Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Be careful what you look at. You might see it.

I remember a con at the Brooklyn Fair when I was a kid. There was one of those Carnie booths. For a quarter you could try for a prize. But first you had to solve a puzzle. The game was rigged, of course. Aren't they all?

There was a circle on the ledge between you and the carnie magic. The barker took your quarter and gave you five metal disks. The goal was to drop those disks, one at a time, over the circle. You had to completely cover it. He would even do it himself to show you that it was possible. Easy, even.

Well, then. Twenty five cents, a meaningless task that he just showed me how to do, and I can get a Mr. Peabody doll for my girl? No problem. What do you take me for, anyway?

A rube. That's what he took me for. Rightly so.

Of course there was a trick. People tended to put the first disk down to cover as much of the circle as possible. As you continued covering big chunks of the circle and getting closer to disk number five, it became impossible to cover all of the neglected little bits around the corners.

You'd been had. By yourself. The con artist just gathered up the scraps.

I always remembered that. Of all the other cons and wonderlust of the fair, and they were legion, that one stuck in my mind. Give a sucker a chance and he'll pick his own pocket for you.

I think of it as a metaphor. When we look at things around us, we can't take them all in. There's too much data. So we compartmentalize them. We create categories and lump things together. We take our steel disks and drop them over the stuff we see. Disks with names like: Projection. Religion. Ideology. Perspective. Prejudice. Certainty.

I came up with a thought experiment. Don't laugh! It's just...thought.

In my thought experiment there is a table. And on this table there are several objects. A thimble. A pack of cards. A silver dollar. A pair of gloves. An aloe plant. Kleenexes. A TV remote. Car keys.

And I have a divider in my hands. The divider is a square frame with slats that criss cross and divide it up into several smaller squares, like a chess board. Or a sifter, which is what it really is. I take this divider and drop it on the table. The items are now segregated and grouped together in little clusters.

So. If I ask you to look at these groupings and tell me what the items contained therein have in common, you might say...

Well, the thimble and the car keys are together because they both have to do with hands. You put a thimble on your finger and you hold the keys in your hand while you start your car: Hands.

Oh, and the cards and the silver dollar are obvious. People play poker to win. So this us about: Money.

The gloves and the Kleenexes. Well, you put a glove on your hand to keep it safe. You use a Kleenex to clean your nose and make it safe. They're both about: Safety.

Aloe plant and a TV remote. Hmmm. OK. They are both things you have in a living room. Both things you can look at, well, the television that the remote is linked to is what you look at. So they are both items that are entertaining. Or at least pleasing. They are about: Entertainment.

Very good, I say. Now, wait a moment. I take the divider, pick it up off the table, rotate it forty five degrees, and set it down again.

Now. What do you see?

Well, the thimble is now with the aloe plant. So, they both have to do with hands, right? The thimble protects a finger. The aloe can be used as medicine for an injured finger. That's what they have in common: Protection.

The cards are now with the car keys. Well, when most people play cards they don't do so at home. They meet at a friend's house with a few others, play cards, drink beer, eat food that is bad for you. This partition is about: Friendship.

The gloves and the silver dollar. Well. You can hold a silver dollar in your hand. And flip it. And a glove holds your hand. This box is about: Having things.

The kleenex in with the TV remote. Simple. This group is about emotions. You watch a drama on TV and you cry, so you need a Kleenex. Simple: Emotions.

So. Depending on your grouping you get categories called: Hands, Money, Safety, Entertainment, Protection, Friendship, Having Things, Emotions.

Eight categories, depending on how you matched four random items with four other random items.

Our brains work the same way. We group things together according to what they have in common, but only after we decide how we will group them together. It's all in the divider you use to group them together.

What category does the divider belong in?

"I love humans. They're always finding patterns where there are none." The Eighth Doctor.

Post Script.

Here's another one for perspective. Or spin. As it is sometimes called.

Recently Stephen Colbert made a political joke about President Trump. It involved casting President Putin in the role of the oppressive, dominating, "male" figure using a sex act to subdue and humiliate Trump as the weaker, subservient, "female" figure.

Everybody laughed. Those who objected were shouted down. How dare you? Reprimanding Colbert would be to deny first amendment rights. Freedom of the press. Free speech. The right to satire. It would have a 'chilling' effect on the rights of the electorate.

Let's go back in the Waback machine for a bit. Back to 2009. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a reset button to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. The Obama administration wanted to restart detente with Russia. To build trust and confidence. Noble ideals.

Suppose Colbert had said that Hillary had let her mouth be bun to Lavrov's hotdog? And he'd supply the mustard! Would that be OK? Free speech? Chilling effect on our first Amendment rights if it was challenged?

Hell, no. The liberal left (that would be you and me) would be outraged, and rightly so.


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