company of three, black peppermint tea

Category: away with categories we’re beyond pigeonholing

the story behind stumpy

by bezzle

Why pigeons’ feet are often missing toes

Finally, an answer.


kill bill

by bezzle

Bloody awesome and I have no words to do it justice.

solidarity forever

by bezzle

On Wednesday, I joined my first protest: the National Day of Action against university fee increases, course cuts and deregulation.

The UNSW people were going to meet at 12pm to join the contingents from other universities outside UTS, so they were going to drive there.  They were one seat short, so one sweet second-year guy called Matt offered to catch the bus with me.  Matt had made a sign for the protest, and we carried it around with us on the trip there.  It was really heartwarming to see strangers who would stop us – as we walked through Central a CityRail worker told us he supported our cause and mentioned that he went to uni, there was a guy who stopped us near the top of the escalator to take a photo of the board ‘as part of his society and youth project’ – it was a pleasant surprise.

So we walked to the outside of the UTS main building and waited for the USyd group which came marching down Broadway (as in actually on the road where all the vehicles drive), speeches happened (Lee Rhiannon gave a speech!) and then off we went, down the same route to USyd.

We passed a construction site, and we waved to the workers there who cheered back; some people who would drive by would honk their horns or cheer in support which was awesome.

There were a bit more shenanigans, and lots more police, but the protest ended well, and Xink and I left at around 3pm and I managed to score a free sausage sandwich as well.

It was really exciting, and it’s hard to put into words the atmosphere of a protest; it’s something I encourage you all to try one day!


on shutting up

by bezzle

Today some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door and carried out a conversation with my mum.  It was, as expected, evangelical in nature.

My mum was quite amiable to them, and they weren’t aggressively pushing her to ‘sign up’ or whatever the correct term is.  It was quite chilling for me to overhear the whole conversation though.

(On a sidenote, they pulled the whole ‘nationality’ card again.  I doubt saying ‘Jehovah’ in Mandarin means much to most Chinese-speaking people, especially those who aren’t Christian at all.)

I generally abstain from talking about any religion at all, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ visit to our house just then has unnerved me quite a bit and I thought I might as well blog about it.

Going to O Week, I think everyone’s at least walked past the large variety of various Christian stalls.  I’ve been…well, I wouldn’t say accosted…approached! That’s the right word.  Approached by people who obviously want to talk about Jesus and why they believe and why I should at least think about it.  (The other religious stalls, if any, have yet to talk to me.  Many thanks.)  Each time I’ve been noncommittal but firm enough to reject their offers, but I guess all this Christianity overload in one week is making me think about things.

Firstly, I don’t really like talking about religion, or more specifically whether God exists (THERE ARE RELIGIONS THAT DO NOT INVOLVE ‘GOD’) and the same tired old topics for several reasons.  None of which I have thought about distinctly, but I’ll try to verbalise a few neatly here.

Absolutes: Debates about religion involve things like God either exists or doesn’t (Schrodinger, anyone?) and other absolute statements that quite frankly are unresolvable.  One either has to believe, or totally reject the idea.  I’m partial enough to be firmly on the side of God/gods not existing, but if God/gods exists for you, I’m not going to do anything about it.

Evangelists: I understand, evangelists are rarely the sum total of a religion, but if you try to convert me because your religion tells you so, I am further unable to agree with your views.  Your religion sounds suspiciously like a pyramid scheme.

Beliefs: when people disagree about religions, they are disagreeing with what is quite often an important part of people’s livelihoods.  I may not believe in your god(s), but I am not going to insult your intelligence, disrespect your religious texts or continually attempt to discredit the spiritual beings you believe exist.  And likewise, you should not attempt to convert me or assail me with reasons as to why I should believe.

(Call me out if I ever do this stuff.  I get the feeling I’d snap if I came across a Scientologist or something.)

knowledge is perspective

by cloudier

How to think about science and becoming a scientist

A lot of what is frustrating and off-putting about science at first, including working in the research lab, is the same thing that’s frustrating and off-putting about math: to really enter the conversation you have to have the vocabulary, so there’s a lot of memorizing when you start. Which is just obnoxious. But it doesn’t take too long, and if you start interning in a lab early, then the memorizing feels justifiable and pertinent, even if you feel initially more frustrated at a) not knowing the information and b) not knowing how to apply it. If you don’t get into a lab, however, it’s just hard and pointlessly so (even though it isn’t).

(Virtually all fields have this learning curve, whether you realize it or not; one of Jake’s pet books is Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, which describes how people move from no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge. It’s bewildering and disorienting to start with no knowledge on a subject, but you have to endure and transcend that state if you’re going to move to deep knowledge. He says that he’s climbed that mountain with regard to writing, which makes writing way more rewarding than it used to be.)

Once you have the language and are able to think about, say, protein folding, the way you would a paragraph of prose, or the rhythm in a popular song, science takes on a whole new life, like Frankenstein’s Monster but without the self-loathing or murder. You start to think about what questions you can ask, what you can build, and what you can do—as opposed to what you can regurgitate. The questions you pose to people in your lab will lead to larger conversations. Feeling like an insider is nice, not only because it’s nice to belong, but because you’ll realize that even being a small part of the conversation means you’re still part of the larger discussion.

This is really important. Knowledge about a particular subject is mostly learning the vocabulary because this entails an understanding of how the major concepts in a subject link together.1 Jargon is unavoidable in most subjects because plain language is often too inefficient for communicating ideas. It is unfortunately a massive barrier that prevents laypeople from comprehending the ideas presented in new research – let alone understanding its implications – that can also alienate them in the same way that slang alienates people.2 These two factors, in addition to the media,3 is probably what leads to the entitlement and anti-intellectualism4 that fuels climate skepticism and the idea that autism is linked to a vaccine.

The willful ignorance that results from the lack of comprehension of how much a person doesn’t know and the emotional investment they make in their ideas prevents these people from acquiring the skills to assess their own beliefs simply because it’s emotionally painful.5 This is why I believe that it’s important to increase both the breadth of one’s knowledge as well as the depth required for financial sustenance. It’s also why I don’t particularly like it when people say ‘jack of all trades, master of none’: this implies that when I’m learning about a subject that comes under ‘breadth’, it’s displacing the time I spend learning about my field of specialisation.6 This isn’t necessarily true since I don’t spend the entirety of my waking hours learning.

An almost irrelevant comment on the aphorism ‘Knowledge is power’: No it’s not. Power usually means social or economic influence. Sure, you can acquire that influence with leveraged knowledge, but you can also acquire it by, say, being born in the right place at the right time. Let me propose an alternative: ‘Knowledge is perspective’. There are always things that people of a certain profession know that most people don’t, and it is attached to a certain way of looking at life – a perspective which involves focusing on certain aspects of the world we live in that all end up affecting the way we live. For example, immunology focuses on the microscopic immune system, which has effects that spill into macroscopic life, whereas macroeconomics focuses on the behaviour of national and global economies, with effects that again spill into everyday life. The idea that every field is reducible to maths might be true,7 but it’s a bit silly since there are important and relevant patterns that emerge with each level of magnification.8

If you’re logged into WordPress, I think that black bar at the top is going to make all the links for the notes hit one line too low.

  1. Becoming a professional, however, also involves acquiring relevant skills.
  2. As usual with slang, the special vocabulary of hackers helps hold places in the community and expresses shared values and experiences. Also as usual, not knowing the slang (or using it inappropriately) defines one as an outsider, a mundane, or (worst of all in hackish vocabulary) possibly even a suit. All human cultures use slang in this threefold way — as a tool of communication, and of inclusion, and of exclusion.
  3. Seriously, anyone who reports anything related to science in the media should be forced to get a degree before they publish one word. This kind of fuckery costs lives.
  4. Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one’s beliefs.
  5. I don’t mean to say that all professionals should be trusted, always. They’re human so they will make mistakes and sometimes people without any training will be able to find gaping holes in their ideas. However, these are people who spend a much larger proportion of their life thinking about the topic at hand – it is still most likely that they’ll know better than a layperson.
  6. Which, er, doesn’t exist yet. Biology might come close since it’s the only subject where I’ve really gotten a hold on that basic vocabulary. Speaking of which, the HSC does a shitty job of teaching that; NQE training is much better.
  7. xkcd is still awesome.
  8. I think this is the idea behind the name ‘Patterns in Nature’.

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