Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Friday, June 25, 2010

Stupid Questions

Yes, Virginia, There Are Stupid Questions
© 2010 Ross Williams

Part of the problem with being reasonably intelligent is that so many of the people you run into are not. And there’s always more of them than there are of you.

Another part of being reasonably intelligent – and outnumbered – is that those who outnumber you have grown up in a democracy and believe that matters of factual accuracy and analytical validity are open to popular opinion. If enough people dislike Republican government and prefer Democrats, they vote on it and change the government, right? Well, why can’t that happen with everything else as well?

Why indeed. If enough people believe 2+2=5, doesn’t that count for anything?

I spend some amount of time discussing things with others on the internet, and I run across many, many people who do not know basic stuff. Stuff I learned in third grade and never forgot. Stuff that I’ve read up on later for more information … and still didn’t forget.

Armed, as I am, with information possessed of a fifth-grader with a solid B average, I go into these internet discussions and converse with adults – adults – who come across as the equivalent of first-graders who run with scissors. And cannot color within the lines. And eat paste.

And cannot stop talking when class has begun.

And, when I suggest to them that they are what they seem to be – i.e., totally unequipped to be discussing whatever subject it may be – they demonstrate that they also don’t play well with others.

By which I mean: when I remind them of what they should already have known for quite some time and shouldn’t have to be reminded of now in any event, they act as if it’s my fault for being smarter than they are. “Just give me the answer!

I don’t even do this for my kids. My kids ask me a question, I resist giving them an answer. It’s too cheap; it allows their laziness to pay off. It means I’m not doing my job as a parent. My job is to get my kids ready for a future where they’ll have to sink or swim on their own. They’ll need to be able to get their own answers - the correct ones. And without practice doing that now, they’ll be lost later when they need the skill.

So why should I give answers to anyone else? Why should I feed others’ intellectual laziness? Cuz I’m nice?

I consider it nicer, in the long run, to challenge people to get off their mental lard-asses and figure something out on their own. Most of the time it’s not that difficult, and it’s better for everyone involved, even if they never thank me for it.

Of course, in doing so, in making this challenge, I often have to talk to people as if they were dumb. I’ve tried other approaches. I’ve tried being funny to dimwits asking me for answers, and the dimwit either laughs at the joke or grumbles about it, and asks the same question again. I’ve tried being nice and pleasant with dopes, and I’ve been thanked for wasting their time. I’ve tried giving professorial dissertations explaining not only what, but why, and I’ve been met with everything from chirping crickets and snoring, to diatribes on not “treating them like children” with impertinent lectures; once more, with attitude: “just give me the answer, already, and stop playing around!

Uh huh. Don’t treat you like a child, but give you the answer as if it’s a lollipop.

Interesting contradiction which leads me to conclude … no.

At any rate, funny, pleasant and wise don’t seem to make much of a dent among the people who want me to do their intellectual heavy lifting. So I resort to being snarky. …which also gets blowback, but at least it’s usually more fun for me.

The criticism I get, though, isn’t always from those I talk to as if they’re dumb; it’s often from bystanders who object to me being snide to those who “just asked a simple, innocent question”. Simple and innocent as in childlike … maybe. But they aren’t children, and so being simple becomes being a simpleton, and being innocent becomes being vacuous.

Yes, I talked to them as if they were dumb. As if. Are they dumb? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. All I really know is that they asked a question that a 10 year old with good grades in school could answer either off the top of his head, or if he bothered to look it up. So even if they aren’t dumb by nature, then they are dumb by choice – which is pathetic, frankly. They’re lazy. They don’t know something and rather than put themselves out by – gasp!! – looking up an answer for themselves, they beg and whine and wheedle and cajole perfect strangers on the internet to spoon feed them.

Another interesting contradiction is that one of the criticisms I’ve often had tossed my way is that I am shredding their “human dignity” by talking down to them. …to which I’ve sometimes replied along the lines of “…and how dignified do you think they are to begin with to advertise they haven’t got the wits of a 4th grader to …” look at a map, do simple arithmetic, form a complete sentence, whatever it may be that they asked about originally.

I’ve run across people who had consumer issues with large corporations. They’ve tried explaining these issues to the public at large. …with the writing skills of an imbecile … who’s writing with a dull crayon. Not simply poor grammar and confusing “there” for “their” a time or two; not merely bad punctuation and, putting in, all those, mental commas, we picture, as we think about, what we’re writing; not just horrific thematic construction and being completely unable to tell the story of their consumer criticism in a way that makes the reader want to read it even if it’s ultimately a gripe against his company; and not purely sophomoric diction using short words where possible and tossing in the odd and existentially inappropriate Big Word in order to sound smart.

All of that. Plus some. These people are going to rite too a corprite office 2 explane y they deserv there $$ bak and a apoligie 4 the attitude they wer gave buy the staff @ the place who did’nt except there credit cardHold it! Are you an adult? An English-speaking adult? Did you graduate from high school? Oh, college? Really! And this is how you compose yourself?

Do yourself a favor and find a Vietnamese immigrant to write your correspondence for you. Your teachers and professors should be sued for academic malpractice. Yikes. Yikes and a half, even.

Most recently much discussion has been centering on the broken oil well in the Gulf. Now, I don’t know about anybody else, but the first thing I do whenever there is a topic that has to do with geographical locations is find a map. And, actually, yes I do know about anybody else, which is a large reason why these discussions turn the way they do.

I used to spend hours scanning the world atlas when I was a kid. When other male teens had a Farrah Fawcett poster positioned just so on their bedroom wall for easy viewing pleasure, I had the insert maps from National Geographic magazines. Australia has some gorgeous and sexy curves!

Others, though, have a hard time finding the US on a US map, and some of them wander out to the internet to ask questions that any third-grader with a decent grasp of geography would be able to answer.

For those who’ve not been following the oil spill, a Gulf oil platform exploded in April, killing some oil workers, and blowing apart the pipe that carried oil from the sea floor to the platform where it would be pumped into tankers. This was just south of Louisiana – the state that looks like a boot, for those playing along with a Rand-McNally at home. The oil has been sitting rather idly on this spot of the Gulf, only occasionally meandering off to find some coastline to gunk up but never straying far from home.

The oil, at its maximum, has had as much as a 160-mile span and has been in the New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola vicinity. No commercial ports have closed and there have been only rare shipping delays.

So the questions found on the internet have been along the lines of:
• I’m taking a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale in two months. Will the oil spill close the port?
• I’m planning to go to the Bahamas – will I get my money back it we have to make other plans?
• What are the plans for Charleston in case it gets there?
• Why won’t anyone answer my questions?

I’ll answer the last question: Because they’re stupid questions. And also because they have been answered and you just didn’t recognize it.

Being the kind, helpful and professorial gentleman that I am, I have tried explaining to the various geography flunkies I’ve found in various web cesspools that the oil spill is 8 weeks old, it has not closed ports that are 50 or 75 miles away, so – and think about it now – why would it close ports that are 600 or 800 miles away on the completely other side of a land mass?

I’ve tried explaining that prescience is an inexact science at best, and specific answers about the future usually require tools such as Magic Eight-Balls, Ouija boards, tarot cards or 1-900 numbers.

I’ve had follow-up questions lobbed at me like grenades about how come I know so much more than the experts.

And… which experts are those? The ones that have been on national news programs expertly predicting that the oil would latch onto the Gulf’s Loop Current, which joins the Gulf Stream, and bingo! You’ve got an oil spill from Key West to Boston in no time flat!

Right. And when was this supposed to happen? Within days you say? So it’s already happened then, … according to the experts.

Well … no, it hasn’t. And why not?

A few reasons. The experts on national news programs tend to be alarmists to begin with, and whenever the subject is ecology, environment and mankind’s rapacity of both, the experts selected also tend to be luddite alarmists pushing whatever worst-case scenario their master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation was based on.

Next, news is bad news by definition, and the worse it is the better it plays.

Further, possible bad news is – to many, many people – the same thing as real bad news, except that it maybe hasn’t happened yet. But maybe it has and there’s been a cover-up. In any event, we need to treat it as if it’s real because what if?! “What if”, to these people, is every bit as real as reality.

So you’ll pardon if I dispute the experts who have already proven themselves wrong, but I see no other option in responding to people intent on listening to boobs and alarmists.

And wait! Weren’t the experts saying that we’d be out of oil by now?

And weren’t others claiming that because we ran out of oil [and other critical resources] in the 70s or 80s at the latest, there’d be food riots and water wars, and massive human die-offs before the millennium?

I believe so. Yet these are the folks some of us would prefer to listen to, the ones inventing every doom and gloom prophecy to scare the human race into a quivering mass of frightened jelly. How’s Ehrlich’s neo-malthusian crisis been doing recently?

Still, I am counter-challenged, just how do I know that the oil can’t get on those ocean currents and do all it’s been predicted to do?

Well, it can, certainly, but it needs to hurry it up if it’s going to, because I paid attention in school. High school, this time. And college. And beyond.

Oil is unstable. It breaks down very easily. Sunlight, salt water, waves, all wreak havoc on petroleum. Raw oil on the open ocean doesn’t last long – a few weeks at most. Parts evaporate out, the salt in the water rips oil into chemical shreds, the rest balls up into wads of tar that eventually get too heavy to float and they sink to the bottom out of everyone’s way. The major danger to oil spills is to birds who can’t see it trying to dive through it for fish, to fish deprived of oxygen, and to shorelines which get all gummed up.

And now I get called a know-it-all; a self-proclaimed expert. Well, thanks for the compliment, but it’s hardly the case.

Like I’ve said, I paid attention in school, and have a good memory. I also read, and have a good memory.

Like I’ve also said at other times and in other places: expertise is relative. For example: I have horses, which 99% of the rest of Americans do not. Considering that some of those who do not own horses are quite knowledgeable about them, even if I’m the dumbest horse expert in the country, it’s safe to say I know more about horses than 98% of Americans. But when I’m in the presence of a legitimate horse expert, my job is to sit down, shut up and listen. And I do. Which – because of my good memory – causes me to learn even more about horses for when I’m around the 98% … to whom I am the expert.

A reasonably well-educated person who’s good at his job and has a few hobbies he’s also good at can speak intelligently on roughly one out of a thousand topics that may come up during a dinner party. He can hold his own in almost all company. Of course, depending on what his job or hobby is, he may be knowledgeable about a particularly popular topic or three. It works that way sometimes.

A reasonably well-educated person who is also intelligent will, over the course of a lifetime of sitting down, shutting up and listening to those who are knowledgeable, be able to speak intelligently on roughly one out of a hundred topics. Reading, research and a good memory only helps.

A reasonably well-educated person who is intelligent and wise will limit himself to speaking on only those topics about which he’s knowledgeable during those dinner parties, and remaining silent for the rest. Or, if he wants an actual discussion out of it, he’ll ask questions and [this one is tough] ... accept the answers. Yet we all know how many people attending dinner parties curb their tongues.

The internet is the modern endless virtual dinner party, with endlessly waggling tongues spouting endlessly precarious versions of reality. Reality that any fourth-grader with decent grades would know isn’t real.

Like the virtually nil possibility that the port at Ft Lauderdale FL would see oil [let alone be closed] due to an oil spill 50 miles from the port of New Orleans … when New Orleans itself isn’t even closed.

Sit down, folks; shut up for a bit, and listen. You may learn something.