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) -
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.



The Brain, Our Senses






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:


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)