The Internet Is Down: Time to Panic!

 Posted by on 30 July 2012 at 2:00 pm  Funny, Technology
Jul 302012

Last week, our DSL went down for a few hours. Oh, the horror! Paul was at work, but very concerned for my well-being. Somehow, I muddled through.

Jul 252012

I’ve often said that closets are hot, stuffy, and uncomfortable places to live. That doesn’t just apply to gay closets, but to atheist closets, Objectivist closets, and pretty much any other kind of closet. For a person to hide who he is, pretending to be something more socially acceptable, is deeply self-destructive. How so?

To hide who you are creates feelings of shame, often wholly unwarranted. It causes massive anxiety about being found out. It trains you to cowardice, betraying your values rather than standing up for them. It encourages you to focus on how others see your values, rather than why they’re your values. It creates strong incentives to lie, by implication or explicitly, to preserve the secret. It assumes the worst about other people, namely that they’d condemn or even disown you if they knew who you really were.

Closets, in essence, erode a person’s moral character, trust in others, and emotional well-being.

In a blog post for the Harvard Business ReviewCome Out of the Closet at Work, Whether You’re Gay or Not — Dorie Clark makes some interesting remarks about how social media destroys the pretense of closets. Basically, the connections forged by social media mean that “the boundaries are breaking down, privacy is a shimmering mirage, and we’re stuck in a world where you’re expected, and required, to be yourself.”

That isn’t merely good for a person’s integrity. It can help a person succeed:

While it’s not always easy to share personal news at work, it can have an unexpected payoff. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Karen Sumberg reported last year in the Harvard Business Review, it actually pays for GLBT employees to come out of the closet. They’re more likely to be promoted because they spend less time worrying about secrecy and hiding and more time focused on their jobs.

That’s hardly not surprising. The mental energy, effort, and anxiety required to keep yourself a secret from people that you’re interacting with on a daily basis can be overwhelming.

Does that mean that a person should share everything? Are people wrong to value their own privacy? No, of course not! A person being reserved is very different from a person stuffing himself into a closet. The reserved person will not share his thoughts, feelings, values, and activities with strangers at the drop of a hat, but he will share relevant information with people in his life. Moreover, he doesn’t quake in fear at the prospect others knowing him, nor actively work to hide himself from others. The closeted person does not share relevant information, does quake in fear of others knowing him, and does actively conceal himself.

Yet even for the reserved person, to be more open might be of benefit. Dorie Clark writes:

Many people still argue there’s a fundamental right to privacy. But post-Zuckerberg, that illusion has evaporated — and, as I wrote in a previous HBR post, that’s a good thing: closing the gap between one’s public and private images results in more people being honest about themselves and their lives.

Whether you’re gay or not, it’s likely that you’ve faced complicated privacy issues: should you friend your co-workers on Facebook? How about your boss? How should you present — some would even say “curate” — your social media persona? As [Anderson] Cooper’s example reminds us, the best answer may be simply to open up and erase the division between public and private. You certainly don’t have to share everything, but it makes for a better world if you share the most important things.

In my experience, my sharing more about myself and my values means that I’m much better able to find and connect with people that I like — and that’s a huge win for me.

Jul 132012

From Great ‘Hello’ Mystery Is Solved:

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But Thomas Alva Edison coined the greeting. The word “hello,” it appears, came straight from the fertile brain of the wizard of Menlo Park, N.J., who concocted the sonorous syllables to resolve one of the first crises of techno-etiquette: What do you say to start a telephone conversation?

Here’s the interesting part, for me:

Like the telephone, the punchy “hello” was a liberator and a social leveler. “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Mr. Koenigsberg said. And “hello” was the edge of the blade.

Thank goodness for that! I abhor any and all forms of artificial social hierarchy. A person that you don’t know as an individual should be treated with the same respect and consideration — whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, of respectable family or not, and so on. A person is not entitled to deference just because he was born into wealth or title. A person’s preferences should not be dismissed just because she’s young. A person is not of dubious character just because he’s poor. Moreover, a person’s wrong behavior should not be excused or indulged because of his talents or accomplishments, even if considerable.

Now, unless you read a good chunk of 18th and 19th century literature, you might not be familiar with just how much social leveling has happened in the 20th century. The rules of introduction used to be extremely strict. For example, consider this passage from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where the ridiculous mess of pomposity and idiocy known as Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy.

“I have found out,” said [Mr. Collins], “by a singular accident, that there is now in the room a near relation of my patroness. I happened to overhear the gentleman himself mentioning to the young lady who does the honours of the house the names of his cousin Miss de Bourgh, and of her mother Lady Catherine. How wonderfully these sort of things occur! Who would have thought of my meeting with, perhaps, a nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in this assembly! I am most thankful that the discovery is made in time for me to pay my respects to him, which I am now going to do, and trust he will excuse my not having done it before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology.”

“You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr. Darcy!” [said Elizabeth Bennet.]

“Indeed I am. I shall entreat his pardon for not having done it earlier. I believe him to be Lady Catherine’s nephew. It will be in my power to assure him that her ladyship was quite well yesterday se’nnight.”

Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme, assuring him that Mr. Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt; that it was not in the least necessary there should be any notice on either side; and that if it were, it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance. Mr. Collins listened to her with the determined air of following his own inclination, and, when she ceased speaking, replied thus:

“My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world in your excellent judgement in all matters within the scope of your understanding; but permit me to say, that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy; for, give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom—provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.” And with a low bow he left her to attack Mr. Darcy, whose reception of his advances she eagerly watched, and whose astonishment at being so addressed was very evident. Her cousin prefaced his speech with a solemn bow and though she could not hear a word of it, she felt as if hearing it all, and saw in the motion of his lips the words “apology,” “Hunsford,” and “Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” It vexed her to see him expose himself to such a man. Mr. Darcy was eyeing him with unrestrained wonder, and when at last Mr. Collins allowed him time to speak, replied with an air of distant civility. Mr. Collins, however, was not discouraged from speaking again, and Mr. Darcy’s contempt seemed abundantly increasing with the length of his second speech, and at the end of it he only made him a slight bow, and moved another way. Mr. Collins then returned to Elizabeth.

“I have no reason, I assure you,” said he, “to be dissatisfied with my reception. Mr. Darcy seemed much pleased with the attention. He answered me with the utmost civility, and even paid me the compliment of saying that he was so well convinced of Lady Catherine’s discernment as to be certain she could never bestow a favour unworthily. It was really a very handsome thought. Upon the whole, I am much pleased with him.”

As much as I love Jane Austen, I’m so glad not to live in her world. If I did, I’d surely be some family’s troublesome and impertinent servant, taking liberties left and right!

I’m even glad that our culture has become less formal in the last 30 years, such that people are immediately on a first-name basis. Really, I just couldn’t imagine calling Paul “Dr. Hsieh,” as we see in Jane Austen novels. (Then again, my pet name for Paul is “Mr. Woo,” which is partly a joke on the conventions of Jane Austen’s time!)

In sum, thank you, dear telephone!

Oh, and one final thought: This seems to be a clear case in which a major cultural shift was instigated by technology, rather than by any intellectual or philosophical changes. Of course, the culture had to be ripe for the change — and America’s ethos of the self-made individual is far more compatible with an etiquette of social equality than with an etiquette of social hierarchy. Nonetheless, the technology made a huge difference — and the internet and social media is pushing us even further in that direction. (Yay!)

In essence, cultural change requires and involves philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that philosophy — let alone philosophy departments — will be the catalyst.

Praising the Good: OmniSync

 Posted by on 20 March 2012 at 12:00 pm  Computers, Justice, Productivity, Technology
Mar 202012

I’ve used GTD-style task tracking software OmniFocus for some years now. (Sorry, PC users: it’s Mac-only.) Although I have a few features that I’d like to see added, I love the program.

Recently, the company (The Omni Group) announced that their sync service has been taken out of beta. (That’s what syncs my OmniFocus database between my desktop, laptop, iPad, and iPhone… which is critical for me!)

Given that the service is free — and works so well — I thought that I should write them a quick note about how much I appreciate it:


I’ve been a devoted OmniFocus user for many years, and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your sync service. Before switching to it about six months ago, I was trying to sync my OmniFocus data between four devices using SwissDisk and then MobileMe. Neither worked reliably: SwissDisk was fine, until it suddenly stopped working. MobileMe would hang routinely, requiring me to restart OmniFocus multiple times per day. OmniSync has worked flawlessly, however… beta or not.

Of course, I hugely appreciate that it’s free, and I thought that the least that I could do is write to tell you that I’m grateful that you offer such a great service at such a great price.

So… Thank you!

The virtue of just is not merely about condemning evil: it’s also about praising the good… particularly the good that people offer you for free! I know how much I appreciate when people write to thank me for work that I’ve done for free… and I like to give as I get!

Illusion in Social Media

 Posted by on 23 February 2012 at 8:00 am  Ethics, Friendship, Technology
Feb 232012

Earlier this week, Trey Givens, Paul, and I discussed the questions of the upcoming webcast over dinner. (Trey was visiting us, which was super-lots-of-fun!) In our discussion of the differences between online and in-person relationships, Trey told us about a horrifying case in which an unfriending on Facebook led to a double homicide.

Obviously, that particular case wasn’t really about Facebook: something like that only happens because some people involved are unstable and depraved. However, this general observation on social media in the article struck me as quite insightful:

Facebook crystallizes the dynamics of our friendships and social interactions — bringing them a clarity that can be measured by clicks, visits, and comments. Having our social interactions brought into that level of focus means that a relationship that might have once ebbed over time naturally through avoidance and ignored phone calls can instead be cut off in a dramatic and confrontational way. Perhaps laying bare the end of a relationship in such a deliberate way means an intensified emotional reaction for those involved, or a sense of finality that one wouldn’t usually get. (When I blocked an ex-boyfriend on Facebook years ago, he was angrier about that than at any other point in our breaking up.)

I’ve certainly found that to be the case, and I think that’s why social media has the potential to cause so much disruption in online communities. (I’ve got a question on that topic in the webcast queue that needs your votes!)

Social media like Facebook and Twitter enable people to easily connect with others with similar interests — more easily than ever. That capacity to find the kinds of people I like is one reason why I’ve been active on e-mail lists for nearly two decades, why I’ve maintained a personal web site for almost as long as the web has existed, and why I’ve blogged for almost a decade. I use those venues as a filtering mechanism, so that I can find the kinds of minds and souls that I enjoy knowing. However, those older internet venues tend to be more one-way than social media: it’s too easy to be seen but not to see others. I like social media because people are more apt to speak out in large and small ways that reveal their personality, character, and values. That enables me to see others, and them to see me. So I can come to understand acquaintances better, as well as find likely potential friends.

However, that transparency comes at a price, as the article indicates. That price is not that people see the stupid, ignorant, annoying, and/or mean facets of distant acquaintances. Often, it’s a bonus to see that from afar because then people know to keep their distance! Rather, the price is that that online interactions make people within a far-flung community seem closer than they really are. Then, when people in those communities conflict, as they inevitably will do, people often fail to recognize the true distance and insignificance of the relationships involved. As a result, minor annoyances and disagreements between people who barely know each other turn into nasty public conflicts. That level of social drama used to be saved for bitter divorces, not people who’ve never even met.

These problem will sort itself out with time, I think, as people come to a better understanding of the nature and limits of these new social mediums. Certainly, I’ve made mistakes myself, most notably in fostering some unhealthy acrimony in the debates about the 2006 election. My attitude toward that is “Yippee Mistakes!” I’m not indifferent to my mistakes, not by a long shot. However, since Paul has yet to build me a time machine, I can’t undo those mistakes. I can apologize and make amends as needed, but mostly, I can use those mistakes as prime opportunities for discovering how to do better in the future. I can’t control what others do, but I hope they adopt the same approach.

Mostly though, I’d like to see a warning sticker on social media — something like the warning on passenger-side mirrors on cars: “People on your screen are further than they appear.” Taking that to heart could do a whole lot of good for online communities.

The Age of Ships

 Posted by on 15 February 2012 at 8:00 am  History, Technology
Feb 152012

The August 2011 City Journal featured a fascinating article entitled, “The Age of Ships, subtitled, “A time before passenger jets, when ocean liners were ‘the greatest of the works of man’”.

Author Michael Anton covered the history and technology behind the luxury ocean liners in the era after Titanic, before airplanes displaced ships as the dominant means of passenger travel across the Atlantic Ocean. The competition between commercial lines was fierce, especially to be able to cite the fastest Trans-Atlantic crossing times.

There are lots of interesting tidbits, but I especially liked the story Vladimir Yourkevitch, who fled Russia after the Communist takeover and had to take a job in France as a riveter in the Renault factory. The image of an immigrant factory worker trying to persuade the chairman of a major French shipyard that his revolutionary new ship hull design would work is something straight out of fiction. But it did indeed work, and that ship would later set one of the speed records.

(Read the full text of “The Age of Ships“.)

HP Calculators in 2025, As Predicated in 1978

 Posted by on 14 February 2012 at 8:00 am  Technology
Feb 142012

In 1978, the HP Calculator Journal published a cute short story by science fiction writer Gordon Dickson entitled, “Thank You, Beep!

It described a day in the life of a business traveler in the year 2025, armed with his trusty “HP XX-2050″ handheld computer (which he nicknames “Beep”), capable of storing personal data, functioning as an “auto secretary” to make appointments, and interfacing with other machines through various “computer nets”.

In retrospect, the predicted 1 GB of memory seems small by modern standards but was of course enormous by the standards of 1978.

The related article, “Smartphone futures — Thank You, Beep…!” does a nice job comparing some of Dickson’s other fictional predictions with current day reality.

The fictional HP XX-2050 is a bit chunkier than current smartphones:

But overall, Dickson did a pretty good job for someone writing in 1978.

I remember reading “Thank You, Beep!” when it was originally published, thinking how cool it would be to see something like that in real-life. Today’s smartphones aren’t quite there yet, but they’re astonishingly close. And if current progress continues, they may well exceed Dickson’s predictions by the time 2025 rolls around.

(Crossposted from GeekPress.)

Beware Insulting Government Officials on Facebook/Twitter

 Posted by on 29 November 2011 at 8:00 am  Free Speech, Technology
Nov 292011

Thailand’s government has warned Facebook users they could face criminal prosecution “if they press ‘share’ or ‘like’ on images or articles considered unflattering to the Thai monarchy.”

Even more alarming, this was used against a Thai-born US citizen who wrote a book about the Thai monarchy while living in the US, then was arrested when he visited Thailand for medical reasons. (Via /.)

A few related stories from the NYT:

American Arrested for Insulting Thai King“, 27 May 2011
A High-Tech War Against Slights to a Centuries-Old Monarchy“, 2 Oct 2011
20-Year Sentence for Text Messages Against Thai King“, 23 Nov 2011

The closest I’ve found here in the United States is this story in Forbes: “High School Student Punished For Joking Tweet About Governor Brownback“.

She insulted Kansas governor Brownback saying, “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked”.

In the Kansas case, the punishment would administered by the school in response to a complaint from Brownback’s office. According to the Forbes piece, she has considered submitting to the school punishment “because she didn’t want a disciplinary action on her transcripts and have it affect her ability to go to college. But she is rightfully unapologetic in real life.”

Update: Kansas governor Brownback has apologized on behalf of his staff: “My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize… Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” The student likely won’t have to submit to the proposed school punishment.

Bonus from Diana, because, as Justin said on Facebook, “the Thai king is a dickhead”:

Oh, Those Wacky YouTube Translations

 Posted by on 19 October 2011 at 7:00 am  Computers, Funny, Technology
Oct 192011

What happens when you put a simple conversation through YouTube’s closed-caption translation feature… twice? Pure comedy gold, baby!

Caption Fail 1:

Caption Fail 2:


Dear Apple:

I’ve been a happy iPad2 owner since March 2011, but I never fully appreciated its value until I recently broke my hip in a bad fall and required subsequent hospitalization.

I am a physician, so I had already been using my iPad for my work, reading PDFs of medical articles, communicating with my colleagues via e-mail, etc. But when I broke my hip in an accident a few days ago, the iPad became my lifeline to the outside world:

Because I had my iPad with me at the time of the accident, I was able to immediately notify my friends and family of what had happened once I arrived in the ER.

In the ER, the iPad also helped keep my spirits up as I checked e-mail, followed my friends on Twitter and Facebook, and followed the regular world news. When my orthopedic surgeon presented my treatment options to me, he also e-mailed me some relevant medical literature in the form of PDF files which I could digest at my own pace on the iPad. And of course, I was also able to perform Google searches on my various surgery options, the complication rates, postoperative care requirements, etc.

Because of the specific nature of my fracture, I had to choose between two treatment options, each with its own pros and cons. I found it enormously helpful to be able to gather the relevant medical information literally “at my fingertips”. Because of the iPad, I was able to more quickly make an informed treatment decision that I was comfortable with.

I did briefly leave my iPad with my wife during the surgery itself, but she gave it back to me immediately after the surgery. Other than that, it did not leave my side while in the hospital.

While in the hospital after my surgery, I used the iPad to read eBooks, check my e-mail, surf the internet, and keep up my regular blogging. It was a real morale booster to be able to continue as much of my regular online routine as possible, despite my impaired physical condition.

My wife also had her own iPad with her while I was hospitalized, which allowed her to update our friends and family in real time on my condition, as well as keep her occupied while I was asleep or in surgery.

And now that I’m at home recovering, my iPad is still at my side!

For someone such as myself with limited physical mobility, the iPad2 with its light weight and long battery life was perfect. A laptop computer simply would not have worked while in the hospital. The iPad was literally an emotional, medical, and physical lifeline for me during a difficult time in my life.

I know Apple has been in the news lately because of Steve Jobs’ decision to step down as CEO. I just wanted to take this opportunity to publicly thank Mr. Jobs and Apple for creating such a wonderful, life-enhancing product.

In your advertisements, Apple has touted the iPad as “magical” and “revolutionary”. To that, I would add the term “life-saver”.

– Paul Hsieh, MD

[Crossposted from GeekPress.]

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