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Happy Darwin Day, and My Crappy Eyes

It’s Darwin Day (and Lincoln Day, too, I guess), and I will be doing nothing special or out of the ordinary because its technically not a holiday here in the States.  But I will post a fun e-mail I got way back in 2011 (well before this blog existed), and my response to it.

“how many mutations does it take for something as perfect as the human eye to evolve. Even Darwin avoided answering that one. Just thought I would give you something to think about, cheers.”

Yeah, look here to see where you’re mistaken.  The evolution of the human eye has been examined and confirmed over, and over, and over again, by people much more knowledgeable on the subject than I, so there is no reason for me to dwell too much on it.  But I would like to notify the e-mailer (and those who share her/his mindset) that s/he is speaking to a man who has had myopia since he was eleven years old, developed astigmatism in his right eye somewhere around age 15; and two days before my 21st birthday received news that the intraocular pressure in the back of my eyes is higher than normal, which may or may not cause serious vision problems somewhere down the line (including glaucoma).  Furthermore, given the 40/60 rate of vision problems that run in my family, one can easily deduce that my vision problems ultimate have a genetic cause.  Thus, I am the absolute worst person to be preached to about the so-called “perfection” of the eye.  In fact, if you pester me with how awesome and “miraculous” human eyes are, I might just be tempted to punch you in yours.  :D

Happy Darwin Day,

SS

Even if you hate him, you have to admit that the sumabitch had one wicked beard.
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The Peril of Talking to People

WordPress does a pretty good job filtering out all the spam that ends up in my Comments tab.  Although, it’s not like its really hard to spot:

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The first one is an obvious ad (I know what you’re thinking, who can I tell?  Well, I’m psychic), but the others seem–at first glance–to be genuine responses.  Until, of course, you notice the awkward diction, the vague commentary, and the fact that the actual content of each one of these only relates to the posts they were left under in a broad generic, sense (as in, they could be easily placed under any post, with the same message, and work just as fine).

Since starting this blog, and being expose to the commentary of mindless spambots on a daily basis, I have come to realize that my everyday conversations don’t sound all that much different from any of the comments above.  Granted, my word choice is more lucid, and I don’t usually plug designer dresses as I’m talking (or, do I?), but the general vague responses are still just as empty and devoid of substance as those generated by these automatons.  As people talk to me about the mundane happenings of their day, I’m not listening, I’m just nodding in a neutral rhythm because that is the routine that I have learned from having people talk at me throughout life.  Moreover, I’m fairly certain that the other person in the conversation is following the same routine when it becomes my turn to take over the role of “talker” so that they can gather their thoughts for another round thereafter.  No, I don’t do this with everyone (just most of my co-workers, all of my acquaintances, and more family members than I want to admit).  There is a handful of people I really do talk to in the course of a conversation, by they are by far in the minority.

I also noticed the same thing happen when I watch the news.  The anchors serve no pertinent role on my local programming, they are just fillers to provide empty commentary so that the bullet points on the screen seem more personable to me (and strangely enough, it works).  This makes me wonder how many conversations in life I must have taken part in, where I contributed nothing of value whatsoever–just serving as a sounding board for the other person, because I felt like that was the proper thing to do.  Since I don’t have firsthand access to any other mind but my own, I can’t help but fall into the fallacy of generalizing my experience to everyone else.  Part of me hopes I’m wrong, and it is only a bizarre minority of us who feel this way; otherwise, how can we as a society be expected to communicate in a evermore globalizing world, when we don’t even know how to talk to one another, yet?

On Respecting Parents and Valuing Children

Most people agree that respect is something that needs to be earned not commanded; unless, of course, you’re a parent.  Parents consider it a given that their opinions are to be considered innately infallible to their children, and thereby are to be honored by fiat.  The message is clear:  Parents are to be shown respect, simply on account of being the parents, while children have to earn respect through persistent acts of good-works.  The rationalization many parents make for this hypocrisy is that by virtue of having made the children, they are entitled to a certain degree of adoration from their offspring.

I’m disturbed by how many accept this non sequitur of an explanation.  It is true that a person’s existence is wholly dependent on her parents’ existence.  However, how does this fact lead someone to conclude that a child ought to respect her parents, just because they are her parents?  The sentiment appears to be that a child is indebted to the parents for granting her life, but at which point exactly, prior to having been born, did any child ever ask to be given this grand gift of life.  Because, by necessity, the decision was entirely one-sided.  Hence–keeping in mind that no child asks to be born–if parents are permitted to claim that they have earned the respect of their children on account of having made them, why aren’t children permitted to claim that they, too, have earned the respect of their parents on account of having made them parents to begin with?  After all, individuals cannot be parents independent of having children (either biologically, or through adoption).  Therefore, the respect parents wish to reserve for themselves by right of being “creators of life,” holds no true bases in logical discourse, since children can also be said to be creators; creators of parenthood itself.

Now, the question that a reader might be wondering is, do I think that parents are due any respect whatsoever?  My answer is yes, parents are due all the respect they have rightfully earned through their actions.  I have little care or regard for those who respect their parents for no other reason but that they happen to be their parents, and when I encounter such individuals it immediately tells me just how much respect their own parenting skills deserve.  Respect, like love, cannot be commanded by virtue of authority, it must be earned.  Otherwise, all you’re doing is partaking in emotionally blackmailing your own children; to which the only respectable response can be undying resentment.

The Fallacies of Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s law is a humorous (and accurate) observation by Mike Godwin that, when it comes to discussions on the internet, no matter what the topic is, the likelihood that one commentator or another will make an analogy to Hitler or Nazis increases with the duration of the discussion.  Or as Godwin himself put it in satirically mathematical terms:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

Godwin claims that his motivation for coining this internet meme was to make online commentators more aware about their carelessness with Holocaust analogies when engaging in internet arguments.  A statement that few who have spent more than a day on an online forum could disagree with.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with and accept the accuracy of Godwin’s law, I have also noticed several careless misuses by its more fervent proponents.  Rather than simply being an observation about the nature of internet discourse, it has mistakenly been turned into a logical fallacy against anyone who so much as dares bring up similarities between a poster’s antics/comments with that of Hitler or Nazism, no matter how apt the comparison might be.  What is ignored is that Godwin’s law does not make any judgement about the appropriateness of a Hitler/Nazi analogy, just that its occurrence increases as a conversation prolongs.  Whereas, the meme once served to cause deeper reflection on behalf of comment posters, it is now used to evade unfavorable comparisons one’s words may merit; to claim victory without caring to offer up a defense to an accurate observation, and instead scream “FALLACY, FALLACY!” on the top of one’s lungs, while pounding the figurative podium in declaration of one’s triumphant logical superiority.

Yes, most resorts to Hitler/Nazi analogies made online are by definition the result of careless hyperbole, and fallacious reasoning.  However, this does not warrant the notion that all Hitler/Nazi analogies made against a proponent are instantaneously fallacious, just by virtue of being Hitler/Nazi analogies; the context in which the analogy is used is still an important consideration.  To claim otherwise  is, ironically, a fallacy in and of itself.  Perhaps, we need an internet meme to describe how as an online conversation grows longer, the probability that someone will misuse/misunderstand Godwin’s law approaches 1.  Of course, once we did that, we would also have to coin a law to describe the misuse of that law–circularity is man’s natural state of mind, after all.

Coping With Stage Fright

The first thing that needs to be understood about stage fright is that either you have it, or you don’t.  If you don’t have it, good for you, enjoy your life.  But if you do happen to have stage fright, you will more than likely have to put up with it for the rest of your life.  I’m not saying that to be discouraging, I’m just trying to be honest about my own personal experiences of dealing with stage fright.  There is good news, however, in that even if you can’t completely exorcise the irrational phobia from your consciousness, there are ways to manage it; ways to make your anxiety undetectable to lay observers.

Before I get into all the details let me give a little bit of background about my own issues with stage fright.  I have always had stage fright.  As a kid in grade school, I hated being called on in class, I hated having to take part in school plays/performances, I hated everything and anything that had me standing (or sitting) in front of a group of people, focusing on my words/actions.  Whenever I found myself in such a situation the first thing that would happen is my heart rate speeding up, next I would feel the blood pump into the back of my head (which was deafening to my ears), my knees would feel both light and heavy at the same time, my mouth would go dry, my voice would give out, and my face would turn as red as a tomato.  This went on for a long, long time.  I never “grew out of it,” as people kept telling me I would.  Even today, as someone whom most people would identify as a sociable, talkative kind-of-guy, I still feel a silent dread at having to address a group of people.  But because I’ve learned how to cope with my stage fright, the uncomfortable experience remains solely a private one.

Let me just say upfront that my ability to manage my stage fright is not the result of counseling or medication.  Additionally, I tried meditating as a teen, thinking that relaxation techniques would help me get over my anxiety, and all it ended up doing was making me more anxious (I worried so much about whether I was doing the breathing right that I couldn’t relax for a second; also, it made me dizzy).  Self-hypnosis was a complete waste of time.  And no, thinking positive thoughts didn’t do much either, on account that (for me at least) worrying thoughts are never voluntary to begin with.  What helped me cope with my stage fright in my late teens were the following realizations:

1.)  Stage fright can never fully go away.  It sounds a bit strange, but it’s probably the most important lesson I had to learn.  I was so focused on getting to a point where all of the symptoms I associated with my stupid phobia would simply go away for good, that any effort that yielded a lesser result would come across to me as a failure; leading to more anxiety on my part.  Finally, in college I began to concentrate on getting to just a barely adequate presentation level (enough to at least be passingly understood by my audience).  Gradually, my confidence grew with each presentation, which started easing up the physical signs of my nervousness; i.e. my voice stopped changing pitch, my face stopped blushing (this one was more of a steady improvement over time; first the blushing was just restricted to my cheeks, then it only showed up for the first minute or so of my talk, until it’s now gone completely).  Now, don’t misunderstand me, I was (and remain) terrified of speaking in front of people.  However, once my goal changed from trying to beat my stage fright, to simply trying to hide it from the audience, my mind started to feel less overwhelmed by the experience, giving me enough time to take a breath and at least mask confidence to the audience.  Which eventually developed into real confidence.

2.)  Starting with a joke is always a good idea.  I know it sounds cliche and overly simplistic, but I find that even the most mundane of humorous comments at the start of the talk will make the experience so much easier when it comes to my stage fright.  It doesn’t just put you at ease, but the audience.  Not to mention if you do slip up in the middle of your presentation, establishing yourself as a humorous person at the very start makes it so much easier to recover (it makes the audience more forgiving too).  I know that some of us aren’t gifted with perfect comedic timing, but you need to remember that no one is expecting you to bring them to tears from laughter; no one is expecting you to be funny at all.  A slight quip about the scenery or some local activity (keep it conservative), or even the talk you’re giving itself, will do the job just fine for no other reason than that it is not expected by the audience, which will make them appreciate your effort to make them more comfortable.  And will make you more comfortable in return.

3.)  People don’t care about you.  Well, some people care about you, but your audience doesn’t.  At most they care about what you’re about to present, not you as a person.  And if you don’t draw attention to yourself, they’ll easily forget about everything in your talk that didn’t concern their preemptive interest.  This is a point that I was aware of long before I learned to deal with my stage fright, the problem was that it did me no good because I didn’t actually believe it.  In the back of my head (my nervous, blood pulsing head) I firmly held on to the idea that everyone was listening to every word I said, as if their lives dependent on hearing my stupid 5-10 minute oral report.  Getting myself to actually abandon this bit of irrational thinking took some time and a lot of effort, but it was a needed step in being able to handling my stage fright problem.

There are several more things that go into it, as well as numerous subsequent details that accompany the three above, but I think this covers the essentials as they pertain to my experience.  And it needs to be remembered, this is based on my experience.  Personalities are different, and people respond differently to different stimuli, so there is always the chance that my methods aren’t good enough for you.  However, I think the points I listed are universal enough to at least push most people in the right direction of coping with their stage fright.

“Intelligentsia is Dead! Hooray!”

Historically, the word intelligentsia refers to someone occupying a murky upper-class status on the basis of their intellectual contributions to culture and society.  These select few would (more often than not) share two major criteria amongst themselves:  1. They were rich.  2. On account of criteria 1, they didn’t have to work for a living, thus could spend all their time philosophizing about life and its hardships (unlike those philistine farmers who were too busy collecting crops for the village to sit back and reflect about what really matters to people).  Since the end of feudalism, and the laughably archaic status of aristocracies, intelligentsia can come to refer to just about anybody who writes a book that educated people hold in high regard, whether it contributes anything to our social consciousness or not.

Admittedly, the notion of what is, and is not, to be deemed intellectually worthy is quite subjective.  Speaking for myself, I would rather read the worst dime novel imaginable, than the most academically praised book on anything political.  Regardless, I have no issues with the diverse opinions people hold about good and bad writing or art.  What I’m getting at is how intelligentsia, as an applicable term, is  entirely nonsensical in any contemporary meaning.

Whether it was genuinely well intentioned, or the product of a corrupt system, the artists and writers that made up the intelligentsia of the past did produce works that creatively immortalized pieces of human history.  Gave a frame of reference to a past culture; something we can nostalgically look back and draw inspiration from to progress forward through moments of social gridlock (for example, the way the Renaissance was inspired by the intellectual contributions of ancient thinkers).  I can’t imagine such a thing happening with any of the works being produced by the public intellectuals of today.  That’s not to say that there are no good books being written in literature, or that modern art is devoid of aesthetic skill (though my septuagenarian neighbor would beg to differ).  But none of these are truly capable of sparking the imagination of the people as they once did, partly because we would have to be removed and forget about them first (which in today’s information age is impossible).

It is noteworthy that the title of the public intellectual has never been assigned on the bases of popular opinion, but on the basis of what other public intellectuals promote amongst each other as just too brilliant and sophisticated.  And everyone goes along with it, because its assumed that these people must know what their talking about (and nobody wants to risk looking unsophisticated and lowbrow).  This is just the nature of the animal; unlike the sciences, Arts and Humanities studies have no such thing as a decent peer-review process, largely because the peers themselves are removed from the broader social culture they reside in.

The intelligentsia of society used to be polymaths, whose expertise would roam across academic disciplines.  That is no longer a viable position to occupy.  Our knowledge and data is too broad to be encapsulated by any one mind; specialization is a necessity.  The era of the intelligentsia is dead and gone, and I for one welcome it as an important testament to our educational progress as a society.  We have accumulated so much data, raw knowledge, that it cannot be confined to the few.  Despite the pessimistic nature of these posts, some words do deserve to die.  When a word because too rigid to be properly applied in any meaningful way, the responsible thing to do is to retire it, and let it rest in peace.  Now, all we need to do is let the self-styled public intellectuals in on this fact.

The Internet as the Rabbit Hole

Every now and then I decide to briefly try going on somewhat of a web-detox regiment.  Not for any deep reasons, I just feel that my web usage occasionally reaches a critically high point.  Mind you, I can’t just cut the ethernet cable to my Wi-Fi completely, because the sheer prevalence of online services in managing my daily chores is too great to allow for that sort of liberty (I still have to check my emails daily in order to pay my bills).  But, to my surprise, when put to the test these necessary online duties take me under 15 minutes to complete from log on to log off.  This was surprising to me, considering I’ve previously been known to spend hours on end staring at my laptop screen.  My excuse for raking up these net overtime hours was always that I’m doing something productive (reading fancy-pants articles, and whatnot), in addition to pursuing leisurely activities like online games and YouTube.  But in reality, I was just trying to find excuses to continue staying online for any reason whatsoever.  The internet just has this way of making me feel as if all the important things that occur in life revolve around this omnipresent series of tubes that place the world at our fingertips.

Just about everyone reading this will probably have little trouble understanding the initial stages of withdrawal I experienced throughout the last week, and how I craved for that psychedelic high that comes with navigating from one site to another (picking up bits and pieces of information from dozens of different sources, at record speed).  But I don’t want to fall into the trap of sounding overly melodramatic about what should really be a mild nuisance.  Yet, it is a moderately noticeable form of mild annoyance, in that even now that I have broken my semi-netfree fast, I feel a sense of hesitation about resuming my previous web surfing habits.  Almost as if, now that the routine has been broken, I fear falling back into it again.  The fact that this is having an affect in making me question what would normally be my usual course of action, makes me think that some kind of–even if only in the most superficial recesses of my mind–psychological dependency has been severed.  And I’m left with these undefined reservations about reestablishing the normal mode of operation again.

Despite the fact that so much of my personal and professional life incorporates online services, the reality is that the dominance of the virtual world we create for ourselves on the internet, is largely illusory.  The all-encompassing presence I am (and I imagine many of you are, too) keen on attributing to websites, forums, online groups, blogs, is very much a self-maintained delusion, sustained by the fact that cyberspace allows us to do something meatspace doesn’t: transcend social limitations and decorum.

In the four days of my net abstinence, I saw how tediously slow information in the real world operates.  This makes the speediness and efficiency of online data a very attractive alternative  (ironically,  however, the lack of easily available distractions made whatever task I was doing also go by much quicker).  Furthermore, I saw how unaware a great deal of people are about internet culture and memes (and not just to the elderly), even though I always considered these things to be fairly widespread in popular culture.  The jokes, the tweets, the web-dramas, and multitude of online communities, don’t have much of an existence outside of their cyber confines (either that, or people simply feel stupid referencing them in person).  But the primary difference I took notice of was the general way people communicated with one another.

Whether you believe me or not, I make it a habit to write on this blog in the same manner and diction I do in my daily life.  Now, of course the blog format allows me to correct the occasional grammar mistake, and rephrase poorly articulated statements to better convey my opinions, but the basic tone expressed is the same as it would be if you were sitting across the table from me (just with less “ums” and awkward pauses mid-sentence as I fumble over my words).  However, when I see some of the more blunt and vitriolic comments left online, I find myself wondering just how many of these individuals would be equally daring with their choice of insults in a face-to-face conversation.  In person, even more confrontational personalities remain for the most part reserved when they are facing possible opposition in thought from a second party.  There is a level of empathy and solidarity in play; even if you hate the person speaking to you, it’s difficulty not to humanize someone whose face is right in front of you.

When forced to interact in person, most people have somewhat of a filter that prevents a lot of faux pas and breaches in social etiquette from leaking through.  Online, where the person you are interacting with is nothing more than a far-off abstraction of typed words, this filter is virtually discarded in favor of apathetic aloofness (see what I did there with “virtually”, ’cause we’re talking about “virtual” reality; try to keep up with my linguistic subtleties nOObs).  And the tiny personal transgression we are willing to overlook in the fellow human being seated across from us is thrown aside when that human being is reduced to nothing more than a screen.  I imagine it’s too much like having an internal monologue (where anything goes) that we forget there are actual people reading our diatribes.

This brings me to the core realization that hit me this week: the internet is essentially imaginary.  Not in the sense of being nonexistent, but in the sense of it mirroring our impulsive inner ramblings.  Hence, it’s no surprise that it can deliver such a satisfying high to our psyche, since it practically serves as a reflection of our deepest thoughts.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think I’ll try to limit my daily dose and remember that there is a space, outside of cyberspace.  On which real life hinges.