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I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

—Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This entry is to mark the anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake & Tsunami of 2011.

Humans are microscopic creatures eking out a living on a tiny wet rock in an endless void. Natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanoes are catastrophic events to us—but to the Earth they are just the tiniest movements of rock or the slightest gusts of wind.

The plates of rock that comprise the Earth’s surface make a shift so small as to be invisible from orbit—a tiny pinhole in its surface ejects a few measly tons of ash into the air—a negligible few meters of water lap over the edge of one of its oceans—an insignificant whirl of wind stirs in its atmosphere for a few quick days—and the humans who live on that particular part of the planet’s surface face annihilation.

And these events affect nothing beyond the miniscule borders of our upper atmosphere. The sound is deafening to us; the universe hears nothing.

There is no better demonstration of what humankind is ultimately up against. All the life we know to exist in the universe is right here on this planet, and its existence relies on very rare conditions that could change very rapidly. The geological and atmospheric forces of this planet alone could wipe us out. This is to say nothing of extraterrestrial threats such as comets and meteors: wandering specks of matter that, if probability guides them our way, could render the planet uninhabitable for humans.

We know that the star our planet orbits will eventually expand like a nuclear balloon, swallowing the Earth and dissolving it into plasma, before exploding and scattering our atomic components across space. But this star is just one of a number so large that there is no name for it. The universe will not notice.

The destruction of our planet will be no more significant than the kicking over of an anthill.

Yet this does not make me feel insignificant.

Instead, this understanding illuminates the value, the preciousness, of Life on Earth.

Nowhere else in the universe is matter known to have organized itself into self-replicating, self-contemplating systems. It is in the central nervous systems of these systems that concepts like meaning and purpose exist. By burning metabolic fuel they get entropy to work for them rather than against them, surfing a thermodynamic wave. Even if life like this does exist elsewhere in the universe, it has never been seen to leave its home planet and colonize others.

If a change so infinitesimal as the shifting of tectonic plates can cause such devastation, what chance do we stand against the vacuum of space, the solar wind, or the incomprehensible distances between stars?

The Earthlings who eventually make it off this planet to colonize other worlds may not be human—but there is a chance they will be our descendants, which will mean that we did our part.

I want this to happen. I want copies of fragments of my genetic material to make it beyond our atmosphere and out of this solar system before it’s recycled. I want some of my information to survive the great solar document shredding.

This transformation into a space-faring species cannot happen without huge social and cultural change. There are so many unknown aspects about the future that no one can predict which traits will best equip us for survival. I don’t need to, though, because the future is going to happen anyway and evolution will decide whether we have a place in it or not.

We should occasionally remind ourselves that we’re all stuck on this rock together. In the cosmic game of survival, we are each others’ only hope.

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Watching a program with a couple of women last night. A beautiful girl appears on the screen.

“Ew, look at her eyebrows,” one of them says.

The other: “Yeah, and what’s with her ears?”

I’m dumbfounded. To my male mind, all I can see is a very attractive girl. Finally, I say, “Women judge and criticize other women so harshly. That girl is beautiful.”

“Exactly. We need to find something wrong with her.”

I’ve always envied people with command over their own bowels. Some people can go sit over a toilet, and their bowels will obediently begin their undulating sphincter rhythms to void their contents. That is as incredible to me as having conscious control over your own heartbeat.

Bowel movements for people like me happen at the evil stinky whim of our gut-minds. The bowel will retain its putrid load until it feels like discharging it, defying my orders even when commanded by the brain it to do its job. And it will insist on disgorging its foul contents whenever it wants to, no matter how inopportune a time it may be. If I’m unable to comply with its demands, if I have no choice but to forcibly restrain its efforts, it will take revenge with a series of spasms and contractions, and it will voice its complaints with horrible bubbles of fetid gas.

“In contrast to the remainder of the peripheral nervous system … the enteric nervous system does not necessarily follow commands it receives from the brain or spinal cord; nor does it inevitably send the information it receives back to them. The enteric nervous system can, when it chooses, process data its sensory receptors pick up all by themselves, and it can act on the basis of those data to activate a set of effectors that it alone controls. The enteric nervous system is thus not a slave of the brain but a contrarian, independent spirit in the nervous organization of the body. It is a rebel, the only element of the peripheral nervous system that can elect not to do the bidding of the brain or spinal cord.”
—Michael Gershon, The Second Brain

“Pooping is the orgasm of the butt hole,” a friend once told me. His words have stuck with me over the years.

As a male, I don’t have a large a large opening in my body lined with massive bundles of erogenous nerves. As such, I can’t closely compare the euphoria of passing a satisfying stool to sex—but I would say that of the most pleasurable bodily feelings a human can have, pooping is probably number two. Pun very much intended.

This isn’t just about pooping, really. What’s really fascinating to me is the long tube that runs through our bodies, regulating what parts of what we eat will be integrated into our bodies, lined with so many nerve cells that it constitutes its own nervous system.

The inside of your esophagus, stomach, intestines, and bowels are actually the outside of your body. The sugars, proteins, fats, electrolytes—none of this stuff is part of your body until it crosses the lining of this mucosal labyrinth into the bloodstream. Your body is a club and the intestine is the bouncer.

The use of a cavity with selectively permeable walls for digestion goes way back to the beginning of animal evolution. It’s more or less unique to animals, so no other organisms get to experience this sort of interaction with their environment. (I sometimes imagine plants to experience orgasmic pleasure when sunlight hits their leaves, but that doesn’t make sense at all.)

Interacting with us in this cavity are trillions of bacteria: our cousins, billions of years removed. Without them, our body’s digestion strategy would not work. Our relationship with our gut bacteria is so complex that we’re just beginning to understand it.

Some highlights:

Some doctors are even doing research into the use of fecal bacteriopathy for the purpose of treating anxiety and depression. That’s an amazing though to me: the idea that you can feel better about life by sticking someone else’s poo up your ass in order to acquire nice microbes that will whisper sweet things to your brain through your nervous system.

I think about the antibiotics that swept through my intestines as a child and throughout my life, all the sterilized foods I ate, the disagreeable dairy products (especially cheese, which I will probably never eat again)—and then I think about my lack of control over my rebellious guts, and the pain and suffering that I’ve endured because of it—and I feel pretty sure that there’s a connection there.

The peak of my bad relations with my guts was when I developed hemorrhoids at 22. Hemorrhoids, those painful little fuckers, are the only proof a creationist should ever need that our bodies were not designed. Mine were the result of a terrible diet consisting of way too much dairy, lack of exercise, and probably dehydration caused by marijuana use. Not a great time in my life.

(Interesting side note: when the doctor told me about drinking more water, he mentioned that people in the desert/dry states actually have larger assholes than people from the mid-west and east coast because our shits are of a higher caliber. It’s a medical fact.)

People can search all they like for the perfect diet, but I doubt there is such a thing. I don’t think there was some paleolithic golden age of human digestion in which we ate only what we were “meant” to. Since our ancestors ventured out of the trees and onto the savannah, our evolution has lagged slightly behind us. Our digestive system is actually pretty adaptable and omnivorous compared to most other animals. This gave us a huge edge in spreading across the globe.

All this isn’t to say that I’m not going to experiment with paleo-esque eating. The downsides are nil and the potential benefits are huge. All I’m saying is not to expect me to give up bread, sushi, or beer.

I’ll have to end it there because I just cleaned the bathroom, and my hypochondria is telling me that the chemicals in the completely non-toxic cleaners I used have gone to my brain and made me stupid.

That, or I’m not exactly sure how to end this entry because I didn’t even have a premise to begin with. Since it has no real beginning and no ending, I’ll just have to hope this entry was good as a big fat middle of something.

Sorry, my brain cells are undergoing a psychosomatic mass die-off.

/endofline

They who lack talent expect things to happen without effort. They ascribe failure to a lack of inspiration or ability, or to misfortune, rather than to insufficient application. At the core of every true talent there is an awareness of the difficulties inherent in any achievement, and the confidence that by persistence and patience something worthwhile will be realized. Thus talent is a species of vigor.

—Eric Hoffer

People do not enjoy something because they are talented at it—they become talented at it because they enjoy it.

Talent can only develop where one has an inexhaustible drive for improvement coupled with an infinite tolerance for failure. If you expect to become skilled at a craft, you have to be prepared to fuck up over and over again and then have the patience to keep fucking up until you don’t fuck up so much any more.

It helps if you enjoy whatever it is you’re doing so much that you can do it obsessively, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re fucking up or not because you love doing it.

Being born with good brain parts for music or chess or art or math isn’t even part of the struggle for talent—that’s just a prerequisite. Being born with a good brain only helps to the extent that you learn faster and you enjoy learning because you don’t fuck up quite so much. But growing up so well endowed can also lead to taking one’s abilities for granted, to an oversensitivity to fucking up (any sensitivity at all is too much), and ultimately to laziness. Many gifted people never make much use of their abilities; they’re given a skill they didn’t earn, they take their shortcomings to be just as inborn as their gifts, and they quit.

On the other hand, a person with the right neural predispositions can acquire an unquenchable love for a craft, and then practice becomes effortless. For these people it’s not about creating a perfect product; the act itself is its own purpose—like how the point of (recreational) sex is sex itself and not an orgasm. Fucking up becomes an excuse to try again.

This is why I’m convinced that most of the people we consider geniuses—not those who are simply very intelligent but people with radical, powerful ideas—are actually quite ordinary people. There was just this feedback loop they were able to create, this mental jiu-jitsu move, in which their failures became part of the process that led to their success.

We need incompitence to struggle against in order to sharpen and strengthen our abilities, in order to appreciate the talent we’ve cultivated and understand it, and in order to enjoy using it.

Physics is like sex. Sure you can get some interesting results, but that’s not why we do it.

—attributed to Richard Feynman, possibly fake but still relevant to my point

Chivalry is about sex. It will never die because it is about getting laid.

A man who pays for dinner or opens a door for a lady is demonstrating his ability to provide and showing that he values her. But at the bottom of it, he’s doing it because it will get him laid. He knows this, and she probably knows it too.

This goes back to when caveman would share meat from an animal he’s hunted with a female in order to gain favor with her. (We’ve observed the same behavior in chimpanzees.) Clearly, a male who is skilled enough to hunt—and tough enough to keep his catch from other males who would steal it—is one to consider as a mate.

Interesting: a male who is skilled enough to hunt but lacks the social courage to stand up for himself and stop a more aggressive (though less skilled) male from stealing his quarry will not have any meat to share with the female, and thus be of no use to her. The asshole male, however, has the meat to share because he is an asshole. This may be an illustration of why females respond more positively to a male’s self-confidence and assertiveness than his skill set.

Sex is a reward that females give to males who turn them on, who perform well for her in some way or another. Withholding sex because of her mate’s inability to perform well is a practice unique to females. (What’s remarkable is that she does this even though the female enjoys sex herself.) Females recognize instinctually that sex is their strongest leverage over males—they have us by the balls at all times. A suburban wife won’t have sex with her husband until he gets off his ass and paints the house; a cavewoman wouldn’t mate with a male who used to be a good hunter but now comes home empty-handed. Women are still at work selectively breeding out the lazy and incompetent males from our species.

A male withholding sex from a female just doesn’t have the same motivational effect.

Thus the man is expected to drive, to hold the door open, to pick up the bill—if he wants to get laid. Nature demands chivalry, and that will never change so long as there are humans.

The best type of human to be, in descending order, where “attractiveness” means physical attractiveness:

  1. An attractive female. This offers the widest selection of mates, as well as the greatest ease in acquiring them. You can basically take your pick of all available males.
  2. An attractive male. Most females are attainable for you, but you still have to demonstrate some combination of intelligence, skill, social status, power, and ability to acquire wealth. If you succeed at this, you have a chance at acquiring most available females.
  3. An unattractive male. What you lack in attractiveness you have to make up for in intelligence, social status, wealth, etc. Your selection of females increases with your ability to do this.
  4. An unattractive female. Your personality and intelligence can only make up for your unattractiveness to a very limited degree. You are pretty much limited to guys with low standards.

I am only trying to capture the general trend as I see it. I’m not saying it’s fair or good—though I’m also not saying it’s bad. Nature made it this way for a reason.

These rakings are oversimplified, of course. Very few people are simply “attractive” or “unattractive,” and much variation exists in the preferences of each individual. Anomalies also exist. An unattractive girl may be lucky enough to find an attractive male who perceives himself to be unattractive, for example. Homosexuality is not accounted for.

But this is basically how it works.

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