Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

xkcd - turtle or artist?

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/ninja_turtles.png

Monday, July 27, 2015

The School of Life: Death

becomes The School of Death with this useful reminder:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Yuval Harari on TED

I'm happy to see that Yuval Harari's book 'Sapiens' has been picked by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for his reading group. I haven't read Sapiens yet but Harari's s on-line Coursera course, which is based around the book, was first class.

Here is a recent TED talk from Harari:


Saturday, July 25, 2015

"The End of Doom": Ron Bailey on Why The Future Looks Pretty Damn Great

It's nice to here an optimistic view for a change:


Thursday, July 23, 2015

lessons from an ipod, sunk costs and the psychology of losses and gains


I first noticed my ipod was missing from the drawer when I was heading off to the gym. At this stage the expected loss (EL) was negligible because the probability of loss was low. The expected loss is the probability of the loss multiplied by the value, which in this instance was about £50.

When I returned from the gym, I searched my other draws, and also my various pockets, but still nothing. The EL had gone up to about £15 based on a 30% probability of loss. I was still fairly confident of finding the ipod in my car.

When I next used my car, the ipod was not to be found. The EL jumped up to about £45. This is where the pain of the loss bites, where instead of getting frustrated one takes a stoical approach and tries to quickly view the loss as a sunk cost. The probability of finding the ipod from this point on was close to negligible. I thought of the decent innings we had, and bid the device a mental farewell.
 
A few days later I went for a long drive and found the ipod under the car seat. Voila, as I'd completely written off the ipod, it's reappearance was a windfall gain.

A race to the top - city skyscrapers


While I've never much cared for cityscapes, it is interesting to observe the extent to which London's skyline is being transformed by skyscrapers.  It's also just been reporting that Paris is also joining in on this race to the top. Note, none of this would have been possible without the invention of the humble elevator.

While these structures of glass and steel appear to me a little cold and dystopian (a rebellious response to growing up in Milton Keynes, perhaps?), I don't have enough information to form an informed opinion on the transforming skyline and look forward to finding out how these experiments in vertical living turn out.

One thing we can say is that despite the availability of high quality video conferencing technology, living and working from the suburbs doesn't have quite the same draw as being physically present in the heart of a thriving city, despite all its drawbacks. In the future, self-driving automatic cars will further increase the appeal of living away from the city, but I imagine this effect will be also be a muted one.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Metaphors from the Greek debacle

"Greece is a cow slipping on ice that must be pushed to firm ground, says European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker.."

"The cow is still on the ice but the ice is a bit thicker."

"Europe hasn’t been kicking the can down the road, it's been kicking it up a hill and wondering why it keeps rolling back"

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Economist: Food prices


Hat-tip to the the AEI for picking this up.

The UN food price index shows significant falls across all the major food categories over the past year. I remember when meat prices started to pick up on the back of higher demand in China, and the media were full of scare stories about permanently high prices. Once again, fears proved unfounded. It looks like the free market forever adapts and adjusts to meet the needs of the people:


The AEI point to the long term chart below, and highlight that while the human population has increased two and a half times since 1961, the real price of food has remained unchanged. This is quite something.



As people's basic needs are better fulfilled, they are more able to improve their lot and make their way up Maslow's pyramid:


This should be cause for celebration but instead we focus almost solely on the negative (animal rights, environmental impact, etc). I'm all in favour of negating the negative externalities that arise from market transactions, but why is the media silent about the positive side of the ledger (improved living standards, reduced mortality rates, etc)?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The village sniper

Just what every sleepy village needs:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Chicago sewer history ... this will blow your mind

Briggs House, around 1866.

Look carefully at the picture above and you will see an army of men underneath this behemoth of a building. This actually happened. The men are manually raising the building several feet, using devices known as jackscrews. What's more, this surreal activity was taking place all over Chicago. Why so? Well, the drainage in Chicago was so poor at the time, that water borne disease was rife. The people of Chicago had to raise pretty much all the buildings in Chicago to enable the creation of the first comprehensive sewerage system in the United States. 

From 99% Invisible:

George Pullman perfected a method involving hundreds of men turning thousands of large jackscrews at the same time. Many smaller structures, especially houses, were simply moved to new locations. "Never a day passed," noted a visitor at the time, "that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine."


From Wikipedia:

"During the 19th century, the elevation of the Chicago area was not much higher than the shorelines of Lake Michigan, so for many years there was little or no naturally occurring drainage from the city surface. The lack of drainage caused unpleasant living conditions, and standing water harbored pathogens that caused numerous epidemics. Epidemics including typhoid fever and dysentery blighted Chicago six years in a row culminating in the 1854 outbreak of cholera that killed six percent of the city’s population.

By 1860, confidence was sufficiently high that a consortium of no fewer than six engineers—including Brown, Hollingsworth and George Pullman—took on one of the most impressive locations in the city and hoisted it up complete and in one go. They lifted half a city block on Lake Street, between Clark Street and LaSalle Street; a solid masonry row of shops, offices, printeries, etc., 320 feet (98 m) long, comprising brick and stone buildings, some four stories high, some five, having a footprint taking up almost one acre (4,000 m2) of space, and an estimated all in weight including hanging sidewalks of thirty five thousand tons. Businesses operating out of these premises were not closed down for the lifting; as the buildings were being raised, people came, went, shopped and worked in them as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. In five days the entire assembly was elevated 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m) clear in the air by a team consisting of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews, ready for new foundation walls to be built underneath. The spectacle drew crowds of thousands, who were on the final day permitted to walk at the old ground level, among the jacks."

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Transport New: I shouldn't care this much about typefaces but what the hey



This is the new typeface used by the slick Gov.uk website. It's called "New Transport" and is the new official font for road signage in the UK. The design is clean and simple and it doesn't feel like it is of the moment, like say Helvetica or Gotham, which is a good thing as it will be with us for a while. See below for some background information on the typeface from myfonts.com. My favourite line is how the new 'version involved walking a tightrope between impertinently eliminating awkwardness and maintaining idiosyncrasy.' Just Wonderful. This is the kind of attention to detail when it comes to our our public spaces.

Transport New is a redrawing of the typeface designed for British road signs. In addition to the familiar Heavy and Medium weights, Transport New extrapolates and adds a previously unreleased Light weight font originally planned for back-lit signage but never actually applied. Version 3.0 of Transport New features significant improvements including numerous outline and spacing refinements, and a full complement of Latin Extended-A characters. Also, to align Transport New with the 2015 release of Motorway, the other typeface used for UK road signage, Italic fonts for all three weights have been added. 

Originally designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert beginning in 1957 and first published on the Preston bypass in 1958, the original Transport font has subtle eccentricities which add to its distinctiveness, and drawing the New version involved walking a tightrope between impertinently eliminating awkwardness and maintaining idiosyncrasy. The Grotesk roots of the glyphs were investigated and cheekily fine-tuned – uncomfortably close terminals of characters such as 5, 6, C, G, and e were shortened, the S and s were given a more upright aspect and their protruding lower terminals tucked in, overly wide glyphs like the number 4 were narrowed, and some claustrophobic counters were slightly opened up. The question mark was redesigned and parentheses given some stroke contrast. The x height was edged fractionally even taller.



It's Margaret Calvert (pictured above) and Kinneir (passed away), who we can thank for the clean aesthetic of the typography and signage that we see around us everyday in this country. Wikipedia notes, 'In 1957, Kinneir was appointed head of signs for Britain's roads. He then hired Calvert to redesign the road sign system and she came up with simple, easy-to-understand pictograms, including the signs for 'men at work' (a man digging), 'farm animals' (based on a cow named Patience that lived on a farm near to where she grew up), and 'schoolchildren nearby' (a girl leading a boy by the hand), based on pre-existing European road signs.'


Here's a nice little video on their work.





Monday, July 06, 2015

Quote: Thomas De Quincey, from Autobiographical Sketches

"Solitude ...is the mightiest of agencies; for solitude is essential to man. All men come into this world alone; all leave it alone."

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Podcast: 99% Invisible - part 3

Here are some more summaries of the 99% invisible podcasts I've been listening to (again, this is pretty much a cut and paste job from the 99% Invisible web-site). If you are into social history and learning more about the things we tend to overlook in everyday life, then 99% Invisible is the place to go:

Episode 169: Freud’s Couch (how the couch became a symbol of the profession)

  • Freud practised hypnosis and needed a couch to relax the patient because he wasn't particularly good at inducing the hynotic state. 
  • When a patient, Fanny Moser, “you’re very getting sleepy” and she would insist that, no, in fact,  she wasn’t. Instead, Fanny Moser wanted to talk. She wanted to tell him her stories. That’s when the light went on. Freud realized that if you just let patients talk and don’t say anything, they will let down their defenses, and the unconscious will be revealed. This is the moment when the pre-Freudian Freud becomes the Freudian Freud. The Freudian Freud’s new techniques and theories for therapy would come to be called “psychoanalysis,” and it would be embodied, in practice and popular culture, by a single piece of furniture: the couch.
  •  ...the couch took on such a central role in psychoanalytic practice that it started to mean good business for analytic couch manufacturers. Imperial Leather Furniture Company, in Queens New York, sold psychoanalytic couches like hot cakes, starting in the 1940s.
  • Couch became and still is a key cultural symbol of the profession, even though it is used far less in practice these days. 
Episode 137: Good Bread 
  • Me: This is a good example of how the sense of goodness/badness about food can come more from it's cultural history than its nutritional make-up.
  • The importance of bread is, shall we say, baked into language. Take for instance, the word “companion.” If we take the word back to its Latin roots, we get “cum,” which means  “with,” and “panis,” which is “bread.” A companion, therefore is someone you sit down and break bread with.
  • In the middle ages most people got about 80% of their daily calories from bread. Fast forward a millenium or so to the late 19th Century, people were still getting about 30% of their calories from bread. 
  • Bakeries of the early industrial age were dirty and often underground, usually with terrible working conditions. You never knew when the baker would cut costs by mixing the dough with sawdust or other horrible additives. Also, around the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a lot of food-borne illness such as cholera and typhus. A lot of Americans were starting to fear their food.
  • People then started getting really interested in where their food came from—only back in the turn of the century, that meant avoiding locally baked bread. Factory bread, the thinking went, was made by clean hands in a modern, light-filled palace of industry. One could see that factory-made bread was clean and healthy, because it was spotless and white.
  • Technically speaking, white flour is whole wheat flour with the bran and the germ from the wheat kernel sifted out. Industrial bakers chose white bread as their flagship bread because for them, white meant purity and cleanliness and modernity.
  • This fear over the safety of bread, it turned out, actually wasn’t actually about bread at all. It was fear about immigration—about the supposedly diseased and dirty hands of southern and eastern European immigrants handling bread in neighborhood bakeries. For middle and upper class whites, xenophobia become inseparable from fears about bread safety.
  • Industrialisation and standardisation: It was complex to make uniformly. bread was one of the last major foods to be industrialized precisely because of how complex it is to make uniformly.They cut the time it took for the bread to rise by adding sugars and cranking up the temperature. They added emulsifiers to allow the dough’s water and fat to mix together better, giving white bread its height and a more even grain. (That also got rid of the holes.) Eventually vitamins were added, and white bread was sold to the public as a means of making hearty the young men who woulds serve in the war effort.
  • ...strangely, the Americans who were buying loaf upon loaf of this white bread didn’t actually like it. The Rockford study found many complaints against the texture of industrial white bread—and yet studies also showed that consumers would buy the lightest and fluffiest loaves available.
  • Then, white bread went through an identity crisis. Where once white bread was a feel-good symbol of progress, the term “white bread” began to get used as an epithet, meaning stuffy, conservative, square, and white-suburban.  One of the first documented instances of “white bread” being used as a pejorative adjective was by Richard Pryor, who stormed off the stage of the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas, allegedly saying that he was “absolutely done with this white bread humor.”
  • From around that point forward, countercultural movements began to use white bread as an emblem of the establishment, of the silent majority, of Richard Nixon’s America.
  • But then, by the 1980s and 90s, the meaning starts to bifurcate: “white bread” also starts to represent poor white people who make supposedly irresponsible decisions about their diet.
Episode 125: Duplitecture (copying)
  • The best knock-offs in the world are in China. There are plenty of fake designer handbags and Rolexes but China’s knock-offs go way beyond fashion. There are knock-off Apple stores that look so much like the real thing, some employees believe they are working in real Apple stores.  And then there are entire knock-off cities. There are Venices with complete canals and replicas of the Doge’s Palace. A Paris with an Eiffel Tower and an Arc de Triomphe. In the suburbs of any Chinese city, there are endless examples of “duplitecture.”
  • Duplitecture developments are functioning communities where Chinese families are raising their children and living their lives.
  • In premodern China, imperial rulers used copycat buildings to show off their authority, making replicas of landmarks in cities they had conquered, or importing flora and fauna to recreate foreign landscapes within their own domain.
  • In keeping with that tradition, one of the most copied buildings in China is the very seat of western power itself: the White House. The architect who built the White House based his design on The Leinster House in Dublin, which is now the seat of the Irish parliament. The Leinster House, in turn, contains strong elements of Greek and Roman architecture.
  • Some of the greatest hits of American architecture are copies of the greatest hits of ancient Roman architecture, which are now all being copied by the Chinese. China has proven quite successful at turning imitation into innovation in other sectors. China’s iPhone knockoffs had some features that you couldn’t find on Apple’s phone, like removable battery and multiple sim cards, all for a lower price. It’s easy to scoff at a fake Venice, but copying, as a practice, is totally underrated. Mindful iteration is often how good things become great things.
Episode 119: Feet of Engineering (high heels)
  • ..high heeled shoes were originally worn by men. As early as the tenth century, many horseback riding cultures wore heels on their boots and on their shoes, because heels help you stay in the stirrups (which is why cowboy boots have heels).
  • The Persian cavalry, wore inch-high heels, and the trend spread to Europe. Since they showed that the wearer owned and maintained horses, high heels became associated with upper class practice.
  • Eventually, upper class women began wearing heels, and then heels become a form of upper- and middle-class dress throughout the 17th century.
  • At the time, high-heeled shoes were not a signifier of gender. When Louis XIV wore heels, he was  dressing like the pillar of normative aristocratic masculinity he was.
  • Then heels started to get gendered in their designs. Men’s heels grew broad and sturdy and women’s became tapered and decorative. Finally, in the 18th Century, men deemed them impractical, and the high heel become firmly established as a lady’s shoe.
  • When the French Revolution mounted in 1789, the aristocracy and their frivolous styles went out of vogue. Heels, deemed the epitome of female irrationality and superficiality went out of fashion for a very, very long time.
  • Pornography embraced high, thin heels long before fashion did, because heels work great when you’re just posing for a few minutes. The pinups  in men’s barracks during World War II almost always had high heels on them, and when the war ended and the men returned, the stiletto was invented, which brought fashion into alignment with erotica.
Episode 98: Six Stories (elevators)
  • ... elevators were dangerous. Ropes would snap, and then anything getting raised or lowered would plummet to the ground. Fall one story and you break your leg–fall two stories you break your neck. And this fear of falling kept building heights low. People only wanted to ascend as high as they could walk. The tallest buildings at the time were churches and lighthouses–buildings made up primarily of empty space.
  • And then came Elisha Otis. He invented the elevator brake. He gave demonstrations where he would stand on a platform elevated three stories in the air, and have his son cut the rope with sword. The Otis Elevator Company received a patent for the elevator brake in 1913. Buildings haven’t been the same since.
  • The Otis sons went around the world promoting the idea of tall buildings. They helped to turn the idea of rooms on the top floors of hotels are being more prestigous than the ground floor rooms.
  • Wikipedia: 'Statistically, Otis is the world's most popular transportation company. It is estimated that the equivalent of the world's population travel in Otis elevators, escalators and moving walkways every three days'

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Core Concepts in Philosophy by Gregory B. Sadler: Epicurus

If you are interested in philosophy, Gregory B.Sadler's Youtube channel is overflowing with excellent videos on the subject. A recent video introduces the viewer to Epicurus on Practical Reasonsing and is part of Sadler's Core Concepts series (148 videos to date!). 

Philosophy Core Concepts: Epicurus on Practical Reasoning

Friday, July 03, 2015

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Shrink & The Sage: Do we need a sense of humour?

Husband and wife team Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini write The Shrink and the Sage column for the Weekend FT, which is always worth a gander. Here is some advice from earlier in the year, when they tried to answer the question, 'Do we need a sense of humour?'

Life is absurd, and we can’t change that. But we can decide how to respond to that absurdity: with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, with steely defiance, with laughter, or some combination of all three. Treating it entirely as a joke is inhumane. The suffering of the people of Syria, for instance, is tragic, not comic. But being unrelentingly serious is also wrong, as it represents a failure to accept the cosmic insignificance of human endeavour.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Wise words from Oliver Sacks: writing



Here is the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks on the purpose of writing. 
"But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago."

Monday, June 29, 2015

Head transplant developments

In the book Stiff, author Mary Roach wrote a chapter on head transplants which is scary and disturbing. Well, it looks like the idea is back on the agenda, and while there are plenty of ethical and religious concerns, I think many objections are down to a reflexive disgust that causes people to rebel against the idea, as opposed to rational thinking. Personally, I'm all for it.

Here is what the New Scientist reported earlier this year: "Sergio Canavero...published a summary of the technique he believes will allow doctors to transplant a head onto a new body. It involves cooling the recipient's head and the donor body to extend the time their cells can survive without oxygen. The tissue around the neck is dissected and the major blood vessels are linked using tiny tubes, before the spinal cords of each person are cut. Cleanly severing the cords is key, says Canavero."

I've just read that Canavero has his first volunteer:  "Valery Spiridonov, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Vladimir, Russia, is the first person to volunteer for the procedure. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease - a rare genetic muscle wasting condition, also referred to as type 1 spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The condition is caused by the loss of motor neurons in the spinal cord and the brain region connected to the spinal cord. Individuals with the disease are unable to walk and are often unable to sit unaided. Spiridonov was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease at the age of 1 and told MailOnline that he volunteered for HEAVEN-GEMINI because he wants the chance of a new body before he dies. '"I can hardly control my body now," he said. "I need help every day, every minute. I am now 30 years old, although people rarely live to more than 20 with this disease."

The article adds, 'The procedure - which is estimated to take 100 surgeons around 36 hours to complete - will involve spinal cord fusion (SCF). The head from a donor body will be removed using an "ultra-sharp blade" in order to limit the amount of damage the spinal cord sustains.' 

Here is my write up on the gruesome head transplant chapter from Stiff:

In the ghoulish "Just a Head" chapter, we learn of some grim experiments that firmly belong in the realm of science-fiction (I'm thinking Futurama specifically), where Vladimir Demikhlov, a  1950s Soviet Union scientist, transplants the heads of puppies, including shoulders, forelimbs and oesophaguses that emptied outside of the dog, onto the the bodies of other dogs. From his reports:

"09:00 The donors head eagerly drank water or milk, and tugged as if trying to separate itself from the recipient's body"

"22:30 When the recipient was put to bed, the transplanted head bit the finger of a member of staff until it bled"

"February 26, 18:00. The donor's head bit the recipient behind the ear, so the latter yelped..."

Roach notes that the experiments may not have failed had Demikhlov understood immunology, since the brain enjoys "immunological privilege" i.e. the brain is not rejected as hostile foreign body. 

This brings us to Robert White's brain transplant experiments in the 1960s White transplanted isolated brains inside the necks and abdomens of other animals. Roach comments "While the inside of someone else's abdomen is of moderate interest ...it's not the sort of place you want to settle down in to live out the remainder of your years." When Roach meets Robert White he scarily refers to isolation chamber studies where human subjects where fully sensory deprived. The finding was that insanity doesn't take long to set in. Before thinking this is all just cruelty with no purpose, White's experiment were a step on the road to full human head transplant (useful for quadriplegics in an organ [body] donor scenario).