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 2012
Friday, August 31, 2012
Ayn Rand: anti-collectivist ideologue, standard-bearer for unapologetic individualism and rugged self-reliance, or selfish, fantasist and elitist hypocrite?
Political conservatives and libertarians increasingly flock to her writings and support her philosophy of individualism and unfettered capitalism, which she dubbed, “objectivism”. On the other hand, liberals see her as selfish zealot, elitist, narcissistic, even psychopathic.
The truth, of course, is more nuanced and complex, especially the private Ayn Rand versus the very public persona. Thus those who fail to delve into Rand’s traumatic and colorful history fail to grasp the many paradoxes and contradictions that she enshrined....read more
Thursday, August 30, 2012
We excerpt an fascinating article from I09 on the association of science fiction to philosophical inquiry. It’s quiet remarkable that this genre of literature can provide such a rich vein for philosophers to mine, often more so than reality itself. Though, it is no coincidence that our greatest authors of science fiction were, and are, amateur philosophers at heart.
People use science fiction to illustrate philosophy all the time. From ethical quandaries to the very nature of existence, science fiction’s most famous texts are tailor-made for exploring philosophical ideas. In fact, many college campuses now offer courses in the philosophy of science fiction.
But science fiction doesn’t just illuminate philosophy — in fact, the genre grew out of philosophy, and the earliest works of science fiction were philosophical texts. Here’s why science fiction has its roots in philosophy, and why it’s the genre of thought experiments about the universe....read more
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Money is a curious invention. It enables efficient and almost frictionless commerce and it allows us to assign tangible value to our time. Yet it poses enormous societal challenges and ethical dilemmas. For instance, should we bribe our children with money in return for better grades? Should we allow a chronically ill kidney patient to purchase a replacement organ from a donor?
Raghuram Rajan, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, reviews a fascinating new book that attempts to answer some of these questions. The book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Market” is written by noted Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel.
From Project Syndicate:
In an interesting recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Market, the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel points to the range of things that money can buy in modern societies and gently tries to stoke our outrage at the market’s growing dominance. Is he right that we should be alarmed?...read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
There is no doubt that online reviews for products and services, from books to news cars to a vacation spot, have revolutionized shopping behavior. Internet and mobile technology has made gathering, reviewing and publishing open and honest crowdsourced opinion simple, efficient and ubiquitous.
However, the same tools that allow frank online discussion empower those wishing to cheat and manipulate the system. Cyberspace is rife with fake reviews, fake reviewers, inflated ratings, edited opinion, and paid insertions.
So, just as in any purchase transaction since the time when buyers and sellers first met, caveat emptor still applies.
Monday, August 27, 2012
It’s time to jettison the $1.99 hyper-burger and super-sized fires and try some real fruits and vegetables. You know — the kind of product that comes directly from the soil. But, when is the best time to suck on a juicy peach or chomp some crispy radicchio?
A great chart, below, summarizes which fruits and vegetables are generally in season for the Northern Hemisphere.
Infographic courtesy of Visual News, designed by Column Five.
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Sunday, August 26, 2012
Melting glaciers at the poles, wildfires in the western United States, severe flooding across Europe and parts of Asia, hurricanes in northern Australia, warmer temperatures across the globe. According to a many climatologists, including a growing number of ex-climate change skeptics, this is the new normal for our foreseeable future. Welcome to the changed climate.
From the New York Times:
BY many measurements, this summer’s drought is one for the record books. But so was last year’s drought in the South Central states. And it has been only a decade since an extreme five-year drought hit the American West. Widespread annual droughts, once a rare calamity, have become more frequent and are set to become the “new normal.”...read more
Saturday, August 25, 2012
A fascinating case study shows how Microsoft failed its employees through misguided HR (human resources) policies that pitted colleague against colleague.
From the Guardian:
The idea for today’s off-topic note came to me when I read “Microsoft’s lost decade”, an aptly titled Vanity Fair story. In the piece, Kurt Eichenwald tracks Microsoft’s decline as he revisits a decade of technical missteps and bad business decisions. Predictably, the piece has generated strong retorts from Microsoft’s Ministry of Truth and from Ballmer himself (“It’s not been a lost decade for me!” he barked from the tumbrel)....read more
Friday, August 24, 2012
Robert J. Samuelson paints a sobering picture of the once credible and seemingly attainable American Dream — the generational progress of upward mobility is no longer a given. He is the author of “The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence”.
From Wilson Quarterly:
The future of affluence is not what it used to be. Americans have long believed—it’s part of our national character—that our economic well-being will constantly increase. We see ourselves as a striving, inventive, and pragmatic people destined for higher living standards. History is a continuum of progress, from Robert Fulton’s steamboat to Henry Ford’s assembly line to Bill Gates’ software. Every generation will live better than its predecessors.
Well, maybe not.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
The United States is gripped by political deadlock. The Do-Nothing Congress consistently gets lower approval ratings than our banks, Paris Hilton, lawyers and BP during the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. This stasis is driven by seemingly intractable ideological beliefs and a no-compromise attitude from both the left and right sides of the aisle.
So, it should come as no surprise that even your opinion of the weather and temperature is colored by your political persuasion.
Daniel Engber over at Slate sifts through some fascinating studies that highlight how our ingrained ideologies determine our worldview, down to even our basic view of the weather and our home thermostat setting.
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Monday, August 20, 2012
A climate change skeptic recants. Of course, disbelievers in human-influenced climate change will point to the fact that physicist Richard Muller used an op-ed in the New York Times as evidence of flagrant falsehood and unmitigated bias.
Several years ago Muller set up the Berkeley Earth project, to collect and analyze land-surface temperature records from sources independent of NASA and NOAA. Convinced, at the time, that climate change researchers had the numbers all wrong, Muller and team set out to find the proof.
From the New York Times:
CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause....read more
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Hot from the TechnoSensual Exposition in Vienna, Austria, come clothes that can be made transparent or opaque, and clothes that can detect a wearer telling a lie. While the value of the former may seem dubious outside of the home, the latter invention should be a mandatory garment for all politicians and bankers. Or, for the less adventurous, millinery fashionistas, how about a hat that reacts to ambient radio waves?
All these innovations find their way from the realms of a Philip K. Dick science fiction novel, courtesy of the confluence of new technologies and innovative textile design.
From New Scientist:
WHAT if the world could see your innermost emotions? For the wearer of the Bubelle dress created by Philips Design, it’s not simply a thought experiment....read more
Friday, August 17, 2012
We excerpt below a fascinating article from the WSJ on the increasingly incestuous and damaging relationship between the finance industry and our political institutions.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Mitt Romney’s résumé at Bain should be a slam dunk. He has been a successful capitalist, and capitalism is the best thing that has ever happened to the material condition of the human race. From the dawn of history until the 18th century, every society in the world was impoverished, with only the thinnest film of wealth on top. Then came capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Everywhere that capitalism subsequently took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn’t take hold, people remained impoverished. Everywhere that capitalism has been rejected since then, poverty has increased....read more
Thursday, August 16, 2012
When it comes to music a generational gap has always been with us, separating young from old. Thus, without fail, parents will remark that the music listened to by their kids is loud and monotonous, nothing like the varied and much better music that they consumed in their younger days.
Well, this common, and perhaps universal, observation is now backed by some ground-breaking and objective research. So, adults over the age of 40, take heart — your music really is better than what’s playing today! And, if you are a parent, you may bask in the knowledge that your music really is better than that of your kids. That said, the comparative merits of your 1980′s “Hi Fi” system versus your kids’ docking stations with 5.1 surround and subwoofer earbuds remains thoroughly unsettled.
From the Telegraph:
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Yet another research study of gender differences shows some fascinating variation in the way men and women see and process their perceptions of others. Men tend to be perceived as a whole, women, on the other hand, are more likely to be perceived as parts.
From Scientific American:
A glimpse at the magazine rack in any supermarket checkout line will tell you that women are frequently the focus of sexual objectification. Now, new research finds that the brain actually processes images of women differently than those of men, contributing to this trend.
Women are more likely to be picked apart by the brain and seen as parts rather than a whole, according to research published online June 29 in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Men, on the other hand, are processed as a whole rather than the sum of their parts....read more
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
If you’re female and value lengthy life expectancy, comprehensive reproductive health services, sound education and equality with males, where should you live? In short, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, and Northern Europe. In a list of the 44 most well-developed nations, the United States ranks towards the middle, just below Canada and Estonia, but above Greece, Italy, Russia and most of Central and Eastern Europe.
The fascinating infographic from the National Post does a great job of summarizing the current state of womens’ affairs from data gathered from 165 countries.
Read the entire article and find a higher quality infographic after the jump.
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Monday, August 13, 2012
For the first time scientists have built a computer software model of an entire organism from its molecular building blocks. This allows the model to predict previously unobserved cellular biological processes and behaviors. While the organism in question is a simple bacterium, this represents another huge advance in computational biology.
From the New York Times:
Scientists at Stanford University and the J. Craig Venter Institute have developed the first software simulation of an entire organism, a humble single-cell bacterium that lives in the human genital and respiratory tracts.
The scientists and other experts said the work was a giant step toward developing computerized laboratories that could carry out complete experiments without the need for traditional instruments....read more
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Helen Sword cuts through (pun intended) the corporate-speak that continues to encroach upon our literature, particularly in business and academia, with a plea to kill our “zombie nouns”. Her latest book is “Stylish Academic Writing”.
From the New York Times:
Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?
Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction....read more
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Friday, August 10, 2012
Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben has been writing about climate change and environmental issues for over 20 years. His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989, and is considered to be the first book aimed at the general public on the subject of climate change.
In his latest essay in Rolling Stone, which we excerpt below, McKibben offers a sobering assessment based on our current lack of action on a global scale. He argues that in the face of governmental torpor, and with individual action being almost inconsequential (at this late stage), only a radical re-invention of our fossil-fuel industries — to energy companies in the broad sense — can bring significant and lasting change.
Learn more about Bill McKibben, here.
From Rolling Stone:
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Facebook trawls your profile, status and friends to target ads more effectively. It also allows 3rd parties, for a fee, to mine mountains of aggregated data for juicy analyses. Many online companies do the same. However, some companies are taking this to a whole, new and very personal level.
Here’s an example from Germany. Politician Malte Spitz gathered 6 months of his personal geolocation data from his mobile phone company. Then, he combined this data with his activity online, such as Twitter updates, blog entries and website visits. The interactive results seen here, plotted over time and space, show the detailed extent to which an individual’s life is being tracked and recorded.
From Zeit Online:
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Your life expectancy mapped, that is, if you live in London, U.K. So, take the iconic London tube (subway) map, then overlay it with figures for average life expectancy. Voila, you get to see how your neighbors on the Piccadilly Line fair in their longevity compared with say, you, who happen to live near a Central Line station. It turns out that in some cases adjacent areas — as depicted by nearby but different subway stations — show an astounding gap of more than 20 years in projected life span.
So, what is at work? And, more importantly, should you move to Bond Street where the average life expectancy is 96 years, versus only 79 in Kennington, South London?
From the Atlantic:
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
NASA pulled off another tremendous and daring feat of engineering when it successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to the surface of Mars on August 5, 2012, 10:32 PM Pacific Time.
The MSL is housed aboard the Curiosity rover, a 2,000-pound, car-size robot. Not only did NASA land Curiosity a mere 1 second behind schedule following a journey of over 576 million kilometers (358 million miles) lasting around 8 months, it went one better. NASA had one of its Mars orbiters — Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — snap an image of MSL from around 300 miles away as it descended through the Martian atmosphere, with its supersonic parachute unfurled.
Another historic day for science, engineering and exploration.
From NASA / JPL:
Monday, August 6, 2012
Deborah Blum’s story begins with Marie Curie’s analysis of a “strange energy” released from uranium ore, and ends with the assassination of Russian dissident, Alexander Litveninko in 2006.
In the late 19th century, a then-unknown chemistry student named Marie Curie was searching for a thesis subject. With encouragement from her husband, Pierre, she decided to study the strange energy released by uranium ores, a sizzle of power far greater than uranium alone could explain....read more
Sunday, August 5, 2012
On July 16, 2012 the Petermann Glacier in Greenland calved another gigantic island of ice, about twice the size of Manhattan in New York, or about 46 square miles. Climatologists armed with NASA satellite imagery have been following the glacier for many years, and first spotted the break-off point around 8 years ago. The Petermann Glacier calved a previous huge iceberg, twice this size, in 2010.
According to NASA average temperatures in northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic have increased by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 30 years.
So, driven by climate change or not, regardless of whether it is short-term or long-term, temporary or irreversible, man-made or a natural cycle, the trend is clear — the Arctic is warming, the ice cap is shrinking and sea-levels are rising.
From the Economist:
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Procrastinators have known this for a long time: that success comes from making a decision at the last possible moment.
Procrastinating professor Frank Partnoy expands on this theory, captured in his book, “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay“.
Sometimes life seems to happen at warp speed. But, decisions, says Frank Partnoy, should not. When the financial market crashed in 2008, the former investment banker and corporate lawyer, now a professor of finance and law and co-director of the Center for Corporate and Securities Law at the University of San Diego, turned his attention to literature on decision-making.
“Much recent research about decisions helps us understand what we should do or how we should do it, but it says little about when,” he says....read more
Friday, August 3, 2012
This is the time when NASA’s latest foray into space reaches its zenith — the upcoming landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. At this time NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission plans to deliver the nearly 2,000-pound, car-size robot rover to the surface of Mars. Curiosity will then embark on two years of exploration on the Red Planet.
For mission scientists and science buffs alike Curiosity’s descent and landing will be a major event. And, for the first time NASA will have a visual feed beamed back direct from the spacecraft (but only available after the event). The highly complex and fully automated landing has been dubbed “the Seven Minutes of Terror” by NASA engineers. Named for the time lag of signals from Curiosity to reach Earth due to the immense distance, mission scientists (and the rest of us) will not know whether Curiosity successfully descended and landed until a full 7 minutes after the fact....read more
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Those who have written off the United States in the 21st century may need to thing again. A combination of healthy demographics, sound intellectual capital, institutionalized innovation and fracking (yes, fracking) have placed the U.S. on a sound footing for the future, despite current political and economic woes.
From the Wilson Quarterly: