Ideas

Why Debates About Today’s Big Issues Have So Little Historical Context

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“In contrast to earlier centuries, when the historian’s craft had been the preserve of amateurs such as Gibbon and Macaulay, the 20th century was the era when history professionals emerged – men and women who earned their living from teaching and writing history as employees of universities. Like other professionals, they sought advancement by becoming unquestioned masters of a small terrain, fenced off by their command of specialist archives. The explosion since the 1970s of new subdisciplines – including social history, women’s history and cultural history – encouraged further balkanisation of the subject. Academic historians seemed to be saying more and more about less and less. In consequence, the big debates of our day lack the benefit of historical perspective.”

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The Psychology Of Wearing Glasses

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When constant-use glasses were first introduced at the start of the 18th century—before, eye assistance was relegated to occasional-use monocles and, presumably, power-squinting—spectacle wearers were mysterious folk. “What were these secret weapons they had on their face? What is this person doing with this device on? Are they trying to capture my soul or something?”

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Humans’ Age-Old Fantasy Of Animals That Can Talk

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We’ve had the fantasy for thousands of years – from Aesop and Plato, through the Roman de Fauvel and Montaigne and Lewis Carroll and Orwell and Disney, right through to Mr. Ed and Dogbert and LOLcats and Doge. “We polish an animal mirror to look for ourselves. But perhaps that mirror is more suited for a funhouse.”

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It’s Okay To Be An Overbearing Pet Parent (Thank God)

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“Neurotic people probably make pretty great pet owners, concludes the author of a new study … In an online survey of about 1,000 pet owners, people who scored higher in neuroticism and conscientiousness also reported higher levels of affection for their dog or cat, which most likely means a better life for the animals.”

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One Of The Most Infamous Behavioral Experiments, Rethought 50 Years Later

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Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer—dubbed “the teacher”—would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”).

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A Struggle Over The Very Nature Of Science (Seriously)

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“There’s a battle going on at the edge of the universe, but it’s getting fought right here on Earth. With roots stretching back as far as the ancient Greeks, in the eyes of champions on either side, this fight is a contest over nothing less than the future of science. It’s a conflict over the biggest cosmic questions humans can ask and the methods we use – or can use – to get answers for those questions.” It’s a conflict over … string theory.

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Why The Idea Of Machines That Can Think Creeps Some Of Us Out

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Tania Lombrozo: “My sense is that the valley of ‘uncanny thinking’ is real, but elicits a more existential than visceral response. And if that’s so, perhaps it’s because we’re threatened by the idea that human thinking isn’t unique, and that maybe human thinking isn’t so special.”

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Learning How To Sound Like A Woman After You’ve Become One

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‘The hormones used in male-to-female transitions have no effect on the vocal cords, meaning that even after a cosmetic and surgical transition into women, the male-sounding voice often keeps transgender people tied to their old identities.” So a small group of voice specialists have developed techniques to teach transgender women how to make their speech patterns match their gender expression.

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50 Years Ago: Did This Sci Fi Writer Predict Today’s Approach To Studying Humanities?

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“The general trend to introduce mathematical thinking into various sciences (including disciplines that did not previously use any math tools, such as biology, psychology, and medicine), is slowly extending to the humanities. For now, we have had some rare efforts in language studies (theoretical linguistics) and literary theory (the application of information theory to the study of literary texts, especially poetry).”

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Notes On Grumbling

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Joshua Rothman: “Given its omnipresence, it’s tempting to say that grumbling may be the quintessential modern speech act. … Susan Sontag dedicated Notes on Camp to camp’s patron saint, Oscar Wilde. These far humbler notes are dedicated to that great grumbler Oscar the Grouch.”

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You Should Never Worry Alone

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“Worrying alone does not have to be toxic, but it tends to become toxic because in isolation we lose perspective. We tend to globalize, catastrophize, when no one is there to act as a reality check. Our imaginations run wild.”

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Our Scientific Issues As Moral Issues

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“The cost of modern skepticism about scientific virtue is paid not just by scientists but by all of us. The complex problems once belonging solely to the spheres of prudence and political action are now increasingly conceived as scientific problems: if the global climate is indeed warming, and if the cause is human activity, then policies to restrict carbon emissions are warranted; if hepatitis C follows an epidemiological trajectory resulting in widespread liver failure, then the high price of new drugs may be justified.”

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This Year’s Edge Question: What About Machines That Can Think?

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Is Artificial Intelligence becoming increasingly real? Are we now in a new era of the “AIs”? To consider this issue, it’s time to grow up. Enough already with the science fiction and the movies, Star Maker, Blade Runner, 2001, Her, The Matrix, “The Borg”.

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Are We All Born With Synaesthesia?

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“The under-examined complexities of ordinary perception, some neuroscientists and developmental psychologists contend, suggest that, like the Nabokovs, we all inhabit the synaesthetic spectrum – we just need to look back in time, to when we were infants with developing brains.”

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Disrupt Culture? (Better Figure Out What’s Being Disrupted)

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“Data suggests that audiences are agnostic in their habits of cultural consumption — and increasingly ambivalent about the platform by which they consume that culture. The Innovators Dilemma suggests that those who look with condescension upon the competitive emergence of cheaper, arguably poorer quality cultural products do so at their own peril.”

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Absence Of Satire – Has America Become A Parody Of Itself?

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It’s a stunning moment, although it hardly seems satirical any longer, in a world where people obsess over the Kardashians and “Duck Dynasty.” This, in turn, suggests a bigger problem — that, as the literary critic Harold Bloom once insisted, “In the United States, satire is no longer possible. America has turned into a satire of itself.”

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Kierkegaard Gets Right To The Heart Of Boredom

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In a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, … the Danish philosopher defines boredom as a sense of emptiness and examines it not as an absence of stimulation but as an absence of meaning – an idea that also explains why it’s possible, today more than ever, to be overstimulated but existentially bored.”

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Magical Thinking: What Prestidigitation Can Tell Us About Cognition

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“Which is a better magic trick: turning a dove into a glass of milk, or a glass of milk into a dove? Turning a rose into a vase, or a vase into a rose? For most people, … in each case, they find the transformation from a nonliving object to a living thing more interesting – but why? Is it just more exciting to see a living thing appear than to have it vanish? Or is there something deeper at work?”

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