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October 19, 2006

'As facts add up, ideas tend to go down' — Joseph Epstein

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Now that's a far-reaching statement.

Because it makes facts + ideas a zero-sum game: the more you know, the less likely you are to have any idea what they're all about.

Hey, before you shoot the messenger — that's me, remember, moving along on the treadmill in a never-ending effort to keep you amused, distracted or whatever it is I do — remember that it's Epstein, not me, who's making the assertion above.

Read it in context in his essay which appears on the editorial page of today's Wall Street Journal.

    Ugly, Thorny Things

    I get most of my notions about the world and how it works less from experience than from books. Almost all my interesting discoveries, my Eureka moments, have been found in other writers' pages. I've been reading "The Letters of George Santayana," for instance, and, in a letter from his student days in Germany, Santayana notes the complete incapacity of the Germans for boredom. Bouncing the bottom of my palm off my forehead, I exclaim, "Of course." Suddenly I understand the ability of the Germans to spend 14 or more hours listening to Wagner's Ring Cycle, or thrill to Goethe's "Faust."

    I had another such moment while reading James Buchan's "Crowded with Genius," a book about the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. The moment came with these two sentences: "The 18th century had more ideas about the past than it had facts: archeology and philology were infant sciences. (The 21st century has more facts than ideas.)" Eureka! The relation between facts and ideas appeared to me in an entirely new light.

    Not only have the past 50 or so years been largely bereft of grand ideas, but much of the best intellectual work of the period has been devoted to eliminating the major ideas, or idea systems, of the previous 100 or so years: notably, Marxism and Freudianism, with Darwinism perhaps next to tumble. The lesson seems to be that the accretion of new facts tends to undo ideas.

    Analytical philosophers can make a 10-course meal about what constitutes a fact and what an idea. But everyone has the roughly correct notion that a fact is a discrete entity, an action or event or occurrence or thing that has what we like to think of as objective reality upon which most people can agree. An idea is a coherently formulated thought or opinion usually based on the discovery of a pattern itself based on facts. Yet it would seem that the more facts that are known, the less likely is the pattern that supports the idea to hold up.

    The point (I don't say it is a fact or an idea) is that the more facts one has at one's command, the less is inspiration for ideas likely to arrive. Imagine the impressive ignorance of facts Rousseau required to come up with his two most famous ideas, those of the Noble Savage and of the Social Contract. Marx had Engels in Manchester supplying him with many of his facts for "Das Kapital," but given all the additional factual knowledge we have since acquired about industrial relations and the true interests of the working classes, it seems doubtful that even the always rage-ready Marx would be able to believe in the class struggle with the same certitude. Or, presented with the wretches of Enron, price-rigging, industrial spying and other corporate malfeasance, would Adam Smith still wish to argue on behalf of his Invisible Hand?

    The most fertile ground for the formation of ideas, in other words, is one relatively barren of facts. As facts add up, ideas tend to go down. Facts, bloody damn facts, get in the way of conjecture, speculation, delightful mental footwork of all kinds. Facts, we say with a shrug, are facts.

    Facts are ugly, thorny things. Ideas are velvety and suave, and bring comfort by suggesting that our understanding of — and hence control over — the world is on the rise. Ideas can be immensely seductive. What a beautiful idea it is, for example, to bring democracy to Araby! And then arise the obdurate facts of rancorous tribalism to destroy the seduction.

    Ideally, the accrual of a vast number of new facts ought to make for richer, more complex ideas. But it hasn't seemed to work out that way. The addition of facts made possible by powerful new technology has allowed astronomers to describe the universe with more precision but has not rendered many persuasive new ideas. In physics, the leading new idea of string theory is apparently in the flux of controversy, and in some quarters is thought to be to physics what postmodernism has been to literature: a useless and time-costly detour.

    In an ideal world, facts would reinforce and enrich ideas. This ideal world, you may have noticed, hasn't quite arrived. Ours remains an age chiefly of fact-finding. For now facts appear to test ideas and almost everywhere find them wanting. "Just the facts, ma'am," Sgt. Friday used to say on the old television program. He didn't ask for the lady's ideas, you will recall, and maybe, like the good sergeant, a clear statement of the facts is all we, too, can hope for, at least for the present.

October 19, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Remote-Control Sports Car Racer Ballpoint Pen

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This is one tricked-out writing implement.

From the catalog:

    Racer Pens

    Enjoy the fun and excitement of sports-car racing — while sitting at your desk!

    Atop these ballpoint pens are detachable remote-control cars.

    Each pen controls its car in forward and reverse so cars of different colors can be raced against each other!

    Both pens and cars have on/off switches.

    Each pen uses 4 button-cell batteries.

    Bonus: 4 extra batteries included.

    Refillable black ink.

    Plastic.

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Sure, you can wait forever for Sony's PS3 but hey, who knows if they'll ever pull themselves together enough so you can buy one.

Why wonder?

Racer pen colors are Black, Red or Blue.

$14.95.

Vroooooom.

October 19, 2006 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Dressing for... ovulation?

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Long story short: a study out of the UCLA department of psychology (believe anything UCLA-related — Go Bruins!) reports that women dress better when hitting the peak of their fertility during the menstrual cycle.

Since people don't have feathers to fluff, I guess we do the next best thing and don a nicer outfit.

Here's the abstract of the paper, published last week in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

    Ovulatory shifts in human female ornamentation: Near ovulation, women dress to impress

    Humans differ from many other primates in the apparent absence of obvious advertisements of fertility within the ovulatory cycle. However, recent studies demonstrate increases in women's sexual motivation near ovulation, raising the question of whether human ovulation could be marked by observable changes in overt behavior. Using a sample of 30 partnered women photographed at high and low fertility cycle phases, we show that readily-observable behaviors — self-grooming and ornamentation through attractive choice of dress — increase during the fertile phase of the ovulatory cycle. At above-chance levels, 42 judges selected photographs of women in their fertile (59.5%) rather than luteal phase (40.5%) as “trying to look more attractive.” Moreover, the closer women were to ovulation when photographed in the fertile window, the more frequently their fertile photograph was chosen. Although an emerging literature indicates a variety of changes in women across the cycle, the ornamentation effect is striking in both its magnitude and its status as an overt behavioral difference that can be easily observed by others. It may help explain the previously documented finding that men's mate retention efforts increase as their partners approach ovulation.

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The lead author of the study, Professor Martie Haselton, provides more information about the details and limitations of the study, as well as its implications, here.

Other recent media coverage here.

October 19, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Ring Vase — 'Nobody sees a flower, really...'

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From the website:

    Ring Vase

    Innovative thinking turns stems into part of a modern arrangement.

    Flowers slip through the top hole into the bottom, revealing the flowers’ stems.

    The bottom holds water.

    Heavy-gauge aluminum.

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The smaller version measures 8" Dia. x 2.5" W, the larger 11.5 Dia. x 2.5" W.

$38 and $48, both here.

October 19, 2006 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Malcolm Gladwell, author of 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink,' tells it like it is

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He was one of the invited speakers at the recent New Yorker [Magazine] Festival.

The New Yorker website just yesterday put up a video of his talk on "Hit-Song Clusters."

But wait, there's more!

A second video features Gladwell "Re-imagining 'The Interpreter.'"

And for a limited time only, if you view now, you'll be able to see, at absolutely no additional charge, Gladwell speaking on "How Formulas Affect Creativity."

But don't wait until next week to get around to it if you're interested: things like this have a way of vamoosing instanter into computer hyperspace.

October 19, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Heating/Chilling Lunch Box

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From the website:

    Take-Away Food Tote

    A cute gift idea for modern foodies who take food and drinks to go.

    A simple electric motor warms or cools the interior for up to 2 hours and the plastic case helps maintain the temperature.

    Large enough to hold soda cans and snacks.

    Modern design with aqua background and bold, colorful dots.

    Plastic.

$148.

October 19, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Blog Juice Calculator

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The secret sauce here is a weighted combination of your rankings on Technorati, Alexa and Bloglines, along with how many pages link to yours.

My juice is up top.

Memo to Salon, Scientific American and all the other big-time websites with less juice than me: I'm now doing consulting work and I can boost you up the ladder in a TechnoDolt™ minute.

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Inquire within.

[via ohgizmo.com]

October 19, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

MightyLight — Solar-Powered Waterproof Portable LED Light with 12-Hour Runtime

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You'd think something like that would cost a fortune if it existed.

But you'd be wrong on both counts: Over 5,000 of them have been sold for $50 apiece to various charities to distribute worldwide.

Up top is one in action.

A story about recent innovations in low-cost, low-power LED lighting appeared in the September 23, 2006 Technology Quarterly supplement of the Economist, and follows.

    Lighting up the World

    The greatest impact of LED-based lighting could be in developing countries, where it can be powered by batteries or solar panels

    While trekking in Nepal in 1997, Dave Irvine-Halliday was struck by the plight of rural villagers having to rely on smelly, dim and dangerous kerosene lanterns to light their homes. Hoping to make a difference, Dr Irvine-Halliday, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Calgary in Canada, founded the Light Up The World Foundation. The non-profit organisation has since helped to distribute low-power, white light-emitting diodes (LEDs), at low cost or free, to thousands of people around the globe.

    About 1.6 billion people worldwide are without access to electricity and have to rely on fuel-based sources for lighting. But burning fuel is not only extremely expensive — $40 billion is spent on off-the-grid lighting in developing countries a year — it is also highly inefficient and contributes to indoor air pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases. If people switched from using fuel-based lamps to solar-powered LEDs, carbon-dioxide emissions could be reduced by up to 190m tonnes per year, reckons Evan Mills, a staff scientist at America's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That is equivalent to one-third of Britain's annual carbon-dioxide emissions.

    LEDs are an ideal off-the-grid light source because they need so little power. They can be run on AA batteries, or batteries recharged using small solar arrays. Compared with kerosene lanterns, LEDs can deliver up to 100 times more useful light to a task, besides being extremely long-lasting. All this adds up to a life-changing impact for the lamps' owners, ranging from increased work productivity, more time to study at night and reduced health problems and fire hazards.

    Several firms are getting ready to tap into this underserved market. Cosmos Ignite Innovations, a spin-out from Stanford University that is now based in New Delhi, India, has developed the MightyLight, a solar-powered LED-based lamp that is waterproof, portable and runs for up to 12 hours. So far, Cosmos has sold nearly 5,000 of its $50 lamps to various charities.

    Another company, Better Energy Systems of Berkeley, California, is testing LED add-ons that might work well with its Solio, a portable solar array that can also be used to charge mobile phones and other devices.

    The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector investment arm of the World Bank, recently secured $5.4m in financing for “Lighting the Bottom of the Pyramid”, a four-year initiative that will engage lighting manufacturers with pilot projects in Kenya and Ghana.

    One task is to make LEDs affordable, says Dr Mills, who is a consultant on the IFC project. Households in rural Kenya, for example, spend an average of $7 a month on kerosene for lighting. Although the cost of a solar-powered LED lamp over its lifetime is much less than the cumulative cost of fuel, many people cannot afford the initial $25 to $50 outlay for such a lamp. If that hitch could be ironed out — via microfinance, perhaps — the payoff could be bright.

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The MightyLight (above) is $50 here.

October 19, 2006 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

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