The Tin-Foil Hat Brigade in the Lab

Tin Foil hatsYou have to admire science. Nothing is beneath its inquiring eye. When I read that students at Berkley U had seriously investigated the nature of the ubiquitous-in-the-wingnut-community tin foil hats, I had to smile. Once again, science saves the day.

Bad news for the wingnuts. While research didn’t prove tin foil hats will stop the aliens from eating your brain, it did suggest that the hats may amplify certain frequencies that may be in the control of either governments or corporate interests.

According to the researchers at berkeley.intel-research.net/arahimi/helmet/,

The helmets amplify frequency bands that coincide with those allocated to the US government between 1.2 Ghz and 1.4 Ghz. According to the FCC, These bands are supposedly reserved for ”radio location” (ie, GPS), and other communications with satellites (see, for example, [3]). The 2.6 Ghz band coincides with mobile phone technology. Though not affiliated by government, these bands are at the hands of multinational corporations.

Then with what can only be tongue-in-cheek seriousness, the authors of the study conclude,

It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings.

Gawds, I love this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the video of the research and results has been taken off YouTube. I can only hope someone restores it.

In the mean time, any creationists or self-described psychics among my readers should be concerned that your tin foil hats are actually allowing the evil government spy agencies access to your thought waves… better turn on the microwave to scramble their signals…

Thanks to Haggle for posting the link!

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A Pyramid Hoax Reappears on Facebook

Ain't Photoshop wonderful?This Facebook headline caught my skeptic’s eye right away: “Energy beam coming from the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun.” After I finished guffawing at the gullibility of some folks, I decided to spend a little time researching how widespread this silliness had become.

As expected, and sad to relate, it was all over the Net. Seems every psychic-New-Age-crystal-therapy-astrology-aura-UFO-conspiracy-theory-Atlantis-Elvis-is-alive obsessed wingnut site has repeated the claims, usually copying and pasting them directly from the original source without even bothering to investigate the claims:

A team of physicists detected an energy beam coming through the top of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun. The radius of the beam is 4.5 meters with a frequency of 28 kHz. The beam is continuous and its strength grows as it moves up and away from the pyramid. This phenomenon contradicts the known laws of physic and technology. This is the first proof of non-herzian technology on the Planet. It seems that the pyramid-builders created a perpetual motion machine a long time ago and this “energy machine” is still working.

In the underground labyrinth, in 2010, we discovered three chambers and a small blue lake. Energy screening shows that the ionization level is 43 times higher than the average concentration outside which makes the underground chambers into “healing rooms”.

Even a grade school education will see through this. First of all: perpetual motion. Doesn’t, can’t, won’t ever exist. period. Entropy is a basic law of physics. Then “non-herzian technology”? I assume the writer means non-Hertzian. That claim makes little sense unless you know what the author means by Hertzian. I assume he means that the power of the wave diminishes with the distance transmitted.

Nikola Tesla was experimenting with non-Herztian waves in the late 19th century:

Nikola Tesla advanced the electromagnetism theory into new dimensions, further than Hertz and other scientists of his time could conceive. He described his “wireless” waves being far superior to Hertzian waves, which diminish with distance. Tesla foretold of a brilliant new future for humankind, using his non-Hertian “wireless system,” including the ability to generate power and transmit it to various parts of the globe.

However, the author does not mention the power of the alleged beam, merely its frequency: 28kHz, or 28,000 cycles per second. That’s above the average human’s top end for high pitches (20kHz), but well within the hearing of dogs and many other mammals. This sound would be like a constant, annoying, high-pitched whine to them. Like a shrill dental drill to us. It would effectively drive most animals away from the site.

Healing rooms? Ionizing radiation is a known carcinogen. Negative ions can be a mood enhancer, and reduce air pollution, but I’ve never read any credible research that proves they heal anything. even so, calling a rough pit of sand and gravel a “healing room” is a bit of a stretch. And who are these “physicists” he claims investigated the site? None are named, no labs or universities noted, no test results posted to back up these claims.

Alleged This block of stone is one of the alleged “ceramic sculptures” found under one of the hills. It has been dubbed “K-2” and weighs approx 18,000 lbs. For an advanced society capable of building perpetual motion machines, they seem to have had a remarkably primitive sense of aesthetics. Their “sculpture” looks remarkably like a glacier-polished rock, or perhaps a big limestone accretion. I can easily understand why, if it is man-made, it is buried underground instead of being on the surface for all to see: it’s pretty ugly. These “sculptures” play an important parapsychological role, Semir writes: “Ceramic sculptures are positioned over the underground water flows and the negative energy is transformed into positive. All of these experiments point to the underground labyrinth as one of the most secure underground constructions in the world and this makes it an ideal place for the body’s rejuvenation and regeneration.”

All the right phrases to convince the New Age crowd that this is real magic, not that hokey-baloney fake magic called science. Woo-hoo for positive energy.

The author of this nonsense is Semir Osmanagi, a metalworker and contractor with a degree in sociology (not archeology). Before he started promoting these rocks as “pyramids,” he wrote a book called Alternative History in which he claimed that Hitler and other leading Nazis escaped to an underground base in Antarctica. In his book, The World of the Maya, he claims the Maya had a “mission it is to adjust the Earthly frequency and bring it into accordance with the vibrations of our Sun. Once the Earth begins to vibrate in harmony with the Sun, information will be able to travel in both directions without limitation.” he also claims Mayans descended from the mythical Atlantis.

Osmanagi writes on his site:

The pyramids are covered by soil which is, according to the State Institute for Agro-pedology, approx. 12,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating from the paved terrace on Bosnian Pyramid of the Moon, performed by Institute of Physics of Silesian Institute of Technology from Gliwice (Poland) confirmed that terrace was built 10.350 years ago (+/- 50 years). These finding confirm that the Bosnian pyramids are also the oldest known pyramids on the planet.

Archeology, a respected magazine, takes exception to that claim of age:

Construction of massive pyramids in Bosnia at that period is not believable. Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that “Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.”

The Smithsonian reported:

…Osmanagich… points out various boulders he says were transported to the site 15,000 years ago, some of which bear carvings he says date back to that time. In an interview with the Bosnian weekly magazine BH Dani, Nadija Nukic, a geologist whom Osmanagich once employed, claimed there was no writing on the boulders when she first saw them. Later, she saw what appeared to her as freshly cut marks. She added that one of the foundation’s workers told her he had carved the first letters of his and his children’s names…

On another site about these alleged pyramids Osmanagi says:

Almost everything they teach us about the ancient history is wrong: origin of men, civilizations and pyramids. Homo sapiens sapiens is not a result of the evolution and biologists will never find a “missing link”, because the intelligent man is product of genetic engineering. Sumerians are not the beginning of the civilized men, but rather beginning of another cycle of humanity. And finally, original pyramids, most superior and oldest, were made by advanced builders who knew energy, astronomy and construction better than we do.

So what are these structures? Simply natural formations called “flatirons”, possibly used at some point by Romans or others as hilltop encampments, but otherwise not unusual. The European Association of Archeologists has called for an end to the digging because it is ruining real archeological finds, and wrote, “This scheme is a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public and has no place in the world of genuine science.”

Meanwhile, Osmanagi continues to dig, because, as he says, he needs to “break a cloud of negative energy, allowing the Earth to receive cosmic energy from the centre of the galaxy.” It’s entertaining stuff, but it isn’t science.

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A Delightful Farce Called Anonymous

AnonymousWatched a delightful, satirical farce last night, called Anonymous. It’s a spoof about the conspiracy theory that the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere) wrote the works of William Shakespeare.

This conspiracy notion has a pop following, but lacks significant scholarly and any historical support. Like other conspiracy theories, it has gained ground on the Internet from the simple fact that most people are naturally superstitious and suspicious, and would rather not apply critical thinking or do any serious research to prove or disprove outlandish claims.

As theories go, de Vere-as-Shakespeare is up there with the Elvis-is-still-alive, JFK-survived-the-Dallas-shooting or the-American-government-was-behind-the-9/11-attacks. Even a movie that attempted to treat it seriously would have to stretch the facts beyond reasonable belief.

Anonymous is to the de Vere theory what Jim Carey is to acting: an over-the-top, madcap, histrionic and sometimes painfully exaggerated performance. It weaves together a series of improbable events, relationships and characters so intricately that it almost collapses from its own excessiveness. Only the superb acting and sets make it hold together. However, even a casual knowledge of the history of the era, or of Shakespeare’s life, pulls the whole tale into tatters. You can’t even begin to take it seriously. But the silliness is part of the fun.

Anonymous is from director Roland Emmerich, who also directed the rather thin spoof on prehistory, 10,000 BC, which I commented on previously. The script was written by John Orloff, previously known as the author of the brilliant, Oscar-deserving documentary, “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.” Combined, the two make a potent force in satiric film making.

Historically, however, it’s a mess. Start with the fire in the theatre, early in the movie. It wasn’t the Globe. That theatre burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII, in 1613, when fireworks hit the thatch and roof beams. The movie has a theatre being burned down by Robert Cecil’s men as they hunt the playwright Ben Jonson, hiding under the stage.

The theatre might be the Rose, but there is no indication from modern excavations that it burned down. It was used by theatre companies until at least 1604, and was apparently pulled down in 1606.

The film then jumps back in time five years to show Elizabeth I’s court… but that would make it 1608 if this was the Globe, five years after she died. But the year we go back to is actually 1598. No London theatres burned down in 1603.

The movie suggests Shakespeare was an illiterate, womanizing, greedy drunkard – he could read, but bizarrely could not write. But that would be very unlikely in the Elizabethan era schools which Shakespeare attended. This characterization is based on imagination, not any historical source. Shakespeare’s signature exists on several documents and many scholars believe the fragments of the play about Thomas Moore contain notes in his hand.

The Earl of Oxford is portrayed as a brilliant writer who has to keep his talent secret – well, it’s an open secret, since just about everybody in the court seems to know about his writing, including the Queen. That he was a writer is true – he was a respected albeit rather ordinary poet and playwright in his day, and a patron of the theatre as well.

There is nothing to indicate any social stigma attached to his or any other noble’s writing. Some of his poems survive today, although none of his plays seem to have. And as for being a well-educated man, his degrees from Oxford and Cambridge were honorary degrees, the sort handed out in great numbers to royal attendants by Elizabeth when she visited those institutions.

Elizabeth herself wrote poetry, as did Sir Edward Dyer, Sir John Harrington, Sir Philip Sidney, and others – including Raleigh, Grenville, Robert Sidney, and Essex. So why being a poet and a playwright in a literary and cultured court that fancied such artistic achievements would be taboo is never explained. Plus, there is not a single word in all the documentation from the era, that connects de Vere with even one of the plays he supposedly wrote. Yet Shakespeare is mentioned in documents in association with his writing years before the movie makes him pretend to be author (as early as 1592).

As a young man in the film, de Vere has an affair with the sexually active and promiscuous Elizabeth and fathers what seems to be one of a litter of bastard children with her. But later in the film, we learn de Vere was actually himself one of Elizabeth’s bastard kids, her eldest. Messy. But of course there is no historical evidence that de Vere nor any other courtier bedded Elizabeth, let alone that she had illegitimate children from the union.

When we learn de Vere allegedly fathered a son on his mother, Elizabeth, this is the movie’s “jump the shark” moment. It’s a groaner for sure, and you wonder if the author needed to go so far to ridicule the de Vere theorists.

Christopher Marlowe is found murdered in an alley in the movie. Oops, that event happened five years earlier, in another location and another wound. From Wikipedia:

The death of Christopher Marlowe plays a small but significant role in the storyline. Marlowe is portrayed alive in 1598, while in fact he died in 1593. The slashing of Marlowe’s throat occurs in Southwark with Shakespeare as his suggested murderer, whereas Marlowe was killed by Ingram Frizer with a knife stab above the left eye, in Deptford. Marlowe is shown mocking Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday in 1598, although it wasn’t written until the following year. Marlowe dies on the same day Essex departs for Ireland. These events actually happened 6 years apart. Another writer shown to be alive after his death is Thomas Nashe, who appears in a scene set after 1601. He is known to have died by that year, though the exact date is uncertain.

It’s just one of those scenes that underscore the film’s satirical nature. The writer makes so many glaring historical errors merely to mock the Oxfordians who probably can’t see they are being teased.

A high point in the film’s action comes when Essex (apparently another of Elizabeth’s bastards) returns from Ireland to try to save his reputation, then tries to lead an armed rebellion in 1601, with only a handful of men. Anonymous doesn’t bother to tell you Essex was placed under house arrest for a full year after returning from Ireland, and his anger was sparked not by some injustice of Robert Cecil, but by the queen not renewing his licence to collect taxes on sweet wine, which hurt his income. Even then, it took months of brooding for him to spur himself to act.

What the film also doesn’t tell you is that Essex took several members of the Privy Council captive and held them as hostages. He then took 300 armed men into London. The citizens did not rally to support his cause, and there was no army shooting unarmed civilians as shown in the film. When Essex found the gates into the city locked, he fled ignominiously, abandoning his followers, and headed home to burn any incriminating documents. He was captured at his house.

Essex also went to trial – he wasn’t beheaded right away, as the film suggests.

In the film, de Vere saves his bastard son with Elizabeth, Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who had been captured among Essex’s men and sentenced to death. Actually it was Robert Cecil who had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He was released three years later, by James I, who restored him to honour and a court position.

In Anonymous, Shakespeare’s stage troop are hired by de Vere’s men to perform the play, Richard III, which is used to stir the audience into mob action in support of Essex (the detested Richard III appears as a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play – without any historical proof – and Robert Cecil was also a hunchback). It was actually Southampton who hired the players at the Globe Theatre to revive Richard II, not Richard III.

Elizabeth’s funeral procession is shown walking along the frozen Thames. Not so: it took place on land because the Thames did not freeze that winter.

Elizabeth, both young and old, and the older de Vere are all powerfully played. The two Cecils, are also well portrayed, although the younger Robert in particular comes across as more Machiavellian than history shows him to be.

Shakespeare, Johnson, Marlowe and the other playwrights are less convincing as artists than as con men. As one might expect, only de Vere gets any recognition for talent; the others are all hacks at best, frauds at worst.

The nobles who are trying to save England from the imposition of a foreign ruler (James VI of Scotland) are all blonde; those looking to put James on the throne (the Cecils) are dark-haired.

de Vere is shown watching a performance of Macbeth on stage – but the play was likely never staged in his lifetime (some scholars argue for a first performance date of 1605).

All in all, Anonymous is a historical and dramatic failure, but it’s a wonderful period-piece farce, flitting somewhere between swashbuckling and slapstick. It’s absurd, wildly fanciful and at times downright silly, but the masterful English cast, the stunningly well-created sets and the action-style pacing keep you glued to the TV. Watch it for the sheer fun of seeing the Oxfordians and their wacky theories lampooned so thoroughly.

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This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. XVWhilst perusing the Net for some material for my book on Machiavelli, I came across this maxim: “Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.”

It’s attributed on many, many sites to Machiavelli in his most famous work, The Prince.

Sounds pretty Machiavellian, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t.

Machiavelli never wrote those words.

Sun Tzu wrote that, “All warfare is based on deception.” (Book 1, 18), which is close. Sun Tzu went on to add in the next two lines (19 and 20),

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

In The Art of War, Book 4, Machiavelli wrote, “It may also be well to do with cunning that which happened to Fabius Maximus at home,” which follows with the example of Fabius’ cunning use of cavalry to beguile an enemy encampment.

And in Book 7, he wrote, “Those who are besieged must also guard themselves from the deceit and cunning of the enemy, and, therefore, the besieged should not trust anything which they see the enemy doing continuously, but always believe they are being done by deceit, and can change to injure them.”

Neither quote is close to the one at the top.

Continue reading “This time it’s a Machiavellian mis-quote.”

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It’s not an Apache blessing, it’s just a Hollywood script

Not from an Apaches!“May the sun bring you new energy by day,” begins this saccharine saying that has enjoyed a continued life outside Facebook through the fridge magnet and huggable-puppies-and-kittens-on-posters and wedding planner industries.

It gets passed off as an “Apache blessing” or “Apache wedding blessing” on Facebook, usually with some hunk-ish Indian brave pictures beside the words or some faux-Indian animal fetish images.

The rest of the alleged “blessing” reads:

…May the moon softy restore you by night;
May the rain wash away your worries;
May the breeze blow new strength into your being;
May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life.

I get all glassy-eyed-nauseous with such gooey sentiments, and feel like I should throw myself onto some aromatherapy, or reiki healing, or some other New Age folderol. Were Amerindians really that sappy?

The quote is, however, pure Hollywood. According to a column in the New Yorker, May, 2007, it’s lifted straight from a 1950 film, Broken Arrow:

…what I was able to find was that the blessing seems to have entered the popular consciousness through “Broken Arrow,” which was—except for the wedding scene, the critics say—a very accurate depiction of the Apache people. A version of the blessing was also in the book that the movie was based on. The book was historical fiction, but the prayer was an invented part of the fiction.

It’s revealed in an interview with Rebecca Mead, who coined the term “traditionalesque” to refer to those instant “traditions” made from modern ideas and quotes, that are like Internet memes in that they spread rapidly through the culture, mostly through commercial efforts. As she notes, this faux “blessing” is in the book of almost every modern wedding planner, so it gets passed around over and over and over.

These fake quotes seem like something that should have been said by someone wiser, someone of another generation, even another culture, so we just assume they were, and repeat them without ever once stopping to verify the source. Or question our own wisdom. After all, if we like them, if they inspire us, and they turn out to be hoaxes (like so many are!), then it reflects on our own gullibility.

…there are a number of reasons that people might buy into invented traditions…”

It’s not that people are stupid or lazy – sure, some are, but by and large not most people. We are a society accustomed to instant gratification and looking up a source takes work – critical thinking, reasoning, research and investigation – we find that effort odious and onerous. We want immediate answers, immediate solutions, immediate wisdom. Looking something up interrupts that. We like the convenience of getting told thinsg without the inconvenience of having to actually verify them.

We’re also not comfortable confronting others who believe in the reliability of these sayings, so we don’t want to prove them wrong. Easier to agree that the saying is hugely inspirational and brightened our day, rather than tell a friend his or her favourite quote comes from a greeting card, not Gandhi, or Buddha, or an Apache warrior.

The Wikipedia entry for this “blessing” notes that,

It is not associated with any particular religion and indeed does not mention a deity or include a petition, only a wish. It has no known connection to the traditions of the Apache or any other Native American group.
It was written for the 1947 Western novel Blood Brother (novel) by Elliott Arnold. The blessing entered popular consciousness when it made its way into the film adaptation of the novel Broken Arrow, scripted by Albert Maltz. The Economist, citing Rebecca Mead’s book on American weddings, characterized it as “‘traditionalesque’, commerce disguised as tradition”.
The first line of the original poem was “Now for you there is no rain” and the last “Now, forever, forever, there is no loneliness”. Since 1950, there have since been several different versions of the poem. The film text begins “‘Now you will feel no rain” and ends “And may your days be good and long upon the earth.”

So the “Apache wedding blessing” under its many names and guises goes into the same trash heap as the many other Internet memes – bad or mis-attributed quotes – I’ve been debunking these past few years. And good riddance, too!

Do yourselves a favour, gentle readers: verify the source before you share on of these alleged quotes. And not on some unverified, tacky website like Brainy Quotes. Do your research, check Wikiquote and reliable sources first. That way you won’t look like one of the sheep who share.

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So many bad quotes, so little time

I was browsing through my blog posts today and found I have actually written about improperly attributed quotations on the Net nine times since I first started blogging back in March, 2005.

On my old Mumpsimus blog, I posted two pieces about these bad memes:

On this new blog, which I launched in mid_December, 2011, I have written seven pieces about bad Internet quotes, starting with the Slowly Dies piece, in January, 2012:

Mis-quoting SpockIt’s got so that every time I see some cutely-crafted poster with its quotation done in some artistic font, I have to start searching online to confirm the source. If only the people who designed such beautifully artistic images put a fraction of the work into confirming the source as they do in making their posters look pretty, I would not be so quick to challenge them.

Unless we use critical thinking, unless we use intellectual analysis and skepticism, unless we question, we are condemned to being fooled, to being cheated and being mislead.

Perhaps it’s become a small obsession for me. I’m not the only one who tries to correct these. I’ve mentioned the Quote Investigator and Wiki Quotes in previous posts. Today I found a piece about a popular quote mistakenly attributed to the Dalai Lama (ntweblog.blogspot.ca/2011/10/that-dalai-lama-quotation-and.html). That in turn led to a post about a quote mis-attributed to Albert Schweitzer (ntweblog.blogspot.ca/2007/08/jesus-creed-historical-jesus-series_17.html). Wiki Quotes has its list of popular mis-quotes (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations), as does Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations). And more at Secular Perspectives (secularhumanist.blogspot.ca/2011/01/skeptically-fact-checking-quotes.html) from when comes the image above.

Why bother? Because people are posting and sharing wrong information without checking it first. If information is the currency of the 21st century, then what they’re posting is counterfeit coinage. It’s not simply a mistake; it’s devaluing real information. It contributes to the general dumbing-down of our society. And it underscores the terrible lack of critical thinking that pervades our culture. People are too willing to suspend belief, too willing to accept statements and comments at face value when they reinforce their own beliefs. Instead, they should be thinking, reasoning and above all, questioning.

For me, the words of the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta) should guide everyone’s online activity:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another’s seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.”
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.

Unless we use critical thinking, unless we use intellectual analysis and skepticism, unless we question, we are condemned to being fooled, to being cheated and being mislead.

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James Miles? Goethe? Sorry: this quote is from Malcolm Forbes

Ice Age, not New Age, but the message is the sameAnother New Age quote showed up on Facebook today, one of those warn-n-fuzzy, touchy-feely sayings that either make you gag or go weak at the knees. This one is ascribed to James D. Miles. Miles was, according to answers.com (a site of dubious factuality and not terribly reliable at the best of timns), “…an associate professor of Psychology at Purdue University.” The author of this answer claimed Miles was “…quoting the German poet, novelist, playwright, scientist and philosopher Johann Wofgang von Goethe (1749-1832).”

Miles is, indeed, a professor at Purdue, or at least has been in the recent past. But the last part is incorrect, or rather the attribution to Goethe is. Here’s the quotation in question attributed to James D. Miles:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

Miles isn’t found in Wiki Quotes, nor did I find the quotation buried under another author’s name. I did scan a few works of Goethe and checked my Bartlett’s, but none of which showed these lines. So I turned to a very reliable, no-nonsense source…

According to the Quote Investigator, the quote has been variously attributed to, “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.”

One of those names is correct, but it isn’t James D. Miles. As QI notes:

The earliest instance of this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:
Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.
In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

Internet quotesI’m glad there are reliable, factual sources like the Quote Investigator; people willing to put in the time and effort to help correct these mistakes. Still, I can’t help but feel the effort is wasted because the general public would rather feel good than be right.

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Does this really sound like Sitting Bull?

Sitting BullAnother quote meme going around on the Internet claims to be from Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), the famous Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief. A fascinating man in a difficult time. He was brave, intelligent and, from all accounts, wise. So when I read the quote below, I was torn. It’s a good comment, one that sounds like it should come from a wise man. But was that wise man really Sitting Bull?

Or perhaps these words are from someone else. There are many of these false quotations online, words that have been appropriated and mis-attributed by the many slow and lazy Web users who can’t be bothered to confirm the source. From Shakespeare to Einstein, I’ve found dozens of bad quotes that spread around the Net, becoming memes. But even if the words are wise, attributing them to the wrong person just contributes to the general dumbing down of everyone who reads them. So who actually said:

For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.

This one is repeated by Native Americans and on native sites as well, so perhaps it has some validity, but none of them ascribe any source to it, either.

I have yet to find any source that shows when or where Sitting Bull actually said it. So until then, it remains classified as a bad meme and likely by someone else.

I suspect it’s more wishful thinking than accurate attribution. We want our cultural, folk and personal heroes to sound wise and inspiring, so we attribute to them something that we believe they would have, could have, or should have said, often without checking back to be sure they actually said it. And when we do it online, we create a meme that gets spread like those crazy emails about Microsoft promising us millions if we just forward it to everyone we know.

Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street.

Wikiquotes – a generally reliable source – has several quotations from Sitting Bull, properly attributed. This is not among them, and is not even among the many unsourced quotes it lists. The quote itself is not found anywhere on Wiki Quotes by any other author.

My printed sources offer no help. Neither the Oxford nor the Penguin dictionaries of quotations have anything from Sitting Bull. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th/125th anniversary edition) has a single statement Sitting Bull made that reads,

“What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?… What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?”

The ellipses says that this is a partial quote and that some of the words have been left out. That, however, is the only printed sources I have for any Sitting Bull quotes. There are quotes attributed to Sitting Bull to be found in some of the older books (many published pre-1920) digitized in the Internet Archives. None of them I have found (yet) match the quotation at the top of this page. However, their accuracy is questionable since they mostly seem to be second- or third-hand. Here are two from one source I’ve culled:

“Do you not see that the whites on the reservation are afraid of you? Why do you pray to great Wakantanka to send the Saviour on earth and bring about a change when the remedy lies in your own hands? Be men, not children. You have a perfect right to dance upon your own reservation as much as you please, and you should exercise this right, even if you find it necessary to use your guns. Be brave, and the great and good Wakantanka will aid your arms. Be cowards, and he will be ashamed of you.”

God Almighty made me an Indian, and he did not make me an agency Indian, and I do not intend to be one.

Here’s a quote from another 19th century source:

This is not my doings nor these men’s. They are fighting because they were commanded to fight. We have killed their leader, let them go. I call on the Great Spirit to witness what I say. We did not want to fight. Long Hair sent us word that he was coming to fight us, and we had to defend ourselves and our wives and children. If this command had not been given we could have cut Reno’s command to pieces, as we did Custer’s. No warrior knew Custer in the fight. We did not know him, dead or alive. When the fight was over the chiefs gave orders- to look for the long-haired chief among the dead, but no chief with long hair could be found.

Whether these are actual quotes, or paraphrased by the 19th century writers to better suit their personal, biased views of the ‘primitive savages’ they wrote about, I have no way to ascertain. I expect the latter.

I personally suspect the source of the original quotation is another writer. Perhaps from one of Dan Millman’s “peaceful warrior” books or from one of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books. Both have written on warriors, and the end bit about “…the children, the future of humanity” seems more suited to the style of these writers than to the few actual quotations of Sitting Bull’s I’ve read.

A third option is the inspirational/spiritual writer Paul Coelho, possibly from the Manual of the Warrior of the Light (1997) or possibly his novel, The Valkyries. Coelho founded the Paulo Coelho Institute, which provides aid to children and elderly people with financial problems. Coelho wrote on his blog,

“To the warriors of light, there is no such thing as impossible love.
They don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by silence, or by rejection.
They know that – behind the icy mask people wear – there is a heart of fire.
That is why the warriors risk more than others.
They tirelessly seek love – even if this means hearing, many times over, the word ‘no’, returning home defeated, feeling rejected in body and soul.
Warriors don’t allow themselves to be discouraged. Without love, living has no meaning.”

Coelho, Castaneda and Millman all write in a similar New-Age style that is a lot more like the quotation in question than anything I’ve read that can be verified as being by Sitting Bull. Similar sentiments to this and the quotation in question are expressed in different wording on several martial arts/bushido, New Age and even gaming sites, as well. Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street. It’s not a sentiment I would ascribe to many military leaders. And Sitting Bull was certainly one of those.

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Crystal crazy: self-professed psychics on Facebook

Claptrap card gameThe Internet has provided a virtual continent for the colonies of faith healers, psychics, astrologers, UFO hunters, ghost and haunting sightings, crypto-zoologists, promoters of angels, spirits, demons, auras, and a wealth of pseudoscience and claptrap. In a culture where the critical thinking, quest of knowledge and skepticism that characterized the Enlightenment have given way to superstition and fundamentalism, the Net has proven a rich source of believers and followers for the charlatans and hucksters.

Facebook and Youtube combine to make the Alexandria Library for the hard-of-thinking. Many of the promoters of this nonsense feed off one another and create their own memes. Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian,

In the 18th century, a revolution in thought, known as the Enlightenment, dragged us away from the superstition and brutality of the Middle Ages toward a modern age of science, reason and democracy. It changed everything. If it wasn’t for the Enlightenment, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. You’d be standing in a smock throwing turnips at a witch. Yes, the Enlightenment was one of the most significant developments since the wheel. Which is why we’re trying to bollocks it all up.
Welcome to a dangerous new era – the Unlightenment – in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They’re everywhere – reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about “chakras” and “healing energies”, praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We’ve got to respect their beliefs, apparently.
Well I don’t. “Spirituality” is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?

Recently I got into a bit of a verbal spat on FB with a character who calls herself (himself?) Higher Connection – Raising Our Vibration. Right away, just on seeing the puerile name, the old bullshit detector started going off. A friend (a real person I’ve met in the flesh, not just an imaginary friend like most Facebook connections are) posted a like/share to the above-mentioned person’s post in which she wrote,

Mass healing time again 🙂 Energetic, Theta Healing, Reiki and Soul Recall.
Put your name (or anyone elses, a pets.. as many as you want!) in this list to receive healings and adjustments. In this healing I will send it out to where any of your imbalances are…. then I will recall all of your soul fragments (when we go through trauma we leave chunks of our energy imprint behind. we need them back.) and I will break any soul contracts or agreements or vows that no longer apply and that you are done with (you don’t have to do anything, don’t worry.) I am also getting told I need to send you all PEACE and LOVE. So we will leave it at that for now. Bit at a time 🙂 Be sure that this healing feels right to you at this time, and choose your friends carefully. Some people are not ready or do not want to heal. Yet I always intend that this works according to each persons higher self decision ?

Whenever anyone I know strays into pseudoscience or superstition, I feel a responsibility to intervene. It’s like seeing a friend wade into a dangerous river. I cannot sit by and watch them drown, whether it be in water or superstitious codswallop.

Seeing his “share”, I felt compelled to comment at the end of several dozen bits of poorly spelled drivel that praised the original writer and added all sorts of requests for “healing”: “Claptrap,” I wrote. “Hookum. Codswallop. Come on, Mike. You’re smarter than this. Or are you one of the Pod people now?”

Ooh. That stirred up a hornet’s nest of the grammatically challenged hard-of-thinking crew. Good vibes or whatever her pseudonym is, responded,”…thats inappropriate. we do not come door knocking at your door. for a reason, its rude. ok?.” And I dove in: “Dear “Higher vibes” – sorry if you’re offended but pseudoscience and superstition always make me cranky. When my friend posts a link to claptrap, I have to comment to him. I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I let him meander down this road without a warning that it leads to silliness and ends up spending your money on “healing” crystals and warm & fuzzy “self help” books. What kind of friend lets a friend buy “healing” crystals?”

Put some stick about, I say. Our vibrating author responded (and these are verbatim, uncorrected quotes): “that is YOUR unimformed opinion. He is not buying real estate. just chill and worry about what you are doing ok.. He is in no danger. If it makes him feel better, how is it hurting him? There’s just no need for it. It’s nice you care about him, but you know nothing of this. It’s way smarter to say hey, WHY do all these other people believe this? Just respect your opinion is different. You don’t have to believe it, thats totally ok with is. ?”

Little heart characters were scattered through the original, but they don’t get translated into WordPress when copied. Small mercies, I suppose. Her comment makes you gooey at the knees, doesn’t it?

Do superstition and pseudoscience hurt someone? Do silly beliefs or falling for the cons of self-described “psychics” and “healers” harm someone? Well, I believe stupidity and self-delusion hurts by making a person more gullible, less critical, less open to knowledge and science, more closed to the real world. Lack of critical thinking leads to all sorts of nonsense: creationism, UFOs, astrology, feng shui, aromatherapy, phrenology, ghosts, spirits, angels, faith healing, tarot readings, auras, Scientology, crop circles, psychics, the Tea Party and Justin Bieber. I feel it’s my role as a rationalist and existentialist to help guide my friend from the dark side. I’m not being rude or nasty intentionally, just honest and caring about my friend’s mental welfare.

I mean, how much do we have to tolerate? Do we always have to respect someone’s beliefs when they’re utterly silly or even dangerous? When should we intervene to give them a metaphorical wake-up slap?

Meanwhile, another poster chimed in with: “She is providing her healings for free! You can rest assured you friend is not being taken advantage of here. As a matter of fact it is quite the opposite :)”

Free psychic energy? Just like free perpetual motion. Free angels. Free ghosts. And yes, free “healings.” Yes, I say: people ARE being taken advantage of: they’re being dragged into the medieval mindset of superstition that binds their intelligence in a dark place where they cannot think except through the lense of psychic hucksterism with imaginary beings guiding them.

Good vibes chimed back in:

…you are obviously not a very scientific man. Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven. do a little research before making claims, it just makes you no better than blind religious faith, does it not? And….. these healing crystals… are about $2 piece. You are being a bit ridiculous. Everything we are doing here, mostly, is SCIENCE now. Its funny that skeptics and apparent science believers do not keep up with the times. I’m not trying to be rude.. just telling you you are gravely behind the times and uninformed. Do you not want your friend happy? Stop trying to control him then. If a book makes him happy, that is WAY more important than anything else, his feeling of happiness, I would think… what do you suspect is NECESSARY for a watch to runlike it does? An energy conductor AND producer. Called Quartz Crystal. Just sayin 🙂 Go read some 🙂

A watch? Well of course I know how a watch works. Like most watches these days, mine is digital, but it still uses a tiny bit of quartz as its heart. Quartz is used as a replacement for an oscillating mechanical device, not as a source of energy. A small voltage is supplied from the battery to make the quartz tuning fork vibrate (at 32,768 Hz). That vibration is measured as current fluctuations by the electronics in the watch and used to count time. It’s the piezoelectric effect (musicians with passive pickups on their instruments know all about it). Those vibrations are translated into electrical energy which either powers the digital display or a tiny stepper motor that moves the hands. Nothing magical about it. And without the battery, a watch doesn’t run.

But, as Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (Profiles of The Future, 1961, AKA Clarke’s third law). Perhaps to people who believe in “spirit guides” and “higher planes,” a digital watch IS magic.

If crystals could heal (they can’t, but let’s pretend), since most of us wear one on our wrist, why buy another? Since quartz is a crystal and quartz is the most common element of sand, why not just stick a handful of sand in your pocket? Why are people who walk on sandy beaches no more healthy or spiritually attuned than people walking on gravel? So many questions to tax their beliefs with.

I had to thank the vibration lady for the good chuckle I had over her comment that, “Psychic ability and the properties of crystals is scientifcally proven.” I didn’t bother to correct the verb or the spelling, however. If I tried to correct every glaring grammatical, spelling and punctuation error in the morass of her and her followers’ comments, I’d still be typing on that thread. A scan through her FB page shows hundreds of posts and responses from people who appear to struggle greatly with the basics of English. And the keyboard must be an equal mystery since few actually know how to work the shift key.

Here’s one of the author’s own posts:

OMFG are you serious haha!! i SAID IS YOUR STOMACH HURTING.. YOU NEED TEH OCEAN FOR HEALING.. AND YOUR STOMACH HURT AND you (woops) sat down and looked at a ohoto of the ocean… is all this before reading what i wrote or after.?? omg! Anyway…. If the voice is always telling you positive things.. If it NEVER frightens you, says megative or awful things. .. etc etc etc then YES ALWAYS LISTEN TO IT. It is your Guide. He is from Lemuria… Plieadian he is telling me (god i hope that adds up or i will look silly!) and he is trying to help you right now wiht your life purpose. I am trying to get his name… Chimora or Chimpera…. Chimera I think! You ask his name and see what YOU get. I am not certain. But yes, the universe always gives you signs and you should always trust it ?

The head shakes when I read stuff like that. Here’s a post on the FB page from one of her followers:

Its funny these cards came up today, last night I was listening to Judi Satori, that channels messages from other Galxies and from the Angels. And her transmission, well for Feb and March 2012 from the Ascended Masters, was exactly the same message, how we are being protected and guided, and despite everything going on we will be okay. Just have faith, continue on our paths, meditations, grounding and klear karmic energy to prepare ourselves for the transmission of the coming months. Everyone will be safe, despite the chaos and calamities on the earth , we all will come through, even though there may be difficult times ahead from some of us. More validly from above 🙂

I won’t reprint any more of the silliness of these posts, in part because there’s such a treasure trove of drivel, I barely know where to start. Stuff about “higher planes,” angels, “spirit guides,” “clearing exercises,” card readings, “power” animals… the list of nonsense is long and dreary. And the English is often bad enough to cause migraines.

These people are lost, hurting folks; looking for help, for advice, for some rock of stability in an increasingly complex and challenging world. It’s a world where knowledge is the currency for growth and development, and where science and technology seem increasing like magic: obscure, occult and perhaps frightening. I read their pathetic pleas for help with problems in their family, friends, work, love life, with a twinge of sadness and even sympathy. The world is difficult, and they feel themselves adrift on an angry ocean they cannot understand, much less control.

Cognitive dissonanceBut instead of looking for answers, instead of working towards solutions, they choose to hide in the dark superstitions promoted by hucksters, charlatans, con artists and well-meaning but delusional wingnuts. They accept the claptrap and empty but satisfying verbiage of these self-professed healers and “psychics.” They put their faith in imaginary forces or beings. This stuff is like eating potato chips and drinking pop instead of eating real food: empty calories, lots of fat but no substance. Charlie Brooker is more caustic in his advice: “If you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don’t make up a load of floaty blah about energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies… ”

When believers learn that crystals and spirit guides and “psychics” don’t cure cancer, don’t fix broken marriages, don’t get your job back, don’t stops wars or make them win the lottery, what happens? Cognitive dissonance. A psychological way to deny the truth and fortify your beliefs when when those beliefs are challenged or proven wrong. Ah, but that’s a topic for a future post.

Let me, instead, show you a Youtube video of a self-professed “psychic” as randomly chosen sample of the sort of nonsense that is being perpetuated online. She is (as she says), “one of many, many people who talk to angels.” Note that what she calls “research” any scientists would consider self-delusion. It’s a tough piece to listen to and I couldn’t handle all the claptrap in one sitting, so feel free to turn it off at any point you get intellectually nauseous:


And let me end with this video by Michael Shermer on why people believe weird and improbable things:

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Nope, this quote is not from Plato

Plato“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Seems like a wise thing to say. And I wish Plato had said it – it would have saved me a lot of time today. I spent many hours today putting together a quotation widget for this blog and trying to ascertain every quote I included came from a respectable, creditable source. Most were fairly easy to confirm, but others – like this one – just didn’t feel right for the attributed author.

This quote strikes me as far more modern than anything Plato ever wrote. It just see,ms to me like another touchy-feely, self-help-guru saying attributed to someone ancient to give it a patina of credibility.

Every single site that repeated that quotation of the several hundred I perused, not a single one included a source work for it. Many had sources for other Plato quotes, identifying the book from which the quotation was taken, but not this quote. That’s annoying. I spent at least an hour trying to find a proper source for this one.

Quotations attributed to the wrong author discredit both the poster and the quotation. It’s part of the general dumbing-down the Internet is doing to us all. But hundreds, even thousands of sites perpetuate this stupidity. It makes it very difficult to repeat anything we find online because few, if any, bother to track content backwards to confirm a source.

Some sites attributed (again without a source reference) it to Socrates (which points back to Plato, of course, since Socrates did not actually write anything and most of his recorded words are contained in Plato’s works).*

One site named the source as “Platone,” one as “Plate” and another as “Plata” (don’t these idiots ever use spell check?). Other sites attributed it to a real estate agent in la Jolla named “John Parker.” A poster named “kiersten11” is noted as the source in one place. One site seems to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln (again unsourced). It’s like a dart board of dead people.

Many others just parroted it without attribution (probably a lot safer). It’s been used as an inspirational quote for both humanists and religious fundamentalists, evolutionists and creationists alike. It’s been bruited about in all sorts of simperingly saccharine posts about fear, love, fear of the dark and being one with the whatever nebulous oneness that inspires the poster.

But it isn’t from Plato. Another bloody stupid Internet meme is all it is. The equivalent of Internet chain letters. Sigh.

My bet is on it being by modern author Robin Sharma, for which I found several attributions of it from his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It seems to run in parallel with his other quotes, too, much more than it reads like something Plato would have written.

Poor Robin Sharma if it really is his. How will he ever retrieve it from Plato?

~~~~~

* Update: I mis-spoke in my earlier version. Socrates is quoted by several classical authors, but of them only Plato was his actual student; Xenophon has been called a disciple but is from my reading more a contemporary or colleague. And Plato and Xenophon differ in a few p[laces what they claim Socrates said.
The rest of the authors use third-hand or more distant sources since they never knew or studied under Socrates. The Socratic problem is trying to determine what Socrates actually believed, since classical authors used him to voice their own sentiments and ideas.

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Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme

Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

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It wasn’t Einstein who said it…

Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976” which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.

32,914 total views, 15 views today

Bad Lao Tzu meme adds to growing list of mis-identified quotes online

This bad meme is going the Internet rounds:

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” Lao Tzu

Well, although deep – if a bit saccharine – it’s not from the Tao Teh Ching, the only work that the Old Master (the literal translation of his name) ever produced.

The Tao Teh Ching is a notoriously difficult book to translate. Although it consists of a mere 5,000 Chinese characters, translations can vary wildly. Compare this one with the one linked above for example. One site compares three versions (Legge, Suzuki and Goddard). This site has 175 translations of the first verse alone, dating from the late 19th to early 21st centuries, which indicates the numerous, complex ways translators have approached this work and how many ways there are at trying to wrestle the meaning from it.

Hua Hu ChingThe quote actually comes from a translation of another Taoist work called the Hua Hu Ching (Huahujing), which although attributed to Lao Tzu, is actually a forgery. According to scholars, the Huahujing was actually written some 500 years after Lao Tzu lived, by Taoist Wang Fou, ca. 300 CE. Apparently he wrote it as an anti-Buddhist polemic after he was defeated in debate by the Chinese Buddhist monk Bo Yuan. The earliest text was only one section, but by the beginning of the eighth century it had been expanded into ten or eleven.

Historical Chinese records suggest it was first produced in the late third century CE. Some scholars give it a later date because the earliest reference to to the work is from the period of 420–477 CE. The oldest extant version is from a slightly later period. The content suggests it is much later than Lao Tzu because it contains references to all sorts of later Taoist practices such as herbal medicine, feng shui, tai chi and sex:

A person’s approach to sexuality is a sign of his level of evolution. Unevolved persons practice ordinary sexual intercourse. Placing all emphasis upon the sexual organs, they neglect the body’s other organs and systems. Whatever physical energy is accumulated is summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and disordered. It is a great backward leap. For those who aspire to the higher realms of living, there is angelic dual cultivation. Because every portion of the body, mind, and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The sacred ways of angelic intercourse are taught only by one who has himself achieved total energy integration, and taught only to students who follow the Integral Way with profound devotion, seeking to purify and pacify the entire world along with their own being. However, if your virtue is especially radiant, it can be possible to open a pathway to the subtle realm and receive these celestial teachings directly from the immortals.

The Tao Teh Ching has none of this material: it was added later to his teachings.

Hua Hu ChingThe Hua Hu Ching is a work of Taoist philosophy and practice also known as “the scripture of transforming the barbarians.” That’s because it’s recounts a fictional journey by Lao Tzu out to the “Western Regions” and into India, where, the legend goes, his teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. The work seeks to position Taoism as the supreme philosophy over other beliefs, especially Buddhism which at the time it was written was challenging Taoism for popularity among the Chinese populace:

The world is full of half-enlightened masters. Overly clever, too “sensitive” to live in the real world, they surround themselves with selfish pleasures and bestow their grandiose teachings upon the unwary. Prematurely publicizing themselves, intent upon reaching some spiritual climax, they constantly sacrifice the truth and deviate from the Tao.

Hardly objective: it’s a strong, often angry, political stance about the superiority of Taoist beliefs. The message is clear: there’s a fight over the hearts and minds of the populace here. To prove their superiority, Taoists had to portray Buddhism as a weakened, distorted version of Taoism.

The fault of attribution lies both with the people who repeat this quote online without checking its source, and the translator. This verse is from a translation by Brian Walker. The full verse (no. 75) reads:

Would you like to liberate yourself from the lower realms of life? Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. So find a teacher who is an integral being, a beacon who extends his light and virtue with equal ease to those who appreciate him and those who don’t. Shape yourself in his mold, bathe in his nourishing radiance, and reflect it out to the rest of the world. You will come to understand an eternal truth: there is always a peaceful home for a virtuous being.

People have cherry-picked from the work, taking lines out of context. It’s actually an interesting, deep and complex work, well worth reading for its historical and political context. You can’t simply remove lines without losing some of the meaning. In this case the verse exhorts the reader to find a suitable teacher and submit to his/her discipline in order to achieve self-transformation. It also assumes the reader’s beliefs are in concert with Taoist and Chinese beliefs about “lower realms.” Similarly other verses refer to the “immortals.”

Walker attributes the work to Lao Tzu, which is a surprising statement given the easily available research on its origins. A lot of material is available in English to explain when and why the book was written. In his 1993 introduction, Walker wrote,

The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is … believed among Westerners to be Lao Tzu’s only book. Few are aware that a collection of his oral teachings on the subject of attaining enlightenment and mastery were also recorded in a book called the Hua Hu Ching (pronounced “wha hoo jing”). The teachings of the Hua Hu Ching are of enormous power and consequence, a literal road map to the divine realm for ordinary human beings. Perhaps predictably, the book was banned during a period of political discord in China, and all copies were ordered to be burned. Were it not for the Taoist tradition of oral transmission of sacred scriptures from master to student, they would have been lost forever. I am permanently indebted to Taoist Master Ni Hua-Ching for sharing his version of these teachings with the Western world after his emigration from China in 1976. My work here is largely based upon his teaching.

Walker’s work is skillful, poignant and poetic, but scholarly writing I’ve found contradicts his attribution to Lao Tzu. He suggests it only exists in oral form, however, a copy was found in 1997 in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, China, dating from around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. Walker seems to ignore the inconsistencies in the text or its evident political stance.

One of the problems that oral traditions face is that transmission from one generation to the next is seldom if ever entirely accurate. Memories fail, ideologies intrude to change the message, people can mishear a word. verses handed down orally for 1,500 or more years is bound to be corrupt when compared with a written version. Walker’s work has to be read with that in mind.

An alternate translation of the book, by Hua-Ching Ni, is much longer than Walker’s version, and retains the debate format so it reads as a series of question-and-answer dialogues between a young prince and a learned Taoist master. It, too, incorrectly attributes the authorship to Lao Tzu despite the very obvious references to later practices and beliefs that post-dated Lao Tzu.

Here’s another bad quote mis-attributed to Lao Tzu, this one from Facebook, mis-identified as coming from Lao Tzu:

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

This is actually from the New Testament (Corinthians), not Lao Tzu. Once again the problem is that lazy people don’t check sources to confirm the author, and simply attribute it to whomever they decide seems like a likely source. Never assume that what is posted online – especially anything posted on Facebook – is accurate. Always research the content before you spread another bad meme or urban myth.

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Slowly dies: another bad Internet meme

I came across a fascinating poem, translated into English as “Slowly Dies.” There are numerous translations online, many by amateurs, but some very well crafted. It goes something like this (a portion from one translation):

Dies slowly he who transforms himself in slave of habit,
repeating every day the same itineraries,
who does not change brand,
does not risk to wear a new color and doesn’t talk to whom doesn’t know.
Dies slowly he who makes of television his guru.
Dies slowly he who avoids a passion,
who prefers black to white
and the dots on the “i” to a whirlpool of emotions,
just those ones that recover the gleam from the eyes,
smiles from the yawns,
hearts from the stumbling and feelings.
Dies slowly he who does not overthrow the table when is unhappy at work,
who does not risk the certain for the uncertain
to go toward that dream that is keeping him awake.

It’s a powerful, moving piece. However, the poem is not by Neruda, as is commonly and frequently claimed on the many sites where the poem appears. I became suspicious when I couldn’t find it in any of my collections of Neruda’s works (printed books). A little deeper surfing turned up that uncomfortable fact: it has nothing to do with Neruda.

In the past, I wrote about how quotations and poems have been mis-associated by people online who either were misinformed or were too lazy to actually look them up and confirm the source. Here’s my original piece on a mistaken Shakespearean quote and another post on a bad Thoreau quote. Sadly, these mistakes take on the patina of credibility.

Martha MedeirosThis is now the Medeiros meme. A meme is, as you know, the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination. Like a virus, it can be good or bad. In this case, it’s bad because it’s wrong and contributes to our collective stupidity. It gives credit to the late Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda but it really belongs to the talented Brazilian, Martha Medeiros.

Poetry isn’t the big part of our cultural life that it was a couple of generations ago. How many people actually call themselves poets today? How many books of new poetry are published by mainstream publishers these days? Few, I think.

In the mid-1970s, I had the honour of working as a sales rep for Canadian publisher, McLelland & Stewart, in the heyday of Canadian poetry, when poets like Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave and others were still publishing and, more important, being read and bought. In fact, books of poetry were even bestsellers then – Rod McKuen’s books sold millions in the late 60s and early 70s (personally I thought his writing was thin and shallow, but apparently I was in the minority).

Did you know that a unique form of poetry – the viator poem – was actually invented in Canada, by poet Robert Skelton? Just one of those bits of trivia to amaze and amuse your friends. We have a quite a rich tradition of poetry in this country, although you’d be hard pressed to tell by browsing through most of the bigger bookstores. You’ll usually find the few shelves of poetry hidden somewhere near a back wall, sandwiched between teen-read vampire trash and comic books (oh, excuse me: graphic novels).

When did poetry slip from its height and become a fringe art instead of a mainstream one? There are poets and poetry sites online, and I’ve seen a minor revival of some forms like haiku (and some entertaining Twitter-based forms). But I’d suggest there are more sites dedicated to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty games than to poetry. There are certainly more sites dedicated to astrology, UFOs, angels and other claptrap than to poetry. That deserves a sprightly limerick in itself.

I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry. Among my books, I have a battered, well-read paperback collection of poems by Wallace Stevens I picked up in 1972. I also have books of poems by Li Po, Gary Snider, Leonard Cohen, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsburg, Baudelaire and other poets> Most I bought in the late 60s and early 70s, but a few in the 80s. I still like to pick up a collection and spend an hour or two in an easy chair reading poetry, savouring the words, the construction, the imagery. Poetry has the power to move me; like music, but in different ways.

As one of the various translations of this poem goes,

Slowly dies he who doesn’t travel, he who doesn’t read,
he who doesn’t listen to music…

to which I would add, “he who doesn’t read poetry…” In poetry there is magic, wonder, and imagination to be found it its swirling depths. But poetry itself is not the point of Medeiros’ poem: the point is rather that life is painted on a large canvas, something to be lived, not merely observed, not ignored or controlled by habit.

Let’s avoid death by small doses,
remembering always that being alive
requires a much larger effort
than the simple act of breathing.

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