24 March 2011 at 6:38 (Uncategorized)

Yesterday I was watching this. Towards the end the interviewer asks what the meaning of life is. I’d just been mulling over my previous post and felt that I should be able to answer that, but not everybody wants the 2000 word version. In a nutshell…

From the big-bang to the potential heat death, our consciousness is a marvellous aberration in a universe that is typically occupied with nothingness. We should embrace this brief interlude from the void. To the best of our ability we should attempt to appreciate this world and the opportunities around us. We should do our part to preserve life so that the adventure may continue.

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A Meaningful Existence

17 January 2011 at 23:08 (toto)

Why are we here? Does any of this pain and pleasure hold any long term meaning, or is it all for nothing? At times quitting can seem like the safe option in a world where you could be indirectly contributing to other’s pain while pursuing this meaningless pleasure. This was the subtext to a discussion I was having with my GP a few years ago as we considered a different course of antidepressants.

I think we both understood that there was something greater than a chemical imbalance at the heart of my problem. He justified it, “Medication is just one tool that we can use. The same is true of counselling or therapy. It may feel like these problems are insolvable, but there are answers, if you keep at it you will find resolution. Eventually you will reach a point where you’re content with where you stand, you’ll feel like you don’t need to pursue this any further.” I looked past him at the framed photo of his wife and kids on the bookshelf behind him. Maybe in one sense he could understand where I was coming from, but his life was probably sufficiently busy that these thoughts would not entertain him very far beyond the moment I stepped out of his office.

As a child I assumed God knew why there was something rather than nothing. He understood the bigger picture. It may have been possible that this was outside of the realm of human understanding, but if that was the case I thought it was a reasonable oversight that God would create intelligent beings and not grant us a richer existential foundation. Still, when I probed further I found that most Christians seemed pacified by the idea that God would enlighten them regarding the meaning of life once it was over. It was irritating to avoid the issue in this manner but I accepted it for the time being.

As I transitioned from theist to deist to a more naturalistic world view I came to see God as a simple solution to this difficult problem. This was one of the most lucrative properties of religious belief: faith offers many simple solutions, turning one’s back on this path and venturing into unchartered territory may be daunting.¹

I became fixated on the long term. At some point within around five billion years it’s predicted that the sun will expand and swallow the earth, provided it isn’t first destroyed by the collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda Galaxy. Either way, the entire record of life on this planet will be annihilated. Even if our species escapes this rock it’s unlikely that we’ll escape the eventual heat death of the universe (or whatever the final destination is). This bleak outlook makes me wonder what the meaning any of this pain or pleasure will hold in the end. Is there any value in being nice or having fulfilling relationships or saving the environment or caring about the truth or enjoying life when ultimately none of it’s going to make a scrap of difference? No matter how you live the result will ultimately be the same. If everything’s heading towards unmitigated annihilation, all of the events between now and then appear to be nothing more than busy work.

From this grim position it was recommended that I should acquaint myself with several authors to get a better grasp on existentialism and nihilism. After a few false starts things started making sense one night as I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Unlike Nietzsche or Sartre, Frankl’s book is more down to earth, more easily accessible. Frankl’s ideas were refined while he was held as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He was a psychiatrist and for some of the duration he was able to take on the task of caring for the large number of depressed and suicidal internees.

While helping these people he came to the opinion,

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning to one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy.”

It felt to me that the inverse was also true; a person who sees no reason to live is incapable of bearing almost any ‘how’. I wasn’t suffering, especially compared to a Jewish prisoner trapped in Nazi Germany. But the hopeless meaningless depression which seemed to resonate every hour of the day following my little existential crisis helped me feel like nothing was worth delaying the inevitable for.

Despite sensing that Frankl understood my problem, his solution still felt lacking. His logotherapy is centred around this idea that it’s critical to find a meaning in life. But all the examples he gave seemed frivolous to me. Love was the most prominent example; early on Frankl describes how he meditated on his wife and his family and sought to honour them. He also gave other examples:

“I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument‚ they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.”

Similar ideas had been with me since pondering that family portrait in my GP’s office. Most people seem to find genuine fulfilment in relationships or, failing that, work. They feel a duty to see things through, to be a faithful partner or good parent or complete their tasks with diligence. That’s fine because it works for them. Perhaps similarly to the religious experience, this fulfilment seems so blinding that many people come across as incapable of worrying about the long term. They’re happy enough and life feels meaningful enough; they seem unable to question the pointlessness of existence.

For me, this solution was thoroughly unsatisfying. It reminded me of the proverb of Sisyphus; generation after generation keeps following in the same footsteps until eventually it will all come to an end. Although, unlike Sisyphus, we don’t have to continue. We have the opportunity to opt-out, we can end this perpetual boulder pushing. In my suicidal ravings I speculated whether quitting this cycle could be our ethical obligation.

However, after reading Frankl I maintained some hope that there was something else worth pursuing. I was stuck here for some time; in a sense the new meaning for my existence became the exploration of said meaning. Then I came across this extract which Richard Dawkins has earmarked to be read at his funeral:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I…”

We’re in a very privileged position. Not only have we won against all the odds, but we’re comparatively well equipped to appreciate those odds. Humans are capable of perceiving and enhancing their fair share of sensory information. We have an understanding of the wider universe; from the very microscopic to the very macroscopic. We’re capable of sharing these experiences in elaborate ways; we write songs, poetry, plays, essays. We describe our experience through maths, philosophy, literature, art, religion. We love, we are capable of acts of passion, we mourn our dead. Yes, it is temporary, but that is why it is special. Our conscious experience is a marvellous aberration in a universe which is mostly filled with nothingness. This immense random number generator has given us a unique opportunity, an opportunity that would be deplorable to pass up.

This notion was fortified at the end of the book God is not Great, where Christopher Hitchens writes:

“Lucretius anticipated David Hume in saying that the prospect of future annihilation was no worse than the contemplation of the nothingness from which one came‚” (pg 259)

Maybe this should’ve been obvious from the start. Perhaps it was because I had always been busy fretting over the looming annihilation of something or the heat-death of something else, but this quote changed my perspective. We are very likely in the process of moving from one state of annihilation to another, but this should only serve to reinforce the concept that we should make the most of this transition while we have the opportunity.²

It’s somewhat daunting to think that we could be wasting time, neglecting this rare opportunity that we’ve been granted. How you spend existence is your prerogative. You could choose to enjoy the wonders of the universe studying the night sky or staring down at your own bellybutton. You could choose to focus on the experience shared with people or the wider world. Now that we’ve established that human experience holds some value it’s also commendable to help others, preserve humanity and look after the earth. The opportunity to continue the pursuit of amazement is worthwhile, even in the face of an ultimate nihilistic nothingness.

As I write this I’m aware that I may have made it sound like there’s some hierarchy of ways to find fulfilment. I doubt this is the case, perhaps there is an argument that the religious or the love sick are equally sensible motivators as this “unique opportunity of appreciation”. Or maybe there are better motivators, honourable causes within this finite world or possibilities to think beyond those horizons. But as my GP said, “eventually you will reach a point where you’re content with where you stand, you’ll feel like you don’t need to pursue this any further.” That’s where I am at the moment. I might try to go and think about something else for a bit.

1. “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” – George Bernard Shaw

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan

2. Nietzsche has an even more poetic (although of course less optimistic) take on this in the first paragraph of On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.

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15 September 2010 at 2:39 (Uncategorized)

So, the other day I was thinking about ‘Mother and Child, Divided’, a piece by Damien Hirst (pictured below). I was thinking how unacceptable it is to take away two lives – to kill two sentient creatures to create some art. I see this piece mainly as a form of entertainment; people enjoy being provoked by it, or there’s some idle curiosity which is being fulfilled, or perhaps it’s trying to communicate a clever idea that I’ve missed. Whatever the case, I question whether any animals needed to be harmed. To me, the suffering and loss caused by this killing is contemptible especially if the motivation is merely some derivation of entertainment. In my mind it’s slightly better than dog/cock/bull fighting only because I assume that these cows were killed “humanely”.

But this got me thinking – if there’s no nutritional requirement for people to eat animals then most people frequently indulge in similar behaviour. The enjoyment of eating meat is just another way to entertain your senses. I think it’s such a poor justification and I feel the same contempt.

Now I’m not sure what to think regarding ‘Mother and Child, Divided’ – if I wasn’t aware of the piece I’d feel less steadfast to this vegetarian thinking. It tastes a little like hypocrisy.

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Lest We Forget

25 April 2010 at 13:27 (Uncategorized)

Each year we remember the troops who died serving our country.  In the early hours of the morning people gather together and listen to platitudes and prayers.  They quote John 15:13 (Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends) – and talk about how these men made the ultimate sacrifice for us.  Perhaps though it’s a little disingenuous to say that these men laid down their lives – they went to war intending to murder, not die.  It proved to be a foolish decision, they put themselves and others in great danger.  These men acted recklessly.  Like drink driving or russian roulette, going to war is a really really bad idea.

Our troops arrived in a foreign land with weapons in hand.  They offered their opponents an ultimatum: surrender or be killed.  Trying to murder another human or brandishing such barbaric coercion is sickening, and it comes at no surprise that someone was going to get hurt.  We were far from innocent victims – we voluntarily brought suffering and death upon ourselves and our enemies.  We took up this deadly tango.

Even if you support these war efforts, and perhaps they are the lesser of two evils, the tragedies that we focus on during ANZAC day are still events we should regret.  These men didn’t do something great, the landing at Gallipoli only demonstrated their self-destructive ability to follow stupid orders.  The result was mindless, senseless, pointless carnage.

I find no pride in this behaviour.  It’s not something to respect, it’s something to strongly oppose.  The men who landed on the beaches don’t deserve to be honoured.  Even if their intentions were nobel their actions were preposterously stupid.  I understand the military isn’t a democracy – but what is honourable about a soldier who follows orders unquestionably?  They are just as dignified as the droids they oppose.  I prefer to honour people who think and avoid killing things.

And most of these “men” were young – 20, or 18 or younger still.  It’s much easier to get a bunch of boys with their perceived invulnerability to take senseless risks.  This is what I think we should really be reflecting on today.  Our elected officials – middle-aged men who should know better – are willing to send our youth off to be slaughtered.

The only winning move is not to play.

They talk at the war memorials about how we need to remember the past to prevent the same atrocities from repeating.  If that’s the case, don’t honour the fools involved, honour the brave conscientious objectors who thought for themselves and refused to participate.

“A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave.” – Gandhi

I think this simple act of civil disobedience is less esoteric than many perceive.  But it would be far from easy.  First, if conscripted you would need to realise you still have a choice, you don’t have to kill just because someone orders you to.  Act like an adult, hold yourself accountable for your actions and refuse to support acts of violence.  Segregate yourself from the war efforts, protest respectfully and serve your gaol time.

“You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees. An evil system never deserves such allegiance. Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil. A good person will resist an evil system with his or her whole soul.” – Gandhi

As regrettably as they talk about the atrocities of war, ANZAC day is distinctly pro-war.  If only we had more heros like Gandhi who showed it was possible to overthrow an oppressive regime with non-violence.

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text scripts for OS X

12 March 2010 at 11:59 (Uncategorized)

This week a couple of friends have independently remarked about a word-counting script I wrote some time ago. Back in the day I was using Quicksilver’s Large Type to display the results of the word count, however, with Quicksilver development dwindling I switched to spotlight sometime ago. So here’s a couple of alternatives. Just select the relevant text and then run the program using the launcher of your choice (e.g. the spotlight menu). All of these scripts work on any text that can be copied to the clipboard. If you want to build the first two scripts from the .scpt you’ll need to edit the application’s info file, as per the comments in the code.

First up, Word Count, which gets OSX to vocalise the number of words that are selected. You can download the application here and/or get the .scpt (source code) here.

Secondly, Text Statistics pops up a display notification with a count of the characters/words/paragraphs that are selected. You can download the application here or grab the .scpt here.

And for something a little different, Speak Text is a script which gets OSX to start speaking your selected text. I often use this for proof reading. Most of the time you can access speech from the contextual menu or services menu, but it isn’t available in some programs including Chrome and Firefox. If you want to stop the speech part-way through, command-tab to the running script and press command+period. You can grab the app here and the .scpt here.

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change of spirit

31 October 2009 at 16:25 (Uncategorized)

I can be a bit of a grump, especially around festivities like halloween. I didn’t know anyone who celebrated halloween when I was growing up in the 1990s and I hate seeing the Americanisation of Australian culture.

However, as Mum and I took the dog for his walk tonight I reevaluated my stance. Normally our suburb is fairly quite with the exception of the odd car hooning through the backstreets. But tonight there was life! We saw several groups of kids out with their parents stomping the footpaths. Imagine: actual people interacting with their neighbours! It was great to see.

We also commented that some of the parents and kids looked like they hadn’t walked anywhere in a while. Actually I heard one mother explaining to her daughter that she was too heavy to be carried any further and would have to walk—even if her legs were tired. Damn straight, it’s troubling enough that kids can only be lured outside by a potential sugar-high, but they should at least be required to invest a few kilojoules upfront.

So, I’ve changed my mind, I’m ok with halloween and anything else which encourages a little light exercise and discourages xenophobia in my neck of the woods.

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Coming of Age – Losing My Religion

16 August 2009 at 11:30 (Uncategorized)

While I was growing up I considered myself to be a dedicated Christian. I attended a conservative Lutheran church which appeared privately opposed to abortion and homosexuality, but appreciative of a scientific setting and a historically accurate study of the bible. I didn’t feel my beliefs were radical, but that they were righteous and following Christ’s teachings wasn’t just the path to salvation but also an exemplary way to live your life.

This article attempts to describe my recent spiritual journey. It starts several years ago when I began to feel some discord between the morality of the bible and my own moral compass. These issues were difficult to investigate because I was heavily invested in my biblical-beliefs. I tried to repress my doubts but soon ran into more difficulties; this time being unable to reconcile my religious upbringing with my budding understanding of the natural world. I also became aware of works by Christian and secular historians who questioned the historical accuracy of the bible. Finally while studying with a Jehovah’s Witness I became increasingly sceptical of the methods and integrity of the Protestant churches.

I really started critically analysing my beliefs the year after I finished high school. At the time I was definitely a believer, witnessing to my unsaved friends and colleagues, attending church and bible studies, praying and finding strength in my faith.

Towards the end of the year it became an increasing struggle to reconcile some of the things in the bible with my own moral compass. It began with some issues I had with certain teachings in the old book which I thought sounded nationalistic, racist or homophobic. Such narrow-mindedness sounded more like the product of feuding desert tribes rather than the wisdom of a benevolent creator. It seemed plausible that ancient communities could harbour such ideas — discrimination is not unheard of among humans. While the new testament is an improvement it started to unsettle me that Jesus didn’t speak out about issues such as slavery (1,2,3), woman’s rights(1,2) or racism. It didn’t seem befitting that the prince of peace would take such a lousy stance on these human rights issues.

Then, for almost a year I called off my search. I had too much riding on it. There had been times while I was growing up that I was presented with what I considered irrefutable evidence that god existed. I’d felt the holy spirit, I knew of the deep spiritual energy that can come during worship and the serenity and peace of mind that can come during prayer or quite times of reflection. I had also been given books, attended camps, and received an education which confirmed that the bible’s recount of the life of Jesus was historically accurate and scientifically agreeable.

A Scientific Tangent
Sometime after I began my hiatus I started studying science at uni. As I studied I started pondering new questions that the bible didn’t cover. For example, if life is sacred, how should we treat viruses? Are they even alive (it’s debated among biologists and depends on your definition of living). It’s now possible to completely map out every component of a virus, draw a model of all of the molecules and talk about how it functions. They’re nothing more than a bunch of atoms, and outside of a cell they don’t appear to be alive. You could argue that outside of a cell a virus has more in common with how a rock functions than how a living cell functions. So, are they sacred?

In the field of nanotechnology there are scientists who are using viruses as a scaffold on which they imbed their own customised tools. Is that ethical? What if they were to build their own “virus” from the ground up? They’re already using molecular self-assembly to create their own biological machinery, what line do they have to cross before they’ve created life?

The argument can be broken down further if we consider the humble prion. It’s nothing more than a simple protein, a string of amino-acids. Yet, when put in the right place it can cause devastating disease. It seemed clear to me that an independent string of amino-acids that happens to have a biological function shouldn’t be classified as alive and it doesn’t have a soul. But it’s a dangerous precedent. At what point is life deemed significantly sophisticated that it becomes sacred and gets a soul?

In hindsight, it’s obvious: souls are simply in the realm of the make-believe. This revelation doesn’t make someone amoral, outside the shelter of the church exist great works by philosophers and ethicists. In bioethics we were encouraged to consider a reverence for life in all of its forms. Albert Schweitzer talked about giving recognition to the awe felt when life begins and the importance of respecting each organism’s inherent will to live. Life is extraordinary, we should treat it as such.

There were plenty of other scientific topics which helped me to start thinking differently. Genomics, speciation, ethical animal treatment, transgender/intergender, abiogenesis, the symbiotic origin of mitochondria, and the developmental, genetic(2) and physical evidence supporting evolution are all interesting subjects which are addressed very poorly in the bible. For most of the questions that I was asking I was able to defend my faith. For example, my first thought regarding god’s purpose for prions (which only seem to cause illness) is still that prions either didn’t exist or weren’t harmful before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. Similarly, I’d always been able to reconcile evolution with my faith by telling myself “god could’ve put all of the pieces in place on earth and then overseen evolution”. Every time I made such allowances, my faith felt more and more like intellectual dishonesty.

Virtueless Faith
I’ve just given an overview of some of the issues that made me unsubscribe, however once I started looking for opinions independently from the church I found there were vast differences to what I’d learnt in sunday school. I’d been indoctrinated to believe that the bible’s canon was a heavily guarded document which remained unchanged over time and that the teachings of “the church” were supported by biblical historians. I still have friends who believe that the Gospels are eye witness accounts written by the disciples. These views are simply not supported by the majority of academics (iTunes link).

Perhaps though, one of the best exercises I undertook in critically analysing my former beliefs took place well after I became an agnostic atheist. Early one Saturday morning I answered a knock on the door from a friendly Jehovah’s Witness. I gave him the time of day, and as a result ended up studying with him over several months. I attended his Kingdom Hall on several occasions, visited his home, shared meals, but most of the time we just read the bible and debated theology.

The JWs are an interesting bunch, they’ve more or less repeated Luther’s process of deconstructing the dogma and getting back to the original meaning of the texts. I appreciate the honesty and scriptural backing to their approach. Of course there are also aspects to their group that I wasn’t so fond of; they are ‘more cultish’ than the other denominations in that all members are expected to pull their beliefs into line with the established teachings and they’re discouraged from having friendships outside of their community.

Anyway, it was a powerful experience, many of the traditions were different and I found myself questioning some things I’d always considered normal. For example, the songs they played in their services were fairly mellow. This made me reflect on the hillsongs played at my former church (that I still find myself humming from time to time). I recalled the incessant drone and the manner in which Lutherans repeat the chorus, repeat the chorus, repeat the chorus, repeat the last line, repeat the last line, repeat-repeat-repeat. When combined with the liturgy of droning in unison, the creed and other groupthink during the service, it’s hardly a discreet attempt at brainwashing. From the outside, there are aspects to the way the service is conducted which appears to assist the faithful in having a heightened emotional response. This behaviour is even more blatant in Pentecostal churches and sickening in the documentary Jesus Camp.

The other attribute that I appreciated in the JW’s was their attempt to practice what they preach. They spent their time going door to door because it was written in the bible. Some members worked part time so that they could dedicate more of their life to ‘storing up riches in heaven’ rather than gathering mere earthly possessions. I could see they were making an effort.

Conversely, I get the impression that there are very few Christians with faith strong enough that they’re willing to put their lifestyle on the line. I cannot reconcile their affluence with the lifestyle promoted by Jesus. In Matthew 19:16-28 Jesus instructs them:
“…go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me… I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” He goes further in Luke 14:26-27,33 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

If you truly believed Christ was God you wouldn’t ignore his message. Go then and give your possessions to the poor and dedicate your whole life to him. I think the truth is that many people don’t follow through on these teachings because their faith is nothing more than a comfortable paradigm which helps them understand existence. While it is not something they honestly and literally believe, it remains the cornerstone of their worldview.

Moving On
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – 1 Corinthians 13:11

These days faith is a very strange concept. Why would I want to trust something without seeking evidence? Why would I believe something which wasn’t supported by evidence? I don’t think my faith was ever really “taken on faith”, and it’s evident in the ministry. The church always tries to support their teachings with some form of evidence. But whenever you seek to rationally support faith it isn’t really faith, its (bad) science. Ultimately, people who have religious beliefs are either intellectually-dishonest, delusional, illogical or uneducated. These attributes aren’t necessarily bad, but I prefer to strive for an honest, rational, logical, educated outlook. Scientific belief is founded on an evolving body of knowledge which changes based on independently verifiable and repeatable results obtained using the scientific method.

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diminished returns

15 December 2008 at 13:17 (Uncategorized)

…living in a community where crying, weeping and mourning is a weekly, or sometimes daily event has driven me to apathy. I never knew that my sense of compassion could become fatigued, but now I’m no longer able to find the energy. Knowing that grief is something that can only be comforted through the cruel passage of time leaves me feeling hopeless, unable to help. I’ve reached a point where I distance myself and don’t offer support. This feeling of apathy troubles me. I worry, I feel like I’m losing my ability to care about anything.

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16 November 2008 at 13:07 (Uncategorized)

This in really a comment for Alex, author of the blog My Opinions and my Life, but I feel that this response is sufficiently long and off topic that it warrants its own post. This blog was recommended to me yesterday after a friend of mine recognised that Alex shares some of my interests. He’s about to embark on a polyphasic sleeping schedule and he’s been training his left hand to improve its dexterity for increased efficiency. People who know me well would’ve heard me harp on about efficiency and about polyphasic sleep at some point, they’re just a couple examples of ideas that I love. In a nutshell, I love exotic ideas that challenge the traditional way of doing things. So I was interested to see what Alex had to say (BTW Alex, perhaps when you’ve mastered the polyphasic sleep schedule you could use some of the extra time to try learning to type on a Dvorak keyboard).

One of his earliest entries is a post describing Busywork. As he describes it “Busywork is work assigned which is intended to keep the person, in this case students, busy or it is work which is pointless and teaches nothing. This can also include homework. It is not limited to students and schoolwork but in this case it is.” Busywork is a reoccurring theme that is mentioned in several of his articles.

I had some moments like that while I was at school (I finished in 2002), but I think it was more typical of some of my friends.  They lamented about the stupidity of “busywork” and how poorly designed the school system was and how we shouldn’t need to do certain things.

Most of the time though, I didn’t debate the value of our menial learning tasks.  While I remember broaching the subject a couple of times, there didn’t seem like there was much that could be done.  Also, I was made to realise that my parents and government were paying a lot of money for my education and I felt obliged to make the most of the “learning experience” – admittedly, in hindsight, I could’ve done better on several occasions.  

However, I distinctly remember this argument about “busywork” coming to a head one afternoon in maths. Our maths text book was divided into around 20 chapters and each chapter was divided into 20 or so sections.  Each section would focus on a certain sort of problem, have a couple examples, and then have around 30 questions for us to practice.  These questions would all be practically the same, especially at first, they’d just change the numbers and make some of them +/-.  Towards the end, around question 25-30 they might be a little more difficult, introducing a few more unknowns into the equation, or raising something to the power of 3 (^3) instead of just squaring it (^2).

Our maths teacher was a good bloke, and he would only ask us to do the odd numbered questions up until Q25.  But still, I remember someone asking what the point of doing all those questions was.  Our teacher said that it was to train us and ingrain the idea.  Sure, after reading the example, the question and the path to the solution are obvious, and you might be able to jump straight to the last question and work it out.  However by doing a fair selection of the questions you’d get a better taste for the logic.  If you thought it through each time rather than just plugging in numbers, it would slowly become ingrained. Soon enough, you didn’t need to remember how to find the solution because the logic became second nature.  Practising all of those problems wasn’t about learning an algorithm for how to derive the solution, it was about learning how to think, learning the tools necessary to arrive at similar solutions independently.

At the time this struck a chord with me.  Our work wasn’t aiming for us to rote learn algorithms, it was slowly teaching us a process.


Later, at uni, in neuroscience we did some study regarding how the brain learns and remembers.  It’s all about building and then reinforcing neural-networks.  This is particularly well demonstrated when it comes to learning and remembering motor functions, but it holds true for all sorts of learning.

If you’re doing something for the first time it’s difficult because you have to concentrate to co-ordinate everything.  But when you’re doing something for the second time it’s easier for your brain because instead of reinventing the methods, it remembers how you performed the action last time and just repeats (while monitoring and adjusting for any changes).  The more you perform the action, the easier it gets because the pathways may become easier to access and/or because shortcuts can develop.  These might be shortcuts that make the task quicker in the physical world. For example, you might realise that it’s easier to hit the backspace key with your pinky rather than your ring finger, and so you become a more efficient typist. Or, these shortcuts could be neurological shortcuts, i.e. instead of your brain thinking about where the backspace key is and what finger it needs and where that finger needs to go, the process becomes “muscle memory”, where by, when you realise you’ve made a mistake all of the relevant steps needed to get your pinky hitting the backspace have been reduced to the point where the backspace key almost gets struck without requiring any conscious effort.

Of course, this is highly relevant to the idea of becoming ambidextrous.  You already know how to write, so at a technical level writing with your left hand is just as easy as writing with your right hand. There’s no extra understanding that is required, it’s just a matter of muscle control.  Developing better dexterity is just a matter of practising and allowing the grey matter to form more shortcuts so that it can control the motor functions with greater ease.  Practice makes perfect.

As you would therefore expect, they’ve found that certain musicians (such as violinists and pianists) have larger motor-neural areas specific to controlling their hands because they constantly train and demand both of their hands to work simultaneously with dexterity and precision.

Also, in other studies, they’ve found that you can improve your strength just by doing ‘thinking exercises’.  Your strength isn’t just determined by the size of your muscles, but also by the way your utilise them.  As I was saying before, the more times you do something, the more efficient you become.  When it comes to a physical task, doing the exercise over and over will allow your body to find new combinations of muscles that it can call upon to complete the task, this takes quite a while to perfect.  They’ve done studies where they get someone to imagine lifting a weight or squeezing a sensor.  They’ll get the person to imagine they’re doing this several times a day for a few weeks. At the end of the training period they’ll test how well the person can squeeze the sensor. They’ve found that the strength gain is comparable to someone who’s been training physically during that time.  Of course there’s a limit to how much you can increase the efficiency of your muscles and eventually you’ll have to start working out if you want to gain further strength, but to begin with it’s just about all in your mind. This is yet another reason why gym membership is a rip off: the first few weeks that you pay for is really just spent doing mental conditioning, you could get the same results without getting off the couch! Gyms sort of acknowledge this, telling people that they shouldn’t expect any results within the first few weeks (although they don’t say why).

So, back to school. A reasonable proportion of the time school work is boring and repetitious. But that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. It teaches you discipline, hones your ability to learn, focuses your attention. Most undergraduate study at uni is much of the same, teaching kids how to think, analyse, research, critique, collect and store information. Being able to flick through an academic journal is a skill in itself that can only be gained through some hard yakka.

Finally, you should read this article by Malcolm Gladwell where he discusses how geniuses aren’t born, they take time and lots of practice to develop.

I also had some other friends at school who weren’t so worried about busywork. One of my friends was very successful at school and ‘stood in line’ most of the time. But by the end of High School he said that he’d had enough.  He was sick of doing the other stupid stuff that they make kids do at school. He was sick of taking crap from teachers just because they’re in a position of power, or taking crap from idiot school yard bullies just because it’s not worth the trouble.  Or doing stuff for the school that helps the school but doesn’t really aid your education directly, like peer-mentoring (making year 8s not feel threatened) or doing school talks for assembly or cleaning up the campus.

Once again, this was the school teaching us discipline. This was not further academic discipline, it was about how to be good citizens, work as a team member for a larger cause, look after humanity and the earth. They were trying to instil some leadership skills, responsibility and a sense of pride. Most of it was “community work” which was of direct benefit to the school and made us feel like we were being taken advantage of. But it endeavoured to ingrain some of the values that made our school and the members of its community successful.

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into the ether

26 October 2008 at 16:07 (Uncategorized)

At the beginning of the year Selfish managed to get me to read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a strange little book. I found the first half to be very difficult, with its unusual writing style and foreign ideas. But it was well worth persevering. Among many gems, the book delivers a distinctive criticism of the politics of religion and ‘religious science’.

Then, a couple months ago I noticed they were making a film, 2081 based on another one of Vonnegut’s books, Harrison Bergeron. Last night I got around to reading the (very) short story and then watching the 1995 TV movie on google video. I thought the TV movie was a fantastic production, and it introduced several new concepts to the story.

The original story is about a future where equality has been achieved throughout society by handicapping everyone. People of above average intelligence are prevented from being too smart through little ear radios which interrupt their thoughts, preventing them from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

In the TV movie, this idea is expanded upon. In addition to tiny ear radios, the very smart people are required to have neurosurgery to further encumber them. The doctor explains, “We just create electronic blockages at certain points. The brain is forced to re-route messages and information around these blockages. The new routes require double or triple the time. All mental activity is slowed and intelligence drops drastically.”

While this tale of tall poppies sounds fanciful, it’s not difficult to see parallels with our own world. Over the last decade our children’s education has been pushed further and further into a world where struggling students cannot be failed or be held back. A more distant parallel can be seen in the various ways that governments take measures to control people through education or the media; writing the news and editing history. Or, in the context that it was written, we can see it as a satire of the 1960s ideas of communist egalitarianism and capitalist freedom.

Yet, I also see another parallel. About a year ago I spent some time in a mental health ward of a hospital. When detained they inform you (formally, several times) that all treatment is mandatory. You lose the right to refuse medication, and if you’re unable to give consent for Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) the Guardianship Board can give consent on your behalf.

ECT involves inducing controlled seizures by delivering an electrical charge through electrodes placed on the patient’s head. I wish I knew more about ECT, specifically about the sign up process or the restraints put in place to protect the ill.

I remember a couple of encounters I had with patients shortly after they’d received ECT. They were easily confused, disoriented, and suffering from memory loss. One morning in a group session there were two patients who became distressed when they couldn’t recall why they were in hospital or how long they’d been there.

Where I was staying there were some people who volunteer to be detained. There was one poor bloke who came out of a psychotic episode and discovered he’d tried to slit his throat. Another bloke was desperate to control his anger and anxiety. But there were also people who didn’t want to be there, who’d been sent there by psychiatrists. A therapist told me that we’d been detained due to our potential for harmful/dangerous behaviour, however because the therapy is focused on thoughts and feelings I still find it hard not to think the thought police are out to get me.

While I don’t accuse them of abusing ECT, I’m not sure that I want to entrust people who endorse such treatment with my mental health. Which is interesting, because I was hesitant but co-opperated when they told me they could help me with medication. In hindsight, I feel like modern psychotherapy is a bit of a guessing game.

Even though I don’t fully understand the playing field, I feel like I know enough that I’m opposed to involuntary ECT. As a society you may be opposed to self-harm and suicide but I advocate the rights of an individual over the rights of a state to fry such behaviour into the ether. This advocacy should probably extend to medication and to psychotherapy. Nobody should try to contain or censor your thoughts without your consent. I really do see this as a censorship of thought even if they only do it with the best intentions. It’s a decision you have to make if you’re thinking about seeking psychiatric help; you cannot seek their help without giving up some freedom because they cannot offer help without trampling some freedoms.

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