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.”