My Kind of Humour

I thought I’d start my stories with some funnies, just to break the ice, but then I got sidetracked into being philosophical about funnies, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer for the laugh out loud moments. I like to laugh, including at myself (it’s that, or miss one of the best jokes on Earth). In my spiritual life, humour is one of my “gods” – it’s an amazing thing that we have life, but to also have things that we can laugh at, so hard that we cry, sometimes… I’m glad we evolved this way, and I also like that we are apparently not the only species on this planet with a sense of humour. I am reminded of David Brin’s “The Uplift Trilogy” – humour was recognised as a distinct phenomena of sentient thought and expression. I read the series probably in the early 90’s, and I still form mental glyphs for “What boys do” and “Mourning for a good joke gone unappreciated”.

I love clowns and YouTube for lots of reasons, including the laughs they deliver (I have started my journey to be a clown), and I like people who make me laugh. I like watching kittens chase laser dots, and listening to children tell stories of how the world works. There are different levels of humour, that appeal to different audiences, but people who allow themselves to become jaded, and no longer able to get pleasure from or appreciate something because it’s common, or they have experienced it before, what do they gain? Is there really so much joy and pleasure in the world that we can afford to disregard and discard the known sources? Or do we become bitter, cold and haughty in our worldliness?

I’m really enjoying modern animated movies that have so much adult level humour. There’s a wicked joy in recognising a joke that goes over someone else’s head. I once saw a juggler busking in Auckland. He was doing a routine where he juggled in the style of various art movements: Cubism (very angular), Impressionism (not juggling, but it looked like he was), Romanticism (sweeping movements with soulful eyes)… Then he put one hand in his pants pocket and continued the juggling with the other: “Lonely Romanticism… It’s OK to laugh – the kids don’t get it… or if they do, that’s not MY fault.”

Wicked and amused are very complimentary feelings, at least for me and people I associate with. I don’t like comedians who get their laughs cheaply by embarrassing members of their audience, but I do like satirists who bring the powerful back to Earth. I intend to do another story on the power of clowns. I like it when everyone comes out feeling amused, but we should also respect the value of bad taste jokes. Us Westerners tell them to break the ice on otherwise hard to discuss topics. See the Darwin Awards or if you haven’t yet played Cards Against Humanity, I highly recommend it. I have seen Germans play the Auschwitz card, and black people play the Black people card (more about that later). I like this definition of Politically Correct thinking: “The idea that one can pick up a piece of sh*t by the clean end”. We have to be able to talk about these things.

This coping mechanism is cultural, not universal. When Michael Jackson died it took about five minutes before people were telling bad taste jokes in the office. Q: “When is it time to go to bed at Neverland?” A: “When the big hand touches the little hand.” My Chinese colleague was appalled. She told me how, when she was a little girl, she went to a family funeral and was excited to see so many of her favourite people. She was running around and laughing, and she was spanked until she cried because it was wrong to show any happiness when someone has died. I’m sorry if, in reading this blog, my sense of humour offends. I do not intend any disrespect.

I think many of us can actually relate a bit to the discomfort of humour found in bad circumstances – it’s not as though these bad taste laughs are guilt free. Laughing in surprise or nervousness can make good people feel terrible. The Germans have a word: “schadenfreude” – pleasure derived (by someone) from another person’s misfortune. How often do we admit to feeling this? Watch Shakespeare comedies or American romantic comedies and almost all the laughs come from people doing horrible things to each other. While I love good slapstick there is a whole entertainment industry based on the published recordings of animals and people accidentally hurting themselves, and I don’t like that, but sometimes it’s hard not to laugh when you see it. It would be comedy gold if it was deliberate and no-one was hurt, and I do appreciate it when someone puts their own pratfall forward to amuse others and as a way of laughing at themselves. I certainly do a lot of that.

Smiling is a well known technique for mood control: when you’re feeling down, deliberately put a half smile on your face. The smile will lift your mood (really), and it will soon be real. Laughing is good for your health – easy to verify on Google. I am going to dedicate a lot of my blog to funny stories, because if you’re serious about loving humanity you must spread the joy, delight and laughs of life, even if some of them are a bit wicked.

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The Argument for Sentient Information Gathering

We cannot expect to know everything. Accumulation of knowledge requires the expenditure of limited resources; at the least, time and individual cognitive load, if not also ego depletion, and commonly money, and there is no limit to knowledge. Humans have to be able to make quick decisions with limited information to function in the world and in society. From dealing with a physical threat to deciding which brand of peanut butter to buy we will commonly not have all the information we might consider relevant, and one wrong or missing bit of info can cost us even our lives, in some cases. Therefore we have and can learn physical and mental shortcuts to allow and enable us to act, quickly when necessary, with limited information, and hope for a good-enough outcome. This is a necessary adaptation so we are not always paralysed by indecision.

We have a number of such shortcuts available to us:

  • risk analysis (reasoning)
  • heuristics (reasoning)
  • conditioning (behavioural)
  • genetic instincts or drives or reflexes (behavioural)
  • intuitions (cognitive)

The Moral Problem (by Michael Smith) describes the relationship between belief (knowledge) and action (summarised by me) like this:

  • Belief itself does not motivate action. There are plenty of people who believe smoking is bad for them, but they still smoke. Because belief is subject to reality, we can debate points of truth, to try to change someone’s belief.
  • Action is driven from a desire for something, and this desire is purely subjective, so not subject to reality.
  • Our beliefs guide the actions we will take to achieve our desires (this is what people call means-end belief). So if we desire to stay healthy, and we believe that smoking is bad for us, we would not start smoking in the first place, if we are rational.
  • If we value something, we have the belief that we would desire it, if we are rational – this is where our moral behaviour comes from, and all other actions that could require ego depletion to initiate.

Therefore, it matters what we believe, because one cannot expect to get what one desires or values if the means-end belief is wrong. This is why humans want to have good information. If you desire cigarettes and you believe they can be found in a shoe store, you will be disappointed when you act on the belief.

So do the mechanisms we use to bridge the gap, between the reality that we’ll never know everything and the needing of good information to make good decisions, actually work for us? I’m not going to explore here the differences between making quick decisions by these various mechanisms as they tend to become confused in human experience by the human ability to rationalise our actions. I’ll also leave behavioural action to psychologists. I more want to discuss the way we trust the information on which we base or explain our sentient (thinking) action decisions.

If information accuracy was predictable we’d use risk analysis to determine how much we trust it. Instead, we have to use heuristics, which are mental short-cuts or “rules of thumb”, which we accept as being a good enough solution upon which to base our decisions in an uncertain world. For example, we might trust information coming from a specific presenter, or the way a story is presented. This is our advantage on computers/AIs: they can hold all the accumulated knowledge of humanity in their storage, and can do great risk analysis with statistical algorithms, and (given the right information) come to the right answer by very fast logic. They cannot make intuitive jumps or good-enough decisions like we do. For example: humans will stop processing a problem using heuristic rules but we can still always stop too early or too late. A computer cannot stop processing without a stop clause (without it we get an infinite loop), but machine perseverance can work on complex problems long after a human gives up.

But it is important to remember the close association between heuristics and cognitive bias: “”When our heuristics fail to produce a correct judgement, it can sometimes result in a cognitive bias…”. This bias misleads us about what the world is actually like, and we can from there create new heuristics that are not working in anyone’s best interest. Here are a couple of very interesting Ted Talks showing how bias can change our view of the world, and suggesting some new heuristics. https://www.ted.com/talks/alan_smith_why_we_re_so_bad_at_statistics or http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world. Understanding and recognising bias is a truly sentient art, in my humble opinion.

Listening to the media or subject/teaching authorities (or our friends) is an information gathering heuristic: we want to know what’s going on, but we don’t have the resources to research it ourselves, we believe the media or subject/teaching organisations exist to inform us about important issues, and trust that it is in their best interest to be accurate, so we let the ones paid to investigate and inform give us what we need to know.

Let’s break this series of means-end beliefs down.

We want to know what’s going on

It is not always rational (i.e in your best interests) to get any news. For one thing, people can lie to us, and if they do, and we act on those lies, we can cause ourselves and our social communities significant harm. Assuming the “news” represents the truth…

It is rational to try to be informed about things that could hurt us, so we can look after ourselves and our interests. As social animals we have done well for ourselves and each other to pass on such community relevant knowledge as “there is a tiger hiding in that grass”, or “Stacey is known to steal tools” or “the Gods have indicated that there will be a drought”. We can benefit (or at least avoid harm) from news like this.

In our modern world the “news” we get comes from all parts of the globe, and most of it is not relevant to us or our community. We get stories of the evils of serial murderers delivered to our doorstep as though they are on our doorstep, and our monkey minds become alert to the danger even though we are facing no danger (there have been 154 serial killers identified worldwide since 1980 – out of 7 billion, your odds of meeting one are slim). Constant threat warnings make us scared, inclined to not trust others, react aggressively, and stress can eventually kill us. We can also start believing all threats are “crying wolf” if we get cynical enough. Threat warnings are ONLY valuable if they are relevant.

Another part of our interest is in each other, in our community. We want to know if someone is bereaved, so we can act appropriately in their presence, and when they have a success, in case we can also benefit. Community is about give and take. These are social stories. Given that we are hierarchical and it is in our community interests to ensure social behaviour we can also use these stories to socially indoctrinate, control, coerce, isolate and punish each other. We are not always right to do so, and sometimes we can be very wrong to encourage these stories. Before you listen and encourage the story, ask yourself some questions. Is the distribution of the information for necessary social reasons? Are you getting informed or gossiping? Is it really any of your business? Are you saddened or entertained by discussing someone’s misfortune?

Do you have the right means-end belief? It usually takes longer than 41 seconds or 600-1200 words to get the full story, and these “news” stories are seldom referenced or even show their sources. If you are scanning to see what you want to spend more time on, that’s one thing, but if you absorb the soundbite or clickbait like gospel without spending time on finding out all the relevant facts that is not the way you are going to get informed.

We don’t have the resources to research it ourselves

As discussed above. Because heuristics are fallible, we need to be sceptical of anything we have not proved for ourselves. It does not help that we are bombarded by so many “facts” and social stories to keep track of. We are too willing to believe what we hear from the media, our friends and our authorities, and to assume other people are social, rational, unbiased and motivated by and value the same things as ourselves, and to stake everything on those “facts”. This attitude is lazy and dangerous, as we are isolating, radicalising and misleading the people of the world with all kinds of ignorant dogma and malicious lies. We have to learn to be sceptical, especially of the views we want to believe, especially of our own “rightness”. I like the show Adam Ruins Everything – he challenges the common beliefs of Western (American) culture, including those of liberals. Of course, he could be wrong on any point. Research the info you want to keep as fundamental to your worldview, assuming you desire to base your worldview in fact and consistency.

I once met someone who claimed he believed in a flat Earth. All the “proofs” I could offer to counter that belief I had learned as dogma from my school years. I had no understanding. He, as you would suspect, had counter-proofs that I could not address. If it mattered to me to prove the Earth was in fact spheroid, I needed to learn the complete evidence for myself. That’s where I learned that some “facts” I would need to hold loosely, as I was not going to (could not) spend the time on proving every detail I believed.

We believe these organisations exist to inform us about important issues

Some definitely market themselves that way, but I suggest that, unless the organisation is provably non-profit, it exists first and foremost to make money, and if it is non-profit it could easily exist to push a specific agenda disguised as information distribution e.g religious propaganda or conventional schooling.

Money making is easy – amongst your “news” you seed paid advertising, then convince the audience to watch the “news” so they see and absorb the advertising. The best way to get the audience attention is to scare them, as above. This is why a) “news” programs commonly contain a lot of scare stories and b) why advertising slots during news programs are sold at the premium rate. The product even gains acceptability and status for being associated with such a respectable program. The next best attention grabber is entertainment, including gossip.

Social media does not exist to give you facts. It exists to facilitate the spread of social stories, and also makes money from advertising.

Remember that “important issues” are those that are immediately relevant to the well-being of your community, and unless they are addressed they will continue to be relevant. News that isn’t reported because it’s not new can drop off the community radar, but it might still be of significance e.g climate change. This does not need to be local news. Are you being told about how the fluctuations of the US dollar and issues in the US Federal Reserve are currently affecting your retirement savings (even in NZ)? How about what climate change means for your long term real estate investment decisions? Do you know Bayer and Monsanto are potentially merging and what the consequences would be for world food production, including your food production? Or does your news run with celebrity pregnancies?

We trust that it is in their best interest to be accurate

It is actually in their best interest to be believed, and humans will commonly hear what we want to hear, to self-validate our world-view (confirmation bias). We’ll even get a second opinion when a doctor gives us a diagnosis we don’t like (seriously – if the second diagnosis is different, which do you choose to believe, and why?). We have various authorities to regulate the content of most (in NZ, not all) mainstream (not fringe) “news”, but that does not eliminate media bias and unsubstantiated speculation on “live news” stories. Even if a headline news story is shown to be false, which requires someone to know and care enough to contact the authorities, what leads in one edition or broadcast is retracted in an easily missed sub-story later on that week. We’d lose our faith in the “news” and stop giving them our money if they had to publicise their retractions as loudly as they publicise the initial misleading content.

Conclusion: We let the ones paid to investigate and inform give us what we need to know.

As I have argued, we have very little reason to believe that we are actually getting what we need.

Ask yourself – if I believe this information, will I probably use it in some action to achieve something I value or desire? If the answer is yes, ask yourself would it be right to act in this way if the information is not true? If the answer is no, verify your information. Get the actual facts before you give a story the honour of supporting your dreams and representing your integrity and reputation.

For example [Mexicans; please forgive my irony, here] If you believe that Mexicans send rapists across your borders and you plan to make policies that limit the rights of Mexican immigrants in answer to these allegations, first find out how many Mexicans there are, how many are rapists, how many of those come legally across the border, and how many non-Mexicans in your country are rapists and then consider if your policy will actually solve the issue.

You no longer have to study endlessly, or rely only upon heuristics to get information from an uncertain memory or second-hand or biased sources. We can now augment our brains extraordinary reasoning power with primary facts and numbers got with perfect recall and extraordinary speed from the world wide web (which is what I’ve done for this essay) and then act with good information.

Here are some guidelines for getting valid info from the internet:

  • Is the data from a primary source? (eg government census info) or is the information referenced to a reliable source?
  • Is there a chance that the source could be biased with a vested interest in getting your belief (eg the Nazi Party, or a charity)?
  • Does the source allow debate about the veracity of the information (eg Wikipedia)?
  • Is the truth defined by recognised subject experts or the less informed vocal populace?

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight also gave a helpful list. 

A wise man I once knew said “Believe nothing, challenge everything, discover the truth for yourself”. Let’s start being sentient tool users to advance our lives and our social evolution and fix the messes caused by our intellectual laziness.

 

Authentic Bullsh*t

There are some words that, when I hear them, instantly raise red flags around the communication. One of these is the word “authentic”. I hate this word with a passion. What is “authentic”? Google says “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.” So how on earth do people get to describe anything as authentic EXCEPT the actual original incidence?

The reason I have this reaction is because I once did Medieval Re-enactment. I got into it in 1985, at least in part because I did fantasy role-playing and I wanted to know what it really felt like, to fight with a sword. I learnt that two-handed swords are NOT slow, and that a lot of the rules in RP games did not actually reflect the reality of the weapons, armour or combat. Not really surprising – I can’t imagine a lot of fantasy nerds getting up to wave steel around and risk the pain and sweat – but I was disappointed at the time. Re-enactment standards were low, in those days: I made myself a cheesecake warrior princess outfit.

Over time we got exposed to a higher standard of re-enactment, when we started associating with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). They dressed up in far more period looking clothes, did Medieval feasts with food that they actually researched to ensure it would be on a Medieval table, and did period dancing, singing and other activities. Their combat was different to ours – they wore heavy armour and did full contact hits, including to the helmet, with 3cm thick rattan canes dressed up as swords. We fought with steel, to the touch, unarmoured except for gloves, and strictly no head shots. We each thought the other group was crazy, but we were happy to share fun times.

The association with the SCA rubbed off, so when we started doing public performances we had Medieval-esque garb, armour, and a repertoire of singing and dancing to add to the stage combat, which we learnt when we determined real combat is just over too quickly for audience appeal. I’m not sure when I started making chainmail, but I’m good at it. I’m also good at fighting with any non-flexible Medieval weapon, costuming, dancing, singing and playing instruments, and teaching all these things, cooking feasts, presenting weapons and armour to kids, and playing games with adults, and filking (a wicked game of taking a piece of Medieval music and changing the words to make a new and usually very off-colour song). I bought many people into the hobby. Knowing I could never be 100% “authentic” (it’s just not possible) I set my level to be no obvious inaccuracies at a casual glance – no zips, watches, obviously synthetic materials and so on. Some were strict about it, like hand-stitching their clothes or making their own links or researching a specific time and place: I knew people who met those standards were out there, and all the more glory to them, if they cared. There was once a time when the scene was happy to include people with a variety of interests, passions and talents…

And then came creeping onto the scene a type of hater, who determined that their own focus was the way that all re-enactment should be, and that anyone who didn’t meet their singular standards of “authenticity” was a lesser being. We called them Authenticity Nazis, and the division grew from there. I wrote a filk about them, and their appalling double standards. I honestly believed at the time that the Sargasso Sea was a place of legend (I had read about it in Sinbad, I think), and “De Silva” is a concatenation of Silver and De Grassi, which showed how much I cared about pedigree…

Sargasso Sea (sung to the tune of High Barbary)

You say you are authentic and that I am fantasy
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
I say that you should get a life, authenticity nazi
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

I know the tunes to music from the fourteenth century
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
But my boots don’t match your reference so you will not play with me
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

An authentic reference tells me what the men all wore to war
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
It also graphically describes the dragons that they saw
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

You learn your sword play from a book, you should read between the lines
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
If de Silva didn’t innovate he wouldn’t have survived
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

When you started you thought dressing-up was an inconvenience
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
Now you dis the newbies who haven’t learnt dress-sense
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

You can’t fight for sh*t, can’t sing a song, and you watch the ladies dance
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
But still at least your ugly garb will earn a second glance
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

You disapprove of female fighters and potatoes in the stew
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
Thank god that modern hygiene is acceptable to you
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

So nice that you can finally say you have an expertise
Let’s raise the flag for recreating history
So get up off your high horse of inconsistent snobberies
Authentically a-sailing on the Sargasso Sea

As you can imagine, this went over like a lead balloon with the Authenticity Nazis ☺

But it really was the beginning of the end of my love of re-enactment. These haters impressed the more suggestible of us with their holier-than-thou attitudes, power of contempt and disdain over others who did not accept their standards, and vicious political attacks. They undermined the national organisation we had constructed to have a single set of rules we could all train to so we could fight together without too much risk. They convinced festival organisers to include heavy headblow combat competitions (with steel swords), on the grounds that it was more “authentic”. The injuries certainly were. The stupid thing is, in that case they were right: real Medieval tournies also didn’t care about the welfare of the participants, and brute force was easier to find than skill. They scared off newbies with more romantic and/or fantasy interests, and women (who, funnily enough, do not want the choice of cooking in cauldrons over fires or being thrown across the battlefield by a shield barge), and anyone who did not buy into their fanatical exclusive small-minded rhetoric. They were a part of why I left the scene in 2009. I think there was only one person still active who had been in the NZ scene longer.

So what is “authentic”? What is “authentic Indian food”? Is it food cooked by an Indian, in which case fish and chips cooked by an Indian is authentic and madras cooked by me is not? Is it food cooked with Indian ingredients? In which case there is not such food in NZ, since they use NZ lamb and veges. Is it a particular recipe, from a particular time and place in India? In which case all variation or reproduction is NOT authentic. Like the definition above says – not a copy.

I find people use the term “authentic” to say that their version of a thing has higher quality (without defining the quality), is exclusive and infused with an intrinsic value that makes it immune to sanction and judgement, so that it cannot be reasonably disputed, questioned or denied, like a form of cultural relativism. It is all authentic bullshit: where something is a copy / reproduction / recreation / re-enactment / version / simulation or any other kind of imitation it is either NOT authentic, and is in no way sacred, or it is ALL authentic, in all its variation, and therefore no more special than any other version.

Welcome to my Storybook

I have so many stories to tell. I want to write about the wonderful things I have learnt from couchsurfers, the way some books have changed the way I see the world and other people, the hard lessons I have learnt along the way, my thoughts and ideas, my ethics, stories that will make you laugh, some that may make you cry (tho believe me, I have no intention to hurt anyone with this), and some that I hope will make you think.

How I remember things, what I remember, how I interpreted things that happened, what I chose to take from experiences – these are all personal, subjective, possibly flawed or biased. I don’t like to lie, but sometimes, if I deem a thing irrelevant or sensitive, (where the full truth would harm), I won’t tell the whole truth, either. If you read a story that you were a part of (I’ll use pseudonyms) and you remember it differently, even taking the above into account, this will be because no two people will ever experience a single thing in the same way. If I had an identical twin (I don’t) and we both wore the same clothes, and went for the same walk, and bought the same icecream we would still experience different things eating that icecream. Perhaps my twin, glancing over my shoulder, will see something that makes them feel sad, while I’m seeing a happy scene. Our perception of the enjoyment of the icecream will be different. Our icecreams will melt differently, and I will probably end up wearing some of it (as usual). My twin might be better at keeping their clothes clean. My experience will include exasperation while my twin gets to laugh.

This is why I call these pages “stories”. While it’s hard to dispute that I went to Hawaii, what I brought back from the trip in my head is my story. I will give you the argument I painstakingly constructed to prove my ethical theory. Feel free to challenge my thinking. I’ll give you stories of what I’ve done with the intention of following what I believe to be the best course of action. These are certainly open to analysis.

I like these quotes (all not mine): “opinions are like assholes – everyone has one”; “blogging is graffiti with punctuation”; and “a minute’s conscious reflection is worth a lifetime’s blind devotion”. I will try and source ideas that are not mine, reference things to look at to verify, validate or get different points of view and cross reference to other things I write so you can see if I’m consistent or not. I don’t want to give you my opinion and expect you to soak it up like a sponge. I’m a sceptic, including (especially) of my own beliefs! Anyone who accepts another’s perspective without engaging their discernment is asking for disaster. Even people with the best of intentions can unwittingly misrepresent a topic. Please, think. Especially if you really like something I say: just because I validate what you believe doesn’t make it true.

Finally, please bear with me while I work out the structure of this blog. So many stories are connected I imagine it will be hard at first, at least, to be consistent in my categorisation.

Hope you enjoy, or at least, build something valuable in yourself from these stories.