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Archive for January, 2010

Stevenf‘s post on the iPad and New World vs. Old World computing is a must-read even for people who have no interest in getting Steve Jobs’ latest attempt to change the world.

In Steven’s description, “Old World” computers are, well, computers. You have to configure them and update them and cajole them into working, and then cajole them into working better. He puts Windows, Linux and Mac OS X devices in that group (I’m not sure about the latter — more on that below).

A “New World” computer might not even really seem like a computer — it might be a phone, or a music player, or (though he doesn’t mention it) a videogame. The thing just works. When you want something better, you buy a new one. When you want to do a different kind of task, you get out a different device.

The really interesting insight (to me) in the piece is that “Old World” types are now sandwiched between generations of “New World” users — our kids, and our parents, are taking up smart phones and the like, and not really understanding our crusty old complaints about lack of upgradability or multitasking or access to the file system.

But what about those of us who’ve been using computers for decades, but who are (or were) Mac-centric, rather than coming from the PC world? My wife is a PC person to the core (she preferred DOS to early Windows — for all I know, she still prefers it). I’m a Mac guy. I don’t use a Mac now, since I’m unemployed (and therefore don’t use one at work) and use a PC laptop at home to be compatible with my wife’s stuff, but in my heart of hearts I still miss seeing a little “smiley Mac” icon pop up on my computer when it boots.

Even though I’m taking a computer tech class now, and looking at building my own computer from scratch (well, from components) that’ll run Windows and Linux, I still really like the idea of a computer that “just works.” So which “World” do I belong in? Both? Neither? My own little one (as usual)?

(via Waxy)

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I nominate Star Trek Meets Monty Python for the geekiest thing ever. The only way to top it would be with a 20-sided dice somewhere in the mix.

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I wish the Republicans, with their powerful new 41-59 majority in the Senate, reminded me of the Republicans in the video above, instead of the corporate type in the video below. But that would require the Dems to remind me of the  beered-up Dems in the video above. Note to Dems: Get your war on.

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Cracked.com’s article (well, listicle) on 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable has some good points, but I think it’s more valid for people who have (or would have) normal social lives in “RL” (real life). For people like me, who are awkward and bored in social situations, the 21st century is the first time in history that geeks like me can have something like a normal social life.

It’s really wonderful to be able to choose a community (so you don’t have to go through X amount of pointless small talk before discussing something interesting), and to communicate asynchronously (so you can think about your answer, and express it without having to jockey for position among a group of people who are all talking or trying to talk at once).

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What’s Wrong with Evolutionary Psychology? is a mini-essay that lives up nicely to its title, with a quick overview of some of the mines in the minefield that is Ev Psych.

This (or something like it) should be required reading for anyone who (like me) thinks there’s much to be learned by studying and thinking about human psychology as a product of evolution. I still think that’s true, but there are lots and lots and lots and lots of pitfalls involved in that kind of thinking, so we have to be really careful when we do it.

Ev Psych deals with the “nature/nurture” controversy — are we (individually or as a species) a product of our genes, or of our environment? I think it’s obvious that the answer is “both,” and Ev Psych doesn’t contradict that view, but it does emphasize (for obvious reasons) the “nature” part of the equation.

But as long as we don’t adopt some ludicrous form of strict biological determinism, and acknowledge that the debate isn’t “nature vs. nurture” but “nature and nurture vs. nurture alone,” it’s a lot easier to see that millions of years of evolution, based on biological imperatives of survival and reproduction, have surely shaped the human mind just as they’ve shaped the human body.

And no fair crying that Ev Psych provides fodder for reactionary racists and sexists — everything provides fodder for those idiots. Saying we shouldn’t think about X, because bad people might be encouraged by it, is tantamount to saying we shouldn’t think at all.

For me, the best thing about Ev Psych has been the humility it’s given me. It’s helped me to understand that maybe I’m not “all that,” and that maybe other people are cooler than I’ve tended to give them credit for.

In strictly Darwinian terms, I’m a loser — I’ve never much wanted to reproduce, and I’ve behaved in some self-destructive ways that call into question my commitment even to my own survival. And growing up, I always had a certain disdain for other people who behaved in ways that I considered utterly illogical.

But understanding Ev Psych has made me realize that even if I don’t have very strong biological programming, other people do, and that programming is behind a lot of the behavior that I find so perplexing. And I realize that just because a certain kind of behavior is stupid in non-evolutionary terms, that doesn’t mean people who behave that way are actually stupid. They may just be so strongly under the influence of their biological programming that they can’t escape it, and should really be given credit for being able to resist it as much as they have.

I’ve always prided myself on being tolerant and non-judgmental (a throwback to my religious phase), but if I’m honest with myself, I’ve been better at valuing tolerance than at actually practicing it. Understanding Ev Psych has made me a more tolerant, more understanding person.

Even if somehow it should turn out to be totally bogus, I think that will stay with me, and I’ll still be grateful to people like Stephen Pinker and Robert Wright for what they’ve given me (just as I’m still grateful to people like Jesus and Gandhi for what they gave me during my religious phase).

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Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day across the country, but in some parts of the country today is Robert E. Lee Day. Take a wild guess which parts. Yup, it’s the parts where the Confederate battle flag is a common decoration on cars, houses, t-shirts and trucker hats.

Some people say such displays represent fond nostalgia for the Confederacy, and thus slavery, while others say it’s about “heritage, not hatred” and say they’re just honoring those who gave or risked their lives for their homeland and heritage. I guess I can see both sides of the issue, just as I can see both sides of the controversy over whether displaying the Confederate battle flag (the familiar “Stars and Bars”) is appropriate.

On the one hand, the people taking offense have some good points. After all, in this day and age, you have to be pretty ignorant not to realize that waving the Confederate battle flag causes offense, or pretty insensitive to wave it anyway.

And given the nature of the offense, and who is offended and why, continuing to wave the Stars and Bars doesn’t merely say “I like my heritage,” it says “I like my heritage more than I like, say, not being an asshole.”

Plus, if you’re trying to express pride in your heritage, why not pick some aspect of your heritage that’s actually worth bragging about? Why fly the flag under which your ancestors fought to keep slavery legal, and got their asses handed to them on a platter?

I mean, there’s got to be some aspect of Southern heritage and culture that doesn’t totally suck ass. Maybe a flag with barbecue, chicken-fried steak and biscuits? I could get behind that! Why not fly that flag, instead a flag flown by an anti-American insurrection designed to protect Southern “states rights” to perpetuate one of the greatest blots on this nation’s history?

But then, I also understand where the other side is coming from. Heritage is important, and maybe we’ve become a bit too oversensitive to other people’s feelings, and reluctant to show pride in where we come from.

For instance, I’m a Northerner, and I’m very proud of my Northern heritage, and a large part of that heritage consists of thanking my lucky stars I’m not some dumb ignorant redneck born in the hot, sweaty ass-crack of the world, raised by buck-toothed Baptists, who grew up wondering whether my last tooth would fall out before I ever got a chance to bang someone who didn’t have the same last name.

And I understand that some people might find that offensive. In these politically correct times, we’re supposed to be tolerant of everybody, everywhere, even the brain- and tooth-challenged, backward, butt-bred denizens of some Darwin-forsaken backwoods boondocks. But hey, I’m just expressing my heritage. And that makes it OK … right?

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Jaron Lanier’s take on the Internet is worth paying attention to, even if (like me) you think he’s dead wrong.

Lanier is the father of “virtual reality” worlds, so he knows a thing or two about computers and their interfacing with humans. But someone from the background of VR — in which the user is completely immersed in a highly sculpted, highly controlled environment designed by highly paid computer programmers — is likely to have an elitist’s disdain for the common rabble.

Lanier writes: “There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash— always turn out to be the results of proprietary development.”

The problem with that argument is, Google’s page-rank algorithm relies on the collective of users to rank pages according to likely usefulness, while Flash is evil.

NYT’s John Tierney writes approvingly of Lanier’s view, which should be a red flag, given Tierney’s track record as a pro-industry, anti-science crank. And a Newsweek book review paraphrases Lanier as asking, “Why are we so enamored of Wikipedia, the signal achievement of the Web 2.0 era, when it has channeled so much intellectual energy into a reference project that is, at best, only as good as the book it replaces?”

To which I can only reply, Wikipedia is vastly better than the book it replaces, and not just because it’s easy to Google and you can access it anywhere with WiFi. It might be just as error-prone as traditional encyclopedias, but it’s a lot easier to correct the errors (how many people buy a new encyclopedia every year?), and you’ll find lots of stuff on Wiki that you’ll never find in any printed book you’re likely to get your hands on.

Sure, lots of it is useless, but it doesn’t ‘take up valuable shelf space or anything. Just go to Wiki and use the search engine, or go to Google and add “wiki” to your search terms, and you’re likely to get what you’re looking for.

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