On Pythons

Regular readers know that I’m a “snake person.” I’ve kept snakes for the majority of my life. I love Maize and Morrigan, my two pet snakes, as much as any dog or cat owner loves their fuzzy companions (although I’m decidedly more realistic about how Maize and Morrigan feel about me, which is to say, they don’t feel anything for me).

I have to talk about this fatal python attack that’s making the news rounds. It’s weird to me that this horrible thing happened in Canada at almost exactly the same time I’m in Canada myself. Just one of those weird things, I guess.

First, I want to say that regardless of how or why it happened, this is a horrible thing to have happened. I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the families of those boys and I realize that no level of rationalization or understanding can help heal those wounds. I feel terrible for those poor boys, as well. Constriction is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable, in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I never feed my snakes live prey. It doesn’t matter that constriction is a constrictor’s natural means of killing. It’s a bad way for anything to go, even something as small as a mouse.

After all, it’s not like the snakes care. They don’t bother to constrict when they don’t need to do so. Arguing that I’m denying these predators the chance to hunt is just anthropomorphic projecting. Snakes don’t feel concepts such as “the thrill of the hunt.” Keep that thought in mind as we work through this.

Regardless, I’m sorry for the family, I’m sorry for the community, and I’m sorry for those boys. It’s a tragedy. No bones about it.

Now, with that said . . .

I’m going to put on my Cynical hat for the rest of this post. Ye be warned, matey. If you’re squeamish, you may wish to stop reading at this point.

I have a very difficult time believing this story as it has been presented to us. Let’s look at the basic sequence of events:

  1. The snake escaped from its enclosure into a vent.
  2. It followed the vent and ended up in the boys’ room.
  3. It proceeded to attack and constrict the two boys while they slept without anybody waking up.

Point one isn’t particularly surprising; snakes are really, really good at escaping. The fact that the owner of the python didn’t have the proper precautions to prevent an escape may or may not be criminal negligence (I don’t have the legal background to say). However, this is something that snakes do whenever they get a chance. All snakes do this.

Point two isn’t surprising, either. The first thing a snake is going to do after escaping is slither towards terrain it considers favorable. Vents are enclosed spaces, which makes snakes feel secure. The vent was probably fairly warm, which also would have drawn the snake to it.A snake going into a vent is likely scary, but not indicative of a hostile snake. This, too, is normal behavior.

Point three is where the examples of normal behavior fall apart. Snakes only attack for two reasons: to kill prey or to defend themselves. That’s it. Snakes don’t kill “for the fun of it” or “just because.” Every snake bites for one of these two reasons. The snake might incorrectly interpret a benign situation as threatening, of course. Mistakes are certainly possible. Usually, however, a snake mistakes a person as a threat when the person is doing something to make the snake feel threatened, either intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s hard to believe that two sleeping boys would make a snake feel threatened, so it makes it seem unlikely that “defense” was the reason that prompted the attack. That leaves the second option: “killing prey.” Getting food. It’s horrible to think about a snake consuming a human being, but there are a few recorded instances where it has happened.

It’s hard to believe that a snake, even a large one, would interpret a human as food. The only thing that makes this more likely is if the snake was starving, in which case it would become a much more opportunistic predator. Unless the owner was incredibly horrible at feeding this snake, however, starvation seems unlikely. Most captive snakes are fed too often rather than not often enough. Seriously, unless you’ve kept a snake, you will have a hard time wrapping your mind around how infrequently they can eat. Sometimes, my python has gone a month between meals for no reason more than “because she didn’t feel like eating.”

So, the python has arrived in the room and it’s either starving (and thus opportunistic) or the boys themselves have done something to make themselves appear as food to the snake. If the owner kept live prey for this python, it’s likely that he had several rabbits or other large rodents on hand. Maybe the boys played with the rabbits and enough scent rubbed off on them. It’s possible.

When a constrictor attempts to kill prey, it has to strike. It leads with a quick bite that secures a grip on the prey and allows the snake to use its powerful body to lift the prey enough to begin wrapping its coils around the victim.

These snakes have very sharp teeth to aid in securing their grip. These sharp teeth produce very painful bites.

I can’t imagine a situation that would have resulted in both boys being killed. If the snake struck and constricted one boy, the screams would have surely woken up the other boy. More likely, they would have woken up everybody in the building. Bites from a large python hurt.

The snake would have had to struck and constricted the first boy, killed him without making a sound, and then repeated the same process on the second boy, again without making a sound. This seems unlikely.

If the snake hadn’t bitten, I’m not sure how it could have gotten its coils around both boys to begin constricting them. It would have literally had to slither under them both to get coils beneath their sleeping bodies, again without waking them. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of a heavy snake on one’s body wouldn’t wake at least one boy which would lead to screaming. Even I would wake up screaming if I found a python in my bed, and I love pythons.

Also unlikely is the gruesome but accurate puzzle of why the snake didn’t consume the first boy before killing the second? A snake almost always engages in the feeding process immediately after completing a kill; the only thing that would cause them to abandon a kill without eating is if another predator posed a threat.

It’s actually incredibly difficult for snakes to consume humans, even children. Our bipedal bodies give us a very unique silhouette in the animal kingdom and our broad shoulders make it impossible for a snake to swallow a human past the head (of course, the human will still be dead in this scenario, so that’s a small comfort). Children are more vulnerable, of course, but still unlikely to suffer this fate.

This situation just doesn’t add up. Why would the snake seek out these boys instead of ignoring them? Why would it attack both of them? Why didn’t it try to eat? Why didn’t anybody hear the scream that would have resulted from a painful python bite?

I’m not saying it’s impossible. Clearly, it’s not, as there are two boys whose lives have been taken from them.

I am, however, saying that Occam’s Razor doesn’t support such a series of improbabilities necessary for this story to happen in the way it has been presented. I am saying that the explanation that a python went out of its way to murder two boys seems very unlikely to me.

Certainly, it seems more unlikely than a scenario in which something else strangled two children and then blamed it on a convenient scapegoat. Consider this:

In the past 100 years, Mr. Marais said experts had traced only three cases of human strangulation deaths by pythons in all of Africa. “It’s an incredibly rare event,” he said from Pretoria, South Africa. It would be even more unusual for two people to be killed in the same incident, he said.

Again, it’s not impossible, but these events are, in my opinion, incredibly improbable.

I imagine that when more details emerge, we’ll hopefully learn the truth. I assume that asphyxiation via snake leaves very different marks on a body compared to more mundane forms of strangulation. I guess we’ll see.

Regardless of how it happened, the snake is dead, too, and I’m sure this will provoke more violence and hatred against an order of reptiles that has suffered far more at our hands than we have to their fangs or coils. Snakes will be blamed for being “dangerous,” even though far more people are killed by dogs every year.

But that won’t matter. It never does. Because in the end, to many people snakes are scary and it’s all to easy to blame something that seems scary.

Evangelical Personality Analysis

One of the tenets of Evangelicalism is handing people things. At least, that’s what I’ve been able to determine based on the number of things I’ve been handed over the years, many of them by Evangelicals. I don’t really mind this, except for a brief feeling of regret for the trees that died and whose deaths served no purpose. If you’re wondering, yes, I also think of the trees as I recycle the truly horrendous amount of junk mail I seem to get.

This particular Evangelical tract is a bit of folded cardstock made to look like a wallet. The inside flap has several juicy pretend offerings: a few $50 bills poke out of the top and we’ve also got some pretend guy’s three credit cards, driver’s license, social security and a few other cards I don’t recognize. If this was a real wallet and I was a bad person, I could go on quite the shopping spree, I imagine.

Insider the pretend wallet is a series of questions under the heading of “Personality Analysis.” I imagine the point is to make you consider your own personal level of avarice as you contemplate what you would do if this was a real wallet. Interestingly, there is no provided answer key or assessment for what your choices mean; it’s up to you to interpret them. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Here are the questions, along with my own personal interpretation of the answers:

1. If this was a real wallet, packed with real money, would you:
a. Keep it?
b. Take it to the police?
c. Give some of the money to the poor?

This question is interesting as it’s not quite obvious which answer the author of the tract considers to be the “right” one that a “good” person would choose. My answer is B, of course; the wallet is not my property and “finders-keepers” is not a moral justification. Nor is helping myself to a “finder’s fee.” If the owner is grateful enough to give me some money for my trouble, that is his or her choice. My moral obligation is to do my best to return this to the owner.

But what about poor people? The Bible is full of stories about giving money to poor people and how that’s a good thing to do. Perhaps by giving this person’s money to the poor, I’m doing the wallet’s owner a favor; he or she would likely spend this money on sinful things like alcohol and prostitutes. Clearly, if I was a good Evangelical, I should strongly consider C. But I’m not, so I won’t. The wallet goes to the police.

2. You have been underpaid for years. There’s a BIG mistake in your paycheck to your advantage, would you:
a. Tell the boss?
b. Keep quiet?
c. Give some to a church?

Again with the money questions! Unfortunately, this question is so far removed from real context that it is entirely meaningless. Have I literally been underpaid, as in my employer has been shorting me for years? If so, why haven’t I contacted Human Resources or Accounting if I work in some big organization, or quit and found another job if it’s my boss who is shorting me? Or reported him for criminal behavior, since it’s illegal to pay your employees less than they lawfully earn? How do I know the increase in pay is a mistake and not compensation for previous underpayment? In my case, I’d go with B, having come to the reasonable conclusion based on the premises that this is money I earned through my work.

I think if I was in good with God, or wanted to get in good with God, I would be obligated to go with C. I’m not sure what that actually does, though. It is an action that has no actual bearing on my moral choice to keep or return the money. How I choose to spend the money that comes into my possession doesn’t represent a mitigating factor i. e. it’s not as though keeping the extra money is immoral if I use it to buy food, but totally okay if I use give it to a church.

3. If telling a white lie would save a friend’s job, would you:
a. Tell the truth?
b. Act dumb?
C. Lie?

I’m going to assume by the reference to a “white lie” means that my friend hasn’t done something criminally negligent, such as caused a catastrophic meltdown and endangered the lives of other people. I’ll assume it’s something small, like maybe took an extra ten minutes on his lunch break or something even though the department has strict rules against this sort of behavior. Maybe he did something small, but it will earn him a third strike on his record.

My morality is such that loyalty to my friends and family is more important to me than simplistic admonishments such as “lying is always wrong!” The fact is, I’m going to do what I can to look out for the people around me. This, to me, is part of being a good person and a good friend. The only kind of person who would “tattle” is this case is a sanctimonious dick and not somebody I would want to be friends with.

Everybody needs a job. Everybody has bills to pay and many people have others depending on them to make a living. If my idiotically blind dedication to Truth caused my friend to lose his job which led to him being unable to provide for his family, how can that result possibly justify my actions? Hooray, I get to feel good about myself while another person now has to suffer and struggle.

But God would know! That’s the Evangelical response. God will know that I lied. By lying, I’m risking my own soul. I could go to Hell! All I can say to this is that if Heaven is filled with the people who chose Option A, Heaven is not the afterlife for me. It is not going to be filled with the sort of people I want to associate with: the sort of people who will sell out their friends for promise of a reward.

That’s what Heaven is. It’s not an indication of a true understanding of moral behavior. All that Heaven and Hell represent are extensions of the reward/punishment consideration. This is how children understand morality. You’re throwing your friend under the bus for a cosmic pat on the head and a cookie.

4. Do you consider yourself to be a “good” person?
a. Yes.
b. No.

Pretty straightforward. Yes, yes I do consider myself to be a good person. I use rationality to attempt to arrive at a moral understanding, which I then try to live my life by. I don’t always succeed, but I never stop trying to live up to my ideals.

I think that it is narrow-minded and insulting to suggest that I cannot understand morality without resorting to a higher power. Either moral actions are correct through their innate essence, which means it doesn’t matter how God feels about morality, or moral actions are only such because God said so, and thus morality is nothing more than a cosmic game of “might makes right” and is thus meaningless. Plato articulated this in 399 B.C.E. It’s amazing we’re still arguing about it.

5. Have you ever told a lie for any reason (including fibs and white lies — be honest)?
a. Yes.
b. No.

I love the little admonishment here to be honest on a question about lying. It’s just so mind-boggling silly that you have to reflect on it for a while. Why is it even here? Is there a person out there that is so self-deluded he was able to lie to himself about his lying until he was reminded to not lie? Seriously?

This is another one of those questions that’s silly, both because it implies that a person who lies ever for any reason is an evil person and because lying is part of human nature. Obviously, we should do our best not to lie . . . unless you have a really damn good reason. What are some good times to lie? Here is a brief field guide to appropriate lying:

  • When a Nazi storm trooper is asking you if you are hiding any Jewish refugees in your cellar (and you are), it is okay to lie.
  • If your friend is going to suffer unless you tell a white lie, it is okay to lie.

Basically, if telling the truth produces a worse result for another person, it is permissible to lie to help that person. Lying for your own personal gain is excluded from this permission.

6. Have you ever stolen something — irrespective of its value (listen to your conscience)?

Again, we have a warning against lying on this analysis, which is really cute. This question is interesting, because clearly, stealing is wrong . . . but what if you stole food for a starving child? What if you were starving? Would theft be wrong in that case? As I’ve never been reduced to such extreme measures, I’ve never felt the need to steal. This one is simple enough.

But wait! What about music? Have I stolen music? Well, that depends, too; what if there was a piece of music that I wanted to have and tried to pay for, only to find that it was not available through any legal means? What if I tried to pay for this music and found no way to get money to the creator, who had elected to not make this music commercially available? Am I justified in downloading it then without paying for it? Is that stealing?

7. Would you consider a person who admits that they are a liar and a thief, to be a “good” person?

Well, I’d expect an actual liar and thief to be dishonest about her lying and thieving, which seems to me a reason to never trust anybody who doesn’t admit to being a thief and a liar. Think about that for a moment.

8. Who do you think will enter Heaven?
a. Those who say they are good when they are not?
b. Liars and thieves?
c. Those who God has forgiven and cleansed of sin?

Oh, come on, now you’re not even trying to introduce some ambiguity. Unless these are the honest liars and thieves from the previous question we’re talking about here? The analysis does some heavily weight against lying in particular; perhaps a person who is honest about their lies will find that their honesty cancels out the lying? Maybe? No?

What if our liar lied to safeguard a family of runaway slaves as part of the Underground Railroad? Does she get to go to Heaven?

What if our thief stole critical information from a terrorist cell and used that information to prevent the deaths of hundreds? Does that outweigh the fact that he stole it?

There really are no other jokes to make about this question. It’s painfully obvious that I’m supposed to get here and think, oh, shits, I might be the kind of person that says that I’m a good person when I’m not. Uh oh.

Regardless of the obvious answer I’m supposed to pick, I think I’ve made a good case that B could be chosen in good conscience, with the caveat that these liars and thieves had good reasons for what they did.

But aren’t you just equivocating? Aren’t you just trying to muddy the waters with your words? The difference between good and evil is simple!

Except . . . it’s really not. If there’s one thing that is universal about morality, it is that it is not simple. Everything requires context. There are shades of grey. The real world is not so basic that it can be distilled down to a handful of quotes written in a book. Life is more complicated than that.

9. Do you realize that the Bible warns that thieves, liars, fornicators (those who have had sex out of marriage, idolaters (those who create a god to suit themselves), adulterers, and the covetous (the greedy) will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

No multiple choice for this one; either you realized the Bible said this or you did not. I think it’s funny that so many of these horrible descriptors have to do with sex; because it is, after all, humanity’s fault for having been created in such a state that sex feels really, really good and we feel a biological compunction to seek out sex. It certainly isn’t the fault of the creator who made us this way, even though a reasonable designer who didn’t want us having sex would have just written the sex drive out of the blueprint.

After all, you don’t blame the engineer who designs an engine that explodes every time you activate it, right? It’s not his fault. It’s your fault for turning the engine on. Clearly.

10. Did you also realize that the Bible says “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery for her in his heart?” On Judgement Day, God will bring to light, every secret thing, whether good or evil. When you stand before . . . wait, a minute, you’re not asking a question any more, now you’re just using this as a chance to preach! (Seriously, it goes on for the final fourth of the card in this sermon mode and then just ends without giving us any kind of interpretation of our results).

Again, no multiple choice for this one: you either realized this is what the Bible says or you didn’t. Interestingly, only he can commit adultery in his heart. The Bible makes no reference to what happens to her if she looks at him with lust for him. I guess that means God is okay with ladies getting lusty, if you know what I’m saying. Guys, sucks to be us, I guess.

Seriously, it’s illegal to even think lusty thoughts? Do you know how fucking hard it is to not think about something, especially after somebody tells you, hey, don’t think about that?

DON’T THINK ABOUT ELEPHANTS

DON’T THINK ABOUT ELEPHANTS

DON’T THINK ABOUT ELEPHANTS

Hey, what are you thinking about? Is it elephants?

How about now?

Sucks to be you, I guess. You failed and thought about elephants. Off to Hell with you!

Seriously, it seems to me that if you want people to not think about something, you shouldn’t arrange things so that trying not to think about something is literally impossible.

That concludes our Evangelical Personality Analysis. My interpretation of the results is that I would make a very bad Evangelical.

Also, I’m probably going to Hell. Alas.