Category: Philosophy

Experiments in New Knowledge

Experiments in New Knowledge

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So I’m going to try a new experiment for at least the next 30 days.

Yes, it’s a weird time to be starting something like this, but weird is often fun.

Have you ever heard someone use the old cliché that if you learned something today then the day hasn’t been wasted? There are a lot of variations on this:

“A day spent without learning something is a day wasted.”—Anonymous

“Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back”—Chinese proverb

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”—Dr. Suess

“When you stop growing, you start dying.”—William S. Burroughs

Plus a gazillion more expressions between and around those thoughts.

Because one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I’m often happiest when I’m learning something new, I like Einstein’s “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”

I do tend to have far too many interests, so many that I can’t possibly focus on most of them long enough to actually develop of depth of knowledge in the field. Politics, Astronomy, Mythology, Gaming, Languages, Animal Behaviour… if I don’t stop there, I can probably keep the list going for a couple of pages or more before having to think about it.

As a writer, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Thinking about fiction, the more odd little things you know and/or understand, the greater your experience and the more you can put together to make fun and interesting characters and stories.

But research and learning should be a part of everyone’s life, if only because there are more cool things to know than anyone can every find out. Yes, the Earth is just awesome, so think about how much more awesome the whole universe is.

And I will never, ever see enough, know enough, or understand enough.

WikipediaGetting back to the point, the experiment is this: every day, I’m going to go to Wikipedia and press the “Random Article” link in the upper left corner and read whatever it gives me.

If it’s only a couple of sentences long, I’ll do it a second time.

Yes, Wikipedia has plenty of issues and yes, there’s a lot on there that isn’t terribly well researched or sourced. But there’s a lot that is, and when people find things they’re passionate about, they often have the drive to keep them far more up to date than those old paper encyclopedia sets our parents used to buy and then keep for decades.

Think about this: there are something close to 5 million articles on Wikipedia. In English. Chances are pretty good that the “Random Article” link is going to take me to something I don’t already know, maybe even something it never even occurred to me to think about wanting to know.

The experiment began today, and the link gave me the following 3-sentence stub about Grégory Sarrasin:

Grégory Sarrasin (born on March 17, 1979) is a male freestyle wrestler from Switzerland. He participated in Men’s freestyle 66 kg at 2008 Summer Olympics. He was eliminated from competition by Emin Azizov in the 1/16 of final.”

Interesting but not enough. Click again.

Vernoux-en-Gâtine is a commune in the Deux-Sèvres department in western France.

Even shorter. Come on. Give me something with meat. Click.

Ah, here we go.

Kazuma Ieiri, a Japanese Entrepreneur who, in addition to taking his first big company public, has also been an internet activist, ran for governor of the Tokyo Prefecture, raising money by crowdfunding, built his platform by crowdsourcing, and livestreamed his campaign headquarters. He finished in 5th place out of 16 candidates.

Pretty cool. I wonder what I’ll learn tomorrow.

Be well, everyone.

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The Care and Feeding of Trolls

The Care and Feeding of Trolls

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So it will come as no surprise anyone reading this, that I am both an atheist and a skeptic. I’m not aggressive about either, although for quite some time I did have for my profile picture in a number of places, “Demand Evidence and Think Critically”. I do have strong opinions, we all do, but in general, I’m more than happy for you to believe whatever makes you happy, so long as it doesn’t endanger the people around you, or especially the people around me.

I’m honestly unsure why certain things polarized people to such an amazing degree, although far smarter people than I am have studied it in detail, coming up with all manner of interesting conclusions about human behavior and psychology. Still, for myself, I wonder what turns otherwise reasonable and rational people into foaming-at-the-mouth nutbars.

Case in point, I said something on Facebook recently that I found amusing in a skeptical vein and shared it. Eight hours later, the first comment surprised me just a bit.

Feeding Trolls 1It’s an odd response from someone I remember from high school, especially completely out of the blue with no contact in decades. He must have seen that another friend liked it. This fellow and I weren’t friends, exactly, although I remember him, and knew him through people I did count as friends (some I still do). The thing is, I remember him being a relaxed and open-minded guy. That’s not what I got from the conversation that followed. All names and identities, except mine, withheld to protect both the innocent and the misguided. The particular misguided is marked with a T for Troll. Blanks are left for other folks who participated.

See, I don’t know where the laid-back and open-minded guy I remember. Granted but it’s been 26 years since I graduated high school, and I have certainly done a lot of personal growing in that time. Different people grow in different ways.

As teenager, I learned to think for myself but mostly did it by myself.

In my 20s, and I learned how to stop conforming to other people’s expectations of me.

In my 30s, I learned how to examine everything I thought I knew about the world with a much more critical eye, and I learned a great deal about patience, both of those mostly as a result of my children.

I’m not far enough into my 40s yet to generalize them, even to the extent of adding something relevant to the chain here. I’m always learning, and always growing, but one of the things I’ve learned, over and over again, is that we don’t all grow in the same direction. Just because something makes sense, doesn’t mean that people will get, agree with, or like it. In fact, quite often the opposite is true.

Feeding Trolls 2   Feeding Trolls 3

Feeding Trolls 4Ordinarily, I believe quite strongly in not feeding the trolls. But when someone I’m not actually friends with on Facebook takes the time to comment on something I’ve posted, and if what they post in response contradicts, disagrees with, or makes fun of what I’ve posted, particularly when it does so using methods deliberately designed to offend or provoke heated emotional responses rather provide a reasoned argument, I can’t just let it go. If I do, aren’t I tacitly giving them the point? No, someone being a troll on my time deserves a response, if not the one the Troll is looking for.

What they’ll get back from me is a calmly reasoned, probably sourced, and probably detailed, argument in return. It will not attack them directly, but the arguments or sources they’ve referenced, and hopefully it will poke repeated holes in the bullshit they are trying to pollute my life with.

Oh, and I’ll keep going as long as they feel like keeping it up, until they either back down or give up and walk away.

Why? The because I have discovered that while it’s very unlikely you can find a way to reason with trolls, you can absolutely reason at them. The longer you can remain calm and collected, intelligent and reasoning, the more they look like a reactionary dumb ass who can’t be taken seriously. There is no such thing as a private conversation in an open social network, and when the troll finally realizes that you have no interest in playing by their rules, they slink away like the broken bullies they are.

And, I do hold onto a small amount of hope that a brain cell might fire again now and then, even in the thickest skull of the dumbest of dumb asses. Stranger things have happened.

Silence followed my last batch of statements. At least, it has so far. But it’s been two months.

Be well, everyone.

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Introducing the ERQ

Introducing the ERQ

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There are times I just have to walk away from Facebook. Last night was one of those times.

I mostly like Facebook, really. Yes, I know that I’m the commodity as far as they’re concerned, but it’s become an important point of social contact. People find each other on Facebook and get to stay peripherally part of each other’s lives when they would naturally have drifted apart and never heard from each other again in a pre-internet era. You can decide if that’s a bad thing or not. Overall, I like it.

The problem I usually have with Facebook (when I have a problem with Facebook), as all the crackpot, idiotic, stupid bullshit people not only believe in the privacy of their own skulls, but now can post for other people to believe or plaster all over other people’s news feeds in an effort to make them believe it.

My current profile picture on FB is this:

Demand evidence and think critically

That probably tells you something about me. What it should tell you is that I believe everyone has a brain of some sort and should use it to the best of their ability. People should think for themselves and not just believe what they’re told. Demand evidence. Think critically. These are two very important things.

But most people don’t do either. I’m sorry. Don’t be offended, but in my experience, it’s true. Conduct your own experiment.

And start it this way: go through your Facebook news feed and see how many ridiculous things people in your friends list have posted in the past 24 hours.

Ignore the jokes and memes and “what I had for lunch” status updates and pictures of cats. Well, go ahead and look at the cats. They’re pretty cute, mostly.  Even Grumpy Cat.

Instead, tally posts that spout conspiracy theories, new age pronouncements, natural remedies completely unsupported by any science or evidence, urban legends, virtual chain letters, and hoaxes that have been floating around long enough that they’re obviously hoaxes. Depending on your religious persuasion, you may or may not leave out the religious pronouncements, if you like, unless they fall under some other category. I include them.

Sorry. I realize I’m asking you to do a little work here, having a look at your entire feed, comments included, for a 24 hour period, but it’s a worthwhile experiment. Trust me.

Count comments friends of friends have made on your friends’ posts. This might serve to inflate things a bit if you have a friend or two who attracts the flakier crowd, but it will give you a better representation of what you’re seeing. You’ll need to open up the comments list on posts with more than a couple.

Don’t count things on pages you’ve subscribed to. Most people don’t read more than a couple of those on the posts they really love and none at all on the rest unless Facebook draws their attention to them.

Got your number yet? Okay, now divide this number by the number of friends you have on Facebook. The resulting number is your current ERQ. Eye Roll Quotient.

I’ve just conducted this experiment myself, rolling my timeline back to as close to exactly twenty-four hours ago as I can. My current ERQ is 0.0892, which is actually better than I thought it would be, considering I had to step away from the Internet. Then I think about the handful of people I’ve hidden because I’ve gotten tired of the conspiracy theories, new age and/or religious pronouncements, natural remedies completely unsupported by any science or evidence, urban legends, virtual chain letters, and hoaxes that have been floating around long enough that they’re obviously hoaxes.

So, 0.0892. Sounds like a nice small number, right? What it means is that out of every hundred (non-page) posts in my news feed, Nine of them have at least a comment attached by someone who hasn’t demanded evidence or taken the time to think about what they’re about to post/comment.

Lower is better. It should, for most people, be a small fraction. If it’s a big fraction, and especially if it’s more than 1, you’re probably in trouble. Or maybe should look around a bit and figure out what universe you’re in.

Be well, everyone.

Also keep your eyes and minds open.

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Dancing With The Dark Side

Dancing With The Dark Side

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(This post originally appeared as a guest post on Chocolate Scotch, a blog run by Sue Baiman in early August. I encourage everyone to check out the huge variety of thoughts on creativity posted there.)

There are far more ways to express yourself through art or craft or science than there are people. I’d go so far as to say that everyone is creative in some way. It’s something inherent in human nature, though not everyone allows that part of themselves to peak at the outside world, and only a few of us allow our creativity anything approaching free rein. Still, whether we consider ourselves creative or not, we all think of creativity as one of the most positive traits someone can possess.

So why do we have a cultural cliché in the tortured artist? Why do we feel on some level that we have to suffer or sacrifice for our art?

If creativity is a mostly positive thing, it also has its issues, moments that threaten the act of creation and sometimes your life beyond it.

Creativity has a dark side.

The Next Project

You’re in the middle of a project you love—a novel, a screenplay, a painting—something fun, exciting, and going very well. Creative energy burns through you, desperate to be turned loose, impossible to contain. A new idea sprouts in the back of your mind, something you can look forward to doing when you’ve finished. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

It’s the Next Project, and it isn’t content to wait in the back of your mind until you can give it the attention it deserves. The Next Project considers the Current Project competition, and it will demand more and more of your mental attention until you reach the point where you’d rather abandon the Current Project and start on the Next Project.

I’ve written 1/3 to 1/2 of at least five novels, and I don’t know how many short stories, this way. Yes, I have every intention of getting back to each of them someday, but there will always be a Next Project to distract me and as each abandoned story falls farther into the past it also falls farther down the priority list.

But I’ve found a way to counter this dark side manoeuvre, to scratch the mental itch. And it seems so obvious, so absurdly easy, I’d like to smack myself in the back of the head for not thinking of it years sooner.

Work on the Next Project, but only a little teeny bit, or in a way that makes it different, or both. Spend ten or fifteen minutes a day on the new thing. Maybe with a pencil and paper instead of the keyboard. Slower, yes, but it lets you keep your focus on the primary project at the same time.

The best of both worlds? Always up for debate, but it helps.

No Means, Well, Um…

Okay, so maybe you can work on more than one project at a time. Lots of people can and do. Variety is nice, but just how many major projects can you have going at the same time and still make any real headway on any of them? It’s easy to take on too much. Believe me, I know.

And it isn’t always self-inflicted. Sometimes people come to you. You may have discovered this law of nature in your day job, but it crops up in the creative world, too: the reward for good work is more work.

Someone really liked a story of yours they read in an anthology last year so asks you to submit to theirs. That voice work you did in your cousin’s podcast was great—and could you do this major character in my thirty-episode audio drama? The blanket you knitted for the new baby next door was beautiful. My sister’s having triplets…would you mind?

And sometimes it’s got nothing to do with you. The universe is sneaky and underhanded, and it will throw things at you to suck up all of the time you thought you had. Voilà! You’re overcommitted. And there are deadlines, and you fall behind, and your stress level goes up…

When you get a new idea, it’s easy to give it some time to see where it takes you. When someone comes to you to ask for your creative help, it’s easy to say yes. It feels good on both counts: getting things done and doing things for other people.

But when you’ve taken on so much that you can’t get anything done, whatever the reason and whether or not there are deadlines attached, you’ve got a problem: you can’t get anything done. For someone who needs to be creative in some way, this is nothing short of torture.

There’s a deceptively simple solution. Be honest. Both to yourself and to the people you’ve already committed something to. Prioritize and explain those priorities. And don’t be afraid to admit that the universe has thrown you a series of curve balls. Be as open as you feel you can be.

And if someone asks you to do something that really excites you, don’t say no, at least not outright. Ask them to ask you again in a few months, if the offer is still open, or drop them a quick line when you’ve caught up a little.

Honesty is still the best policy. It’s not always the easiest though, even with yourself.

Stealing Time

You’ll run across the advice sometimes that you should steal time from other parts of your life to pursue the creative endeavours that are so important to you. Take the laptop to bed with you, take a notebook to your daughter’s soccer game or your son’s karate lesson, and your boss certainly won’t mind if you do a little of your own thing on company time. Steal the minutes wherever you can and be as productive as you can with them.

Creativity’s dark side is whispering directly into your soul. There’s a huge difference between making time and stealing time.

Suffering a little for your art—giving up a few hours a week of TV or video games, or that thing you used to really love doing on Saturday morning that’s now far more like a chore than something fun, anyway—can improve your art, or at least the value and focus you place on it. Making other people suffer for your art just makes you a jerk, especially if those other people are your family and actually like having you around.

This is a hard lesson. The real world is very important.

Without Darkness, There Can Be No Light

Which isn’t the same as saying you should wallow in the darkness looking for a spark to clear it all away. You don’t need to succumb to the dark side to learn how to defeat it. You only need to watch out for the potential pitfalls your passion to create can lead you to.

Each of these things I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I’ve had to relearn them, too. More than once, and I’m probably not done with the lessons yet. There’s always more to learn, and more to create.

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