Thursday, 26 June 2008

Emotions are Values

"People who suffer damage to the frontal cortex can lose most of their ability to experience emotion while retaining their ability to think rationally. But they don’t therefore see the world with crystalline logic, so that life suddenly becomes simple. On the contrary, Haidt reports: “They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, ‘What should I do now?’ they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other."

PURSUING HAPPINESS : Two scholars explore the fragility of contentment

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Persistence of Vision

The part of the brain that deals with vision only gets 10-20% of its information from the eyes; the remainder comes from our memory banks. Is it possible that we do not see—we merely recognise?
It is almost as though the new information is being weaved into what we already know of the world, with all our idiosyncrasies and prejudices. It may explain how two people, upon witnessing the same event, can report differently. As the Talmud says, "We do not see the world as it is; we see the world as we are."
In film, the term 'ellipsis' refers to a gap in the narrative where the viewer fill in the blanks: a man is walking down a hallway; the next shot shows him closing the door from the outside. We fill in the gap—the ellipsis—with our own scripted memory, so familiar to us, called 'leaving the house'.
Magicians also depend on this ability, and delight us by confounding our well-worn expectations.

It is not only vision that is muddied by memory. Patients who have lost hands can complain that a ring on that hand is too tight. It is hard to know how far back these echoes of memory go: a woman born without arms reported feeling herself gesturing when she spoke, with limbs only her ancestors had.

The Enlightenment freed the Western world from the magical thinking of religion slopping over into everyday life, but in its enthusiasm for systems neglected to abandon the religious idea that we are cut from whole cloth. This legacy, a mechanistic model for the world, and for our bodies, leaves us with the idea that we are almost automatons, with clear and distinct inputs and sharply-defined seperations. Evolutionary biology shows this to be a noble myth. We are in fact a jerry-rigged collection of odd parts, bearing the junk-DNA scars of millions of years of false starts and scraping by. Our faculties are less like computers and more like jungle eco-systems; they work organically, evolving and devolving by luck and the slightest of advantages.
When our systems go haywire, it helps to remember that we are not pristine and finely-tuned products of a single mind or purpose. We are grizzled, ramshackle survival machines.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Adam Sandler - Gimme That Candy

The best three minutes of Adam Sandler's career, right here.

Freeware Necessary For Life 2

Firefox 3
You can tell a lot about a guy by the web browser he uses. Internet Explorer? Works in an office or doesn't care about computers. Safari? Likes shiny objects. Opera? Wants raw speed. But the guy who uses Firefox is an endless tinkerer, a ceaseless tester of add-ons and plug-ins. Eight million people downloaded Firefox 3 when it was released on June 18—a world record.
This version is faster than earlier Firefox releases, and is much faster than Internet Explorer. But the real heart of Firefox is in the add-ons, which profuse like fat chicks at cheap pubs. There are thousands, and also many graphic styles to change the overall appearance of the browser.

For Windows & Mac. Download here.

Short for crap cleaner, this is the crème de la crème of hard drive spring cleaning tools. Run it monthly to get rid of file remnants clogging up your drive. Use it to check which startup programs are making your reboot take so long. And clean up your registry, the ugly, opaque heart of the system through which all applications must pass. All this will make your PC run faster and cleaner.

For Windows. Download here.

Anyone with a busy life ends up with notes everywhere. Outliner programs offer a simple way of bringing order to the messy clutch of Post-Its that threaten to overwhelm life as we know it. The two things that set TreeDBnotes apart from other outliners is (a) its excellent image-handling, and (b) that it is pretty. If neither of these reasons seem particularly good, go with the simpler KeyNote.

For Windows. Download TreeDBnotes here. Download KeyNote here.

If I view an image, I want the application to open fast and not interfere with the viewing experience. Faststone Maxview succeeds on both counts. It can handle most filetypes you throw at it (for the more obscure ones, go with IrfanView).

For Windows. Download MaxView here. Download IrfanView here.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Freeware Necessary For Life

As an incurable fossicker, I run across many useful and unique tools. I also run across hundreds of crap ones. The brightest, most interesting gems of my unhealthy internet wanderings are presented here for your edification and amusement.

A mashup of a text file and a calculator, tabbyCalc lets you select, paste, run-on calculations, and generally do whatever you want, including typing in your own little descriptions. It's the Grand Theft Auto of calculators.

For Windows. Download page here.

The most fully-functioned shortcut key software available. I use it for quickly opening applications (internet, email, Photoshop), folders (C drive, Pictures, client folders), bringing up desk accessories (search, notepads, calc, music player), and typing special characters (the é in resumé, an em—dash, entire sentences of boilerplate text). And I haven't even scratched the surface of AHK's functionality—there's an entire programming language built in, and an online world of custom scripts. Plus, all your shortcuts are in one place where it's easy to check and edit them.

For Windows. Download page here.

A search program that is actually fast. Instead of the usual search, which sounds like it is taking a rotary sander to your hard drive, Locate32 caches your file details every time you tell it to. When you do a search it looks at the cache, not the entire hard drive. Quick, lightweight, nice.

For Windows. Download page here.

OffByOne browser
Text browsers are quick. When I've got a crappy weak WiFi connection, full graphical pages usually just give up loading halfway through. I switch over to OffByOne and get the important stuff—the text—without the pretty images and other elements.

For Windows. Download page here.

Project 64

A Nintendo 64 emulator for Windows. Compatible with all the ROMs I've used, full-screen option, plug-ins, decent frame rates.

For Windows. Download page here.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Big Rocks

There's a story where a Zen master fills a bucket with big rocks. He asks a student, is it full? The student affirms, yes, it is. The master adds small rocks to the bucket; they fall between the gaps. He adds pebbles, then he adds sand, then he adds water, and all filter down through ever-smaller gaps. The teacher tells his student, your life is like the bucket. Fill it first with important things; lesser things will find a way to fit around them.

I've always tried to gather the parts of my life into one big, overarching framework. Like looking at the world from 50,000 feet, I want to zoom out far enough to take it all in one glance, to see what is biggest, what is brightest, what is grey and neglected. I hoped that out of the mess of a scattered and sprawling concatenation of pursuits and fascinations, a pattern might emerge that offered up some kind of insight, a strong direction and trend that I could use to name my life.
Of course, any single title would fail to adequately contain a dynamic life. It would be as futile as called all wind 'West' based on how it was currently blowing. But there are clusters that I've noticed. When I switch from one group of activities to another, my mind changes gears between some, but not others. After committing some small violence to shoehorn them into categories, these are the spheres of my life:

Money getting of, keeping of, making small piles of, swimming in
sources and means of upgrading my brain
how I look and what I own
I want to keep in touch with
places I need to visit or learn about

Current activities and useful aspirations fit into these categories. I know that if I have a day without advancing in any of these, it is almost as if that day was disconnected from the broad narrative of my life.
And they are aspirational; they contain the seeds of my future self. How I will earn money, what I will learn, how I will look, what I will own, who I will know, and where I will visit. When I move within these spheres I advance my life, generating momentum and rewards.

They don't include maintenance tasks--washing, walking, shaving, shopping--as these are they grey quotidian detritus of life's obligations. I could engage in nothing more that what was required for life, but I would wake up the next day in a changeless, 'Groundhog Day' existence.
Bringing these spheres to the fore keeps them fresh in my mind, banishing nagging doubts that I had forgotten important tasks, neglected my priorities thoughtlessly. And at different points, one sphere has greater priority than others, and each has priorities within it.

Productivity tools and mantras aim to cut through the noise and crystallize the signal elements of activities or roles:

GTD refreshes current projects and breaks them into functional chunks and contexts.

The Important/Urgent quadrant highlights low-lying areas that are neglected in favour of 'putting out fires'.

Sometimes you find a source that makes your brain switch gears, a gateway into a certain way of thinking. For me it was this article:

These ideas fomented concepts which were relevant and useful to me. Iterations of a personal philosophy bubbled and swirled, reacting to each other and the hazy, half-focused reality of daily life. Gradually fresh ideas swam into view, and it was difficult to know which parts were borrowed, which were mine, and whether it mattered. But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Niagara Fails

Niagara Falls: the second city of honeymoons, the tumultuous and churning divide between North American nations, the easy option when taking a day trip from Toronto. It seemed wrong, somehow, to live here and not visit the Falls. So, with a German and a Minivan as obligatory tourist garb, I departed the city.

Any journey from Ontario south will involve the skirting of large bodies of water. Five lakes border America, as if to warn,"Sure, you can come down. But we're not gonna make it easy for you." In the sleepy hamlet of Niagara-on-the-Lake, this fort remains from the internecine battle between the fledgling American nation and the Canadian colony.

Along the river which feeds the huge hydro generators, there are numerous lookout points to gaze over the river. During business hours, there is also the opportunity to drop your camera from a cable car.

While the river gods mockingly accept your pitiful sacrifice, only the local wildlife openly demonstrate disdain. Note that this is as far as a raccoon can stick out his tongue.

If you needed further proof that Americans are lemmings, this image will suffice.

After the sun goes down in Niagara, powerful spotlights illuminate the Falls. Along the railing for hundreds of metres, a huge crowd completely ignores one of the Wonders of the Modern World in order to watch a crappy covers band belt out a tuneless version of 'My Sharona'.

The mist from the Falls hangs in the air, speckling camera lenses and flattening already bad haircuts. The seething mass of humanity pivots to every point of interest, as easily distracted as children. Here is food; there is music; here are spectacles; there are fireworks. Then, their daily consumption done, they trudge back to their generic cars filled with the detritus of fast food meals, switch on the radio, and set their faces as flint against the torpor of ordinary life.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Tuesday, 3 June 2008


Cabbagetown is a suburb to the east of the crappy area I'm staying in. It is all leafy avenues and rambling gardens. Mayors live there, Governors General live there, Avril Lavigne lives there when she's not skulking around the border of emo and girl power. Two cows live there. They come from Ireland.
Toronto is an exquisite corpse, a wondrous mishmash of Smurfiness and Fragglery. It is for this reason that there is a domestic farm in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in Canada.
The 'Farm' seems as though it were created by two planners: one goodly and civic-minded, the other bent on evil mischief:
Good Planner: Let's put a farm there.
Evil Planner: But let it never produce anything.
GP: It will be like a petting zoo.
EP: With big signs saying 'Do not touch or feed the animals.'
There will be ordinary farmyard animals.
From really weird parts of the world.
A donkey.
From Abyssinia.
Some horses.
From Belgium.
A lot of chickens.
From Rhode Island.
There will be gentle walking paths.
But most will lead to mystifying dead ends.
I'm thinking about a lake.
Choked up with pond weed.
With birds--
A booby.
--and other animals--
two well-hidden turtles.
--and a bird aviary.
To store empty feed barrels.
There will be an official Residence.
Which no-one will live in or visit.
There will be a Meeting Hall.
Which we will close all Spring, Summer, and Autumn.
It will be a mecca for young children.
With signs warning that running and yelling make baby animals cry.
It will be an asset to Toronto.
With no income whatsoever.
It will be a place of good cheer.
Right beside the crematorium.