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.
Author Archives: Mike Gerra
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
If you have ever typed (sorry, tweeted) the acronyms LOL or YOLO then you are guilty as charged of language pollution. The most irritating thumbspeak below.
From the Guardian:
Thanks to the on-the-hoof style of chat-rooms and the curtailed nature of the text message and tweet, online abbreviations are now an established part of written English. The question of which is the most irritating, however, is a matter of scholarly debate. Here, by way of opening the discussion, are 10 contenders.
Linguists like to make a distinction between the denotative function of a sign – what it literally means – and the connotative, which is (roughly) what it tells you by implication. The denotative meanings of these abbreviations vary over a wide range. But pretty much all of them connote one thing, which is: “I am a douchebag.”
1) LOL...read more
Monday, June 17, 2013
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Would you rather be a human automaton inside a Chinese factory making products for your peers or a banquet attendant in ancient Rome? Thanks to Lapham’s Quarterly for this disturbing infographic, which shows how times may not have changed as much as we would have believed for the average worker over the last 2,000 years.
Visit the original infographic here.
Infographic courtesy of Lapham’s Quarterly.
Send to Kindle
Saturday, June 15, 2013
The Cold War between the former U.S.S.R and the United States brought us the perfect acronym for the ultimate human “game” of brinkmanship — it was called MAD, for mutually assured destruction.
Now, thanks to ever-evolving technology, increasing military capability, growing environmental exploitation and unceasing human stupidity we have reached an era that we have dubbed SAD, for self-assured destruction. During the MAD period — the thinking was that it would take the combined efforts of the world’s two superpowers to wreak global catastrophe. Now, as a sign of our so-called progress — in the era of SAD — it only takes one major nation to ensure the destruction of the planet. Few would call this progress. Noam Chomsky offers some choice words on our continuing folly.
Friday, June 14, 2013
Paradoxically the law and common sense often seem to be at odds. Justice may still be blind, at least in most open democracies, but there seems to be no question as to the stupidity of much of our law.
Some examples: in Missouri it’s illegal to drive with an uncaged bear in the car; in Maine, it’s illegal to keep Christmas decorations up after January 14th; in New Jersey, it’s illegal to wear a bulletproof vest while committing murder; in Connecticut, a pickle is not an official, legal pickle unless it can bounce; in Louisiana, you can be fined $500 for instructing a pizza delivery service to deliver pizza to a friend unknowingly.
So, today we celebrate a victory for common sense and justice over thoroughly ill-conceived and badly written law — the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down laws granting patents to corporations for human genes....read more
Thursday, June 13, 2013
It is strange to see the reaction to a remarkable disclosure such as that by the leaker / whistleblower Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency (NSA) peering into all our daily, digital lives. One strange reaction comes from the political left: the left desires a broad and activist government, ready to protect us all, but decries the NSA’s snooping. Another odd reaction comes from the political right: the right wants government out of people’s lives, but yet embraces the idea that the NSA should be looking for virtual skeletons inside people’s digital closets....read more
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
It’s safe to suggest that most of us above a certain age — let’s say 30 — wish to stay young. It is also safer to suggest, in the absence of a solution to this first wish, that many of us wish to age gracefully and happily. Yet for most of us, especially in the West, we age in a less dignified manner in combination with colorful medicines, lengthy tubes, and unpronounceable procedures. We are collectively living longer. But, the quality of those extra years leaves much to be desired.
In a quest to understand the process of aging more thoroughly researchers regularly descend on areas the world over that are known to have higher than average populations of healthy older people. These have become known as “Blue Zones”. One such place is a small, idyllic (there’s a clue right there) Greek island called Ikaria.
From the Guardian:...read more
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
On June 9, 2013 we lost Iain Banks to cancer. He was a passionate human(ist) and a literary great.
Luckily he left us with a startling collection of resonant and complex works. Most notably his series of Culture novels that prophesied a distant future, which one day will surely bear his name as a founding member. Mr.Banks, you will be greatly missed.
From the Guardian...read more
Monday, June 10, 2013
So the changing global climate will imperil our coasts, flood low-lying lands, fuel more droughts, increase weather extremes, and generally make the planet more toasty. But, a new study — for the first time — links increasing levels of CO2 to an increase in global vegetation. Perhaps this portends our eventual fate — ceding the Earth back to the plants — unless humans make some drastic behavioral changes.
From the New Scientist:
The planet is getting lusher, and we are responsible. Carbon dioxide generated by human activity is stimulating photosynthesis and causing a beneficial greening of the Earth’s surface.
For the first time, researchers claim to have shown that the increase in plant cover is due to this “CO2 fertilisation effect” rather than other causes. However, it remains unclear whether the effect can counter any negative consequences of global warming, such as the spread of deserts....read more
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Most things, natural or manufactured, break after a while. And, most photographers spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their subject — usually an object — is represented in the best possible wholesome light, literally and metaphorically. However, for one enterprising photographer it’s all about things in their broken form, albeit displayed exquisitely in a collage of their constituent pieces.
From the Guardian:
Canadian photographer Todd McLellan makes visible the inner workings of everyday products by dismantling, carefully arranging the components and photographing them. His book, Things Come Apart, presents a unique view of items such as chainsaws and iPods, transforming ordinary objects into works of art.
See the entire galley here.
Image: Raleigh bicycle from the 80s. Number of parts: 893. Courtesy of Todd McLellan/Thames & Hudson / Guardian.
Send to Kindle
Saturday, June 8, 2013
From the news reports first aired a couple of days ago and posted here, we now know the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has collected and is collecting vast amounts of data related to our phone calls. But, it seems that this is only the very tip of a very large, nasty iceberg. Our government is also sifting though our online communications as well — email, online chat, photos, videos, social networking data.
From the Washington Post:
Through a top-secret program authorized by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data. Documents describing the previously undisclosed program, obtained by The Washington Post, show the breadth of U.S. electronic surveillance capabilities in the wake of a widely publicized controversy over warrantless wiretapping of U.S. domestic telephone communications in 2005....read more
Friday, June 7, 2013
Thursday, June 6, 2013
The U.S. government is spying on your phone calls with the hushed assistance of companies like Verizon. While the National Security Agency (NSA) may not be listening to your actual conversations (yet), its agents are actively gathering data about your calls: who you call, from where you call, when you call, how long the call lasts.
Here’s the top secret court order delineating the government’s unfettered powers of domestic surveillance.
The price of freedom is becoming ever more expensive, and with broad clandestine activities like this underway — with no specific target — our precious freedoms continue to erode. Surely, this must delight our foes, who will gain relish from the self-inflicted curtailment of civil liberties — the societal consequences are much more far-reaching than those from any improvised explosive device (IED) however heinous and destructive.
From the Guardian:...read more
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
History will probably show that humans are the likely cause for the mass disappearance and death of honey bees around the world.
So, while ecologists try to understand why and how to reverse bee death and colony collapse, engineers are busy building alternatives to our once nectar-loving friends. Meet RoboBee, also known as the Micro Air Vehicles Project.
From Scientific American:
We take for granted the effortless flight of insects, thinking nothing of swatting a pesky fly and crushing its wings. But this insect is a model of complexity. After 12 years of work, researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have succeeded in creating a fly-like robot. And in early May, they announced that their tiny RoboBee (yes, it’s called a RoboBee even though it’s based on the mechanics of a fly) took flight. In the future, that could mean big things for everything from disaster relief to colony collapse disorder....read more
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”, goes the adage popularized by author Mark Twain.
Most people take for granted that numbers can be persuasive — just take a look at your bank balance. Also, most accept the notion that data can be used, misused, misinterpreted, re-interpreted and distorted to support or counter almost any argument. Just listen to a politician quote polling numbers and then hear an opposing politician make a contrary argument using the very same statistics. Or, better still, familiarize yourself with pseudo-science of economics....read more
Monday, June 3, 2013
The fear of an annual tax audit brings many people to their knees. It’s one of many techniques that government authorities use to milk their citizens of every last penny of taxes. Well, authorities now have an even more powerful weapon to add to their tax collecting arsenal — Google Street View. And, if you are reading this from Lithuania you will know what we are talking about.
From the Wall Street Journal:
One day last summer, a woman was about to climb into a hammock in the front yard of a suburban house here when a photographer for the Google Inc. Street View service snapped her picture.
The apparently innocuous photograph is now being used as evidence in a tax-evasion case brought by Lithuanian authorities against the undisclosed owners of the home....read more
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Artist Ai Weiwei has suffered at the hands of the Chinese authorities much more so than Andy Warhol’s brushes with surveillance from the FBI. Yet the two are remarkably similar: brash and polarizing views, distinctive art and creative processes, masterful self-promotion, savvy media manipulation and global ubiquity. This is all the more astounding given Ai Weiwei’s arrest, detentions and prohibition on travel outside of Beijing. He’s even made it to the Venice Biennale this year — only his art of course.
From the= Guardian:...read more
Saturday, June 1, 2013
Graham is a man very much alive. But, his mind has convinced him that his brain is dead and that he killed it.
From the New Scientist:
Condition: Cotard’s syndrome
“When I was in hospital I kept on telling them that the tablets weren’t going to do me any good ’cause my brain was dead. I lost my sense of smell and taste. I didn’t need to eat, or speak, or do anything. I ended up spending time in the graveyard because that was the closest I could get to death.”
Nine years ago, Graham woke up and discovered he was dead.
He was in the grip of Cotard’s syndrome. People with this rare condition believe that they, or parts of their body, no longer exist.
For Graham, it was his brain that was dead, and he believed that he had killed it. Suffering from severe depression, he had tried to commit suicide by taking an electrical appliance with him into the bath....read more
Friday, May 31, 2013
First a definition. Big data: typically a collection of large and complex datasets that are too cumbersome to process and analyze using traditional computational approaches and database applications. Usually the big data moniker will be accompanied by an IT vendor’s pitch for shiny new software (and possible hardware) solution able to crunch through petabytes (one petabyte is a million gigabytes) of data and produce a visualizable result that mere mortals can decipher....read more
Thursday, May 30, 2013
For centuries biologists, zoologists and ecologists have been mapping the wildlife that surrounds us in the great outdoors. Now a group led by microbiologist Noah Fierer at the University of Colorado Boulder is pursuing flora and fauna in one of the last unexplored eco-systems — the home. (Not for the faint of heart).
From the New York Times:
On a sunny Wednesday, with a faint haze hanging over the Rockies, Noah Fierer eyed the field site from the back of his colleague’s Ford Explorer. Two blocks east of a strip mall in Longmont, one of the world’s last underexplored ecosystems had come into view: a sandstone-colored ranch house, code-named Q. A pair of dogs barked in the backyard....read more
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
An interesting story on the adoption of pop culture words into our common lexicon. Beware! The next blockbuster sci-fi movie that you see may influence your next choice of noun.
From the Guardian:
Water cooler conversation at a dictionary company tends towards the odd. A while ago I was chatting with one of my colleagues about our respective defining batches. “I’m not sure,” he said, “what to do about the plural of ‘hobbit’. There are some citations for ‘hobbitses’, but I think they may be facetious uses. Have any thoughts?”
I did: “We enter ‘hobbit’ into the dictionary?” You learn something new every day....read more
Monday, May 27, 2013
Rob Wile over at Business Insider has posted a selection of graphs that in his words “will restore your faith in humanity”. This should put many cynics on the defensive — after all, his charts clearly show that conflict is on the decline, and democracy is on the rise. But, look more closely and you’ll see that slavery is still with us, poverty and social injustice abounds, the wealthy are wealthier, conspicuous consumption is rising.
From Business Insider:
Lately, it feels like the news has been dominated by tragedies: natural disasters, evil people, and sometimes just carelessness.
But it would be a mistake to become cynical.
We’ve put together 31 charts that we think will help restore your faith in humanity.
2) Democracy’s in. Autocracy’s out.
3) Slavery is disappearing.
Read the entire article here.
Send to Kindle
Sunday, May 26, 2013
In 1960 radio astronomer Frank Drake began the first systematic search for intelligent signals emanating from space. He was not successful, but his pioneering efforts paved the way for numerous other programs, including SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The Drake Equation is named for him, and put simply, gives an estimate of the number of active, extraterrestrial civilizations with methods of communication in our own galaxy. Drake postulated the equation as a way to get the scientific community engaged in the search for life beyond our home planet.
The Drake equation is:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone); and
R* = the average number of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets...read more
Saturday, May 25, 2013
If you are an English speaker and are over the age of 39 you may be pondering the fate of the English language. As the younger generations fill cyberspace with terabytes of misspelled texts and tweets do you not wonder if gorgeous grammatical language will survive? Are the technophobes and anti-Twitterites doomed to a future world of #hashtag-driven conversation and ADHD-like literature? Those of us who care are reminded of George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he decried the swelling ugliness of the language at the time.
Orwell opens his essay thus,...read more
Friday, May 24, 2013
Each day we inch towards a better scientific understanding of how life is thought to have begun on our planet. Over the last decade researchers have shown how molecules like the nucleotides that make up complex chains of RNA (ribonucleic acid) and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) may have formed in the primaeval chemical soup of the early Earth. But it’s altogether a much greater leap to get from RNA (or DNA) to even a simple biological cell. Some recent work sheds more light and suggests that the chemical to biological chasm between long-strands of RNA and a complex cell may not be as wide to cross as once thought.
From ars technica:...read more
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
The official national bird of the United States is the Bald Eagle. For that matter, it’s also the official animal. Thankfully it was removed from the endangered species list a mere 5 years ago. Aside from the bird itself Americans love the symbolism that the eagle implies — strength, speed, leadership and achievement. But do Americans know their State bird. A recent article from the bird-lovers over at Slate will refresh your memory, and also recommend a more relevant alternative.
I drove over a bridge from Maryland into Virginia today and on the big “Welcome to Virginia” sign was an image of the state bird, the northern cardinal—with a yellow bill. I should have scoffed, but it hardly registered. Everyone knows that state birds are a big joke. There are a million cardinals, a scattering of robins, and just a general lack of thought put into the whole thing....read more
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Monday, May 20, 2013
Following on from last week’s MondayMap post on intolerance and hatred within the United States — according to tweets on the social media site Twitter — we expand our view this week to cover the globe. This map is a based on a more detailed, global research study of people’s attitudes to having neighbors of a different race.
From the Washington Post:
When two Swedish economists set out to examine whether economic freedom made people any more or less racist, they knew how they would gauge economic freedom, but they needed to find a way to measure a country’s level of racial tolerance. So they turned to something called the World Values Survey, which has been measuring global attitudes and opinions for decades....read more