Musings of the Great Eric

Archive for February 2007

The curse of being smart

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Despite what the title of this blog might lead you to think, I’m actually a pretty modest guy. Mostly because I’m constantly humbled by the sheer volume of stuff that I don’t know, can’t explain, and am not very good at.

However, for this post I’m going to abandon modesty and make the assertion that I am, in fact, pretty smart. Relative to most of the population anyway.

Here’s the thing though: I wish I wasn’t.

Let’s start from the beginning. These days, being a nerd is pretty cool, because we fix people’s computers. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, it was still a stigma. And given that I was (usually) the youngest kid in my class as well as being the smartest, I had the added bonus of being smaller for most of grade school as well as lagging a few months behind most of my classmates as far as development goes (by which I mostly mean puberty, but also things like getting into real music, non-kid TV shows, etc). This basically defined the first 18 years of my life.

Schoolwork itself, meanwhile, was easy. Too easy. Easy enough that I was bored, a lot. Easy enough that I never paid attention in class but still got straight A’s, because I knew it all. Easy enough that I never had to study. Easy enough such that when it stopped being easy (let’s say the 10th grade, or thereabouts), I didn’t have the study habits and discipline necessary to tackle it properly. To this day I don’t really know how to study something. It’s a miracle I got through college.

I was smarter than most of my teachers. This didn’t make much of a difference in grade school, because they could still beat me at general knowledge. But by the time I got to High School, I had closed that gap. I had three teachers the whole time I would qualify as smarter than me. The rest simply couldn’t engage me to take enough interest in what they were teaching for me to learn it. So my grades tanked in High School, except for those few classes with the smarter teachers who I developed good relationships with.

I’m smart enough that I could see right through illegitimate authority. Principals, teachers, and lunchroom rent-a-cops actually have very little. “Because I said so” never flew with me, nor did I go along with society’s rules and expectations “just because”. I questioned everything and never did anything unless I was given a damn good reason why I should. On principle I think that’s a good thing, and this has led me to explore and experience many things that I wouldn’t have otherwise, as well as find many better ways to do things. But in terms of social adjustment? It doesn’t exactly endear me to people, and it put me even further out onto social fringes than I already was.

I’m smart enough to seek answers and not find them. I look out into the furthest reaches of the cosmos and wonder what’s beyond. Where it all came from. What came before. Why it’s here, what its nature is. I marvel at the incredible complexity of the world around me, and try to comprehend how things so beautiful can emerge from processes which are at their root so simple – it’s elegant and beautiful and wonderful and I can’t help to want to understand it. The thing is, as smart as I am that I ask such questions, I’m also smart enough to realize a cop out answer when I see one. I don’t take any comfort in the empty platitudes of religion. But lacking any other answers, that’s a part of me that’s left frustrated and unfulfilled.

I’m smart enough that I don’t have much in common with “normal people” (for lack of a better descriptor). I don’t give a shit about Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, or the weather. I find sports marginally entertaining at best. Everyone likes to think they know something about politics, the reality is most are grossly ignorant of political theory, current events, and history. Reality TV annoys me. Meanwhile, I like to read, I like science, I like computers, and I mostly entertain myself by finding interesting things on the web. So, the intersection of interests between me and the average joe that I meet? Pretty slim. My social life? Pretty limited as well.

I’m smart enough to be pretty unhappy. I overanalyze everything. I have trouble with people because I have to think about what I’m going to say and analyze what’s said back to me. It took me a good long while before I could get to a point in my life where an impromptu conversation felt natural.

So what’s the benefit to being smart? Not much, I say. Being smart sucks.

I’m thankful I’m genuinely not genius caliber, because I have to imagine that’d be f’in miserable.

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Written by Eric

February 26, 2007 at 6:26 pm

One in three boys heavy porn users

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From Science Blog:

A total of 429 students aged 13 and 14 from 17 urban and rural schools across Alberta, Canada, were surveyed anonymously about if, how and how often they accessed sexually explicit media content on digital or satellite television, video and DVD and the Internet. Ninety per cent of males and 70 per cent of females reported accessing sexually explicit media content at least once. More than one-third of the boys reported viewing pornographic DVDs or videos “too many times to count”, compared to eight per cent of the girls surveyed.

A majority of the students, 74 per cent, reported viewing pornography on the Internet. Forty-one per cent saw it on video or DVD and 57 per cent reported seeing it on a specialty TV channel. Nine per cent of the tens reported they accessed pornography because someone over 18 had rented it; six per cent had rented it themselves and 20 per cent viewed it at a friend’s house.

Well, duh.

Written by Eric

February 26, 2007 at 6:17 pm

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Chimps use spears; humans ain’t so special

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This caught my eye on Science Blog: Killer chimps found hunting with spears

Chimpanzees are well known for their ingenuity in using tools for some tasks, such as obtaining invertebrate insects from logs or pounding open hard nuts, but there had been only fleeting evidence of chimpanzees brandishing tools for bona fide hunting.

In the new work, researchers observed tool use in hunting by the Fongoli community of savanna-dwelling chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in southeastern Senegal. Chimpanzees were observed making spear-like tools in a step-wise fashion, and subsequently using them with jabbing motions in an apparent effort to obtain lesser bushbabies (Galago senegalensis) from cavities in hollow branches or tree trunks. Bushbabies are nocturnal prosimians that retire to such hidden cavities during the day.

Although there was only one successful attempt in 22 recorded instances of the chimpanzees using the spear-like tools to find and obtain prey, the researchers observed that tool-crafting and associated hunting behavior was systematic and consistent, suggesting that it was habitual. The hunting behavior included forceful jabbing motions into branch or trunk hollows, and chimpanzees were seen to subsequently open the hollows by breaking wood off from a distance, suggesting that the jabbing actions were intended to immobilize bushbabies, rather than rouse them from their cavities (bushbabies move quickly and might otherwise easily evade chimpanzees once roused).

I always find it interesting just how special human beings aren’t.

But what I find especially fascinating here is that although using weapons clearly isn’t “special” in of itself, the way those weapons get used is. The anatomy of a chimp is a different than that of a human. Their hips aren’t well suited to walking upright, their arms aren’t well suited for thrusting, and there’s still that lack of an opposable thumb. So a chimpanzee hunter is going to develop a significantly different set of tactics and skills than a human hunter using the same weapon, and an altogether different way of thinking about it. Given enough time, a completely different culture and civilization would be formed than anything human beings would or could ever imagine.

Written by Eric

February 23, 2007 at 10:03 am

Posted in Science

Church "attacked" on Ash Wednesday

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This would be pretty funny in its own right:

Ash Wednesday Mass Interrupted by Porno Recordings
(Warning! Link goes to Fox News! May not be safe for intelligence!)

The Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi was evacuated during noon Mass on Ash Wednesday when three CD players duct-taped to the bottom of pews began blaring sexually explicit language.

Mind you, I don’t condone this sort of prank. It’s stupid and immature. But the fact that the Church felt it had to evacuate because of pornography? That’s just great.

But this is the part that makes the story rise to the level of hilarious (emphasis mine):

Church staff personnel removed the CD players, took them to the basement and called police, who sent a bomb squad, Johnson said.

The bomb squad blew up two of the players on a grassy area near the church, then kept the third one for analysis after determining the players were not dangerous.

Brilliant!

Written by Eric

February 22, 2007 at 8:18 pm

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Americans would vote for a homosexual before they’d vote for an atheist

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It’s remarkable that as a middle class heterosexual white male I can still claim membership to the most hated/distrusted/discriminated minority in America (or however you want to interpret the results, anyway).

While I can’t say I’m surprised, the psychology behind this fascinates me. Why is there a perception that faith (or at least, the god-belief) is so virtuous, and why are reason and rationality so devalued?

Personally, I’d like a guy in charge of a nuclear arsenal capable of blowing up the planet ten times to be a rational kind of fellow – not someone who hears voices in his head, as George W Bush has claimed on more than one occasion.

But just looking at the American political scene, being able to convince the electorate that you’re a person of strong faith seems able to make up for a lot of other (what should be disqualifying) moral faults: alcoholism, hard drug use, and going AWOL on national guard duty, for example.

Not being a religious person, this is one of the mindsets of the religious that truly baffles me, and thus I find it interesting. Professing faith strikes me as the ultimate in non-action from a politician, but people seem to so strongly equate religious belief with being a good person that it overwhelms other considerations – like what they actually do. Shouldn’t the ultimate basis for judging a person’s morality be by what they do rather than what they say they believe?

So suffice to say, I don’t get it.

Written by Eric

February 22, 2007 at 12:58 pm

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Why debates about God are stupid

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In a nutshell, it’s because no one knows how to define anything. Just look at how fuzzy the common terms are:

  • On one side, we have “theism”. The belief that God exists. Or a God, anyway – we could be talking about someone who believes in the existence of Zeus on Mount Olympus. A theist can also be believe tat God is merely “the thing that created the universe”, which can conceivably be a form of energy or mathematics itself. It’s usually assumed though that the discussion specifically relates to the God of Abraham. Or maybe not so specifically… after all, in the eyes of a theist, the God of Abraham may or may not be all loving, may or may not be all powerful, may or may not be all knowing, may or may not answer prayers, may or may not directly intervene in human affairs, may or may not cause miracles, may or may not be a fan of George W Bush, and may or may not be some combination of a father, son, and holy ghost. Different combinations of those properties make for 1,024 different possible versions of the God of Abraham right there that we might be debating the existence of. Very few people, theists and atheists alike, put very much thought into what exactly they’re defending or attacking, resulting in debates where either side will just change their working definition when they run up against a logical argument they can’t defeat.
  • On the other side, we have atheism, which itself is divided into (at least) two camps. “Weak atheism”, which corresponds to “I don’t believe there is a God”, and “strong atheism”, which corresponds to “I believe there is no God”. Note the difference – one is simply a statement of disbelief, the other makes a positive assertion of nonexistence. But most people don’t even know that distinction exists, not even self-described atheists. Theists tend to assume (or at least, argue based on the assumption) that all atheists are of the strong variety, ostensibly so that they can make the counterargument that atheism is just as much a “faith” position as theism. However, the reality is that most self described atheists are of the weak variety. Further confusing the issue, a lot of weak atheists describe themselves as “agnostics”, which is a misstatement of their actual beliefs.
  • Which brings us to agnosticism, which (in my experience) is the one that’s the least well understood; the average joe seems to simply interpret it as a more politically correct version of atheism. But agnosticism actually has nothing to do with a belief in God, instead concerning itself with the knowability of God (it literally means “without knowledge”). And even in this case, there’s at least two flavors: “We can’t know” (God is outside space-time, we can’t test for him), and “We don’t know” (We could theoretically find out, we just haven’t as a practical matter). Wikipedia also adds “I don’t care” and “The question is stupid” as agnostic positions. But the bigger point is that it’s completely independent of theism or atheism. You can be an agnostic theist: “I don’t believe we can know that God exists but I believe that he does exist” as well as an agnostic atheist: “I don’t believe we can know that God exists but I believe that he does not exist”. Since very few people on either end of the scale claim absolute certainty about the existence or non-existence of God (whatever flavor of him they’re talking about), the vast majority of people are some flavor of agnostic.

Personally, I hold any given definition God to the same standard of evidence that I do Santa Claus, celestial teacups, and leprechauns. So in general, I view most conceptions of God the same way I do Ether and the Caloric Theory of heat; a victim of Occam’s Razor.

But the keyword in the above is “most conceptions”. I’m a strong atheist with regards to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster – I positively believe that those Gods don’t exist. I’m a weak atheist with regards to a deistic concept of a God that doesn’t interfere (much) in human affairs – I don’t believe such a God exists. I’m strong atheist if you describe God as “Omnipotent and Omniscient”, or for any other definition that includes logically impossible attributes. If you believe God is “the thing that started the Big Bang”, then I’m a believer – I think *something* kicked it off, after all. If you want to assert “God is everything” or “God is love”, then sure, I can’t discount the existence of those things. I don’t see any real reason to define God that way, but hey, whatever floats your boat.

The thing is, no one bothers to define their terms before jumping into a debate. Too often, an atheist will assume he’s debating a fundamentalist who believes that God answers prayers, the Earth is six thousand years old, and gay sex is the root of all evil. A theist, for his part, is prone to assuming that the atheist believes in science-as-his-religion, and that knocking down any particular scientific theory in the last 500 years is enough to knock down atheism. More commonly, theists assume that the atheist absolutely positively believes there’s no kind of God whatsoever beyond any shadow of any doubt – and he can therefore win the debate just by introducing the slightest doubt.

The truth is that you’d find few people on either one of those extremes, but rarely do you see anyone who bothers to actually state their positions before debating them; they’d rather pat themselves on the back for knocking down strawmen:

“The Earth isn’t really 6,000 years old, so I win!”

“We can’t know what happened before the Big Bang, it might have been God, I win!”

The debates wind up running in circles as one side or the other continually invokes a variation of the True Scotsman Fallacy – “I never SAID God was all loving”, “A true atheist would think this was true”, etc.

I haven’t even mentioned yet the secondary arguments that always come up on internet, which have nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of any sort of God, but one side or the other always brings them up anyway. Stuff like:

  • Atheists “hate” God and “hate” religion and “want to ban it entirely”.
  • Stalin and Mao were atheists, therefore all atheists are genocidal maniacs (that’s especially a pet peeve of mine, since those are among the most religious regimes ever in every way that matters).
  • On the flip side – atheists love to bring up abortion clinic bombers, pedophile priests, atrocities by the Vatican, the Crusades, or any number of other evils brought on by religion.
  • Theists “hate homosexuals” or “hate [some other form of sexuality]”
  • Theists are all Republicans.

The fact is that none of those things have anything to do with the existence, nonexistence, belief, or non-belief in God. They might have a place in a debate about the merits of religion itself, but more often than not they’re just fallacious arguments, encompassing a number of logical fallacies (not the least of which is pure ad hominem).

The vast majority of theists aren’t fundamentalist Bible thumpers who deny evolution and believe that the book of Genesis is literal truth, but atheists love to assume they are when they start this debate. Similarly, an atheist may or may not believe in science, evolution, secular humanism, rationalism, skepticism, or anything of the sort – in fairness, they usually do, but one thing doesn’t follow from the other. Plenty of theists believe in those same ideas, and plenty of atheists believe in astrology, UFO abductions, and other scientifically indefensible ideas.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you’re going to argue about whether or not God exists, define it first. And then, if you can, stick to relevant arguments. It makes the ensuing debate much better and far more interesting.

Written by Eric

February 20, 2007 at 8:56 am

Posted in Philosophy

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