Big Ideas for Busy People for Busy People

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I’ll keep it quick.

 

1- Dealing with Disaster – Paul Biddinger

Natural disasters are more frequent nowadays than in any other time in recorded history. Compounding this, populations are concentrating more and more towards disaster-prone areas such as ocean shores and fault lines. How should we deal with these problems? Two ways: Practice (practice, practice) our emergency response procedures and encourage households to prepare themselves. The Boston marathon bombing was a tragedy, but it would have been more of a tragedy had local agencies had not been drilling mass-casualty response procedures for years. The average grocery store will sell out of it’s stock in three days if not continually restocked, and that is in non-emergency times. In emergencies food will quickly become inaccessible. So keep at least 3 days supply in your home at all times.

2- Video Surveillance: Enhancing Security Without Increasing Danger – Larry Kandell

Surveillance technology is everywhere. Think about it, your eyes and everyone elses eyes are surveillance tech (whoa man).  The latest in synthetic tech is just now disseminating through public spaces. This technology entails 360 degree cameras capturing HD footage at a dozen frames per second. Visual recognition software allows automatic identification and tracking of critical objects. A audience member asked the presenter to comment on the human rights issues surrounding the proliferation of advanced surveillance technology. The response: Everyone has a different set point wherein fair surveillance becomes an invasion of privacy. Leaders and citizens must have a constant dialogue about this as the technology spreads.

3- Dancing in the Age of Bionics – Elliott Rouse

This guy helped design a prosthetic foot that could could be used to dance. But it’s not like anyone missing a foot could pop this on and hit the dance floor. It takes a significant amount of research and calibration to allow the foot to responds to the needs of the dancer it was designed for There is no one-size-fits-all prosthetic solution, but we are getting there.

4 The End of History Illusion – Daniel Gilbert

People tend to drastically underestimate how much they will change in the coming years. Research shows that time drastically alters the values people hold and the ways in which they behave. The thing is, people rarely recognize how much change their future will bring. When surveyed most say they believe will change very little in the coming years, but when psychometric evaluations are used to track personality changes over time these same people often undergo dramatic personality shifts. The cause of this short-sightedness is the fact that it is easier to remember our past than it is to imagine our future. It is hard to creatively forecast how we might evolve in the coming years, it is easier to think about what we are and lazily cast our memories out as predictions. “Human beings are works in progress who mistakenly believe they are finished products”.

5 From a Magic Trick to the Design of Materials – Tadashi Tokieda

A clear cup is shown, coiled inside the cup is a length of chain. One end of the chain is pulled out of the cup and dropped, causing the rest of the chain to follow it out of the cup. But the chain doesn’t just pour out of the cup. The chain shoots out of the cup as if it was being propelled by an unseen source of power. Picture a powerful water fountain. The demonstrator says that people often point to the stars or towards computers to expound the wonders of physics. But there are simple yet awe-inspiring examples of physics everywhere around us. Someone from the audience asks how to go about finding these simple miracles. The demonstrator responds that you find the wonders of physics in the same way you find wonderful friends. Curiosity and persistence.

6 The Temporary Universe – Alan Lightman

Everything in the universe is temporary. Even the sun will one day burn out. The entire universe will one day (theoretically) be an infinitely diffuse cloud of near-nothingness. Why do humans so desperately cling to what is, cling to what can never be again? He posits two conclusions. The first is that we are deluding ourselves, we futiley cling to things we can never have. The second is that perhaps our longing for permanence is justified by forces in nature yet undiscovered, maybe we will discover a force that allows us to grasp the infinite which we long for. He says it’s probably just delusion.

7 How Did the Atmosphere Become Breathable? – Tanja Bosak

Oxygen, we need it. It makes up 20 percent of our breathable atmosphere. In the past it has been much, much lower. 2.4 billion years ago there was a “great oxygenation event” in which levels of oxygen on Earth’s atmosphere drastically rose, yet the levels were still thousands of times lower than now. 560 million years ago we see the first signs of life that likely needed oxygen in the atmosphere to survive. What caused the rise in oxygen? We have no idea. It is one of the most basic questions in the field of Earth sciences, but we do not know the answer to it.

8 Climate Change comes to Thoreau’s Concord – Richard Primack

The legendary American author Henry David Thoreau kept detailed measurements of the Concord Massachusetts changing natural variables. Bird migration patterns, dates of plants flowering, Thoreau’s measurements are the most detailed accounts we have of the natural world in the 19th century. Predictably, these variables have changed significantly in contemporary times. For example, flowers now blossom 10 days to 2 weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time. Modern environmental scientists have a strong understanding of how global climate trends have affected birds and plants, how insects have been affected is now the hot area of research. Understanding how the behavior of insects will change is the missing link in forming a predictive picture of global climate change’s ecological impact.

9 Can Supercomputers Diagnose Heart Disease? Amanda Randles 

Imagine this. Your doctor is worried you are in risk of suffering heart disease. He takes a scan of your entire body through an MRI. This data is converted into a 3 dimensional computer simulation of your body and it’s entire cardiovascular system. One of the world’s fastest supercomputers runs a simulation of blood flowing through your body, virtualizing the individual physics of hundreds of millions of blood cells flowing over dozens of simulated years. This data allows doctors to determine exactly how your circulatory system might fail you and formulate a targeted prescription. Now imagine this, the FDA has already approved forms of this technology.

10 Addiction by Design – Natasha Schull

Slot-machines now make above 75 percent of gambling revenues. Retirees and women make up the majority of slot-machine users. What attracts people to slot machines with such fervor? The act of a using a slot-machine is solitary, continuous, and rapid. These three traits allow someone playing a slot-machine to enter a comfortably numb zone. These people do not play-to-win, they play-to-win-to-play. The act of playing is a warming sedative. “They are not interested in entertainment, they want to be totally absorbed and in a rhythm.” ( my thoughts: Facebook, anyone?)

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Conversations With A Beggar

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I had an interesting chat with a beggar today.

Perhaps “beggar” is a label lacking sensitivity, but beggar is exactly what this gentleman called himself. I think his approval on the matter is as legitimate as it gets.

I find myself in conversation with beggars more frequently than you might  think. If I’m wandering downtown and I’m feeling bored enough or high enough it is likely to happen. This particular encounter was worth writing about. I had been wandering downtown Somerville pondering where I wanted to eat, wandering without any particular destination or sense of urgency. The night was young and I was indecisive.

Like a couple who ruins a double date with ridiculous bickering, my id and superego ruin my nights eating out with ridiculous self-analysis. My internal monologue becomes a combat zone. The argument is about money and ethics and willpower and more often than not invokes Benjamin Franklin’s quote “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

My superego strongly believes that going out to eat is a waste of money. The superego acknowledges that I don’t make much money and that I need to live on a budget. If there is food at home to eat, there is no logical reason to go out. If there is no food at home to eat, than it is time to go grocery shopping. There is never a logical reason to go out to eat (unless someone else is paying for it, of course).

“But I feel like it” asserted my id.

“‘I feel like it’ is not a good reason to do anything”, countered my superego. “Sometimes I feel like slapping my friends when they say stupid shit. I don’t. But I certainly feel like it. Part of the burden of being human is feeling like doing all sorts of stupid stuff all of the time. Having the urge to do something in and of itself is not a justification to do that something. Sure you feel like going out to eat, but the result of doing so is that you have less money than if you ate at home, but you’re no more full or satisfied. Going out to eat is an illogical decision made by lazy people.”

“But I am illogical and being lazy feels awesome” the id said flatly.

That’s when a I noticed a squatting man in his mid 50s by the entrance of a Starbucks, he was looking at me

“Spare some cash for a meal? I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.”

Usually, I decline the requests of beggars. I do this for one reason, I don’t believe them. I’d like to think that if my travels ever carried me into a situation where a starving person asked me for food, I would give them food. It’s the decent thing to do. But as I’ve never been to a third world nation, I’ve never actually met a beggar who looked starving. This man was no exception. Yet today I choose not to ignore him. Why? My logic was this: If I can waste money on a going out to eat, I can at least spare this guy a dollar. This decision satisfied my superego’s need to feel like a charitable citizen, and my id’s need to blow my money away at every possible opportunity. I gave him a dollar.

He looked at me and said “Oh come on man, could you spare 5?”.

My initial and internal reaction was “Really bro? I don’t have to give you any dollars at all, take whats given to you and be happy about it”.

But this initial reaction was immediately contradicted by a much more rational thought. Why the heck shouldn’t he ask for more? The dollar I offered was already in his hand, I certainly wasn’t going to take it back and he knew that. The worst outcome that could come from his upsell was that he keeps the dollar he already has, the best outcome was that he gets more money. His question was a logical move. It was sound game theory.

My initial shock to his bold request had now turned to curiosity. “How often did this technique work?” I wondered.

So I asked him. And he told me that upping the ante sometimes worked, particularly if people were in a good mood. He stressed that he is always sure to tell people that he only uses the money for food, never for drinking and never for smoking. Then he mentioned something that piqued my curiosity even further. He said “You know, I’m a conservative so I don’t believe in asking the government for food stamps.”

 

I found this character trait to be very ironic, and immediately decided to challenge this conservative value of his. There are hundreds of corporate executives who make untold millions of dollars per year. The amount of money required to fund this man’s food stamps is flat-out negligible in the shadow of the monstrous amount money that is available in the American economy. I explained these points to him.

As he responded he continued to make eye contact with passerbys. He admitted that he held one exception to his anti-food stamp belief system. If someone uses food stamps as a way to better themselves, as a way to achieve some social mobility, than their use was acceptable. “Foodstamps are okay if you use them to reach your potential”.

“Why don’t you use food stamps to reach your potential?” I asked, in as non-judgemental of a tone as possible.

He continued to make eye contact with passerbys, there was a notable pause before he answered.

“I dunno”, he said briefly.

Before I could think of how to respond he changed the subject. “Do you see that cop over there”, he pointed to a police cruiser parked across the street “I think they are recording our conversation right now”.

I doubted whether the conversations of a beggar were truly a concern for the Somerville police department.

“Why would they do that?” I asked.

He said he used to beg in Cambridge and had never been bothered there, but since he moved his begging spot to Somerville he had been bothered twice by police. The police told him that begging was illegal in Somerville. He told me he planned to keep begging until they actually did something about it. “I’ve been begging for 15 years, 15 years I’ve been telling people no drinks no smoke. No one has stopped me yet”.

15 years. That’s a job. That’s a career. I asked if he was homeless, he responded that he was not. He lived at an elderly home for the disabled. I asked what his disability was. Was this too private of a topic for two people who had just met on the street only moments before?

Perhaps it was. His answer was distant and impersonal “That’s a good question. Maybe schizophrenia or something neurological. I’ve got something going on with my eyes too. I dunno”. It was becoming clear to me that my questions were disrupting him from a task, he was a man with a job to do, he had a living to earn. I was sticking around too long.

He said to a passerby “Spare some cash for a meal? No drinking no smoking.”

He was a salesman. Our business was done and he had other business to attend to.

I told him I didn’t want to interrupt his work any more and said goodbye. He gave no signs to acknowledge my departure. As I walked away I heard him again shoot his pitch to a potential customer. “Spare some cash for a meal?” No drinking no smoking?”.

I wandered a bit more until I finally decided on Chipotle. Why would I drop 8 dollars on a burrito (actually 10 with guacamole, another victory for the id) when I could have saved that money and just ate at home? I dunno.

 

Red Line Redemption

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An interesting series of events on the subway today:

I was at Davis station waiting for the redline inbound. There was this really cool old man playing some soulful blues harmonica. He played it through this little amp so it had a cool crunchy distortion effect, and he sang from a powerful and emotional place. I loved it, and I spent my wait for the train happily watching his moving performance. I noticed the clearly labelled and obviously placed tip box in front of him. We clearly shared a moment where he observed I was enjoying his music. He was singing a song about being broke, the lyrics repeatedly claimed “I got no money”.

If I didn’t tip, I would be an asshole. A down-right villain. It would be a flat-out sin not to offer him something for a performance I was clearly enjoying. It was pretty much theft.

But I didn’t have any cash in my wallet. The train pulled up. I stepped right by him and I felt his righteous indignation burning in my wake. He again crooned into the microphone, “I got no money”. I sat down on the train and glanced in his direction. He was looking right at me, right into my eyes. He stopped playing. He raised his hand to his forehead and made an L shape. Without breaking the beams of judgement connecting his eyes to mine, he tipped his hat down to sever our communications completely. I had no room to offer him a justification, he didn’t care. I had inexcusably broken a code of human decency.

The train barreled towards the city as I reflected upon the events. I felt bad. I don’t enjoy being the villain, like everyone else I like to pretend I’m the good guy. There were 5 stops left til my destination, but I disembarked the train. I couldn’t just ride away having committed this atrocity. I had to fix the err of my ways.

I found the closest ATM, the smallest denomination it offered me was 10 dollars. I entertained interrupting his playing to ask him if he could split a 10. But that would just be, in no uncertain terms, utterly asinine. The ATM spat out its green-died atonement, I shoved the money into my pocket and boarded the subway heading back outbound. The train arrived at Davis, he was still there.

I had a friend who was waiting on me downtown, I didn’t want to be late if I didn’t have to. As my train pulled into the station, the inbound train again pulled up on the opposite side. It was right across from the opening of my doors, and the blues man was in between. I had to make this quick. I got off the train, I dropped a 10 dollar bill in his tip box. Relief surged over me. I had proven myself. I had passed the trial fate had fortuned my way. Our eyes met. In a soulful and approving voice, a beam of auditory light in stark contrast to the velvety dark shades he had just crooned, he said “You da man!”.

I boarded the train. The doors closed. I rode towards the city a man redeemed.

A 10 Dollar Truth

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Thoughts on Five Ghosts, Volume 1: The Haunting of Fabian Grey

It is easier to control someone else than it is to control your self.

The Haunting of Fabian Grey illustrates one of the most apparent yet ignored truths about being human. Why did I decide to purchase this comic? I can perceive two reasons. The first is that I thought the cover looked cool. The second is that it was only 10 bucks. Am I happy I purchased The Haunting? I suppose so. Although I don’t think I will buy the next volume of the series. But I will say this, the art is cool. Very cool. And the concept behind the main character, Fabian Grey himself, is also very cool. This character concept is also very profound, for reasons I will now explain.

Fabian Grey has super-powers. These super-powers are not his own, they are lent to him by five literary ghosts, Robin Hood, Merlin, Sherlock Holmes, Mushashi, and Dracula. Each provide him with their own set of abilities upon his beckoning. However, these personas are beginning to get cold feet about associating themselves with Fabian. By the end of the first chapter it is apparent they do not always choose to answer Fabian’s calls for their assistance. And here’s the thing: when they decide not to show up Fabian is able to accomplish relatively fuck-all.

Fabian Grey gained these powers because he found the Dreamstone. Or, to put it more accurately, because he stole the Dreamstone. And it wasn’t just that he stole the Dreamstone, in order to keep the stone for himself he betrayed the friend who helped him get to it. Fabian Grey is able to accomplish incredible things now that he has the powers offered by the Dreamstone, but the powers are not his own. Fabian contributed relatively little towards the events that led to him being associated with the Dreamstone’s powers. He did not make the stone, he did not find the stone on his own, and he can only use the powers when the five ghost personas feel like it.

Fabian Grey has almost nothing to do with the powers of Fabian Grey.

So, here we have this super-hero, who without a support network isn’t able to do anything super at all. I think super-hero mythos too often lose sight of this fact, that we are nothing without others. Would Bruce Wayne have been able to become Batman without the massive wealth he inherited from his parents? Would Superman have been Superman had he not been born Kryptonian, with all the abilities such birth circumstances bring with it? None of these super-heroes are much in and of themselves, it is where they came from and who was around that made them what they are.

But I am writing this article to illustrate human truths, not comic book truths (if there is a such a thing). Let’s review the reasons I decided to purchase The Haunting of Fabian Grey, because they show that I really had nothing to do with my decision to purchase the comic at all. The first reason was that I thought the cover looked cool. At face value this is a simple proposition, something about me made it so that when I looked at the cover of this comic, I wanted it. Why did I prefer this cover to the cover of the comic next to it? Why do people prefer anything over any other thing? We cannot choose our preferences, if I do not like tuna fish I can not will myself to like it. Tuna fish will be gross no matter my intention to perceive otherwise. I like or do not like certain foods based largely on what sort of foods I grew up around. Simply examining cultural-geographical preferences of food tastes reveals this. To bring this reasoning to my decision to purchase Five Ghosts, I liked the cover and could not choose to like a different cover which I found repulsive. It is what it is. Perhaps I was born with certain predispositions towards certain colors or shapes which in turn determined which cover I liked most. I didn’t choose my birth circumstances. They are what they are.

I had almost nothing to do with the fact that I liked the cover.

Let’s now examine the other reason I decided to buy the comic, the fact that it was 10 dollars. Well, why would I find 10 dollars to be a reasonable amount of money to spend on a comic? No matter what reason we select here, chasing the path of ‘why’ will inevitably lead us to conclude it had nothing to do with me. Let’s say I find 10 dollars to be reasonable because the job I have allows me to occasionally make 10 dollar impulse purchases. Well, why do I have that job? Because I went to college. Why did I go to college? Because I graduated high school. Why did I graduate high school? Because of social pressure, it is what all my peers did in my upper-middle class suburb. Why did I live there? Because my parents thought it would be a good place to raise a child. Let’s stop there, we could keep going forever. Now we find that perhaps it was my parents who caused the 10 dollar price tag to sound so enticing. Perhaps I could have navigated an alternate path of ‘why’ and determined the state of the American economy caused the 10 dollars to sound inconsequential. No matter which path of ‘why’ we take, the final conclusion is the same.

I had almost nothing to do with my reaction to the 10 dollar price tag.

And an obvious counter to these musings will now be addressed. Regardless of the fact that the opinions which influenced my purchase decision were not formed through my own conscious effort, I still ultimately made the decision to purchase it. In that moment, in the comic book store, I decided to purchase the comic book. And I could have decided otherwise. I had something to do with that, right? The reality is, it isn’t that simple. To clarify I cite the results of Benjamin Libet’s (although it really isn’t in the spirit of this article to grant anyone ownership of anything) groundbreaking work on studying human consciousness [1]. Libet and his team instructed study participants to press a button whenever they wanted, and to remember when they first perceived the internal decision making process causing them to press the button. While this was occurring, a device was wired to the participants head to measure their brain activity. Libet and his team found spikes in brain activity before the participants claimed they internally decided to press the button. Libet’s team found that the participants brains had decided an average 200 milliseconds before the participants themselves were aware of the decision. Research in 2008 using more advanced brain scanning techniques found evidence that a decision was made in the brain up to 10 seconds before participants consciously knew so [2]. Further research has shown that people can be tricked into believing they were responsible for actions which they were actually not [3], tricked into believing that they expressed opinions which they actually did not [4], and that their actions are frequently influenced by sensations they were not consciously aware of [5].

Fabian Grey had almost nothing to do with the powers he had been granted.

I had almost nothing to do with my decision to buy Five Ghosts.

And between these facts lies a truth about being human.

People have almost nothing to do with the decisions they make.

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How to warm up to insanity

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Thoughts on Prophet, Volume 1: Remission

Cover of Remission

I bought Remission on a whim. I entered the local comic store at 2pm on a Monday. It was Martin Luther King Jr. day. On Martin Luther King Jr. day American citizens are encouraged to help out their community by doing volunteer work. I did nothing volunteer-related on this day (neither did the vast majority of other Americans I know). I did however have volunteer-related fantasies. In the days leading up to this national holiday I had entertained thoughts of working to help my fellow man. You see, I enjoy fantasizing about committing to morally righteous decisions, but they are often not the decisions I choose to make. Like a serial womanizer who finds the purity of wedding ceremonies his most prominent daydream, my fantasizes are driven by wholesomeness while my actions are driven by selfishness.

And so begins my review of Remission, volume 1 of the science-fiction comic series Prophet. This is not a review of my self-assessed shortcomings, so why do I begin my review of Remission with a soliloquy on my failure to act as an admirable citizen on Martin Luther King Jr. day? Because I am insane.

Remission tells the story of the rebirth of humanity after a really, really, really long time spent extinct. Here is a lesson I learned from Remission: it is important to gently ease your audience into your insanity. Do not go reveal the depths of your divergent thinking right out the gate. Offer your audience something comprehensible, ease them into your world, and only then do you have the hero mate with an alien race whose face resembles the human vagina.

The human-vagina-faced-nymphomaniacal-alien is one of the many imaginative alien species found in Remission. And let me tell you, Remission is good. At least what I understood of it. You see, the first few chapters of Remission grabbed my attention and entertained me in a classic way. By classic, I mean to say the story had the elements readers of pop-fiction such as myself find enticing. The hero, John Prophet, is relatable yet manages to emanate an air of mystery. The world is hostile and interesting, offering John Prophet interchanging bouts of good-fortune and tragedy. John Prophet has a long-term goal that he inches closer to with every chapter. His goal: to set in motion events that will restore humanity’s presence in the universe.

Remission begins very entertaining, engaging, and understandable. Then comes chapter 4, and then all that flies out the window.

Beginning with chapter 4, the narrative begins to recoil from the classic elements of a pop-narrative which I earlier explained. Beginning with chapter 4, Remission introduced me to a comic truly alien. The art leaves the confines of Earth-inspired concepts. The hero becomes less relatable and his goals become more obscured. The narrative leaves the familiar and enters an alien unknown. I wish not to spoil by going into specifics, but I will say this: This dive off the safe path of clear narrative and into the dark waters of abstract insanity works. Why? Because the first 3 chapters gave me the tools I needed to make it through this insanity with my mind intact.

The later chapters are able to enter truly abstract and truly alien places, places that my human mind tends to avoid, without alienating my attention span. Remission can can pull off this feat because it plants seeds of understanding during the opening chapters. There are three seeds: 1) John Prophet is our hero. 2) John Prophet’s goal is to set in motion ancient plans to restore the human race. 3) The universe John Prophet finds himself in is fucking weird. As I read deeper into Remission I found it was often up to me to seek the soothing clarity offered by seeds 1 and 2, to remind myself who the hero was and what the hero’s goal was. By the final chapter, the narrative offers comprehensible plot points only as a sparse act of mercy, a dilapidated trail marker to keep a worried hiker trudging ahead.

As I look back on the table of contents for Remission, I see that I would describe more than half of the chapters as perfectly comprehensible, and only less-than-half as truly abstract and insane. Yet this review focuses on the minority of this dichotomy, I choose to focus this review on the rarer insane chapters. This imbalance is important because it displays the lesson for artists (and the insane) within Remission. When I think back on the story of Remission, it isn’t what I understood that jumps out at me, its what I didn’t. I will admit that it was the things I understood which kept me reading the story, but it was the things I did not understand which kept me from forgetting the story.

Remission taught me this: People rarely forget their encounters with insanity. If an artist wishes to use insanity to earn the attention of his or her audience, the artist must not introduce their work with an abundance of insanity. If an artist does not heed this warning the artist will lose their sane audiences. Insanity must be carefully revealed, revealed only when the audience can be trusted to stay seated through bouts of discomfort. Like salt on a french fry, insanity is insufferable on its own but irresistible when paired with something consumable. If an artist wishes their audience to remember the artist’s work, the artist must at some point put their insanity on display. But if an artist wishes their audience to absorb their creation in its entirety, the artist must prepare their audience to navigate their mind through the insanity.

I’m sorry I opened up too soon about my self-frustrations. Next time, I’ll be sure to have a nice chat with you about your day first.