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Je suis français

In the wake of widespread terrorist attacks in France, I stand in solidarity with the French people.

Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist interpretations of any other religion, is fundamentally harmful for society. I am strongly in favour of holding to one’s convictions. But when holding to those convictions involves the slaughter of innocent civilians, then those convictions are harmful. And society must move in a direction that eliminates those harmful convictions.

Whether this must involve violent retaliation is a difficult question that I can’t claim to know the answer to. But doing nothing, as if there is no problem, is not a viable option.

Remember Peace

This remembrance day, as always, Canadians will honour those that died in war. Just one hundred days ago, Canadians were fighting on the front lines of the First World War. Many died for our cause and our freedom.

Indeed there will be many Canadians who have grandparents and great-grandparents that perished during the war, and they will be remembered. But some of those people fought not for Canada, but for one of the axis powers. They no less deserve to be remembered for their heroic acts.

During it all, we must not forget that these men died for a pointless war. These men died because the European powers desired to compete instead of collaborate. The First World War pit heroes against heroes, and many heroes were lost from it.

Every remembrance day, it’s important to remember not just the lives of those who died—the lives taken by war—but also to remember the lives saved by times of peace. Long may peace last for Canada, and may peace come to those places who need it.

The Population Problem

Population is the root cause of all human suffering.

At first glance, that’s a ridiculous statement. Human suffering is caused by famine, by war, by disease, by bad government, and by depression. Not by population.

But what causes famine? The Earth is big enough to feed everyone on this planet—for now. However, not all people produce enough food to feed themselves. Those that don’t must buy food from other places. And if they don’t have money to buy food, then they’re screwed.

If there were fewer people on this planet, then by and large each individual person would have more land to produce food. That would allow each individual person to make a profit despite selling food at lower prices, and then market forces will bring food prices down. And in the end, more people will be able to afford food.

What causes war? War starts when people fight for limited resources, be it oil, minerals, arable land, or something else. Why are resources so limited? Naturally, they are limited because the population on Earth is too high. A lower population would be able to share the same resources, but with each person getting more of the pie. That will remove the single biggest justification for war.

What causes disease? When people are crammed into a small space, contagious diseases (and even not-very-contagious diseases) spread. With lower population density, diseases spread less easily, and everyone’s quality of life improves.

What causes bad government? With a large population, it’s difficult to get everyone to agree. The government then has a difficult job governing everyone fairly. When population density is too high, usually, a fair and democratic government will collapse and be replaced by a brutal dictatorship.

What causes depression? Depression is at least partially because today’s society lacks green spaces, is too polluted, and is too crowded. Humans are not built to live in a concrete building all day, but because of the lack of parks in cities, many have to. A smaller number of cities, and a smaller population per city, will both lead to enhanced green spaces.

So if we want a cleaner, richer, greener, happier, and overall better future, we must take steps to lower the world population, or at least stop it from growing so rapidly. Especially, high-fertility developing countries must start taking their baby booms as serious problems.

These Clocks are Still Broken

Tomorrow, some of my clocks will be wrong. But that will not be their fault. They will keep time correctly. That’s what a clock should do. A clock keeps time.

But for some reason, society demands we use the clocks that do their job wrong—the clocks that insist after 1:59 comes 1:00, contrary to the basic laws of arithmetic.

Clocks are not a political tool. Clocks should not be used to nudge our sleep and wake times. If we fail to use daylight to its maximum extent, then what should be changed are our work and school hours, not our clocks.

In a few hours, we change to standard time again. This time, let’s keep it that way.

(Please see last year’s post, This Clock is Broken, for a more pragmatic argument against Daylight Saving Time.)

An Argument for Honesty

Whenever I was rejected—from a university, an audition, a job, a date, some other application, or really any other purpose—the rejection letter or statement was always sweetened up. A common theme in these rejection statements is that “we were humbled by your talents and achievements,” or that “you have our very best wishes.” Obviously, these statements are not entirely genuine. They exist to soothe the pain of rejection.

In the past, I have found myself in a position where I can only accept a proper subset of all applicants for a position. I have myself sent out some of these canned rejection letters to applicants. Not all of the statements contained within the letters were truthful. Certainly, I did not believe that every applicant was “exceptionally talented and qualified”, although the letters asserted that they were.

I did not hesitate in sending the rejection letters, even though their content was mostly false statements. I was literally lying to the rejected applicants. Because the statements were subjective, the lies were not incredibly misleading. Even so, they were made with the intention to conceal my true feelings.

Is it ethical to lie, if the goal is to make someone feel better? Not hurting someone’s feelings is certainly a good thing. But it inhibits others’ ability to act on accurate information. They may believe that the sole reason for rejection was bad luck, and not some other more fundamental issue, and therefore they may find it difficult to improve and increase their future chances. By deciding to hide the truth, I have also made an implicit judgement that they are unable to handle the truth, and that they would not have the self-control and maturity to handle raw criticism. In this sense, by lying, I am devaluing their status as rational, human minds and treating them almost as if they are children.

Perhaps a major reason for the desire to sugar-coat the rejection letters is my own selfishness. If I had been honest in sending the letters, then I would likely have made some people mad. My future relations with them may be sour and toxic. On the other hand, by sending out rejection letters carefully worded to minimize pain, I increase the recognition of my name and its association with helpfulness and kindness. This in turn increases the chance that I will have positive relations with those people.

The desire to have positive relationships is in turn self-serving, because I hope that I will get enjoyment or other benefits from these relationships. It causes a vicious cycle with positive repercussions for me: my reputation will improve, which will cause others to have higher opinions of me, which will further improve the depth and breadth of my relationships, and that will improve my reputation.

Perhaps, then, selfishness is a good explanation for why I lied in the rejection letters: it was a calculated move to shield me from anger and instead foster better relationships with others. I wish I could defend my actions as being true and honest, but frankly, my words were about as dishonest as possible.

Of course, I am not the one to blame for dishonesty in rejections. It has become a societal convention that all rejections must include statements of praise, allegedly for soothing the pain. I was, for the most part, merely following this convention. However, dishonesty is probably not the best policy. The rejection letters are sent to mature and rational human beings, and it is most respectful to treat them as mature beings capable of knowing the truth, because in the end that will help them more.

I should have instead included a reason for rejection—not coated with vitriol but not coated with sugar either—stating the facts about why the decision was made. A letter containing that information, such as “Your application was rejected because you have not achieved the required years of experience,” is more informative and more honest, and by and large more ethical.

I look forward to being rejected in the future. Perhaps, just perhaps, I won’t be lied to.

Why teach STEM?

One thing that I hear way too often is how high school is useless. The complaint is that the vast majority of people will never use fancy topics like al-gee-bra or will never care what the difference between a neutron and a proton is.

Furthermore, high school apparently does not teach important topics such as how to vote, how to find a job, how to give first aid, and other such topics.

I am not denying that there are valid complaints about the public schooling curriculum. However, this complaint is entirely bunk.

Firstly, at least here in Ontario, the so-called important practical topics are indeed taught. The Ontario high school curriculum requires three courses that are intended to address these practical topics of everyday life: Civics, Careers, and Healthy Active Living. I distinctly remember voting, jobseeking, and first aid covered in these three courses respectively.

Secondly, that science education should be made optional is entirely misguided. The subject of whether compulsory courses should exist at all is a touchy one, but if one accepts that there should be compulsory courses, science should certainly be one of them. The proportion of Canadian graduates in STEM is extraordinarily low among developed countries. Canada is falling behind a vast array of European countries. Just about everyone will accept that innovation comes foremost from STEM graduates. So if we’re falling behind in STEM graduates, we are falling behind in innovation. It is therefore absolutely critical that even if we just make a single course compulsory, it should be science.

The idea that science education is displacing important first aid and survival education that will save thousands of lives is comical, because it ignores the field that has saved millions of lives in Canada alone: medicine. When was the last time you saw someone saved by first aid? When was the last time you saw someone saved by modern medicine?

Thirdly, if we are to keep our modern standard of living, we have to teach ourselves to understand abstractions. Even if someone literally does not use algebra ever in his or her life (which, by the way, is exceedingly rare), the process of learning algebra develops the valuable ability to think with abstractions. James Flynn discusses how so many of the reasons that our society is so much better today than ever before is our ability to understand abstractions, rather than the rote memorization of the past.

While important, voting is far easier to learn through experience than something like abstract mathematics, and as Flynn stresses, the latter is equally important. So if time is really a concern, doesn’t it make more sense to teach someone the quadratic equation than to teach them how to use a ballot box?

Luckily, of course, it’s not a one-or-the-other, and we can teach both in Ontario high schools, which is of course the optimal solution. So once again, this argument is ridiculous.

If there is a topic today that is more productive to teach than mathematics or science, it’s computer science. But shockingly, the people complaining about compulsory STEM are not complaining that CS is optional.

Obesity and Health: Incompatible

I have nothing against overweight people—but some are very misguided in believing that one can be obese and healthy at the same time. A new study has once again confirmed the scientific consensus that obesity is unhealthy, period.

Obesity, like smoking, is a health issue. We should never discriminate against obese people—just like we should never discriminate against people who have eating disorders like anorexia—but the “Health at Any Size” movement is simply scientifically inaccurate and downright dangerous. Frankly, it’s equivalent to a campaign promoting “Health at Any Number of Packs a Day”, which would be laughed out of town if not censored outright.

As a society, we must stop discriminating against obese people, and we must also stop promoting obesity as acceptable. Yes, this means that fat shaming is bad. But radical “fat acceptance” is just as evil. Please don’t promote or share those kinds of posts.

Why is Valentine’s Day one day long?

Why is Valentine’s Day only one day long? Would that not imply that there is one day for Love? That Love is reserved for a special day, and so on other “unspecial” days, Love is out of season? Does its presence give authorization to withhold Love on other days?

Is overall affection enhanced or diminished by the presence of one Valentine’s Day and 354 days that are not Valentine’s Day? Is Valentine’s Day a prison for Love, confining it from the rest of the year? What has Love done to deserve such confinement? What crimes has affection committed to necessitate such isolation?

Is perhaps this contrary to the ideal of unconditional love, if love is conditional to the day of the year? Who really benefits from Valentine’s Day—the common man, or business owners?

Perhaps next year, consider to abolish celebration of the Feast of Saint Valentine. Consider whether it is really worth it. Consider critically its benefits and drawbacks.

Tradition is prone to error. It is our responsibility as humans to question tradition. Make an informed decision about which traditions are truly beneficial and which traditions are mistakes.

Do not fear to be alone—change needs a leader. Be one. Discuss the merits of Valentine’s Day with your other; keep a level head and avoid falling victim to the bias of tradition.

“It’s always been this way.” is not an argument for preservation. Who really benefits? What is harmed? Is increasing the wealth of the 1% really worth the imprisonment of Love, the confinement of affection?

The Real Problem with GMO

Regardless of the extent GMO harms human health (which I personally believe to be minimal), it is undeniable that there are many benefits of GMO to humanity. For instance, GMO crops have increased yields and increased pest resilience. Benefits range from economic (less money needed to grow more crops) to environmental (less chemical needed to kill crop pests).

But I have a serious issue with the GMO market—how it is patented, and who profits from it.

First of all, patenting an organism is absurd. A company like Monsanto makes a minor change, such as adding or removing a single gene, to an organism whose genome was developed over billions of years of evolution. Allowing such a company to patent the product is nonsensical.

But Monsanto patents seeds on a regular basis, and legally pursues those who use the seeds without paying Monsanto. This includes seeds generated from crops found to have Monsanto genes. Effectively, “buying” seeds from Monsanto is really more like renting them. Monsanto controls what products of the crop can be sold or reused by the farmer—seeds, evidently, cannot.

The free market has proven to be an amazing system for promoting innovation. For private corporations to create and sell their GMO products is not a bad thing. But this is not really the case with modern GMO companies. They demand control over a farmer’s produce. This is not in the spirit of a free market. The farmer loses the freedom to do what he or she wills with what he or she produces.

On top of the absurdity of patenting what is 99.9% a creation of nature, the seed patent system takes freedom away from farmers.

That is the real problem with GMO.

This Clock is Broken

Daylight Saving Time was invented a hundred years ago. It worked a hundred years ago. But is this still the case?

In our modern, computerized world, designing systems around arbitrary clock jumps is a huge drain on innovation and productivity. In 2007, the US Government changed the dates that DST started and ended on, breaking uncountable pieces of software and wasting thousands of person-hours tracking down resulting bugs.

It’s clear that computers hate Daylight Savings Time. But what about for humans? Is there a tangible benefit for us?

The common arguments for Daylight Saving Time don’t stand up to rigorous scientific studies. It turns out that DST does not save energy in today’s world. Electricity consumption is now tied more to temperature than sunlight, and the original argument that evening sunlight will lower incandescent bulb use is now irrelevant.

China, India, and Russia, three of the largest countries in the world by economic size or population, have all tried and abandoned Daylight Saving Time, because it simply does not make sense. The proposal has caused so much harm to farmers that the province of Saskatchewan no longer observes Daylight Saving Time.

Contrary to its name, Daylight Saving Time does not have anything to do with saving daylight. A clock that abruptly changes by one hour twice a year does not actually alter sunrise and sunset. The natural length of the day (obviously) remains unchanged no matter what we do to our clocks.

The idea behind Daylight Saving Time is to modify human schedules to better use the daylight. It attempts this by throwing the clock off from its natural course. But this is the wrong use of a clock. The purpose of a clock is to record time. DST is breaking a useful tool that works to solve a “problem” that many don’t agree is even a problem.

Instead of fiddling with our clocks, why don’t we change our schedules? Why don’t we change working hours or school hours, so we directly fix the problem of human activities not being in sync with sunlight?

In a few hours, we change to Standard Time again. Let’s stay here this time around.