30 July 2008

Wyatt Cenac is AWESOME

Just last week, a friend and I were discussing the best new cast member of The Daily Show in a loooong time - Wyatt Cenac. This guys rules. It's always hard to explain "funny" but we boiled it down to a slightly unexpected perspective and a willingness to go the extra foot (as opposed to the extra mile and ruin the whole thing). We were specifically discussing his bit where he visited a Jewish retirement community in Florida to talk about that demographic's resistance to Obama. I couldn't help but wonder if he would sputter out or have his creativity squelched, but last night reassured me that this guy is going to be great for a long time.

29 July 2008

Listen to the Money Talk

Obama has been making a point of talking about the transformative impact the internet has had on politics. His campaign is a great example of how many individuals donating normal amounts of money can have as much of an impact or more than a big political machine. Well, here's another way you can put your small dollars to work in our democracy - buy an ad speaking out against warrantless wiretapping. Thanks to SaysMe's strategy of buying ad air time in bulk and then reselling in bite sized units (kind of like how TerraPass allows individuals to participate in the carbon exchange market), you can pay from $6-$600 (depending on channel and air time) to run this ad.

Also interesting is comparing the rates for different channels - particularly CNN vs MSNBC vs Fox News. CNN is clearly the big gun of that pack.

28 July 2008

IP and... Fruit?

Being technically inclined, I tend to think of Intellectual Property issues arising through technology - things like who owns the idea of a system (say, Facebook) or how technology is enabling new distribution channels for music, movies and writing and creating new questions of ownership and rights. But I never in my life thought there were IP issues relative to fruit! I learned this fascinating fact from the author of Fruit Hunters on NPR's Splendid Table. It turns out that fruit is surrounded by all kinds of sordid acts and espionage. Who knew?

25 July 2008

Enough with the Julia Allison already!

Despite what I wrote yesterday about my love for the window we now have into the insane world of New york media, I really do wish Radar would just shut up about Julia Allison. Don't you know that ever pixel you print about her only makes her stronger? Also, she is deadly uninteresting.

24 July 2008

I love Media Drama

In the not too distant past, when people still actually read things printed on paper as their main source of information, newspapers and magazines were fairly impressive institutions. A few gossip doyennes and editors became visible Personalities, but most journalists toiled away as faceless bylines, which somehow helped to fuel the idea that we should put our trust in these people and their work because they must be more objective, more analytical, more intelligent than the rest of us.

But that has all changed, now that anyone with a blog can be both a "journalist" and a microcelebrity. And thanks to the cult of over-sharing that has developed, we all get a peek into the catty high school that is New York Media. And, holy cow, is it a great show. I wish I could say there was some marvelous abstract philosophical reason I enjoy this, but I think it's just my base love of gossip. And thanks to our current internet media culture, it really is as juicy as the worst drama in your high school, only better. After all, you "know" all the players from reading their sites and then you can watch the drama unfold from all points of view.

Take today's post on RadarOnline, announcing that Jezebel's Moe Tkacik had accepted then rescinded her acceptance of a position there. The post, itself is gracious (maybe too gracious to be sincere?) but the sniggering comments are.. well, typical sniggering comments. And, just like high school, where all your past transgressions and embarrassments are part of a communal history, always ready to be pulled back in the light at a moment's notice, it only takes about 5 commenters before someone references the recent rape debacle from Moe's disastrous embarrassment of an appearance on Thinking and Drinking.

Of course, if Emily Gould is any indication, it's as exhausting and emotionally painful for the participants as all that high school drama was back in the day. Which makes me feel a little guilty.. but not enough to stop reading as long as they keep posting.

22 July 2008

You Are Not Who You Think You Are

Ever since I read Proust was a Neuroscientist, I've been particularly stuck on one idea introduced in the chapter on the plasticity of neurons. The first cool fact is that all those things your parents and teachers told you about how your brain "freezes" at about age 12 and it will be exponentially more difficult to learn new things after that is just hogwash. Related to that (or, heck, maybe it was in a whole different chapter and I'm just remembering it this way, since this book also taught me how grossly unreliable memory can be) is the fact that neurons actually have a short and rapid lifespan so that "you" are constantly being passed on through successive generations of neurons. This just fascinated me, thinking of your identity, memory, executive function and so on being passed like a relay. Except, of course, it's more like a school or sports team because there are so many constituents - every year a class graduates and a new class enters, those still there try to impart the spitit and values and traditions of the school to the newcomers, but something is always changed in the process. Meanwhile, the institution itself continues to go on as a seemingly continous and fairly stable entity.

This idea of subtle and constant mutations in your brain was still stuck in mine as I have continued to read The Metaphysical Club, which covers a lot of philosophical ground related to the changes in ideas about individuality and identity. And that got me to thinking about how our personality and identity is constantly shifting, even though we tend to think of it as just plain constant. At my advanced lab with a sample size of one, I've had the opportunity to observe this in light of big changes. For example, a new job. After all, for most adults, your job is implicitly or explicitly a major part of your identity, though you often still consider yourself as very separate and even in opposition. Lots of people adopt the "This is just my paycheck" attitude, but over time that becomes less and less true, as the office culture quietly works on your brain for 40+ hours a week. But you'll probably never notice this until you leave, because you still conceptualize yourself as the person who walked in the door on Day 1 who just happens to be in this environment.

Now, as much as I like just pondering this in the abstract, I think it has some concrete applications. First off, it can certainly help account for the extremely low success rate of rebound relationships. In cases where it isn't an obvious silly fling, you are probably choosing what you think is a good partner - but is actually (at best) only a good partner for old You, ignoring all the changes that have come about during your last relationship. I think the same applies to many unhappy job seekers, who embark on what they think is a great to position that fulfills most of their needs and desires, only to find they have a whole new set of needs they hadn't even acknowledged.

21 July 2008

Another Opportunity to Think Deeply about Marriage

It seems that these days, trashing the wedding industrial complex has become the focus of most marriage-related debates. And, let's be honest, especially when it's Sarah Haskins or your best friend stuck with a hideous bridesmaid dress, that's fairly enjoyable. But this does seem to have shifted the public conversation more toward "Giant white dress and 500 guests or simple suit and only close family?" and away from bigger issues of the lingering patriarchal vestiges, what we should learn from the 50% divorce rate, or whether "till death do us part" even makes sense as our life expectancies close in on 100.

So it was nice to see that the joy of legalized gay marriage in California has opened the door for some serious thinking. Stuff @ Night's Jeannie Greely takes a funny-serious look at the ambivalence around winning a set of rights that also comes with such a huge, conventional cultural weight (I can't help but note that her vision of a giant lady commune was pretty much my dream through most of my early 20's). Meanwhile, Coutney A. Martin has a piece tackling her own feminist ambivalence about this new embrace of marriage.

They both echo thoughts I've had, myself. I'm ambivalent (at best) about the institution of marriage and often felt a big tug of war between the logistical and concrete reality that marriage is more than a symbol - it is 1000+ rights handed to you with a nice bow on top - and the abstract concept that maybe we shouldn't be pushing everyone toward marriage, but reevaluating the whole thing and then getting everyone equally to there... whatever "there" ended up being. I'd say both women express these ideas much more eloquently that I ever could, so stop reading me and click through!

18 July 2008

Strange Marketing Email

I'm definitely very sensitive to the fact that sending marketing emails can be a tightrope of tone - you want to be friendly and personable, but it's really just a mass email and you need to maintain some professionalism. here is the strangest email i have received from a legitimate mailing list I actually want to be on:

I'm sorry, but there's a --- class Wednesday night I want to make sure you don't miss. If you register anytime, that would be great.

I even enabled my mail to download images in case there was some comical character who was supposed to be making this statement, but there wasn't.

Since When is Art Supposed to be Apolitical?

CNN is reporting that pro-gun groups are up in arms about the new art exhibit Wounded in America, now on display in Los Angeles. The exhibit uses words an images to display the tragic results of gun violence - including accidental, intentional and even self targets. The stated aim is to raise awareness of how dangerous guns are and the kind of damage they can cause. Obviously, pro-gun groups are not going to enjoy this type of exhibit, but the statements made in the CNN story were so ridiculous, trying to invalidate the whole exhibit on the grounds it is "politically motivated." Well, so what if it is? Isn't art always inherently from a specific perspective and usually trying to make certain points? Why should "Guns are dangerous and cause harm" be any less valid than "These images are merely symbols and not reality"?

17 July 2008

Advice column sluts

So, I have a weird fascination with advice columns, probably because Dear Abby and Ann Landers were the most exciting parts of the local paper in my no-stoplight-but-many-cows hometown. As a result, and thanks to the web, I regularly read Since You Asked, Dear Prudence, Dear Abby and Ask Margo. I don't know anyone else who finds reading advice columns as entertaining as catching up on celebrity gossip, so I'm probably the only one who ever notices this, but the same question is often answered by two or more columns. I guess the questioner wanted to get the highest probability of a published answer and sent her letter (all three instances I can think of were women) or maybe to get a range and choose her favorite answer. It just seems like such a strange phenomenon to me.

The latest example is that today's Dear Margo addressing a gym bore was just recently answered by Prudie.

14 July 2008

When Should a Woman's Right to Choose Be Overruled?

Most people in the US and other Western countries with similar laws and mores equate Reproductive Rights and Freedom with access to contraception and abortion. But though the right to choose when NOT to have a baby is an important plank in the platform, and the one that most needs vociferous and vigorous defending, it's equally important to defend a woman's right to choose when TO have a baby. And that covers everything from equitable labor laws allowing women the freedom to have children without being "punished" to forced abortion and state-imposed limits on number of children. But is the time drawing near that we all have to consider limiting the "allowed" number of children per couple the lesser of two evils? While the UN Population Day report certainly doesn't go that far, it does remind us that the current and upcoming crises of scarce/expensive resources such as oil, water and grain are compounded by overpopulation. And I think it makes sense to begin to consider how this would affect the progressive stance on the issue before our backs are against the wall.

Fortunately, the UN report is very level-headed and calls for women in poorer countries to be given greater access to information and contraception so they can choose to have smaller families if they want to. Considering that the birth rate has dropped in Western countries as women were given access to eduction and work opportunities, and given more access to family planning services, the issue may work to correct itself. And, even if more stringent steps become necessary in the future, the foundation of an educated and empowered female population is crucial for those rules to be effective and humane.

I'm actually both cracking myself up and feeling kind of sick, thinking about a "child credit market" a la the emerging carbon credit markets that are part of emissions cap & trade system. God, how scary would it be to be selling your right to bear a child.. and what a crazy new sphere it would open up for economists!

11 July 2008

CVS Has to Start Enforcing its Policies with Employees

I was infuriated, but not surprised, to read a blog post on feministing describing a CVS employee stepping waaay out of bounds and trying to refuse to sell a pregnancy test to a teenage girl. As much as I love CVS, they have been a bit lax and hypocritical on the family planning front for years. Around the time Emergency Contraception (aka Plan B) first became available OTC, CVS gained a great deal of good press by pledging to ensure availability and prompt dispensing of EC. This was and still is a big deal because many stores, such as WalMart, have opted to allow their pharmacists to refuse this legal medication to women on the basis of their personal moral stance against birth control. Other pharmacies are avoiding the issue entirely by simply not stocking the pill.

Just weeks later, a CVS pharmacist in Coventry, RI refused to fill an EC prescription and there was no real fallout for CVS, nor did they take action beyond issuing a lame apology. To know that know the minimum wage cashiers are being allowed to run roughshod on their customers' rights is just disgusting.

09 July 2008

See, Google Cares About Your Privacy.

...at least in the most practical and personal sense. Of course, I have often and loudly praised Google for farming and storing all my information, so that I never need to remember another address, flight reservation, or pretty much anything ever again. But some people are not so into it, due to privacy concerns, particularly after numerous actual Identities were ascertained from AOL's massive cache of anonymous data. I occasionally think of that when, say, Googling my latest hypochondriac fear or searching on something embarrassing, but it's a price I am still willing to pay because I get so much benefit.

That said, Google introduced a new feature today that will help with more immediate, logistical privacy concerns - do you wonder if your ex still remembers you use "fluffycakes" as the password for every account you have? Is the "keep me logged in" cookie still set at your old job, giving your replacement hours of entertainment while following your personal drama? Well, now you can find out and log them out remotely (and maybe think about changing that insecure password) with the new Activity Log and Remote Sign Out. Right on, Google.

07 July 2008

The Resurrection of TripSense

Progressive Insurance announced today that it would expand its TripSense program - a program by which subscribers install a kind of "black box" data recorder in their car, agree to upload their data to Progressive, and receive discounts for good driving habits. I think that is awesome. I am a big fan of Big Brother technology that uses its data for good, rather than restrictive or penalizing ends.

I participated in a trial of TripSense back when I was a Progressive customer. This was merely a data collection phase and I received an incentive discount for participating, but not based on my actual driving habits. I'm very excited to see it put into action, especially now that Progressive has moved into the MA market.

03 July 2008

Long Tail Economics Interpretation

The differing opinions of this TechCrunch article on Long Tail economics and the research to which it refers just shows another example of how context and interpretation are so important to Math. The original article analyzed movie and music purchases from online sources and concluded that most money is still spent on mainstream items, rather than obscure or specialized items and therefore, there is no money to be made in the Long Tail. TC disagrees and uses the hyper customization of Google AdSense as a counter-argument.

But, even more importantly, the statistics themselves don't necessarily bear out the conclusion. All they really tell us is a fairly self-evident fact - that, yes, popular music and moves are, in fact popular. And that there is more money to be made in selling widely popular items, because the volume is much higher.

What would be a more useful set of data would be to compare a Long Tail inclusive vs a Totally Mainstream service, offering the same items. For example, Blockbuster vs Netflix. Because then the availability of obscure and specialized items becomes a competitive differentiator. For example, if I find that Netflix has the Hungarian film Kontroll available while Blockbuster does not, I am more likely to sign up or stay with Netflix and to also use them to rent Indiana Jones or Sex and the City. So, while Netflix may not be making a ton of money thanks to a few dozen people renting Kontroll, they are making money as a result of their Long Tail offerings and coincidentally depriving a competitor of that money.

01 July 2008

Evolution and God

Today's edition of Salon has an interesting interview with Karl Giberson, author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution" Giberson's ideas, a lot like those of John Haught, are the kind that I think I'm going to get behind when I read the abstract of an article or interview, but I always end up frustratingly shaking my head at what seem to me to be hand waving, suspicious leaps in logic, or following something down a crazy path to an illogical conclusion.

But today's article struck me for two reasons in particular.

The first reason is that I happen to be reading The Metaphysical Club and I am fascinated about how so much of early modern science and philosophy was based on the end goal of reconciling God with Science. So it's fascinating to see what has changed in a century... and what hasn't.

The second is the question for which Giberson has no answer: "Evolution is taught in American high schools and yet many still don't believe in it. How can that be counteracted?" I've actually been mulling this quite a bit, as I have been reading about the various tides of acceptance and rejection of Darwin at the turn of the century. I think for American schools, the problem is that it gets dumbed down. I'm not sure if this is a tentativeness related to the strong fundamentalist Christian presence in our society, or just a misguided idea that 10th graders wouldn't understand.
I remember being a little uneasy with the idea of evolution when I first learned about it. Not because I believed in God or an Intelligent Designer (I still don't), but because it seemed so fuzzy and to have so many holes. And I also got the distinct impression that evolution implies directionality of progress. I saw that Natural Selection was the best explanation so far, but I already understood that science itself is evolving and that models don't necessarily reflect reality beyond being able to make accurate predictions.
Since then, I have been introduced to both the concept of the Selfish Gene and of the true randomness implied in Natural Selection. This allowed everything to fit into place. So, ironically, I think a more sophisticated and complex teaching of evolution will help make it more easy to understand for a 15 year old. And if it makes more sense, it will be more easily incorporated into a young person's world view.