keep it simple

A wise professor once told me, If you don’t publish your research you might as well have not done it in the first place. Because what good is it if no one knows about it? Well, I’d actually take it one step further and say that if you can’t make other people understand what you’ve done, you might as well have not done it. Because even published papers need to be readable and understandable to other scientists at the very least, or there’s no way to determine if the results of the experiment are meaningful. And this isn’t just applicable to science. In math, business, law, medicine, philosophy, and even politics, it is critical that you keep your message as simple and as understandable as possible.

Unless you’re trying to take over the world, or something. In that case you should never explain what you evil plan is or how your doomsday device works until after you’ve already succeeded. Movies, cartoons, and comic books have taught me that.

But seriously, the world we live in is becoming increasingly complex, which means the need to be able to simplify things is becoming increasingly important, so that the public in general can make informed decisions about issues that are relevant to our entire species, and by extension to the rest of Life on our planet as well.

At least until my doomsday device is ready, anyway. After that it won’t really matter what the rest of you think about anything.

I mean…..what?

Back when I was living in England, I visited Newgrange with my parents. Newgrange is a 5,000-year-old Neolithic site in Ireland where they did…stuff. Basically it’s like Stonhenge, but in Ireland. And completely different. Regardless, what really struck me was when our guide mentioned that the people who built Newgrange had the exact same intellectual capacity we have today. In fact, the main difference between them back then and us here now is that in order to figure out when the winter solstice was back then, they had to sit around for years staring up at the sky, while we can just Google it.

Also, I bet we could totally kick their asses. And completely scare the crap out of them with our cell phones.

The point is, we really haven’t evolved that much in the past 5,000 years, and the only thing that separates us from our ancestors is the knowledge that we’ve accumulated during that time. And the fact that we’ve killed off pretty much every other animal on the planet that could pose a serious threat to us. But as our knowledge and the complexity of our daily lives increases, it is critical that we keep things as simple and accessible as possible to as many people as possible, so we don’t end up destroying the planet. Or electing Sarah Palin.

Which is basically the same thing.

A good friend of mine came to Beijing this last weekend. He’s a process engineer for Intel. I’m a computational biochemist. And we can pretty much talk to each other about our work on a scientific level. But neither of us is stupid enough to try and explain to our families or other non-science people exactly what it is that we do. He tells people he makes computer chips. I tell people I design cures for cancer. Neither of these things is exactly true in the strictest sense, but it’s more useful, more meaningful, and more relevant information is conveyed than if he simply tells people that he’s a process engineer. Or if I tell people that I’m a computational chemist.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: the meaningful transfer of useful and relevant information is CRITICAL if we are to continue to advance and thrive as a species.

Also, I like boobs.

Honestly though, I find it so bizarre that so many otherwise intelligent people seem almost utterly incapable of simplifying their arguments. Like lawyers who constantly cite obscure legal cases and spout phrases in a dead Romance language. Seriously, these guys need to understand that in some circumstances it’s just not appropriate to whip out your little Latin. And I’m speaking from experience here. Or doctors who insist on using medical jargon in daily conversations. Hell, even mathematicians and philosophers are guilty of this; quoting obscure dead people and theorems to support their argument when no one else knows what the hell they’re talking about.

By the way, I’m not talking about anyone I know personally here. Because I do have doctor and lawyer friends, and they’re not the ones I’m thinking about. No, who I’m talking about, obviously, is people on the internet. Because the pontificous douchbaggery of the internet quite literally knows no bounds.

Case in point: this blog.

Really though, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people use obscure jargon from their professional field to try and win an argument on the internet. And I don’t know if they think it makes them look smart or something, but it really, really doesn’t. I mean, when it comes down to it, knowing a lot of jargon and fancy equations is a sign of intelligence, but knowing when it’s appropriate to use them is a sign of wisdom.

And wisdom is something we really need right now. I mean, we’ve got Global Climate Change, the Financial Crisis, Fundamentalist Terrorist Douchebags, Poverty, Fox News, and Health Care Reform just to name a few, and I think these are all issues that we technically have enough information to solve, but we’re just not getting the right information out there to the right people in the right way. After all, the Protestant Reformation in Europe was one of the fundamental turning points in Western history because suddenly everyone had access to the Bible and was thus free to interpret it how they saw fit. Yeah, it was still available before that, but only if you could read Latin. Which for most people meant they were stuck relying on a few talking heads from the Church to tell them what was moral and what was immoral.

I really think we need something similar today. Because there is just so much information out there, it’s hard for non-experts to understand it all or even know when someone is trying to sucker them. I think teaching more critical thinking in schools would be a good start, but I also think the burden should be on professionals to report what they do in a simple, honest, and clear way.

Of course, none of you guys will have to worry about that once my….I mean….um….

Hey, what’s that over there??!!



The Alfred Award

I’m sure by now everyone is aware of the latest Alfred Award winners. After all, it’s hard to not get excited about a Prize given out in honor of the guy who invented dynamite.

As least for me it is. But I’m easily excited. By things that explode.

But what particularly interests me and the people I work with is the fact that one of the winners this year was a Chinese guy. And yeah, I think pretty much everyone I work with dreams of one day winning the Alfred Award in chemistry or medicine, but it seems to have caused a bit of a stir over here that this particular guy won the one given out for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and that other thing.

By the way, if you think I’m just trying to be cute here, I assure you that this is not the case. Well, it’s not the only reason, anyway. No, the reason for the not-so-cleverly disguised phrasing is that the Chinese government really doesn’t like people talking about this. It’s not mentioned in any newspapers, if you mention it on your blog your blog gets blocked, and I heard if you even write the guy’s name in an email, your email gets deleted. And then you get deleted.

I’m just kidding about that last part. Seriously, Chinese government people who monitor the internet, I’m only joking around here, of course.

Please don’t hurt me.

But this whole issue really does bring to light a fundamental difference between China and the West. And I’m not just talking about chopsticks or delicious food here. Or their incredibly hard to learn language. Or their constant drive to better themselves. Or the fact that I should just get on with it.


What I’m talking about is a difference in philosophy regarding how to treat other countries. See, when China wants to do business with another country, they just do that. Business, I mean. They exchange goods and services for money, or whatever, and leave it at that. They don’t try to force their morals or belief system on the other country. Of course, America never ever does that either, so I guess we’re the same in that respect.

But while a lot of Chinese people aren’t happy with the government, they’re also not too happy with the West trying to tell the Chinese government what it can or can’t do. Look at it this way: suppose you decided to do business with someone, and then suddenly they start telling you what you can or can’t do with your sex life. I know that’s not a great analogy (I suck at analogies), but unless you’re a prostitute, the person you’re doing business with really doesn’t get much of a say in who you have sex with. Again, I’m not saying this is a good analogy, but in a way this really is how a lot of Chinese people see it. Internal problems are just that—internal. They really don’t want ignorant Westerners poking their noses into their private affairs and telling them what they can or can’t do.

[Alright Chinese government guys, I typed it just like you told me to. Can I go home now?]

Of course, as a Westerner I can see the West’s side of things too. I mean, the guy who won does seem like a pretty cool person. All he wants is personal freedom, democratic elections, and government accountability. Hell, he’d fit right in with America’s temperament today. And while he’s been fighting against the government for decades now, he’s always done so nonviolently.

Ok, so maybe he wouldn’t fit in so well in America.

Here’s another interesting thing: the guy in the cubicle next to me at work actually participated in that big square dance-off back in 1989. I was pretty amazed when he told me about it. He was a student at the time, and he was right there in the thick of it. He actually participated in one of the defining moments of his generation. I thought that was pretty damn cool. I asked him how he managed to not get arrested.

His answer: “Well, there were hundreds of thousands of us.”

Ah. Fair enough.

So I asked him what the worst thing about the Chinese government was. His answer: that he’s not free…to start his own newspaper.

Seriously? That’s it? That’s the worst thing about the oppressive dictatorship fascist evil communist government?

Apparently. And that’s pretty much why we haven’t seen another square dance-off in recent years. Because the fact is, while the government is indeed corrupt and controls the media, if people are willing to work hard and keep their heads down and not make a big fuss, they can still find the opportunity to make a pretty good life for themselves. And that’s pretty much what’s keeping people in check right now. It’s just not worth for most people it to throw your whole life away just so you can run your own newspaper.

When the award was first announced, I found plenty of English-language sites that had the story, which means that anyone who could read English could have found it as well. In fact, everyone in my lab was talking about it for a while…but mostly because one of the guys happened to have the same name as the prizewinner. Apparently they care, but they don’t care that much. They’d be way more interested if the winner had been in chemistry or medicine. Because again, their lives are good enough that it’s just not worth it to risk everything for some vague concepts like “democracy” and “press freedom”.

Huh. I checked just now, and while it wasn’t like this before, now all Google searches for the guy are blocked, and even his Wikipedia entry is inaccessible. So maybe I’m not being paranoid after all. Regardless, it really would be unfathomably stupid of me to just come right out and say that Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize when it’s ridiculously easy for me to get my meaning across without doing so directly.

Wait a minute.

What it means to be a woman

I have absolutely no idea.

I think if I had even the tiniest understanding of women, I’d probably be married by now. Or gay. Definitely one of those two. But all I can really say for sure about what it means to be a woman is that it probably has something to do with having two X chromosomes. And a vagina. And ovaries. And having more estrogen. And boobs. And probably some other things too.

Since I don’t really fit any of that criteria, I don’t really feel qualified to talk about what it means to be a woman. And yeah, I could talk about what it means to be a woman from a man’s perspective, but I think there’s enough of that on the internet already.

I can’t help thinking it’s funny though when a man complains about how annoying, or bitchy, or stupid women in general are. I find it funny because most of the things they complain about are annoying things that people do. Not just women. The guys who make these complaints just don’t get pissed off when men do those things because they’re not trying to have sex with men.

And when I say “the guys who make these complaints” what I really mean is “me”. Because I am a bitter, bitter bastard.

I’m bitter because I’ve had some unpleasant experiences with women in the past. And while I feel that certain women have been deliberately deceitful and manipulative towards me, in the end that’s nothing more than my own personal interpretation of how things went. I’m sure if you asked the women in question they’d have completely different stories to tell.

The thing is, most of my unpleasant experiences with women were due to me not following my own guidelines for how to be a man. But since I’m such a big believer in taking responsibility for my actions, in the end I have to admit that I have no one to blame but myself for my spectacular and epic failures with women. Regardless, while it wasn’t always funny at the time, it certainly seems funny to me now. And I definitely learned a lot.

So yeah, I’m not going to talk about what I think it means to be a woman because I’m pretty sure I’d inevitably go off on some bitter misogynist tangent, and I think there’s enough of that out there already. All I can say is that I have the privilege of knowing quite a few truly exceptional people, men and women both, and I can say without a doubt that anyone who says that all men are bad, or all women are bad, is dumb.

Also, I like boobs.

What it means to be a man

This post is dedicated entirely to my dad, because whenever I think about what it means to be a man, the first person I think of is him. Also, I’m pretty sure he’s the one responsible for my somewhat ‘unusual’ sense of humor.

In more ways than one.

I should point out that these are merely the standards I try to hold myself to. I’m definitely not going to judge other people based on the criteria I came up with, well, just now because I couldn’t think of anything else to write about.

So anyway, I present to you the Critical awesomeness Operational Criteria for Knowing what it means to Be A Man (COCKBAM):

Be direct. If you want something, say so. If someone is doing something that bothers you, tell them. This doesn’t mean that you should be demanding, aggressive, whiny, or rude, but rather it simply means that you should state things in a clear and straightforward manner. And if someone doesn’t like it, tell them to go screw themselves. You can get away with that kind of talk when you’re being a Man.

Ok, that last part was a joke. But seriously, be direct.

Take responsibility for your actions. The problem with making decisions is that you are then held accountable for them, dammit. Well, that’s just part of being a Man. There’s no shame in admitting you were wrong. In fact, sometimes the best thing you can ever do is look someone in the eye and say, “Yeah, I made a mistake. Now what can I do to fix it?”

And if there were extenuating circumstances that resulted in you making a bad decision or taking an improper action, there’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. In fact, you should point it out. If you’re honest and straightforward about it, people should respect you for your Mantacity.

Unless they’re total jerks. In which case you should tell them to go screw themselves.

Have confidence in yourself and your abilities. Regardless of who you are, you should be aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what you’re capable of. Don’t be too proud of what you’re good at, or too ashamed of what you’re bad at, but know what these things are, and be confident with the things you know you can do well. Because nothing says “I’m a Man” like being able to drink an entire bottle of whiskey all by yourself and have complete confidence that you will then proceed to act like a complete asshole. Because that’s just how we roll.

Think for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with taking advice, but don’t just accept other people’s thoughts and opinions as your own without critical analysis. After all, in the end you’re the one who will have to accept ultimate responsibility for your decisions and actions, so make sure they’re truly based on what you believe to be right. Don’t take the fall for someone else’s bad ideas. Particularly any ideas you might find on this blog.

Be considerate. Men on average have more testosterone than women. That’s a fact. It makes us stronger physically, and helps us be more aggressive and direct. And while it’s extremely funny to watch women struggle with heavy things while you point out that you’re just treating them with the equality they demanded, it’s important to remember that you have physiological advantages that they lack. And they can always kick you in the junk if you laugh at them too much.

And finally,

Don’t take yourself so God Damn Seriously. This one particularly applies to me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in needing to be Right because I think someone’s insulted my character or beliefs that I actually do things that risk damaging the relationship that I have with that person. And that’s not Manly. It’s just stupid. Having good relationships with the people you care about—and who care about you in return—is far more important than being Right all the time. Besides, if someone insults you and you can turn it into a joke, that’s pretty much the best victory you could possibly have.

Punching them in the gonads is a close second.

The thing is, Men evolved over thousands of years to be a certain way, a way that maximized our chances of survival, but society has changed far too rapidly in recent years for evolution to keep up. From an evolutionary standpoint we’re still just cavemen, albeit sometimes cavemen in business suits. Like that funny commercial.

Still, because we are rational creatures (although some Women might disagree with me on that) I think we’re fully capable of emphasizing some of our positive Manly traits, like being direct and decisive, while diminishing some of our less fantastic traits, like rigid thinking, wanting to destroy or suppress anything we’re afraid of, and flying into a hulk-like rage when we think we’re being insulted.

But just don’t try to take away our football or beer. Some things are sacred.