So, how much free will do we have?

Here’s an email I sent to some of my friends based on an piece I heard on The Naked Scientist:

This group did a study and found that women who were lap dancers and not on the pill (ie they had a normal menstrual cycle) go more tips on their fertile days.  (I can’t imagine the grant application process for that study.  “Yeah, we need to study strip clubs…this is important, somehow….”)

So another group wanted to explore this.  They selected a bunch of women who were not on the pill and told them to wear a t-shirt to sleep during their fertile days.  (No perfume or garlic allowed on those days because it would bias the results.  Also, they had to bathe with non-scented soap)  Then they had to wear a t-shirt to sleep on their menstruation days.  Then they got a bunch of guys to sniff the shirts.  (This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a t-shirt sniffing test in science.  How do they get people to sign up for these???)  After testing their saliva before and after the sniffing, they found that the men had increased testosterone in their system during the women’s fertile period.

So, not only do woman get hornier during their fertile period, they apparently “force” guys into it the same state.  Makes sense from a biological point of view.  Increased changes of offspring.  And, in the modern day, more tips for strippers.  (Well, lap dancers – I think you had to be within sniffing distance) One unintended consequence:  when men sense other men with elevated levels of testosterone, they have an increased chance of getting into fights.  Probably to ensure the female gets the offspring with the best genes.

And here’s some of the response from our good friend, Duffy, a sociology PhD candidate:

The first and most influential study in the field on this now-hugely-popular topic (Simpson & Gangestad, if I remember correctly, somewhere around the hear 2000) actually studied it from the other direction, with olfaction and t-shirt sniffing. They had men wear tshirts instead and found that women can actually pick more symmetrical men (supposedly the ones with better genes who are more attractive) just by smelling them; they can also pick men who have the most complementary Major Histocompatibility Complex to theirs (MHC-1, which is an indicator of genetic compatibility). Again, the pill actually ruins everything and reverses this, them pick the LEAST compatible men with respect to MHC-1.

Also, more fun stuff about the ovulatory cycle — during the fertile phase (compared to the luteal phase) women actually dress to look sexier (e.g. show more skin), prefer men with more masculine features (e.g. a more square jawline), and are more highly skilled at picking up flirting nonverbals. In the luteal phase they dress more conservatively and prefer more babyfaced men. In truth, it’s not all about the best genes — it’s about conditional mating strategies, which I’ll explain when I haven’t already typed out an entire email essay for you, haha.

Which leads me to wonder how much free will we actually have?  At what point are we being controlled by hormones and at what point are we making our own decisions?  I’m dang near 100% sure that those women in the second study Duffy mentions aren’t consciously thinking, “I’m ovulating!  Better dress sexier!”  First of all, most women I know aren’t monitoring when they are ovulating unless they’re actively TRYING to get pregnant.  Second, over the course of a woman’s fertile years, a huge percentage of the time that she’s ovulating she will actively be trying to remain free from pregnancy.  (For example – probably 100% of the time – from, say middle school through the end of college – at least)  Yet there they are behaving in ways that will lead to an outcome they don’t want.  At the same time, no guy is, upon coming close enough to smell a woman, thinking, “Oh man, she’s ovulating!  It’s gonna be so easy to convince her to have sex!”  And, in fact, while his testosterone levels may be elevated, he will not know why he finds himself so attracted to this woman.

So we’re left wondering how much free will this leaves us?  After all, if something as mechanical as a menstrual cycle is dictating how women dress, who they are attracted to that night, and how easy it will be to bed them, where does that leave us?  Of course, it’s not automatic, so we do have free will.  Every day people will find themselves sexually attracted to people and they don’t act on it, but something just seems sinister about the fact that it’s all based on chemicals rather than a person’s personality.  Let’s say in a scenario where two women are equally visually attractive (and with the same general personality), but one is ovulating and therefore is the one the guy ends up with – it could potentially lead to a completely different life if this one meeting led to marriage.  Had the chemicals been reversed, the man would have ended up with the other girl.  This just seems wrong…

How Far is infinity?

Although it may seem like a philosophical or silly question, it is indeed a practical question for me. You see, we have a tradition at Christmas-time in my family where we play dominoes on the days before Christmas and whoever wins gets to open a gift. I’m sure I mentioned this around this time last year. Well, a couple of days ago I won and my prize was a Canon 50 mm f/2.5 Macro lens from my wife! It’s a fine lens – I’ve been taking some awesome pictures which I will be uploading once the Christmas Season is over.

This is my first Canon lens outside of the kit lens my 350D came with. I really enjoy my Tamron 55-200 mm, but the Canon lenses are truly worth what they cost. The quality is top notch and it has a focus area where, as you focus, it tells you how far away the object can be and still be in focus. It goes all the way down to tenths of a foot. But on the other end is infinity. That’s right, I can focus on infinity. Silly, since I can’t see that far.

Of course I’m being facetious; any photographer worth his trade knows that focusing on infinity means that everything will be in focus from front to back. (roughly speaking, that is, because everything has to be at infinity or farther) It’s a setting most often used for landscape photography, but on this lens, it tends to be good for a few feet away.

So the reason for my question is this – let’s say I want to prefocus. I may want to do this if I know that I will be taking pictures of something at a fixed distance. I don’t want to potentially miss a picture because the focus is hunting for the right setting. This can especially be a problem if it’s dark or under certain tricky lighting conditions. So if I want to prefocus at infinity – how far should the object be? Is there a way to tell?

How My Parents are Saving the World

Inner Harbor - With Kenny - 0026

I really respect and admire my parents for what they are doing now. At a time when they should be relaxing after 24 years of parenting, they have taken on 3 foster kids – 2 of them at the last minute last week. It’s not as though my parents are trying to replace the void of their two college and one college graduate children. Originally, they just wanted to help out the world by taking care of children who needed foster parents. The system is so backed up that there are currently about 16 children with no home who spend their days at the office with the social worker. Until these children are placed into a home they cannot have normal lives. They cannot be loved, go to school, and be carefree as children should be. So my mother and father just meant to be a point of normalcy in a life thus far full of chaos. Then the child could be placed into the home of people who were unable to have kids of their own while my parents took on another child.

But now, with my mother taking classes full-time for a degree program she needs for advancement, they have accepted two more children, in order to help out a brother and sister who have been through hell.

“All very nice an well,” you may say, “but what does this have to do with saving the world?” Well, it is a proven fact (or as proven a fact as things can be concerning nature/nuture) that a child who grows up without love or who grows up being shuttled from house to house ends up becoming dislocated from society. After all, families are one of the key elements of socialization. These kids have above average odds of becoming violent criminals. So, my parents are saving the world by giving these kids love so that the rest of the world can be safe when these kids don’t become murderers, rapists, and terrorists.

And I admire then all the more because I know I’d never be able to do something like that.

God’s Debris

God’s Debris, by Scott Adams, is a total mind-blow. It is, indeed, one of the most provacative philosophy books I have read in a long time. As Adams says himself, the book is not a reflection of his opinions or necessarily of anything more than nonsense. He just took the simplest answer for the philosophical questions he poses. However modestly he begins the book, it’s clear he hasn’t fooled around. The points he presents in the book on religion, the sexes, and other topics will cause you to seriously think about your beliefs and why things are the way they are on this earth. Especially poingnant is his chapter on Holy Land when we have so many groups fighting each other on account of Holy Land.

I’d like to share my favorite part of the book. A conversation is taking place between a sage old man and a delivery man, who is our main character and speaks in the first peson.

“Has anyone advised you to be yourself?”

I said I’d heard that a lot.

“What does it mean to be yourself?” he asked. “If it means to do what you think you ought to do, then you’re doing that already. If it means to act like you’re exempt from society’s influence, that’s the worst advice in the worl; You’d probably stop bathing and wearing clothes. The advice to ‘be yourself’ is obvious nonsense. But our minds accept this tripe as wisdom becase it is more comfortable to believe we have a strategy for life than to believe we have no idea how to behave.”

Just that one little section caused me to pause reading and contemplate what had just been said. The phrase it used so much it’s a cliche we really don’t even believe too much, but people keep on saying it! What can one be but him or herself? What does it mean to not be yourself? Just because you are acting out of character does not mean that you are not acting as yourself, because then who are yo acting as? You are acting the way that you act in these situations or the way you have chosen to act this time. If you reply that to be yourself is to always act the same way, then you are asking for a false lunacy. Are you saying that I should act the same way irrespective of who the characters are? That whether I’m dealing with an old lady or a sex offender that my response should be the same? The more you think about it, the more the phrase just annoys you because of how nonsensical it is.

The entire book poses similar questions which really require the reader to think about long-held assumptions. I’d recommend it to anyone and it’s a pretty light read. The PDF I read was 144 pages.

Art and its role in Culture

Reading a post from Miss Izzy is like watching a Simpsons episode. The beginning has nothing to do with the end, but serves only to set up the source of conflict. While reading Sunday Digression, she moved to a topic I feel pretty strongly about, the value of art in culture. She writes:

If you think about it, nearly all the most famous modern fiction work that is set in a world after a sort of semi-apocalypse has the burning of books and the confiscation of cultural capital as the fundemental conflict between the state and the people. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Vertigo’s V for Vendetta, all of it have books being burned and the media under tight scrutiny. You’re kidding yourself if you think Art isn’t important and that I’m nothing but a cultural elitist.

Why do they burn books and eliminate all previous culture? Because they realize, as did Nazi Germany, that cultural items (art as music, literature, etc) are not only powerful expressions of what the artist was feeling, they are also the people. Part of what makes us Americans are our shared cultural expreriences. We have all seen Titanic, heard The Beatles, and read classics like Charlotte’s Web. Each of these has affected us in a slightly different way, but, as a group, in a way that anyone who hasn’t experienced our culture hasn’t been changed.

In fact, if you doubt the power of cultural experiences, why do countries as varied as France, China, and Vietnam complain about American culture stomping all over their own cultures? Because, by experiencing the cultures, they are fundamentally changed. While I don’t think that any one movie or song is powerful enough to change someone’s behavior, it is certainly reasonable to think that if American culture valued fat people, we wouldn’t have anorexia.

If you believe that last statement to be a lot of bunk, then do some research and see that in the 50s, girls were trying to get breast reductions to look like Marylyn Monroe. Now, they try to have huge breasts to look like the girls paraded on MTv.

Since culture is SO powerful, that’s why I believe so strongly in a free culture. Artists have the right to be compensated for their work, but incessant and complicated copyrighting is not the solution! By releasing their works under the Creative Commons license, they can retain the rights to making money off of their works while still allowing everyone to experience it. That’s why I release all of my artwork under a Creative Commons license. If people wish to enjoy my art or remix it into their own art, let them! I ask only the bare minimum – that I get credit as one of the sources of their work and that IF they make money, they must obtain permission from me because they must share the wealth. But if everyone wants to have the photos up on their website or print them to put up in their house or any other purpose, I don’t care. Let them enjoy my artwork and have their lives enriched by seeing it. I think that all artists should do the same and they will see how everything will work out for them. After all, if no one is making money off of your artwork what financial harm does it cost you?

A response on Good and Evil

Sarong Party Girl (SPG), who ironically does very little blogging about parties, wrote this hasty article, tackling an issue she talks about a lot – relativism and good & evil. The key point of her post, which has been a theme in some of her other posts is:

At the end, whatever we do, there will never be more good than evil, and good can never triumph, because from someone else’s point of view, what is good for you might not be good for him. We sympathize with the victors as history is written by them.

I won’t argue with SPG that there are many, many times where relativism is important. The Bible tells us not to steal, but would any reasonable person say that someone is evil for stealing food to feed their family? Everyone always focuses on these, the Ten Commandments as though they were the only commands God gave to Moses at the time. However, a large portion of Exodus involves God’s prescriptions for the Jewish Society as his Chosen People. In this society they were to always care for the poor and ensure that the poor were provided for. So, if they created the environment they were supposed to, the question of stealing to feed ones’ family would be moot. However, this society does not exist, so we are able to view an act of theft for the purpose of feeding a starving family as an ok thing to do. In fact, in the US, we often cheer for this character in a movie.

However, where I depart from her thinking is when SPG suggests that there are no absolutes, that what is good for one can be bad for another. I can certainly think of quite a few situations where evil truly exists. Take, for example, the raping of someone. I cannot think of any possible justification for a rape. How could a rape be good for the rapist (in the sense of good vs evil – not in terms of pleasure) or for society at large? Another example of a purely evil situation would be the murder of someone else when the murder serves no purpose. Say, for example, a murder for the pleasure of murdering. This cannot possibly be justified either.

As far as

In nature, no one calls the predator evil; the lioness hunts out of necessity, but not all the deer are caught. The lioness is never evil though, and we don’t say good has triumph because the majority of the prey manage to escape and the casualties are few.

this is obvious because animals do not have a conscious. A concept of good an evil, as I understand it, involves for the individuals involved to understand the concept of good an evil.

Things that make you believe…(part 1)

Just a quick thought that I may elaborate on later (hence the part 1). Some may just call it coincidence, but days like this further my belief in God. Out of the blue I think that perhaps I should just try my server again, after trying EVERYTHING when I first moved in. Now it suddenly works! I feel God put that idea in my head. Thank you.

Thanks again God

Well, I can’t get into too many details at this time because of professionalism, but I had been praying for certain things to happen in my future and they had occurred! I know we’re not supposed to make deals with God, but I did promise that if He delivered that I would share it with the whole world. I am VERY happy today and my life is now a little less infinite than it was a couple of weeks ago! I’m so happy I can barely contain it!

[the field of] Infinite Potential

I’m free flowing my writing tonight. We’ll see how much sense it makes. My dad has encouraged me to listen to Deepak Chopra. He is a western medicine educated Indian who beecame disillusioned with the poor success rates of western medicne. Determined to fuse the best of the West and East he went back to his native country to study the medical practices there. The final result is a fondue of Western Medicine, Quantum Mechanics, ancient Indian teachings, and Eastern Medicine. His books are part motivational and part practical. Sometimes they just offer plain and simple advice – eating such and such a food with such and such a quantity is shown to reduce the chance of disease X. Other times they are more metaphysical in nature.

One topic which permeates is the concept of the field of pure potentiality or infinite potential. This has a Quantum Mechanical meaning and a metaphysical meaning, but they are both different sides of the same coin. Quantum Mechanics says that this field is the source of all of the energy in the universe and that all objects are linked through it. A chair is the energy vibrating at one energy level while a human is another vibration. I wrote about this long ago in Eric’s Binary World 1.0. The metaphysical meaning is that the field of pure potentiality is another manifestation of God because God is the source of all energy. At any rate, by accessing the field of pure potentiality one is able to unlease their true destiny and infinite potential as a “spiritual being with ocassional physical experience.”

Right now I feel as if *I* am the field of infinite potentiality. Like Schrodinger’s cat we don’t know yet if I’ve been fed or not. (killed or not – depending on the version you read) Right now there are an infinite number of future paths for me when I graduate from Cornell. There are an infinite amount of paths because I have yet to choose one. Once I choose one, I have one path and all others cease to exist. Think of it as a highway system where once you transfer to another highway (say from I-80 to I-95) you cannot go back. It does not mean that there will not be future opportunities to switch highways, but all the ones you did not choose are forever lost. I have no idea where I’ll be once I graduate other than the USA. Each job I have applied to and am waiting for answers from is in a completely different place. I might be in DC, Arizona, Florida, NYC, or NY State. I might have a more technical job or a more managerial job. Right now I have absolutely no idea. I know where I want to be in a few years, but I have no idea where I’ll be in three months. It’s a very weird feeling.

It’s these infinite possibilities which make it so hard to plan for the future. To plan for the future implies some certainty about future events. Without this certainty, it becomes impossible to plan. For example, what is the best strategy for moving my stuff out of college? It all depends on where I am. If I’m in Florida then my parents may want to drive up with vans. If I’m in DC, they can just fly up and rent some vehicles here. If I’m in Ariona…well, I have no idea what that would bring.

This is such a unique time in my life. I had many choices to make in the past, but life was mostly linear, like a video game RPG. They can build in a few little things here and there to make each experience slightly unique, but you still have to do certain events in certain orders to save the world. I knew I had to get into a good college and so my life was actually pretty steady since just before I started middle school. However, now I have no idea. It may come to pass that I am given the opportunity to reduce my choices from infinity down to one or two by this week. I hope it happens.

As you know, humans can only take so much uncertainty in their lives. Pure certainty is boring – no one wants that. I certainly don’t want to know every intimate detail of the day because it’s exactly the same as the last. However, a certain degree of that certainty is necessary. I like to know that I’ll be eating between 6 and 8pm on most days. I like to know that every week day I have classes to attend. I also like uncertaintly and spontenaity such as deciding out of nowhere to drive to Syracuse. However, and I think most people feel the same way, I like my balance to be tilted in favor of certainty. Perhaps even something like 70/30 certainty to uncertainty is what I like.

I’m not afraid of anything, don’t get me wrong. I believe (and therefore know) that my God has a plan for me which will be the optimal choice for me. If I end up at company A instead of company B, there is a reason for it and that reason will be made manifest when the time is right. I simply grow weary of day after day of uncertainty.