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Recently in HUMANITY Category

August 4, 2011

Memory & Forgetting, Children & Love

By Joe Katzman at 04:19

A couple of articles lately that really hit home. Brink's "How to mend a broken heart" is simply excellent. Turns out that drug addiction may actually be a byproduct of love's existing circuitry, that a broken heart can medically kill people with something that looks a lot like a heart attack, and that simple pain relievers like Tylenol can help dull the pain of a breakup. Plus, how can you not love "The Museum of Broken Relationships"?

"Olinka and Drazen are artists, and after some time passed [beyond their breakup], they did what artists often do: they put their feelings on display.... Their collection of breakup mementos was accepted into a local art festival. It was a smash hit. Soon they were putting up installations in Berlin, San Francisco, and Istanbul, showing the concept to the world. Everywhere they went, from Bloomington to Belgrade, people packed the halls and delivered their own relics of extinguished love: "The Silver Watch" with the pin pulled out at the moment he first said, "I love you." The wood-handled "Ex Axe" that a woman used to chop her cheating lover's furniture into tiny bits. Trinkets that had meaning to only two souls found resonance with a worldwide audience that seemed to recognize the same heartache all too well."

Another article talked about a more profound kind of heartbreak, and a very different problem of memory. The Washington Post's 2009 piece "Fatal Distraction" is about something that really can happen to any parent, though we really don't like to think about it:

"Two decades ago, [death by hyperthermia] was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child... well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?"

Research suggests a very unsettling answer:

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November 5, 2010

The Suicide Chatroom Stalker(s)

By Joe Katzman at 18:11

Something interesting from GQ, looking into the cybernetic Wild West:

"f you were desperate and hopeless enough to log on to a suicide chat room in recent years, there was a good chance a mysterious woman named Li Dao would find you, befriend you, and gently urge you to take your own life. And, she'd promise, she would join you in that final journey. But then the bodies started adding up, and the promises didn't. Turned out, Li Dao was something even more sinister than anyone thought."

Ah, but if this is the Wild West, there's bound to be a posse... and therein hangs a tale. Fantastic work by Nadia Labi.

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  • toc3: Ghoulish, to say the least! read more

May 11, 2010

A Moral Sense in Babies?

By Joe Katzman at 05:07

Interesting NY Times article, which does happen once in a a while. I'm inclined to remove the philosophizing, and just note the results. What it suggests, however, is that the baby's slate isn't quite as blank as we might think - in this way, and in other ways:

"Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the "naughty" one. But this punishment wasn't enough -- he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head."

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  • mark buehner: Always be skeptical of behavioral studies of animals and babies. read more
  • David Blue: It's a well-designed and convincing experiment. read more
  • Demosophist: I'd say the kid has been watching too much NCIS. read more

March 24, 2010

Dr Grigory Perelman Solves Poincare Conjecture, Turns Down the $1 Million

By Joe Katzman at 19:33

The What? I'll let the Clay Mathematics Institute explain:

"Formulated in 1904 by the French mathematician Henri Poincaré, the conjecture is fundamental to achieving an understanding of three-dimensional shapes (compact manifolds). The simplest of these shapes is the three-dimensional sphere. It is contained in four-dimensional space, and is defined as the set of points at a fixed distance from a given point, just as the two-dimensional sphere (skin of an orange or surface of the earth) is defined as the set of points in three-dimensional space at a fixed distance from a given point (the center).

Since we cannot directly visualize objects in n-dimensional space, Poincaré asked whether there is a test for recognizing when a shape is the three-sphere by performing measurements and other operations inside the shape. The goal was to recognize all three-spheres even though they may be highly distorted. Poincaré found the right test (simple connectivity, see below). However, no one before Perelman was able to show that the test guaranteed that the given shape was in fact a three-sphere."

It's one of 7 "Millennium Problems" which has standing $1 million prizes for a solution at the Clay Mathematics Institute. Err, make that 6. Dr. Grigory Perelman in St. Petersburg has become the first winner of a Clay Millennium Prize. Only problem? He doesn't want it. He also failed to show at a 2006 Fields Medal ceremony from the International Mathematical Union.

The guy lives as a recluse in a bare cockroach-infested flat in St Petersburg, and says (through a closed door): 'I have all I want.' Kind of Dostoyevsky, really.

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  • toc3: I can't think of any thinker secular of religious who read more

March 22, 2010

What Can We Learn from Happiness Research?

By Joe Katzman at 04:27

Derek Bok, in the New Yorker:

"In 1978, a trio of psychologists curious about happiness assembled two groups of subjects. In the first were winners of the Illinois state lottery. These men and women had received jackpots of between fifty thousand and a million dollars. In the second group were victims of devastating accidents. Some had been left paralyzed from the waist down. For the others, paralysis started at the neck.... For a control, the psychologists assembled a third group, made up of Illinois residents selected at random from the phone book."

The answers were kind of surprising, and spawned a whole sub-genre of psychological research into human happiness.

Not nearly as funny as "CRACKED.COM Goes Postal on 5 Things You Think Will Make You Happy (But Won't)," but contains many similar insights... and a few different ones.

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  • Joe Katzman: You're the 2nd person to recommend that book recently. Guess read more
  • Alchemist: If you're interested in this sort of thing, I strongly read more

September 30, 2009

The Vanishing - and Value - of Polymaths

By Joe Katzman at 00:28

Intelligent Life magazine's "The Last Days of the Polymath":

"Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too. As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world's largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.

....Just knowing about a lot of things has never been easier. Never before have dabblers been so free to paddle along the shore and dip into the first rock pool that catches the eye. If you have an urge to take off your shoes and test the water, countless specialists are ready to hold your hand.

And yet you will never get very deep. Depth is for monomaths - which is why experts so often seem to miss what really matters.... The question is whether [polymaths'] loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs - the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems - often come from other fields."

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  • mark buehner: Even if a chemist were an "art collector", how would read more
  • Alchemist: See, I actually disagree quite a bit, but it depends read more
  • J Aguilar: I see "polymathy" just as an effect, not a characteristic read more

August 15, 2009

"Swedish lesbians suck sperm banks dry"

By Joe Katzman at 16:12

By any measure, that has to be the headline of the year. Article here.

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July 31, 2009

Hitting the Savings Lottery

By Joe Katzman at 01:30

There's no such thing as a President who's an idiot 100% of the time. I'm certainly not a fan of the O, but there are a couple of things he's done that strike me as good ideas, long overdue. More focus on Community Colleges, for instance. Hiring people with a Behavioural Economics background into government is another good move, guaranteeing that he'll manage to do at least 1 non-stupid thing in the economic realm during his term. I don't have high hopes for reaching 2, but back to behavioural economics...

"Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes, And How to Correct Them" is a very accessible and entertaining read in that area, and I recommend it. There's also a cool application out there that leverages my "American Economy In One" note the other day about $57.4 billion in savings in 2007, vs. $92.3 billion on legalized gambling.

"Why not combine them?" asked finance professor Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School...

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June 26, 2009 Goes Postal on 5 Things You Think Will Make You Happy (But Won't)

By Joe Katzman at 17:27

Off for some painful minor surgery, which falls into the category of "things you know won't make you happy (but might later on, mayhap after you can, like, eat again)." At the other end of this particular scale, I offer's combination of links to real science and viciously acerbic wit.

Presenting, "5 Things You Think Will Make You Happy (But Won't)". With the recurring sub-headings of "So, what the problem?" and "Wait, it gets worse..." An excerpt:

"Most of us get out of bed everyday purely because it edges us one step closer to some kind of financial future we want. If we won the lottery, most of us would show up to the office the next day wearing an ankle-length fur coat and enough bling to make Mr. T look Amish, and only stay just long enough to take a dump in our boss's inbox.

So What's the Problem?

Hey, remember when we said earlier that most people wouldn't do the body-switching thing for fear they'd wake up in Nigeria...."

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  • lewy14: Joe, hope your outcome is positive and your recovery a read more

Robot Evolution Produces... Good and Evil?

By Joe Katzman at 00:48


I'm not certain whether to be oddly reassured by this, or highly alarmed.

"Dario Floreano and his team at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology built a swarm of mobile robots [with unprogrammed learning A.I.s], outfitted with light bulbs and photodetectors. These were set loose in a zone with illuminated "food" and "poison" zones which charged or depleted their batteries."

What followed was a set of standard 'genetic algorithm' type culls for most-fit results, as measured by scores, followed by redownload/ reproduction of the winners across the same robot set. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. What happened next has been seen in pure simulations like "Life," but with robots it's more explicit:

"Within fifty generations of this electronic evolution, co-operative societies of robots had formed - helping each other to find food and avoid poison. Even more amazing is the emergence of cheats and martyrs...."

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June 25, 2009

A Look at "Doomsday in 2012" Predictions

By Joe Katzman at 21:03, in "The 6 Best 2012 Apocalypse Theories"

"You may have noticed a recent trend of trying to fit every hackneyed doomsday prophecy into the same red-letter year of 2012. The theories are obtuse, their connections are flimsy and the perceived consequences are completely unsubstantiated.

Unsurprisingly, these prophecies are enormously popular."

Whereupon they proceed to explain, and deliver a major New Age ass-whuppin' to, each and every one of them. It's kind of like having a set of 6 hippies thrown into a Wrestlemania cage match.

Which, by the way, I'd pay good money to see...

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  • David Blue: No indeed. If that was the true explanation, why would read more
  • LTEC: "As for the winter solstice thing, that's just when the read more
  • Foobarista: I love it! I'm often having debates with co-workers who read more

April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle... and Paul Potts

By Joe Katzman at 00:09

I suspect most of you have seen this already. If not, do yourselves a favor. Visit this YouTube page, and watch an unemployed, 47 year old spinster walk on a Britain's equivalent of American Idol... and just blow the effing house down.

Thanks to the Internet, this was the viral equivalent of a tsunami. Follow-on TV appearances have been frequent, she may be about to record a duet with her singing idol Elaine Page (who was impressed), and it seems like she won't have to be looking for a job any time, well, ever again. The only shame in all of this is that she's been singing in her village, recording local charity albums (listen to "Cry Me A River" from 1998), rather than being on stage in London's East End for the last 20 or more years. Where she belongs. The good news is, some of the people in her village think that what you just saw on "Britain's Got Talent" wasn't even her best singing. Um, wow.

It's a great story. I love the fact that she sang a stage tune to do it. And I love it that someone with that level of talent was able to walk on, demonstrate it, and let that trump everything else. She didn't win a sympathy vote. She's just that good, and she'll rise as high as her talent lets her. To me, that's what it's all about.

Incidentally, 2007's winner was a guy named Paul Potts, now a multi-millionaire who's touring the world. He was a 41-year old mobile phone salesman, who remembers being beaten up at school every day until he was 18. That was excellent training for his subsequent dissertation on the problem of evil and suffering in a God-created world - and for his life's ambition, which was to become an opera singer....

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  • Robohobo: Beard said: ...even if I am unremarkable in some ways, read more
  • juliet: How about them apples, real-life Goodwill Hunting(s) aka Matt Damons? read more
  • Beard: Another thing that I thought was inspiring about her triumph read more
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