Archive for March, 2010

Rule for happiness: Do not expect large wild animals not to kill you

Last month, an experienced whale trainer at SeaWorld was killed when the orca she was working with dragged her into its tank. Wait no, it was a killer whale. Hang on, those are exactly the same thing, its just that when the media are reviewing Free Willy they use “orca” and when they are creating unnecessary hysteria they use “killer whale”.

Naturally some charming christian fundamentalist groups are calling for the whale to be executed. Oh wait, only a person can be executed, animals are slaughtered. In some ways, I can understand this perspective. The whale in question has “attacked” 2 previous trainers in the last 20 years, so it could be considered a threat to human life. But here is where we insert a great big “however”.

However.

First – It’s a fucking whale. It’s not a dog, or a cat, or a domesticated creature. how the bloody hell were you expecting it to behave? The fact that there have been only three incidents so far is the truly surprising part. Humans have taken this creature out of the wild, held it as captive entertainment for 20 years, and taught it to do tricks for its supper, a situation which in itself raises many moral questions. But its a damn whale, the things weigh up to ten tons and their natural habitat is sea water. How the hell could anyone expect a ten ton water dwelling animal to understand or care that it is hurting a human?

Second – That someone has died through accident or chance is always a sad thing. But that trainer not only knew she was dealing with a huge dangerous wild animal, she knew it was one that had been aggressive or dangerous to individuals on 2 previous occasions. she knew the risks, and she did the job anyway. If it was for the fame or the cash then she took a gamble and lost. If it was for the love of the job (which by all media accounts it probably was), then I very much doubt she’d want her pet condemned to death.

One tabloid has actually quoted a christian group as claiming they want the whale stoned to death. Em, what? Am I the only one who wants to know how they actually intend to go about this? Seriously, if that request were granted right now, how exactly would they implement it? Stand beside his tank and roll boulders in? somehow drag the whale out of said tank and throw rocks at it? I won’t even go into the part about the biblical quote condemning the owners of the whale to death too for not having it killed the first time. Frankly, this sounds like blatant journalist bullshit to me, because I do not think even rabid christian fundamentalist groups are stupid enough to propose this, and I think they are pretty damn stupid.

Only self-aware conscious life forms can bear responsibility. If the whale is one, then keeping it in captivity has been a serious crime. If it is not one, then the death was not its fault, and furthermore there is no reason to believe that any whale would not repeat these actions – in fact to the contrary, many whales have. Waiting until it happens to say “oh, this whale must be dangerous” is like waiting until someone falls into the tiger enclosure to conclude that this particular tiger is dangerous. Either this is accepted as a peril of the showing of wild creatures, or organisations like Seaworld are simply no longer allowed to operate. Frankly, I think I am in favour of the latter.

Price tags are just another type of opinion.

Never buy anything because it is cheap, never buy anything because it is expensive. Obvious? In theory yes, in practice, we use these as subconscious metrics far too often.

Everyone has heard “A man will pay $2 for a $1 item he needs, a woman will pay $1 for a $2 item she doesn’t need” – A neat little phrase which nonetheless fails to include my roommate’s mother, who will spend $30 on 100 x $1 items that we will eventually use up at some point, because they were on sale at Costco. Too often imagined value is a real problem, the hunt for a bargain is sufficiently compelling to encourage us to buy things we wouldn’t bother owning otherwise, and we end up with a three foot stack of paper cups. No really, we do. There is one beside my fridge. I have bought items of clothing I have thrown out a year later having never worn, simply because I could get three of them for a fiver. But as I become a grown-up and continue doing my real job in the big bad world I have slowly kicked this habit, and discovered a whole new way of being fiscally stupid.

Cartographer once asked me why people buy designer handbags. The cause of the question was a particular designer handbag which aside from its maker being Chanel entirely failed to be in any way noteworthy, and was being sold secondhand by someone in her place of employ. The only answer I could give her as to why anyone would want this unremarkable piece of leather was that it was – to anyone who cares to know about these things – Chanel couture. Theoretically meaning it is a classic and timeless accessory, suitable for use at all occasions and times of life, actually meaning it cannot have cost less than a thousand dollars as couture items never go on sale. Grasping this with her usual intelligence, candour and utter disregard for things that make no sense, she posed the question of whether this was then only a slightly more subtle way of pinning hundred dollar bills to your hat, and I had to admit she was irrefutably correct.

I have no objection to paying large quantities of money for beautiful things. I myself have something of a weakness for designer shoes*. I can see the value in a rare or difficult design, or in a perfectly cut suit, or a distinctive dress. As I gradually earn more I find my objection to paying a lot for something I want dissipating somewhat, but thats not a reason to assume something that costs less is inferior.

There is an innate tendency in the human mind to conform to an accepted concept of value. The aphorism that something is worth what people are willing to pay for it is not entirely accurate when thus phrased, what we should be saying is that something is worth to you what you would be willing to pay for it. To me, some things are just not worth it no matter what the rest of the world thinks. Which is why I will never own a Dior handbag, an antique desk, or a house in Dublin city, though I certainly wouldn’t mind owning all 3. Unless of course I become a millionaire, at which point I imagine my interpretation of value will change.

The real problem arises when you let other people’s judgments of value become your own. That handbag is worth two thousand dollars, this house is worth six hundred thousand, or the most ludicrous of all – that diamond is worth five grand (I could rant about the stupidity of diamonds for days). Know what you really want, and never let anyone else tell you the value of anything.

*It has been my considered decision that spending $500 on something because I really like it is perfectly justifiable as long as it is my $500. In fact I can imagine few better reasons.

“You do not use science in order to prove yourself right, you use science in order to become right”

I was recently given an excellent book by Ben Goldacre called “Bad Science” (by cheese, who is consistently awesome and sometimes gives me things just because I might like them). I am only about 100 pages through it so far, and I already wish to give the man some sort of award for universal competence. Perhaps my opinion will change when I reach the end of the book, but he has already touched on several of my favourite things to despise and mock, so even if the remainder of the book is a let-down I suspect my overall impression will still be favourable.

“Bad Science” does not seek to champion reforms in scientific methods so much as attempt to give the layperson an understanding of what makes a method or a study scientifically good or bad (good or bad meaning reliable and relevant results versus meaningless noise). People accept a shocking amount of tripe purely on the basis of  “a study” without understanding anything about that study or how it was conducted. A close friend of mine pursuing a career in medical lab science is constantly ranting about the complete ludicrousness of journalistic spins on studies, complete lack of background, and an immediate adherence to the most dramatic possible interpretation of results.

I have ranted before on this blog about the astonishing willingness of individuals to accept blatantly ridiculous facts as gospel (“we eat spiders in our sleep” being my favourite example). Sometimes I think we accept these things because they are so damn stupid, not in spite of it. The logic runs something like: “Science proves amazing and unbelievable things all the time, like that the earth revolves around the sun or we are all made of tiny atoms or that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Therefore, amazing and unbelievable facts which I hear must have been scientifically proven by someone, or no-one would ever believe them. Yey, spiders!”. Yeah. Right.

What Bad Science attempts to disclose is not what to think, but how to think. How to logically evaluate the conclusions that have been drawn from a given set of facts, and to reach not only your own independent conclusion, but an understanding of why another conclusion might be lacking or indeed superior. While I am all for expressing my opinion and hammering it home with a blunt instrument if necessary, this book definitely goes one better.

One of the most worrying trends in the modern world is the easy acceptance of unsubstantiated conclusions as scientific facts because of buzzwords on a par with the flux capacitor, and the assumption that all studies are done with the same level of professionalism and rational thought.  So please,  don’t be one of the people who think somebody once conducted a scientific study on nocturnal spider consumption. Display some motherfucking ability to reason. Read this book if you are not sure how.