Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Singularity

Awhile ago I read a book by Charles Stross called Accelerando.  It was a crazy Sci Fi story about the future of the human race as technology and innovation approached the point of infinity.  It included uploading conciousnesses, intelligent AI personalities, space travel, you name it.  Like most of Stross' work I find the ideas incredibly interesting and the characters and plot sadly lacking.  Apparently a lot of people have contacted Stross under the assumption that he actually believes in all the stuff that appeared in the book and he wrote a really interesting piece about his thoughts on the matter.  He is a firm atheist and part of his assumption about the idea of uploading human minds into computers is that it would be a worldwide disaster - both for religions and for those who would be caught up in the conflicts fought over the controversy.  I can certainly see that religions would have a lot of tricky issues when it came to explaining immortal souls for human minds that can be infinitely replicated inside a computer but his scenario of religious cataclysm rings false.

Christianity has managed to decide that slavery is immoral, despite the fact that the Bible explicitly endorses it and the fact that it supported slavery enthusiastically for centuries.  Christianity has managed to deal with the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun, heaven is not actually a physical location in the sky and weather is scientifically explicable rather than the product of a whimsical God.  The church used to have a big say in who was king, when wars would start, what the common people would eat at every meal and who got to learn to read.  All those things are long gone and the everyday man sitting in the church pew doesn't even notice that most of his life and knowledge directly contravenes church policy or theory from centuries past.  The fact is that the vast majority of churchgoers have a thousand theoretical reasons to think that religious doctrine is bogus but the great majority of them completely ignore those reasons and continue on with their day.  If you tell a person that they must forswear their religion they will often fight you to the death but if you offer them a convenient new product that clearly demonstrates that their beliefs are false they will happily buy it and ignore the theological consequences.

I don't think that the 'just upload your brain' day is ever going to arrive.  Rather it will be a very gradual thing as we all slowly outsource more and more of our thinking and memory to machines.  Gradually we will adopt biological enhancements that will feed us information from the internet, allow us to shop any time, make constant, instant communication omnipresent and help us remember everything we ever knew.  At first the machines will be handheld but eventually they will end up being part of us and somewhere far down the road there will be so little human left that we will be able to say that a new species has been created but where exactly that happened will not be so clearcut.  Presumably people of my generation will shake their fists at the young people and their newfangled implants and their moral decay in the same way every generation has been suspicious of the newest things and young people of the next generation.  There are plenty of practical problems with uploading minds into machines that will take a tremendous amount of time and innovation to surmount but this is one issue where religion isn't going to have any significant say.  The Pope will probably make a speech about how uploading your mind is immoral and everybody will continue to do whatever the hell they want anyway.

John Scalzi wrote about this too, and he has one line in particular that I like.

So, no, I don’t think uploading implicitly refutes the soul. It just means that if the soul does truly exist, it will have to live with you longer.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More about Gore

Just today I was reading an article in two parts about Al Gore and the AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) lobby.  It must be said that I am not Gore's biggest fan (see previous post) but I think far too much is made here of Gore's personal habits and their theoretical effect on the entire AGW movement and it's worldwide success.  Here is the thing:  Gore is an ardent environmentalist advocating massive, immediate cutbacks in carbon producing activities worldwide.  He is also a guy who has a personal jet with which he flies around the world to various speaking engagements for which you must pay him more than most people make in a year.  Each individual trip on his personal jet has a larger carbon footprint than most first world residents leave in an entire lifetime and probably as much as whole villages in some parts of the world.  He also owns multiple mansions and numerous vehicles.  This is hardly the way to set an example and certainly not practicing what you preach and the articles I linked talk about how this has gone a long way to invalidating the entire AGW movement since Gore is somehow its unofficial king.

I don't buy it.  Gore is a gigantic hypocrite and his movie is full of hyperbole and outright falsehoods but I doubt that this actually hurts the AGW movement in any significant way.  I doubt very much that more than 1% of the population actually has the slightest idea about Gore's lifestyle and even if they did I can't see why that would set their minds against it - people buy products from companies or groups that are led by people they hate all the time.  One thing the articles did get absolutely right though is that much of the aim of the AGW lobby is to arrange a global agreement to stop and rapidly reverse our carbon outputs and this goal is simply not feasible.  It is true that global warming is happening, it is true that there will be substantial costs involved, but it is not necessarily true that the best course of action is to implement some sort of global treaty in an attempt to cap emissions.  Not that if such a treaty magically was put into place and everyone followed it that it wouldn't work, because it would, but that such a treaty cannot get into place and countries will not follow it.

Imagine the scenario where the majority of first world nations have made public committments to reducing carbon outputs drastically.  Their politicians have signed up, the populace is informed, everyone is expecting big things.  What happens?  Carbon emissions continue to climb, no country in the entire world hits the targets that were set for it and everyone continues on their merry way displaying a fine example of the tragedy of the commons.  This is what has already happened with Kyoto!  To actually enforce dramatic cuts in carbon will have very substantial negative economic implications and we have all seen what happens when people lose their jobs; politicians suddenly realize that in order to stay elected they flat out *must* scrap anything that isn't helping the economy.  Imagine what would happen if we could somehow get China to sign up to such an agreement (which we can't).  They would note that their massive growth targets and increasing standard of living would have to reverse itself and then they would ignore their treaty obligations.  Other countries would freak out, but what recourse would they have?  It simply isn't going to work to ask people to accept substantial financial hardship to help the entire world when half the world is reaping the benefits and contributing nothing to the cause.  This is to say nothing of rogue states like North Korea or Iran who are even less likely to somehow be brought into the fold.

There are lots of things we can and should do to try to limit emissions.  The attempts at global carbon treaties are doomed to failure though because they are so difficult to administer, set up and enforce.  We just don't live in a world where these treaties are going to work.  Does that mean continuing to increase our worldwide carbon emissions for some time?  Almost certainly.  Increased warming?  Yes.  The practical matter of *how* to reduce emissions is simple, convincing people to sacrifice for the cause is not.

Monday, June 27, 2011

When is time wasted?

Last weekend Elli's school had their big yearly fundraiser - a fair with food, games, silent auction, raffles and sales.  A week or so before the fair we got an email that said that the fair was desperately short on volunteers and that they needed huge numbers of people to sign up or parts of the fair would have to be cancelled entirely.  I decided to volunteer for the entire day from 9 to 5.  There are lots of small jobs that the school needs people to do but the majority of them require evening work or little responsibilities here and there and I have no interest in becoming involved in those; I would much rather just do a ton of work all at once.  I also have absolutely no tendency to value clean jobs over dirty ones as I would be much happier cleaning up the trash than organizing the whole event since the pay is the same!  I assumed that since the fair was in such dire need of people that I would be extremely busy for the day but that ended up not being the case at all and that lack of busyness ended up leaving me feeling pretty irritated.

When I arrived there was a ton of work to do to set up the fair and for the morning I was really busy.  I cooked corn, carried things, made a last minute run to the store for supplies and generally was very busy and productive.

Work, work.


Once the actual fair started however they ran out of things for me to do.  I was told to just hang around and do whatever... there was no more work.  I got pretty irritated, which wasn't at all in line with the situation, but nonetheless it is what I felt.

No Work.


Thing is, I don't mind at all working when it is productive and making things happen.  Money doesn't have to be involved at all as long as what I am doing is something worth doing to my mind.  What really gets under my skin though is doing nothing of use.  Strangely this is true even though my default is really just killing monsters and taking their stuff.  I could be smashing evil in some video game or other and getting twinky right now so if I am not doing that I had better be doing something of worth.  I ended up working quite a bit after the fair ended taking things down and putting things away and such so I was pleased I stayed through to get that done but it was still a bit frustrating that I sat around cooling my heels for a few hours.  Not to criticize the people organizing the affair - they are volunteers too and they hardly can be expected to micromanage everyone's time and expectations in running the event - but it didn't end up being what I had hoped.

This is something I experienced years ago when I was volunteering with other members of my family at Hymers Fall Fair.  The fair has all kinds of things going on but once my work was done I wandered around the fairgrounds for a short bit with my friend The Athlete and we concluded at the same time that it was utterly boring to us.  Working was fine but no longer could we enjoy the fair itself.  Once the work was done we had no reason to be there anymore.  I wonder how much this is true for other people?  Once you volunteer for an event and have a hand in making it happen can you enjoy just hanging around at it anymore or is that spoiled forevermore?  A similar sort of thing is certainly true in the business world as you don't often see people being demoted happily.  Even if they have to take a lower position at a new company it is almost always preferable to being a peon where once you ruled on high.  Heck, it might even be true of running guilds in video games like WOW.  Once you have been in charge it is challenging to find fulfillment in just being one of the gang.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Burning a hole in her pocket

Wendy and I have been implementing a 'teach good money habits' strategy with Elli.  She is getting an allowance of 1 dollar a week and is allowed to spend her money on whatever random junk she wants.  While she has actually made a number of good purchases (for a 4 year old, anyhow) it is mostly through random luck because Elli seems to have a nasty case of 'money on fire' disease.  This disease is noted mostly for the desperate lunacy that its sufferers go through whenever they realize they have money and their frantic attempts to rid themselves of it in any way possible.  It is a strange and challenging thing for me to watch because even as a pretty young kid I saved and hoarded and carefully shepherded what money came into my possession; I was quite the pennypincher then and still am.  I recognize that lots of people enjoy shopping and going out with the idea of trying to find something nice to buy but Elli seems to have it differently.  She isn't so much wanting to find something nice to buy as wanting desperately to get rid of her money.

"Can we buy this Daddy?"

"No Elli, you have 3 dollars and that costs 8 dollars."

"How about this?"

"That costs 10 dollars and you only have 3 dollars.  This store doesn't sell anything for 3 dollars or less Elli, you can't buy anything here."

"Can I buy this Daddy?"

"...  Elli, that costs 7 dollars and I say again that this store has *nothing* in it that you can buy.  You need to save up your money for another week or two and then you will be able to buy something."

"But I want to buy something!  Can I buy this?"

Every one of these requests came right on the heels of the last and was punctuated by Elli picking up an object totally at random and shoving it towards me with desperation on her face.  Earrings, noise making gizmos, plush animals and pens all made it into the rotation ... despite the fact that we were in what is ostensibly a book store.  The thing that I just can't sort out is that she wasn't particularly interested in any item in particular but was simply desperate to leave the store with all her money spent.  She doesn't do this every time, but it invariably starts as soon as money comes up or anything causes her to recall that she has a few dollars in her jar and that it could in fact be spent on something.

I don't know if this is something that will continue.  I know I have been fairly consistent throughout my life (my parents might disagree?) and I really do hope that that doesn't hold true for her.  The ability to delay gratification is hugely impactful in long term happiness and stability so I intend to try to instill that ability in her if I can.  Who knows if that is the sort of thing I have any say over though...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Writing badly

I have noticed that sometimes the things I say in my blog get misinterpreted.  Lots of times in the comments people say things that make it clear that my point didn't get across properly; much of the time this is due to me writing poorly, sometimes it is due to the readers misreading and sometimes it is because readers disagree very emotionally with a point I make and want to let me have it.  I can't do much about most of that since I always try to write well (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much) so saying 'just write better' isn't really a very helpful note.  There is one particular kind of confusion that regularly comes up that I hope I can alleviate by some combination of being more clear and talking about it where my readers can see it:  The confusion comes from the difference between things I think and things I feel.

When I make a post about economics or religion it is usually a post where I talk about facts and things I think about those facts.  I generally have the expectation that the things I say can be empirically verified and that what I am saying can be literally supported as truth.  I have been wrong before (and will be again) but mostly I get it right.  The posts where I talk about things I feel are often parenting ones though they can be other things; I usually am just speaking about what I experience and how I try to deal with it.  I rarely try to tell everyone that I am making perfect decisions but rather just try to use the blog to let people know what I am thinking and how things are going.  Hopefully I can be interesting and entertaining at the same time but that is a little more random and challenging.  The greatest conflicts usually come from people reading 'feeling' posts and replying as if they were 'thinking' posts.

"I carted Elli home over my shoulder kicking and screaming" or "I let Elli run down city streets by herself" are good examples of feeling posts.  I don't claim that what I did is the best course, by rather it is just how things went.  I certainly don't think that it is reasonable to determine that I was absolutely right or wrong since what happened is an experiment in action with parameters we can't properly measure, results that will be years coming and clearly unrepeatable.

"We should not be building windmills if we want to maximize our greenhouse gas emission reductions per dollar spent" is a thinking type statement.  We can argue about it, quote sources, do math and in theory come to a consensus.  Of course it is difficult and challenging to really be quite certain on things as complicated as this but nonetheless I feel confident that my statement is correct and even if it isn't that we can debate it in some reasonable fashion.

I think I make everything harder simply because I mix the two kinds of posts.  I have lots of things to say and very strong beliefs on a lot of topics so many of my posts are going to be lambasting one group or another with utter certainty in the correctness of the criticism.  When you combine that with posts where I just say things about how I feel and what happened it is easy to see why people would think that they were being criticized or that I am telling everyone how to do things when it isn't what I intend.  Unfortunately I don't have some kind of high tech gizmo to project exactly what I want into the minds of my audience but rather have to rely on words, and even more so on words that I don't have the luxury of endless time to prune, massage and perfect.  I guess that is just a limitation of the medium.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Killing cats on the farm

Penelope Trunk wrote a blog piece a short while ago about dealing with a sick cat.  She ended up killing the cat because it got so sick that it required a lifetime diet of very expensive special food and she simply couldn't get that cat in particular the food because she lives on a farm with a bazillion animals including something like 20 cats.  The post itself meanders about a bunch but the cat story is the crux of the matter - in particular the audience reaction to the finale where the cat is euthanized.  I was pretty blown away by the intense hatred and disapproval that was slung her way over the decision, particularly because she so obviously agonized over it and made attempts to avoid it.  There was a plethora of "You are unsuitable to take care of animals, never allow yourself to have a pet again." type comments that were entirely laughable because she obviously has had pets for a long time and runs a damn FARM.

People have to be pretty farm out of touch with the real world to blow up on someone who has a pet that gets a deadly, lifelong illness that can't be treated without extreme financial hardship and decides to euthanize the pet.  Preserving life is a laudable goal but we must keep in mind that farms where the people take care of the pets have distinct limits - keeping one sick cat around almost certainly means not keeping 10 other healthy cats around.  Also it should be noted that this farm in question is a farm where animals are raised for slaughter... they are killed for no other reason that it is the economical time to do so to reap the greatest reward for handing over their corpses for human consumption.  There is something in today's culture in the first world that suggests that pets are different from other animals and deserve different treatment; that we should go to the same extreme lengths to save their lives that we would go to to save a person's life.  We continue by and large to kill animals for their fur, hides, meat and other useful bits but once an animal comes into your home the rules suddenly change.

This attitude that people have an obligation to expend extreme amounts of time and resources to preserve the life of a sick pet is new.  In the past it was entirely the norm to have household pets that ended up on the dinner table and the idea of going to extremes to keep them around would have been thought quite bizarre.  Nowadays we use precious MRI machines to scan pets for the rich (or the not-so-rich but desperate) and often people put pets through extremely expensive and elaborate medical procedures that aren't even available to average people in much of the world.  I don't buy into that much.  I think that taking good care of pets is important and not causing them undue suffering is necessary but I feel like any time we do things for pets that we deny other people for financial reasons we are going way out of line.

We have a finite amounts of resources available to us and we all accept that people are more important than animals on a one to one basis.  We must prioritize and use resources in the best possible fashion, even though that will certainly mean singular, personal suffering to some entity involved.  It would be wonderful if every animal in the world could be cared for from cradle to grave but we cannot do that and recognizing that fact is critical to making good decisions.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Go the &%@* to sleep

There are lots of cute kids books about going to sleep.  Mostly they hold absolutely no interest for me even when they try to capture the frustration that erupts when small children who desperately need to sleep refuse to do so... and they never crack me up.  This video (which is Not Safe For Work!) does.  Here is the basic premise:  Samuel L. Jackson reads a story that reads exactly like a story that sounds in every way like a rhyming, cute children's book except it ends each stanza with "Go the &%@* to sleep" or some reasonable facsimile.  It is one of those things that I would never have understood prior to dealing with a small person who desperately does not want to go to sleep on a daily basis - babysitting just doesn't give you the full mindjob.

Initially of course putting a child to sleep reads a little more like you would think it would from a parenting book or a movie - the parents are endlessly patient and loving and take hours if necessary to cater to every whim, need, query or concern that comes up and eventually the child goes to bed happy.  Eventually though you end up in a situation where you have things to do, you are tired as hell, the kid is screaming at you and this has been going on for way too many days in a row and in the back of your mind (hopefully not the tip of your tongue, but the best of us have lapses!) you say "Go the &%@* to sleep"!  The roughest part is trying to wrap your mind around why a thoroughly exhausted, bags under eyes, so tired can't see straight child will so desperately fight sleep while someone tries so hard to convince them to just lie down for couple minutes and surrender to slumber.  

The sheer wonder of the video is that this is a real book and that it is read by Samuel L. Jackson.  As Sthenno said, when the modern Shaft movie was announced he wondered how it could possibly not suck - until he found out that Samuel L. Jackson was starring and then it all became clear.  I don't entirely understand how exactly a person can exude such a powerful influence and possess the sole ability to make a role work or a book innately wonderful but he does.  Perhaps the book would have been good on its own... the very idea of a goodnight lullaby laced with such heartfelt profanity is amusing to say the least but it is Samuel L. Jackson's voice that puts on the finishing touch, the coup de grace.

The knowledge that there are enough other parents out there who have known that feeling, who understand the extreme edge of frustration that occurs when a child simply will not go off to the sleep they desperately need is a wonderful thing indeed.  There is a kinship between parents, a club that I didn't entirely recognize existed until I joined it.  When you are dealing with the insanity that inevitably comes up in parenting it is good to know that this is not the first time anyone has experienced it and therefore it must be survivable.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Spirituality vs. Religion

Two weeks ago I posted about my frustrations with the concept of heaven.  I got an interesting comment that I wanted to talk a little more about now that I have thought it over.

I'm OK with survivors telling themselves whatever they need to accept a loved one's death, get beyond it, and carry on with their own lives.

I think it is important to separate the ideas of some kind of afterlife filled with otherwordly concepts of perfection and the reality of religion.  Let's be entirely frank:  People who pretend to think that everyone who dies goes to a place of perfect happiness aren't hurting anyone.  (Note that they don't actually think this or they wouldn't so desperately avoid death nor be so utterly devastated when someone else dies.)  People who think that some benevolent force created everything aren't hurting anyone either.  It is much the same as the fact that 90% of people think they are in the top 50% of drivers by skill; it is a fiction that masses of people buy into that honestly we can't do much about and isn't doing us much harm by and large.

The trouble comes from religion itself rather than the spiritual beliefs that are associated with it.  For example, in the funeral I attended that sparked the first post there were endless repetitions of the idea that people who accept Jesus as their saviour go to their reward in heaven.  An important part of this idea is that people who don't accept Jesus as their saviour don't get to partake in this endless happiness but instead are eternally punished by God himself for their iniquity.  This is *not* like the idea of conscious continuity after death or a benevolent Creator because it is a divisive force suggesting that anyone who does not follow a specific religion and adhere to specific rituals is by definition Evil and that those actions are deserving of the most hideous punishments possible.  Of course if you ask the people at the funeral about what was said nearly all would say that it was a nice set of speeches filled with goodwill and pleasant thoughts but they will entirely ignore the obvious fact that what was being said there can very simply be read as

Sky is evil.  His beliefs are wrong by definition and he will suffer eternal torment to pay for his transgressions.

Of course a very large part of religious believers don't think that.  They actually think that people who are nice and good go to heaven or even that everyone goes to heaven - well, maybe not the murderers and arsonists, but nearly everyone.  The trouble is that by reading these passages and supporting an organization that actively promotes the agenda that anyone who does not follow its beliefs and perform its rituals will suffer eternally you promote divisiveness instead of community and hatred instead of acceptance.  If people want to think there is a benevolent, anthropomorphic Creator or life after death then they are mistaken but it is hardly important; people are mistaken about lots of things.  It is religion itself that is the problem, not the common spiritual beliefs that people hold that happen to coincide with things that are taught by that religion.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Beard: Not a real project

I have tried three official projects since Brightcape started up.  The first two which were to read the Bible and go around barefoot for a summer were completed and I would call them successes; I did what I set out to do and learned a bunch in the process.  The cheese project was a total failure as I have not learned to like cheese and am not making any noticeable attempt to stay on schedule.  I want to have a project to talk about but my latest thing simply isn't project worthy - I am going to grow a gigantic beard.  The updates for this theoretical project would go something like "Beard 2 millimeters longer, morale is good but food residue is a problem" and that isn't much of a post.

Ever since I was 16 or so I have had a goatee.  I chopped it off twice in the intervening years but grew it back right away; by this point it is as much a part of me as my ears.  As in, if it were gone it would be really weird but I could still go on with my life.  Lately I have been attempting to go ZZ top and just grow the goatee extremely long but I seem to have a real issue with doing so in that I am a fidgeter.  I noticed this first when I looked down at my desk right in front of my keyboard and found a bunch of tiny bits of hair a couple millimeters long.  I couldn't figure out what was up with it until I realized that the bits were right below my chin and I had spent much of the day tugging at my beard while I wrote and thought.  Now that I actually consider it I constantly twist, pull, rearrange and style my beard while doing other things... it has replaced fidgeting with a pen or bouncing my leg as my twitch of choice.  Beard strokery while thinking is an old and well respected process of course and now that I have enough beard to do so properly the desire to engage in beard strokery constantly is nearly undeniable.  Growing out the goatee is a fairly seamless process though compared to growing the rest of the beard which follows some strange steps.

Really unshaven
Itchy itchy oh my goodness must SHAVE NOW!
Really bad beard
Poor beard that is enough of a beard to make fun of but not good enough to admire
Mediocre beard
Good beard

On my first attempt I had just gotten to Ugly when I had to go to a funeral.  There was a terrible internal struggle between my desire to look good and avoid family issues and my desire to refuse to moralize on the amount of hair on my face.  In the end I shaved, though not without some remorse.  I have gotten back to Ugly again and I must say that going through Itchy itchy twice in a month is not a course I recommend - if you are going for a beard you need to go whole hog.

There are some unanswered questions.  First, is Wendy really serious when she says that she is going to braid my beard?  Second, what do I do about the border between the beard and my hair?  I like to keep my hair buzzed really short and I want to grow an enormous beard so how do I handle the transition?  I have seen people with shaved heads and big beards and it looks quite strange... a tricky conundrum.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fish nests

This past weekend we went up to the cottage.  We hit the season just right I think because we got treated to something entirely new:  Fish nests.  It turns out that bass like to go into the shallows of lakes and make nests on the bottom of the lake and once the nests are full of fertilized eggs the males hover over them protectively for some time.  Clearly this is nothing new to science but it was new to Elli and I so we spent a good chunk of time sitting watching the male bass scare away other fish and carefully protect their little ones.  Normally males in nature just leave their sperm and get the hell out so it is nice to be able to talk about mating practices in nature with Elli without lambasting the deadbeats fathers for once!  These father fish were even brave enough to defend their nests from humans; despite being only 10 centimeters long one of them attacked The Actuary and slammed itself into him when he got too close to the nest.  No damage done of course but boy did he jump!

Today Wendy linked to a neat video on the subject of jellyfish.  It talked about the many different kinds of things in the sea that could be called jellyfish and showed an amazing range of different habitats, body types and lifestyles.  Much like the video series Life this was a fantastic glimpse into realms that the vast majority of us will never see ourselves and which no human had ever dreamed of until only a few years ago.  From worms and crabs that live miles below the surface of the ocean near volcanic vents to cave dwelling bacteria that have never seen the light there are things that are unimaginable and there are so many that we will never be able to see them all.  Fungus that can get into a creature, control its mind and then burst out the back of its head in an explosion of seeds that are ready to infect a new host?  This is a real thing, not a science fiction story.

The reason I am talking about all this is to illustrate just how incredible and mind blowing the real world is.  Often when I talk to people about religion, spirituality, zodiac signs, homeopathy or any other faith based idea set they ask why I limit myself to what science can prove - as if that only contains boring things.  There is no need whatsoever to make things up to find unending wonder and joy in the world around us and the search for real things that will utterly blow our minds is one that will likely never end.  We don't need to believe in patterns that simply aren't reflective of reality to find beauty, creativity or childlike delight in the utterly unexpected.  The world is full of fish nests for all of us to find and all that is needed is the desire to go out wandering with the willingness to be blown away by that which is real.  We can all rest assured that requiring proof to support any incredible claim will not lower the number of amazing things that are out there in any way that matters - we will all die long before we run out of awesome to go out and find.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


When people talk about 'living up to your potential' there is generally an expectation that what you need to do is climb the corporate ladder until you have some kind of job corresponding to your success in school.  If you sucked in school then you can be forgiven for not flying high but if you had great marks then to live up to your potential you need to run your own company or have some other kind of 'maximum success' career.  Obviously I don't have my to speak of for living up to my potential since I managed to have decent marks in high school and get a degree (barely...) but I stay at home tinkering on my projects and doing housework.  I don't place much or really any importance on how high a person flies careerwise and although I am certainly not alone in this I surely must be in the small minority.

Back when I was interviewing for my last job I had an interesting conversation on this topic.  The interviewers gave me a standard sort of speech about the opportunities the job had for advancement into management and made it clear that people in the job I was interviewing for could go far with the right attitude.

Me:  Generally managers would be expected to work more like 50 hours a week, correct?

Them:  Well...

Me:  So more like 60 hours a week?

Them:  Yes.

Me:  I have no interest in doing that.  I want to work 40 hours a week, work hard, do a good job and I haven't any desire to be promoted.  If you want a new manager to groom, you don't want me.  If you want a really top notch employee then I am your man.

I wasn't at all sure at the time if that speech was going to change my chances of getting the job but I figured it couldn't hurt to be honest on this point since I had absolutely no desire at all to get promoted - if for some bizarro reason they really needed a corporate climber (because they are short on those?!?) then I won't get the job, which is good.  It turned out that they didn't care at all whether or not I wanted to be promoted but actually thought that me being very forthright about my intentions was a good thing.

Even for people who claim to place little importance on status there is usually a very strong drive to climb higher. How often do you hear of extremely competent, good employees who turn down promotions?  How often do people celebrate being promoted even when it comes with strings, like longer hours or more stress, attached?  Of course some people do really prefer the job further up the line but for most the costs are offset by the additional status.  Status has always been a huge driver of breeding success among humans though so it isn't like this is new... nor is it going away.  It seems like the lack of desire to compete for status is probably bad news for my genes down the line if the past is any indication.

Another take on the same thing:

Monday, June 6, 2011

More Medical Science woes

I read a neat article awhile ago and finally got around to writing about it today.  The topic of the article is the unfortunate problem of scientific medical studies being wrong and medical treatment being based off of poor quality research.  The basic situation is this:  Scientists who do medical research need to get their findings published regularly or they are going to be out of a job.  Publishing new, exciting findings is drastically easier than publishing boring findings or repetitions of old experiments so scientists are very strongly incentivized to do work that is likely to produce new, exciting results.  A big problem with this is most medical studies that show interesting results have only a 0.05 correlation so 5% of them are flat out wrong on the statistics alone.  Another issue is that this 5% number relies on the data being perfectly selected, the researcher to exhibit zero bias in recording, analysis or reporting and that the experiment was designed perfectly.  In fact none of these three things is usually true and it is certain that the vast majority of medical studies, including those that make the news, have a really substantial chance of being wrong - the article I quoted suggests as high as 80% for normal studies, though that can be improved upon by making the study very random and/or very large, which most are not.

Up to this point we have only talked about errors that are entirely accidental.  While it is true that the vast majority of people who get into medical science do so with the genuine desire to discover new, effective treatments rather than to gain influence, money and success there is no denying that people who are worried about their jobs and their credibility end up stretching the truth a lot.  There is some dishonesty that is very hard to catch because it is caught up in interpretation and slight variations from proper routine but many studies are tainted by obvious, serious fraud.  It is easy to see how it happens... when you are absolutely sure the premise is true and finding it to be true is critical to keeping your job then it seems like only a small crime to tweak the data here and there to prove it to be so.  This issue with credibility doesn't end at the researcher though as of course drug companies, homeopaths, health food experts and more make huge amounts of money selling people things that will in theory improve their health.  They have every incentive to seize on any new result, proved conclusively or not, and then plug their ears and shout "Buy it!  A study said it will make you healthier!" and never, ever look at another study in the field again.

Further yet imagine you are a scientist looking for a new project.  You can retest a premise that has been 'proven' in a journal or you can do new research.  Retesting means that you either end up saying "Yep, that old study sure was right" which is not interesting or you end up saying "That old study sure was wrong" in which case you manage to make yourself some enemies among those who were betting their careers on it being correct.  Even if you are the perfect scientist you have every reason to look for new results that are wrong 5% of the time and leave any flawed study to stand on its own.  Medical science has made huge advances but unfortunately almost all of our improved health and longevity can be attributed to very basic things like sanitation, antibiotics, abundant food and reductions in infant mortality.  It is critical that we do everything in our power to force a higher standard on medical research so that we can use our medical dollars for the things we *know* help people instead of the myriad of things that we have no reason to think will help.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A pretty fiction

I was at a funeral on Wednesday for a relative of Wendy's that I had never met in person.  It was a pretty standard sort of affair with a gathering in a graveyard and a bunch of speeches, songs and readings.  I thought the speeches and songs were fine but the readings really got me irritated; they were not just religious in nature but portrayed the afterlife in ways that are ridiculous.  One of the readings was the entirety of the book When I Get Where I'm Going which describes heaven with some degree of authority.  The idea that somehow the authors of the book have some kind of direct line to the afterlife to determine how it will play out is silly as is the utter certainty that the person in question is going there.  Even more absurd is the fact that people stand around talking about how the person in question is now endlessly, perfectly happy and yet they are desperately sad about it.  If we really believed in these words we would have joyous celebrations for the dead who have so recently gone on to the happiest place in the universe.  When we die our time is over and the only thing we leave behind is the memories in those we touch and the changes we make in the world.

The book talks about how heaven is a place of perfection.  You can explore without fear of being lost, love without fear of rejection, fly without fear of falling.  No one in this version of heaven ever feels bad for any reason.  There are endless descriptions of poetic but nonsensical things that can be done by those in heaven and the book raves about how wonderful things are for them.  Unsurprisingly I find it all to be a bunch of ridiculous drivel.  The excitement and the rush of falling in love are almost entirely based on the possibility of rejection.  Exploring is all well and good but once I know that there is no possibility of loss, no possibility of injury and no possibility that I might actually have to do a good job I am going to get bored.  The most exciting and interesting things in our lives revolve around risk and the need to do things right to avoid a bad outcome.  Any time you see a situation where there can be no bad outcome you know that how much you try and how good you are has is irrelevant - and in that situation people get utterly bored.  A place where nothing can go wrong, nothing bad can happen and there are no limits is a place in which there is no reason to try anything.  It describes hell much better than heaven.  As anyone who has ever used a 'god mode' cheat in a video game will tell you being unable to lose makes playing at all feel utterly pointless after about 5 minutes.

The thing that boggles my mind is the necessity to come up with such fictions.  People talk about how it is a useful thing to believe that we will continue forever in some fashion but fail to acknowledge that we *know* for a fact that the things we do and the memories people have of us continue long after we die.  Much of what we are is in many ways immortal and there is no need to invoke a invisible superman to see that.  Not only that but life becomes all the sweeter for the knowledge that it is limited.  I won't get a second chance, I don't have forever and the answers will not all be forthcoming at the end.  I have but one life and these facts make that life and how it is lived ever more precious.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hoping for idiots

I got a phone call today from a company claiming that they got messages "From your Microsoft computer telling us that there is a trojan on your computer."  So let's get this straight.  My computer, which apparently is a Microsoft computer for no known reason, is sending messages about trojans that are on it to some random company on the internet.  It isn't telling ME this for some reason... but these guys get the message instead.  The guy on the line tells me in a thick Indian accent that my computer is known to have a trojan and that he wants to help me fix it.

Well gawrsh, I guess I don't want trojans... do you want my SIN number and bank account information, or is my credit card number good enough?  Maybe you would like my firstborn child too?

I was curious to see what they wanted me to do so I let the guy walk me through how to save my computer from trojans.  First off he tells me to turn my computer on, then asks me to start up internet explorer.  I figure from this there is some kind of correlation between people who are both idiots and computer illiterates and those who use internet explorer.  I inform him that I use Chrome (and if you don't, why?  Use it!)  and he gives me *very* basic directions for how to find the URL bar, erase what is currently in it and enter (DON'T CLICK INSTALL!!!).  It turns out that teamviewer is a program designed to help you remotely control other computers; this has plenty of legitimate uses of course but the buffoon next tells me to install the teamviewer software!  I don't want trojans Mr. Elite Internet Squad Expert Dood but I think I draw the line at installing software specifically allowing you to remotely control my machine.

Here is the saddest thing; people fall for this.  Nobody goes around making these sorts of calls unless they work and actually enable the thief to nab credit card data and steal lots of money with it.  Obviously the failure rate is through the roof but eventually if you make enough calls you find somebody clueless enough to listen to "I am from the internet!  Do whatever I say!" and you get to destroy them financially for your own profit.  There are people out there who spend all day calling random folks out of the public directory trolling for suckers to steal from.  I have had jobs that suck, and jobs that *really* suck, but that job has to be the absolute worst.  Not only do you spend the entire day being insulted, hung up on and ignored but you know deep down that you absolutely deserve all that crap treatment.  Even when you 'win' and get somebody on the line who will let you complete your nefarious plan you only know that you found the biggest sucker around, read your script and got paid.  No satisfaction from a job well done, even on the best call you make.

I wonder if the police would be interested in this scam.  Obviously the crap these thieves are pulling is illegal but the number is a New York area code and I doubt very much the cops can do anything useful with it since pursuing a random phone thief you have no evidence against in another country is kinda rough.  Still, I think I will try and see.