What makes something humorous? There are two ingredients of humour that seem to be virtually universal. One is the pleasure we get from feeling superior to the butt of the joke. That sense of superiority is even more enhanced if you get the joke, and someone else doesn’t. The other essential ingredient is surprise: that perverse pleasure we get in having our expectations dashed. Jokes lead us into making false connections, which the punch line deflates.
THE SECRET BEHIND 4 A.M
Because evolution has wired our brains to find connections, often we imbue coincidence with significance. Conspiracy theories are made of this. And so is humour.
THE INDISPUTABLE EVIDENCE FOR ALIENS
In serious argument, incongruity and non-sequiturs are annoying, but in other contexts, such as surrealism and humour, they delight us.
THE INVISIBLE WORLD
Wit is all about surprises: being cleverly presented with another’s unexpected and unusual perspective.
And the message is that anything can be an artistic medium. No culture has ever existed that did not create art, yet many cultures don’t have a word for ‘art’. They just don’t feel the need for a special term for aesthetically pleasing and interesting creations that meet some arbitrary criteria. The 20th century saw a radical redefining of ‘art’ in Europe and North America, and contemporary artists treat anything as a potential medium for artistic expression.
THE TOILET AS ARTISTIC MEDIUM
THE SHADOW AS ARTISTIC MEDIUM
20 OTHER UNUSUAL ARTISTIC MEDIA
Many people have a very ambivalent attitude toward the rich: they want to be rich but don’t like the rich. Ironically, liberals, who are often quite well off, blame the rich for all the evils in the current economy, while the less well off are the support base for the current Republican party in the States, which wants to decrease taxes on the extremely wealthy and cut social services to the poor. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” If that’s true, why do so many people want to be filthy rich, especially when they claim to believe that “money can’t buy happiness”? It is only natural that when income inequality is extreme—and just getting worse—to tar every wealthy person with the same brush, but it is really unfair.
WHEN THE RICH GET RICHER, THE POOR GET POORER
And the rich are not really any better off.
CAN MONEY BUY HAPPINESS?
Maybe, if you can give it away.
SLIPPING THROUGH THE EYE
If these folk are camels, that needle’s eye is pretty big.
Ay, there’s the rub!” This is because that sweet “sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, / Chief nourisher in life’s feast” can be as elusive as our memories of dreams during the harsh light of day. One has to suspect the Bard of the same disorder that plagues so many of us, or he couldn’t write so longingly and lovingly of sleep. Those who have no trouble sleeping take this vital balm for granted. Lovers secure in love don’t write poignant love poems. It is only those who have lost their love who do. For many, love of sleep is unrequited love.
UP ALL NIGHT
COUNTING THE ‘BLESSINGS’ OF INSOMNIA
In his book, Consciousness Explained, the philosopher Daniel Dennett writes, “Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery… Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist — and hope — that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.” But there are also many others who love mysteries not because they prefer the comfort of ignorance, but rather because mysteries present a challenge. Despite the title’s presumptuous claim, Dennett doesn’t really succeed in explaining consciousness. No one has yet, although a lot of people besides Dennett are trying—and making some progress.
BEYOND CONSCIOUSNESS LIES A GREATER MYSTERY
Here the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, takes a shot at explaining consciousness and points beyond to the even deeper mystery of the self. Who am I? Where am I?
TRYING TO COMPREHEND CONSCIOUSNESS
Here a good review of the mystery of consciousness. Is consciousness just being good at believing our own lies?
THE FUZZY BORDERLINE BETWEEN CONSCIOUSNESS AND UNCONSCIOUSNESS
Here the practical and important implications of getting a better understanding of consciousness. Can you be conscious of the surgeon’s knife slicing your flesh while under anaesthetic?
We all get sick—and eventually die. It is natural to try to find someone to blame for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But where once we cried, “Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?!”, now we’re more likely to place the blame on modern science and technology. Of course our lives really are “unnatural”. In a state of nature, such as that enjoyed by early man, the fossil record suggests that only 25% of the population survived past age 40.
Who would have thought windmills were hazardous to our health? It’s amazing of what people can become convinced.
Don’t answer that! It’s a call from the Grim Reaper. Or worse still, for many people, it might be a scientist—who surely is getting kickbacks from the smart phone industry.
DEFUSING CLUSTER BOMBS
Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Misuse of statistics has become a very common kind of damned lie. And it can be a lucrative one.
Curiosity may have killed a cat now and then, but it evolved the human. It is responsible for all of science and art: home sapiens’ two unique accomplishments. It may, of course, eventually kill us, for the incurious cockroach has been doing just fine for many millennia more than us. Still, most folk prefer the risky path we humans trod. It is a cliché that all children are naturally curious and creative. So then, one might ask, what happened to all those allegedly inquiring minds on their way to adulthood? Often the regimentation of the formal educational system is blamed. Might we not be better off letting those young inquiring minds inquire on their own?
ARE TEACHERS OBSOLETE?
Maybe adults only need to increase access to information, and allow children to let curiosity be their only guide. This famous TED talk by Sugata Mitra argues for the efficacy of doing so.
ARE CHILDREN REALLY BETTER LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES?
But maybe serious curiosity isn’t as universal among children as we’d like to believe. And maybe it isn’t as good a guide to learning as a knowledgeable adult. This sobering evaluation of the claims of Sugata Mitra is by someone whose curiosity made him look more closely at the question of self-directed learning.
LEARNING BY PLAYING
There is no doubt that intrinsic motivation (such as curiosity) is more lasting and less fragile than extrinsic motivation. Another intrinsic drive is to play. Even a child who isn’t naturally curious about the science of physics is still motivated to play games—including good ones that teach physics. The EdGE organization is “investigating the possibilities—and challenging the assumptions—of game-based learning environments.” (Link is just to the general information page, but check out the whole site—and their online games.)
…to the U.S.A.” or so sings Leonard Cohen in typically ironic lyrics. The key word is “coming”. While it is true that there is a worldwide movement toward democracy, achievement of the ideal of a truly functional democracy that respects human rights and serves the common good has not been achieved—anywhere. What is most disturbing and challenging to the belief that democracy is a panacea is how very dysfunctional so many new (and centuries old) democracies are. As a form of governance it may indeed be the lesser of many evils, but finding a way to make it really work toward the commonweal is far more difficult than simply holding elections. Here are some thoughtful TED talks addressing that complex problem.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is the name of a great film. (It would also be a great title for a book about poetry.) How do you convince people who say westerns are boring to watch this so-called “spaghetti western”? How do you convince people who say poetry is boring to read a great poem? Ain’t easy! The reason is their previous experiences with westerns—or poetry. With most westerns, the problem is that someone who enjoys watching films finds they’re often too easy. With most poems, the problem is that someone who likes reading finds they’re often too difficult. The secret all poets know is that poems are not really difficult. They only require approaching them in the right way. And the rewards they offer are more than worth the effort. Poems are not defined by having rhymes or consistent rhythm or line breaks. What defines poetry is exceptionally powerful use of all the tools of language. We implicitly acknowledge this when we say of any verbal expression, be it a novel or a witty remark, that it is poetic. So if it’s the best of verbal expression, why is it the least appreciated? Because many people don’t know how to approach it, and so never know what they’re missing.
HOW TO ENJOY POETRY
“The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives a poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty.” (James Dickey)
OVERCOMING THREE FALSE ASSUMPTIONS
“Most readers make three false assumptions when addressing an unfamiliar poem. The first is assuming that they should understand what they encounter on the first reading, and if they don’t, that something is wrong with them or with the poem. The second is assuming that the poem is a kind of code, that each detail corresponds to one, and only one, thing, and unless they can crack this code, they’ve missed the point. The third is assuming that the poem can mean anything readers want it to mean.”
Poetry was originally oral. A major component of poetry is the sound of the words. We usually read so fast we don’t really hear the poem clearly in our heads. So hearing poetry read aloud is another route into the enjoyment of it. Here is a good example—and, incidentally, one that should put to rest another false assumption: that poetry has no relevance to contemporary life.
Plagiarism has been in the news a lot lately, so much so one would think it is a virtual epidemic in academe and politics. And being labeled a plagiarist has dire consequences: students are expelled from university; politicians are forced to resign. Reputations of historic and heroic figures are besmirched, as when evidence surfaced that Martin Luther King plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. The phenomenal increase in access to information coupled with the obsession with intellectual property rights has made it much easier to ‘catch’ the plagiarist. But is plagiarism really such a huge offense? Isn’t that idea a fairly recent one and perhaps ethnocentric? Is it clearly defined? Can you plagiarize yourself? How similar does a new thing have to be to an existing one to justify the accusation of plagiarism? How much credit are you really required to give? Is plagiarism always conscious and deliberate? Cannot memory be confused with inspiration?
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON PLAGIARISM
A HISTORY OF PLAGIARISM
It’s a cliché to say Canucks have an identity problem—unlike Yanks, who have no such problem because they are quite comfortable wearing their Superman costume. The truth, however, is we’re not really envious of our neighbours with their delusions of grandeur. The stereotype of Canucks being modest and self-effacing has only a grain of truth. Underneath our polite persona we are a very proud lot. We only compare ourselves to our southern neighbour because they make us look good. There is, however, one thing Yanks do have that neither Mexicans nor Canucks have: good neighbours.
WE CANUCKS ARE PROUD…
…to have the beaver represent us.
WE CANUCKS ARE TOO PROUD…
…to say these seven things about our country—even if some of us think them.
WE CANUCKS ARE MOST PROUD…
…just to be Canucks, cuz it’s cool. (Even sometimes f’ing cold!)
Your Man Friday may live on an island, but he didn’t always. He grew up on the infamous South Side of Chicago. His Alma Mater was Harper High School, a small high school where last year 29 current and recent students were shot, eight fatally, in separate incidents. It is a place where no young man is an island.
HARPER HIGH NOW
An in-depth look at what life is like for some young people in a violent world they can’t escape.
HARPER HIGH 8 YEARS AGO
The other time Harper made it into the news. There is a painful and tragic irony to this upbeat and optimistic report from only a few years ago.
HARPER HIGH 50 YEARS AGO
A personal memoir.
Everybody loves weird factoids. Unfortunately, many are just fictoids. Still, there are enough bizarre, but true, facts to make us wonder at the world we live in.
SHIT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT BIOLOGY
This is both informative and solid science—and written with wit.
SHIT THAT DOESN’T APPEAR TO BE BULLSHIT
This is full of oddities. I cannot vouch for the truth of all of them—but a cursory check of quite a number of them seems to confirm their validity. Anyway, it’s a fun exercise to research them.
SHIT FATHER DIDN’T KNOW AND SUBSEQUENTLY LEARNED
This is an expectant father’s report on research that he’s not sure he should have done.
Surveillance cameras have become virtually ubiquitous, but we are usually oblivious of being so closely watched (and our every action recorded) as we go about our business. Not only are we often in the eye of a camera in many stores, but also as we walk the halls of a university—or even public streets. The argument in favour of this Big Brother Eye is that one shouldn’t mind being watched unless one is doing something wrong. Presumably those presenting that argument don’t mind that anyone monitoring these cameras can watch and record them picking their nose when they think no one is watching. And they shouldn’t object to surveillance cameras in toilet stalls, for certainly some people do use their presumed privacy for illegal activities such as shooting up. But no matter what one’s position on this ever widening surveillance of our daily activities, it is unnerving to realize how powerful the tools for spying on us have become. And there is no control over who is using these tools. Governments’ ability to invade our privacy is improving at a frightening pace.
BEING WATCHED FROM 15,000 FEET
Forget CCTV and store video cams! You now can be monitored from an eye in the sky wearing incredibly powerful glasses.
There are rather belated attempts to try to regulate this invasion of privacy. No doubt there is some justification for some surveillance cameras, but the potential for abuse is frightening.
Some people are taking their concern for privacy to a radical extreme. They’ve devised what might be called a ‘video game’. But this game is played in the real world and involves destroying real video cameras.
We all have them, and some really are bad. But, frankly, most are not—at least not in the grand scheme of things. So when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves, it’s probably worthwhile, albeit very difficult, to remind ourselves that other people have it far worse. (The one exception to this statement is that poor soul who really is worse off than all of the other approximately 7,059,000,000 inhabitants of this planet!) Perhaps that is why we take perverse delight in other’s misfortunes and find it comforting. Humour helps too.
EVEN OUR PETS HAVE THEIR BAD DAYS
PERVERSELY FUNNY TALES OF WOE
GOOD NOT TO BE IN THESE PICTURES
An appalling question—too often answered, rather than viewed with shock—is “Where did you complete your education?” Why do so many people believe that one completes one’s education? Why do so many people think education is a time-limited thing that ends with leaving school? Why do so many young people love to learn things but hate school? Curiosity makes evolutionary sense, for curiosity is what drives learning, and learning has great survival value. There is no question that we come into this world driven by the urge and need to learn. Apparently and alas, it can be suppressed. Lack of opportunity, desperate need to satisfy other basic needs such as food and shelter, and, most ironically, the formalization of learning within the school system, all can crush that learning instinct. Fortunately, there are people using technology to provide opportunities to nurture this innate drive to learn.
BUILDING YOUR OWN TECHNOLOGY
BUILDING YOUR OWN ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY
BUILDING YOUR OWN COURSE TO MASTER COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY
If it is true that you get what you pay for, then posterity will probably judge what we’re getting as being of little real value. What we apparently value, if financial reward is any indication, is not what we claim to value and respect. Civilizations are remembered and valued for their contributions to such things as knowledge, culture, liberty, and justice. But do we reward the individuals who make these contributions? Or are the wrong people being rewarded? A comparison of the real worth of what a person does with the financial remuneration he or she receives gives an indication of our real values—quite different from those we pay lip service to.
The stereotype is not off the mark. We claim to value culture, but most of those who spend their lives contributing to the arts can’t survive without a day job.
Income disparity is hardly news.
DO THE COMPARISON
Here is a wonderful extensive database of average salaries for different occupations. Think about how much a given occupation involves making a serious contribution to our well-being and our legacy, and then compare it with another one of less substantial real value. This exercise can keep one occupied for as long as one has the stomach for it. (These stats are for the States but would be similar for Canada.)
It’s happening: a long overdue bridging of the chasm between the two cultures of science and art. The reason seems to be that somehow popular culture has decided that science is ‘cool’. Being a ‘brain’ is even becoming sexy, rather than a reason for social ostracism.
SCIENTISTS ARE NOW THE IN CROWD
Here are some explanations of this phenomenon by those who are to some extent responsible for it.
LAUGHTER IS THE SECRET INGREDIENT
Scientists are not the deadly serious folk the stereotype makes them out to be. Just look at the names they give such things as elementary particles. “Quarks” is funny enough, but then they describe them as having six “flavours”: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top. Very strange, charming and quirky!
BIG BANG: A DIRECT HIT
It must mean something that a sitcom about four geeky scientists has become (and stayed) so incredibly popular—although real hard-core geeks are a bit ambivalent about the show.
One of the year-end traditions is compiling a ‘best of’ for that year. Often this is done well before the New Year to inspire people’s choice of Christmas gifts. Books make good presents, because unlike many other presents, the full appreciation of them comes later and is not merely momentary and fleeting. And also unlike most Christmas time purchases, we buy books almost as frequently year round. For a reader, a bookstore is a constant temptation. As Henry Ward Beecher remarked, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” Here are three “best of” lists for the reader who prefers non-fiction of the scientific sort.
THE SCIENCE OF REASON
THE SCIENCE OF MIND
Homo sapiens have made it this far, but let’s get real: that ain’t very far in the grand scheme of things. The universe as we know it has been around for 13.7 billion years, our planet for a mere 4.5 billion years, primitive cellular life on our hunk of rock for 3.6 billion years, and our species for the blink of a cosmological eye: a mere 20,000 years at most. And for us as individuals we only have cosmic nanoseconds to savour the miracle of existence before out personal world blinks outs. But it is hard to place our own lives in such a grand perspective.
HISTORY OF APOCALYPSE FORECASTERS
Harold Camping, who’s highly publicized forecast of May 21, 2011 for the “Rapture”, is only the most recent nutcase to cause the naïve to mess up their lives in ‘preparation’ for The End.
CURRENT REAL THREATS
There are real threats to the extinction of our species. Our irresponsible treatment of our planet is but one. We could have some control over that, although we don’t seem to be doing so. Another threat may come from beyond, and we may or may not be able to control that.
THE EVENTUAL END
But all good things must come to an end. That includes the universe in the inevitable Great Heat Death. It may be 100 trillion years away, but still…
Happy New Year!