Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sources and Stories

I've started reading Reddit a lot these days. For those of you who don't know, Reddit is the latest in a series of websites that allow people to submit stories and then have them voted up or down depending on how people see them. Reddit builds on this formula by adding discussions to these stories and the way these discussions unfold can also be upvoted or downvoted. It's created a certain kind of community that lurks around the site. You can see what this community views as its ideal by heading to

The Reddit community is relentless in its requests for sources. When people start arguing about stuff, unless you have sources to back up your statements, you should probably just stop typing. Most people are suspiscious about people who start claiming "this is true!" without any sort of independent verification. They will usually pull up their own sources and start rebutting you. People aren't ready to believe just anything anyone says. They want the honest scientifically-proven-witness-verified truth.

Most of the time...

I've been listening to a lot of comedy lately. I was sick on Sunday and I laid out on the bathroom floor and listened to David Sedaris while I waited for my body to remember how to do things like move. As I laid there listening, I was listening to him tell stories about their lives and then make observations about these things. The observations are often insightful and true when I listen to them and the fact that they come out of such hilarious stories often makes me wonder if he's making things up or not (apparently he does).

But I don't really care. I'm not going to be the guy who stands up and yells at David Sedaris for lying. I am definitely not going to be the one to point at a comedian and ask them if they story they are telling is really true. For one thing I would be heckling people who basically make a living out of shaming hecklers. But more importantly it doesn't matter. Whether the story is true or not is inconsequential. I can handle the story being in some kind of Schroedinger's cat-like stage where it is both true and not true at the same time. The important part of the story is the insight that comes at the end of it. The observations about life that I laugh at because they are true. So the truth of the story is irrelevant and if it's a lie, I am not really bothered.

I think this kind of thing I think a lot when I am listening to Louis CK. Louis CK is a guy who has made a living out of presenting himself as vulnerable and honest and open about everything. Yet I still wonder if he's making stuff up sometimes for the sake of his observations. As with Sedaris, it doesn't really matter if it's true or not because asking the question would leave someone subject to much ridicule by others listening, but it's more complicated here. If people connect with someone because they are being honest and then I find out they made it up, there's something wrong with that. The reason that people connect with you turns out to be untrue.

Yet I'm sure that if people were told tomorrow in a newspaper exposee that Louis CK made up a lot of his material, no one would care. People would still identify with him and his work. They would still laugh at his comments and jokes. It seems like there's this drive for sources, but then there are exceptions made for comedians and other people.

Except it's not an exception. People listen to comedians to hear them tell stories, yes, but people really listen so they can hear the truth presented in a particular sort of way. People are listening to Louis CK or David Sedaris or Jerry Seinfeld or whoever because they tell good stories, but they're also listening because they want to hear their own thoughts said by someone else. They want to hear that they're not alone in experiencing that emptiness inside. They want to hear that other men think of driving as a race against everyone else. That is the truth they are looking for.

And when you are told that the story is made up, you don't even care because the important part at the end of the story is still true irrespective of the story.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

1200 Words On Door Holding and Altruism

Have you ever held the door for someone? Have you held the door for a lot of someone’s? There is a calculation you make when you hold the door for someone. You want to hold the door for someone who is directly behind you because it’s easy and if you don’t then you look like an asshole. But if someone is really far behind you, then you probably won’t hold the door for them because then you’re left standing in the doorway for thirty seconds looking the opposite forwards but holding the door for the person behind you. This is bad for both of you because it makes them run for the door because they now feel bad because you are standing there and holding the door for them and they are a hundred miles away. As they finally reach the door they take the time to puff out a “anks” because no one can announciate a “th” sound when they’ve just run a thousand miles to open the door you’ve been holding for thirty years.

Why do people hold doors? Altruism right? It’s about doing something selfless. You want to be nice and respectful to those around you. This is what you tell people when asked about it. If you are like most people though, then this is probably not true. I learned this in my apartment building.

I live in a “secure” apartment building. Secure is in quotes because the security is one easily duplicable key. I also use secure in quotes because it is general practice in my building to let anyone who is outside of the secure area in by pressing the wheelchair access button. The person on the outside is grateful for being let in and the person on the inside can feel good about him or herself knowing that they helped someone out. This all seems pretty altruistic right? Not when we factor in the elevator.

You see, the person pressing the wheelchair access button is waiting for the elevator. The elevators in my building suck and so you have to wait ten minutes for one to come. While you’re standing there waiting for the elevator, you stare at the giant mirrored wall which shows who’s in the public area of the lobby. It’s kind of awkward staring at someone when they know that you can let them in. A combination of this and the convention of everyone in my building doing this leads people to do this automatically. It requires the minimum possible amount of effort (most people are already leaning on the button) and does not take any time. If they were really being altruistic then they would hold the elevator.

Remember how the elevator takes ten minutes to come? Once people get in the elevator, you are SOL for getting someone to open the door for you. At that point they will just stare at you as you fumble for your keys and watch the elevator doors close in front of your outstretched arm. Holding the elevator for you would require that they go out of their way to help you. It would require some more waiting for the elevator which already took ten minutes to come. This is simply too much for people who were just helping out of convention and awkwardness before and so they drop the appearance of altruism as soon as the elevator doors open. People are not as altruistic as they seem.

I’m focusing on the people in my building here though. There are others areas where this happens. For example, I go to school in North York. Not on a main street though. The campus is built so that you have to walk for fifteen minutes to get there no matter which of the three bus routes you take to get there. This is annoying for those of us who commute. However, the remote location is helpful for the myriad of students who drive there because there is lots of parking for their many cars.

On any given day (or night) there are people walking to the bus stop, and there are people driving home. The amount of time spent walking to the bus stop and then taking the bus to the subway station makes for a large annoyance as I mentioned earlier. A ride to the subway station is considered a precious gift to the transit users. Sometimes if I know someone in my class, they will recognize me walking to the bus stop and offer me a ride. This saves me about twenty five minutes and takes the person driving a maximum of five extra minutes. It seems really nice at first appearance.

This does not happen very often though. Most of the time, I spend my time walking home watching my many classmates drive past in their individual motor vehicles on the way to wherever they might be headed. Some days I can let it go, some days I get bitter about it, but the paradox always catches me when I am driving home. I go to seminary. We are being trained to be better Christians every day. You would think we would be good at altruism. We are going to class because we want to give up more of our time for God, and yet people still get driven by without being offered a ride.

A disclaimer here for a moment. Sometimes I drive to school and I do exactly the same thing. I am not holier than thou. I make the same decisions other people make. Ok disclaimer over.

This is because no one is actually being altruistic. When people are offered rides, the other person is being courteous and friendly. They see someone they know, they recognize an obvious service, and they are aware that it will take them almost no time and effort to offer said service. It’s not even out of their way. There’s no great selfless self-giving, other-serving act at play here. It’s just simple math. This is moderately helpful and costs me nothing. I will do it.

There is a point to all of my endless arguing. I feel like I’ve established that people are generally not altruistic when it comes to holding the elevator and driving people to the subway station. It would be stretching to say that people aren’t generally altruistic, although I could probably go there. What is the take away message from all of this?

The take away message is stop being so damn selfish and be more altruistic. If there's one thing I learned in biology it's that humans can hijack our own tendencies (evolutionary or otherwise) and there's nothing I love more than giving evolutionary theory a swift kick in the face. Don this this can mean something small. Take a calculation, figure out that what you are about to do is actually going to cost you something, and then intentionally do it anyways. Stop for a pedestrian who is trying to cross at a weird place on the road. Hold the never-arriving elevator for someone even if it slows you down for thirty seconds. Pick up a hitchhiker. Recognize that people tend to be selfish and give that tendency a giant middle finger. Doesn’t it bother you that it’s so easy for me to be pessimistic about the world? It does? Good, now go out there and do something about it.