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Archive for June, 2013

For my entire life, I have consumed very little alcohol. Growing up my family drank very little of it although there wasn’t an outright ban. Even as I got older, I didn’t drink it for a very simple reason:

I don’t like the taste.

Every time I have had beer – every time – I haven’t liked it. I’ve always found it too bitter and never even finished a glass. After trying it a handful of times I concluded that I don’t like beer.

Well, fast forward to June 2013. The wife and I were traveling in the Czech Republic. We were in the town of Césky Krumlov near the border with Austria and we were in a restaurant for lunch. I got a Coke while the wife ordered a beer, a Pilsner Urquell.

“Since when do you order beer?” I asked, implying that she never orders beer.

She shrugged with an “I don’t know.”

When the food came, so did her beer:

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I tried some and to my complete surprise, it was good! I liked it! I ended up drinking a little over half of it. As I was drinking it I though “Oh, so this must be what the fuss is about” (that is, why people drink beer). This one was actually good.

Over the next couple of days, we tried a Czech version of Budweiser (not the same as in the United States) and an Eggenberg, which is a local brew:

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All of them were pretty good but we liked the Pilsner Urquell the best. We later discovered that it is the most popular beer in the Czech Republic and that beer overall is cheaper than water (bottled water, anyhow). This is because historically they used to have problems getting clean drinking water in Europe. But as part of their refining process, beer brewing got rid of the impurities. The tradition caught on and beer remains cheap in this part of Europe but the quality is good.

We had Pilsner Urquell twice more before returning. But we were warned that the stuff they have in Europe is not the same as in the US. The reason is that in order to ship it overseas they have to put chemicals and preservatives in it so that it doesn’t go bad. It won’t taste the same.

Since we got back from Europe two weeks ago, I had refrained from purchasing a Pilsner. I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my very positive initial experience in Europe and that I would be disappointed.

Yet I had to try. Perhaps it wouldn’t be that much different.

Last Thursday we had an office picnic at a park and they were serving beer. I tried a Coors Light. The only word to describe it is “meh.” Nothing I would pick again.

But I would try again. I went into a store today (three days later) to buy a bottle of Pilsner Urquell. I put it in the fridge and then the wife and I shared it a couple of hours later. The verdict?

Disappointment.

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It just didn’t taste the same. It was more bitter than I remember and had extra tastes I don’t remember being present last time. It was true: the preservatives or whatever they put in it to ship it overseas changed the flavor.

I’m not sure what to do now. Do I only drink a local brew (of light beer)? Or do I put it all beer drinking into retirement and only extract it when I return to Europe? Both lighter beers I’ve tried so far have not been very good.

I’m very tempted to do the latter.

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Ever since I was a kid, I used to think that Baffin Island in northern Canada looked like a dog stretching out.

Well, it turns out that I was wrong. It looks like my cat. Every so often when I get home, my cat likes to lie on the ground and stretch out, showing her belly. I think that she looks like Baffin Island. Just compare:

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It’s uncanny.

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The wife and I have a problem.

We don’t vacuum enough. To clarify, I don’t vacuum enough. The wife and I divide household tasks but I do all the vacuuming.

But I don’t do it enough.

To remedy this, we got ourselves a Roomba. This is a self-activating vacuum that you turn on and it vacuums your place for you. So long as you don’t have lots of stairs and obstacles, it works fine.

This solves the problem of vacuuming. I just set it on a timer to run once a week (or more frequently) and it’s taken care of. Does it do as good a job as I could do myself?

Probably not.

Does it do as good a job as I would do myself?

Yes.

And that’s what counts.

 

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[The cat finds the Roomba fascinating]

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Did you ever stop to wonder how your brain works? What makes you you?

What I mean is this – all of us have this thing called consciousness. It’s the piece inside of you that is reading this, thinking about this blog post in specific, but is aware of what is around you in general. It’s what you call the essence of you. Philosophers have struggled with defining existence for centuries.

Did you ever wonder how it all works in your brain?

Your center of consciousness is your brain, and we normally think of ourselves as a brain-within-a-brain. That is, we know that our brain processes all sorts of information: vision, hearing, taste, touch and thinking. Different parts of our brain are responsible for each of these senses but they send all of this information to a central processing unit that makes the decision. We have a brain-within-a-brain that processes all this information and it is what makes us us.

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But it turns out, that’s now how your brain works.

You see, as it turns out, your brain is modular. Different parts of your brain are responsible for different senses, just as the brain-within-a-brain model.

However, where the brain-as-a-module differs is each module talks with other modules, but not necessarily every module. Some modules talk to more, others talk to fewer. Some modules are not even aware of each other.

 

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In this model, there is no central processing unit. Different parts of the brain do different things, and you make decisions based upon interactions of these different parts.

This means you have no brain-within-a-brain.

Huh?

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I have a central personality, an essence of me. But it turns out that what I think is me might just be a way that my brain processes information. And my brain works very hard to create this cognitive illusion. That is, different parts of my brain work very hard to create this cognitive illusion.

When I first read this earlier this year, I found it very disconcerting. I’m not sure I agree with this, but it doesn’t matter what I think if it is the correct model of the brain.

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In the US, the Supreme Court recently struck down the 1996 Defense-of-Marriage Act (DOMA) that blocked the federal recognition of gay marriage. This means that in states where gay marriage is legal (12 as of June 27, 2013), people are eligible for federal benefits. In states where it is not recognized, the law is still murky.

There has been a lot of chatter on both sides of the fence that I want to comment on, both for and against.

I was listening on the radio to someone, a conservative political activist, who was opposed to overturning DOMA (i.e., against gay marriage) was complained that the Supreme Court overruled the will of the voters. If voters want to disallow it, then “activist judges” should not interfere.

While I understand the point that he was trying to make, I have two issues with his argument:

  1. In overturning DOMA, the Supreme Court said that the law violated the right to liberty and equal protection for gay couples. This means that if the majority of voters want to discriminate against a certain class of people, the Supreme Court can overrule it. I’m fine with this. We wouldn’t want the Supreme Court to uphold racial discrimination laws so of course they can override the will of voters if it is discriminatory.

  2. Related to this, it seems that political activist who was complaining about activist judges was just using it as a smokescreen to say “I’m against gay marriage and I don’t want the government to legalize it.” Of course, he can’t come out and say this (because of the potential societal backlash against trying to impose morals rooted in religion upon a society that goes to lengths to separate church and state) so he disguised it with a legal argument.

That’s the problem I have with the conservative justification of their defense.

On the other hand, those on the pro-gay marriage side don’t understand why conservatives have a problem with it. The more I study the evolutionary origins of morality, the more I think that conservatives are correct about many things even though I don’t necessarily think they get everything right.

I saw a Facebook picture that says that opponents of gay marriage lost nothing in this court ruling because gay marriage doesn’t affect them. This isn’t true and it misunderstands how morality works.

Morality is a set of rules that is defined and applied to everyone. Not only is a certain behavior not moral for me, but it’s not moral for you either.

Evolutionary biologists believe that morality arose because it enabled groups to live together better and immoral behavior is something that destroys the group. For example, helping people is moral while lying is not. Not hurting others is moral while cheating is not. In both cases, the moral behavior strengthens the group while the immoral behavior weakens it. People don’t believe that lying and cheating is bad for themselves but fine for others, but rather that nobody should do it.

Over time, these beliefs get reinforced (even at a genetic level) into the group. Morality is not a blank slate that we learn, but rather, the human mind comes “programmed” with general ideas about morality, some of which we learn but it isn’t arbitrary.

There are many behaviors we have that are hard wired into our brains. We laugh and smile when we are happy, we cry when we are sad. We get upset when we see unfair behavior. We want revenge when we are cheated. These are programmed into our limbic brains.

At some point, conservatives got the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong. They believe that not only is it wrong for them, but that it is wrong for everyone. Immoral behavior weakens the entire group, and therefore must not be practiced by anyone.

And that’s why I believe that the pro-gay marriage side misses the point. To say that gay marriage does not affect heterosexual opponents is incorrect because morality is not about whether or not individuals practice it, but whether or not anybody does it… ever. Morality goes deeper than logic (which is performed in our neocortexes). It goes to our limbic systems which doesn’t respond to logic which is why opponents react so strongly against it. They think that it does affect them; morality works that way, we all have to play along.

The pro-gay marriage side needs to be sensitive to this; the “you’re not affected” is not true.

And that’s what I think about the DOMA ruling.

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