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Showing posts from 2012

My atoms love me

Do you understand german? Be happy if not. If you do you might be tempted to read this interview with the philosopher Patrick Spät . This young chap is so overconfidently bashing 'physicalism' that he doesn't stop himself from saying things like "already atoms have fundamental mental properties" (ah, I see, it is in the word 'fundamental').  I once met an esoterically enlightened person, who made quite a shipload of money claiming that photons obviously possess a free will as they can willingly decide whether to be particle or wave. Spät might like that idea. Remember, his atoms have mental properties. Mentality, he says, is a natural property just as charge, mass or spin. Sure. Go, measure it. Those properties then add up and the more atoms you have, the more mental you get. Great! What a huge mind my favorite skyscraper represents! And I always knew that my short cousin couldn't be as smart a smart-S as I am - simply because she lacks the number

Science-communication - the role of the native speaker

You rarely find high-tech research institutes in the cultural center of a city. You should rather look for them somewhere near a freeway to the airport. The area is then labelled  'tech-campus', 'innovation-park' or the like to help ease the despair of those working in the wastelands. Language-studies, the arts and history on the other hand will be expected to reside in those awe-inspiring old buildings in the touristy areas of town. Some, like the german author Dietrich Schwanitz, are quite clear about the reason: the sciences, he writes, are no good for party-conversation and so they might be useful but they certainly don't belong to the common learning - and, by implication, do not belong to our culture. Well, Dietrich, no. Popular access to the field and the use for party-chatter can't be a measure of cultural value. If we take, for example, the wide spectrum of music - from the most emotionally accessible chirp to the intellecutally laden and rather cl

Now that we're famous...

It was to be expected. Last month the clickrate on smarts increased dramatically, almost exponentially. Would we extrapolate, every person in the world able to use her mouse-finger (formerly called index-finger) would be clicking our site around March 2013. We are famous. And fame obviously spells influence in the digital world (naturally: clicks-fame-influence). I am excited to see that 90% of our visitors last week came from Ukraine - we should definitely think about adapting to this demographic development by changing to russian: nastrovje (oh, how predictable. Yes, sorry). Let me give you a glimpse of our main visitors: drocherof, bibikablog, fermersovet, haliava, infoscript, kinorubej, kinorubrika, lovejewel... I would never have guessed that those were interested in crosscultural debate! Especially since they sign up as being robots. Well, the world is changing. We shall auto-generate our posts. Then this could be a feedback-loop of writers and readers, the language coul


I am not the person who get's to go places. Usually I am sitting in a damp office somewhere one or two floors below the basement of an unbelievably ugly office-building. So I don't have to think whom I could ask to water my plants. Which is good, because I neither have plants to water nor friends to ask. But you might. And you certainly solved that problem. But you know what? Your plant also needs light - sunlight if possible. Will you ask your neighbours to move the Hibiscus around your apartment while the sunlight wooshes through? No, you say, watering will have to do it.  But there are people thinking seriously about that problem - and thinking hard they solved it.  I bumped into those guys when I rediscovered the treehuggers. I had almost forgotten them. Treehuggers, you say? I know. Me too. BUT. There is this one website, that I once ran into, when I read about the carnivorous robots that get their energy from digesting anything from fruitflies to your favou

One world is enough!

A friend of mine dated a girl who was an identical twin. She and her sister suffered from multi personality disorder. He finally left them - all seven. And led a happy life with the remaining four. They married when she found a doctor who freed her from her demons. Some of them. And he died. Widowing two. They tried to console eachother and never married again.

Risk-aversion kills innovation

The number of publications and citations, possibly rescaled into more complex relations like the Hirsch-index or fashionable derivatives thereof, are widely accepted parameters to quantify scientific quality.  In times of scarce financial resources, it is argued, transparency is imperative for allocating funds, and substantial investments in science are best legitimized by ,excellent and useful‘ research results. This is lead by the perception that scientific quality can somehow be objectively measured and the whole process of 'doing science' can ultimately be subjected to some sort of controlling.  While the drive for excellence and usefulness is agreed upon - their definition and measurability, however, is at the center of many a heated debate. At first sight, benchmarking usefulness translates into a short time-to-market of the research results, general application-orientation and product-driven applied research (a term coined by the german philosopher Juergen Mittelst

Altruistic egoism

(it's ferragosto. Everyone is at the beaches. The cities are deserted. The espresso-machine is operated by some students from Australia. It is too hot to think, let alone write. Period.) What do you think when you see such a twitter-profile "Researcher, therapist, artist, writer..." - decorated with a lascivous-looking long-haired chick? Well: You believe because you doodled some almond-eyed fairies on a piece of paper that you are an artist? Your "dear diary..." makes you a writer? Endless chatter with your girlfriends about their messed-up relationships made you a therapist? And clicking through wikipedia warrants the title "researcher"? The net is full of those characters. People seem to want to label themselves. We all want to stand for something. We want to brand ourselves:"Researcher, therapist, artist, writer...". But even if it looks like it: life, even life on twitter, is no computer-game. No matter how much energy is put in

No theory - no money!

A neuroscientist I was talking to recently complained that the Higgs-research,even the Neutrino-fluke at CERN is getting humungous funding while neuroscience is struggling for support at a much more modest level. This, despite the undisputed fact that understanding our brain, and ultimately ourselves, is the most exciting challenge around. Henry Markram of EPFL in Switzerland   is one of the guys aiming for big, big funding to simulate the complete brain. After founding the brain institute and developing methods to analyze and then reconstruct elements of the brain in a supercomputer he now applies for 1.5 Billion Euro in EU-funding for the 'flagship-projects' of Blue Brain -and many believe his project is simply too big to fail. Some call the project daring, others audacious. It is one of the so very few really expensive life-science endeavours. Why aren't there more like that around? Why do we seem to accept the bills for monstrous physics experiments more easily? Is

How to kill innovation

In a talk on innovation at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften Juergen Mittelstrass , one of Germanys great living philosophers, added one more slot to the well-known classification of science, leaving us with:  'fundamental research', 'application-oriented research' and 'product-driven application-oriented research'. While he was obviously trying to grant some innovative-potential to research formerly known as 'applied', it soon became clear that innovation would be found rather in the first than in the last box and the terrain for the unexpected was shrinking as it is obvious that innovation by nature is nothing you can plan for and the application-pull would lead to optimizations, inventions, solutions but not to surprises. His critique of todays ever-growing emphasis on applicability in research-funding was massively amplified by Harald zur Hausen (Nobel-prize in medicine 2008), who reminded everybody that his ground-breaking r

Consciousness has left the building

The neat thing with consciousness is: it is so undefined that everybody can speculate wildly about it. You could locate your conscious self in the paw of your dog, your aquarium, your pinky... anywhere - and write books about it, sell books about it - thousands! It is just so heartwarming to chat about consciousness, to bash science on the way and to patronize. And who does it best? Right, the aggregators at Megan Erickson asserts us (by quoting Alva Noë ) "just as love does not live inside the heart, consciousness is not contained in a finite space". We should not look for it inside our brain, or even our body - but in some intricate interwovenness of our cells and the outer world. What is the proof? None. Just pure sci-fi, touchy-feely chatter. Nice and maybe right or maybe wrong... Do you remember the first step for explaining, for proving or disproving something? Yep: have a hypothesis. Write something down. And then write how you (or anybod

Lies es nicht! A reminder of consumer-power

April 25 is the release-date for a short little electro-booklet that will pound us to dry out trash by simply not supporting it. The idea is simple: consumers have the power to get what they want and to get rid of what they don't want: Don't read it! If we don't read the awfully badly written advice-literature, then it will not be printed. If we don't click cyber-trash it will diminish. All that stuff works because people pay, directly - or indirectly by driving ad-prices through click-rates. Don't buy what you don't want. The german author Sina Hawk reminds us of that simple power in her booklet "Lies es nicht!" ("don't read it!") - it will be available at amazon for about 1.25 Euro. And since it is in german, I continue in german :) Ein Kilogramm Hackfleisch, gemischt, für 4 Euro. Billig. Saumäßig billig. Für diesen Preis muss man die Qualität vergessen - und wie man dieses Fleisch 'produziert', wie das Tier  aufwuchs, das mö

Invention, innovation and carrier pigeons

We live with the bold categorization of research as being either 'fundamental' or 'applied'. The emphasis in funding - and broadly in the public understanding - is on the supposedly more valuable *applied research*. Scientists engaged in fundamental research, on the other hand, are widely seen as geeks, as nerds in ivory-towers of academia, kind of wasting taxpayers' money for their personal entertainment, dabbling with expensive machines, finding ultrafast neutrinos and dismissing them again... At the same time innovation is imperative. So innovate we do. All the time. But seriously, what kind of innovation could we expect when we are asked to do research on optimizing the rubber of a tire, or if coerced to develop a better mp3? What can we expect if somebody pays our research to make cars more fuel-efficient? Certainly there would be some neat progress. Some nifty inventions. But innovation? Let's look back. What would we have gotten when, 30 years

Information obesity? Don't swallow it!

Great - now they call it 'information obesity'! If you can name it, you know it. My favourite source of intellectual shallowness,, again wraps a whiff of nothing into a lengthy video-message. As if seeing a person read a text that barely covers up it's own emptyness makes it more valuable. More expensive to produce, sure. But valuable? It is ok, that Clay Johnson does everything to sell his book. But (why) is it necessary to waste so many words, spoken or written, to debate a perceived information overflow? Is it fighting fire with fire? It is cute to pack the problem of distractions into the metaphore of 'obesity', 'diet' and so on. But the solution is the same. At the core of every diet you have 'burn more than you eat'. If you cross a street, you don't read every licence-plate, you don't talk to everybody you encounter, you don't count the number of windows of the houses across, you don't interpret the sounds an

Popularize science? - Dare to write what you know!

"Play what you know!" An actress who has to play a raging serial killer need not be a serial killer herself (it might even be contraproductive in some way... maybe a bit messy on the set). Method acting tells her to get the emotional framework as close as possible to the feelings of a serial-killer - by re-enacting emotions she relates to (remembering the guy, her first boyfriend left her for would be an example). "Write what you know!" is one piece of advice for authors that is all too often misunderstood as Jason Gots, associate editor of BigThink, points out. Authors must not restrict their prose to retelling their own (very possibly boring) life - they should map their real-life emotional experiences to the world of their fictional characters. Never been to Mars before? Well, you probably visited some decaying neighbourhood in Detroit or Bilbao. I am sure you found some Martians there. You know how your fictional character feels as he leaves mothership. The

The scent of money - the scent of sulfur - the value of art

I just returned from a brief chat with a friend. Clemens is an artist of whom you will hear by the end of this year - a lot. I was sipping a beer in his crammed east-berlin soviet-era mini-flat, 'inhaling' as much of his wonderful paintings as possible; the intensity of his life beaming of every square-inch of color- and text-plastered canvas. He shares his last bottle of beer with me - because he wants to celebrate the occasion: his art just attracted the serious attention of a very, very important public figure, who already decorates his office with one painting by him (smack between a work by Immendorf and one by Lüpertz). That guy has a plan for a major coup d'etat involving Clemens' art - and it will benefit both.  Up to now Clemens lives from collected bottles, some paintings he sells at insanely low prices and petty crime. Now he is about to jump into major league. His paintings have the expressive power that makes collectors nervous and renders some pie

Academics should be blogging? No.

"blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now" The London School of Economics and Political Science states in one of their, yes, Blogs . It is wrong. The arguments just seem so right: "faster communication of scientific results", "rapid interaction with colleagues" "responsibility to give back results to the public". All nice, all cuddly and warm, all good. But wrong. It might be true for scientoid babble. But this is not how science works.  Scientists usually follow scientific methods to obtain results. They devise, for example, experiments to measure a quantity while keeping the boundary-conditions in a defined range. They do discuss their aims, problems, techniques, preliminary results with colleagues - they talk about deviations and errors, successes and failures. But they don't do that wikipedia-style by asking anybody for an opinion . Scientific discussion needs a set

Understanding is an evolutionary advantage

Already in the 30's of the last century it was observed that an injured fish can trigger a fright-reaction in the members of his school. Nobody really understood why or how this was communicated but it was speculated that some substance must be released that instills fear in others. That substance was adequately called "Schreckstoff" (german for 'fear-stuff'). And, indeed, injecting skin-samples of an injured fish (well, how could he then *not* be injured?) into water, scared the §$%* out of the otherwise relaxed co-fishes. Up to now the chemistry behind that reaction was unclear. Suresh Jesuthasan of the National University of Singapore and coworkers have isolated one component (the glycosaminoglycan (GAG) chondroitin) from Zebrafish that turns out to be important as messenger . While the evolutionary advantage of Schreckstoff for the survival of the school is obvious (run!) the fate of the injured fish is sealed when he is left alone - showing that evolu

If Brad Pitt is a Zebrafish then Angelina Jolie is not

Two Zebrafish on a date. Foto from IGB, Eva-Maria Cyr You are probably not among those who subscribe to the newsletter of the "Leibniz-Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries" (IGB) - but you probably should. Their recent press-release (in german) is a real eye-opener - it has potential to completely change my bar-life. Scientists at IGB devised an experiment code-named wedding-planner in which they check which male Zebrafish get's lucky on a date. The result is nothing short of stunning. If the girl-fish gets to chose between a number of differently attractive guys she does not go for the most attractive stud but the second-best looking. Reproducibly. The reason is, they found in a monogamous setup, that the super-guy tends to bully the female zebralette into submission, which kind of spoils the party. Quite reminiscent of what we observe amongst humanoids. Too bad that neither Zebrafish nor those brawny bar-peacocks have enough brains to re

The software that will earn you admiration, gratitude, and real money

Electronic media once seemed destined to reduce the use of paper. This certainly environmentally attractive idea is proven wrong daily in any office or home trash-bin. It simply doesn't work. We seem to need the paper. This impression of paper-crave is  backed-up by studies  that show an ever-increasing paper-production (and accordingly -consumption). We are doing ok reading a book on kindle, pad or laptop. It is fine for the subway ride to work. It works for leisurely reading a finished text. But if you have to thumb through a financial report of your institution or the first draft of a thesis of one of your students, you want to have it printed out. On paper. You rummage for a pencil. We need the haptic of paper, we want to spread the sheets all over the table, jump from page to page, change the order, scribble,… Why can't we stop printing what we see on our screens? Correcting, annotating, highlighting seems just more natural when done with pencil on a sheet. The eve

Justin Bieber falsely correlates with Influenza

Just now we got aware of a scientific paper by Aron Culotta (2010) evaluating data from The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Influenza Like Illnesses (ILI) and specific influenza-related keyphrases on twitter (flu, cough, headache, sore throat...). The correlation of twitter-based predictions of ILI-devlopment (after a training-phase to optimize the algorithm) with real data is amazing, giving proof to the concept of data-mining from social-media streams . While for a variety of analyzed phrases the results were comparably good, there is a word of caution from the authors  These results show extremely strong correlations for all queries except for fever, which appears frequently  in figurative phrases such as “I’ve got Bieber fever”. Besides the beauty of the demonstrated algorithms the paper gives a helpful overview of fundamental literature in this young field.

Pasta - e basta!

As you keep asking: this is my pasta. Handmade by me. Photographed by me. Eaten by me. Alone. Let's forget what we just learned (it is the carbohydrates, not the fat that makes us (them) fat. Wonderfully explained in the infographic of the day on fastcodesign ). Pasta is not bad for you at all! The unrivaled Maria Popova from just circulated a breathtaking review of 'Pasta by Design' - an extremely ambitious and obviously beautifully illustrated book analyzing with rigor the geometrical shapes of almost 100 different types of pasta. (and I was proud of being able to identify eight!) Most importantly it is stated already in the introduction that pasta is made of durum wheat flour and water. Pasta!, um, Basta! The designers would never even attempt to touch any of these egg-infested derivatives or supposedly ecological or healthy experiments with rye or spelt flour (yes, I had to look this one up). To the trained cook and passionate g

Write a book!

As the second highest authority - the pope - is now fiddling with social media and feels competent to give advice (see " you don't have to be brain-dead to give advice " and the comment "but it helps"), it might be good to step back, look at all the soc-med-mess, take a deep breath and ask yourself: is this what I wanted to get involved in, am I gaining something? Anything? Am I wasting my time? There are studies in abundance showing how much intellectual potential is blocked by wading through the net in search of information, people and networks. Since most of the air-brained blog-posts out there were written with the hope to get attention, build a following, and to get heard: written to build a reputation, it looks a lot like a big room full of kids yelling, jumping, kicking and scratching to get noticed. But while they all scream their lungs out - this information-inferno is just numbing. This is where intelligent filtering sets in. We look for conten

The mining of crowd-sources

While some are wondering why scientists appear not to appreciate tools like Twitter to communicate , there is more proof for the value of the meta-information that can be plucked from the stream of micro-utterances. Roughly two years ago we speculated about possibilities to extract (useful) crowd-information. Increasing mentioning of umbrellas/rain - together with localization -, for example, could give valuable input to the weather forecast. As we put in 'Meta Mining':"If the noise of individual utterances will be systematically analyzed for overlying macro-structures and for phase-transitions from the purely random to the organized, there will be more information gained than individually and knowingly put in. The sheer boundless chatter of Twitter and alike corresponds to the cells, the web is the organism." We were encouraging to step back and look at structures rather than the individual tweets. In a recent report in "The American Journal of Tropical Medi

Google's personalized ads kill my relationship

As I sit cheek-to-cheek side-by-side with my wife, we both working on our very own projects at our very own computers and she starts telling me about some coding-trick she just discovered, I hiss "could you, pleeze!, let me work on my stuff - I am busy!!" - and as she glances over she sees that personalized ad on a financial website I just sift through: some voluptuous, smiling girls and the line "looking for an exciting date?". AHA! You are busy, huh? Damn! What can I do about the Ads google pushes there? Oh, she is not stupid, types the same URL in her identical browser and at the position where I have that click-for-chicks-Ad she gets a cute little advertisement on health-food. :/ I reload my site. "time for nature - discover marokko" - ha! She reloads "investment-strategies", I "cars"…. and on we go, fortunately diving deep into randomness. So, obviously, our privacy-settings are good enough to feed us not-so-personalized adv