New neurons help us to remember fear#

Scientists have long known that fear and other highly emotional experiences lead to incredibly strong memories. […] Daniela Kaufer and colleagues report a new way for emotions to affect memory: The brain's emotional center, the amygdala, induces the hippocampus, a relay hub for memory, to generate new neurons.

In a fearful situation, these newborn neurons get activated by the amygdala and may provide a "blank slate" on which the new fearful memory can be strongly imprinted, she said. In evolutionary terms, it means new neurons are likely helping you to remember the lion that nearly killed you.

nvALT as my database for everything#

I too throw everything into nvALT these days. I love it. The main differences between my workflow and Dave's are that I don't use Simplenote for syncing—I use Dropbox (why rope into my setup yet another third-party service?)—and I use Notesy on my iOS devices. (If there's a better Dropbox-aware note-taking app for iOS, then I haven't come across it.)

Relatedly, nvALT is merging with its progenitor, Notational Velocity (apologies--I can't find a link for this bit of news, but I'm certain I read it somewhere), and Brett Terpstra tells me that eventually we'll be able to post to WordPress blogs directly from the app. Woot!

Another neat thing about nvALT is that it has an "External Text Editor" option that lets me jump seamlessly between it and Writer, despite Writer not (yet) supporting the ODB Editor protocol and thus being unable to take advantage of QuickCursor.

The history of ice#

Perhaps it was his Yankee entrepreneurial spirit, or perhaps monomania, but Tudor was obsessed with the idea that ice would make him rich. During the next decade, he developed clever new techniques to convince people that they actually needed ice, including a "first one's free" pitch. While living in a South Carolina boarding house in 1819, Tudor made a habit of bringing a cooler of chilled beverages to the dinner table. His fellow boarders always scoffed at the sight, but after a sip or two, they'd inevitably fall in love with his ice. Tudor traveled around the country and convinced barkeeps to offer chilled drinks at the same price as regular drinks--to see which would become more popular. He also taught restaurants how to make ice cream, and reached out to doctors and hospitals to convince them that ice was the perfect way to cool feverish patients. The truth is that people never knew they needed ice until Tudor made them try it. Once they did, they couldn't live without it.

Refrigerator with built-in draft beer system#

Now you can order any Northstar refrigerator with a factory-installed Brew Master draft system, including through-the-door tap dispenser, coupler, connections, CO2 cylinder and drip tray. Add a keg of your favorite brew, pull the tap, sit back and chill. Keg and fittings can be removed to utilize full fridge capacity.

Holding back evolution#

When beneficial mutations team up in an organism, they tend to hold one another back.

The results [of the studies] could mean that the more evolutionarily fit an organism gets -- reproducing more -- the harder it becomes to improve on that success.

Site hints at Asian roots for human genus#

Researchers have abandoned the long-standing view that a small-brained hominid from East Africa known as Homo habilis, which first appeared about 2.4 million years ago, evolved into H. erectus. Recent fossil finds showing that the two species coexisted in East Africa for several hundred thousand years have undermined that assumption. Ferring's team suspects that an as-yet-unidentified African hominid reached Asia before 1.85 million years ago and evolved into H. erectus.

Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the "genetic" structure of groups#

The average intelligence of the people in the group and the maximum intelligence of the people in the group doesn't predict group intelligence. […]

So how do you engineer groups that can problem-solve effectively? First of all, seed them with, basically, caring people. Group intelligence is correlated … with the average social sensitivity -- the openness, and receptiveness, to others -- of a group's constituents. The emotional intelligence of group members, in other words, serves the cognitive intelligence of the group overall. And this means that -- wait for it -- groups with more women tend to be smarter than groups with more men.

Human population growth is accelerating species change#

We are more different genetically from people living 5,000 years ago than they were different from Neanderthals. […]

The findings may lead to a very broad rethinking of human evolution, especially in the view that modern culture has essentially relaxed the need for physical genetic changes in humans to improve survival.

A team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John Hawks estimated that positive selection just in the past 5,000 years alone — dating back to the Stone Age — has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period of human evolution. Many of the new genetic adjustments are occurring around changes in the human diet brought on by the advent of agriculture, and resistance to epidemic diseases that became major killers after the growth of human civilizations.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

June 14, 2011

If you've enjoyed at all the lost-at-sea stories I've been linking to recently, then you have to read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which recounts the sinking of the Essex by an enraged sperm whale and the subsequent survival story of (some of) the crew. (Herman Melville's Moby Dick was inspired by the events surrounding the Essex's demise.)

I rarely stray too far from books about science and technology, but I've become so enamored with these stories of survival on the open seas that I just couldn't help myself when my friend, Andre Torrez, recommended to me this book.

It's perfectly paced from start to finish, and as a consequence, I'm pretty sure I've never devoured a book in such a short amount of time. I quite literally couldn't put it down. From the fascinating history of the early whaling industry, and of Nantucket in particular--including much discussion of the social fabric that emerged in that whaling town, whose men were almost never there--to the researched descriptions of the physiological affects of prolonged bouts of hunger and thirst, it's a page-turner through and through.

The account of the Essex being attacked by the monstrous (maybe 85-feet long) sperm whale--who may or may not have been protecting others in his pod already harpooned--left me dumbstruck. It's kind of in my nature to side with animals just going about their business (I was the kid that wouldn't let others step on ants), and so I found myself rooting in a curious way for the sperm whale (whose brains are five times the size of ours), especially after having just read a detailed and stomach-wrenching description of how the whales are killed, that left nothing to the imagination. It's a disgusting death.

Once the Essex goes down, the 20-man crew is left to subsist in three 25-foot whaling boats that are uncovered and increasingly rickety. They're in the open ocean for three months, and most do not survive. Ironically, the crew's reticence to attempt to reach islands whose inhabitants may practice cannibalism ultimately requires that they themselves engage in this act of survival; this includes the captain, who not only presides over his cousin's execution, but proceeds to participate in the "taboo of gastronomic incest."

It's a truly unbelievable story of survival and despair, and ultimately a lesson in what humans are capable of when we just refuse to die (despite our bodies having already given up).

Quoting from the book refuses to do it any kind of justice, but I thought I might offer just one disturbing paragraph to give you an idea of the men's condition after enduring 93 days of nature's sadism:

When [three of the survivors] attempted to climb aboard [a rescue ship], they discovered that they didn't have the strength. The three men stared up at the crew, their eyes wide and huge within the dark hollows of their skulls. Their raw, ulcerated skin hung from their skeletons like noxious rags. As he looked down from the quarterdeck, Captain William Crozier was moved to tears at what Chase called "the most deplorable and affecting picture of suffering and misery."

Read it.

(I of course immediately went looking for other books by the author and have just added his Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War to my queue.)

Trading as a high-stakes video game#

This article provides a neat perspective on the seemingly satisfying life of a derivatives trader. As you can imagine, the job is intense.

He says that his attention span has shortened but that in return he's picked up two abilities: broad situational awareness, i.e., the ability to juggle lots of disparate facts in working memory; and the pre-scandal Tiger-Woodsian knack for blocking out distractions when something big is on the line. […]

Mind you, the game the traders play is nothing like Mario or Zelda or Megaman. It's not a shoot-em-up or racing game. What it is is more like Starcraft or maybe TradeWars: an intense, cerebral, massively multiplayer real-time strategy game. It's a game grounded in information: prices, mostly, but also all kinds of news and rumors and oblique signals, whether by way of balance sheets or CNBC. It's the kind of game that requires the player to immerse himself in data, distill from it a sort of strategical gestalt, and convert that high-level battle plan into a series of discrete maneuvers, in this case trades on the open market.

The difference here being, of course, that it's all real.

Adrift but unbroken#

Some of you may remember a couple of disturbing lost-at-sea stories I linked to a couple of months ago, namely The Castaways and Story of the Tokelau teenagers lost in the ocean for 51 days.

This story is in a very similar vein, except that these three US Army men, whose bomber plane has crashed into the sea, are counting on two 4' by 6' inflatable rafts to keep them alive. They're constantly fending off sharks and bullets--and sometimes both simultaneously--not to mention starvation, thirst, delusion and each other.

The three men were at sea for 43 days. Two survived.

Louie set up ground rules. Each man would eat one square of chocolate in the morning, one in the evening. Louie allotted one water tin per man, with each man allowed two or three sips a day. Eating and drinking at this rate, they could stretch their supplies for a few days. […]

Louie decided to divvy up breakfast, a single square of chocolate for each man. He untied the raft pocket and reached in. All of the chocolate was gone. He looked around the rafts. No chocolate, no wrappers. His gaze paused on Mac. The sergeant looked back at him with wide, guilty eyes.

The realization that Mac had eaten all of the chocolate rolled hard over Louie… Curbing his irritation, Louie told Mac that he was disappointed in him. Understanding that Mac had acted in panic, he reassured him that they'd soon be rescued. Mac said nothing. […]

The smallest [sharks] were about six feet long; some were double that size. They bent themselves around the rafts as they swam, testing the fabric, dragging their fins along the bottom and sides, but not trying to get at the men on top. They seemed to be waiting for the men to come to them. […]

The equatorial sun lay upon the men, scalding their skin. Their upper lips burned and cracked, swelling so dramatically that the flesh obstructed their nostrils, while their lower lips bulged against their chins. Their bodies were slashed with open cracks that formed under the corrosive onslaught of sun, salt, wind, and fuel residue. Whitecaps slapped into the fissures, generating an agonizing scalding sensation. Sunlight glared off the ocean, sending barbs of white light into the men's pupils and leaving their heads pounding. The men's feet were cratered with quarter-size salt sores. The rafts baked along with their occupants, emitting a bitter smell. […]

The [Japanese] bomber circled back for another go, and Louie tipped back into the ocean. As bullets knifed the water around him, two sharks came at him. Louie hung there, gyrating in the water and flailing his arms and legs, as the sharks snapped at him and the bullets came down. The moment the bomber sped out of firing range, he clambered onto the raft again. Phil and Mac were still unhit.

(I just can't get enough of stories like these.)

Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife#

We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.

This should surprise no one; something has to account for the faith-based irrationality exhibited by most adult humans.

Studies […] suggest that children below the age of five find it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. […B]y the age of four, children start to understand that [adults] are not all-seeing and all knowing. However, children may continue to believe in all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a god or gods.

The takeaway that affirms what we (and especially the church) already knew? Children should be inculcated as early as possible.

I appreciated this bit:

[T]heology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind. (Emphasis mine.)

Orville Redenbacher's "Pop Up Bowl"#

This is the coolest thing to happen to popcorn since the microwave. (Be sure to watch the video.) Orville, you just saved me like three steps, at least.

(The laziness/convenience factor reminds me of the genius that is the Uncrustable.)

Brain states and the nature of experience#

In all likelihood, I think that the priests and conservatives of this world will say that uploads have no "souls" and therefore they don't have the same rights as humans. And they will say that none of what the uploads say matters. Therefore, you have to have very good scientific evidence to show that this is not the case. If we leave this matter to superstitious people, they will find a way to twist it beyond our imagination. […]

Mental states are physical states. The brain states in a human constitute its subjective experience. The question is whether a particular whole-brain simulation will have experience and if it does, how similar is this experience is to that of a human being?

How to do a 30-second skip in iTunes

June 05, 2011

A few years ago I outlined how I use a PowerMate to control system volume and certain iTunes actions. I still use that setup 100 times a day; the only thing that's changed is that I now route the actions through Keyboard Maestro instead of FastScripts or Sizzling Keys.

Recently I cobbled together a new PowerMate control that enables me to skip ahead in a podcast (or, I guess, a music track) by 30 seconds (or whatever you want). For me this was a necessity because I can't stand listening to commercials (be they on podcasts, TV, radio, etc.). Really, they tend to make me upset; it's a combination of my never caring about what's being sold, and impatience (and I'm especially impatient when I'm completely disinterested).

With this new control I can almost thoughtlessly skip over commercials as soon as I hear them start. (Yes, you could do this with just a keyboard shortcut, but I like the idea of controlling all of this iTunes stuff via the PowerMate.)

The AppleScript to jump ahead by 30 seconds is just a single line:

tell application "iTunes" to set player position to (player position + 30)

In the PowerMate preference pane I set the down+twist action to send the "^'" key sequence, and then created the following macro in Keyboard Maestro:

Keyboard Maestro settings for 30-second skip

That's it.

(Relatedly, I used to have to use AppleScripts to jump to the next track, and to toggle between play and pause, but when I moved my FastScripts stuff to Keyboard Maestro I noticed that KM included actions for those tasks (i.e., Next Track and Play/Pause Current Track).)