Friday, March 19, 2010

This is where we're at

From the AP: Cloak of invisibility takes a step forward.
Researchers at Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology report they were able to cloak a tiny bump in a layer of gold, preventing its detection at nearly visible infrared frequencies.

Their cloaking device also worked in three dimensions, while previously developed cloaks worked in two dimensions, lead researcher Tolga Ergin said.

The cloak is a structure of crystals with air spaces in between, sort of like a woodpile, that bends light, hiding the bump in the gold later beneath, the researchers reported in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science.

From Nature: Scientists supersize quantum mechanics.

A team of scientists has succeeded in putting an object large enough to be visible to the naked eye into a mixed quantum state of moving and not moving.

Andrew Cleland at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team cooled a tiny metal paddle until it reached its quantum mechanical 'ground state' — the lowest-energy state permitted by quantum mechanics. They then used the weird rules of quantum mechanics to simultaneously set the paddle moving while leaving it standing still. The experiment shows that the principles of quantum mechanics can apply to everyday objects as well as as atomic-scale particles.

Okay, people of Earth. You are officially no longer allowed to complain that it's the year 2010 and there are no jetpacks or flying cars. You're looking for cool future tech in the wrong place.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Coffee Party's Tom Schaller has posted an interview with Annabel Park of the Coffee Party Movement.

I’d like to start by asking you to give our readers a brief history of how you, using Facebook, came up with the idea to form the Coffee Party.

It was actually a very simple idea, or a hypothetical idea. Right after the Massachusetts election, leading up to Tea Party convention in Nashville, it seemed like there was non-stop coverage of the Tea Party movement. There was a growing narrative that the Tea Party represented the real America or a majority of Americans. And I thought that was completely wrong. I know they don’t represent me and I found the narrative alienating. And I just felt that was a shared opinion among many people.

So I kind of just started ranting on my Facebook page on late January 26. “Oh, God, I’m just so sick of the Tea Party. We should just start our own party, call it the Coffee Party, or the Smoothie Party—anything but Tea.” Friends of mine online bonded immediately. Within about a half an hour of that rant I created this fan page, Join the Coffee Party Movement.

The whole interview is worth reading.

I don't know an awful lot about the Coffee Party or what it stands for, but it makes me very, very happy to see somebody saying all this. And it makes me happier to see that so many people apparently agree.

You know what I hate about American political discourse?

I hate the idea that politics is properly approached the way people think and talk about sporting events.

I hate people who think the way to talk about politics is to shout nonsense and see how much spittle you can get on the other person's face.

I hate the idea that if you're giving your opinion about some politician or political issue, you don't need to restrict yourself to the truth or even make sense, and if I object on those grounds then I'm being a pedantic nerd.

I like what I've read about the Coffee Party so far.

Lesson with a Needle

Eric Mead's TED talk on the magic of the placebo has spawned some interesting comments. The site's top 3 adjectives to describe it are "Confusing", "Funny", "OK". As I write this, there are still very few comments and every one is a variation on "Huh. That was interesting, but I'm not sure what he's trying to say."

Here's my take on it, written in full ignorance of any comments that came along later that explain Mead's talk.

First, a quick summary. Mead comes out, shows the audience a simple magic trick where he makes it look like he's got a knife stuck to his hand. In reality, as he shows us, he's holding it up with a finger. But people's brains don't notice that not all of his fingers are visible and accounted for; they only see the knife hanging there like magic.

Then he talks a bit about placebos and what he finds fascinating about them. A little blue pill with writing on it is more effective than a plain white pill, even if they're both placebos. And a placebo injection is most effective of all.

So then he repeats his knife trick, with a twist. Instead of a knife, he produces a long needle, which he purportedly sticks through the skin of his forearm. He leaves it hanging there, and removes his other hand, showing that he couldn't be using the same trick that he used for the knife.

Then he shows us the alleged wound, and it looks like he's really pushed the needle through his skin and a bit of flesh, leaving it firmly attached to his arm. (The audience squirms in discomfort.) Then he goes so far as to wriggle it around, producing some realistic-looking "blood." (Several audience members cover their eyes and peek out from between fingers.)

And then -- he doesn't remove the needle, he doesn't show us how it's done like he did with the knife, he just leaves us to think about his message.

Here's what I think his message was:

Why are injections more effective placebos than pills? Because we human beings naturally respond much more strongly to needles and blood than to something innocuous like swallowing a pill. This is a reaction that occurs very deep in our unconscious minds.

Mead demonstrates this through his two magic tricks. The audience applauds politely when he makes the knife stick to his skin. But if he'd ended there, even if he hadn't explained how he did it, it probably wouldn't have stuck in their minds for very long. So he got something to stick to his wrist when it ought to have fallen to the floor. Big whoop. Everybody knows an 8-year-old who can do that.

Compare the audience's reaction when he brings out the needle. Even before we see the "wound", when for all we know it's being held there with his finger, there's already a strong "squick" reaction. Needles and the idea of piercing flesh gets people's hindbrains involved.

And when Mead shows us the "wound" dripping "blood" and never lets on how he did it, he insures that the people in the audience won't forget his performance for a long, long time. (I won't either. I mean, I know it's all a trick, but I thought he sounded somewhat dazed at the very end. Which is just what you'd expect to hear if he really had pierced his arm through with a needle...)

That's his lesson. He doesn't just tell us that our unconscious reacts more strongly when these visceral feelings excite our hindbrains. He tells us and shows us.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Recently I saw Tim Burton Imagines a Sequel to Lewis Carroll's "Alice" Books, whose name has been shortened to Alice in Wonderland for wide release. It's a pity; now people are accusing Burton of all sorts of adaptation decay, which probably wouldn't have happened if he'd gone with the long name instead.

The two "Alice" books are probably unfilmable if the filmmaker doesn't take substantial liberties with the source material (and no, the famous Disney animated film from the 1950s is not a faithful adaptation). There's hardly any narrative continuity in what is basically a series of surreal little episodes. And don't forget that there's no continuity at all between the two books, despite the events that are thought of as the "Alice" canon being split between them. (The first novel's got slightly more famous bits in it, but it's in the second where you can find Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, and "Jabberwocky".)

Now I want to read the books again, this time paying attention to the cultural context. Apparently the books are full of references to Victorian-era culture that hardly anybody gets anymore. The poems are parodies of stodgy moralistic poetry that every English kid had to know by heart back then, and now would be totally forgotten if it wasn't for Lewis Carroll's gentle mockery of them. Writing in The New York Times, Melanie Bayley points out how Carroll's mathematics background inspired much of the stories' lunacy.

And if TV Tropes can be believed (and I sure hope so), much of the dialogue that was Carroll meant to sound surreal and off-kilter sounds perfectly innocuous to modern readers, because colloquial English has evolved to match it - possibly due to Carroll's influence!
Much of the wording was meant to be surreal and strange, but has actually made its way into common parlance so that it seems perfectly normal to a modern reader. For instance, Alice says "Let's pretend," in the beginning. At the time, "pretend," meant "to lie or deceive", so "Let's pretend," sounded very strange. Now, thanks to Alice In Wonderland, the meaning of the word has changed quite a bit.

That is super-neat.

As for Tim Burton's movie, I enjoyed it for what it was: a surreal, hallucinogenic trip that had Burton's fingerprints all over it. The fact that he explicitly made it a sequel rather than a proper adaptation from the novels gave him a great deal of artistic leeway. Still wish he'd used the long title I suggested above.

Same goes for another movie I enjoyed immensely this year, Guy Ritchie Does a Movie about Sherlock Holmes. He could have avoided all the carping by Holmes fans if only he'd used my title.