Semantics and the lowest common denominator

Written by peterkienle on December 25, 2015

I have been interested in books, TV shows and lately Podcasts about supernatural, paranormal, extraterrestrial and other such stuff for a long time. Lately I have been listening to lots (lots) of Podcasts dealing with all sorts of topics somewhat from the fringe. Sometimes the host(s) of the show and the guest are very careful how they talk about a subject. Often, though, words (or memes) such as reincarnation, near-death-experience, ghost, alien, UFO, etc, are dropped as if they (and we, the listener) know exactly what that is. The guest sometimes talks about the afterlife in such specific ways as if they had just finished a college course on it. Of course that kind of language usage and specific words and terms dominate our daily life. Terms, such as food, sleep, super market are spoken and used in written form and usually they are understood close to what they were intended to mean.

Quickly, though, we come to more dubious words that are used in everyday language by a large number of people and on the surface we go: “Sure, I know what a conservative (or liberal, or progressive) is.” Except, that you have two different people trying to explain it and their understanding will most likely not overlap much. How about the word god? How about the phrase “I believe in god?” What does that mean? This could conceivably take a lifetime to explain – and the explanation would again contain usage of terms that are assumed to convey clear, unambiguous information but in turn require more explanation.

In a way, isn’t this what the working body of science has tried to mend? When ‘normal’ people talk about a theory they usually mean something they think is an explanation – not necessarily backed by any evidence or any logical or rational path of reasoning. In science the word theory has a very specific meaning and is clearly defined. It seems science strives to implement very strict definitions of the language and terminology it uses. That means, ideally, that those who have studied specific scientific fields can communicate in very precise and unambiguous terms. While this is the ideal situation, more often than not it has turned out that established scientific fact (along with the terminology) was simply wrong. Luckily, science can admit errors and correct them

Now we get to the fringey stuff, where two folks talk about reincarnation or ghosts as if they both knew exactly what is being talked about, assuming that they are also talking about the same thing, and (before I forget) that those things actually exist. Can there even be a meaningful discussion under such circumstances? Again: the thing that is being discussed is most likely not the same for each party, often one or both of the parties have not experienced anything like a ghost personally but get their information from other sources, who also use terms and words which are not defined but are taken as truth. This is how huge pyramids of fringe theories are built on hot air.

You could claim that much of the scientific body of work and knowledge is equally built on hot air. Perhaps it is, I don’t care, but the rigorous definition of terms and relationships plus a high internal consistency amounts to something and has changed material reality. It’s akin to a bunch of musicians knowing the same tune in the same key, agreeing on how to start, when to modulate to where and how to end. It may all be made up from hot air, but it works. While you put a bunch of people together, some who may not know how to hold their instrument, you tell them to play a tune that everybody should know from listening to the radio, nobody counts off, nobody knows the key (or even what a key is). What you’ll hear could be very adventurous, maybe interesting but probably won’t resemble the song they were supposed to play. And if they try it again it will sound totally different.

I guess here comes the clincher. Is it possible that nothing has any meaning unless it is given meaning by what or who consciously experiences it? And then that experience will be incredibly deep, valuable and detailed until the experiencer tries to explain it to someone who hasn’t experienced exactly the same thing – at which point the experiencer will start accepting the verbalized, official version him or herself. Makes you wish for something like telepathy, where an experiencer could transmit the experience directly to somebody else….

Some podcasts I really like (warts and all):


Mysterious Universe

Paranormal Podcast

The Paracast

and on the skeptical side:

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe

Geologic Podcast

Big Picture Science


There are of course a lot more but the day is only so long….

The Parabola of Life

Written by peterkienle on October 28, 2014

Around 2006 I read a book by Ray Kurzweil called “Fantastic Voyage”. Somebody had recommended it. There are many recommendations in there about how to lead a healthier life and how to live long enough to get in on the “singularity”. Kurzweil is part of a group of people who believe that technological developments will rapidly accelerate towards a point when there will be true artificial or machine intelligence and, more specifically, when it will be possible to upload a complete human consciousness into some sort of electronic brain – this is referred to as the “singularity”. As I was reading that book I did get sucked into the idea, although I admit that I liked the possibility of living a radically extended healthy life of 150+ years better than being stuck in a computer.

This whole idea has a lot of critics and many books (science & science fiction) have been written which point out that the practical application of such longevity could be full of social, medical and technological complexities. No doubt about that. The funny thing is that during the time I fully bought into the “singularity” I started living healthier. One of the takeaways in “Fantastic Voyage” is that in order to get to the “singularity” as healthy as possible you better start now. So I lowered my calories and carbohydrates. Added fresh fruit and leafy green vegetables whenever possible. Cut any ice cream and cookies and started exercising. Since then I have lost around 20 pounds of waist line and I have been feeling healthier than in the past 30 years.

Soon after I finished reading “Fantastic Voyage” I started making attitude changes in my life. Really unconsciously at first. I started thinking about my “new” 150+ year life. Would I want to stay in the same house, the same city for 150+ years? What about my so-called career as a musician? The idea came to me that maybe now would be a good time to actually go to college and get a science degree. All of a sudden all these possibilities popped up. Ideas that had flared up at some time or another but rapidly flickered out again because there was a perception that the time was just too short. In the months after the Kurzweil book I did become much more skeptical of the “singularity”. At the same time I noticed that it had really improved my life in many ways. Now, my thinking was, chances are that I would die somewhere on the upwards leg of the parabola of my life and not when it plateaus or starts descending.

Or, in other words, if I would live to be 80 years old I would die on the up-slope because it would only be a little more than half my life-span of 150+ years. Of course you could ask “What good would that be? It wouldn’t change the facts.” Sure, but it would change my attitude towards the facts.

And it’s an interesting exercise to imagine to live twice as long. How would you change your life right now if that was a fact?

Another such thought experiment has to do with money. We are not a poor family by any means. But in our yard money doesn’t grow on trees and the prospect of paying for our kids’ college education fills me with fear. Now imagine: What would you do if there were no money problems in your life? How would you change your life? But, maybe that’s a topic for another day.

The morning-after-blues

Written by peterkienle on October 26, 2014

This past week I was brutally reminded why being a musician is so hard. It’s not because of the need to practice (although you have to do that.) It’s not because you basically starve if you have no other job, or your spouse loves you very much and has a good gig with health insurance. It’s not really because it often sucks hunting down gigs and then often end up playing at venues that are “wrong” for what you play – although we are getting closer now.

This past weekend blatantly displayed to me the stark reality. The story started about two years ago when my friend Lothar, who lives in Tübingen, Germany, mentioned that he just started a big band – called the Wüste Welle Big Band. He asked if I had done any creative arrangements they could play – just something different from the ordinary fare. Well, I hadn’t. And I never had arranged for big band before and I wasn’t going to either. But Lothar kept bringing it up again and again. He was especially interested in music from my “fusion”, i.e. BeebleBrox years. Somehow that did ring a bell. Over the course of two years I arranged a handful of music for big band. And, believe me, that was like pulling teeth! Although I am proud I did it.

After two concerts with the big band in the summer of 2013 Lothar went for the high hanging fruit and applied for the opening slot of the “Jazz & Klassiktage Tübingen 2014.”  At first it looked like they were going to play my tunes and my arrangements with their regular guitarist but then it turned out that I was going to be the featured guest!

Due to all sorts of time and budget constraints my trip was only four days long. I left Bloomington on Thursday morning. Arrived in Tübingen for rhythm section rehearsal on 10am Friday. Full band rehearsal late afternoon and evening. Short night sleep. Breakfast with my mother. Dress rehearsal and soundcheck. When we started playing the first tune I was running on adrenalin. Some excitement was added due to the fact that I was tasked with making announcements! Apparently they weren’t too bad, or at least entertaining enough as people were laughing tears. The gig went by, the playing was great! More compliments and people coming up afterwards to shake hands than in all of the past decades. Short night again. Sunday return to Bloomington and then……

Monday morning. All the magic is gone. No more big gigs on the books. It’s the Monday-after-the-big-weekend-blues.

It’s not that I haven’t experienced these before. Back when we were trying for “bigger” things and actually got as far as opening for acts such as “Tower of Power”, Yes, Santana and then some. Every time when the big gig is over and Monday rolls around you realize that you are at the bottom again and will have to climb up that mountain for a quick but exciting dash down the hill – lift tickets are not available. I guess over the past ten years or so I have played so many background music gigs that I kind of forgot. It’s like climbing the mountain only to discover that there is no snow!

And yet, that up and down seems to be a very essential part of an artist’s life.

Also, my mom was at the concert.


Why Shouldn’t We All Get Along (with the aliens)?

Written by peterkienle on January 5, 2010

If you read some of the posts here you might have guessed that I try to be a rational, skeptical, scientifically minded individual. Somebody who has never been to college but realized he probably should have been. This ‘rational’ streak of my life isn’t very old, though. Up until about ten years ago I was into paranormal-UFO-alien-conspiracy stuff – big time. I didn’t exactly know what I was believing. Everything, I guess. Of course that was also the time when the internet started to offer easy access to all sorts of before unseen material – at least unseen by me.

I was raised Protestant. In Germany there were really only two confessions at that time: Catholics and Protestants. Other than the obligatory go-to-bed prayer, school mandated weekly church visits (can you believe that?), and Confirmation at age 14 we were pretty much left alone by our parents’ religion, although my mother was a bit shocked when at age 15 I choose to opt out of religion in school. After I left school and moved out from home religion lost any meaning for me whatsoever. But I slowly started to get interested in ‘the other side’. UFO stories made my ears perk up. When I read my first book about past-life regression I was hooked. In Germany it was still pretty hard to find material to read about all these topics. In the mid 1980’s I read my first Seth book by Jane Roberts. Couldn’t get enough of these.

After moving to the US in 1988 I found there were huge bookstores with hundreds of books covering everything supernatural and metaphysical. We had book stores in Germany but nothing in comparison. Maybe it’s because I am German, but “if it’s in a book,” I thought, “it must be true.” While I was still consuming Science Fiction at an alarming rate my exposure to any real science all but disappeared.
My wife must have thought I was nuts when I was telling her all the strange and outlandish stuff I was learning from this strange literature .

Then, as I mentioned, came the internet. The MJ12 papers. Area 51. Roswell. Conspiracies. When I read Robert Anton Wilson’s  Illuminatus! books there was a slight nudge to becoming a bit skeptical. And then I came across David_Icke’s “…And The Truth Shall Set You Free” and the whole thing blew up in my face. In this whole fabric of UFO reports, conspiracies, alternative realities, whatever, everybody was claiming they were correct and everybody else was wrong. The one claim they all had in common was that scientists were close-minded and didn’t want to hear anything about their lofty claims. It took another year or so for me to make the connection: Why didn’t I believe in a biblical god? Why, again, did I think following religious leaders blindly is foolish? Then I realized that most if not all of these fringe beliefs were just that: beliefs with no substantial proof, based on an individual experience or, even worse, a deliberate deception. Just the same as religious ideology – and I didn’t believe in that. And then all of a sudden I was free!

Another fact had kept bothering me all through my paranormal phase:
I was so eager to experience any supernatural phenomenon, so open to see a UFO, see a ghost or develop my own psychic abilities – but nothing ever happened. I guess I don’t have the ‘gene’.

In short order I became a skeptic. Subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer, started listening to skeptical podcasts and reading science books. It was kinda cool to slowly find out that there were many people like me even though somehow in most personal conversations I just stayed away from the topic of skepticism and atheism – just to be polite.

Then people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins published books about atheism. And they didn’t really take care not to step on anybody’s toes. Harris asks, why can’t people who act on their religious believes held as accountable just as anybody else? Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” accuses parents of indoctrinating their children into their religion and damaging them for life. These authors were expressing what I had been thinking for many years. For a few years I became really mad. Partially that was due to a government which tried to play the religious card whenever possible. Not a Christian? Then you’re not one of us. Makes you feel very welcome indeed.

I have some friends who are Mormon. At least I think so. They never told me. I never asked. Although there were times when I almost did because I was curious. They never tried to convince me to become Mormon. They are very cool, creative people. They show up on time, don’t get drunk on the gig, don’t yell at me. They didn’t ask me if I was an Atheist when I called them for a gig. Who am I to tell them that their belief is ……what? Stupid? Irrational? Old fashioned? Maybe their belief system doesn’t really do that much. They would probably be decent folks without it.

So, then, are there two sorts of religion? The religion people carry inside? Their ‘personal’ belief. Can’t really share it because it may well have been inspired or evolved (snicker) from the other form of religion: the dogmatic sort, the rules imposed from outside for no good reason except that a pope, priest or pastor somehow extracted them from the Bible, the Koran or some other historic text. The kind of religion that the people in high places want to keep the same, absolute, a constant, untouchable. I suppose that the religion people display when they are together in church is not exactly the same thing they feel when they are by themselves.

As I was slowly becoming a skeptic I noticed how hard it was to let go of irrational believes – and it’s incredible how much stuff we accept as real and true that’s actually total bogus and yet it influences our lives in profound ways. Here’s a personal example:
When I was 16 and my guitar playing was slowly becoming presentable to a public I realized that it was also developing into something special: Through it I was able to express my individuality. More importantly, it became my ‘pie-in-the-sky’. If only I could become so good and write so many tunes, etc, one day I would be successful. People would know about me and my music and it would have financial rewards. This became my carrot and my stick. For many years it was almost inconsequential whether my pie-in-the-sky would ever materialize. I can easily imagine that for a religious person Jesus and going to heaven could be their pie-in-the-sky. While my pie essentially came down to earth some years ago – when I noticed that I am playing gigs for people who come to see me play, some buy my CDs with my music on them, and while I am not famous I am well known and recognized locally – the religious ‘pie’ ideally stays in heaven until you die. At least from the outside this looks like a pretty effective carrot (although with many religions it seems more of a stick.)

So, what then am I trying to say?
I just said that I don’t believe in a god – Christian or otherwise. But I also know from first-hand experience that I won’t practice my guitar without having something to practice for. It helps the motivation imagining some huge gig in front of thousands of people – even though that gig will probably never become reality. Hell (no pun intended), it’s next to impossible to get up in the morning without having somewhere to go to or something worthwhile to do. And not to defend organized religion, but they usually do offer you one heck of a benefits package even though I think it’s all made up.

As always, instead of black and white it’s a spectrum of finely shaded colors what people believe in and why. Just don’t come to my door and tell me that your god loves me because he might be a little disappointed.

An un-american speed limit?

Written by peterkienle on July 8, 2009

Recently, as I was pedaling to town on my bike I had an interesting thought. Having  just passed a ‘Speed Limit 40 mph’ sign I quietly chuckled thinking  to myself that at that moment I would not have to pay attention to any speed limits because unless I strapped a rocket to my back I would not be able to go any faster. When I got home that thought expanded itself into the idea of self-enforcing speed limits.

Practically it works like this: You pass a speed limit sign in your car. There is a chip embedded in the speed limit sign and your car will pick the signal up, and magically refuse to go faster than the posted speed limit. At least superficially workable – except that everyone I mention this to thinks it sucks. And come to look at it closer I too have a strange feeling about it.

From a logical standpoint it makes total sense. If there is a speed limit you are not supposed to go faster – it’s against the law!
Just like Religion – you are not supposed to commit sin. Why then did God leave the sin-enable switch in us in the ON position? Or, in regards to the speed limit situation, why does everybody hate the idea that they could NOT go faster if the wanted to, even when it is against the law?

Could it have something to do with ‘free will’? Does such a self-enforcing speed limit evoke the notion of a driver who is ‘guilty’ by default? Rationally it makes total sense to me – as would disabling the sin-switch – and yet there is something weird. Could it be that committing a sin/breaking the law is *fun*?

Same old garbage…

Written by peterkienle on December 30, 2008

(The following was written in March 2008 when the US primaries were in full swing, gasoline was around $4. It still expresses some of my deepest concerns.)

When I shop at groceries around town, I always bring my basket and a few empty paper bags. Have been doing this for years. Still the bagger (bagging person?) looks at me strange when I tell him/her that I don’t want a bag. They always try to use the most plastic possible. I don’t need extra plastic bags for my ice cream, broccoli, bananas. Many times did I ask them to take stuff out of plastic bags – ‘what a weirdo’ is the look I get.

I remember many years ago in Germany when costs for garbage pickup went higher and higher people started unpacking some goods which came in unnecessary packaging right at the store on the belt and they left the extra cardboard and plastic at the store. Let them pay for the disposal. Manufacturers and distributors took note and packaging was scaled back.

Now, the gas prices. Did I hear right? John McCain promises to lower gas prices by suspending taxes on gasoline? Wait, isn’t it a free market economy? If we use more gasoline and other oil-based products wouldn’t that naturally raise the price? Of course changing the way vehicles get taxed would be fairer if done according to gas consumption and environmental impact. Mr. McCain, what about giving people who drive fuel efficient vehicles a tax break, instead? That might actually get a few people to say good-bye to their gas guzzlers. (Have you ever stopped at a gas station at 2 in the morning where the person on the next pump had the engine running while filling up, then going in to buy some more stuff, take a leak, have a chat with the attendant, etc. Have you ever asked her/him if they were aware that in those 8 minutes they just burned enough gas to travel a few miles (ok, I don’t remember the numbers exactly). Chances are you’ll get a pretty angry response – after all, this is America where people can do whatever they want even if it’s stupid.)

And just as I was taking a little bike tour in my neighborhood this very pretty evening I noticed that at almost every house lawns were being mowed on the ever so popular riding mower. Actually many of the mower-riders looked like they could do with a little exercise. In addition the properties are not really that big and the grass really hasn’t grown much yet. I also noticed all the garbage in the ditches. Mostly plastic bottles, plastic bags, lots of beer bottles and half empty McDonald’s bags. How ugly. Don’t you go out and pick up that stuff around your property and maybe across the street every once in a while? Oh, right, you didn’t put it there. And it really doesn’t bother you unless your kid happens to run around barefoot in your front yard and steps on the remains of someone’s empty beer bottle.

I have only lived in the US since the late 1980’s but that stuff bugs me. In Germany we used to think of America as the country where people take action, are independent and creative. Wasn’t the first man to land on the moon a U.S. citizen? Not to put it all down, but people put all sorts of ‘proud to be American’ stickers on their cars, but it seems the way most of them treat this country, the environment and often their fellow citizens expresses neglect, ignorance and small mindedness.

Sorry. Going too far. It could be so great…… But there is only one ship and if that goes down we all go with it.

Copyright © by Peter Kienle