Archive for October 2011

#  Animals Doing Unexpected Things →

October 31st, 2011 at 15:53 // In Worth Knowing 

There’s a pretty good quip (whose source I don’t remember) that what makes us human is all the behaviors we haven’t seen other species exhibiting yet. Which is to say, we’re constantly having to narrow our definition of what defines our species when we see other species demonstrating behaviors that we used to think were exclusively ours. Reason was once a dividing line, then tools, today it’s particular kinds of thinking.

In this review, Barbara King does a good job summarizing the line that Michael Corballis drew between us and other animals, and then explaining why it’s already too expansive. She includes a number of behaviors I’d not seen reported, like this one:

a New Caledonian crow (a bird admired by Corballis, though he thinks it incapable of recursive thinking) solves a complex experimental three-part tool-using problem, totally novel to this crow or any other. The bird thinks “three chess moves into the future”, as another observer has put it, by problem-solving to find one tool that is used to get another tool that then is finally used to procure food. It is an astonishing performance to watch.

(via, I think, r/TrueReddit — spent 15 minutes trying to figure that out)

#  Seven Seldom-Studied Skills →

October 30th, 2011 at 16:34 // In Worth Reading 

This is a list post — a style I regard with contempt — but it’s also by David Cain, the writer I currently most wish I could be. (It’s a similar feeling to what I said about Colin Marshall when he wrote that DFW post.) The guy does what I’ve been trying to do for five years better than I do. It’s stuff like this I’m talking about:

Imagine if nobody regarded anybody as a stranger, but instead just a person they didn’t know. You can’t have wars without strangers. For that and other atrocities, we need a group of people so alien and blank to us that we don’t care what happens to them.

#  The Havoc of a Radioactive Shipping Container →

October 29th, 2011 at 13:18 // In Worth Reading 

This story is first and foremost a good yarn. It’s entertaining and unknown enough to keep you interested, while it teached you some valuable things about the seldom regarded infrastructure that keeps human civilization pushing foreword, and the risks of nuclear terrorism within that system.

(via Hacker News)

#  A Diplomatic Trip to Equatorial Guinea →

October 28th, 2011 at 19:22 // In Worth Knowing 

The two basic values of this piece are: (1) showing what an utterly appalling farce international relations can be, and (2) giving some view into a country you very likely know almost nothing about. It’s also an amusing and well-told story.

(via The Browser)

#  The Hierarchy of Disagreement →

October 27th, 2011 at 16:30 // In Worth Knowing 

Paul Graham created this fantastic hierarchy of methods of disagreement which I either missed the first time, or had completely forgotten about.

(via Less Wrong, where lukeprog adds a level to the hierarchy and uses it for some field work)

#  Getting Things Done to Death →

October 26th, 2011 at 10:59 // In Worth Considering 

I don’t love the tone of this essay — a little too bitter and anti- for my liking — but I think there’s a valuable point at the heart (a point that I’ll probably always think of as Mannian).

The advice was horrifyingly simple: When you find yourself pausing in between normal projects and work tasks for anything more than, say, 30 seconds, why not take those tiny moments and, well, do more things? I mean, you’re just sort of sitting there, right?

What sort of things? Fast things, little things, otherwise inconsequential things you don’t care about otherwise, like clearing your junk mail, refilling the stapler, changing your voicemail message, retweeting someone’s Twitter blip or giving a momentary damn about something you need not give a damn about otherwise but hey, what else are you gonna do, breathe? Feel? Merely… exist? What are you, a hippie?

(via Austin Kleon)

#  Past and Future of the Universe →

October 21st, 2011 at 13:09 // In Worth Reading 

This is great little story of the universe. I love reading (and watching and listening to) material about the universe because it allow me to spend time with these two seemingly-conflicting realities:

  • The entire past and future of the universe exists so that I can be alive right here and right now.
  • I am utterly irrelevant to the processes and scales that make up the past and future of the universe.

(via Lone Gunman)

#  The Myth of Closure →

October 19th, 2011 at 13:16 // In Worth Reading 

I’ve seen multiple stories about this valuable idea in the last few months, but I just noticed I never actually posted any of them here. So here’s Oliver Burkeman writing around this book:

It’s that the whole notion is little more than a piece of rhetoric, unrelated to any real psychological process. It certainly helps people: it helps relationship gurus sell books; it helps death-penalty advocates argue their case, since executions purportedly provide closure; it helps politicians construct satisfying narratives. What it doesn’t seem to do is help people who are suffering, whom it instead pressurises.

#  Children in the Roman Empire →

October 18th, 2011 at 12:17 // In Worth Considering 

It should go without saying that citizens of the Roman Empire had different values than we do, but it’s good to be reminded from time to time.

Roman childhood should be understood as a social category. Whether or not a twelve-year-old child was regarded as an acceptable sexual partner was determined not by biology, but by the child’s status, slave or free. No Roman saw anything problematic about setting slaves and lowstatus children to work as soon as they were physically capable of doing so. For many, adult labour began painfully early. The tombstone of Quintus Artulus, who died at the age of four at the silver mines of Baños de la Encina in Andalusia, depicts the child in a short tunic, barefoot, carrying the tools of his trade, a miner’s axe and basket.

The whole review is rather worth reading, but the final paragraph shouldn’t be missed.

(via The Browser)

#  Rationalizing Away the Suffering of Others →

October 17th, 2011 at 11:07 // In Worth Knowing 

In the context of the deeply broken American prison system, Jonah Lehrer offers word of an interesting study about how people try to rationalize away observed suffering. After watching a video of a woman shocked violently, researchers gave subject a justification for the woman’s apparent torture. They didn’t act as you may expect:

The martyrs fared even worse. Even though this victim was supposedly performing an act of altruism – she was suffering for the sake of others – the witnesses thought she was the most culpable of all. Her pain was proof of her guilt. Lerner’s conclusion was unsettling: “The sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

#  On Commencement Speeches →

October 16th, 2011 at 8:44 // In Worth Considering 

Mark Larson pulled together three different good links about the questionable value of the advice dispensed in most inspirational speeches. Instead of copying some or part of that, I want you just take a look at his post.

#  I am nothing →

October 13th, 2011 at 17:46 // In Worth Reading 

A great unreligious primer on the value of egolessness. One of those things I didn’t know I was looking for until I found it. Also one of those things I’d like to have written first, but that’s a different matter.

(Oddly, via Hacker News)

#  Do You Need to Know You Have Cancer →

October 12th, 2011 at 17:26 // In Worth Knowing 

Very interesting story about the questionable effectiveness of the prostate-specific antigen test which is very frequently given to men over 40.  These sentences provide a good summary of why it might not be all the useful to know whether or not you have prostate cancer:

The current thinking is that about 30 percent of men in their 40s have prostate cancer, 40 percent of men in their 50s and so on, right up to 70 percent of men in their 80s. Yet only 3 percent of all men die from the disease. In other words, far more men die with prostate cancer than from it, and only a tiny fraction of prostate cancers ever cause symptoms, much less death.

#  The American Farmer’s Devotion to his Crop →

October 11th, 2011 at 16:59 // In Worth Reading 

Justin Wehr writes a piece I feel like I’ve meant to for years — an ode to Americans’ absurd obsession with grass:

Grass farms – otherwise known as lawns – have been a part of our heritage as a suburb-dwelling species for thousands of centuries, or at least since 1897, when a USDA report was published and read by several people. The report specified that lawns should be grown from a single grass species and plucked of any intruding invader. [Fact.] This was a sensible request seeing as how, in the suburbs, a man’s home was his castle, and so the arbiters of fashion rightly urged that our castles ought to be miniature cutesy versions of Monticello and Mount Vernon.

#  How to live before you die →

October 5th, 2011 at 18:59 // In Worth Watching 

A life lived well.

(copied from Alex Tabarrok)

#  Post-Conflict Potter →

October 4th, 2011 at 17:33 // In Worth Distraction 

Though it earns more points for the cleverness of its conciet than for how compelling the final product is, this recommendation for what the Ministry of Magic should do now that Voldemort is gone is one of the most approachable policy papers you’ll probably ever see.

Oh and it may be useful if you’re interested in recent events in of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc.

(via The Browser)

#  Brief History of the Brain →

October 3rd, 2011 at 14:14 // In Worth Knowing 

An informatively little history how these things came to exist, and become the size it is right now, in your head.

(via Lone Gunman)

#  Things Learned Late →

October 2nd, 2011 at 6:13 // In Worth Distraction 

Great reddit thread around the questions of “What is something you realized embarrassingly late in life?” Some are funny, some are troubling, but I’m guessing more than a few will point out gaps in your knowledge.