Archive for November, 2014

The New You – Issue 19: Illusions

November 27, 2014

I’d been to a lot of science and tech conferences, but it was clear right away that this fall’s World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin would be different.

For one thing, it took place in a cruise ship-sized convention center surrounded by a sea of empty concrete and flagpoles in coastal China. A couple of at-attention soldiers could be picked out in the distance, past a fleet of black Audis and through a yellow haze. Word was that the building had been commissioned with the Forum in mind.

Then there was the limelight. The Premier of China gave the opening keynote. There were lots of CEOs and foundation chairs, and the attending roster included Hillary Clinton (though she ended up bailing). This wasn’t just science for scientists.

The context sharpened into view when, in the middle of a small session I was moderating, the founder and chairman of the Forum, Klaus Schwab, arrived to deliver a surprise speech. Technology decades ago, he told us, was important because it improved this or that aspect of our lives. Today, it is important because it is changing who we are.

This seemed simultaneously encouraging and alarming. Encouraging, because the centrality of science to…
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The New Way to Save Money: Playing the Lottery – Facts So Romantic

November 26, 2014

Chris Goldberg via Flickr

Lotteries have often been called a tax on the poor and, alternately, a tax on the innumerate. There is something to both claims: Lottery tickets are disproportionately bought by lower-income people, and in aggregate the players win back only a small percentage of the money spent on tickets. Overall, lotteries suck money away from many people who can’t really afford it, and who should be socking that money away for more productive uses.

But some lottery players have found a way to get the thrill of gambling while also making the prudent choice to save a chunk of each paycheck. This is thanks to “prize-linked savings accounts”—each time an account-holder deposits a certain amount, they get a ticket for a raffle that includes cash prizes of various amounts. All of the money a participant spends on raffle tickets goes straight into their account, enticing them grow a nest egg and, perhaps more importantly, a habit of saving. “I didn’t have $500 to start a C.D., and when they said it was only $25, I knew I could do that,” said Cindi Campbell in an excellent New York Times article on the accounts. “I got…
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When Does a Consciousness Test Not Test for Consciousness? – Facts So Romantic

November 24, 2014

A pigeon looks at its reflection in the mirror. It sees a blue dot on the reflection’s breast. It reaches down and pecks at the dot on its own breast.

This is the classic behavior required for passing the “mirror test,” an influential experiment used to test for self-awareness in animals. Chimpanzees became the first animal to pass the test, in 1969; 12 years later, a report in Science claimed that pigeons cleared the bar. Last month researchers reported in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior that they had replicated that experiment. But most scientists, including the authors of the recent paper, downplay the importance of the result, insisting that pigeons have not demonstrated the self-awareness that the mirror test is assumed to test for. This apparent contradiction highlights how hard it is to understand the minds of creatures who have yet to tell us just what they’re thinking.

The debate over interpreting the mirror test goes back more than 40 years. I first wrote about the test in the Nautilus feature “What Do Animals See in a Mirror?” I explained how Gordon G. Gallup, Jr., published a…
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Why Are We So Obsessed With Mugshot Hotties? – Facts So Romantic

November 21, 2014

On June 18, a photo of a very handsome man was posted on the Web. It wasn’t intended to “break the Internet” Kardashian-style, but that’s pretty much what happened, if only on a slightly smaller scale. Within 48 hours, the portrait garnered 62,000 “Likes” on Facebook and became an online spectacle. Today the Like count is up to 102,000, and the photo is still attracting comments. But thousands of pictures of highly attractive people are posted online every day, and no news articles are written about most of them—so why this one? Because this sultry photo was a mugshot.

Jeremy Meeks, the face that launched a hundred thousand Likes. Stockton Police Department

Jeremy Meeks, a 30-year-old convicted felon, was arrested on felony weapons charges and slapped with $900,000 bail. In his arrest photo taken by the Stockton Police Department and uploaded to its Facebook page, Meeks offered a rigid jaw line, pronounced cheekbones, bluish-grey eyes, and a generous pair of lips. The photo flew around the Internet, and the comments began pouring in. One typical reaction: “Being that sexy is illegal?” (This mugshot-hottie phenomenon isn’t exclusive to men, by the way.…
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A Quick Spin Around the Big Dipper – Issue 19: Illusions

November 20, 2014

From our perspective here on Earth, constellations appear to be fixed groups of stars, immobile on the sky. But what if we could change that perspective?

In reality, it’d be close to impossible. We would have to travel tens to hundreds of light-years away from Earth for any change in the constellations to even begin to be noticeable. As of this moment, the farthest we (or any object we’ve made) have traveled is less than one five-hundreth of a light-year.

Just for fun, let’s say we could. What would our familiar patterns look like then? The stars that comprise them are all at different distances from us, traveling around the galaxy at different speeds, and living vastly different lives. Very few of them are even gravitationally bound to each other. Viewed from the side, they break apart into unrecognizable landscapes, their stories of gods and goddesses, ploughs and ladles, exposed as pure human fantasy. We are reminded that we live in a very big place.


Most commonly drawn as a hunter, the central stars that make up Orion have been interpreted in different ways over human history. They have often been taken to be a…
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How Star Trek May Show the Emergence of Human Consciousness – Facts So Romantic

November 19, 2014

The Borg capture Captain Jean-Luc Picard and turn him into Locutus, all but erasing his previous identity.CBS

Captain Picard: “How do we reason with them, let them know that we are not a threat?”

Guinan: “You don’t. At least, I’ve never known anyone who did.”

With this brief, ominous exchange, the heroes of Star Trek: The Next Generation are introduced to one of their most formidable enemies: the Borg, a race of cyborgs whose minds are linked to a collective “hive mind” through sophisticated technology. The collective expands their civilization through a process of mental and physical “assimilation”: They find new intelligent beings, like humans, implant them with Borg technology, and integrate them into the hive mind, erasing their previous identities. 

Individual Borg are not conscious in the way humans are, and they have no sense of individuality. The hive mind is a dictator, an unquestioned voice that commands each individual. The Borg nature is split in two, an executive called the collective and a follower called the drone. 

For the humans living in the Star Trek universe, the prospect of assimilation is terrifying. When asked why humans resist assimilation, Chief…
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Being Mortal: Atul Gawande’s Rx for How to End Our Lives – Facts So Romantic

November 12, 2014

Rose Lincoln / Harvard News Office

Atul Gawande sits across from me in a cafe in Berkeley, California, sipping an Izze fruit drink and trying to catch his breath. He just came from an appearance across the Bay, in San Francisco, and is soon headed to a radio interview down the street, followed by a drive via the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, where he’ll give a reading of his new book. Then it’s off to the airport for a red eye to Chicago, where he’ll start over again, perhaps a bit blearier in the eyes.

Gawande—a Harvard surgeon and researcher, New Yorker staff writer, and author of four highly acclaimed and best-selling books—is a man on an existential mission of sorts. His newest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, is his most ambitious project to date, tackling what perhaps is (though it may be hard to see during the worst Ebola outbreak in history), the thorniest medical and public-health question we have to face: What does it mean to live a good life, and is it worth sacrificing longevity for quality and meaning, even during our frailest or sickest years?

Q: You…
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Read the November 2014 Issue of TAS Trader

November 11, 2014

Management by Walking Around By Peter DeHaan Many small business owners, including TAS owners, use the simple yet effective management style of “management by walking around.” They manage what they see. However, to be effective the manager must be physically … Continue reading

How Your Brain Gaslights You—for Your Own Good – Facts So Romantic

November 11, 2014

Nailia Schwarz via Shutterstock

Runners can tell you that sometimes the last mile of a run seems to feel dramatically longer than the first. This perceptual distortion isn’t limited to brains addled by exercise—it’s a consistent feature of our minds.  

When we look at the world, it certainly feels like we’re seeing things as they really are, our senses measuring reality in an objective way. But numerous experiments have shown that the way we see the world is influenced by what we can do with it.

This way of thinking was pioneered by psychologist James Gibson, who came up with the idea of “affordances”: A ball affords picking up, and a hallway affords walking along it. When we look at a button, we perceive the affordance of pressing it. These are not optical illusions, as such, but changes in how we see the world according to what we want and can do. Here are some fascinating examples.

The perceived height of a balcony is increased if you are afraid of falling. Hills look steeper if you’re elderly, tired, or wearing a heavy backpack (pdf); they look less steep after you consume a high-calorie drink. Because descending a hill…
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How to Avoid the Desperate Future of “Interstellar” – Facts So Romantic

November 8, 2014

In 2011 America’s astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was on Real Time with Bill Maher discussing the proposed termination of NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which the House Appropriations Committee had decried as “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.” Tyson went on to deliver what is now one of his most famous quotes:


When someone says, “We don’t have enough money for this space probe,” I’m asking, No, it’s not that you don’t have enough money, it’s that the distribution of money that you’re spending is warped in some way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow. You remember the 60s and 70s. You didn’t have to go more than a week before there’s an article in Life magazine, “The Home of Tomorrow,” “The City of Tomorrow,” “Transportation of Tomorrow.” All of that ended in the 1970s. After we stopped going to the Moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming.

In the not-at-all distant future of Interstellar, a film by Christopher Nolan opening today, humanity has utterly rejected the optimism Tyson referred to. “Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt,” says…
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