Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

The vitality of Troy, NY

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I spent four years of my life in Troy, NY, attending RPI. I would not recommend living there. RPI is a fine school, and while I have some serious issues with its leadership, my experience there was positive. That said, I have written about my feelings for Troy, and they are not positive. (I should clarify that when I referred to the “community” in my previous post, I really mean the city and area taken as a whole; some people are pretty fabulous, but downtown Troy is not.)

I did not expect to be thinking about Troy today. I was a bit shocked to learn that President Obama made a speech at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. Initially I was incredulous — my first thought was “Troy? Why Troy?”. Later it made more sense: he had to visit Governor Paterson to give him a talking-to.

President Obama says that the United States needs Troy. I am inclined to disagree, but otherwise willing to hear him out. Now, some caveats: I freely admit I am being too hard on Troy. It is not a terrible place, just below average in some important dimensions. What does it in, in my opinion, is the opportunity cost of spending time in Troy. There are so many better places to be. It is no accident I got out the hell out of dodge as soon as I had my degrees in hand.

A Perfect Day for Webcomics

Friday, September 11th, 2009

There are a few webcomics I read daily. My current list is: xkcd, Questionable Content, A Softer World, Dinosaur Comics, Enjuhneer, Penny Arcade, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and Cyanide and Happiness. I highly recommend all of these, and also a late addition called T-rex is Lonely Comics, because I am such a fan of Dinosaur Comics (and I do really like Garfield Minus Garfield but find it too depressing to read regularly).

Most days are pretty good. It is definitely a solid source of entertainment. Some days are better than others, of course. And today was great. Let me show you why:

First, xkcd referenced Ender’s Game, which kind of needed to happen at some point since the blagosphere is a thing now and it’s significantly different from the book series’ conception of the nets. Then ASW was beautifully morbid. It really says something about the frailty of existence, and deriving humor therefrom. As if on queue, DC was all “Today is a good day I think for somber realism!”. Mr. North also posited the existence of several coffee mugs which I would really, really like to buy (a “Maybe Mondays Aren’t The Problem; Maybe I’m The Problem” mug would be truly fabulous). And to top it off my friend Jenny’s webcomic had a link to one of her projects: a video tribute to xkcd. The video is fantastic, you should stop what you’re doing and check it out right now.


Saturday, September 5th, 2009

Why do people place so much value on consistent systems of beliefs?

In a formal system, sure, you want consistency. If a formal system is inconsistent then you can use it to prove anything — it’s effectively useless. But our minds are not formal systems. Humans don’t exist simply to prove things (unless you’re a mathematician I guess).

Let’s say you believe two contradictory axioms. What’s to stop you from voluntarily relaxing one or the other as the situation demands? I suppose then you aren’t being “principled”. Your choice may seem arbitrary, and lead to arbitrary results. But it could be that you don’t know what you should believe, until you’re faced with a difficult situation that stretches your belief system. Life is full of gray areas. Sometimes you just do what you think is best, and reform your belief system later to compensate.

Many consider hypocrisy a vice. I used to feel the same way, until I questioned that assumption and couldn’t provide a good justification. Let’s say I get mad at a house mate for not cleaning up his dishes, and then I go ahead and leave my dirty dishes in the sink. He has every right to get mad at me, assuming he doesn’t like dirty dishes left in the sink. But should it be any worse that I’m violating my own rules, in addition to his? I am not so certain.

I’m very willing to hear counter arguments, though.

Different phases of food

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

I am a big fan of leftovers. When I go out to eat, the win condition is bringing some of my food home with me. I love knowing that there’s food waiting for me in the fridge, ready to be eaten at a moment’s notice.

Why is that, exactly? Well, I like to eat. I also like not having to wait to eat, especially when I’m hungry. And I don’t mind cold food. I think these are all reasonable preferences. So that helps explain why, say, a take-out burrito is much more valuable to me than the same amount of cheese, tortillas, salsa, beans, etc. that are not already assembled. It takes time to make a burrito — I can’t eat ingredients right away and get nearly as much utility.

From this I’ve started using the concept of pre-food. Food is stuff you can eat. Pre-food is stuff you will be able to eat, but not yet. A cupboard full of canned soups and vegetables, dried rice and beans, boxes of pasta and jars of tomato sauce is rife with pre-food. Pre-food is better than no food, of course, but I’d rather it be ready made and sitting waiting for me to eat.

Sometimes, as I’m wandering down the supermarket aisles, I think to myself: “Wow, look at all this pre-food.” It’s a useful distinction to me, anyway.

Frank Peter Tobia

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

I have an awesome name. You may not realize it at first, but it’s true. I’ve pondered my name a lot over the course of my life, and it may just be that I have one of the coolest names ever. Here’s why:

First, I’m one of a select set of people whose first, middle, and last names are all the same number of letters. I have five. My friend Rob is a part of this set, with six, and I don’t think I’ve met anyone else to satisfy the criterion yet (although some people come close).

Second, the number of syllables in my names exactly match my birthday. My birthday is January 23, or 1/23. One syllable, two syllables, three syllables. I believe there are only a handful of people in the world who can satisfy both of these conditions.

And just the other day, I recognized one more point: the number of vowels in my names is also 1-2-3. I rule.

Strong life choice: Creative Commons

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

This is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series on Really Important Choices that turn out to have Really Good Consequences. My time interning with Creative Commons (CC) has positively impacted my life’s direction moreso than probably any other event in recent history.

Most of what I’m doing now is for CC in one way or another. The most obvious is that I’m still a contractor. Half-hacker, half-data analyst is a good spot for me, I think. A few months back I helped the development team analyze their past fundraising efforts (statistics to the rescue!). My senior thesis was about Creative Commons. I’m still working on a broad research agenda — like, what do I want to study during my time in grad school — and I will almost certainly swing CC in there somehow.

The people I met at CC are utterly fabulous. I interned with Tim Hwang, Brian Rowe, Grace Armstrong, Steren Giannini, and Greg Grossmeier. Allison Domicone, who is particularly cool, was sort of an intern too, and of course who can forget Jane “I-can-drink-twice-as-much-as-you” Park.

I’m still doing some good work with Tim Hwang and his motley group of cool kids in Cambridge, MA. Tim also turned me on to Getting Things Done, perhaps the greatest productivity tool the world has ever known. And over time I have come to realize that a significant chunk of my t-shirt supply is CC swag. Check it out.

Googling past conversations

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

I am looking forward to a time when Google (or some other massive know-it-all search giant with all my personal data) can record and index video of my entire life in real time. Yes, I know there will be insane privacy issues. I’m not worried about them yet. I am worried about having conversations that I can’t reliably reference at indeterminate points in the future.

Freezepop has a song called “He says, she says” which accurately portrays the sorts of situations arising when we don’t have the above Life Indexer. Imagine how useful it would be to go back and accurately rebut: “No look, I actually said this, not that.” I believe it would be insanely useful.

My biggest issues arise from data sources I can’t look up on Google or Wikipedia. When I make a commitment with someone, I can only search through the mementos I write myself stemming from the social interaction we had that generated the commitment. That means when we disagree, it’s my word against theirs.

You can’t do science on unfalsifiable statements.


Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

It’s a good thing that the noun form of disingenuous is disingenuousness, or I’d end up confusing it with the opposite of ingenuity. From Wiktionary, disingenuous can mean “Not frank or open; uncandid; fake or deceptive.” So it didn’t surprise me when this word leapt into my head as I was skimming RPI’s public relations publication, Inside Rensselaer.

I was reading the article titled “Rensselaer Unveils Newly Renovated Residence Commons in Downtown Troy.” Personally I would have hyphenated “Newly Renovated,” and wouldn’t have capitalized every word, but that’s not my call. Then I got to the second paragraph, where they mention the “vibrant community of Troy”. That is just a lie. There are a thousand adjectives better suited to describe Troy. I would go so far to say that Troy is perhaps the most un-vibrant community I can think of.

I got used to this kind of public relations doublespeak while I was attending RPI. It’s kind of awful when the instutition you’re a part of needs to practically lie about things like censorship and budget cuts and staff layoffs. I truly hope my new school is a tad more reasonable.

Comparative advantage in advice

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

My previous post described peoples’ aptitude to anchor themselves and their expectations to one particular perspective. This post explores a consequence of this aspect of the human condition.

I believe people have a comparative advantage in giving other people advice. That is, when you need to shift your perspective, it’s almost certain you’d do better to elicit someone else’s help than to try doing it yourself. A consequence of easy acclimatization is a difficulty in shifting one’s perspective.

Do you ever feel like you’re stuck for some reason, like you’re in a rut, and then you have a really good conversation with someone, and suddenly you’ve found a new direction? And then maybe you think back to the advice, and you realize that it was just appropriately-timed platitudes. You probably would have given your friend the same exact advice if he were in your situation. You just needed someone else to step outside your box, look inside, and tell you what they saw.

You could probably even build a platitude machine and program it with a good enough algorithm to give you all the perspective you need. If the machine responded with the right truisms in the right order, you’d have instant perspective. Until we engineer something that awesome, I guess we’re stuck with people.


Friday, July 31st, 2009

People are very good at acclimatization, of getting acclimated to whatever situation they find themselves. It’s one of the fundamental consequences of the human condition. You know what I’m talking about: when your life’s situation changes, even in drastic ways, you get used to it relatively quickly.

This makes sense from a survivalist point of view. The quicker a hunter-gatherer can adapt to new animal migration patterns, types of predators, invasions of non-native flora and fauna, the better chance that she’ll propagate her genes. I think there are parallels from modern life, but I’ll leave those as an exercise to the reader.

Quick adaptation explains why people who get a pay raise (or a pay cut) experience a temporary increase (or decrease) in happiness before returning to their steady-state. Some people are going to enjoy their lives no matter what. Some people are going to be miserable even if they’re millionaires. There are a lot of depressed upper-middle class suburbanites. There are also a lot of happy slum-dwelling Kenyans.

But because one’s perspective often gets entrenched at whatever you’re used to, it’s a useful exercise to shift your focus from time to time. Covey’s Seven Habits is a pretty good introduction to that sort of thing. It’s my opinion that perspective is one of the scarcest resources in the ‘verse.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.