April 30, 2013

Mystical comfort from Richard Dawkins

If you know anything about Richard Dawkins, my headline here seems impossible. Aside from being a brilliant biologist, he is possibly the world's most famous atheist (and quite straightforward about it), rejecting any kind of "magical thinking" or supernatural ideas whatsoever.

Yet today, he has inspired me, and brought me some comfort and mystical joy—something not at all to be expected from him.

The source is a 2006 lecture at McGill University, titled "The Strangeness of Science." It is not a religious (or anti-religious) talk—he manages to avoid the topic until the Q&A at the end. Instead, it discusses how we perceive our universe, and how what we understand about it arises from how we evolved into it, and, more importantly, simply what size we are.

Only in the "middle world" we inhabit—where things exist in sizes of inches or feet or miles and seconds or minutes or hours or days or years—does our model of the universe around us make sense. For a microbe, gravity is totally irrelevant, for example, while surface tension and Brownian motion rule the world. In a tiny, subatomic world, there is no concept of "solid," as our concept of "solid" is merely a useful construct because the forces between atoms in our bodies and other objects prevent them from passing through each other—even though their atoms consist almost entirely of empty space.

Over geological time scales, impossible things—or rather, things that are stupendously improbable—do happen. But having evolved in the middle world of time and space, the highly improbable and the impossible are, effectively, the same. So we treat them that way, even though they are not. Traveling faster than the speed of light really is, as far as we can tell, impossible. But a soup of chemicals turning into DNA, and then life? Simply very, very improbable on our timescale. Over billions of years, though, that DNA creating a brain that can wonder if that's possible? Just improbable, or inevitable? I don't know.

Who we are quite clearly defines what the world seems to us. About 27 minutes in, Dawkins says:
What we see of the real world is [...] a model of the real world [...] constructed so it's useful for dealing with the real world. The nature of the model in our head depends on the kind of animal we are. A flying animal is going to need a different kind of world model in its brain from a walking, a climbing, or a swimming animal.
So, despite their distant evolutionary relationship, a monkey, a squirrel, and a tree lizard probably model the world in very similar ways. Switching minds, they would probably feel very much at home. So would barn swallows and bats, even though one sees with light, and the other with sound. Both navigate in the air, in three dimensions, at high speed, and catch insects for food.

We as humans make maps to emphasize two dimensions, over which we can walk or drive. We relate to non-human things the way we relate to other people. We berate our computers and cars when they misbehave. We personify the weather, calling it "wrathful" or "friendly" when it is no such thing. We love our pet snails, pet rocks, and even stuffed animals, when they cannot love us back—even though we know that.

How is that comforting to me? Because the very nearly impossible, evolved, middle world, human-focused, solid-believing, enhanced great ape brain model of the world that I have in my head is kind of a miracle. Not one that anyone has made, as far as I'm aware, but one that simply is. None of the atoms that make me up today were part of me when I developed my earliest memories—of going to Gatlinburg with my Aunt Tammy and Uncle Ted and Grandma Vicky, or of my first day of kindergarten. And yet I still remember them. That is amazing.

I am tremendously fortunate to be a living, world-modeling thing, able to have these memories, to experience the love of my beautiful girlfriend and family, to write words and to make music, to learn, to have been living as long as I have—and, I expect and plan, plenty more years to come. Understanding that brings me joy, though I can't quite say why.

This life, however long it lasts, is my only chance to be part of the universe. And I'll take it.

April 28, 2013

How to correctly use "alleged" and "suspect" in reporting

Great post from Grammar Girl last week on the language of crime.

If you followed the Boston bombing story, you know how rapidly it changed—what seemed to be a fact one minute turned out to be false the next.

As a journalist it's important to avoid liability for defamation, and the AP Stylebook published by the Associated Press has great entries regarding the use of the words of "alleged" and "suspect" to shield you from that liability. AP advises against modifying a person's name with the accusation, avoiding phrases like "suspected murderer John Jones" and "alleged murderer John Jones." Instead, it recommends separating the person's name from the accusation by using phrasing such as "John Jones, suspect in the murder" and "John Jones, accused of the murder."

This may seem like a minor distinction, but because in the US people are innocent until proven guilty, we need to consider what would be the least damaging way to present the information in the event that the accused party turns out to be innocent.

The sickness

I think my immune system is taking a vacation this year. I spent all of last week in bed thinking I was dying. From Monday night until about Wednesday, I was vomiting at least once an hour; for the remainder of the week, I was struggling to stomach the soft foods and clear liquids everyone was telling me to keep in my system. By the weekend I had visibly lost weight. Six days later, car rides still make me nauseous and I can't eat large meals.

I guess this is my body's way of telling me that something needs to change. I've cut fast food completely out of my diet—which alone has done wonders—but I need to do more. It's definitely time to drop canned foods, microwave meals, and anything else that's packed with preservatives. If it doesn't rot, I probably shouldn't be eating it. Soda needs to go, too.

Last week may or may not have been a result of my sub-par diet, but it's time to make some serious changes regardless.

April 26, 2013

Time doesn't exist

Events exist and create a perception of "time" passing. Eliminate the event, and the perception of "time" passing becomes irrelevant. It becomes forever present.

April 21, 2013

Stop exploiting the Boston story

The Boston bombings are a big deal, yes. But certain tech blogs are writing about it (by writing, I mean regurgitating everyone else's coverage) for page views alone, and that's not okay. Sure, there are certain tech angles that may be relevant to discuss - but talking about how lots of people are hearing the story through Twitter is not one of them. That would've been news in 2007, but it certainly is not today. Everyone wants to play the page view game by exploiting a very serious topic, and the sheer selfishness there pisses me off to no end.

April 20, 2013

Versed: is this common sedative ethical?

I've been reading a lot about versed, a common sedative used for medical procedures. There are a lot of horror stories about it (like this one), and a quick Google search will bring back plenty of examples.

Here's the gist: the intention is to sedate patients during surgeries where they need to be conscious—in order to follow basic instructions, etc.—such as wisdom teeth extractions. Versed is advertised as being able to keep patients comfortable and keep the pain to a minimum. However, far too many reports indicate that patients under the drug feel all pain associated with the operation—they just don't remember it later.

Consider the implications here. Just because you don't remember something doesn't mean it didn't happen. During the operation, you still suffer—you just lose your memory of the pain. I read one story of a man who heard his wife's screams during surgery, though when asked about it she didn't remember anything that happened in the operating room.

Further, versed has been known to cause short-term memory loss following surgery. Often the amnesia doesn't occur until months after the administration of the drug, so people don't make the connection.

What are your thoughts on this? Is the use of versed as a sedative ethical? Is not remembering pain equivalent to never having experienced it to begin with? Is it worth the side effects?

April 17, 2013

April 16, 2013


Have you ever noticed yourself speaking and acting differently depending on whom you're talking to? It's common to behave differently around different people—we all do it, and doing so is deeply rooted in our nature. I found myself doing this the other day: I speak, act, and dress differently according to which of my businesses I'm working on. As a writer and editor, everything is proper and more formal. As a DJ, I'm sure you can imagine how different the environment is. I'm the same person in both scenarios, just working and interacting with people much differently. Interesting to think about.

The best communicators are those who can communicate to any audience they find themselves in front of.

Why I struggle with religion

I've never really been a practicing member of any religion. I was raised by parents who didn't attend church but were quick to call themselves Christians if the question came up. They forbade the use of the words "God" and "Jesus" in vain, but I'm not sure either of them even owned a Bible. I've been to church with my grandmother on numerous occasions. I really like the preacher there—he's a great man who really puts his heart into his beliefs—but no matter how hard he tries, my brain doesn't want to accept what it's being told.

I'm a thinker. I always have been. My mind is fueled mostly by logic and reasoning, which makes it difficult to accept claims, such as those made by religion, based solely on faith with no factual evidence. I usually see this trait as a good thing—I like to question what people are telling me, rather than blindly accepting statements that could be false or misleading. But in the context of religion and in the social situations surrounding it, even beginning to question what a 2,000-year-old piece of literature tells us is sacrilegious and just cause to label me a flawed individual damned to burn for eternity in a lake of fire. My apologies.

You could probably blame my education and independent research for my lack of faith—after discovering that most world religions are dominated not by spirituality, but by politics, money, and power, I'm not sure I want to be a part of that. Prove me wrong. :-)

But we're talking about faith—and you can't prove faith. Faith is very personal. Faith is also not genetic. I'm not questioning the existence of a higher power—and never could. I question man, and have every reason and ability to do so. I don't question followers who have already questioned their faith—"God" is who you believe "God" is, if you believe in "God" in the first place.

The more I learn about churches and the corruption that goes on within them, the happier I am that I didn't become too involved as a child. What would Jesus do? Start his own religion—which is precisely what hundreds of men have done throughout history.

April 15, 2013


It's impossible to find reason in a totally unreasonable event. There is no justification for the taking of innocent life. Our day-to-day routines make it easy to lose sight of what we truly value, but the worst of humanity never fails to remind us to cherish the best of humanity. I appreciate that you're still here to read this today. My thoughts are with the victims and their families in Boston.

April 12, 2013

I don't bite

I received a funny email today from someone who was trying to contact me to pitch his startup. He requested my phone number and I didn't give it to him right away because I was so behind on email. I guess he reached out to others to find the best way to contact us. The email string below is pretty funny.

And, to clarify: I do give out my cell number, I just don't answer it very often because I'm busy. I prefer to talk after 10pm because that's when things slow down and I'm not distracted. And the editor@venturebreak email address only goes to me—no one else.

Just received the note from some of my PR buddies. Guess I shouldn’t have asked you for your phone number last week – I had NO idea it was such a sensitive issue. Anyway – I’ll continue to reach out to you for xxxxx this way. Sorry about the request.

—— Forwarded Message
Date: Mon, 08 Apr 2013 09:45:10 -0700
To: xxxxx
Subject: FW: Need your help

FYI… I seriously advise not calling him – this is what EVERYONE has told me.

Sent: Monday, April 8, 2013 9:37 AM
To: xxxxx
Subject: Re: Need your help

he doesn’t give it out – and if you get it don’t call it because he’ll blacklist you.

Best way to get Brad is to email him between Midnight and 2am – seriously.

also, send a mail to editor@venturebreak which all the writers monitor, not just him.

April 5, 2013

Family Guy rap

Even if you're not a Family Guy fan (I'm not), this is pretty entertaining.

April 1, 2013

My ebook, Start Up Your Startup, is now available

Start Up Your Startup, my new ebook about turning an idea into a successful business, is now available. It's $9.99, and it comes with a 100% satisfaction guarantee because I'm sure you'll love it.

You may purchase the book here.

For more information, I've reprinted the book's foreword below:

My name is Brad Merrill. I’m an entrepreneur, a writer, and the editor in chief of VentureBreak—a publication all about innovation, especially in the startup world. I’ve been writing about startups and entrepreneurship for quite a while, and doing so has given me the opportunity to meet and speak with some very interesting people. Entrepreneurs are a distinct breed—their minds operate a little differently than the average person’s, and that difference builds some of the world’s most successful companies.
Many people dream of becoming entrepreneurs—making money, setting trends, and redefining markets and lifestyles with new products. Building a startup isn’t easy, though—in fact, most startups fail within the first year. So what’s the key to success? How can you transform your idea into a reality? What are the secrets?
The technology and the product are like the heart of your company—they’re critically important, but other elements are needed to make it function as a whole. A company has no reason to exist without the product, but a good product alone does not make a successful business. In this ebook, I aim to show you what needs to be wrapped around the technology to make your startup a success.
Products and companies always evolve as they interact with customers, investors, and the marketplace. It’s all about discovering a product and a business model that fit together perfectly. This ebook outlines the key elements of the process and shows you how to let your startup unfold.