Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Recognition of a Pattern That Doesn't Really Exist

One of the aspects that's covered in the book I'm reading right now, The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer, is something he calls patternicity.

Patternicity, basically, is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. As Mr. Shermer puts it, "our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction." (text taken from this article at Scientific American, but he says something similar in the book itself.)

So, to use the example he uses in the book, our ancestors had a choice when they heard the grass rustling behind them. They could believe that it was a predator and that they should get the heck out of dodge or they could believe that it was just the wind and stay there. Both have a chance of being correct, but the cost of choosing option B (the wind) and being wrong was much higher than the cost of choosing option A (predator) and being wrong. If they chose A and were wrong, they suffered some fright and some inconvenience. If they chose B and were wrong, they got eaten (most likely).

We are the descendants of the people who chose A, and this is a choice that is made in a split second based on what data our brains already have, such as previous encounters with predators in such a fashion, reports of predators in the area, etc. Our brains are wired via natural selection in this manner to see causal patterns where they may or may not actually exist because there's no way for the brain to filter out which causal patterns are useful and which are not.

And it doesn't take much for a pattern-rule to be established, I know for a fact. Reading this section reminded me of three times in my life where option A has been taken and it has been in error.


I have only been to one air show in my life. For those of you who may not know exactly what an air show is, it's an event where aviators display their skills for an audience. So planes flying in formations, doing special tricks (upside down, colored smoke releases, etc.), people doing wing walking, things like that. They also, as I recall, will have planes on the ground for people to look at and other exhibits. There's food and drink and it's all set up in a large field with maybe bleachers but usually not. And you pay to get in and you're supposed to have a good time.

My family loves them and tries to go every year.

Except for me. Like I said, I've only ever been to one. The thing is, at that one air show I was...probably ten or eleven years old and it was fun at first, but then I started to feel hot and achey. Sick all over and my stomach was cramping and I was nauseous and crying but my parents didn't want to leave yet so they stuck me in a tent in the shade, figuring I'd feel better and that I was just over heated and tired.

Well I wasn't and I spent hours being miserable and certain that I was going to die because I felt so bad. Eventually the show ended and we all went home. When we got home we discovered that I'd started my period for the first time, which explained many of my symptoms and why just sitting in the shade didn't make me feel any better.

So it's not the fault of the air show, but every time I think about it I remember being so sick and miserable. The two events have become linked in my mind even though there's no actual causality between them.


My mother used to make these cheese stuffed pasta shells. They were, as I recall, delicious and I couldn't get enough of them.

Something like this. *blargh* Even looking at them makes me make a 'gross' face.
I haven't had them in more than 20 years. Because, of course, when I think about them I remember the last time I ate them. We had them for dinner one night and I woke up that night/the next morning and was terribly ill. It was the flu and it had nothing to do with the food but now when I smell the stuffed shells I physically feel sick to my stomach. I *know* that there's no relation between the shells and being ill but my mind has created one and my body responds to that.


And this one's not mine!

My sister *hates* Dr. Pepper. Hates it with a passion and she doesn't remember ever drinking it so she doesn't know why.

I, however, know exactly why she doesn't like it.

I was on a swim team in elementary school and it was at one of our meets. She was maybe five years old as I recall and was running around, drinking Dr. Pepper and generally being a little kid. She was overexcited and overheated and the inevitable mess happened. Ever since, without even knowing it, she's been making the connection between the flavor/smell of Dr. Pepper and being terribly sick.

I just find the entire thing interesting. It's a reaction that's meant to help us survive but it doesn't have a way to filter out the false-positives from the rest of the data.

Monday, September 24, 2012

One of the best tv shows *ever*

due South.

No, I will hear no arguments about this. This was a fun, fun show. Admittedly, my favorite seasons are season 3 and season 4 because Callum Keith Rennie.

CKR should be in every show.

All of them.

But I digress.

due South - bizarre, fun and with subtext that is beautiful to contemplate.

Their *faces*, people. This is the look of two men who have just boarded a modern pirate ship using an accurate recreation of the HMS Bounty on Lake Michigan.
No, it's not a quarter past one in the morning here and I'm not up writing fic because that would be ridiculous.

Stop looking at me like that.

due South.

*runs off into the morning humming the theme song*

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I'm Newton Pulsifer. Why did no one tell me this?!?

No, no, really. Look:

"Newton Pulsifer had never had a cause in his life. Nor had he, as far as he knew, ever believed in anything. It had been embarrassing, because he quite wanted to believe in something, since he recognized that belief was the lifebelt that got most people through the choppy waters of Life. He'd have liked to believe in a supreme God, although he'd have preferred a half-hour's chat with Him before committing himself, to clear up one or two points. He'd sat in all sorts of churches, waiting for that single flash of blue light, and it hadn't come. And then he'd tried to become an official Atheist and hadn't got the hard, self-satisfied strength of belief even for that. And every single political party had seemed to him equally dishonest. And he'd given up on ecology when the ecology magazine he'd been subscribing to had shown its readers a plan of a self-sufficient garden, and had drawn the ecological goat tethered within three feet of the ecological beehive. Newt had spent a lot of time at his grandmother's house in the country and thought he knew something about the habits of both goats and bees, and concluded therefore that the magazine was run by a bunch of bib-overalled maniacs. Besides, it used the word 'community' too often; Newt had always suspected that people who used the word 'community' were using it in a very specific sense that excluded him and everyone he knew." - Good Omens, pg. 165-166, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Sunday, September 16, 2012

so then this all happened

I went to lunch with Eve and Evesdottir today. First, hey, Evesdottir is 6 months old and she is simultaneously so *big* and so *tiny*. Babies are little living paradoxes.

So we're sitting there and a larger group is seated to our left in a little nook that's raised over the rest of the floor. And Eve and I are talking about how I'm kind of annoyed that my Speech professor keeps referencing the Bible and Christian examples of whatever she's talking about.

Well the group next to us (and the restaurant was mostly empty and quiet so we could all hear one anothers' conversations) starts singing 'This is the day that the Lord made'. Eve and I share a look and then she says, 'Well that's all your fault right there.' laughing.

And I'm like, 'These are the days I wish I still wore my scarves. Just to see what they'd do.'

Which led us into a discussion about why I don't wear the scarves any more which led to us discussing Islam and that 'movie' that's been in the news recently and the protests and everything about that. All while the group next to us keeps singing and then segues into their own conversation about the same topics. So Eve and I have moved on to (or circled back around to) Islam itself and how the religion is unjustly blamed for so many things. And how you can make fun of Jesus and no one riots. Which led into a discussion of Christian privilege and how no one is running around saying that Christ was a cult leader luring attractive young men into his group to wander around in the desert with him. (Which, of course, I am certain someone has said at some point. I'm just saying it's not something you hear every day.) Unlike how people are always throwing out, 'Well Mohammed was a pedophile.' Which I feel is just an unjust accusation and shows how people don't even bother to try and understand what they're talking about. (Of course none of this excuses the deaths that have happened in Libya, no matter what the truth behind that attack is.)

And we were talking about religion and our relationships with it and have you ever had one of those sentences that comes out of your mouth without checking in with your brain first? And then once it's out you realize, well yes, I didn't *mean* to say that, I didn't plan on it, but it's true so I'm leaving it out there. I have those sometimes only they're usually sarcastic commentary. Anyway. My mouth busts out with, 'If I was going to be religious I'd be a Muslim.' As I sipped on my cocktail.

So there's that.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I'd like to believe, I'm just not sure I'm wired that way

I keep coming around to the problem of belief, in terms of faith mostly, but belief in general as well.

I want to have it. Not in some burning, I *need* to believe in something or my life is empty! sort of way, but in a way...I feel like I should believe and yet I feel as though I don't. I've been reading a couple of books about the science behind belief, about the biological, evolutionary and chemical reasons for why humans believe and why belief in deities is so persistent. And I think it would be very nice if I was able to say, 'Well I'm just one of the people who isn't wired for belief. That's why I never have these revelatory experiences. That's why I have such trouble just taking that leap of faith.'

Which would be all well and good, and true, except that I have no trouble believing in other things that are often ranked along with God/s. Ghosts, for example. I believe in them. I know that they exist because I have had experiences with them. Or so I believe. There are also, I acknowledge, explanations for what happened that do not involve the spirits/imprints of once living beings being left behind. However I believe that I have seen and interacted with people who were once living in physical bodies and no longer are. And, so far, nothing has convinced me otherwise. I have had one or two experiences where, for a period of time, I believed that it was a divine entity of some sort trying to communicate with me. But in those instances, I've always gone back and rethought. Re-evaluated and found a lack of faith in the experience.

Why is that? Why will my capacity for belief go only so far?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's In a Name?

Not a whole hell of a lot if you ask me.

So I'm back in school and the class I'm taking this semester is Speech. *boohissspit* I have a problem with standing up in front of groups and speaking. I don't know why, I'm just not comfortable with it. If I could speak from my desk or something, or just have it be people that I know, I'd be fine. But once I'm up in front of the group and everyone is looking at me I feel *judged* or like they're all just waiting for me to shut up.

Unfortunately, my class last Tuesday was cancelled due to the professor being in an accident. She's fine, don't worry. So I haven't had to actually give any speeches yet. The first speech is due tonight and it's supposed to be about the meanings of our names.

All well and good, I have no problem with looking up the meaning of the words that make up my name and talking about them. Well, the talking thing, but that's less about the name and more about all the people watching me! My 'problem', such as it is, is with part of the instructions for the assignment. Here, let me share:

"This is a 2-3 minute speech designed to acquaint you with your classmates. Select one aspect about yourself to share with your audience. You will give a speech on the meaning of your name. You should research both your first and last name, but you may include your middle name. You should cite at least one source for the meaning of your name. Build the speech around a theme. For example, you could focus upon a personal goal, activity, or quality you possess. Give the listeners sufficient information to help them remember who you are and what you are about."

So essentially my professor wants us to tie our names into some aspect of ourselves. Our personality, goals, etc. Something. My issue is this: My name has nothing to do with who I am as a person. My name is an accident of birth, of other peoples' choices. I had nothing to do with it. It doesn't reflect *me*, it's just the individual label that people use to differentiate the consciousness/body that I am from all the other consciousness/bodies that they know.

I find it...annoying? Maybe even insulting, that some people have this expectation that your name makes up a part of your internal identity. As if the meaning of your name, something that could be thousands of years old, touches the core of your soul and changes it somehow. It doesn't. My mother chose my name, and she chose it because 'it was pretty'. My middle name(s) are nearly a family tradition. They would have been traditional, except that they sounded strange with my first name. And my last name is just the name of the asshat who married my mother and adopted me. It doesn't *mean* anything to me and it certainly doesn't reflect my personality or my goals. It doesn't even reflect my heritage or my genetics. It's little more, at this point, than a scar that I bear, something I care so little about I can't be bothered to change it.

If we were a culture that allowed children to choose their own names as they entered adulthood, I think it would be different. At least in my mind. Then we could say, well what does your name mean about you? Why did you choose it? What part of yourself did you want to celebrate or emphasize?

But we're not. We're left with the names that our parents give us, for the most part. (Some people do change their names as adults and in those cases I do feel that the question is a valid one. What was it about that name that resonated with their self-identity?)

So lets run down my name, just as an example of how little the meanings of the words actually *mean* to me as a person.

Amber: from the Arabic 'anbar. Brought back by Crusaders, the word was originally used to refer to both ambergris (whale vomit) and the semi-precious stones. Do you know what amber is? It's petrified tree sap. I mean it's pretty, yes, and I think the pieces that have insects preserved in them are incredible but what on earth does that have to do with me? Am I about to be responsible for the cloning of dinosaurs? I think not. Or maybe I hope so. It might be kind of cool.

Dawn: Old English. A way to refer to the rising of the sun in the morning. Fairly self explanatory. Chosen by my mother because I was born near dawn and the 'family' name of 'Ann' sounded weird after 'Amber'.

Marie: French/German version of Mary, which is a version of Mariam, which is a version of Myriam which is Hebrew. Family name. There are plenty of Marie/Mary/Miriam/M---'s in history that are famous or infamous. I think most people, if you say the name Marie/Mary, think of the virgin Mary, but that may just be my own cultural prejudice sneaking in. Nonetheless, I am not particularly virginal or saintly.

Last Name *redacted for paranoia*: You'll just have to trust me when I say that it means nothing more than 'someone born not a serf'. Which, back in the day, was a pretty swanky place to be. Not rich or royal, but not a slave. Still...*shrugs*. What does that mean to me? To my actual identity? Nothing that I can tell. Being born 'not a slave' is less of a special circumstance in most of the world than it used to be.

My grandparents' last name at least gives homage to our ancestry, Kuchta, being a German/Czech/Polish name. Of course it just translates to someone who worked in the kitchen. I don't cook.

Or my last name at birth, McPeak. "Northern Irish: Anglicized form of Gaelic Mac Péice, a patronymic from the personal name Péic, which Woulfe links to Old English Pic (see Pike 5), although MacLysaght derives it from Old English peac ‘thickset man’." So...someone who lives near a peak (a hill with a pointy top) or a thickset man. *glances at waist* Okay, I'll give you that one. But again, it has nothing to do with who I *am* as a human being.

If I was going to name myself, which I'm not because I like my name even if I don't think it has any deeper meaning for me, I would name myself Josephine or Josephina, for my grandfather. Because that would have meaning for me. It would be something that I could tie into my goals, my hopes for myself as a person. 

I've mentioned it, once or twice to people I know and their reaction is always, 'But you don't look like/you're not a Josephine.' No, I'm not. Because you think of me as an 'Amber', but that's only on the outside. If I changed my name, you'd get used to thinking of me as a Josephine.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Completely Not Annual I Just Like to Call It That Book Give Away

Welcome to yet another totally not annual in any way, shape or form, no matter what I like to call it, installment of Amber Gives Away Books.

Below are the lists of books that I'm getting rid of, broken up into 'Fiction', 'Non Fiction' and 'Manga'. If you want any of them and you live in the US (I can't ship internationally), then drop me an email at akelios @ with your address and which books you want. It's first come first served, obviously.


Brown, Dan - 
Angels & Demons
The DaVinci Code
The Lost Symbol

Gaiman, Neil -
Fragile Things
Smoke and Mirrors

Graham, Caroline - British Mysteries
Death in Disguise
Death of a Hollow Man
Faithful Unto Death
A Ghost in the Machine
The Killings at Badger's Drift
A Place of Safety
Written in Blood

Halter, Marek - Historical Fiction
Mary of Nazareth

Kinsella, Sophie - Chick Lit
Confessions of a Shopaholic
Shopaholic Takes Manhattan
Shopaholic Ties the Knot
Shopaholic & Sister
Shopaholic & Baby

Klein, Zoe -
Drawing in the Dust

Kostova, Elizabeth - 
The Historian

Lewis, C.S. - 
The Screwtape Letters (*old* copy of the book, published in 1962)

Lindsay, Jeff - 
Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Dearly Devoted Dexter
Dexter in the Dark

Lowell, Elizabeth - Drama/Mystery
Innocent as Sin

Lukyanenko, Sergei - 

Luttrell, Wanda -
The Dandelion Killer

MacAlister, Katie - Romances
Ain't Myth Behaving
Blow Me Down
Even Vampires Get the Blues
Fire Me Up (Aisling Grey series)
A Girl's Guide to Vampires
Hard Day's Night
Holy Smokes (Aisling Grey series)
Just One Sip
The Last of the Red-Hot Vampires
Light My Fire (Aisling Grey series)
Noble Destiny
Playing with Fire (Silver Dragons series)
Sex and the Single Vampire
The Trouble with Harry
You Slay Me (Aisling Grey series)
Zen and the Art of Vampires

Maguire, Gregory -
Son of a Witch
A Lion Among Men

McCrumb, Sharyn - Mysteries
Highland Laddie Gone
If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him...
Lovely in Her Bones
MacPherson's Lament
Missing Susan
The PMS Outlaws

Meyers, Randy Susan -
The Murderer's Daughters


Get Backers Vol. 1 - 18

Non Fiction:

Anderson, Joan Wester - In the Arms of Angels
Cowley, Robert - What If?
Friedman, David M. - A Mind of Its Own
Sharlett, Jeff - The Family
West, Adam - Back to the Batcave
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