Category Archives: thinking


It’s more important to feel free than to be wealthy.

This is the sort of wisdom that most teenagers understand, and that many adults have forgotten.

It’s good to be reminded of it.

In Love With Your iPhone

Martin Lindstrom, writing for the NYT:

But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.

In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.

Now, keep in mind that the way this op-ed interprets the neuroscience evidence is rather unfounded (take a look here to see why).

But that doesn’t really matter as far as fiction is concerned. This is exactly the kind of over-interpretation that can make good sci-fi (remember, while scientific rigor can make for good sci-fi, it’s not required. Much sci-fi is really fantasy).

I actually wrote a story based on this premise almost a decade ago, before the iPhone even existed. Alas, that story never sold, otherwise I’d appear pretty good as a prognosticator.

I do not think this is in anyway a new phenomenon though, nor would I consider it somehow purely negative. I’m sure you can find a caveman whose feelings for his favorite hunting knife could be described as love.

We have always humanized our tools and endowed them with emotional qualities. It’s one of the most puzzling as well as endearing qualities of our species.

The New Kindle

I don’t have much to say about the Amazon announcements today. I think Amazon has done an amazing job and offered a compelling device with a good media-delivery infrastructure. But other people have made that observation much more eloquently.

I just want to remind myself that when I was a kid, if I had been shown something like the Kindle or the iPad, I would have thought it something from fifty to a hundred years in the future, not just thirty.

We live in wondrous times. Let’s try not to forget how lucky we are.

Working Memory

There’s some evidence that the size of your working memory — the amount of information that you can actively hold in your head at once — is correlated with intelligence. (See discussion in Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School and the sources cited therein).

“Music of the Spheres,” which will be published in Thomas Carpenter’s anthology, Mirror Shards: Exploring the Edges of Augmented Reality, is about the potential for technology to augment working memory. I actually began this story almost a decade ago, long before I knew anything about the cognitive science on working memory and intelligence. Surprisingly, my conjectures have turned out to be largely right.

But it’s also a story about the meaning of disability.

I’ve been thinking about how we define normality and disability. If some develop a mutation to digest milk as adults, is the inability to digest milk (the state of normality prior to the existence of the mutation) now a disability? If some portion of the population have bodies that can accept augmentation technology while others cannot, are the others now disabled?

How we answer these questions have implications for what we do. And I don’t find them easy.




Two Faces

Sometimes a person will appear one way in public, but another in private. He might be polite and thoughtful and gentle with one group, and cruel and paranoid and evil with another.

Sometimes that’s true of an entire country or people.

Now, this isn’t just because people behave differently depending on who they’re with — supercilious to those they deem inferior, ingratiating to those they deem superior — though that is one part of it. There is also a cognitive bias at work here.

Our minds work in such a way that we construct most of what we perceive from memory. When we look at a photograph of our family, we fill in much of the picture not from new sensory data, but by how we remember and anticipate them to look.

A similar principle is at work in news gathering and news consumption. Reporters with a certain notion of how things ought to be will focus on those details that they anticipate. And readers with a certain notion of how things are will pick out words, sentences, ideas that match their predictions. If you expect to see certain traits among a people, you will see them.

And so sometimes a place will appear in the media of one country as a paradise, and in the media of another as a hell on earth.

These biases and filters are more powerful than any form of censorship. That’s why I think it’s best to get your news from multiple perspectives: different countries, continents, systems of government, languages. And always remember that you may be wearing colored glasses yourself — you’ve just become so used to them that you never knew they were there.

Modeling the Mind

Adam Gopnik, “The Information,” New Yorker, Feb 14 & 21, 2011:

…at any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence … When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom … When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange … When mainframe computers arrived … the mind was like a mainframe… Some machine is always showing us Mind…

“Algorithms for Love”:

People have always associated the mind with the technological fad of the moment. When they believed in witches and spirits, they thought there was a little man in the brain. When they had mechanical looms and player pianos, they thought the brain was an engine. When they had telegraphs and telephones, they thought the brain was a wire network. Now you think the brain is just a computer.

I guess I’m an Ever-Waser.


It seems that a popular way to “win” an argument is to belittle your opponent by claiming that the person has lived a “sheltered life.” Because the other person has not lived as authentic and gritty a life as you, the theory goes, he cannot possibly understand all the experience/passion/feeling/moral force behind your position, which is drawn from the quintessence of life itself. Indeed, he has not even earned the right to debate you.

I do not think there is much to recommend this strategy — though I’ve often been tempted to yield to it myself. Each of us has lived an authentic life in our own way, and we have all been deprived of other experiences. We are all sheltered.