Word for Word

Lapham’s Quarterly adapts an insightful essay by Ben Zimmer on the controversial history of Roget’s Thesaurus and its place in writing:

Roget’s thesaurus was crucially a conceptual undertaking, and, according to Roget’s deeply held religious beliefs, a tribute to God’s work. His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam.

Reverse Engineering the Human Brain

In his new book, Connectome, M.I.T. scientist Sebastian Seung argues that technology will soon allow neurophysiologists to image every single neuron in the human brain and map its connections. That’s huge, considering the contemporary “regional” approach to neuroscience, which assigns functions to various districts of the brain based on correlation.

Using new methods of light microscopy, neurophysiologists are now able to image the signals of hundreds or even thousands of individual neurons at the same time, in the brains of living animals […] Such studies of neural activity can be followed by electron microscopy to map the connections of the same neurons. Imagine knowing the activity and connectivity of all the neurons in a small chunk of brain. This capability is finally within reach, and is bound to revolutionize neuroscience.

Stand Your Ground

Last month, an unarmed, 17-year-old African American student was shot and killed by a Latino neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida for no apparent reason. The shooter, George Zimmerman, claimed self defense. Under Florida’s “stand your ground” statute, he was never even charged with a crime.

Numerous cases have set the precedent in Florida, with the courts arguing that the law “does not require defendant to prove self-defense to any standard measuring assurance of truth, exigency, near certainty, or even mere probability; defendant’s only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable.” When a defendant claims self-defense, “the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.” In other words the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt never shifts from the prosecution, so it’s surprisingly easy to evade prosecution by claiming self-defense […]

Translation: In Florida, you can shoot someone dead, lie about it, and get off on self-defense, all without ever being arrested or thoroughly questioned.

When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time…If the arrest is done maliciously and in bad faith, the officer and the City may be held liable.

As of 2012, Florida and 23 other states have passed “stand your ground” laws that “allow the use of deadly force in self-defense.” What makes no sense, however, is that self-defense law already permits the use of deadly force in certain reasonable and imminent situations. “Stand your ground” laws, therefore, do not merely allow the use of deadly force — they remove the burden of proving that such force was either reasonable or necessary.

A Soccer Ball That Harnesses Electricity

To reduce developing countries’ dependence upon harmful kerosene lamps, a team of inventors has developed a soccer ball that harnesses kinetic energy during gameplay and stores it for later power needs. Jim Witkin reports for The New York Times:

“Soccer is something you will find in every African country,” one founder, Jessica Lin, told Green Inc. “People play for hours a day, so we thought, ‘Why not try to get a little more out of that energy?’ and that’s where the idea ultimately came from” […]

Early prototypes of the ball use an inductive coil mechanism similar to the technology found in shake-to-charge flashlights. The movement of the ball forces a magnet through a metal coil that “induces” voltage in the coil to generate electricity. For each 15 minutes of play, the ball can store enough energy to illuminate a small LED light for three hours, according to initial trials.

The Doctor Who Tried To Weigh the Human Soul

Get into an argument about the soul and someone is guaranteed to bring up “that doctor who placed dying patients on a scale and found that they weighed less upon their death.” I thought that the example was apocryphal, but apparently, such an experiment really did take place in 1901 by Dr. Duncan MacDougal.

In 1901, MacDougall weighed six patients while they were in the process of dying from tuberculosis in an old age home. It was relatively easy to determine when death was only a few hours away, and at this point the entire bed was placed on an industrial sized scale which was apparently sensitive to the gram. He took his results (a varying amount of perceived mass loss in most of the six cases) to support his hypothesis that the soul had mass, and when the soul departed the body, so did this mass. The determination of the soul weighing 21 grams was based on the average loss of mass in the six patients within moments after death.

Unfortunately for MacDougall and those who attempt to exploit his example, not only was his experiment never repeated, but out of six tests, only one showed an immediate drop in weight, two were discarded, two showed an immediate drop in weight followed by subsequent drops later on, and one showed an immediate drop in weight which reversed itself but later recurred (see Soul Man.) Not to mention, the margin of error is enough to render the entire experiment insignificant.

Interestingly enough, Dr. MacDougall did conduct a similar experiment with fifteen dogs and found no variations in mass, leading him to conclude that dogs have no souls. Which is lucky for him because he probably poisoned them.

Can a Dead Man Help Conceive Children?

That’s the question currently before the Supreme Court. Karen Capato used her deceased husband’s sperm to conceive twins, and now she wants to collect his Social Security survivor benefits. Chaos ensues.

The Constitution is silent on the question of posthumous conception, in large part because people back then did not sire children after death. In addition, the relevant Social Security law, written in 1939, does not get into questions of whether a surviving “child” includes one who was fertilized in vitro. In other words, the justices pretty much had to wing it.

The iPhone Fashion Shoot

Professional photographer Lee Morris conducted a full fashion photo shoot with the use of an iPhone 3GS and got results such as this:


So before I say anything else let me start by saying; I created this video to simply show that you should not be limited by your camera. Obviously there was a lot that went into this shoot including a professional model, hair and makeup, a studio, lighting, and a retoucher. We may create another video in the future where we shoot with only natural light but this video is simply about the camera. There are so many photographers who are obsessed with noise, sharpness, color, dynamic range, megapixels, chromatic aberration, moire, distortion, etc. So many photographers get wrapped up in the technical side that they forget how to take compelling images. This video is for them

For the record, the 3GS has a 3.2 megapixel camera. That said, while this video is supposed to show that a good camera isn’t everything, what it really shows is how crucial proper lighting is. Still, it’s damn impressive.

You can click here to compare both the high res RAW and edited images.

The Wizard of Oz as a Parable for Monetary Reform

Apparently, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a parable about monetary reform during the elections of 1896 and 1900, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against Republican William McKinley.

The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker, rusted as solid as the factories shut down in the 1893 depression. The Scarecrow is the farmer who apparently doesn’t have the wit to understand his situation or his political interests. The Cowardly Lion is Bryan himself; who had a loud roar but little political power […]

After vanquishing the Wicked Witch of the East (the Eastern bankers) Dorothy frees The Munchkins (the little people). With the witch’s silver slippers (the silver standard), Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) to the Emerald City (Washington), where they meet the Wizard (the President), who appears powerful, but is ultimately revealed as an illusion; the real Wizard being just a little man who pulls levers behind a curtain.

The silver slippers were changed to ruby in the 1939 film.

Jonathan Haidt on Self-Transcendance

A thought-provoking TED Talk by Jonathan Haidt, social scientist and author of one of my favorite books. Haidt argues that spiritual feelings evolved as a product of group selection and helps explain why modern life may feel “empty” at times.

Nowadays we fly around like individual bees exulting in our freedom. But sometimes we wonder: Is this all there is? What should I do with my life? What’s missing? What’s missing is that we are Homo duplex, but modern, secular society was built to satisfy our lower, profane selves.