Category Archives: interesting

Year Four in Review

It’s been a quiet year on Lone Gunman with only 76 posts published over the last 366 days: but the response has been as great as ever.

This year is a special one for Lone Gunman as it was four years ago today–during the last leap day–that the first post was published. It’s been a great experience and the site has evolved a lot, as you can see if you take a look through my previous ‘in review’ posts (Year One, Year Two, Year Three).

And so the passing of another year can mean only one thing… Lone Gunman is four, and this is Year Four in Review; a compilation of the best things I’ve read on the Internet over the last twelve months.

Lone Gunman Keywords (Year Four) - Wordle.net
Visualisation of the 50 most frequently used keywords on Lone Gunman in year four.

Items definitely not to miss are highlighted (probably not through an RSS feed reader). [LG] denotes my original post.

First, the three most read and shared posts from the past year: Food-Based Body Clock the Key to Jet Lag, Inventive Ways to Control Trolls and Optimal Caffeine Consumption.

Relationships

Negotiation/Persuasion

The Brain, Our Senses

Food

Learning

Design

Technology

Other

Guest Posts

Finally, this year I’m extremely grateful to two friends for taking over Lone Gunman during a vacation. Their posts were excellent, and I recommend you go back and review them:

Thanks!

How Trends Actually Spread; or, Six Degrees but No Connectors

The small sample size of Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment means that the theory of ‘six degrees of separation’ and the conclusion drawn from it–primarily, the Influential’s theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point–could be deeply flawed. That was the starting point for Duncan Watts‘ research that led him to say “the Tipping Point is toast”.

So to research how ideas and trends spread virally, Watts (who is author of Everything is Obvious, principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research (he directs their Human Social Dynamics group), and founding director of Columbia University’s Collective Dynamics Group) ran large-scale reproductions of the small world experiment and hundreds of computer simulations that brought forward two conclusions: the six degrees of separation theory is correct, but there is no evidence for super-connected ‘trend gatekeepers’ (such as Gladwell’s ‘Connectors’):

But Watts, for one, didn’t think the gatekeeper model was true. It certainly didn’t match what he’d found studying networks. So he decided to test it in the real world by remounting the Milgram experiment on a massive scale. In 2001, Watts used a Web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that “hubs”–highly connected people–weren’t crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target. […]

[His computer simulation] results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

I can’t help but find it somewhat ironic that, written almost four years ago, this argument hasn’t really gained much traction and Gladwell’s ideas are still discussed ad nauseam.

The Evolutionary History of the Brain

The development of the human brain is intricately linked with almost every moment of our evolution from sea-dwelling animals to advanced, social primates. That is the the overwhelming theme from New Scientist‘s brief history of the brain.

The engaging article ends with a look at the continued evolution of the human brain (“the visual cortex has grown larger in people who migrated from Africa to northern latitudes, perhaps to help make up for the dimmer light”), and this on why our brains have stopped growing:

So why didn’t our brains get ever bigger? It may be because we reached a point at which the advantages of bigger brains started to be outweighed by the dangers of giving birth to children with big heads. Or it might have been a case of diminishing returns.

Our brains are pretty hungry, burning 20 per cent of our food at a rate of about 15 watts, and any further improvements would be increasingly demanding. […]

One way to speed up our brain, for instance, would be to evolve neurons that can fire more times per second. But to support a 10-fold increase in the “clock speed” of our neurons, our brain would need to burn energy at the same rate as Usain Bolt’s legs during a 100-metre sprint. The 10,000-calorie-a-day diet of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps would pale in comparison.

Not only did the growth in the size of our brains cease around 200,000 years ago, in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years the average size of the human brain compared with our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 per cent. Some see this as no cause for concern. Size, after all, isn’t everything, and it’s perfectly possible that the brain has simply evolved to make better use of less grey and white matter. That would seem to fit with some genetic studies, which suggest that our brain’s wiring is more efficient now than it was in the past.

Others, however, think this shrinkage is a sign of a slight decline in our general mental abilities.

via @mocost

Our Amazing Senses

As neuroscientist Bradley Voytek points out, “we’re used to thinking of our senses as being pretty shite”, and this is mostly thanks to the plethora of animals that can see, hear, smell and taste far better than we can. “We can’t see as well as eagles, we can’t hear as well as bats, and we can’t smell as well as dogs”, he concludes… and that seems to be the consensus on every nature documentary I’ve ever watched.

However our brain is a magnificent construction (and our senses are equally as wondrous), and so Voytek tries to reverse this idea by explaining just how sensitive and amazing our senses really are:

It turns out that humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons entering the retina. Two. As in, one-plus-one. It is often said that, under ideal conditions, a young, healthy person can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That’s like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stamford, Connecticut. Or seeing a candle in Candlestick Park from Napa Valley.*

Similarly, it appears that the limits to our threshold of hearing may actually be Brownian motion. That means that we can almost hear the random movements of atoms.

We can also smell as few as 30 molecules of certain substances. […]

These facts suggest that we all have some level of what we’d normally think of as “super human” sensory abilities already.

But what the hell? If I can supposedly see a candle from 30 miles away, why do I still crack my frakkin’ shin on the coffee table when it’s only slightly dark in my living room?

It may not surprise you to hear that the answer to that question is attention.

* For the Europeans among you, that’s more than a fifth longer than the Channel Tunnel‘s underwater section (or Hyde Park to Stansted Airport for the Londoners).

A first hand account of foreclosure

A recent reddit thread about questionable jobs revealed an real-estate worker willing to talk about his experiences foreclosing on homes. He expanded his experiences into a longer post that is eloquent, emotionally charged and revealing about the lasting impact of the global financial crisis.

[T]hey can get angry and defensive, tell me that they were never foreclosed on, tell me that I am trespassing and owe them $5,000 in “land use fees” for “using” their property as I walk to the front door. They threaten to sue, they threaten to call the cops, they say I should look under my car before I start it from now on. They send letters written in various forms of English – one time scribed in crayon – detailing their rights and how I am violating some maritime treaty from the 1700s. In my travels I have learned that if you copyright your name you can’t be named in any kind of legal action, if you never write down your ZIP code then you aren’t a resident of the United States and that if I tell somebody that their lender is offering them money to vacate while leaving the staircase (yes, these get stolen) and driveway (yes, these get stolen) in place then I am guilty of slave trading under some United Nations something or other.

Why my job is to watch dreams die (via the excellent NPR Planet Money blog)