Archive for December, 2014

December 11, 2014



George de Mestral

Biomimicry [bahy-oh-mim-ik-ree] is the imitation of biological systems in human technology. Living organisms have evolved well-adapted structures and materials over geological time through natural selection. Nature has solved engineering problems such as self-healing, environmental exposure tolerance, hydrophobicity (waterproofing), self-assembly, and harnessing solar energy.

One of the early examples of biomimicry was the study of birds to enable human flight. Although never successful in creating a ‘flying machine,’ Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was a keen observer of the anatomy and flight of birds, and made numerous notes and sketches on his observations as well as designs of rudimentary ornithopters based on bats. The Wright Brothers, who succeeded in flying the first heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903, derived inspiration from observations of pigeons in flight. Their airfoil was based on a design by German ‘Glider King’ Otto Lilienthal who published ‘Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation.’ Velcro, another famous example, was inspired by the tiny hooks found on the surface of burs.

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December 10, 2014



Handedness [han-did-nis] is a better (faster or more precise) performance or individual preference for use of a hand. It is not a discrete variable (right or left), but a continuous one that can be expressed at levels between strong left and strong right. While in an ordinary disclosure the terms left and right are used to define handedness, there are actually four types: left-handedness, right-handedness, mixed-handedness (favoring one hand for some tasks and the other hand for others), and ambidexterity (equally adept with both hands). Left-handedness is somewhat more common among men.

Global studies indicate that 10% of people are left-handed, 30% are mixed-handed, and the remainder are right-handed. Ambidexterity is exceptionally rare, although it can be learned. However, a truly ambidextrous person is able to do any task equally well with either hand, whereas those who learn it still tend to favor their originally dominant hand. Ambilevous or ambisinister people demonstrate awkwardness with both hands. Parkinson’s disease in particular is associated with a loss of dexterity.

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December 9, 2014

Lumpers and Splitters

How I Killed Pluto

Lumpers and splitters are opposing factions in any discipline which has to place individual examples into rigorously defined categories. The lumper-splitter problem occurs when there is the need to create classifications and assign examples to them, for example schools of literature, biological taxa and so on. ‘Lumpers’ take a gestalt view (looking at the whole rather than the parts) and assign examples broadly, assuming that differences are not as important as signature similarities. ‘Splitters’ prefer precise definitions, and create new categories to classify things that don’t fit perfectly within an existing group.

The earliest use of these terms was by Charles Darwin, in a letter to botanist J. D. Hooker in 1857: ‘Those who make many species are the ‘splitters,’ and those who make few are the ‘lumpers.’ They were introduced more widely by paleontologist George G. Simpson in his 1945 work ‘The Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals.’ As he put it, ‘splitters make very small units – their critics say that if they can tell two animals apart, they place them in different genera … and if they cannot tell them apart, they place them in different species. … Lumpers make large units – their critics say that if a carnivore is neither a dog nor a bear, they call it a cat.’

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December 9, 2014

Gypsy Brewery


evil twin

A gypsy brewery is a beer company that does not have its own equipment or premises; it operates on a temporary or itinerant basis out of the facilities of another brewery, generally making ‘one-off’ special occasion beers. The term may refer to the brewmaster, or to the brand of beer. The trend of gypsy brewing spread early in Scandinavia. Their beers, and collaborations later spread to America and Australia.

Gypsy brewers typically use facilities of larger makers with excess capacity. Often, their beers are made with herbs, spices, and fruits, use experimental styles, are high in alcohol, or are aged in old wine or liquor barrels. Prominent examples include Pretty Things, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Mikkeller and Evil Twin.

December 8, 2014


too many choices by carl richards

jam experiment

Overchoice, also referred to as ‘choice overload,’ is a term describing a problem facing consumers in the postindustrial society: too many choices. The term was first introduced by futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, ‘Future Shock.’ Overchoice is the result of technological progress. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, each year, more and more products are being offered. Consumers have more disposable income to spend, and producers can more easily and cheaply introduce product variations.

Having more choices, on the surface, appears to be a positive development; however it hides an underlying problem: faced with too many choices, consumers have trouble making optimal choices, and thus as a result can be indecisive. When confronted with a plethora of choices without perfect information, many people prefer to make no choice at all, even if making a choice would lead to a better outcome. Toffler noted that as the choice turns to overchoice, ‘freedom of more choices’ ironically becomes the opposite—the ‘unfreedom.’

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December 7, 2014

Behavioral Economics

decoy effect


Behavioral economics is a smaller part of economics that combines what we know about psychology with what we know about economics. Normally, economics does not consider the way humans actually think, but instead, abstracts complex decision-making into comparatively simple mathematical models.

Normally, economists assume people are rational, meaning they make good decisions at the right times using all information. In reality, people are subject to problems with self-control, limitations of time and physical resources, and make different choices depending on how decisions are presented to them.

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December 7, 2014

Naive Diversification

present bias

immediacy effect

Naïve diversification is a ‘choice heuristic,’ a mental shortcut used to simplify decisions, first demonstrated by professor of marketing Itamar Simonson in the context of consumption decisions by individuals. It was subsequently shown in the context of economic and financial decisions.

Simonson showed that when people have to make a simultaneous choice (e.g. choose now which of six snacks to consume in the next three weeks), they tend to seek more variety (e.g., pick more kinds of snacks) than when they make sequential choices (e.g., choose once a week which of six snacks to consume that week for three weeks).

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December 6, 2014

Dynamic Inconsistency

Hyperbolic discounting


In economics, dynamic inconsistency, or time inconsistency, describes the situation: A decision-maker’s preferences change over time, in such a way that a preference, at one point in time, is inconsistent with a preference at another point in time. It is often easiest to think about preferences over time in this context by thinking of decision-makers as being made up of many different ‘selves,’ with each self representing the decision-maker at a different point in time. So, for example, there is my today self, my tomorrow self, my next Tuesday self, my year from now self, etc. The inconsistency will occur when somehow the preferences of some of the selves are not aligned with each other.

In the context of behavioral economics, time inconsistency is related to how each different self of a decision-maker may have different preferences over current and future choices. One common way in which selves may differ in their preferences is they may be modeled as all holding the view that now has especially high value compared to any future time. This is sometimes called the ‘immediacy effect’ or ‘temporal discounting.’ As a result the present self will care too much about herself and not enough about her future selves. Self control literature relies heavily on this type of time inconsistency, and it relates to a variety of topics including procrastination, addiction, efforts at weight loss, and saving for retirement.

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December 5, 2014

Regression Toward the Mean

madden curse

The Drunkards Walk

Regression toward the mean simply says that, following an extreme random event, the next random event is likely to be less extreme. In no sense does the future event ‘compensate for’ or ‘even out’ the previous event, though this is assumed in the gambler’s fallacy. Regression toward the mean was first described by Victorian polymath Francis Galton. He found that offspring of tall parents tended to be shorter. Also, offspring of shorter parents tended to be taller. Galton stated that processes that did not follow regression towards the mean would quickly go out of control. In finance, the term ‘mean reversion’ has a different meaning. Jeremy Siegel at Wharton uses it to describe a financial time series in which ‘returns can be very unstable in the short run but very stable in the long run,’ in seasonal businesses for example.

The effect can be exploited for general inference and estimation: the hottest place in the country today is more likely to be cooler tomorrow than hotter, as compared to today; the best performing mutual fund over the last three years is more likely to see relative performance decline than improve over the next three years; the most successful Hollywood actor of this year is likely to have less gross than more gross for his or her next movie; the baseball player with the greatest batting average by the All-Star break is more likely to have a lower average than a higher average over the second half of the season, etc.

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December 5, 2014

Body Camera

bodycam by Sam Woolley

Body worn video (BWV), including what is referred to as a body worn camera (BWC), is a video recording system that is typically utilized by law enforcement to record their interactions with the public, gather video evidence at crime scenes, and has been known to increase both officer and citizen accountability. BWCs are notable because their placement, often on the front of a shirt, provides for first person perspective and ultimately a more complete chain of evidence.

Body worn video was first adopted by British police in 2005, appearing in the form of small-scale tests conducted by the Devon and Cornwall Police. In 2006, the first significant deployments of BWV were undertaken as part of the Domestic Violence Enforcement Campaign. The basic command units equipped with the head cameras recorded everything that happened during an incident from the time of arrival which led to the ‘preservation of good-quality first disclosure evidence from the victim.’

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December 4, 2014

Metamagical Themas


Douglas Hofstadter by Gilles Esposito-Farèse

Metamagical [met-uh-maj-i-kuhlThemas [thee-muhs] is an eclectic collection of articles that cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter wrote for ‘Scientific American’ during the early 1980s. The title is an anagram of Martin Gardner’s ‘Mathematical Games,’ the column that preceded Hofstadter’s. The anthology was published in 1985. Major themes include: self-reference in memes (ideas that spread within cultures), language, art and logic; discussions of philosophical issues important in cognitive science/AI; analogies and what makes something similar to something else (specifically what makes, for example, an uppercase letter ‘A’ recognizable as such); and lengthy discussions of the work of political scientist Robert Axelrod on the prisoner’s dilemma (a game theory problem).

There are three articles centered on the Lisp programming language, where Hofstadter first details the language itself, and then shows how it relates to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Two articles are devoted to Rubik’s Cube and other such puzzles. Many other topics are also mentioned, all in Hofstadter’s usual easy, approachable style. Many chapters open with an illustration of an extremely abstract alphabet, yet one which is still recognizable as such. The game of ‘Nomic’ (in which the rules of the game include mechanisms for the players to change those rules) was first introduced to the public in this column, in June 1982.

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December 3, 2014

Takako Konishi


Takako Konishi (1973 – 2001) was an office worker from Tokyo who was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota on November 15, 2001. Konishi had originally arrived in Minneapolis earlier that month, traveled to Bismarck, then to Fargo, and finally to Detroit Lakes, where she died. Her death was ruled a suicide, but it was insinuated by the media that she had died trying to locate the missing money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character, Carl Showalter, in the 1996 film ‘Fargo,’ under the impression that the film was based on a true story. Investigations by American film writer/director Paul Berczeller discovered the entire ‘Fargo’ story had come about as the result of a misunderstanding between Konishi and one of the Bismarck police officers with whom she had been talking.

The story was then inflated by the media, leading to an urban legend. Instead, it was discovered, Konishi had been very depressed after losing her job at a Tokyo travel agency, and had come to Minneapolis because it was a place she had previously visited with her lover, a married American businessman. Depressed and lonely, Konishi had been wandering Detroit Lakes when she decided to commit suicide with an overdose of alcohol and sedatives. Her story was detailed in the 2003 documentary film ‘This Is a True Story,’ directed by Berczeller. In addition, the urban legend surrounding her death is the basis for the 2014 film ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.’