Most People Don’t Know When to Stop Talking, According to Science

Alex Fox in Smithsonian:

A new study asks the question: Do conversations end when people want them to? The short answer, it turns out, is no. The study, published this week in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took a two-pronged approach. The first piece was an online survey completed by 806 people that asked a series of questions about a conversation they recently had with an intimate friend or family member. The questions queried the participant whether there was a moment they had wanted the conversation to end and to estimate when that moment was in relation to when the talk reached its conclusion. The second part of the study involved 252 people being paired up with strangers in the lab to chat about whatever they felt like for anywhere between one and 45 minutes.

In the online survey debriefing a recent intimate conversation, 67 percent of the respondents said they wanted the conversation to end before it actually did, and most had secretly wished the chat had been either 50 percent longer or 50 percent shorter than it was, reports Cathleen O’Grady for Science. “Whatever you think the other person wants, you may well be wrong,” says Adam Mastroianni, a psychology researcher at Harvard University and the study’s lead author, tells Rachel Nuwer of Scientific American. “So you might as well leave at the first time it seems appropriate, because it’s better to be left wanting more than less.”

More here.

Friday Poem

Equinox: Greta in Poland

Because they were rich and clever, all
the ambassadors designed an echo chamber
of glass and platitudes, and took turns denying
the future. And because they were old, only
the next few years mattered, and so they pushed around
tarnished words like chess pieces in their narrow grid:

progress, growth, stability—

words any child could see were obscene, were
a screen obscuring catastrophe. So Greta stood
and showed them what maturity looks like,
what truth sounds like,
what leadership feels like,
then she went home to change us.

by Kim Stafford  
from The Poetry Foundation

Yuval Noah Harari: Lessons from a year of Covid

Yuval Noah Harari in the Financial Times:

How can we summarise the Covid year from a broad historical perspective? Many people believe that the terrible toll coronavirus has taken demonstrates humanity’s helplessness in the face of nature’s might. In fact, 2020 has shown that humanity is far from helpless. Epidemics are no longer uncontrollable forces of nature. Science has turned them into a manageable challenge.

Why, then, has there been so much death and suffering? Because of bad political decisions.

In previous eras, when humans faced a plague such as the Black Death, they had no idea what caused it or how it could be stopped. When the 1918 influenza struck, the best scientists in the world couldn’t identify the deadly virus, many of the countermeasures adopted were useless, and attempts to develop an effective vaccine proved futile.

It was very different with Covid-19. The first alarm bells about a potential new epidemic began sounding at the end of December 2019. By January 10 2020, scientists had not only isolated the responsible virus, but also sequenced its genome and published the information online. Within a few more months it became clear which measures could slow and stop the chains of infection. Within less than a year several effective vaccines were in mass production. In the war between humans and pathogens, never have humans been so powerful.

More here.

Neuroscientist and tech entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins claims he’s figured out how intelligence works—and he wants every AI lab in the world to know about it

Will Douglas Heaven in the MIT Technology Review:

The search for AI has always been about trying to build machines that think—at least in some sense. But the question of how alike artificial and biological intelligence should be has divided opinion for decades. Early efforts to build AI involved decision-making processes and information storage systems that were loosely inspired by the way humans seemed to think. And today’s deep neural networks are loosely inspired by the way interconnected neurons fire in the brain. But loose inspiration is typically as far as it goes.

Most people in AI don’t care too much about the details, says Jeff Hawkins, a neuroscientist and tech entrepreneur. He wants to change that. Hawkins has straddled the two worlds of neuroscience and AI for nearly 40 years. In 1986, after a few years as a software engineer at Intel, he turned up at the University of California, Berkeley, to start a PhD in neuroscience, hoping to figure out how intelligence worked. But his ambition hit a wall when he was told there was nobody there to help him with such a big-picture project. Frustrated, he swapped Berkeley for Silicon Valley and in 1992 founded Palm Computing, which developed the PalmPilot—a precursor to today’s smartphones.

But his fascination with brains never went away. Fifteen years later, he returned to neuroscience and set up the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience (now at Berkeley). Today he runs Numenta, a neuroscience research company based in Silicon Valley. There he and his team study the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for everything we associate with intelligence. After a string of breakthroughs in the last few years, Numenta changed its focus from brains to AI, applying what it has learned about biological intelligence to machines.

More here.  And also 15 years ago Jeff Hawkins wrote a book about how human brains work which I wrote about here at 3QD.

A Better Way to Think About Conspiracies

Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

No problem concerns journalists and press-watchers so much these days as the proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation on the internet. “We never confronted this level of conspiracy thinking in the U.S. previously,” Marty Baron, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, told Der Spiegel in a recent interview. His assumption, widely shared in our profession, is that the internet has forged an age of false belief, encouraged by social media companies and exploited by Donald Trump, that requires new thinking about how to win the battle for the truth.

Some of that new thinking leads to surprising places. For instance, my colleague Kevin Roose recently reported that some experts wish that the Biden administration would appoint a “reality czar” — a dystopian-sounding title, he acknowledged, for an official charged with coordinating anti-disinformation efforts — as “the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.”

Meanwhile, my fellow Opinion writer Charlie Warzel recently explored the work of the digital literacy expert Michael Caulfield, who argues that the usually laudable impulse toward critical thinking and investigation is actually the thing that most often leads online information-seekers astray. Instead of always going deeper, following arguments wherever they seem to lead, he suggests that internet users be taught to simplify: to check arguments quickly against mainstream sources, determine whether a given arguer is a plausible authority, and then move on if the person isn’t.

I’m pretty doubtful of the “reality czar” concept, but Caulfield’s arguments were more interesting.

More here.

Blood of Spain

John Mulqueen at The Dublin Review of Books:

The story of two brothers from Antwerp stands out in Tremlett’s dramatic telling of the tragedy of the Republic and its international defenders. From a Yiddish-speaking family of Polish origin, Piet and Emiel Akkerman, like many other Jewish immigrants, found a cultural home in that city’s left-wing milieu during the Depression years. In Belgium in particular, the far left attracted Jews because it worked hard to make the connection between antisemitism and fascism. Remembering more than fifty years of a wave of pogroms in Europe, Jews were overrepresented in the International Brigades. Piet had led a march of striking diamond workers earlier in 1936: his police file recorded that he was “an excellent orator, who appears to have an honourable profession but, as soon as anything happens on the street, he is there”.

In a letter to his mother, Bluma, Piet wrote from Spain: “How could I hesitate, even with my scarce abilities, to help prevent another world war and to defeat fascism?” Emiel did not hesitate either and fell during the battle for Madrid.

more here.

The Female Gaze

Norma Clarke at Literary Review:

Higgie’s book is a riposte to Renoir and centuries of unknowing and misjudging. Reading it is like travelling with an ever-excited companion who has lots to say, not all of it profound as it tumbles out in profusion and partisanship, and not always quite trustworthy, but always compelling. She is rightly enraged at the historical neglect of women artists. The marvellous illustrations here confirm her assessment of the quality of their work. Few nowadays would argue with her proposition that the history of art is ‘the history of many women not receiving their dues’. Beginning research for this book, she was ‘staggered’ by the depth and variety of paintings made by women, despite the formidable restrictions placed in their way, and despite believing herself already well informed on the subject. Ending her book, I felt much the same way, and excited at the prospect of finding out more.

more here.

Thursday Poem

Turn Off Your phone

Turn off your phone.
……………………………. Place it, face down,
on cold sandstone: that oxblood-red back-step
she buffed for sixty years.
……………………………………Look out
past the well-kept lawn, its marrow stripes
while radio waves walk through walls,
bark, bone and steel:
…………………………….congregate to a signal.

Rest your eyes beyond the fence
on the trunks of birch that ebb into the wood.
Feel those white trees breathe.
…………………………………………… The entropy
of branch and leaf may offer some relief.

Whether they do or don’t,
after a time you must pick up your phone,
face its empty screen:
……………………………….. turn it on again.

by Subhadassi
from The National Poetry Archive

Could plastic roads make for a smoother ride?

Chermaine Lee in Future Planet:

On a road into New Delhi, countless cars a day speed over tonnes of plastic bags, bottle tops and discarded polystyrene cups. In a single kilometre, a driver covers one tonne of plastic waste. But far from being an unpleasant journey through a sea of litter, this road is smooth and well-maintained – in fact the plastic that each driver passes over isn’t visible to the naked eye. It is simply a part of the road. This road, stretching from New Delhi to nearby Meerut, was laid using a system developed by Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a professor of chemistry at the Thiagarajar College of Engineering in India, which replaces 10% of a road’s bitumen with repurposed plastic waste.

India has been leading the world in experimenting with plastic-tar roads since the early 2000s. But a growing number of countries are beginning to follow suit. From Ghana to the Netherlands, building plastic into roads and pathways is helping to save carbon emissions, keep plastic from the oceans and landfill, and improve the life-expectancy of the average road.

By 2040, there is set to be 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic in the environment globally. India alone already generates more than 3.3 million tonnes of plastic a year – which was one of the motivators behind Vasudevan’s system for incorporating waste into roads. It has the benefit of being a very simple process, requiring little high-tech machinery. First, the shredded plastic waste is scattered onto an aggregate of crushed stones and sand before being heated to about 170C – hot enough to melt the waste. The melted plastics then coat the aggregate in a thin layer. Then heated bitumen is added on top, which helps to solidify the aggregate, and the mixture is complete.

More here.

The world’s first fitness influencer was a Victorian strongman

Will Coldwell in 1843 Magazine:

When Eugen Sandow (pictured) opened his first School of Physical Culture in London in the summer of 1897, he ensured that its decor matched his personal brand. On arrival at 32A St James’s Street, visitors found themselves facing a life-sized statue of the founder himself. A nearby oil painting depicted Sandow as an ancient gladiator. In both cases his sculpted physique evoked the spirit of Greek classicism that Sandow, regarded in his heyday as the “perfect man”, strove to embody.

The opening of the school heralded the birth of the Sandow fitness empire. It was the culmination of a decade of celebrity status that Sandow, a circus strongman from Prussia with a winning smile and a striking moustache, had enjoyed since arriving in Britain in 1889. That year he earned the title of “strongest man on Earth” when he vanquished Charles Samson, a Frenchman. In a bicep-popping competition at the London Aquarium, the men burst chains with their chests and lifted a (presumably normal) man at arm’s length. Sandow secured victory when he lifted a 280-pound (127kg) weight with one hand. Samson couldn’t compete.

There were tougher men out there. Stronger men, too. Sandow lost the title 18 months later, but he had struck a chord with the public. Though other Victorian strongmen faded from memory, Sandow remained a household name (and sex symbol) until his death in 1925 from an aortic aneurysm (reportedly a consequence of lifting his car out of a ditch a year or so previously).

What endeared Sandow to the public was his ordinariness.

More here.

The mind of God? The problem with deifying Stephen Hawking

Philip Ball in Prospect:

In one of his 2016 Reith Lectures, Stephen Hawking said an odd thing. “People have searched for mini black holes… but have so far not found any,” he intoned with his trademark voice synthesiser. “This is a pity, because if they had I would have got a Nobel Prize.” The audience at the Royal Institution in London (which included me) laughed. But I was struck by how unusual it was for a scientist to state publicly that their work warranted a Nobel. It was no passing comment. A few minutes later, Hawking described how mini black holes—which he predicted in the early 1970s—might yet be seen in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva. “So I might get a Nobel Prize after all,” he added, to more laughter.

Most doubtless saw this as an example of Hawking’s famous wit. But in truth it gives a clue to the physicist’s elusive character: shamelessly self-promoting to the point of arrogance, and heedless of what others might think.

Veteran science writer Charles Seife’s warts-and-all biography doesn’t hold back from exploring Hawking’s less appealing sides. This is long overdue—not so much because Hawking needs cutting down to size, but because he needs to be rehumanised.

More here.

Material Unfurling, Digital Scrolling, Urban Strolling

Dipti Khera at Princeton University Press:

I first encountered a snippet of the seventy-two-foot-long painted invitation letter as a four by six-inch reproduction in Susan Gole’s pioneering Indian Maps and Plans (New Delhi: Manohar, 54). No measurements were noted. Yet, I imagined the scroll’s spread—it motivated me to abandon archival research in the British Library and travel to Bikaner at short notice in April 2009. Housed in the Abhay Jain Granthalaya, maintained as the personal library of the renowned scholar of Jain religion and culture, Dr. Abhaychand Nahata, I never anticipated the extent to which this artifact would impact my research. As the librarian, Mr. Chopra, helped me carefully unfurl the scroll, held together by a spindle on either end in an openable glass box, Udaipur’s painted streets, shops, and sights were revealed. At any given instance, I could examine only a two-foot section of the scroll. I attempted to retain the painted vignette past my line of vision just as we stack storefronts in our memory while walking through a busy bazaar. Similarly, the composite image, presented within the rectangular window of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), invites you to scroll digitally up and down the screen to unfurl the paper scroll (Fig.1). You are enticed to imagine the streets strolled and routes followed by Udaipur’s local painters to render their city visible as a charismatic place par excellence.

more here.

The Art of Joan Mitchell

Molly Warnock at Artforum:

THE CANVAS IS LARGE, standing more than seven feet tall and six feet wide. Painted on a white ground, the composition reveals numerous areas in which white paint has been energetically brushed over marks in other colors, progressively editing a roiling chaos of gestures down to a sparer, more defined structure with several especially prominent elements. In the upper register, just left of center, overlapping brushstrokes in shades of red, black, blue-green, and yellow combine to form a thick vertical line, as if marking out the operative axis. Just below this upright element, there appears a dense flurry of multicolored gestures. Clustered in a roughly horizontal zone, this array tapers to either side but is both extended and visually weighted toward the right. Also on the right, a bit farther down, dozens of brushstrokes have again been layered one atop the other, creating a diagonal band. At the very bottom of the picture, yet another cluster of predominantly oblique gestures form a rough wedge, drawing the eye to the lower right. The artist has signed her first initial and last name: J. MITCHELL.

more here.

In the Atlantic Ocean, Subtle Shifts Hint at Dramatic Dangers

Moises Velasquez-Manoff and Jeremy White in the New York Times:

IT’S ONE OF THE MIGHTIEST RIVERS you will never see, carrying some 30 times more water than all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. In the North Atlantic, one arm of the Gulf Stream breaks toward Iceland, transporting vast amounts of warmth far northward, by one estimate supplying Scandinavia with heat equivalent to 78,000 times its current energy use. Without this current — a heat pump on a planetary scale — scientists believe that great swathes of the world might look quite different.

Now, a spate of studies, including one published last week, suggests this northern portion of the Gulf Stream and the deep ocean currents it’s connected to may be slowing. Pushing the bounds of oceanography, scientists have slung necklace-like sensor arrays across the Atlantic to better understand the complex network of currents that the Gulf Stream belongs to, not only at the surface, but hundreds of feet deep.

“We’re all wishing it’s not true,” Peter de Menocal, a paleoceanographer and president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said of the changing ocean currents. “Because if that happens, it’s just a monstrous change.”

More here.

David Byrne on Cops and Hippies

David Byrne in Reasons to be Cheerful:

It sounds like the plot of some cop-buddy movie: an anarchic hippie social worker (Snoop Dogg or Owen Wilson) is forced to team up with a straight-laced conservative cop (Clint Eastwood, the Rock). Chaos and hilarity ensue. Life lessons are learned. In this case, it actually happened.

It started decades ago in Eugene, Oregon, where police responses to drug- and mental health-related calls were ending badly. So Eugene tried something different: When one of these emergency calls came in, the city dispatched social workers instead of cops. Thirty years later, the strategy has reduced conflicts between police and the public, and made Eugene a national model for harm reduction-oriented policing.

I have fond memories of Eugene. Talking Heads once rehearsed for a tour at the Hult Center there, and on our day off we went to visit the novelist Ken Kesey, who lived nearby. He served us pasta and we helped do the dishes. The city has always had a countercultural streak, and 50 years ago, this mindset inspired some hippies there to create a free clinic and a response team of medics and social workers. They called it the White Bird Clinic.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Keep me fully glad

Keep me fully glad with nothing. Only take my hand in your hand.
In the gloom of the deepening night take up my heart
…. and play with it as you list.
Bind me close to you with nothing. I will spread myself out
…. at your feet and lie still.
Under this clouded sky I will meet silence with silence.
I will become one with the night clasping the earth in my breast.
…. Make my life glad with nothing.
The rains sweep the sky from end to end. Jasmines
…. in the wet untamable wind revel in their own perfume.
The cloud-hidden stars thrill in secret. Let me fill to the full my heart
…. with nothing but my own depth of joy.

Rabindranath Tagor