Archive for the ‘Life, The Universe, and Everything’ Category
I had the opportunity to see him live just a few months ago. He was awesome. Which makes today’s news that much more shocking and sad.
Google News from a parallel universe. Reading through the whole thing just leaves me feeling sad.
Shiver me timbers! Since ’tis september 19th, and in me continuing effort t’ combat global warming, to be sure, I demand all me readers talk like a buccaneer t’day, I’ll warrant ye, t’ be sure, or else I’ll have ye walk th’ plank, I’ll warrant ye, arrr.
Here’s some resources fer those o’ ye who need help: buccaneer glossary, t’ help ye learn t’ speak like one, aye, ye scurvey dog. A list o’ buccaneer laws, t’ help ye properly behave. And o’ course, to be sure, th’ official Talk Like a Pirate Day web site.
Simply, I don’t think old people are that great.
I won’t make any blanket statements about them, but let’s just say I’m skeptical of the notion that with age comes valuable experience and wisdom – there are a great many old people I’ve met for whom that’s simply not the case. (The halls of our nation’s capital are filled with old people after all, which in my mind puts to lie any notion that brains automatically come with age). Further, to put it bluntly, old people are a lot more likely to be bigoted, racist, prudish, and mentally stuck in some past era long after the rest of the world moved on.I’ve also found that old people have a uniquely patronizing attitude towards the young. And when I read articles like Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Younger, they just sound patronizing. I’m sorry you didn’t get clued in when you were younger, but not all of us are that stupid.
So, rather than revere the above-linked revealed “wisdom” of old age, I thought it would be better to compile a list of advice to my future self – things that people too often seem to forget as they age.
Things I hope I’ll still remember when I’m older:
- Kids aren’t stupid. Too often, adults assume that they are. They talk down to them, often confusing ignorance with idiocy. I should never, ever forget what it’s like to be a kid.
- On a similar note, kids of the future will be better educated than me. They’ll learn things in grammar school that are entirely unknown to science today.
- Old people are neither smart nor wise simply by virtue of being old. Wisdom only comes if I’m smart enough to learn from the experiences I’ve had; this is an active process I have to constantly engage myself in.
- As a corollary to the above two points: Keep learning, keep adapting, and be willing to change as I get older.
- In forty years, when someone invents a new disruptive technology on the scale of the PC or internet, I should do my best to learn to use it, rather than obstinately peck away at my antiquated system because it “works for me”. And when I do adopt this new technology, I should avoid pestering my grandkids about it because I’m too incompetent to figure out how it works by myself.
- The quality of music did not peak when I was in my 20’s.
- Much of what I believe today is probably wrong. Much of what I’ll believe in my 30’s will probably be wrong. Much of what I’ll believe in my 70’s will probably be wrong. It’s likely that at no point in my life will I ever really know “the truth”, let alone have a monopoly on it. I should never be afraid to admit that long held beliefs were and are wrong.
- Cultural change should not frighten me – my attitude should be one of tolerance and respect, and I should be glad for the increased freedom that all people have to be the person they want to be.
- The way young people dress, the music they listen to, and the way they talk is not a personal insult to me, and these things have nothing to do with “showing respect”.
- And on respect, elders should not be respected because they’re elders. Elders should only be respected when they’ve earned it from the people they’re seeking respect from.
- My waistline is not above my belly button, and consequently there’s no reason for my pants to go up that high.
- Absent some major medical advances made in the next 40 years, there will come a point in my life where my hearing, vision, and reflexes have deteriorated to such an extent that I can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle. I should not arrogantly insist on doing things that are beyond my physical ability to do safely.
- Related to that, my medical conditions are not interesting. Unless I’m dying, no one cares what the Doctor says about my bodily discharges.
- And finally, most importantly, my lawn is a great place for kids to play.
It was towards the middle of my senior year of high school, just before senioritis took hold and rendered the rest of High School meaningless. We’d just finished covering a novel in AP English – I forget which one it was exactly, but that’s not important, except that it was yet another painfully boring work of literature. The teacher decided it was time to assign term papers – annual exercises in stupidity too narrow in scope and rigid in structure to have any real educational value beyond a lesson in how to bullshit. We were told that we’d be required to write 10,000 words on a randomly assigned topic concerning work of classic literature or its author. This was met with predictable whining by the class, who began calling out alternatives assignments to the paper that would be more interesting and bearable. Most of the suggestions were merely an attempt at work avoidance, but it did produce this exchange, which has stood out in my memory since:
(Paraphrasing a bit)
Student #1: Can I do it on Lord of the Rings? 
Teacher: That’s not any of the topics, sorry. Your term paper has to be on a book we’ve read in class.
Student #2: Hey, can we cover Lord of the Rings in class?
(Many others in the class signal their approval of this idea, offering comments like “Yeah can we?” and “That’d be cool”)
Teacher: No, I don’t think so.
Student #2: Why not?
Teacher: It’s not part of the canon. (He may have said “AP Curriculum” rather than canon, unfortunately this was 8 years ago and my memory is fuzzy.)
To recap: students showed a genuine interest in reading and learning a particular work of literature, but the idea was shot down because what they wanted to learn wasn’t on the pre-approved list of things that they’re supposed to learn. This one incident represents most of what’s wrong with our education system, but for this post I plan to dwell on how English class kills literature.
A brief aside:
From the time I was young, I was a voracious reader. I began with Berenstein Bears and progressed through Hardy Boys and Superfudge, which I read too many times to count. My first “real” book was Ender’s Game. I read Jurassic Park, my first “adult” novel, at the age of 11 during the summer before the 6th grade. Though I also liked and had no shortage of video games, TV and movies, I loved reading.
This love of reading was unquestionable right up until 9th grade English Honors (the precursor to 11 & 12th grade AP English courses), when we were assigned to read Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Attempting to be a good student, I put aside the book I was reading at the time and took up Great Expectations instead. It’s the first book I ever read that I didn’t enjoy reading. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say I hated it – I thought the book was boring and repetitive, the characters were irrational and stupid, and that the plot made little sense. (I’ve since come to appreciate Dickens a little more as an author, but I still don’t feel Great Expectations is one of his better works).
The only thing I learned from reading the novel was that there’s little that can sour a love of reading except for assigned reading. I was immediately annoyed by the fixed “pace” of the assigned reading. Though I was a voracious reader, I was also a sporadic one. Reading X chapters a night just didn’t fit with the way I liked to do it. I also found that there’s just something particularly distasteful about being forced to read a book you don’t like, in a way that doing other schoolwork I didn’t like wasn’t.
On completing Great Expectations, the assigned reading immediately switched to the next “classic” (which one I don’t now recall, though I know I didn’t like it any better), at which point I realized that it just wasn’t going to stop. So I opted for the Cliff’s notes and began doing the bare minimum to get through English class – I realized it was the only way that I’d actually get to read anything I actually wanted to read in the next four years.
The amount of despise that I came to have for “classic literature” shouldn’t be surprising given the basic form the class followed. My four years of high school English and the AP Curriculum were a never ending parade of assigned reading, with absolutely no suggestion of enjoying, exploring, or discovering literature on our own. We’d be given a book and we’d be told to read a couple of chapters a night. In class the next day, we’d be told what the major symbols and themes were, and the names of particular techniques the author might have used. Then we were quizzed on it. We were never really asked to analyze the novel for ourselves or taught how to do it. It was just an exercise in forcing down our throats novels written by authors that a teenager couldn’t relate to, set in times that a teenager couldn’t relate to, and featuring characters that a teenager couldn’t relate to.
The most illustrative example I can recall of how painfully wrong this curriculum was comes in the form of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which I was made to read in the 10th grade. (I gave it an honest effort too – mostly because it was a solid week or two after beginning it in class before I was able to pick up a copy of the Cliff’s notes).
It’s worth giving a little context here. My favorite genre had always been science fiction, and at the time I’d just begun reading for the first time the “classic” science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein, among others. While these works vary considerably in terms of style, setting, plot, thematic elements, and quality, they do share some common elements with each other and with each other and the rest of the science fiction genre. They hold rationality as an ideal. Scientists, or at least scientific thinkers, are the heroes. They create worlds that are drastically different from anything that we’re familiar with, but share a common set of rules with our own – and are internally consistent with whatever deviations there are from those rules. And the characters approach these worlds by using reason to try to make sense of them, thus making them accessible to the characters and reader alike.
Which brings me back to The Scarlet Letter. My primary thought while reading it was as follows: “These people are all fucking idiots”.
I’d already known the puritans were all religious lunatics; I didn’t see why I needed to read a book that did little more than illustrate how stupid and irrational they were. By contrast to those science fiction novels I had been reading, there’s not one character in The Scarlet Letter who acts the slightest bit of logic or reason, or even demonstrate themselves capable of such. How and why the characters behaved the way they did made no intuitive or logical sense to me, and it’s hard to find much enjoyment in a novel where you just want to reach through the page and smack the characters for being stupid.
For contrast, take Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Thought militaristic fascism is just as alien to me as puritanism, and it’s a point of view that I disagree with every bit as vehemently, I was at least made to understand it. The author laid out the reasons the characters behaved and thought the way they did, and through world building, justified the society he was portraying. And because the explanations were fundamentally rational, I could make sense of that world and had a basis for considering (and challenging) the ideas in the book. In fact, Starship Troopers taught me more about fascism than pretty much anything else I’ve ever read, because it’s the only book that forced me to think about it on a higher level than “Hitler is evil!”
I just didn’t get that from The Scarlet Letter though – even if the characters were being rational in the context of their world, it appeared fundamentally irrational to me. I just couldn’t relate to it, and at no point did the author try to help me relate to it by explaining why the characters were acting the way they did in any kind of rational way. He just kind of assumed that puritanism would make sense to us and we could relate to that, even though puritanism itself is more alien to me than any alien culture yet conceived of by a science fiction author. (Just try to imagine Starship Troopers committing the same fallacy – a bunch of characters going about their lives in a fascist society, but without any of the world building Heinlein did that made that society defensible and believable)
This is the great failure of the English curriculum. I can imagine my experience with the novel being quite different had my English teacher done the kind of world-building that Hawthorne didn’t think necessary. (Note that this is different from providing historical context – who and what the puritans were is quite different from why the puritans were that way and how they got there). But my teacher didn’t do this, and I’ve never heard of a High School curriculum that would. Instead, we got a lecture on how the letter “A” was used as a symbol and were given a laundry list of themes. Eventually we were asked to regurgitate that information on a test, and then moved on. If the aim was that we’d understand or appreciate The Scarlet Letter, it failed.
In any case, my real gripe isn’t with this novel or any particular work of literature per se, it’s the way English class essentially tried to herd me away from the stuff I enjoyed reading in favor of stuff that easily could have turned me off to reading altogether (Thankfully, it didn’t). What’s funny is that I now appreciate literature a lot more than I did then – but that’s despite, not because of, English class. The way literature is taught is upside down and backwards, and fosters a dislike of reading rather than a love of it. The idea that students are discouraged from exploring and discovering on their own terms for the love of doing it should horrify educators, yet in in this domain it seems to be the status quo.
The seventh and final novel in the Harry Potter series will be released on Friday night. In an age of Cartoon Network, MySpace, the Nintendo Wii, and a thousand other media options – millions of children will be hanging around book stores on Friday to eagerly get their copy as soon as it goes on sale at midnight. The job of English teachers should be to foster that love of reading, not prematurely (and incompetently) force literature on students to the detriment of reading they’d be doing otherwise.
 – For the record, it’s my opinion that The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of literature of the 20th century. It’s every bit as complex, multi-layered, and worthy of study as anything else covered in English class. The books signature flaw seems to be that it’s popular, which lessens its value among stuffy English types who define the “canon”.
 – In fairness, it wasn’t all bad. I grew to like Shakespeare – say what you will about the man, but he wasn’t boring. Morte D’Arthur did nothing for me, but it did inspire me to pick up TH White’s Once and Future King. I liked Mark Twain quite a bit. Lord of the Flies and The Call of the Wild weren’t bad either.
A couple of weeks ago, my mom (the loving mother that she is) bought me a bunch of groceries and delivered them in a reusable grocery bag, which she let me keep. This was actually a novel concept to me; I’d never given much thought at all to the question of grocery bags before, and the idea of a reusable one had honestly never occurred to me. It piqued my interest enough though that I brought it with my on my next trip to the supermarket, and have since acquired a few more to meet all my grocery bagging needs.
In retrospect, it seems an idea that’s both obvious and genius. The bags I now use hold many more groceries that the disposable bags found at the supermarket. They have strong handles or shoulder straps, and are thick enough that they don’t break even if I fill one of them to the brink with soda bottles. The most difficult part of using them is convincing the bagging clerk to use them, as the request. When I’m done, I stash them under the sink and pull them out again for my next trip to the supermarket – I’ve yet to feel this is an inconvenience.
This idea underscores something far more profound than mere grocery bags though. I feel almost humiliated that I’ve lived for nearly a quarter century before an idea like this even occurred to me. I just took the disposable bags offered at the checklist line, and threw them out after I’d gotten home and unpacked them. We live in the most wasteful society in the history of mankind, and it’s clear that I’m a part of it.
I think it’s a great thing that our civilization is finally getting its head together with regards to resource management, recycling, global warming, and other environmental issues, but now I can’t help but feel these efforts are misguided. Recycling paper bags is nothing compared to not using them in the first place – in trying to minimize our environmental impact, we’re concentrating our efforts on the wrong side of the equation.
And it seems to me that these kinds of changes would be much easier to implement than recycling programs and other technological solutions. Imagine if the grocery store simply didn’t offer paper or plastic, but instead sold reusable bags at the checkout? Supermarkets would be happy; it would turn an expense into one more thing they could sell. People would likely bitch at first, but then get used to it and even come to appreciate them as I have. And we’d be that much less wasteful as a society.
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.