Category: Uncategorized

A screenshot of an anime show, with people waiting at a bus stop beneath power lines

Why are there so many shots of power lines in anime? I confess I’m probably going to blow money on this heat-regulating coffee mug. Why shame doesn’t scale. When we participate in surveys, we may overstate our negative feelings. Frankenstein was published in a small anonymous edition of 500 copies; it became famous because of theatrical adaptations a few years later. A self-propelled nose-wheel for airplanes could dramatically reduce their energy use while taxiing. “I Pretended To Be Emily Dickinson on an Online Dating Site.” A 2,000-year-old twenty-sided die. My old piece on “how to tell when a robot has written you a letter” — inside the world of automated generation of pen-written letters. Behold, a fun globe you can spin and tune into live radio broadcasts from around the world. How to build a new internet.


A photo of the "ghost tree" of Crater Lake

The wandering “ghost tree” of Crater Lake has been moving slowly around the body of water … for 100 years. On “reverse logistics” and “ghost shifting”. Nazi airship dining. Photos of the last moon mission show the astronauts basically having a blast. For a more bracing read, check out the transcripts of the Apollo 13 mission; “Houston, we’ve had a problem” is on page 231. An interesting comparison between twitch/clicker/pattern games like Super Hexagon and the sight-reading of music. Yikes: A 75% drop in insect biomass in Germany over 27 years. Duuuuuude. Behold Cladoxylopsida, the hollow trees of the trilobite era. This year’s trend is the “Dog-o’-Lantern”. Ponder the incomprehensible enormity of the number “TREE(3)”.



Some amazing bug photography. Why passcodes are more secure for locking your phone than facial recognition. The ergonomics of astronaut cameras are awesome. How to re-engineer the Iphone so it’s less of an addictive time-suck. Amazing fossil: A 200-million-old baby ichthyosaur that died with “a belly full of squid”. How Google used the “cruising” behavior of cars to predict where parking is, and isn’t, available. Among the articles in this 1937 issue of Your Life magazine are “The Frigid Wives of Reno” and “What I Learned From An Old Man”. A new theory of how deep learning actually works: The most important part is “forgetting”. Shapeshifting, programmable synthetic skin that’s inspired by octopus muscle.


A map of the Internet from 1969

A map of the Internet from 1969. Some thoughts on the 10X coder. “Braitenberg’s Law” notes that it’s easy to understand a complex robot or piece of code if you wrote it; if someone else did, it’s insanely hard. “Taking turns is a primary expression of justice”: An essay on the moral dimensions of phys ed, from 1922. Meet the Girl Scouts who are earning cybersecurity badges. Why Grenfell Tower burned. My favorite piece of 19th-century punctuation is the “colash”, a colon followed by a m-dash, like this … “:—”. My New York Times Magazine feature on computational thinking and “The Minecraft Generation” from a year ago; and a podcast with me talking about it.


“Genius hesitates”

I read Carlo Rovelli’s book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a layperson’s description of the big breakthroughs in modern physics. It’s a blast, but one throwaway comment really struck me.

Rovelli is discussing Einstein’s 1900 paper about photons and light. He quotes what Einstein wrote …

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.

Then Rovelli makes a nifty point …

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial “It seems to me …,” which recalls the “I think … ” with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea of that species evolve, or the “hesistation” spoken of by Farraday when introducing to the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

Genius hesitates. I love that! When we approach a truly enormous idea, of the sort that tilts the world on its axis, we’re not excited and arrogant and confident. We’re unsure; we hesitate. I’ve noticed this in the scientists I interview. The ones who are doing really groundbreaking work are tentative, cautious, almost unsettled by the implications of what they’re saying.

It’s not a bad litmus test for the people around us in everyday life. The ones who are proposing genuinely startling and creative ideas are liable to be … careful about it. It’s the ones with small ideas who are shouting them from the rooftops.

By the way, that notebook of Darwin that Rovelli mentions? It’s online, and here’s the page he talks about. You can see Darwin scribble “I THINK” at the top …
darwin's notebook
The full scan of the page from Rovelli’s book is below the jump if you want to see it …
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