Category Archives: Uncategorized

Magdalena and Hayes do Monaco

So, this evening’s episode of “The Amazing Race” is titled “Smells Like a Million Bucks”. I think that “Magdalena and Hayes do Monaco” would be a much better title, eh?

BTW, it as unfortunate that Jeff and Jackie were eliminated; they were the only blind date couple that, as they said, seemed to like each other, and it would have been nice to see them go a little further at least.

Server move done

The move to the new server is done and the old site is up.  I’ve also upgraded WordPress to the latest version.  I inadvertently deleted some of the images before putting the new site up, I’ll get around to fixing that shortly.

Thoughts on Joe Paterno

One of the headlines in today’s news is that Joe Paterno has died today (and it appears that he did die and this isn’t just a false report, like last night). While it might be hard to argue that there ever is a good time to die, the timing of Paterno’s death is particularly bad for him. Had he passed away earlier, the news headlines would recite his accomplishments with Penn State, not his role in a child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State (he was fired last year for not reporting to the police the sexual abuse of a minor that was reported to him). A little later, and he would have had some time to enjoy his retirement while the media forgot about the scandal.

While, in retrospect, it is quite clear that Paterno’s decision not to let the police know about Jerry Sandusky was wrong, I don’t think we should be too quick to judge him too harshly. I suspect that, if we were in the exact same position that he was in, most of us would do the exact same thing. What if someone that you barely knew came into your office one day and told you that someone that you did know quite well was sexually abusing a child? Especially if you’ve invested 50 years in your job and didn’t want everything to be wrecked over allegations that, for all you knew, might be false? And if perhaps you grew up in an era in which problems were “resolved” in a different way? And if you trusted higher-ups to make the right decisions? And so on, and so forth?

I suspect that many people who have read to this point are thinking, “Not I! Sure, a lot of people might give in to the dark side in this scenario, but I would have the strength to do what’s right in that situation!” Well, let’s look at another example. Take the following experiment. In this experiment, the subject is led to believe that he is participating in an experiment about learning. He is in the position of a “teacher”, and his task is to drill a “learner” in another room on lists of word pairs, administering an electric shock to the “learner” whenever a wrong answer is given. This shock starts out at a low voltage (15 volts) but become increasingly more powerful with every wrong answer, until it reaches dangerous and eventually lethal levels (450 volts). What the subject doesn’t know is that the “learner” is a confederate of the experimenter, is purposely giving wrong answers, and is not really receiving shocks, but is acting as if he were (initially expressing minor discomfort, but later screaming in pain and eventually falling silent as the voltage increases). If the subject expresses concern about shocking the “learner”, he is variously prodded and reassured by the experimenter. Now, what percentage of the general population do you think would be uncaring/sadistic/whatever enough to administer the entire series of shocks up to and including 450 volts?

The experiment described above is actually a famous one that was performed by Stanley Milgram in 1961. Milgram took a survey before performing the experiment, finding that people believed (on average) that 1.2% of the population would administer the full range of shocks. What he found upon performing the experiment, however, was that 65% of people did, while many of the remaining 35% still administered very painful (or so they thought) voltages. While Milgram’s experiment was about obedience, it also shows that under certain circumstances, we are all capable of doing very bad things. However, while we accept that others can do very bad things, we are often blind to the fact that we (or our friends or relatives) can do very bad things.

There are lots of surveys with curious results that illustrate this phenomenon. Fifteen years ago, U. S. News and World Report took a survey of who their readers felt was most likely to go to heaven; the winner was “Myself”, with 87%, well ahead of Mother Teresa, who was in second place with 79%, or Oprah Winfrey, who was in third place with 66%. Here’s a more recent one: Parents with teenagers, on the average, think that about 60% of teenagers drink, but only 10% think that their teen drinks. And so on and so forth.

So, before we berate others for their flaws, perhaps we should look at ourselves first. This certainly isn’t a new idea; 2,000 years ago, Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NRSV). After all, regardless of what flaws Joe Paterno may have had, these flaws can no longer hurt us. However, our own flaws will continue to hurt us every day for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we should work on those first before we criticize others.

The theme of this post has been really depressing, so I’ll close it off with a positive thought: If we are capable of very bad actions if put in a certain set of circumstances, then we should be capable of very good actions if in another set of circumstances. Our lives and the lives of others would probably be much, much better if we were to work to try to create those circumstances in our lives and the lives of others.

On Willpower

I’ve started to read the book Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. It’s a pretty interesting book so far and it got me thinking about willpower.

One interesting experiment discussed early in the book is quite interesting. In the 1960s, Walter Mischel was studying how a child learns to resist immediate gratification, and performed an experiment in which a four-year-old would be brought into a room, shown a marshmallow, and told that the experimenter would be leaving for a while (15 minutes) and that they could eat the marshmallow any time they wanted, but if they held off until the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow. Some children couldn’t wait at all; some tried to resist but eventually failed; others managed to hold off until the 15 minutes were up. What is particularly interesting about this experiment wasn’t discovered until much later, when Mischel discovered that those who had held off eating the marshmallow went on to get better grades and test scores, become more popular with their peers and teachers, earn more money, live a healthier lifestyle, and so on.

Now, Willpower cites this as an example of the benefits of willpower. But what does this experiment illustrate? Let’s change the experiment a bit. Say that the child can eat the marshmallow whenever the child wants, but there’s no reward for waiting 15 minutes. Does the new experiment still demonstrate willpower? I don’t think a lot of people would; here it’s just a personal preference when you eat the marshmallow; it isn’t better or worse to eat it earlier or later.

So, in my opinion, the quality demonstrated in this experiment isn’t “willpower” in any traditional definition of the term (e.g. some sort of great power summoned from within to enable one to achieve some goal or another) but just an ability to weigh both the present and future consequences of an action in some manner that we would consider appropriate. Actually, a lot of problems in life seem to centre around not weighing future consequences properly. The authors give a long list of problems that are attributed to low self-control: “compulsive spending and borrowing, impulsive violence, underachievement in school, procrastination at work, alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, chronic anxiety, explosive anger”. However, all of these problems relate to doing what feels good now and not what will feel good later. Compulsive spending and borrowing? It’s nice to get what you want. Violence and anger? It’s a great release. Underachievement in school? Partying’s a lot more fun. Poor eating habits? Sweets and salty snacks just taste so good. Alcohol and drug abuse? Using these substances makes you feel awesome.

Now let’s take another twist on the marshmallow experiment. Say that the child can eat the marshmallow whenever the child wants and if the marshmallow is still there when the experimenter comes back, the child gets a second one, but now the room is full of hungry, marshmallow-loving dogs that would love to snatch the marshmallow at the first possible moment. In this case, waiting 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow wouldn’t demonstrate willpower as much as it would demonstrate idiocy.

Actually, the last scenario probably best represents the way things have been for people throughout most of humanity’s history. Say you’re one of our cave-dwelling ancestors and you come across a few apples growing on a tree. If you were to come back a few days later, they might be somewhat larger and somewhat better tasting; however, if you don’t take the apples now, it’s just as likely that in a few days another animal has eaten the apples, or you’ve starved to death, or you’ve moved on and won’t be back again.

However, our modern world has brought a degree of stability to our lives, making it expedient to value future consequences of our actions. We can be fairly confident that if we sow in spring, we will reap in fall. However, in times of stability, the future goes out the window. If you know that some invading army or another is going to burn or plunder your crop, there’s no point in bothering. If your country is enduring hyper-inflation, such as in Germany after World War I, it’s a good thing to spend everything you have right away and, if at all possible, borrow more money and spend that right away. However, for most people, it probably is a good idea to think for the future.

Anyway, getting back to what I was talking about, I think that these examples suggest that what we call “willpower” isn’t some sort of magical force or great power, but just the ability to evaluate future consequences of actions. Looking at the examples that the authors give in the book above, this seems to make sense; the things that the authors suggest that people are able to control relatively easily, such as sexual urges, are ones where the negative consequences are easily fathomed, while ones that people don’t do such a good job at, such as watching TV or using Facebook or otherwise procrastinating when they need to work or study, are ones in which it isn’t as easy to imagine the future negative consequences.

I would even suggest that “willpower”, using the traditional definition of the word, doesn’t really exist. Furthermore, this ability to evaluate future consequences may not always be useful; there may be circumstances where thinking for the future is best, and circumstances when doing what feels good now is best.

That doesn’t mean that having whatever people have called “willpower” isn’t a good thing; it just means that its nature is different. So, perhaps what we need to do if we want to be successful is to practice looking at the future consequences of our actions and determining what is the best course of action with both present and future consequences in mind. But I think it’s important to call a spade a spade.

I Hate My Teenage Daughter, pilot episode

[cast of "I Hate My Teenage Daughter"]I watched the first episode of “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” earlier tonight; it was kind of an interesting show.

For those who haven’t heard about the show, Annie (played by Jaime Pressly) and Nikki are two mothers of teenaged daughters who were social outcasts in high school, and they’re increasingly worried about their daughters, Sophie and Mackenzie respectively. Also in the picture are their ex-husbands, Matt and Gary respectively.

In this episode, the moms are called to the principal’s office on the morning of the first school dance to find out that their daughters locked a wheelchair-bound boy in the women’s washroom. They decide that the girls need to be punished, but Nikki has no clue what that even means. Annie insists that they need to ground the girls, causing them to miss the dance.

This doesn’t go too well; Sophie and Mackenzie drive Annie and Nikki up the wall. Matt and Gary make an appearance but are totally hopeless too. Eventually Nikki caves, and Annie decides to allow Sophie to attend as well. The moms do figure out how to punish the girls in the end, though.

The characters are kind of interesting. It’s hard to imagine any of them having been parents for 15 years. With the exception of Annie (and Jack, Matt’s brother, whose purpose seems mainly to be to point out the obvious to the defective personalities surrounding him) you probably wouldn’t want to let any of the other characters around your children.  Makes sense; we all know how funny upstanding role models are.

And obviously, as a comedy, it’s not going to shed any new deep meaning on life or anything like that for you.  It is sort of interesting to think about the prevalence of lax parenting and what consequences it has.  In real life, is it really all that bad?  Certainly lax parenting has been on the rise over the past decade or two (and even longer) and one only needs to read the news to find examples of the negative effects of this.  If Sophie and Mackenzie were real-life people, we wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the news for knocking over a liquor store or worse.  But certainly a lot more children are the recipients of lax parenting than are doing things like that.

All in all, not a bad show; I may tune in next time.

Justice and Casey Anthony

As everyone knows, Casey Anthony was found not guilty last week of murder in the death of her daughter Caylee. She was found guilty of lying to investigators, but with credit for time served, she was released from jail on Saturday. The verdict seems to have aroused feelings of intense anger among many Americans, who are angered at seeing someone who likely killed her own daughter walk free. I won’t discuss the specifics of other people’s thoughts on Casey Anthony; they’re pretty easy to find at any news site. This post is more to discuss my own.  There are two points I want to make.

First point:  A lot of people have directed their anger towards the members of the jury.  Honestly, I don’t get that at all.  How could someone who is angry with the verdict think that they, who have probably just read a few articles or seen a few TV programmes about it, know more than someone who had spent weeks doing nothing but hearing every last detail of the case?  Also, our justice system is much more biased in favour of letting guilty people walk free than innocent people getting convicted.  There is a high bar with regards to being certain that the accused is in fact guilty.  We consider this to be a good thing.  No-one would ever want to be in the situation of having to go to jail for a crime they didn’t commit, and even though that happens sometime, it doesn’t happen a lot because proving that someone is guilty “beyond a shadow of a doubt” requires a lot of evidence, which usually isn’t there if the accused is in fact innocent.

Second point:  A few weeks ago I posted a two-part book review of the book In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos. In the first part, I discussed the many different purposes that incarceration can serve (although it often doesn’t serve those purposes too well).  Those purposes are deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, restitution, and punishment.  In the second part, I argue that, while the first four purposes are still valuable, punishment has no good purpose.  While we cling to the idea of punishment because of how our brains are wired, if we want to advance as a species, we should discard the idea of punishing criminals and focus on the other four purposes listed above.  That doesn’t mean that we should abandon imprisonment or other negative consequences of crime.  For example, the threat of long prison sentences can be useful as a deterrent, and a criminal who poses a great danger to society should be locked up to keep him/her off the streets.  However, we shouldn’t mete out long prison sentences solely for the purpose of punishing people.

How does this apply to the current case?  Well, even if Casey Anthony were guilty of murder, how would a long prison sentence help matters?  It seems unlikely to act as a deterrent; people who kill their own children likely aren’t in a rational frame of mind, and couldn’t possibly weigh the consequences of their actions well.  She isn’t a threat to anyone else, so she doesn’t need to be locked up to protect the public.  If rehabilitation and restitution were important issues to consider, prison would be a poor place to address those anyway.  So, even if she were guilty, I don’t think that locking her up would be beneficial.  So, to those who assert that she should have been locked up forever, I would ask, why?  What is the benefit?  As shown above, there really isn’t any benefit.