Archive for October, 2015

The Word “Million” Didn’t Exist Until We Needed It – Facts So Romantic

October 31, 2015

I would cut off my right hand if you find it.” That was the guarantee retired Columbia history professor Jens Ulff-Møller made that there was no word for “million” in Old English, a medieval predecessor of the language you’re currently reading.

Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.Myrabella/Wikicommons

Some Anglo-Saxon writers understood the idea of a million, and they had a term for it: a “thousand thousand.” But, unlike the speakers of most modern languages, they had no single word for that quantity.

Why would that concise word be absent in earlier language? It seems that there was no word for million in Old English simply because its speakers had no great use for it. In the Anglo-Saxon world, no object was made, and few were discussed, in such quantities. Armin Mester, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says, “Thousand, one can imagine that there was a use for that, in terms of amount of money. A thousand head of cattle,” he offers. “But not million.”

In millennia past, number words (like one, two, thousand, and million) seem to have been coined progressively rather than all at once. Though the runway of numeracy is infinite, number words, like words in general, were…

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The Hidden Power Laws of Ecosystems – Issue 29: Scaling

October 30, 2015

Here’s how to cause a ruckus: Ask a bunch of naturalists to simplify the world. We usually think in terms of a web of complicated interactions among animals, plants, microbes, earth, wind, and fire—what Darwin called “the entangled bank.” Reducing the bank’s complexity to broad generalizations can seem dishonest.

So when Tony Ives, a theoretical ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, prodded his colleagues at the 2013 meeting of the Ecological Society of America by calling for a vote on whether they ought to seek out general laws, it probably wasn’t surprising that two-thirds of the room voted no.1

Despite the skepticism, the kinds of general laws made possible by simplification have remarkable predictive powers. They could let us calculate how many species there are in ecosystems that are too big to sample thoroughly, or how many will be lost after habitat destruction.

Perhaps because I started in biology after training in physics, I’m an ecologist who finds beauty in these general laws. In physics, the last thing you’d worry about are differences between one molecule of a gas and another. No one has a personal favorite electron. The ideal gas law relating pressure, volume, and temperature holds equally well…

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Here’s How to Make Climate Change Extra Scary – Facts So Romantic

October 29, 2015

Thirty thousand years ago, a woolly mammoth in Siberia shed a giant virus. It soon became encased in ice and, for tens of thousands of years, the virus slept.

As global temperatures warm and the permafrost begins to melt, the virus stirs. It is sucked into the nostril of a researcher where it injects its DNA into a cell. The DNA commandeers the cell’s proteins and generates new viruses, turning the researcher into a walking pathogen factory. As she interacts with people, the virus swarms around the world, infecting millions and causing devastation on a massive scale.

Alex Tihonov/Getty Images

Such a scenario isn’t yet a reality, but it may be closer than you think.

Jean-Michel Claverie, a microbiologist at Aix-Marseilles University in Provence, could have caused this scenario twice. In 2014, Claverie thawed a small sample of Siberian permafrost in a petri dish and discovered a dormant virus that, upon reawakening, could infect amoebas. Then, in September, Claverie and his team published another study on a second virus discovered in the same sample. In a terse nod to doomsday, the researchers noted that—in the context of global warming—the revival of two separate viruses in ancient permafrost…

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Here’s Why Most Neuroscientists Are Wrong About the Brain – Facts So Romantic

October 26, 2015

Most neuroscientists believe that the brain learns by rewiring itself—by changing the strength of connections between brain cells, or neurons. But experimental results published last year, from a lab at Lund University in Sweden, hint that we need to change our approach. They suggest the brain learns in a way more analogous to that of a computer: It encodes information into molecules inside neurons and reads out that information for use in computational operations.

Gary Waters/Getty Images

With a computer scientist, Adam King, I co-authored a book, Memory and the Computational Brain: Why Cognitive Science Will Transform Neuroscience. We argued that well-established results in cognitive science and computer science imply that computation in the brain must resemble computation in a computer in just this way. So, of course, I am fascinated by these results.

A computer does not learn by rewiring itself; it learns by encoding facts into sequences of ‘0s’ and ‘1s’ called bit strings, which it stores in addressable registers. Registers are strings of tiny switches. When a switch is set one way, it physically represents ‘1’; when set the other way, it physically represents ‘0’. The registers in a computer’s memory are numbered, and the numbers…

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How to Build a Search Engine for Mathematics – Issue 29: Scaling

October 23, 2015

On the average summer Saturday, the mathematician Neil Sloane woke up to a crisis. “There are always crises,” he said— albeit crises of the teapot tempest variety. One Saturday over breakfast, he faced an inbox message titled “edits from outer space.” Without authorization, a contributor in France had deleted an entry in Sloane’s Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, which, like Wikipedia, is powered by volunteer contributors and editors.

The Day’s Work: Neil Sloane in his attic study, command central for the encyclopedia. He has taped to the wall an epigram from Kipling that reads “He had a theory that if a man did not stay by his work all day and most of the night he laid himself open to fever: so he ate and slept among his files.”Siobhan Roberts

But everyday, tending his encyclopedia like a garden, weeding and pruning and planting, Sloane also delights in the more pleasant surprises. On that same Saturday morning, for instance, a nice new sequence arrived. This specimen was governed by a rule that, as Sloane explained with signature bouncy exuberance, “gives you a list of numbers, only 16 numbers, and the biggest is 999,999,000,000. Six nines and six zeroes. Which is pretty…

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Combined Communications Recertified Gold

October 22, 2015

Combined Communications has received the Gold 24/7 Call Center Certification Award for the third time, originally qualifying in 2007. Combined Communications was purchased in 1982 by Larry Kinder, who has since partnered with Kristen & Shawn Borne to further grow … Continue reading

How Many Real Friends Can You Have at Once? – Facts So Romantic

October 22, 2015

My wife can’t seem to walk for a half-hour around Ottawa, a city with nearly a million people, without running into at least three of her friends. Some people, like my wife, seem to have a zillion of them, while others appear to be content with just a handful. Having more friends seems like a good thing: It’s been shown to make you happier, and your social circle is more important than diet, and even exercise, to your longevity and happiness.1

But is there a limit to how many friends you can profitably have?

RIA Novosti archive

Let’s start with conversation size. It’s easy to chat with one or two people, but after that it gets more complicated. The maximum number of people who can converse at once—sharing alternating viewpoints and responding to one another—is about five.2 When more than five people gather, there is simply too much distance for everyone to hear everyone else (though this upper limit varies with the level of ambient noise). There may also be something more aesthetically pleasing to us about smaller groups of people. A 2014 study of famous paintings from all over the world, ancient and contemporary, found that over 50 percent of…

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Advantage TeleMessaging Earns Gold Certification Twice

October 20, 2015

Advantage TeleMessaging, Inc. (ATM) has re-qualified for the 24/7 Call Center Certification Gold Award, an ATSI peer review program focused on call centers’ ability to maintain 99.99 percent annual run-time. Advantage TeleMessaging, Inc. owner and president Drew Ritter said, “Earning … Continue reading

Why Uber Has To Start Using Self-Driving Cars – Facts So Romantic

October 19, 2015

In the span of nearly 5 years, Uber has gone from a limited launch in San Francisco to offering rides in more than 300 cities worldwide. In China alone, despite existing in a legal gray zone, the company claims it arranges 1 million rides per day. That means 35 Chinese people hop into an Uber there every time you blink.

But are there limits to how much Uber can scale? There might be: Us.

Driving’s for robots: The futurism of the 1950s envisioned privately owned self-driving cars. But might we end up sharing autonomous vehicles instead?America’s Power Companies

“The natural end point has to rely on autonomous driving technology”—not humans, says Emilio Frazzoli, director of the Transportation@MIT Initiative. He thinks robots could be taking the wheel in the next 15 years, certainly within the next 30. The reasons, he says, are economical and cultural.

First, as much as 50 percent of an Uber ride’s cost goes toward paying the human behind the wheel, Frazzoli says, and that’s money that could be going into Uber’s pocket. Replacing human operators has already begun in Singapore, a city that relies heavily on public transit. It’s not widely advertised, Frazzoli says, but the subway trains…

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The Changing TAS and Call Center Industry

October 17, 2015

By Peter L DeHaan, PhD By classification a telephone answering service is a call center, a centralized place from where calls are made and received. Yet many of today’s call centers are neither! They are not centralized, nor do they … Continue reading