Raw Thought: Mysteries of the Earth-Bound Human

In my short stay upon this planet I have noticed many things interesting and strange which I have written about in this and other periodicals. However, there are some things which are more than just unusual: they are simply incomprehensible. And yet they are widespread and almost universally beloved.

There are many silly and irrational things on this planet (I'm thinking of a major one in particular), but the irrationality of such things is generally acknowledged in the more intellectual circles and plausible explanations have been devised. No such thing is true of the following -- it is the rare soul who would admit to agreeing with the following.

Sports. Humans find no end of amusement in sitting on their butts on uncomfortable metal benches in an ugly, dirty facility that stinks of alcoholic beverages and saliva-modified products and watching a bunch of other humans far below play any of a variety of bizarre games with sticks and balls. They sit (or, more accurately, stomp and scream) and watch this entirely boring display for hours on end, repeatedly. When they cannot make it in person they watch facsimilies which are beamed into their homes.

It is not simply that the humans have boring lives and appreciate any excuse from them. While that is undoubtedly true, it does not explain such a bizarre choice. There is no similar crowd who collects to observe the behavior of ants or even other humans (in constrained situations like malls, perhaps) even though both these things are far more interesting.

Nor is it that the humans enjoy thinking about games, since broadcasts of more intellectual games receive nowhere near the same audience. Instead, such obsession is reserved for what they call "sports" -- games with organized teams under rigid rules that involve a great deal of athletic activity. No explanation for this obsession is ever provided. Indeed, even questioning the obsession is taboo.

Now let me be clear. I certainly find it enjoyable to play a good game, especially one that involves plenty of exercise. Yet even here, humans manage to inexplicably screw it up. When playing a game their goal is never to have fun, even though that is precisely what the game is good at. Instead, they become obsessed with the minutiae of following "the rules" and deciding who is "winning" -- pastimes which generally practiced are antithetical to the aforementioned aim.

Rock concerts. A sizable segment of the human population spends their time involved in the production of things that amuse other humans, a field known as "entertainment". Some in this field create a certain type of interesting sounds, known as "music". I have nothing against this endeavor -- many of the results are quite enjoyable, with interesting results on mood and emotion. (Although most of it, especially that noted as "popular", is quite bad.)

And I can certainly sympathize with the desire to become more involved with a group of "musicians" who make sounds that one things especially good. However, the humans once again take this reasonable pursuit and turn it towards the bizarre. It turns out that the tribute takes form in what they call a "rock concert".

A concert consists of going to listen to the humans make their good sounds. (Reasonable so far.) However, for most modern bands, it is apparently required to do this in a dark and poorly-cleaned basement, pressed up against the bodies of numerous other people who are talking and stuff, with the sounds played through speakers at a volume so loud that they sound absolutely dreadful. The alcoholic beverages and so on also again make an appearance.

Food. Like the humans, I require certain the consumption of certain objects in order to power the chemical reactions that allow me to functions (a process the humans call "eating"). While there are differences in our tastes (mine our smaller) and quantities (mine are larger), no one can object to doing these things which are necessary to live.

What is bizarre is how much enjoyment they seem to get out of it. In a recent informal survey, the humans told me that "eating" made up a large part of the enjoyment they derived from their lives. I was not able to discern the causes of such enjoyment.

In one incident, a subject explained how he looked forward fondly for the opportunity to consume a certain liquid. Interested in pursing such enjoyment, I decided to have some of the liquid with him. The liquid promptly proceeded to burn my innards, causing a distinctly unpleasant situation that lasted for some time. And yet this human is far from the only one who enjoys this liquid -- facilities for distributing it seem to be on every block. But as far as I can tell humans do not enjoy burning their innards in any other situation. The fact that it's "food" seems to have a magical power over them.

Sex. ████ ██ ███ ████████ ██ ███ █████ █████████ ██████ ███ ██████ ████████ ████ ███ ███ ██████ █████████ ███ █████ ███████ ███████ ████ █████ █████ ███ █████████ ██ ████ █████████ ██████ ███ ███ ████ ███ ████ ██ █████ █████████████ ██ █████████ ██ ███ ████████ ████ ██ ███ █████████ ██ ██ █ ██████████ ██████████ ██████ █████████ ██████████ ██ ██████████ █ ████ ███ ████████ ████ ██ ███ █████ █████ ██████ ██ █████ ██████ ████████ ████ ████ ███████████ ██████ ██ ██ ███ █████ ███ ████████ █████ ██ ████████ ███ ██ █████ ██ █████ ████ ██ █████ ████████

This is the greatest of all human oddities. Humans are simply obsessed with sex and sexual relations and other related things. They think about it, according to some accounts, nearly all the time and much of their entertainment is dedicated to the subject. Yet, by all accounts, it is a distinctly unpleasant affair involving activities so disgusting I dare not describe them to you here. While humans no doubt derive pleasure from such activities, surely it is not worth the enormous costs -- pleasure can be found in other ways in their society.

[This section has been censored from the Earth edition of this publication because it was found too inflammatory in focus groups.]

Conclusion. I do not hold out much hope for solving these strange mysteries during my stay here. They are of some interest to me, but more as a sidenote than as anything I would devote my efforts to. Even if I were to investigate, I cannot even think of a plausibly effective way to proceed on these questions. So I write them up here and leave them as one of this planet's unsolved mysteries.

posted 2005-10-28T09:19:27 #

Letters to the editor

I can meet you halfway on being in stadiums and clubs, but a bit of Pork tenderloin with pears and dried apricots ought to change your mind on food. Yum!

posted by Mike Sierra on 2005-10-28T11:04:35 #

Wow, Aaron. I normally await your (ever rarer) posts with baited breath. But this one was a stinker.

"I don't understand these things or find them interesting. Therefore, anyone who does must be a moron or a pervert."

Maybe you were just trying to be funny and I didn't get the joke.

posted by Mark on 2005-10-28T11:10:24 #

@Mark: I dunno, I thought it was pretty obviously a joke. I don't think Aaron was trying to be offensive or anything, just point out how a lot of the things we do are completely irrational. It's nothing new, and it's been done before in different ways, but any kind of custom or irrationality deserves to be satirised and lampooned every now and again.

posted by Keith Gaughan on 2005-10-28T13:28:14 #

Part of growing up for me was discovering that these supposed intellectual pursuits are as empty as the purported "lesser" goals you disdain. There's satisfaction to be found in chess, but there's a different and more fundamental satisfaction to be found in connection: shared emotion in screaming at a game, shared joy and proximity at a concert, and especially shared intimacy in sex.

posted by E on 2005-10-28T14:04:45 #

Agree with Mark above--if this is a Swiftian jest then it's a bit too esoteric for me. I usually enjoy your writing, but this was a dud in my view. It happens. I would be more concerned about the 85% of Americans who don't "believe" in evolution than by folks who enjoy essentially harmless things that I don't enjoy.

I look forward to the next post.

posted by C. Dunlap on 2005-10-28T14:06:42 #

You could add satirizing things which are easy to satirize to the list of irrational behavior.

posted by Jeremiah Rogers on 2005-10-28T14:21:02 #

To those who think this is a dud: What do you guys want me to write about?

posted by Aaron Swartz on 2005-10-28T14:32:03 #

Watching Liverpool win the European Cup in May of this year, The Decemberists playing Brighton in a very crowded small room with about 100 people present last year (helped that I fell in love that week), Calves Liver with Creamy Mash Potato and sex with my incredible girlfriend are four of the best things that have happened to me in the last year or so. I can't make detailed justifications for why this should be so but they worked on a gut level and made me very happy.

I think this article was an interesting idea but I'm not sure I "get it" and it did feel a little hostile. As for what I'd like you to write about - Infogami and what's happening with that, any insights into programming, I liked the article puncturing David Lynch's oddities, FOO Camp, the stuff about plain (white) food was bizarre but interesting. I like almost all of your stuff really, this just felt like it was being critical, and of me! And people don't like that I guess. I probably read it in the wrong tone of voice.

posted by Thomas David Baker on 2005-10-28T15:06:18 #

All of these things (even sex, in a way) are acquired tastes. You have to let your expectations adjust to them, until the plesant aspects become more prominent and you become used to the unpleasant ones. You may even find that you enjoy them differently than others, or that they enjoy them for much more "rational" reasons than you thought.

posted by Nick on 2005-10-28T16:07:57 #

Unlike the esteemed folk above*, I don't think this was a dud. I don't think you should've pulled any entry containing the line "But as far as I can tell humans do not enjoy burning their innards in any other situation" on the pseudocritical whims of a bunch of humourless bastards. (Oh, hi there Jeremiah. Sorry!)

But I think you could've developed it further. For example, let's take sex. Surely with the modern wonders of genetic modification it would be possible to come up with a mechanism which is clean, safe, enjoyable? Perhaps we don't even need genetic modification: I'm told that a device called the Intarweb, which runs on Teh Lunix computers, enables one to have a "cyber" sex, which is equivalent to sex only with a 100% rate of contraceptive effectiveness, and with the ability to reduce the amplitude of resulting squelching noises by at least a half.

As you rightly point out, quibbling over the minutiae of rules in sport is rather antithetical to the notion of having fun. But now that we've solved the problem of sex, you can simply invent a game where the object is to have as much sex as possible. We could have sex at rock concerts too, and in our municipal food parlours. The possibilities are orgasmic.

On the other hand, you could institute a programme whereby the ridiculous notions of sport, sex, etc. are gradually replaced by the most enjoyable and wholesome activities that this planet has to offer, such as leet hax and pwning n00bs. In any case, you can see how a little out-of-the-box thinking could have increased the enjoyability of reading this article at least one point three fold.

* They read your weblog! Please don't tell me that you take them seriously. (Whereas I have a seventh-sense which tells me when you've perpetrated another entry on the world.)

posted by Sean B. Palmer on 2005-10-29T08:27:56 #

I didn't like the post because I couldn't figure out its angle. Was it a satire? If so it's a bad one -- these things are so easy to poke fun at (and everyone does it). Was it serious? If so it's condescendingly written. Was it a satire of satires? If so it's over my head...

There's a pattern with posts on this weblog that many people misunderstand them. This can be funny. But this post seems so far in that direction that I have no idea what it means.

posted by Jeremiah Rogers on 2005-10-29T10:33:11 #

I think the most effective course of further research would be for you to engage in detailed participant observation, with particular focus on the rock concert and sex aspects.

posted by maetl on 2005-10-29T22:24:19 #

The piercing insights of a late adolescent iconoclast...

Aaron, you are further advanced than your contemporaries in so many ways, but not always in your assimilation of the many facets of real life.

I won't defend any specific one of your stated mysteries, but I will tell you that if you keep being a thinking person, you'll understand all of them in a few more years.

You won't necessarily appreciate any of them (but you probably will, at least a few). You'll cerainly understand why other people do. The reasons aren't always pretty or noble (sometimes they are), but they're honest.

Until then, live your life, never avoid experiences without consideration. It's a big world out there.

posted by andrew on 2005-10-29T22:40:45 #

You said in your writeup of the visit to the principal's office on Stanford that you like to hear negative things about yourself.

I wonder what truth this bears seeing as you coward away from including this entry in full.

Well, you seem to be a whiner and social misfit to me, but that might just be your way to imitate the comic talent of The Daily Show host, or Seinfeld or something ... Maybe you are intelligent too, but so people say about Randolph Hobson Guthrie III too. Give it some years, and we'll see where you end up. Maybe you get some sense out of your adolescent ramblings to boot. Good luck to any premature potential VCs ...

posted by duh on 2005-10-30T04:18:03 #

Sean B. Palmer Presents! The Cavalcade of Comments: a Roundup Thereof; with Associated Miscellaneous Craziness.

I love how this blog always attracts a bunch of whiners whining about Aaron whining. One can always rely on it to provide gems such as "I wonder what truth this bears seeing as you coward away from including this entry in full", from the learned gentleman yclept "duh" above. Whether he refers to the fact that it was pulled from the homepage or to the blacking out of the Sex section is irrelevant. Either way it delights me enormously.

But for pure flagitiousness it's difficult to beat "I will tell you that if you keep being a thinking person, you'll understand all of them in a few more years". It sounds like it's been pulled straight out of a cretinous condescention contest for jerkbags--which is, I suppose, the ultimate nature of a comment thread. Not to reveal the magician's secrets, but these comments are probably half of the reason why he writes these posts in the first place.

I won't even get started on the "pork tenderloin with pears and dried apricots" comment. That's just too funny. I'd ask for a separate RSS feed for just the comments, but I think it'd be too overwhelming as daily reading.

I should also note a bit of hypocrisy that might have been missed even by regular readers. Aaron's rather competetive, especially in debate, even if he does swear off sport competition. He's probably been to far more rock concerts than me, and he's a supertaster, so a plate o' pasta must taste like a chicken curry to him. On the other hand he hasn't had sex with Stallman yet, as far as I know.

Another thing with Aaron is that you have to imagine everything he says, absolutely everything, as being narrated over a '50s B-movie. Imagine this with lots of reverb, and in one of those moralistic announcer voices that you get at the ends of movies with a message: "Even if I were to investigate, I cannot even think of a plausibly effective way to proceed on these questions. So I write them up here and leave them as one of this planet's unsolved mysteries." Apart from the fact that the words "plausibly effective" hadn't been invented by the '50s, you can see my point.

(Incidentally, English could really do with having a second and a half person pronoun for speaking about people when they're not being addressed but are immediately present, or for when you're talking about them on their weblogs. It could also do with having separate fractions for ordinal numbers.)

Anyway, Jeremiah: I normally assume All Of The Above. But I also have the benefit of having walked around with Aaron in the freezing cold whilst he spun off a whole ream of sarco-parodic material such as the above. When he really gets going he can run for hours and it's quite impressive. So in summary, I liked this entry because it reminded me very much of being frozen to the bollocks.

posted by Sean B. Palmer on 2005-10-30T12:31:24 #

Sean, I'm sure Aaron has the wits and comic talent of someone like Woody Allen in your eyes.

That doesn't exactly make him the next star down in the computer software startups trenches, where you actually need social talent to really get going. Being and trying to be weird - flaunting excentricity or obscuring your message - that doesn't really impress anyone in the real world.

It's easy to see Aaron is politicized in his comments, and someday he might stop whining and actually understand who he really is, and how he can best use his talent. He might even turn into some religious politics weirdo for all I know. Perhaps it's not even within programming he has the biggest talent, as funny as he seem to think he is.

Noone likes someone constantly whining about themselves - their injuries, quirks, how other are treating them, weirdness or otherwise - though. So a social misfit seems the right label right now.

posted by duh2 on 2005-10-30T22:50:24 #

Aaron does indeed have the wit and comic talent of Woody Allen. Unfortunately for him, he has the panache and good looks too.

posted by Sean B. Palmer on 2005-10-31T12:25:24 #

Too bad!

posted by Eric Morrison on 2005-10-31T13:00:32 #

Condescending tone: guilty as charged. Apologies.

Aaron, it was (mostly) meant to be encouraging, but the only message was this: you just haven't seen and digested enough of the world, if the above "mysteries" of human psychology don't make perfect sense to you.

Keep observing. When it becomes clear, it will seem obvious. It's worth waiting for.

Sean, you're just a jackass.

posted by andrew on 2005-10-31T14:14:28 #

Guilty as charged too, and likewise with the apologies.

But at least I'm a jackass with a fine sense of humour!

posted by Sean B. Palmer on 2005-10-31T16:42:25 #

"What do you guys want me to write about?"

This has to be one of the saddest things I have ever read on a feed. It strikes me as utterly antithetical. But I digress.

I must admit that I agree with andrew's assertion of "you just haven't seen and digested enough of the world," no matter how much it makes me cringe to hear it. In my 20's, a quick "f**k you" would have been my immediate reply. Now as I approach 40, I realize day after day just how much I still have to learn, and how unwise (no matter how "intelligent") I really was a few decades ago. A perfect analogy is the 13 year-old pop-star singing about the tragedy and suffering of love lost.

Regardless... keep plugging away...

posted by Glenn Sugden on 2005-11-03T04:10:15 #

If you replace "one of the saddest" with the bit more direct "one of the most pathetic", I couldn't agree more.

posted by A-Dollar-a-day on 2005-11-04T07:38:39 #

In contrast to all of the other replies, I honestly enjoyed this post. It brought a smile to my face. Given that it is 8pm and I will likely be at work for another 6-7 hours, this isn't an easy task. :P

posted by Ron on 2005-11-29T19:20:15 #

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Aaron Swartz (me@aaronsw.com)