Archives for the month of: March, 2013

It’s been brought to my attention recently that I’m something of a curmudgeon, that I scowl permanently.  I think of myself as a generally positive person who sees the beauty in people and in the world around me, but I’m not very good at expressing that to the people around me.  I’ve gone through the ol’ photo archive to find a few examples of my miserable face.Picture 8Picture 6IMG_4173The first of these three photos was taken while I piloted a motor boat on Lake Lugano in the Italian, southern part of Switzerland.  The second was taken in a bathroom mirror after a rather satisfying rest stop, and the third on my way up to the the highest mountain in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas of Spain.  But you would think that in the first I was just told I have a terminal illness, the second I’m in a Mexican standoff, and the third someone is making me do multiplication tables without the aid of my fingers!  So I have a problem.

At this point I could talk about how happiness is simply a failure to understand the seriousness of the world we live in, how if ignorance is bliss then bliss is nothing more than ignorance, how my forehead wrinkles when my brain is at work and it’s always at work, but I won’t.  Rather I think I’ll just try to show you that I am at least in good company.colin_farrell_7-31-12imageRussell-CroweGordon-Ramsay-hells-kitchen-4011922-495-350Colin Farrel, Russel Crowe and Gordon Ramsay: three handsome and intriguing men who are perpetually grumpy and scowling.  And they’re just the first three that come to mind.  Look back through history.  James Joyce was grumpy, at least while he was writing his good stuff.  When he became happy his work suffered greatly.  Shakespeare was pretty grumpy too.  Could you write Troilus and Cressida in a good mood?  Even our lord Jesus Christ was pretty grumpy, though for reasons largely out of his control.

Now I’m not suggesting that I am like some combination of Colin Farrel, Russel Crowe, Gordon Ramsay, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Jesus.   I might feel that way sometimes but I would never say it.

The simple fact is that not everyone has to be as cheerful as Ellen Degeneres.  Those people are here to remind me of the beauty and intrigue of the world around me, and I’m here to piss on their parade and remind them that at least half of existence is miserable and pointless.  True wisdom is seeing both: like a great David Attenborough documentary that shows the birth of a beautiful baby lamb just before showing the parasitic worm that eats the inside of its eyeball.

My question to you: which side of the scale do you think you fall on?  Do you blow up bubbles or burst them?

The great debate on climate change rages on and both sides sometimes make fools of themselves.  Often my homies on the far left exaggerate scientists’ predictions to make Climate Change sound scarier than it really is.  Alternately, the folks on the far right like to publish articles about scientists who don’t believe in human-caused global warming.  Of course a lot of these discussions take place on the internet.  One person will share a link to an article claiming the world will end, the other will provide a link to a scientist who claims it’s a hoax and so on.  If you make a google search for what you believe you will find a seemingly legitimate article to validate your opinion.  But where do scientists really stand on the issue?  I intend to look at as many sources as I can find to really quantify the scientific discussion on climate change then we’ll talk about what it all means.

Academies – since 2001, 34 national scientific academies have made statements confirming manmade climate change and urging governments and people to reduce carbon emissions.  Five scientific academies have made no official statement on the subject.  The American Association of Petroleum Geologists dissented from this position until 2007 when they updated their official stance to qualified agreement.

Climate Journals – In 2004 Naomi Oreskes looked at 928 peer reviewed journals on climate change.  She found that 75% implicitly or explicitly endorsed anthropogenic climate change and 25% took no position.

American Meteorologists and Geophysicists – in 2007, 489 randomly selected members of relevant science institutions were surveyed.  97% believe the earth is warming, 84% believe that humans cause it.

Global Climate Scientists – In 2008, 2058 climatologists were asked their opinion on anthropogenic climate change occurring.  67.1% agreed very much, 26.7% agreed to some large extent, 6.2% agreed to some small extend, 0% disagreed.

Climatologists vs. earth scientists – In a survey from the University of Illinois of 3146 scientists, 90% agreed that the earth was warming and 82% agreed that humans greatly influenced global climate.  Of the 79 climatologists surveyed, 76 (96%) agreed that humans cause climate change.

National Academy of Sciences – A 2010 survey found that 97% of scientists believe in anthropomorphic climate change and that the 3% had far less expertise on the subject than the majority.

Journals About Climate Change – 13950 peer reviewed scientific journals with 33690 authors all with the keyword climate change were surveyed.  24 papers rejected man-made climate change (1 in 581) and those papers had 34 authors (1 in 1000)

Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta – 36% believe in human-cause global warming, 24% believe climate change is natural, 17% believe it may be man-made but poses no risk, 10% believe it may be man-made but stopping it is not economically feasible, and 6% believe it may be man-made and poses some risk to people.

While all this data is far from a consensus, a few interesting trends emerge.  Not all scientists are equally qualified to judge climate data.  In fact, public, peer reviewed research is the only data that matters.  There is however a clear divide between the opinion of scientists generally and climatologists.  So how does the opinion change as expertise increases?

About 53% of Americans think climate change is a threat to them.

I guess that 80-90% of scientists generally believe in man-made climate change.

Over 95% of climatologists believe in man-made climate change.

Finally 99.83% of peer reviewed articles on the subject of climate change accept it.

So what does it mean that the more you know about global climates the more likely you are to believe in man-made climate change?  Well it could be a huge conspiracy that all the scientists are in on.  It could be that all climatologists own shares in solar-panel manufacturing companies and the whole thing is a money-making plot.  Or, it could be that it’s true and the people who spend their lives researching it know more than the people who don’t.  Frankly I don’t care what engineers or biologists or doctors think about climatology.  I don’t care that over 30 000 American scientists signed a petition dissenting from the majority opinion since apparently only 34 of them have had anything published on the subject since 1991 and there are over 12 million American Scientists.But how could the public be so misinformed on the subject?

Well in the USA nearly 120 million dollars was given to 102 think tanks mostly by conservative business leaders.  The think tanks work to undermine the consensus but not by funding research or publishing papers, they do it by funding documentary films, TV commercials, and websites.  That’s why the public opinion is divided and the expert opinion is not.

Every available data set shows the same thing: the more qualified you are to speak about climatology, the more likely you are to believe in man-made climate change.  The news would have you think that it’s a matter of opinion and that scientists are divided.  They are not.  And the scientists who don’t agree are as qualified to speak on the subject as an astronomer is to do brain surgery.  The proof is in the pudding.  For every peer reviewed article you can show me to prove that climate change is not real I can produce 581 that say it is.  Not exactly a Mexican stand-off if you catch my drift.

It is up to the deniers to explain why the experts are so united on one side of the debate, and why the literature is so one-sided.  And if they think I’ve chosen only statistics that serve my end, i’d like to see a survey of climatologists that shows otherwise.

My question to you: do you think the media fairly represents the scientific view on climate change?

IMG_1271This year Laura and I chose to observe Earth Hour.  If you don’t know, Earth Hour is a global event that encourages everyone to turn off all the lights for one hour to raise awareness of the perils of environmental destruction and excessive energy consumption.  You can read more about it here.

There are a few reasons that I like Earth Hour.  Awareness campaigns sometimes seem like a waste, like spending time and money convincing people to do something instead of just doing something.  In the case of Earth Hour, I think the great value is getting people to spend a few minutes considering how they might spend their time if they didn’t have electricity.  You might read a book by candlelight, you might do some arts or crafts, you might go for a walk outside, or  you might even talk to your friends and family in person!  The realization that we can drastically reduce our use of electricity by inconveniencing ourselves only slightly is an important step.

The other group of people who would benefit from the message of Earth Hour are the people who hadn’t yet heard about our environmental crisis.  These people might hear about Earth Hour while at the water cooler and ask a few naive questions prompting them to go home and google “climate change”, forever changing the way they consume goods and services.

But the reason there is an environmental crisis is for two other kinds of people.

The first group are the people who know that there is an environmental crisis but are not willing to inconvenience themselves to deal with it.  These people don’t like the colour of fluorescent light-bulbs or the smell of public transit.  They drive SUVs to the gym to run on electronic treadmills in front of an flat-screen TV displaying nature scenes.  They won’t buy recycled toilet paper because it’s not as soft or as white.

The other group of people that Earth Hour won’t touch is people who don’t believe there is an environmental crisis at all.  In this country they are a vocal minority.  These people would likely say that they can use all the electricity they want because humanity cannot effect the global climate.

The second group is clearly the more wrong of the two; however, I suspect they are a much smaller group and could be helped by an education in scientific literacy.  The first group makes up the vast majority of people including me on a lot of days.  What will help them?  Guilt tripping?  Ignorance is much easier to treat than selfishness and apocalyptic negligence.

And that’s the real reason that Earth Hour isn’t making a difference: because the people who know we’re screwed get to pat themselves on the back after an hour of not watching Netflicks and pretend they’re contributing to my childrens’ future before turning the lights back on, firing up the television, the computer, the oven, the blender, and every other gadget they own.  I for one charged my laptop before the hour began so I could surf wirelessly in the dark.

The awareness campaign worked.  Everybody knows and nobody’s doing anything.  So where do we go from here?

 

Monumentous is a word made up of the words monumental and momentous.  While it is very common in the quasi-intellectual communities of the internet, it is not a real word.

To be monumental is to be great in importance, extent or size. i.e. like a monument.  It refers usually to things.

To be momentous is to be of great importance particularly to the future.  It refers usually to events, ideas, decisions, or changes.

They are similar but not the same and you certainly cannot make either one more powerful by adding the other.  Monumentous is a made up word that probably started as a mistake but carried enough memetic value by sounding impressive to propagate itself.  It is useless and wrong so stop saying it.

I’ve been working on a few limericks lately but I’ve found that the last line is the toughest to write.  So for you are a few original 4-line line Limericks.  I’m hoping they’ll bother you as much as they do me.

 

Two old men in matching pyjamas

Booked a holiday to the Bahamas.

Upon their arrival

They fought for survival

 

An airplane mechanic named Mike

Took a couple days off for a hike

An airplane came down

And killed his whole town

 

While resting his feet atop blorenge

Mackenzie peeled open an orange.

He tossed it away

For to his dismay

 

A limerick’s tricky to write

Without sounding hokey or trite.

The start isn’t tough

But then it gets rough

Annoying isn’t it?

In the comments below, please share either a four or five line limerick of your own invention or just your favourite limerick penned by another.  And do try to keep it clean.

 

. . .

 

Ok fine.  I’ll leave you with my favourite limerick: all five lines of it.

 

There was an old bastard named Lenin

Who did three or four million men in.

‘Twas a lot to have done in

But where he did one in

That old bastard Stalin did ten in.

I feel ashamed, the sort of shame that fills up my lungs and spreads slowly into my arms until my whole body feels heavy.  I feel like a wet blanket and not because of the bad things that I’ve done but because I have made such a stupid oversight for my whole life up until this point.  But no more.

TED talks are a staple in the life of almost every literate person I know.  Sometimes speakers share a new scientific discovery, sometimes they discuss the work of their charity or foundation, and on very special occasions, a speaker points something out to you that is so obvious that you would have seen it yourself if you weren’t so buried in the tropes and conventions of society.  Well, TED recently threw me a curveball that was so utterly obvious and destructive that I felt compelled to share it.

When we donate to charity, many of us object to our donated funds being spent on advertising, fundraising, and really anything but the cause itself.  I too feel that my hard earned money should go directly to those in need rather than pay the salaries of professional fundraisers.  This is naive and harmful.

You see, we have a system for making money.  It has been developing and evolving since the feudal system fell.  Who is it that’s expert at making money you ask?  Corporations!  They spend lots of money on advertising because advertising brings in customers.  It’s not rocket science.  Yet when a charity wants to advertise to encourage donations, they’re wasting money.  If you donate a dollar, that dollar can be spent on an advertisement that brings in five dollars.  You would be a monster to insist that your money go to the cause.  Charities are crippled by our insistence that they not take advantage of any of the proven methods for making money.  This mad system would only make sense if we thought that profits were better off in the hands of capitalists than in the hands of non-profit organizations.

There are reasons for this stupidity.  It’s well understood that humans often respond to individual murders more strongly than they do to genocide because it’s easier to connect emotionally with an individual than with a group.  Perhaps the reason people want their charitable donations to go directly to the cause is to maximize their emotional payoff by cutting out the middleman.  I suspect also that the majority of people are afraid to see charities advertise because it forces them to confront the moral dilemmas of living in the richest part of an impoverished world.  When you are aware that it costs only $200 to cure someone of leprosy, it makes you feel pretty guilty about your $200 boots or purse or jacket.

Whatever their reasons , once people are aware there is no more room for debate.  Charities should be allowed to operate with the goal of maximizing the value of their donations in dollars, not minimizing their operating costs as a percentage of the whole.  Anything else is unethical.

One of my favourite concepts in linguistics is that of the “colloquial treadmill”.  The idea is that words, like many other real and abstract things, evolve over time based on specific driving factors.  In the case of racial slurs you can see the evolution from nigros to coloured people to people of colour to Blacks to Black People and finally to African Canadians or African Americans if you’re in the United States, or just people if you’re in Africa I suppose.  This movement is driven by the use of common terms as slurs of by the desire of minorities to create their own identities.  A similarly long list of words can be found to describe almost any oppressed group in history.

A parallel treadmill occurs in our everyday language pushed along by different drivers.  You know how certain words ring of certain decades?  Words like swell and neato sound like the 50s while groovy and tubular ring clearly of the 60s?  There is one group of words that seems to move faster than any other and that is words to replace good.  Here are a few that come to mind:

Good, grand, swell, nice, awesome, terrific, incredible, unbelievable, amazing, sweet, sick, phat, steeped, ill, bad, ballin’, bangin’, astronomical, fantastic, dope, wonderful, spectacular, groovy, tubular, cool, hip, legit, and so on, and so on. . . 

Needless to say, there are a lot of ways to say good.  For some reason, different generations and subcultures tend to distinguish themselves by annexing perfectly good words and assigning them a new meaning: roughly the same meaning as good.

But I propose that this is a mistake, that something good is lost when we absorb many words to do the job of one.  We lose the ability to seriously use those words in their original meaning.  Awesome no longer describes an object or scene that inspires awe in us.  Fantastic no longer describes the subjects of fantasy.  Sick, when used to mean good, is so stupid that it creates only confusion between people of different generations.

We’d all be in a better position to describe our feelings if we made careful use of all of these words even if that means using the big ones sparingly.  All you have to do is think about what the word really means before you say it.  Was that cup of tea really wonderful?  Did it fill you with wonder?  Are those boots really awesome or are they just beautifully designed?  If someone wants to tell you an incredible story, don’t believe a word of it!  Getting the hang of it?

We can reclaim our language one adjective at a time!  I think it would be. . . beneficial to our society in the long term.

Can you think of any words that people use to say good yet have a perfectly obvious and useful meaning of their own?

One of the things that infuriates me more than anything else is the idea that certain ideas and positions oughtn’t be discussed because it’s not polite or respectful.  The idea of two people stating their opposite opinions and being content to disagree without discussion is horrifying to me.  Are your convictions so weak that they can’t stand up to scrutiny?  If you could be convinced that your opinions were wrong wouldn’t you want to know?  It’s easy to hold wrong-headed ideas if they’re never challenged but good ideas will survive.  Only through conversation and debate with opponents can you iron out the kinks in your thinking.

Not everyone is comfortable having long conversations.  Some people use endless smalltalk as a crutch to avoid conversations about life, love, the universe, religion, politics and other heavy topics.  I can’t fathom why anyone would want to avoid discussing the most important questions ever posed by humanity.

That is not to say that you should be confrontational.  But don’t fear conversation.  Allow your mind to go where the conversation takes you without planning or direction.  Often I find myself choosing to or compelled to spend long solitary hours with a single individual.  The resulting conversations are totally unpredictable but always informative and inspirational.  Sometimes the biggest ideas that I get come from pointless conversations with others because brains work better in tandem.

Sadly I think that the fear of conversation is like the unwillingness to hire tattooed youths.  No one will admit that they hate people with tattoos but everyone is afraid that their customers and fellow employees will discriminate against the tattooed so they don’t get hired.  Similarly, few would admit that they are unwilling to discuss their deepest thoughts but most people I suspect would say that they don’t want to make others uncomfortable with deep thoughts so they avoid deep topics.

This is my plea to you: embrace the chaos and depth of conversation.  Leave no stone unturned and no sacred cow unslaughtered.  When your mind goes somewhere, take someone with you by sharing.  Learning how to filter your thoughts and think before you speak is only important if the people around you are a bunch of over-sensitive ninnies without any cerebral activity.

Dialogue builds civilization; censorship destroys them.

In my mind, the raw food movement is making one huge contribution to the world of nutrition.  Allow me to explain.

It’s well documented that low-income families and individuals tend to have less nutritious diets than families making more money.  Gone are the days when girth was a measure of affluence, when income could be counted in chins, when fat-cats were actually fat.  The poor are getting fatter and the rich are. . . well they’re getting fatter but more slowly.  There are many reasons for this.  Low income neighborhoods are often found to have poor access to healthy foods.  The affluent neighborhoods also often have the best nutrition education.  To an extent it’s fair also to say that cause and effect have been reversed as wealthy populations are almost always objectively more attractive than the the destitute: some people may be rich because they eat well.  These are all rather ugly facts about the way our evolved psychology underlies the very foundations of our dysfunctional capitalist society.  (I’ll save that talk for another day.)  I am glad to say that there is one excuse that it is becoming harder and harder to make.

“Eating healthy is expensive.”

Here’s what one article has to say about convenience and eating well:

“It’s admittedly harder to do better when shopping for meals on a limited budget. Processed foods and frozen entrees are always going to be cheaper than buying fresh ingredients, and are obviously less time-consuming to get on the table. It’s also cheaper and more convenient to swing by a fast food restaurant and choose from the dollar menu than shop for a meal, go home and cook it.”

That makes sense if you’re trying to buy the ingredients to make a Hungryman dinner or a Big Mac from scratch.  But you don’t have to do that.  When was the last time you were at the grocery store’s produce aisle, looked down at the green beans for 99c/lb and thought “Well that’s a bit much.  I think I’ll have an affordable TV dinner instead.”  It never happens!  Because vegetables are dirt cheap!  The expensive part is when you want cheese and meat and spices and fine wine with your meal.  The raw food movement has shown me that you don’t need any of that stuff.  You can buy carrots, beans, potatoes, turnips, radishes, cucumber, lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, parsnips, and a hundred other vegetables and eat them totally plain and totally raw and it’s very tasty.  Not to mention, the stuff you’re drowning your veggies in is rarely good for you.

What is expensive is “health food” and by that I mean pre-packaged products that say things like “fat-free” or “organic and all natural” on them.  These products are way more stupidly expensive than their non-healthy equivalents.  A box of crackers might cost three bucks while your vegan, organic, artisan crackers with kokoboko extract for healthy looking hair and enriched with anti-oxidants could cost you seven or eight dollars.  For crackers!  You must be out of your mind!  Ten pounds of potatoes costs you two bucks!  Never forget that healthy food is food that’s good for your health and health food is a marketing tool to convince you to spend more money on simple things.  They might even be better for you but I doubt if switching to organic microwave popcorn will have the same impact as, oh I don’t know, just eating some corn.jv_turnips_1

I’m not suggesting you go down to the store, buy a turnip, and start chomping it like an apple, I prefer to chop an assortment of veggies with different flavours and textures for variety, or several shaved veggies on a bed of spinach and kale with a spot of dressing.  There are restaurants in Toronto where you pay big bucks for this kind of ultra-healthy food and you can have it at home for pennies.  And don’t you dare say you don’t like the taste of something raw until you’ve tried it.  Turnip raw is to die for.  (Here’s what livestrong has to say about raw turnip) When you eat in this fashion you will find that your grocery bill is nearer to naught, you will spend less time cooking and doing dishes, and you will look and feel better.

As far as I’m concerned, economics is no longer an excuse for poor eating habits.

My question: what would keep you from eating raw fruit and veg all the time?

Profundity is much rarer than almost every person i’ve every met would like to think.  Everybody likes to utter earth-shattering insights from time to time.  But what happens when your deepest thoughts go awry?

universe-within-us

Well since 2009, we’ve had a word for one specific kind of stupid.  Philosopher Daniel Dennett popularized and defined the term that his daughter invented and gave a few of the best known examples.  I think it’s something that we can all appreciate.

A deepity is a statement that can be interpreted in at least two ways.  The first interpretation is true but trivial while the second sounds profound but is nonsense.  Here’s Dennett’s example:

Love is just a word.

If you put it in quotation marks then “love” is just a word.  It is as much just a word as “cabbage” or “bark” or “aardvark” or any other word.  If you leave the quotation marks out and you’re discussing the concept of love, it is clearly not just a word.  It could be any number of emotional, chemical, neurological, or literary things and if this were not the case it would be serious news to human civilization.  You see what I mean?  Trivial to the extent that it’s true, false to the extent that it’s deep.

Here’s my best effort:

The universe is in all of us.

You see if by the universe you mean some of the stuff that makes up everything that has every been observed, then yes: each of us is made up of a bit of the universe.  It’s simply a way of saying that everything is made of stuff and we are part of everything: totally meaningless.  On the other hand, if you’re thinking that there is an entire universe inside each person, that’s clearly not true, at least not by any existing definition or universe, or person . . . or inside.

It’s often based on a logical mistake called a “use mention error” in which a concept and an existent object are conflated.  Here’s an example:

God lives within all of us.

The concept of God exists only within the minds of those who understand the concept: only the idea is within all of us.  On the other hand, if you believe in the common theological proposal that god exists outside of space and time then he can’t be inside you, I, or anyone else.  It can be true only of the concept and not of the actual being.

By creating the deepity, Daniel Dennett has given us another trusty tool to identify hogwash as it spews out of the mouths of blowhards into the waiting intellects of amateur philosophers.

Readers: If you can think of any good deepities, please share them in the comments below.