goat monkey

Up until recently I thought I was a monkey. As it turns out, I’m a goat.

I’m talking about the Chinese lunar calendar, of course. I was born in 1980, and that’s a Monkey year. And while I don’t necessarily believe in horoscopes or zodiacs or anything like that, it always kind of made sense to me. According to the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is inquisitive, clever, and creative. People born in a Monkey year often make good scientists and engineers. They also tend to be reluctant to settle down, as they are easily bored.

I thought that described me pretty well. After all, I’m an engineer/scientist traveling the world and trying to have different adventures on every continent. I like observing people, which is also apparently a Monkey trait, and specific to Monkeys born in 1980, I’m warm-hearted and likeable.

But then I found out recently that due to my birthday being in January, I wasn’t actually born in the Monkey year. The Chinese New Year varies a little each year, and in 1980 it didn’t come until after I was born, so technically I was born in the previous year. A Goat year.

The Goat is creative and intelligent, but also insecure and most comfortable being part of a flock. Not strongly individualistic, a Goat would never volunteer for a leadership position, and is most comfortable with a stable, secure home life.

At first, I thought this didn’t sound like me at all. After all, I’ve spent more than a year on five different continents. I volunteered in Africa, went ice climbing in Scotland, horseback riding in Inner Mongolia, scuba diving in Panama, and got attacked by a cassowary in Australia. I’m a monkey, dammit! I’m adventurous and inquisitive!

Plus, monkeys are just cool.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really am a Goat, not a Monkey. Hell, I don’t even like bananas. And when I look back at how I’ve spent the past ten years of my life, it’s clear to me that I’m just a goat who has been pretending to be a monkey. After all, while I’ve hopped from continent to continent over the last decade, the first thing I do when I get to a new one is settle into a routine. I may make one or two big trips per year, but I actually am somewhat of an anxious traveler. I love seeing new things, but the travel itself is stressful to me. And while I have chased different girls on different continents, I think deep down I really have been looking for that special someone to settle down with.

So yeah, after denying my Goat nature for far too long, I’m finally ready to accept it. I want some stability in my life. A good, steady job, and a companion to share my experiences with. Plus, Goats can be pretty awesome. They’ll eat ANYTHING. Just like me.

Again, I’m not saying I necessarily believe in the zodiac stuff, but it does provide a good metaphor for my realization that I’m ready to settle down and be “normal”.

Well, as close to normal as I can approximate, anyway.


the ignoble jerkass and Vipassana meditation

Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation where you focus on your breathing and on various sensations throughout the body with the purpose of learning how to not react to them.

The ignoble jerkass is me.

I’m referring to myself as the ignoble jerkass in part due to my failure to observe Noble Silence during the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I recently went on. But I’m also calling myself that for other reasons which I will get to shortly.

Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is available at various meditation centers all over the world. There are courses of varying length for experienced practitioners, but the course for beginners is always 10 days. That’s apparently the minimum amount of time for someone to learn the basics of the technique.

Either that or it’s just a nice round number they picked at random.

A friend of mine from the Peace Corps was the one who recommended I do it. He and I went through a lot of the same things while we were in Africa; stress, fixating on things, obsessing about things, and so on. He went on a retreat in America and apparently got a lot of benefit from it, and suggested I could do the same.

Initially I was reluctant. I was afraid it would turn me into a liberal hippy douchebag with no sense of humor, or worse, that it would somehow make me lose interest in writing or take away my creativity. Of course these fears are not rational, but I’m not exactly the most rational person to begin with, so what can I do.

Fortunately for me there’s a nice big Vipassana meditation center just outside of Melbourne, and that’s where I went. Seven other guys joined me there, and around 12 or 15 girls. We were segregated pretty much the whole time, and after the first evening we were instructed to observe Noble Silence, which meant no talking whatsoever until day 10.

This was hard for me. Especially when my roommate in the dorms stepped on my glasses on day 1. My first new pair of glasses in almost 10 years, crushed and broken. I had honestly meant to observe the Noble Silence strictly, but I couldn’t help letting out an “Awww…” when that happened. Still, the worst part was that I couldn’t even tell the guy that I didn’t actually care that much, which left him wondering for the remaining 9 days whether I was pissed off at him.

Out of the 8 of us guys, 3 left within the first few days. I have to admit I briefly considered leaving, but what stopped me was the realization that no matter what, I didn’t want to go back to how I was feeling before. I needed some kind of change in my life—or at least in my outlook.

And that’s what I got. Vipassana meditation is simply about training your brain to be aware of the sensations you experience but not react to them with craving or aversion. There’s nothing magical or spiritual about it; it’s like learning a new language or a musical instrument. But like both of those things, it requires a lot of practice. The purpose of the 10-day retreat is not to cure you of all that ails you, but rather it’s simply about giving you the tools you need to cure yourself over time.

It also provides a lot of insight into what’s wrong with you. In my case it showed me just how much of a profoundly negative asshole I really am, and how destructive this is to me, to the people around me, and to my relationships with them. And it was fascinating to just sit and observe my thought patterns as I tried to focus my attention on my breathing. Goenka referred to the restless mind as a monkey jumping from branch to branch.

I think my monkey has rabies.

Another interesting aspect of this meditation is that as you stop reacting to stimuli with craving or aversion, your old reaction patterns start coming to the surface. And as long as you don’t react to them, they’ll fade away as well. I experienced a lot of really intense emotions as this happened. On day 3 it was frustration, on day 6 anger, on day 7 lust (don’t ask), and on day 9 anxiety. And no, I can’t say I’m completely free from all of these things now, but it does feel like the dial has been turned down a bit.

Another interesting aspect of the course was that starting on day 4 or 5 (I can’t remember which) we were expected to practice Determined Sitting for one hour, 3 times a day. That might not be what they called it (we weren’t allowed writing materials so I’m doing this from memory), but the point was to sit without moving anything for one hour. If this sounds easy, try it yourself. If you’re like me and have a lot of muscle tension anyway, sitting in one position becomes excruciating after about 45 minutes. The idea is that you’re supposed to train yourself to treat this discomfort as just another physical sensation and not react to it, but that’s easier said than done. The whole point of the retreat was to stop having cravings or aversions, but after about day 5 I started developing an aversion to the meditation hall itself. Because that’s where the Pain happens.

Still, it was totally worth it. I may not be enlightened now, but I feel like I have the tools I need to gradually improve myself over time. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll no longer be a negative asshole or an ignoble jerkass.

But don’t hold your breath.

girl having sex with elephant

WordPress doesn’t tell me who specifically is visiting my blog, but the stats page does tell me what search engine terms people are using to find it. And the most common one, by far, is some variation of “girl having sex with elephant”.

Seriously. Although once it was “me having sex with elephant”. Maybe that one was the girl all the rest are looking for.

The reason this search query brings people to my blog is because I wrote a post I called the elephant in the room (and me trying to have sex with it), and for the meta tags I used keywords like “elephant sex” and “pachyderms”. Meta tags are how webpages are indexed on the internet, and help match keywords users type into search engines with appropriate webpages. At least, that’s how I think it works. I don’t actually know for sure. What I do know is that if you type girl having sex with elephant into Google without quotes, there’s over five million results. And my blog is the ninth one.

I always figured I’d be noteworthy for something one day. I just never thought it would be elephant sex.

The reason I’m mentioning this now is because as of today, I’ve been on Twitter for a week. And as a result, I really just feel like fucking with people on the internet right now.

I still hate Twitter. Twitter is basically like an unending series of Facebook status updates, except from people I really don’t care about. Oh yeah, and a lot of them are constantly trying to sell me something. “Buy my book!” “Visit my webpage (where you can buy my book)!” “Check out my interview (about my book, which you can buy on my website)!”

You know what? No. Fuck that noise. Yes, I understand that people only have 140 characters to work with, but I hate being told what to do. When I see “Buy my book!” the first thing that pops into my head is “No. Fuck you.” I don’t actually say it, or even type it, but that’s the general response I have to that sort of thing.

That said, I will admit that I’ve connected with some pretty cool people on Twitter.  But these were people who actually started a conversation with me, rather than just trying to sell me something. And yeah, in the case of one guy I did end up buying his book because he just seemed like such a cool person, but he also bought mine and his was 99 cents while mine is $2.99, so I won that round.

I do understand the marketing potential of Twitter. I’ve been posting on this blog once a week for over a year now, and it averages nine unique hits a day. I’m assuming eight of those are my mom clicking obsessively, but still. Yet in just the week that I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve been posting links to my Videlicet Productions blog and it’s now averaging eight unique hits a day, and there’s only like three posts on there. And no elephant sex. So posting links on Twitter really does work.

The thing is, I know exactly what I need to do to really be successful, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I simply can’t pretend to be interested in other people’s crap that I really don’t care about. So instead I’ve just been having fun with people who share my weird sense of humor. Another author did a ‘flash’ interview of me on Twitter, and it quickly went horribly, horribly wrong. I also co-founded TweetCliffNotes, where we write book summaries based on poor recollections of books read 5-10 years ago in 140 characters or less (for example, WAR AND PEACE: “Oh no, the French! Aww crap I’m dead. The other guy gets married.”)

I’ve got a collection of short stories I plan to release early next month, but after seeing all the annoying crap other people do to promote their work, I just can’t bring myself to go that route. In fact, here’s the cover I designed for it:

yeah, this is seriously what I'm going withA lot of people have told me how important it is to have a decent cover, but I honestly think the quality of the cover should reflect the quality of the writing contained within.  And in this case, I think I hit it pretty much right on. But as my writing improves, I plan on having better and better covers for my books.

Obviously by “better” I mean “designed by someone other than me.”

You might be wondering who Sander Crane is. Well, Sander Crane is the pen name of an individual who doesn’t want his real name associated with these stories in any way, and that’s all I can say about that.

So will using this cover hurt my sales? Almost certainly. But it’s more important to me that the quality of the cover reflect the quality of the stories, so I’m going to go ahead and roll with it. But I am thinking my next project will be SmallGalaxy.

SmallGalaxy is the story of a football-size spaceship crewed by sentient cockroaches (which makes a lot of sense, if you stop and think about it), and I guarantee you it’s the greatest story about cockroaches ever. I say this with a pretty high degree of confidence considering my biggest competition is the delightful 1996 film Joe’s Apartment. I think it would be funny to write it, have a fantastic cover designed, get everyone on Twitter to ‘like’ it on Facebook and write 5-star reviews on Amazon, until the inevitable day that someone actually reads it and goes, “Wait a minute, this story is about cockroaches??!! Plus it really sucks.”

And then they will know how I feel.

growth and maturity

Today I want to write about growth and maturity. Not in an economic or financial sense, because I really don’t have much personal knowledge or experience with any of that, but rather in an individual sense; the growth and maturity of an individual.

Of course I don’t have a lot of personal knowledge or experience with that either, obviously, but I’m going to write about it anyway.

Apparently, some people out there are of the opinion that men today are not very mature. For example, this silly bint claims that men today in their 20s are in some sort of lamentable post-adolescent but pre-adult phase where they would rather play video games and hang out with their friends than have a so-called “traditional” life.

Which of course is pretty stupid. Stupid that she considers it lamentable, I mean.

Because so what if guys want to actually enjoy themselves? What she fails completely to mention is how many of these guys are gainfully employed. Because yeah, if they’re just living in their parents’ basement and being human leeches, she probably has a point. But if these guys are hard-working and taking care of themselves and their obligations, she really has no right to object to how they spend their spare time.

Well, if you look closely, what she’s really criticizing is the fact that these guys don’t seem to be interested in getting married. That seems to be her single criteria for “maturity”.

As a 31-year-old who has absolutely no intention of getting married any time soon, I find that pretty funny. Because I know myself pretty well, and I know for a fact that I am definitely not in a good position—emotionally or financially—to get married any time in the near future, and for me to marry someone now would actually be an extremely immature and irresponsible thing for me to do.

Which is why I proposed to a hot 21-year-old girl a couple of weeks ago. But that’s a whole nother story.

For what it’s worth, I don’t consider myself to be particularly mature. But I also don’t have any desire to be mature. I especially don’t have any desire to conform to someone else’s definition of maturity. I do, however, consider myself to be reasonably responsible. I always try to take responsibility for myself and my actions, and I generally do my best to not excessively inconvenience others with my immature antics. And yeah, I don’t exactly go out of my way to take on additional responsibilities, but I don’t shirk the ones I do have either.

But while I may not be particularly interested in maturity, I am interested in growth. Spiritual and intellectual growth, and the continuous expansion of my knowledge and experience. I have great plans for the places I want to visit, and the books I want to read, but I can’t help but observe that there’s a very specific chunk of human experience that I may end up missing out on, and as I get older the odds of me missing out on it forever are only going to increase.

Then again, sneaking into the UN building and rearranging all the countries so the representatives of the ones that hate each other have to sit next to each other and then run away before security catches me is kind of a stupid goal anyway.

There’s also the thought of getting married and having children. Because I have absolutely no doubt that I would experience a whole heckova lot of personal growth, and gain a lot of human experience, if I were to do either of both of those things. Hopefully in that order, too.

And I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good or bad thing, but I think a lot of men around my age aren’t experiencing this because they’re not forced to. With the increase in the variety and prevalence of birth control, along with the decrease in weapon-toting fathers, we’re seeing a lot less unexpected and unwanted pregnancies, and by extension a lot less shotgun weddings. So guys like me are no longer compelled against our will to “grow up” and “take responsibility” and all that other crap.

I can’t help but wonder if by not getting married and starting a family I’ve simply exchanged personal growth for a sort of hollow and empty freedom. Unfortunately, the only way for me to know for sure would be to get married and impregnate my wife, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to do that until I’m absolutely sure that I’m ready.

Plus, you know, I’d still have to find someone I actually want to marry—and who wants to marry me.

Still, despite my worry that I’m missing out on something profound, as an abstract concept I do not find marriage the slightest bit appealing. And I mean this in the kindest way possible, but all the wifey/mommy comments I see on Facebook only serve to cement this feeling. Because while I am absolutely and genuinely thrilled by the happiness my friends are experiencing, every single comment serves to confirm that it’s not something I want for myself.

At least not at the moment.

I was in love once. Well, I thought I was, anyway. Back in 2003 I proposed marriage to the girl of my dreams. Well, actually I just told her I was thinking about asking her to marry me, in order to gauge her reaction, but that’s not the point. The point is, while they were never things I’d wanted before, suddenly I wanted to get married because I wanted to marry her, and I wanted children because I wanted to have children with her. So yeah, marriage as a concept doesn’t appeal to me, but I have no doubt that if I got together with the right girl I’ll feel differently.

On the other hand, when I think about all the stuff I would’ve missed out on over the past eight years if I’d gotten married in 2003, I am so fucking glad that girl flew out of my life before I had the chance to do something really stupid. Even more stupid, I mean.

And yeah, I mean that literally. A couple of weeks after I asked her to marry me, she left the continent. Not the town, or even the country, but the freaking continent.

A simple “no” would’ve been sufficient.

why Libya?

Quite a few of my Chinese friends have asked me why America is attacking Libya right now.

Yeah, that’s how they phrased it.

There’s basically three ways for me to respond to this: 1) Repeat the president’s official justification, 2) Explain why I think it’s happening, and 3) Widen my eyes, point to something just behind the person asking me and say, “Holy crap! What the hell is that??!!” Then run off when they turn around to look.

I usually take option 3.

But it is interesting to see the Chinese reaction to the situation. Because for me, my first impulse is always to support the plucky freedom fighters against an authoritarian and totalitarian regime. Especially when the leader of said regime is a thoroughly unrepentant douchebag.

That’s why I support the protesters in Wisconsin, anyway.

But as far as Libya is concerned, I really liked the idea of a revolution initiated and spearheaded by the people for the purpose of overthrowing their corrupt dictator. But when it started to look like they were going to be brutally crushed unless they got some external support, I was fully in favor of said support.

The Chinese don’t really understand this. As far as they’re concerned, each country should handle its internal affairs on its own, without external interference.

Hard to imagine why they feel that way.

But aside from the, ahem, obvious reasons of self-interest, it really is a fundamental part of the Chinese cultural outlook to avoid meddling in the affairs of others as much as possible. Contrast this to the general “Yay freedom” cultural outlook Americans tend to have.

Well, depending on who happens to be in the White House, apparently.

Yeah, it seems kind of funny to me to watch various individuals accuse each other of hypocrisy due to their various stances on the current situation. After all, how does one justify supporting this current action if they condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and conversely how does one condemn this current action if they supported overthrowing Saddam?

The similarities are striking. After all, both involve attacking an oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by a malevolent dictator who has no problems with massacring his own people and could, in theory, be a threat to America or American interests and some point in the future.

Also, both have the color green on their flags.

But there are also some very important differences. For one thing, the current action in Libya is the result of a UN resolution, while the legality of the 2003 Iraq invasion is still debated. But more importantly, with Libya our help was requested, both by the rebels themselves and by the Arab League.

In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that I was strongly against the invasion of Iraq, while I’ve already mentioned that I support the current action in Libya. In my mind, this isn’t a contradiction because we’re coming to the aid of a group that has asked for our help, much like France and the Netherlands came to the aid of the American Revolutionaries when they fought the British for the right to drink coffee instead of tea and to get rid of all the superfluous vowels from our language.

Such is my understanding of the American Revolution, anyway.

Still, all this really proves is that human beings are good at rationalizing things. I would love to see a stable and democratic Libya allied with the United States in the future, but that outcome is by no means guaranteed. And I can’t pretend that America is doing this for purely altruistic reasons. After all, if we really cared so much about the lives of innocent civilians, why did we do nothing to prevent—or even mitigate—the staggering loss of life in the Second Congo War? Now you might argue that in the late 1940s we were just coming out of World War II and the Great Depression and were in no position to get involved in a war in Africa at that time, but if that’s your reasoning your knowledge of history is as bad as mine, because the Second Congo War started in 1998. And as of 2008, 5.4 million people have died because of it—mostly from disease and starvation. Had you even heard of it? I hadn’t until I came across the Wikipedia article while I was looking for something else.

5.4 million people, by the way, is only a little less than the current population of Libya.

So yeah, America only intervenes in conflicts when it’s convenient and in our own selfish interests, but that’s pretty much true for every country. After all, China doesn’t exactly continue to unconditionally support North Korea because they just love their wacky antics so much. But at the end of the day, I still support the action in Libya, even if it is a little hypocritical of me to do so. I really hope it ends up being a positive step for both the people of Libya, and the perception of America in the world.

For a much better analysis from a much brighter and funnier guy, I highly recommend Scott Adam’s post on the same topic.


An Italian friend of mine suggested I write about my “Italianity” and all the efforts of my Italian friends to transform me via the wonders of really good Italian coffee, football, Italian politics, and the nuances of certain phrases in the Italian language.

There’s really only one way for me to respond to this: Mi hai preso per un coglione??!!

I prefer to regard people as individuals rather than as a set of stereotypes, but I have to admit that there is a certain set of characteristics that all of my Italian friends seem to share; their “Italianity”, if you will.

For starters, all of my female Italian friends are freaking gorgeous. Seriously. Now I’m sure that unattractive Italian women exist out there somewhere, but all the ones I’ve met have been smoking hot. In fact, as I was finishing my PhD the first place I looked for postdocs was Italy. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any in computational biochemistry, but that’s probably for the best since if I were constantly surrounded by Italian belli ragazze, I most certainly wouldn’t have gotten a whole lot of work done.

Not that I’m getting a whole lot of work done here in Beijing when I’m surrounded by hot Chinese girls, but I digress.

Another thing all my Italian friends have in common is a pure passion for life. Whether it’s good food, great coffee, football, or Italian politics, their commitment to quality consumption, quality fun, and quality discussion is truly admirable. And their enthusiasm is pretty infectious. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re surrounded by a bunch of happy Italians having a good time.

And then, of course, there’s Italian men. I’ve never seen an Italian guy be shy or insecure around a woman, and all of my male Italian friends seem to be able to talk about how great they are without coming off as arrogant assholes. Seriously, if there was one Italian characteristic I could emulate, that would be it.

Unfortunately I think it must be genetic, because even my American friend of Italian ancestry seems to have inherited this trait.

It’s impossible for me to capture, distill, and describe the essence of Italianity in a single blog post, but I can’t deny the effect my Italian friends have had on me. If nothing else, they’ve always helped me to not take life and whatever problems I happen to be facing so seriously, and they’ve shown me the joys of the Italian outlook on life. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Si lavora e si fatica per il pane e per la fica….

scientific opinion

Ideally, there should be no such thing as “scientific opinion”. Because science by definition is a process of gaining knowledge through observation and experimentation, and relies entirely on empirical evidence. No opinions needed. But because scientists are human (at least as far as we know) and humans are inherently irrational creatures, opinions, politics, and emotions inevitably get thrown into the mix.

Take Global Warming for example. The consensus among scientists is that Global Warming (now known as Global Climate Change, since not every place will necessarily get warmer) is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that’s just, like, their opinion, man. I mean, who cares what a bunch of nerds who spend all their time in labs and in front of computers and have no idea what the real world is like think, right? I mean, just look at England right now. They’re having like the coldest winter in years. That tells you everything you need to know, right?

Well, no. The fact is, there are mountains of data indicating that Global Climate Change is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that doesn’t mean that Global Climate Change itself is a fact. It’s simply the theory that best describes the available evidence.

And that’s how science works. Science doesn’t really provide “facts” in the strictest sense, but what it does is attempt to explain natural phenomena using repeatable experiments and verifiable evidence. Unfortunately, human beings in general aren’t really wired to accept this. The most scientifically honest statement would be, “The theory that Global Climate Change is real—and caused by humans—is the theory that best explains the available evidence.” But that’s not good enough for a lot of people. The most common response to this type of statement is, “Yeah, but that’s just a theory.” Unfortunately, that’s all science really has. In an ideal world, it would be enough. In this world, it isn’t.

The biggest failure as far as “scientific opinion” is concerned is the ability to get the message out in a way that people can understand and accept. After all, why should we care about the opinions of a bunch of stupid scientists? I don’t, and I am a scientist. I have a PhD in Complicated Blargamawhatsis (Computational Biochemistry), but that doesn’t mean that people should automatically trust my opinion about things. Anyone who’s met me personally or read any other post on this blog can attest to that. But seriously, scientific consensus is essentially meaningless. Either the evidence is there, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, the opinion of some random guy shouldn’t carry more weight just because he has a PhD in HeylookatmeI’mascientistorsomething.

But that’s just my opinion.

Still, it is pretty interesting to look at things from the perspective of a scientist. For one thing, it’s funny sometimes to see journalists try and explain scientific topics to non-scientist readers. Often they do a pretty good job, but there are some subtleties that I think people should be aware of.

For example, when you read about some new scientific breakthrough, and the journalist mentions that the work was recently published (or soon will be published) in Science or Nature or even PLoS, it’s usually a good sign that the work is legitimate. However, if the journalist mentions that the research is unpublished, you should be a bit skeptical.

Because when a paper is published in a reputable scientific journal, it has to go through the process of Peer Review. Peer Review is not the same as scientific opinion, because with Peer Review a fellow scientist who is an expert in the field checks the work and makes sure that the evidence is sound, and the conclusions are reasonable based on the evidence presented.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, human emotions and opinions and irrationalities do come into play.

Recently a friend and colleague of mine found a paper in a scientific journal that is clearly and demonstrably wrong. I won’t bore you with the details (you’re welcome), but basically the authors made a fundamental mistake. I’m not exactly sure how this paper managed to make it past Peer Review, but it may be because the primary author is a Big Guy in the field, and unfortunately the work from Big Guys often doesn’t get as rigorously scrutinized as it should. So yeah, sometimes bad science does make it through Peer Review. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.

Fortunately, there is a remedy. My friend (a fellow postdoc in my research group) wrote a comment paper pointing out the mistakes in the original paper. This is a generally accepted practice, because despite the danger of Big Guys getting their feelings hurt, most scientists will acknowledge that it’s really not very helpful to have incorrect science published as reputable science without anyone challenging it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. My friend asked me to be coauthor on the paper. Partly, I assume, because English is my first language, but I think it’s also partly because he believes having a Western name on the paper will help it carry more weight. And it really shouldn’t be that way—the arguments should speak for themselves—but that’s the way it is. And if that’s not bad enough, our boss doesn’t want his name on the paper because it could hurt him in the future if he wants to publish a paper and this Big Guy happens to be one of the reviewers. Again, it really shouldn’t work this way, but that’s how it is.

Fortunately, I really don’t care about my future in science.

The funny thing is, I’ve sort of been on the opposite side of this. I just finished writing a chapter for a computational chemistry textbook. The publisher, an American company, asked my boss to write it because he’s an expert (a Big Guy) in this particular field, and my boss asked me to write it because, well, English is my first language. And yeah, my boss is an expert on this topic, but I didn’t even know the topic existed before I started writing the chapter. But still, I figured it would be ok since it would be going through Peer Review, and some other expert will be catching any mistakes I made.

Or not. Yeah, apparently the publishers decided that since my boss is such a big expert, the chapter didn’t need to go through Peer Review. It’s already been accepted for publication. So basically, any mistakes I made are going to be taken by others as fact, and dutifully followed as such.


And yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, this entire blog post was my way of saying, “Hey, look at me, I wrote a book chapter for a chemistry textbook and it got published!”

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??!!


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.