Friday, December 25, 2015

Pretty Paper, Pretty Ribbons of Blue

From the online verson of Texas Monthly

Before Willie Hugh Nelson became famous, he had to do what he could to earn a living. As a young singer in Fort Worth, he worked selling encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners door-to-door.

Some days, when his work took him downtown, he’d see a disabled man dragging himself along the sidewalk on his hands and knees, wearing kneepads made from old tires. The man would make it to Leonard’s Department Store, sit outside the big glass doors, and sell pencils to passersby from a customized leather vest. At Christmastime, he’d hawk ribbons and gift wrap, calling out, “Pretty paper!” 

A few years later, after Willie had moved to Nashville, he was walking around his farm when he had a vivid memory of the street vendor. He picked up his guitar and composed a ballad, contrasting the holiday shoppers’ joy and mirth with the man’s apparent loneliness and misery: “In the midst of the laughter, he cries.” Willie says the song took him only twenty minutes.

“It was an easy song to write. The easy ones write themselves.” Soon after, “Pretty Paper” was recorded by Roy Orbison, and it’s been a holiday classic ever since.

Willie didn’t know it, but the man’s name was Frankie Brierton. Born with spinal meningitis, he learned early on to get around on his hands and knees; later he’d drive himself to the department store every day in a car he had outfitted with hand-operated controls.

His daughter Lillian Compte says he refused all offers of government assistance. “He didn’t want to depend on anybody. He wanted to be on his own and take care of his family.” Brierton sold pretty paper in downtown Fort Worth for years and died in 1973 having never heard Willie’s song.

His daughter says he was anything but lonely or miserable, though. “He was married seven times.”

Friday, December 18, 2015

Dream Number 23,242

I was walking down a hallway. I had just left a restaurant and only ordered coffee. This place must have been in a large mall that had either a hotel or a casino housed within it’s walls.

As I was making my way through the crowd when I nearly bumped in to this very thin nice looking man. He was wearing dress slacks with pleats and creases and a mulit-colored pastel sweater with a light blue shirt. His shoes were Italian loafers.

To my surprise he says my name and greats me. “Hey Marc, how ya’ doin’? You know we are playing here on stage tonight. You ought to come.”

I said that would be swell but I’m stretched for funds and don’t have any tickets.

He replies, “No problem man. Meet me at my room and I’ll have a couple of tickets for you. See ya’!”

He gives me directions to go down this hallway and this corridor and turn here and turn there and just come on in. "Let them know Bobby sent you."

So I do this and come to an open door. To my surprise I see one of my favorite singers with a rope around his neck, hanging from the ceiling. Whoa! I don’t know what to do. This is terrible. Here is this very famous short Italian guy hanging from the ceiling and I figure he offed himself. I've listened to his music since I was a kid. I am totally freaked out.

He opens his eyes and looks at me and says, “Well what are you waiting for? Get me down.”

'turns out it was only a “joke” to shake up his band member friends. I find a chair or a ladder, I don’t remember what, I have a knife and I get him down.

About that time two other guys and a few women come in and want to know what all the commotion is and who the hell are you and why are you hanging our lead singer; Don’t you know he is a star!?  Our whole act revolves around him!

I explain that I ran into my friend Bobby and he said he would give me a couple of tickets to your show if I came to his room. I walked in the room and found him hanging himself.

About this time “the Star” starts acting all crazy like he is messed up on some medication. I mean he is getting sweaty and slobbering and convulsing and just generally scaring me.

The other guys say, “Oh he’s just being goofy. He’s a big teaser. Don’t pay him any mind.” Then they start asking me what I know about the town and where is a good place to eat.

I say I'm from around here and know some nice places if you want to go out. They are all hungry and ready so we walk a couple of blocks and are in front of this white building that houses a pretty good restaurant.

I go in and make some reservations since I know the girl at the desk. I motion to my friends to come along. My wife has joined me by now and this place has a separate room for us. The band comes in with their ladies. I do not know if they were wives or girlfriends. My wife chats with them while we are drinking coffee and waiting for food.

These guys are all Italian and from the New Jersey area, except for one guy. I’m having a conversation with him and he tells me he is from Macedonia. He just got back from there and says he was real hassled coming through the airport. The guy has a full black beard and a uni-brow. He is short and well-dressed like the rest of them.

I’m wondering where is my friend Bobby. They tell me, “Oh yeah, Bobby is sort of new and he is an outsider. We are not really friendly with him, but he is a pretty good bass player.” We all continue talking, drinking coffee and waiting for dinner. I’m asking them about their music. But I wake up and I never find out if I got my tickets or how the show went. I bet it was awesome.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


A man walked into the ladies department and shyly walked up to the woman behind the counter and said, 'I'd like to buy a bra for my wife. '

' What type of bra?' asked the clerk.

'Type?' inquires the man, 'There's more than one type?'

' Look around,' said the saleslady, as she showed a sea of bras in every shape, size, color and material imaginable. 'Actually, even with all of this variety, there are really only four types of bras to choose from.'

Relieved, the man asked about the types.

The saleslady replied: 'There are the Catholic, Salvation Army, Presbyterian, and the Baptist types. Which one would you prefer?'

Now totally befuddled, the man asked about the differences between them.

The Saleslady responded, 'It is all really quite simple.'
'The Catholic type supports the masses;
The Salvation Army type lifts the fallen;
The Presbyterian type keeps them staunch and upright;
and the Baptist type makes mountains out of molehills.'

Oh you may have wondered why A, B, C, D, DD , E, F, G, and H are the letters used to define bra sizes?

Here is what those letters stand for,so listen up and be informed!
{A} Almost Boobs.
{B} Barely there. {
{C} Can't Complain.
{D} Dang!
{DD} Double dang!
{E} Enormous!
{F} Fake.
{G} Get a Reduction.
{H} Help me, I've fallen and I can't get up!

And I almost forgot about the German bra. Holtzemfromfloppen!'

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit.

excerpted from an article in Brain Picking written by Maria Popova

In view of the fact that we are in the midst of the "Silly Season" aka presidential elections, I think it appropriate to post Carl Sagan's 9 Rules for Bull-shit busting and Baloney Detection.

In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he states, "Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods: The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method."

Sagan goes on to say, "But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation."

So here are Sagan's rules for critical thinking in a world of deceit, baloney that can be utilized when evaluating candidates, religious leaders and pundits that would make P.T. Barnum proud.

1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.

7. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:

"In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions."

He admonishes against the twenty most common and perilous ones — many rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity — with examples of each in action:

ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)

argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)

argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)

appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)

begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)

observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)

statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)

misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);

inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);

non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;

post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons) meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)

meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)

excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)

short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);

slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception); *NOTE: These are Sagan's thoughts, not mine as I believe abortion is wrong.

confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)

straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)

suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)

weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)

Sagan concludes with a necessary disclaimer:

"Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others."