Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Big Problem Science Has With Religion

I've just been linked to a story I've seen before, entitled "the little problem science has with religion."  Since it's been around the block a few times and its author is unknown, I'll take the liberty of posting it in its entirety here.  I'll provide my thoughts and retorts throughout.  Quoted text is taken exactly as it was presented, without any alterations to the text or format, except to break it up for my commentary.

Note: Forgive the formatting errors in the quotations.  I'll try to fix it when I have the time, but I wanted to get this online quickly.

"Let me explain the problem science has with religion." The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new
students to stand....[/quote]
This immediately identifies the story as a fiction.  Professors simply don't push antireligion in the classroom, and they certainly don't pick on students for their religious beliefs.  That's the fastest way to be out of a job.  But, even as a fiction, it could still be an interesting philosophical dialogue.  Let's see where they go with this, shall we?

[quote]"You're a Christian, aren't you, son?"

"Yes sir," the student says.

"So you believe in God?"


"Is God good?"

"Sure! God's good."

"Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?"


"Are you good or evil?"

"The Bible says I'm evil."

The professor grins knowingly. "Aha! The Bible!"

He considers for a moment, "Here's one for you.

Let's say there's a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?"

"Yes sir, I would."

"So you're good!"[/quote]
A reasonable, if a bit over-simplistic, observation.  Helping the sick is, by any reasonable moral standard, a good action.

[quote]"I wouldn't say that."

"But why not say that? You'd help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn't."

The student does not answer, so the professor continues.

"He doesn't, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Hmmm? Can you answer that one?"

The student remains silent.[/quote]
The student remains silent for a reason.  The professor's argument is valid.  Sure, there have been a few apologetics offered to counter this problem before, but none have stood up.  As the old saying goes...
Is god willing to prevent suffering but not able?  Then he's not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he's not good.
Is he neither willing nor able? Then why call him God?
Is he both willing and able? Then why is there still suffering?

[quote]"No, you can't, can you?" the professor says. He takes a sip of water from glass on his desk to give the student time to relax. "Let's start again,
young fella. Is God good?"

"Er...yes," the student says.

"Is Satan good?"

The student doesn't hesitate on this one,


"Then where does Satan come from?"

The student falters, "From God."

"That's right. God made Satan, didn't he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?"

"Yes sir."

"Evil's everywhere, isn't it? And God did make everything, correct?"


"So who created evil?" The professor continued, "If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil."

Again, the student has no answer.[/quote]
Technically, this is flawed logic on the professor's part.  Presumably, God's creation of evil could have been a mistake, error of judgement or other faux pas.  However, if one assumes that God is both omniscient and omnipotent, as Christian doctrine teaches, the thought that evil could be a mistake is out of the question.
Even the Bible makes this point perfectly clear, in Isaiah 45:7: "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."
With this in mind, it's no wonder the student has no answer, as his own Bible goes against what he's been taught to believe.
[quote]"Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?"

The student squirms on his feet. "Yes."

"So who created them?"

The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question, "Who created them?"

There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized.

"Tell me," he continues onto another student.

"Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?"

The student's voice betrays him and cracks. "Yes, professor, I do."

The old man stops pacing, "Science says you have five (5) senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?"

"No sir. I've never seen Him."

"Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that

"No, sir, I'm afraid I haven't."

"Yet you still believe in him?"


"According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn't exist. What do you say to that, son?"[/quote]
Here's where we run into a bit of a snag.  Science is not limited to human perception.  Science attempts to overcome the limits of human perception through experimentation, because we know our senses are flawed.  You don't have to see something to know it's there.  You do, however, require EVIDENCE.  And evidence can take many different forms.

[quote]"Nothing," the student replies. "I only have my faith."

"Yes, faith," the professor repeats. "And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith."[/quote]
This is true.  There is no evidence, so science does have a problem with religion.  That doesn't mean we need to be able to see God, but in order to be accepted by science, we need some sort of evidence.  Faith, or belief without evidence, is the surrender of the mind.

[quote]The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of his own. "Professor, is there such thing as heat?"
"Yes," the professor replies. "There's heat."

"And is there such a thing as cold?"

"Yes, son, there's cold too."

"No sir, there isn't."

The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet.

The student begins to explain . . . "You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no
heat, but we don't have anything called 'cold.' We can hit up to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can't go any further after
that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest-458 degrees." Everybody or object is susceptible to
study when it has or transmits energy and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 Fahrenheit) is the
total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in
thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it."[/quote]
True.  I suspect any professor would realize this, and only use the word "cold" colloquially, but the student is not mistaken.

[quote]Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.

"What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?"

"Yes," the professor replies without hesitation. What is night if it isn't darkness?"[/quote]
Surely a professor would see the trap by this point.  That he'd walk into it again betrays the absurdity of the story.

[quote]"You're wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing
light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and its called darkness, isn't it? That's the meaning we use to define the word. In
reality, darkness isn't. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn't you?"

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. "So what point are you making, young man?"

"Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with and so your conclusion must also be flawed."

The professor's face cannot hide his surprise this time, "Flawed? Can you explain how?"[/quote]
Yes, please explain.  This is where the story gets interesting.

[quote]"You are working on the premise of duality," the student explains . . "You argue that there is life and then there's death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we canmeasure. Sir, science can't even explain a thought." It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the a bsence of it." Now tell me, professor. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?"[/quote]
Oy vey!  There's a lot to talk about here.  Firstly, whether God is finite or infinite, measurable or not, there must be SOME evidence for his/her/its existence, or there's no reason to believe it.  I don't care if you can measure every detail of what it is, where it came from, what it can do.  I just want to see some evidence that it's actually there.
True, science has not completely cracked the problem of human consciousness, though there have been remarkable advances.  The difference is clear, however--we know that we think from firsthand experience.  We can measure brain activity, and begin to understand the processes.  Not only do we have evidence of human consciousness, we are well on our way to understanding it through experimentation.
Granted, death is not the opposite of life, in the same way that cold is not the opposite of heat.  But this is irrelevant.  If you're making claims of an afterlife, provide some evidence.  Otherwise, what's the point?
Finally, evolved from a monkey?  I thought we'd dispatched that misconception years ago.  Humans are great apes.  We didn't evolve from any modern species, monkey or otherwise.  We share a recent common ancestry with chimpanzees, a slightly more distant ancestry with other primates, more distant still with all mammals, and so on.  All life on earth shares a common ancestry, but we did not "evolve from monkeys."  This is a straw-man argument.

[quote]"If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do."[/quote]
A good answer.  The professor should have schooled the student in basic middle-school biology, but I'll give him a pass in that he properly answered the question (avoiding the straw man) without derailing the conversation.
[quote] "Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?"

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going; a very good semester, indeed.[/quote]
Here is where things really fall apart.  Firstly, everyone who has witnessed a birth has witnessed evolution first hand.  Many scientists, particularly biologists, have witnessed speciation within the laboratory.  But the point isn't witnessing it firsthand.  The point is a preponderance of evidence.  We have amongst other things, fossils and genetics, each of which provide massive evidence demonstrating the fact of evolution.

[quote]"Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?"[/quote]
False.  We have witnessed it in life and in the laboratory, and have massive evidence of its history.  The very basics of evolution are middle-school level science.  The basics of the scientific process are taught in grade school.  This student has demonstrated an absolute lack of knowledge of both.

[quote]The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided.

"To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean." The student looks around the room, "Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor's brain?" The class breaks out into laughter.

"Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor's brain, felt the professor's brain, touched or smelt the professor's brain? No one appears
to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all
due respect, sir."[/quote]
But of course they haven't SEEN it.  But there's evidence of it.  For instance, the knowledge that the brain controls nerve function in the body through experimentation.  It then follows that, when witnessing nerve function, this serves as evidence of the presence of a brain.  It's not a question of sight, for cryin' out loud, it's a question of EVIDENCE.

[quote]"So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?"

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable. Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers, "I
guess you'll have to take them on faith."[/quote]
No one who can attain the position of professor would be unable to conceive the arguments I've just presented, even if flustered by a snippy student.  This is a ridiculous answer.  Furthermore, a good professor doesn't expect his students to believe or trust his lectures, but to be prepared to learn from them, and challenge themselves intellectually with them.  If legitimate flaws can be found, a good professor would be pleased with any student who could find them.  Needless to say, the "flaws" this student points out are not legitimate.

[quote]"Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life," the student continues, now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?"

Now uncertain, the professor responds, "Of course, there is. We see it everyday. It is in the daily example of man's inhumanity to man. It is in
the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil."

To this the student replied, "Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like
darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God's love present in his heart. It's like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no
Well, I would have to take issue with believing in "evil" as a thing.  It is simply a label we ascribe to certain actions we deem unworthy of our respect.  Even with that in mind, the argument is a non sequitur, because while darkness is in fact the absence of light, "evil" however we may define it, is a proactive behavioral choice carried out by humans.

[quote]The professor sat down.

If you read it all the way through and had a smile on your face when you finished, mail it to your friends and family.

PS: The student was Albert Einstein.[/quote]
Obviously nonsense.  Albert Einstein was an atheist, as he repeatedly confirmed in his correspondence.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lowest Common Denominator

It occurs to me, after a bit of sleep and further reflection, that what I was really talking about last night was the lowest common denominator.  It seems that all too many performers try to make their craft appeal to the lowest common denominator in any given audience, and I think that's wrong.  I think that's why so few actually hit "art."

Magician are too afraid to inject a bit of literature or philosophy into their act, for fear of alienating those in their audience who don't read, or may not "get it."  Balloon artists content themselves to work for children, twisting cute little animals instead of balloon sculpture like those shown here.

There's nothing wrong with working for children, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to be accessible to the masses.  But consider aiming at a higher target.  Don't be elitist, but a reference to Shakespeare during a magic trick will enhance the experience for those who do get it, and will simply be overlooked or forgotten by those who don't.  You can aim high and create art without sacrificing audience appeal.  I think that's a worthy mindset to consider.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Searching for Art

It's after midnight once again and I'm sitting in a cold dark room with nothing but my computer, my thoughts, and a fresh pack of cigarettes to keep me company.  A dangerous situation because it often leads me to start thinking about strange little bits of philosophy.  In this case, I got to thinking about art.  What is it that makes something artful?

Traditionally, art was a term used to describe anything done with great skill or mastery.  But during the Romantic period, this definition changed (I think for the better), and art began to be viewed as a human pursuit equal to but separate from religion and science.  I would, of course, argue that religion should be disposed of and that art and science should take their places as the two leading instruments or expressions of human knowledge and experience, but that's neither here nor there.  The important part is that art is created in order to provoke thought or emotion.

This is separate and distinct from any number of skillful acts that I think do not deserve to be called "art."  Eugene Burger, one of magic's leading philosophers, makes a distinction between "stunt" and "magic," in that, though a stunt may be impressive, it doesn't point to anything beyond itself.  It simply is what it is.  There's nothing wrong with stunts, but they are not art.  Art should point beyond itself to something more profound.

In an episode of the comedy show Family Guy, a teacher instructs his class to remember the proper performance hierarchy: legitimate theatre, musical theatre, stand-up, ventriloquism, magic, mime.

It's an old prejudice, and is unfair to any number of performers.  But why is it still so commonly held?  Because the lower one falls on that hierarchy, the less likely one is to be working toward something artistic.  Entertaining, sure.  But art?  Sadly, all too rare.

Within the first few pages of the first volume of The Art of Astonishment, Paul Harris describes the reactions he received when he told people he was working on a book about magic.  I can certainly relate to his experiences.  One thought he was talking about children's magic.  It's another old prejudice that says magic is only for children.  Another insisted that he knew some card tricks.  It was only when Harris, instead of using the word "magic," said that he was working on a book about the moment of astonishment, that he was able to generate what seemed to be legitimate interest in what he was doing.

Roger Ebert, the noted film critic, recently wrote that video games can never be art.  In that case, he was more wrong that the video game industry deserved, but is it really any surprise?  It's somewhat understandable that an older man without gaming experience will lack understanding of the artful qualities of a video game, but it is also true that game designers could make more of an effort to truly create art, instead of just a fun game.  Some do, and I admire them greatly.

I was recently reading through the pages of a forum for magicians, looking to learn and share my limited knowledge as I was able, when I came across a section devoted to those who "table hop," or stroll at parties.  I don't particularly like the term "table hopper," as it immediately conjures images of a performer, little better than a beggar, going from table to table soliciting tips, rather than attempting to create an artful and memorable performance.  In all too many cases, the term seems to apply.  For the few exceptions, it is useful only in that it (somewhat) accurately describes the performing venue.  Within the pages of this forum, one finds many balloon twisters--performers who make balloon animals for children.

A repeated topic of conversation is the poor treatment of these performers by parents who feel cheated when the performers have to "cut the line" in order to get home or to their next gig on time.

Let me make myself clear.  If you want to perform for children, more power to you.  But in any consideration of "performance hierarchy," whatever your prejudice may be, can you think of anyone lower than a balloon twister?  I can't, and I think that's a shame.  Sure, they're not traditionally artistic, as painting can be.  But why should these performers confine themselves to the hell of working for overprivileged children, instead of creating art?  I've seen what a masterful balloon twister can create when not working for six-year-old yuppies-in-training, and it's quite impressive.  Sometimes, it even reaches a level of--dare I say it?--art!

Likewise, magic shouldn't be just for children, but should be used to create thoughtful or emotional experiences for audiences.  All forms of performance art should be thought of first and foremost as ART.

Am I a voice in the wilderness?  Whatever your skill, whatever your talent, whatever your interests...stop wasting your time with meaningless stunts or simple unartistic creations for children.  Start working on making your performance REAL ART.  Then, and only then, will a wider variety of performance arts become readily acceptable.

I've performed stunts.  But I don't want to be a performing monkey anymore.  I'm not going to do stunts.  I'm going to create art.  And I hope you will to.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

When Words Fail

Sometimes, even for a writer, words just aren't enough.  They fail to express.  They fall short of communicating emotions.

And yet, what is one to do when words are all one has, and they still fail?

Stephen King once said, "The most important things are the hardest things to say.  They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings--words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out."

Nuff said.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Overprotective Parents

Okay, people.  I get it, I really do.  You love your children and want no harm to come to them.  We live in a scary world, and there are countless bad things that can happen.  I understand.  But are there really predators around every corner?  Nope.  Will video games make your kids violent?  No, double no, and a "hell no" to top it off.

Here's the deal.  It's the parents responsibility to ensure their kids safety.  Sure, and by all means do so.  But I'm reminded of one of my favorite Benjamin Franklin quotes: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  He was talking about political policy, of course, but it applies here as well.  Children, especially once they reach a certain age, require the liberty to make mistakes and experience life.  To deprive them of this experience in the interest of protecting them will not prevent harm, but will CAUSE it.  Part of psychological development is learning how to make and deal with your own mistakes.  Part of life is learning how to properly deal with society.

What brought on this discussion?  I was working at the bookstore the other day, and a woman came in with her son (I would guess perhaps age fourteen or so).  He wanted a book on dinosaurs, so I showed them to the science section and offered a few suggestions.  Of course I avoided the advanced scientific books, but I found a couple nice oversized "illustrated encyclopedia" type books that seemed to be precisely what they were looking for.  I gave him a few to flip through and see how he'd enjoy them.

The mother said, "I'm going to go look around.  Can you stay here and look through those?"


"Okay, there are chairs right over there.  You can sit down and have a look."


"Now don't wander off, and if anyone tries anything funky, you scream.  And I don't mean scream like 'ehh,' but you really scream."

This is not a six year old child we're talking about here, but an adolescent.  An acquaintance of mine who I met at a magic theatre owned his own business, was involved in non-prophet work, and a decent stage performer by the time he was that age.  Many lose their virginity earlier than that and though becoming sexually active at age fourteen may be a mistake (not a horrible mistake, but perhaps a mistake nonetheless), I can't help but wonder, what the fuck is wrong with this mother?  The child is old enough to live a little, and unless he's severely mentally challenged (which is obviously not the case), he should be able to visit the bookstore without a lesson on how to scream "if anyone tries anything funky."

Do you want to create a world full of people who don't know how to engage someone in conversation?  A world full of people afraid to get on a plane for a business trip without someone to hold their hand the whole way?  A world full of socially inept, mentally incapable buffoons?  That's what you're contributing to if you're an overprotective parent.  Get over yourself and let your kids live life the way it's meant to be lived, because guess what--there aren't predators around every corner, sitting on the toilet seat isn't going to give you a disease, and as long as you use protection, sex isn't evil.

By all means, teach your children about the dangers that do exist.  The world isn't always a pretty place.  But sheltering them from life is not the answer.  It will only leave them ill-prepared to face challenges later.

Magical Etiquette: Tipping

People don't see magicians every day, and so many people are unsure of proper etiquette when dealing with a magical performer.  In this new series of posts, I provide a few tips to help put your mind at ease and make your experience a little more magical and a little less worrying.


One of the first questions people typically have is "Am I expected to tip the magician?"  The answer depends entirely upon the setting.

Of course, in a theatrical setting, where the magician is performing on stage, tipping is uncalled for and would be entirely out of place.  You've either purchased a ticket for the show, or your host has paid an all inclusive fee to have a performer at your event.

If it's at a private function, but more of a walk-around, casual setting (ie., the magician is hopping from table to table, or is mingling with guests at a cocktail party), we begin to enter into the area where people don't know what to expect.  Generally speaking, it's safe to assume that at any private function, the magician has been well-paid for his appearance and tipping is unnecessary.  If you feel you've received exceptional treatment and want to show your thanks, a tip may be accepted, but you should feel under no obligation.  The magician is not expecting a tip at this type of event, and receiving one is the exception rather than the rule.

If you feel you want to offer a tip but are still unsure, I would advise you to consider the type of event you're at.  If you're at a wedding, or other type of "special" event, I would consider tipping out of the question.  Were I offered a tip at such a setting, I would likely turn it down, not to be rude to the audience member, but to be polite to the bride and groom.  At a casual cocktail party, I would certainly never expect a tip (if I'm performing in such a situation, it is literally the farthest thing from my mind), but would be far less likely to refuse it if offered.

Again, feel under no obligation, but if you have a strong desire, just use common sense.

If the magician is performing at a restaurant, hopping from table to table, we find ourselves in the situation where people become really uncertain about the proper etiquette.  A magician working in such a situation should be financially taken care of by the management of the restaurant and thus should not be soliciting tips.  In fact, I consider those performers who actively solicit tips (such as by wearing "I work for tips" buttons on their lapel) unprofessional and rude (and therefore, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, much less likely to receive a substantial tip from me).  But if the magician is not rudely soliciting tips, you might wonder if it's customary to offer one.

The answer is that tips are welcome but not necessary.  Though these performers are well paid by the management, they're not receiving the same level of pay they would from private functions (most restaurant performers work only a few nights a week and are available for private functions on other days), and tips are a nice bonus.

You should feel under no obligation to open your pocketbook if a magician happens across your table.  In fact, if tipping the magician is going to cause you to lessen your tip for the wait staff, I would advise against it most strongly.  Though the magician may be grateful for a little extra money, the wait staff actually work for tips.  The magician's hourly wage is substantially larger than the waiter's.  But once the wait staff are covered, if you still have a little money for the magician, it's certainly appreciated (but again, not necessary).

I would say, in a restaurant, if you enjoyed the show and the magician was not rude, it would be appropriate to offer a few dollars.  If you really can't afford it, though, just enjoy the show and don't worry about it.  The magician is probably counting on receiving some tips, but is certainly not expecting them from all (or even a majority) of the tables.

Another way to show your thanks is to make sure and pick up the magician's business card and keep him in mind for your next private function (or tell a friend who may be seeking entertainment).  Even more than tips, magicians count on these private bookings (many of which may come from having performed for someone at a restaurant) for their livelihood.

The only situation in which I would consider tipping to be strongly encouraged, is if the magician is busking, or performing on the street.  In this situation, he has received no hourly wage or up-front compensation for his time and labor, and is relying entirely upon the generosity of his audience.  So if you watch a busker's show, and have a little cash in your pocket, by all means drop it in his hat.

Would I consider tipping mandatory, even for a busker?  No.  By contrast, I would consider it mandatory for a waiter or valet (by which I mean to say, I consider it extremely rude not to tip these people, unless they've provided truly horrible service).  However, the busker needs to feed his family, and the only money he's getting comes in the form of tips.

Monday, April 19, 2010

This means WAR!

I got another of those damned "Fun and Freedom" CDs from the MLM people today.  This lady was even worse.  Didn't mention her business until after she'd asked for my card in relation to my own business, then she brought out that goddamn CD.  Apparently she gave it to other people at the store, too.  So now I've got two of these jokers trying to get me to buy in to their scheme.

One of my coworkers described multi-level marketing as "a cult, without the religion."  It's an apt description.  Here's a message for all of you:  I don't like cults.

And now that I've discovered there's apparently a whole herd of these people invading my neighborhood, all I can really say is, they've successfully pissed me off.

Elderly Gay Couple Forcibly Separated, Abused, Robbed By County Officials in California

I really don't have much to say about this, except that the story deserves more attention than it seems to be getting.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Review of Horns by Joe Hill

It is rare that a writer emerges on the scene in any genre with a book that will have people talking for years to come.  When Joe Hill released his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, this is precisely what happened.  This new writer came out with a book that took not only the horror genre, but the literary community as a whole, by storm, and demonstrated a most rare skill for blending the subtle and the horrific into a worthy mixture.

His first novel, Heart Shaped Box, was another very good book sure to please any reader, but lacked the same punch delivered by his short work (I’m referring to the collection as a whole, but also specifically to one story entitled “Pop Art”).  When Horns was released, I wondered for a while what to expect.  Clearly, he had a strong talent, but would it be best enjoyed in short form, or would his second novel stand even stronger than the first?

I was most pleased to discover that, indeed, it does stand stronger than the first.  It provides precious few truly scary moments, but instead brings to the table strong characterization and an artful subtlety at combining the real with the surreal; the quiet and philosophical with the brutal and disturbing.

The story follows Ig Perrish, son of a rich and famous father, with a brother following in the family business.  Ig, however, is not joining the family business.  In fact, he doesn’t have much of a life for himself at all.  A year prior to the novel’s opening, his girlfriend, Merrin, was brutally raped and murdered.  Ig was never convicted, but has always been the only suspect in the crime.  He wakes up one morning, after a night of drinking and “doing terrible things,” to discover that he’s grown horns on his head.  With said horns, he has acquired devilish powers, and sets out to use these powers to discover Merrin’s killer.

Horns is a “deal with the devil” story with a unique perspective.  What if the devil isn’t the bad guy, after all?  It’s certainly not a new idea in literature, but Hill crafts his tale with an expert hand, dragging the reader along from emotion to emotion as we learn more and more details about the characters’ lives and situations.

Throughout the book, the observant reader will find repeated use of traditional symbolism, some obvious, some more subtle.  We see snakes, horns, and pitchforks regularly.   When Ig, playing the devil, encounters these objects, their meaning is perfectly clear.  However, Hill also uses his allegory more subtly than that, as in one instance later in the book in which another character has a run-in with a pitchfork.  The reader is left to wonder what, if anything, this particular bit of symbolism is meant to represent, and the reader’s perspective is sure to be colored by his own theological preferences.

Hill takes a big risk in the way he presents this book, laced with flashbacks ranging from the characters’ childhood to the more recent past.  In the hands of a lesser author, such a technique would come across simply as a bold information dump, and a distraction from the overarching story.  In Hill’s case, however, the ploy pays off.  The reader is not bored by the back story--indeed, it is as fascinating and integral to the novel as the presence of the horns on Ig’s head--and yet, rather than being distracted by the alternate narratives, we see a larger picture taking shape: a portrait of how and why the characters’ lives are interconnected, and the formative events (seemingly inconsequential at the time) that led to their present situation.

Only once, very briefly, did this back-story become tiresome, at a point where it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to the business at hand.  However, by the end of the flashback, we’ve discovered new aspects of a key character, and a deeper understanding of how these events came to be.

Another risk that paid off quite brilliantly was Hill’s decision to leave Ig’s “moment of truth,” at which point he apparently made a deal with the devil and earned his horns, shrouded in secrecy throughout the text.  Very quickly, Ig, along with the reader, stops even caring why this unexpected turn of events has come to pass, and simply accepts that this is the way things are.  It’s risky because it could easily come across as a “cheat,” to give a character these new powers with no understanding of the cost he had to pay to get them.  However, in this situation, the cost is known: the weight of sorrow over Merrin’s death almost seems like a tangible thing throughout the text of this book, and is implicitly understood as the cost Ig paid for his powers.  All that remains unanswered is the precise mechanism by which the powers were acquired, and the book is stronger for it.

When the news broke that Joe Hill is actually a pseudonym for Joe Hillstrom King, son of the famed author Stephen King, speculation ran wild that he was simply exploiting his father’s unique status to sell his books.  Of course, an attempt to avoid this speculation is what prompted him to write under an assumed name to begin with.  Every thing he’s written so far--his short story collection and his two novels--demonstrates conclusively that he is a brilliant author in his own right.  Surely his father’s career had an influence in his formation as a writer, and one would be foolish not to take an opportunity to learn from one of the undisputed masters of the genre.  However, it is obvious that he’s paid his dues, and has proven himself as one of the new masters of the genre, boasting an impressive ability to create sincere and believable characters about whom the reader feels genuine concern.


How Pyramid Schemes Work

Throughout my last post, I referred to pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing interchangeably for ease of understanding.  That's not entirely accurate, however.  This post will set that record straight, as well as shed some light on how these schemes operate, and why they actually don't work.

The following is an excerpt from my latest book, Bunk: Strange Beliefs and Dangerous Superstitions.  It's still undergoing the revision process, but I felt I ought to share this particular snippet here.

We’ve all heard the term “pyramid scheme,” and we’ve all come the realization that the term is generally used interchangeably with “ripoff.”  Pyramid schemes are often confused with multi-level marketing schemes, and this is not entirely accurate.  Though they’re not nearly as different as the MLM people would have you believe, they aren’t exactly the same either.

First, let’s look at the pyramid scheme.  The idea is that the originator of the scheme recruits ten people to give him $100 each.  Then each of them recruit ten people to send them $100 each, making a $900 profit.  Those people each recruit ten more, and so on and on.

The more sophisticated schemes usually involve people lower on the pyramid passing a portion of their income from their own recruits up the pyramid to the person who recruited them.  That person passes a portion of the money to whoever recruited him, an so on, so that there’s a relatively constant flow of income for the couple of people at the top.

The problem is, though it’s certainly possible for a few people at the top to make a lot of money, they’re doing it at the expense of the people they’ve deceived into joining.  In order for the scheme to continue, it must have a steady supply of fresh recruits.  This is never the case.

Generally, it’s hard to recruit people at all, because most people smell the bullshit a mile away.  They might know that pyramid schemes are illegal, or they may just realize that it’s a losing proposition for everyone except perhaps the con man at the top and maybe, if it’s particularly successful, the first couple of levels below him (maybe).  So most people just won’t buy into the scheme to begin with.

However, let’s imagine that everyone who is asked to join does.  It’s a perfect scenario, and everything that can go right for the scheme is going right.  What happens then?  It still fails.

The reason being, there are a limited number of people on earth.  Let’s stick with our original example of each recruit going out and recruiting ten more people, and see what happens.












You see how fast the pyramid grows.  After just ten layers (below the originator), the pyramid calls for more people than there are in the entire world!  Most of those people, by simple mathematical necessity, are losers.

Pyramid schemes are illegal because they deceive people out of money with the promise that they’ll receive money in the future, which they are not guaranteed or even particularly likely to receive.

I’ve provided an example of a simple pyramid scheme in which there are no administrative fees or payment to higher levels on the pyramid.  You only pay your recruiter, and are only paid by those you recruit.  That’s a straightforward example, but also pretty rare, because it doesn’t get anybody, even the highest levels, very much money.  We should also look at a couple of other versions.

For instance, many pyramid schemes throughout history have taken the form of a chain letter.  For purposes of illustration, I’ll assume that everyone sends the letter to precisely ten people, and each of those ten people actually do choose to participate (I like using multiples of ten because it makes the math a lot clearer and easier to follow).  Let’s say I receive a letter with a list of six names on it.  The letter instructs me to send $1 (just one dollar) to everyone on the list.  I then remove the top name from the list, move everyone else up one position, and add my own name to the bottom.

So I send my grand total of $6 out, alter the list of names according to the instructions, and mail the new letter to ten people.

When those people receive the letter, they each mail their $6 (that’s $1 to each of the names on the list, remember), remove the top name from the list, add their own name to the bottom, and mail it out to ten more people.  From this first level, I receive $10.

As the pyramid grows, my payments get larger and larger.  From the second level below me, now consisting of 100 people, I get $100.  From the third, I get $1,000.  Then $10,000.  Then $100,000.  Ten, from the sixth level, I receive a total of $1,000,000, and my name drops off the list.

If most people didn’t know about pyramid schemes and that they don’t work, you could see how this might seem like a good deal for me.  A really good deal.  After all, for my original investment of only $6, I got a return of $1,111,110.  That’s enough to pay off even my debts!

But unless I’m right at the top of the pyramid, meaning the letter hasn’t gone through very many hands before my own, there’s no way I’ll ever see that huge return, simply because there aren’t enough people in the world to keep mailing dollars.

So it’s a bad investment.  Why is it fraud, though?  After all, it’s possible for the participants to get more out of it than they put in, right?  The reason it’s fraud is because it promises this return, and even if everyone in the world participates, most people who mail their $6 will never see a penny in return, because most of the population is on the bottom level when the whole thing inevitably collapses.  The reason is that no new wealth is created through participation in the scheme.

Economists will debate the “creation of wealth” issue until we’re all blue in the face.  Does the creation of a new product qualify as a creation of wealth, or simply a transfer of wealth?  If it costs $5 to make and you sell it for $10, it would seem to be a creation of $5 in wealth.  The debate is whether the labor involved in the creation of this new product qualifies as wealth itself.  If it does, then the wealth is not so much created as transferred to a different medium.  In other words, by writing this book, I’m transferring my wealth (time and labor) into the book which is a sellable product.

For our purposes here, let us assume that we’ll be dealing with the model of economics in which new wealth can be created by turning lesser valued ingredients into higher valued products.  I don’t care which model you actually prefer, but this is a much easier model to deal with for the purpose of examining pyramid schemes.

Because no new wealth is created by participating in the scheme--in other words, the amount lost by all the losers is the exact amount gained by all the winners--it definitely constitutes fraud.

Let’s imagine that I invite one hundred people to my house.  I tell each of them that there is a small fee, say one dollar, to enter, but that when they leave, they’ll get ten dollars back.

As each person enters, I collect their dollar and put it in a basket by the door.  Then everyone commences with the festivities (which, since it’s my party, would probably involve listening to Eagles music and arguing about the costs and benefits of various types of political systems or some such nonsense).

When everyone is ready to leave, they line up at the door.  As they leave, I hand each ten dollars.  But after the first ten people leave, the basket is empty!  Because the scheme does not involve the creation of new wealth (or the transfer of wealth into a practical medium, if you prefer), I’ve cheated ninety people out of their money.

Of course, this particular example is not a pyramid scheme, as there’s only one level (myself, in this case), so only one person is guilty of fraud (again, yours truly).  But the argument still applies.

Let’s look at another type of pyramid scheme: the administrative pyramid scheme.  The basic modus operandi of this scheme is the same as the others.  It involves new recruits paying up the pyramid to their recruiter and their recruiter’s recruiter.  The difference in this case, is that the payments are centralized around an administrator.  This person, generally the originator of the pyramid, is responsible for collecting payments from new recruits and distributing the proper amount of money to their superiors.  Usually, he takes a fee for himself in return for providing this service.

This scheme works really well for the administrator because he’s guaranteed a profit no matter how poorly the pyramid does on the whole (though the better it does, the greater his profit will be, of course).  However, because this person is easily identified and reported to law enforcement, these schemes generally don’t last very long.

Pyramid schemes have often tried to get around tax law by calling themselves “gifting clubs.”  The idea being that you call your original buy-in a “gift.”  Because the IRS does not tax gifts under $10,000, they advertise all your promised proceeds from your underlings as tax-free.

As much as I loathe the IRS (and I really can’t stand the bastards), they’re absolutely right when they point out that this is untrue.  Legally speaking, your buy-in is not a gift, because you expect to receive further proceeds as a result of paying this fee.  The IRS considers a gift to be something given with no expectation of anything in return.  They are absolutely correct in their definition.

There is truth to the claim that most participants don’t receive anything in return.  However, this does not make it a gift under the law, because they do expect to receive money in return.

What’s even more dangerous is that it’s not just illegal to start a pyramid scheme.  People who’ve simply been deceived into participating in an existing one have had run-ins with the law in the past.  I don’t know if this is the best solution to the problem, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.  Simply participating in a pyramid scheme could get you in trouble for fraud.

That’s a pyramid scheme.  The multi-level marketing (MLM) companies we’ve all had some experiences with at one time or other, are not pyramid schemes, though they’re often called by that name.

There are legitimate (and I use the term loosely) MLMs out there.  Participating in these schemes is not illegal, and they aren’t fraud.  However, I do find them ethically and fiscally questionable.  If a friend approaches me with a pyramid scheme, I will flat tell him that it’s fraud, and to get out immediately.  If he approaches me with a MLM, I won’t participate, and will encourage him to rethink his own participation, but I won’t stand in his way if that’s what he wants to do.  Since it is legal and isn’t actually defrauding anybody, it’s your own choice whether or not to do it, but I think that, if you have all the facts, you’ll probably choose not to.

What distinguishes an MLM from a pyramid scheme is that the MLM actually has a real product or service to sell, so there’s a legitimate business potential with the company.

I find them unethical because they still follow the pyramid format of trying to recruit new salespersons to build your own “downline.”  The idea being that you receive a portion of all the sales accumulated by everyone you’ve recruited, and everyone they’ve recruited, and so on.  In most, perhaps even all, MLMs, I feel that the product, though it is the distinction that divides MLMs from pyramid schemes, is really just a diversion or cover for the pyramid structure of the scheme.

First, we need to dispose of the pyramid schemes posing as MLMs.  They do sell a product, oh yes.  But it’s a product that has no value at all unless you have an interest in joining the pyramid scheme.  For instance, they’ll sell you marketing reports, or access codes for an online pyramid scheme.  These products have no real value or marketability except to participants in the scheme.

Though they call themselves MLMs, they will still be prosecuted as pyramid schemes, because that’s what they are, after all.

Even within legitimate MLMs, there’s a delicate balance of legality.  If the multi-level part of the equation rises to a point where it considerably outweighs the marketing part, it’s little more than a pyramid scheme (and law enforcement is likely to see it the same way).  In other words, is the money coming from recruitment or from sales?

Here’s why I find MLMs unethical: market saturation.  If everyone were just making money from sales, even though it is structured as a pyramid, I would have little problem with it except to say that it’s perhaps not the most effective way to structure a business (there’s a reason the bookstore where you got this book is not an MLM, after all).

But the problem is, MLMs, by their very design, must assume that the demand for their product will never run out.  The fact of the matter is, I don’t care how good your product is, there is a limited demand for it.

Because they assume there is this unlimited demand for their product, they also assume there is an unlimited demand for new sales staff to recruit.

So let’s start an imaginary MLM and see what the problem is with market saturation.

We’ve developed “Product X,” and it’s going to be a big hit.  Everyone is going to want one.  So we set our company up as an MLM and start recruiting people to go out and sell Product X to all their friends.  But instead of just giving them an hourly wage or a commission, we give them a commission, plus a percentage of the commission from everyone they recruit as a new sales person, and charge in a fee (which will be spread across the recruit’s “upline” to become one of our sales representatives.

Quickly, we see our company growing.  Lots of people are buying Product X, and plenty are buying in to the company so they can sell Product X, too.  People are making money from sales, from the sales of their downline, and from recruitments, and everything seems to be going really well.

But there’s trouble on the horizon.  Just about everyone who wants Product X already has one, but we’re still recruiting new sales people, to sell something that no one will buy anymore.  The only money that’s still changing hands is from recruitment of new sales people.  Our company is turning into a pyramid scheme.

Eventually, it’s going to crumble, either with intervention from law enforcement (as it’s now just multi-level with no marketing), or simply due to the financial strain of poor business.

Sure, we can introduce Product Y and Product Z and start selling those, too.  But the fact of the matter is, eventually the market is going to run out, but the company will still be hiring people, because in the short-term, that’s the best thing for the upline (furthermore, when sales drop off, that's the only way our sales people can ever hope to get their money back--they're desperate to build their own downlines).

The MLM scheme is designed to fail.  It’s a carefully disguised and legal form of the pyramid scheme, but eventually it’s going to crumble, and the people at the bottom of the pyramid (which will be most of the people involved) are going to have lost their time, energy, and money to the people who roped them in.

Normal businesses don’t always know how many of a product to make, but they do their best to approximate, so they don’t lose out on any sales or severely overestimate the demand and end up with millions of unsellable units in a warehouse somewhere.  Normal businesses don’t always know how many salespeople to hire, but they do their best to figure it out, so they aren’t paying too many people, and so they aren’t understaffed to meet the demands of their customers.

MLMs have no such controls.  They’ll just keep recruiting and producing unsellable products until eventually the company crumbles under the weight of its own bloated structure.

People often look at the pyramid structure and see it as strong, because all the weight is at the bottom, and doesn’t have to support too much.  It’s better to look at it as an inverted pyramid, where all the mass is at the top.  I don’t care how strong your pyramid is, eventually the weight from the mass at the top is going to bring the whole thing down.

Perhaps worse than all that is the strain these schemes can put on personal relationships.  I don’t classify MLMs as fraud, as I said, because it’s possible to profit purely by selling products.  But the fact of the matter is, in order to be successful in such a venture, you need to keep recruiting along with your selling.  Who do you recruit and sell to but your friends and family?

And when you do recruit, say, your neighbor, promising all this potential for great wealth and success, what do you think she’s going to think of you when the whole thing inevitably goes under?

Before we move on to different types of schemes, scams, cons, and frauds, we should look at one final type of scheme related to the pyramid: the straight-line matrix or “elevator” scam.

It manages to do away with the pyramid structure, but still has most of the same problems.

Basically, the idea is that you get the opportunity to purchase a desired product for, say, 10% of its market value.  It’s based on a list of names, just like the pyramid scheme.  Here’s how it works.

Let’s say Product X costs $100 and you want to get it for $10.  What you do is pay $10 into the scheme, and then try to recruit ten more people.  When ten people have joined, the first person will get the product, its cost having been paid out of the fees paid by the people below him on the list.  When ten more join, the second person gets the product, and so on.

The first couple of people involved will get the product for the promised low price.  But as the pool of victims begins to run dry, people lower down on the list have to wait longer and longer to get their product.  As with the pyramid scheme, most of the people who pay into the scheme will never get anything out of it.

So that's how pyramid schemes and MLM schemes actually work.  Not pretty, is it?  Heed my advice, and stay away from these things.  Your friends, and your pocketbook will thank you for it.

Now that that's done with, perhaps we can return to our regularly scheduled programming.