Why I’ll be a Student as long as I can

If you are an up-to-date reader of this virtual publication, you will surely be aware by now that I currently find myself without any long-term employment. After having undertaken and completed 5+ years of school, I find myself thrust upon the world with plenty of knowledge and experience, but little that entices most employers to drop me into the ranks of their company.

I put half a decade, tens of thousands of dollars and calories, and innumerable millions of neurons into my desire to better understand our world and the things within it, with little pragmatic thought as to how this could be applied to the world outside academia. Realistically speaking, my colleagues and predecessors who are now professors and researchers never left that world, and they continue to receive money from the government, as I did, for decades after completing their “education”. Now I don’t want to imply that privately funded research doesn’t happen, but the fundamental understanding of our universe that has been gained (and its current real-world applications) are almost without exception publicly funded, in full or in part.

Our current government in Canada is actively trying to slow this apparent flushing of money, while showing their severe lack of forward-thinking and lack of understanding of innovation and research. With little or no funding, the progress our country makes in medicine, technology and industry will surely stagnate, as is happening or has happened across the United States. There are past, present, and future generations of brilliant and imaginative minds who are excited about the history and prospects of scientific endeavour, and who are ready and champing at the collective bit, but who face larger and larger barriers to continuing to learn and understand and explain the world we live in.

In that I am one of these people in the present generation, itching to find a job to be able to develop and apply new and exciting ideas to novel research, I will always consider myself a student. Even though I am no longer formally enrolled in a university program, I continue to be fascinated and perplexed by science, but I do not fear this, but aim to wrap my head around its intricacies and its wonderful complexities. In this way, I will always be a student, in that I will continue to learn, and better understand our world, life and the universe we live in.

I am currently unemployed, and trying to find a way to start repaying some of the money government has been so generous to devote to my education, and to show them that their investment in me and the countless others like me can pay dividends if they will allow us to mature.

And so, for the time being, if you ask me if I am a student, I will undoubtedly reply “Yes, absolutely!”, especially if it gets me a discount on groceries on Tuesdays. For the foreseeable future, students will undoubtedly be poor, social sponges who have curious minds and learn new things at every opportunity, but have yet to find and be at home in their calling in life. In that way, I perfectly fit the definition of a student, and in my mind, I will always be a student of the universe.

The Future of Morality

Hey guys,

I have been getting a lot of really good feedback on what I consider my less interesting posts, I like to think of them as the medicine pressed into doggie treats, so I would like to continue expanding on those kinds of things, occasionally also peppering you with some science and technology stuff. I hope you’re okay with that, because you really don’t have a say. By the way, I finally got a comment in the contact sheet from my website, and although I think it might be sarcastic, I’m going to approach it anyhow very soon. Even though Google App Engine (what I use so my site loads quickly and so my internet service provider (TekSavvy) doesn’t come tell me I breached their terms of service) is being extremely slow thanks to some outages, I encourage all of you to check out my new home page, version 2.0 at RobAttrell.com and leave me a little message. Even if it is anonymous, I always like to hear comments or suggestions, and there is plenty of public forum to discuss things as well. Anyhow, I would like to discuss what I consider to be a slightly sensitive topic today, that of religion and morality.

I would like to start off by saying that I am a pretty laid-back person. I am the first person to avoid discussions of religion, simply because I know that some people take it very seriously, and I am certain knowing the history of most religions, hereticism is considered a major party foul. I feel as though this discussion will probably raise the ire of some people, so consider this a warning that if you continue to read, I am not responsible for your reaction. I sincerely hope that you do stick around, because I consider this very important, but I understand if you don’t, and if you got this far, I already got your page view, so I’m not that concerned.

Alright, now that that is out of the way, I’d like to discuss a little about how I feel pertaining to religion and its impact on morality. As a bit of background on me, I was raised Anglican and baptised in my early teens. I spent quite a few Sunday mornings in church, as well as my share of Christmas eves. I have attended quite a number of religion-based camps in my youth, and my entire family, if I have to generalize, is religious. So trust me when I say that I have a little bit of experience here. One thing I will say, having read at least the interesting parts of the Bible when I was growing up and they couldn’t print words fast enough for me to read them, is that I don’t really see what all the hype is about. I suppose if one were to interpret the bible (I’ll use the Bible as an example as it’s the only religious work with which I have any familiarity) as literally being historical fact (at least the parts where that is possible), it would be a pretty incredible story. But from what I have seen and heard and read, and what I believe, the Bible is not to be interpreted literally, but meant to be a moral guide and a compelling narrative about the human condition and our desire to aspire to something more. I’m given to understand that most religious texts are calls to bring people together under one set of agreed-upon laws and conditions and to be able to live harmoniously based on those individual documents.

The problems with relying on an ancient text for this kind of morality, don’t necessarily have to extend to religion to see that there are some pretty major problems with it. For example, the British monarchy, and the US constitution are written for the time they were written in. There are many things that change in the world, in a way that no one document or group of authors can ever anticipate or account for. Once documents like the Bible, or the US constitution, are written, problems inevitably arise. It is in human nature that we are pack animals, and we are inclined to hear a good idea, and propagate it and even defend it. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but when these ideas end up moving down bloodlines several generations, and the source of the material is no longer around to assert its original intent, issues will arise when society continues to evolve.

The example I am going to use to hopefully show this point is one which some background reading just now for context shows is more right than I could have ever imagined. The second amendment to the US constitution, which colloquially describes the right to bear arms, is one which is defended constantly by associations like the NRA, but which the average American also holds dear. To a completely pacifistic Canadian, this is just a ridiculous law to have on the books. While there are several very good reasons for people to have guns and other weapons, but the average person has no reason to actually own one. Even bearing in mind that there are people who hunt for game, there is really no sport in shooting an animal with a rifle in 2012. Going into the writing of this article, I had it in my head that this law was written in the late 1700s, when an “arm” typically referring to my vision of a musket, where it took a minute to load when you were trained and practised, and which fired one round metal ball. These guns were just as likely to misfire or even explode as they were to actually leave the barrel. If they did make it out, they were also horribly inaccurate, they were not assault rifles with precisely machined barrels and laser scopes. Additionally, this was also a time in history when the Americas were in a time of great turmoil. Not only was the country trying to establish itself and declare its independence from Great Britain, but it was (is?) deeply divided between old and new ideas (resulting in a Civil war not too long after its independence). All of that being taken into consideration, it actually makes completely logical sense that:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” –Wikipedia

Even this layout, passed by congress, is different from the one the states ratified, though only in grammar and capitalization:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” -Wikipedia also

 Even these two sentences actually read very differently if you take punctuation seriously. In both cases, though, a militia whose purpose is the security of a free state is the reason for giving the people a right to arms. There is no inherent threat in the US today that would require easy access to, and everyday use of, a firearm. And there is no weight to an argument that you can use it to defend yourself from having a weapon used against you, because in a country with few or no guns, the risk of finding yourself facing one is greatly reduced. Finally, there are actually currently many non-lethal ways of defending yourself in the event of an attack. This old law just doesn’t make very much sense today, and yet it is upheld constantly. However, this argument can actually be taken back even further. It turns out, the founding fathers of the United States actually had some background on running a country, and had a little bit of help and inspiration in coming up with their constitutional amendment. Delving a little deeper into this, you can find that Britain has also passed a Bill of Rights, in 1689. This document also mentions something quite similar to the right to bear arms in its pages, though you’ll notice the wording is a little bit different:

“That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law” – More Wikipedia

This document, which outlines the rights of British parliament, was passed at a time when Protestants (those who maintained most Catholic beliefs but had issue, or protested, some of the church’s policies) had had their arms confiscated by a Catholic king who took issue with the rising Protestant population in Britain. The law, on which current gun law in the US, and Britain to a lesser extent, is based on religious persecution, and simply served to allow citizens of any religion equal right to acquire and carry arms. Again, this was at a very difficult time in that country, where the clash between powerful political and religious entities (remember that the pope and the King of England were both considered to be one degree from God. The writing of this document came at a time when the theory of divine right, that the monarchical bloodline was vetted by God, was coming into question and eventually abandoned.) was causing a great deal of turmoil across all of Western Europe. It is only logical that the injust decree of a religious king be formally revoked afterwards, but need not officially apply centuries later in cases all the way up to the US Supreme Court. To this day, religion and its morality enters into public debate about this sort of topic, even though it has been generations since the arguments were made, and they are in no way valid today.

Alright, now with what is hopefully a strong case and some background on why I think that it is absurd that religious morality be strictly applied to modern society, I can continue to discuss my personal issue with some of the aspects of religion which I find most questionable. It is important to note, again, that I personally have no problem with people having belief in a specific god, or believing whatever it is they want to believe. Just like when I am walking down the street, and somebody tries to tell me about the Red Cross, I find it hard to feel bad when I tell them that I don’t care about what they have to say. I am not going to seek you out on the street and try to forcefully share information with you to which you have not consented, and I would appreciate if you would do the same for me. We have common, courteous ways of passing information, as well as polite ways of engaging in discourse with a large demographic of people. I’m getting off topic here…lets try this again.

Anyhow, I am not going to get in the way of your religion, as long as you don’t tell me that I am going to hell, or getting no virgins, if I don’t agree with your system of belief. I personally have a strong set of beliefs about how the universe was formed, and how we came to exist on this planet, and that belief system also explains every religion on earth. Which is more than can be said for most religion, wherein accepting the existence of other faiths it hinges on the idea that they are “lesser” religions. I can absolutely empathize with religious people. It is for this reason that I am not constantly getting into fist fights with people over things that they say or do, simply because they are different from what I say or do in my own free time. When somebody tells me that they are “praying” for something to happen, I know to interpret that as meaning that it is something they would very much like to see come to pass. I do it myself all the time, when I calculate the approximate odds of something occurring, and think to myself, I wonder if thinking about this a lot in my head will affect the external outcome. I can also note that having done that several times a day for my entire life, it is pretty disheartening sometimes when the odds of something happening are VERY low, and all you can do to affect the outcome is to think about it silently to yourself. It would be, and presumably is, very reassuring to believe that there is somebody listening, and that through some physical manifestation of supreme power, the outcome of an event can be affected by the power of suggestion. In fact, there is solid evidence that psychologically, there is a feedback loop in humans wherein knowing somebody (or many people) is (are) wishing very hard that, for example, you will be able to fight a disease, can actually impact your bodies defence of itself and impact the overall outcome of the illness. In another instance, “praying” followed by success reinforces the idea that it works, whereas in the same occurrence, a negative outcome would simply suggest that either you weren’t praying hard enough, or that you had done something previously or been unsure of your faith in a way that meant that you didn’t deserve the outcome you wanted.

In any case, I will never be able to rationalize the argument for keeping your morality consistent with your religion. If I am miscalculating and have backed secularity in the mistaken belief that when you die, you simply cease being alive, I will have a lot of explaining to do. That being said, I think I’m okay with that. I personally don’t think I am going to be any worse off than anybody who claims strict adherence to religious ideals, even if those are few in number. If we are all ranked and filed according to who followed a strict set of arbitrary rules the closest (no matter which religion ended up hypothetically setting those standards), I think I will have a lot of company in the afterlife. Personally, I choose to live my life on a case-to-case basis, based solely on what I have seen, heard, read, learned, tasted, smelled, touched and experienced. Some of that comes from religious teachings, some of it comes from my parents, some of it comes from friends, some of it comes from television and movies. In the end, what I do alone is of concern only to me, or who I choose to share it with. Involving other people does get a little messier (instances of murder, theft, deceit spring to mind) in coming up with a consistent morality for the whole world to follow. I think a good model for the American (or even the world’s “Constitution”) would be something similar to Wikipedia, wherein anybody can suggest changes at any time, in an ever changing document that is democratic and comprehensive, as well as being future-proof because it will never be “done”, but it will mature very quickly. If everyone can accept that on some level, we’re really all the same, we could peacefully coexist without too much violence, war, or any such nonsense. Upholding long-standing religious beliefs on the idea that they are moral is a very slippery slope, one which we tiptoe around every day. We are all entitled to our own opinion, obviously, but differences of opinion can have consequences if they are baselessly upheld for too long.

Googling morality can have some odd implications:

No Hope for the Future

I spend a lot of my time just thinking, mostly about ways I could improve the world, though sometimes I’ll admit I get a bit selfish and worry about my own needs. However, most times when I reason out different problems with the world as a whole, there are some very important reasons why things really aren’t going to get much better than they are now.

Generally speaking, when I talk about being able to vastly improve life, I am referring to potentially paradigm-shifting technological advancements. Almost all of the advancements in technology over the last 15 years have been huge improvements to communication technologies. Facebook, Google, Twitter, the Internet itself, cell phones, all of these things are really great tools for advancing society and permitting the advancement of ideas through shared intellect. However, many of the most useful changes which have or are being implemented right now will never be as powerful generators of change as they rightly should be. Here are just a few examples:

1. Facebook (and other social networks like Google+, Twitter, and innumerable others) all enable pretty seamless connections between people wherever they are on the planet. Twitter doesn’t have video chatting, Google+ has separate mobile and PC chat clients, and Facebook, the behemoth social network, has too many privacy issues to work as a professional network, and doesn’t allow voice calls between users. All of these networks and services have problems with them which mean that no matter how much you commit yourself to the platform, you will inevitably have to fall back on something else.

2. There will always be a certain paranoia involved with technology, especially from those who don’t really understand it. From the inherent “creepiness” of Apple’s Find My Friends application, to Facebook’s automatic facial recognition on photo uploads, it seems like we have reason to be afraid of these new technologies, even if they are completely innocuous and benign, or in fact very useful.

3. No matter how good technology gets, we will all be terrible at it. Especially when it comes to social aspects of technology, humans are notoriously bad at social etiquette when not faced with an actual physical interaction. Ignoring the fact that we are capable, and sometimes very adept at lying, computers are very bad at conveying nuanced cues and tics associated with human communication. Whether it comes out in Facebook events where a list of 300+ people are invited blindly to a gathering with no real social contract being offered or accepted, or in a simple text message whose context or meaning is misconstrued because of the mechanical emotionlessness of technology. Technology companies are scrambling to identify how and why people make decisions they do, and what they can do to keep people engaged as long and as often as possible.

4. The social companies are in it to make money. In this case, money generally comes from advertising, at least once the company is mature enough that investors are ready to make some money. This means not only that you become a social commodity, but it also means that most of these companies (Facebook, Google, Apple) have no real impetus to innovate or deliver a lot of new features all at once. This is a very selfish principle, but it will never change. If Apple suddenly made hundreds of very obvious tweaks and changes to their software and hardware, naturally people would quickly become accustomed to those changes and continue to demand more. It makes much more sense for these companies to add features one or two at a time, claiming at the time that it is a brand new way of doing things. One obvious example of this is that outside of Google Voice (which is in the US) and Rogers One Number (only in Canada), I’m not aware of any business which allows you to send and receive messages and make and receive calls both on your phone and on your computer. This is such an obvious feature which would spell out the downfall of cell phone carriers in terms of their massive profit margins, that it is certain it will be a long time until it can be done on a large scale or for cheap. Apple has recently allowed proprietary video calls to be made over cellular networks, but no such feature exists to use data to make voice calls directly to a telephone number from another telephone number. This feature existing on any one carrier would quickly make it the norm, and would result in much higher competition in the telecommunications industry.

As you can see, things are pretty incredible right now, but since big companies have seen what can happen when technology bubbles burst, they are doing their absolute most to make sure that we keep advancing as slowly as possible, or they will no longer be able to keep making their massive profits. All I can do for the time being is keep hoping that the next little thing that comes out ends up being important to me. If anyone needs me I’ll just be waiting here for the future.