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: May 2012
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy, continues his serialized analysis of Philip K. Dick. Part I first appeared here. Part II examines the events around 2-3-74 that led to Dick’s 8,000 page Gnostic treatise “Exegesis”.
From the New York Times:
In the previous post, we looked at the consequences and possible philosophic import of the events of February and March of 1974 (also known as 2-3-74) in the life and work of Philip K. Dick, a period in which a dose of sodium pentathol, a light-emitting fish pendant and decades of fiction writing and quasi-philosophic activity came together in revelation that led to Dick’s 8,000-page “Exegesis.”...read more
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
From Anthropology in Practice:
Do me a favor: Go open your refrigerator and look at the labels on your condiments. Alternatively, if you’re at work, open your drawer and flip through your stash of condiment packets. (Don’t look at me like that. I know you have a stash. Or you know where to find one. It’s practically Office Survival 101.) Go on. I’ll wait....read more
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
The news of recent research documenting how readers identify with the main characters in stories has mostly been taken as confirmation of the value of literary role models. Lisa Libby, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and co-author of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explained that subjects who read a short story in which the protagonist overcomes obstacles in order to vote were more likely to vote themselves several days later.
The suggestibility of readers isn’t news. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel of a sensitive young man destroyed by unrequited love, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” inspired a rash of suicides by would-be Werthers in the late 1700s. Jack Kerouac has launched a thousand road trips. Still, this is part of science’s job: Running empirical tests on common knowledge — if for no other reason than because common knowledge (and common sense) is often wrong....read more
Monday, May 28, 2012
Sunday, May 27, 2012
No, not Ted Nugent or Ted Koppel or Ted Turner; we are talking about the TED.
Alex Pareene over at Salon offers a well rounded critique of TED. TED is a global forum of “ideas worth spreading” centered around annual conferences, loosely woven around themes of technology, entertainment and design (TED).
Richard Wurman started TED in 1984 as a self-congratulatory networking event for Silicon Valley insiders. Since changing hands in 2002, TED has grown into a worldwide brand, but still self-congratulatory, only more exclusive. Currently, it costs $6,000 annually to be admitted to the elite idea sharing club.
By way of background, TED’s mission statement follows:
We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other....read more
Saturday, May 26, 2012
It takes no expert neuroscientist, anthropologist or evolutionary biologist to recognize that human evolution has probably stalled. After all, one only needs to observe our obsession with reality TV. Yes, evolution screeched to a halt around 1999, when reality TV hit critical mass in the mainstream public consciousness. So, what of evolution?
From the Wall Street Journal:
If you write about genetics and evolution, one of the commonest questions you are likely to be asked at public events is whether human evolution has stopped. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer.
I’m tempted to give a flippant response, borrowed from the biologist Richard Dawkins: Since any human trait that increases the number of babies is likely to gain ground through natural selection, we can say with some confidence that incompetence in the use of contraceptives is probably on the rise (though only if those unintended babies themselves thrive enough to breed in turn)....read more
Friday, May 25, 2012
Thursday, May 24, 2012
From Scientific American:
Why is there something rather than nothing? This is one of those profound questions that is easy to ask but difficult to answer. For millennia humans simply said, “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe. Science deals with natural (not supernatural) causes and, as such, has several ways of exploring where the “something” came from....read more
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Professor of philosophy Simon Critchley has an insightful examination (serialized) of Philip K. Dick’s writings. Philip K. Dick had a tragically short, but richly creative writing career. Since his death twenty years ago, many of his novels have profoundly influenced contemporary culture.
From the New York Times:
Philip K. Dick is arguably the most influential writer of science fiction in the past half century. In his short and meteoric career, he wrote 121 short stories and 45 novels. His work was successful during his lifetime but has grown exponentially in influence since his death in 1982. Dick’s work will probably be best known through the dizzyingly successful Hollywood adaptations of his work, in movies like “Blade Runner” (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly” and, most recently, “The Adjustment Bureau.” Yet few people might consider Dick a thinker. This would be a mistake....read more
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Artist Ben Heine uses hand (pencil) and eye (camera) to create fresh perspectives on everyday scenes. In his own words, “I find a location, do a drawing, then take a photo to combine with the drawing.” Simple. Fresh. Unique.
To see more of his unique images follow the jump.
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Monday, May 21, 2012
One of the original “great explainers” of our age, physicist Richard Feynman distills the essence of the science in 60 seconds.
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Sunday, May 20, 2012
Professor of philosopher Shelly Kagan has an interesting take on death. After all, how bad can something be for you if you’re not alive to experience it?
From the Chronicle:
We all believe that death is bad. But why is death bad?
In thinking about this question, I am simply going to assume that the death of my body is the end of my existence as a person. (If you don’t believe me, read the first nine chapters of my book.) But if death is my end, how can it be bad for me to die? After all, once I’m dead, I don’t exist. If I don’t exist, how can being dead be bad for me?
People sometimes respond that death isn’t bad for the person who is dead. Death is bad for the survivors. But I don’t think that can be central to what’s bad about death. Compare two stories....read more
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Friday, May 18, 2012
A plethora of recent articles and books from the neuroscience community adds weight to the position that human free will does not exist. Our exquisitely complex brains construct a rather compelling illusion, however we are just observers, held captive to impulses that are completely driven by our biology. And, for that matter, much of this biological determinism is unavailable to our conscious minds.
James Atlas provides a recent summary of current thinking.
From the New York Times:
WHY are we thinking so much about thinking these days? Near the top of best-seller lists around the country, you’ll find Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” followed by Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” and somewhere in the middle, where it’s held its ground for several months, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Recently arrived is “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior,” by Leonard Mlodinow....read more
Thursday, May 17, 2012
From Strange Maps:
Maps usually display only one layer of information. In most cases, they’re limited to the topography, place names and traffic infrastructure of a certain region. True, this is very useful, and in all fairness quite often it’s all we ask for. But to reduce cartography to a schematic of accessibility is to exclude the poetry of place.
Or in this case, the poetry and prose of place. This literary map of Britain is composed of the names of 181 British writers, each positioned in parts of the country with which they are associated....read more
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, lends support to Steven Pinker’s recent arguments that our current era is less violent and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.
From Project Syndicate:
With daily headlines focusing on war, terrorism, and the abuses of repressive governments, and religious leaders frequently bemoaning declining standards of public and private behavior, it is easy to get the impression that we are witnessing a moral collapse. But I think that we have grounds to be optimistic about the future.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a book called The Expanding Circle, in which I asserted that, historically, the circle of beings to whom we extend moral consideration has widened, first from the tribe to the nation, then to the race or ethnic group, then to all human beings, and, finally, to non-human animals. That, surely, is moral progress....read more
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Fascinating insight into the Burning Man festival courtesy of co-founder, Larry Harvey. It may be more like Wall Street than Haight-Ashbury.
From Washington Post:
Go to Burning Man, and you’ll find everything from a thunderdome battle between a couple in tiger-striped bodypaint to a man dressed as a gigantic blueberry muffin on wheels. But underneath it all, says the festival’s co-founder, Larry Harvey, is “old-fashioned capitalism.”
There’s not a corporate logo in sight at the countercultural arts festival, and nothing is for sale but ice and coffee. But at its core, Harvey believes that Burning Man hews closely to the true spirit of a free-enterprise democracy: Ingenuity is celebrated, autonomy is affirmed, and self-reliance is expected. “If you’re talking about old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism, we could be the poster child,” says Harvey, who hastens to add that the festival is non-ideological — and doesn’t anticipate being in GOP campaign ads anytime soon....read more
Monday, May 14, 2012
On May 2, 2012 The Scream sold at auction in New York for just under $120,000,000.
The Scream, actually one of 4 slightly different originals, painted by Edvard Munch, has become as iconic as the Apple or McDonalds corporate logo. And, that sums up the crass, financial madness that continues to envelop the art world, and indeed most of society.
More from Jonathan Jones on Art:
I used to like The Scream. Its sky of blood and zombie despair seemed to say so much, so honestly. Munch is a poet in colours. His pictures portray moods, most of which are dark. But sometimes on a spring day on the banks of Oslofjord he can muster a bit of uneasy delight in the world. Right now, I would rather look at his painting Ashes, a portrayal of the aftermath of sex in a Norwegian wood, or Girls on a Pier, whose lyrical longing is fraught with loneliness, than at Munch’s most famous epitome of the modern condition....read more
Sunday, May 13, 2012
“Before I Die” is an interactive, public art project conceived by artist Candy Chang. The first installation was in New Orleans in February 2011, and has since grown to around 30 other cities across the United States, and 7 countries.
The premise is simple: install a blank billboard-sized chalkboard in a publicly accessible space, supply a bucket of chalk, write the prompt “Before I Die…” on the chalkboard, sit back and wait, watch people share their hopes and dreams.
So far the artist and her collaborators have noted over 25,000 responses. Of the responses, 15 percent want to travel to distant lands, 10 percent wish to reconnect with family and 1 percent want to write a book.
From the Washington Post:
Saturday, May 12, 2012
From the Guardian:
There is a macabre brilliance to the machine in Jeff Lichtman’s laboratory at Harvard University that is worthy of a Wallace and Gromit film. In one end goes brain. Out the other comes sliced brain, courtesy of an automated arm that wields a diamond knife. The slivers of tissue drop one after another on to a conveyor belt that zips along with the merry whirr of a cine projector.
Lichtman’s machine is an automated tape-collecting lathe ultramicrotome (Atlum), which, according to the neuroscientist, is the tool of choice for this line of work. It produces long strips of sticky tape with brain slices attached, all ready to be photographed through a powerful electron microscope.
When these pictures are combined into 3D images, they reveal the inner wiring of the organ, a tangled mass of nervous spaghetti. The research by Lichtman and his co-workers has a goal in mind that is so ambitious it is almost unthinkable....read more
Friday, May 11, 2012
You’ve probably seen a Kinkade painting somewhere — think cute cottage, meandering stream, misty clouds, soft focus and warm light.
According to Thomas Kinkade’s company one of his cozy, kitschy paintings (actually a photographic reproduction) could be found in one of every 20 homes in the United States. Kinkade died on April 6, 2012. With his passing, scholars of the art market are now analyzing what he left behind.
From the Guardian:
In death, the man who at his peak claimed to be the world’s most successful living artist perhaps achieved the sort of art-world excess he craved.
On Tuesday, the coroner’s office in Santa Clara, California, announced that the death of Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light™, purveyor of kitsch prints to the masses, was caused by an accidental overdose of alcohol and Valium. For good measure, a legal scrap has emerged between Kinkade’s ex-wife (and trustee of his estate) and his girlfriend....read more
Thursday, May 10, 2012
The practical science behind quantum computers continues to make exciting progress. Quantum computers promise, in theory, immense gains in power and speed through the use of atomic scale parallel processing.
From the Observer:
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
An insightful opinion on the benefits and perils of nanotechnology from essayist and naturalist, Diane Ackerman.
From the New York Times:
“I SING the body electric,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, inspired by the novelty of useful electricity, which he would live to see power streetlights and telephones, locomotives and dynamos. In “Leaves of Grass,” his ecstatic epic poem of American life, he depicted himself as a live wire, a relay station for all the voices of the earth, natural or invented, human or mineral. “I have instant conductors all over me,” he wrote. “They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me… My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself.”...read more
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Monday, May 7, 2012
May the Fourth was Star Wars Day. Why? Say, “May the Fourth” slowly while pretending to lisp slightly, and you’ll understand. Appropriately, Matt Cresswen over at the Guardian took this day to review the growing Jedi religion in the UK.
Would that make George Lucas God?
From the Guardian:
Today [May 4] is Star Wars Day, being May the Fourth. (Say the date slowly, several times.) Around the world, film buffs, storm troopers and Jedi are gathering to celebrate one of the greatest science fiction romps of all time. It would be easy to let the fan boys enjoy their day and be done with it. However, Jediism is a growing religion in the UK. Although the results of the 2001 census, in which 390,000 recipients stated their religion as Jedi, have been widely interpreted as a pop at the government, the UK does actually have serious Jedi....read more
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Google has been variously praised and derided for its corporate manta, “Don’t Be Evil”. For those who like to believe that Google has good intentions recent events strain these assumptions. The company was found to have been snooping on and collecting data from personal Wi-Fi routers. Is this the case of a lone-wolf or a corporate strategy?
Was Google’s snooping on home Wi-Fi users the work of a rogue software engineer? Was it a deliberate corporate strategy? Was it simply an honest-to-goodness mistake? And which of these scenarios should we wish for—which would assuage your fears about the company that manages so much of our personal data?
Saturday, May 5, 2012
From Scientific American:
In the mid 1990’s, Apple Computers was a dying company. Microsoft’s Windows operating system was overwhelmingly favored by consumers, and Apple’s attempts to win back market share by improving the Macintosh operating system were unsuccessful. After several years of debilitating financial losses, the company chose to purchase a fledgling software company called NeXT. Along with purchasing the rights to NeXT’s software, this move allowed Apple to regain the services of one of the company’s founders, the late Steve Jobs. Under the guidance of Jobs, Apple returned to profitability and is now the largest technology company in the world, with the creativity of Steve Jobs receiving much of the credit....read more
Friday, May 4, 2012
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Pause for a second, and think of all the personal data that companies have amassed about you. Then think about the billions that these companies make in trading this data to advertisers, information researchers and data miners. There are credit bureaus with details of your financial history since birth; social networks with details of everything you and your friends say and (dis)like; GPS-enabled services that track your every move; search engines that trawl your searches, medical companies with your intimate health data, security devices that monitor your movements, and online retailers with all your purchase transactions and wish-lists.
Now think of a business model that puts you in charge of your own personal data. This may not be as far fetched as it seems, especially as the backlash grows against the increasing consolidation of personal data in the hands of an ever smaller cadre of increasingly powerful players.
From Technology Review:
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
A small, but growing, idea in theoretical physics and cosmology is that spacetime may be emergent. That is, spacetime emerges from something much more fundamental, in much the same way that our perception of temperature emerges from the motion and characteristics of underlying particles.
More on this new front in our quest to answer the most basic of questions from FQXi:
Imagine if nothing around you was real. And, no, not in a science-fiction Matrix sense, but in an actual science-fact way....read more