Tag Archives: science

Avatar: The Story of North America

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Avatar is one of those movies that you just have to see. In our thousand-channel, billion-webpage universe, sometimes we need to have a collective cultural experience. The CGI is amazing. I couldn’t tell whether it was through the use of clever editing or new software tools, but the live action blended seamlessly with the animation in way I’ve never seen before. The story strikes a fine balance, incorporating enough hard science fiction ideas to inspire the visuals, but enough mythological tropes to keep the audience involved. It’s cheesy, but not too cheesy.

It is by no means a perfect movie. I would’ve liked to know why the corporation was willing to go through with genocide to get at their unobtainium (I would’ve called in macguffinite myself). This is a movie more about spectacle than nuance. But as the success of District 9 has shown us, there is room for intellectual SF movies as well as the booming blockbusters. Avatar has been an easy target for internet snark ever since the first trailers came out, but I find I part ways with the critics when they start talking about the film’s racist/mysoginist/ableist overtones.

I’m not going to go into every political grievance against this film. Even anti-smokers are getting into the game. Yes, Avatar is essentially “Dances With Wolves” in space, but that doesn’t make it white supremacist literature. People respond to this story, especially in North America because it is, in essence, their story. Most societies on the Western Hemisphere are here because of political edicts of older, more entrenched societies in Eurasia. As time went on, we adapted to our new home and eventually broke free of our autocratic masters from across the ocean. A lot of people died or were subjugated over this period of history, but it does not change the fact that it is our story. Instead of simply decrying movies like this, we should learn why they resonate with us, and in turn learn a bit more about ourselves.

Science and Motivation

Not too long ago, Dan Pink held a very interesting TED talk on the nature of motivation. The speech is twenty minutes, so I’ll try to summarize. What business commonly assumes about motivation is wrong. Monetary or reward incentives tend to make people think more about the reward and less about the problems they are trying to solve. This philosophy took root because it was great for very simple tasks like the ones  you would find in a factory.  Unfortunately, today we live in a world where the knowledge work to design the factory is more valuable than the work that goes on inside. Providing people with the autonomy to do their own work properly provides much more motivation than a simple Christmas bonus. In fact, the introduction of such rewards can kill the creative thinking they are trying to foster.

Pink’s argument is a great example of unexamined ideas being sacrosanct even in our so-called age of rationality. There was a grain of truth to that carrot-and-stick philosophy, but when held up to scrutiny, its flaws make it impractical. You could even blame the current economic crisis on extrinsic motivation. The financial compensation offered to the captains of the financial industry may have blinded them to the fact that dealing in bad credit is no way to run a bank.

While the focus on intrinsic motivation may allow us to solve many problems, it’s something people have pondered for centuries. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.” It may be scientifically proven wisdom, but it’s wisdom nonetheless, which has a habit of being warmed over by fanaticism and repetition until it contradicts its original meaning.

Dan Pink describes extrinsic motivation as a lazy and dangerous ideology.  I know he’s trying to make the strongest point possible for a 20-minute talk on a subject that encompasses an entire book, but I can see how his words could be twisted around. What if people start to believe that no incentive is the best incentive? Monetary rewards might not work, but the other three rewards Pink talks about, autonomy, mastery, and purpose still need to be there. Lack of any compensation might interfere with those three concepts. What if we try to apply intrinsic motivation to tasks that are too simple? Can we expect people to follow and uphold the law without the extrinsic disincentives of police and prisons?

Like any other complex problem, motivation is not something achieved through glib slogans and magic bullets. Dan Pink’s research was the result of a lot of creativity, observation and hard work. We can only apply his ideas when we incorporate those qualities in ourselves.

Dr. Drew Pinsky and the Mirror Effect

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People like to complain about the weather, but no one seems to be doing anything about it. When it comes to tawdry celebrity stories about addiction, Dr. Drew takes it on the way only an actual medical doctor can.

I found out about Dr. Drew through stories told by Adam Carolla on his podcast. They both hosted a radio call in show called Loveline for 11 years. He’s also been practicing addiction medicine for over twenty years, making him one of the most knowledgeable people in the media on the subject. While most drug use critics and advocates are motivated by politics, Dr. Drew talks more about the science behind drug addiction rather than the moral posturing surrounding it. A common thread among his patients, which include some celebrities, is a high level of narcissism, which he talks about in his new book, The Mirror Effect.

Narcisissm. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? That’s the reason we’re bombarded by celebrity news, featuring empty-headed young slackers in a competition to see who can go on the worst bender, isn’t it? Well, it is, but not in the way you would think. Narcissism is not the same thing as vanity. In fact, it’s the product of intense self-loathing. People who have a high level of narcissism create a persona that is outgoing and confident to make up for their lack of self-esteem. Actually, most healthy people do this. Celebrities have high narcissism because it helps them deal with the rejection that comes with trying to be an actor or a musician. It becomes a problem when it divorces people from reality. Narcissistic people turn to drugs, sexual promiscuity, and other dangerous behavior in order to cope with their lack of self esteem and any other trauma they might have. The mirror effect the book refers to is the concern that the pervasiveness of celebrity bad behavior will serve as modeling behavior to people with high narcissism, including children and young adults. Narcissism is not necessarily the cause of these problems, but it does increase the severity and scale of them.

If there is one thing that I took away from Dr. Drew’s book, it’s that addictive behavior is an extremely complex psychological problem. Each individual’s path to recovery is different, and it’s achieved through slow, incremental changes. I’ve also been listening to Dr. Drew’s new radio show as a podcast on iTunes. One of the things that he said that really stuck with me was that a patient’s prognosis for cancer is better than drug addiction. If you walk into a hospital with lymphoma, you have a better chance of walking out of there than the guy who’s hooked on Demerol. I would really like to know what he thinks of the problem of the Downtown Eastside. Vancouver may have some advantages since the addicts are crowded around such a small area, but it would be nice to actually see addiction treated as a disease from a medical science point of view.

Mainstream Parenting: A Shelter in the Mommy Blog Storm

As a twenty-something married slacker, I can only observe this parenting thing from the outside, but what I see appears to be a mirror image of high school. It’s subject to the cliques, the cults of personality, and the pecking orders we associate with high school. There is a constant cycle of judgment and criticism over if you have the correct cycles of breast-feeding, sleeping, eating, the  right stroller, the right crib, the right stool consistency! Everyone just seems to be in this mad race to be the crowned the most attentive, most awesome parent on the block. Indeed, the author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, the non-fiction book that eventually became the movie Mean Girls, felt it necessary to also pen a guide-book for parents specifically on dealing with other parents.

I find disconcerting the existence of people like Jenny McCarthy, who want to replace routine immunization with gluten-free diets. There was a recent case of a mother kidnapping her son to avoid the chemotherapy that would allow him to live. What’s actually terrifying about these stories is the amount of controversy among parents over whether the parents are doing the right thing. There shouldn’t be any controversy! This isn’t a clash between a mother’s love and the harsh establishment of experts. Kids have actually died from this kind of monkeying around in the face of hard medical facts. However, it’s tough to find a source of parenting info on the internet that doesn’t discredit medical professionals, or professionals of any kind because apparently years of study in a subject can’t hold a candle to women’s intuition. If you love science and you love your kids, where do you go for off-the-cuff parenting advice?

Mainstream Parenting Resources may sound a little non-descript, but who needs a cute name when you’re trying to supply actual information? My wife found it while surfing on Kirtsy. The author, Estherar, is a part-time family physician from Israel who is also the proud parent of 3 children. I love how she takes to task some of the assumptions we make on what’s good for children. One post called “Evolution is not an excuse” picks apart the argument that so-called “natural” forms of parenting are the best because they’ve been developed over thousands of generations by our ape ancestors.

“…our environment today is radically different: most of us live in well-protected houses, many live in climates colder than the African Savanna and use soft beds and heavy covers. The chance of a baby dying of SIDS/SUDI is now greater than being carried off by wolves. Furthermore, the evolution of human medicine and ethics means we no longer tolerate babies dying for preventable reasons. What once was the fittest solution may no longer be the case”

Of course, you can’t attack the columns of modern parenting without some criticism. Estherar responds to many of the comments on her blog, even the ones with profanity. Some people might consider her a little cheeky, but that’s what happens when you bring your knife of anecdotal evidence to peer-reviewed study gun-fight. I realize that no one can be completely prepared for parenting. There’s always something that’ll throw you a curveball. But if you like to take your advice from someone who has an actual degree and can save your life in an airplane at 50,000 feet, look no further than Mainstream Parenting Resources.