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Archive for the ‘science’ Category


Posted by Keen Observer on November 12, 2012

Memory:  personal memory, institutional memory, corporate memory, cultural memory, tribal memory.  These are the types of memories that living beings tend to be aware of, even if perhaps not all the time or in a consistent way.  But they are there.  I hope I don’t need to go into details on them, so I won’t.

Most of these—if not all—were consistently shared between individuals and generations in a largely oral tradition in times earlier than this.  Histories and fables, facts and survival/prosperity tips, and other such similar things were handed down to the general knowledge base or to specific, “worthy”, recipients.  Because of the way memory works, sometimes knowledge was lost, and sometimes less-valuable knowledge was discarded if favour of something better or more important.  This is evolution of a sort.

However, the advent of modern technology changed that somewhat.  It started gradually, but it eventually became the way that technology displaced the mostly-oral tradition, and it was thought to be progress or “better”.  One could argue that this change started with writing and tablets, before moving on to scrolls, but even in those cultures where these things arose, there would have been a significant majority of any population for whom this technology was out of reach, and thus would have had to rely on continuing the oral tradition.  These simple forms of technology were all there were for centuries, although as time went on, larger (though still very minor) percentages of the various populations would have acquired the use of these technologies.  It could even be argued that in some societies, the populace were deliberately kept ignorant to keep them under the control of their overlords.  I’m looking largely at feudal Europe, here, especially the iron control of the Church.  Countries like China and India and Japan had better literacy rates at the same time, I believe, even if there were entrenched class systems.

A seriously-significant piece of technology changed Europe (and the world) permanently in the middle of the last millennium:  movable type and the Gutenberg press.  In addition to aiding in the relatively rapid dissemination of knowledge to all and sundry, it had an additional effect on the human use of memory.  It started to become less necessary for people to remember things themselves, or similarly for the various groups of people outlined above to retain and pass along acquired or historical knowledge.

Jump ahead a couple hundred years to the present day, and that trend has almost reached its conclusion:  few  people or organisations remember any more than they absolutely have to to get by in life or business/whatever.  The word “memory” is not used as it was in the past, except in rare instances.  In fact, it is almost ubiquitous in its usage as a technological construct in the form of computer memory (RAM) or less correctly as storage (hard drives, thumb drives, optical media, and the like).  If you asked a random person on the street, “How’s your memory?”, you’re about as likely to get the answer in gigabytes as you are to hear that he’s been having a harder time remembering names lately.  We rely insanely heavily on other things to do our remembering for us:  books, journals, computers, disks, libraries, corporate manuals, legal codes, and so on.  And because other things do the heavy lifting for us, we no longer have to do it ourselves.  It’s almost become that a person with a good memory is considered freakish, it’s so bad.

Our memory “muscles” atrophy from disuse, and it becomes harder and harder to remember things.  When I  was younger, I prided myself on my memory.   It wasn’t eidetic (to my chagrin), but it was pretty good.  There were times when I felt I was just a hair’s breadth away from being able to visualise perfectly a page which I had read, to be able to pull out of that page the specific phrase I was attempting to recall.  Frustrating.  But since I started to rely on other things to remember that which I needed to remember, the less my memory itself was used, a gradual trend over the past couple of decades.  And on top of that, the older I get, the harder I have to work to remember things I should still know, and it becomes harder to retain new information that I am learning or need to know.   And this annoys the crap out of me at many levels.

I see this trend away from using one’s own memory as something occurring society-wide, on a fundamental basis, and I don’t think this is a good thing.  I also think I see that the pace of it is increasing, with increasing amounts of technology being used in the classroom as though it’s a good thing.  Children are being encouraged and taught to rely on machines to remember stuff for them.  Smartphones (e.g., with their memo and calendar functions) and thumb drives are ubiquitous.  Even diaries have a state of impermanence, being stored on media that can easily be destroyed in ways that written hardcopy cannot.  I think—and this is just my opinion—that continuing on this path is not only detrimental to people and society, but it is actively contributing to society’s downfall.  People that don’t remember things on their own will not be able to react to problems quickly; they will not be able to adapt and overcome, if they must continually stop to check something on their phones or look something up on the Internet.  This is a sort of recipe for disaster, if you’ll pardon the hyperbole, because we must as a society be smarter than those who would wish to destroy us, if we wish to survive.  It also has the effect of reducing the candidate pool for highly-technical (or other) jobs that require that sort of mental flexibility and awareness.  This does not leave me exactly hopeful for the continued survival of our society.

Just some thoughts about memory.  And right on a thousand words, too.


Posted in computers, general, life, opinion, science, stupidity, technology | Comments Off on Memory

A Religio-Political Odyssey, Part 3

Posted by Keen Observer on January 31, 2012

So, presuming no one is bored at my rambling yet, I shall continue…

I spent some time adrift after leaving school sans degree.  This was in 1991, when I should have convocated as a teacher, as did many of my friends.  Instead, I was somewhat aimless.  Employment prospects poor, I didn’t quite know what to do.  I didn’t much care about other things, either.  I had my first brush with what might be called depression, though it was never diagnosed as such.  I scared my family by doing a very good impression of a rock for about eight hours uninterrupted one day.

I almost left university, I should say.  With nothing better to do, I went back in the fall to take classes towards a degree in English Literature.  That kept me occupied somewhat, and I was exposed to ideas further left than my usual ones, especially in the person of a poet I met in one of my classes, one with certain…issues, let’s say.  I absorbed some of these ideas and reflected them back to the world.  I learned a higher level of analytical reading and presentation.  I honed my writing skills.  I thought about doing graduate work, but it really didn’t appeal to me, and I had certain…limitations imposed because of my math/physics grades.  I stayed out of politics, mostly, but I voted every election.  One can argue that it is a citizen’s highest civic duty, but it was never something I let slide past me, even if all I did was spoil a ballot.

During this time also, I did spend some time with my poet friend and her circle.  Except for rare circumstances, I never really felt part of the group, though.  I didn’t really understand why, except that I knew at a recognisable level that they were not my people.  Different ideas.  Diff’rent strokes.  Different aims and beliefs.  At most levels, except for occasional literary discussions, I could not relate to them as a group.  The thought of “conservatism” still left me cold, believing as I did what the media and my acquaintances told me about it and the PC Party of Canada (or Saskatchewan). and I largely considered myself a centrist or centre-left kind of guy.  I had not yet realised that I was being fed news pablum, but I did have a sense that there were gaps of some sort (at least on a subconscious level).

I ultimately finished that degree in 1994, but again had no idea what to do with it.  No job, no prospects.  Unsure.  My cousin got married that year, and the wedding was in Sydney, NS.  I went, invited as relative and MC.  Did not distinguish myself, but it was somewhat life-changing.  I had taken geology as an elective, and I got to see out east some things discussed in class, and I began to understand the story the earth tells, if you know how to read it.  This intrigued me to the point that I wanted to learn more, and so I re-enrolled upon my return:  something finally excited me.

Something else excited me:  my sister’s best friend, freshly graduated from high school.  For some reason at that ceremony, something changed relative indifference to strong attraction, to the point that while far away from Saskatoon, I kept thinking about her at fairly regular intervals.  There’s much more detail, but for my purposes now, I had something else to occupy my mind.  We started dating that fall, despite some initial reluctance on my part, and she was central to my life for 16 years, and still currently has a peripheral–but significant–effect on it.

I had goals again; I was excited; I had things to do.  With new things to keep me engaged in my life, I again started following politics more closely.  I again kept being unsure of myself.  I questioned my agnosticism.  I kept thinking things the government did were a bit stupid; in my house, however, criticising the provincial NDP government was not generally wise.  Based on things I understood at the time, the federal government, Liberal-run, seemed to be going OK, so I had no complaints.  Quebec separatism frequently came up as a topic.  For that, I saw little reason in appeasement, even with my French-Canadian heritage, so in that regard I was on the opposite side of my supposed party.  I would be unhappy with the breaking of Confederation, but I just could not see how they could be so stupid about it.  How little did I know at the time, but the press seemed not interested in portraying the true nature of the complaints, as I have now come to understand them.

I finished my geology degree program, which is where I developed a grounding in the historical temperature record.  This (among other reasons that would take up other posts completely) informed my resistance to climate change as having any human-caused component, something that set me apart from most people for a long time.  I worked as a well-site geologist for about 4 years after that, which also let me to be exposed to a larger world of ideas, including those of surprisingly-educated rig workers.

During this time, I found a left-leaning blog, one of those at right on the main page of this blog:  grrlmeetsworld.  In it (I can’t remember how I found it) the writer recounted her own political journey from US Southern Christian right to a leftist doing grad work at my university.  It interested me, and it was interesting to read how she stopped adhering to the politics she had grown up around.  A lot of the change seemed to be propelled by the Christian part of the politicking, to which I could somewhat relate, but in the other direction.  I even commented there a few times, even after moving to Calgary.  But that’s getting ahead.  I learned a lot from her, some of which she might not appreciate, but some things continued to leave me confused.

The rigs were also the milieu in which I was when the attacks of 9/11 happened.  Clear as day are some of my memories around that time, though others from that time have deteriorated.  I was just coming on shift shortly after the first plane hit.  Oddly, it just seemed like a run-of-the-mill disaster to be watched with ghoulish interest.  And I was watching as the second plane hit.  My first reaction was, “Oh. My. God.” There was no mistaking that for an accident.  My second reaction was, “Those stupid, stupid fuckers.”  I had no doubt in my mind who was responsible, at least in broad form, and I knew they had just changed the world in an instant.  I also knew that hell was coming for them.

(to be continued…)

Posted in Alberta, American, Canadian, general, news & journalism, personal, politics, religion, science, World | Comments Off on A Religio-Political Odyssey, Part 3

A Religio-Political Odyssey, Part 2

Posted by Keen Observer on January 31, 2012

[Note:  rather a lot of this was written in early March 2011, but it sat for some time before I got back to it.  A new friend’s feedback encouraged me.]

I’m not entirely sure, but I think I might always have been a conservative, without really realising it.  I’m still trying to figure that out.  But I almost never voted Conservative.  I think, except maybe for once, I never voted NDP.  I was usually voting Liberal, both federally and provincially.  Largely, that was due to my family, my school, and my Church, but I could never bring myself to swing further left than that.

When I moved to Calgary, I joined a riding that was so deep blue, no vote of mine would make a difference.  So I voted Libertarian federally and Wild Rose Alliance provincially (in their first election).  I plan to vote WRA again.  With Prentice gone (what a jack-off), I voted CPC in the last election without feeling too sullied, but I doubt it made a difference.  There was no Libertarian candidate this time around, so no  worries there.

That’s where I stand now, but how did I get here?

I remember developing interest in news and politics somewhat in elementary school.  As something we did on a weekly basis, Fridays I think, we did posters or quizzes on “current events”.  That kind of opened up the world to me a little bit, which heretofore I hadn’t much cared about.  I don’t think I took sides then, or anything.  It was largely a regurgitation exercise, and I believed something that appeared in print or on TV.  They weren’t trying to teach us much in the way of critical thinking or analysis, just summary and repetition.

I vaguely remember from that time the Iranian hostage crisis, for example, and feeling proud that Canadians had a hand in getting some of the Americans out.    I remember reading crappy Canadian history books in class that ended with the Diefenbaker prime-ministership.  And I remember having a very strong interest in military history, partly due to a love of airplanes (the best planes were fighter planes).  Unfortunately, most of the military history available to me was American and European, rather than anything Canadian.  I forget how old I was when I learned who Laura Secord really is or that we burned the White House (assuming it was us and not just British forces stationed here).

My interest in news, history, and current events carried on through my high-school life (and, indeed, continues today).  My perception of it changed over the years, though.  In high school I spent a couple of years in Air Cadets.  I generally enjoyed the experience, and I probably would have gone forward with a career in the military, but all I was interested in at the time was flying, and when I realised in grade ten that I needed glasses, that killed that hope for me.  I didn’t re-join cadets the following year, either.  I still kind of regret that, even though my excuse at the time was that it was taking too much time away from my academics.  Purely a rationalisation, I think now, because I didn’t need to work at all hard in school.  I maintained, though, my interest in and support of our military.  I attended air shows and went to other military displays.  It was in elementary school where I developed a sense of nationalism, and I was always somewhat offended that promoting Canadian nationalism was seen as being “too American”.  It was in the vein of “all problems and wars are the result of being too nationalistic”, or some other simplistic bullshit.  To my shame I largely kept quiet on that subject, but I was also quietly proud.

My interest in firearms arose largely from Scouts, believe it or not.  At camp one year, it was the first time I fired a rifle (or firearm of any type).  It was a simple .22LR of some variety with open sights; I don’t remember if it had the usual 5-round magazine, but I expect it did.  I was able, on the camp range, to hit small targets at 50 yards or so (eg the plastic boxes the ammo came in) and see them fly up with fragments.  I found that exciting, but it was also a little scary to me, because I understood that these tools can be dangerous also.  I don’t recall if I ever had any position on gun control before then or not.  I doubt it.  Even after that, I kind of waffled somewhat, because I held the belief for some time that restricting access to firearms could be a good thing.  Eventually, however, I realised that “gun control” should only ever mean “tight groupings” and “hitting your target”.  Sure, require licenses and maybe background checks, but the licenses shouldn’t be overly restrictive or difficult to obtain.  Otherwise, there really shouldn’t be any restrictions, except perhaps for certain types of military-grade hardware.  And there should be more education about and promotion of firearms in the general population.  But going beyond this is another post.

[Tangent] Castle Doctrine:  enact one.  Enough said.  It’s just getting stupider out there. [Edit: the CPC has made some changes to current laws, but they’re not enough.]

Property rights:  enact them.  Enough said. [/Tangent]

In high school I was still surrounded by largely leftist politics.  Fortunately, it was mostly charity-based, but there was a lot that wasn’t.  At one point I was peer- and parent-pressured into getting a youth membership in the federal Liberal party to help push through an openly pro-life candidate’s nomination/election as party leader .  He didn’t win, but it wasn’t a surprise.  I got to join the others on a moral high horse that our consciences were salved by our actions, except I always felt a vague sense of unease about it.  At this remove, I’m not quite sure why, but I think I had some sort of sense that it wasn’t right.  At any rate, I always had a sense that I was out of step with those around me, but I really didn’t know why.

University provided a more-broad opportunity to interact with the world.  Living in a university city meant that I and most of the college-bound people from my high school ended up staying close to home and relatively intact as a group.  So their influence shadowed me, and my circle of friends didn’t expand much, as there was no need.  But again, there was exposure to new, and enhanced opportunities for independent research.  Universities tend to lean left, and ours was no exception, but if you looked, you could see alternate viewpoints.  They conflicted with “my” world-view, though, so I tended to ignore them.  I suspect, however, that some of what I was exposed to stuck with me, whether I willed it or not.

I attempted initially to become a teacher, but I chose a science-based curriculum (I had been somewhat inspired to become a physics teacher).  This is a general dichotomy, as teachers and their unions tend to frown on rational thought, but science requires it.  During my third year of study, I was on a practicum replacement in a rural high school at the same time that a province-wide strike vote was being held by the union.  This opened my eyes in a way nothing else had, as we student teachers were inside the teachers’ lounge and treated as colleagues.  I saw the profession’s warts and was disheartened.  Between this and the struggle get my science/math grades up (I, stupidly, chose the real curriculum, rather than the one intended for teachers, and lacking proper study skills and too stubborn to get help, could not deal with the more advanced courses), I did not enter the 4th and final year of the program, instead burning the remainder of my scholarship on classes I enjoyed (literature of various types).  I took the following year off to figure out what to do with myself, as the plans I had no longer worked for me.  This is, of course, all by-the-by, insofar as the thesis of this post goes, but it does help frame my experiences.

Around this time, I acquired a female friend from a rural area that resulted in several things: a more intimate exposure to ideas that were not the same as those with which I was raised; and forced acknowledgement that my friends had some flaws that from some perspectives might be viewed as problematic.  I make no claim to perfection myself, but these were the types of flaws that break friendships, either sooner or later.  Challenging ideas and removing blinkers were additional contributions to modifying what I believed politically; it also turned out that my problems with the Church became more crystalline-clear, and at the end of my 4th year of university,  I left both it and the Church.  Perhaps ironically, my female friend returned to the Church…an even exchange.  So, my voyage continued, ideas meshing, fighting, losing, and triumphing.

(more to come…)

Posted in Canadian, general, news & journalism, personal, politics, religion, science | Comments Off on A Religio-Political Odyssey, Part 2

A Religio-Political Odyssey, Part 1

Posted by Keen Observer on March 5, 2011

I wasn’t always politically conservative.  Somewhat ironically, it was losing my religion that was a major part of the change.

I was born and raised in Saskatoon, where I lived up until about five years ago, when I moved to Calgary for work.  The household I grew up in was Catholic and fairly leftist.  My dad–retired now–was a staunch trade unionist.  My mother is in a union, but she doesn’t like it much.  She was moderately pro-union, I guess, or neutral for my formative years.  I went to Catholic schools through to university, and I was involved in my church, pretty much right up until I left it.

Except for pro-life stuff, I was in situations where the causes we supported were leftist causes, predominantly poverty- and service-organisation-related.  Gay marriage wasn’t an issue during the time-frame, so it never came up.  Gay issues were just revolving around equality under the law, and in the Church, it was all about loving the sinner and hating the sin: one was allowed to “be” gay, as long as one didn’t have gay sex.  [Hypocrisy number one.]  However, women priests and married priests were off-limits suggestions, despite repeated reports of how the priestly rolls were continuing to decline every year.  For the Church hierarchy, some people were still more equal than others. [Hypocrisy number two.]

Tangent:  I should probably explain that my natural alignment tends to be “lawful neutral”, although I’m sometimes “chaotic good”.

I would also see week after week how religion was largely lip service, even for the weekly attenders.  In many ways it was like “what happens outside here stays outside here, unless you bring it to the confessional”.  It was presumed that if you went through the motions, you were seen as a good, pious congregationist.  And then you see these people in other settings, and they act nothing the same.  And no celestial punishment befalls them, and they never get called out on their behaviour. [Hypocrisy number three.] The primary source material on which the religion is based is contradictory and unclear in many places; it’s so bad that scholars over tens of centuries have churned out volume after volume after volume of “explaining” what exactly the primary material meant.  It’s a pretty classic example (IMO) of what happens when a potentially good idea becomes bogged down in government and regulation.  As the source material would have it, the central teachings of the Christ figure are:  do unto others as you would have them do unto you; love the god with all your heart, soul, and strength.  “And, you know, I wouldn’t mind if you’d remember me at supper time.”  And from this, we have the monolithic Church, plus all the other churches, most of which have rigid hierarchies and labyrinthine rules and regulations about what is and is not “true” teaching. [all in all, hypocrisy number four.]

The presence of so much evil in the world and “God’s” reaction to it.  Ultimately, this is where religion broke on the rocks for me, because I have a hard time reconciling a so-called “loving God” with the events that occur in the world.  I was agnostic for a long time after leaving the Church, and recently, I think I’ve become full-on atheist.  Even now, I’m still not sure some days.  Some people say agnosticism is just laziness, as is atheism, but I think a lot of people mistake atheism or agnosticism for a belief in nothing.  They aren’t.  Atheists may not believe in a god, but I’m sure most of them have a pretty strong moral code.  Most would be law-abiding, productive citizens in their native lands.  Agnostics struggle constantly to understand their place in the cosmos.  Just because they haven’t decided whether or not there is a god does not preclude them from having other strong beliefs. Arguing against atheists and agnostics on these grounds is a losing proposition.  It becomes belief system versus belief system, which is no different than religious superiority complexes that have been plaguing civilization for thousands of years and causing millions of deaths.

For myself, I largely believe (and I’m not interested in unsolicited proselytizing, so just don’t) that a supreme being (as western Christians/Jews understand such, which is the tradition in which I was raised) must exist in one of four states, because of the state of the world:  it doesn’t care what goes on here (or it would be more obvious in its interference); it cares, but is entirely uninvolved (either can’t or won’t); it is actively interfering here in negative ways (i.e., evil); or it doesn’t exist.  In all four of these cases, organised religion is worse than useless, because it propagates a useless, false mythology and turns people into stupid sheep that expect an invisible super-hero to save them.  There’s a reason for the sheep/Shepherd metaphors.

  1. It doesn’t care:  if it doesn’t care, then nothing we do matters to it.  Praying, doing good works, etc have absolutely no soul-saving qualities, though good works are good for society, generally.
  2. Uninvolved caring:  again, if it cared, it would get involved in response to prayers from “good” people.  It clearly does not, at least not on any useful scale.  If it chooses not to be involved, that implies to me that he could help, but doesn’t; in which case why is this being deserving of any human respect?  If it can’t get involved (i.e. somehow actually prevented), that means that this is not a supreme being, and is again not what the religions have taught us; it also implies that there is something more powerful than “God”, and perhaps we should find out what that is.
  3. Direct involvement:  This would show that the “God” is itself evil or weak, because that means that it’s involved, but evil continues to increase, either in spite of or because of its involvement.  That means prayers etc are useless, from whichever perspective you use, and again implies forces stronger than the so-called “God”.  I mean, seriously, don’t you think a supreme being would be a little peeved at being misused as an excuse for slaughter, or that some group was slaughtering its “chosen people”?  I would be, or I wouldn’t be much of a protector.
  4. Does not exist:  this is the most likely case, and we’re stuck with physical, rather than metaphysical, laws.

So, the weight of hypocrisy and confusion chased me out of the Church.  I just couldn’t deal with it and be a believer anymore.  It’s been twenty years since I made that decision, and I don’t think I regretted it.  For the first ten years I used to refer to myself as a “recovering Catholic”, and I think there are several points of congruence with going through a twelve-step program.  I don’t generally think of myself that way any more.  I just used to be Catholic.  And over those twenty years, I largely remained agnostic, except perhaps in the last couple of years, wherein I’ve been effecting the change to atheism.  In that time I struggled on and off with figuring out whether there is a god or not, and some days it’s hard to believe that the beauty of nature and the cosmos is random.  But one of the reasons that has been helping convince me against that is that humans exist.  There is so much evil in the world and in men, that I don’t think the Christian conception of a god can exist.  If we are created in its own image, as the texts say, then all the evil in the world can be laid at the god’s feet.  Original Sin is a Catholic-only teaching, is it not?  Well, guess what…if the snake existed, it was a creation of god, as was the tree of knowledge.  All things in the heavens and the earth, remember.  If god exists and created us, and if we are evil, then god created evil.  Why should I worship such a being?  And if the “end times” are also true, then that means the world was created only to be destroyed, which would require the destruction of billions of innocent inhabitants, plus all the “lesser” species.  How is that not evil, especially since it was known in advance?  And just to make it interesting and capricious, say that only a certain number will be “saved”, but our loving “god” will condemn all others to eternal hellfire?  What loving “god” would issue that sort of condemnation to its “children”, even if the world weren’t ending?

So, in my view, “god” either doesn’t exist, or it exists and is either passively or actively evil, or it exists and is weak enough to be defeated by other forces.

Tangent:  one thing I find amusing is that the primary source basically states that there is more than just the Judeo-christian god.  It doesn’t say that there are no other gods, but that no other gods shall be worshiped before it.  How does that get reconciled?  And that leaves out all the murder, incest, rape, and mutilation that goes on, including that which takes place at the being’s behest.

Even if one allows the veracity of the source material, the modern expressions of religion certainly do not have that as the basis of their operations any more.  They all have their own views and interpretations and lists of transgressions and means of expiation thereof.  And then there are the religions and philosophies that are inimical to those of the West, but that’s a different blog.

Suffice it to say, I’m a long way away from where I was as a teenager, when I believed…or tried to maintain it, at least.

In “Part 2”, I will attempt to describe my political transformation over the years.

Posted in Canadian, personal, politics, religion, science | Comments Off on A Religio-Political Odyssey, Part 1