Addicted to inputs

Posted in Society at 11:27 by RjZ

I spent quite a bit of time last year alone. Alone on airplanes, alone in my tiny apartment in Frankfurt for weeks on end, alone running along trails passing fellow joggers with earbuds in their ears, running to their own inspirational soundtrack. To fill all that alone time, I watched a few more movies than normal, I read many more books that usual and stuffed my own ears with podcasts that I found interesting. I tried running with music or more podcasts, but I didn’t like carrying my iPhone (too heavy) and found the distraction took away from just listening to my struggle for breath while running.

A great deal of my time was spent silently reading, yet I still think I am typical of the information overload that modern western society is guilty of. We’ve seen the evidence: connected smartphones dunked in toilets because their owners couldn’t bare to be without them for a few minutes; constant texting among friends who might very well be standing right next to each other; netflix streaming movies from iPad to TV without a break in the action. People travel everywhere with earbuds in ears, blocking out sounds and communication with thier environment and filling their heads nearly non-stop with information or entertainment, even to the exclusion of interraction. Reading a few extra books doesn’t look so bad, but I was exhibiting the same symptons.

So who cares? Well, after drinking all this information from a firehose for three weeks at a time, I’d come home to friends and open the nozzle on them, sharing all this new found knowledge. Of course, I hadn’t taken any time to figure out what all meant, and no one listening to me could either. Instead of making communication more interesting, I’d made it more cumbersome, drowning in all that media. One solution is summed up in a bumper sticker: Kill Your TV. I don’t agree. TV is often very good, and even the mind-candy we find there often contains some pretty fascinating nuggets. (I’m amazed about how much people seem to know about crime scene investigation these days.) “Kill your tv” gets to only part of the problem.

In order to deal with this onslaught of knowledge, thoughts, ideas, and entertainment, we’re faced with a choice, we either limit, or just skim the surface. Why are people seriously having a text message exchange that goes “what r u up to?” “nothin. sitting on the couch?” Perhaps because have room for little else. Our brains are so busy with video games and netflix queus, news casts, and planning dinner, there just ins’t much capacity to have a conversation managed by the tiny keys of a smart phone. Why is most everything on television be so shallow? Why are movies so repetitive? Why are the most popular youtube.com clips no more than 30 seconds? Could it be that, faced with all this information, we only have the bandwidth left to process the bullet points?

Back in university one of my favorite courses was electro-magnetic theory (E&M). (I hear it’s cool to be a nerd nowadays.) It was a two-semester course and I remember being absolutely amazed at how lowly equations for volts and magnets could somehow, magically, yield the a constant for the speed of light. (Come on, isn’t that an unexpected result?) Anyway, at the end of the first semester, I hadn’t done very well. I’d been to every class and found it interesting and all, but I barely passed the final and couldn’t seem to actually understand all the math. Next semester came around, and, ready or not, E&M 2 expects a thorough understanding of whatever you learned in E&M 1. In spite of my sub-par performance a few months ago, I found myself actually following, somehow knowing what we’d been taught lo a semester ago. It sank in. I simply needed some time to process, analyze, synthesize, and there it was, a below average final exam in E&M turned out to be a pretty good base to keep learning more.

The alternative to dumbing down, is simply to turn off the spigot now and then. Fight the boredom. Maybe being alone with your thoughts (in the bathroom) isn’t so terrifying. When faced with all this downtime in Frankfurt, I felt almost desparate to keep the inputs going, even if they were low key, reading style. Reading, watching, listening, they’re addictive habits for our big brains, brains that demand stimulation. Except, feeding the habit winds up being counter productive; causing us to stimulate with less and less interesting stuff, just to keep the neurons firing. Instead, we can keep our neurons happy just as easily if we jet let our brains alone for a little while. Maybe, go for a run (or whatever you do that requires very little mental effort) without the earbuds in and just listen to your breathing and the stamping of your feet. You might just learn something.

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Tail wagging hypothesis

Posted in Society at 12:49 by RjZ

Not that this blog has much of a theme, but this thought is so off-topic I thought it deserved a warning. Still, I’d like to hear any comments or if someone could suggest other research done on this.

Recent research has shown that the behavior of domesticated dogs has evolved to match and be dependent upon humans. The relationship between the species has been a profitable one for dogs who have, as a species, exploded in significance on the planet. The same can be argued for nearly every species that has adapted to and been adapted by humans, from sheep to corn.

I’d like here to posit two adaptive behaviors and suggest some evidence that their prevalence is thanks to their relationship with humans.

Dogs wag their tales and cats purr. In both cases, these behaviors indicate pleasure to the creature in a way that is easy for a human to interpret, satisfying and thus gives the human a signal of how to please the animal further. Other pets, either do not exhibit such characteristics or they are not easily read or acted upon by humans, perhaps, because they have not been domesticated as long or as intensely as dogs and cats.

Easy to read/Hard to miss

Even without prior association, it’s easy to guess what wagging means. The behavior is similar enough to an excited child, barely able to contain his own movement. I propose that early humans could easily guess the meaning of this behavior among their new found camp guards. Animals may show signs of joy, pleasure or contentment, but few are as easy to read, even with little prior experience, as the tail wag. Purring of cats is both more difficult to evoke and less immediately obvious, yet purring is consistently, and strongly associated with cat contentment in a way that other animal behaviors may not be. When purring , cats close their eyes and relax their bodies in such a way that it would be difficult to misread even without instruction.

Do other animals show their feelings?

Parrots grind their beaks, often muttering to themselves when content, but this behavior is difficult for humans to invoke, happening usually not in response to interaction, but rather before going to sleep when the animal feels safe. Rats brux, or grind their teeth, often bulging their eyes simultaneously in an expression that is both odd, and humorous and certainly something a rat owner can identify and enjoy, but unfortunately not as easy to elicit as tail wagging or purring, and, well, unless you have a pet rat, not all that attractive either. Rabbits grunt, but rarely in response to human interaction, and many other exotic pets have equally exotic signals, but, and here is the big question for you the reader, nearly all cases these expressions are either:

  • Difficult for humans to elicit
  • Difficult to read or unappealing
  • Inconsistent (applied both to fear/aggression and happiness such as tail-wagging in rats)

Wagging and purring are adaptations that have evolved from existing animal behaviors but have been consistently selected for because they ensure that the animal gets what it wants from its human hosts. Dogs and cats, having spent the most time of any animals as human companions have evolved the most noticeable behaviors that are easy for humans to see, understand, and act upon.

So what’s up?

Can you suggest other animals with such obvious behaviors? What about horses? They’ve spent a long time with humans. Is this connection causal, that is, is wagging so darn obvious because of the dog-human relationship? Certainly wolves and other wild dogs wag their tails, but, I understand this behavior is not expressed the same as it is in dogs. Is this true? Perhaps readers could add their thoughts or links in the comments.

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It’s a tea party on Wall Street

Posted in Liberty, Society at 13:36 by RjZ

Is Occupy Wall Street (OWS) an antidote to the Tea Party? Really, they may want the same things. Both groups have formed out of dissatisfaction with the government action and interaction with a world economy in a shambles, while bankers and financial professionals grow richer and richer. Just as many of the fiscally conservative, small government core of the Tea Party have been shouted down by loony social conservatives who aren’t satisfied with the power they already wield in the U.S. republican party; it’s unclear exactly who OWS really is, and is not. For some, they are the latest crop of counter-culture hippies, and surely a great many are just that. As youth around the globe are faced with a world where they won’t likely make more money than their parents, even if they are lucky enough to find a job, it’s not surprising that idle hands have picked up signs in protest. Bill Buster claimed to speak for fellow protesters while he was a guest on the Charlie Rose show. He declared that the media is focusing on the youth, but that the movement comprises nearly anyone who feels disenfranchised by the economic situation.

Just as the independent Tea Party has seemingly been taken over by extremists, the OWS is in danger of being taken over by Guy Fawkes inspired unemployed. Their anti-capitalist née anarchistic ideals express more anger than alternatives to the government, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Bill Maher and the Left perhaps shouldn’t have dispensed with “Tea Baggers” so quickly. Now, they’re faced with having to support anarchists, or poke fun at same, while they wave signs with slogans Maher’s writers could have written themselves.

It doesn’t take The Economist the wade through the issues to know what’s going on. People are angry and they no longer believe they can rely on the existing system to right their perceived wrongs without raising their voices. The Tea Party is unhappy with conservatives who failed to live up to their financial promises and OWS is made of people who feel their liberal leaders have failed to lead and solve their problems.

Libertarians can see how they’re both right. It’s too easy to ignore OWS as just unemployed anarchists, young people who’ve grown up feeling so entitled that when the government starts cutting down on handouts they’ve got nothing better to do than complain. Bill Buster claims OWS isn’t anti-capitalism, it’s anti-corruption and collusion. Hard to argue with that. Noted liberal Paul Krugman admits that it’s not really the 1% vs. the 99%, rather it’s closer to something like one tenth of one percent who haven’t earned their wealth in some John’s Galt ideal, but through legal loopholes and political connections. Meanwhile, the Tea Party’s extremists haven’t made any libertarian friends with their barely veiled desire for a U.S. theocracy, but the core message, forcing government to reign in spending and mis-guided control of economic policy is one that makes one wish they hadn’t been so derailed by the religious right.

OWS is finding fertile ground around the world, especially Europe, where their liberal anti-capitalism message can take easy root. Europeans, after all, are finding it hard to have faith in their politicians while they watch, and have to pay for, the failure of the Euro-experiment. That anti-capitalism Guy Fawkes stuff is a disappointing distraction, because if Bill Buster is correct, the Tea Party and OWS could get together, (kick out the religious extremists) and actually be a party for the rest of us. A political force that recognizes both the opportunity and the limitations of capitalism and holds politician’s feet to the fire when they cannot maintain system that is just and free of corruption.

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No half measures

Posted in Society at 16:14 by RjZ

I lived in Europe right before the turn of the Euro. Travelling all around the continent and doing business with several nations it was pretty clear to see what some of the advantages of a single European currency, the Euro, would be. After speaking to people from each different country, however, it was almost as clear how difficult it would be to manage. A single currency unifies a group of people in ways that aren’t easy to see immediately. European policy makers weren’t blind; there were examples from the past.

Over two-hundred years ago another group of countries started their economic experiment. They would sacrifice some of their own sovereignty in exchange for economic security. It wasn’t an easy sell, but the countries had a common language, mostly; a common enemy, maybe; and fairly similar backgrounds. During the treaty period they were very reticent to give up very much of that sovereignty to some central government so they wrote a document that would limit the powers of the government and ensure certain rights always remained their own.

We can argue about how successful this United States of America experiment was, but this concept of exchanging control for economic security was tried again more than a decade ago. This second Euro experiment is facing the a real possibility of failure.

To be fair, the United States had it easier, especially when it comes to giving up rights, but it’s doubtful that the 13 original colonies saw it that way at the time. They had much more in common with each other and dramatically less personal history than European nations have, but they were each struggling, fledgling economies and each was concerned with its personal future more than some United States ideal. Industry, farming, urban vs. rural lifestyle, slavery, and religion, divided these early nations-to-be. Somehow, they chose to sacrifice their individual futures and join the union.

What today’s U.S. citizens fail to notice as we look on at the Euro-meltdown is that we would face the exact same problems as Europe if the colonies hadn’t submitted to as much federal control as they did. Where the big difference between the United States and Europe lies is not so much our history, but in the, quite understandable, reticence of the European nations to give up control over their own policies for the sake of the Euro.

When a disastrous hurricane hits New Orleans, the economic damage is felt throughout the nation. Colorado will never suffer from a hurricane but it has to pay its share just the same. When banks on Wall Street fail, the pain ripples across the plains. That’s OK, every year, New Yorker’s pay taxes to subsidize farmers. U.S. citizens are not given a choice about bailing out one state or another, regardless about how we may feel about the logic of building houses in a flood plain, making risky loans to corporations, or planting yet another field of corn. The majority of our tax dollars are spent for federal programs, which spread the wealth to states that suffer from disaster or poor decisions. You may wish for reduced federal spending, or wonder if we really should be part of a union of states, but this share-the-wealth/share-the-pain strategy has been key to the survival of the country.

People living richer northern European countries, on the other hand, are a little less clear on just why, and how much, they have to spend on their profligate neighbors to the south. If Greece couldn’t manage their money, why are Germans forced to pay? The European experiment faces this tough choice and as long as it actually is a choice, the financial markets will reel. If Europe cannot hold the experiment together, they will surely face a recession which will affect the world economy, but the richer nations won’t have to foot the bill for mistakes they had nothing to do with. If they share the suffering for the failures of some nations, they will also have to face a terrible lesson about how much individual sovereignty they can afford without going through this again a decade hence. The data is in and it shows one cannot expect to manage a single currency, without strictly enforceable rules about how money can be spent. Like the 13 U.S. colonies, there will be no middle ground.

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No shortcut to reputation

Posted in Society at 12:46 by RjZ

U.S. conservatives, and their core of evangelical Christian voters, may now have to face up to the question of where we get our morals.

Can we trust Mitt Romney if he is a mormon, and not a “real Christian“? Christianity, along with the other monotheistic religions tells us that only God can see what’s in our hearts. Even the self-proclaimed lable of Christian does little to tell us how a person feels or believes. The best we can do is resort to what we’ve learned works over centuries of development: reputation. A Baptist preacher may wish to slander a popular religion by saying they do not share his faith and therewith imply they do not deserve our trust, but his slander is empty when applied to an individual. To name just one glaring example among so many others, Ted Haggard is a prominent Christian, but judging him on his declaration of faith alone leads us to believe he’s a good, reliable, family man. Looking at his reputation gives us a different, more accurate, story of a troubled drug dependant, repressed homosexual.

We know about as much about the Baptist preacher Jefrees.

Conservatives may choose Mr. Romney as their candidate for president in 2012. A good choice, as the middle will have little trouble with his religious views, and, unlike some of their more extreme choices, he may actually be able to win against Obama. The way the field looks today, if the republicans instead select someone else, like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann, the middle will likely abandon them, just as they abandoned McCain after his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. Palin appeals to the evangelical base, but the middle will pick the president.

In order to choose Romney, though, the party will be forced to reconcile their silly assumption, that they can know the heart of a candidate by his religion, with reality. Reputations can be faulty and we can never predict exactly how someone will behave, but reputation is vastly more reliable than simple claims. Actions must speak louder than words; even if politicians hope it’s the last thing you will judge them by.

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Easily impressed

Posted in Society, Travel at 9:56 by RjZ

After living in Germany for a couple of years I made a return visit to the company I had worked for in California. It was a heart warming experience to be welcomed back so sincerely by the team there.

When people learned that I had learned to speak German, their eyes opened wide and several asked me to speak a few phrases. A few turnedto mutter to each other approvingly in Spanish about how impressed they were.

Spanish and the Spanish-English hybrid Spanglish is spoken as often as English in Chino, California. I never really learned Spanish, although, whenever I visit a Spanish speaking country, I am surprised by how much I picked up, presumably by ordering burritos from the counter at El Pueblo Meat Market (English spoken, but only begrudgingly).

For folks in Chino, even bi-lingual ones, German was exotic and they were inspired by my accomplishment. Which, I told them, is completely silly. I’m glad I was able to pick up German (and, later, its close linguistic neighbor, Dutch), but really it’s just not all that impressive at all. Ask around, in spite of our reputation, U.S. American regularly speak at least a couple of languages. How about you?

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Most of us are right

Posted in Society at 15:57 by RjZ

“In all, 45% of Republicans who vote in primaries are conservative evangelical Christians. They are far less a factor in a general election.”

This quote from a recent CNN article discussing the impact of Mitt Romney’s faith and his chances to become the republican presidential canditate for 2012 really captures one of the great problems in politics in the United States.

Candidates have to run twice. They have to appeal to two very different constituents. Republicans, emboldened by a stuttering economy see an opportunity to play to their perceived strength as fiscal conservatives. Unfortunately, in order to get a chance to run against the so-called tax and spend liberal democrats, they’ll have to pass the socially conservative litmus test of their activist, evangelical Christian, base. Good luck if you don’t have a folksy accent.

Meanwhile, the democratic president who could have been applauded on both sides of the aisle for daring comprimises and bi-partisan concessions is attacked, not only by conservative commentators, but also his own party who feel he has caved in on important policy points like a single-payer health care bill and the Bush tax cuts.

As both sides endeavor to appeal to the base, they forget that the majority of voters are not vocal activists, rather only occasionally interested bystanders. I can’t be sure I’m not as biased as the rest, but the middle voters see government-spending a bit like they home-spending and are uncomfortable with giving out more than you have (or even hope to have). They don’t care whether you’re gay, or what Gods you pray to or don’t. If you demonstrate you’re a good person to them, and generally sound like someone they can agree with and trust, the fact that you snorted cocaine long ago, or happen to be black just isn’t really all that important.

In cities across the United States a movement is building whose organizers claim is really just about pointing out that the rest of us are fed up with the feeling of disenfranchisement we sense. Maybe it’s the 99%, heck, maybe it’s only 92%, fact is, it’s still a whole lot of us, Some are blaming corportations, others, the government, but this movement has one thing absolutely straight. Even if most of can’t agree on the specifics, if the, 92%, fine, we’ll call it 99%, of us are also activists, maybe the candidates will actually speak to our views instead of the extreme base.

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Exceptional Steve Jobs

Posted in , Society at 9:16 by RjZ

The exception proves the rule. On 5 October, Steve Jobs, one of the exceptional died.

I’ve written about the CEO club on more than one occasion. The CEO club is my name for the concept that we give extra credit to CEOs for the work they do at companies when, in fact, correlating their success with the company’s turns out to be difficult to prove, and worse, being a CEO guarantees that, regardless of how poor past performance is, another company will welcome you aboard to destroy their value as well.

Steve Jobs, so the evidence suggests, was an exception.

He co-founded Apple and they did amazing things. He was forced out and they floundered. While away he invested in Pixar, a struggling company and they went on to make computer animated cartoons that make grown men cry. He rejoined Apple and they became one of the world’s most valuable brands. Listing the rest of his accompishments will be done over and over again around the web today. They should be read with awe not only for the acheivements, but for the force of will and ability to succeed they suggest: he got the music industry to agree to an entirely new (to them) model of business!

Steve Jobs can’t take credit alone. At nearly every developer conference or product announcement he took a moment to thank the tireless engineers and staff of Apple who do the real work of changing the world. John Lasseter is a creative genius, but he too describes Jobs as the “guiding light of the Pixar family.” Yet, while Jobs didn’t do it alone, he was, over and over again, the common denominator driving companies to simply “make it great.”

I have used Macintosh computers and operating systems since 1986. (If it weren’t for my Commodore 64 being so great, I might have had an Apple sooner. The Commodore had a Pi key, for heaven’s sake!) I’ve used the much maligned Newton (best OS ever. no, really) and heard the news of Jobs’ passing on my iPhone. I’ve watched friends and family change their minds about Apple and come to appreciate the “it just works” philosophy (my brother now owns more macs than I, even if he was a bitter anti-mac for years), and the reaction to this college drop-out’s passing around the world is another proof of his exceptional talent.

It may be difficult to truly identify just what a company leader brings to the organization and most will go on taking more credit than they rightfully deserve, but decades of actual evidence points to Steve Jobs talent for success. Apple will go on to make great products. Pixar will make great movies without Jobs’ inspiration. But the CEO club has lost one of its few members who actually deserved to be there and around the world many mourn the loss of a true inspriration.

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