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Most people go through the same considerations when thinking about baby names.  I like this, I don’t like that, this name is pretty, that name is ugly, another is wimpy or slutty, or stupid.  When you consider naming for one moment, it’s an embarrassment.

My own given name was chosen for a few reasons.  Firstly, it, like me, is scottish and scottish names seem to sound right together.  Secondly, my parents thought that it couldn’t be abbreviated, which has largely been successful.  Finally, they liked how it sounded.  I’m not sure how aware they were, but my name translates in Hebrew to “God’s Gift” or “Gift from God” which is at least misguided and at most hilariously ironic.  They also chose a name whose popularity is almost uniquely stable over the decades.  There are two major criteria that people consider when choosing names for their children and neither names sense.

1.  I want my kids to have a unique name.

You look around and see the homogenous mass of Bobs, Joes and Sams and you think, nay you know, that your offspring will be better than all that.  Your child deserves a unique name, if only so they don’t have to be one of two or three in their class in primary school.  That said, you don’t want to choose a name that’s so obscure that it makes your child the target for bullying or mockery.  You want to strike a balance.

The problem is, you’re not as special as you think you are and and people all choose names that are in the same range of slight obscurity.  All the Angelas, Tracys, Karens, and Susans born in the 60s and 70s thought that Sarah, Katie, Laura, Leah, and Lindsey were adequately unique choices.  In my 12 years in public school I never had an Angela, Tracy, Karen or Susan in my class but almost every year I had at least one  Sarah, Katie, Leah  and Lindsey.  Because name popularity moves in waves and you probably aren’t creative enough to break out of the culture you inhabit, the only way to ensure that your kids won’t be one of three in their class is to name them something that is common among your peers, or better yet, your parents peers.  It’s always noteworthy when I meet a twenty something named Fred, Albert, or Melvin.

2. I don’t like that name!

Every name you hear stirs up emotions.  You knew a girl named stacy at university and she was a slut.  You dated a girl named Erica and she broke your heart.  A guy in your kindergarten class named Dan used to eat applesauce every day with his mouth open.  All those names are out.  I knew a really nice girl named Evora so that’s in.

What’s wrong with this?  Well firstly, why do you think that the most important feature of another person’s name is that you like it?  Shouldn’t you be choosing a name that they will like?  Or a name that their peers will like?  To assume that your preference is a factor at all in the choice of your child’s name is incredibly arrogant.  Furthermore, people tend to just trust their preferences without knowing where they come from.  For example, I associate the name Kim with Kim Kardashian and Li’l Kim and Kim Jung Un.  It’s not that I am not acquainted with some lovely Kims, it’s just that your brain builds associations based on how much of an impression someone makes and how recently they made it.  Trish might be a perfectly fine name but you wouldn’t name your daughter Trish the day after your neighbour Trish runs over your dog.  But as soon as your child has a name, the impact they have, and therefore the association in your mind, will be a positive one.  Your child will not be awful because of a negative association.  So the sane choice is to erase a negative association by choosing a name that you hate.

Perhaps more importantly, a name is a title and a title, however obscure or meaningful, becomes meaningless once it’s familiar to you.  In time it’s meaning disappears and it’s just the word for the thing it’s attached to.  If you have always known the band Led Zeppelin you may have never considered that it’s an interesting oxymoron.  So your child’s name will not have the nice connotations that it had during your initial baby-naming conversation for more than a few short moments.  However it will have connotations for every person that your child meets for their entire life.  That’s thousands or tens of thousands of people who will each take away an impression as impactful, or more impactful than yours.  You ought to choose a name likely to have no connotations for the thousands of people your child is likely to meet. Your likes and dislikes ought not come into it.

So in summary, when you name your child, you should choose a name that is common in your age group, choose a name that you hate, and choose a name with no positive or negative connotations among the public.  Don’t be selfish.

Often history is depressing and forces us to be realists.  Often it’s only the ironies that we can enjoy.  But sometimes we see a tiny glimpse of cosmic justice (a glimpse tiny enough to demonstrate the utter lack of cosmic justice) and we can revel in the satisfaction of our fairy tale expectations.  This is one such story:

For many decades, whalers would bring the whales they had caught to the Falkland Islands to process their catch.  This meant burning the whale to melt the blubber and produce whale oil.  But the Falkland Islands have no trees to burn so the whalers had to make use of whatever tinder was at hand.  As it happens, penguins were both plentiful and covered in a healthy layer of flammable oil.

So the whalers would build a great pyre of burning penguins to roast their whales.  After a while the populations of the four penguin species were dangerously small.

But salvation was at hand!  Argentina wanted to reclaim the islands from Britain and the Falklands war ensued.  By the end of the war, 20 000 land mines were laid on the island making it extremely dangerous for whalers to do their business there.  But penguins are rather light, so light that their tiny bodies can’t trigger the land mines.  The whaling and the penguin burning has stopped, and the penguin population has recovered.

I think the moral of this story is: don’t be so quick to condemn land mines?

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Forest conservation: you’re doing it wrong.IMG_8398 IMG_8399

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I’ve recently come in contact with a door that’s got me thinking.  It’s the sort of door that requires a key to be in the lock and turned 180 degrees to open the door.  This normally isn’t a problem at all if the door is a push, or if there is enough friction between the key and the tensioned locking mechanism to let you pull the door open with the key.  This particular door requires one hand turning the key and another hand on the handle pulling the door open.  So when I arrive with something in my hand I have to put it down, open the door, wedge the door open with my foot or shoulder, pick up my package, and go inside.

Why am I talking about doors you might ask?  Because I live in a discordant world.  How can I be a minimalist and a consummate consumer?  How can I admire tradition and progress?  How do I worship engineering, technology, and, science, robotics, nano-technology, quantum computing, and everything science has given us and yet admire the beauty of a hand forged nail, a hand hewn beam, a beautifully made class-A amplifier, or a perfectly tuned petrol engine?

Well lets go back to the door.  Doors have more-or-less been perfected.  They’ve been the same for a while now.  I admire a good door, a door that works well and that never gets in my way, and especially a door that has been doing it for decades.  This is why it’s such a failure of human intelligence to have a two-handed door.  To this point I have the utmost admiration for design and engineering.

What about an automatic door?  Is it necessary or good to take something as simple and functional as a door and install a motor so that it can be opened with no hands?  In my mind this is one step too far.  This is taking technology and making life so much more complicated than it needs to be.

For almost every application, there is a point where simplicity, minimalism, and longevity is maximized and perfect convenience is almost maintained.  Consider a bicycle.  Besides very small improvements, they haven’t changed much in 40 years.  Or consider a stove-top kettle.  It’s cheap, it lasts for decades, and it whistles when it’s boiled.  How much has the electric kettle improved your quality of life?  Did you bemoan the fact that your car windows had to be rolled down before power windows were standard?  Just think about all the tiny little conveniences in your car!  Imagine if all the time and money spend developing and installing gizmos was spend designing an efficient and reliable engine.  Imagine if all the engineers who develop hair driers, coffee grinders, electric blinds, touch-screen central air controllers, GPS enabled smart-phone cameras, and every other gadget you own were working on a clean energy source for the planet.

I suppose what I’m proposing is a cost/benefit analysis for technology.  If you had to pay for it, would you install an automatic door at the grocery story?  Would you employ an engineer to invent such a machine, and a mechanic to install it?  I think not.

The collective human genius would be better spent solving problems bigger than the minor inconveniences in your life.  Bigger problems, or fixing my door.

I’ve written a guest post for a fantastic blog that i’ve been following for months called sixty7architectureroad.  It looks at Toronto’s condo boom and imagines a Blade-Runner-like future where the rich live many stories above the poor and the streets become ghettos.  Click through the link below to read the full text.

http://sixty7architectureroad.ca/2013/08/06/torontos-condo-boom-class-segregation-by-elevation/

A while back I wrote a post called the humble dandelion and our war of attrition with the universe all about how plants will outlive us all.  Well today on the street I spotted the proudest, most resilient plant I think I’ve ever seen and I had to share it.  We hack its head off and it just keeps going like gangbusters.  Show me a person that tough!IMG_6172Doesn’t it just warm your pathetic, mortal, human heart?

Alternative medicine is a popular term for any sort of treatment that you can’t get an actual doctor to prescribe.  One of the most popular fields of alternative medicine, so popular that Britain’s NHS funds it like real medicine, is homeopathy.  But the actual history of homeopathy reveals what a quackery it truly is.

Created in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the idea that an illness is treated by the substance that causes it.  The cure for arsenic poisoning is more arsenic, if you’re bitten by a spider, you should ingest some venom, and I suppose if you get the flu, the only cure is hanging around the ill.  In the original context, it’s easy to see how stupid the idea is.

But give a stupid idea over two hundred years and memetics takes its tole.  Homeopathy has built up a wall of bizarre conventions and processes that make it seem, to some, a little less than totally bonkers.  For example, poisoning people kills them so homeopaths now treat poison victims with water that used to have poison in it.  They dilute the poison until there’s none left, charge patients for water, and claim that because the water remembers that there was poison in it before it will counteract the poison in your body.  Along the way they’ll repeat words like “vibrations” that have no meaning, and talk to you about crystals or your horoscope.

But none of this medical theatrics can change the fact that like does not cure like: you can’t treat a disease by exposing someone to more of that disease.  You see, medicine is an applied extension of the scientific method.  If a treatment were effective, beyond what the placebo effect accounts for, it would no longer be alternative, it would just be medicine.  Therefore alternative cures are, by definition. cures that have either been shown not to work or have not yet been shown to work.

Homeopathy is a racket and the sooner people realize it, the better chance we have to actually solve medical problems.  If the entire institution of science, biology, and medicine can’t fix you, what makes you think an 18th century quack can do any better?

My mum used to tell me that everyone sees the world through their own pane of glass.  As each year passes I understand better what she meant.  The things you’ve learned, the things you’ve experienced, and the things you believe are the authors of your consciousness.  Well a huge part of my own experience and education has been studying human history and it does have a real effect on the way I see things.  Historical perspective has a tendency to make beautiful things ugly.  Here’s an example:

Paris is known for it’s beautiful broad avenues.  Most medieval european cities get harder to navigate as you get closer to the center, yet somehow Paris has a network of wide streets making transportation much easier and defining the esthetic of the city.  But how did Paris get so lucky?  Well it was planned that way.  In the early to mid nineteenth century, Emperor Napoleon III had a Baron by the name of Haussmann plan and execute the urbanization of Paris which involved, among other things, the destruction of ancient neighborhoods to make way for huge, modern thoroughfares.

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That’s nice!  Now here’s the historical perspective.  Many historians today view the project as a method of authoritarian control.  During the french revolution, just a few years previous, revolutionaries barricaded the narrow streets and were able to hold off large numbers of government troops from a defensive position.  Broad avenues made the construction of barricades difficult, it  facilitated the easy movement of huge armies right into the heart of Paris, and it made it possible for the first time to use artillery inside the city.  When you understand how these broad streets were designed to put down the people of Paris, they’re somehow less beautiful.

It’s not all bad though.  Some things that look quite boring become incredibly beautiful in historical perspective.  Here’s an example:150px-Venus_of_Tan-TanThis is a drawing of a 5cm stone that was found in Germany in 1999.  It’s discoverers believe it to be a piece of quartzite carved by geological forces to vaguely resemble a human form, then carved with stone tools to accentuate the shape and dyed with red ochre.  Why is this important?  Because this stone is dated to between 300 000 and 500 000 years old.  That puts it at least 200 000 years older than the emergence of decorative markings on human artifacts.  The dating and the process itself makes this stone a little more than instinct and less than art.  In this tiny rock we may be seeing the emergence of the human sense of aesthetics: the evolution of beauty itself.

The right answer is rarely as simple as we like to think.  To understand why you think and feel the way you do, you have to understand from what perspective you are seeing things.  History is my filter, yours is something different.  The real answer is only visible when all the filters are removed.  Then the truth becomes true for everyone.