The Two-Handed Professor

Culture, Critical Thinking 2008-01-12 05:08

two-handed professor (noun) - A person who, when asked a question, typically structures his or her reply as “On one hand… But on the other hand…”

I’m a bit of a two-handed professor myself. Any question worth asking has many facets to explore. As an information maven and critical thinker, I hate to leave out any details - even though the asker would probably prefer I boil it down, giving a simple conclusion that clearly favors a particular course of action.

The Long Tail

Hardly breaking news, but I came across this quote recently and was reminded of how happy I am that we now live in the world of the long tail:

“We’ve been suffering the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare. Why? Economics. Many of our assuptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching - a market response to inefficient distribution.”

From The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

How We All Break The Law - And Get Away With It

Politics, Culture 2007-12-24 12:37

“Why are there dead zones in U.S. law? The answer goes beyond the simple expense of enforcement but betrays a deeper, underlying logic. Tolerated lawbreaking is almost always a response to a political failure—the inability of our political institutions to adapt to social change or reach a rational compromise that reflects the interests of the nation and all concerned parties. That’s why the American statutes are full of laws that no one wants to see fully enforced—or even enforced at all.”

From American Lawbreaking by Tim Wu, a five-part series which covers the legal gray areas of obscenity, copyright, and drug use. That last item (covered in the second section) is particularly interesting: the author makes a compelling case for how the War on Drugs, rather than being reformed head-on, is instead being completely sidestepped via the pharmaceutical industry.

Swearing

Culture 2007-12-18 06:45

“When it comes to political speech, we are living in a free-speech utopia. Late-night comedians can say rude things about their nation’s leaders that, in previous centuries, would have led to their tongues being cut out or worse. Yet, when it comes to certain words for copulation and excretion, we still allow the might of the government to bear down on what people can say in public. Swearing raises many other puzzles–linguistic, neurobiological, literary, political.”

A fascinating piece on the origins of swearing. It’s longish, but try to hang in there - it gets especially interesting in the second half.

Rightsizing

Technology, Culture 2007-12-18 12:19

Rightsize Me explores the challenges of fitting clothing and the unsuitability of a single-axis size, particularly for females. Body scanning technology is a possible solution:

“A more promising approach is to use scanner data to match a customer’s shape with a store’s inventory, a service Bodymetrics also offers. Fit experts envision a future in which you’d carry your body scan in your cell phone or on a thumb drive, using the data to order clothes online or find them in stores.”

Messy Particulars

Culture, Liberty 2007-10-14 12:44

“Maybe, I tell myself hopefully, it’s all a spasmodic reaction to the unfettered discourse that the Web and cable TV and talk radio have unleashed—that because freedom of expression is rather suddenly greater than ever in so many ways, people are trying desperately to reestablish limits on what can and can’t be asserted in their vicinity. […]

Maybe the fever will pass. Or maybe a lot of us are permanently losing our taste for liberty, devoted to “freedom” in the abstract but unprepared to endure all its messy particulars.”

From The Age of Apoplexy by Kurt Andersen

He-Man

Culture 2007-10-04 01:15

“The best part about rewatching He-Man, after the initial nostalgia-burst, was tracking the show’s hilarious accidental homo-eroticism—an aspect I missed completely as a first-grader. In the ever-growing lineup of “outed” classic superheroes, He-Man might be the easiest target of all. It’s almost too easy: Prince Adam, He-Man’s alter ego, is a ripped Nordic pageboy with blinding teeth and sharply waxed eyebrows who spends lazy afternoons pampering his timid pet cat; he wears lavender stretch pants, furry purple Ugg boots, and a sleeveless pink blouse that clings like saran wrap to his pecs. To become He-Man, Adam harnesses what he calls “fabulous secret powers”: His clothes fall off, his voice drops a full octave, his skin turns from vanilla to nut brown, his giant sword starts gushing energy, and he adopts a name so absurdly masculine it’s redundant.”

Quite entertaining if you watched He-Man as a kid.

Intelligence

Culture, Cognition 2007-08-20 02:52

In the Middle Ages, “intelligence” meant memory. Knowledge was scarce, owing to the difficulty of transmitting and storing it (very few were literate, and the printing press did not exist). So anyone who could store a lot of information in their heads tended to excel at cognitive tasks.

In the era of Google Is My Brain, technology does our remembering for us. (This was true, though somewhat less so, with printed books and widespread literacy in the past century or two.) No one is impressed by a good memory, because it’s essentially a useless skill. In fact our culture seems to favor those who have poor memories but are smart in a more modern modern way - e.g. the absent-minded professor.

In modern times, what we mean by “intelligence” is reflected in the IQ test: analysis, application of previously-gained knowledge to current situations, and fast learning. Those who score well on IQ tests tend to thrive in the modern world.

Memory was replaced by technology: so why not the skills we currently call “intelligence”? This may not happen immediately, but it seems possible or even likely that such technology will exist in the coming decades or centuries. If technology can analyze, apply knowledge, or learn in a manner that is better or faster than humans, we’ll stop caring about our own innate ability to do so.

What will be the most valuable mental skill when that happens? Leadership and charisma? Empathy? Creativity? Perhaps it will be something we don’t even have a word yet, because it’s a skill that will only make sense in tandem with a certain technology. (For example: googling is an incredibly useful skill today, but would have been purposeless prior to search engines.)

I find it amusing to speculate on what such a world would be like, and on what it would mean if most of the mental facilities I’ve cultivated for so many years were no longer valuable.

Dance

Politics, Spirituality, Culture, Liberty 2007-07-09 02:12

Does anyone else think it’s odd that you need a permit from the government to dance? Not individual dancers, but the owner of any venue in which people might choose to dance. That’s right, if you stop and do a quick jig at your local market, you could be placing the owner in legal jeopardy.

A ban on dancing in New York bars was upheld in court recently, and the Institute for Justice is fighting a case for a restaurant allow square-dancing despite the fact that it is not in the proper zone for dancing.

Dancing permits come from the fire marshal, who is certainly the first person that comes to my mind when I think “dancing authority.” The idea is that venues which have people regularly dancing in them will have a different occupancy level (as determined for safe evacuation in case of fire) than those that don’t.

My concern that government decides when and where we may dance in semi-public venues may seem like a small point. And it is - kind of. But I also think that you can look at this another way. This the most basic and fundamental exercise of human liberty: people gathering together to express themselves in an emotional and, for many, spiritual way. Freedom of expression, peaceable assembly, and religion: together these comprise the very first amendment to the US Bill of Rights.
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Transparency

Life, Culture, Entrepreneurship 2007-03-02 12:42

Transparency is the future. I first glimpsed this in open source software; later, I found myself extending the same principles to business. I’m not alone: the new breed of companies place strong empahsis on openness and communication, a stark contrast to the cloak-and-dagger nonsense that is so pervasive in traditional business culture.

I’ve also learned to extend these principles to my personal life. This blog, for example, reveals thoughts and feelings that only a few years ago I might have only shared with a few trusted confidants. My new perspective has allowed me to share these things with the world, and I think that doing so has helped me grow as a person. (Not sure that it’s doing the world any good, but who knows.)

So. Having sought to extend the principles of openness, honesty, and transparency to these various realms, I am now much more aware of the lack of transparency that is so common in most people’s lives. For example, one episode of Polyamory Weekly interviewed someone who was the head of an activist organization for poly people. She stated that she was not even “out” to a significant portion of her family (i.e., mother, grandparents).

People think they are protecting friends & family by hiding parts of themselves. They are afraid that if their parents know they are gay or bisexual that they’ll freak out and disown them, or that if their friends knew their political views they might face disdain or even harassment. But something like sexual orientation is a pretty central element of a person’s identity. By not sharing it with those people you are supposedly close to, you’re doing both them and yourself a disservice. Or, more bluntly: you’re lying about who you are. How does that make you close, exactly? For myself, I don’t see the point in maintaining a relationship which requires such extensive deception.
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