Friday, November 20, 2015

Neural Networks and the War on Christmas

You know, lately, it seems O'Reilly's heart just isn't in it anymore.  Maybe he's gone Muslim or something.
I am disappointed in Fox News.  It seems their coverage of the "War on Christmas" isn't what it used to be.   After all, what is Christmas without a war on it?   I think Fox is bowing to secular interests, and of course Muslim sensibilities in damping down their War On Christmas coverage.   It is clear to me that they are doing this to avoid offending Muslims, and that just makes me mad!

Of course, I am kidding.  Fox News will always have a "War on Christmas" for many years to come.   And the reason why is, since they started this nonsense, people are now paranoid about it and go out looking for alleged violations of our Constitutional Christmas Rights.

And this has to do with the way our brains are wired.   Our brains are Neural Networks as I have noted before.   And as a result, we are a walking, talking, pattern recognition machine.   We see Jesus' face in a taco, particularly if we are told it is already there.  Or we see patterns in clouds.  We see tigers in the tapestry.

What do I mean by this last one?  Well, I once attended a performance of a youth group at a local Unitarian Church.   A friend of mine was a leader of this youth group as part of some outreach program, and they put on this performance and invited us.  It was fun. 

But as I sat in the audience, I noticed that the curtain or tapestry behind the stage had this really intricate pattern, and part of the pattern looked like a tiger stepping out of the jungle.   During the intermission, I mentioned this to others and they said they didn't see it.  When I pointed out the outline, they all said they could see it now.

After the show was over, they cursed me out.  "All through the second half of the show, all I could do was stare at that damned tapestry and see the tiger!  You ruined it for me!  Thanks a lot!!"

Of course they were kidding, sort of, but it illustrates how our minds can be programmed through feedback to find patterns - classic neural network behavior.   Once I pointed out the pattern and reinforced it, I literally reprogrammed the pattern recognition nodes in their brains to "see" the tiger.   And they could not shut it off, either.  Powerful stuff, the power of suggestion!

And this feeback - suggestion - applies in other areas of our lives as well.   If we go on conspiracy theory websites, we will start looking for conspiracy theory "patterns" in daily life.   If we go on left-wing or right-wing websites, we start looking for political patterns in daily life as well.   For example, if some corporation announces layoffs, the left-wing programmed person will respond with, "That's the big corporations for you!  Always screwing the little guy!"   The right-wing person will respond with, "Well, that's the unions and the government for you!  Choking off free enterprise and forcing this company to downsize!"   The reality, of course, may be that the buggy-whip factory simply doesn't make a product anyone wants anymore, and closing is inevitable - and has nothing to do with politics (or aliens, or conspiracy theories, or whatever).   If you are predisposed to see things a certain way, everything will look that way to you.   Or as the Japanese say, "If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Similarly, since Fox News has raised the "War on Christmas" to paranoia level 10, a lot of people now tend to "see" outrages where there are none.   When you tell them there is a tiger in the tapestry, they tend to see it.  You have programmed (weighted) the nodes of their brains.

But in this regard, the standard of "Christmasness" has changed over time.  What we (or more correctly, the religious right, whose brains are programmed a certain way, to be sure) tend to be outraged over isn't what they were outraged over in the past.

You see, not a decade ago, fundamentalist Christians were saying that Christmas was too commercial (finally, something we agree on!).  They said that the emphasis on Santa and Frosty the Snowman and other "secular" Christmas traditions was detracting from the original religious message of the holiday.  Jesus is the Reason for the Season was their mantra.

So they vented their wrath at attempts to remove manger scenes from public property by the ALCU or whoever.   And maybe they had a point - getting all paranoid about a manger scene "propagandizing" us into Christian thinking was perhaps going a bit overboard.  But they also raged against the use of Santa and Christmas Trees and Presents instead of religious displays.  To them, at the time, Christmas should be a quite celebration of Jesus, not a gaudy display of commercialism.

But in the last few years, many on the far-right, including Sarah Palin, argue that secular displays of Christmas themes (Christmas trees, Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, etc.) are under attack as well, and that these Christmassy types of things "celebrate the season" and are no longer the target of the religious right.  Rather, they argue, the lefties are trying to do away with Christmas by saying things like "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" or by removing Santa or Christmas Trees from Starbucks cups.

It is, to say the least, an interesting turnaround in their position.  What was once rejected as too secular is now embraced as part of the Christmas season.

But getting back to Neural Networks, once the suggestion has been implanted into your brain that there is some sort of intentional War on Christmas, well, people go out and start seeing examples of it in life.  And often these are trivial things.   A mall decides to change their Santa display, for example, and that is deemed an assault on the holiday.  The lack of a "Christmas Tree" (a druid tradition) is deemed to dishonor Christ.

The "Starbucks Cup" controversy started out as a parody that someone put up, mocking the entire War on Christmas nonsense.   Unfortunately, parody and sarcasm on the Internet are not readily perceived by most, and the thing got legs and took off.

And sadly, there are a few actual instances, where people in local governments or schools actually start to think that saying "Merry Christmas!" is against the law or something.   So some local government council does something stupid, or some PC Principal says something idiotic, and the outrage machine is re-fueled for yet another season.   You see, a neural network is a perfect feedback machine.  So when we start telling people there is a "War on Christmas!" they start to believe it.  And when we start telling people (on Fox News) that the ACLU is suing anyone who says "Merry Christmas!" people start to believe that too and the whole thing bootstraps itself.

So how long will the War on Christmas go on?   Well, like any feedback control system, there are three possible outcomes.   It could dampen down after a number of cycles and just taper off as people stop looking for trouble (and finding it) and realize that no, no one is trying to destroy Christmas, not even the Grinch.  When Christmas doesn't go away, people will eventually realize the entire "War" was a hoax. This is sort of what happened to Anti-Vaxxers.   It seemed they were gaining the high ground, until one day everyone woke up and said, "enough of this shit - enough!" and the pendulum swung back to normal.

A second alternative is that system could reach a steady-state mode of operation, with the feedback just enough to keep the "War" going indefinitely.    This is unlikely, as people will start to tire of the war - as they tire of all wars, eventually - and realize that it was either won or never happened, as Christmas doesn't go away over time.   A steady-state mode of operation is unlikely.

The third possibility is very, very frightening - an un-damped or unstable system.   In an un-damped system, things swing wildly one way, and then the other, with increasing amplitude over time.  Such a scenario seems far-fetched, but it has happened time and time again in human history, where countries and cultures have veered from far-left to far-right and back again, such as the switch from the liberal Wiemar Republic to the Nazi regime, in a few short years.  It is the sort of thing that worries me.

So, for example, the paranoia by government employees and school administrators could trigger more of these idiotic incidents where someone says, "Well, you can't be too careful, now!  Better cancel the Christmas carols this year!" which in turn fuels another "War on Christmas Special Fox News Report!" and so on.   Or it could be some misguided misanthrope who sues their school district because little Johnny had to sing "Jingle Bells" or whatever.  This pumps the feedback even further.

And sadly, I see this instability occurring in other areas of our culture.  I was not a big fan of the Gay Marriage thing, largely because I thought there were more important political issues that needed to be resolved, and that legalizing Gay Marriage would radicalize the right and also mobilize them.  And it has.

And on the left, well, even crazier shit is being bandied about - people having "safe spaces" at school where no one can say anything that might "trigger" an anxiety attack.   This in turn, generates more outrage on the Right, who responds with even bigger nonsense - outlawing "Sharia law" for example - as if it could ever exist in our country.

Each side goes more and more out of whack, like a sleeping bag in the spin cycle in a laundry machine - until the machine starts walking away from the wall, ripping out its water lines, and flooding the basement.

The real victims, of course, are the rest of us, who are caught in the middle, and end up in a civil war for no apparent reason whatsoever.

And maybe that is how these things happen - undamped systems going out of control when damping mechanisms are removed.   You take away communism and you end up with the Bosnian war.   Sunnis and Shiites go after each other, once their dictatorial governments are toppled.  I am not advocating for dictatorship, just using these as examples of systems gone wildly out of control when an artificial damping mechanism is removed.

Our own Civil War was also probably an example of this.  Many in the middle wanted to see slavery go away - over time.   But a few "fire eaters" in the South thought slavery was a natural condition and wanted slavery expanded to new States and even countries, while abolitionists in the North felt that the Lord God was commanding them to holy battle (of the two, the Northerners were closer to being right).  The result was millions dead and wounded and an economy shattered.

Could our "War on Christmas" lead to a real War down the road - with neighbor slaying neighbor?   It seems far-fetched, but if you look at history, it is this sort of background drumbeat of discontent that tends to set off people over time.  People go to war for the strangest reasons - or none at all.   And when you ask them what they are fighting for, their reasons become remarkably elusive.

For example, ask an historian what the causes of World War I were.  He will talk for an hour and wave his arms and really not give a convincing answer.   Millions slaughtered for no apparent reason.   The assassination of one archduke is worth the lives of millions?   I don't think so.   Sounds like a trumped-up excuse to me.

Osama Bid Laden came from a wealthy family.   Who was he trying to overthrow?  And why?  The stated reason - the presence of American airbases in an Islamic country - seems like a particularly thin reed.   I think the real reason is a smoldering anti-American sentiment that had been boiling on the stove for 50 years or more, amplified by each act by America which was perceived as a slight to the Arab world or to Islam.   When you go looking for trouble, you are likely to find it.  And in response, each act of terrorism, hostage-taking, or whatever, feeds-back the anti-Arab and anti-Islam sentiment in the USA.   Wash, rinse, repeat, and you have 9/11 and two gulf wars - with more to come.  Sadly, discontent in the middle east seems to be a stable system or cycle of wars, atrocities, terror attacks, and whatnot, that has gone on for over 60 years and shows no signs of stopping now.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether our system of government and our society are really all that bad as they are, and whether it is worthwhile to destroy our country, our society, and everything with it, over perceived slights over religion, Christmas, or alleged "racial incidents".

Sadly, given the track record of humanity, I fully expect that World War III will inevitably be traced back to something as stupid as "The War on Christmas".