Are FRBs Created by Aliens?

An FRB is an acronym coined by astronomers for fast radio burst. Since recent observations of our cosmos began with super-powerful telescopes only 17 such FRBs have ever been observed. These events last a mere handful of milliseconds but produce the equivalent power of around 100 million suns.

Two theories for these FRBs are relatively mundane. One theory proposes that FRBs are generated by powerful magnetars — highly magnetized, fast-rotating superdense stars. A second theory suggests that a FRB is a created by an especially exotic type of black hole.

And, then, there is a third, more fascinating, theory — that FRBs are the result of alien spaceship propulsion systems.

From the Economist:

Similar unrepeated signals have since been noted elsewhere in the heavens. So far, 17 such “fast radio bursts” (FRBs) have been recognised. They do not look like anything observed before, and there is much speculation about what causes them. One possibility is magnetars—highly magnetised, fast-rotating superdense stars. Another is a particularly exotic sort of black hole, formed when the centrifugal force of a rotating, superdense star proves no longer adequate to the task of stopping that star collapsing suddenly under its own gravity. But, as Manasvi Lingam of Harvard University and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics observe, there is at least one further possibility: alien spaceships.

Specifically, the two researchers suggest, in a paper to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, that FRBs might be generated by giant radio transmitters designed to push such spaceships around. With the rotation of the galaxies in which these transmitters are located, the transmitter-beams sweep across the heavens. Occasionally, one washes over Earth, producing an FRB.

Read the entire article here.

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Time to Move to Trappist-1

Those bright women and men at NASA have done it again. This time they’ve discovered 7 exoplanets all revolving around the same distant star. The cool news is that on the cosmological distance scale it’s relatively close, only around 40-light years away — a mere 230 trillion miles or so. And, even more fascinating, three of the system’s planets are within the so-called “Goldilocks” habitable zone.

The system is named TRAPPIST-1 (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). The TRAPPIST telescope in Chile originally discovered 3  exoplanets. Now, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, researchers have upped the total to 7 exoplanets.

I’m ready. Now, just need a spacecraft, and a quick one at that.

From NASA:

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

Read more here.

Image: An illustration of seven Earth-sized planets observed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope around a tiny, nearby, ultra-cool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1. Three of these planets are firmly in the habitable zone. Courtesy: NASA.

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Post*factua!ly is Coming To Our Post-Truth World

postfactually-screenshot2

You may well have noticed that my writing schedule here at theDiagonal has become a little more sporadic of late. Yes. I’ve been distracted by the needs of my post-truth project — Post*factua!ly.

The Oxford Dictionary recently made “post-truth” the word of the year, for 2016. A timely addition. They define post-truth as follows:

“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective  facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals  to emotion and personal belief.”

I do agree. But, for 2017 I suspect we’ll need an even more important collection of related words: post-factual and postfactually. My definition goes as follows:

“Describing circumstances where only lies matter and all fact is meaningless.”

Please stay tuned for this important post-truth, post-factual project; and, normal service at theDiagonal will resume shortly.

 

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Area 51 Lives On

google-search-area-51

What to believe about Area 51? Over the decades it has inspired hundreds of conspiratorial theories — extra-terrestrial spaceship landings, alien abductions, illegal governmental experimentation. Indeed, an entire tourist-based industry has arisen to attract myth-seekers to the Nevada desert. One thing does seem to be true: there’s a lot going on behind the barbed wire fences and security gates, and it’s probably all military.

From StumbleUpon:

In the middle of the barren Nevada desert, there’s a dusty unmarked road that leads to the front gate of Area 51. It’s protected by little more than a chain link fence, a boom gate, and intimidating trespassing signs. One would think that America’s much mythicized top secret military base would be under closer guard, but make no mistake. They are watching.

Beyond the gate, cameras see every angle. On the distant hilltop, there’s a white pickup truck with a tinted windshield peering down on everything below. Locals says the base knows every desert tortoise and jackrabbit that hops the fence. Others claim there are embedded sensors in the approaching road.

What exactly goes on inside of Area 51 has led to decades of wild speculation. There are, of course, the alien conspiracies that galactic visitors are tucked away somewhere inside. One of the more colorful rumors insists the infamous 1947 Roswell crash was actually a Soviet aircraft piloted by mutated midgets and the wreckage remains on the grounds of Area 51. Some even believe that the U.S. government filmed the 1969 moon landing in one of the base’s hangars.

For all the myths and legends, what’s true is that Area 51 is real and still very active. There may not be aliens or a moon landing movie set inside those fences, but something is going on and only a select few are privy to what’s happening further down that closely-monitored wind-swept Nevada road. “The forbidden aspect of Area 51 is what makes people want to know what’s there,” says aerospace historian and author Peter Merlin who’s been researching Area 51 for more than three decades.

“And there sure is still a lot going on there.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Reading Makes You A Better Person

Scientists have finally learned what book lovers have known for some time — reading fiction makes you a better person.

From Readers Digest:

Anyone who reads understands the bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book. It’s as if a beloved friend has suddenly packed her things and parted, the back cover swinging closed like a taxicab door. Farewell, friend. See you on the shelf.

If you’ve ever felt weird for considering fictional characters your friends or fictional places your home, science says you no longer have to. A new body of research is emerging to explain how books have such a powerful emotional pull on us, and the answer du jour is surprising—when we step into a fictional world, we treat the experiences as if they were real. Adding to the endless list of reading benefits is this: Reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.

Not all fiction is created equal, though—and reading a single chapter of Harry Potter isn’t an instant emotion-enhancer. Here are a few key caveats from the nerdy scientists trying to figure out why reading rules.

Rule #1: The story has to “take you somewhere.”

How many times have you heard someone declare that a good book “transports” you? That immersive power that allows readers to happily inhabit other people, places, and points of view for hours at a time is precisely what a team of researchers in the Netherlands credit for the results of a 2013 study in which students asked to read an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery showed a marked increase in empathy one week later, while students tasked with reading a sampling of news articles showed a decline.

Read the entire article here.

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Zebra Stripes

Zebra_Botswana

Why do zebras have stripes? Well, we’ve all learned from an early age that their peculiar and unique black and white stripes are an adaptation to combat predators. One theory suggests that the stripes are camouflage. Another theory suggests that the stripes are there to confuse predators. Yet another proposes that the stripes are a vivid warning signal.

But Tim Caro, professor of wildlife biology at the University of California, has a thoroughly different idea, conveyed in his new book, Zebra Stripes. After twenty years of study he’s convinced that the zebra’s stripes have a more mundane purpose — a deterrent to pesky biting flies.

From Wired:

At four in the morning, Tim Caro roused his colleagues. Bleary-eyed and grumbling, they followed him to the edge of the village, where the beasts were hiding. He sat them down in chairs, and after letting their eyes adjust for a minute, he asked them if they saw anything. And if so, would they please point where?

Not real beasts. Despite being camped in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, Caro was asking his colleagues to identify pelts—from a wildebeest, an impala, and a zebra—that he had draped over chairs or clotheslines. Caro wanted to know if the zebra’s stripes gave it any sort of camouflage in the pre-dawn, when many predators hunt, and he needed the sort of replicability he could not count on from the animals roaming the savannah. “I lost a lot of social capital on that experiment,” says Caro. “If you’re going to be woken up at all, it’s important to be woken up for something exciting or unpredictable, and this was neither.”

The experiment was one of hundreds Caro performed over a twenty year scientific odyssey to discover why zebras have stripes—a question that nearly every major biologist since Alfred Russel Wallace has tried to answer. “It became sort of a challenge to me to try and investigate all the existing hypotheses so I could not only identify the right one,” he says, “but just as importantly kill all those remaining.” His new book, Zebra Stripes, chronicles every detail.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Zebras, Botswana. Courtesy: Paul Maritz, 2002. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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Finland: A Pioneer in Universal Basic Income

coat_of_arms_of_finlandOn January 1, 2017, the idea of universal basic income (UBI) took another small but significant leap forward, in Finland.

UBI is a form of social security where a government institution pays its citizens a regular, unconditional sum.

Finland is testing UBI by handing around $600 per month to 2,000 jobless Finns for the next two years. It’s a bold experiment aimed at helping the long-term unemployed.

From Business Insider:

Finland has an ambitious New Year’s resolution in mind: learn how offering free money for two years helps the unemployed get back to work.

Starting January 1, 2017 and lasting until 2019, the federal social security institution Kela will distribute roughly $590 each month to 2,000 jobless Finns.

Regardless of whether they find work during that period, the money will keep coming in at the beginning of each month — a trial version of basic income, one of the past year’s most popular theories of how to solve poverty.

Under universal basic income (UBI), people receive a standard amount of money just for being alive. By handing out the money to everyone, regardless of their income status, UBI advocates say the system prevents people from falling through the cracks.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, says the experiment in Finland should provide insights on two fronts.

The first is whether basic income could help clean up Finland’s messy system of social security. Depending on their specific needs, Turunen says residents could be on one of 40 different benefit systems. Each benefit — whether it’s for someone who’s sick, unemployed, a student, or so on— is calculated differently and must be changed when the person’s status changes.

“That’s really a burden for customers and Kela to do all those status changes,” Turunen tells Business Insider. A form of basic income could mean people just need to apply for one status indefinitely, no changes required.

The experiment will also provide clues about how people behave when they’re receiving free money. Skeptics say people will sit on their couch all day. Proponents claim they’ll actually use the money to make their lives better. (Limited evidence from developing countries suggests it’s more of the latter.)

Turunen suspects the experiment will compel at least a few wannabe entrepreneurs to make the leap into starting their own business — a risky proposition in Finland today since business owners who are forced to close shop don’t receive unemployment benefits. It’s not unlike the system in place in most US states.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Finland coat of arms. Courtesy: Vzb83 / Wipipedia. Public Domain.

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Are You Smarter Than My Octopus?

common-Octopus

My pet octopus has moods. It can change the color of its skin on demand. It watches me with its huge eyes. It’s inquisitive and can manipulate objects. Importantly, my octopus has around half a billion neurons in its brain, compared with around 100 billion in mine, and around 50 million in your pet gerbil.

Ok, let me stop for a moment. I don’t actually have a pet octopus. But the rest is true — about the octopus’ remarkable abilities. So, does it have a mind and is it sentient?

From the Atlantic:

Drawing on the work of other researchers, from primatologists to fellow octopologists and philosophers, Godfrey-Smith suggests two reasons for the large nervous system of the octopus. One has to do with its body. For an animal like a cat or a human, details of the skeleton dictate many of the motions the animal can make. You can’t roll your arm into a neat spiral from wrist to shoulder— your bones and joints get in the way. An octopus, having no skeleton, has no such constraint. It can, and frequently does, roll up some of its arms; or it can choose to make one (or several) of them stiff, creating an elbow. Surely the animal needs a huge number of neurons merely to be well coordinated when roaming about the reef.

At the same time, octopuses are versatile predators, eating a wide variety of food, from lobsters and shrimps to clams and fish. Octopuses that live in tide pools will occasionally leap out of the water to catch passing crabs; some even prey on incautious birds, grabbing them by the legs, pulling them underwater, and drowning them. Animals that evolve to tackle diverse kinds of food may tend to evolve larger brains than animals that always handle food in the same way (think of a frog catching insects).

Like humans, octopuses learn new skills. In some species, individuals inhabit a den for only a week or so before moving on, so they are constantly learning routes through new environments. Similarly, the first time an octopus tackles a clam, say, it has to figure out how to open it—can it pull it apart, or would it be more effective to drill a hole? If consciousness is necessary for such tasks, then perhaps the octopus does have an awareness that in some ways resembles our own.

Perhaps, indeed, we should take the “mammalian” behaviors of octopuses at face value. If evolution can produce similar eyes through different routes, why not similar minds? Or perhaps, in wishing to find these animals like ourselves, what we are really revealing is our deep desire not to be alone.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Common octopus. Courtesy: Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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The Rise of Beards and the Fall of Social Media

Google-search-hipster-beard

Perhaps the rise of the hipster beard, handle-bar mustache, oversized glasses, craft brew, fixie (fixed-gear bicycle), thrift store sweaters, indie folk and pickling is a sign. Some see it as a signal of the imminent demise of social media, no less.

Can the length of facial hair or jacket elbow pads and the end of Facebook be correlated? I doubt it, but it’s worth pondering. Though, like John Biggs over a TechCrunch I do believe that the technology pendulum will eventually swing back towards more guarded privacy — if only as the next generation strikes back at the unguarded, frivolous, over-the-top public sharing of its parents.

Then, we can only hope for the demise of the hipster trend.

From TechCrunch:

After the early, exciting expository years of the Internet – the Age of Jennicam where the web was supposed to act as confessional and stage – things changed swiftly. This new medium was a revelation, a gift of freedom that we all took for granted. Want to post rants against the government? Press publish on Blogspot. Want to yell at the world? Aggregate and comment upon some online news. Want to meet people with similar interests or kinks? There was a site for you although you probably had to hunt it down.

The way we shared deep feelings on the Internet grew out of its first written stage into other more interactive forms. It passed through chatrooms, Chatroulette, and photo sharing. It passed through YouTube and Indie gaming. It planted a long, clammy kiss on Tumblr where it will probably remain for a long time. But that was for the professional exhibitionists. Today the most confessional “static” writing you’ll find on a web page is the occasional Medium post about beating adversity through meditation and Apple Watch apps and we have hidden our human foibles behind dank memes and chatbots. Where could the average person, the civilian, go to share their deepest feelings of love, anger, and fear?

Social media.

But an important change is coming to social media. We are learning that all of our thoughts aren’t welcome, especially by social media company investors. We are also learning that social media companies are a business. This means conversation is encouraged as long as it runs the gamut from mundane to vicious but stops at the overtly sexual or violent. Early in its life-cycle Pinterest made a big stink about actively banning porn while Instagram essentially allowed all sorts of exposition as long as it was monetizable and censored. Facebook still actively polices its photographs for even the hint of sexuality as an artist named Justyna Kiesielewicz recently discovered. She posted a staid nude and wanted to run it as an targeted advertisement. Facebook mistakenly ran the ad for a while, grabbing $50 before it banned the image. In short the latest incarnation of the expository impulse is truncated and sites like Facebook and Twitter welcome most hate groups but most draw the line at underboobs.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search and all hipsters.

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Launch-On-Warning

minuteman3-test-launch

Set aside your latest horror novel and forget the terror from the Hollywood blood and gore machine. What follows is a true tale of existential horror.

It’s a story of potential catastrophic human error, aging and obsolete technology, testosterone-fueled brinkmanship, volatile rhetoric and nuclear annihilation.

Written by Eric Schlosser over at the New Yorker. He is author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”.

I wonder if the command and control infrastructure serving the U.S. nuclear arsenal has since been upgraded so that the full complement of intercontinental ballistic missiles can be launched at a whim via Twitter.

What a great start to the new year.

From the New Yorker:

On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States.

U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

Read the entire sobering article here.

Image: Minuteman III ICBM test launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, United States. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force, DOD Defense Visual Information Center. Public Domain.

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Post*Factua!ly Speaking – Inauguration Day

postfactually-screenshot

In keeping with today’s historic (and peaceful) transition of power in the United States — I’m taking time to celebrate the inauguration of… Post*factua!ly.

Post*factua!ly is my new social art project aimed at collecting lies, sharing misquotes and debunking facts. How timely, right?

We’ve entered a new age where lies matter and fact is meaningless. As a result Post*factua!ly aims to become a community focal point — with an artistic slant — for fibs, lies, falsehoods, deceit, half-truths, fabrications, bluffing, disinformation, misinformation, untruth, truthiness, post-truth, post-fact, and other stuff that’s just not real (or perhaps it is).

Post*factua!ly will formally open it’s doors by early February. So, in the meantime if you wish to join the community please visit this link, and thanks for giving the world of post-fact and truthiness a chance.

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What Up With That: Nationalism

The recent political earthquake in the US is just one example of a nationalistic wave that swept across Western democracies in 2015-2016. The election in the US seemed to surprise many political talking-heads since the nation was, and still is, on a continuing path towards greater liberalism (mostly due to demographics).

So, what exactly is up with that? Can American liberals enter a coma for the next 4 years, sure to awaken refreshed and ready for a new left-of-center regime? Or, is the current nationalistic mood — albeit courtesy of a large minority — likely to prevail for a while longer? Well, there’s no clear answer, and political scientists and researchers are baffled.

Care to learn more about theories of nationalism and the historical underpinnings of nationalism? Visit my reading list over at Goodreads. But make sure you start with: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson. It’s been the global masterwork on the analysis of nationalism since it was first published in 1983.

I tend to agree with Anderson’s thesis, that a nation is mostly a collective figment of people’s imagination facilitated by modern communications networks. So, I have to believe that eventually our networks will help us overcome the false strictures of our many national walls and borders.

From Scientific American:

Waves of nationalist sentiment are reshaping the politics of Western democracies in unexpected ways — carrying Donald Trump to a surprise victory last month in the US presidential election, and pushing the United Kingdom to vote in June to exit the European Union. And nationalist parties are rising in popularity across Europe.

Many economists see this political shift as a consequence of globalization and technological innovation over the past quarter of a century, which have eliminated many jobs in the West. And political scientists are tracing the influence of cultural tensions arising from immigration and from ethnic, racial and sexual diversity. But researchers are struggling to understand why these disparate forces have combined to drive an unpredictable brand of populist politics.

“We have to start worrying about the stability of our democracies,” says Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He notes that the long-running World Values Survey shows that people are increasingly disaffected with their governments — and more willing to support authoritarian leaders.

Some academics have explored potential parallels between the roots of the current global political shift and the rise of populism during the Great Depression, including in Nazi Germany. But Helmut Anheier, president of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, cautions that the economic struggles of middle-class citizens across the West today are very different, particularly in mainland Europe.

The Nazis took advantage of the extreme economic hardship that followed the First World War and a global depression, but today’s populist movements are growing powerful in wealthy European countries with strong social programmes. “What brings about a right-wing movement when there are no good reasons for it?”Anheier asks.

In the United States, some have suggested that racism motivated a significant number of Trump voters. But that is too simplistic an explanation, says Theda Skocpol, a sociologist at Harvard University.  “Trump dominated the news for more than a year, and did so with provocative statements that were meant to exacerbate every tension in the US,” she says.

Read the entire story here.

p.s. What Up With That is my homage to the recurring Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch of the same name.

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Reliving the Titan Descent

A couple of days ago NASA released this gorgeous video constructed from real images taken by the Huygens lander. This revisits Huygen’s successful landing on Titan — Saturn’s largest moon, just over 12 years ago, on January 14, 2005.

Huygens made up half of the Cassini-Huygens joint NASA-ESA (European Space Agency) mission to investigate Saturn and its strange moons. Cassini is currently still in close orbit around Saturn. To date the mission remains the first to successfully land on a moon beyond Earth’s own.

Video: This movie was built thanks to the data collected by ESA’s Huygens Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) on 14 January 2005, during the 147-minutes plunge through Titan’s thick orange-brown atmosphere to a soft sandy riverbed. In 4 minutes 40 seconds, the movie shows what the probe ‘saw’ within the few hours of the descent and the eventual landing. Courtesy: NASA/ESA.

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MondayMap: The Feds Own 84.5 Percent of Nevada

map-federal_lands

The Unites States government owns almost one-third (28 percent) of the entire nation. Through various agencies that include the United States Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the total owned “by the people, for the people” comes to a staggering 640 million acres of land.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the federal owned land lies in the Rocky Mountains and to the West. In fact, the US government owns 47 percent of the land in the western states, versus just 4 percent in states east of the Rockies.

More from Frank Jacobs over at Strange Maps:

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC. Until you look at the title to the land. The federal government owns large tracts of the western states: from a low of 29.9% in Montana, already more than the national average, up to a whopping 84.5% in Nevada.

What is all that federal land for? And exactly who is in charge? According to the Congressional Research Service [4], a total area of just under 610 million acres – more than twice the size of Namibia – is administered by no more than 4 federal government agencies:

* The United States Forest Service (USFS), which oversees timber harvesting, recreation, wildlife habitat protection and other sustainable uses on a total of 193 million acres – almost the size of Turkey – mainly designated as National Forests.

* The National Park Service (NPS) conserves lands and resources on 80 million acres – a Norway-sized area – in order to preserve them for the public. Any harvesting or resource removal is generally prohibited.

* the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), managing 248 million acres [5] – an area the size of Egypt – has a multiple-use, sustained-yield mandate, supporting energy development, recreation, grazing, conservation, and other uses.

* the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages 89 million acres – an area slightly bigger than Germany – to conserve and protect animal and plant species.

Check out the entire story here.

Image: Federal Real Property Profile. Courtesy: U.S. General Services Administration /  ‘Can the West Lead Us To A Better Place?‘ an article in Stanford Magazine.

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Consumerism Gone Utterly Utterly Mad

amazon-patent-afc

I’m not sure whether to love or hate Amazon (the online retailer). I love the one-click convenience and the mall-less shopping experience. But, Amazon’s lengthy tentacles are increasingly encroaching into every aspect of our lives. Its avaricious quest to “serve the customer” has me scared.

I don’t want Amazon to be the sole source for everything that I eat, wear and use. I don’t want Amazon to run the world’s computing infrastructure. I don’t want Amazon making and peddling movies. I don’t want Amazon tech eavesdropping on my household conversations. I don’t want Amazon owning telecommunications and fiber infrastructure, nor do I want it making phones. I don’t wish to live in a nation that has to all intents become a giant, nationwide Amazon warehouse. And, this leads me to the company’s latest crazy idea.

The company was granted patent #9,305,280 in April 2016 for an “airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery“. You got it: a flying warehouse stocked full of goodies hovering over your neighborhood armed and ready to launch your favorite washing detergent, a pair of Zappos shoes, diapers and a salame to your doorstep via missile drone.

Apparently the proposed airborne fulfillment center (AFC) “may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet)”. Not surprisingly, the AFC mothership will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — drones — “to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations”. But, in addition, the patent filing suggests that “shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC”. The proposed airship will also deliver customized airborne advertising tied to its inventory enabling on-the-fly (pun intended) product promotions and fulfillment.

As Annalee Newitz, Tech Culture Editor, over at ars technica remarks, “sounds like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel“. Yes, and while Dick’s many novels were gloriously imagined, we don’t necessarily need them to enter the real world. Please let our androids continue dreaming (of electric sheep).

Image: Figure 2 from Amazon’s patent for an airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery. US patent #9305280. Courtesy: USPTO. Public Domain.

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Heroes Only Die at the Top of Hills

google-search-heroes-comicWe all need heroes. So, if you wish to become one, you would stand a better chance if you took your dying breaths atop a hill. Also, it would really help your cause if you arrived via virgin birth.

Accordingly, please refer to the Rank-Raglan Mythotype — it is a list of 22 universal archetypes that are prerequisites to you becoming a hero of mythological proportions (far beyond being a Youtube sensation):

  1. Hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
  2. His father is a king, and
  3. Often a near relative of his mother, but
  4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
  5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
  6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grand father to kill him, but
  7. He is spirited away, and
  8. Reared by foster -parents in a far country.
  9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
  10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.
  11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
  12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
  13. Becomes king.
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and
  15. Prescribes laws, but
  16. Later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
  17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which
  18. He meets with a mysterious death,
  19. Often at the top of a hill,
  20. His children, if any do not succeed him.
  21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
  22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.

By far the most heroic fit to date is Mithradates the Great with 22 out of a possible 22 cross-cultural traits. Jesus comes in with a score of 18-20 (based on interpretation) out of 22 , beaten by Krishna with 21, while Robin Hood only manages a paltry 13. Interestingly, Buddha collects 15 points, followed closely by Czar Nicholas II with 14.

The mythotype comes from the book The Hero: A study in Tradition, Myth and Dreams by Lord Raglan.

List courtesy of Professor Thomas J. Sienkewicz, Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. It is based upon material used in his mythology classes for many years, first at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Golden Age of TV: Trailer Park Boys

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I have noticed that critics of our pop culture seem to agree that we are in a second golden age of television in the United States (and elsewhere). It’s a period beginning in the late 1990s, and stretching to the present day, marked by the production of a significant number of critically and internationally acclaimed programs. The original golden age of television spanned the late 1940s and early 50s (e.g., Kraft Television Theater, Four Star Playhouse, The Clock, Alfred Hitchcock Presents).

I’m not much of a TV watcher so my credentials are somewhat dubious. But, I must weigh in to set the record straight on our current golden age. To be precise, it began in Canada on April 22, 2001, and to a fashion, continues to this day.

You see, on April 22, 2001, the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired “Take Your Little Gun and Get Out of My Trailer Park“, the first episode of the first season of Trailer Park Boys.

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I first stumbled across Trailer Park Boys on BBC America while channel surfing in 2004 (I know, 3 years late!). Unfamiliar? Trailer Park Boys (TPB) is a now legendary Canadian mockumentary comedy chronicling the (mis-)adventures of Julian, Ricky and Bubbles, and other colorful residents of fictitious Sunnyvale Trailer Park in Nova Scotia. The show now in its 11th season is a booze and pot-fueled catalog of vulgar, outrageous hare-brained silliness.

I love it. To date I have never laughed so much while watching TV. Luckily for me, and other fans, the show and related movies are now available on Netflix.

So, long may the real golden age of TV continue complete with Bubble’s kitties, Julian and Ricky’s get-rich-quick schemes, Randy’s stomach, Mr.Lahey, Cyrus the nutter, J-Roc, rum-and-coke, Tyrone, Lucy, Officer Green, Trinity, shopping carts and the rest of the madcap bunch.

Image 1: Trailer Park Boys screenshot. Courtesy of Swearnet.

Image 2 courtesy of Google Search.

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Hate Work Email? Become a French Citizen

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Many non-French cultures admire the French. They live in a gorgeous country with a rich history, and, besides, its crammed with sumptuous food and wine. And, perhaps as a result, the French seem to have a very firm understanding of the so-called work-life balance. They’re often characterized as a people who work to live, rather than their earnest Anglo-Saxon cousins who generally live to work. While these may be over-generalized aphorisms a new French law highlights the gulf between employee rights of the French versus those of other more corporate-friendly nations.

Yes, as of January 1, 2017, an employee of a French company, having over 50 staff, has the legal right to ignore work-related emails, and other communications, outside of regular working hours.

Vive la France! More on this “right to disconnect” law here.

From the Guardian:

From Sunday [January 1, 2017], French companies will be required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology as the country seeks to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking.

On 1 January, an employment law will enter into force that obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones.

Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

The measure is intended to tackle the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime – while also giving employees flexibility to work outside the office.

“There’s a real expectation that companies will seize on the ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure,” said Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert, as a new survey on the subject was published in October.

“At the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them,” added Zunigo, who is an academic and director of research group Aristat.

The measure was introduced by labour minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report submitted in September 2015 which warned about the health impact of “info-obesity” which afflicts many workplaces.

Under the new law, companies will be obliged to negotiate with employees to agree on their rights to switch off and ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Messiah Myth

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Now that almost two weeks have gone by since Christmas it’s time to reflect on it’s (historical) meaning beyond the shopping discounts, santa hats and incessant cheesy music.

We know that Christmas falls on two different dates depending on whether you follow the Gregorian or Julian (orthodox) calendars.

We know that many Christmas traditions were poached and re-purposed from rituals and traditions that predate the birth of Jesus, regardless of which calendar you adhere to: the 12-days of Christmas (christmastide) originated from the ancient Germanic mid-winter, more recently Norse, festival of Yule; the tradition of gift giving and partying came from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia; the Western Christian church settled on December 25 based on the ancient Roman date of the winter solstice; holiday lights came from the ancient pagans who lit bonfires and candles on the winter solstice to celebrate the return of the light.

And, let’s not forget the now ubiquitous westernized Santa Claus. We know that Santa has evolved over the centuries from a melting pot of European traditions including those surrounding Saint Nicolas, who was born to a Greek family in Asia Minor (Greek Anatolia in present-day Turkey), and the white-bearded Norse god, Odin.

So, what of Jesus? We know that the gospels describing him are contradictory, written by different, anonymous and usually biased authors, and at different times, often decades after the reported fact. We have no eye-witness accounts. We lack a complete record — there is no account for Jesus’ years 12-30. Indeed, religion aside, many scholars, now question the historic existence of Jesus, the man.

From Big Think:

Today, several books approach the subject, including Zealot by Reza Aslan, Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald, and How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman. Historian Richard Carrier in his 600 page monograph: On the Historicity of Jesus, writes that the story may have derived from earlier semi-divine beings from Near East myth, who were murdered by demons in the celestial realm. This would develop over time into the gospels, he said. Another theory is that Jesus was a historical figure who become mythicized later on.

Carrier believes the pieces added to the work of Josephus were done by Christian scribes. In one particular passage, Carrier says that the execution by Pilate of Jesus was obviously lifted from the Gospel of Luke. Similar problems such as miscopying and misrepresentations are found throughout Tacitus. So where do all the stories in the New Testament derive? According to Carrier, Jesus may be as much a mythical figure as Hercules or Oedipus.

Ehrman focuses on the lack of witnesses. “What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing.”

One biblical scholar holds an even more radical idea, that Jesus story was an early form of psychological warfare to help quell a violent insurgency. The Great Revolt against Rome occurred in 66 BCE. Fierce Jewish warriors known as the Zealots won two decisive victories early on. But Rome returned with 60,000 heavily armed troops. What resulted was a bloody war of attrition that raged for three decades.

 Atwill contends that the Zealots were awaiting the arrival of a warrior messiah to throw off the interlopers. Knowing this, the Roman court under Titus Flavius decided to create their own, competing messiah who promoted pacifism among the populous. According to Atwill, the story of Jesus was taken from many sources, including the campaigns of a previous Caesar.

Of course, there may very well have been a Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef (as would have been Jesus’s real name) who gathered a flock around his teachings in the first century. Most antiquarians believe a real man existed and became mythicized. But the historical record itself is thin.

Read the entire article here.

Image:  “Merry Old Santa Claus”, by Thomas Nast,  January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain.

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We Live in a Flat Universe

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Cosmologists generally agree that our universe is flat. But how exactly can that be for our 3-dimensional selves and everything else for that matter? Well, first it’s useful to note that the flatness is a property of geometry, and not topology. So, even though it’s flat, the universe could be folded and/or twisted in any number of different, esoteric ways.

From Space:

The universe is flat. But there’s a lot of subtlety packed into that innocent-looking statement. What does it mean for a 3D object to be “flat”? How do we measure the shape of the universe anyway? Since the universe is flat, is that…it? Is there anything else interesting to say?

Oh yes, there is.

First, we need to define what we mean by flat. The screen you’re reading this on is obviously flat (I hope), and you know that the Earth is curved (I hope). But how can we quantify that mathematically? Such an exercise might be useful if we want to go around measuring the shape of the whole entire universe. [The History & Structure of the Universe (Infographic)]

One answer lies in parallel lines. If you start drawing two parallel lines on your paper and let them continue on, they’ll stay perfectly parallel forever (or at least until you run out of paper). That was essentially the definition of a parallel line for a couple thousand years, so we should be good.

Let’s repeat the exercise on the surface of the Earth. Start at the equator and draw a couple parallel lines, each pointing directly north. As the lines continue, they never turn left or right but still end up intersecting at the North Pole. The curvature of the Earth itself caused these initially parallel lines to end up not-so-parallel. Ergo, the Earth is curved.

The opposite of the Earth’s curved shape is a saddle: on that surface, lines that start out parallel end up spreading apart from each other (in swanky mathematical circles this is known as “ultraparallel”).

Read the entire article here.

Image: The shape of the universe depends on its density. If the density is more than the critical density, the universe is closed and curves like a sphere; if less, it will curve like a saddle. But if the actual density of the universe is equal to the critical density, as scientists think it is, then it will extend forever like a flat piece of paper. Courtesy: NASA/WMAP Science team.

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MondayMap: Food Rhythms

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OK, I admit it. Today’s article is not strictly about a map, but I couldn’t resist these fascinating data visualizations. The graphic show some of the patterns and trends that can be derived from the vast mountains of data gathered from Google searches. A group of designers and data scientists from Truth & Beauty teamed up with Google News Labs to produce a portfolio of charts that show food and drink related searches over the last 12 years.

The visual above shows a clear spike in cocktail related searches in December (for entertaining during holiday season). Interestingly Searches for a “Tom Collins” have increased since 2004 whereas those for “Martini” have decreased in number. A more recent phenomenon on the cocktail scene seems to be the “Moscow Mule”.

Since most of the searches emanated in the United States the resulting charts show some fascinating changes in the nation’s collective nutritional mood. While some visualizations confirm the obvious — fruit searches peak when in season; pizza is popular year round — some  specific insights are more curious:

  • Orange Jell-O [“jelly” for my British readers] is popular for US Thanksgiving.
  • Tamale searches peak around Christmas.
  • Pumpkin spice latte searches increase in the fall, but searches are peaking earlier each year.
  • Superfood searches are up; fat-free searches are down.
  • Nacho searches peak around Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Cauliflower may be the new Kale.

You can check out much more from this gorgeous data visualization project at The Rhythm of Food.

Image: Screenshot from Rhythm of Food. Courtesy: Rhythm of Food.

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Vera Rubin: Astronomy Pioneer

Vera Rubin passed away on December 26, 2016, aged 88. She was a pioneer in the male-dominated world of astronomy, notable for her original work on dark matter,  galaxy rotation and galaxy clumping.

From Popular Science:

Vera Rubin, who essentially created a new field of astronomy by discovering dark matter, was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in physics for years. But she never received her early-morning call from Stockholm. On Sunday, she died at the age of 88.

Rubin’s death would sadden the scientific community under the best of circumstances. Countless scientists were inspired by her work. Countless scientists are researching questions that wouldn’t exist if not for her work. But her passing brings another blow: The Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. The most prestigious award in physics will never be bestowed upon a woman who was inarguably deserving.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford found that the stars within spiral galaxies weren’t behaving as the laws of physics dictated that they should. This strange spinning led her and others to conclude that some unseen mass must be influencing the galactic rotation. This unknown matter—now dubbed dark matter—outnumbers the traditional stuff by at least five to one. This is a big deal.

Read more here.

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Spacetime Without the Time

anti-de-sitter-spaceSince they were first dreamed up explanations of the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (general relativity) have both been highly successful at describing their respective spheres of influence. Yet, these two descriptions of our physical universe are not compatible, particularly when it comes to describing gravity. Indeed, physicists and theorists have struggled for decades to unite these two frameworks. Many agree that we need a new theory (of everything).

One new idea, from theorist Erik Verlinde of the University of Amsterdam, proposes that time is an emergent construct (it’s not a fundamental building block) and that dark matter is an illusion.

From Quanta:

Theoretical physicists striving to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity into an all-encompassing theory of quantum gravity face what’s called the “problem of time.”

In quantum mechanics, time is universal and absolute; its steady ticks dictate the evolving entanglements between particles. But in general relativity (Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity), time is relative and dynamical, a dimension that’s inextricably interwoven with directions x, y and z into a four-dimensional “space-time” fabric. The fabric warps under the weight of matter, causing nearby stuff to fall toward it (this is gravity), and slowing the passage of time relative to clocks far away. Or hop in a rocket and use fuel rather than gravity to accelerate through space, and time dilates; you age less than someone who stayed at home.

Unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity requires reconciling their absolute and relative notions of time. Recently, a promising burst of research on quantum gravity has provided an outline of what the reconciliation might look like — as well as insights on the true nature of time.

As I described in an article this week on a new theoretical attempt to explain away dark matter, many leading physicists now consider space-time and gravity to be “emergent” phenomena: Bendy, curvy space-time and the matter within it are a hologram that arises out of a network of entangled qubits (quantum bits of information), much as the three-dimensional environment of a computer game is encoded in the classical bits on a silicon chip. “I think we now understand that space-time really is just a geometrical representation of the entanglement structure of these underlying quantum systems,” said Mark Van Raamsdonk, a theoretical physicist at the University of British Columbia.

Researchers have worked out the math showing how the hologram arises in toy universes that possess a fisheye space-time geometry known as “anti-de Sitter” (AdS) space. In these warped worlds, spatial increments get shorter and shorter as you move out from the center. Eventually, the spatial dimension extending from the center shrinks to nothing, hitting a boundary. The existence of this boundary — which has one fewer spatial dimension than the interior space-time, or “bulk” — aids calculations by providing a rigid stage on which to model the entangled qubits that project the hologram within. “Inside the bulk, time starts bending and curving with the space in dramatic ways,” said Brian Swingle of Harvard and Brandeis universities. “We have an understanding of how to describe that in terms of the ‘sludge’ on the boundary,” he added, referring to the entangled qubits.

The states of the qubits evolve according to universal time as if executing steps in a computer code, giving rise to warped, relativistic time in the bulk of the AdS space. The only thing is, that’s not quite how it works in our universe.

Here, the space-time fabric has a “de Sitter” geometry, stretching as you look into the distance. The fabric stretches until the universe hits a very different sort of boundary from the one in AdS space: the end of time. At that point, in an event known as “heat death,” space-time will have stretched so much that everything in it will become causally disconnected from everything else, such that no signals can ever again travel between them. The familiar notion of time breaks down. From then on, nothing happens.

On the timeless boundary of our space-time bubble, the entanglements linking together qubits (and encoding the universe’s dynamical interior) would presumably remain intact, since these quantum correlations do not require that signals be sent back and forth. But the state of the qubits must be static and timeless. This line of reasoning suggests that somehow, just as the qubits on the boundary of AdS space give rise to an interior with one extra spatial dimension, qubits on the timeless boundary of de Sitter space must give rise to a universe with time — dynamical time, in particular. Researchers haven’t yet figured out how to do these calculations. “In de Sitter space,” Swingle said, “we don’t have a good idea for how to understand the emergence of time.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Image of (1 + 1)-dimensional anti-de Sitter space embedded in flat (1 + 2)-dimensional space. The t1- and t2-axes lie in the plane of rotational symmetry, and the x1-axis is normal to that plane. The embedded surface contains closed timelike curves circling the x1 axis, though these can be eliminated by “unrolling” the embedding (more precisely, by taking the universal cover). Courtesy: Krishnavedala. Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

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MondayMap: A Global Radio Roadtrip

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As a kid my radio allowed me to travel the world. I could use the dial to transport myself over border walls and across oceans to visit new cultures and discover new sounds. I’d always eagerly anticipate the next discovery as I carefully moved the dial around the Short Wave, Long Wave (and later the FM) spectrum, waiting for new music and voices to replace the soothing crackle and hiss of the intervening static.

So, what a revelation it is to stumble across Radio.Garden. It’s a glorious, app that combines the now arcane radio dial with the power of the internet enabling you to journey around the globe on a virtual radio roadtrip.

Trek to Tromsø north of the arctic circle in Norway, then hop over to Omsk in central Russia. Check out the meditative tunes in Kathmandu before heading southwest to Ruwi, Oman on the Persian Gulf. Stopover in Kuching, Malaysia, then visit Nhulunbuy in Australia’s Northern Territory. Take in a mid-Pacific talk radio show in Bairiki, in the Republic of Kiribati, then some salsa inspired tuned in Tacna, Peru, and followed by pounding Brazilian Euro-techno in João Pessoa. Journey to Kinshasa in the DRC for some refreshing African beats, then rest for the day with some lively conversation in the Italian Apennine Mountains in Parma, Italy.

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During this wonderful border free journey one thing is becomes crystal clear: we are part of one global community with much in common. History will eventually prove the racists and xenophobes among us wrong.

Images: Screenshots of Radio.Garden. Courtesy of Radio.Garden.

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Computational Folkloristics

hca_by_thora_hallager_1869What do you get when you set AI (artificial intelligence) the task of reading through 30,000 Danish folk and fairy tales? Well, you get a host of fascinating, newly discovered insights into Scandinavian witches and trolls.

More importantly, you hammer another nail into the coffin of literary criticism and set AI on a collision course with yet another preserve of once exclusive human endeavor. It’s probably safe to assume that creative writing will fall to intelligent machines in the not too distant future (as well) — certainly human-powered investigative journalism seemed to became extinct in 2016; replaced by algorithmic aggregation, social bots and fake-mongers.

From aeon:

Where do witches come from, and what do those places have in common? While browsing a large collection of traditional Danish folktales, the folklorist Timothy Tangherlini and his colleague Peter Broadwell, both at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to find out. Armed with a geographical index and some 30,000 stories, they developed WitchHunter, an interactive ‘geo-semantic’ map of Denmark that highlights the hotspots for witchcraft.

The system used artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to unearth a trove of surprising insights. For example, they found that evil sorcery often took place close to Catholic monasteries. This made a certain amount of sense, since Catholic sites in Denmark were tarred with diabolical associations after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. By plotting the distance and direction of witchcraft relative to the storyteller’s location, WitchHunter also showed that enchantresses tend to be found within the local community, much closer to home than other kinds of threats. ‘Witches and robbers are human threats to the economic stability of the community,’ the researchers write. ‘Yet, while witches threaten from within, robbers are generally situated at a remove from the well-described village, often living in woods, forests, or the heath … it seems that no matter how far one goes, nor where one turns, one is in danger of encountering a witch.’

Such ‘computational folkloristics’ raise a big question: what can algorithms tell us about the stories we love to read? Any proposed answer seems to point to as many uncertainties as it resolves, especially as AI technologies grow in power. Can literature really be sliced up into computable bits of ‘information’, or is there something about the experience of reading that is irreducible? Could AI enhance literary interpretation, or will it alter the field of literary criticism beyond recognition? And could algorithms ever derive meaning from books in the way humans do, or even produce literature themselves?

Author and computational linguist Inderjeet Mani concludes his essay thus:

Computational analysis and ‘traditional’ literary interpretation need not be a winner-takes-all scenario. Digital technology has already started to blur the line between creators and critics. In a similar way, literary critics should start combining their deep expertise with ingenuity in their use of AI tools, as Broadwell and Tangherlini did with WitchHunter. Without algorithmic assistance, researchers would be hard-pressed to make such supernaturally intriguing findings, especially as the quantity and diversity of writing proliferates online.

In the future, scholars who lean on digital helpmates are likely to dominate the rest, enriching our literary culture and changing the kinds of questions that can be explored. Those who resist the temptation to unleash the capabilities of machines will have to content themselves with the pleasures afforded by smaller-scale, and fewer, discoveries. While critics and book reviewers may continue to be an essential part of public cultural life, literary theorists who do not embrace AI will be at risk of becoming an exotic species – like the librarians who once used index cards to search for information.

Read the entire tale here.

Image: Portrait of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Courtesy: Thora Hallager, 10/16 October 1869. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Wound Man

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No, the image is not a still from a forthcoming episode of Law & Order or Criminal Minds. Nor is it a nightmarish Hieronymus Bosch artwork.

Rather, “Wound Man”, as he was known, is a visual table of contents to a medieval manuscript of medical cures, treatments and surgeries. Wound Man first appeared in German surgical texts in the early 15th century. Arranged around each of his various wounds and ailments are references to further details on appropriate treatments. For instance, reference number 38 alongside an arrow penetrating Wound Man’s thigh, “An arrow whose shaft is still in place”, leads to details on how to address the wound — presumably a relatively common occurrence in the Middle Ages.

From Public Domain Review:

Staring impassively out of the page, he bears a multitude of graphic wounds. His skin is covered in bleeding cuts and lesions, stabbed and sliced by knives, spears and swords of varying sizes, many of which remain in the skin, protruding porcupine-like from his body. Another dagger pierces his side, and through his strangely transparent chest we see its tip puncture his heart. His thighs are pierced with arrows, some intact, some snapped down to just their heads or shafts. A club slams into his shoulder, another into the side of his face.

His neck, armpits and groin sport rounded blue buboes, swollen glands suggesting that the figure has contracted plague. His shins and feet are pockmarked with clustered lacerations and thorn scratches, and he is beset by rabid animals. A dog, snake and scorpion bite at his ankles, a bee stings his elbow, and even inside the cavity of his stomach a toad aggravates his innards.

Despite this horrendous cumulative barrage of injuries, however, the Wound Man is very much alive. For the purpose of this image was not to threaten or inspire fear, but to herald potential cures for all of the depicted maladies. He contrarily represented something altogether more hopeful than his battered body: an arresting reminder of the powerful knowledge that could be channelled and dispensed in the practice of late medieval medicine.

The earliest known versions of the Wound Man appeared at the turn of the fifteenth century in books on the surgical craft, particularly works from southern Germany associated with the renowned Würzburg surgeon Ortolf von Baierland (died before 1339). Accompanying a text known as the “Wundarznei” (The Surgery), these first Wound Men effectively functioned as a human table of contents for the cures contained within the relevant treatise. Look closely at the remarkable Wound Man shown above from the Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 – a miscellany including medical material produced in Germany in about 1420 – and you see that the figure is penetrated not only by weapons but also by text.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Wound Man. Courtesy: Wellcome Library’s MS. 49 — Source (CC BY 4.0). Public Domain Review.

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Fake News: Who’s Too Blame?

alien-abduction-waltonShould we blame the creative originators of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation and click-bait hype? Or, should we blame the media for disseminating, spinning and aggrandizing these stories for their own profit or political motives? Or, should we blame us — the witless consumers.

I subscribe to the opinion that all three constituencies share responsibility — it’s very much a symbiotic relationship.

James Warren chief media writer for Poynter has a different opinion; he lays the blame squarely at the feet of gullible and unquestioning citizens. He makes a very compelling argument.

Perhaps if any educated political scholars remain several hundred years from now, they’ll hold the US presidential election of 2016 as the culmination of a process where lazy stupidity triumphed over healthy skepticism and reason.

From Hive:

The rise of “fake news” inspires the press to uncover its many practitioners worldwide, discern its economics and herald the alleged guilt-ridden soul-searching by its greatest enablers, Facebook and Google.

But the media dances around another reality with the dexterity of Beyonce, Usher and septuagenarian Mick Jagger: the stupidity of a growing number of Americans.

So thanks to Neal Gabler for taking to Bill Moyers’ website to pen, “Who’s Really to Blame for Fake News.” (Moyers)

Fake news, of course, “is an assault on the very principle of truth itself: a way to upend the reference points by which mankind has long operated. You could say, without exaggeration, that fake news is actually an attempt to reverse the Enlightenment. And because a democracy relies on truth — which is why dystopian writers have always described how future oligarchs need to undermine it — fake news is an assault on democracy as well.”

Gabler is identified here as the author of five books, without mentioning any. Well, one is 1995’s Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. It’s a superb look at Walter Winchell, the man who really invented the gossip column and wound up with a readership and radio audience of 50 million, or two-thirds of the then-population, as he helped create our modern media world of privacy-invading gossip and personal destruction as entertainment.

“What is truly horrifying is that fake news is not the manipulation of an unsuspecting public,” Gabler writes of our current mess. “Quite the opposite. It is willful belief by the public. In effect, the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign. That is our current situation, and it is no sure thing that either truth or democracy survives.”

Think of it. The goofy stories, the lies, the conspiracy theories that now routinely gain credibility among millions who can’t be bothered to read a newspaper or decent digital site and can’t differentiate between Breitbart and The New York Times. Ask all those pissed-off Trump loyalists in rural towns to name their two U.S. senators.

We love convincing ourselves of the strengths of democracy, including the inevitable collective wisdom setting us back on a right track if ever we go astray. And while the media may hold itself out as cultural anthropologists in explaining the “anger” or “frustration” of “real people,” as is the case after Donald Trump’s election victory, we won’t really underscore rampant illiteracy and incomprehension.

So read Gabler. “Above all else, fake news is a lazy person’s news. It provides passive entertainment, demanding nothing of us. And that is a major reason we now have a fake news president.”

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Artist’s conception of an alien spacecraft tractor-beaming a human victim. Courtesy: unknown artist, Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Uber For…

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There’s an Uber for pet-sitters (Rover). There’s an Uber for dog walkers (Wag). There’s an Uber for private jets (JetMe). There are several Ubers for alcohol (Minibar, Saucey, Drizly, Thirstie). In fact, enter the keywords “Uber for…” into Google and the search engine will return “Uber for kids, Uber for icecream, Uber for news, Uber for seniors, Uber for trucks, Uber for haircuts, Uber for iPads (?), Uber for food, Uber for undertakers (??)…” and thousands of other results.

The list of Uber-like copycats, startups and ideas is seemingly endless — a sign, without doubt, that we have indeed reached peak-Uber. Perhaps VCs in the valley should move on to some more meaningful investments, before the Uber bubble bursts.

From Wired:

“Uber for X” has been the headline of more than four hundred news articles. Thousands of would-be entrepreneurs used the phrase to describe their companies in their pitch decks. On one site alone—AngelList, where startups can court angel investors and employees—526 companies included “Uber for” in their listings. As a judge for various emerging technology startup competitions, I saw “Uber for” so many times that at some point, I developed perceptual blindness.

Nearly all the organizations I advised at that time wanted to know about the “Uber for” of their respective industries. A university wanted to develop an “Uber for tutoring”; a government agency was hoping to solve an impending transit issue with an “Uber for parking.” I knew that “Uber for” had reached critical mass when one large media organization, in need of a sustainable profit center, pitched me their “Uber for news strategy.”

“We’re going to be the Uber for news,” the news exec told me. Confused, I asked what, exactly, he meant by that.

“Three years from now, we’ll have an on-demand news platform for Millennials. They tap a button on their phones and they get the news delivered right to them, wherever they are,” the editor said enthusiastically. “This is the future of news!”

“Is it an app?” I asked, trying to understand.

“Maybe. The point is that you get the news right away, when you want it, wherever you are,” the exec said.

“So you mean an app,” I pressed. “Yes!” he said. “But more like Uber.”

The mass “Uber for X” excitement is a good example of what happens when we don’t stop to investigate a trend, asking difficult questions and challenging our cherished beliefs. We need to first understand what, exactly, Uber is and what led to entrepreneurs coining that catchphrase.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Anomaly

Is the smallest, lightest, most ghostly particle about to upend our understanding of the universe? Recently, the ephemeral neutrino has begun to give up some of its secrets. Beginning in 1998 the neutrino experiments at Super-Kamiokande and Sudbury Neutrino Observatory showed for the first time that neutrinos oscillate with one of three flavors. In 2015, two physicists were awarded the Nobel prize for this discovery, which also proved that neutrinos must have mass. More recently, a small anomaly at the Super-Kamiokande detector has surfaced, which, is hoped, could shed light on why the universe is constructed primarily from matter and not anti-matter.

From Quanta:

The anomaly, detected by the T2K experiment, is not yet pronounced enough to be sure of, but it and the findings of two related experiments “are all pointing in the same direction,” said Hirohisa Tanaka of the University of Toronto, a member of the T2K team who presented the result to a packed audience in London earlier this month.

“A full proof will take more time,” said Werner Rodejohann, a neutrino specialist at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg who was not involved in the experiments, “but my and many others’ feeling is that there is something real here.”

The long-standing puzzle to be solved is why we and everything we see is matter-made. More to the point, why does anything — matter or antimatter — exist at all? The reigning laws of particle physics, known as the Standard Model, treat matter and antimatter nearly equivalently, respecting (with one known exception) so-called charge-parity, or “CP,” symmetry: For every particle decay that produces, say, a negatively charged electron, the mirror-image decay yielding a positively charged antielectron occurs at the same rate. But this cannot be the whole story. If equal amounts of matter and antimatter were produced during the Big Bang, equal amounts should have existed shortly thereafter. And since matter and antimatter annihilate upon contact, such a situation would have led to the wholesale destruction of both, resulting in an empty cosmos.

Somehow, significantly more matter than antimatter must have been created, such that a matter surplus survived the annihilation and now holds sway. The question is, what CP-violating process beyond the Standard Model favored the production of matter over antimatter?

Many physicists suspect that the answer lies with neutrinos — ultra-elusive, omnipresent particles that pass unfelt through your body by the trillions each second.

Read the entire article here.

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Robots Beware. Humans Are Still (Sort of) Smarter Than You

So, it looks like we humans may have a few more years to go as the smartest beings on the planet, before being overrun by ubiquitous sentient robots. Some may question my assertion based on recent election results in the UK and the US, but I digress.

A recent experiment featuring some of our best-loved voice-activated assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, clearly shows our digital brethren have some learning to do. A conversation between two of these rapidly enters an infinite loop.

Read more about this here.

Video: Echo/Google Home infinite loop. Courtesy: Adam Jakowenko.

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