Archive for May, 2015

May 30, 2015

The Magic of Reality

what is an earthquake

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True’ is a 2011 book by British biologist Richard Dawkins, with illustrations by Dave McKean. It is a science book aimed primarily at children and young adults. He addresses topics that range from his most familiar territory, evolutionary biology and speciation (how the tree of life creates new branches), to physical phenomena such as atomic theory, optics, planetary motion, gravitation, stellar evolution (the life cycle of stars), spectroscopy (the study of the interactions of matter and electromagnetic radiation), and plate tectonics, as well as speculation on exobiology (alien life).

Most chapters begin with quick retellings of historical creation myths that emerged as attempts to explain the origin of particular observed phenomena. These myths are chosen from all across the world including Babylonian, Judeo-Christian, Aztec, Maori, Ancient Egyptian, Australian Aboriginal, Nordic, Hellenic, Chinese, Japanese, and other traditions, including contemporary alien abduction mythology.

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May 27, 2015

Lourdes Effect

holy toast by David Hayward

blobsquatch by Guy Edwards

The term Lourdes [loordzeffect was coined by Belgian philosopher and skeptic Etienne Vermeersch to describe the observation that supernatural powers never manifest themselves in a completely unambiguous fashion. According to Vermeersch, should the miraculous power of Lourdes actually exist there would be no reason to think that it would be more difficult for the Virgin Mary or God to reattach a severed arm than to cure paralysis or blindness.

The accounts and photos of, for instance, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti lack reliability and clarity due to a similar effect. Vermeersch uses this term to mock what he calls the selective and uncritical approach to miracles, or the frivolous attribution of supernatural gifts to human beings.

May 26, 2015


Mark Doolittle

A burl is a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. It is commonly found in the form of a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk or branch that is filled with small knots from dormant buds. Insect infestation and certain types of molds are the most common causes of this condition, although other stresses can also promote burl formation, such as physical injury, or viral or fungal infection.

Most burls grow beneath the ground, attached to the roots as a type of malignancy that is generally not discovered until the tree dies or falls over. Such burls sometimes appear as groups of bulbous protrusions connected by a system of rope-like roots. Almost all burl wood is covered by bark, even if it is underground. In some tree species, burls can grow to great size. The largest, at 26 feet, occur in redwoods and can encircle the entire trunk. Burls yield a very peculiar and highly figured wood, prized for its beauty, strength, and rarity. It is sought after by furniture makers, artists, and wood sculptors.

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May 21, 2015

Tiny House Movement

Susanka by Brian Stauffer

The tiny house movement is a popular description for the architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes. In the US the average size of new single family homes grew from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,479 in 2007, despite a decrease in the size of the average family. Reasons for this include increased material wealth and prestige. The small house movement is a return to houses less than 1,000 square feet, some as small as 80 square feet.

Sarah Susanka has been credited with starting the recent countermovement toward smaller houses when she published ‘The Not So Big House’ in 1997. Earlier pioneers include Lloyd Kahn, author of ‘Shelter’ in 1973.’ Tiny houses on wheels were popularized by Jay Shafer who designed and lived in a 96 sq ft house and later went on to offer the first plans for tiny houses on wheels, initially founding ‘Tumbleweed Tiny House Company,’ and then ‘Four Lights Tiny House Company’ in 2012. 

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May 20, 2015

How to Lie with Statistics

discarding unfavorable data


How to Lie with Statistics‘ is a book written by Darrell Huff in 1954 presenting an introduction to statistics for the general reader. Huff was a journalist who wrote many ‘how to’ articles as a freelancer, but was not a statistician. The book is a brief, breezy, illustrated volume outlining errors when it comes to the interpretation of statistics, and how these errors lead to incorrect conclusions. In the 1960s and ’70s it became a standard textbook introduction to the subject of statistics for many college students. It has become one of the best-selling statistics books in history, with over one and a half million copies sold in the English-language edition, and has also been widely translated.

Themes of the book include ‘Correlation does not imply causation’ and ‘Using random sampling.’ It also shows how statistical graphs can be used to distort reality, for example by truncating the bottom of a line or bar chart, so that differences seem larger than they are, or by representing one-dimensional quantities on a pictogram by two- or three-dimensional objects to compare their sizes, so that the reader forgets that the images do not scale the same way the quantities do. The original edition contained humorous illustrations by artist Irving Geis. In a UK edition these were replaced with cartoons by Mel Calman.

May 18, 2015


immersion by stuart goldberg


Presence is the illusion that a virtual experience is real. Today, it often considers the effect that people experience when they interact with a computer-mediated or computer-generated environment. This use of the term derives from the word ‘telepresence,’ coined by MIT professor Marvin Minsky in 1980, which he described as the manipulation of objects in the real world through remote access technology. For example, a surgeon may use a computer to control robotic arms to perform minute procedures on a patient in another room. Or a NASA technician may use a computer to control a rover to collect rock samples on Mars.

As technologies progressed, the need for an expanded term arose. Thomas Sheridan (also of MIT, and a pioneer of robotics and remote control technology) extrapolated Minsky’s original definition. Using the shorter ‘presence,’ Sheridan explained that the term refers to the effect felt when controlling real world objects remotely as well as the effect people feel when they interact with and immerse themselves in virtual reality or virtual environments.

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May 17, 2015

Grim Fandango

grim fandango

Grim Fandango is a dark comedy neo-noir adventure game released by LucasArts in 1998 for Windows, with game designer Tim Schafer as project leader. It is the first adventure game by LucasArts to use 3D computer graphics overlaid on pre-rendered, static backgrounds. As with other LucasArts adventure games, the player must converse with other characters and examine, collect, and use objects correctly to solve puzzles in order to progress.

Grim Fandango‍ ’​s world combines elements of the Aztec belief of afterlife with style aspects of film noir, including ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ ‘On the Waterfront, ‘and ‘Casablanca,’ to create the Land of the Dead, through which recently departed souls, represented in the game as calaca-like figures, must travel before they reach their final destination, the Ninth Underworld. The story follows travel agent Manuel ‘Manny’ Calavera as he attempts to save Mercedes ‘Meche’ Colomar, a newly arrived but virtuous soul, during her long journey.

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May 16, 2015


flip flop flap

Flip-flops (also called thongs, jandals, pluggers, go-aheads, slaps, slides, step-ins, chankla or a variety of other names throughout the world) are a type of open-toed sandal typically worn in casual situations. They consist of a flat sole held loosely on the foot by a Y-shaped strap that passes between the first and second toes and around either side of the foot. They may also be held to the foot with a single strap over the top of the foot rather than a thong. The name is an onomatopoeia for the sound that is made when the sole slaps the ground while walking in flip-flops.

This style of footwear has been worn by the people of many cultures throughout the world, originating as early as the ancient Egyptians. The modern flip-flop descends from the Japanese zōri, which were popularized in the US after WWII by soldiers returning from the Pacific theater. They are common summer footwear for both genders, and some varieties have even found their way into more formal attire, despite criticism.

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May 14, 2015

The Third Wave

Die welle

ron jones

The Third Wave was an experimental social movement created by high school history teacher Ron Jones to demonstrate the appeal of fascism and explain how the German populace could accept the actions of the Nazi regime. Over the course of five days, Jones conducted a series of exercises in his classroom emphasizing discipline and community, intended to model certain characteristics of the Nazi movement.

As the movement grew outside his class and began to number in the hundreds, Jones began to feel that the experiment had spiraled out of control. He convinced the students to attend a rally where he claimed the announcement of a Third Wave presidential candidate would be televised. Upon their arrival, the students were presented with a blank channel and told the true nature of the movement, and shown a short film discussing the actions of Nazi Germany. The psychology involved has been extensively studied in terms of youth gang behavior and peer pressure, of which this experiment was a variant.

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May 13, 2015

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve


Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is the flagship brand of bourbon whiskey owned by the ‘Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery’ company (which does not actually own or operate a distillery, but rather has it produced under a contract with another company). It is distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company at its Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. It is often regarded as one of the finest bourbons in the world, and is rare to find on the market due to its very low production and high demand. The product has a cult-like following. Famous chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have favored the product.

‘Food Republic’ reported that Chef John Currence said: ‘There’s Pappy Van Winkle, then there’s everything else.’ Bourbon aficionados have shown up in droves to get a small chance in a lottery to purchase some. It has been called ‘the bourbon everyone wants but no one can get.’ A writer for ‘The Wall Street Journal’ said ‘You could call it bourbon, or you could call it a $5,000 bottle of liquified, barrel-aged unobtanium.’ Jen Doll wrote in ‘The Wire,’ ‘It’s an age-old dilemma (supply and demand) leading to an age-old marketing dream (a product that can’t be kept on the shelves … money in the pockets … bourbon in the bourbon snifters).’

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May 12, 2015

Recursive Self-improvement

ultron by Alex Dempsey

Recursive [ri-kur-siv] self-improvement is the speculative ability of a strong artificial intelligence computer program to program its own software continuously. This is sometimes also referred to as ‘Seed AI’ because if an AI were created with engineering capabilities that matched those of its human creators, it would have the potential to autonomously improve the design of its constituent software and hardware. Having undergone these improvements, it would then be better able to find ways of optimizing its structure and improving its abilities further. It is speculated that over many iterations, such an AI would far surpass human cognitive abilities.

This notion of an ‘intelligence explosion’ was first described by British cryptographer I.J. Good in 1965, who speculated on the effects of superhuman machines: ‘Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.’

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May 11, 2015

Small Talk

Linda Richman by allison krumwiede

Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed. Small talk is conversation for its own sake. The phenomenon of small talk was initially studied in 1923 by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who coined the term ‘phatic communication’ to describe it. For example: ‘You’re welcome’ is not intended to convey the message that the hearer is welcome; it is a phatic response to being thanked, which in turn is a phatic whose function is to acknowledge the receipt of a benefit. The ability to conduct small talk is a social skill; hence, small talk is part of social communication.

While seeming to have little useful purpose, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance. It serves many functions in helping to define the relationships between friends, work colleagues, and new acquaintances. In particular, it helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each other’s social position. Small talk is closely related to the need for people to maintain positive face — to feel approved-of by those who are listening to them. It lubricates social interactions in a very flexible way, although the desired function is often dependent on the point in the conversation at which the small talk occurs (e.g. conversation openers are very different than closers).

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