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.

I presume you’re familiar with the global warming “debate” – about a zillion scientists amass a mountain of evidence for anthropogenic global warming, then everyone else decides whether or not they agree with the scientists’ conclusions based on a few articles they’ve read in a newspaper or some blog or something they make up inside their own heads, and proceeds to have bad-tempered and long-winded arguments about the subject with whoever will listen. The reports of the IPCC are out there for anyone to read and you can dig deeper into the research and actually find the data if you’re interested … but even so you get people claiming the “there’s no science at all behind the climate change lobby” (in a recent comment on the Daily Telegraph site).

In a way it’s understandable – almost no-one actually has the time to delve deeply enough into the subject to fully understand it, so we just form an opinion based whatever crap we read in the media that reinforces our prejudices. But there does exist a large group of people who have devoted their professional lives to the careful scientific study of the climate, and they know what they’re talking about, and when the governments of the world decide to do something about climate change they know who to turn to. Maybe they won’t listen to them properly, maybe the world is fucked one way or the other, but at the very least we know who to ask.

The economy, on the other hand, seems to be a very different story. We’ve the same shit on the media and the internet – every fucker who’s read the wikipedia entry on supply and demand seems to think that They Know Best. That’s all to be expected, fair enough. But where are the experts who actually know what’s going on, who saw what was coming, and who know how to fix things? It seems a worrying proportion of economists simply predict things at random in the hope that they’ll get one prediction right and make a name for themselves as “the guy who predicted X”. There’s all manner of “experts”, but (though it’s hard to be sure of this on account of all the noise in the debate) there doesn’t seem to be any agreement whatsoever between them. One fella is saying the country’s about to go bankrupt because of the “bond spread” and someone else has some other indicator that means everything is fine. Who’s right? Economists don’t agree, governments don’t agree, everyone’s making contradictory claims and there doesn’t seem to be any reassuring men and women in white coats who actually know their shit to be found. I don’t know what to think, except for maybe economics is just bunkum after all.

.. that they are too dumb to know there is such as thing as being smart.

(Kurt Vonnegut said that, and he was right)

Here’s some evidence:


If you live in Ireland you’ll be aware that all the talk on the radio these days is the public sector pay bill, and how it’s going to be funded now that the public finances have gone to shit. Was talking to a public servant I know lately, and said “So, you expecting a pay cut?”. Here’s the answer – “Why should we take a pay cut? We didn’t cause the recession!”. When I suggested that prices seem to be falling and therefore no pay cut is equivalent to a pay rise, the response was “prices are only falling because the retailers aren’t ripping us off quite so much any more”. And then I got the usual earful about this fella or that fella who made a fortune and never paid a penny in tax and sure didn’t we pay 65 pence in the pound tax and 18% interest on the mortgage back in the 80s.

Em … what? Holy crap. I don’t mean to suggest that this kind of thinking is particular to public servants – listen to any talk radio show and there’s private sector workers (and business owners, and IBEC, those egregious pricks) ranting rants of their own. Hear ye, fellow citizens – the government is not your parents. If your entire political and economic stance is based on storing up anecdotes and twisting logic to prove that everyone else is unfairly getting a bigger slice of cake than you, then you have some growing up to do. You are also, unfortunately, in the majority.

BANG! BANG! BANG! More nails in the coffin of my utopian anarchist dream.

p.s. It’s my birthday today. Hooray!