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Oil Change Adventure

Early last month, the oil change light came on in my car.  It told me that the engine oil had reached 15% of its life.  My car needed an oil and filter replacement, and a tire rotation.  It was a routine service, nothing urgent.  When this had happened before, I called the dealer’s service department, and they set up an appointment for the service.

They had been urging me to do it myself through a web application.  I decided to try this instead.  It was easy to find the  correct web page.  It showed a calendar with a series of time slots.  It told me that the next available appointment was a 8:00 am on 22 May.  That was a good day, even though it was several weeks away, but way too early for me.  Some of the time slots were full, but I found one that was not, and was at a convenient time for me.  I chose 9:30 am on that same day.  Almost immediately after I’d set up the appointment, I got an e-mail message that confirmed my service appointment.  I was quite pleased with what I’d done on their web site.

Soon after that, however, I got a phone message from the service department.  It started out by thanking me for booking an appointment with them.  Then it told me that I’d booked an appointment for the Victoria day holiday, and that they were closed that day.  The message invited me to call them to reschedule my service appointment.  It was pretty stupid for the web site to allow me to book an appointment on a day when they were closed.  After all, they were closed on Sundays too and the web site didn’t offer me an appointment on Sunday.

I didn’t phone them, but used the web site again.  I cancelled my appointment for 22 May, and booked one for the same time on the next day.  Again, I got a confirmation almost immediately.  This time, I didn’t get a phone call from the service department.  When I arrived on that day, they were expecting me.  The service went ahead nicely.  I was quite pleased with the work they did.  Still, I thought it was pretty stupid for the web site to let me book an appointment on a day when they were closed.  I wonder how many other people they had to call with the bad news.


Low Self-esteem is the Cause

A few years ago, I remember speaking to a fellow who lived in Toronto.  He came here on weekdays, but flew back home on weekends.  He told us about the school where his children went.  At that school, the kids were not permitted to play sports at recess because they might damage their self-esteem.  Instead, they sat around all recess playing computer games on their mobile phones.  He was disgusted with the school.  I was astounded that any educational institution would do that.  It seemed ludicrous to me.

Now I know why, thanks to a recent article on the self-esteem scam.  It was the result of a massive publicity campaign that led people to believe that all of the ills of society were due to low self-esteem.  The idea that students would do skipping with imaginary skipping ropes was just as ridiculous as the story I heard from the fellow from Toronto.  Even worse was the attempt to provide scientific evidence for the claimed benefits of increased self-esteem.  This is anothr example of somebody looking for scientific proof for something they already believed.  When the scientific study showed that there were no benefits, the result was another publicity campaign designed to suppress the report.  No wonder people continued to believe in self-esteem, regardless of the scientific results.  No wonder schools continued to build self-esteem.  It was all a con job.


The Weight Loss Diet

Recently, I read three articles on diet.  All of them were different.  In fact, they didn’t have much in common except that they dealt with diet, both in the sense of what people normally eat, and in the sense of something that people choose to go on.  Maybe that’s enough in common.

The underlying principle is really quite simple.  Eating more than your body requires is the cause of obesity.  The excess calories are converted into fat.  You can consume a few calories through exercise, but it’s generally impossible for you to use up all the excess that way.  It gets much more complicated when you begin to investigate the reasons why people eat too much.  There are many possible causes, some of them psychological rather than physical.

Of course, eating is a pleasure.  It can be a great pleasure.  It might even be your only pleasure.  A remarkable study confirms what we’ve known for some time:  eating less extends your life.  Most people know that they will be healthier if they lose their excess weight.  In fact, the reason that most people go on a diet is because they want to lose weight.  The problem is that they want both the pleasure and good health.  They want something that doesn’t exist: a magical fat-burning pill or fat-burning food.  Unfortunately, there’s no solution that easy.

It gets worse.  Some reporting about diets is clearly biased.  Even if the article is not just advertizing for a specific diet, you can spot the biases if you look carefully.  Does it say that certain foods are poison, full of chemicals, garbage, or empty calories?  Those words reveal the bias.  A nice example is an article I recently read on the paleo diet.  Grocery stores don’t sell poison; they sell foods that people want to eat.  People are not stupid, either.  Most of them know what they like, and know what’s good for them.  Biased articles usually give you bad advice.  Look for balanced and unbiased articles if you want good advice.

Also watch out for marketing terms that have no specific meaning, but that appear in large print on product labels.  Natural is the favorite just now.  There’s also green and no preservatives.  To some extent, organic is a marketing term too.  Have you heard of label washing?  Food companies are removing names that frighten consumers from ingredient lists and replacing them with names that sound more natural, even though they mean exactly the same thing.

What about processed foods?  Are they always bad?  I just read an article about the processed food revolution that described the benefits of food preparation in factories.  Of course, there is indeed a hidden cost too.  It’s mainly a result of people eating too much because eating has become so easy.  Once again, it’s our fault.  We need to restrain ourselves.  We are in control of ourselves, aren’t we?


Always Superior

White upper-class men are always superior.  That’s the principle.  It seems that for many years they have been looking for scientific proof for something that they already believed to be true.  All such attempts have failed.  For background on these attempts, see the book The Mismeasure of Man, written by Stephen Jay Gould.  There have been some criticizims of this book, but the concept still stands.

Several of these beliefs have been the subject of these searches.  One belief is that people must somehow be different from other animals, an idea that is anti-evolutionary.  In terms of physical differences, the search proceeded to smaller and smaller things, culminating in the shape of tiny structures in the brain.  When this search failed, it moved on to mental abilities like memory and sense of self.  The result was always that humans are not unique among animals.  All differents are matters of degree, not matters of presence and absense.

Another is that men are somehow superior to women.  Again, nothing beyond the obvious was found.  We are all humans, regardless of gender.  We all have similar abilities.

A third was that white people are superior to black or brown people, usually in intelligence.  This was only demonstrated scientifically when faulty information was used.  Some of it was based on brain size, once thought to be an indicator of intelligence.  Some was based on intelligence test scores, from tests given to people who were illiterate.  At least this gives us a good example of the damage that can be done by biased testing methods.

At one time, all of the ills of society were thought to be caused by low intelligence.  The list included poverty, immorality, and criminality.  It may seem hard to understand now, but this is what some people used to believe.

In all of these attempts, we see signs of a desperate search, one that explored many different aspects, in an attempt to confirm existing beliefs.  In some cases, the researcher cited small differences between groups while ignoring wide ranges within each group.  Diversity is normal.  Overlapping bell curves only show how much these groups have in common.

The consequences of these attempts are still around.  False beliefs persist, even though the attempts to find scientific justification have failed.  Maybe we should just accept that there is no scientific evidence.  Maybe we should just accept that our beliefs were false.  Maybe we ourselves should take responsibility for these social conditions.

As well, scientists are reluctant now to do legitimate research on some of these topics, because they are so sensitive.  With proper design, such research can be unbiased.  Still, scientists should expect criticizm of their methods, and should be prepared to defend them.


The Selfish Gene

I just read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.  I’ve never read this book before, although I’ve certainly heard of it.  A few weeks ago, I read How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker.  One of his sources was The Selfish Gene.  It had the reputation of being a radical and perhaps illogical scientific work.  I decided to find out for myself.

Charles Darwin searched for the mechanism of evolution, and told us that natural selection was it.  He also told us that perfection of design in natural organisms was the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection.

Richard Dawkins extends this idea by telling us that genes are the actual subjects of natural selection, not individuals or species.  He also tells us that genes are the real designers of natural organisms.  Their purpose is always to benefit themselves by designing better organisms.  They are naturally selfish.

Dawkins has two main arguments.  The first is to convince us that genes are more important in evolution than individuals or species.  Of course, anything that is the subject of natural selection, and that is refined over many generations of organisms, has to be selfish.  There’s no other way for such an entity to survive in evolution.

His other argument is to explain to us how apparently unselfish behavior by organisms will still benefit the genes.  Some animals invest a great deal of time and effort in caring for their children, for example.  Children are the next generation, carrying the genes that need to survive into the future.  It’s a good strategy for parents to care for them.

Dawkin’s book was not at all what I expected.  His arguments are compelling.  I’m convinced that genes are indeed the units of evolution.  I’m also convinced that we humans are not controlled by our genes, not at the mercy of them.  All that genes can do is to design our bodies and minds, and to regulate our development in the embryo.  Our genes also give us conciousness, a mind that can think for itself, and the ability to behave in any way that seems reasonable to us.  We take responsibility for our own actions.  Our genes created us and designed us, but left us free to make our own choices.


Also Perfection

Last week I published a blog called Perfection is an Illusion.  It dealt with perfection of design during evolution.  I only realized afterwards that the title could equally well apply to being a perfectionist.  Some people do strive for perfection.  They seem to believe that the world will change when they achieve perfection.  When they reach it, people will admire them, people will celebrate their achievement, people will finally apprectiate them.

Just before I retired, I attended a presentation by a psychologist who specialized in perfectionism.  Perhaps you call tell from the suffix?  Perfectionism is an ideology just like communism and capitalism are ideologies.  Its a system based on a single idea.  He gave us many stories during this presentation, all taken from autobiographies.  One that was particularly striking to me was about a top-tier ballet dancer who said that she never enjoyed dancing.  No matter how well she was dancing, she always believed that she could do better.  His message was that by striving for perfection, you could waste your life chasing a dream or an illusion.

This was of great interest to me because I knew I had many characteristics of a perfectionist.  Perhaps I really was one.  My job at the time was software development, a job that I found to be very rewarding.  The typical phases were design, construction, and testing.  I did strive for excellence in the product.  However, one of my favorite sayings was:  “sometimes adequate is the best we can do”.  By that I meant that software developers typically work on many projects at the same time, and that completing these projects was more important than making them perfect.  Each one only had to be adequate in design before being released.

Striving for perfection may be a sign of false beliefs.  You have to realize that you are admired for your many positive qualities already.  Do not other people think of you as reliable, honest, considerate, consistent, and punctual?  You might have to ask them to find out what they think.  At least, don’t rely on your own idea of what they think.

People who are perfectionists have a powerful need for validation by other people.  This is a normal need.  It’s something we all have.  You may have to find your own validation instead of imagining what others think of you.  Do you find that you are highly critical of yourself and others?  Perhaps you also believe that others are just as critical of you?  That’s probably not true.  Perfectionism is an extreme.  Extremes of any sort are not good.  The opposite of perfectionism is another extreme, also not a good thing, and nothing to admire.  You need to find a balance between extremes, one that allows you to enjoy life at the same time.


Perfection is an Illusion

The Reverend William Paley published a very influential book called Natural Theology in the early 1800s.  In this book, he made three primary points.  The first was that the presence of a designer is obvious to all of us.  In a famous illustration, he described finding a pocket watch lying on the ground.  From its intricate design, it was clear that the watch was not a natural object like a stone, but that it must have had a designer.

He also told us that animals and parts of animals, a grasshoppers leg for example, were perfectly designed for what they had to do, and that the designer was God.  He described how birds mate and care for their eggs and chicks, not because they anticipate the outcome of this behavior, but out of pleasure and love.  These sensations and emotions also were part of God’s design.

This was the only conclusion he could reach at the time, and the only conclusion that his readers could reach also.  No other phenomenon could achieve perfection of design in wild creatures.  God was the designer.

Charles Darwin, the author of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, written in the mid to late 1800s, also searched for the cause of this apparent perfection.  Contrary to popular opinion, he didn’t discover evolution.  He discovered something more important, the mechanism of evolution, which he called Natural Selection.  Operating over millions of years, with this mechanism, evolution could be the designer.  Through the accumulation of changes, a wild creature could become adapted to its role in life, achieving apparent perfection.  Sometimes the perfection can be uncanny.  Darwin wasn’t alone in this discovery.  Alfred Russell Wallace also discovered natural selection around the same time.

In the late 1900s, Stephen Jay Gould, a prolific author and relentless researcher, told us that natural designs were not perfect after all.  They are excellent, but they are only perfect if you ignore the imperfections.  Natural designs often contain features that the creature has inherited from its evolutionary ancestors.  In fact, they often provide further evidence of how the creature has evolved, or evidence of features that adaptation cannot change.

Still, evolution is the cause of apparent perfection in design.  Paley was right in some instances.  Sensations and emotions are certainly part of the design.  It’s not just physical.  Paley was wrong in naming the designer as God.  We know now that millions of years of evolution can be the designer all by itself.