Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thoughts on New Thought

New Thought is an umbrella term for a variety of people and groups who promote positive thinking and the Law of Attraction. One of the most (in)famous examples is in the movie/book The Secret.

The Law of Attraction claims that we attract everything we have in our lives, for good or ill. If you're at all familiar with the self-help industry, you've probably heard this claim before. You may even have an acquaintance who talks about "manifesting" or "putting something out to the Universe."

I have a friend who's really on a kick with this stuff, so I decided to read up on it. I even watched The Secret. The movie makes some pretty outlandish claims, although they're in line with the Law of Attraction if you take it to its logical conclusion. For example, some of the commentators in the movie talk about how people both attract and cure illnesses with their thoughts. Another commentator says that once you master the Law of Attraction, the universe becomes your catalog.

While these claims sound absurd on their faces, I want to address them. Even with the most ridiculous ideas, I think it's important to say why they're actually ridiculous. It's satisfying to dismiss something out of hand because it sounds silly, but many world-changing ideas started out sounding silly, so I prefer to deal with ideas on their own terms.

New Thought actually has some ideas in common with well-known Hindu/Vedanta teachings. Both groups discuss karma and reincarnation. Both groups discourage identification with the physical body and encourage affirmation of positive ideas. For a Vedantic perspective, I recommend this article, particularly the section "Assert Yourself," by Swami Swahananda of the Ramakrishna Order (full disclosure: this is the organization behind the various Vedanta Societies).

Swami doesn't make claims as bold as in The Secret. In fact, I'm pretty sure Vedanta would discourage the idea of treating the universe as a catalog, since it goes against principles such as nonattachment. You might disagree with Swami's ideas about Spirit and Divinity, but I think the worst you can say about them is that they're unprovable.

If it's true that we attract everything into our lives, that implies some serious victim blaming when bad things happen. Of course, just because an idea is harsh doesn't mean it isn't the truth. However, this article in the New York Times implies that scientific validation for the power of positive thinking doesn't look good. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the benefits could be attributed to the placebo effect.

All that said, I do think that state of mind matters, but not in the sense that you can make the universe your catalog (can you tell that this idea really bothers me?). Psychological approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy focus on changing the way you think about situations, and they can be helpful. I can definitely think of instances in my life where changing my attitude about a situation ultimately changed the situation. However, the attitude change was what was important; the situational change was incidental.

This is where I think The Secret really gets it wrong. The commentators put a lot of emphasis on results, and I think that misses the point. I think the real benefit of a positive attitude is the ability to adapt to whatever situation life throws at you. Have a positive attitude, even visualize what you want, but don't forget to put in some hard work, and know that getting what you want often has less bearing on your happiness than your ability to adapt.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I have cut all ties with the various freethought/atheist groups I have previously participated in. Sharing a similar answer to one particular question just isn't enough anymore. I got the distinct feeling that my presence didn't matter to anyone in these groups and that nobody was really interested in me as a person. Longtime readers of this blog may recall I have suspected this for some time, but it finally got cemented for me recently.

One major problem with the main group I'd been attending was that the others never let me finish a stream of thought. I understand that some interruption is part of the necessary give-and-take of conversation, but with me it happened every single time.

The other major problem was that I was tired of being treated like my interests didn't matter. While it was OK for some to talk about their musical preferences, mine were treated scornfully. The sad part is that the scorn wasn't even accurate--the "critic" had his facts all wrong about the artist in question. There's more than a bit of irony in someone constantly talking about how he makes decisions based on facts getting it so wrong here.

My views on the supernatural haven't changed. But I'm not going to spend my time with people who clearly don't respect or value me. I don't care how many issues we agree on.

I'm not sure where I go from here. Despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, it seems pretty clear to me that I haven't had good luck with what attempts there have been at freethought-based communities. While I don't want to be one of those atheists who doesn't contribute anything to the larger community, it feels like said community isn't interested in my contribution. It's safe to say I'm debating how much I wish to continue to identify as atheist.

By contrast, I feel like the people in the Vedanta Society have my back. For instance, I told someone in the Vedanta Society that I'd been obsessively listening to the artist I mentioned earlier, and while he didn't seem familiar with them, we still had a nice conversation about music's power to affect people and just how hard it is to succeed in that field.

When I got laid off from my job last year, one of the other devotees offered to pay for my ticket to a fundraising luncheon the Society was having. I told him if it came to that, I'd pay him back as soon as I started working again. He told me not to worry about it and that if I really felt the need to do something, I could just make a donation to the Society.

Some of the big atheist blogs have mentioned this before, but I want to reiterate: people often aren't in houses of worship entirely because they intellectually support what is taught there. It's a sense of community and obligation to fellow human beings that keeps them there. People want to be treated like they matter. If you don't do that, your group will not be successful in the long term, no matter how many theological/political/whatever questions you answer correctly.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Hedonistic Holiday

Christmas and I have had issues with each other for a long time. But it never really occurred to me that I didn't have to participate in it the way I always have in the past.

But this year, I finally have the nerve and the means to do something different, so I'm going to. I'm taking a mini-vacation to New Orleans, and if nothing else, I will eat well over the next few days! I've already done the gift-exchange thing with the ones on my list, so I'll get to focus on the one area where I mostly have good Christmas memories: food! No one will ask me how much longer I'll be in school or if I'm seeing anyone, and I won't have to listen to any political debates.

This may be my best Christmas ever.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I joined a book club

Occasionally I like to expand the set of people I talk to. I think this is true of most people, but it's also true that this sort of thing is easier said than done. Personally, I've had a mixed (at best) record with the whole common-interest-group thing. Often these groups are very comfortable with the dynamic they've already established and aren't that interested in welcoming new people. So when I saw a flyer advertising a book club on campus, I was certainly interested, but I prepared myself for disappointment.

Turns out my fears were unfounded. I was especially worried when I realized I didn't like parts of the book to be discussed. But I figured since there were parts I did enjoy, and I kind of live to provide a contrarian perspective, it would at least be worth a shot. There was a decent turnout, and I wasn't the only one who didn't like the parts I didn't like. The people were surprisingly friendly and interested in what I had to say.

I'm pretty sure I'll go to their next meeting. I might even bring a friend. I might also post my reviews of the books we read here. It will be nice to have something non-computer related to do on a regular basis. And it's really nice to have something like this pan out for me. It's funny how this sort of thing works. I'd been trying for months to find something with no luck, and I found something potentially very good after I'd basically given up hope. Not sure whether to feel hopeful again or whether I get better results without it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Some Rocky Horror fun

Have you ever created your own fantasy cast for a movie? It could be for a remake, or for a book that has yet to be made into a movie.

The other night, some friends and I got to recasting our own version of Rocky Horror Picture Show. There actually was talk of a remake happening, but it has since been shelved. Anyway, it's still fun to imagine who would be in certain roles. So if a remake ever does get off the ground, here is our fantasy cast, with a brief explanation of why they were chosen, submitted for your approval:

Frank-N-Furter: Sacha Baron Cohen. He's certainly uninhibited enough for the role, and thanks to Sweeney Todd, we know he can sing.

Brad Majors: James Marsden (Cyclops from X-Men). This was one of the toughest roles for us to cast. The current trend in Hollywood leading men is toward the man-child, and it took us a while to come up with someone we thought could portray manliness and squareness at the same time.

Janet Weiss: Taylor Swift. She's the epitome of middle America niceness, and while her music isn't my cup of tea, she can certainly sing well enough. What else do you need?

Riff Raff: Matthew Bellamy (also answers to "that Muse guy"). If you're at all familiar with his music, you know he'd nail the part vocally. I also suspect he has more than enough freak in him to connect with the character, despite his lack of acting experience.

Magenta: Lady Gaga. She would probably have to dial down her freakiness a bit, at least until the end. In any case, she would bring out the other-worldliness of the character.

Columbia: Katy Perry. "I Kissed a Girl" was really more about male attention than anything else. And Columbia craves attention wherever she can get it.

Rocky: James Franco. OK, this is mostly an excuse for extended viewings of James Franco in his underwear. Not gonna lie. That said, we figured he has the acting chops to do "dumb and beautiful" very effectively.

Dr. Scott: Ian McKellen. Who else could pull off glittery pumps with such gravitas?

Eddie: Zach Galifianakis. Speaking of man-child, where it wouldn't work for Brad, it's perfect for Eddie. And Galifianakis is the current king of man-child.

Criminologist: Liam Neeson. For one thing, he looks the part. For another, he could totally play this part straight, which would make it even funnier. The best comedy is often played straight.

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to submit your own suggestions!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blaming the media

Last night I went to meeting of a feminist group on campus. We watched this documentary called Mickey Mouse Monopoly. The film is very critical of Disney and the messages it puts out in its products, whether those messages are intentional or unintentional.

For some, this is not news. Those who are old enough to remember Aladdin may also remember the outcry from Arab-Americans who believed the lyrics of the opening song portrayed Arabs as barbaric. In The Lion King, several people pointed out that the villains were not only voiced by minority actors, but also seemed to emulate street thug behavior.

One problem I had with Mickey Mouse Monopoly is that the speakers seemed to imply that gender and ethnic stereotypes were the sole fault of Disney. Toward the end, they quoted an internal Disney memo from then-CEO Michael Eisner about how their sole responsibility was to make money. The film made it seem like the memo was this sinister thing, but it shouldn't surprise anyone who follows financial news. The speakers in the film talked about how they believe Disney (and, I suppose, all entertainers by extension) has a responsibility to promote less stereotypical behavior, I guess.

So far I've been pretty critical of the film, but I do want to clarify that I believe many of their concerns are legitimate. Disney movies clearly promote stereotypical behavior, and I wish they wouldn't. Anybody who gets most of their ideas about gender and ethnicity from Disney is going to have some seriously skewed ideas. But a lot of those skewed ideas are also in the source material that Disney uses. Anyone care to tell me about the bad-ass, independent heroines in the original versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, for instance (although Ever After was an awesome retelling)?

I also want to address the idea that Disney or any other entertainers have a responsibility to the public. I have a really hard time with this because I'm not sure how you would achieve the desired outcome without some kind of censorship. And that's just not how we settle things in a free society. Also, I think that ultimate responsibility lies with the parents. If you keep feeding your kids junk food, whose fault is it when they have health problems? Actually, that's a pretty good analogy. And Mickey Mouse Monopoly can be useful for revealing Disney movies to be the cinematic junk food that they are. Just don't overdo the junk food and be sure to balance it with healthier things. It also might be helpful to talk to kids about the messages in those movies.

Ultimately, I think the best solution is to install critical thinking skills in your kids. Don't just uncritically accept everything people tell you, whether those people are Disney employees or your relatives. It's never too early or too late to work on your bullshit detectors.

Also, for examples of other sources with shady gender portrayals, check out this article from the fine folks at Feministing.

Friday, October 1, 2010

School update

To get a master's degree in computer science at my school, you have to choose a concentration area, like networks or artificial intelligence. I had some interest in the systems concentration, partly because it would give me a course background that would be very helpful if I decide to pursue a Ph.D.

As part of our orientation for new grad students, one of the professors talked to us about the possibility of doing a directed study with him on compilers (don't worry if you don't know what compilers are; just trust that they're an important topic in computer science, especially in the systems area). This professor also mentioned that this would probably be our best chance to study compilers early on, since the formal class on compilers is typically cancelled due to low enrollment. So, as soon as orientation was over, I naturally high-tailed it over to this professor's office. Paperwork was filled out, and I was signed up for this directed study.

Fast-forward a little over a month. Compiler stuff is hard. Another course that I'm taking in my concentration has proved similarly head-spinning. It was starting to look like my choice of concentration was a bad idea.

So I went to our weekly meeting for my directed study feeling down. I hate to fail at anything. I wondered if this would be total gibberish to me like some of the reading had been. Surprisingly, I was able to follow enough to hang on, and I had an epiphany: if I quit on this, I'd just be taking the easy way out and selling myself short again, which I totally have a tendency to do.

Not this time. If I have any hope of proving myself worthy to run with the big dogs, I need to challenge myself. During my first degree, I made the mistake of taking the easy way as much as possible, and I paid for it for a very long time.

So, approximately a month into my grad school career, I've had my first serious gut check. I have responded by kicking it in the pants and officially declaring a systems concentration (my directed study prof is happy to serve as my official advisor). That way it knows I mean business. I will do whatever it takes to succeed.