Sunday, February 26, 2012

Commit to What You Do

Tonight is the Academy Awards for movies.  But I'm still thinking about something Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl said at music's Grammy Awards two weeks ago.

I'm biased when it comes to music, so I'm not the best judge of who should get a Grammy Award.  I hate most pop music because it's less about the music and more about the performer.  Pop stars build followings based on being outrageous, and putting on concerts centered around lavish sets and showmanship.  Their music is the slickly produced product of careful studio tweaking.

Give me hard-driving rock and roll.  I want long-haired freaks who spent their high-school years in their basement practicing chords and scribbling lyrics in spiral-bound notebooks.  Spare me the glitter and the posturing.

That's why I was happy to see the Foo Fighters win several Grammys.  What really struck me was how they made their album "Wasting Light."  They made it in a garage.  Just like a thousand unknown, struggling bands make theirs.

In their acceptance speech, Dave Grohl said, "To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of making music is what's most important.  Singing into a microphone, learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do."

"It's not about being perfect.  It's not about sounding absolutely correct.  It's not about what goes on in a computer.  It's about what goes on in here (he pointed to his heart) and what goes on here (he pointed to his head)."

Brilliant.

No matter what you do.  Whether you play music, write books, paint houses, build furniture, teach math.  Whatever.  Commit to doing your best at your chosen craft.  That is what's important. 

And it's a philosophy we should all take with us when we get to work on Monday morning.

Here's the video from YouTube:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Late February 2012 Update

Hey Readers,

I'm working on adding some new features here at Chimp, including handy Amazon links to my novels.  Also, I plan to have a guest post on Astronomy this coming week that I think you will enjoy.  Life outside the blog has been busy, so I haven't posted as much lately, but next week we will have new content.

Thanks to all the readers who visit.  And hey, if you'd like to leave a Comment on any story you enjoyed, I'd appreciate it. 

Thanks,
Mark

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tiny Chameleons Discovered in Madagascar


Creeping by flashlight through the forest of Madagascar at night, scientists found chameleons so tiny they can sit on a match head.

The team of scientists, including three from Germany and one from the United States, discovered the creatures sleeping in plants just inches above the forest floor.  For vertebrates (animals with a spine like mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians), there are probably limits to how small they can be and still have parts like complex eyes and organs.  However, it seems that every few years scientists find a new fish or frog or chameleon that is smaller than they thought possible.

The four new species of chameleons are from northern Madagascar, and include Brookesia confidens, Brookesia desperata, Brookesia micra, and Brookesia tristis.  While all of them appear similiar, they are so small it's hard to see their differences with the naked eye.  Testing revealed that the four have significant genetic differences.

Found on an small island, the B. micra only reaches a total length of 1 and 3/16th of an inch or 30mm and makes an argument for the theory of island dwarfism--some animals may adapt to the confines of island life by being little and using less resources.

Logging in Madagascar reduces the available habitat for these creatures, and they are too small and slow to escape chain saws and falling trees.  However, now that we are aware of these chameleons, it's possible steps may be taken to save them.  I noted on the National Geographic site that comments were made on how cute the chameleons are.  While it's unfair to judge a creature (or a person) by their looks, it might motivate people to help.


(Here is the scientific paper on Plos One, an article in the Christian Science Monitor, and NationalGeographic.  The photograph is by Frank Glaw, a scientist from Munchen, Germany who helped discover the chameleons.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Our Fascination with Secret Codes


Last week a helpful reader sent me a link to a website about secret codes.  The site, run by Elonka Dunin, has interesting stories about codes and ciphers, both the solved and the unsolved.

For a novel writer, the concept of a code is difficult to understand.  We write stories, and then try to share them with readers.  Most novelists strive for clarity--we want the reader to understand the story so we work hard to make it clear.  And the more people that read it, the better.

A code is something very different.  Whether it's a secret message between lovers or governments or criminal conspiracies, there is a deliberate effort to make sure others don't read it.  Should the message fall into the wrong hands, the coders hope their methods are strong enough to resist being cracked.

It's a very odd mindset, and yet secret codes stir our imagination.  And people have been using codes for a very long time.  In some cases what we label a code may simply be an ancient language system we haven't figured out.  For example, the Phaistos Disc or Linear A, both discovered on clay tablets on the island of Crete from about 1800 BC.  Or the Indus Script, which contains 400 signs from the Indus Valley civilization of 2600 to 1800 BC.  These may be ancient languages rather than purpose-built secret codes. 

But most codes are designed to hide information.  The famous Voynich Manuscript is a good example of a code we've yet to solve.  The manuscript is named after a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, who discovered it in a collection of ancient manuscripts in Italy in 1912.

The Voynich Manuscript not only has pages of text in a language no one has ever seen, it also has strange drawings of plants, astronomy, and people.  One drawing looks like seven naked women in a large hot tub, which may mean this is the oldest known example of an eighth grade boy's spiral notebook. 

However, the Voynich Manuscript also contains an interesting spiral drawing that is close to a mirror image of our galaxy, the Milky Way.  Even the history of the manuscript is odd.  A mysterious stranger arrived at the court of King Rudolph II of Bohemia in 1586 with an old, indecipherable manuscript.  Now Rudolph was fond of astrology and other forms of weirdness, so he paid the stranger 300 gold pieces for the book.  A note with the manuscript stated that Roger Bacon, the English astronomer of the 13th century, had written the coded work.

Four hundred years later, and we still don't know who wrote it or what it says.  But some codes have been solved.

Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated with codes, and issued challenges in magazines to other amateur cryptographers in the late 1830s.  Poe eventually released two ciphers in a magazine, claiming they'd been sent in by a reader, but he may have designed them himself.  These two codes remained unbroken until 1992, when the first was solved, and 2000 for the second code. 

I think this is part of the lure of codes--that clever amateurs can design their own and crack those of others.  It's not a realm completely restricted to governments and their vast resources.  Anyone who has an interest can learn about codes and try to make their own.

Or attempt to solve a historical code that has confounded others for hundreds of years.  Maybe you'll solve one.

(By the way, there are no hidden codes in this blog post.  Sorry.  However, you can find Elonka's interesting site here, plus an article on the Voynich Manuscript, and one on Poe'schallenge and how it was solved.  The picture is from Bokler and shows E. A. Poe's second code.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Liars and Outliers: Thoughts on Societal Trust in Bruce Schneier's New Book


The sub title of Liars and Outliers is "Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive," and it's a good explanation of the author's direction.  He looks at how trust mechanisms work, whether you're ordering products online from people you've never met, or you're paying a neighborhood kid to mow your lawn.  In order for commerce to function, there must be a certain level of trust.

But how do we build these trust models? And what do we do when someone cheats us? Schneier labels those who don't cooperate in society as 'defectors' because they go against the rules.  Normally we might associate their behavior with lying, cheating, and stealing, but in Schneier's model, defectors can play a role in changing societies that are unjust, such as with slavery or apartheid.  I think this approach may confuse the issue somewhat, since the main point of the book is trust in a commercial sense--can you safely do business with this person or company?

The four sections of the book take us from early human culture in Part 1:  The Science of Trust, to societal pressures in Part 2:  A Model of Trust.  He goes on to Part 3:  The Real World and Part 4:  Conclusions.  I think readers may find Part 2 particularly interesting because it deals with the variety of pressures in society to conform to acceptable behavior.

Pressure exists in several forms, including:  Societal Pressure, Moral Pressure, Reputational Pressure, and Institutional Pressure.  And with humans being the way they are, we tend to combine all these factors in a given situation, calculating risk versus reward, and considering what may happen if we 'defect' in both the short term and the long term consequences.

Game theory comes into play here.  For instance, there's the Prisoner's Dilemma.  Two burglars are caught and the police put them in separate interrogation rooms.  They are each given a set of options:

1.  testify against your partner and he'll do 10 years in prison and you'll go free

2.  if you both talk, we don't need your testimonies and you both get 6 years in prison

3.  if neither burglar talks, they both go to jail for 1 year on a lesser charge.

The smart thing for each to do is not talk, and trust their partner to do the same.  One year in jail is far better than 6 or 10 years.  But the chance at no jail time means each burglar will feel compelled to act in their own interest--which means both will talk and both will do 6 years.

These kind of mental games can make your head hurt, and they aren't perfect models, but they do give us some starting points.  And that's the strength of this book--it makes you think.

And Schneier, like many a college professor, is given to colorful examples that may seem like tangents but actually illustrate his points.  Everything from the brain's use of oxygen and blood, to vampire bats, and Brazilian leafcutter ants show up in weird but useful ways. 

There are all sorts of fascinating nuggets.  Like after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, people turned in lost wallets, safes, and cash worth $78 million USD.  Or the fact that only 10% of the cells in the human body are really us, the other 90% are various symbionts that may benefit or harm us.

In a followup post, we'll look at Parts 3 and 4 of Liars and Outliers, and examine Schneier's conclusions.


(Thanks to Lori at the ThePRFreelancer.com for the advance copy of this book.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Facebook Stock Offering


Facebook has filed the paperwork to go public and will begin an initial sale of stocks this spring, perhaps as early as May.  This is an interesting intersection of business and social networking, and the sheer numbers involved in terms of both people and money has caught the attention of the media. 

I am not an expert on stocks, but as a casual Facebook user I am curious about the whole thing and asked my pals about it.  We came up with a few questions that I think are worth addressing for both potential investors and Facebook users.

How will this affect my use of Facebook? How will Facebook make money? Can I get in on the stock sale? Did Facebook wait too long?

The first two questions are linked.  Because one of the key ways Facebook makes money is through advertising, and advertising may affect the way you see and use Facebook.  An article in the Huffington Post has an informative breakdown of how some Internet-dependent companies make money through advertising, based on how much money they generate per user.

Yahoo makes $7 per user, AOL makes $10, Google makes $30 to $35, and Facebook (FB) makes $4.39.  Now the data may be skewed by the fact that FB has 845 million users, but even so, it would seem they'd need to raise that 'per user' number.  And since most (about 85%) of their money is made from advertising, I suspect FB users are going to see more ads, and better-targeted ads.

Before we freak out too much, consider Google and their services.  Google does a lot of advertising, and their algorithms are pretty good at targeting the ads.  So it's possible FB's new ads won't be too obtrusive, or will at least be useful. 

Remember, we've all been using this service for free since 2004, and that's 8 years of data collection.  It's possible this data may be manipulated in ways users are not happy with.  After all, businesses are in the business of making money, and investors expect dividends.

Can I get in on the stock sale? I have no idea.  Perhaps FB will find a way to get users involved by offering us a chance to buy shares.  The Internet is busy with rumors and advice on this, but I don't think anyone outside of FB knows for sure.

Did Facebook wait too long? Remember MySpace? Know anyone who still uses it? It seems like everyone moved to FB.  Now it feels like everyone is over on Twitter.  Twitter isn't the same as FB, but FB has a more similar competitor in Google's new social network Google+.  Twitter has 383 million users and is growing fast, especially in countries like Brazil and Indonesia.  However, FB is growing fast in India, which is a huge market. 

So I don't know if FB waited too long, but it certainly gave its competition like Twitter and Google+ time to grab large shares of the market.  However, it's useful to remember that the groups may overlap since a user might be active on both Twitter and FB or Google+.

At this point, the Earth has about 7 billion people and some 2 billion Internet users.  So there is plenty of room for growth for all the social networks.  Facebook users can probably expect to see a lot more advertising, but maybe they won't mind if FB lets them in on the stock purchase.


(Huff Post article byMichael Liedtke titled "Facebook S-1 Filing Raises Question Of How Facebook Will Increase Profits Without Losing Users."  And an Economic Times article about FB growth in India.  Another Huff Post article, "FB: Facebook S-1 Filing: Everything You Need To Know About The Social Network's Proposed IPO."  And a PCMagazine article by Leslie Horn titled, "Brazil Passes Japan as Number Two Country on Twitter."  The pic is from:  mini-bricks.com)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Save Your Brains!


No, a zombie apocalypse has not begun, thank God.  For now, your brain will remain safely inside your skull.  But what condition will your brain be in?

This week at the public library, I found a book titled, THE PLAYFUL BRAIN by Richard Restak, with puzzles by Scott Kim.  The subtitle of the book is, "The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind."

I'm not very good at crossword puzzles or sudoku, but I love mazes--the kind you solve with a pencil, not the kind where you wander until your run out of water and a minotaur eats your face.  While the initial idea of exercising my brain with puzzles didn't appeal to me, the science behind it did.

In the book's introduction Dr. Restak writes, "Gradually I became convinced that puzzles can help enhance specific brain functions and, as studies suggest, actually help ward off mental deterioration."  In the past, doctors and scientists could really only learn what parts of the brain did what by looking at injured people.  If some poor guy had a railroad spike through his head, what parts of his vision or memory or math skills did it affect?

However, the use of PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) has changed brain studies.  Now we can see which parts of the brain 'light up' when they're working on a certain task. 

Restak writes about a fascinating study of London cabdrivers which revealed that learning the complex grid of streets actually enlarged part of their brains, and that portion continued to grow based on the number of years a cabbie drove the city.  So the brains of adults are flexible enough to grow in response to the tasks they're given.  Which makes solving puzzles, or most any unfamiliar task, an opportunity to keep your brain tuned up and even improve it.

I haven't finished THE PLAYFUL BRAIN yet (the puzzles slow me down), but reading it triggered some thoughts on brain health you may consider.

1.  Brain deterioration, often in the form of Alzheimer's or dementia, is very scary, and it's a good idea to sit down with your older relatives and learn about your family history.  If these conditions are common in your family tree, it's important to know so you can be prepared to deal with them.

2.  Alcohol and drugs damage your brain.

3.  Keep track of your concussions.  If you play (or played) contact sports and suffered concussions, keep track of them and talk to a doctor if you have lingering symptoms.  For students of martial arts or those in combat sports, if you take a hard shot to the head in sparring and go home with a severe headache, you may have done some damage.  Also, learn to tap out.  Chokes work by cutting either the blood flow or oxygen flow to the brain.  Getting choked out in practice is probably bad for your brain. 

4.  If your daily work is repetitive, think about ways to exercise your brain.  Take a different route to work.  Try learning a musical instrument.  Make your peanut butter and jelly sandwich with your opposite hand.  Whatever.  Just keep learning.

5.  Read those long, dull printouts of the prescription medications you take.  And keep a close eye on your elderly relatives' prescriptions.  Drug interactions can leave people confused and 'out of it,' which can seem a lot like Alzheimer's but isn't.

6.  Exercise.  Eat as best you can.  Stay hydrated.  Get as much sleep as you can.  These are good rules for general health, but they can also help your brain.  If you're sleepy, dehydrated and you haven't eaten, I guarantee your brain won't work well. 

In life, we're all fighting our genetics, injuries, bad habits and the lure of the couch and television.  Take care of your brain and keep exercising it, so you can take care of yourself and the people around you.

(The pic is from a UCBerkeley page and shows how the brain lights up when they asked the patient to remember a face, think about the face, and compare it to another face.  I think it looks like a rabbit.  On fire.)