“Marriage is Not a Political Act; It’s a Human One.”

A beautiful, must-read reflection from Andrew Sullivan following today’s Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality:

Marriage is not a political act; it’s a human one. It is based on love, before it is rooted in law. Same-sex marriages have always existed because the human heart has always existed in complicated, beautiful and strange ways. But to have them recognized by the wider community, protected from vengeful relatives, preserved in times of illness and death, and elevated as a responsible, adult and equal contribution to our common good is a huge moment in human consciousness. It has happened elsewhere. But here in America, the debate was the most profound, lengthy and impassioned. This country’s democratic institutions made this a tough road but thereby also gave us the chance and time to persuade the country, which we did. I understand and respect those who in good conscience fought this tooth and nail. I am saddened by how many failed to see past elaborate, ancient codes of conduct toward the ultimate good of equal human dignity…

 

 

The Most Intellectual Jokes Reddit Knows

This is a great thread on Reddit: the best intellectual jokes the members of the site know.

Here are three of my favorites:

1) It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they always take things literally.

The response is equally awesome: “I don’t get it but I’m stealing this one.” 

2) Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?

A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.

3) Two chemists walk into a bar. The first says, “Can I have a glass of H2O.”

The second chemist says “Can I have a glass of water too.”

The first chemist broke down in tears – his assassination attempt had failed.

I also enjoyed the counterresponse to this joke:

A photon checks into a hotel and the bellhop asks him if he has any luggage. The Photon replies “No I’m traveling light”. One redditor’s response: “

I object to this on the grounds that photons experience no time within their own reference frame and therefore could not possibly respond. The best they could do is give a wave.”

Lots more nerdery here.

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(hat tip: @legalnomads

Google Brain Teasers Useless for Hiring

This is an interesting interview with Laszlo Bock, senior VP of operations at Google, and the disclosure of some hiring findings at the company.

This is a revelation, and I would bet it is similar across various industries:

Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess, except for one guy who was highly predictive because he only interviewed people for a very specialized area, where he happened to be the world’s leading expert.

And finally, an admission that those brain teasers are useless in hiring!

A. On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

On Coffee and Creativity

I’ve been drinking one to two cups of coffee in the mornings over the last few months. But as Maria Konnikova explains, I shouldn’t expect the caffeine to boost my creativity:

When we drink a caffeinated beverage, the caffeine quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier—an interface of sorts between the brain and the body’s circulatory system, designed to protect the central nervous system from chemicals in the blood that might harm it—and proceeds to block the activity of a substance called adenosine. Normally, a central function of adenosine is to inhibit the release of various chemicals into the brain, lowering energy levels and promoting sleep, among other regulatory bodily functions. When it’s blocked, we’re less likely to fall asleep on our desks or feel our focus drifting. According to a recent review of some hundred studies, caffeine has a number of distinct benefits. Chief among them are that it boosts energy and decreases fatigue; enhances physical, cognitive, and motor performance; and aids short-term memory, problem solving, decision making, and concentration.

But all of that comes at a cost. Science is only beginning to unravel the full complexity behind different forms of creative accomplishment; creativity is notoriously difficult to study in a laboratory setting, and the choice of one approach over another limits the way that creativity can be measured. Still, we do know that much of what we associate with creativity—whether writing a sonnet or a mathematical proof—has to do with the ability to link ideas, entities, and concepts in novel ways. This ability depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind.

Bummer!

Jedi Academy: The Most Beautiful Ruined Moment

Sharon Kay Edwards, in a post titled “The Most Beautiful Ruined Moment” recounts her vacation at Hollywood Studios with her autistic son by penning a letter to a kind, noble Jedi Master. This story made me tear up.

Josiah, look at me, please. Look at me. Good. Listen to me. Are your ears on? Good. That lady is going to ask you how old you are. Do you know how old you are? Eight! That’s right! Now, you HAVE  talk to her, OK? I mean it, sweetie. When she talks to you, you talk back, or she won’t let you fight Darth Vader.” He never gave any sign of recognition, but I hoped that he understood. We’ve been working on appropriate conversation skills for months now, and I was counting on that therapy to kick in high gear for him in this moment.

It’s our turn! Here we go.

“Hello and good morning!” Said a bright and cheery Disney cast member to Josiah. (They are ALL bright and cheery.) “Are you ready to battle the Dark Side?”

“Yes.” Josiah mumbled.

Oh my God! He talked to her!

“Good! We need brave Jedis like you. How old are you?”

Josiah hesitated. She asked him again. I was about to answer for him when he said, “I eight.”

Yes!

“Eight. That’s great! Now, can you follow directions?”

Josiah blinked at her.

“If I told you to raise your hands, what would you…Good!”

Josiah had risen his hands up high before she finished her question.

Because of this miracle of a “conversation” we were able to secure two spots for both of our kids in the 8:00 show. (our daughter decided she wanted to be a Jedi too) Perfect! This is going to be something they’ll remember their entire life!

See if you can read the whole thing without crying. Beautiful and heart-warming.

On Knowing What Others Think about You

In a piece titled “I Know What You Think of Me,” Tim Kreider eloquently considers our bias in overestimating our abilities and positive qualities versus what others really think of us. It’s a must-read.

 Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads. 

Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring one another that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.

Although sometimes, let’s just admit, we’re simply being mean. A friend of mine described the time in high school when someone walked up behind her while she was saying something clever at that person’s expense as the worst feeling she had ever had — and not just because of the hurt she’d inflicted on someone else but because of what it forced her to see about herself. That she made fun of people all the time, people who didn’t deserve it, who were beneath her in the social hierarchy, just to ingratiate herself or make herself seem funny or cool.

Another friend once shared with me one of the aphorisms of 12-step recovery programs: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Like a lot of wisdom, this sounds at first suspiciously similar to idiotic nonsense; obviously what other people think of you is your business, it’s your main job in life to try to control it, to do tireless P.R. and spin control for yourself. Every woman who ever went out with you must pine for you forever. Those who rejected you must regret it. You must be loved, respected — above all, taken seriously! They who mocked you will rue the day! The problem is that this is insane — the psychology of dictators who regard all dissent as treason, and periodically order purges to ensure unquestioning loyalty. It’s no way to run a country.

THE operative fallacy here is that we believe that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, when it really means pretty much the opposite: loving someone despite their infuriating flaws and essential absurdity. “Do I want to be loved in spite of?” Donald Barthelme writes in his story “Rebecca” about a woman with green skin. “Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?”

This is a key paragraph:

We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.

I’m reminded of this line from The Fountain, which I read earlier this year. In a private encounter with Howard Roark, the hero of the novel, Ellsworth Toohey asks Howard:

Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.

Roark responds:

But I don’t think of you.

On a book note, I can’t recommend Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think? highly enough.

A Brief Profile of Bill Nye the Science Guy

A lovely, colorful profile of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” in this week’s New York Times:

Mr. Nye had come to talk to them, and a few thousand of their friends, at Iowa State University. If he were a politician, college students would be his base. Instead, he is something more: a figure from their early days in front of the family TV, a beloved teacher and, more and more these days, a warrior for science. They, in turn, are his fans, his students and his army.

They have gone from watching him explain magnetism and electricity to defending the scientific evidence for climate change, the age of the earth and other issues they have seen polemicized for religious, political and even economic reasons.

He takes on those who would demand that the public schools teach alternative theories of evolution and the origins of the earth — most famously, in a video clip from the site BigThink.com that has been viewed some five million times. In it, he flatly tells adult viewers that “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world — in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe — that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.”

This was a great piece of trivia:

He tried his hand at stand-up comedy — his first time onstage was during a Steve Martin look-alike competition, which he won.

When I was in my early teens, Bill’s science program was one of my favorites! It’s great to see him stay such a strong advocate for science (while at the same time pushing back on the ultra-religious folks):

The earth’s not 4,000, 6,000, 10,000 years old…I’ve got no problem with anybody’s religion. But if you go claiming the earth is only 10,000 years old, that’s just wrong.

Go Bill!

The Evolutionary Paradox of Exercise

Slate has an interview with evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, who explains the paradox between exercise being good for us and it feeling like a chore.

Q: What are the consequences of the modern sedentary lifestyle?
DL: It’s hard to think of one disease that is not affected by physical activity. Take the two major killers: heart disease and cancer. The heart requires exercise to grow properly. Exercise increases the peripheral arteries and decreases your cholesterol levels; it decreases your risk of heart disease by at least half.

Breast cancers and many other reproductive tissue cancers also respond strongly to exercise. Other factors being constant, women who have engaged in regular vigorous exercise have significantly lower cancer rates than women who have not. Colon cancer has been shown to be reduced by up to 30 percent by exercise. There are also benefits for mental health—depression, anxiety, the list is incredibly long.

Q: What can we do about our maladaptive traits?
DL: If we want to practice preventive medicine, that means we have to eat foods that we might not prefer, and exercise when we don’t want to. The only way to do that is through some form of socially acceptable coercion. There is a reason why we require good food and exercise in school—otherwise the kids won’t get enough of it. Right now we are dropping those requirements around the world.

Q: Being able to run is one thing—how did we then go on to become endurance athletes?
DL: We evolved from very non-active creatures. A typical chimp will walk 2 to 3 kilometers a day, run about 100 meters and climb a tree or two. Your average hunter-gatherer walks or runs 9 to 15 kilometers per day, and we have all these features in our bodies, literally from our heads down to our toes, that make us really good at long-distance walking and running.

I and my colleagues at the University of Utah, Dennis Bramble and David Carrier, think the key advantage for humans was persistence hunting, whereby you run very long distances to chase animals in the heat and run them into heat stroke. We can run for very long distances, marathons in fact, at speeds at which other animals have to gallop. That’s not an endurance gait for quadrupeds, because they cool by panting—short shallow breaths. You can’t pant and gallop at the same time. If you make an animal gallop in the heat for 15 minutes or so, on a hot day, you’ll kill it.

Q: But we have adaptations for this kind of endurance running?
DL: Yes. Our bodies are loaded with all kinds of features: short toes that require less energy to stabilize and generate less shock when running; the Achilles tendon that stores and releases energy appropriately as we run; the large gluteus maximus muscles that steady the trunk; and stabilization of the head. I’m a middle-aged professor, I’m not a great specimen of an athlete, but I can easily run a marathon at a speed that would cause a dog my size to gallop.

The World’s Last Telegram Message

More than 160 years after its invention, the world’s last telegram message will be sent somewhere in India on July 14, 2013. That’s according to this story in CS Monitor, which provides some fascinating details:

An important tool of British colonial administration and control in India, the telegram is connected with some key moments in Indian history, such as helping the British put down a popular revolt in 1857 and being the mode of communication with which Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru informed London of Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir.

Colloquially known as “taar” or wire in India, the telegram has been a part of Indian life, a metaphor for an urgent message, bypassing the delays of the postal system. Responsible for a twist in the plot of many a Bollywood film, telegrams were often the harbinger of the news of the death of a family member. Today, death telegrams, still priced at a fifth of the regular fee, account for less than 1 percent of telegram traffic.

Some statistics on the decline of the telegram use in India:

At their peak in 1985, 60 million telegrams were being sent and received a year in India from 45,000 offices. Today, only 75 offices exist, though they are located in each of India’s 671 districts through franchises. And an industry that once employed 12,500 people, today has only 998 workers.

Curiously:

A number of telegrams are from runaway couples who marry secretly because their parents wouldn’t let them marry in the wrong caste, class, or religion.  “They inform their parents that they are married, and fearing violence from the family, inform the police and the National Human Rights Commission,” he said.  

So what will they resort to now? Facebook? Twitter? Something else?

Death of Yuri Gagarin Demystified 40 Years Later

For over 20 years Aleksey Leonov, the first man to conduct a spacewalk in 1965, has been struggling to gain permission to disclose details of what happened to the legendary Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in March 1968. He’s finally had a chance to reveal the details, and he shared his testimony with Russian newspaper RT:

According to a declassified report, there is a human factor behind the tragic incident – an unauthorized SU-15 fighter jet was flying dangerously close to Gagarin’s aircraft. 

Leonov had been in charge of parachute jump training on that day. The weather was extremely bad, with rain, wind and snow making it impossible to carry out exercises. He waited for an official confirmation that the exercises would be cancelled, but then heard a super-sonic noise followed by an explosion only a second apart from each other. That is when he knew something was up. 

“We knew that a Su-15 was scheduled to be tested that day, but it was supposed to be flying at the altitude of 10,000 meters or higher, not 450-500 meters. It was a violation of the flight procedure.”

Leonov that day talked to witnesses that pointed at the model of a Su-15 saying that it appeared out of the clouds with its tail smoking and burning.

“While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin – a deep spiral, to be precise – at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour,” Leonov tells. 

According to the report that Seryogin wrote in his own hand, no aerobatic maneuvers or spins were to be performed by the crew of the MiG-15 with RD-45 engine and external fuel tanks, 260 liters each.  Simple turns, pitching and nosedives were conducted after which Yuri reported: “Codename 645, task completed, descending” Leonov explains.

The name of the man responsible for Gagarin’s death is not being disclosed. Keeping him anonymous was a condition under which Leonov was allowed to speak.

Fascinating reveal.

One of the best books I’ve read on this topic is Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. Currently available on Amazon for less than $7 — a steal. I would surmise the authors of the text will incorporate Leonov’s testimony as an addendum to the book.