August 26th, 2003



Chatting to Allorin this morning about Livejournal, it became clear to me that the reason I don't write about what I've been up to most of the time is that… I don't enjoy writing about my life most of the time. I'm quite happy to write about the things I've been thinking (which are, in many ways, a large chunk of what I've been up to) or pass on links to cool sites I've been looking at (another decent sized chunk of what I've been up to), but when it comes to chronicling the minutiae of my life I just lose interest. There's the occasional exception, where I think "Aha! My tooth-brushing experience belongs to the world! I must share it at once!", but by and large I'm even less interested in my life than you lot are.

Which leads me neatly into something that myself and Ed were discussing last night (it's lovely having Ed in the house, he's one of the few people I can chat to about almost anything) - how much I value my own endeavours versus other people's. As those people who have been paying attention will remember, I believe that all meaning is personal and subjective and that if you want your life to have meaning you have to put it there yourself. The positive side of this is that your life's meaning is entirely up to you to define ("From now on, my life will be dedicated to sleeping in at the weekend and bacon sandwiches.") but has the negative connotation that you're aware that the rules you're living your life by are ones you've made up. This means that you're effectively playing a game that you wrote the rules to yourself, an exercise that can feel trivial unless you're really into games, especially when you know you can change the rules at any time. I don’t actually think about this a vast amount, but it sits there at the back of my brain, having the overall effect of making me feel like I'm dabbling in anything I do. This is probably linked into the fact that I'm pretty lazy and haven’t really worked hard at many things during my life, being more inclined towards slacking off and arbitrary rebellion (I'm very thankful that I'm smart, as I hesitate to think how my life would have turned out if I was lazy _and_ dumb - possibly I'd have had to learn to work at an early age).

Anyway, I have a constant dilettante feel about my life, which tends to lead me to be happy to spend time doing things for other people (so long as they're not boring things). After all, other people seem to have a much higher emotional attachment to their lives and occupations, and the emotional payback for success for them seems to be much higher. To spend time helping them succeed seems therefore to produce a higher level of happiness than to play around with my own interests. Which isn't to say that I don't feel the need to spend time on them, more that when someone shouts for help, the charge get out of it is frequently higher than the charge I'd get for solving one of my own problems.

This, of course, indicates that one of the things that does mean something to me is the respect/affection/gratitude/awe/friendship of my friends. Which is true, as friendship is one of the things I value highly, although I'm wary both of other people taking me for granted, and of my own ability to be blankly charming, making polite, complimentary chit-chat because I know it makes people feel good (and therefore more likely to like me) rather than engaging in serious conversation. Both of those things aside, my liking for people tends to be strong enough and low-level enough to keep me enthused both about social activities and making people happy. It's strong enough that I find cinema trips far more enticing if I'm going with someone than by myself (despite the fact that I don't talk during films, sharing the experience definitinely improves it for me).

I wobble back and forth between isolation and gregariousness, sometimes spending all of my time around other people, sometimes spending whole days involved in personal projects, too self-aware to let either last for long. Things feel quiet at the moment (despite having a regular 3-to-6 people over for video nights), and I seem to have a comfortable balance. I could do with a teeny amount more time for myself, but that's more down to getting my brain working again (more sleep!) than anything to do with other people using up my time. I'm sure that a week from now I'll be out there demanding that people pay attention to me again...


"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
- Stephen Roberts

There is a huge differnece between being a free thinker and a so called "non-conformist" who rebels against rules that aren't worth fighting anyway.

"If the book, the Bible and my brain are both the work of the same Infinite God, whose fault is it that the book and my brain do not agree?" - Robert G. Ingersoll

The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority. -- Stanley Milgram

Annoyed by Allies

In some ways it's more annoying when people who nominally believe things like you step over the mark and say ridiculous things than when people on the other side do so. As usual it's nominally 'objective' scientists taking a theory and then using anything to hand in order to 'prove' it. Robert Anton Wilson talks about this propensity - he divides us into two people - the thinker and the prover. In a perfect world the thinker would think whatever the prover had proved. In reality, the prover sets out to prove whatever the thinker already thinks. Robert Heinlein put it another way when he said that "Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal." We will selectively ignore whatever evidence there is that contradicts what we already believe. We invent the most tenuous of excuses in the face of evidence of a world we don't like. I'm certainly guilty of this myself, as is everyone else I know.

However, it'd be nice to think that when people are publishing a scientific work that they would stick to things which, if not actual facts, were as close to facts as possible. It's all well and good me putting together a few chance observations of the people around me and the news and culture I have access to, but I expect scientists to work a little harder and actually try to, well, prove what they're saying.

Which makes this dissapointing. The new book from Michael Baron-Cohen (apparently very respected in the world of autism) explores differences in the brains of men and women. Sadly, while it contains some decent research and interesting studies, it also contains a vast amount of hearsay and anecdotal evidence which wouldn't stand up to any scrutiny.

So on the positive side there's things like:
...a study of rats in which the males were found to be better at finding their way through mazes. Baron-Cohen contends that this marginally supports his theory that men are better than women at reading maps. "In both the human and rat studies, a male superiority has been established when geometric (systemic) cues are available. Females tend to rely on landmarks (objects) in the room," which he says is not very systematic or reliable method.

Delving further into biology, Baron-Cohen finally gets cookin'. First off, hormones appear to play a factor in gender-typical behavior. Higher levels of testosterone, particularly in early development, he maintains, citing studies on everyone from rats to men with "very small testes" to male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals, lead to an increased aptitude for systems and a decreased aptitude for emotional relationships. What's more, fetal testosterone may also affect the rate of growth of the brain's two hemispheres: the higher the testosterone level, the faster the growth of the right hemisphere, which has been linked to spatial ability, in which systemizing plays a role. The left side of the brain, meanwhile, is linked to language abilities, which is a key component of empathizing, Baron-Cohen says.

One particularly interesting study cited in the book finds that women tend to have larger left feet than right -- and larger left ovaries and breasts -- as well as dominant left brain hemispheres. These "left-greater" people tend to score better in language tests. Men, on the other hand, are generally found to have dominant right brain hemispheres -- and larger feet and testes. "Right-greater" people have been found to do better on spatial tests.

Still, Baron-Cohen seems much more comfortable when he turns to his area of expertise: autism. (He is the director of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre and has written two books on the subject, "Autism: The Facts" and "Mindblindness.") Here, he argues that autism, which afflicts far more men than women and is characterized by "abnormalities in social development and communication" and "unusually strong obsessional interests," and Asperger Syndrome, similar to autism but found in people with higher IQs and less severe communication issues, are both examples of "the extreme male brain." In other words, these are people for whom the systemizing/empathizing split is heavily weighted toward the former. (For the record, I scored very low on Baron-Cohen's appended Autism Spectrum Quotient test, meaning I show few signs of the syndrome.)

On the negative side there's vast amounts of things along the lines of:
For instance, to support his assertion that boys have a superior mathematical ability across cultures, after allowing that their work in school might be "less neat" than girls', Baron-Cohen looks at the entrants in the International Mathematical Olympiad, "in which the world's best mathematicians compete against each other."

"You can look up the winners on the Web if you are interested," he writes. "You will notice immediately that they are nearly all male. The Olympiad winners are listed by name, not by sex, but one can have a good guess at the sex of someone called Sanjay, David, Sergei, or Adam."

As the reviewer asks: This is valuable scientific evidence?

And the answer is that it might have been, if the time and effort had been put in to research it properly and check the backgrounds of the places these children come from - I can see Heron's immediate response to this that in most cultures the males are taught far more than the females are, which would easily slant the results, especially as "Sanjay" is a name associated with India, a very gender-based culture, "David" is possibly Jewish (another one) and so on and so forth.

It's only by sticking to the basics of what can be shown statistically to be (as) true (as possible) that inroads can be made. And if you can't show it to be true, then stating it as a fact based on trivial anecdotal evidence and guesswork harms your cause, it doesn't help it.

Great Place to Work

One of the reasons I decided to move to my current place of employ was that I wanted to work with people that were more like me. Not entirely like me, of course, because that would be both singularly horrible and unproductive, but certainly a little more like me. Going to work with other people who were computing graduates would at least guarantee the occasional geeky person and a certain minimum level of intelligence (being smart may not guarantee you a degree, but it's impossible to get one without a certain amount of smarts). It's therefore been delightful to encounter SF buffs, gamers and general geeky people amongst the populace. Certainly they're still in the minority, but I'm far more likely to get a geeky conversation here than anywhere I've worked apart from at FPS (where I introduced two members of staff and I could always chat tech-wise with Dave, the resident techy).

It's a delight to me that people frequently engage in the ridiculous, slightly flamboyant, inefficient chatter of those who are bored with ordinary conversation and have taken to spicing it up in odd ways to relieve the tedium of simply asking someone to pass the stapler. The occasional displays of wit provide welcome breaks from my current work converting specifications into Visio diagrams and remind me that of all the places I've worked this ranks in the top 2 (and hopefully the top 1, once I work my way into a better position).

It was particularly lovely when a conversation a few weeks ago about Edinburgh zoo led onto the subject of lions and was then followed by Greg and Stephen briefly dueting on "Hakuna Matata". Anywhere that happens (outside of Disneyland itself, of course) has to be a great place to work.