Maggie on Virtually Speaking Science

Today at 5:00 pm Eastern, I'll be talking to MIT professor of science writing Tom Levenson on the Virtually Speaking Science podcast. The show is recorded live, so you can call in and join the conversation. It also happens live in Second Life. Which means that I now have a Second Life avatar. Seems like an interesting concept. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out. Read the rest

Gweek 066: Happier at Home, by Gretchen Rubin

Click here to play this episode. Gweek is Boing Boing's podcast about comic books, science fiction and fantasy, video games, board games, tools, gadgets, apps, and other neat stuff.

My guest today is Gretchen Rubin, author of the brand new book called Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. It’s published by Crown and it’s a followup to her 2009 runaway bestseller, The Happiness Project, in which Gretchen spent a year conducting experiments to find out if doing certain things made her happier or not/ The experiments were based on folks sayings, advice from famous thinkers, and scientific studies.

Past episodes: 001, 001, 002, 003, 004, 005, 006, 007, 008, 009, 010, 011, 012, 013, 014, 015, 016, 017, 018, 019, 020, 021, 022, 023, 024, 025, 026, 027, 028, 029, 030, 031, 032, 033, 034, 035, 036, 037, 038, 039, 040, 041, 042, 043, 044, 045, 046, 047, 048, 049, 050, 051, 052, 053, 054, 055, 056, 057, 058, 059, 060, 061, 062, 063, 064, 065 Read the rest

Real history from a pretend pirate

Meet Richard Nolan: quartermaster of the Whydah, captain of the Anne, former coworker of Blackbeard—in general, pirate. He is also—at least through Labor Day—my friend Butch Roy.

Butch is an actor, a founder of the Twin Cities Improv Festival, and the executive director of Huge Theater here in Minneapolis. This summer, he took on a new role, playing pirate Richard Nolan in the Science Museum of Minnesota's Real Pirates exhibit.

When I first heard about Real Pirates I wasn't terribly excited. It sounded like the sort of kiddie-friendly, fact-lite thing that I tend to avoid on museum trips. I mean, for god's sake, there were actors running around going, "Arrgh," at people. But then I got a chance to talk to Butch about what, exactly, he was doing in the exhibit—and what it took to prepare for the role.

Butch and his cohorts aren't just playing pirates—they're playing real, documented people. What's more, all the actors had to build their characters from the ground up, using original historical sources and doing a lot of extra research on their own. They had to learn the skills of a pirate and the skills associated with their specific role on the ship. Butch, at least in theory, now knows how to load and fire an 18th century cannon. His fellow actor Michael Ritchie, who plays ship's surgeon James Ferguson, is up-to-date on all the latest medical research and techniques, circa 1717. The sheer volume of historical information Butch has picked up is absolutely fascinating. Read the rest

Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution - exclusive interview with author Doug Fine

I had a great time interviewing Doug Fine about his latest book: Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution.

Too High to Fail covers everything from a brief history of hemp to an insider’s perspective on a growing season in Mendocino County, where cannabis drives 80 percent of the economy (to the tune of $6 billion annually). Investigative journalist Doug Fine follows one plant from seed to patient in the first American county to fully legalize and regulate cannabis farming. He profiles an issue of critical importance to lawmakers, media pundits, and ordinary Americans -- whether or not they inhale. It’s a wild ride that includes swooping helicopters, college tuitions paid with cash, cannabis-friendly sheriffs, and never-before-gained access to the world of the emerging legitimate, taxpaying “ganjaprenneur.”

While researching the book, what did you learn about cannabis and the use of it that surprised you?

Probably the most surprising revelation to me after a year spent on the front lines of the Drug War is how ready Middle America is for the coming Drug Peace -- especially with regard to legalizing cannabis. One collective I researched, in Orange County, CA (yep, Nixon's stomping grounds) had seniors as the majority of membership. These were people for whom cannabis was not political. It was medicine that worked: for arthritis, glaucoma, appetite stimulation. Americans recently polled at 56% in favor of regulating cannabis like alcohol, up from 49% a year ago. So we could be close to the kind of mainstream tipping point that ended alcohol Prohibition. Read the rest

Attack of the zombie maples

Last month, I spent several days in Harvard Forest, 3500 acres of woods dedicated to scientific research. The forest is home to dozens of research projects, some short-term, others stretching over decades. I told you a little about how I got to participate in some of these studies, learning how to collect and analyze data in the same ways that ecologists do. Along the way, I ran into something a little weird—trees that were very much alive, but weren't growing.

If those of us who are not tree experts know anything at all about tree life cycles it's probably centered on tree rings. We learned back in grade school that trees form a new ring every year. Chop down the tree, and you can see a record sometimes stretching back hundreds of years—burn marks indicating fire, fat rings during times of plenty, and thin rings showing resource scarcity. And we know that scientists use these rings to learn about the past, to find out what was happening in local environments before human beings started to painstakingly record that information.

When it makes a new ring, a tree becomes a little fatter. Over decades, you should see a change in its diameter. So I was surprised, during my time in Harvard Forest, to run across several red maple trees that hadn't grown an inch in 11 years. Scientists had measured the trees in 2001. We came back and measured them in 2012. In that time, the diameters hadn't changed at all. Read the rest

Of hermit crabs and home sales

In 2005, my husband I bought a house in Birmingham, Alabama. I was working for mental_floss and we thought we'd live there for a few years. But, in 2006, my husband got an amazing job opportunity in Minneapolis. So we moved and we sold our house. After a few months in the Twin Cities, we bought another one. In order for me to buy the house I now live in, somebody else had to move. When I left my house in Birmingham, I opened a spot in my neighborhood there that was filled by somebody else.

This is one of those things that seems so basic and "duh" that it's easy to overlook. It's easy to think that it isn't important. But sociologists, and economists, care a lot about these patterns—called vacancy chains. That's because vacancy chains end up describing very similar situations that occur in all sorts of social systems across many, many species.

When a resource is exchanged in a sequence from one individual to another, and every individual in the sequence benefits from the exchange, that's a vacancy chain. You see these patterns in human home sales—I, the people I bought my house from, and the people who bought my old house all ended up with a home that better met our needs. And you see the same thing when hermit crabs trade out their old shells for new ones.

Ivan Chase, emeritus professor at Stony Brook University, studies vacancy chains in hermit crabs and people. He's written about his work for the June issue of Scientific American, and he recently spoke with me about how vacancy chains work and what we can learn about human social systems from watching animals like crabs. Read the rest

Chris Ware interview

[Video Link] An interview with Jimmy Corrigan creator, Chris Ware. (Via Drawn & Quarterly) Read the rest

Making Shelter Simple: An Interview with Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn is the editor-in-chief of Shelter Publications. His latest book is Tiny Homes: Scaling Back in the 21st Century.

Avi Solomon: What do you see in your childhood that pointed you onto the path that your life took?

Lloyd Kahn: When I was a kid I had a little workbench with holes in it, and the holes were square or round or triangular. And you had to pick the right little piece of wood block and hammer it in with a little wooden hammer. And so I'd hammer with it, put the round dowel into the round hole, and hammer it through. And then maybe the most formative thing was when I was twelve - I helped my dad build a house. It had a concrete slab floor, and concrete block walls. And my job was shoveling sand and gravel and cement into the concrete mixer for quite a while. We'd go up there and work on weekends. One day we got the walls all finished, and we were putting a roof on the carport, and I got to go up on the roof. They gave me a canvas carpenter's belt, a hammer and nails, and I got to nail down the 1" sheeting. And I still remember that, kneeling on the roof nailing, the smell of wood on a sunny day. And then I worked as a carpenter when I was in college, on the docks. I just always loved doing stuff with my hands. Read the rest

Bones of Turkana: Meave and Richard Leakey on human ancestors and the Leakey legacy

The Leakey family is like the Kennedys, but for paleoanthropology instead of politics. Think about any hominin fossil or artifact you can name. Chances are, there was a Leakey involved in its discovery. Louis Leakey was one of the first scientists to champion the idea that humans had their origins in Africa. For three generations now, his family has carried out active paleo excavations in eastern Africa, especially the countries of Tanzania and Kenya.

The first generation—Louis Leakey and his wife Mary—were most associated with Tanzania's Oldupai Gorge. But their son Richard, his wife Meave, and their daughter Louise have all spent their careers focused on Lake Turkana, on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia. The site is the world's largest, permanent desert lake. Undisturbed by modern development, in a spot where millions of years of flowing water have washed deposits and fossils down from the rift valley—Lake Turkana is an excellent place to search for human ancestors and our ancient relatives.

On Wednesday, PBS will air an hour-long documentary on the Leakeys' work at Lake Turkana. Part biography of Richard Leakey and part exploration of human history—Bones of Turkana will air May 16th at 9:00 pm central and again on May 21st at the same time. Yesterday, I got the opportunity to speak with Richard and Meave Leakey. We talked about human evolution, the scientific promise of Lake Turkana, the process of paleo fieldwork, and the lasting impression of the Leakey legacy. Read the rest

Such a Long Journey - An Interview with Kevin Kelly

Photo: Michelle Gray

Kevin Kelly is a senior maverick for Wired magazine. Avi interviewed Kevin at his home in Pacifica.

Read the rest

The Botany of Bible Lands: An Interview with Prof. Avinoam Danin

Avinoam Danin is Professor Emeritus of Botany in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He curates Flora of Israel Online. His latest book is Botany of the Shroud: The Story of Floral Images on the Shroud of Turin.

Avi Solomon: What first sparked your lifelong fascination with botany?

Avinoam Danin: My parents told me that when I was 3 years old I always said "Look father, I found a flower". My grandparents gave me the book "Analytical Flora of Palestine" on my 13 birthday - I checked off every plant I determined in the book's index of plant names.

Avi: How did you get to know the flora of Israel so intimately? Read the rest

Robert Sapolsky on Stress: An Interview

Prof. Robert Sapolsky on Coping with Stress (Audio link) Photo Courtesy of Indiana University

Robert Sapolsky is a Professor of Biological Sciences and Neurology at Stanford University. He is the author of A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. Avi Solomon:

What event or person influenced your decision to study Primatology? Robert Sapolsky:

Reading The Year of the Gorilla, by George Schaller, when I was in middle school. Schaller was the first person to do field work with gorillas (long before Dian Fossey). I had a vague sense of wanting to do primatology before that (sufficiently so to be reading the book), but that book cemented it. Read the rest

Interview with a Stoic: William O. Stephens

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and of Classical & Near Eastern Studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He plays tennis and chess, is a vegetarian, and tries to be Stoic about being a big Chicago Cubs fan. Read the rest

Tools To Not Die With: An Interview with Vinay Gupta, creator of the Hexayurt

Photo: Jay Springett

Vinay Gupta is a man between worlds, and he’s got a lot of arms. Born to Scottish and Indian parents, he was programming from a young age. But looking back on the advent of web-culture in the late 90s, he found that he wasn’t satisfied with the thought of sitting around on .com cash and helping to empower the same old corrupt systems of power and influence just because they’d now found homes online.

No, no. Vinay packed up and went west to the American desert. There he did work with the Rocky Mountain Institute (he was on the editorial team for Small is Profitable and Winning the Oil Endgame by Amory Lovins, spent years meditating and learning Nepalese magical practices, and found himself on the playa trying to live out of a cardboard box. That struggle with the box lead him to make observations about a sort of pixelated version of the yurt, that ancient and highly efficient house of the high Mongolian desert. Thereby: the hexayurt.

Now it’s been ten years of struggle for Vinay, and he’s shown his invention (and the many conclusions that follow from it) to .biz high-rollers, .mil doves, and .org worldchangers. He has become a worldchanger. We caught up by email in October. Read the rest

An interview with David Eagleman, neuroscientist

Photo: Poptech

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and author. Avi Solomon

What fascinates you about the nature of time? David Eagleman

We all go through life assuming that time is an external river that flows past us. But experiments in my laboratory over the past decade have shown that this is not precisely the case. Time is an active construction of the brain. We can set up simple experiments to make you believe that a flashed image lasted longer or shorter than it actually did, or that a burst of light happened before you pressed a button (even though you actually caused it with the button), or that a sound is beeping at a faster or slower rate than it actually is, and so on. Time is a rubbery thing. Read the rest

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