2014-02-28—THE IDEA OF TRAVEL

The Holiday Inn used to have an ad promising “no surprises”, and one has to wonder why they thought that would have any appeal. The joy and pleasure of travel is largely in the surprises, even if some are less than delightful—such as a hotel room you have to cohabit with cockroaches. You would think anyone with any remnants of curiosity left from their childhood would remain fascinated by the idea of traveling to new and different places.

WHO?
Who travels? Often that is determined more by circumstances than desire. But one wonders why those with the resources so often choose not to leave home. Here are interesting data on the number of people in different U.S. states who don’t even have a passport.

WHY?
Why travel? Here is a great essay on what motivates us to leave the comforts of home.

WHERE?
Where travel? Most travellers would like to travel everywhere, but that is not possible. Virtual travel offers a substitution, not equivalent to the real thing, but far better than nothing and allows us to visit places we wouldn’t otherwise. And it is becoming more and more possible with Internet tools such as Google Earth and Google Street View.

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2014-02-21—WHERE TO READ

Books are unquestionably the most portable of resources for entertainment and enlightenment. And they’ve become even more portable with the introduction of the eBook, which allows you to easily carry a huge library with you. But it’s interesting that we still often attach the personal significance of a book to where we first read it, just as we connect memorable moments in our lives with certain pieces of music.  Here are some reading places that are memorable in their own right.

20 MAGNIFICENT LIBRARIES

30 BEAUTIFUL READING ROOMS

9 UNEXPECTED PLACES TO FIND BOOKS

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2014-02-14—ENVIABLE UNCOMMON SENSES

It is easy and natural to assume everyone and every creature perceives the world the same way we do, but of course, this is not true. A lot of apparently inexplicable animal behaviour can only be understood if we realize that they might have senses we can’t imagine—but can sometimes envy.

TEN SUPER-SENSES
We have retained and developed those senses that evolved as useful for our survival, but they are different for other creatures with other needs. Here is a list of some amazing sensory capabilities that serve other members of the animal kingdom. (Any of them are worth following up on for fascinating reading.)

MAGNETIC FIELD DETECTORS AND INTUITIVE TRIGONMETRY
A surprising number of creatures can sense magnetic fields, including ants, bees, sharks, turtles, tuna, salmon, and homing pigeons, as well as many migratory birds. Even dogs, for some unknown reason, often poop in alignment with magnetic north! And many animals seem to be able to do trigonometry intuitively. (No math course and calculator—or huge cerebral cortex—required.)  Here is an amazing example of foxes using this special sense and their intuitive grasp of trig to get dinner.

WE CAN’T KNOW WHAT A DOG’S NOSE KNOWS
Snakes have the equivalent of the olfactory epithelium we have in our noses (but tuned for different size molecules) called Jacobsen’s Organ. A snake’s forked tongue collects chemicals from the air and delivers it to this organ, which is located in the roof of its mouth! With it they can detect pheromones (which we can’t) that they use to find potential prey. Dogs have it too (but in their noses), and it partially accounts for their incredible sense of smell, which is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times as powerful as ours.

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2014-02-07—EVERYTHING CAN BE FAKED

How do you find reliable evidence of anything at all? Memories are notoriously unreliable, and there is plenty of scientific research showing that eyewitness evidence is not to be trusted. (For example, see the studies by Elizabeth Loftus.) YouTube has thousands of examples of the ease with which audio recordings can be altered. But the evidence we probably were most accustomed to trusting is photographic. But not anymore!

‘REWRITING’ PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY
Altering photographs has a long history of altering history. It’s too bad you can’t really erase some people from history by excising them from pictures.

THE MAGIC OF PHOTOSHOP ART
Photoshop has made alteration of photographs incredibly easy. But it is also a wonderful tool for digital artists, as in this clever idea.

WHEN ALTERATION FAILS
Sometimes, however, the alterations are done so clumsily as to be amusing.

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2014-01-31—UNPLEASANT TRUTHS

Social psychologists have a bad rep, which is sometimes justified. This is the field to look into if you want to find research with dubious ethics. Part of the problem is that their scientifically rigorous experiments often have to involve deceiving their human subjects.  When that deception involves any even potential harm to the subjects, one enters the gray area between ethical and unethical research. Nevertheless, the findings of social psychologists often have immediate relevance to understanding why we too often behave so badly. Caveat: the Asch and Milgram studies have been justly criticized for not being truly representative of typical human behaviour.

DOES MONEY MAKE YOU MEAN?
Disturbing empirical evidence that it at least inclines one that way.

WOULD YOU TORTURE PEOPLE IF TOLD TO DO SO BY AN AUTHORITY?
A famous experiment that suggests too many of us would—in some situations.

WOULD YOU IGNORE YOUR SENSES IF THE MAJORITY SAID YOU WERE WRONG
Another famous experiment that reveals many of us are pathetic conformists, again at least in some situations.

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2014-01-24—PAY ATTENTION!

It could be said that everyone has ADD (attention deficit disorder), because we all sometimes fail to focus and keep our attention on what matters or what we intend. For example, most memory problems have nothing to do with memory itself, but rather with not really attending to what we intend to remember. Our memory system is efficiently tuned to only bother storing that to which we are giving our undivided attention. But paying appropriate attention often isn’t easy, as these videos demonstrate.

THE ART OF PICKING POCKETS
You would think that knowing you are in the presence of a pickpocket would focus your attention on his actions, but which actions? He knows how to direct your attention. If can catch this guy in the act even while watching this video, you are exceptional.

SOME SERIOUS MONKEY BUSINESS
Watch these videos for further demonstrations of the flaws in our attention abilities.

BRAIN MAGIC
Real magic is based on how our brains work—or don’t and then deceive us. Here is a famous video example of that by a master illusionist.

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2014-01-17—UTILIZING INTERNET CROWDS

What is called ‘crowdsourcing’ is an amazing idea, and an important application in a world now so incredibly connected through the Internet. There has always been power in numbers, but at no time before the Internet has there existed such an effective and extensive resource to gather together enough numbers to accomplish something of importance. (Not referenced here, but also of great importance, are other applications such as online petitions and charity donation websites.)

CITIZENS AS SCIENTISTS
Science has more and more become a collaborative enterprise. From the overwhelming task of just harvesting data to the more active participation of contributing ideas and possible solutions to a theoretical problem, crowd sourcing scientific research not only advances science but also directly engages people in this most significant of human endeavours: understanding and appreciating our world. Here is a website with links to various citizen-as-scientist projects.

CONSUMERS AS VENTURE CAPITALISTS
These are sites set up to solicit financial support for creative endeavours and entrepreneurial ideas. Artists and entrepreneurs usually have a hard time finding individuals or organizations to cough up the necessary dough to start up their projects.  Kick-starter is probably the best known of these alternative routes to finding funding.

MOBS AS ENTERTAINERS
The phenomenon of the ‘flash mob’ has attenuated the usually pejorative connotation of ‘mob’. YouTube has many popular videos of these very friendly mobs; one famous and inspirational one (easy to find and worth it) is that of a mob of professional musicians emerging from a crowd of pedestrians on the streets of a town in Spain to enrich their day with Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy”. Of course, these were professional musicians and this was carefully planned, but there are plenty of examples of flash mobs spontaneously organized to bring ordinary people together simply to amuse themselves and their unsuspecting witnesses—who may just join in.

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2014-01-10—PUBLIC TRANSPORT INNOVATION

In this age of traffic congestion and parking problems, ideas are needed for making public transportation more attractive.

SUBWAYS
Subways don’t have to be ugly, damp and dingy tunnels through the earth. They can be art galleries—or even be works of art themselves.

TAXIS
Anyone who has waited interminably for a cab to show up, or been unable to even contact a dispatcher, knows there must be a better solution.

BUSES
If you’ve ever had to take an overnight bus, you know that trying to sleep on it is even worse than trying to sleep on a plane. Here’s an idea for a better bus for overnight or late night runs.

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2014-01-03—SCIENTIFIC SCARE WORDS

Science frightens many people. This may be partially caused by the fear of the unknown, for people aren’t being educated in the fundamentals of science. Furthermore, power is inherently frightening, and demonstrations of the power of science include some horrific applications, such as nuclear weapons. And so certain misunderstood words associated with every field of science now have acquired a pejorative connotation. These words are rhetorically useful to those who wish to sway our emotions and sell us some product or recruit us to some fashionable cause.

BIOLOGY: “UNNATURAL”
“Vaccination is unnatural. Genetic modification is unnatural. Modern medicine is unnatural.” The fact is nature is “red in tooth and claw”. Predation, disease, and death, these are natural—but not to be preferred.

CHEMISTRY: “CHEMICALS”
“It’s full of chemicals!” Well, so is every single thing in the whole universe.

PHYSICS: “NUCLEAR”
Nuclear simply means relating to the nucleus of an atom. But for many people it is taken as an adjective describing extreme danger.

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2013-12-27—FOOD EXTREMISTS

We are fascinated with the experiences of those who are willing to go to extremes. That is why so many people enjoy (although usually only vicariously) extreme sports. I’m not sure if eating could be considered a sport, but there certainly are extremists when it comes to eating choices.

THE ULTIMATE OMNIVORE DIET
Want to try my maggot and blood soup? Now that’s extreme eating!

CAVEMAN DIETS
Some like to pretend they are primitive hunter/gatherers and eat like they imagine those folks did. One has to assume the goal of this diet isn’t the life expectancy of their role models.

TAPEWORM DIET
One might lose weight by taking a dog as a pet, because then you’ll have to exercise taking all those walks your new best friend will demand. However, it seems choosing a tapeworm as your pet and your dietary supplement isn’t such a good idea.

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2013-12-20—CRIMINAL BUSINESS MODELS

Many people think that big business is criminal. As Bertolt Brecht remarked, “It is easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk.” But organized crime may be the ultimate big business. And often we are their customers.  Here are three TED talks that analyse the economics of the criminal enterprise.

KEEP YOUR CUSTOMERS HAPPY
The economic acumen of drug cartels is amazing.

FREE ENTERPRISE ECONOMICS
It’s always a case of supply and demand—and effective distribution.

THE MCDONALD’S MODEL
What kind of coke doesn’t matter: the retail sales person gets screwed.

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2013-12-13—REASONS TO READ

You would think reading needs no justification. Its value should be self-evident, but clearly it isn’t for many people. A large survey in 2012 revealed that one-quarter of Americans over the age of 16 hadn’t read even a single book of any kind during the previous year, even though the reported functional literacy rate is 99%. (They did watch an average of 1,500 hours of television.) Of course, I’m sure no one reading this posting needs to be inspired to read. That would be as silly as a recent billboard explaining how to get help in learning to read.

READING AS ESSENTIAL TO DEMOCRACY
Ray Bradbury about the importance of books to civilization.

READING WILL DETERMINE OUR FUTURE
Neil Gaiman on why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming.

READING THAT IS GOOD EXERCISE
An idiosyncratic and entertaining list of “Extreme Reading”.

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2013-12-06—THE END: FIRE OR ICE OR US?

Ideas abound regarding how the world will end. Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” begins with the lines, “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.”

FIRE
The ultimate fire is nuclear.  And we could only too easily light it.

ICE
If through some miracle humanity is still around till the end of time, we will surely perish in the great heat death.

US
There are too many of us.  “In the entire history of biology, every species that outgrows its resource base suffers a population crash — a crash sometimes fatal to the entire species.”

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2013-11-29—HEARING VOICES

It seems the reason chimps can’t talk may have more to do with the structure of their mouths and the location of their vocal chords than with their brains. There is plenty of evidence that they can communicate words, perhaps even simple sentences, using sign language or ‘icon typing’. But for us, our voices have always been our primary mode of communication, and our voices convey more than the written word. They overlay and enrich the words with emotion. Tone matters. Tone communicates. “Your so smart!” can easily mean the opposite, depending on the tone of voice. Those silly email emoticons are a lame attempt to compensate for the inadequacy of the words alone to convey tone; for example, to make it clear whether or not one is being sarcastic. Skilled writers know the tricks that effectively convey tone, but even they are often misinterpreted. Voice matters to us. Even aside from tone, pitch and accent bias our response to a voice.

TALK TO ME SIRI
We used to type to communicate with our computing devices, but now voice recognition algorithms have so improved that we can actually just talk to them—and they understand us. Then, amazingly, they talk back just like real human beings. The sweet voice of Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant on newer iPhones, has revealed her identity. It seems she’s been talking to us for a long time in many different places.

THE PERFECT VOICE
“Researchers say they have worked out a mathematical formula to find the perfect human voice.” Of course the voices we will still prefer are those of our loved ones.

IMPERFECT VOICES
Our initial emotional response to others is often affected by superficial characteristics such as facial symmetry, body size, or even the pitch of their voice. Guys with squeaky voices are out of luck.

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2013-11-22—MAKING ART WITH SCIENCE

Science is related to art in two different ways. Doing science is actually an art, a fact unappreciated by the many people who naively assume it is a purely mechanical endeavour. Science, however, is also a tool for the making of art—something that is somewhat more widely appreciated. Here are some striking examples of visual art created with the tools provided by science.

STICKS AND STONES—AND NEURONS
“The Art & Science Journal is a website and biannual publication about artworks that deal with themes of science, nature and technology.” (Scroll down to samples of works.)

WIND AND WORMS—AND OVARIES
“The Art of Science exhibition explores the interplay between science and art.”

SOUNDS AND MAGNETS—AND WHISKEY
This TED talk is about “eye-catching art from everyday science.”

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2013-11-15—THAT AIN’T FUNNY

One way of finding out how something works is by studying what breaks it; e.g., Minkowski discovered the cause of diabetes by removing the pancreas from dogs. So it seems reasonable to study what makes something funny by looking at why something isn’t considered funny—even if it is intended to be. The usual suspects are you having no sense of humour, not understanding it, or being offended by it. These explain why something will be funny to one person and not to another.

YOU HAVE NO SENSE OF HUMOUR
If you don’t laugh watching this TED talk, you have no sense of humour. But even the sourpusses will have to admit it is an incredibly insightful analysis of the nature of humour, unlike most studies of humour.

IT WENT OVER YOUR HEAD
If you don’t ‘get’ some of these jokes, you won’t even smile at them. But you’ll probably especially enjoy the ones you do get that you know some other people won’t.

YOU WERE OFFENDED
If you can’t ‘take’ a joke, it may not be just because it is aimed at you. Some people are offended by ‘vulgar’ language, political incorrectness, or anything that challenges their biases. Here are some incredibly tasteless jokes. Reader discretion advised.

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2013-11-08—THEME: PHYSICISTS’ MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR

These three entertaining, animated videos are exceptionally clear explanations of the fundamental and mind-altering facts that physicists have discovered about our wondrous universe. An hour and a half watching all of them is a crash course is the weird world of contemporary physics.

THE TWO LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS
Unlikely as it may be, if we were to survive to end of time, we would have a cold, quiet death. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one law that can’t be broken.

THE TWO RELATIVITY THEORIES
Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity are explained here as all just being that proverbial ‘matter of perspective’.

THE TOO WEIRD WORLD OF QUANTUM PHYSICS
If Relativity Theory took your brain apart, don’t expect quantum mechanics to be able put it back together. (Schrodinger’s cat suggests that viewer discretion is advised.)

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2013-11-01—PERVERTING THE YOUNG

It is amusing, albeit disturbing, to review some of the crazy ideas about evil influences on the young that once were widely accepted—and are still believed by some. Of course we all know that the current idea that video games inspire children to acts of violence is not like these old-fashioned ideas. Right?

KILLER COMIC BOOKS
It should’ve been obvious that Batman and Robin were bad role models and could turn an innocent boy into a depraved homosexual.

REEFER MADNESS
It seems that with a couple of tokes you get more than the munchies. You develop an insatiable appetite for forbidden fruit.

DEADLY MASTURBATION
Cold showers are recommended, because making the scene with a magazine could ruin a boy’s health.

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2013-10-25—COUNTING TO INFINITY

Math has a bad rep, and it’s unjustified. It may be true that it takes a little effort to appreciate its wonders, but that is true of all the arts and sciences as well. The more you know about anything, the deeper your appreciation.

ONE, TWO, MANY
Some cultures are illiterate. So, too, some cultures are virtually innumerate, and numbers more than two are too many.

TEN
Here is a list of ten great mathematicians with brief descriptions of their contributions. Mathematicians may disagree as to whether or not they are the ten greatest, but they all certainly qualify to being called great.

INFINITY
This BBC documentary about four brilliant mathematicians implies they dived so deep into the mysterious waters of mathematics that they drowned. Cantor is the first one profiled, and it seems plausible that his exploration of the nature of infinity drove him mad. Of course, their mathematical genius may really have had little to do with their mental breakdowns. Nevertheless, this documentary is a fascinating set of portraits of these four great minds, as well as a glimpse into some great and disturbing mathematical ideas. (Personal disclosure: my daughter and her husband are both theoretical mathematicians and both are quite sane.)

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2013-10-18—COMBINATORIAL ART

Certainly the most popular subjects for visual art are landscapes, nature, and portraits. In literature, among the most popular subjects are death and the characters. Here are some collections of visual art based on the idea of combining these obsessions.

MORA
Antonio Mora’s surreal images merge landscapes with portraits. (There is a link to the artist’s website at the bottom of the page.)

BRANDT
Nick Brandt’s frightening photos are of petrified birds that dived into deadly waters.

GIGER
H.R. Giger’s terrifying creations are of alien creatures in an alien landscape. His most famous creation is the alien in the film of the same name.

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