Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994

Archive for the ‘Science’

All it takes is a small number of brave, stubborn people for society to function properly.

October 05, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: History, Science No Comments →

Finally read the Nassim Nicholas Taleb essay that I bookmarked weeks ago and it’s cheered me up immensely. N.N. Taleb wrote The Black Swan, in which he blasted the bad mathematics that toppled the global financial system. Never listen to economists who cannot grasp the math. I’ve always been too lazy to pay attention to mathematics, but Math Is Our Friend and it will save us.

Read The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship Of The Small Minority. Yes, the title sounds dire, but the piece is both enlightening and comforting. Taleb can be irritating (the air of “Ang galing-galing ko”), but the arguments are persuasive. There’s a bit of statistics in it, but you’re intelligent people, you can apply the little grey cells (Have been watching Agatha Christie’s Poirot again).

Among other things, Taleb says:







So Edmund Burke is correct. And Tolkien.

After you’ve read the Taleb essay, watch this bit from Dr. Who, the episode where the Doctor is convincing Vincent Van Gogh not to commit suicide. It made me verklempt (Yiddish for emotional).

Science tells us how to hold a coffee mug so you don’t spill coffee on yourself

August 30, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Coffee, Science 3 Comments →

Like this.

Presumably after spilling his own coffee one too many times, physicist Jiwon Han decided to see if there was a better way to drink his java. Han took it upon himself to test new methods to find a more efficient and stable way to hold a coffee mug, Nick Rose writes for Munchies. He recently published his findings in the open access journal Achievements in the Life Sciences.

“Rarely do we manage to carry coffee around without spilling it once,” Han writes in the study. “In fact, due to the very commonness of the phenomenon, we tend to dismiss questioning it beyond simply exclaiming: ‘Jenkins! You have too much coffee in your cup!’”

As it turns out, it’s not just klutziness that makes it hard to walk around holding a full cup of coffee without spilling everywhere—it’s partly due to the traditional shape of the mug. For starters, Han found that a coffee cup was less likely to spill the taller the mug was compared to the amount of liquid it held. Even so, that’s not exactly an ideal scenario for your standard coffee addict first thing in the morning.

Read it at Smithsonian.

Next research topic: How to drink from a coffee mug without spilling coffee on yourself.

Book Oracle: Pick up the book nearest to you and turn to page 45.

August 11, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Science 3 Comments →

The first sentence will describe your lovelife.

I had just bought these two books so they were in my bag.


“Now we’re trying to figure out why the fundamental fabric of reality is one way rather than some other way.”


“…axioms, in the dust of outsiders and mistrust of insiders, in wanderers’ totes and Judas’s totals, in the movement from and the standing over, in the lies of the cheated and in the truth of the deceived, in war and peace, in tinted glasses and tall grasses, in studios and studies, in shame and suffering, in darkness and light, in hate and compassion, in life and beyond it—we need to make good sense out of all these and other things—there’s something in it, perhaps not much, but something.”

Hmmm, the two readings agree.

(Thanks to Tina.)

Is time real, or is it an illusion?

August 10, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Science 1 Comment →


Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.

Read The Debate Over Time’s Place in the Universe.

“There is a brief time, between waking and sleep, when reality begins to warp.”

May 16, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Science No Comments →

Spread from Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book

There is a brief time, between waking and sleep, when reality begins to warp. Rigid conscious thought starts to dissolve into the gently lapping waves of early stage dreaming and the world becomes a little more hallucinatory, your thoughts a little more untethered. Known as the hypnagogic state, it has received only erratic attention from researchers over the years, but a recent series of studies have renewed interest in this twilight period, with the hope it can reveal something fundamental about consciousness itself.

Traditionally, the hypnagogic state has been studied as part of the sleep disorder narcolepsy, where the brain’s inability to separate waking life and dreaming can result in terrifying hallucinations. But it’s also part of the normal transition into sleep, beginning when our mind is first affected by drowsiness and ending when we finally lose consciousness. It is brief and often slips by unnoticed, but consistent careful attention to your inner experience after you bed down can reveal an unfolding mindscape of curious sounds, abstract scenery, and tumbling thoughts. This meandering cognitive state results from what Cambridge University researcher Valdas Noreika calls a “natural fragmentation of consciousness” and the idea that this can be tracked over the early minutes of sleep entry is the basis of recent hypnagogia research.

Read The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep by Vaughan Bell in The Atlantic.

Here’s a clip from Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

Signs that The Singularity is here: AlphaGo has something like intuitive sense

April 10, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Science, Technology 1 Comment →


Since the earliest days of computing, computers have been used to search out ways of optimizing known functions. Deep Blue’s approach was just that: a search aimed at optimizing a function whose form, while complex, mostly expressed existing chess knowledge. It was clever about how it did this search, but it wasn’t that different from many programs written in the 1960s.

AlphaGo also uses the search-and-optimization idea, although it is somewhat cleverer about how it does the search. But what is new and unusual is the prior stage, in which it uses a neural network to learn a function that helps capture some sense of good board position. It was by combining those two stages that AlphaGo became able to play at such a high level.

This ability to replicate intuitive pattern recognition is a big deal. It’s also part of a broader trend. In an earlier paper, the same organization that built AlphaGo — Google DeepMind — built a neural network that learned to play 49 classic Atari 2600 video games, in many cases reaching a level that human experts couldn’t match. The conservative approach to solving this problem with a computer would be in the style of Deep Blue: A human programmer would analyze each game and figure out detailed control strategies for playing it.

By contrast, DeepMind’s neural network simply explored lots of ways of playing. Initially, it was terrible, flailing around wildly, rather like a human newcomer. But occasionally the network would accidentally do clever things. It learned to recognize good patterns of play — in other words, patterns leading to higher scores — in a manner not unlike the way AlphaGo learned good board position. And when that happened, the network would reinforce the behavior, gradually improving its ability to play.

Read the full article in Quanta.