Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sign Changes

This is has been a thing (at least in my Facebook feed) for all of three hours, but I am finding it absolutely fascinating. Oh no, most of us aren't actually whatever zodiac sign we've always thought we were! How shall we ever live knowing that the past however-many years of our lives were a lie? (What about all the horoscopes that were perfectly suited to the situations of our days?! All lies!) This is apparently the article that started it all.

I mean, right, it's astrology, so its real-life impact is nonexistent, but people's reactions are really interesting. Most people are some variation of "What, so I'm an X now? No way am I an X!" (I for one find what I hastily learned from one random website about Aquariuses to be much more accurately descriptive of my personality than the wishy-washy touchy-feely dreamy fish I was previously purported to be, not that that matters.) I really hope people's reactions to just staying what they've always been are due to this all just being fun and games and changing exactly nothing about the real world; otherwise, these attitudes of "What I've always 'known' above all else!" are rather terrifying.

For someone who took astrological claims seriously and truly believed the positions of the stars in the sky at one's birth actually influenced or outright determined their personality, fate, and compatibility with others, there would be no choice but to accept this new knowledge immediately, switch to the "new" sign, and live as that which they always were, despite having been misled in the past. I'm not terribly familiar with astrological claims, but I assume there is supposed to be some mechanism by which these positions affects people above and beyond their knowledge thereof. So, pretending this was somehow scientifically valid, it doesn't matter what you think you are or what you've always been, the only thing that matters is which constellation the sun was in at your birth. Denying, then, the "new" (actually it seems to have been known since before the Common Era that the alignment of constellations and dates were drifting through an epic cycle) and apparently earthshattering news that you've been wrong your entire life about something so important would be counterproductive and the worst possible response. The only reasonable response would be to adopt your real sign as quickly as possible and try to make up for years of living your life a little out of sync thanks to heeding advice meant for others. But no: "I've always been an X!" "Screw you, I was born a Y and I'll die a Y!" "Z forever!"

Obviously in this case there are two levels of truth. "I was born a Leo" means either (or, until today, presumably both) that one was born when the sun was in the constellation Leo or that one was born on a date that was considered to belong to the sign of Leo. We're learning that the former expression is now untrue for many of us, but people's vehement responses are obviously because the latter expression turns out to be the most important to them in a visceral sense. And I suppose that's reasonable, since we do live in a society in a time period that (at least I assume I'm not extrapolating terribly, though as it tuns out, 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology) is too sophisticated to believe in such primitive nonsense. So of course cultural categories matter more than "reality" in this case, since the reality is impotent either way. Not that the cultural categories aren't, but as far as spending your life half-heartedly identifying with some set of characteristics or reading horoscopes in the hopes they'll have something useful to say about your day, I suppose there's no more reason to disrupt that for these scientific reasons than for the scientific reasons of oh wait, they're stars, exactly how are they supposed to affect your life?

Regardless, I certainly hope if, in the future, we are presented with new scientific knowledge that asserts what we've been thinking or doing our entire lives and/or history is incorrect in some area where it might actually matter, we'll be a bit more open to it and not cling to our past beliefs so tenaciously. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem terribly likely. I'm reminded of the Pluto debacle, although that was less about new information and more about consistency in categorization (also it probably doesn't make any difference to anything real how it's categorized). But there's the babies-on-their-tummies versus babies-on-their-backs vacillation and the fat-is-bad—no-wait-carbs-are-bad debate, and I'm sure there are plenty of other life-changing discoveries to come. (Though in both of these cases I think we've held each position more than once over our history, so the problem seems to be either in changes in how we measure outcomes or in properly designing and analyzing studies. I guess when scientific consensus changes that much (or doesn't actually reach consensus) in one's lifetime, it's harder to feel certain that this time it's right, so personal choice and preference does actually seem to be (and may be, for all I know) a valid way of making decisions above and beyond the evidence.) I think these habits of disregarding evidence and relying on our intuitions, wishes, or anecdotal evidence bode ill for our nation as a whole and the state of ourselves and our minds as human beings.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Twenty Ten

I've been whining about how awful 2010 has been, but really I think it's just that the not-so-great parts were all toward the end (including a three-hour-late plane at the very, very end which put me in a very grumpy mood to ring in the New Year). In the spirit of accurate memories and cheering myself up, here are cool things I did in 2010.

First, some firsts:
I had my first fancy foodie experience at chef's choice night at Craigie on Main. I saw a silent film with a live orchestra for the first time (Metropolis), which was really pretty amazing. I ran my first (and second!) 5K. First jury duty experience (OK, so not everything is inherently awesome, but it wasn't all that bad, and it was indeed a first). First corn maze.

I read 61 books this year, for a total of 16,025 pages. I'm not going to list them all here, but a few recommendations from them: Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu; The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien; The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan; Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond; The World Without Us by Alan Weisman; Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen; and Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers.

I saw some excellent plays and performances, including Gatz, an epic two-part (six hours total!) performance where the entire text of The Great Gatsby is spoken on stage; Wicked (finally!); a local performance of Julius Caesar in which a dear friend of mine played Brutus, pulling off his first thoroughly serious role rather amazingly if I do say so myself; Death of a Salesman with Christopher Lloyd as Willy Loman; and the surprisingly awesome Slutcracker burlesque.

And then there are the author events. This year I heard two of my favorite authors speak, Barbara Kingsolver (on tour for Lacuna) and Tim O'Brien (doing a 20-year anniversary tour for The Things They Carried, one of my all-time favorite books). With last year's Margaret Atwood event, I have now seen my three favorite living fiction writers in person and have autographed books from all three. This year also included Chuck Palahniuk, Arianna Huffington, Gail Collins, and Salman Rushdie. It would have also included Oliver Sachs if I hadn't had an exam at the time of his talk (I'm still peeved about that) and Christopher Hitchens if he hadn't gotten awful cancer and had to cancel everything.

I ate one table over from one of the guys from Jersey Shore while out for dinner in the North End. This isn't terribly cool, but it's a thing that happened, and it was rather ridiculous, so it counts.

I took a random chemistry class to keep my brain alive, and it fulfilled its purpose well. I'm rather amazed at how poorly it turns out I have been taught in the past...or maybe it's just that now that my brain isn't being constantly bombarded with things it's supposed to know for seven hours a day, it actually cares and can absorb and contemplate and savor knowledge in a much deeper and fulfilling way.

And I hiked (most of) Mount Washington! I didn't know going into it how big a deal Mount Washington is, so we weren't really prepared with weather-proof attire for the part at the top where the wind is trying to both numb you and pull you off the mountain, so we turned back annoyingly close to the top, but I'm still quite proud of how intense it was and how well we did, considering we're not "real" hikers. A bit later, my brother and I went on a hike in the Cannonballs (also in New Hampshire), which turned out to be an even more demanding hike overall, partially because it was ten hours long and partially because the first half was steeper than anything I've done before. So it's been a good year physically, with hiking and biking (I finally biked to Walden Pond, a trip I've been wanting to take on since I moved here) and starting to run (I did the Couch-to-5K program this spring and have kept running fairly consistently the rest of the year). Next year I shall add kayaking, ice skating, and perhaps skiing to this mix.