haggholm: (old)
  • Current rank: White belt, 4 stripes (last step before blue)
  • Technical skill (estimated): Equivalent to the average white belt, 2 stripes¹
  • Actual sparring skill (est.): White belt, 1 stripe

I honestly do not understand how I can be quite so bad. I know that I have no talent for this, and I’ve long since made peace with that—I’m in it for continual improvement (however slow), not to beat anybody. I expect that everyone who walks in the door and sticks with it will pass me—eventually. I don’t mind. What does bother me is that it seems anyone can walk in the door and be able to beat me after a few weeks of classes. I am at a loss to explain this profound depth of ineptitude.

As a bonus, in spite of going to BJJ at least twice a week, biking to and from work 5 days a week, and rarely eating junk food (my diet isn’t great, but it could easily be and has been much worse; I can’t remember the last time I had chips…), I somehow manage to keep getting fatter. This, too, I am at a loss to explain. I know I shouldn’t fixate on this, but I can’t help it. And, of course, if I am to compete at least once, it’s a very terrible idea to get bumped up several weight classes just from fat.

Not infrequently (when I am in the grasp of these doubts) I feel like I ill deserve to even be a member of a gym, and question whether I should go back at all. And yet that would be a much greater failure still—and, of course, when I am not in the grasp of these doubts I love it, and physically it rarely fails to make me feel better.

I just wish I knew how to stop being so disproportionately inept.

¹ I do some things right. I never panic, I am methodical, and I am generally pretty good at using my weight and putting pressure on my opponent—I’m told I feel [even] heaver than I actually am. On the other hand, my game is slow, lazy, vastly over-defensive, hopeless against active and athletic opponents (whether skilled or not), and completely devoid of sweeps.

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Lately, I have begun to think differently about failures and shortcomings when I cook. Where I used to think Damn, this is not as good as it could be (or Damn, this is terrible!), I now seem to think things like Next time I should use more salt, or I should change the balance of root vegetables in this stew, go a little easier on the white pepper, and let the potatoes simmer just a little bit longer. This seems significant—not so much because I’ve gained more knowledge (though clearly I have, if those adjustments have any merit, and they seem to), but more because I regard a sub-par dinner as a learning experience rather than a soul-crushing failure.

As for this weekend: Today’s seafood stew is really pretty mediocre, but will feed me adequately for a few days of work (stews have the advantages, after all, of being easy to make in large quantities, and re-heating rather well); last night’s herb encrusted flat iron steaks were excellent, even if they could have used another little bit of that sea salt. (The cut helps, of course. Flat iron steaks are beautifully marbled and, well, basically the best beef you can get, as far as I am concerned.)

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Most of my life, I have not fit in very well in groups. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I’d rather not fit in that compromise on being myself, and no matter how many potential friendships and group memberships I might lose, well, there are more people out there and I would rather wait to gain the friendships that require me to sacrifice nothing. (This is not an excuse not to grow, or to retain poor social skills; “sacrificing” means “losing something that is not negative”.)

Sometimes it can be a bit of a bother, though. Today saw some event called “Car free day” on the Drive, and wandering up and down the Drive with Sarah I felt that familiar sense of “outside-ness”, as though there were an invisible glass wall around me and everything around me. Usually, as I say, this does not bother me, because I’m used to it, because there’s an awful lot of people whose society I care for and about not at all, and because I can do rather well on my own anyway, but the Drive is an area with so many colourful, liberal, and interesting people that I wish I could relate to them. In a way I love the Drive; in another way (but for much the same reason), it makes me sad; it’s a place where I do not want to feel like an outsider. With no piercings and no tattoos, I feel like I stick out visually like a sore thumb, and I do not know how to approach people…

The only context I have ever found to blend right in has been at various parties and gatherings that Erin has invited me to. It’s really kind of funny—I like Erin, I think she’s a great and nifty person, and I enjoy talking to her, but we aren’t close, and for all that we can usually find something interesting to talk about on those occasions when we do talk, we don’t talk often, and I can’t relate to some of her big passions (I can just about tell rhododendrons from rhubarbs; that’s as far as my gardening knowledge goes). Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m not a hippie… Somehow, though, the people she surrounds herself with all seem to share some quality that lets me join in and just fit in with the crowd, without feeling as though I am held (by myself or by others) at an invisible arm’s length…I can talk and laugh and not feel drained. Usually, socialisation in groups—even when I do enjoy it—takes a lot of emotional energy; these gatherings do not. I don’t know what the quality may be. I don’t know how to seek it out for myself, and I still don’t know how to approach, so I am beholden to someone to start conversation with, a seed crystal of socialisation. But once there it is effortless and remarkable.

I am often somewhat at a loss when people speak of building community or a sense of community—I feel rather vague on what the word even means, in much the same way as I am puzzled by the word spirituality. It’s the mental equivalent of being asked to flex a muscle you do not know how to control (unless you know how, go ahead and move your ears). Perhaps this is it—community. Perhaps I should try to seek out more of it, somehow.

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I just submitted a support request ticket to WebFaction (where I host my website), asking a question about setting up Apache with mod_wsgi and Python 2.6. Of course, when I submit such a ticket, I have some level of concern, and I expect some level of feeling more informed, confident, and generally better about my setup and solution once I get a response. I just realised that I felt that surge of assurance as soon as my ticket submitted—my experiences with their tech support, and my impressions of their customer relations culture, have been so universally positive that I don’t need to see a reply to feel confident that they’ll help me out; I just need to know that they got my request and they will take care of me.

Given how irritable I can be with tech support in general, this is pretty much a miracle of geek-oriented customer relations; this is one of the reasons why I’m happy with WebFaction, and this is why I’m perfectly happy to embrace some brand loyalty. I’m not saying that they are the right fit for everyone, but if you’re a web developer with a geeky bent, and if they offer the particular services you need (or if you’re OK installing it yourself in your ~/local), then it’s hard to go wrong with them. (I don’t know what their uptime guarantee is; my website isn’t exactly high-profile or demanding. I do know that I haven’t experienced any downtime in the two years I’ve been with them.)

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Last night I hit the Zone for the first time in a very long time, hacking away at a geeky product sheerly for my own pleasure. (I’m refactoring the Python/mod_wsgi backend for my website, and for a private side project; last night I cleaned it up considerably, added decorators to set proper Content-Types and invariant data, fixed cookie generation, and implemented a login and session management system.) I reached the point where I forgot hunger and thirst, and where it took some effort, at 1:30 am, to finally force myself into bed.

I’ve missed the Zone.

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There are many common and more or less egregious errors that tend to irritate the more irritable among us, such as myself or my wonderfully curmudgeonly friend Ren—the they’re/their/there confusion, confusing its with it’s, and so forth. Because I sometimes like to revel in my own irritability, here’s a list of either less commonly reviled, or altogether less common errors:

  • Lay versus lie. I know, this is rather nitpicky of me, but that’s the point. It seems that more people around me get this wrong than get it right. You can lie on a bed, but you can’t lay on a bed…except in one particular sense: The only common usage of ‘lay’ as an intransitive verb I can think of is the shorthand for birds laying eggs. Presumably, this is not what people mean when they plan to lay in bed.

  • The atrocious habit of using quotes for emphasis:

    This week, a “new” special offer!

    More often than not, this appears in advertising, which has a doubly deleterious effect when I’m the target: First, the grammatical error annoys me; second, quotes in such a context (where they do not actually denote quotation or citing some particular term) tend to be so-called “scare quotes” and denote sarcasm. Thus, when I read something like that, my initial reaction is to interpret the message as sarcastic and the special offer as not at all new…and then the typographic sin hits me, and I get seriously annoyed.

  • The use of the word literally to mean metaphoricallyid est, not literally. Seriously, people, if you tell me We’re literally dying in here rather than We’re really rather inconvenienced, I’ll be more inclined to suggest dialling 911 than addressing your concerns.

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When I was hired to write the assignment module for eRezLife, in 2007, it had a fairly different scope than it does now. The core is still the same—we have a set of students and a set of residences; students have preferences about the sort of rooms and roommates they want, and residences have rules (preferences) concerning what sort of students should be assigned to them; and we want to efficiently produce a good mapping between the sets. That core hasn’t changed.

What has changed is everything around it—so that we now want to track history, run multiple concurrent sessions, and so on. This doesn’t entail a lot of fundamental changes, but the algorithm does now have to track the state between subroutines, and a lot of the selection procedures are affected (parallel and consecutive sessions affect room availability). Additionally, the need for an event history necessitates the creation of a whole bunch of new tables, more logic at certain junctures, and so on.

Of course, none of this is very surprising. Projects have a way of growing, and new requirements emerge; additionally, even though we have some pretty solid write-ups by now defining the behaviour, workflow, UI, and so on, there are always minor details where it turns out that my boss had implicitly assumed something that just wasn’t so. This is not a criticism of the development process, requirements gathering process, or any such thing—we started out weak but have worked out a pretty solid process by now; it’s been a very real process of growth and learning for the company.

My current frustration comes from communication issues, mostly from the higher-ups a bit further from the development process, but occasionally from co-workers. Let me prefix this by saying that a very big part of this is my own psychology: I’m not trying to assign blame; I’m trying to figure out why it is that I keep feeling irritated in order to see what I can do about it. That said, here’s what happens:

When I started working on this project, alone, and with a different scope, I naturally designed it to meet the requirements as they were formulated at the time. Since then, they have changed both in what they are and in terms of how explicitly and specifically we have laid them out, so that I now work towards a different set of requirements. This is fine and natural and how things are. The problem occurs when someone says something like We’re going to have to display X. Our system tracks that, right? or I assume that the system can do Y. Quite frequently, I do not in fact track X, and I have not designed the system to do Y. I don’t feel guilty about that, since those were not part of the original requirements as presented to me. However, when you present it in the form of an assumption rather than a question (Do we track X? Can we do Y?), I can’t answer No, but I’ll make it so, Captain; instead I am put on the defensive—No, your assumption is flawed; the system can’t do that because it was never specified in such a way.

This may sound a little over-sensitive, but I think it’s a fairly natural way to feel. Suppose that you and I are flatmates and handle the dishes communally; suppose that on a given day, it’s unclear whose job it is. If I ask you Have you done the dishes? you can answer No; I can then ask Could you do them today, please?, and there needn’t be a problem. If, on the other hand, I come up and say I assume you’ve done the dishes, odds are that you’ll be a bit put off by the notion that I’ve made this assumption without your consent.

Additionally, I’m a bit extra sensitive because the backend system of this project is my baby—no one has worked on it but me, and while it’s rife with flaws that I see in retrospect, and doesn’t match the changed requirements, I’m still fairly proud of it: I think it’s fundamentally a good system. Present an idea as a request for something new and I can happily say I’ve already done that! or Sure, I can make it happen. Present it as an assumption and non-compliance looks like a flaw in what I have created, a criticism of my work, and I’m easily offended by that.

Of course, there is one fundamental problem in expecting communication to work the way I wish—viz, the reason why these things are framed as assumptions is presumably not out of a desire to communicate offensively, but because these things are assumed, which is a problem of knowledge diffusion (inescapable in some cases, as my boss is not an engineer and wouldn’t understand the technical details, nor has any need to). Ultimately, I suppose, the take-home lesson from this would be something like the following: Be conservative in making assumptions, and err on the side of posing questions.

I do not think that the utility of this is limited to communicating with me.

haggholm: (Default)

As someone who values the scientific method and philosophy of logical inferences and dedictions, empirical observation, Occam’s Razor, and so forth with a rather long list of highly valued principles; as someone who thinks that few approaches to finding truth can compete with experiments in physics, or double (or triple!) blinded medical experiments (when evaluated as Science Based Medicine [SBM] rather than Evidence Based Medicine [EBM], with the former’s greater understanding and acknowledgement of prior probabilities, etc.)—

—As a naturalist, materialist skeptic, in other words, one of the most irritating and most pernicious cognitive traps is that of scientific-sounding rationalisation, that isn’t science at all. I daresay it’s something several people I have talked to (or do talk to) would accuse me of, had they happened to express themselves using my exact vocabulary (though it isn’t their entire beef). I do acknowledge that it’s real; I do not claim to be immune to it; I do my best to guard myself against it. …But what am I actually talking about? What is the basis for my worldview, what are the common errors and how do I try to guard against them; what are the inherent weaknesses, and how to I justify adhering to this mode of thinking in spite of them?

What science is

Science is a process of finding the truth¹ by

  1. Making observations (gathering data);
  2. Constructing a model (forming a hypothesis);
  3. Making predictions based on the model;
  4. Verifying the predictions, and throwing out the model if it’s wrong.
Of course that’s a very rough generalisation, but that’s the basic idea: You need data to construct a model; you need a model to generate predictions; and if you don’t have any verified predictions (which means they must be falsifiable! —it’s not verified unless you leave room for failure if the model’s wrong), it isn’t science.

Scientific explanations aren’t like that, though. A scientific explanation of an already-observed phenomenon is not science; it’s just based on it. It cannot be science: In order for it to be science, I need to construct a model and check that it’s a good model. We don’t always do this when we explain something scientifically. Instead, a scientific explanation is an explanation of some phenomenon or occurrence based on what science has shown is feasible. If you show me an example of purported levitation, or a UFO sighting, or similar, and I explain (very reasonably and probably correctly) that there are natural explanations for what I’ve seen, I’m just observing that it fits the current scientific models.

Post hoc rationalisation

The real problem, here, enters the picture when we try to construct models and treat them as scientific models relying completely on post hoc data—and the difference can be a subtle one. The problem is that it is impossible, without generating and testing predictions, to know whether the model is actually correct, or merely happens to apply to the data at hand—which may be woefully incomplete, subject to natural selection bias or (more sinisterly) to cherrypicking.

This is a problem not just in discussions where people attempt to sound scientific, but also historically with science itself—very notably before the modern scientific method was formulated. People who don’t trust the scientific way of finding the truth are often fond of pointing out egregious pseudosciences that were, in their own time, respected and considered as scientific as anything else. Whether the balance of humours, the theory of miasms, the notion of the luminiferous æther, phrenology, or any other such now-discredited concept (I almost said homeopathy, but it never really did have that sort of credibility), they once did serve as models to explain all the data compiled into their construction—but all of them were wrong, and were able to survive because they were not used to generate and test falsifiable predictions. …Survive for a while, that is: By now all of the above are discredited because we do know better; and sometimes, to their credit, it is the proponents of ideas that discover and publish the fact that the ideas are wrong; as with Michelson and Morley and their famous æther experiment.

Let me be very clear and explicit in saying that if you cannot generate and test predictions, it is never science in the true sense, however reasonable your explanation. (Note that prediction refers to a prediction of what we will find—in historical and palæontological sciences, the events happened long ago, but we can still make predictions about what new data will discover; hence that famous prediction in palæontology that we will never find a Cambrian rabbit fossil.) This is why interpretations of quantum physics are metaphysical rather than physical, since they do not make different predictions. (On a not unrelated observation, I despise the term string theory—it is string hypothesis until predictions are tested!)


As with any profession or culture, science is full of very technical jargon. Many of the most awful abuses of science I have come across have been straightforward instances of equivocation. The most infamous is, of course, the creationist’s claim that evolution is just a theory, apparently unaware that an explanatory framework in science can have no higher title. (Some would have it that if evolution were proven, it would be the law of evolution, but that’s just not true: Explanatory frameworks are never elevated to laws, no matter how solid. To quote Stephen Jay Gould,

Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Another favourite term to pervert and subvert is that of energy, which quantum quacks gleefully use as though I feel full of energy were related by an equation to E=mc²—when in fact energy in physics is a strictly and technically defined term, related to the colloquial word by etymology and analogy, but no more. Force suffers similar abuses.

Now, I’ve used pretty obvious examples, but equivocation can actually be pretty difficult to detect when used skilfully, and it can lead to genuine misunderstanding. The equivocater’s trade lies in

  1. equivocating using such language that the equivocation is not obvious (i.e. it looks as though the technical sense might apply on both sides of the equation); and/or
  2. couching the equivocation in a discourse sufficiently technical that the reader (or listener) just isn’t qualified to tell them apart.
The latter is particularly pernicious because the same word may mean different things in different contexts, or have different definitions in the jargons of different fields. Apart from education (which sounds like such a good idea, but really, you can’t be well educated in everything) and listening very carefully, about the only way I know to avoid this sort of thing is to make sure that anyone who claims that two things are mathematically related can actually show the form of the equation.

Non sequiturs, red herrings, and other fishy things

Another problem, less subtle than true equivocation and more easily countered, but nonetheless a cause for vigilance and concern, enters the picture when the model is (or may be) complete, but the relevance hasn’t been established. One example I see very frequently indeed is in the context of the martial arts message boards I frequent, where every so often someone will attempt to validate his (usually arcane) form of martial arts as having the superior form of punching by using not fight records (showing that his stylists can beat up other stylists) but physical equations—attempting to show, for instance, that this method really does maximise the momentum transfer of a punch. Maybe so; maybe not. The problem here is that it was never shown that maximising the momentum transfer is really what makes a punch most powerful; the next person with the next martial art will instead present some half-arsed equations showing that he can maximise force—or impulse, or velocity, accoleration, jerk, pressure, or other physical property. It may be some time before anyone steps back from trying to disprove the equations to realise that it’s a non sequitur.

In short, one must not fall victim to the belief that just because someone backs up a claim with a scientific-sounding argument, that argument necessarily supports the claim. It is a requirement of a valid logical argument that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises—but this has to be established; it cannot simply be assumed.

In defence of Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is the philosophical principle that out of any set of explanations, the simplest is always to be preferred:

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate.
(Plurality must never be posited without necessity.)

Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora.
(It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.)

William of Ockham

My own favourite formulation runs somewhat as follows:

Given two explanations of a phenomenon, all else being equal, choose the one that requires the fewest assumptions.

This always looks like a suspect—why should we prefer the simpler explanation? Aren’t explanations of things sometimes genuinely and necessarily complex? How on Earth can you justify basing a depiction of reality on something so vague and susceptible to error?

The answer to this is twofold. First, note my inclusion of all else being equal—of course if we have two explanations for a set of phenomena, both of which generate testable predictions, and one of them produces significantly better fits to newly observed data, that’s a pretty good case to support this one even if it’s more complex. Occam’s Razor isn’t to be used as an excuse to throw out superior models.

Secondly, it is an unfortunate fact that for any phenomenon, you can generate an infinite number of explanations by making them increasingly complex. A simple example is found in every statistics class, where we find that anytime we try to fit a polynomial curve to a set of data points, we can always achieve an equally good or better fit by increasing the order of the polynomial (making our explanation more complex). In fact, more complex explanations are here usually better fits to the data, because the data have measuring errors and so don’t fit exactly to the predicted curve of the right explanation, whereas a very high-order (complex) polynomial can jitter up and down to match every blip in the data.

It should be pretty clear that we can’t get very far if we attempt to maintain an infinite number of explanations for everything we try to explain. Instead, we choose the simplest explanation that works and resort to more complicated ones only if it turns out that the predictions we get from our simpler models aren’t up to snuff. Of course, this process is empirical—we may find out only in time that our model has shortcomings. Unfortunately, it’s the only way we have to proceed; it would be nice if we had some more absolute way of finding out truth, but we don’t. (This is why it is often said of science, properly done, that it tends to approach the truth asymptotically—it can never reach an unassailable, absolute position of Truth, but every subsequent model, because it has to account for all the data that the old model did explain, as well as the data that we’ve found the old model fails to explain, is a better model than the last.)

A more colloquial sort of defence of Occam’s Razor is to observe that it is the principle whereby we explain the world in terms of things we know to be possible, rather than positing arbitrarily things that we don’t know have even a chance of being true. In an example that I freely acknowledge to be something of a reductio ad absurdam, if I leave some chocolate on the table next to a child, turn around for a minute, then return to find the chocolate gone, and the child claims that he did not eat it, but rather that the chocolate was teleported away by aliens for scientific study, I would be an idiot to believe him—not because it is absolutely impossible, but because one explanation (he’s lying) rests on observably possible things (children sometimes eat chocolate; children sometimes lie), whereas the other postulates something (the existence of aliens with teleportation technology) for which there is no evidence.

Jumping from that insultingly trivial example to something that actually is a matter of debate, some people claim that the human mind cannot be the product of the brain alone, but must also rely on something called a soul, or other immaterial and scientifically undetectable entity that is not a product of material causes. Here, the naturalistic explanation is a lot less obvious—we cannot at present show how the mind results from the brain. Some would also argue that the alternative explanation (there is a soul) is less absurd than the alien hypothesis (though I would disagree).

The difference, however, is purely quantitative. We know that brains and minds are very intimately connected—we can observe the mental and psychological effects of damage to the material brain, artificial or natural alterations of brain chemistry, et cetera; we can scan activity in the physical brain correlated with thoughts and emotions; we can view the material development of the brain from embryo to developed organ. The assumption in the naturalist model is just this: That in a complicated neural network consisting of a hundred billion neurones, with feedforward and feedback loops, and modulated and assisted by glial tissue and chemical catalysts in the form of neurochemicals; in such a network that has, furthermore, evolved by fairly well-understood principles of natural and sexual selection, sufficient complexity has arisen to explain the minds that we now experience.

The soul hypothesis may look simpler because it can be summarised more briefly, but its assumptions are actually huge. It postulates the existance of something for which we have no evidence whatsoever—the materialistic hypothesis is complex, but it rests on established facts. Furthermore, it postulates that this intangible soul—which no scientific instrument has been able to detect—is yet able to exert causal effects on the material brain, since it is very clearly established that it is in the brain that our motor impulses originate. (René Descartes thought that the soul operated on the brain through the pineal gland.)

It also suffers the difficulty that if we be allowed this one, completely unfounded assumption (there exists a soul), it is difficult to see why we should disallow any unfounded assumption as a valid rival, so long as it is not falsifiable; for instance, I might equally well claim that your brain is run by a computer program (written by aliens, or the NSA, or the Illuminati); that you are mind controlled by the White Mice… These sound more ridiculous to us, but that is a cultural artefact. The Soul Hypothesis and the White Mice Hypothesis have an equal basis in evidence.

I daresay that William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar, would disagree with my conclusion; but while I think that his beliefs were most likely pretty absurd, I nevertheless think that his principle of parsimony is a necessary part of a rational worldview.

Occam’s Razor or rationalisation?

When I get involved in discussions or debates questioning this worldview and philosophy of mine, and (this is, alas, a limited subset) when the person I am conversing with is neither stupid nor patently insane, one of the most common and most reasonable objections runs something like this (in spirit; I reformulate rather than paraphrase):

What you say generally makes sense, but because the philosophy ultimately relies on empiricism in determining what’s real and what’s not, it is—as you acknowledge—imperfect, and unless you end up clinging dogmatically to your skeptical beliefs (contrary to your own philosophy) you are bound to change your mind on things as new evidence emerges.

Well, given that, by what right do you reject (for instance) the soul concept so strongly? You may think that there is no evidence, but evidence may come up, and you certainly have no strong counterevidence. Why not just keep an open mind?

…As, of course, I should, but as the saying goes, You should keep an open mind to new ideas, but not so open that your brains fall out. It should be noted and emphasised that when I say There is no such thing as a soul, what I mean is To the best of my knowlege, and according to the best evidence and reasoning available, there is no reason to think that there exists such a thing as a soul. (Whether I am truly as open-minded as I should like to new evidence in the areas where my worldview is heavily invested is, of course, hard to say; but I’m defending the way I try to structure my thinking, not rating how well I measure up to my own ideals.)

Ultimately, I regard this as a quantitative rather than a qualitative distinction. It is not whether I am willing to credit the possibility of some improbable concept or not, but just how large or small a probability I am willing to credit it with. My own tendency and preference is to treat extremely improbable things (souls, færies, ghosts, celestial teapots, alien abductions, gods, Great Green Arkleseizures, effective reiki or homeopathic remedies, etc.) as so improbable that unless better evidence or arguments are presented, I will not bother with the possibilities of their reality at all. I will freely acknowledge that they are non-zero, in the absolute sense, but it’s such a small one (0.00…01%) that it’s not worth bothering with. This is, of course, where I often and easily come off as contentious or even contemptuous, and people whose approaches otherwise look similar to mine may differ in how small a prior probability we should assign these things. (If you want a gentler version, read the late, great Dr. Carl Sagan’s The Demon-haunted World.)

Of course, being but a human, I’m very likely to be wrong about a great many things, some of which may very well be of fundamental importance to my worldview. If we were to line up all the things I consider to be ludicrously improbable, I expect that, due to human fallibility and my own sometimes unfortunate tendency to over-swift rejection of apparently unscientific notions, I will be wrong about a number of them. But I consider the probability of my being wrong on any specific such matter to be very small. In the end it comes down to whether I would rather say Well, maybe to everything I come across, or whether I’m willing to say Yes and No and be prepared to eat my hat when the day comes when I turn out to be wrong. I’m willing to do the latter (against which occasion I cleverly do not wear a hat). To me, there’s no other sensible way to proceed. If I accept the soul hypothesis as likely enough that I shouldn’t reject it utterly out of hand, I cannot remain intellectually honest and consistent without accepting any number of other such claims—UFOs, homeopathy, reiki, unlucky black cats, astrology, and all the rest.

I would rather be forceful and intellectually honest and consistent, and occasionally be wrong, than either waffling about every incredible claim anyone cares to make, or arbitrarily accepting improbabilities based solely on their cultural or social acceptability.

¹ Some people hold that hunches and intuition are as good guides to truth as is scientific inquiry; to which, apart from obvious retorts (Would you rather travel on an airplane built according to scientific principles, or on one based on intuited ærodynamics?) I would like to reply that whenever a hunch is opposed to reason, I have a hunch that reason is right; so hunches cancel out and we’re left to trust to reason².

² Unless you belong to that school of thought that claims that there is no such thing as objective reality; that all reality is subjective. I have a vast dislike for such solipsism, but I suppose I can’t deny you your subjective reality; in my reality, however, things are objective and that school of thought has no value or standing.

More life

Aug. 11th, 2008 10:32 pm
haggholm: (Default)

Some weeks everything just seems to go wrong. Some rare weeks, everything, and I mean everything of consequence just seems to go right. This is one of the latter sort, and though I know it won't last forever, and life will proceed as a series of ups and downs, I'm floating now, and it's a good reminder of what makes life worth living.


Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:58 pm
haggholm: (red)

My friend Meesh moved back to California a few weeks back. Last night, she killed herself. I am torn apart from the inside. Every death adds to the former, and every blow feels the heavier for it.

haggholm: (Default)

I'm pretty familiar with depression. I have experience of it both first-hand, second-hand, and third-hand (i.e. as a sufferer, as someone who knows sufferers, and as someone who has heard and read about sufferers). Depression launches a many-pronged assault on those who suffer from it; it is a subtle and complex thing. One of the more devious and peculiar ways in which this manifests is in the way it causes guilt in its sufferers.

There are some people, I'm told, who upon hearing that someone is depressed will tell the depressive It's all in your head; just shake it off, or something to that effect. This is, by and large, callous (if spoken out of anything but ignorance) and totally ineffective, except insofar as to effect guilt. I've never been told this, personally, but I didn't need to—I came up with the accusation all by myself. In fact, in my experience, most depressives seem to feel this. (It's not a large sample, admittedly, but 100% of a small sample may still be taken to indicate something…)

This often takes the form—often explicitly—of a feeling that Other people have it so much worse than me, yet I can't even cope with this. I don't know how often I've said it. I've lost count of the times I've heard it. Why, I would ask myself, am I such a whiner—incapable of coping with this little depression, when X dealt with an alcoholic father, Y has an emotionally abusive stepfather, and Z has dealt with so many crises—yet they have all come through strong where I am weak?

And it's really kind of strange. If I catch a cold—and I'm just getting over quite a bad one—I don't feel guilty about it. Why should I? I contracted a virus that my immune system was incapable of dealing with quickly and effectively enough, so I got sick. Theoretically I could perhaps have prevented it, by eating more vitamins, getting more sleep, washing my hands more often, or some other means—but oh well, I didn't; I got sick and now I'm better and that's the end of the story. I also don't feel shame that my immune system is (arguably) weaker than that of someone who was exposed to the same pathogens and didn't end up sick.

With a mental illness—such as depression—it's not like this at all.

Because it's a disorder of the mind, there is this notion that one should just shrug it off—Just get over it! But it doesn't work like that, as any sufferer of depression can tell you. My mind can no more shrug off depression than my body can shrug off a viral infection; much less easily, in fact, because by and large my immune system does a good job of keeping me on my feet. Why is this? Why is it that if I am brought low by a viral or bacterial infection, by fractures, contusions, concussions, or lacerations, by food poisoning or a chemical imbalance in my blood like high cholesterol or low blood sugar, that's acceptable (in a moral sense)—but if I have a chemical imbalance in my brain, I'm supposed to just shrug it off? Or—if my mental disorder is more complicated or less easily pinpointed than that—if my thoughts are just twisted into a Gordian knot, why is it that my mind is assumed to be a cutting blade?

I don't know the answer to these questions—the only real answer I have is If you talk like that to depressives, kindly do us all a favour and shut up because the tough love method only goes so far and only with certain people, and depressives as a rule have low enough self esteem as it is without being told they're lazy for not magically fixing themselves. But I do wonder, and it occurred to me that this might be related to a very peculiar division.

Did you notice that I made a very clear distinction in the earlier parts of this little essay between physical disorders and mental ones? Very possibly not—we're used to making that distinction—but I did, very deliberately, although I cringed every time I did it. Because, really, that distinction is largely nonsensical. It is, I believe, chiefly based on a lack of understanding—a primitive time when the physical nature of thoughts and emotions was entirely mysterious (as opposed to now, when it's only mostly mysterious…) and, critically, not understood to be a physical process. Understanding of anatomy was virtually non-existent (consider the ancient peoples who thought that the heart or stomach was the seat of consciousness!) and belief in spirits was rampant. These days it is intellectually evident not only that the brain is the physical seat of consciousness, but also that the mind itself is an emergent effect of very physical processes: Chemical, electrical, and so forth.

The consequences of this are, of course, complex and manifold, but primarily it creates a kind of disconnect in the way we regard ourselves. Nobody frowns at an expression like body and mind, as though they were separate things! We would not speak thus of body and liver, body and spleen, or body and large intestine. It also leaves room for concepts along the lines of mind over matter, which implies that mind is not of matter. Without this illusion or delusion, there'd be little room for ideas such as physical disorders being qualitatively different from mental disorders; they are all physical disorders, albeit some more intimately involved with the mens (or mentis: Latin for mind, hence mental et al.). I think it is detrimental in a much more general sense; it opens the way for so many mistakes of thinking: The body being subordinate to the mind, the mind's reactions to physical stimuli being shameful, and so on. In the context of the original topic, however, it is this: Depressives are often fooled, or fool themselves, into thinking that a mental disorder is non-physical; that the mind is non-physical; and that the metaphysical mind should therefore control the disorder.

In my own battle against depression, one of the largest milestones was overcoming this sense of shame. Ironically, what saved me was a massive tragedy. In 2004, my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of an aneurysm. Shortly thereafter, my younger brother, unable to cope with this on top of his own, previous problems, committed suicide. My family was of course plunged into a state of shock and grief—call it a form of depression. This is expected, and obviously nobody can blame anyone for feeling terrible after having lost two members of their family. In other words, I ended up in a state of deep and justified depression—a depression for which I felt no guilt.

I felt slightly worse than I had before.

This taught me a great deal. I realised that I had gone from deeply depressed to slightly more deeply depressed—but I had already been so low that the change was not really drastic. I also realised that People who have it so much worse cope better was preposterous, because I had already had it quite badly. It was not a set of external circumstances—like poverty or abuse—but circumstances of brain chemistry and so forth, but I had already had it badly, all the same. Suddenly people started telling me how impressed they were that I held together—how strong I must be—when I had said the same to others for years, and imagined myself so very weak! The disparity in strength was an illusion. Those people you may be looking at and admiring for their strength under pressure greater than that you suffer—they're just doing their best to hang on, just like you; you may one day find, as I did, that there's a low point where you keep going not because you are strong but because there is nothing else to do.

Or you may be overwhelmed by tragedy or bad brain chemistry or bad wiring in the head, and there's nothing more intrinsically shameful about this than passing out when you get up too fast or suffering from diabetes.

In writing this, I feel like I have expressed myself poorly, either because I wrote less well than usual or because the material demands higher standards. Whichever may be the case, I apologise, and I hope to revisit this at some point, rearrange it, and sum it up properly in closing. For now, I leave you with these thoughts in the hope that their relative rawness will encourage you to develop them further where I have failed to do so for you.

I hope, above all, that this does not leave you feeling pity for me or unequal to my strength—if you feel either, please re-read it, and read it more carefully this time! I write about my own experiences not to boast my strength, but to illustrate how this perception of strength is usually an illusion; not to show what awful circumstances I found myself in, but that depression is depression no matter the external circumstances and deserves to be taken seriously whether something obviously awful happened or not. I don't want pity for anyone, only understanding—and that being said, I'm happy to say that I've come a long way since 2004. These are things this essay was not meant to effect.

What I do hope—the ultimate (pipe?) dream in writing this essay—is that someone will read it who does feel this irrational guilt, weigh my words carefully, and find that his or her guilt is unnecessary—the condition is no one's fault—and the weight on guilt be lifted off shoulders that already bear a very real and legitimate burden.

haggholm: (Default)

This is a different kind of post altogether from what I have written before: Although I probably squeezed in a few new thoughts in some of the corners, this is mostly rehashing things that in my view are very obvious. I just want a post up to refer people to when those who choose to engage me in debate return to the same tired questions, because I quickly grow bored with responding to requests to explain in my own words what is wrong with Pascal's Wager, why it's not weird that people naturally fear death, and so forth. I will probably add to this debating FAQ if more such issues arise…

Pascal's Wager )
Russell's Teapot, or `You can't disprove God!' )
Fear of death )
haggholm: (Default)
Sometimes it's easy to overlook, but I am reminded today that just as a bad mood is prone to feed on itself, so can a particularly good mood be self-sustaining. Start the day smiling and people smile back. Trite but, I am happy to re-experience, nonetheless true.
haggholm: (Default)
Today was a good day. Good karate practice; fairly sparring heavy. After practice, I went to Chapters, where the employee I asked to help me find The Selfish Gene appeared to be genuinely grateful that I was patient and pleasant while she frantically ran back and forth to the various locations where the system indicated it ought to be. Sadly, they didn't have any copies of The Blind Watchmaker in stock, but The Selfish Gene precedes it, anyway—and on second thought I decided to also get a book that by far precedes anything by Dawkins. I read a few pages over a bite to eat, and another fifty pages or so from this latter book—The Origin of Species—over a piece of cheesecake and a caffè americano at Death by Chocolate.

This made me reflect on the fact that after a couple of years of reading much less than I used to, I finally seem to be back in the habit—and it makes me feel more like myself, in a good way. I'm also reading different material (or in a sense, going back even further to my roots); in my teens, I read almost nothing but fantasy and the odd bit of science fiction. In the last year or two, I've felt a bit … I don't like the application here of the word “guilty”, but it may be appropriate, that I read nothing but entertainment and fiction. Not that I think there's anything wrong with reading for entertainment, but when I was a kid—ages six to twelve or so—I would read books like Animals from all the world or Mammals—all the species of Europe and enjoy them. How come I don't read educational stuff anymore? And what about what we so nebulously call “the classics”?

And here I am now—since I finished the Canterbury Tales, I've read a few chapters of the famous (in computer science circles) “Gang of Four book”, Design Patterns; I'm halfway through an unabridged prose translation of The Odyssey, and ninety pages or so into The Origin of Species (and of course The Selfish Gene is waiting in my room; I did get it, but I figured I might as well start at the beginning …).

Much of the credit for this actually goes to my friend Scott, for lending me The Code Book by Simon Singh, on the history and development of encryption, and (though to a slightly lesser extent) infinite ascent by David Berlinski, on the history of mathematics. These, I know, sound like dry and dull tomes, but to my amazement (sorry for doubting you, Scott!) they were fun to read—fun and interesting. And these books awakened me to the fact that educational books, intelligent books, books of fact and learning and interesting thoughts—can still be fun to read. The unscalable cliff thus sidestepped, I'm now free to read books that are both intelligent and readable.

Only today did I realise what my real mistake has been: I have separated “books for fun” and “books for learning” into entirely distinct categories. (Thank Darwin for that one; the chapter I just finished points out the folly of regarding slight variations and speciation on arbitrary grounds.) The consequence has been that things that are obviously requisite for a “for fun” book being worth reading—i.e. having not just a good plot and interesting characters, but also being well written, accessible, and not overly dry—I have not hitherto regarded as requisite for a “for learning” book to be good. Well, today I stand up and declare: To hell with that! The Origin of Species was published in 1859 and is more readable than any biology textbook I have ever had inflicted on me. Maybe it tells you something about me, but I think it more likely tells you something about the average biology textbook.

Reference books can be dry. In fact, they probably should be: The cardinal virtues for a reference book are (in due order) accuracy, completeness, and succinctness. But you don't generally read a reference book to learn about a subject; you read reference books to look up facts about things that you learn about elsewhere, to refresh your memory, or to look up details to support or contradict specific points. (When I say “you”, I mean, of course, “I”—but I suspect my opinion here is, if not universal, then at least rather widespread.)

In conclusion, learning can be fun and there's nothing wrong with that, and it's not that I'm intellectually incapable of reading “good” books; it's just that I wasn't really applying the usual criteria for what a good book is. I no longer feel like such a pseudointellectual. Also, many of those textbooks on my shelves that I've never read, I probably never will read, and maybe I should sell them and replace them with books—educational books, maybe even books on the same topics—that, in addition to containing useful facts, also have some literary merit.
haggholm: (red)
Self esteem issues notwithstanding, I never thought of myself as a bad person. Lacking in positive qualities maybe, but not possessed of actually bad ones.

It hurts to be proven wrong.
haggholm: (old)
I want to give up but I don't know how.
haggholm: (Default)
All of you who suffer from depression should read The Noonday Demon. All of you who do not suffer from depression, but know someone who does (and if you're reading this, odds are excellent that you do), should read it anyway, to understand.

Note: I do not claim to suffer (or have suffered) at the magnitude that the author describes. Dysthymic disorder is a much less intense (though sometimes more persistent) version of the same malady.
haggholm: (Default)

I find tolerance a strange—suboptimal, sometimes even offensive choice of a word for the concept it has come to represent. Personally, I think I'm tolerant of pretty much everything a decent person can be expected to tolerate, but in many cases I aspire to rather more than merely tolerating. To tolerate something implies enduring or putting up with something bad†, for whatever reason, and while it's a minimum requirement for polite interaction, it doesn't exactly sound warm.

Acceptance is a much nicer word. Acceptance implies that you embrace something; we should not tolerate and endure diversity, but accept and encourage it. If we accepted people of both all sexes and all genders, acceptable sexual orientations‡ and tastes, faiths, creeds, and so forth, I think we would have a rather better world.

What I personally aspire to, however, is indifference. Isn't it funny how negative that sounds? Yet the day I can look at a person and find myself totally devoid of judgement based on any of the things our society has so many prejudices about is the day I will consider myself a better person. I don't [want to] give a damn if you're black or white, gay or straight, Christian or Hindu (as long as you're not proselytising, because that bugs me, but that's in behaviour and not in what you believe). I [want to] judge you based on your words and your actions.

This is not to say that I don't care about the issues that exist—gender discrimination, gay rights, issues of religious freedom, and so forth—but I would like to personally address people on a neutral, impartial basis. After all, even an affirmative action approach—a particularly accommodating or positive behaviour toward members of minority group X, is founded on the fact that I think of them as fundamentally different from myself.

Even as I write this, I am very aware that there are things here that don't ring true, but that's part of the reason why I write this (and a very large part of the reason why I publically post it); with luck, some of you will tell me where and how I am wrong. It's a process of bettering myself, after all. I do not claim to live up to the ideals I set forth; I'm certainly not perfect. In fact, I'm even guilty of tolerance (of some things you may expect and some you very likely don't), and when it comes to controversial minorities, it may be that I am rarely if ever better than merely accepting.

But I do try.

†I'm aware that it doesn't necessarily mean this—your dictionary of choice will probably offer several definitions—but it's one interpretation, and if you read it as I do, that means that the implication is there. If you don't, well, this is my blog and I can rant as I like.

‡Yes, I know. But there are some sexual deviations that just aren't good, like people who get off on rape, paedophiles, and (in my personal opinion) zoophiles. I may sound hypocritical, but my philosophy is Whatever goes on between consenting adults, whether it seems appealing or repulsive to me personally, is fine; on the other hand, if one party is not a consenting adult (and I judge non-humans incapable of consent, though some animals may submit), it's not fine, and I stand by it.

haggholm: (red)
I just realised that the one attitude, the one feeling I cannot cope with from others is contempt. Indifference, dislike, distaste, disapproval—nothing new, nothing I can't deal with. But coming from someone I respect, contempt gets to me.

Live and learn, I suppose. I need to get stronger.


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