The Troll Mirror

In the land of mirrors, there lived a troll.

In the land of mirrors, there lived a troll. His cave was damp and narrow just like every troll cave. It was as cluttered as other caves, smelled of the creatures the troll had dragged there for his meals and was marked by the trails of crusted blood smeared by rains that led up to the opening and into his lair.

The cave mouth was plugged by a boulder, smoothed by the rolling it had done at the hands of its owner. The troll had pushed it out of the way to squeeze by when he went on hunts, then eased it back again as he left so other creatures would not mistake it for their cave and set up housekeeping while he was out strangling bears and skewering dragons. The whole boulder rolling thing would have been tiresome to most creatures but not to trolls. It was just what was done with caves and boulders and legs and shoulders. They even had a song about rolling boulders. The words were much like the grunts and flatulence that composed most of their sounds, so no one else knew when they were grunting or singing.

The elder trolls told stories of how the ancient giants had walked along the earth, smashing mud together to make ranges of hills and mountains, then poking their fingers four at a time to make caves. The elder trolls did not know why but the elder giants said their ancestors were creating places for the giant birds to nest and raise their young. The birds and the ancient giants felt a sense of kinship to each other. The birds brought them back fresh gifts from distant fields and seas. The giants made them nests so the gifts would continue. The huge birds were gone now, and the giants were less fearsome than they had once been. The birds’ nests were troll homes and they hunted with the giants for their meals.

The land had become the land of mirrors when the lightning had come and turned swathes of desert into glass and then into silvery surfaces that gleamed back up at the sun. These made the days all the brighter and the nights glow with an eerie, omnipresent light that made them more frightening than the blackness had ever been before. Creatures that once could see better at night, had counted on that time for foraging, were blinded and needed to be careful whenever they left their holes. Creatures attracted by the reflective surfaces and the glow that emanated from them were eaten in scores by the beasts who had seen them gather around the ominous light the mirrors cast back at the moon.

In no time, gremlins had seen an opportunity in the silvery surfaces. They had created a market for these other-worldly objects. Working carefully, they had created hundreds, then thousands of mirrors from the sands in which they had been formed, making them tall for the giants, medium sized for the trolls and ogres, and a series of short sizes that met the needs of dwarves, elves, gremlins, and fairies. They carved them out of the hardened sands with shark tooth saws and polished them with the gritty flesh of bottom feeders—oysters, clams, abalones, and snails. They had placed them on their goat carts, lashing them on with the dried tendons of mammoths, and trundled their stacks of mirrors around to caves, to burrows, to under-mountain places, and to the forests that lay between ranges. Everyone they visited was spellbound by the radiant surfaces and had to have at least one, either through barter for whatever the gremlins could coerce or through promissory notes that would come due when a newborn was spawned. For a bit more recompense, they could purchase a custom frame for the sparkling pool of light, returning within a fortnight with the composite that held the mirrors so perfectly they enhanced what had already been the most beautiful thing any of them had ever seen.

Within a few years, all the homes in the world held a mirror. The mirrors held the faces of the world’s creatures, who stared into them endlessly, thinking they saw something they had never seen in the selves they saw staring back, something they never knew before the mirrors came. Some saw laughter they had not heard. Some saw sadness they had not felt. Some saw family members from the past and future appear, then run beyond the edges of the frame. Some saw the beginning of time (or the illusion of it) while some saw their fears or their end of time.

The troll who lived in his own cave just like the others had a bright silver mirror like every other beast in the world around him. He was a young troll, barely a couple hundred years old, and had inherited the mirror from his birth trolls who had long since been picked off during their hunts by something larger and fiercer than they were. He had not felt the same way about the mirror that they had felt and had stuffed it away in one corner behind some dusty animal skins and well-gnawed bones. Every so often as he rolled his boulder to the side, he saw a twinkle of light knife out from the forgotten thing. This would make him think about it for an instant, but he then forgot just as quickly. That is the way with trolls and their memories.

One day, he left his cave before dawn. He had heard from the slow grumbles of other trolls that it might be good to go to where the remaining sands held those silver lights, carved up by the gremlins to be sure but still there and still entrancing night creatures to gather around and stare, fixated by the mirror glowing. He had loped out with a herd of his neighbors and come back with several rare treats he would devour once they had dried hanging in the sun outside his hole. He finished hanging them and the sun came up just as he rolled the boulder aside and slipped in.

The mirror winked at him from behind the skins and bones, back in the tight grasp of the finger-long burrow he called his home. He remembered that it had done this before and stood wondering why it winked.

One by one, he grabbed a skin from a dragon covered in the rare metal scales used for plates and swords, grabbed a skin from the hairy mammoth his fellows had helped him kill a couple of years before, grabbed a pile of feathers from some long-forgotten bird. He grabbed the thigh bones from a sloth he had found in a tree and the arms from an ape that had run from him as he galloped in its direction. He grabbed skulls he could not recall from creatures that had no name. All were tossed aside, and the mirror shone as if it had never been lost in the depths, hidden behind trophies of hunts that had kept him fed. He peered into its luminescent pool and saw himself as he had never imagined a troll could appear. He saw a troll that was like no other troll on his mountain, like none in the caves as far as his deep voice could bellow.

The troll that stared back at him was not the angry, raw, red-skinned creature he had thought he was… to the extent he thought about such things at all. The troll he saw had no jutting jaw, sharp teeth, clawed fingers, sharpened toes, sinewed arms, tree-trunk legs, barrel chest, hunched back, and matted hair. The troll he saw stood upright, had a patch of hair on the top of his head and was a healthy pink color from face to foot. The troll he saw smiled back at him. His mouth showed white teeth that were evenly spaced and all the same size, a jaw that closed with his upper jaw, a nose that was like a tiny pink plum in the middle of his face, not a gaping set of bleeding nostrils with no discernible shape. His eyes were blue, not a distant black, and his ears were like two flowers rather than the flimsy flaps he saw on all the other trolls. He began to weep at his own beauty, moved in a way nothing had ever moved him over his couple hundred young years in a world of eating and sleeping and rolling the boulder back and forth.

As he wept, the mirror glowed more, as if the tears revived it from a long, silvery sleep. As he cried, the mirror captured his weeping face, pink and well-proportioned, smiling through the tears (for they were happy tears) and cast it out across the world to all the other mirrors in other caves and burrows, branch and root, grass hut and hideaway. The transformed troll appeared in all his newfound beauty in every mirror in the world, and the other creatures marveled at this thing they had never seen in all their days and nights of staring.

For days, gathering and hunting were not performed. Creatures were safe, clustering around the moonlit surfaces in the desert where the gremlins had not carved every silvery surface for their own gain. Other trolls and all the dwarves, ogres, giants, gremlins, fairies, and elves looked upon this new, pink visage staring out at them. What was this odd thing standing upright in their mirrors with its tuft of hair on top, confident smile, toothy grin? Where did it come from and what did it mean? Quiet murmurs filled their air as they traded their pointless queries, answering with slow shakes of their heads and a renewed silent staring at their precious silver mirrors, radiant with the light of moons. They had fallen under some powerful spell, far stronger than those ever conjured for anyone they knew, against anyone they resented. And it was a peaceful spell all the same, not one that called for the blood of enemies or a full harvest.

Finally, the grip loosened and families shook themselves free of the enchantment. They headed out to find food, water, nectar, and fruit (for the elves and fairies did not hunt). They were all as hungry as if they had never eaten in their lives. The creatures who had gathered so meekly at the desert, who were just beginning to relish what they might be possible if they were not going to be a meal for the ravenous predators that stalked them day and night, were grabbed where they were cuddling and cooing with their other creature friends.

The troll broke away from the mirror as well and joined his companions in one of the most devastating hunts ever engaged in their troll cave community. Flesh was ripped, bones were gnawed, and pelts peeled from carcasses all around the desert with its shiny pools of reflected light, beacons beckoning them to the prey, spotlights illuminating them for the ease of their predators. But they all eventually tired of filling themselves and fell asleep, bellies bloated with bubbling gasses, heads filled with what they had seen in the days under entrancement of their mirrors.

When they all woke, they stumbled back to their caves, huts, branches, tangles, hideaways, and burrows. Their elders knew that there must be a discussion of what had happened in the mirrors. Two elders from each tribe of trolls, giants, gremlins, ogres, and dwarves came to the valley to meet the elves and fairies.

What had they seen in their mirrors? Did everyone see the same thing and did it have the same transfixing effect on everyone? As the conversations went on into the night and the next day, as everyone was given a chance to speak, it emerged that, yes, everyone had experienced the same effect and, no, never had anything similar happened to them recently or in any story from the ancients.

After more talk—and a bit of refreshment, for all of them looked forward to the fermented nectar prepared in the valleys (and kept secret from their tribes)—they decided that the figure in the mirror must be an emperor who had come to rule them all. But why had he only appeared in the mirror? And what was this pink thing standing upright with the big, toothy smile? Never had they seen such a thing! The smile was a beautiful thing. They all agreed it was a friendly look for a stranger’s face, even if they did not know what kind of creature it was.

Each elder decided that they should all send scouts out from their regions to find the new Emperor and bid him return to speak to the council in the valley. And with that, they returned to their homes and chose representatives with the keenest sight, fastest feet, and greatest strength to go in all directions, within and beyond their regions, looking for the creature who had appeared in the mirrors.

When the elders returned home, they discovered that their families—indeed all relatives of all kinds in all the regions—were transfixed by the mirrors once again. The pink creature with the tuft of hair on his head and the charming smile was looking back out at them, and they were all feeling at peace with themselves and with each other. While the elders grumbled a half-hearted protest, they all were soon drawn into the mirrors’ clutch and could not break free.

The troll, of course, was doing the same but there was no one else in his cave but himself. His boulder was drawn across the entrance, and he was alone with the pink reflection smiling back at him. He vaguely heard some pounding at the boulder and was compelled to ignore it. They would think (to the extent they thought at all) that he was out hunting and leave soon enough.

When the scouts returned from their worldwide search, they reported that no such living thing had been found. The elders gathered to consider this news—and fill their bellies with nectar. Could there be an Emperor who had not presented himself for their consideration? There had never been an Emperor. None of them knew whether this was the usual state of things for Emperors as there were no stories that spoke of such a being. After a day and night of talking too much, drinking too deeply, and snoring that scared all animals in the valley with its scraping sound, they woke and decided.

The pink thing was Emperor, and that was that. He had appeared to through the magic of the mirrors. He smiled, stood upright, was pink, mostly hairless, and different in appearance from all the beasts they already knew (although the fairies were the pinkest of the beings they had known so far). He was given the power to gather meetings among all the elders and to settle disputes when they came up (which was, in truth, rarely).

As they had no idea where the Emperor lived or how to contact him, life went on very much as it had… with one crucial difference. If an elder failed at achieving a goal for his tribe, he would blame the Emperor for not guiding his hand to a wiser decision or a more satisfactory outcome. He would tell his people—and the other elders—that it must not have been what the Emperor wished it to be.

Soon, all the elders were blaming the Emperor for everything that went wrong, although they all agreed they were all simply fantastic at achieving their goals whenever they completed them.

And all the while, between hunts and forages out from his cave, the troll spent his days staring blindly into his extraordinary mirror, thus transfixing the population of the world with his upright pink self, a tuft of hair on his head and the big smile. What he did not appreciate was the effect he was having. No one knew it was only him and his mirror.

He had become Emperor, ruler of all and the reason for misfortunes.




Featured image (©2008, Jarek Tuszyński)

Unforced Errors

I don’t follow any sports.

I don’t follow any sports. My field of play is lodged firmly between my ears and the sports I enjoy therein are a bunch of fun. For proof, sample a few posts.

Somehow, and in spite of this lack of enthusiasm for competitive sports, I know that a variety of sports contain a rule for determining whether an error in play has been committed. In baseball, an error is when a fielder misplays a ball and this allows a runner to advance one or more bases or a batter to continue after they should have been called “out.” Both kinds of error are noted by the officials scoring the game after the error has been committed and are listed in the statistics for that game.

The idea of unforced errors (UE) crept into tennis in about 1982 as a by-product of a statistician creating some software for evaluating players. Apparently, the UE is not particularly loved by players or fans as it is interpreted differently by different observers. Errors of the forced, unforced, or simple type also occur in other sports but I no longer care enough to write about what they mean in those athletic amusements.

Nonetheless, the idea of a UE is now part of the vernacular. Now if it could just be translocated from the realm of sport to that most unsporting profession—that of the politician.

In the United States, it used to be that our population could watch video clips from other parliaments around the world and shake our heads, knowing that this kind of thing would never happen here. I submit for your amusement a series of videos of this type:

Here we have the Turkish parliament engaging in some fisticuffs:

This one from South Korea starts with an amicable parade of future warriors parading down their shared aisle… and then:

Here are Taiwanese lawmakers going at it:

Ukranians engage in some collaborative wardrobe malfunctions:

If any of you are feeling that I am choosing brawls to highlight mischief in other cultures, let me put those concerns aside with this Alabama State Senate tape:

These various acts of shameful behavior pale in comparison to the nonsense the United States has had to endure during this election period. We can put aside the nomination part of the escapade, shameful though it was in its own right. It is behind us. I doubt that it matters what your party affiliation has been, your faith in their ability to behave has been tested. Please continue to believe whatever it is you believe and hope for a better crop in upcoming years.

On the other hand, there is one fellow that continues to try the patience of people from around the world. As I wish this to remain a generally politically neutral site, I will call this person Mr. Naked Id. The id, as you erstwhile Freudians will recall, is the portion of the human mind that is present from birth and is about unfiltered instinct. I’ll quote from Simply Psychology:

“The id remains infantile in it’s function throughout a persons life, and does not change with time or experience, as it is not in touch with the external world. The id is not affected by reality, logic or the everyday world, as it operates within the unconscious part of the mind.” Simply Psychology


“The id engages in primary process thinking, which is primitive, illogical, irrational, and fantasy oriented. This form of process thinking has no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.” Simply Psychology

For a more learned digression on the id, I suggest resorting to a search engine of your choosing.

Is there any better description for what we have witnessed? We can only go a couple of days, it seems, between unfiltered, id-infused data dumps onto the bathroom floor of American politics. Many of these episodes of sharing are unforced errors of the most egregious kind. No one “made” him say it, tweet (I honestly prefer “twit” as the verb here) it, blab it on innumerable call-in sessions to “news” programs, blather on about “it” in campaign stops as his followers cheer Mr. Naked Id on, as they take up his id-iotic slogans and chant them back as if they represented insights into the problems that beset our nation and our world. He just says them and repeats them and makes them up as he goes along, unrestrained by the super-ego’s sense of restraint, unapologetic and unmediated. If our politicians were neonates, I could appreciate this and pass it off as expected immaturity of a new-born.

We have another case of unforced errors, one that is excessively driven by the super-ego, driven by second-guessing decisions until they have been decided into the ground. Much of the appropriate skepticism surrounding this candidate has to do with (1) a decision to use a private email server instead of the government’s system (to be fair, their information technologies are woefully out of date with existing technologies), (2) to use this private email server for more than one kind of correspondence (e.g. governmental vs. personal, potentially confidential vs. no one cares), and (3) to provide a series of incremental non-responses to questions regarding the practices stated in (1) and (2). This is all super-ego-mediated behavior, unfortunate and unforced as they are. It would have been clearly wise to use whatever outmoded technology the Department of State provided. Having failed that, it would have been better to use the private email server for only one type of correspondence (let’s go with personal). Having failed both of these it would have been smart to be proactive and divulge everything that might be questioned right away instead of incrementally.

There are various other issues with both of these candidates. Mr. N. Id has a range of well-documented poor behavior in his businesses (e.g. not paying contracted employees, six bankruptcies). There is a pattern of unforced errors in the way he has chosen to speak about a variety of people (e.g. immigrants, women, coworkers). There has emerged in recent weeks a pattern of completely id-driven behaviors in his “locker room talk” and in the accusations from various women he has come in contact with over the years.

On the other hand, the errors for the other candidate seem more forced-upon than unforced or otherwise. During a previous administration, an estimated $70 million was spent attempting to indict her family for an obscure set of real estate deals. All of that money and a lot of willpower did not result in any indictment related to the basis of the investigation. Additionally, The Fiscal Times (published by government debt hawk Peter G. Peterson) estimated in July that another $30 million has been spent investigating allegations attempting to tie the candidate to a death-inducing blunder in North African politics. It’s a rather small death-inducing blunder in comparison to some others (e.g. invasion of Iraq, death of 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, failure to follow C.I.A. intelligence on Osama bin Laden during administration transition in January 2001) but the concerted efforts of numerous partisan committees to hang this around her neck have failed. There are two possible interpretations of this: (1) there was nothing there to warrant such prolonged investigations and they should not have been attempted in the first place or (2) the investigators were so uniformly incompetent that they completely failed in their duties to the American people, thus spending over $100 million (total) of the taxpayers’ funds in violation of the principles they spend so much time whining about.

So. You. Have. A. Choice. It. Is. Binary.




What will it be?



Featured image

Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!


I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC

It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!

“This Above All…

To Thine Own Self Be True,…”

We are at our most fragile when we are surprised. In that moment, our adrenal glands kick in and inject a dose of adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into our circulatory system and we are a little more ready to make a decision: (1) run, (2) fight, or (3) calm back down and laugh it off (failing this, tell your surprise visitor not to do THAT again!).


Epinephrine (aka adrenaline)


In that moment, we are afraid. Our body expresses fear. Muscles tighten, pupils dilate, the heart beats speed up, jaws clench, blood moves faster. All of this in spite of overwhelming evidence that we are in a safe environment surrounded by people and objects we understand are not going to harm us. Our mind rushes in to assess and decides whether it was a false alarm or an alarming problem.

The odd thing about our minds is that a lot of us live in unacceptable circumstances—in communities or nations that have an irrational fear of us (and we of them), with parents who have never accepted the enormous responsibility of raising children, with friends and/or acquaintances who are making “poor life choices” (as the saying goes—there are less euphemistic ways of saying this), with a “partner” (from Latin for “a sharing”) or “spouse” (from the Latin “to bind oneself through a solemn promise”) who is neither. Because these are chronic circumstances we become accustomed to them and do not run (or fight, but running is probably the smarter choice anyway). We are numb to what should be surprising. If something surprising actually does occur (a fit of violence, a denigrating or abusive phrase, a self-destructive spiral), we do nothing… unless it is so incredibly bad that our minds finally kick in and we embrace a change, we go in search of freedom.

The irony of these situations is that (1) our bodies respond to the momentary surprise that poses no threat and (2) our minds shut down when we’ve become accustomed to constant danger, continuous insult, and injury. This is not ironic in any hipster way. It is ironic in an often life-threatening—and at the very least, mental health-threatening—way. Another way of saying this is that we are most fragile when we have done the least to correct the problem.

If I knew how to solve this all-too-common conundrum, it would be great. But I don’t.

Every one of you does, though.

Our minds (if not our mouths, our voices) scream it at the screen every time we see someone do something dumb in a horror or suspense film: “Don’t go in there!” or “Get out of there!” or “Don’t trust them!” or simply “RUN!” Has anyone ever screamed “get in there, it’s bluffing!” or “that giant machete is just for weed whacking!” except in jest?

And yet we—and those dumb screen characters—do go in, don’t get out, do trust them and/or (usually all of the above) stand there like vertical corpses waiting for the meat wagons to arrive.

The cure, of course, is to know yourself. I googled “know yourself quotes” as I begun this offering and chose the Brainy Quotes site to cite some wisdom (ah, English homonyms! your mysteries confound generations of ELL students, both native and immigrant!). To be honest, why should you believe a thing I’ve said, particularly when so many have said it before me and have become famous for being worthy of a Brainy Quote citation?

Here’s one:

“Only as you do know yourself can your brain serve you as a sharp and efficient tool. Know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so you can separate them from what you see.” Bernard Baruch (1879-1965)

Baruch was an influential advisor to many U.S. Presidents; this pattern started in 1916 during World War I and continued through the Great Depression and World II. His influence diminished during President Truman’s administration.

It is the “know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so your can separate them from what you see” that I particularly like. From my point of view, understanding your own strengths, weaknesses, loves, and biases, coming to terms with what really makes you the person you are is (1) the most difficult job you will ever have and (2) you are the only person who can do it. It does prod you along to have help from an excellent professional counselor but the work of knowing yourself is all yours to dig through and discover. I emphasize “professional counselor” because it is their only job to listen to you and tease your own views out of the morass of fuzzy wonderings that typically cloud all of our minds. The brightest writer, the most insightful mathematician, social scientist, teacher, or student can all have significant blind spots when it comes to why they do what they do. Your friends are going to tell you what you want to hear or what their morass of fuzziness programs them to say. Your parents? The same. Your boss? Well, that’s easy—they REALLY don’t want to hear about the chutes and ladders of your inner dreams! Your spiritual leader may or may not give you good advice; hardly a week goes by without a story about some “shepherd of souls” who has fleeced their flock of funds, run off with a congregant’s spouse, or suffered the little children. Counselors do this mess too but you are paying them to behave in an ethical manner and they have liability insurance if they violate their code of behavior by violating your trust.

Thales, another of the earliest Greek philosophers and scientists, dropped this wisdom sometime around 600 B.C.E.:

“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”

Would Thales be surprised if he popped in and checked us out? Still found us floundering around like a swarm of protozoans in a drop of pond water? Somehow, I think he’d just nod and go back to sleep. He knew it was difficult and it still is!

Here’s a couple more, this time from a philosopher and spiritual leader who emerged from the Hindu belief system, although he took a detour in his early life:

“The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality or whatever you like to call it, can never be answered by books, by priests, philosophers, or saviours. Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself, and that is why you must know yourself – Immaturity lies only in total ignorance of self.” Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)


In obedience there is always fear, and fear darkens the mind.

In this second quote, we’re back to the topic that I raised initially—fear. In the initial case, it was the autonomic fear that comes from being startled, surprised, shocked by some momentary touch. At those moments, we fear what might come next… then nothing does (usually). When we enter those lethargic, depressed, paralyzed states that come from constant danger, we have embraced fear as a friend and it no longer has its critical effect. In those moments, though, we have negated everything we know about ourselves, anything we have ever learned through introspection and/or counseling (which leads to introspection). We have become a shadow self with limited features, an outline of our head, shoulders, torso, arms, and legs, but nothing of the enormous knowledge that lies within that silhouette. If we come to know ourselves, we can all do an improved job of seeing the dangers as they approach, we can turn around and go back the way we came and start our journey again.

We do not NEED to be shocked into survival. We are always vulnerable, which can be good, but not if vulnerability results in our diminishment, not if the fragility that can accompany vulnerability and self-knowledge endangers us.

It is best, then, to face ourselves, to look at what we do well and what we do poorly. It is okay to have a variety of strengths and weaknesses. We all do, every single human being on earth, however they portray themselves. The key is to come to as clear-minded an understanding of ourselves as humanly possible, then don’t do things that expose your fragilities to your bêtes noires, your nemeses. Be fragile in your  truth but not to them.


Building Blocks

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist.

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist. I have never been a parent, although I have been a child (as I am a male, I probably still am one). On the other hand, it only takes a modicum of observational insight to notice that humans establish, almost insist on, dominance and submissive roles in many of or interactions. No, not THAT kind, although that is certainly a clear example of the phenomenon (and whatever… not my boat; if it floats go ahead and paddle forth (that’s probably a bad pun)).

Parents with two or more infants, particularly twins, or who host play dates with children of near-identical ages have probably seen dominance behaviors in simple interactions. Imagine two infants with a set of blocks positioned between them. It is likely that one of the two children will start dominating block play fairly soon, either by gathering them disproportionally to themselves, building something, or even exhibiting aggressive behavior towards their peer. They are peers, after all. Just a couple of infants who are supposed to be playing. For some reason, one is likely to develop an advantage of some sort with the blocks. The other child may be unmoved and unimpressed or see the behavior and attempt to gain block parity with the dominant child. This may lead to new dominance or to an increase in aggressive behavior—new attempts by the initially dominant child to have more blocks, throwing blocks, vocalizations by one or the other or both, banging blocks together, etc. It is probable that most of these interactions will be interrupted by adults. If they are not, it is likely that one child will dominate.

Dr. Anthea Pun et al., Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, published a study earlier this year in which 48 infants between 9 and 12 months of age were shown to exhibit submissive behavior to infants from numerically larger groups or to smaller groups that included larger infants—numerical and size-dominance. The following is a summary of the study’s significance:

The ability to detect dominance relationships is essential for survival because it helps individuals weigh the potential costs and benefits of engaging in a physical competition. Here we show that infants as young as 6 mo of age are capable of detecting dominance relations when provided with an ecologically relevant cue such as social group size. Furthermore, infants can infer the social dominance relationship between two competing individuals based on the size of the group to which they belong, and expect individuals from a numerically larger group to get their way. These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

In the body of the paper, the study states that it seems that numerical size of a group is a more significant determinant than individual size. They cite several examples in chimpanzee and bird species wherein a single individual within a group does not gain dominance without the support of a group, regardless of the individual’s size. Interestingly, they also indicate that adults process social status indicators (e.g. military rank) in the same region of the brain in which group size (i.e. “numerical ratio discrimination”) is processed—the inferior parietal cortex (IPC).


Of course, like all studies, this is dependent on many studies on similar questions. But it is the last sentence in the quoted paragraph that concerns me today:

These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

This is elaborated on as follows:

Competition for valuable resources such as mates, food, and territory (1) is commonplace across the animal kingdom. To minimize the cost of fighting (e.g., energy spent and personal injury or death), natural selection appears to have favored the emergence of cognitive adaptations that help individuals predict whether they stand a chance against an opponent (25).

Okay. This seems like a set of behaviors that is well understood in our world, so well understood that infants “understand” that larger groups and/or groups with larger infants may have a dominance advantage over them, although it is an abstract concept to them at the time (i.e. they are probably not competing for mates, food, or territory unless their parents have abandoned them entirely).

This is the problem, though. Social cues that serve various fauna populations well to this day do not do our species much good at all. I would argue, in fact, that these behaviors set up domination/submission conflicts that have sometimes laughable, sometimes mortally serious implications for how we all live together. The behavior reveals itself everywhere!

Families in the same neighborhood compete to “keep up with the Joneses.” Who has the nicest driveway? Who has the best grille? In less suburban settings, the metrics may change but the game is the same. Who has painted their house, rethatched it, most recently? Who has the most wives and/or children (probably a correlation therein)? Who herds the most goats? It’s all about numerical (or value) domination and all is arbitrated right there in the IPC. If families do this, then the towns and cities in which they live also vie for superlatives. Who has the best sports teams? How many sports teams? Who won the season most recently and how often? From there, we go to national competitions, typically for resources of one type or another, which confer status and likelihood of dominance. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if competition was treated as a method of entertainment it is intended to be rather than a measure of self—and therefore group—worth? Wouldn’t each nation, each continent, the whole freakin’ planet gain a mutual advantage if those infant minds were not sorting out who to push about and who to fear… at the incredibly tender age of 9 to 12 months?

Let me put aside a notion really quickly. I am not talking about the benefits of “communism,” “socialism,” or any other imaginary sociopolitical construct. Any movement initiated in the name of Marx (wait, that’s not the one I meant!) quickly became an authoritarian state, with the most powerful enjoying luxuries the least powerful could not imagine. Just like infants sorting out who gets the most blocks.


What I am discussing is the potentially vestigial nature of infantile power-grabs, by which I mean that it is possible that our species has outgrown its need for this constant balance of power game. We have a vestigial tail—the coccyx—a bump that is located precisely where tails are located in other species and which we share with other tailless great apes. It is an important attachment point for a number of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Those of you who have angered it by sitting on it too carelessly will probably sit with greater care forever more. The coccyx isn’t the only example of items in human anatomy that are vestigial but it will do for the purposes of our metaphor.


If our IPC insists on keeping score as we group up, which is going to happen—we are a gregarious species, although not all extrovertedly so—we are going to keep making intellectually unsupportable claims about our superiority over others in our family, community, etc. We are going to keep believing that “our team (whoever that is)” have better recruiting, better warm-up games, better coaches and management, better fill-in-the-blanks (I really don’t care) than other teams. “Our nation” is number one, whatever nation that is (at least the politicians in that nation are going to say so; you can tell them by the gravy of corruption dripping from their lips). As long as “our nation” is peddling its superiority over its neighbors—or more likely, nations with delicious resources—this power-grab business will continue. The following clip from HBO’s series Newsroom addresses the “number one” business fairly directly with respect to the U.S. but again it is not my intent to be negative about one country or another. I am after the foundational issue, which is why some of us, as infants, start grabbing power while others might not like it but go along to get along? It’s wired in and it is going to take a conscious, deliberate, and probably relatively slow process to stop us behaving in accord with vestigial processes—by-products even—of the inferior parietal cortex (an irony that this rank ordering business occurs in the inferior PC!).

The foulest blunders our IPCs do in the name of supporting notions of superiority and domination are in the name of genderist, racist, nationalist—in general, chauvinist—thinking. Millions of people have engaged in dominant behaviors characterizable in the simplest way as “murder” because they have come to believe that their beliefs about another group of humans are correct and that other group is fated by deities to die because of their imagined inferiority. I wish I were still talking about infants and blocks at this point. I am not. I am saying something that everyone—those who read this and the billions who don’t—understands at a fundamental level. When one group of people goes after another group of people (or, for that matter, when one person goes after another individual) and kills them, it is murder and the verdict is not changed by calling it war or serial killing or ethnic cleansing or forced emigration (which results in numerous unnecessary deaths) or any other thing.

Women—yup, about 50% of the population (although seeing difficult days at present) of our species—are still treated as property of the male or of their family in many countries. They do not have an unencumbered right to vote in some countries (the U.S. “granted” women the right to vote in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed (by men, just a footnote here, folks)). They, on average, do not earn as much as men doing the same job. While women nominally have equal rights in many countries, their rights within cultural groups are often quite different than what the law dictates.

This is just plain odd, not to mention wrong. While women comprise 50% of the earth’s human population, they bear 100% of the earth’s human children. In many families, women are responsible, at least tacitly, for raising the children. This works as follows: “I am the breadwinner” said Bob “and your job is to stay home and raise the kids.” That’s the explicit version of the conversation. The implicit version doesn’t happen… it just “is.” And perhaps that is not entirely bad but isn’t it just another form of the play block problem? The dominant person, often the male, tells the less dominant person that he’ll play with the blocks and she will play with the dolls. It should be a conversation (and often is in some cultural segments) but it should ALWAYS be a conversation and dominant/submissive posturing should not be part of the outcome. If all else fails, the jobs should be based on competence, merit, capability.

The place in our culture that this conversation has really been a complete mess for centuries, at the least, is in matters of ethnicity or race, which are often confounded by geographical separation as well. In her work The History of White People, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter discusses how the notion of “whiteness” became a stand-in for superiority and for suppression of regional rivals at least as far back as the Greeks and the histories of  conflicts documented by Herodotus. This whole process of domination was executed in part through creating a characteristic that was a “god-given” right for one group to dominate another. That right was “whiteness” and it is also the false notion that empowered enslavement of Africans, Indians (particularly in Central and South America but also in the “sub-continent” of India and elsewhere).

American Progress, John Gast (1872) depicting Columbia, with telegraph wire and a book of knowledge, penetrating the “darkness” of the American West, driving the Native Americans and Bison before them (no kidding, this is how people thought! It was a popular engraving of the time)

The thing is we all have the capacity to be equal at the moment of our birth, absent very real differences in diet, cultural safety, exposure to environmental hazards (including drugs, lead, cigarette carcinogens, alcohol, plasticizers, etc.), and the like. As we grow older, the patterns of dominance emerge and submission kicks in. We have the intellectual capacity to understand that this is not the way we should live our lives.

Am I arguing against competition in products, in markets, in some people just doing some things better than others? Absolutely not! Differences among us will always exist. The differences that do not exist in the first place must go the way of our tails, though. I am white (actually sort of a weird, mottled pink as I have – or had – freckles and my skin is less uniformly “flesh” colored (is that even a color? really?)) than it once was. Do I care? No, I do not. I do not believe I am superior to anyone on earth. I do believe that to achieve this view, I have had to recognize this ancient dominance game that our IPCs play on us and I have to deny its sway. You can too. Every time your mind tells you that you or people that look like you or people from your family or neighborhood or state or nation or gender or race are better than someone else, find your voice and tell that idiot (your own internal, ancient idiot) NO!!!!!

That is a start. If we all do what I’ve described persistently for the next several decades, centuries, perhaps millennia (I sure hope not), we will become the species we should be, the species without that vestigial argument running around in our heads.

If we make it at all.

Featured image

Pun, A., Birch, S. A., & Baron, A. S. (2016, March 16). Infants use relative numerical group size to infer social dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 113(9), 2376-2381. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514879113