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Humans Aren't Rational
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I've encountered many people who believe or act as if they believe men and women are fundamentally different. Rightly or wrongly, this pisses me off. I am not singling anyone out here - this belief seems to me to be widespread. That men and women are equal is now mostly agreed upon; but people will not drop the dogma that God intended different things for different sexes. Perhaps this is mostly unique to Christians; I've hung around them too much so I'm probably biased. They're certainly the ones who use obscure Bible passages to try to defend their position, rather than interpreting scripture in the light of reason like they're supposed to. I think sexism is not alien to society in general, though - all you have to do is listen to pretty much any piece of relationship advice, and you'll probably be disgusted to hear that it consists of one piece of advice for men and another for women.

The worst part is that the only pseudo-evidence people have for their belief that men and women are fundamentally different is that they appear to act different. This is like a slave trader from the 1800s positing that black people are intended to be slaves by pointing to some black slaves and exclaiming, "Look - they're acting just like slaves!"

Not only are the apparent differences between men and women not evidence of a fundamental difference. I'm about to argue that, from a Christian worldview in particular, there is no reason whatsoever to believe in any such difference.

To do so, I shall refer to an interesting book on evolutionary psychology called "The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are" by Robert Wright. I didn't finish the book, but the beginning made an interesting point. If you suppose that men and women were initially the same (in terms of the brain), but one sex (women) was the childbearing sex, then natural selection would give a survival advantage to men who try to have sex with as many women as possible, and a survival advantage to women who are choosier about who they have sex with. This is due to the simple fact that a woman can only have one child per 9 months, but a man has no limit to how many children he can have. Therefore, the genes of men with a greater sex drive have a greater chance of surviving, while the genes of a woman with a less frequent sex drive (so that she chooses a man to have sex with a man who is optimum in some way) also have a greater chance of surviving. This difference may further refine itself into emotional differences, different goals, etc. (The book presumably goes on to build this principle into an explanation of monogamy, emotions, morality, etc., which claims appear to grow less and less scientifically rigorous. But the overall point seems rather sound, given enough time for natural selection to have an effect.)

My point is this. Any of the so-called "differences" between men and women can be accounted for by this evolutionary principle, if not by societal upbringing. But if a property arose from evolution, then it is not part of the fundamental essence of the creature. An atheist might have to admit that the evolution of something encompasses its entire being, but a Christian must insist that a being has a spiritual component which is that being. Indeed, the Bible does say that this spiritual part ought to have control over the physical, evolved part - in other words, these desires and emotional tendencies that result from any evolutionary tendencies ought to be controlled by the conscience and reason, which transcend nature. There is certainly no reason to believe that we different beings have the properties "masculine" or "feminine", other than as part of our bodies, which are not us. The belief in "masculine" or "feminine" as actual, real entities is precisely paganism and mysticism, not Christianity. (And, by the way, feminists are therefore just as sexist as everyone else, by believing in the feminine as an actual thing.)

You might retort that there's no evolution. It doesn't matter - the point is the same. Christianity teaches that the universe is cursed, and whether it's cursed through evolutionary tendencies or a sudden Fall is not relevant. The curse in the universe - "worldliness" - is that which would arrange people into orderly groups and take away their individuality, that which would have them focus on survival or efficiency instead of spiritual, important endeavors. So either way, these tendencies that would separate and alienate men and women from each other in the name of survival, which would have them doing "masculine" or "feminine" activities rather than activities that they, as individuals, actually want to do or should do, is part of the corruption of the universe.

And I am offended precisely when self-professed Christians would ascribe to God those tendencies that are due to an orderly, structured, corrupt society in which people are treated as men or women, and fail to be treated as individual people.
27th-Dec-2008 07:41 pm - iPod as PDA
Several factors have recently caused me to look into the use of an iPod as a PDA instead of my Handspring Visor:

-The proliferation of excess iPods in the world
-The decline of the Palm since the company itself started to suck (which happened just after Handspring created its Visor)
-The fact that it's handy to carry my music with me anyway

Now before I go further, let me say that I am not endorsing buying Apple products. On the contrary, the company has been ticking me off lately with several corporate "blunders" that tie users to Apple products, rather than embracing open standards. (I'll gladly give details to people who are interested.) Microsoft is worse in that regard, of course, but Apple has ticked me off to the point that I'm planning to sell my Macbook in favor of Linux use, despite the fact that Apple hardware usually works better.

The main caveat with using the iPod as a PDA is that it's read-only - you can't write down notes or calendar items with it. In some ways, this is an advantage, though - syncing a Palm is a complex algorithm, while the iPod's PDA interface is very simple - just copy a .ics file to it for the calendar, a .vcf file for the address book, and plain text files for notes. Another advantage it has over the Palm OS is that you can put notes in folders and have them appear in a heirarchy on the iPod, compared to a flat list on a Palm. For writing things down that occur to you when you're out and about, you can just bring a bit of paper and copy any notes you take to your computer later.

People who like cell phones, of course, will prefer to have an integrated cell phone and PDA. I personally don't like cell phones.

To get your iPod working with Linux - which is the strategy I'm pursuing (but stay tuned for operating system independence) - the main trick is to first get it formatted properly. The easiest way to do so is to borrow a computer with either Windows or Mac OS X and install iTunes on it. On Windows, you supposedly use the iTunes Updater to format it in Windows format (but this didn't work for my iPod), after which it works on Linux. Alternatively, you can use it Mac-formatted (HFS+ filesystem) on Linux (contrary to what some things on the Internet say), but you have to disable Journaling on the iPod to be able to mount it read-write. With a Mac, this is done by enabling disk use on the iPod through iTunes, then opening Disk Utility and selecting File -> Disable Journaling on the iPod's partition. Stupidly, on new versions of Disk Utility, you have to hold Option before clicking the File menu to get the Disable Journaling option to appear.

Here's an article describing using your iPod with Linux that I used for some of that info.

Now the iPod should mount on Linux. My strategy for syncing various forms of data with it involves the following open source software.

AmaroK seems to be a good music player which has transferred music files to my iPod without problems. (Except when I first tried it, I hadn't disabled journaling on my iPod (see above) so it said the iPod's filesystem was read-only. As soon as I fixed that and remounted it, AmaroK noticed my iPod right away.) I've also used gtkpod in the past, but it has been buggy and the interface isn't that intuitive.

Another thing that would be nice to be able to do is move music files to the iPod with the command line, so a script could sync it with a directory automatically. This would simplify things for me, since I don't really use my desktop computer to play music, and therefore don't need the extra complexity of AmaroK. There are 2 existing Linux programs I found that might provide functionality in that direction, gnupod and SyncPOD. I looked at the code for both, and gnupod is definitely better structured - SyncPOD, though it claims to do exactly what I wanted, was a mess and had no comments, which is a very bad idea for something that contains reverse engineering. Also it hasn't been updated in years. gnupod made the mistake of copying a song to my iPod that I told it to copy which was already on my iPod. That makes it quite unsuitable for repeatedly syncing a directory of mp3s. AmaroK did not make that mistake.

For a calendar and TODO list, I've tried using Mozilla Sunbird for a bit and it seemed pretty good, featurewise. Its disadvantage is that it doesn't store files in .ics format; however, there's an add-on you can get for it that automatically outputs your calendar as an .ics file whenever you exit Sunbird:

http://www.sunbird-kalender.de/extension/autoexport/en/index.html

(That website has a newer version than Mozilla's add-ons site.) Since the iPod uses .ics, it's then just a matter of copying that file to the iPod in a script.

Another nice thing about Sunbird is that it lets you have private and public appointments on your calendar, and it syncs with Google Calendar. This means (I assume) that you can publish a subset of your schedule to the world. I foresee that being a very handy ability that I'll probably get into at some point. A big reason I haven't simply used Google Calendar with private events yet is that I don't want Google to know everything about my life; this way, since Sunbird is open source, you can be sure the private events are only on your computer.

For an address book, it seems convenient to have the same one on your iPod that you have on your email client, which in my case is Thunderbird. Annoyingly, Thunderbird doesn't support vCards by default; however, there's an extension you can get to output your address book as a .vcf file:

http://nic-nac-project.de/~kaosmos/morecols-en.html

The extension even has a menu item to output the file for an iPod, which apparently has to be a .vcf file without blank lines. Since the iPod uses .vcf files itself, all you have to do is copy the exported file onto it, and your contacts appear on it.

One annoyance is that every time you change your address book, you have to remember to export it. I'm considering writing an extension or modifying that extension to automatically output the .vcf file when you close Thunderbird, as Automatic Export for Sunbird does.

The other main thing I've used a PDA for is to wake me up in the morning. (Most alarm clocks are unsuitable for this because you have to remember to set them to different times on different days.) Unhappily, the alarm on some iPods is rather quiet, and as such might not be as nice as a PDA for reminders either. However, there are a couple things you can do - one is to make your own alarm sounds, including to make a longer sounding one than the default for waking yourself up. Another is to plug your iPod into computer speakers if you have some (I don't) and set it to play a song to wake you up.

So in conclusion, it seems feasible to do Personal Information Management with an iPod, Linux, and the Mozilla Suite. I have to try it for a while before I can say how well this strategy works, and I might still stick with my Visor until it breaks. But Visors are rare and are getting rarer, while the iPod interface is simple and popular, so this strategy will likely become prudent at some point. One big advantage it has is that all the software used (including AmaroK) is operating system independent and open source - Evolution is another Email/Calendar combo for Linux that might work too, but it has the disadvantage of being only for Linux (I think), whereas by using Mozilla I'd be able to switch to a new operating system in a hurry. Furthermore, Mozilla has Ad-ons and the ability to write your own ad-ons, which is especially useful for such personalized functionality as lifehacking requires.
16th-Dec-2008 05:13 pm - What's good code?
As I expect it is with most programmers, I know good code when I see it, but often I've had trouble articulating why it's good. I think I've decided that good code usually has 3 qualities.

  1. Literacy. A program should read like an essay, at least to the mathematically inclined. Complexity is bad, just as run-on sentences are bad. Code should be clear and should communicate to the reader what it's doing in the simplest terms possible. Heavy commenting is good, but comments should normally be at a high level - mentioning implementation details (such as variable names) in comments is bad, because then the comment gets outdated when the code changes. Look up Literate Programming for more on the importance of writing code like essays.

  2. Modularity. Just as you organize your junk into boxes and drawers so that you can find it and use it more easily, so code needs to be boxed into chunks so you can find your way around it. Tiny, side-effect free functions are good, because they don't depend on other code. When you write a function or class, it's best to assume that other people will use it erroneously, even if you're the only user, and handle the erroneous behavior appropriately.

  3. Abstraction. Repeated code is obviously bad. More generally, doing the same kind of thing repeatedly is bad - computers, not humans, are what should be doing repetitive work. Factor out the repetition somehow so you don't have to change things in multiple places. Sometimes this is very hard to do given the programming language you're using. (I especially ran into this problem writing a compiler in C++ - the Visitor pattern is very repetitive, but it was the best strategy I could come up with in a language as primitive as C++.)


It's too bad there isn't more good code around, but hey, what can you do.
7th-Dec-2008 08:51 pm - Economics lesson
Consuming doesn't help the economy. Producing helps the economy. Everybody, please stop saying that consuming helps the economy.

"But you can't have production unless there are enough people willing to consume it." (Says the whiner.)

But you can always find something to produce that people actually want. If you're producing something that people don't truly want or need, then you aren't truly producing, now are you?
6th-Dec-2008 11:06 pm - Democracy versus Mob Rule
The recent political situation in Canada, as well as a recent discussion with Robbie and Andrew, have got me thinking. But you should be warned that this post is not about politics. It's a philosophical post relating to a wider principle of human interaction and behaviour. I don't like politics, and don't know anything about it, and I don't know much about the political situation except for Libreral/NDP/Bloc coalition something something. So please don't post comments relating to politics, because I won't understand what you're saying, and also I think that both the Conservative and Liberal parties suck.

Speaking of which, consider the Green party. Not many people vote for the Green party, but from what I'm told, a lot more people would vote for the Green party if more people would vote for the Green party. The idea is that people sometimes throw away their actual preference in order to be on the side of people with actual power. Now, I happen to think this is an incredibly stupid way to vote, because its basis is in practicality, and from a practical perspective, one vote doesn't make a difference anyway. [1] Democracy means that people vote according to their actual preferences.

Now consider the general principle here. A person is trying to make a decision, but before doing so, they try to infer what the preferences of other people are. Perhaps they want to band together with the largest group, or at least with some group that will have the ability to accomplish something. Each person in the group assumes that each other person in the group has certain characteristics, perhaps because they observe another group with the opposite of those characteristics that they want to fight against.

What I've been trying to explain to people for some 25 years is that this principle, though seemingly innocent and practical, has severe flaws. To understand why, consider a specific instance of the principle: an elderly couple who plays cards every evening. Now, there are many elderly couples who play cards every evening, and enjoy it, and that's great. But maybe there are some elderly couples who play cards every evening who don't enjoy it. So why do they play cards? Because each of them thinks that the other person enjoys playing cards, and wants to find an activity that the other person enjoys. The total system - consisting of 2 people - is sustained because each person in "the system" thinks that "the system" is what most (other) people want, despite the fact that it isn't. The sustenance of such a system is what I'm calling Mob Rule.

The elderly couple is a silly example, but as far as I can tell, this phenomenon is widespread. What's worse, it can be the basis for 2 huge problems, namely (1) prejudice / discrimination and (2) the lack of meaningful human connections. When simplifying classifications are made of people so that they can band together for common purposes or against common "evils", it causes people to be associated with a slew of other traits due to only a few (prejudice), and it makes it difficult to have meaningful connections with people because there are now only a few broad bundles of people to choose from, rather than the rich tapestry of individuals that there were before. Nobody can interact meaningfully with the generic geek, or the generic capitalist, or the generic adventure-lover - you'll never get past surface-level interactions.

For example, it has been claimed by many people that men and women are fundamentally different and have different "roles" that they prefer to play in (the emotional components of) relationships. [2] In other words, men with this ideology try to infer the preferences of "women" (as if they were a collective unit) and women try to infer the preferences of "men" - or those preferences that men/women are most likely to have - and adjust their behaviour to pander to their respective mob. This, of course, results in a dual system of Mob Rule. I think this is a very twisted ideology regardless of how much statistical evidence there is for it. My point is precisely that it's possible for a mob to claim to have a certain preference, without actually having that preference. The true preference is hidden in order to be meld in with the mob with the power to accomplish their goal.

I could go on with more examples, but hopefully these examples have made clear my general point. I think it's wrong to give up one's specific self in order to become part of a larger, simpler shared "consciousness". Please stop giving in to Mob Rule.




[1] Voting is only rational for idealists.

[2] Thankfully, this belief system has become much more restricted to circles of Christians who have misinterpreted various religious texts. But disgustingly, it is not unheard of in non-religious circles, and still has a cultural as well as a religious element.
5th-Dec-2008 02:12 pm - Hot water heaters
Hot water heaters are one of the primary consumers of electricity. So turn down your hot water heater from 60C to 54C. Anything over 54C is so hot it will burn your skin, so you never need it that hot except to run a dishwasher, and normally dishwashers heat the water to the required temperature themselves. Most hot water heaters come preset at 60C from the power company probably because the power company wants to get more money from you. It's really easy to turn them down if you know how to do it. You can do it even if you have an apartment. It saves you lots of money.

People building / rennovating houses can also get tankless hot water heaters. Normal, tank-based hot water heaters need to store the water in a tank at a set temperature all the time. Tankless ones heat the water up only when you actually turn on the hot water tap, by heating up some pipes and making the water go through them. If you use most hot water at a certain time of day (e.g. when you shower in the morning), this can be much more (about 50%?) efficient. It's also convenient when you have lots of people in one house, e.g. when you have visitors, because the hot water never runs out no matter how many showers are taken consecutively.
25th-Nov-2008 12:40 pm - The downtrodden
A while ago I said that Christianity is about seeking the happiness of others (instead of your own).

Now I'm not so sure, because Jesus paid special attention to the downtrodden or the outcasts, and seemed to say that we should too. This is much harder than merely seeking the happiness of others because most people will scorn someone who associates themselves with the downtrodden or outcasts. Merely seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number seems to ignore the command in Matthew 25:31-46.

I don't know how to follow it, though. Maybe you can't do so by any automated algorithm or life structuring, but have to consider each situation as it arises. Building up the economy should help the downtrodden in a perfect world, but maybe it doesn't really because of human nature.
26th-Oct-2008 02:53 pm - Creativity
Creativity is what remains after disposing of everything primitive, mundane, and insignificant.
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