A Crisis of Identity

Allow me to go all special-snowflake and super-self-indulgent for a bit. Normal service will resume shortly.


I’ve had trouble recently figuring out exactly where I fit in the world.

I feel too weird for ‘normal’ society, but too normal for ‘weird’ society.

I mean, consider: My week isn’t spent counting down to Friday where I go out to get drunk in a packed club; my political opinions go beyond “They’re all crooks!”; I don’t work in an office where my surname has remarkably transformed into ‘from accounts’ or ‘from purchasing’; I can count on one hand the exact number of times I’ve given a shit about sport in the last twenty years; And my main sexual fetish isn’t “phwoar, tits!”.

Meanwhile, at the same time: I hate whimsy; I can’t stand poetry; I’ve committed the ultimate sin in thinking that Doctor Who is just a TV show and, really, just a wee-little-bit shit; I don’t have any ironic hobbies like knitting or collecting tea; I don’t have any mental illnesses or disorders, neither self- nor professionally-diagnosed; And I’m basically cishet scum through-and-through.

So I wonder why either group puts up with me.

I could become a conservative, but I think they’re the Evil Fucking Empire. I’m obviously a liberal, but the liberal-left’s innate talent for self-destruction through its purity culture makes me want to curl into a ball and cry. I could go the South Park route and become apathetic and develop a disdain for any thought that challenges me to care or develop or change but, at the end of the day, I just give too much of a shit about things for that nonsense.

Is my real place with the more-mainstream nerds, fighting for Comic-Con tickets and arguing about X-Box vs the PlayStation 19? Probably not, since I have no idea where I’d find the disposable income for all that bullshit, and I find the casual misogyny and the neckbeardiness that comes with the territory utterly repellent. Does that mean I should join in full-time with the Social Justice Enthusiasts, instead? I suppose so, but I find them to be mostly cloud-cuckoolanders who need to learn to live in reality as it is, first, before they have a hope in hell of changing it because, goat-dammit, guys, perfection is the enemy of good/better, here!

A religious group is a non-starter, obviously. Maybe I could get in with the hardened, out-and-proud Atheists? Well, to be honest, I’d rather join a religious cult that was happy to admit to it, and I like that when I use the word “logic” I mean some bollocks like “(∃x∈X|x=n)⇔n∉Y” and not “Feminism and Islam are the greatest threat to humanity because Logic”.

Metalheads? Frankly, I’d rather be locked in a lift for 24 hours with a Trump fan than a Tool fan, and if I can’t stand the liberal purity culture I’ll last about half a second in the world of “METAAAAAALL!!!!!”. Besides, the broader ‘alternative’ crowd have always looked at me with suspicion for having zero interest in ever getting a piecing or tattoo ever.

So all those sub-cultures and movements are out, and I’ve never felt right nor welcome in any of them.

I’m not, and probably never will be, the great, perfect, stalwart LGBT ally people want me to be, but I’ll never go back to the “eugh, why does it always have to be about the gays!” crowd because fuck that. I know for a damn fact that privilege is very real, but I know there is literally fuck-all I can do about it – which I know because I once asked what I could do about it and had shit slung in my face for it. And, yes, quite, simply not talking about racism won’t make it magically go away but neither will only talking about it.

Or do I just bite the bullet and turn normal – Get a trendy haircut, support the local sports team (Go Sports Team!), share post-memes with Minions on them, comment on a Facebook post that already has 150,000 comments on it, roll back my self-awareness, and start regularly watching Eastenders? Or go full tits-to-the-wall odd – Shave one eyebrow because “that’s so random!”, take up body-painting, change my Facebook profile picture to the flag of whatever country is going through the shit this time, buy some goofy hats, take up barefoot running, and then invent my own sexual orientation because “there isn’t a word that describes me!”?

Or, is this just normal and expected. Are we all like this and all thinking the same thing?

Fuck Millennials

For context, this is what I hear every time I hear the word “millennial”.


Fuck the millennial generation! Screw them. They’re what’s wrong with the world right now, they’re the root cause of everything.

Of course, I mean, well… it’s not like they’re old enough to ever hold serious political office. But, it’s definitely their fault that laws are messed up. It’s the young peoples’ fault, definitely. Laws, the EU, the country! Young people today, that’s the fault!

And their voting record is terrible… they just… okay, fine, so anyone under the age of 23 has only been able to vote in one election in their entire lifetime so far, but it’s definitely how they vote and their lack of voting that’s screwing the world up. Damn their entitlement. If they wanted to vote they should have been born ten years earlier!

And they just screw the economy… I mean, none of them are old enough to buy and sell a house, hell, most kids barely can afford a car, but they’re definitely the cause of the economy flustering. Because. They are. Aren’t they? Just useless, the lot of them.

But what really hacks me off about Millennials is jobs. I mean, sure, sure… they don’t, by and large, have any hiring or firing experience…  They don’t run big companies or trade shares because people fresh out of school and college don’t do that sort of thing… they just… it’s clearly just their fault because. Because Millennials.

They’re just too self obsessed with themselves! They should be worrying about my problems, like my pension and whether my house price will go down and whether I’m allowed to call a coon a coon and not trampling my right to say how I want Muzzie-foreigners deported or shot. Because me, me, me… not the me-me-me generation!

Fuck their entitlement. I need my high house prices, I need my cheap fuel and cheap cars, I need my pension and to retire at 65. Why should I care that they won’t get that, the entitled whiny bitches…? What about me and my needs and wants? I’m entitled to things, they aren’t.

And screw their “activism”. If they were really anti-war or whatever, they’d have the good sense of doing something about it by being older and having actual political power rather than having to do their lazy protests and reading and sharing… I mean, come on, how pathetic is that? Why don’t they form their own opinions instead , and quit being so young and just do what I tell them because I’m right and they’re just stupid.

Okay, so they don’t have political power, they don’t vote because they legally couldn’t until recently, they don’t run big companies, they occasionally care about people other than themselves, they don’t sell houses for a profit because they’re literally not old enough to have had one for long enough, and they don’t get high powered jobs because they’re not old enough…

…but it’s still all their fault. Obviously.

Putting Britain First… well, fifth.

In which I thought it’d be clever to catalogue two-days of Britain First posts to see what they talk about – the answer won’t shock you.


 

If you’re like me (and I grant this isn’t entirely likely as the majority of the English-speaking internet is American), you’ve probably spent the last week concerned about two major events. They’re two events of extremely insular national self-interest.

  1. Almost the entire NHS is on strike over working contracts being imposed by the government.
  2. Some leaked documents confirm what we’ve always known – rich people avoid tax by parking it out of the country, and our Prime Minister is amongst them.

You may have also been following issues with the UK steel industry, and at this point I throw my hands in the air and say that’s just one of those things I haven’t had the brain-space for. I know it’s a thing, I know not the intimate details.

Anyway, these are stories of insular, national self-interest. So the US election and the rise (and, may the gods be willing, eventual fall) of Donald Trump and the on-going refugee crisis across Europe and whatever shit Daesh have done this time aren’t things I’m counting. Why? Because of a little quasi-political organisation known as Britain First.

They don’t need an introduction, really. We know what they’re like. At best, concerned citizens who are disheartened, disenfranchised and unfortunately misinformed; and at worst, violent, nasty, illiterate, “send-all-the-nig-nog-towelheads-back-to-bongo-bongo-land” hardcore racialists.

Anyway, in light of these 2-3 stories of, I reiterate, national self-interest, I wondered if Britain First did indeed, and as advertised, put Britain first?

Do they show interest in what is happening in this country? Do they show interest in our politics? Our leaders? Our health service? Our education?

At this point, you probably won’t express surprise that the answer is “do they fuck“. I went to their Facebook page, scrolled down, and started categorising fairly broadly. Here’s the post breakdown from the last 48 hours, April 7th and 8th:

BF-2

First observation: they post a lot. It works out as a post every half-hour or so.

Second observation: they mostly post about themselves and Muslims, and after that almost entirely about other countries. They want to take our country back; and while they seem to have plenty of idea who they want to take it back from, they aren’t too clear on where they want to take it back to.

A few explanations of the categories.

  • Self promotion: Britain First do a lot of this, as you can tell. They advertise their protests, put up vlogs by their figureheads, and post pictures about how you should vote for them in London. Buried in these stories might be things relevant to the United Kingdom, but it’s encapsulated and subsumed entirely within their brand.
  • Muslims: This includes any story about a Muslim that was posted only because they were Muslim. Man raped woman? Only counts if they were brown! White Muslim found? Well, that proves it’s not racist! You know, that sort of thing. Two of these posts could be considered “British” as they feature Winston Churchill.
  • European events: Indeed, their major source of news is stuff happening overseas. A lot of these were about the Dutch vote on the EU, and a lot were about Muslims in Europe – making it hard to distinguish between this category and the one above.
  • US Politics: Yes, the United States were a big thing due to a massive surge across one of these days (see below). They have quite literally said “VOTE TRUMP” more times than they’ve said “SAVE UK STEEL”. Because Britain should come first.
  • EU Referendum: And this is the first category that might be considered about Britain. As far as importance go, Britain seems to be fifth in line for their priorities.
  • ISIS: I originally had this as “middle east events” to make it as generic as the “European events” category – but, let’s be honest, these are their “brown people make big boomy bang-bangs in sandy faraway land” stories.
  • Im’grints: It was hard to split things between this and “the towelheads are coming”, but this is anything that’s a bit more general and aimed any migrants of any ethno-religious grouping.
  • Clickbait: Britain First are famous for this. They’ve put up misleading “donate to save the animals!” posters to attract attention, but in this sample they haven’t done much of it.

The rest are effectively “misc”. I will point out the “Fucking commies!” section. One of these stories is about Jeremy Corbyn getting The Morning Star delivered to him.

I broke it down by two days. This shows that their God Bless America fetish was a bit of a one-day spike, so perhaps not representative. As you can also see from this one, their posts about the Panama Papers came in day 2 (April 8th), and only in the last few hours – so they’re a little late to a party that’s been going on all week.

BF-1

Now, in fairness, they have actually used one of these Panama Papers posts to call for David Cameron to resign – in line with a lot of liberal thought on this.”Wait, Britain First and the UK left agreeing? Surely not!” I hear you cry. And you’d be right. Given the details of their posts on the EU referendum, a lot from the last day have objected to Cameron being on the pro-EU (the “in” campaign) side, and seek to punish him for it. After all, if anyone can sway the UK right to stay in the EU it will be Cameron, and it’s probably in our selfish interest to support him on that, rather than call for him to resign over something comparatively minor. You can also back through Britain First’s comments on the Panama papers, where many resort to the “but it’s legal” defence, suggesting they really aren’t too bothered about the wealthy fleecing them, but are happy to see a Left-wing Socialist Communist Liberal like David Cameron fall on his sword regardless.

Anyway… why, again?

Britain First is followed by over a million people, and are slowly becoming what counts as mainstream thought in the UK – regardless of what they claim about the ‘mainstream media’ they are not as far onto the fringes as they claim. They’ve grown from obscurity to having quite a voice amongst real, actual people, with actual voting powers.

And remember, this is 48 hours where the major events of national self-interest have been the NHS going on strike and the Prime Minister’s involvement in a tax scandal. These are not stories that only affect Guardianistas who are snorting their third line of avodaco, either – the entire country relies on the health service for emergency care, ambulances, accident and emergency, and most medical training. We rely on its scale and purchasing power to negotiate better rates for medical drugs and treatments. We rely on its doctors for cutting edge research. Meanwhile, tax avoidance by the wealthy accumulates into the Tax Gap, which is one of the largest government expenditures and a firm contributor to the government deficit – and it’s the working class, average person, not the millionaire, that gets punished in their attempt to close this gap. They are definitely important and, as I’ve said, very much within our insular national self-interest.

These are big things ignored in favour of posts about how all Pakistanis are rapists.

For anyone who really wants to put this country first, and put the people who live here first, these are major stories. For anyone who doesn’t care about those particular things, this is a country of 64 million people and so it can’t be hard to find some relevant news about us if we want to be selfish. Why is a page that puts Britain, supposedly, first, hardly talking about us? Why are they talking about a “foreign” religious group more than their own religion? Why are they talking about a non-EU county more than they’re talking about the upcoming EU referendum?

So it’s time to stop pretending this is even remotely about “patriotism”.

“Democracy” my ass…

If you ignore the paranoid raving about Skynet coming to eat us, I think this is one of the more lucid thoughts from Eliezer Yudkowsky – that people say things just for the sake of inviting applause. They’re trite and pointless things, but they sound good at a first, uncritical, glance.

This is particularly important to realise in an era where such soundbites aren’t just used to invite the audience to clap, but also used to is used to shut people down. And one phrase I think has come up a lot goes along the lines of “that’s democracy”. I.e., “but people voted for David Cameron and Conservative policy, you shouldn’t be allowed to protest because that’s democracy.”

Because what does “democracy” even mean these days? If it isn’t about putting up a sign that says “APPLAUD NOW”? As Yudkowsky points out “let’s bring more democracy to the process” sounds nice, but doesn’t mean much when you try to figure out their point.

We tend treat it as a magic word that just means ‘Good Thing’. It’s tautologous.

“Democracy is a good thing” simply means “The Good Thing is a good thing” to most people. We fight for it. We rile ourselves up for it. But rarely do we seem to take a step back and ask why it’s a good thing. What properties of “democracy” are the Good Things that we want? Much like “freedom of speech”, democracy is should be the means to a better world, not the end in itself. When people didactically declare that “we have democracy” and “we have freedom”, is that just a meaningless platitude and a thought-terminating cliché?

Anyway…

So what is “democracy” really about? Or, more precisely, what should it be about?  And even more importantly, do we have it? Do we have good things, or do we have the didactically self-declared Good Thing? Have I used too many rhetorical questions in this post so far? Yes?

Is it about elections?

Well, we get those so infrequently we could host most of one of the World Wars in between them, and a lot can change in those 4-5 years. To put it in perspective, we complain that students are a demographic that don’t vote, but about 2-in-5 university students  won’t, statistically, get even the opportunity to vote because elections are so comparatively rare. A degree lasts 3-4 years, and so you could go that entire time without the opportunity to vote. You could be paying fees imposed by a government you had no say in and will have no say in while tuition has salience to you.

But when these elections do come around, our choices are constricted already. We don’t get to choose the candidates, those choices are made for us by the Parties. They have to undergo pre-selection before hitting a ballot paper – and while you can go it alone as an independent, please, don’t make me laugh at you for suggesting they have a genuine chance of making a difference. Our selection process is truncated at the first hurdle without our input.

I hate to say it, but on their own with nothing else to support them, our elections are mostly meaningless.

election results

Or, to be brutally honest, you take more dumps in a week than we’ve had general elections since women were allowed to vote in them. Well, not literally, if it’s literally true for you, see a doctor. But you see what I mean, though? Right?

Is it about voting in general?

Well, we get to vote… occasionally. As I pointed out above, the elections come around every 5 years. Twice a decade.

But we certainly don’t get to vote on most policies, voting for those are covered by our representatives. In theory, that system arises because voting for every little thing is a pain in the arse – elections and referenda are difficult to organise. So we avoid doing it and have representatives.

So, no we don’t get to vote on specific things, or even on general things most of the time. We vote on representatives who we trust make decisions for us. And, as recent UK political events have shown, quite frequently elected governments do the opposite of what they claim. After the election, we’ve got no power to object save protest and petitions. And less said about how the whips system and party power means representatives rarely get a free vote to follow the will of the people, and leaving their constituents high-and-dry in the process, the better.

We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them. – 2001 Labour Manifesto, a position which was reversed entirely by January 2004, conveniently before the next election

Is it about representation?

At this point I would like to say I think this is the biggest key point in the democratic process. You can have all the votes in the world but they mean nothing without representation. Meanwhile, while you can, at least conceivably, do accurate representation without formally voting even once. For instance, you can randomly select people to serve as representatives like jury service – thus making sure you have a statistically representative cross-section of the country, without ever having to poll the whole population at a ballot box once.

Well, the current UK government are in power with about 7 in 10 people not voting for them. Or “actively voting against them”, if you will, since we have a first-past-the-post system that doesn’t allow us to transfer votes and gauge broad support, or empower people to vote for their true preference.

All of our electoral woes translate into a disproportionate number of seats in Parliament compared to the popular vote and our best guess for what the will of the people actually is. More people voted for UKIP than the SNP, yet the translation of that into representative seats is farcical.

Basically, it ain’t representative. Not in the slightest. If you think otherwise you are fucking delusional.

Let’s be clear, though – I fucking hate UKIP. But I have to be consistent. In the 2010 election, Nick Clegg’s performance in the televised debates caused a near-unprecedented surge in popular support for the Liberal Democrats. Despite this increase, they lost a seat. It was absurd then, it’s even more absurd now.

And if you want to change the meaning behind “representation” slightly, don’t forget that Parliament is way off our actual demographic make-up on all counts. Gender, ethnic groups, disabilities, sexual orientations… In fact, the Lords – the appointed house – is a comparative trailblazer in that respect, probably because it’s appointed and not elected. We tend to elect people similar to “us”, and in most places the majority is, as they say, male-and-pale. Given our winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post system… well, it’s an unfortunate side-effect of elections that we don’t get demographically representative representatives. There’s also probably nothing we can do about that.

Graph of MPs demographics compared to the general population

This is direct from parliament.uk, which looks… okay, until you realise it took until 2010 to get that far. Now, one can argue that representatives should be more educated and older so have better experience, but when we have a health secretary who believes in homoeopathy and a PM that doesn’t realise the effects of his own policies, then clearly that plan is, to use the technical jargon, bollocks.

What about electing the leaders and holding them to account, that must be what democracy is all about, right?

Again… you don’t vote for the leader of the country, that’s selected for you. You vote for your MP, and that translates into a seat, and the side with the most seats takes their preferred MP and sticks them in the executive branch of government.

Even the cabinet you don’t vote for. They’re appointed based on connections and party loyalty, and certainly not their qualifications or suitability for the post. And they’re reshuffled at will, at quasi-random intervals, and usually with regard to what looks good on the news.

So, think about that: in UK politics, the people actually wielding the power are not voted for.

The whips mean the Party must vote the way the government want, and the government – that is, the cabinet and the policy-makers – are selected and appointed from the pool of MPs, not elected directly to their positions. Doctors have zero say in who the Health Secretary is, school teachers have no say in who the Education Secretary is – because no-one, save the Party Elite, has that power.

Oh, and when we petition a vote of no confidence in one of them because he’s fucking up the job at an objective and demonstrable level, we get nothing. In fact, we occasionally get laughed at.

Because fuck you, that’s why.

So, if “that’s democracy”, then screw it.

Democracy is evidently shit.

I’d rather have meaningful voting, qualified representatives, an accountable executive branch, houses that accurately reflect our opinions, and the ability to be continually heard. Because those are good things, not Good Things.

When you say “that’s democracy” like it’s a good thing, to avoid talking about problems with the government, or to shut down protesters, complaints, and petitions, then you’re doing nothing but buying into a load of bullshit. If you want “democracy” to begin and end at elections every five years, if you want representatives that aren’t allowed to represent us, and you want executive leaders who are appointed through their connections and party loyalty, then you probably shouldn’t be engaging in the political process in the first place.

A Skeptical Cynic’s View of the Cameron-Oxford Letters

We’ll get onto these megalomaniacal folk in a moment, but first…

In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger and his collaborators, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, embedded themselves within a small but intense doomsday cult lead by Dorothy Martin. The cult claimed that the world would end in December 1954 through a great apocalyptic flood, and that the believers of the cult would be whisked away by a quasi-magical group known as ‘The Guardians’. The date came, and the date went. No apocalypse, no knocks at the door from the Guardians. Psychologists expected the group to disband – with their belief shattered, surely these rational humans would quit and get on with their lives. What actually happened shocked Festinger and his colleagues – the group expanded. They proselytised, preached and practised, and their numbers grew. The cult became ever more embedded in its beliefs, despite being proven wrong.

In 1994, a relative unknown named Harold Camping predicted the end of the world would happen on September 6th of that year – being a committed Christian, he called it Judgement Day, and the Second Coming. September 6th came and went, but Camping remained unfazed by this lack of realisation. With his 1994 date largely ignored and forgotten, Camping would go on to make a number of other Judgement Day predictions – cumulating in a massive, national campaign that stretched across the United States in 2010. He predicted the end of the world for May 21st, 2011 and became a household name due to it. His followers and believers sold their possessions and donated the proceeds to him to continue the awareness campaign. Some may have even killed themselves or their relatives in anticipation. The date came and went, and Camping’s Judgement Day was nowhere to be seen. Still, Camping stubbornly adhered to his belief – he dismissed the May 21st date as a “spiritual” judgement, and rescheduled the real Judgement Day for October. His campaign ramped up further still – billboards were erected, believers became more fired up for the real judgement. That date came and went, with the world spinning on as physics dictates. Camping died in December 2013, before he could make any other predictions or cause any more damage through them.

Since the 1950s, there has been an unprecedented boom in biological research. Beginning with Crick, Watson and Wilkins, genetics has shown us the heritability of traits from generation to generation. It has made sense of evolution, our ancestry, and how all species on the planet are related in a complex tree of life. New major discoveries that all fit within this network of evolutionary biology are added every day to the great pile of scientific knowledge. Yet, in 2007 – and with a price tag of $27 million – Ken Ham of the organisation Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum. The museum would stand as a monument to everything that 150 years of scientific exploration and evidence knows to be wrong. In 2010, Ham decided to press on with yet a new, large project; the Ark Encounter. Built as a giant, replica boat, it would be a living museum dedicated to the myth of Noah’s Ark, with an accompanying price tag an order of magnitude higher than that of the Creation Museum. Yet scientific discoveries such as the Tiktaalik in the ’00s and the mapping of the Neanderthal genome in 2010 haven’t pushed back our knowledge towards Biblically-literal 6-day creation. Ham’s responses have intensified in the opposite direction to the evidence.

The three stories above illustrate a concept well known to skeptics; cognitive dissonance. When faced with contradictory information, information that makes our internal view of the world less consistent, we react with discomfort. The discomfort forces us to either re-evaluate everything we believe to be true, or to adjust the evidence to fit. A total re-evaluation of our lives requires rewiring large sections of our beliefs, as if re-writing the software that our brains run on from scratch and building up our worldview all over again from nothing. Cognitive dissonance is more than just a face-saving exercise where we deny that we were wrong about something – the cognitive load to admit we’re incorrect, and fix ourselves appropriately, is simply beyond what we’re capable of.

So in September 2015, David Cameron exchanged letters with the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire council. In the letters, Cameron expressed his disappointment that the council was cutting essential services – libraries, museums, care homes, youth clubs – and that the council should instead look for savings in efficiency and in offices. The Oxfordshire councillor replied almost bluntly; we have done that, and the Conservative government’s cuts are too drastic, too deep, and we must cut front-line services. In other words: the policies of David Cameron’s government have left us with no choice but to hurt real people.

backend-savings

David Cameron expresses disappointment that such a thing had to be done. As if he had no idea it was needed. George Monbiot’s article on the subject suggests that Cameron is merely ignorant of the effect his own policies have. And he may well be right; as a millionaire with a fund in an offshore bank, and effectively in stable employment on a massive salary provided by the state, it’s very likely that Cameron has no idea of what austerity means to people who rely on council and state-funded services.

David Cameron has had evidence almost-literally thrown into his face about how severe, damaging, unproductive, and outright dangerous his austerity policies are, in particular to his own home constituency – the tiny little packet of the country he’s been voted to directly represent. This isn’t a new thing, of course; the UK’s slow recovery from a depression that happened 7 years ago is due to these policies, and when the policies fail to provide growth it completes a feedback cycle that proves such policies are needed.

So the ideology of austerity has been challenged, and its real effects made clear. The evidence is in: it doesn’t work. In an ideal world Cameron, Osborne, Hunt and the rest of the government would change their track.

But, instead, everything we know of cognitive dissonance tells us that we should be very, very scared of what will come next.

You’re Not Here To Study Chemistry

I don’t gripe about work too often here… okay, maybe I do. Anyway, here’s one thought flowing throw my head as I have ten minutes to kill between doing allegedly important things.

File:Chemicals in flasks.jpg

Sometimes, I want to scream to my students: “You’re not here to learn chemistry!

Pfft!

If you want to learn chemistry, read a book. Read Wikipedia. Read ChemGuide. Read HyperPhysics. Any idiot can pick up the material and learn all about it. Science is, possibly more than any other discipline, a well-documented subject. Want to learn some science? It’s out there for you to take. Now, more than ever, with knowledge freely flowing through the internet, anyone can learn about chemistry.

You are mere clicks away from a myriad of experts who have it all written down for your personal consumption and pleasure.

If you’re throwing 3-4 years of your life to come and study, you need to do more than just learn the chemistry. Much, much more. And this is a lesson most of us fail to learn until it’s way too late.

You’re not here to learn chemistry…

You’re here to learn how to be a decent human being. If you leave this place thinking it’s okay to treat the rest of the world like pieces of shit, you’ve wasted your time. Graduate and become a Daily Mail reader, you’ve wasted your time. Graduate and think “well, I don’t mind gay people just so long as…”, you’ve wasted your time. Graduate and think “but women should never earn the same as men because…”, you’ve wasted your time. And you’ve wasted my time, too.

You’re here to become a rounded individual. If you do nothing but learn chemistry, and chemistry alone, and just what we put on the syllabus only, and take no time to engage with another subject, join a society, pick up an instrument, join a protest, write a novel, finger-paint the windows… I dunno, just anything else, then you’ve wasted your time. Take the opportunity to get out there and do more. Do different. Try things. Find out what you hate by doing them. If you don’t, it’s time wasted.

You’re here to become a scientist. If you just learn the facts, you’ve wasted your time. If you can’t think critically, you’ve wasted your time. You’re here to practice science, to do science, to experiment and figure out how to experiment. So if you just learn about it, you’ve wasted your time. You need to do it. Learn some philosophy of science. Learn hypothesis testing, and p-values, and Bayesian statistics, and distributions, and confidence intervals whether your module requires it or not. Learn how to write, to communicate. If you stay up all night fiddling over one lonely mark out of 100 on your lab report, you’ve wasted your time: get hammered in the pub and explain quantum mechanics to your friends instead.

You’re here to become a functioning adult. That means figuring out how to pay bills, cook food, live with others, be on time, and organise your day. Forget the alternative-living hippy-crap for now because you can’t accomplish that with dreams and wishes; if you want to change the world you first need to know how to survive in the crapshack that it is. You need to know when to sleep, when to wake up, when to plough ahead and work hard and when it’s best to give up and try another method another day. You have to tackle your anxieties, fight your depression, face your self-doubts and crippling insecurities, and learn to manage stress about deadlines. You’ve got 3-4 years of your life in the most supportive environment that is physically possible to create – and make no mistake, few other humans get that kind of opportunity. If you can’t do that here and now, when else are you going to pull this off? If you don’t take the opportunity to fight yourself head on, you’ve wasted your time.

You’re here to learn how to take over the world. In 3-4 years time you’ll graduate. You’ll be a post-graduate researcher, a teacher, or in industry, or anywhere else with a job and making a difference in the world. 5 years after that you’ll be managing and leading, making decisions. 10-15 years after that? Who knows. But without warning. and without your consent, and without any other time to prepare, you’ll be running this planet. Remember all those dicks out there running the show and making the world worse? You’re destined for their position – so if you don’t learn how to do that job less dickishly than they are, you’ve wasted your time. Whether you like it or not, all the adults, the ones that you think know what they’re doing, will die off. You are going to have to take their place. There’s not another batch of replacement adults and rulers out there to make decisions… there’s you. And you have to do a much, much better job than they have. And the bad news is that you have to do that all while being the most detested and maligned generation on record; the generation that has come before think you’re all lazy, whiny, self-entitled, self-obsessed losers for wanting even a sliver of the advantages they got, and they want to punish you for it. The hate you with a passion that’s absolutely unrivalled across countless centuries of grown-ups muttering “Bah! Kids these days!” They want to strip you of your voting rights, lumber you with debt, deny you prospects and shit on your happiness – and you’ve got 3-4 years to learn how to tell them you’re not going to fucking take it any more. You’ve got 3-4 years to unlearn everything they taught you that was to make them feel better, and learn that you have to take the keys to the planet from them before they can cause any more harm to it.

You’re not here to learn chemistry, you’re here to make the world a better place by learning that chemistry. So don’t waste your time.

There’s no cure for being a Cunt…

Recently I spotted a great joke belittling and insulting a local political figure – I don’t want to give too many details away because it might be libellous and help identify the poster of the quote below, so let’s call this political figure “Beremy Cunt”. Now it’s capitalised it becomes a proper noun and therefore Not Offensive (*thumbs up and wide-eyed cheesy smile*). And we’ll call the Facebook page that posted it Dr… Grant. Yeah, let’s go with that one.

Dr Grant very regularly publishes content from professionals in Mr Cunt’s area that will be adversely affected by Cunt’s policies. These are people who know what they’re talking about, and are on the very forefront of the destructive shafting that will come from on high if Cunt is left unopposed. The vast majority of the posts from Dr Grant are on point, crossing foul-mouthed wit with well-argued points – people after my own heart, clearly.

In this case, however, they had posted a very insulting joke, and it generated the following comment. It’s not typical of the responses it generated, but it does represent an argument I’ve seen many times before.

While I’ve kept this completely anonymous (oh-so-ingeniously!) for reasons of tact, I’ll keep the quote verbatim rather than paraphrased:

As always, the supposed opposition reduce comments to the lowest level of insult. Clearly incapable of putting thoughts together. A sad reflection of modern politics; they just rant rant rant!

Yeah…

So, if you ignore all the articles they write in newspapers, the blog posts on personal websites, the tweets, the think-tank publications and analysis, the open letters and protest from the professionals-associated-with-Mr-Cunt’s-area-of-government, or basically anything that has been done to demonstrate exactly how bad the Cunt’s policies are… then yes, that’s exactly what those who oppose the government do and nothing else. The Opposition – we on the hideously pathetic left – do nothing more than rant rant rant and whine whine whine about our self-entitled selves without ever presenting an argument, ever. “Wah wah wah, insult, insult, insult!” cries the likes of Dr Grant at every opportunity not-counting-the-actual-serious-comments-and-posts-that-make-up-90%-of-the-content-because-ignore-them-they-don’t-fit-my-bullshit-narrative.

After all, if you ignore all of modern biology and thousands of papers written over the course of 150 years of scientific research, the only evidence for evolution is Facebook memes, and evilutionists have to fall back to crass insults to make their point, obviously.

This entire non-argument – “oh, you can’t really refute stuff so you resort to jokes!!” – pisses me the fuck off. Because I’ve never seen it said where it’s actually true. Not ever. It’s just uttered because it’s easy.

When people get their serious calls rejected and thrown back at them, then yes, they are going to vent at the lowest form of insult. Let’s imagine that a quarter of a million people signed a petition for Mr Cunt to be given a vote of no-confidence, and are promptly ignored and fobbed off with just re-stating Cunt’s position again without ever addressing the content of the petition… imagine that scenario. Imagine taking the time to lay out your position thoroughly, find hundreds of thousands of people agree, and earnestly deliver it as “I am very concerned about these events that affect me, please take them seriously” only to me met with a response of “meh” crossed with “let me slap you in the face with my semi-erect penis”.

Let’s imagine that is only the start of how much your serious calls, earnest arguments, and genuine complaints get thoroughly ignored at every level.

Imagine it.

I think in such a case people are very much allowed to get a little obnoxious. In fact, they have a right to get downright odiously pissy, uppity, obnoxiously, insulting, raging, angry, frothing, hissing, fitting, fucking, grrraaabbabaaabbrrrragggrrrrrraaaggghh.

It’s understandable to say the least.

Whether you find it tasteful or not, that’s simply what will happen when – by virtue of actively ignoring their actual arguments – you treat people with utter contempt for long enough. A mere crass insult is nothing compared to the contempt given to people when you take their serious complaints and shit on them so thoroughly. If you want to ignore 99% of the content, 99% of what people actually say, and go after the 1% of stuff that Morton’s Demon selectively lets through to your pitiful little brain, you’re a fucking idiot, and you certainly deserve all the belittling insults and rants you receive.

Don’t pretend that nothing except the belittling insults exist. Don’t be such a fucking Beremy about it.

So, to quote Dr Johnson, “Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding, now fuck off and die in a fire already.”

Okay, so maybe Johnson didn’t say that last part, but that was surely the sentiment.

Yeah, totally.

Percentages (Procedures vs Understanding)

I can’t remember if I’ve ranted about this before somewhere, but here it is for posterity anyway.

Have you ever noticed how at school you’re taught this:

percent

Basic percentages. Divide your numbers, multiply by 100, and you get your percentage. Easy, simple, procedural, and easily rattled off in an exam.

Except, no. No. Not at all. You don’t multiply by 100. That gets you the number, it doesn’t get you the percentage. “100*(14/20)” gets you “70”, not “70%”.

This is because by its own definition, a percentage is a fraction, where by one full unit is normalised to “100”. So 70%, as a digital number, is 0.7.* As a fraction, 70% is 7/10, or 14/20 or 70/100. It is not equivalent to 70. Although it’s implied to get you that number (the equivalent implicit multiplication by 1,000 gets you the rarely used “per-mille” unit, ‰), at no point does multiplying by 100 actually get that actual percentage. It’s effectively included in the definition already.

* It could be anything, of course. 70% of 2 is 1.4 – but you get that by multiplying 2 by 0.7, not by 1.4 or by 70. In any case, the whole thing itself, no matter what it is, is normalised to 100, the equivalent decimal is normalised to 1 the same way.

Have you ever looked at the “%” and “‰” symbols?

In fact, the word “per” usually translates to “divided by” (kilometres per hour means kilometres travelled divided by the time taken) and “cent” means 100. So “percent” means “divided by 100”. The symbol “%” is quite literally a unit, and the unit conveys meaning just as much as km/hr or m/s or Js or Kgm-2s-2. And sticking numbers in there and having a “per hundred” or “per 250” or something like that isn’t unheard of, and pops up whenever it’s convenient to rescale your units to sensible numbers. That’s already what we do when we talk about “kilometers per hour” because the SI unit is the metre, so kph is actually “1,000 meters per hour” – or “1,000 meters per 3,600 seconds” since we may as well go all out on this.

What you have really written when you’ve formally put “x100” in your expression/equation is the following:

percent_2

“(14/20) * 100 = 70%” implies that “7,000 = 70”. Which is absurd.

If you take out that “x100” you get 14/20 = 70/100 = 70%, which is arithmetically correct.

So far, so obnoxiously trivial.

But I think from a pedagogical point of view this might, actually, be quite important. Not just in a narrow, pedantic sense about a bit of numeracy, but in a wider sense about how we (by which, I mean “schools”) teach things as procedures to be followed, rather than as concepts to be applied and understood. The “x100” bit is certainly implied, and it gets you the right number, but it’s not a formal part of getting you the percentage. Sticking it there as a formality strips out understanding percentages, and changes it into a set of steps to be triggered one after each other, without stopping to think about exactly what is happening.

The trouble with procedural steps is that they then only get applied to one situation and one situation only. Thinking about “%” as a unit that means “per 100” is, in fact, incredibly powerful, as looking at units and letting them guide you will let you blag your way through physics, mechanics, thermodynamics, kinetics and near-enough all times that arithmetic rears its head in science. But no, every school kid out there is left just thinking that when they want a “%”, they need to divide and multiply by 100. It’s nothing but sticking a bit of trivia into a drop down menu to be used in a few narrow situations.

And not to mention that procedural steps put together are notoriously difficult to recall. For anyone with even a mild gift at numbers the percent thing might look too simple, so to illustrate this let’s jump to an example from chemistry:

That’s a rotary evaporator, a common piece of laboratory equipment for evaporating solvents – whenever you see a generic scientist on the TV and they’re not using a Gilson pipette, they’ll probably be using a rotovap. The thing just screams “lab” at you.

The main aim is to use a water bath to heat a sample and evaporate solvent. It also uses a reduced pressure so that you don’t need as much heat to do it – the vacuum does the hard work for you. It’s a fairly simple piece of kit under all that mess, and only a handful of components are involved. Yet the first time an undergraduate chemist sees one they practically shit themselves.

So what’s the first thing a student will look for? Of course, the instructions – usually a point-by-point procedure on how to go about doing it.

And they read the procedure.

And they follow it.

And they do it.

And, hell, they successfully complete the task without getting parts of their body stuck in a lettuce and screaming “my god, the blood, it’s everywhere!”.

And then they promptly forget how to do it less than ten minutes later.

I’m not kidding, the recall on using these things is fucking appalling if all students are given is the step-by-step instructions.

It’s not because the equipment is particularly complicated. It’s just that when written out formally the procedure is about a dozen steps long, and it induces a sudden panic about doing things in the right order. “Do I do this before that? Do I turn this valve first or press this button first, and… oh gods, when do I turn this dial and when do I stop it… and…”

Well, pretty soon you’re dealing with a supposedly grown adult freaking the fuck out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you know why the bloody thing works in the first place, the procedure pretty much writes itself.

“Do I lower the flask into the water first, or turn the vacuum on first?” Well, if you know that the vacuum lowers the boiling point of the solvent, then you’ll know that heating it up first, and then turning the vacuum on risks flash-boiling the entire thing as you lower the boiling point to below the water bath’s temperature. If you turn the vacuum on first, then the pressure lowers, the solvent evaporates, adiabatic expansion cools it down, then you warm it up by lowering the flask into the water bath.

The same thing applies to gas lines, where instructions tend to be along the lines of “Open tap 1, now close tap 5, after that close tap 6 and open tap 2 slowly, break the seal on tap 4 and close tap 1 again…” Even I glaze over reading those things andknow what the hell I’m doing with that kit! Yet if you ask “now, what do you need to expose to the vacuum pump right now?” and let them figure out which tap to open, they can usually do it. You might have to stop, flick them on the nose, and actually prompt the question, but it’s absolutely not beyond the capabilities of someone to figure it out on their own. The procedure writes itself.

It’s a bit more information to take in at first, and it might be quite a bit of effort to actually teach it compared to writing down the procedural list. But you can’t get the procedure wrong once you’ve learned the actual inner workings of the equipment: because the wrong procedure makes no sense at all.

And that can apply back to percentages, too. Someone just taught it might ask “I can’t remember, do I divide by 100, or multiply by 100 to get the percentage?” Don’t laugh there, anyone just taught to rote-memorise the procedure can seriously fall into that trap. But when you actually know what “%” means, that question literally answers itself.

We’re Offended?

There’s a word I’ve seen thrown around a lot in recent years. That word is “offended”.

I’m sure this word used to mean something. I’m sure if we run to the dictionary we can find the original archaic definitions, and think “ah, that’s what it means!”

But those meanings hardly reflect reality as it is now. A one-line definition in a dictionary isn’t much use when a word represents a concept, and that concept is underpinned by culture, and context, and society and millions of people using it every day in countless situations.

Meaning-is-use, as Wittgenstein might say if pressed for a sound-bite – so how is it used?

If you see “offended” written down anywhere on the internet in 2015, its usage and context more likely mean:

“You there, shut up. You shouldn’t have a voice in this! Stop challenging me!”

Because rarely, if ever, does the phrase “you’re just offended” actually mean that the targeted person possesses the property of “offence”.

Let me illustrate, and boil it down to the simplest of examples.

Person A: “Fucking trannie-fags, amiright? What’s’ with them? Grown men pretending to be chicks. Eugh.”

Person B: “You know, that’s really demeaning to trans/trans* people for no other reason than they’re different to you. You really shouldn’t say that sort of thing since it makes their lives worse.”

Person A: “Oh, MY GOD! What is it with you people being OFFENDED ALL THE TIME?!”

It’s there to de-legitimize an argument. To reduce and trivialise an objection, no matter how valid, by painting it just as “offence”.

And that’s without getting into the “it was just a joke” defence; an equally insipid defence used by idiots to justify themselves. It’s strange that the “ha-ha-bonk” attributes of someone’s speech are only ever brought up after the fact, but there you go. “Have a sense of humour!”, and “It was a joke!” usually come as a knee-jerk response (shame it rarely works both ways). The “just a joke” defence usually fits the pattern, but a more thorough treatment of that is also something for another time.

Further to this pattern, if this kind of exchange goes on long enough, you’re bound to see the following quote (mined) from Stephen Fry. You’ll see this, sure as day follows night, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd-numbered Star Trek movie is shit:

It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that,” as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be repsected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?

Given that, at the time, Stephen Fry’s quote on “offence” was in the context of anti-blasphemy laws in Ireland, freedom of speech with the background context of religious persecution, and also given that Stephen Fry is openly gay, and also openly battling mental illness, it’s pretty clear that he isn’t talking about defending your right to be an utter prick to people for no other reason than because you can.

As much as I am a fan of Stephen Fry, the national treasure that he is, that quote out-of-context has done way more harm than its in-context poignancy ever did any good. At worst, I could accuse him of utter hypocrisy as he’s usually the first to throw a wobbly and leave Twitter, never to return, upon hearing any slight against him… But this is getting beside the point.

The o-word is simply trotted out to shut people up – it just dismisses someone’s views as “offence” and therefore, as Stephen Fry said, “so fucking what?”

To me, that’s just plain lazy thinking. It’s an excuse to avoid thinking about and self-reflecting on one’s own beliefs, ideas and speech – as if to say “You’re just offended, so I’m not going to bother understanding your criticism”, and it says it regardless of the validity of that criticism. Self-reflecting on whether the words you say contribute to a wider stigma, or whether your behaviour is making the world worse, is a vital part of growing up. And you don’t do that simply by dismissing your critics as merely “offended” by your position.

“You’re just offended” skips whether the only thing at stake is if someone is merely “offended”. It discards the actual opinion and goes straight towards “but you shouldn’t have any special rights for feeling that way” and “I therefore won’t pay attention to you”. And that’s really the core problem – in skeptic jargon you can call it a “straw man” argument. It boils down quite a complicated series of objections to a simple, and unrealistic, version that is easy to knock down.

(Of course, it’s very good to phrase it with skeptic jargon, as self-defined skeptics do this frequently when they refuse to engage with active social issues and instead want to simply debunk homeopathy for the millionth time. “Oh you’re just offended” comes from those with self-declared intelligence as it does from the more-broadly ignorant.)

Mostly, however, no. Stephen Fry is quite factually wrong in his quote – as are the people who bring it up as they build their dismissive straw man. It’s not all that common to hear people say “I’m rather offended by that” – or anything remotely similar. Very rarely is anyone ever actually just offended by uncouth and unthinking remarks.

Do you even recognise what “offence” is?

Did you bother to check if someone was actually offended, first?

Or are you using it just for the connotations of “offence”, so that you can dismiss a view without further question?

Let’s put it another way:

  • Am I offended that rape victims get treated like shit, and told that they deserved what they got for dressing the wrong way? Fuck no – I am fucking livid that this is a thing.
  • Am I offended that Britain First gets away with treating Muslims like shit and want to boot them out of the country? Nope, I think it’s an affront to human intelligence that such people are supposed to get respect for their idiot opinions.
  • Am I offended that someone says “cockfag” and uses “gay” to mean “bad”? Christ no. I think you actively equating a demographic of people with negativity causes actual factual harm to people, and that should be enough to curb that behaviour because we all should make the world better, not worse.
  • Am I offended that you shoved your able-bodied ass into a disabled parking space? No, I think you’ve just made life worse for someone who can barely walk who will be along in ten minutes for no other reason than because you’re a self-indulgent asshole.
  • Am I merely offended by… well, anything that has been cast as “offence”?

No, I’m not. In fact, I think it’s pretty difficult to offend me. If I – and countless others – tell someone that they’re talking out of their arse, it won’t be due to mere offence.

The reality is that “offended” means nothing today. It’s simply a cheap and easy way for people to dismiss the valid opinions of others, to continue to unthinkingly treat Others like shit. When we want to finally say “enough, e-fucking-nough!” to this, it’s trotted out to dismiss the complaint. It’s an excuse to continue on with an unthinking lack of self-awareness. It’s a quick, thought-terminating cliché that absolves you from taking criticism seriously.

Maybe someone believes that I feel offended by what they say and think. So I’ll end this with a far more accurate word, as language can have some power when it’s laconic. It’s not offence, it’s more like pity.

I’m not offended that you think that, I pity you for it.

Pray Tell, What is a “Useless” Degree?

I’ll keep the details of this anonymous, because I’m not that much of a tool, but spotted on a Facebook comment’s section somewhere (paraphrased):

I think if you don’t use your degree you should pay for it. You shouldn’t do a useless degree, and paying for it will make kids think about the debt they’ll get into.

I’ll get the dickishness out of the way first: this person’s publicly accessible Facebook profile shows what their educational background is, and what their current employment is. Naturally, the two don’t match up. Ah, you studied psychotherapy but are now in project management? Tut tut. You’ll have to pay it back now, hope that job pays well!

The trouble with suggestions like this is that they get so many thumbs up and “yeah, we should do that!” from people – but they’re absolutely insensible. They literally couldn’t be enforced.

For starters, who gets to decide what a “useless” degree is? Some randomer on Facebook who happily taps and types away their opinions? Or perhaps worse, a cabinet minister whose sole experience of higher education is having “strong views” on it. If we are going to draw a ring around “useless” degrees and warn people off them, then surely we need to know where to put that ring, right?

“Ooh, I know!” pipes up Margaret, from Finance, in the front row “things like Music!”.

Ah yes, that useless degree. No one uses that. Well, apart from all major opera singers, choral singers, soloists and those famous people who you hear on Radio 3 (or Classic FM if you’re not a fan of classical music) and who can get paid quite a wad for what they do. They’re all graduates or some college or university, and clearly such a thing was useless to them.

“Well, what about English? Who needs English as a degree? We already speak it!” – Well, Brian from Marketing, people with those degrees tend to have written a lot, essays and the like, and they tend to get pretty good at it. They end up getting jobs as copywriters, or journalists, or senior planners or any other thing that might call upon the need to be able to type more than a Facebook post, and by a reasonable deadline.

We could go on forever. The irrational hate-on people have for arts degrees has probably been examined elsewhere, so how about I propose an example?

I have a second-year student who is going to graduate and become an army officer. “Ah! He’s not using his degree!” shouts our original poster. “See, there! Why should he get an education on us if he’s going to throw it away?”

Well, he could step into a specialism around NBC warfare, where a chemistry degree will come in handy given the nature of the “C” in NBC. (I mean, I have no personal clue how the internal make-up of our armed forces work, but I assume they’ll have people looking into that sort of thing) Is he using his degree then? Or perhaps he won’t even do that and just be an infantry officer. Is he using his degree, then?

No?

What about the communication skills he’s picked up on from the presentations undergraduates give? What about the self-discipline and dedication to sit in the library on a night when everyone else goes out to a bar? What about the ability to research and work with others in a team? Or his in-depth knowledge about how to handle substances carefully and safely? Surely, as a chemistry degree is more than rote-learning how atoms stick together, he must be using it to good effect, right? Right?

fees

And that’s why such bizarre suggestions are nonsensical (even UKIP’s proposal to make STEM subjects free-of-fees). You teach and learn more than just the core subject at university level, and the diversity of subject matter and activities mean you can’t ring the entire degree and call it “useful” or “useless”. By many metrics, my degree was “useless” owing to my eventual specialism – I probably use less than 30% of that information on a daily basis. Did I therefore waste 70% of the taxpayer contribution to that degree? And should I therefore repay only 70%? Or maybe my estimate is wrong and it’s actually 70% I use on a daily basis and I only repay 30%?

Indeed, how do we even begin to work on these metrics? Does only your final income count? If so you don’t have to pay back your fees or student loan if you become a millionaire, but if you land anything less than £20k a year we get to punish you for it?

Who gets to figure all this out and make it right? Magical “Common Sense” going to help you out there?

There are a lot of problems within higher education – how it’s treated as an expectation for the middle classes, how the government misuses it as a panacea for social mobility, and how a continued attitude towards treating it as a consumer product is converting universities into bigger schools rather than universities – but none of that is fixed by creating an artificial demarcation between “useful” and “useless” degrees. To do so would be to tell a certain class of people that they arbitrarily don’t deserve the shot at HE or even just the experience. And if you want to draw that line, you had better come up with a better reason of where to put it than “because I said so”.