Evolution’s Failures

I think it’s hilarious to imagine evolution’s failures.

Think of how our digestive systems are able to function no matter which way we’re sitting or lying, carrying food to the right place in a peristaltic wave, even if it’s going against gravity. Think of the pre-human who didn’t get that gene. He’s all like, “check out this handstand!”, then as soon as he’s upside-down, all the wooly mammoth he ate earlier is pouring out of his face. He suffocates, dying before he ever had a chance to procreate, and his shitty genes never get passed on. Hilarious.

Thing is, one day that guy will be us.

Evolution is not only biological, but technological. We already pity the people of the past—most of human history—who didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Technology has doubled our lifespan just by tuning up our default biological hardware from the outside. Think of what we can do once technology moves inside.

It’s a near certainty that we will merge with technology. We already rely on it, and there’s gotta be a better way of interacting with it than through our fingers. When our brains and bodies are made more of bits and bytes than nerves and leukocytes, the people of today will be the pre-humans.

Looking back, we’ll think that our squishy biological way of doing things was hilarious. “That’s right son,” we’ll say, to our sons. “We had computers we plugged into walls, but our own method of recharging was—hah, it’s so gross, but get this—we mashed up other living things with our teeth then let them slide down our throat. There were actually people who couldn’t find things to eat, and they died. Forever! They didn’t even have a backup.”

And our sons, they probably won’t even understand how (or why) we managed to get through the day.

Evolution makes failures of us all.

The Myth of the Evil Genius

Joker by Nebezial

The evil genius only exists in fiction.

An evil genius cannot exist in reality, because in reality, intelligence and evil are incompatible. A genius acts rationally, and history constantly proves that it is rational to be good.

Genius and evil are two terms that are nearly impossible to define, but most people know it when they see it. Adolf Hitler was evil. Osama Bin Laden was probably evil. Albert Einstein was a genius. Bill Gates is probably one too.

It’s not that evil doesn’t pay; genius and evil both pay, in some sense. Bill and Osama both have mansions, and could probably afford the most expensive bacon at the grocery store (though I guess Osama would pass). The difference is that Bill is living a comfortable life that leaves a trail of advancements and improved lives. Osama is at the bottom of the ocean riddled with bullets, and has left a trail of destruction and ruined lives.

Osama and Adolf did gain power, but was it through genius? I doubt it. They excelled in some areas—charisma, mostly, and probably a good helping of being in the right place at the right time—but I doubt they were geniuses. Not in the sense meant here: extreme mental ability for coming to correct conclusions.

On both an individual and a societal level, it is rational to be good. More often than not, the correct choice between a good option and an evil option is the good option, all things considered. Murdering a person you can’t stand may be easier than altering your own life to get away from him (say, packing up and moving away), but on an individual level, murder will probably put you in jail or dead yourself, and on a societal level, allowing people to murder willy-nilly wouldn’t be conducive to happiness and productivity.

That’s why the evil genius doesn’t exist. Even if the impulse to do evil was there, a true genius would take a moment, and think “hmm, considering all the consequences, maybe genocide isn’t such a spiffy idea.” If The Joker was really so smart, he’d figure out a way to resolve his Batman problem without blowing up innocent people and getting thrown in Arkham again and again.

Evil cannot result from the cool calculated machinations of a genius. In real life, evil is in the hot passion of an argument when a knife is nearby. It’s in the subtle biases of a politician whose values are misguided. And in that sense, evil is in all of us; luckily we also have an inner genius to play superhero.

On Ann Coulter, Tolerance, and the Subjectivity of Morality

Ann Coulter, the conservative political commentator from the U.S., recently made a visit to Canada. First she visited my fine school, UWO, to talk then avoid questions and make a few racial slurs. Then she tried to talk at Ottawa, but backed down when she discovered a shocking truth: people here don’t really like her.

Everyone is talking about this. A lot of the discussion goes like this:

  • I support free speech.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak.
  • I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak about you not wanting to speak.

Etc., forever. But such discussion isn’t really productive. I think we need to get more meta, and look at some higher-level questions that Coulter’s visit brings up:

1. Is indiscriminate tolerance a good thing?

2. If not, what should be tolerated, and what shouldn’t be?

3. Once we figure that out, what should we do with people we don’t tolerate?

These may seem like matters of opinion, or moral questions without any objective answers. For example, while most people, when pressed, would agree that the answer to #1 is “no,” they can agree to disagree on #2. Some think homosexuality is wrong, others think worshiping a false god is wrong, and that’s just their opinion. Same with #3; acting on those opinions, is it better to stage a peaceful protest, or “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”1? Some argue that’s a moral question with no precise answer.

I don’t buy that.

Some actions are objectively right and other things are objectively wrong, and it doesn’t take an omnipotent being writing rules on stone tablets for that to be true. When we disagree on which of two actions is best for humanity, one or both of us is wrong. An individual person is extremely unlikely to have all the answers, whether she is a priest or a physicist, but we should never deny that there are answers. And I believe that with enough time, science, and careful critical thought, many of these answers will be revealed to us.

In a recent TED talk, Sam Harris expresses a similar viewpoint (it’s well worth clicking and spending 20 minutes to watch this talk if you’re at all interesting in this stuff).

From the talk:

Now, it’s often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values because science deals with facts. And facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It’s often thought that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.

The only wrinkle is defining morality to begin with, but I think the one Harris provides—maximizing the well being of conscious creatures—is one that most people (and if they could be asked, animals) would agree on. And the point is that for any definition of morality, there is an objective answer to moral questions.

So what about Ann Coulter? Well, I believe that free speech is objectively good. History has proven that the open flow of information from all sources maximizes human well being. I fully support her right to speak, and while you won’t find me out there protesting, I fully support their right to protest as well. But much of the content of her speech is objectively false. For example, should we invade countries and convert them to Christianity? No. The objective truth value of her Christian beliefs is questionable, plus the very act of violently converting people to any belief system is repugnant.

I am open to being proven wrong about my moral stance. However, while it’s nice to see people using Coulter as a staring point for discussing moral questions (even writing blog posts about it), part of me thinks her ideas are so comically evil that it would be better to just ignore her. After all, what’s worse: being scared off a campus by a group of peaceful protesters, or arriving without fanfare to an empty room, then leaving without selling a single book?

Regardless of whether it’s inspired by Coulter or not, we do need to keep questioning and requestioning our morals, because it is possible to find answers.


1 Coulter, 2001.

P.S. This is kinda off topic, but another thing I have a problem with is making fun of Coulter’s physical appearance. Yeah she’s a celebrity and thus opens herself up to it to some extent. However, pointing out her adam’s apple because you disagree with her political stance is coming from the same base, ugly, immature side of human nature that her crass racial quips come from. Don’t stoop to her level.

P.P.S. Try putting anncoulter.ca into your web browser.

Book Review: Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I’ll keep this short, because Freakonomics is a pretty simple book. It takes a look at various topics—the effect of names on success, drug dealer salaries, cheating in sumo wrestling, etc.—through the eyes of an economist.

This book is a few years old (and has a sequel out now), and it took me a while to get through it, mostly because it’s been my “sit on the bedstand and read for a few minutes before bed” book for a long time. And that’s the ideal context for it. Read a few interesting facts, go “huh, that was interesting,” then put it aside and go to sleep.

There’s some weird deifying of Levitt that just feels out of place, but aside from that, the authors do a good job of merging interesting anecdotes with potentially dry number crunching. The accuracy of the conclusions is sometimes questionable, though. While there is a section about the difference between correlation and causation, causal claims based on correlational data are still presented with more certainty than is warranted.

Much has been made about some of the more controversial topics in here, such as racism, and abortion. For example, they claim that legalizing abortion can lead to a drop in crime rates years afterwards. This may be true (or may not)—and certainly this fact should inform moral judgments about abortion—but the fact itself has no morality attached to it. Presenting such a fact is not a moral stance. Information itself is neutral; it’s what we do with it that determines morality.

Anyway, I’d recommend Freakonomics as a nice little entertaining read for anyone interested in some offbeat conclusions that have been drawn from studying economics. I wouldn’t take it any further than that.

Normal Activity

It’s Halloween time, so as one would expect, many ghostly happenings have been … happening.

A few nights ago I had a lovely date night with myself. I got some snacks and some wine, turned off all the lights except for a single candle, and sat down to watch a scary movie. I’d never seen The Changeling before, but it had a few rare moments of freaking the hell out of me with its simple but effective scares. It’s all the ghost story clichés done right.

Then today, at the Central Library, I went to see a talk by ghost researcher Cameron Bagg, who presented these same ghost clichés as fact. It was an interesting presentation; he told the story of how he first encountered ghosts (mysterious sounds, feeling a presence, teleporting objects, etc.), the tools he uses to hunt ghosts, some spooky anecdotes, all that. He showed some pictures of ghosts and spirit orbs. Ambiguous shadows and spheres of light.

At strange gatherings like this, I find the audience makeup and reactions as fascinating as the talk itself. This was a diverse group of people – old, young, crazy, not-crazy. Good old Roy McDonald was in attendance (he seems to be everywhere at once … like a ghost). And their reactions; well, I think this was the defining moment:

Bagg took out a television remote control. A regular remote, with an infrared transmitter on the end. He pointed it at the audience, clicked a button a few times, and said “does everyone see the flashing light?”

Many in the audience nodded. Murmurs of “ah, yes!” and “I see it!”

But there was no flashing light. His point was that cameras can see frequencies of light that are invisible to the naked eye (e.g., infrared; indeed, a flashing light could be seen when he pointed it through a camera). But there is a deeper point that inadvertently came out: when people are presented with a suggestion, they are likely to see things as consistent with that suggestion. When shown a static bulb and told it was flashing, many people in the audience, they literally thought they saw it flashing.

Similarly, when someone believes she is about to see ghost photographs, then you show her a shapeless shadow, she will see a human figure in it. Suggest that a dead woman lived in a house, and a picture of an empty room contains her face in a blob of reflected light. The noises at night aren’t the people in the next apartment bumping around, but ghostly rapping. An object appearing where it shouldn’t isn’t a lapse in memory, but a mischievous poltergeist.

I’m not saying ghosts aren’t real. Ghosts are an intense phenomenon genuinely experienced by a significant proportion of the population. These experiences can’t be explained by the speculations of armchair debunkers, and even though I wish he was more objective about it, I am glad that people like Cameron Bagg are out there actually trying to figure it out. But aside from any paranormal explanations, there is a lot of equally fascinating normal human psychology going on in the minds of those looking for ghosts.

Children of the Corn

There’s a commercial for bottled water on TV right now that shows kids frolicking in a swimming pool, and a voiceover goes something like: “your children don’t swim in high fructose corn syrup.”

The conclusion you’re supposed to draw, I guess, is that your kids shouldn’t eat foods with high fructose corn syrup, and should instead drink this particular brand of bottled water.

Here are some other things your children do not swim in:

  • Vegetables
  • Toothpaste
  • Looking both ways when crossing the road
  • Politeness

Yet, in my humble opinion, these should be included in every child’s life.

It’s such a dumb argument that I feel stupider just writing about it. But I’m sure there are millions of people out there who will see the ad and say, “oh golly, that there ad is right huh? My kids don’t swim in corn syrup! And I heard on them there news program that corn syrup is doggone toxic! Honey, can you go down to the store and get some bottl- DAMMIT BRANDON GET OFF THE FUCKING SHED!

Of course, the truth is that high fructose corn syrup is just like any other sugar and is only being used as a villainous contrast to sell a product you get for free out of taps in every modern home. Sorta the opposite of calling something “green.”

In conclusion, when I have kids, I will dunk them in high fructose corn syrup.

It’s Almost Like ESP, Day 2

Once again, I took part in Richard Wiseman’s fun but flawed Twitter remote viewing study. Here’s what I tweeted when he said he was at the location:

Here is what I drew (rotated to disingenuously enhance appearance of psychic ability):

And here is where Richard turned out to be:

Once again proving that I’m totally psychic. I’m probably remote-viewing you right now. Please stop doing that thing with your ear. It’s just gross.

Edit June 29: Results have been posted over at Richard Wiseman’s blog. As I expected, nothing really substantial there. It was more of a proof of concept than anything scientifically useful. Disappointing.

It’s Almost Like ESP

Popular psychologist Richard Wiseman is currently conducting a unique study that uses Twitter to gather research participants. He’s seeing if his Twitter followers can engage in remote viewing to detect where Richard is located (explanation here). So the idea is that Richard goes to a randomly chosen location, then asks people on Twitter to use their psychic powers to give any impressions about where he is, then later choose which of 5 locations they think he was at.

When he gave the go-ahead this morning, I was happy to participate.  Here’s what I tweeted to him:

“First thing that came to mind was a star shape (oops, thinking of Zener cards?). Railing. Concrete. A lamp post. Playground?”

I also acted like a real remote-viewer and scribbled a few drawings:

Then it came time to pick which location I thought he was at, out of these five:

Well look at that! My posts, railings, and concrete all over the place. But I thought the most striking resemblence was between my middle picture and his middle picture (C), so that’s the one I guessed.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t where he was. He was at D.  So if I am psychic, it’s only for my future experience, not for remote viewing a real location.

Wiseman’s experiment isn’t really unique except for the Twitter aspect. Similar studies have been done many times, and strangely, usually find above-chance results (i.e., people are able to guess where the remote person is more often than if they were guessing). It’s also full of holes and flaws in its methodology (so many that I hope the true purpose of the study is remaning hidden and this is all a cover story for a better study).  Still, it’s good to see psychic phenomena – which the majority of people in the world believe in with little question – getting some attention and new technology applied to it. I think both religious and scientific bigotry have kept good research from being done in this area, and I hope we can overcome silly taboos to engage in more of it.

Go follow Wiseman on Twitter to participate – it’s going for a few more days. Or see his blog for more details and results.

Secondhand Transmission from a Distant World

Everyone is an alien to someone.

I’m in my late 20s. To anyone under the age of 18 today, I’m from a world they have never been to, and never will. A world we call the 1980s. It was inhabited by creatures with big curly hair that listened to cheesy pop music and grazed on Pixy Stix and Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip (aka sand you can eat). I grew up there; I have vivid memories of the world around me and the formative first experiences I had in it. But anyone under 18, they can only dream of such things.

See, this isn’t even the packaging I remember, but it’s all I could find on the internet. That old Lik-M-Aid packaging, it’s lost to time; it only exists in my memory of that alien world (and maybe partially rotted in an old box in someone’s basement).

Space aliens are separated from us by distance; we are separated from other people by time. But really, time is just the distance between two things that happen in the same place.

Which, of course, means that anyone older than me is an alien too. If a little grey man stepped out of a flying saucer that carried him from a planet I could never visit, I’d be treating him like a sort of god, asking him every question I could think of. Maybe our own greying human elders should be treated with the same respect and reverence.

This isn’t limited to time. The subjective experience of any one person can’t, by definition, be experienced by other people. To anyone else, it’s an alien sensation that can only be indirectly and imperfectly expressed. But even second-hand transmissions from the alien landscape of another person’s mind should be fascinating. Indeed, it’s what makes conversation with someone new so great. It’s what gives mass expressions of one’s consciousness – art, music, poetry, writing, whatever – their magic. SETI is cool ‘n everything, but Earth’s own idiosyncratic aliens are just as fascinating.

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin

Before I begin, let me just say right off that I enjoyed reading this book a whole lot and I heartily recommend it. The following harsh criticism is partly because I care enough to wish it was just a bit better, and partly because its subject matter falls in my own general area of expertise (psychology), so I’m bound to be nitpicky.

This is Your Brain on Music explores the science behind music, drawing from the latest research in psychology and neuroscience to explore various facets of creating and listening to it. After reviewing some basic information about music and music theory (most of which was new to me), Levitin begins describing the science behind topics such as categorization of music, the role of emotion in music, and musical expertise.

My first beef with the book is in its accuracy. Vague hypotheses and tentative research findings are often presented as established fact. However, this is to be expected in any science book written for a popular audience (again, me being a nitpicky psychologist). But there are other little errors. Levitin briefly mentions that Canadian psychologist Glenn Schellenberg was an original member of the popular 80s band Martha and the Muffins. However, a bit of Googling reveals that Schellenberg seems to have only played a guest role on a later album of theirs.

This only caught my attention because I’m currently running a study that Schellenberg kindly provided some audio files for. And speaking of name dropping, Levitin devotes many words to telling us how many famous people he has chilled with. At one point, he suddenly goes from talking about the role of the cerebellum in music to an elaborate tale of how he attended conferences with all his scientist heroes and even met Watson and Crick. This autobiographical stuff is interesting enough, but it ruins the flow – the rhythm, if you will – of the scientific stuff when the two are discordantly mashed together.

This haphazard organization is also exemplified in the book’s final chapter. During a discussion of music’s primary role in human evolution that is finally starting to lead somewhere, Levitin suddenly jumps to a vague hypothesis about mirror neurons fueling cultural evolution, then jumps again to a rambling, repetitive paragraph that pretty much says “humans live in groups” 5 times in 5 slightly different ways, and then, the book ends. No real final thought; no paragraph even trying to tie the preceding chapters together, just a random stopping point when he ran out of facts and anecdotes to throw onto the page.

Did I mention I liked this book? While it may be a disorganized collection of facts about music, each fact is fascinating on its own and well worth reading about. We often fail to think very much about the music we listen to for hours each day, and This is Your Brain on music, while it could use improvement, is an eye opening exploration of the deeper layers of the magical human experience that is music.

Side note: In this post, I wondered about the underlying reason for certain musical conventions. For example, why do minor chords sounds sad? Is it arbitrary and cultural? Or is there a more concrete reason? This book answers some of those questions. Long story short, like usual, it’s both. The laws of physics are responsible for some combinations of sounds going well together, but arbitrary choices and conventions also play a large role. E.g., apparently not every culture thinks minor chords sound sad. Interesting stuff.