Monday, October 13, 2014

Pumpkin Spice Cookie, Etc.

I've been doing a bit more baking recently. Mostly I've been using recipes I've done before, with a few exceptions: these browniesthese cookies, and a recipe below for Pumpkin Spice cookie that a friend came up with, with the notion that pumpkin + spice = pumpkin spice. Turns out it works pretty well, and given its seasonality, simplicity, the fact these cookies are keeping terribly well, and my sense that history will forget these cookies if I do not record them, I'm putting the recipe here:

Pumpkin Spice Cake Cookies
1 box Pillsbury Perfectly Pumpkin Cake Mix (15.25 oz)
1 box Betty Crocker Supermoist Spice Cake Mix (15.25 oz)
4 eggs
3/4 cup oil (maybe a bit more if dough is too thick

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift cake mixes into bowl. Mix in eggs and oil until dough is smooth. Roll dough into rounded tablespoons and put on a pan (they'll be pretty oily). Bake 7-9 minutes or until just golden brown on the bottom Let cookies cool for a couple of minutes before removing from pan, as they'll be soft.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

What is impostor syndrome? This is a question I have heard asked many times, both at conferences like Grace Hopper where it's a primary subject of conversation and in response to students explaining how they're doing. I know I've tried to answer this question several times, being myself a repeat offender in the impostor syndrome department (for instance, I am lucky enough to be starting a PhD program at an awesome school, yet I still can't convince myself I understand anything I'm studying). Usually I talk a lot and fall short. So I'm going to try this again.
This is impostor syndrome:

This might not make sense off the bat. So let's go through this. Suppose you start a job, a degree, or any occupying activity that requires some combination of knowledge, skill, and practice to get good at it. The expectation is that you're going to start out okay but not great at that thing. You'll start trying harder and harder versions of that thing, and sometimes you'll mess up, and sometimes you'll do well, and over time, on average, you'll get better.

You can imagine this plot as your homework scores, your boss's scores of the projects you do on a scale from one to ten, or your evaluation of how scarf-like the scarf you made actually turned out to be. Regardless, you can see there's a lot of noise but a vague trend upward, with the occasional mistake because there aren't a lot of data points left.

Now, you know and I know that people make mistakes. However, people don't like talking about mistakes unless they're in a crisis. You may know some people like this trying to do what you're doing - a coworker who keeps breaking a system the same way, a classmate who is failing the class, or someone who knits like I knit (in spite of several efforts, I have never had the patience or coordination to make a scarf more than about an inch wide). But anyone who isn't in crisis probably isn't talking much about their past mistakes, and so often, they end up looking this:

It's probably safe to say you've seen this before - you have a day where it feels like you're the only one who's making any mistakes, and it turns out no, everyone else is, too - you just don't see them. They look like they started out better, make no mistakes, and improve faster than you, which can be slightly annoying when you feel like you're putting in effort and should be improving as fast as they are. However, that probably wouldn't make you quit trying.

The step that gets us to impostor syndrome is additionally not acknowledging your successes as demonstrations of your ability. That is, when you do a task well, you generally have a reason why this doesn't mean that you are good at the thing the task required. For instance, getting an A on an Abstract Algebra test for most people might mean they're starting to understand the fundamentals of Abstract Algebra pretty well. My classic college impostor-syndrome response to that was "Well, I'm good at tests." I knew I didn't feel like I understood everything, because I kept saying incorrect things in class and the same set of apparently mistake-free classmates would correct me. So I couldn't actually be good - I had to be posing as good instead by compensating with some other skill. In this case, I believed I was just good at writing proofs well and quickly that it looked like I understood more than I did. This, obviously, doesn't make any sense - a proof is difficult to fake - but that's what impostor syndrome looks like.

So we get this graph. If you're a math or science person, the group from whom I've heard about impostor syndrome the most, you probably look at this graph and say "Well, that's silly. Surely if the majority of the data suggests you're doing well, you would eventually have to concede that you're good!" You would think! But the difference here is in the perception of outliers.

You might imagine that a particular arrogant person who didn't believe they made mistakes - that any projects that didn't turn out were failures triggered by an external force - might consider the bottom three points on this graph outliers. "Oh, that was the exam I was sick for." "Oh, that project was doomed to fail, the premise was incorrect." They might see themselves as much better than they are, or, in terrible cases, they may be unable to even recognize what poor performance looks like and thus consider themselves great when they're absolutely terrible at what they're trying to do. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect).

In this case, someone experiencing impostor syndrome thinks that all of those points towards the top are outliers, because they've systematically come up with reasons why each of those points are outliers. You lucked out into the right fix for a bug. That project just happened to be something you'd done something similar before. The test had just the right set of questions for what you'd studied. Some of the reasons include being good at particular pieces of your area, but there isn't a perception that the skill to identify the similarities to prior problems you know how to solve is a sign of knowledge.

So why is this an issue for minorities? Well, the main thing is that your evaluation of your performance comes from a complicated context. We already talked about people who appear to make no mistakes making you feel disappointed in yourself. But that's just the people at your job, school, knitting class, whatever. You also see people further away from you - friends of friends on Facebook, people in the news, characters in movies. The people you see at a distance give you a notion of how well you should be performing. And those people aren't necessarily a good measure at all.

Take women in computing. (I'm not going to pretend this is the biggest or most important case, but it's my case, and it's a popular one.) There are a few high-profile women in the history of computing. Ada Byron Lovelace and Grace Hopper are popular historical celebrities; Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Meyer, and Frances Allen are modern examples of important women in computing. There are many more, and you're certain to find many a list if you search online (here's a good one).

This is Frances Allen. She was the first woman to win a Turing Award. She's pretty awesome.

However, the existence of these lists is an exception that proves a rule. Sure, there are women in computing; but they're a minority, and the higher up the chain in either industry or academia, the less likely you are to see them. Unlike a lot of underrepresented-minority issues, we know that women aren't born with a disadvantage in computer science - women aren't predisposed to be worse at math, and being a woman doesn't make it more likely that your family has an educational or financial disadvantage. So, we know the reason why we're not seeing women as often as men in the field is something secondary, social, and still existent. And we're pretty sure it's because most people think of computer scientists as all looking like this:

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson changed how we think about operating systems. They also have great beards.
Now, that's not entirely true - recently, we've also gotten a notion of young "hackers" that come out of nowhere, magically understand the depths of computers, and manage to build hugely successful businesses or pull off massive exploits from their work. They look more like this:

Beards are optional; hoodies and green text on a black background are required.
The combination of the news and fiction around these types of people give us this sense of what our ability plot should look like:

Obviously, people don't start out able to write an implementation of UNIX. But when people younger than you are making millions off an IPO, you might feel that you're running behind. And then it gets worse. Because while you see these real and fake data points of Important People, the same sources also provide a whole bunch of this:

I am pretty sure that the depicted computer is just plastic.
It's rare at this point that anyone will say that they think women aren't good at computer science or shouldn't be computer scientists. But it's also much more likely that you're going to see a man explaining how to work a computer to a woman in a movie than the other way around. And we've developed a long history since the days of explicitly saying that women are bad at computer science of narratives of women who were discouraged, made mistakes, and then quit because it was "too hard" or "not their thing". The opposite problem from before is here: they're only discussing failures and bad experiences, some of which might be really familiar to someone who feels like they're struggling. So, in the general case, you might end up with a plot like this:

Now, if that person in blue were thinking about the distribution of their successes and failures and what ultimate success and failure look like, they might notice they're in the middle. But if they already consider themselves part of a set of people who are likely to fail - if they assume that they're part of that group of purple points - then those successes definitely start to look like outliers, and continuing past the point where everyone who looks and acts like you stopped isn't compelling. And this is why impostor syndrome isn't just a personal issue individuals should be able to get over: it's a reaction to a social context that is incorrect but sufficiently internally consistent to stick, and to stick disproportionately for people underrepresented in a field.

So how do we fix this? Good question. I think if we had a clear solution, we'd be a lot further than we are. But based upon the way this problem is formed, it's pretty clear that we need to change perceptions, and not just in an individual way, but in an overwhelm-the-existing-data way. Here are the pieces I know help, as they've helped me:

  1. Mentors. Having a mentor is good for opening up opportunities, learning new things, and just having someone who understands what you're going through. The best part about a good mentor is that they can help expose how that set of points of Important People ignore the mistakes and low points for each of those people. A very accomplished mentor will definitely have stories of when things went wrong, and they will probably be willing to share it. The knowledge that failure is part of the process is critical to making progress.
  2. Collaboration. One of the big issues in areas with impostor syndrome issues is that there's usually a perception that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In the case of computer science, it seems to be a perception common amongst newbies and known to be false among people who have been around longer. Talking to other people about problems, sharing them, and working through them together can reduce the perception that everyone else but the self-labelled "impostor" isn't struggling. It can also give them friends and coworkers to encourage them to stick with it when things get tough.
  3. Conversation. Both of the things above involve people talking to each other in individual contexts. But in a larger setting, a global setting, we need to start talking about the narratives in between the success and failure, and what our expectations of people trying to do these things are. We shouldn't be asking for "rock star hackers" straight out of undergraduate programs when what we're looking for are people who are passionate about solving tough problems.
And that's what computer scientists in general are: people who struggle with but usually eventually solve hard problems. No more, no less. Let's make that our image.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cookie Recipes

I spent the past year working in industry making cookies just about every week. Sometimes, due to illness or holidays, others would substitute in for me, but I ended up more or less not repeating a recipe for around 40 rounds of cookies. Through the help of a friend, I was able to recover all of the links to recipes I've provided, accounting for around 30 unique recipes (31 if you count the Nestle Toll House, which I don't really). Here they are with some notes about each one.

0.      Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies
I consider these a very good starter cookie, in that you can swap out the chocolate chips for whatever, mess with extracts, use a Hershey’s kiss in the middle instead of smaller chips, etc., and the result is still guaranteed to be at least pretty tasty. They’re not ground-breaking – most people making chocolate chip cookies are probably using this recipe or something very similar – but the recipe is useful to have on hand nonetheless just for the classic taste and simplicity. Or you can just freeze the dough and eat that.
Hardest part: not eating all the dough first
Tastiness: 4/5

1.      Pumpkin Cookies:
These are pretty good, though texturally a bit different than your average cookie. It’s probably easier to think of them as cookie-sized Starbucks’ pumpkin scones.
Hardest part: making the frosting look nice
Tastiness: 4/5

2.      Machine Learned Peanut Butter Coconut Cookies:
These are pretty straightforward, combining two generic versions of peanut butter and coconut cookies. Note that they don’t come with more than an ingredients list, but you can usually assume for drop cookies like these that you 1. mix wet ingredients and sugars in a large bowl, 2. mix dry ingredients in a medium bowl, 3. add dry to wet gradually and stir, and then 4. add extras (e.g. coconut) before 5. baking at around 350 for 8-10 minutes or until cookie-shaped and structurally sound.
Hardest part: figuring out the recipe
Tastiness: 3.5/5

3.      Andes Chunk Cookies:
Nothing quite like taking a straightforward cookie recipe like chocolate chip cookies and making them excellent. This has a bit more complexity than the usual drop cookie base, but the result is awesome. That said, if you’re not into the complexity, you can just substitute smashed Andes mints in the Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip recipe (my go-to base cookie recipe) and get a similar result.
Hardest part: separating an egg. I would have said smashing Andes, but everyone loves that part.
Tastiness: 4/5

4.      Soft Baked Funfetti Sugar Cookies:
This makes for a super nice, thick dough – the sort that’s fun to play around with but will make your cheap handheld mixer smoke if you’re not careful. It’s a good sweet generic party cookie that’s likely to go over well but nothing remarkable or memorable.
Hardest part: letting the dough chill and keeping it cool. I did a lot of moving the dough back and forth between the fridge and by the oven.
Tastiness: 3/5

5.      Almond Cookies
These are awesome if you’re into almond. That said, I might add a bit to the recipe by recommending that if you’re using almonds (or any nuts), you usually can stand to gain flavor-wise by toasting them a bit. But they’re great even if you don’t.
Hardest part: grinding almonds
Tastiness: 4/5

6.      Caramel Apple Cider Cookies
These guys are sickly sweet, but if you’re okay with that it’s worth a shot. I had a bit of trouble getting tiny little caramel balls, so I ended up melting a small caramel cube on top of each cookie instead, which still had the desired effect flavor-wise.
Hardest part: baby caramel balls
Tastiness: 3/5

7.      Vegan Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Cookies
These are a pain in the ass and, in my opinion, not close to tasty enough to be worth it. That said, they’re vegan, gluten free, and sugar free, so if you’re in a dietary restrictions fix or just trying to cut down then it’s not a bad idea. That said, I would never choose this over real cookies.
Hardest part: getting into a contiguous form if you don’t have a good food processor
Tastiness: 1/5

8.      Lemon Meringues
Meringues are hard. Lemon curd is hard. Together, they make really, really complicated cookies. They’re great if you get them done, though, and the leftover lemon curd is usable as spread and keeps pretty well. If you have a stand mixer and a steady hand, they’re well worth it.
Hardest part: waiting for hard peaks on your meringue
Tastiness: 4.5/5

9.      Peanut Butter S’mores Cookie Cups
These are a bit labor intensive and very sweet but they’re also fun and rich cookies. They also feature Nutella, which really deserves to be in many more recipes than it is. My main tip from these is not to try to substitute marshmallows for marshmallow fluff – they tend to condense to the point of being impossible to distinguish.
Hardest part: forming the cookie layers
Tastiness: 4/5

10.  Chocolate Dipped Shortbread Cookies
This is the sort of recipe that’s worth keeping in a back pocket – easy, looks beautiful, tastes great, and easy to modify. My advice on these is to look at the comments to find ideas on how to get the recipe from pretty delicious to amazing – sometimes a slight change can make a big difference is a shortbread cookie’s overall taste. That said, enough chocolate will make that subtlety unimportant.
Hardest part: melting chocolate
Tastiness: 4.5/5

11.  Red Velvet Cheesecake Cookies
Unmodified, I think this recipe is so-so, but it does have a lot of potential and serves as a friendly reminder that cake mixes are great bases for easy fluffy cookies. I might skip the white chocolate – it doesn’t add much to the flavor here. But the red velvet and cream cheese parts both turn out pretty well.
Hardest part: making non-leaking consistently-sized filled cookies
Tastiness: 3/5

12.  Easy Lemon Cookies
This is perhaps a better example of the cake-mix-base cookie turning out as a success. Seriously, I can’t recommend this enough – it saves a ton of time and usually gets a very fluffy cookie, which is especially fun for a crackle cookie like this (cookies that you roll in powdered sugar before baking leaving a cracked pattern on the top after). These are easy, delicious, and impressive-looking.
Hardest part: powdered sugar coating
Tastiness: 4.5/5

13.  Brownie Crackle-top Cookies
If the people eating your cookies like chocolate (I pity those that don’t) these will be a success. The crackle-top thing I talked about before looks extra-good and provides a nice lighter sweetness on top of very, very rich chocolate cookies. The best part is that they are much easier than they look.
Hardest part: powdered sugar coating
Tastiness: 5/5

14.  Orange Cookies with Glaze
One of the lessons you learn with citrus cookies over time is that getting the flavor you want from a fruit is a lot easier said than done. Orange juice, orange zest, and orange extract all have different effects on flavor which change after you bake a cookie. This has a lot of orange countering that, for pretty good results, but I was still disappointed that it wasn’t a bit more orange-y.
Hardest part: zest-infused sugar
Tastiness: 4/5

15.  Homemade Oreos
These aren’t really homemade Oreos – they’re more like whoopie pies in effect, as the cookie part is a lot softer than an Oreo. They’re very sweet, but you can play around with the flavoring if you like (as Oreos often do) for fun results. I really enjoyed the mint ones I made.
Hardest part: getting the cookies the right shape
Tastiness: 3/5

16.  Chewy Coconut Cookies
These are generic coconut-y cookies, and they’re pretty good if pretty basic. I found the dough to be a bit thin but you can look more in the reviews to get some tips for how to deal with that and otherwise improve on these.
Hardest part: getting nicely-shaped cookies (round and not too flat)
Tastiness: 3.5/5

17.  Lavender Cookies
These are far and beyond my favorite cookies I’ve made – they’re a bit salty and complicated but highly addictive and really well-balanced as well as attractive at the end. Aside from the egg wash (which, let’s be honest, isn’t that important here) it’s a pretty straightforward shortbread cookie with some lavender in it, which is part of what makes it great. This is the one I think people remember the most, and while it’s not an easy everyday cookie it’s worth trying at least once.
Hardest part: grinding up the lavender
Tastiness: 5/5

18.  Maple Brown Sugar Oatmeal Cookies
I tend to get bored by generic oatmeal cookies, but adding just a little extra change from the sugar + oats combo can help a lot. This recipe is pretty durable if not super innovative. I would say that I think they suggest overbaking these a bit, and would suggest keeping an eye on them for the first couple of batches starting at 10 minutes.
Hardest part: waiting for dough to chill
Tastiness: 3.5/5

19.  Lime Sugar Cookie
These are a bit problematic when there’s a lime shortage and a little more complicated than they needed to be but the taste result is pretty good. As always, I was a little disappointed that they didn’t taste more lime-y, but that’s how this always goes.
Hardest part: separating eggs
Tastiness: 3.5/5

20.  Homemade Samoas
They taste right, and if you follow the directions, they look right, too. That said, these take a lot of steps and really require you to have many hours free between the rounds of cookie-making and cleanup. But for the ability to control your supply of Samoas, it may well be worth it.
Hardest part: making the caramel coconut topping (double boiler of caramel + toasting coconut = giant mess)
Tastiness: 4.5/5

21.  Pink Lemonade Cookies
This was one of the more disappointing strikeouts on the citrus cookie attempts. The resulting cookies were sweet and pink and had no lemon flavor to speak of. I tried to compensate by using some leftover concentrate to make frosting instead of settling for “brushing with the remaining lemonade” and the result was sour enough but way too sweet and not smooth to the taste at all.
Hardest part: getting the lemonade taste
Tastiness: 2.5/5

22.  Chocolate-Dipped Orange Cookies
These didn’t taste much like orange but did get enough to taste better than a generic sugar cookie with chocolate in it. They’re good for the holidays if not earth-shattering.
Hardest part: dipping in chocolate
Tastiness: 3.5/5

23.  Reese’s Pieces Chocolate Cake Mix Cookies
These are sweet, fun, and super easy, as cake mix recipes should be. I’m going to take this opportunity to mention that if you do use a cake mix in a recipe, it’s a good idea to sift the cake mix first, as there are often dense clumps of cake mix that don’t separate out well and will be hard to smash down once in the bowl.
Hardest part: stirring
Tastiness: 4/5

24.  Jello Cookies
My enthusiasm for these cookies knows no bounds – after having experimented with a variety of festive-looking cookies and citrus-flavored cookies I found this to be far and beyond the easiest and most successful way to get a summer cookie. Seriously, if you want a cookie that tastes a little sour or fruity instead of just sweet and vaguely fruit flavored, or if you want a cookie that looks actually blue or purple instead of just muddy brown, this is how to do it. I tried raspberry and lime; the raspberry was perfect, the lime a tiny bit less so but still my favorite citrus cookie so far.
Hardest part:  kneading color into dough
Tastiness: 4.5/5

25.  Sea Salt Nutella Cookies
These are tasty, though I might suggest being less aggressive than I was about the salt – the flavor contrast is fun but there is such a thing as too salty. They also weren’t as fluffy as I would have liked. That said, this recipe suggests the possibility of a flourless version, which might be great for the gluten free people you know.
Hardest part: getting the sea salt balance right
Tastiness: 4/5

26.  Blueberry Drop Cookies
These aren’t really drop cookies; texturally, they’re more like muffin tops. But golly gee are they good. I might also advocate frozen blueberries: they’re less likely to pop when you’re stirring the mix together and by the end of the chilling process everything will be around the same temperature.
Hardest part: mixing in blueberries
Tastiness: 4.5/5

27.  Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
When I made these, I skipped the walnuts, because I don’t find them tasty and oatmeal cookies have enough going on texturally that it seemed unnecessary. That said, you should do what you want to do. I think these came out sweeter than expected but not offensively so. I also found these to flatten out way more than I was expecting – keep the dough chilled and maybe add more flour if you want to experiment with that.
Hardest part: dropping evenly-sized rounded tablespoons
Tastiness: 4/5

28.  Double Fudge Oreo Crunch Cookies
These are just so wrong. So, so wrong. But so delicious.
Hardest part: homogenous crushing of Oreos
Tastiness: 4.5/5

29.  Gluten Free Maple Bacon Chocolate Chip Cookies
This recipe was trying to be too much at once, and I should have seen it coming. The cookies barely held together (a common symptom of gluten-free cookies) and the taste of the coconut oil overwhelmed everything else, making it taste grossly sweet for what’s supposed to be a savory cookie. I would use actual butter in these instead of targeting the dairy-free property of coconut oil, and I might make sure to chill the dough first. But hey, bacon.
Hardest part: maple bacon
Tastiness: 2/5

30.  Nonna’s Biscotti
This a great and not-too-sensitive recipe – you can mess around with different flavors and additions to the basic biscotti part and still wind up with a good flavor. I used some Disaronno in place of brandy and dipped them in chocolate with amazing results.
Hardest part: lightly toasting almonds
Tastiness: 5/5

Friday, November 1, 2013

10 Reasons Why You Already Lost This Internet Argument

I hate listicles, but I love unhealthy debate and cultural critique too much to let this one die. So, here are the 10 Reasons Why You Already Lost This Internet Argument. Friends and others, feel free to use this list and link relevant reasons when someone hasn't yet realized they're already done. Failing that, sit and appreciate how unrelated being right and winning an argument are on the Internet.

  • These have nothing to do with being right or being fair. It turns out that winning an argument and being right aren't the same thing at all. If you're using this list, you should remind yourself that this doesn't mean you're right; if you're being forcibly directed to this list, then it doesn't mean you're wrong. Some of these reasons (1, 7, 10) are actually ridiculous and should never work on their own. But, as in the rest of society, your cultural capital within a community is part of your eventual ability to succeed in that community. Remember that. Remember that it's not a good way for things to be, too, when you're listening to other people.
  • Using this to show someone they're wrong means you're going to look like an asshole. Seriously, it's rude. It might be true, but it's rude. That said, sometimes internet arguments are rude, and if the being-polite boundary has already been transcended than you may just feel like it's worth the risk, in which case go nuts, buddy!
  • This is not an all-inclusive list. It's just the most common ones I've seen. They seem to cover most cases at least partially. But if you feel a key reason is missing, do tell in the comments.

1. I know how to spell better than you.

It's as simple as that. Right now, even if you were right, it wouldn't matter. As soon as you stopped capitalizing words, spelling correctly, and putting apostrophes in the correct place, a lot of people ceased caring about the content of what you were saying. Using slang, colloquialisms, AAVE, etc. can all be okay, but when your spelling and grammar for however you speak English falls off, you just sound dumb. A few mistakes can be forgiven, but you apparently crossed that line long ago.

2. I'm a better person than you.

At the moment, you're either insulting people or suggesting that the best course of action in some situation involves discrimination against an individual or a group of people. I, on the other hand, am suggesting that one gives the benefit of the doubt and considers alternate strategies respecting everyone's humanity. Whether you're insulting a celebrity or proposing forbidding certain rights to citizens or whatever else, your strategy is the mean one and mine is the nice one, which on the internet translates to you being mean and me being nice. People like nice people better.

3. Your logic is flawed.

Right now, you're trying to justify that you're right about something, but your justification doesn't work at all. You might be using specific cases to justify general policy, incorrectly applying statistics, or simply just skipping a bunch of steps as to how what you're proposing actually accomplishes what you say it does. Regardless of the logical fallacy, it's clear that you don't know how to fill in the gap between what you know to be true and what you want to be true, so you made up an explanation that doesn't work. And my logic to explain why yours is wrong will be rock solid.

4. You make no sense.

You might be right about some things, but it's hard to tell through how confusing everything you say is. Maybe you've just replaced the correct words for the concepts you want to convey with arbitrary words from the dictionary. Maybe you're just having a completely different conversation than everyone else. There's really no point in continuing this discussion, as you've long since wandered off the deep end.

5. You're relying on incorrect or unconfirmed facts.

It's possible that, if the things you said were true, they would fully justify your opinions. But they aren't. I don't know if you were lied to or just made them up yourself, but your evidence isn't actually remotely factual. And sadly, the lack of soundness of your evidence invalidates everything else you've been saying. You just discredited yourself in the realm of facts; why should anyone care about your opinions at this point?

6. You're just repeating yourself.

The thing you just said was a rephrased of the previous thing you said, and the thing before that. I don't know if you realized this, but the statements I've been making called into question the soundness and validity of the original statement. You saying it twice more didn't make it any more solid, and I've already gotten out a clear explanation of several reasons as to why that's an unreasonable line of thinking. As long as you're not adding anything to it, I think we're done here.

7. I can use fancier words than you can.

You could be right; I could be wrong. However, you're clearly not up to date on the lingo required for this level of discourse, so you're starting to sound uninformed. I use words like "unilateral", "mitigated", "semantic", "heuristic," and "interstices", and it's clear you're starting to lose track of what I'm saying because you keep having to check a dictionary. I sound like I know what I'm talking about, and am hard enough to follow that people will assume I do. Unless you learn how to play the same game, you're better off conceding.

8. Nothing you're saying is an original thought.

Arguing with you is amazingly easy because you're just reciting an argument used by a politician/religious thinker/random public figure. It's possible that your convictions about these things are as strong as theirs, but it turns out people have argued with them, too. In a public forum. So, the arguments against your case are all prepared and easy-access. And, because I'm not just reciting someone else's argument, I'm going to outlast you on this one. I can keep arguing after the key points on the Internet have been exhausted. So let's just skip the recitation and get to the part where I make more sense than you.

9. You lost when you started calling me names.

I understand that you're angry. You're wrong and you don't want to believe it. However, your response of trying to humiliate or hurt me by calling me names is a terrible way to approach this. The people who think your name-calling has merit are overwhelmed by those who think you're being an asshole. As a bonus, I couldn't care less what you think of me. You clearly have nothing left to say on the actual original subject of this conversation; go home.

10. Nobody is ever going to agree with you here.

I don't know how you found this conversation, but your opinions right now aren't just in the minority: they're downright personally offensive to the majority people reading. If you think that you're changing my friends' minds, you're wrong; instead, I'm getting messages apologizing that I have to deal with someone so clearly insensitive and wrong. Go find someplace where people don't already solidly disagree with you; there's no conversation to be had here.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why I argue with you when I agree with you.

I like arguing.

To clarify: I don’t mean ad hominem attacks or verbal fighting; that’s different. I’m also not talking about arguments that you have with significant people in your life about your future.

I’m not even talking about those times when someone says something offensive or belittling about real people who didn’t do anything to deserve that kind of commentary. If I have it in me at the time, I’ll try to explain why that was offensive, and usually get nowhere, but I’ll feel better that I tried to speak truth to someone who wasn’t getting it.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is arguing with people I agree with.
If you’re reading this, odds are actually already pretty good you agree with me. You wouldn’t have come here if you didn’t think you would. I spend most of my days surrounded by people who are roughly on the same page as me as far as political leanings, social views, intellectual capabilities and knowledge of the world. Most people are. That’s because it’s way damn easier to be friends with people you tend to agree with than people you don’t.

Another thing about a lot of the people reading this is that they’re probably from a similar demographic as me. They’re people who study complicated things and get degrees and know they won’t be working food service forever. A good chunk of them are white and wealthy. And almost all of them are liberal. Just like me! Privilege is fun!

Well, except that I found out that I have an issue with being surrounded by people I agree with. Because it starts to feel wrong, and gets me all agitated when anyone expresses any opinion more substantive than a restaurant review. Because at some level, I know if everyone agreed on things, the world would look a hell of a lot different from how it does. So if I’m agreeing with my friends all of the time, then that makes me think one of two things:

Either: I haven't been listening to the other side of a lot of issues
Or: I would disagree with my friends if I was paying more attention

Both of these are Bad Things. One means that I’m in a bubble; the other means that I’m not even paying attention to things in said bubble. Both are at some level already true.

So what do I do? Naturally, I become a pain in the ass.

If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook, you may have seen this. Post an article and say you like it? That’s me at the bottom, wondering why you didn’t object to x-and-y. Become enraged about a world issue? Oh hey, me here – is that actually important at all? Post a meme, and I might object to the political correctness of the premise; post a critique of political incorrectness, and I might object to the premise of that. I mean, I won’t say anything that I think is totally morally out of the question, but I’ll fake opinions on topics I don’t care about just because you have the opposing opinion.

I couldn’t care less if this bothers you. I’m doing it for me. And I’m doing it for four big reasons that I can think of right now, in no particular order:

Reason 1 – You’re annoying me. If you post a lot of opinions on Facebook about something, I start getting very suspicious. I might think you’re just posting it because you were looking for something to be enraged about; I might think you actually don’t understand what you’re posting at all. I want you to prove it.

Reason 2 – I want to watch people saying smart things. There’s a certain high I get from seeing someone I know post something I agree with in a clearly argued, coherent way. A lot of my friends are fully capable of doing that, but as long as we agree, I’ll never see them do it.

Reason 3 – It’s a good challenge. I get to practice debate skills that don’t get much exercise in my usual crowd. The alternative is usually drunkenly arguing about Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino and programming languages and beer. It’s not a good look for me.

Reason 4 – Agreeing becomes fun. I mean it. It is really fun to agree with people after debating with them. Conceding an argument makes me feel marvelous. If you haven’t tried it, you should, for no other reason than that it confuses the hell out of people and it's fun to watch. They were so righteous and angry, they were already writing their next response to you being dumb…and you agreed? That’s impossible. Beyond that, I think it can lead to some great conversations that wouldn't have started, but I think confusing people is joy enough.

Now, this is fun to do on my own, but it’s way more fun if other people do it, too. Can you imagine if the internet actually started having people all over it who disagree with your opinions might agree with you if you presented an intelligent argument, or who just want to make sure you’ve thought through your logic? Wouldn’t that be cool?

It’s funny, because now that I write this, it almost sounds like it’s an honorable thing to do. Let’s be honest, people: this is pretty much subdued trolling of intellectuals. Not only that, it can be interesting to see what you find when you post an opinion no one else would have, to see what sort of people agree with you and why. Because, as it turns out, you do know people you disagree with. A lot of them have learned not to say anything about their more unpopular opinions in your crowd. In my crowd, religious people and moderate Republicans get a lot of badness thrown at them before they even specify what that means about their beliefs or world views. They tend to keep that to themselves after a while. But if you give them a starting point, you might actually get them to give you the real deal, the actual honest-to-god argument against your opinion that you hadn’t yet really seen in person.

So, to all of you people with strong opinions, even if they’re smart ones, even if they’re ones I agree with…start arguing amongst yourself a bit more. Let’s be willing to change our minds sometimes. Just because we think we’re right doesn’t mean we get to freeze our stances.

On that note: I’m sorry I still haven’t posted about birds. It’s on my list.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

About spopsticks.

This is my blog. At present, I have yet to come up with an agenda for it, but my suspicion is, like most blogs, it will be a platform for me to write absurd opinions and to endow them with sufficient pathos that you are eventually inclined to agree completely with me. Like most blogs, it will fail. Like most bloggers, I don't care, because it really doesn't matter to me if you disagree with me. I happen to know I'm right.

But before I dive into that rhythm, I felt like I ought to explain the title.

Hopefully it is already obvious to you. In your world of food-eating, you may have encountered a number of different tools, including forks, spoons, knives, and chopsticks. Occasionally, one might find an excellent synthesis of the first two (sporks). I've even seen some interesting designs integrating knives into other pieces as well, though there is always a chance of a mishap if you put the serrated blade too close to a food-bearing part of such an implement.

However, one tool continues not to exist which I find surprising: the spopstick.

What is a spopstick? It is the synthesis of all that is good in a spoon and in a chopstick. On the one hand, it grants you the flexibility to isolate and grab your food, as chopsticks do so well; on the other hand, it gives an appropriate scooping ability to allow the conveyance of liquids or gelatinous foods to your well-deserving mouth.

If you want to imagine spopsticks: cup your hands in front of you. Right now, your arms are the bodies of the two individual spopsticks, and your hands are the spoon part. You can imagine designing them so that they actually settles neatly together. Alternately, if you could rotate your arms around, you could make it so you could use them like ordinary chopsticks. You could also swap the position of your two arms to get a spoon shape that you could hold like a normal spoon, with the cup parts of each again settling together (they're more like slices of a bowl than what you think of as a spoon).

I would of course provide more detail, but I hope to patent this someday and so I'd rather keep you in a state of confusion.*

At present, I am staying in Australia, specifically in Sydney, where a high density of Asian restaurants has required a rather intense amount of chopstick usage in the past few days. However, the inevitability of the loss of certain slippery bits of chopstick-resistant food continues to upset me and remind me of my long-loved imaginary eating implement. And, given that my friend/nemesis (frenemesis?) Colin has started a blog lately, it seemed high time for me to continue my love affair of starting blogs. His, of course, is named The Best Thing Ever, whereas mine is in fact named after the best thing ever: the spopstick. Well, one of the best things ever. I wouldn't want to displace chocolate, sloths, Space Mountain, that video of a cat or the sound of opening a treasure chest in a Zelda game.

Until next time, in which I will be complaining about birds.


*slash I can't draw a diagram worth shit so you're going to have to make do without.