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.
Category Archives: tD
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Sunday, May 19, 2013
We humans are capable of the most sublime creations, from soaring literary inventions to intensely moving music and gorgeous works of visual art. This stands in stark and paradoxical contrast to our range of inventions that enable efficient mass destruction, torture and death. The latest in this sad catalog of human tools of terror is the “pain ray”, otherwise known by its military euphemism as an Active Denial weapon. The good news is that it only delivers intense pain, rather than death. How inventive we humans really are — we should be so proud.
From the New Scientist:
THE pain, when it comes, is unbearable. At first it’s comparable to a hairdryer blast on the skin. But within a couple of seconds, most of the body surface feels roasted to an excruciating degree. Nobody has ever resisted it: the deep-rooted instinct to writhe and escape is too strong....read more
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Good customer service once meant that a store or service employee would know you by name. This person would know your previous purchasing habits and your preferences; this person would know the names of your kids and your dog. Great customer service once meant that an employee could use this knowledge to anticipate your needs or personalize a specific deal. Well, this type of service still exists — in some places — but many businesses have outsourced it to offshore call center personnel or to machines, or both. Service may seem personal, but it’s not — service is customized to suit your profile, but it’s not personal in the same sense that once held true....read more
Friday, May 3, 2013
It should come as no surprise that those who deny the science of climate change and human-propelled impact on the environment would also shirk from purchasing products and services that are friendly to the environment.
A recent study shows how extreme political persuasion sways purchasing behavior of light bulbs: conservatives are more likely to purchase incandescent bulbs, while moderates and liberals lean towards more eco-friendly bulbs.
Joe Barton, U.S. Representative from Texas, sums up the issue of light bulb choice quite neatly, “… it is about personal freedom”. All the while our children shake their heads in disbelief....read more
Saturday, April 27, 2013
We believe that corporate-speak is a dangerous starting point that may eventually lead us to Orwellian doublethink. After all what could possibly be the purpose of using the words “going forward” in place of “in the future”, if not to convince employees to believe the past never happened. Some of our favorite management buzzwords and euphemisms below.
From the Guardian:
Among the most spirit-sapping indignities of office life is the relentless battering of workers’ ears by the strangled vocabulary of management-speak. It might even seem to some innocent souls as though all you need to do to acquire a high-level job is to learn its stultifying jargon. Bureaucratese is a maddeningly viral kind of Unspeak engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations. Here are some of its most dismaying manifestations....read more
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The genetic code buried deep within your cells, described in a unique sequence encoded in your DNA, defines who you are at the most fundamental level. The 20,000 or so genes in your genome establish how you are constructed and how you function (and malfunction). These genes are common to many, but their expression belongs to only you....read more
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Leave it to Google to help you auto-euthanize and die digitally. The presence of our online selves after death was of limited concern until recently. However, with the explosion of online media and social networks our digital tracks remain preserved and scattered across drives and backups in distributed, anonymous data centers. Physical death does not change this.
[A case in point: your friendly editor at theDiagonal was recently asked to befriend a colleague via LinkedIn. All well and good, except that the colleague had passed-away two years earlier.]
So, armed with Google’s new Inactive Account Manager, death — at least online — may be just a couple of clicks away. By corollary it would be a small leap indeed to imagine an enterprising company charging an annual fee to a dearly-departed member to maintain a digital afterlife ad infinitum.
From the Independent:...read more
Monday, April 8, 2013
Many herald the forward motion of technological innovation as progress. In many cases the momentum does genuinely seem to carry us towards a better place; it broadly alleviates pain and suffering; it generally delivers more and better nutrition to our bodies and our minds. Yet for all the positive steps, this progress is often accompanied by retrograde leaps — often paradoxical ones. Particularly disturbing is the relative ease to which technology allows us — the responsible adults – to sexualise and exploit children. Now, this is certainly not a new phenomenon, but our technical prowess certainly makes this problem more pervasive. A case in point, the Instagram beauty pageant. Move over Honey Boo-Boo.
From the Washington Post:...read more
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Those of us who live relatively comfortable lives in the West are confronted with numerous and not insignificant stresses on a daily basis. There are the stresses of politics, parenting, work life balance, intolerance and financial, to name but a few.
Yet, for all the negatives it is often useful to put our toils and troubles into a clearer perspective. Sometimes a simple story is quite enough. This story is about a Saudi woman who dared to drive. In Saudi Arabia it is not illegal for women to drive, but it is against custom. May Manal al-Sharif and other “custom fighters” like her live long and prosper.
From the Wall Street Journal:
“You know when you have a bird, and it’s been in a cage all its life? When you open the cage door, it doesn’t want to leave. It was that moment.”...read more
Saturday, March 23, 2013
At first glance Google’s aim to make all known information accessible and searchable seems to be a fundamentally worthy goal, and in keeping with its “Do No Evil” mantra. Surely, giving all people access to the combined knowledge of the human race can do nothing but good, intellectually, politically and culturally.
However, what if that information includes you? After all, you are information: from the sequence of bases in your DNA, to the food you eat and the products you purchase, to your location and your planned vacations, your circle of friends and colleagues at work, to what you say and write and hear and see. You are a collection of datapoints, and if you don’t market and monetize them, someone else will....read more
Monday, March 18, 2013
Rattling off esoteric facts to friends and colleagues at a party or in the office is often seen as a simple way to impress. You may have tried this at some point — to impress a prospective boy or girl friend or a group of peers or even your boss. Not surprisingly, your facts will impress if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. However, your audience will be even more agog at your uncanny, intellectual prowess if the facts and figures relate to some wildly obtuse domain — quotes from authors, local bird species, gold prices through the years, land-speed records through the ages, how electrolysis works, etymology of polysyllabic words, and so it goes....read more
Friday, March 15, 2013
With smartphones and tweets taking over our planet, the art of letter writing is fast becoming a subject of history lessons. Our written communications are now modulated by the keypad, emoticons, acronyms and the backspace; our attentions ever-fractured by the noise of the digital world and the dumbed-down 24/7 media monster.
So, as Matthew Malady over at Slate argues, it’s time for the few remaining Luddites, pen still in hand, to join the trend towards curtness and to ditch the signoffs. You know, the words that anyone over the age of 50 once used to put at the end of a hand-written letter, and can still be found at the close of an email and, less frequently, a text: “Best regards“, “Warmest wishes“, “Most Sincerely“, “Cheers“, “Faithfully yours“....read more
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
It’s unlikely that you would find many people who would argue against the notion that the United States is truly the most creative and innovative nation; from art to basic scientific research, from music to engineering, from theoretical physics to food science, from genetic studies and medicine to movies. And yet perplexingly, the nation continues to yearn for its wild, pioneering past, rather than inventing a brighter and more civilized future. To many outsiders the many contradictions that make up the United States are a source laughter and much incredulity. The recent news out of South Dakota shows why.
From the New York Times:
Gov. Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota on Friday signed into law a bill that would allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom.
While some other states have provisions in their gun laws that make it possible for teachers to be armed, South Dakota is believed to be the first state to pass a law that specifically allows teachers to carry firearms....read more
Monday, March 11, 2013
We love maps here at theDiagonal. So much so that we’ve begun a new feature: MondayMap. As the name suggests, we plan to feature fascinating new maps on Mondays. For our readers who prefer their plots served up on a Saturday, sorry. Usually we like to highlight maps that cause us to look at our world differently or provide a degree of welcome amusement, such as the wonderful trove of maps over at Strange Maps curated by Frank Jacobs.
However, this first MondayMap is a little different and serious. It’s an interactive map that shows the impact of estimated sea level rise on the streets of New Jersey. Obviously, such a tool would be a great boon for emergency services and urban planners. For the rest of us, whether we live in New Jersey or not, maps like this one — of extreme weather events and projections — are likely to become much more common over the coming decades. Kudos to researchers at Rutgers University for developing the NJ Flood Mapper....read more
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Naysayers would say that government, and hence taxpayer dollars, should not be used to fund science initiatives. After all academia and business seem to do a fairly good job of discovery and innovation without a helping hand pilfering from the public purse. And, without a doubt, and money aside, government funded projects do raise a number of thorny questions: On what should our hard-earned income tax be spent? Who decides on the priorities? How is progress to be measured? Do taxpayers get any benefit in return? After many of us cringe at the thought of an unelected bureaucrat or a committee of such spending millions if not billions of our dollars. Why not just spend the money on fixing our national potholes?...read more
Friday, March 1, 2013
It’s time for Occupy Extroverts. Finally, this would give introverts of the world the opportunity to be understood and valued. Now, will the introverts rise up to challenge the extroverts, insert one or two words in to a conversation and take their rightful place? Hmm, perhaps not, it may require too much attention and/or talking. What a loss — the world could learn so much from us.
From the Atlantic:
Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?...read more
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of our favorite thinkers and writers over here at theDiagonal recently published Antifragile, his follow-up to his successful “black swan” title Black Swan. In Antifragile Taleb argues that some things thrive when subjected to volatility, disorder and uncertainty. He labels the positive reaction to these external stressors, antifragility. (Ironically, this book was published by Random House).
In his essay, excerpted below, Taleb summarizes the basic tenets of antifragility and the payoff that we would gain from its empirical measurement. This would certainly represent a leap forward, from our persistent and misguided focus on luck in research, relationships and business.
Friday, February 15, 2013
Hot on the heels of recent successes by the Texas School Board of Education (SBOE) to revise history and science curricula, legislators in Missouri are planning to redefine commonly accepted scientific principles. Much like the situation in Texas the Missouri House is mandating that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution, in equal measure, in all the state’s schools. But, in a bid to take the lead in reversing thousands of years of scientific progress Missouri plans to redefine the actual scientific framework. So, if you can’t make “intelligent design” fit the principles of accepted science, then just change the principles themselves — first up, change the meanings of the terms “scientific hypothesis” and “scientific theory”.
We suspect that a couple of years from now, in Missouri, 2+2 will be redefined to equal 5, and that logic, deductive reasoning and experimentation will be replaced with mushy green peas....read more
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Perhaps heaven is littered with the disembodied, collective consciousness of Woolworth, Circuit City, Borders and Blockbuster. Similarly, it may be possible that Enron and Lehman Brothers, a little less fortunate due to the indiscretions of their leaders, have found their corporate souls to be forever tormented in business hell. And, what of the high tech start-ups that come and go in the beat of a hummingbird’s wing? Where are Webvan, Flooz, Gowalla, Beenz, Loopt, Kosmo, eToys and Pets.com? Are they spinning endlessly somewhere between the gluttons (third circle) and the heretics (sixth circle) in Dante’s concentric hell. And where are the venture capitalists and where will Burger King and Apple find themselves when they eventually pass to the other side?...read more
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Now that air travel has become well and truly commoditized, and for most of us, a nightmare, it’s time, again, to revisit the romance of rail. After all, the elitist romance of air travel passed away about 40-50 years ago. Now all we are left with is parking trauma at the airport; endless lines at check in, security, the gate and while boarding and disembarking; inane airport announcements and beeping golf carts; coughing, tweeting passengers crammed shoulder to shoulder in far too small seats; poor quality air and poor quality service in the cabin. It’s even dangerous to open the shade and look out of the aircraft window for fear of waking a cranky neighbor, or, more calamitous still, for washing out the in-seat displays showing the latest reality TV videos....read more
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
“Someone has to stand up to experts!”. This is what Don McLeroy would have you believe about scientists. We all espouse senseless rants once in a while, so we should give McLeroy the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he had slept poorly the night before this impassioned, irrational plea. On the other hand, when you learn that McLeroy’s statement came as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) in 2010, then you may wish to think again, especially if you have children in the school system of the Lone Star State....read more
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Each year the mega-rich rub shoulders with the super-powerful and the hyper-popular at the World Economic Forum, in where else, Davos, Switzerland. What concrete actions are taken during this event are anybody’s guess. But, we suspect attendees sample some tasty hors d’oeuvres while they tweet to the rest of us.
One positive outcome is this interactive Davos Hotphrase Generator, available from our friends at the Guardian. We recommend you give it a click to get a taste for next year’s critical corporate strategy or Wall Street innovation.
Our 5 favorites:
Image: Bobsled team in Davos, 1910. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
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Thursday, January 24, 2013
These three locations in Nevada, China (near Hangzhou) and Paris, France, have something in common. People the world over travel to these three places to see what they share. But only one has an original. In this case, we’re talking about the Eiffel Tower.
Now, this architectural grand theft is subject to a lengthy debate — the merits of mimicry, on a vast scale. There is even a fascinating coffee table sized book dedicated to this growing trend: Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, by Bianca Bosker.
Interestingly, the copycat trend only seems worrisome if those doing the copying are in a powerful and growing nation, and the copying is done on a national scale, perhaps for some form of cultural assimilation. After all, we don’t hear similar cries when developers put up a copy of Venice in Las Vegas — that’s just for entertainment we are told....read more
Thursday, January 17, 2013
We love maps here at theDiagonal. We also love ideas that challenge the status quo. And, this latest Strange Map, courtesy of Frank Jacobs over at Big Think does both. What we appreciate about his cartographic masterpiece is that it challenges our visual perception, and, more importantly, challenges our assumed hemispheric worldview.
Read more of this article after the jump.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Leaving the merits of capitalism or socialism aside for a moment, let’s consider the case for taxing bad behavior versus good. Adam Davidson, economics columnist and founder of NPR’s Planet Money, reviews the case now being made by a growing number of economists on both the left and the right. They all come to a similar conclusion: Forget about taxing good or constrictive behavior such as entrepreneurialism. Rather, it’s time to tax people for doing destructive and damaging things....read more
Monday, January 14, 2013
No pithy headline. The latest U.S. National Climate Assessment makes sobering news. The full 1,146 page report is available for download here.
Over the next 30 years (and beyond), it warns of projected sea-level rises along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, warmer temperatures across much of the nation, and generally warmer and more acidic oceans. More worrying still are the less direct consequences of climate change: increased threats to human health due to severe weather such as storms, drought and wildfires; more vulnerable infrastructure in regions subject to increasingly volatile weather; and rising threats to regional stability and national security due to a less reliable national and global water supply.
From Scientific American:
The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded....read more
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
If you’re an office worker you will relate. Recently, you will have participated on a team meeting or conference call only to have at least one person say, when asked a question, “sorry can you please repeat that, I was multitasking.”...read more
Saturday, December 15, 2012
We love stories of dystopian futures, apocalyptic prophecies and nightmarish visions here at theDiagonal. For some of our favorite articles on the end of days, check out end of world predictions, and how the world may end.
The next impending catastrophe is due a mere week from now, on December 21st, 2012, according to Mayan-watchers. So, of course, it’s time to make final preparations for the end of the world, again. Not to be outdone by the Mayans, the British, guardians of that very stiff-upper-lip, have some timely advice for doomsayers and doomsday aficionados. After all, only the British could come up with a propaganda poster during the second World War emblazoned with “Keep Calm and Carry On”. While there is some very practical advice, such as “leave extra time for journeys”, we find fault with the British authorities for not suggesting “take time to make a good, strong cup of tea”.
From the Independent:
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
One hopes that Google’s intention to “organize the world’s information” will remain benign for the foreseeable future. Yet, as more and more of our surroundings and moves are mapped and tracked online, and increasingly offline, it would be wise to remain ever vigilant. Many put up with the encroachment of advertisers and promoters into almost every facet of their daily lives as a necessary, modern evil. But where is the dividing line that separates an ignorable irritation from an intrusion of privacy and a grab for control? For the paranoid amongst us, it may only be a matter of time before our digital footprints come under the increasing scrutiny, and control, of organizations with grander designs.
From the Guardian:
Monday, November 12, 2012
With the election in the United States now decided, the dissection of the result is well underway. And, perhaps the biggest winner of all is the science of big data. Yes, mathematical analysis of vast quantities of demographic and polling data won over the voodoo proclamations and gut felt predictions of the punditocracy. Now, that’s a result truly worth celebrating.
Political pundits, mostly Republican, went into a frenzy when Nate Silver, a New York Times pollster and stats blogger, predicted that Barack Obama would win reelection.
But Silver was right and the pundits were wrong – and the impact of this goes way beyond politics.
Silver won because, um, science. As ReadWrite’s own Dan Rowinski noted, Silver’s methodology is all based on data. He “takes deep data sets and applies logical analytical methods” to them. It’s all just numbers....read more