Video Short: Sentient Meat

One of my earlier posts quoted the Terry Bisson “Sentient Meat” short story – well, it turns out that there’s a film short based on the story!

Great exchange:

And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you have probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?

They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.

A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.

I liked the feeling of surrealism surrounding something we take for granted every day: we are thinking, loving, dreaming meat.

And yes, that IS Ben Baily of Cash Cab.

Happy Tau Day!

I almost missed the chance to promote Tau Day! Many of you probably know about Pi Day, held on March 14th. At my high school we used to bring in pies to the math room and eat them at 1:59PM in a glorious (and delicious) celebration of mathematics. But the inimitable Vi Hart lobs an objection: using Pi often doesn’t make as much sense as using Tau, the ratio of the circumference of a circle over its RADIUS.

Thus, we need a new day in celebration of the more-useful Tau:

Seeing as Tau is approximately 6.28 and today is June 28th, have yourself a great Tau Day and enjoy two pi(e)s! While you’re eating, you can go check out more of Vi Hart’s work – she does a fantastic job showing how much fun math can be. We need more voices like hers, and I’ll be sure to post more of her videos!

When Literal Honesty Goes Awry

When is it NOT appropriate to bluntly speak the truth? We’ve all heard someone be insulting and resort to the defense of “Well, it’s true!” Even boring, inoffensive facts can become offensive if brought up inartfully. I think this is a perfect example, illustrated by the hilarious comedy team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb:

I mean, technically it’s true. The literal fact that “anyone we know is unlikely to be the most attractive person on earth” shouldn’t hurt feelings. Nobody should think that much of themselves!

…And yet, it’s rude to say. Why?

I think that’s because nobody took Robert’s original statement “this is the most beautiful woman in the world” at its face value. It violated the maxim of quality – the literal meaning was clearly false so people look for alternative interpretations (“She’s beautiful and I love her” or “She’s very attractive in a combination of ways”).

Since nobody took it seriously at face value, challenges to the claim are perceived as challenging the alternate interpretations rather than the literal meaning. The very decision to call attention to it makes a statement. Why would David be so motivated to discuss her beauty unless he strenuously disagreed with her beauty? So, in essence, he’s saying “No, she’s not very beautiful.”

Yes, David’s literal content is true: she’s not the most beautiful person in the world. But so much of our reaction to a statement is is really a reaction to its implied meaning, and it’s tough to get around that. Initial gut reactions can be powerful.

But it’s possible to do it right. I love having the opportunity to share the awesome and incredible Tim Minchin song If I Didn’t Have You:

Somehow, when Tim does it, the honest approach works better. People often claim that they DO have a soul mate, so it isn’t automatically interpreted as a figure of speech for something more casual.

But it’s particularly important the way he addresses the literal meanings. Compare “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but not off the charts” with “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but you fall within a bell-curve.” It’s a strange enough statement to make people think about it harder and realize he’s not being snide.

I found myself thinking of something Steven Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought:

The incongruity in a fresh literary metaphor is another ingredient that gives it its pungency. The listener resolves the incongruity soon enough by spotting the underlying similarity, but the initial double take and subsequent brainwork conveys something in addition. It implies that the similarity is not apparent in the humdrum course of everyday life, and that the author is presenting real news in forcing it upon the listener’s attention.

Pinker was writing about using new metaphors to emphasize non-literal meaning, but it works the other way as well. Fresh phrasings – in this case gloriously nerdy ones – make listeners pay more attention to parsing the intended meaning, metaphorical or literal.

If you’re worried about being misinterpreted, try a creative way of expressing the same thought. Protesting “But I was telling the truth!” won’t always be enough.

Does “socially responsible” investing do any good?

In this video, I’m discussing “socially responsible” investing with the mathematician from http://askamathematician.com. If you limit your investments to companies that uphold ethical principles you care about — for example, environmental protection, human rights, diversity, etc. — how much of an impact does your investment decision have?

Synching Up: Another Cool Physics Video

Last week I stumbled upon that beautiful pendulum video. In comments, Max shared another cool video from the same people (Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations) – about synchronizing metronomes: (Thanks Max!)

The audio effect is important; watching the metronomes isn’t as powerful as hearing them get in a rhythm.

Any variation between the metronomes results in energy “swaying” the system, leading them to synchronize over time. After all, you wouldn’t expect a metronome to keep perfect time if you were shaking it – the setup just makes the shaking work against metronomes going against the consensus. I’m sure our friends at Ask a Mathematician/Ask a Physicist could give a more thorough answer.

What surprised me is that they got OUT of synch after being removed from the soda cans. I thought that, once in a rhythm, they would stay that way. I guess that by picking the system up and putting it back on the table was enough to break that. Or am I missing something?

The Transplant Problem

In this week’s video, I field a question about a tricky dilemma in moral philosophy: if you had to kill one innocent person to save five people, should you do it?

Simple, Beautiful Physics: Video

This is one of the simplest but most captivating physics videos I’ve ever seen:

Each pendulum is at a slightly different length – not just for the visual effect, but it gives them different phasesperiods/frequencies [Seth, the Physicist in Ask a Mathematician/Ask a Physicist wrote me to correct this – Thanks Seth!]

Fifteen uncoupled simple pendulums of monotonically increasing lengths dance together to produce visual traveling waves, standing waves, beating, and random motion.

For more details see http://sciencedemonstrations.fas.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k16940&pa…

The period of one complete cycle of the dance is 60 seconds. The length of the longest pendulum has been adjusted so that it executes 51 oscillations in this 60 second period. The length of each successive shorter pendulum is carefully adjusted so that it executes one additional oscillation in this period. Thus, the 15th pendulum (shortest) undergoes 65 oscillations.

This seems easy enough for middle school students to set up and learn from. Our friends at Ask a Mathematician/Ask a Physicist just had a post: Cheap experiments and demonstrations for kids. I think this would be a great addition.

(Via Richard Wiseman)

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