Golly, swearing is good for you

Research shows cursing helps you endure pain, but people who swear habitually experience less relief. Other research shows swearing helps strengthen social bonds and group morale. But swearing also has social drawbacks.

So swear, and swear often. But don’t overdo it, you fucking cunt.

A Strategic Guide to Swearing / Stephanie Hayes / The Atlantic

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Photo: Anna Frodesiak / Wikimedia Commons

Researchers extract audio from potato chip bag and other vibrating objects in video recordings

Salt and vinegar chipsResearchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal from minute vibrations of objects in a video recording, including recovering intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed 15 feet away through soundproof glass.

The researchers also successfully extracted audio from video of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and the leaves of a potted plant.

I wonder whether the technique might become sensitive enough to capture sound from old silent movies, newsreels, and home movies.

Extracting audio from visual information: Algorithm recovers speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag filmed through soundproof glass

Photo: Salt-and-Vinegar, by Gerolsteiner91. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Why you don’t remember much that happened before you were seven years old

Small children do form memories, but they go through a phenomenon called “childhood amnesia” when they’re older. The reason is a complicated mix of biology, psychology, and culture.

I’m the youngest by far of five children. My mother was 35 when she conceived me in 1951, so chagrined by this chronological indiscretion that she tried to hide the pregnancy from her sister. My mortified oldest brother didn’t want to tell his high-school friends that a new baby was on the way, but it was a small town. Word spread.

My mother’s age and my late arrival in the family felt burdensome to me too, especially when I started school in 1957 and met my classmates’ mothers. They were still having babies! Still piling their children into cars and heading off to picnics at the river or hikes into the lava-capped, wild flower-rampant plateau outside town. They still had to mediate hair-pulling and toy-snatching. But by the time I started first grade, my siblings were gone, the oldest three to college and the youngest to a residential school four hours away, and we went from a very noisy household to a very quiet one.

My family has told me stories about those years before everything changed. How my oldest brother nicknamed me ‘Ubangi’ because my hair grew in tight fat curls close to my head. How my other brother liked to ambush me around corners with a toy crocodile because it never failed to make me shriek in terror. How my oldest sister carried me around like a kangaroo with her joey. But I can offer very few stories of my own from those early years.

Where do children’s earliest memories go?

My family lived in Brooklyn from when I was 1 or 2 years old until I was eight years old. I have vivid memories of the last two or so years of that time. They were formative years for me. I remember it happily, with friends on the same block within walking distance, and adults looking out for everybody. It was very different from suburban Long Island, where I spent the remainder of my childhood, all my teen years, and the first couple of years of my adulthood.

My brothers, a few years younger than me, don’t remember living in Brooklyn at all.

When did human beings start wearing clothes?

Interesting discussion on Reddit. Two answers:

Bone needles and scraped skins found in archeological digs suggest we started wearing clothes 100,000 to 500,000 years ago.

Body lice suggest a date of 100,000 years ago. Unlike other primates, human beings have different, but related, kinds of lice: One for the head, and one for the body. Head lice live in hair, and body lice live in clothes. The lice diverged about 100,000 years ago.

What do we know about when humans started wearing clothes? When? Where first?

A hundred thousand years of evolution — and now people can’t wait to get home from work so they can take off their pants.

From the Help-We’re-All-Gonna-Die Department

Trillions of tons of frozen methane could turbocharge global warming if thawed.

But not to worry. It’s not like global warming is a thing.

Methane is one of the strongest of the natural greenhouse gases, about 80 times more potent than CO2, and while it may not get as much attention as its cousin CO2, it certainly can do as much, if not more, damage to our planet.

That’s because methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and there are trillions of tons of it embedded in a kind of ice slurry called methane hydrate or methane clathrate crystals in the Arctic and in the seas around the continental shelves all around the world.

If enough of this methane is released quickly enough, it won’t just produce the same old global warming.

It could produce an extinction of species on a wide scale, an extinction that could even include the human race.

The Giant Methane Monster That Can Wipe Out the Human Race

Is the “self” actually a thing?

Two new books explore the self and identity.

Most of us, when we look in the mirror, have a sense that behind the eyes looking back at us is a me-ish thing: a self. But this, we are increasingly told, is an illusion. Why? Well, according to neuroscientists, there is no single place in the brain that generates a self. According to psychologists, there is no little commander-in-chief in our heads directing our behaviour. According to philosophers, there is no “Cartesian ego” unifying our consciousness, no unchanging core of identity that makes us the same person from day to day; there is only an ever-shifting bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories.

In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives.

But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the  remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.

I’ve read articles about how the self doesn’t really exist, and the arguments are compelling. But they’re wrong. When I stub my toe in the dark, there is a self involved, which feels pain and swears.

This isn’t just abstract philosophy for me. This train of thought leads to places more personal and important than I like to share online. This thinking leads to issues I’m having a tough time dealing with. I’m not comfortable talking about them here now. Maybe I never will be.

So instead of sharing those thoughts, I’ll share a story about something that happened to me once at a computer conference.

I didn’t have to be at the conference until midday, so I arrived after most of the journalists had already registered. I went directly to the press registration room, which was nearly deserted, except for a couple of low-level PR people behind a table and one loud and obnoxious journalist who’d arrived a few minutes before me. There had been some problem with his registration and he was outraged. Didn’t they know who he was? He was from WCBS News Radio 88, the biggest news radio station in New York, and how dare they not have his registration? The low-level PR people were apologetic, as they always have to be, but there was nothing they could do.

I wandered around the deserted pressroom for a while looking at stuff until the situation with the News Radio 88 guy was resolved. Then I approached the registration table. I was a little bit more polite than usual, as I try to be when in a situation like that — when dealing with service people who just had to deal with a jerk. “I’m Mitch Wagner from Computerworld. I preregistered,” I said.

Well, I got the reaction that NewsRadio 88 guy was looking for. “Mitch Wagner from Computerworld!” They were waiting for me, had feared I would not show up, and were very glad that I had arrived!

I’ve thought about that encounter every now and then in the subsequent years. The welcome I received, gratifying though it was, was because Computerworld had decided to show up for the conference. It had very little to do with me, personally. If you work for an important company, you should never confuse yourself for the company you work for. That’s a lesson that often comes hard for midlevel employees when they leave the very important company they work for.

We are each simultaneously the center of our own universe, and an insignificant mote in objective reality.

On the other hand, I had earned my place at Computerworld, so I could take pride in that.

Over my career, I’ve worked for publications that got a lot of respect in their industries, where the name of the publication opened doors for me. I’ve worked for unknown startups. Working for the big name pub is better, but working for the unknown startup has its advantages too.

I grew up listening to NewsRadio 88, and so I might have been impressed to meet someone who actually worked for it, if he hadn’t been such a jerk.

Still, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the guy from NewsRadio 88. It’s hard to be reminded of your own cosmic insignificance.

When I was freelancing, I did an article for The Washington Post. The pay was lousy and the whole project turned out to be a fiasco (not my editor’s fault. I didn’t understand the nature of the assignment and therefore it required extensive revision). But it was worth it, just to have the opportunity to call people on the phone and say, in my best Ted Baxter voice, “This is Mitch Wagner, calling for the Washington Post.” My identity — my self — was that I was the Washington Post guy for a little while.

Is there such a thing as the self?