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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Yin and Yang of Affect

This article from the BBC got me thinking about an old conversation with Science Officer Alex Tokar. A few years ago Alex related an unintuitive theory to me. He explained that certain mental illnesses serve an evolutionary purpose for the species. The premise is that certain fragilities set us up to be metaphorical canaries in the coal mine. If some people are more prone to depression, perhaps they'll be the first to see that we should give up and run away from an unwinnable war. Or perhaps the more anxious among us will be the first to notice that an economy that doesn't produce anything is unstable by definition. And the most paranoid among us may be the first to notice that the government has repealed many civil liberties that we had taken for granted. All of these observations can be helpful to our society, and evolution may smile upon these traits. Those who think so far outside the norm as to be labeled "mentally ill" can serve an important function (if we listen to them) to those of us who tend to think inside the lines and may be blinded to dangerous realities.

(Please note: I am not so naive as to romanticize the disabling effects of mental illnesses. But this is a strengths-based model... so we're focusing on the upside here, not the hardship.)

The article I linked to doesn't actually mention mental illness, but it points out that "grumpiness" as opposed to "cheerfulness" actually has serious advantages. Researchers have demonstrated that people in a grumpy state of affect are able to process information more quickly and more accurately. They are also better observers and reporters than cheerful folk. However, this is not a one-sided finding. Happiness seems to promote creativity, flexible thinking and cooperation.

It would appear to me that we need a combination of both to thrive... that they fit together like white and black fields in the yin and yang symbol. Together, they dovetail and create a powerful whole. While each individual may be stuck being "happy" or "grumpy", each group of people ought to aspire to incorporate (and maximize) the skills associated with each side. It would be silly to label either side more important than the other.

An old colleague of mine, a moderately functional IT specialist named Ward, used to tell me that every good company should hire at least one crackpot... one guy that's really different. And that nutjob would provide a tremendous benefit to that company by thinking differently, predicting problems that no one else could foresee and making suggestions that no one else was likely to imagine. Ward, of course, was our company crackpot... so it stands to reason that he would have such an elegant theory at hand for his defense. Anyway, his theory holds water according to this model.

Most of what I'm saying seems like common sense and common knowledge. And yet, we still have a tendency to pathologize whichever end of the spectrum we don't inhabit. When it comes to the grumpy/cheerful continuum, those who sit in the soft blue glow of pessimistic rationality see our sanguine-hued brethren as muppet morons... While the red-cheeked optimists often look down with pity at the cranky Blue Meanies. One of the universe's laws is that of opposites attracting, and its utility seems obvious. We need to bond with other entities that complete us.

So why do we deride these potential partners? Why do we resent those who embody what we lack and need? Is it because they remind us of our inadequacies? Is it that we fear ceding power to the "other"? Certainly many of us resist allowing the "other" into our lives, preferring to find like-minded people to blend in with. It appears that "opposites attract" is directly countered by the universal truth that "birds of a feather flock together." What to do, what to do?


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

New Cipher

Stave If Off is a longtime advocate of Cockney rhyming slang.

The most colorful origin story maintains that the criminal classes in London invented the cipher in order to speak openly without fear of constabulary repercussion. The system works by replacing key words with commonly paired words that rhyme with the original. Thus... the key word "road" is subbed out for commonly paired words "frog and toad". Hearing someone in a thick Cockney accent saying, "The pub is just down the frog and toad," makes me smile. It becomes even more surreal when the word that actually rhymes with the original word is omitted. "The pub is just down the frog," makes me smile uncontrollably.

If you're unfamiliar with the common examples, try to decipher these phrases yourself:

"She's got lovely bacons."
"Pass the army, will you?"
"Hand over the bees!"

Start by looking at the code words: bacon, army and bees. What words are they commonly paired with? If we guess that bacon's pair word is sausage (as in "bacon and sausage") then we would look for a word that rhymes with sausage that fits into the expression "She's got lovely ___s." Since nothing really rhymes with sausage... we can conclude that sausage was the wrong pair word. Or... maybe she does have lovely Gossages. Who knows? Better bet is to go back and find another word that is frequently paired with bacon.

Following the first link in this post will lead you to the answers if you're stumped.

A fun new cipher has been created by the phenomenon of cell phone texting. Most cell phones include a predictive texting function that guesses at what you're trying to spell. Since each number corresponds to 3 letters... there are quite a number of possible permutations if you hit the 4,6,5 buttons in that order. 4 could be any of GHI, 6 could be MNO and 5 could be JKL. Basic math will reveal that there are 27 different possible letter combinations in this example. But only one spells an English word: INK. So your very smart cell phone assumes you are trying to spell INK.

This doesn't always work perfectly however. As you might surmise, many words have the same numerical formula... and my very smart cell phone doesn't know if I want to "eat" a bagel or "fat" a bagel. Both words are spelled when you punch in 327. Luckily for my bagel, the phone defaults to "eat". It is often wrong though... which creates the opportunity for a new cipher. Incorrect predictive texting results give us many examples of words that can be replaced with seemingly nonsensical alternatives.

Por exemplo:

"Beer" defaults to "adds"
"Cool" results in "book"
"Autumn" comes out as "buttons"

To make it more interesting, we also have to transcend the medium. We can't just be texting these substitute words, we have to add them to our everyday parlance. So I'm advocating that instead of saying, "Cool!" we should say "Book!" And minors should be talking about "processing some adds" instead of "drinking beers". Thwart that constabulary, kids! And from now on, "school starts in the buttons."

Do you have other examples of texting cipher speak?

Preferably something more novel than "them" vs. "then" or "ball" vs. "call".


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Attempting to Join the 21st Century

Audio/Visual technology, once an area of expertise, has left me behind. In the bowels of my apartment building, I'm storing tangled masses of RCA cables, various adapters, switch boxes, ethernet cables, patchcords and speaker wire. I have no less than three boxes full of these accessories. 20 years ago, I was a video toaster guy. Then I was overdubbing audio on super-VHS dubbing decks. 15 years ago, I went through a turntable revival period and picked up any pair of oversized headphones I could find at garage sales. I rocked a Tascam 4-track until I could upgrade to my Fostex. I bought early on full-duplex sound cards and digital multi-track recording technology. And I bit hard on MP3 when it first appeared.

But now, I'm a dinosaur. I feel like one of those old college roommates of mine that needed help connecting their computer to their stereo. I've avoided iPhones, X-Boxes, and HDTV. My router busted, and I never replaced it... so I can't even offer wi-fi to my house guests. And I've never synced my Outlook calendar to anything. I'm an embarrassment to A/V geekdom.

So this week, I'm taking a plunge. I just ordered a 40" LCD HDTV. They've been driven all the way down into the troposphere by the emergence of LED technology and the attraction of 120Hz and 240Hz models. To maximize its powers, I ordered a Blu-Ray player that also streams movies straight from Netflix. To enable this option, I had to purchase a wireless router. I guess I'm going to have to figure out an awful lot of stuff in the next few weeks. But I still haven't read the manual for my digital camera... so I'm hoping that 90% of this stuff is intuitive to an old A/V guy like myself.