EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Monthly Archives: August 2011
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
From Scientific American:
Cities reverberate through history as centers of civilization. Ur. Babylon. Rome. Baghdad. Tenochtitlan. Beijing. Paris. London. New York. As pivotal as cities have been for our art and culture, our commerce and trade, our science and technology, our wars and peace, it turns out that cities might have been even more important than we had suspected, influencing our very genes and evolution.
Cities reverberate through history as centers of civilization. Ur. Babylon. Rome. Baghdad. Tenochtitlan. Beijing. Paris. London. New York. As pivotal as cities have been for our art and culture, our commerce and trade, our science and technology, our wars and peace, it turns out that cities might have been even more important than we had suspected, influencing our very genes and evolution....read more
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Not quite as poetic and intricate as Dante’s circuitous map of hell but a fascinating invention by Tom Gauld nonetheless.
From Frank Jacobs for Strange Maps:
“A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell”, said George Bernard Shaw; in fact, just the odd few weeks of summer vacation may be near enough unbearable – what with all the frantic packing and driving, the getting lost and having forgotten, the primitive lodgings, lousy food and miserable weather, not to mention the risk of disease and unfriendly natives.
And yet, even for the bored teenagers forced to join their parents’ on their annual work detox, the horrors of the summer holiday mix with the chance of thrilling adventures, beckoning beyond the unfamiliar horizon....read more
The world of science is replete with nouns derived from people. There is the Amp (named after André-Marie Ampère); the Volt (after Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta), the Watt (after the Scottish engineer James Watt). And the list goes on. We have the Kelvin, Ohm, Coulomb, Celsius, Hertz, Joule, Sievert. We also have more commonly used nouns in circulation that derive from people. The mackintosh, cardigan and sandwich are perhaps the most frequently used.
Before there were silhouettes, there was a French fellow named Silhouette. And before there were Jacuzzi parties there were seven inventive brothers by that name. It’s easy to forget that some of the most common words in the English language came from living, breathing people. Explore these real-life namesakes courtesy of Slate’s partnership with LIFE.com.
Jules Leotard: Tight Fit...read more
Monday, August 29, 2011
Why do some words take hold in the public consciousness and persist through generations while others fall by the wayside after one season?
Despite the fleetingness of many new slang terms, such as txtnesia (“when you forget what you texted someone last”), a visit to the Urbandictionary will undoubtedly amuse at the inventiveness of our our language., though gobsmacked and codswallop may come to mind as well.
A poem by Billy Collins ushers in another week. Collins served two terms as the U.S. Poet Laureate, from 2001-2003. He is known for poetry imbued with leftfield humor and deep insight.
By Billy Collins:
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.
The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.
And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.
Image courtesy of Poetry Foundation.
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Sunday, August 28, 2011
Jonathan Ive, the design brains behind such iconic contraptions as the iMac, iPod and the iPhone discusses his notion of “undesign”. Ive has over 300 patents and is often cited as one of the most influential industrial designers of the last 20 years. Perhaps it’s purely coincidental that’s Ive’s understated “undesign” comes from his unassuming Britishness.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Street art once known as graffiti used to be a derided outlet for social misfits and cultural rebels. Now it is big business. Corporations have embraced the medium, and some street artists have even “sold out” to commercial interests.
Jonathan Jones laments the demise of this art form and its transformation into just another type of corporate advertising.
By Jonathan Jones for the Guardian:
Street art is so much part of the establishment that when David Cameron spoke about this summer’s riots, he was photographed in front of a bright and bulbous Oxfordshire graffiti painting. Contradiction? Of course not. The efforts of Banksy and all the would-be Banksys have so deeply inscribed the “coolness” of street art into the middle-class mind that it is now as respectable as the Proms, and enjoyed by the same crowd – who can now take a picnic basket down to watch a painting marathon under the railway arches....read more
Alexander Edmonds has a thoroughly engrossing piece on the pursuit of “beauty” and the culture of vanity as commodity. And the role of plastic surgeon as both enabler and arbiter comes under a very necessary microscope.
Alexander Edmonds for the New York Times:
While living in Rio de Janeiro in 1999, I saw something that caught my attention: a television broadcast of a Carnival parade that paid homage to a plastic surgeon, Dr. Ivo Pitanguy. The doctor led the procession surrounded by samba dancers in feathers and bikinis. Over a thundering drum section and anarchic screech of a cuica, the singer praised Pitanguy for “awakening the self-esteem in each ego” with a “scalpel guided by heaven.”...read more
Friday, August 26, 2011
The most recent edition of Behavioral and Brain Sciences carries a remarkable review article by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ The article outlines two central propositions; first, that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines intensely a narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates who are, as the authors write, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD’).
More controversially, the authors go on to argue that, where there is robust cross-cultural research, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits. They don’t ignore universals – discussing them in several places – but they do highlight human variation and its implications for psychological theory....read more
Thursday, August 25, 2011
A whimsical look at your favorite piece of internet software — the web browser.
Infographic courtesy of Wix:
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Scents are deeply evokative. A faint whiff of a distinct and rare scent can bring back a long forgotten memory and make it vivid, and do so like no other sense. Smells can make our stomachs churn and make us swoon.
The scent-making industry has been with us for thousands of years. In 2005, archeologists discovered the remains of a perfume factory on the island of Cyprus dating back over 4,000 years. So, it’s no surprise that makers of fragrances, from artificial aromas for foods to complex nasal “notes” for perfumes and deodorants, now comprise a multi-billion dollar global industry. Krystal D’Costa over at Anthropology in Practice takes us on a fine aromatic tour, and concludes her article with a view to which most can surely relate:...read more
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
A thoughtful question posed below by philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel over at The Splinted Mind. Gazing in a mirror or reflection is something we all do on a frequent basis. In fact, is there any human activity that trumps this in frequency? Yet, have we ever given thought to how and why we perceive ourselves in space differently to say a car in a rearview mirror. The car in the rearview mirror is quite clearly approaching us from behind as we drive. However, where exactly is our reflection we when cast our eyes at the mirror in the bathrooom?
From the Splintered Mind:
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
A recent study by Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London places the seat of our sense of beauty in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). Not very romantic of course, but thoroughly reasonable that this compound emotion would be found in an area of the brain linked with reward and pleasure.
The results are described over at Not Exactly Rocket Science / Discover:
Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from University College London watched the brains of 21 volunteers as they looked at 30 paintings and listened to 30 musical excerpts. All the while, they were lying inside an fMRI scanner, a machine that measures blood flow to different parts of the brain and shows which are most active. The recruits rated each piece as “beautiful”, “indifferent” or “ugly”.
The scans showed that one part of their brains lit up more strongly when they experienced beautiful images or music than when they experienced ugly or indifferent ones – the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC....read more
Skeptic in-chief, Michael Shermer has an important and fascinating new book. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths – describes how our beliefs arise from patterns and that these beliefs come first, and explanations for those beliefs comes second.
Shermer reviews 30 years of leading research in cognitive science, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and anthropology and numerous real-world examples to show how the belief mechanism works. This holds for our beliefs in all manner of important spheres: religion, politics, economics, superstition and the supernatural....read more
Monday, August 22, 2011
Ushering in this week’s focus on the brain and the cognitive sciences is an Emily Dickinson poem.
Born is Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830, Emily Dickinson is often characterized as having lead a very private and eccentric life. While few of her poems were published during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded as a major American poet for her innovative, pre-modernist poetry.
By Emily Dickinson:
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —
The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
More on Emily Dickinson from the Poetry Foundation....read more
Sunday, August 21, 2011
This week, Hewlett-Packard (where I am on the board) announced that it is exploring jettisoning its struggling PC business in favor of investing more heavily in software, where it sees better potential for growth. Meanwhile, Google plans to buy up the cellphone handset maker Motorola Mobility. Both moves surprised the tech world. But both moves are also in line with a trend I’ve observed, one that makes me optimistic about the future growth of the American and world economies, despite the recent turmoil in the stock market.
In short, software is eating the world....read more
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Friday, August 19, 2011
Regardless of culture, every spouse (most often the male in this case) on the planet knows to tread very carefully when formulating the answer to that question. An answer that’s conclusively negative will consign the outfit to the disposable pile and earn a scowl; a response that’s only a little negative will get a scowl; a response that’s ebulliently positive will not be believed; one that slightly positive will not be believed and earn another scowl; and the ambivalent, non-committal answer gets an even bigger scowl. This oft repeated situation is very much a lose-lose event. That is, until now.
A new mobile app and website, called Go Try It On, aims to give crowdsourced, anonymous feedback in real-time to any of the outfit-challenged amongst us. Spouses can now relax – no more awkward conversations about clothing.
From the New York Times:
Aristotle said “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.” Marcel Proust wrote “Everything great in the world is created by neurotics. They have composed our masterpieces, but we don’t consider what they have cost their creators in sleepless nights, and worst of all, fear of death.”
Perhaps that’s why Jakub Szcz?sny designed this hermitage, this “studio for invited guests – young creators and intellectualists from all over the world.”- it will drive them completely crazy.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of living in small spaces. I write about them all the time. But the Keret House is 122 cm (48.031″) at its widest, 72 (28.34″) at its narrowest. I know people wider than that.
More from theSource here.
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Thursday, August 18, 2011
That very quaint form of communication, the printed postcard, reserved for independent children to their clingy parents and boastful travelers to their (not) distant (enough) family members, may soon become as arcane as the LP or paper-based map. Until the late-90s there were some rather common sights associated with the postcard: the tourist lounging in a cafe musing with great difficulty over the two or three pithy lines he would write from Paris; the traveler asking for a postcard stamp in broken German; the remaining 3 from a pack of 6 unwritten postcards of the Vatican now used as bookmarks; the over saturated colors of the sunset.
Technology continues to march on, though some would argue that it may not necessarily be a march forward. Technology is indifferent to romance and historic precedent, and so the lowly postcard finds itself increasing under threat from Flickr and Twitter and smartphones and Instagram and Facebook....read more
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Shnakule, Ishabor, Cinbric, Naargo and Vidzeban are not five fictional colleagues of Lord Voldemort from the mind of JK Rowling. They are indeed bad guys, but they live in our real world, online. Shnakule and its peers are the top 5 malware delivery networks. That is, they host a range of diverse and sophisticated malicious software, or malware, on ever-changing computer networks that seek to avoid detection. Malware on these networks includes: fake anti-virus software, fake software updates, drive-by downloads, suspicious link farming, ransomware, pharmacy spam, malvertising, work-at-home scams and unsolicited pornography. Other malware includes: computer viruses, worms, trojan horses, spyware, dishonest adware, and other unwanted software....read more
Monday, August 15, 2011
The infographic below shows the evolution of some of the influential programming languages since the 1950s. Though, it omits some key languages such as LISP, PL/1, APL, Prolog, MUMPS, ALGOL, Smalltalk and others.
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A poignant, poetic view of our relationships, increasingly mediated and recalled for us through technology. Conor O’Callaghan’s poem ushers in this week’s collection of articles at theDiagonal focused on technology.
Conor O’Callaghan is an Irish poet. He teaches at Wake Forest University and Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom.
By Conor O’Callaghan, courtesy of Poetry Foundation:
Three Six Five Zero
I called up tech and got the voicemail code.
It’s taken me this long to find my feet.
Since last we spoke that evening it has snowed.
Fifty-four new messages. Most are old
and blinking into a future months complete.
I contacted tech to get my voicemail code
to hear your voice, not some bozo on the road
the week of Thanksgiving dubbing me his sweet
and breaking up and bleating how it snowed
the Nashville side of Chattanooga and slowed
the beltway to a standstill. The radio said sleet.
The kid in tech sent on my voicemail code.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Where evaluating artistic style was once the exclusive domain of seasoned art historians and art critics with many decades of experience, a computer armed with sophisticated image processing software is making a stir in art circles.
Computer scientist, Dr. Lior Shamir of Lawrence Technological University in Michigan authored a recent paper that suggests computers may be just as adept as human art experts at evaluating similarities, and differences, of artistic styles.
Dr. Shamir’s breakthrough was to decompose the task of evaluating a painting into discrete quantifiable components that could be assigned a numeric value and hence available for computation. These components, or descriptors, included surface texture, color intensity and type, distribution of lines and edges, and number and types of shapes used in the painting.
From the Economist:
Saturday, August 13, 2011
In 2007 UPS made the headlines by declaring left-hand turns for its army of delivery truck drivers undesirable. Of course, we left-handers have always known that our left or “sinister” side is fatefully less attractive and still branded as unlucky or evil. Chinese culture brands left-handedness as improper as well.
UPS had other motives for poo-pooing left-hand turns. For a company which runs over 95,000 big brown delivery trucks optimizing delivery routes could result in tremendous savings. In fact, careful research showed that the company could reduce its annual delivery routes by 28.5 million miles, save around 3 million gallons of fuel and reduce CO2 emissions by over 30,000 metric tons. And, eliminating or reducing left-hand turns would be safer as well. Of the 2.4 million crashes at intersections in the United States in 2007, most involved left-hand turns, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration....read more
Having just posted an article that described the universe in terms of holographic principles – a 3-D projection on a two dimensional surface, it’s timely to put the theory in context, of other theories of course. There’s a theory that posits that the universe is a bubble wrought from the collision of high-dimensional branes (membrane that is). There’s a theory that suggests that our universe is one of many in a soup of multi-verses. Other theories suggest that the universe is made up of 9, 10 or 11 dimensions.
There’s another theory that the universe is flat, and that’s where Davide Castelvecchi (mathematician, science editor at Scientific American and blogger) over at Degrees of Freedom describes the current thinking.
What Do You Mean, The Universe Is Flat? (Part I), from Degrees of Freedom:
Friday, August 12, 2011
From Rolling Stone:
American shoppers use an estimated 102 billion plastic shopping bags each year — more than 500 per consumer. Named by Guinness World Records as “the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world,” the ultrathin bags have become a leading source of pollution worldwide. They litter the world’s beaches, clog city sewers, contribute to floods in developing countries and fuel a massive flow of plastic waste that is killing wildlife from sea turtles to camels. “The plastic bag has come to represent the collective sins of the age of plastic,” says Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story....read more