Category Archives: Science/Technology

Cool stuff from the world of science and tech

Dangerous ideas

What is your dangerous idea?

The brilliant minds of The Edge community have been pondering that question and have come up with no less than 117 essays.

Here are a few of my favourites:
Carolyn Porco: The greatest story ever told.

At the heart of every scientific inquiry is a deep spiritual quest – to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole.

And we don’t have one god, we have many of them. We find gods in the nucleus of every atom, in the structure of space/time, in the counter-intuitive mechanisms of electromagneticsm. What richness! What consummate beauty!

These are reasons enough for jubilation … for riotous, unrestrained, exuberant merry-making.

So what are we missing?

Ceremony.

We have no loving ministers, guiding and teaching the flocks in the ways of the ‘gods’. We have no fervent missionaries, no loyal apostles. And we lack the all-inclusive ecumenical embrace, the extended invitation to the unwashed masses. Alienation does not warm the heart; communion does.

But what if? What if we appropriated the craft, the artistry, the methods of formal religion to get the message across? Imagine ‘Einstein’s Witnesses’ going door to door or TV evangelists passionately espousing the beauty of evolution.

Could it work? Could we create institutions that filled the roles of religion but which were based on science rather than faith? That is one hell of a dangerous idea. Not to mention weird and wonderful.

Philip Zimbardo: The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism

This view implies that any of us could as easily become heroes as perpetrators of evil depending on how we are impacted by situational forces. We then want to discover how to limit, constrain, and prevent those situational and systemic forces that propel some of us toward social pathology.

It is equally important for our society to foster the heroic imagination in our citizens by conveying the message that anyone is a hero-in-waiting who will be counted upon to do the right thing when the time comes to make the heroic decision to act to help or to act to prevent harm.

This is a wonderful shift in thinking: Rather than thinking of people as potential nazis or executioners (common thinking has it, that under the right circumstances all of us could become either), think of people as potential heroes and foster that potential.

Simon Baron-Cohen: A political system based on empathy

What would it be like if our political chambers were based on the principles of empathizing? It is dangerous because it would mean a revolution in how we choose our politicians, how our political chambers govern, and how our politicians think and behave. We have never given such an alternative political process a chance. Might it be better and safer than what we currently have? Since empathy is about keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other people (not just your own), and being sensitive to another person’s thoughts and feelings (not just riding rough-shod over them), it is clearly incompatible with notions of “doing battle with the opposition” and “defeating the opposition” in order to win and hold on to power.

Yes! I think more and more these days on how to create a better way of politics. This is an important insight.

Also check out last year’s question: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

Tag this!

There’s a lot of information on the web, so the challenge is always to find the stuff you need. The answer to this has mostly been hierarchies – to create great big taxonomies that hierarchically sort information.

For instance: The web magazine Diversity Inc. is categorized under Business > Human Resources > Training and Safety > Diversity in the Google directory of web sites. Clear, concise and easy to navigate. And cumbersome – knowing what categories exist and placing the information into the right category takes a lot of mental exertion.

So a new way was invented: Tagging! Tagging basically means making up your own words, and sticking them on your web page, image, video, document, whatever. Del.icio.us users tag websites rather than categorizing them. Flickr is the most famous example – here’s a picture of the beautiful sunrise seen from our appartment this morning, tagged with cameraphone, sunrise and copenhagen. Tagging is messy but fast and users seem to prefer tagging. Quite simply: Users will tag information but don’t categorize it.

And here’s one opinion about why: A cognitive analysis of tagging (or how the lower cognitive cost of tagging makes it popular).

The rapid growth of tagging in the last year is testament to how easy and enjoyable people find the tagging process. The question is how to explain it at the cognitive level. In search for a cognitive explanation of tagging, I went back to my dusty cognitive psychology textbooks. This is what I learnt.

There’s a lot of discussion on the web currently about taxonomies vs. folksonomies. Can we trust people to collectively tag information in such a way as to make it easily retrievable, or do we need experts to create official taxonomies that correctly divide and conquer data. My money is on the folksonomies :o)

del.icio.us – now featuring happyatwork

I finally got my act together and started using del.icio.us, a website that lets users share links. From their website:

What makes del.icio.us a social system is its ability to let you see the links that others have collected, as well as showing you who else has bookmarked a specific site. You can also view the links collected by others, and subscribe to the links of people whose lists you find interesting.

Clever! I’ve started tagging relevant links with happyatwork – and you can too. Let’s create a store of happy-at-work-related links together.

* See my del.icio.us links here.
* See happyatwork links here.

There aren’t that many yet – but I’m guessing there will be :o)

2 years of Open Source Software

About 2 years ago I got myself a new PC, and since then I’ve only use one piece of software that I paid for – and that’s Windows. Every other program on my computer is open source and free, and it has worked perfectly. I haven’t missed Outlook, Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver or any of those other programs I used to use. Instead I’ve been using:

openoffice.org – Reads and writes Microsoft Office files and works just as well. Contains a Word, Excel and PowerPoint clone all of which have all the features you’ll ever need. And you can save your documents as pdf files.

Audacity – An excellent program for recording and editing sound. I used it to mix music and to edit an audio book.

nvu – HTML editor. REALLY easy to use.

Firefox – The best browser around.

Thunderbird – A mail program that kicks Outlook’s butt.

Filezilla – A killer ftp client.

Azureus – The best bittorrent client around. Has the best user interface of any program I’ve ever seen.

egroupware – Additionally we use egroupware in The Happy At Work Project to share calendars, adress books and to manage some of our websites.

Not only is all the software mentioned here free and open source, it’s also available on multiple platforms, so if I decide to switch to a Linux or Apple machine tomorrow, I can continue to use the same programs and to work on the same files.

So why are you still paying Microsoft and others for software?

Bacteria are open source

The traditional view of evolution says that genes are passed along from ancestor to offspring. This view is currently being expanded to include horizontal gene transfer.

Horizontal gene transfer is any process in which an organism transfers genetic material (i.e. DNA) to another cell that is not its offspring. By contrast, vertical transfer occurs when an organism receives genetic material from its ancestor, e.g. its parent or a species from which it evolved. Most thinking in genetics has focussed on the more prevalent vertical transfer, but there is a recent awareness that horizontal gene transfer is a significant phenomenon.

Horizontal gene transfer is common among bacteria, even very distantly-related ones. For example, this process is thought to be a significant cause of increased drug resistance; when one bacterial cell acquires resistance, it can quickly transfer the resistance genes to many species.

Who knew that bacterie were open source :o)

Why is this interesting? It provides yet another example of cooperation in nature – yet another reason to believe that nature does not favour the strong, tough and ruthless, that quite to the contrary, nature favours those who can and do cooperate.

And so does the business world.

Steve-olution

There is currently a rather active movement in the US that seeks to find fault with evolution and to promote creationism or the newest version of it, Intelligent design. One of the arguments often used, is that more and more scientists are coming to doubt evolution. This is probably not true, and the National Center for Science Education came up with a wonderful, wacky response. Eugenie Scott of the NCSE put it like this in an interview:

Well, you know, we were bombarded by irritated and irate scientists who said we could get 100,000 scientists in two weeks to sign a statement on evolution, let’s counter this nonsense. And we kept saying no, that’s not the way science is done; we don’t want to further mislead the public; you don’t do science by plebiscite, this is really silly. But on the other hand, we then got to thinking about the great American journalist H L Menkin who once said that, a good horse laugh is worth 1000 syllogisms, and we’re pretty big on the syllogisms. You go to our web page we’ve got straight science, we’re a serious organisation – but damn it, we’re tired of this.

They went for the horse laugh, hence Project Steve. You can get on the Project Steve list only if you’re a scientist, your name is Steve (or a variation thereof) and you agree with the following:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

So far they’re way past 500 Steves. The name Steve represents about 1% of all scientists and was chosen in honour of the late Stephen Jay Gould.

Quote

What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species – everybody – has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own.

– Saul Bellow, from his 1976 Nobel lecture.