November 10, 2009

When you are a young person, all of this feels inevitable. It feels inevitable that you’ll be on television, or that you’ll be an astronaut, or that you’ll be the president. It’s hard-wired into every gland, this ambition to be known and renowned. And then of course you grow older, pudgier, stouter, portly, you have children or get a job or are drawn by fate to one life or another. Only the deranged don’t notice that the possibilities for their life are narrowing. And only the truly happy look around and say, “That’s fine.”

– John Hodgman from More Information Than You Require


Graduation Fluff

June 22, 2009

Listening to my son’s high school graduation ceremony last night, I was struck by how completely implausible were many speaker claims, such as:

  • Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do.
  • You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.
  • If I can succeed, so can you.
  • We’ll always treasure our memories of high school.
  • We students are so thankful to have such a friendly principal.
  • I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority.

    – Robin Hanson

    April 19, 2009

    Of course, the battle has already been half-lost once you have a category “drugs”. Eliezer once mentioned something about how considering {Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin, John Smith} a natural category isn’t going to do John Smith any good, no matter how nice a man he may be. In the category “drugs”, which looks like {cocaine, heroin, LSD, marijuana}, LSD and marijuana get to play the role of John Smith.

    – Yvain from The Trouble with “Good”

    April 16, 2009

    The world existed before me and would continue to exist without me … It was no more than an entertainment to which I had been invited without knowing why or how, and the meaning of which I could not grasp, if indeed it had one. But this entertainment was none the less not without its interest. That is why I turned my eyes towards nature rather than towards abstract ideas. When I had to leave the entertainment I would do so regretfully, because I found it interesting. But in time it would no doubt end by boring me. Besides, in any case, I had no choice. And what did it matter? When one crushes an ant the world goes on just the same.

    – Dr. Marcel Carret

    April 10, 2009

    Adulthood ultimately means becoming a hypocrite on your own terms.

    – Merlin Mann

    March 18, 2009

    Roger Bacon, the great English scholar and teacher of the thirteenth century, wrote that a person would need thirty to forty years of study to master mathematics as then understood. Today the math he was talking about—calculus hadn’t been invented—is taught routinely to millions of high school students. No one thinks anything of it, but consider what this means. The intellectual content of the material is the same, and people’s brains aren’t any different; seven hundred and some years isn’t nearly enough time for a broad upgrade in human brainpower. Instead, just as in sports, the standard of what we do with what we’ve got has simply risen tremendously.

    – from Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

    March 16, 2009

    Steam shovels lift more weight than humans can heft, skyscrapers are taller than their human builders, humans play better chess than natural selection, and computer programs play better chess than humans. The creation can exceed the creator. It’s just a fact.

    – from Building Something Smarter by Eliezer Yudkowsky

    February 12, 2009

    But the great age of boredom, I believe, came in with television, precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling. Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do, it is only the negative experience of that state. Television, by obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation, precludes one from ever discovering how to enjoy it. In fact, it renders that condition fearsome, its prospect intolerable. You are terrified of being bored — so you turn on the television.

    I speak from experience. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the age of television. I was trained to be bored; boredom was cultivated within me like a precious crop. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel bored, since boredom creates a market for stimulation.) It took me years to discover — and my nervous system will never fully adjust to this idea; I still have to fight against boredom, am permanently damaged in this respect — that having nothing to do doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.

    – from The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz

    December 17, 2008

    It is important to remember that differential equations have been studied by a great many people over the last 300 years, and during most of that time there were no TVs, no cell phones, and no Internet. Given 300 years with nothing else to do, you might get quite adept at changing variables.

    – from Differential Equations by Paul Blanchard, Robert Devaney, and Glen Hall

    November 30, 2008

    Third, and most grave, we’ve lost our right to lose touch. “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature,” Emerson wrote, not bothering to add, “and like most things natural, friendship is biodegradable.” We scrawl “Friends Forever” in yearbooks, but we quietly realize, with relief, that some bonds are meant to be shed, like snakeskin or a Showtime subscription. It’s nature’s way of allowing you to change, adapt, evolve, or devolve as you wish – and freeing you from the exhaustion of multifront friend maintenance. Fine, you can “Remove Friend,” but what kind of asshole actually does that? Deletion is scary – and, we’re told, unnecessary in the Petabyte Age. That’s what made good old-fashioned losing touch so wonderful – friendship, like long-forgotten photos and mix-tapes, would distort and slowly whistle into oblivion, quite naturally, nothing personal. It was sweet and sad and, though you’d rarely admit it, necessary.

    And maybe that’s the answer: A Facebook app we’ll call the Fade Utility. Untended Friends would gradually display a sepia cast on the picture, a blurring of the neglected profile – perhaps a coffee stain might appear on it or an unrelated phone number or grocery list. The individual’s status updates might fade and get smaller. The user may then choose to notice and reach out to the person in some meaningful way – no pokes! Or they might pretend not to notice. Without making a choice, they could simply let that person go. Would that really be so awful?

    – from I’ll Be There 4U by Scott Brown, Wired 16.11