Why we curse / swear / cuss

October 13, 2010

In my experience cursing is a way of letting someone know that you consider them an equal, and that you don’t feel the need to be on your guard in their presence. It’s an extra layer of communication that goes way beyond the words used.

If you come from a culture in which cursing is rare or frowned upon then being around potty-mouthed people takes a bit of getting used to, but please don’t be offended. If someone curses in your presence, what they are actually doing is letting you know they are comfortable with you.


Talent versus skill

September 1, 2010

Talent only counts at the very bottom and the very top. In a group of beginners naturally talented people will stand out, the same in a group where everyone has honed their skills to the extent they’re as good as they’ll ever get.

In between it’s skill (and therefore practice) that counts, not talent – and it’s “in-between” where 99% of the world’s work is done.

  1. You’re used to operating outside your comfort zone
  2. Your self-esteem and identity aren’t tied up with what you get paid to do, so unemployment isn’t soul-destroying
  3. You get more out of your holidays

Freakonomics on crime

March 25, 2009

I read the book “Freaknomics” recently and enjoyed it, mostly, although in the end it turned out to be a disappointment. In the introduction is said something like “economics is a set of tools that allows us to study incentives and how people respond to them” but really the only tools I saw being used were a) plain old statistics and b) plain old conjecture.

One of the chapters  I enjoyed most at first was the one on abortion and crime – the authors attribute the fall in violent crime in the 90s in the US to the legalisation of abortion around 20 years previously. Fewer unwanted kids = fewer criminals, they say. At first I went “oh yeah, that makes sense” and, on the surface, it does, and they use a lot of science-y sounding language to back up their case which would be inclined to convince a fella.

But then at the back of the book they answer some detractors who’ve found fault with their approach by giving some more technical information on the statistical analysis they’ve used. They modify their treatment of the data saying the new way is “more accurate”, and end up with a stronger relation between abortions 20 years ago and the crime drop today. I don’t really have the statistical chops to check whether their analysis is reasonable, but this carry-on makes me suspicious – is their new treatment really more accurate, or are they just massaging the data so that it agrees with their thesis better?

I’m not sure I trust these guys. They attribute the rise in crime in the US during the 1960s to the (for the US) “liberal” political regime that was in place at the time and not to the big upsurge in drug use, but say the rise in crime during the 80s when there was a right-wing regime in power was exclusively due to drugs (crack cocaine in particular). Hmmm.

Rotting in hell

March 24, 2009

I don’t think you can rot in hell. Rotting is caused by micro-organisms, and it’d seem unfair if God sent micro-organisms to hell, seeing as he didn’t give them Free Will.

Jared Diamond on drugs

March 24, 2009

Just finished reading Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” in which, according to Wikipedia, ‘Diamond addresses two issues: how and why human beings transformed in a short period from “just another species of big mammal” into a world-dominating force; and the degree to which our immense progress has been coupled with the seeds of self-destruction, particularly through genocide and environmental degradation.’

It’s a brilliant book, as you might expect, but one chapter – “Why do we smoke, drink and take dangerous drugs?” – just didn’t ring true for me. Diamond proposes that narcotic use is a handicap principle behaviour like stotting in gazelles or a peacock’s tail – basically something wasteful or dangerous that has evolved because it proves to the opposite sex that you are tough enough to waste your energy in this way, and are therefore a good bet to have babies with.

Two things struck me when I first read the chapter. The first was that he seemed to think drugs’ dangerousness (and by “drugs” here I mean nicotine and booze as well as illegal drugs) is their primary characteristic –  even though, for example, it didn’t become common knowledge that tobacco is bad for you until quite recently in the history of its use. The second was his apparent complete ignorance of the fact that people enjoy using drugs.

Even so it took me a little while to come up with a counter-argument, but I did eventually and here it is – if people take drugs primarily because they’re dangerous, then why don’t people ingest dangerous substances that don’t get you high? Rhubarb leaves, say, or ragwort, or human shit? The answer is, of course, that getting high is the point, not showing off in order to get laid.

Of course Jared Diamond would classify “getting high” as a proximate reason, rather than an ultimate reason, for doing something – “cos I like it” is be the proximate reason people have sex, but the ultimate reason can be found in the millions of years of evolution that has made sex enjoyable for humans. So what’s the ultimate reason people like to get high? Well, we have opiod and cannabinoid and zillion other chemical receptors in our brains,  and, through an accident of evolution, plants make these chemicals too and therefore we can override our own hormonal emotional controls and make ourselves euphoric using plant extracts. Drug use is just a form of tool use where we satisfy (or manipulate) our instinctive/emotional drives directly using chemicals rather than indirectly via manipulation of the physical world.


March 6, 2009

When you meet someone for the first time, and they find out you play music, they’ll often tell you about some musician friend of theirs – “oh they’re really good, very talented”.


That’s ok when you’re talking about a kid, but I always think it’s almost insulting to a really good musician to refer to them as talented, because it ignores the enormous amount of hard work they’ve put in to get so good.

Really. Talent is the thing that allows someone to knock a tune out of an instrument they’ve never played before, it’s of very little help when playing Liszt. So don’t do that, ok?

Here’s an article from the Freakonomics column in the New York Times that backs me up.