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What is ‘Internet’ Anyway?

Bryant Gumbel, in January of 1994, is asked to read an email address out loud on the Today show and he is at a loss, especially when it comes to the “a, and then the ring around it”:

This symbol, @, for us is second nature, and this video gives a sense of how technology has changed our lives so rapidly. Gumbel and Katie Couric then go into a discussion about what the Internet is – Gumbel has no clue – and they even ask those off-camera about it. “What is ‘Internet’ anyway?” Gumbel has no idea what is going on:

And interested in more about ‘@’? This symbol has been on keyboards since the first typewriter in 1885, the American Underwood. However, it languished in relative obscurity until it began being used as a separator in email addresses, beginning in 1971.

Names of In-Flight Magazines That Are Other Airlines

The name of the in-flight magazine of Southwest Airlines is Spirit. While I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why this is so (no doubt due to Spirit’s youth in comparison to Southwest), it still strikes me as not so different to if Delta’s in-flight magazine had been named JetBlue.

The Curious Case of the Founding of Rice University

William Marsh Rice, the man who founded Rice University, was murdered by his lawyer and valet. It took years for everything to be sorted out and the proper will to be used to found Rice University:

An unscrupulous lawyer, in cahoots with Rice’s valet, Charles Jones, had concocted a plot to steal the fortune by means of a forged will. Impatient for Rice to die, the crooked lawyer and greedy valet suffocated him. They might have gotten away with their scheme; however, the next day, they tried to cash a check written out to the lawyer by the valet.

The full story is unbelievable, and can be found in more detail on Wikipedia.

Elevator Use, Public Shame, and the Public Good

Imagine you enter a building and get on an elevator bound for the tenth floor. And someone else gets in and presses the button for the second floor. You begin a process of silent rage, cursing them for adding an additional stop to your elevator trip, just one short flight of stairs above where they got on.

But what if there were a way to eliminate this problem, or at least reduce it? One solution that I have often yearned for is the use of public shame. Imagine you get on at the first floor and press the button for the second floor. The elevator responds with a recorded message: “You have pressed the button for a floor that is only one flight away. Please press the button again to confirm that you cannot use the stairs.”

If you’re carrying a package, having trouble walking, or any other socially acceptable reason, no doubt the other passengers will think nothing of you pressing the button again to confirm your selection. However, if you are in fact an able-bodied human being, who is using the elevator out of nothing but sheer laziness, perhaps public shame will force you to reconsider your choice. And if you’re the only one on the elevator, press away!

In fact, I recently stumbled across an announcement to similar effect. On the automated train at Denver International Airport, if someone blocks the doors from closing, there is announcement which informs you that you are actually delaying other passengers by standing in the door. I didn’t ride the train enough to confirm that it was working, but I’m hopeful.

My dream is that one day all automated systems will use public shame for the public good.

Update: After reading the comments, I now realize how much I blew it with this one! Everyone’s thoughtful feedback has been great. This post was meant to offer a lighthearted, albeit not well-thought-out, “game-mechanics” approach about how to deal with a common occurrence. However, there are clearly issues with it.

First, as Maria Popova’s comment noted, there were a few terms here that complicated matters. In addition to “rage” being a bit of hyperbole that clearly backfired, “public shame” was also a poor word choice, and something related to collective behavior would have been far better. Shame is a very bad way to deal with this problem, as Brene Brown, a researcher who studies shame and vulnerability, has mentioned. Providing positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement is much more preferable for dealing with this. And certainly, any effective solution would need to properly deal with people with disabilities in a respectful and sensitive manner.

Ultimately, the real problem is how to get more people to take the stairs, and use an elevator in the most efficient way for the most people possible. One potential solution noted on Twitter, using reward rather than punishment or humiliation, is this creation. And in the meantime, the best solution for now is simply to be more patient and understanding, instead of getting annoyed at these minor daily disruptions.

Thanks for all the comments!

Edge Question about Shorthand Abstractions: The Copernican Principle

This year’s Edge question from John Brockman asks what concepts from science are useful as shorthand abstractions (“random sample”, “placebo”, etc.) and can improve our cognitive toolkit and help guide our thinking about the world. My answer is The Copernican Principle, the quantitative understanding of our mediocrity in space and time, and what this implies. Please check out mine, as well as the many other (well over 100!) great responses.

Biography of Carmen Sandiego

Not that surprisingly, the Wikipedia page for the character Carmen Sandiego is extremely detailed:

There are numerous discrepancies in the various media depicting Carmen Sandiego and there are no official rules establishing a correct canon. However, the following seems to have remained consistent throughout all Carmen Sandiego media created since around the mid-1990s:

  1. Carmen Sandiego almost always wears a red trench coat with a matching fedora
  2. ACME Headquarters is located in San Francisco and the leader of ACME is called “The Chief”
  3. Carmen was a brilliant agent for the ACME Detective Agency until she left and formed the Villains’ International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.)
  4. V.I.L.E. seeks to commit incredible thefts and/or cause chaos in other ways while ACME tries to thwart them and capture their agents. In the computer games, the thefts of the minor henchmen are almost always meant to keep ACME occupied before Carmen herself pulls off the “real” crime, usually something monumental and significant to the theme of the game.
  5. Carmen is incredibly, at times almost supernaturally, elusive and her permanent capture would be ACME’s “holy grail”

And yes, the article is much longer than the average Wikipedia article.

2011: The Year You Weren’t Expecting

I have an article in this Sunday’s Ideas section of the Boston Globe entitled 2011: The Year You Weren’t Expecting. It is essentially a calendar of the coming year that focuses on obscure but interesting events. A selection:

January 9 The world will gain a new nation if voters in Southern Sudan choose independence in a referendum that begins today. The youngest countries in the world currently are Curacao and the Republic of Kosovo.

June 30 This is the next possible date when a leap second might be inserted in order to maintain the accuracy of atomic clocks. If the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service decides the Earth’s rotation has slowed enough to require one, it would be the first leap second inserted since 2008.

July 12 The planet Neptune completes its first full orbit since its discovery on Sept. 23, 1846. Neptune, which was discovered when astronomers calculated that the anomalies in the other planets’ orbits must be caused by a then-unknown eighth planet, takes more than 164 years to circle the sun.

October 17 The 24th meeting of the General Conference of Weights and Measures begins in Paris, at which an international panel of specialists may consider redefining the kilogram. Currently the official kilogram is the weight of a physical cylinder of platinum and iridium stored in a basement vault outside Paris, whereas the meter is defined in terms of the speed of light. The method of the kilogram’s redefinition is up in the air, and could involve the mass of a sphere of silicon with an exact number of atoms, or precise amounts of electromagnetic energy.

November 11 As the date which most closely resembles corduroy, this marks the Corduroy Appreciation Club’s annual holiday. Today, on 11/11/11, the club is planning an unspecified “coordinated international spectacular” to mark the “date which most closely resembles corduroy, ever.”

Lego Map of Nearby Stars

What did you during the blizzard? Well, with some time to kill, I decided to see if I could easily make a three-dimensional map of nearby stars. I was able to easily find coordinate data of nearby stars from the Digital Universe Atlas. After a bit of rescaling, the coordinates were ready for the Lego treatment. I visualized Sol, the five nearest stars, and a few others, such as Epsilon Eridani. The red squares are red dwarfs (although not so clear in the model, these dominate the nearby star count), yellow circles are stars similar to our own, and white circles are white stars on the main sequence. The “top” yellow piece is our sun:

As my wife has noted, this looks like a school project done by a third-grader, but I’m pleased. The full flavor isn’t given by a static image, but seeing how the stars are related in space is illuminating.

Predictions for 2011 in New Scientist: P vs. NP, elements, and more

Partnering with Rachel Courtland at New Scientist, I made a number of quantitative predictions in the world of science and technology for this coming year, and wrote about them in the December 25 issue. Here they are:

There is also an introductory piece and an editorial in this issue about these predictions.

The Metonic Cycle

The metonic cycle refers to a period of 19 years, which is the (approximate) least common multiple of days between a solar year (about 365.25 days) and a lunar month (about 29.5 days). Surprisingly, 19 solar years differs from 235 lunar months by only about 2 hours!

So, why is this relevant? Its Wikipedia entry yields a very interesting juxtaposition: “The cycle’s most significant contemporary use is to help in flight planning (trajectory calculations and launch window analysis) for lunar spacecraft missions as well as serving as the basis for the Hebrew calendar’s 19 year cycle.”

Nothing like bringing together the ancient and the modern through calendrical calculations.