Banned Book Club – 1984

October 14, 2011

Before I get into that, a bit of personal housekeeping. The poetry I posted earlier today was written in response to some emotional turmoil I went through this past year. Longtime readers may recall mention of someone only ever referred to as the Man. We had a very brief relationship that ended a few days before my birthday last September. There were no plans to keep in contact with him after that, but things kept reminding me of him and in the (many) weak moments, there’d be an urge to get ahold of his phone number so I could at least hear his voice again and find out how he was doing. One such urge hit in July of this year but when I requested his number from a mutual acquaintance I wound up getting an email from him instead. I’ve since deleted that, and my long response to it, but the bulk of the exchange cleared up many of the communication glitches that had impeded our progress as a couple at the time. That in itself was something of a relief. I finally had a better understanding of why things fell apart and got the chance to get a few things off my chest, too. And then I thought little more about it. Life must go on, right?

As it turned out, he thought a little more about it and, almost a year to the day we broke up, he called me up and asked me out for coffee. I was nervous as hell about seeing him again but the awkwardness only lasted a moment and then we were our chatty, comfortable selves again, as if no time at all had passed between us. Talk about awesome. As to knowing where we’re at now, you can just keep on squirming in your seat. The lurid details will not be forthcoming.

For years I’ve insisted that communication is key. It really is. I think the strength of any relationship, be it romantic or parental, can be measured by how well the people involved deal with each other and it’s always going to be the best way to build trust. And let’s not even limit this to personal relationships. Let’s talk public relationships. Corporations and politicians want consumers and voters to trust them, too. When communication breaks down, or is allowed to break down, that’s where the trouble starts. People insist on transparency for a reason. People demand less secrecy and fewer obvious lies. People have a right to demand that. Communication and trust go hand in hand.

Which brings me, finally, to 1984 by George Orwell.

We had a really interesting discussion about this book last night. I doubt I can remember every fine point that came up, but here goes.

The premise, for those who need it: Winston Smith lives in a politically polarized society where every moment of his life is monitored by “Big Brother” and the art of communication is getting more and more restrictive every day. Committees are hard at work stripping the English language of anything too nuanced or descriptive, hoping to make Ingsoc the official language for everyone because it’s “doubleplusgood” yet essentially useless for communicating any worthwhile or challenging ideas. Winston has a different job, but it’s focused on language, too, particularly language used to express moments in history. He’s responsible for editing print material from the past when the contents conflict with present-day political thought and current events.

For example, there’s a long-term war on, but ally and enemy switch places every once in a while, which means references to Oceania at war with Eurasia need to be switched to war with Eastasia, and switched back again mere months later. Crazy business. It came up a few times in conversation last night – what the hell do they do this for when the bulk of that society is comprised of illiterate “proles” too busy drinking beer and having sex and who would never try to hunt down a news article from five months ago to check for inconsistencies anyway? The whole point of “doublethink” is to believe what you’re told, no matter how contradictory it is compared with what you were told before. War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Ignorance is Strength!

The freedom to think for one’s self is severely curtailed and limited in this world. The proles are completely ignorant of just how limited they really are. They live their lives completely oblivious to the things that people like Winston and other Outer Party people fear. They have to fear the Thought Police. They’re all worried and fearful of being caught behaving or thinking in any way that might lead their own children to believe they’re thought criminals and turn them in. Winston has a rebellious streak and knows death could be around the corner anytime but he still writes in his secret journal and starts up a sexual relationship with a fellow Party member and rebel named Julia, a practice banned by the Party at large. When the pair finds out there’s a grassroots resistance movement called the Brotherhood, they’re eager to join it. Unfortunately, it turns out the Party has been onto them the whole damn time and people they were foolish to trust in the first place are quick to betray them, and they are doomed to betray each other. The remainder of the book is spent with Winston in his Party prison being tortured and broken down and eventually built up again through hard-core conditioning to be Party supporter.

We talked a bit about how Orwell published this in 1947 so he was certainly familiar with the Hitler Youth movement and propaganda tactics being used by all sides to sell the favoured ideologies of the time, but most of our discussion had to do with the language issue and whether or not the society Orwell built here would function at all. Some made the argument that you can take away the word but you can’t take away the feeling. Kill the word “freedom” and never teach people what it means, but there will still be that urge to be free, even if they can’t express the feeling with a specific word anymore. We’ll still need food even if we have no word for “hunger.” We’ll still ache for love even if the verbal or written language used to express it is eradicated, as was happening in Winston’s society. Our humanity cannot be denied for long.

So, bringing this back to the idea of communication and trust. The Party manipulates all facets of communication, making sure nobody has a truth they can rely on as a definite “This is how it really is” sense of their world. Winston thinks he’s found it in a history book published by the Brotherhood but even this turns out to be dubious information once he’s told the tome was manufactured by Party insiders, likely for the whole purpose of drawing out anyone who showed obvious signs of resistance. But rather than make him a martyr to that cause by publicly executing him, they merely kill his spirit instead, and fill the void with their own party mantras. 2 + 2 really can equal 5.

Geeky side note: Star Trek is totally awesome. Picard hollering, “There are four lights!” at his Cardassian captors is the heroic homage to Winston’s inability to maintain a truth he could see plainly: four fingers visible on O’Brien’s hand, versus O’Brien stating he was showing five. Recalling the phrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” led us down another path exploring how meaning is transferred through language and why conversation built around metaphor might be an impossible way to get any sense of anything across to one’s own offspring let alone a stranger. And I got to compare Winston’s ultimate no-win situation to the Kobayashi Maru.

All in all, we came out of the meet in agreement about this book being a valuable piece of literary history that ought to be read by everyone. The ideas expressed within it will always be vital talking points and important issues for every aspect of society. This shit matters and will always matter so long as there are governments looking to control information. It will always matter so long as there are people looking for guidance, loyalty, trust, respect, and love. If you haven’t read it yet, at least put it on your list of things to do, okay? And then come back here and comment on it.


Are there Reasonable Women?

March 5, 2011

Apparently so. Saskatoon Freethinkers has a mini group meeting tonight for women who think they qualify. They let me join so I guess I qualify, too. There’s been some debate about whether or not it’s necessary to create a group within the group just for women, but they haven’t let that stop them from trying it. The organizer got the idea from a recent Blag Hag post regarding women and their “minority” status in atheist groups, plus the idea that women might be put off by a room dominated by men and male speakers who may or may not be curious about the reasons why women might not want to put up with that.

Our Freethinker group has several women on the Executive and our leader is a woman, so as a group we might be less likely to have trouble with this but men do outnumber the women at meetings and pub nights so maybe it will be worthwhile for a while to run a group geared toward women, assuming enough women want something that exclusive and will want to continue meeting that way. I see the appeal, but I signed up more because it’ll give me an opportunity to hang out with the gals for a change. The guys are entertaining, but it’s time to switch it up a little, I think.

Something ironic to mention that happened with me and some of the guys in our group recently. At my banned book club, the new group idea got talked about a bit and one of the guys asked me if I’d ever felt like my input wasn’t going to be taken seriously, not listened to, was I ever getting interrupted by guys who thought whatever they wanted to say was going to be more important than letting me finish. While trying to explain why that did or didn’t bother me, I kept getting interrupted by several of the guys.

Is that annoying? Yeah. Is it worth freaking out over? It really depends on what I’m trying to say, and how important I feel it is. Personality- wise, I’ve never been one who wants to be the center of attention so it doesn’t get under my skin like it might for those who think deserve the spotlight at all times. I have been around guys who prefer the sound of their own voices, but I’ve been interrupted by women just as often, I’m sure. No doubt there are those who’d say I’ve done my share of interrupting, too.

I’ll report on what got discussed next time. International Women’s Day is on March 8th and that was mentioned on the Meet-up site as one of the reasons we’re meeting this weekend. I wonder if anyone will bring up the sad fact that women felt it was necessary to organize a day to remind the world that women have value beyond their wombs. I think it’s sad anyway, so maybe I’ll have to bring it up…


A question with a very obvious answer

January 29, 2011

The question is this:

How many organizations and associations would a 20-something have to join that might come close to equaling the kind of social connection made available through full activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

The obvious answer: One.

The elitism inherent in that question is laughable. It comes from an article in the Mormon Times about what technology is doing to face-to-face relationships. It’s an interesting question, which is why I was going to read the article in the first place. I just had to pause and laugh when I reached that paragraph, and then I had to start up a blog post so I could inform readers of something to laugh at.

All the article winds up concluding is that people should be looking at getting more involved with their LDS church instead of spending their nights on Facebook or Twitter.

Would even a volley of Twitterific messages — at 140 characters or fewer — pierce a heart? A soul? An intellect? Perhaps no more than fleeting elevator chitchat. Probably less.

Even if one isn’t aiming for meaningful conversation or reflective dialogue online, though, there’s still something innately spiritual about connecting with the real world.

“I have never seen an electronic hug that worked worth a darn,” said Stephen Weber, institute instructor and a former bishop from Orem, Utah, who now is at the New Haven institute in Connecticut. “And last time I checked, kissing is just not as exciting on Facebook.”

That means I need to point out that involvement with any social group, be it friends or something more organized will do the trick. It doesn’t have to be a church. I never used to do a hell of a lot beyond work and show watching but then I started bowling with some girls from work and got invited to join their birthday group and then got the idea to hunt for local Freethinkers and then joined the Skeptics group that was a sideline of that, and then dated a really terrific guy I could communicate with (when he was around and phones were working). I hunted for more opportunities to do that with other people after we split and now I’m spending one or two nights a week with Badger, who is good fun, too.

The point is, I’m hardly at home alone anymore and it’s pretty cool. It’s nice to be involved with groups and having in-person social interactions. I did so much net-chat stuff in university when I should have been having in-person social interactions.. I already went through what kids today are now experiencing in terms of addiction to text messaging and the like. I got over it; maybe some of them will be able to do the same in time. Once they figure out what’s more important…


Has anyone written “The Book” on text etiquette yet?

August 13, 2010

Some back story first. I see Cracked has put together yet another great list. This time it’s 6 scientific reasons why break ups are bad for you. Their list:

Friends may copy you and damage whatever they’ve got going, even if it really was good between their partners.

You physically experience withdrawal symptoms because relationships create a high in the brain and when that person is gone, it’s seriously cold turkey time. No wonder people will often leap into rebound relationships so quick – anything for a fix…

Women risk loss of income when a relationship crashes. Guys (and gals, too, for that matter) risk prolonged loneliness that can last years and lead to drug or alcohol problems, or make an already bad habit worse. They’re not making it up; they’ve got a link to an Australian study where damage was tracked for years.

People who’ve been together for a while become interdependent from a personality standpoint and when divided, may have difficulty reestablishing where they end and their lost partner begins. It’s akin to that love is like 2 trees story I shared after my cousin’s wedding. They offer more links to more studies and articles.

Breakups are stressful enough to kill you. Adrenaline can lead to heart spasms that are akin to heart attacks, and if those are bad enough, they can actually damage the heart and increase risk of actual heart attacks.

Breakups are stressful enough to help something else kill or cripple you (arthritis, cancer) because prolonged depression affects not only the mind, but the body’s ability to stave off disease.

What’s all that got to do with texting etiquette? Not to sound like a Trekkie here, but that’s how the Man and I “reestablished contact” after That Saturday, and had a play in how I felt when I suspected That Saturday was a forgone conclusion.

Instant messaging has been around for a while. Old geeks and nerds may have fond memories of playing with IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. Some geeks and nerds probably still use it. I haven’t run mIRC (a shareware client designed for that) since university but on those rare occasions when my favourite talker’s server would go down (talkers were accessed using a telnet program instead), I knew I could head into IRC chat “rooms” to find some of the same people and continue our convos. Later came ICQ and MSN Messenger and other programs. Now we have the same ability to talk by text on our phones as well.

But the same problems that riddled that early text world crop up in the phone world now – just how do you express emotion and tone in a message without tone of voice to reassure the recipient that his or her interpretation of the message is an accurate one? Smilies exist solely as a method to attempt to emote, but they’ve never been an adequate replacement for a smile and a laugh or that pitch variance at the end of a sentence, for example.

Not just that, but how do you as the recipient know what reaction the sender was expecting? I’ve chatted online with some people who’d freak out if 5 minutes went by without an answer to some text question. Sorry I can’t take my PC to the bathroom with me, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. AFK, BRB… use them or lose a friend who gets offended easily, you know?

And how long is too long to wait before replying to a text? Does every text need a response? Does every sender expect a response? And when should one assume that no response is the response to what was written?

I don’t want to be one of those people who expects or demands constant contact from someone. I never have been one of those people; it’s odd that getting interested in a guy would alter that part of my personality, frankly. As one who can easily go years between chats with some people and never feel like a connection was lacking in the interim, this feeling I was getting, that “why hasn’t he responded yet?” bizarro stress, has been a real mental anguish and cause for confusion about his feelings for me, you know?

Should it be a source of stress? Rationally and realistically, I have to say no.

Everybody has a life and every life has shit going on and everybody has to deal with the shit on a daily basis – shit that’s far more important than replying to text messages the very instant they arrive. To expect a person to drop everything just to reply.. well, who made me Queen of the Universe?

I think it’s fair to say that this instantaneous world we’ve built for ourselves has really done a number on our ability to be patient and reasonable. I also think we are far more willing to over-react to non-events and make up illogical reasons to justify that over-reaction after it happens.

It’s not just this new text world that’s the problem. Think about all those 24 hour news stations. News from around the world at our fingertips. New stuff can be found via Google every minute. Not all of it is news. Not all of it is true or even worth repeating, either. And yet we’ll write about it, complain about it, build a podcast around it, and pass it all on like that’s also worth equal time.

Notice I’m not offering any solutions to this. I don’t have any, save “take a chill pill.” Tough love, I know. But I’m saying it to myself as much as I may say it to you. Rethink the reaction. Was it necessary? Was it more than the situation maybe warranted? If the answers are no and yes, how can you make sure the same mistake isn’t made next time around? Maybe there is no way. Is it even possible to learn from these kinds of mistakes? Humans have evolved to be irrational creatures, if Newsweek can be believed. Maybe we’re all doomed to freak out on the little things forever, and no number of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff type books will make a difference.


Can you guess what I’m thinking?

July 27, 2010

New Scientist is reporting on interesting findings regarding eleven people who were scanned via fMRI so researchers could watch how their brains reacted to a woman telling them a story. What they discovered was pretty damned cool:

The scans showed that the listeners’ brain patterns tracked those of the storyteller almost exactly, though trailed 1 to 3 seconds behind. But in some listeners, brain patterns even preceded those of the storyteller.

“We found that the participants’ brains became intimately coupled during the course of the ‘conversation’, with the responses in the listener’s brain mirroring those in the speaker’s,” says Uri Hasson of Princeton University.

Hasson’s team monitored the strength of this coupling by measuring the extent of the pattern overlap. Listeners with the best overlap were also judged to be the best at retelling the tale. “The more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other,” Hasson concludes.

I can think of several instances this past month where this kind of bizarro thing happened between the Man and me. He’s asked me to get out of his head on at least two occasions after I finished thoughts for him long before he thought I’d catch onto the point he was trying to make. A couple times it’s been him stating a thought or starting a conversation with me where it feels like he must have yanked the very ideas out of my own brain hours before I planned on starting those convos myself. Sometimes it’s been an action I’ve done that’s surprised the hell out of him because it was something he’d been wanting to have happen and I just randomly accomplished it without much thought or effort invested in the decision to act in the first place.

Bizarro, I say again.

But all kinds of awesome.

Of course, eleven people isn’t much of a sample size, but it’s still a pretty neat study.


Quotable Bum

July 14, 2010

From this post:

Fundamentally, skepticism is a moral and ethical position, not a specifically intellectual position. If you don’t actively cultivate the idea that it’s good to be wrong, that it’s good to be corrected, that it’s good to change your mind, then you’ll fall into mental habits that make changing your mind almost impossibly difficult. In much the same sense, we have to actively cultivate — at the individual, social and institutional levels — all the ideas that make civilization possible: cooperation, respect and concern for others’ well-being and mutual benefit; without this ethical and cognitive discipline, we risk falling back into low-level conflict to everyone’s detriment.

This is written in response to a very interesting article about information, misinformation, and why people – even when presented with retractions and corrected facts – will cling to the incorrect ideas so strongly. I’ll put together something regarding that same article tomorrow. There’s a Freethinker pub night tonight that I’m heading for later on. I’m on holiday for the rest of this week so I can actually enjoy the Beerdrinker part of the evening without having to head home early. Huzzah!

Um, look for it late tomorrow…


This is not going to turn into an “all about me” blog, I swear!

July 10, 2010

In fact, this will be the last girly post on the main page. Any future thoughts regarding this atheist in … no, it’s too soon to even acknowledge the Big Word exists, and I’m too polite to use any dirty words … this atheist in transition from detachment and apathy to connected Care Bear will be dropped in the new page up top entitled Manecdotes. Yes, aren’t I clever? I thought of that years ago for use on another blog that was very selfishly designed that I later lost interest in updating. It’s good to find a use for it again.

Anyway, in bed the other morning (!), the Man brought up the fact that he has to give a lot his time over to the Little Man which means less for me. I forget exactly how he phrased it, but this issue had been on my mind already so I had a ready response. It ran along the lines of “Duh, you idiot!” but kinder, obviously. The Little Man has to be his top priority. It’s beyond obvious and should go without saying, truth be told. But, since reassurance is worth its weight in gold, I tried to explain that I was aware of the different levels of importance he’d have to place on the different parts of his life. “I’m your diversion; he’s your son,” I said, thinking that was the end of it.

And it was, until close to 10:00 last night when he phoned to complain about the way I phrased that. What’s wrong with it? I wondered. I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. I’d worked really hard on a whole speech that pretty much pivoted on that phrase and I thought it was witty. Turned out he’d been mulling it over and came to the conclusion that I was not giving myself enough credit. Again, I’m like, “What? Diversions are fun. I’m fun…” Again, I couldn’t see anything wrong with it, so he dropped it, and the conversation moved on.

Now here it is, the next morning, and I’m awake early because it’s what I do and the phone conversation is still fresh in my brainpan and I think I now see what bugged him about it.

It was, by and large, a put-down. I basically compared myself to a hobby that anyone can take up when they feel like it and drop when they’re bored or out of time. Well fuck. Who wants to be treated like that? I don’t want to be treated like that. The real and proper answer probably should have been, “I’m your friend.” So why didn’t I just say that?

Hell if I know. Hell if I know.

The trouble with trying to psychoanalyze ourselves is that we’re a) not trained to do it and b) not objective in any way when we do. Looking at myself this way is like seeing my reflection through a fun-house mirror where some bits look like I remember them, but other stuff’s warped beyond all recognition.


Saskatoon Freethinkers meet up

October 13, 2009

I found their group through Facebook and figured it was worth joining that for updates about meetings and things. They’re having a general meeting next Sunday so I RSVP’d myself. I suspect it’ll be worthwhile to get involved and meet other like-minded folks in the area. I could use an improved social network, as well.

I finally got a copy of Connected from the library and it’s depressing the hell out of me.

The book is by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler and it’s all about social networking and how that evolves and influences everything from marriage chances to emotions to obesity of all things.

As near as I can figure, my ability to get a date rests in the lap of my friends’ friends. If my friends don’t have any eligible friends they feel like dropping my name on, I’m less likely to meet anyone. Not that two strangers can’t meet randomly and hit it off, but these researchers have followed the stories of numerous people (and looked through reams of data on human habits going back decades) and have hit on something a bit different than Six Degrees of Separation. They call it the Three Degrees Rule. What we do affects our friends (one degree) who affect their friends (2 degrees) which kind of will affect friends of theirs. Word of mouth style communication and even work related success can travel this network but it’s usually limited to three degrees. Another ripple out from the original person and there’s very little original influence to be had. They call this the network-instability explanation

There’s also intrinsic decay where the usefulness of the information will fade over time (who to vote for etc.) especially since passing the information takes time, too. Or, if you’re like me and rarely check email, all kinds of intrinsic decay crap goes on. Sometimes I don’t find out things have happened with friends until it’s too late to enjoy the party or whatever. Assuming friends even bothered to email me, knowing what I’m like…

They also considered an evolutionary-purpose explanation for this, too. Since humans evolved to exist in relatively small social groups, it was likely everyone knew everybody (or at least knew someone who knew someone else). We’ve developed this three degree existence because it worked well enough to never need a wider circle of influence. Maybe this will change in time, too.

This winds up being a great argument to toss as those silly goosies who think atheists suddenly become amoral without a god. How could we, given how connected we are to everyone around us, how we’re influenced by so many people whether we’ve met them or not? How could we suddenly stop being influenced by the socially healthy construct of our communities? Avoiding violence and theft and rotten behaviour helps everyone. It’s flat out impossible to avoid being influenced by people unless you can hermit yourself somewhere and avoid all communication with everyone in every way. That includes body language. We get just as much from facial expression and posture as we do from speech. We just process it differently.

Every experience you have will affect someone else. Everyone you talk to today has already talked to so many other people who may have said something nice or done something mean in return. Their emotional feelings when you see them will automatically rub off on you. And you, in turn, will pass it to the next person who sees or speaks to you.

I’ll probably find something else to write about in regards to this book before I have to return it. It’s fascinating reading.


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