Sunday, December 16, 2012

On guns

When the media starts reporting something so pervasively that it's all over your television, your radio, and your Internet, odds are extremely high that something fishy is going on. Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, school shootings and related massacres have been focused on with absurd intensity, culminating in this year's reporting on the recent mass killings in Colorado and Connecticut.

This is done using a technique indicating a kind of bias by story selection. If someone wants to run a story on the drastic decline in school shootings that has been occurring over the last several decades, but someone else wants to run a story on a recent school shooting, the recent school shooting story will be given the go-ahead. The aim of this is to passively give the audience the impression that, because an event is "newsworthy," it is a common event. Never mind that, for every report that makes it to air, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of other potential stories; only the ones that actually make it scale up to the bigger picture of society at large.

Most people don't travel very far in their daily lives. Even taking into account commutes to work that are an hour or two long, few people work several states away from their place of residence, let alone across the country -- or across the world. Additionally, the average person tends to selectively absorb information that is most beneficial for him or her to absorb; if you like football, you're not going to actively seek out information about cricket, and if you're a Christian, you're not going to actively seek out information about Islam, or Norse paganism. Are you a big fan of heavy metal? If you are, you're statistically unlikely to read up on post-war jazz or psychedelic trance.

What this seems to imply is that, because most of us are so stubbornly attached to those artifacts of culture which define us as individuals, all that the media has to do is present us with a few incidents while selectively ignoring contrary incidents, and we'll just assume that the world "is" the way that the media has decided to portray it this time. We're too ignorant and lazy to peer review what the media presents us with.

To most people, there are only a few types of music: rock, rap, pop, jazz, classical. To most people, there are only a few religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism. To most people, there are only a few political ideologies: conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism, centralism. To most people, there are only a few things happening in the world in general, and almost all of the "important" ones make it to our televisions and computer screens.

How silly.

We tend to forget just how large the number "one million" really is, let alone "one billion." The speed with which information gets to us makes us feel as though the world is far smaller than it actually is; the consequence is that the dozen or so worldly events that we hear about during a month come to paint a picture of a small, physical landscape where such events predominate, and the organizations in charge of presenting us the events can pick and choose at their leisure.

There are a few reasons for why the media might want to passively suggest to the American public that we're facing some kind of "mass killing" epidemic:

1. Gun control advocates who want to ban all gun ownership outright

2. Pharmaceuticals companies who want to sell their products to psychiatric patients with arbitrary "mood disorders"

3. Lobbyists interested in censoring violence in popular media, like movies and video games

Perhaps the thousands of events reported to the police that we never hear about are not so much unrepresentative of social trends as they are irrelevant to a particular body's pursuit of wealth and power.

Here are some burglary facts:

1. More than seventy percent of burglaries occur during the daytime.

2. The favored time of day to commit a burglary is between 7:00 and 10:00 AM -- after you've gone to work and the kids have left for school. It's highly unusual for a burglar to actually run into his victim.

3. The majority of burglaries are the result of doors being left unlocked.

4. Many burglaries are perpetrated by neighbors.

5. Burglary is incredibly rare in the United States to begin with; out of around 112 million homes, only a little over 2 million get burglarized every year -- a little under two percent. Most of those burglaries occur in areas where job creation is difficult and crime is high in general, meaning that the majority of that 2 million figure will never leave the same concentrated metropolitan areas. In other words, if you've never been burgled, don't expect that to change anytime soon -- and if it does, you'll be several times more likely to be at work than waking up in a cold sweat at 4:00 AM from the hideous sound of your door being kicked in!

Movies, dramatized reenactments, and commercials aimed at getting us to buy junk will tell a different story, but the numbers don't lie.

So what about school shootings and other similar mass killings? Aren't quiet, skinny, geeky guys starting to lose their minds because of social withdrawal and violent video games?

Well, not really. School shootings have been going on since at least the 1970s, and there were more incidents involving gunfire on school property during the 80s than either the 90s or the 00s. The year before the Columbine massacre, an incident in Oregon left 22 wounded and 2 dead, but it was completely overshadowed by the Columbine story. Why is everyone familiar with "Eric and Dylan" but not ol' Kip Kinkel? Could it be because he struggled in school and wound up enrolled in special education courses? That's not exactly the typical picture of a smart, withdrawn guy going crazy; you can't push an agenda when the perpetrator doesn't fit into your view of the trend.

Here's what the National School Safety Center has to say about gun-related deaths in schools during the 90s:

1992–1993 (44 Homicides and 55 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
1993–1994 (42 Homicides and 51 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
1994–1995 (17 Homicides and 20 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
1995–1996 (29 Homicides and 35 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
1996–1997 (23 Homicides and 25 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
1997–1998 (35 Homicides and 40 Deaths resulting from school shootings in the U.S.)
1998–1999 (25 Homicides from school shootings in the U.S.)
1999–2000 (25 Homicides from school shootings in the U.S.)

Quite a drop! Even if the numbers start to go back up someday, just remember that the increase is terribly, terribly insignificant. What if, say, one hundred school massacres occur next year, in contrast to the four or five that have happened so far this decade? There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States, so even that highly significant increase would only amount to a 0.1% likelihood of you ever seeing a gun in your school (right now, it's something like 0.006%).

This is stupid. Considering the outright disappearance of pistol duels among gentleman and riots instigated by unruly gangs -- phenomena once prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries -- violence is just about the least of our concerns today. Why don't we start reporting on things that matter -- like false medical diagnoses, increases in anxiety disorders, alcohol-related suicides, or, you know, the fourteen percent of the species that's starving to death?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Human Animal

We'll resume our observation of the animal kingdom shortly. For now, we turn our gaze back to humanity.

Humans are culture agents. Culture, as a function of genotype, encourages the promulgation of any memes which increase the likelihood of genetic success. This does not have to occur at the level of the individual; after all, it does not occur at the level of the gene itself in any scenario. Because "nature" is inefficient, its causes rarely result in a "kernel" mechanism being transported in the absence of impurities. To any particular gene, your body is the food to its vitamin or mineral: Waste is assumed to come along for the ride. This, of course, contrasts immensely against our technology, but that's another topic for another time.

Although no living CEO, marketing analyst, economist, systems engineer, or architect would ever fathom doing this with specifics, culture, as a function of the natural world, will do whatever it takes to get genetically beneficial memes into the future -- even if it means the unsuccessful reproduction of the originator or original promoter of the memes. In short, whether you directly benefit from your own ideas is irrelevant to their success within your social group.

Nevertheless, most people tend to believe that their ideas benefit them personally, even where they objectively do not, or where there is some ounce of something beneficial, but nothing substantive to the point of making the idea relatively beneficial. This is a huge problem which essentially underpins why individual humans cannot be trusted to rule themselves, preside over others, or make useful modifications to existing systems: As agents of culture, they are unwittingly participating in that deterministic, subatomic foray -- an abstraction independent of time, and thus unchangeable -- with predominant strands of DNA as its core mechanism of cause and effect.

Why should we trust ourselves to make decisions regarding what's best for us, what will most effectively reduce our pleasure to suffering ratio? We were born with brains designed for use in a "middle" world -- not the world of atoms, and not the world of black holes -- as depicted on the African Savannah. We're good at simple calculations like whether the risk in hunting a mammoth is worth the reward in a particular case, but we're terrible at determining whether our career paths are most likely to make us happy. We're good at carving lion gods from ivory, but we're terrible at counting to a billion in a realistic period of time.

So we have computers do it for us -- at least, in the latter example. No one person on Earth could mine a cave for raw materials and come back a few hours later with a computer mouse. Why don't we do the same for the former, then? Why don't we utilize complex algorithms -- or their precursors in the forms of independent, peer-reviewed standards organizations -- to determine how each one of us, as aggregates of desires and emotions, can live best? We may not be able to pull it off yet, but shouldn't it be in the works?

Our senses are notoriously unreliable. You may be dozens or even hundreds of meters off when assessing a large distance using only your eyes. People take inanimate objects in their periphery to be shadow beings, only to turn their heads and realize that they had been mistaken. An uttered sentence fragment may sound like something that isn't, contrary to the listener's protestations. Our opinions suck.

The prevailing hand shaping our opinions today is that subset of culture known as media -- an unfortunately anti-empirical, purely anecdotal device. Technology has allowed media to usurp religion, but who the hell would ever find gratification in replacing one despot with another? Conspiracy theories, "us versus them" notions, and the "evil mastermind" card aside, the answer is still, well, the despots.

Actually, it isn't. The more accurate answer, even if many a documentary maker doesn't want to hear it, is that all members of government, lobbies, or corporate entities, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful, no matter how comfortable, also have terrible opinions, and are equally victims of media. The military-industrial complex, Google, and anti-smoking lobbies are just as much a part of the meme agenda as the average guy on the street. This implies not that a small few are keeping the majority in line while benefiting from the latter's sheepishness, but that all humans currently alive are being "controlled" by poor values.

These values may be beneficial to the myopic system known as nature, who only "cares" about immediate results, but they are not only bad for the planet in the long run, they're bad for everyone alive. Were we to eliminate the monetary system, the psychotherapy paradigm, democracy, and the agenda of life itself, we would all be much happier.

It's one thing to be a rich CEO with a collection of private jets, but it's another altogether to be incapable of experiencing clinical depression, or systemically unlikely to experience fear of hackers, burglars, and scammers. What's more likely to be better for you? A bank account so full that only an absurdly minute portion will ever be used to purchase any kind of material goods, or a value system acknowledging the importance of both freedom from attachments and science as a tool for discovering social benefits, regardless of cost-effectiveness? The very pursuit of wealth is generally stressful, laden with paranoia, and high-risk. At the very least, there is fear of a revolt of "the masses," but ruthlessly fighting the competition, struggling to protect your interests, or ignoring the subtle pleasures of life are all a surefire way of inviting in very real -- and totally superfluous -- psychological duress.

Of course, it is still true that the rich benefit more from the presiding value system and its physical implements than everyone else, but the difference is insignificant relative to the difference between the middle class and upper class as a whole on the one hand, and what society would look like with independent peer review utilizing the scientific method to determine best practices for psychological wellness on the other. New medical practices; cures for aging; the permanent blocking of pain receptors; highly individuated, fully immersive, simulated fantasy worlds; abundance managed from the ground-up by computer algorithms "in charge" of a checkout system; dynamic, agile refinement in the place of complete system overhauls every few years -- none of these are profitable to any corporation on the planet!

Opting for something simpler may make you more money now, but what if you were to completely shut down your business, stop working altogether, research the open source and the innovative, then attend weekly seminars with other former corporate stockholders in a United Nations-like environment aimed at understanding the universe? The "scientific community" is there for this, but it has been relegated to a mere aid where it should be a guide. Besides, it currently relies on funding and donations, and is generally impeded by bureaucracy; if what you're looking into isn't going to benefit a powerful body, don't expect to get any money to fund your experiments.

In any case, our computers should be far more powerful now than they currently are; our search engines should be far more accurate than now, with their sloppy results, pointless hand-holding, and imposed inefficiencies; the average mind should be far more methodological, far more systematic than it currently is, but pandering to those who are stupid enough to click on Internet ads is more profitable than pandering to those who are most likely to make life awesome.

Why should YouTube be a video library with nothing but filmed college lectures, debates, and material inspiring us to live more efficiently, critically, and happily when it can be a place for pop music, makeup tutorials, and movie trailers? Who makes money when you learn something on the Internet? Who makes money from you figuring out how to better make your own money? Who makes money from you building something better than what everyone else makes money from? If we were not so enslaved by our own ideas and the lack of a real process for refining those ideas, we would all benefit, and the guys at the top would be much better off than they are today.

Monetary gain is still championed as the highest ideal by society because of this value disorder. Even though the notion that having more money is the equivalent of experiencing a better life is false for all of the above reasons, it's still causing our media to shape us into emotion-driven consumers. Anti-smoking lobbyists have succeeded in demonizing cigarettes, and although those are probably not the best things to consume, they have a far less negative net effect than alcohol. The Super Bowl shows us why we have been conditioned to think the opposite of the reality: because it's profitable.

Never mind that I have never met a social drinker who does not have at least one or two horror stories to tell about the time that they woke up somewhere unfamiliar, accidentally drove a car, slept with someone whom they shouldn't have, woke up feeling absolutely terrible the next day, or embarrassed themselves to the point of their coworkers perceiving them differently. Although these obviously stupid and unwanted consequences outweigh any minor social benefit of fitting into a crowd, young people drink far more now than they smoke, even in spite of smoking possessing almost zero potential to harm others.

Additionally, consuming several alcoholic drinks in a night on a weekly basis -- "drinking to get drunk" -- has been demonstrated by studies to drastically increase the likelihood of alcohol dependency later in life, and is pretty terrible for your health. Personally, I'd rather die of lung cancer at 70 than of cirrhosis at 50, or live a life replete with awful headaches and other physical withdrawal symptoms, domestic violence, and depression.

How can these memes flip in just a few decades? Changes in power structures. If you want to get ahead, the best way is to "push" people into a beneficial direction, and the best way to do that is to influence lobby groups into putting together unscientific smear campaigns. Chances are that if you believe in something strongly, it's because someone is making money from the physical effects of your belief, and has orchestrated an agenda to this end. Further, chances are also quite high that if you're living a life defined by shopping for clothes, listening to repetitive music, doing drugs, or following celebrities on Twitter, someone is profiting immensely from your lowest-common-denominator approach to the human experience; this "someone" may not have orchestrated such cultural degeneration, but upon realizing the potential for a trend to emerge, they certainly didn't bother to stop it.

School shootings, unfortunately, are no different. Gun control advocates play an important role in United States politics. The result? You can't go a half hour without running into pictures of President Obama wiping tears from his eyes as he describes a recent shooting as an "atrocity." Let's all continue to ignore the millions of years of elephants being eaten alive -- not because a quick shot to the head once in a while over the course of a few hundred years is objectively worse than being eaten alive once in a while over the course of a few million, but because we want gun control*!

Don't believe me? Find a CNN article on the most recent massacre and see how many comments you can make it through before some kind of gun-related policy discussion takes place. We need to wake up, but not because we're being controlled by an elite group. We need to wake up because we're allowing our own stupidity to shape us into predictable culture zombies, regardless of our social class.

* Gun control in some form is probably a good idea, because the majority of shootings in the first world are the result of accidents in a domestic environment, usually involving children. You are more likely to be paralyzed for life from a car accident than from a bullet wound to the spine. The problem isn't the guns, of course; it's the "gun culture," or more accurately, the paranoia culture, again, promulgated by the media (there are conflicting interests competing, remember?). In any case, take a look at any Crips neighborhood or read any anecdote from the Old West and tell me with a straight face that everyone possessing a gun is a good idea.

Encouragement of domestic insecurity also encourages avoidable suffering, whether in the form of unnecessary fear or actual bullet wounds. Just because four out of ten media items have to do with guns (I'm making this up for the sake of the point being illustrated) doesn't mean that four out of ten calamities in the real world involve guns. Do not allow culture to subjectively impress incidence statistics onto you anecdotally or vicariously.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Comment moderation

Just a quick notice: Comment moderation has been enabled to deter trolls. Going forward, if you post a comment on this blog, it will not make it unless it contains a point of some kind -- whether supporting or contrary. If your comment does not contain a point and is instead intended to rile or provoke purely for its own sake, it will not be published.

Nature Fact of the Day: Lions

Ever heard of canine distemper? Probably not, but it's a somewhat widespread disease among domestic dogs. It's not terribly common in the wild, but it does happen there, too. Considering that canines have existed for millions of years, it has probably destroyed the lives of many.

It also affects felines. Here's a lion having a seizure as a result of it.

Imagine being in this position: You've been on Earth for ten years, stealing corpses from females of your species who are actually fast enough to kill their own prey, harboring absolutely no regard for said females' well-being. You spend ninety-five percent of your existence extremely pissed at everything that gets in your way, including your own children, who you routinely swat in the face mercilessly while trying to nap -- because, hey, they're annoying, right? On the rare occasion that you actually get some action from one of the female lions, she sinks her humongous claws into your thigh mere seconds after copulation has completed, because she's moody and fickle.

To some, not having to work to get a meal might sound like the ultimate existence, but if you're agitated the entire time, where's the fun?

Angry and in bully mode from birth to death or not, you're still the king of the jungle, though, right? You'll probably die at eighteen of old age, sleeping peacefully under a tree as your heart gives out. You caused dozens upon dozens of organisms to suffer horribly, but someone had to come out on top; that's the whole point of the struggle of nature.

Except that you didn't really win anything, and you're not going to die peacefully under that tree. You're probably going to die in a bloody fight to the death against rival males -- and, surviving five or six of those in your lifetime, maybe you'll die of starvation after being deposed by a young stud, who will subsequently proceed to hold your family hostage and murder your children.

Or maybe you'll have upwards of five muscle-wrecking seizures in a day, feeling completely out of control and utterly exhausted as some invisible force slowly annihilates you, capitalizing on your ignorance and lack of any capability to fight back.

The real kings of the jungle are all viruses and bacteria.