Word of the Day: Rumspringa

Rumspringa, n.
1. Literally, “running around” [from Pennsylvania German].
2. A period when adolescent Amish explore the outside world before making an informed decision to either leave the Amish community (resulting in shunning) or be baptised as a full, adult member of the church.

Although the Amish do not approve of adolescent rebellion and breaks from church rules, during the period of Rumspringa, youth often engage in rebellious behavior contrary to the community’s strict standards. They can go on dates. They may secretly experience modern technology and music, drive cars, wear non-Amish clothes and hair styles. Some experiment with drinking, smoking, drugs and sex. In other words, during Rumspringa they see what the world outside the sheltered and stern Amish community is like, what it has to offer, before making a more informed decision about staying in the church.

More generally, then, Rumspringa is a period of exploring the world outside of your normal one, involving a radical break from habit and the comfortable safety of the familiar. It means breaking from tradition or custom, experiencing other life styles or communities, and basically exposing yourself to the larger world.


Note that the actual practice of Rumspringa among the Amish and consequences for misbehavior differ between communities and between individuals. For some it involves much less deviation from norms (often because small communities do not offer the anonymity found in larger ones), and generally sinning is still hidden from the community. For those curious about Rumspringa in the Amish, check out the awesome documentary Devil’s Playground, which NPR did a report on.

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Is It Irrational to Play the Lottery?

Short answer: yes, it is irrational. Odds of winning big are less than the ratio of ticket cost to amount won. If $1 has a 1 in 1-billion chance of netting you 500 million dollars, it’s a really bad deal. Why?

Let’s say you could play the lottery over and over and over again an unlimited number of times. After a trillion plays, on average you’d win about 1000 times (roughly once every billion draws). That’s 1000 x $500 million = $500 billion won, but you’ve spent a trillion ($1000 billion) to play. So you’ve wasted a lot of money in the long run. Even if the chances of winning are closer to the cost and win amount ratio, if the odds are lower than the cost and win amount ratio, then it’s generally a bad deal.

So traditional economics says not to play the lottery.


It’s hard to argue with the simple probability of such a straightforward game, but unspoken behind the conclusion to not play lottery are a number of assumptions to which those probabilities are applied.
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Word of the Day: Compersion

Compersion, n.
1. The opposite of jealousy.
2. The positive feelings one gets when a lover is enjoying another relationship.

The term compersion originally comes from the polyamory community, where people may have multiple intimate relationships at the same time, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. In these situations, jealousy may be a natural human reaction. Compersion and jealous feelings can certainly coexist, but jealousy can often be mitigated by self-examination, and compersion can be learned.

Another term — related to compersion but broader — is “Mudita”, a Buddhist term that roughly means sympathetic joy, rejoicing in others’ good fortune. Basically, if you have a sort of inner joy or inner comfort with yourself, you are secure enough to relish the joy of others. You take pleasure in their pleasure, for its own sake, not for any relation to your own state. Compersion, then, can be thought of as an analogue of Mudita specifically applied to your loved ones: feeling secure against jealousy in your relationship such that you derive happiness from your partner’s happiness, even when that comes from outside.

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Accepting Impermanence


“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” –Heraclitus

We humans are innately wired to seek out permanence. In our evolutionary past, it was useful to be able to generalize from patterns of past experience in order to predict future events. If this one plant has killed people that ate it while this other plant has had no ill effects, then we learn which types of plant are safe and which are not. We do this by assuming a certain permanence in the world – that things will continue to be as they are. A plant that was safe yesterday won’t be poisonous today.

This innate need to seek out permanence carries over into modern life as well though. When we have a good job, are in a good relationship with a friend or lover, or are otherwise pleased with a situation, we want it to last; sometimes we even expect it to last and are surprised when it does not.

In the end, this expectation of permanence, this desire that the good things stay how they are, can trap a person. It can lead to worrying about the possibility of things slipping away and ending. Pretty soon, we get so wrapped up in the possibility that this good thing might not last that we are unable to enjoy it.
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Word of the Day: Praxis

Praxis, n.
1. The process by which a theory or lesson is put into action.
2. The synthesis of action and theory; a dynamic process recognizing a reciprocal relationship between theory and practice.
3. Free, self-conscious, authentic activity practiced by free persons, as opposed to alienated labor.

The term comes from Ancient Greek, where Aristotle defined it as direct action, distinct from theoretical knowledge (theoria) and production (poiesis). Specifically, praxis for Aristotle was an activity that was good as an end in itself (for its own sake), whereas poiesis was an action that was good as a means to another end (e.g. economic activity). Praxis is informed by theoria, putting theory into action.

That is, praxis is an informed, deliberate action, not just habitual custom. It directly contributes to a flourishing life, rather than being an indirect means to a later end.

Sartre distinguished praxis (action) from the practico-inert (the structure or context in which that action happens, which builds out of and informs praxis). “Speech acts are praxis, whereas language is practico-inert; social institutions are practico-inert but the actions they foster and limit are praxes” [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. In other words, our institutions, ideas and social structures are powerless and meaningless without considering the praxis that instantiates and informs them. This leads to a feedback loop where our actions create their own contexts — we create the structures of our world, and that in turn shapes our actions. We reshape our world by interrupting this loop, inserting new actions deliberatively.

Finally, I’ll take this opportunity to plug sf0, a collaborative game that takes place in the real world, the virtual world, and its players’ minds. Players complete tasks — ranging from the simple to the absurd to the illegal to the transcendent — in order to level up and gain access to more tasks. It’s action for the development of character, community, chaos. Check out the praxis to look at some recently completed tasks.

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I Am a Strange Loop

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter has long been one of my favorite books. That book tackles what it means to be conscious and how consciousness or meaning could arise out of unconsious and meaningless elements (i.e. physical particles bouncing off of each other). It was witty and fun and enlightening, drawing from the math and logic of Kurt Godel, the impossible artwork of M.C. Escher, the many-leveled fugues of J.S. Bach, as well as Zen, Lewis Carroll, meta-fiction, puzzles and more. I love Godel, Escher, Bach.

For that reason, I was tentative in 2007 when Hofstadter released I Am a Strange Loop, a thinner book than the earlier tome, and of narrower scope (but still tackling a broad and deep subject!). How could it possibly live up to Hofstadter’s original, Pulitzer Prize-winning work? Thus, I put off reading the new book for a while.

I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter

Having finished it recently, I admit I did feel a little let-down. Partly due to repetition (rehashing arguments and analogies made in GEB), and partly due to some slips into weak argumentation against straw man opponents. Once in a while, I found myself shaking my head where he could have tightened up his philosophical discourse and made his case stronger than he did.
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Baby Steps Toward GATTACA

The auto insurance company Allstate has announced a new program to improve driving safety in older drivers. The program, InSight, consists of some computer-based cognitive training programs that are supposed to improve visual processing. In turn, they think that will improve driving performance in seniors.

Whether or not the program will have significant beneficial effects is still in testing. But if it works, it appears likely that drivers who complete the training (or maybe just those who score well on a follow-up test) will get a discount on their insurance rates.

Sounds nice, and the basic premise makes good sense. If you can indeed train people to be better drivers by playing some simple cognitive computer games, then it’s a win-win situation. Right?

The potential downside I see is more long-term and big picture.
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The Dangers of Benevolent Sexism

Hostile and Benevolent Sexism
Everyone is familiar with hostile sexism: the rude jokes, discrimination, harassment, and explicit opinions of gender inferiority. In general, this attitude is condemned in our society, and laws are in place to at least try to minimize employment discrimination and outright harassment.

However, sexism may come in more subtle forms, sometimes labeled benevolent sexism. Paternalist traditions such as opening doors, paying for meals and carrying things may be seen as sexist if they imply a lack of competence on the part of the woman to do these things herself. Patronizing comments may involve ambivalent content, such as praise combined with an implied devalued position (“It’s okay, honey, don’t worry your pretty head about it”). Women may be seen as warm but incompetent, or as needing men’s help. Examples of benevolent sexism are often less clear-cut than hostile sexism.

A 2007 study at the University of Liege looked at the effects of these two types of sexism on women performing job-related tasks. Specifically, women in a trade school or college doing job interview training were told about a potential job opening up at a place that had previously employed only men. The training consisted of (1) a description of the job, and then (2) taking what was described as a standard job interview test involving a simple task.

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False Memories

Do you remember where you were when you first saw the closed-circuit TV footage of the 7/7 London bombings in 2005?

Hopefully not, else you may be imagining things — no such footage exists. But if you claimed to remember it, you would be in good company. Around 40% of British college students said they remembered such a video, when filling out questionnaires a mere three months after the bombings. It seems as if people had invented a memory to fill in or coalesce the details of an event they had seen or heard described later.

Psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus has studied false memories like these for a while. For example, one study she worked on showed participants a Disneyland ad with Bugs Bunny in it. Almost a third of people who had been to Disneyland at some point in their life falsely reported that they had met Bugs Bunny and shook his hand there — falsely because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character. The false memory was much less likely in people who were shown the same Disneyland ad without Bugs Bunny in it.

tiananmen square
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Social Chameleons

Some people are great at self-monitoring in social situations. They attenuate their behavior based on the social dynamic they are in, engage in impression management, tend to be concerned with the appropriateness of their actions, and adapt well to different social circumstances.

High self-monitors are often likeable and successful people, and highly desired romantic partners. However, a 2007 study showed that people who score high on measures of self-monitoring may seem desireable partners, but often they are less happy in their relationships and less committed.

Michael Roloff, one author of the study, suggests that a tendency to adapt their personality to fit different situations keeps them from letting their true selves out during intimate interactions with romantic partners.

Low self-monitors, on the other hand, are less likely to hide their feelings, and appear to be happier with their relationships and more committed. However, as Roloff points out, these people might be less diplomatic, they may say hurtful things, and studies show they tend to be worse negotiators and get promoted less at work.

Obviously, most people fall in a middle ground between these extremes, and have some aspects of both traits. It seems valuable, then, for all of us to keep in mind the trade-offs of being diplomatic and fitting in versus wearing all your thoughts on your sleeve all the time. Certainly some combination of diplomacy and bluntness can mitigate the downsides of both. Indeed, Roloff’s study points out that intimate communication and tendencies that enhance communication quality tend to improve the quality of relationships even for high self-monitors.

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Database Nation: What’s On Your Laptop?

According to CNN earlier this month, the FBI wants to cook up a gigantic biometric database of peoples’ prints, eye scans, tattoos, face shapes, walk patterns, etc. Of course, they don’t plan to have only criminals in the database, but job seekers and the like — maybe eventually everyone.
biometric database
According to the FBI, more than half of the queries to the current fingerprint database are not for criminal investigations at all, but run on normal people applying to work in an old folk’s home or with kids or in another sensitive job. Even if the applicant doesn’t match up to any criminal prints, their information might be added to the database and store. The FBI is planning a service for employers to request the FBI to keep applicant biometrics on file and to inform them if the employee ever commits a crime. The FBI says it would require applicants signing a waiver to allow this, but if it’s a condition of employment — especially if it becomes a standard condition of employment — then there isn’t a lot of real choice for the applicants.

But, of course, the government is not just compiling data from job applicants. This month the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit against the government to force disclosure of border search policies. Apparently lots of normal people at airports and borders have been forced to disclose their login passwords, to allow their laptop data (including web searches, emails and address books) to be copied, to let agents go through their cell phone numbers and text messages (taking out SIM cards).
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Beneath Normal People Lurk Monsters

Back in 1961, Yale researcher Stanley Milgram performed a now-controversial experiment. He recruited people to volunteer in a psychology study supposedly about learning and memory. When they arrived, they were told the setup: a pair of participants were to play two roles, teacher and learner, while the experimenter (a stern man in a lab coat) observed. However, the trick of the experiment was that each participant was always “randomly” assigned to be the teacher, while the second alleged participant, assigned as learner, was in fact always an accomplice to the experiment.

For the experiment, the participant (as teacher) was moved to a separate room from the learner. Through an intercom, the participant was to read a list of word pairs to the learner, who then had to choose matching pairs when quizzed. After incorrect answers, the participant was to flip a switch to shock the learner — a panel at their desk had switches labeled 45 volts increasing up to 450 volts. The participant had watched the learner get strapped in to the shock equipment. The learner mentioned in passing that he had a heart condition, after which the experimenter authoritatively assured him that there was no danger (again, this was all acted out with the participant thinking the learner was just another volunteer). Back in the test room, the participant received a not-insignificant 45 volt shock to see what it felt like, and then the word-pair testing began.

The teacher read the words, and the learner appeared to be responding, and getting shocked at successively higher levels after each mistake. In fact, there were no real shocks, but a pre-recorded tape played reactions to each shock. As the shock levels went up, the learner feigned increased pain and eventually banged on the wall, complained about his heart condition, and asked to be released. If the participant continued, the learner stopped responding at all.
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Security versus Privacy

How would you feel if law enforcement started scanning all of your email, your file transfers, and your web search history that Google and other companies keep (often going back years)? The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, is proposing just that. It’s for our security, he says.

Security, after all, is a trade-off. We know that staying home all day would generally increase our safety, but is it worth it? Banning cars would decrease traffic deaths immensely, but is it worth it? We face a multitude of situations like this that involving weighing increased security against its costs. (This is to set aside the many cases where security tactics are mere security theater, and may be counter-productive).

Security weighed against costs — unfortunately this common-sense notion has been used to promote a false dichotomy in United States discourse recently: “security versus privacy”. It’s assumed that the more we allow privacy, the more our security is undermined because Bad Guystm can take advantage of it, hide behind it. Making ourselves safe requires giving up some of the privacy we’ve expected up until now.
security versus privacy
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In- and Out-of-Body Experience

Normally our bodies receive sensory input through eyes, ears, skin and other systems, and those inputs synch up in consistent ways, such that our brain can put it together into a coherent picture of the 3D world around and including us. My visual input is basically just a sterooscopic movie, but because it matches so well with tactile and other input (you feel the toe-pain of a rock right when you see that familiar foot object hit it), we interpret those images as us being inside a 3D world. Really we construct the world around us — and we presume our construction is veridical because it consistently predicts the matching up of sensory events (occasional illusions notwithstanding).
3D paint illusion
This makes perfect sense if, as we assume, we are bodies inhabiting a 3D world — bodies including brain systems that integrate sensory input from different feedback devices (including inner feedback from proprioception and the like). But if this is the case, then we should theoretically be able to disrupt or alter the brain processes that synch up our various sensory experiences, such that our consistent, 3D view of the world from our own body’s perspective is thrown out of whack. But what would happen, in that case?

We’re all familiar with claims of out-of-body experience such as, say, looking down on your own body from above. That is to say, some people report visual input that seems to locate itself in a spatial location within the 3D world that is not the same as usual. In fact, they may see an image of their own body, much like what we see in a mirror; except in the case of a mirror the various sensory modalities still match up. When seeing yourself in a mirror, the proprioceptive and muscular feedback of lifting your arms corresponds to visual feedback of the arms moving up in the mirror image, as well as peripherally seeing the arms come up as normal. In an out-of-body experience, however, the body could move (or not) in a way that doesn’t correspond to the changes in sensory (usually visual) input to the experiencer.
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Monkey-controlled Robot

Researchers in the U.S. and Japan successfully synched up a monkey’s brain with a robot across the world, and after about an hour of practice the monkey could control the robot’s legs while it walked on a treadmill.
monkey controls robot
First the scientists trained the monkey to walk on a treadmill, and electrodes monitored her brain signals during the activity. The brain signals predicted her leg movement in such a way that they could translate the signals into instructions for a bipedal robot in Japan on a similar treadmill.

The monkey was shown a live video of the robot’s legs while both walked on their own treadmill, and the monkey’s brain soon ‘tuned in’ to the robot’s leg movements. In fact, when they turned off her treadmill and she stopped walking, she continued to concentrate on the video screen, and sure enough, her neurons kept firing, controlling the robot’s movement. The robot kept walking, controlled from across the seas by a stationary monkey’s brain.
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