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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
It seems that with a couple of tokes you get more than the munchies. You develop an insatiable appetite for forbidden fruit.
Cold showers are recommended, because making the scene with a magazine could ruin a boy’s health.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Antonio Mora’s surreal images merge landscapes with portraits. (There is a link to the artist’s website at the bottom of the page.)
Nick Brandt’s frightening photos are of petrified birds that dived into deadly waters.
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.
That is the slogan on the New Hampshire license plates. Its meaning is rather ambiguous, but it certainly sounds threatening. In fact, what constitutes ‘freedom’ is in itself ambiguous. It seems there are many different ideas about what it means to be free. The United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” seems to be the most widely accepted way of defining freedom, but its interpretation is far from universally agreed upon. As just one example, Article 26 includes the statement that “Elementary education shall be compulsory.” ‘Compulsory’ isn’t a word normally associated with freedom. Of course this is intended for the good of children and to protect their rights, but even this statement raises the spectre of totalitarianism. Many people feel that the biggest threat to individual freedom comes from those who are convinced they know what is good for everyone else. In this example, it’s worth remembering that compulsory education can mean compulsory indoctrination.
THE NANNY STATE OR IS IT BIG BROTHER?
A site devoted to the multitudinous (and usually downright silly) laws intended to protect us from ourselves and restrict our freedom for some putative good.
THE DUBIOUS MOTIVES OF THE PROTECTORS
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology)
FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND FREEDOM FROM RELIGION
The freedom to believe in any superstition is as fundamental as the freedom to express one’s beliefs and obviously should be protected. But what also needs protection are people’s right to not have other’s beliefs imposed on them. Here is the American Civil Liberties Union’s view on this issue.
Neuroscientists are offering support for George Burns’ contention that “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” It seems you actually can teach old dogs new tricks. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe our brains’ flexibility: its ability to wire and rewire its neural circuits. Once it was thought that this was only a characteristic of the youthful brain, just as it was believed we were born with a certain number of functioning neurons that gradually died off as we aged. Now it is known that our brains retain their plasticity for our whole lives, and we can even create new neurons—a process called neurogenesis.
THE SURPRISING PLASTICITY OF DAMAGED BRAINS
A totally engaging interview with the author of The Brain That Changes Itself, which describes some of the latest developments in neuroscience.
ENHANCING THE PLASTICITY OF THE BRAIN
A TEDx talk that clearly explicates the principles behind brain plasticity.
DISABLING THE BRAIN’S “BRAKE PEDAL” IN NEURAL PLASTICITY
A scientifically literate explanation of why plasticity seems to decrease with age.
“Painting is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see.” –Philip Guston
Not what you expect, and an interesting insight into the nature of creative inspiration. This artist “covers everything in a scene—people, chairs, food, you name it—in a mask of paint that mimics what’s below it.”
“There are many types of canvases that artists choose to use. This cluster explores 25 different and unusual canvases, from studded body canvases to agriculture artistry.”
Writers have been using varying fonts and typography to ‘paint’ on the page for quite some time. And some visual artists integrate text in the works (personal disclosure: yours truly), but this artist takes this idea to a new level.
Like any group of people, writers are stereotyped. Stereotypes often do contain a grain (albeit of greatly varying size) of truth. One idea about writers is that they are introverted, and certainly most are. Extreme extroverts couldn’t tolerate spending that much time alone with their pen or keyboard—and private thoughts. However, introverts also have a strong need for companionship. This companion need not be human—and preferably is not loquacious. Being a totally approving and faithful and affectionate companion is ideal. Very few humans fit the bill. But dogs do.
PICS OF WRITERS AND THEIR DOGS
Here a nice collection of pictures of writers with their beloved canine companions.
QUOTATIONS ABOUT DOGS
A great slide show of a great dog accompanied by various writers’ remarks on dogs. (Personal disclosure: my wife made this for me using pictures of my devoted companion, Nickel, when he was a pup. Nick enriched my life for more than eleven years, but sadly now is no longer by my side as I write.)
THE TRAGEDY OF DOGS
They are wonderful companions, but they leave our lives way too quickly. Here are two poems by John Updike about this loss, a loss only too familiar to dog owners.
When people try to define intelligence they often seem to make a number of questionable assumptions. One that certainly hasn’t stood the test of time is that it is a characteristic only humans possess. Still, descriptions of someone who seems to lack this characteristic often reference non-human things. They include “bird brain” for people who do dumb things (like the guy who recently used a bat to try to rob a gun shop), “a vegetable” for some unfortunate person who shows no evidence of higher cortical activity, and “thick as brick” or “blockhead” for someone who can’t seem to understand simple instructions (such as the fellow who insisted to the cop that he really was only going one way on that one-way street). But is it possible other animals, even plants or inanimate objects have something that could be considered intelligence?
Close observation of animals has shown how stupid we are to maintain an anthropocentric view of intelligence. And it’s not just some other mammals that seem to have some serious smarts.
Plants don’t have neurons, so they don’t have brains. But they seem to do some things that seem quite smart, if we base our definition of intelligence on behaviour rather than physiology.
Unlike “military intelligence”, “artificial intelligence” is no longer considered an oxymoron. The Guardian has a regular feature on recent developments in creating smart machines.
Some say conventional radio is becoming obsolete. TV dealt the first serious blow. And now the digital revolution seems to be delivering the coup de grâce. But maybe not. Radio is adapting to the Internet age. The Canadian public radio station (CBC) and the American public radio station (NPR) both record most of their broadcasts and make them available as podcasts for downloading. It may not literally be considered ‘listening to radio’ if you are listening instead on your computer or smart phone—and not even in ‘real time’. Nevertheless these are the original radio broadcasts. And magazines too are moving toward podcast publication. Podcasts may very well be the future for serious radio (and far less susceptible to being dumped because of their relatively smaller audience and allegedly elitist nature). Here are three really great regular podcasts, and you don’t have to be tuned in at a certain time to hear them. Just download them and listen at your convenience. (To get past episodes and maintain a personal archive, iTunes offers free subscriptions to them all.)
Canada’s CBC is currently under attack by the ruling Conservative Party. It’s very disheartening, for CBC’s programming is of the highest quality. One of their many fine shows is this one, the name of which says it all.
THIS AMERICAN LIFE
NPR is the National Public Radio station for The States, and doesn’t even receive the federal funding or nation-wide broadcasting that CBC does. This show has over a million followers and is the winner of numerous prestigious awards. It is as eclectic as it is intelligent and entertaining.
NEW YORKER FICTION
The New Yorker has been a premier publisher of short fiction since its inception in 1925. Now they offer a podcast series where each week one of their published writers selects a favourite story from the magazine and reads it and discusses it with the host.
Visual art too often is only to be found sequestered in some ghetto: some public or private art gallery. No wonder it doesn’t seem an integral part of our daily existence. We have to seek it out, and few bother, for its pleasures have so infrequently been experienced as to lure us. Wider appreciation is only made possible by accessibility. Here are some examples of attempts to take art out of the ghetto and onto the main streets of our cities.
BILLBOARDS AS MEDIA
Billboards, with their crass advertisements, are a blight on the urban landscape. But for a few weeks some of them in England were transformed into public galleries. “If we can’t get the average guy in the street to go into a gallery, maybe we can get the art from the gallery into the street,” said Richard Reed, the man behind the project, who estimated that 90% of the population was likely to see at least some of the works.
Graffiti has a bad rep, understandably, because much of it is no more than adolescent, egotistical defacing of property. But some of it is really art, very public art, and art that you don’t have to pay to view. One of the wittiest artists to create graffiti and sculptural art in public places is the infamous Banksy. Somehow he has kept his real identify secret and repeatedly broken the laws against graffiti without ever being caught in the creative act.
PUBLIC URBAN ART
To their credit, many cities are encouraging and supporting the installation of art in their parks and other areas where the public will encounter it as they go about their daily lives.
George Bernard Shaw once commented on the futility of arguing with true believers of any sort: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Still, argument can sometimes be useful, although that is relatively unusual. And, of course, there are many different kinds of argument. A mathematical proof is an argument, but so is a spat about who is contributing their fair share to a relationship. In most arguments, it is naive to expect either combatant to change his or her opinion, and so arguing is pointless. (Unless one gets pleasure in exercising one’s wit or finds it enlightening to get a glimpse into another person’s mind.) However, there is value in public arguments such as debates, presentations to a jury, or conclusions presented to a knowledgeable audience (as in the case of scientific or scholarly publication). Here, the observers can change their initial opinions, which often matter.
THREE KINDS OF ARGUMENTS
An argument for arguing.
ARGUING WITH TRUE BELIEVERS
A useful and humourous analogy to only too typical arguments.
An insightful description into typical argumentative pitfalls, other than simple logical errors.
One of the many pleasures of the Internet is how it can lure you down new and interesting paths. A bit of curiosity about a link in some sidebar can send you back through time to, for example, the Middle Ages. How many of us have any idea what life was like back then? Now we can so easily get a glimpse into the past. And not surprisingly they had the same needs as we do now: food, drink, and entertainment.
There is something special about trains, something inherently literary. For Canadians, Pierre Burton’s book, The Last Spike, about how building the TransCanada rail connected all the diverse regions of our vast country is justifiably a classic. For most Europeans, the same is true of the intricate rail web that so efficiently connects even more diverse places, and which many travellers consider the only really civilized way to travel the Continent. And Paul Theroux’s wonderful book, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, well describes how the train connects even more distant and diverse locations. So it is not surprising that the idea of utilizing train travel as a literary metaphor is so common—and poets love trains.
WHY POETS TAKE TRAINS
For a lot of damn good reasons. (And it contains links to some damn good poems.)
A collection of fine poems by fine poets.
RIDING THE RAILS
A link in my blog to one of the great poems about train travel.
Sex, drugs, and rock & roll all have an undeserved bad rep. Some people give up sex, and some people hate rock & roll, and they’re apparently doing okay. But very few people would want to give up drugs, and if they did, most would suffer even more than if they gave up sex. In fact, a good number of people who gave up drugs would die. But the drugs that treat what is wrong and make us feel better are acceptable. It is just some of the drugs that make what is right with us even better that are demonized. Why is the “war on drugs” only on those drugs that make us feel better or perform better: i.e., recreational drugs or performance enhancing drugs? All drugs have side effects and are hazardous (and some very much so), but that includes medical drugs. So, why this so called “war” on only certain drugs? Or why wage war at all?
THAT REEFER MADNESS
What is insane is throwing people in prison for enjoying a reefer. What is more likely to ruin a life, a toke or a prison sentence?
THE MADNESS OF THE WAR ON DRUGS
“Declare victory in the war on drugs—then run like hell.” If you can’t win, pretend you have.
THE MADNESS OF NOT WANTING TO PERFORM BETTER
Should we ban coffee before trying to concentrate or ban Viagra before trying to—well, you know? And what about those new drugs that seem to improve normal memory or cognitive functioning? How is wanting to have greater endurance different?
It is reasonable to believe in “art for art’s sake”, for art needs no justification, any more than pure science does. Art and science are the ways we apprehend the world. No more need be said. But those fools who would cut funding and support to everything that is not obviously utilitarian really should look a little more closely at what they label as “useless”. All applied science results from pure science. And art too has very ‘practical’ benefits: for one thing, it is therapeutic.
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” – Maya Angelou
“Patients need poetry and so do doctors.”
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” – Pablo Picasso
Those of us who love to visit the great outdoors do not love a lot of the little fellas that live there. Here is in the inside dope on our neighbours at the summer camp. There are a few particularly important facts to know. Only the female mosquito and blackfly bite us, which may not surprise a lot of men. Secondly, they have all the spatial and temporal bases covered. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water; blackflies breed in running water. So they have the territory covered. And they also have the whole day covered: they work in shifts. Blackflies only bite during the day, but mosquitos work especially hard during the dusk to dawn shift.
Allegedly blackflies are ecologically useful, although tell that to a moose taking dangerous ‘refuge” from them in the middle of the TransCanada highway! Or to a camper foolish enough to venture into the Northern Ontario bush in early spring.
Noah could have saved us a lot of grief by just swatting two of those little pests. Now that would have been a justifiable ‘pre-emptive strike’. Scientists now are wondering if a belated attack is possible. Those unfortunate 10% would surely approve. (Personal disclosure: my wife is in the unlucky 10%, while mosquitos rarely bother me, probably because my blood is toxic with nicotine and alcohol.)
They are actually our friends, and too often among the ranks of the falsely accused. Unlike us, they actually like bugs—for dinner.