in your brain and how to improve

Patience, success, confidence and happiness: What’s up in your brain and how to improve

I’ve been a dad for a touch over six months now. I stay at home with the baby during the day, and then work (from home) in the evening.

If nothing else, I’m learning patience.

Which of course got me thinking about patience.

A lot of the studies in patience are about delayed gratification. Maybe the most famous experiment in delayed gratification started in the 1960s when a Stanford professor bought a bunch of marshmallows. He sat down with children (most of them four or five years old) one at a time, placed a marshmallow in front of them, and told them that if the marshmallow was still there when he came back, they could have a second marshmallow as a reward; if the child ate the marshmallow, he or she just got the one.

They then followed those kids for a couple of decades and found that those who were patient enough to get the second marshmallow went farther in life.

So, patient people are more successful. But I’m more interested in the causes of patience and how we get more of it, as opposed to what the ability to wait 15 minutes before eating a marshmallow when you’re four years old means.

You remember our series on happiness a couple of months ago? In the first part of that series, we went over the chemicals in our brains associated with happiness. One was seratonin.

Christopher Bergland describes seratonin this way:

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it. For the sake of practical application I call it “The Confidence Molecule.” Ultimately the link between higher serotonin and a lack of rejection sensitivity allows people to put themselves in situations that will bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging.

It turns out that seratonin also regulates patience and impulsivity.

This particular study is on rats (we’ll discuss a related human study, too). The usual method for measuring impulse reactions versus patient reactions goes something like this: A rat is presented with two levers. One lever releases one pellet immediately. The other releases four pellets, but after a delay.

In other words, the rat is presented with two potential rewards, but if the rat is willing to wait, the reward will be larger.

Now, if you administer to one group a selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) — something like Zoloft or Lexapro, for example — you find that this group is more likely to wait for the larger reward.

In case it’s not entirely clear what an SSRI does, here’s a rudimentary description of what happens in a person taking, for example, sertraline (Zoloft) for anxiety: When the brain releases seratonin in a non-anxious person, you get a “normal” response, such as the confidence Bergland writes about.

In the brain of an anxious person, some of that seratonin gets re-absorbed (in an action called “re-uptake”), causing anxiety (or lack of confidence, as it were).

An SSRI blocks the re-uptake (that’d be the “inhibitor” part), so a person who would be seratonin-deficient gets a normal amount.

Presumably, rats in both the control group and the group getting the SSRI come in with a roughly equivalent baseline seratonin response (that is, they all have a normal “confidence” response to a seratonin release, without some subset facing the challenge of an anxiety-inducing re-uptake). Some seratonin is going to be lost to re-uptake, and both groups of rats would have the same amount of re-uptake occurring if it weren’t for the SSRI.

When you administer the SSRI, less seratonin than normal would be re-absorbed.

It turns out that significantly more rats in the group getting the SSRI are willing to wait for the four pellets than those not receiving the drug.

In other words, the rats with more seratonin running around in their brains are more patient. We see a similar thing in mice — when seratonin production is stimulated, mice are willing to wait longer for a bigger reward (as long as they actually believe the reward will be forthcoming).

Now, you probably couldn’t get a review board to approve a double-blind study like this with humans (that is, one in which the person wouldn’t know whether they were being administered a drug), but we do have technology — functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — that allows us to see things like seratonin release in the brain.

Here’s that related human study I mentioned.

This time, a bunch of people were offered either $100 tomorrow or $120 at the end of the month. Some people didn’t want to wait for the extra cash, and, if I explained the rat experiment well, you probably guessed that the fMRI results showed that people who elected to wait showed more seratonin was present.

The good news is, patience is trainable. Or, at least, we can un-train impatience, according to Dean Griffiths. Griffiths writes that there are two parts of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — that take prominent roles in patience. Both are part of the default mode network, which is still a new enough concept in neuroscience that it’s not super-well defined.

Basically, if you’re focusing on something, the default mode network is pretty quiet, but if you’re not, well, watch out. It’s that bundle of brain parts that spins and whirs and generally won’t shut up when you’ve got nothing else to do. If you live with depression or anxiety, chances are you have a very active default mode network.

Meditation appears to do a pretty good job shutting it down.

In part three of our series on happiness, we discussed meditation as a training method for bringing about joy and training confidence, creativity and more. As Chade-Meng Tan writes in Joy on Demand, “One of the biggest surprise discoveries of my life is that self-confidence can be trained by putting my butt onto a meditation cushion” (p. 33).

More seratonin makes us happier. More seratonin makes us more patient. Patience yields success. Success presumably makes us happy. Meditation makes us happier and more patient.

I’m not saying maybe we should meditate more, but if you’re wondering, I use Oak (only available for iPhone at this writing).

There are plenty of reasons to to be patient, pushing off gratification. Consider the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. in the first decade of the 2000s. Many people who could have qualified for “normal” mortgages instead opted for what were called “2/28” mortgages — loans with far lower than prime interest rates for the first two years that then cranked up high for the rest of the term of the loan. People figured, oh, we’ll refinance before the end of those first two years, and then they didn’t and wound up upside down.

Some people chalk this up to poor impulse control, the same thing that keeps us going back for seconds at the dessert table.

And if that all seems a little too personal, maybe sometimes we just need a little perspective.

Where Flag Day comes from

Where Flag Day comes from

June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. On June 14, 1777, the Stars and Stripes were adopted by the Second Continental Congress, and a series of pushes led President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim the anniversary as a celebration in 1916, and in 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill into law declaring it an annual day of recognition.

Not that anyone takes the day off or anything. But it’s on the books.

The city of Hartford, Conn., celebrated Flag Day on June 14, 1861.

In 1885, a Wisconsin schoolteacher named Bernard Cigrand suggested a celebration, and then he went on tour, bringing his Flag Day idea with him. In 1894, at his suggestion, some 300,000 people in Chicago celebrated Flag Day in public parks around the city on the third Saturday of June (chosen so that schoolchildren could attend).

In 1888, William T. Kerr founded the Flag Day Association of Western Pennsylvania.

In 1893, Ben Franklin’s descendant Elizabeth Duane Gillespie pushed for an official recognition of Flag Day in Pennsylvania. In 1938, it became the first state to recognize Flag Day as a holiday.

In 1907, Elks lodges in America began recognizing Flag Day each year, and it was from this celebration that Wilson made his 1916 proclamation.

Flag Etiquette

In a few weeks, it will be Independence Day in the U.S. People will have cookouts, and will eat hamburgers and hot dogs on paper plates with a flag design on them, then wipe the mustard off their upper lips with paper napkins similarly decorated. They might even arrange sandwiches on platters with toothpicks in them with small flags waving off the side.

All these things are against flag etiquette:

The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use.

Other rules, according to

  • The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal.
  • The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speakers desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
  • The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, fireman, policeman and members of patriotic organizations.
  • The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
  • The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

That means that all the football and baseball games we watch around patriotic holidays during which players put flag patches on their uniforms? Also against flag etiquette.

It’s meant to be a solemn symbol, not something to cheer for.

Let’s end, then, with John J. Daly’s Toast to the Flag.

Here’s to the red of it–
There’s not a thread of it,
No, nor a shred of it
In all the spread of it
From foot to head.
But heroes bled for it,
Faced steel and lead for it,
Precious blood shed for it,
Bathing it Red!
Here’s to the white of it–
Thrilled by the sight of it,
Who knows the right of it,
But feels the might of it
Through day and night?
Womanhood’s care for it
Made manhood dare for it,
Purity’s prayer for it
Keeps it so white!
Here’s to the blue of it–
Beauteous view of it,
Heavenly hue of it,
Star-spangled dew of it
Constant and true;
Diadems gleam for it,
States stand supreme for it,
Liberty’s beam for it
Brightens the blue!
Here’s to the whole of it–
Stars, stripes and pole of it,
Body and soul of it,
O, and the roll of it,
Sun shinning through;
Hearts in accord for it,
Swear by the sword for it,
Thanking the Lord for it,
Red White and Blue!

From your ears to your brain: What are you listening to?

From your ears to your brain: What are you listening to?

I’ve always been a big reader. In kindergarten, while everybody else was in reading group learning what sound “a” makes, I was in the library reading books. Book-books, things that might be considered for middle schoolers today.

I plowed my way through 80 or so Hardy Boys books by the time I was in fourth grade.

I don’t mean to brag, just to give you a frame of reference for this post.

I have a fairly retentive memory. If I write something down, by hand, I probably don’t need to look at it again. I can write a grocery list at home, forget to look at it until I get ready to check out and find that maybe I missed one of 20 items.

Again, not to brag. That kind of steel-trap memory is as much a liability as it is a boon: I can remember grocery lists and account numbers (I used to remember a lot of phone numbers but I rarely dial by number anymore), but I also remember every insult from elementary school and man, can I hold a grudge.

Reading is a primary activity for me. I sit down to do it, and I don’t do anything else while I’m reading, except maybe listen to classical music. I used to walk and read, but the older I’ve gotten, the slower my reflexes are and, frankly, the less I care about things outside the book, so I’m more likely to walk into someone. Or something. Like a building. Or a car.

But listening is a secondary activity. I listen to audiobooks while running or cleaning or cooking. I listen to podcasts while working or working out or doing mundane things that require my body and hands. From listening to the best joe rogan podcasts of all time, for example, educational podcasts, or career-related podcasts, this is something that can be put on in the background but can still be enjoyed while doing other tasks.

I may listen to music while I’m in the car, as long as the vehicle’s audio system works fully, as I know this can be an issue for a lot of cars. If you suffer from this kind of issue, you may benefit from having a look at some of the speaker systems on somewhere like joinfuse, who present some of the best options available on the market.

Sometimes I’ll go back and listen to something a second time as a primary activity, if, for example, I want to take notes (see, for example, my notes on Bert Kreischer’s conversation with Bobby Kelly or Mike Baker on Joe Rogan’s podcast), but by and large, I can listen and absorb the important stuff.

People spend more than half their waking hours reading, listening and watching:

In an average week, the typical American spends approximately 38 hours watching television shows and movies, 8 hours reading books, magazines, and newspapers, and 18 hours listening to recorded music and radio.

While none of these studies addresses podcasts, which fall somewhere between talk radio and audiobooks (I guess?), we know a few things.

Audiobooks are more engaging than films or TV, for example.

Listening is a shortcut to assimilating our brains to our surroundings:

Listening, which meanings giving attention to sound, “tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills. … The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”

Arielle Pardes says listening isn’t like reading at all – thanks, primarily, to the attention required to read something, while listening is a secondary activity. Daniel Willingham, who actually studies such things, says, actually, they’re more or less the same.

Here are three audiobooks I’m enjoying right now, and why I’m listening instead of reading:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. OK, I’ll admit this is the lazy move. Have you tried reading this thing? Better have young eyes, lots of coffee, and a boatload of patience. I’ve started and stopped a bunch on the 1,000-plus-page piece of work, and 63 hours of audio seems like a deal for a $6.95 credit bought on special.

This is the sort of book that people eat, and it takes a long time. Jason Segal (who played Wallace in a movie) told Marc Maron that when he went to buy a copy for his research, the young lady behind the counter said, “Ugh, Infinite Jest. Every guy I’ve ever slept with has an unread copy on his bookshelf.”

Don’t worry, honey. I didn’t sleep with her. And technically my copy, which was purchased used and handed down after that, is not unread. Probably. It seems to have passed through many hands to have not been read.

Digging Up Mother by Doug Stanhope. Comedian Stanhope’s memoir – centered around not quite “assisting” in his mother’s suicide (she was terminally ill and under hospice care; you can watch his comedy bit on it here) – includes a cast of characters including his partner, Bingo, some of his friends, and some of the people from the book.

They have side conversations (obviously not available in the print version), and I’m sure the print version is sadly corrupted by at least some editing (Stanhope yells, “fake name!” on the audio in each place the lawyers made him change someone’s name.

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. Goggins worked with Alex Skolnick to write his memoir – a memoir of a rough childhood that included brutal beatings from Dad, running away with Mom and living in a $7/month apartment in a mostly white town; life as a very overweight exterminator; and losing 100 pounds in a few months to be accepted into the military. He went on to become an ultra-runner and a world-record holder in pull-ups.

Skolnick narrates the audiobook and stops after each section to have a conversation with Goggins, so the audiobook is really part podcast as well.

Let’s talk about some podcasts, as well. I’ll just assume you’re listening to Better Humanhood and JKWD. You are, aren’t you?

Here are some things I’m filling my earholes with.

Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan are probably getting bigger audiences than CNN at this point, so I won’t say much about their shows. Here are four others you should consider.

Big Questions with Cal Fussman. Fussman traveled the world with no money and then spent 25 years as a freelance writer with an exclusive contract at Esquire, so you’ll be forgiven if, like me, you hadn’t heard of him before Ferriss had him on. Fussman is a consummate storyteller who has breakfast with Larry King every day the two of them are in the same city.

He gave my daughter several minutes of an episode when she was just a couple weeks old, and one of his sponsors, Sportiqe sent along a blanket and a lovely letter.

Five more suggested episodes:

Mick Ebeling, of Not Impossible Labs
Joe de Sena (Spartan Races) and Lil Misty Diaz (obstacle race athlete with spina bifida)
Melanie Whelan of SoulCycle
Radha Agrawal of Daybreaker
Scooter Braun

Timesuck with Dan Cummins. You might know comedian Cummins from his bit Here Come the Spoons. He’s created his own little world with characters from an evil Russian wrestling coach to a three-legged hound to a dark mistress and an overlord. He does a weekly deep dive on some topic of interest to him, often a conspiracy or serial killer, but sometimes something more uplifting.

He sprinkles in fake facts and ads and has a super-engaged following. Most episodes include regular segments related to the topic, such as a timeline and “idiots of the internet,” his response to ridiculous comments on YouTube videos and Reddit threads and the like.

The podcast website isn’t permalink friendly, so I’ll drop the YouTube versions here for some favorite episodes.

Five suggested episodes:

Casey Anthony: Free and Guilty?
Ed Kemper: The Co-Ed Killer
The Pinkerton Detective Agency
The DB Cooper Hijack Mystery
Mikhail “The Werewolf Popkov: Russia’s Most Notorious Serial Killer

Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Trussell is an absurdist comedian who is a seeker. He’s survived testicular cancer (with one testicle removed). He lost his mother to cancer. His father died recently, and he and his wife welcomed their first child as well. He’s a believer in peace, meditation, psychedelics, and bringers of light, from Jesus to Ram Dass.

His episodes are often surprising – from spiritual discussions with creators of comedy shows to funny conversations with spiritual advisers to discussions about the practice of both light and dark magick/alchemy through the centuries.

It’s hard to pick where to start, but here are five suggested episodes (and don’t let any weird ads get to you – his humor often isn’t mine and some come off just odd; you can always just skip through to the episode). These episodes all happen to be male interview subjects, but yes, he regularly has women on the show.

Steven Kotler
Zach Leary
Daniele Bolelli
Raghu Markus
Shane Mauss

Astonishing Legends. It’s been fun following Forrest Burgess and Scott Philbrook as they took this show from a hobby to a career. They run the definitive show for the world’s real-life mysteries, along with some urban legends. I learned about shadow people and black-eyed kids from the show, but they’ve done in-depth series on things like the Mothman, the Betz Sphere and the Black Monk of Pontefract.

They have a team of volunteer researchers and they have fans send in segues to read the shows back in from ads. They have a release schedule that, after four years of listening, I still haven’t wrapped my head around; they take a week off every three or four weeks or so. When they do a series, they never know how many episodes it will be, because sometimes people come out of the woodwork for interviews or with new information after the first episode comes out.

Five suggested episodes:

• The Sallie House: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
• The Devil and Anneliese Michel – Exorcism on Trial: Part 1 Part 2 | Part 3
• Oak Island Money Pit: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
• The Betz Sphere: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
• Skinwalker Ranch: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

What Memorial Day means

What Memorial Day means

We’re coming up on Memorial Day here in the U.S. This weekend, beaches will open, dormant pools will have their covers removed and their chlorine balanced, and people will fire up their grills. It’s the unofficial start to summer.

But that’s not really what Memorial Day is all about. Let’s put a proper photo here and get into the history and meaning.

According to All About History, Memorial Day was first observed in 1868 to commemorate the Civil War dead. In reality, it’s probably a little older — and more complicated — than that.

Shortly after the Civil War (or the War Between the States, or, if you want to get even more Southern, the War of Northern Aggression) — on April 25, 1866 — women in Columbus, Miss., laid flowers on the graves of soldiers on both sides. A couple of years later, in 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, the head of a unit of Union veterans, declared May 30 Decoration Day, in honor of the war’s dead.

There were reports, however, of women decorating soldiers’ graves during and even before the Civil War.

By the 1880s, Decoration Day had become widely known as Memorial Day, and after the first World War, it became a commemoration of the dead of all wars America had been involved in, not just the Civil War.

In 1971, the observance of Memorial Day was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

There are still separate Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies: The fourth Monday in April in Alabama; the last Monday in April in Mississippi; April 26 in Georgia; May 10 in the Carolinas; June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee; January 19 in Texas; and Virginia also celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the the federal holiday, the last Monday in May.

Poppies play a strong role in commemorating Memorial Day. They’re a resilient flower, and they grow in harsh climates, even if they have to lie dormant for several seasons, and they were found growing in northern cemeteries when Lt. Col. John McCrae of the Canadian Army paid his respects. From his poem, “In Flanders Fields:”

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Pioneer Press recalls Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Memorial Day reminder at Arlington National Cemetery that peace comes at a cost.

We must always remember that peace is a fragile thing that needs constant vigilance. We owe them a promise to look at the world with a steady gaze and, perhaps, a resigned toughness, knowing that we have adversaries in the world and challenges and the only way to meet them and maintain the peace is by staying strong.
That, of course, is the lesson of this century, a lesson learned in the Sudetenland, in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in Cambodia. If we really care about peace, we must stay strong. If we really care about peace, we must, through our strength, demonstrate our unwillingness to accept an ending of the peace. We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does. That’s the lesson of this century and, I think, of this day.

So sure, open up your grill and invite some friends over. But fly your flag at half staff until noon, as is the custom, and pour one out for our fallen.

Introduction to Empathy: The brain, psychopaths and the empathy quotient test

Introduction to Empathy: The brain, psychopaths and the empathy quotient test

We’re going to focus a little on empathy specifically, but we don’t want to be nit-picky about the term. Empathy occupies a specific scientific space, which we’ll delve into with definitions and such, but when it comes to Better Humanhood, we’re at least as interested in its relatives kindness and compassion.

We’ll get more into this in a later post, but there’s a school out there — well-laid out by Paul Bloom in Against Empathy — that argues against a reliance on empathy, but instead more of a systematized moral code that benefits more people through enforcing actions that result in kindnesses, rather than relying on what is actually empathy, the neuronal response.

What is empathy? Can we see it? What does it look like? What happens when it’s missing? This introduction is the start of a series.

What is empathy? Can we see it? What does it look like? What happens when it's missing? #betterhumanhood Click To Tweet

“Empathy,” writes Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of comedian Sacha) in The Science of Evil, “is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion” (p. 16).

Roman Krznaric describes it in Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions” (p. x).

The word empathy derives from the Greek empatheiaem (in or into) and pathos (feeling). In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison relates it to “a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another person’s country” (p. 6).

It seems, then, that empathy requires:
(a) At least two people;
(b) the ability to recognize emotion in someone else (such as happiness or sadness); and
(c) the ability to determine what is hopefully a proper response.

Marco Iacoboni conducted some of the early experiments in empathy research, and was the first to discover empathetic connections in the brain. (You might remember that we went from thinking the brain was garbage to being shocked at how much we have yet to discover about the organ in our noggins.)

“Solid empirical evidence,” he writes in Mirroring People, “suggests that our brains are capable of mirroring the deepest aspects of the minds of others” (p. 7).

'Our drive to imitate seems to be powerfully present at birth and never declines' -- @marcoiacoboni #betterhumanhood Click To Tweet

Iacoboni describes imitation as a basic human function. “Our drive to imitate,” he notes, “seems to be powerfully present at birth and never declines” (p. 47). Toddlers who aren’t yet speaking play imitation games; the more they do so, he finds, the more likely they are to be fluent speakers within one to two years.

In fact, Iacoboni writes, while Jean Piaget suggests that babies learn to imitate, Andrew Meltzoff suggests instead that babies learn by imitating. So, rather than babies developing the skill to imitate their parents, they are born with the innate skill to imitate, and by using that skill is how they actually learn.

It probably doesn’t surpise you to learn that children are much better at imitating behavior, as well as the goals of others’ behavior, than they are at paying attention to directions. For example, you can fail at doing a handstand, but a child can pick up what you’re trying to do and take the steps to attempt to succeed at doing a handstand. However, they’re not so good at following spoken instructions for doing a handstand.

How do we manage this early-in-life imitation, and how does it relate to empathy? “We are deeply connected at a basic, pre-reflective level,” writes Iacoboni, but “we do not have to draw complex inferences or run complicated algorithms. Instead, we use mirror neurons” (pp. 268, 7).

Mirror neurons were first discovered using experiments involving grasping, and later we learned that perception and activity (such as seeing a graspable object versus actually grasping it) aren’t done with separate sets of neurons. In other words, we don’t have separate boxes” for those things — as far as our brains are concerned, thinking about grabbing a banana and actually grabbing it trigger the same neurons.

Iacoboni goes on to write about this in terms of pain. For people with normal brain function (more on that in a little bit), if we watch someone have a needle go through their hand, we inadvertently flinch in the part of our hand where the needle went through, even though it was going through someone else’s hand.

This isn’t a function of our hand, it’s a function of our brain. “Our brain produces a full simulation — even the motor component — of the observed painful experiences of other people,” Iacoboni writes (p. 124).

“Although we commonly think of pain as a fundamentally private experience,” he continues, “our brain actually treats it as an experience shared with others” (p. 124).

Iacoboni identified the basic path empathetic feelings travel through brain via mirror neurons and the limbic system. Baron-Cohen reported a more detailed path, outlining ten specific parts of the brain. Among these are the medial prefrontal cortex, which is used for things like social information, perspective and comparison; the frontal operculum, which is responsible for language and encoding goals; and the amygdala, which handles fear, among other things. Along the way, neurons fire in parts of the brain that process pain, recognize gaze and emotional state, and judge intentions.

Now, if you’re familiar with the case of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who took a tamping rod through the skull and part of his brain and then toured the country for more than a decade until his death, you’ll know that damage to different parts of the brain causes different things to go awry.

Of course, that was all new in 1848 and the only thing apparently wrong with Gage was that he was way too cranky to work with.

So what happens when part of the empathy path is damaged or otherwise compromised?

“We all live somewhere on on the empathy spectrum (from high to low),” Baron-Cohen writes (p. 10). This is true for all spectra, by the way, from empathy to autism to sexuality to blindness. That’s what spectrums are — they put us on a sliding scale from, say, zero percent to 100 percent.

“People said to be evil or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum,” he continues, noting that “unempathetic acts are simply the tail end of a bell curve, found in every population on the planet” (p. 15).

We noted above that neuroscientists have identified a path in the brain that signals travel in extending empathy to others. It might not surprise you, then, to discover that in people with low empathy, we find some damage or other irregularity along this path.

James Fallon (not to be confused with comedian Jimmy) has an interesting story we’ll get to in a moment, but what he’s found is that psychopaths all show a malfunction in the full path of the pattern. Other criminals (like impulse murderers) only have a malfunction in one or several parts along the path, often those parts that typically prevent impulsivity.

Interestingly, in brain scans, psychopaths and people with autism present similarly. So why aren’t a large number of people with autism psychopathic murderers? Fallon:

“A dichotomy may exist between empathy, a fundamental connection with the pain of others and arising early in life, and ‘theory of mind,’ a more elaborate prefontal system that allows us to consider others’ thoughts and beliefs, even if they are different from our own. People with autism lack theory of mind but not empathy, while people with psychopathy lack empathy but not theory of mind” (p. 55).

In his book The Psychopath Inside, Fallon details how he got into this research. A lawyer asked him to look at a brain scan of a convicted murderer ahead of his sentencing. Fallon found a defect in the impulse control regions, and the murderer was sentenced to life in prison instead of the death penalty.

He was brought in on a bunch of similar cases in subsequent years.

Some time later, he was asked if he would look at a bunch of brain scans of people known to be psychopaths to see if he could find a pattern. He agreed, but asked for a blind control: he wanted the psychopaths’ brain scans mixed in with “normal” brain scans.

He found the pattern immediately.

Fallon was doing an unrelated Alzheimer’s study and decided to have his brain and the brains of his wife and children scanned as a control (none was displaying signs of dementia). The brains of his wife and children looked perfectly normal, but his brain showed a familiar defect: it looked like that of psychopath.

Fallon’s brother had done a lot of genealogical research on their family, and going back nearly a thousand years, there were impulse killers, serial killers and even tyrannical kings in their family tree.

Psychopathy is one of three “negative zero-empathy” condition Baron-Cohen describes, along with borderline and narcissism. Autism, in this case, would be a non-negative zero-empathy condition.

“Zero degrees of empathy,” he writes, “means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions” (p. 43).

Early in life stress can lead to zero empathy, he notes, but “it takes more than a harsh environment to make a psychopath. There must be a genetic element” (p. 126).

Sounds like Fallon got lucky having a decent environment to grow up in. Or maybe potential victims got lucky.

Still, after finding out his brain appeared like that of a psychopath’s, Fallon went around and asked friends and colleagues what they thought of him. At least one of them wanted nothing else to do with him ever. But on the kinder end of the scale, some of his friends pointed out that he never responded to party invitations until the last minute, holding out in case he got a better opportunity.

Fallon writes that he was defensive at first, but upon further reflection, his friends were correct.

“When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode,” writes Baron-Cohen. “In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things. Most of us are capable of doing this occasionally” (p. 7). That sounds pretty consistent with what Fallon’s friends told him; just for him, natural empathy is generally turned off.

We’re going to end this introduction to empathy with a look inward.

Baron-Cohen has developed an Empathy Quotient exam. I’ll spare you the details (you can go take it if you want), but I score not much higher than someone with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism.

You might recall that someone with autism has a brain that looks a lot like that of a psychopath, but we described that as a non-negative zero-empathy condition (“non-negative” is my term, by the way, to use in contrast with Baron-Cohen’s “negative zero-empathy condition” description without using “positive”).

But “empathy is not the sole route to developing a moral code and a moral conscience that leads a person to behave ethically,” Baron-Cohen asserts (p. 95), and this includes people with high-functioning autism and those of us who are not far away from them on the EQ scale.

These people tend to systematize their moral code, and we’ll discuss that in the next installment of this series.

Down the rabbit hole: Sacred geometry, spiritual mysticism and art through the ages

Down the rabbit hole: Sacred geometry, spiritual mysticism and art through the ages

Sometime around 590 BCE, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision. It was God, seated on a throne, with an angel at each of the corners. From his groin emanated a bright light. Here’s one translation.

A new branch of Judaism was born. A mystical branch of men who chased his vision. It came to be called Kabbalah, and, as time passed, rules developed around who was allowed to practice — typically men who had already had kids, in case they went down the rabbit hole and never came out.


Some 20 years later, Pythagoras was born. He would develop the basis for a system of mathematics and geometry which was greatly expounded a couple of centuries later by Euclid. We learn of him via the Pythagorean theorem, that formula that allows us to determine right angles.

The thing we don’t learn about Pythagoras is that he’s the one who developed the theory of the immortal soul. When we die, he asserted, our souls transmigrate, or leave our bodies and head off to somewhere else.

Another branch of Kabbalah went off in search of the soul.


Other students of Kabbalah have looked for numeric patterns in nature and the Bible (you might remember seeing pieces of this in the film Pi).

Another group began, for lack of a better term, explicating God. They identified ten aspects, called sefirot. They’re super interesting. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I wrote an in-depth summary, which is basically the first 11 pages of this document. Jump back up here to read it later if you want. It’s not really the focus here.

There are ten sefirot. The universe tries to work in balance with them. In a well-balanced universe, the diagram of these aspects looks like this:

Pay special attention to numbers 1, 6, 9 and 10, which run vertically down the center of the diagram. We’ll get to why in a few.

Let’s step back about 600 years. Around 1200 BCE, the vedas were written down. These are the primary texts of Hinduism. They refer to chakravartin, kings who turn the wheels of the empire.

Some 2,000 years later, these turning wheels become energy centers called chakras. There are seven chakras along a vertical axis from the base of the spine to just above the head. You can find a brief explanation of each here.

They are depicted thusly:

A little bit ago, I asked you to pay attention to sephirot numbers 1, 6, 9 and 10. If you were to overlay the diagram of sephirot and the diagram of the chakras, you would find that these center-dwelling sephirot line up with the root, navel, heart and crown chakras.


While formal kabbalah study is reaching farther now thanks to not only the internet but also to synagogues and other Jewish community centers offering facilitated groups, it is highly unlikely more than a handful of individuals on the planet in the eighth century CE would have been familiar with both chakras and sephirot, much less visual representations of each, which were not widely published at that point (remember this is before movable type, so publications were hand-copied).

Vitruvius was a Roman architect who lived in the first century BCE. One of the writings he left behind was an instruction manual for how to draw a human with the proper proportions.

Those instructions include the architectural designs, based in geometry, for the proper proportions. You may have heard of the golden ratio, that pattern found in nature that is represented in leaves and snail shells and — you guessed it — ideally symmetrical human faces and bodies.

Around 1490 CE (more than 1,500 years after Vitruvius’s death), Leonardo da Vinci drew out Vitruvius’s design and included the ancient architect’s notes in a piece called Vitruvian Man. You might recognize it:

You probably guessed where this is going.

If you overlay the depiction of the sephirot upon Vitruvian Man, with keter above the head and malkhut at the base of the spine, it will line up, just as the root chakra will sit at the base of the spine and the crown chakra will float above Vitruvian Man’s head (and the throat chakra will line up on the throat, the brow chakra above and between the eyes, etc.).

If it was already unlikely that the people who depicted the chakras knew of the depiction of sephirot, it is even more unlikely that Vitruvius’s written instructions for a depiction of a man would have lined up with the sephirot, and just as unlikely that the creator of the depiction of the chakras would have foreseen this overlay with instructions written in a different language.

Now, let’s jump just a little to the side.

There is a visual depiction of something called Sacred Geometry. It starts with a circle, then another circle with its center point drawn from a point on the first circle. Next, another circle with its center point at one of the two intersections of the first two circles, continuing around until all the intersections overlap.

If you keep going in like manner, you get the flower of life. It looks like this:

You can see it drawn here:

You probably don’t have to ask, but yes, if you overlay the depictions of the chakras and sephirot everything lines up on intersections of circles in the flower of life, and Vitruvian Man fits rather comfortably inside this depiction as well.


But wait, there’s more.

Sacred geometry is an art form that lives within us.

Artists like Samuel Farrand intentionally use it in pieces like these:

But I’ve asked other artists, like Amy Fortier, about her use of Sacred Geometry patterns and she said it’s not something she’s heard of. But check out some of her artwork:

How did we get from sephirot to chakras to Vitruvian Man to Samuel Farrand and Amy Fortier? Across time and space, there’s a sacred geometry within our expression that seems to be there inside innately. It’s hard to deny the connection.