Tag Archives: lies

Being Right Vs. Winning An Argument Vs. Ben Shapiro

There’s an old saying that I just made up a few seconds ago, old being a relative term.

“You can either win the argument by merit or be right in principle, but only one matters in the long run.”

It sounds cynical, but it’s something I think most people realize at some point in our lives. The truth is a harsh mistress and it’s rarely the sexy kind. Truth is the kind of mistress that has no safe word, never offers any lube, and rarely gives overt warnings. When she wants to whip us in our most sensitive areas, she’ll do so without asking for permission or a second thought.

I’ll ease up on the BDSM terminology because I’m trying to make a serious point, one that’s a lot more relative in the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” More and more, we’re learning the hard way that our caveman brains aren’t equipped to seek truth. Survival and reproduction are our primary imperatives. Truth is optional, at best, and an afterthought at worst.

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It’s for that very reason that public debates or major speaking present a false sense of perspective that exploits our caveman brains. It gives the impression that the truth can be presented in a slick, concise, and easy-to-digest message that helps us make sense of the world. That kind of certainty in an world of cheap knock-offs and practical jokes is more valuable to our psyche than gold, diamonds, and good Wi-Fi.

I say that as someone who finds a lot of entertainment value in debates. For a time, one of my favorite things to do was to look up debates between scientists and creationists, which always seems to bring out the best and worst of our caveman brains. They nicely highlight how real, functioning human beings can hold such radically different viewpoints, as well as the excuses they’ll make to cling to those viewpoints.

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I won’t get into all the absurdities behind creationist debates. That’s not what prompted this post. The primary inspiration for this topic came from the recent news surrounding Ben Shapiro’s recent speaking gig at UC Berkeley. By every measure, this incident highlights all the problems with such debates better than any creationist ever could.

For those of you who don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, it’s not too hard to know what he’s about. He’s a fast-talking, quick-witted talking head in a media landscape that’s full of them. He specializes in espousing staunch conservative principles and you could make the case he does it better than almost any other conservative, at this point.

Personally, I like Mr. Shaprio’s style and I agree with some of the points he makes and not just because he makes them well. Many of them are points I’ve come to embrace on my own accord in trying to make sense of this crazy world. However, as much as I respect the man and his principles, he does embody a dangerous phenomenon that is becoming more prevalent in the digital age.

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It’s one born from that not-so-old saying I mentioned earlier about being right versus winning an argument. They are not the same thing, but they’re easy to confuse, thanks largely to our caveman brains.

Think back to the Simpson Filter in appealing to large swaths of people. For the Homer and Marge Simpsons of the world, winning the argument is enough to win them over. They leave the truth for the sad, lonely, and miserable Lisa Simpsons of the world that nobody listens to.

Ben Shaprio, and others like him, are highly skilled at using the Simpson Filter to get their message across. They’re slick, compelling, and charismatic in the sense that they check all the boxes that appeal to our tribal instincts, which I’ve noted before are a major source of conflict.

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By appealing to these instincts, they don’t have to be completely right. They don’t even have to be half-right. They just have to get people thinking and feeling that it’s right, so much so that they won’t bother checking the facts, doing some research of their own, or even giving it a second thought. Why would they? Ben Shaprio comes off as so smart and so knowledgable that he’s done the thinking for us.

Therein lies the biggest problem, though. By focusing on the argument and not the truth, it’s easy to conflate the two. Ben Shapiro is not a scientist, an economist, a politician, a philosopher, or even a used car salesman. He’s just a commentator, who happens to be exceptionally well at commentating in an articulate manner. That’s a valuable skill, but it’s not the same as being correct.

This actually played out in another event that occurred earlier this year at Politicon 2017. At that event, Ben Shapiro debated Cenk Uygur, another professional commentator who is at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Like Shapiro, I respect Mr. Uygur and agree with some of his positions. However, he is not as skilled a debater as Mr. Shapiro.

If you watch the debate, listen to the crowd, and note the speaking styles of both men, it’s not hard to see who has more skill and experience in that field. If you read the comments and look at the reactions, most agree that Mr. Shapiro won that debate. I’m sure it’s not the first debate he’s won, nor will it be the last.

That’s just it, though. Mr. Shapiro could win a billion more debates against a billion other people much smarter than Mr. Uygur. He could go down in history as the most skilled debater in the history of the human race. It still wouldn’t change one inescapable fact.

The real world, as in the world that operates outside our caveman brains, doesn’t give two whiffs of dried wolf shit about who wins a debate or by how much. Reality still operates under the same facts, rules, and principles. People still operate in ways that are at the mercy of their caveman brains and their collective circumstances.

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Ben Shapiro could convince every person on this planet that Ronald Reagan was right about everything, that the Jewish religion that he practices is the only correct one, and that everyone whoever worked for Hillary Clinton was an alien spy. That still doesn’t change reality. At the end of the day, the truth is still that same harsh mistress that will whip all our asses without warning.

That’s why, in the long run, it doesn’t matter how many debates Ben Shapiro or others like him win. It doesn’t matter how well they craft their message. In the long run, if their ideas don’t line up with reality, then reality will eventually win out. It always does. People die, take their ideas with them, and leave reality to sort out the rest.

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Shapiro is sincere in his beliefs. I also don’t doubt that his opponents, like Cenk Uygur are just as sincere. That’s why I wouldn’t classify them as professional trolls, such as the Ann Coulters and Lena Dunhams of the world.

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They don’t say what they say, just to provoke our caveman brains and draw attention to themselves. They aren’t outright con-artists either, like certain televangelists. They’re just good at conveying their ideas and making them feel legitimate. Unfortunately, that’s as far as they can take it.

Ben Shapiro, Cenk Uygur, and everyone like them may think they have the answers. They may even believe that their way will make the world a better place, as a whole. They’re not entirely malicious in attempting to convey their points, but they are misguided.

There’s also a danger to their approach, conflating debates with truth. They present the false impression that an issue like politics, evolution, and economics can be resolved through simple debate through a series of talking points. As anyone who has worked with a tax attorney knows, that’s just not how the real world operates.

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The world is complicated, complex, and chaotic. No human brain, or collection of human brains, is equipped to make sense of it. Some of these issues aren’t just complex, either. They’re impossible to resolve because there just aren’t enough resources for everyone.

A skilled debater, like Ben Shapiro, is good at convincing people there are quick fixes. The world can be improved simply by adopting the policies of his favorite ideology. He may convince you, me, and everyone around you that he’s right.

The truth, however, can never be swayed by fast talking, fancy rhetoric, or skilled arguments. At the end of the day, it will stay on the side of the harsh mistress that is reality. In the short term, the Ben Shapiro’s of the world will be able to bask in many victorious debates. In the long term, however, the truth knows whose asses will be stinging in the end.

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Fake News, AI, And The (Potentially Horrifying) Future Of Media

In one of the most iconic scenes in the famous movie/mindfuck that is “The Matrix,” Morpheus asked Neo a question that has perplexed philosophers, scientists, and stoners for centuries.

“What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

To this day, the answer to that question is incomplete. It’s just as much a mental marathon to Keanu Reeves as it was to Plato in the days of Ancient Greece. Plato had his famous allegory of the cave.  Neo had his existential breakdown after taking the red pill. Everyone else is just waiting for someone to resolve the debate over what is real so they can get back to playing fantasy sports.

The philosophical conflict over what is means to be real is an old, philosophical question with some pretty mind-bending implications. I’ve talked a lot about the frustrating limitations of the human brain, but I’ve tried to avoid some of the more metaphysical questions, if only because I favor stimulating genitals more than minds.

Avoiding these questions has actually been fairly easy for most of human history. That’s because, even in the era of mass media, we can usually trust our senses to tell us whether something is sufficiently real. Even in the era of Photoshop, we can usually figure out when someone is trying to polish reality to an extreme. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious.

Well, now find ourselves entering unknown territory beyond the so-called uncanny valley. We’re just starting to become more aware of the flaws in our brain wiring. Concepts like “alternative facts” and “fake news” are buzzwords that might as well have come from a George Orwell fever dream.

We may not be living in the world of “1984” yet, but we are experiencing the concepts behind it, such as doublethink and newspeak. It’s all too easy these days to find instances of politicians being hypocrites or debates over proper pronouns. These are all elements that undermine our ability to make sense of what’s real.

As hard as it is to understand reality in an era where people get into arguments over the color of a dress, it’s actually about to get even harder. In fact, it’s about to get so distressingly difficult that our caveman brains will be even less reliable than they already are. Those brains already convince us that we have a chance to win the lottery or date Megan Fox. It’s not equipped to handle greater challenges.

It may not have a choice because at the same time we’re adapting to this era of alternative facts and fake news, the pace of technological advancement is accelerating and giving us the finger as it passes us by. The growth of artificial intelligence is already accelerating, so much so that even brilliant people like Stephen Hawking are calling it an existential threat.

Even before we face the prospect of fighting real life terminator robots, though, there’s another issue we’ll have to deal with. Anyone who owns PlayStation 4 or X-box One already has a vague idea of what I mean. Long before computers become smart enough to enslave us, they’ll become powerful enough to fool our senses.

Recently, researchers at the University of Washington accomplished an amazing/terrifying milestone in computer science. They were able to use an artificial intelligence technology to create a completely artificial rendering of former President Barack Obama. Watch this video and you might have a better understanding of how Neo felt after he took that red pill.

It shouldn’t take a dirty imagination that spends a lot of time contemplating sexy stories to realize the implications. It’s hard enough figuring out what’s real, if anything, about a rant by Sean Hannity or a documentary by Michael Moore. How the hell are we going to trust any video image we see if there’s technology that can render images so perfectly that our brains can’t tell the difference?

The short answer is we can’t. The long answer is even more distressing. Picture a world where realistic videos depicting Justin Beiber waving his dick in the face of starving orphans in Uganda surfaces. Picture a world where a realistic video of Kim Kardashian choking a bald eagle to death. With this technology, it won’t just be possible. It might be unavoidable.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. People have agendas and they’ll go to absurd lengths to further that agenda. It’s easy to ignore someone standing on a street corner, wearing a faded Pink Floyd shirt and shouting from a soap box that the CIA is slipping crack into milk. It’s a bit harder when that same person can use a computer to create realistic video showing CIA agents working with washed up rappers on a secret farm in Montana.

We’re already seeing this technology in movies where long-dead actors are coming back to life for iconic roles. There’s no way it’ll stop there. There’s just too much potential for someone to further their agenda. In the era of fake news and alternative facts, we can expect plenty of that potential to be realized.

What does this mean for the future of media? Well, that’s actually pretty damn scary when you think about it. While the technology is still being developed, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes refined. Add this to growing improvements in computer graphics technology and suddenly, you can’t trust any video you see.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s something as simple as a speech by the President or Teddy Roosevelt fighting a grizzly bear. Who’s to say which is real and which is simulated? With enough computing power, both look equally real to our brains.

If you think you might be able uncover the truth through sound, then I’ve got bad news for you. There’s another AI in development that can simulate anyone’s voice, including those of politicians and celebrities. You want to hear Sean Spicer go on an anti-sematic tirade that would make Mel Gibson blush? With this technology, that’s entirely possible.

There may very well come a time in the near future when anything we see and hear from the media is potentially fake. We already have cases of the news media deceptively editing stories to spin the story a particular way. Can you imagine what they’ll do when they can just use a computer to create imagery out of nothing? It might end up giving Alex Jones a heart attack.

These advancements in computer technology couldn’t come at a worse time. Trust in the media is already at an all-time low. Trust in government has been in decline for a half-century. Once the media has tools with which to forge their own reality out of nothing, then people will have even less reason to trust them.

This goes way beyond fake news and propaganda. This technology will allow those in positions of power to literally mold reality in accord with their message. That’s a terrifying thought, especially to anyone who sees the kind of dishonesty that major outlets like Fox News and CNN have exercised.

Now, that’s not to say these false stories will be accepted by anyone with a functioning brain. However, and it’s worth belaboring, our limited human brains will still struggle. We can barely get through a season of “Lost” without getting a headache. What hope do we have in a future when it’s possible to forge a false reality on demand?

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Truth, Lies, And Why “Daria” Is More Relevant Now Than Ever Before

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about the best and worst when it comes to fictional female characters. Since I deal in fictional characters as an aspiring writer, it’s a relevant topic of discussion. I want to create great female characters for my novels. I think I’ve made some strides with novels like “The Final Communion” and “Holiday Heat,” but I always feel there’s room for improvement.

That brings me back to Daria Morgendorffer from the classic MTV show, “Daria.” In both my lists discussing the best and worst female characters of fiction, “Daria” found a way to the top of the list. There’s a damn good reason for that too. Daria, as a character, represents something that is more relevant now than it ever was in the late 90s.

As I said in my past posts, Daria is one of those characters who was just ahead of their time, but not in a Nikola Tesla or Elon Musk sort of way. She came during an era when dial-up internet was still popular, boy bands were still relevant, and pagers were still in use. It was a strange and different time.

It was also a time when concepts like “alternative facts” and “fake news” were more associated with skits on “Saturday Night Live” than actual concepts that the general public has come to dread. In that sense, Daria is downright prophetic in the sense that she highlights a concept that become increasingly obscure over the past decade.

Throughout the five seasons of “Daria,” as well as two movie specials, one Daria’s most defining traits is her ability to point out the harsh truth that nobody wants to acknowledge. She doesn’t shy away from it. She doesn’t celebrate it either. She just points it out and lets the harsh truth do its thing.

For the overall narrative of this series, this is kind of necessary because Daria is often surrounded by those who constantly avoid the harder truths of life. Sometimes, as with air-headed dumb-asses like Kevin Thompson and Brittney Taylor, it’s out of ignorance. Other times, as with her sister Quinn and her eccentric teachers, it’s out of hopeless self-delusion.

Daria, being an outcast who isn’t afraid to think for herself, sees all of this from a distance and isn’t afraid to point it out. She doesn’t care that it alienates others. Even her sister, Quinn, refused to publicly acknowledge that they were even related until the final season.

Her parents constantly think something is wrong with her. Her teachers and peers constantly think she’s weird. Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with her. Daria even acknowledges that. However, as crass and callous as she may be, Daria may actually be the most sane person in her world.

This is best shown in Season 4, Episode 47 entitled, “Psycho Therapy.” In this episode, Daria’s family undergo a psych evaluation as part of a screening process for her mother’s promotion. It makes for some odd and entertaining escapades, but the most revealing moment comes when he doctors reach a remarkable, albeit unsurprising conclusion.

Daria, despite being so emotionally withdrawn and overtly sarcastic about everything around her, is by far the most well-adjusted person in her family. She understands and acknowledges all of her family’s quirks, but she doesn’t obsess over them or lament over them. She just accepts them and moves on with her life. I’m not a psychologist, but that’s way more healthy than we can expect of most teenagers these days.

In fact, Daria might as well be a unicorn dipped in gold with diamond-encrusted hoofs. She isn’t just accepting, understanding, and well-adjusted to her surroundings. She actively thinks for herself and no one else. She doesn’t shy away from the facts, nor does she avoid their implications. She is, by all accounts, the very antithesis of this current era of buzzwords, fake news, and alternative facts.

That’s what makes her so much more relevant now than she was back in the early 90s. She came at a time when people who said the cold, hard truth didn’t get it twisted through internet memes, social media feeds, and hashtags. Daria doesn’t do beat around the bush or try to twist the story. If something is true, honest, and blunt, then that’s the end of the conversation.

In an era where everyone, from our politicians to our gym teachers, has to have some kind of personality, Daria Morgendorffer is a breath of fresh air and from 1999 no less. What’s that say about our current state of affairs? I could spend the next 38 blog posts discussing it, but that wouldn’t be very sexy for a blog run by an aspiring erotica/romance writer.

I will say, though, that the attitude Daria embodies is something that’s a lot more critical now than it was in 1999. We live in an era where everyone seems intent on joining a trend, becoming part of a movement, or denigrating those who oppose your movement. Daria, being the consummate realist and independent thinker, would roll her eyes at both.

The idea of someone who just thinks for themselves shouldn’t be such a radical concept, especially when it was the core of a successful animated show that ran for five seasons on a network best known for documentaries about teenage mothers. However, that idea couldn’t be more important in 2017.

We current live in an unpleasant convergence, of sorts, where truth and brutal honesty are easily circumvented by fake news, alternative facts, and online trends. It’s too easy for someone to insulate themselves from the harsh realities of life. We all need a Daria Morgendorrfer in our lives to keep us anchored and too many don’t have one.

Being the optimist I am, I believe Daria’s words of wisdom will one day pierce the many veils of bullshit that permeate our culture at the moment. It may take a while. It may be painful, arduous, and distressing in the process. However, that’s exactly why it’s worth doing.

Thankfully, Daria herself gives us some memorable words of wisdom to make the process easier. In the spirit of celebrating everything Daria represents, here it is.

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Sex, Lies, And The Future Of Truth

Admit it. You’ve lied before. Maybe it involved drinking in high school. Maybe it involved  strippers at a bachelor party. Maybe it involved a promise to pull out. Whatever the case may be, regardless of whether you got caught or ended up paying child support, you’ve lied at one point in your life. As the great Dr. House once said, “Everybody lies.”

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with lying. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re lying to tell a story, which is basically what I do as a writer, then it’s not wrong. If done right, it can actually be pretty damn sexy. If you’re lying to deceive a lover, cheat on your taxes, or prevent your children from knowing about condoms, then that’s pushing it.

I bring up lies because, in watching my share of both superhero movies and romantic comedies, there is one common theme that binds many of these conflicts. No, it’s not Robert Downy Jr. or Hugh Jackman’s sex appeal. It’s that a lot of these plots are built on someone lying and working way harder than they need to in order to keep up the lie.

Take “The Proposal” with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock for example. In addition to being one of my favorite romantic comedies of the past several years, it’s entire plot was built around a lie that Bullock’s character crafted and Reynolds had to help preserve. Sure, it made for a hilariously entertaining story, complete with awkward nude scenes and moments with Betty White, but it was all built on the foundation of a lie.

Why do I bring up lies? Well, to answer that, I’ll have to get a little personal again and this time, it has nothing to do with me sleeping naked.

I’ve gotten a lot of romantic advice over the years from friends and family. Some of it is good. Some of it is bad. Some of it just plain crazy and involves some rather improper uses of food. However, within the good advice I’ve gotten, there was one common theme and it amounted to this.

DON’T KEEP SECRETS.

I write that in all caps and bold because they didn’t just tell me this as a casual aside. They made it a point to really emphasize the importance of being honest with those you love. No relationship can really function in the long run when both sides are keeping secrets. Say what you will about the Bundys or the Simpsons, but they are honest with each other, often brutally so.

Beyond the advice, there are a lot of romantic stories that involve secrets, lies, and deception. It’s not always in the smooth, sophisticated ways of James Bond either. Stories about lies, affairs, and elaborate deceptions are basically the bread and butter of these stories.

I’ve certainly used those themes. In “Skin Deep” and “The Escort and the Gigolo,” a big chunk of the plot is built around certain lies and deception. Not all of them are intentional either. Sometimes, the characters just don’t have a reason to believe someone is telling the truth.

This brings me to another thought experiment of sorts. Granted, it’s not exactly the sexy kind, but it has the potential to be. It involves the ways in which we expose lies. At the moment, we really can’t be 100 percent sure if anyone is telling the truth. We can’t even be 80 percent sure. People who lie, cheat, and manipulate others still operate and thrive in this world. Just ask Bernie Madoff.

Our entire justice system is built on the understanding that we can’t exactly know for sure whether someone is guilty or innocent. We can put them under oath all we want. People can and will still lie. That’s why we have principles that presume innocence and require that we prove guilt, and the lies by default, beyond all reasonable doubt.

As good as our justice system has served us, to a point, it still struggles to uncover lies. It can interrogate and intimidate all it wants. It won’t always be able to get out the truth. In fact, it can even create even more lies in the process.

This is where the thought experiment comes in. What if we had a device that could, with nearly 100 percent accuracy, tell whether someone was lying? What would that do to our justice system? What would that do to our relationships with others? Would it effectively force us to be more honest with our friends, family, and intimate lovers?

This is another one of those thought experiments that isn’t overly fanciful. Creating devices to detect lies is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been in development for over a century.

Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no functioning “lie detector” yet. Those who claim there is are probably referring to a polygraph. A polygraph is not a lie detector. If anything, it’s a stress detector. It doesn’t detect lies. It detects the stresses on your body. I’m sorry if this completely changes how you see “Meet The Parents,” but that’s the hard truth.

For that reason, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that the vast majority of research on the use of a polygraph for lie detection is unreliable, bias, and unscientific. It’s also why polygraph tests aren’t considered a reliable form of evidence in a court of law.

This is because it is possible to fool a polygraph. It’s been done before. There are even entire YouTube videos dedicated to helping people beat a polygraph. As a lie detector, it’s not much better than flipping a coin.

Beyond the polygraph, which only measures physiological responses, there is another emerging technology called fMRI, or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This technology is more functional in principle because it measures the very source of all lies, namely the human brain. However, our limited understanding of how the brain forms lies prevents it from being a full-fledged lie detector.

Even so, the use of fMRI has been shown to be an effective way at detecting lies. It’s still not perfect. In an episode of Mythbusters, one of the hosts was able to beat an fMRI. If it can be done on a TV show, then what hope does it have in a court of law with people who lie for a living?

Despite this flaw, research has shown that an fMRI was able to detect lies with 24 percent more accuracy than a polygraph. Overall, it’s accuracy is about 78 percent. That’s pretty good. If it were a winning percentage in baseball, it would be a playoff team. However, when you’re dealing with law and relationships, 78 percent just isn’t enough.

At the very least, the technology is improving. As the science of brain imaging continues to improve, it will eventually be possible to detect lies within someone’s brain with a degree of accuracy that would make every court drama much more boring.

There may even come a day where detecting lies is as easy as talking into a smartphone. Remember that smart blood I mentioned a while back? Well if someone had that in their system, then their brains could be scanned in real time. That means people could know whether they’re lying in an instant. That would basically destroy the entire pick-up artist community.

Now that kind of lie detection is a long way off. However, and I know I say this a lot, there may come a day within our life time when this technology is functional. Given the ongoing development into fMRIs, it may only be a matter of time before someone creates a system that can detect lies with 99 percent accuracy.

What will this mean for criminal justice? What will this mean for divorce proceedings? What will this mean for relationships in general when people know there’s a way for their lies to be exposed? It’s a strange and ominous idea to imagine, but the cold hard truth is that we may have to deal with sooner than we think.

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