• A tiny word clock Photo of a word clock created by sjm4306

    Over at Hackaday, the user sjm4306 has posted some pretty cool projects in the past, including a Nixie-tube clock and a tiny IV-21 VFD clock.

    Now he's created something else delightful — a little clock that uses LEDs to spell out the time by backlighting cut-out words. I've seen lots of word clocks but never one with such an elegant little form factor.

    He worked neatly with some design constraints too, as Hackaday notes:

    One design challenge for the letter matrix was fitting all possible minutes into the array. Rather than making a larger array of letters, [sjm4306] had the clock describe the time down to five-minute intervals then add asterisks for the full time. It's a pretty understandable solution for keeping the design simple, and the letters all fit onto the design so well!

    Here's his design video …

    … and some more pix of the finished clock:

  • Knives made of human feces don't actually work, experiment finds Photo of a knife made of human feces

    Maybe you've heard the famous story of the Inuit elder who, when his family takes away his tools to keep him from living out on the ice, makes a knife out of his own frozen poop.

    The story was first popularized by anthropologist Wade Davis in a 1998 book, and even back then, even Davis admitted it miiiiiiiight be apocryphal. But the story has been repeated so often and so breathlessly that finally two anthropologists — Metin Eren and Michelle Bebber of Kent State — decided to test it.

    So they collected their poop for several days and used it to make knifes. As Jennifer Ouellette writes in Ars Technica

    "It's funny, because we've got this amazing lab," said Eren, but for that week, "I'm not in the lab—I'm in my house pooping in a bag, making knives out of my own feces. It was sort of depressing."

    They crafted the fecal knives using ceramic molds or simply using their hands to mold the feces into a rudimentary blade before sharpening them with a metal file after they were frozen solid. Then it was time to test them.

    There was no need to actually butcher a dog. Eren and Bebber used pig hide—cold and hairless—muscle, and tendons. The meat they used had been refrigerated, unlike a fresh kill, which would have been warm, and the knives were chilled in dry ice to -50 C (-58 F) prior to cutting. "We really wanted to give our knives the best possible chance to succeed," said Eren.

    Unfortunately, even under these ideal lab conditions, none of the molded or hand-shaped fecal knives made from either scientist's feces succeeded in cutting through the hide. The knives simply melted upon contact, leaving behind brown streaks (skid marks) of melted poop. They did manage to make shallow slices on the subcutaneous fat on the underside of the hide, but the knife-edge still melted quickly and became unusable.

    "I was amazed that human feces could get as hard as they do when frozen," Eren said. "So I was thinking to myself, 'My god, this may actually work.' That made it all the more disheartening when we did the test."

    As they point out, they did their experiment in a room chilled to minus 50 degrees C, so it's possible that if you went even colder, poop knives might work.

    The scientists' paper — with the immortal title "Experimental replication shows knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work" — is online here unpaywalled.

  • A rare encounter with the freaky Deepstaria jellyfish Screenshot of video of Deepstaria jellyfish on YouTubge

    Recently a team of marine scientists were piloting a submersible when they had a super-rare encounter with a Deepstaria jellyfish. It starts off looking like a ghost and then turns inside out and spreads out into a crazy translucent film.

    It's gorgeous and eerie to watch, but make sure you turn the sound up — the real fun is listening to the scientists talk. Half the time they're discussing the biology of the creature, and the other half they're just going whoooooah and oooooooooo and zooooommgg, so the whole event exists in the rapid quantum flipzone between "hardcore science" and "baked dormroom conversation".

    I would totally watch a 24/7 network that consisted of nothing but marine biologists flipping out while watching crazy undersea footage.

    From Popular Science:

    Deepstaria is as mysterious as it is rare, a shapeshifter whose body exists somewhere on a spectrum between enormous trash bag and ghostly lampshade. Last week, these researchers used a remotely operated vehicle to capture a video of the freaky jelly.

    The jellyfish in the video is roughly the size of a trash can. This deep-sea jelly lacks tentacles, and appears in the shape of a thin, membrane-like bell. Up close, you can see a geometric mesh pattern made up of canals that provide structural support and deliver nutrients to the body. In 2015, Wired referred to it as a "floating blanket." [snip]

    The team watches as the animal swoops, undulates and puckers like a possessed plastic bag. But this mesmerizing movement isn't what makes the video so valuable for scientists.

    This video represents the rare instance of observing the jellyfish in its natural, undisturbed state, says Brennan Phillips, an engineer who has worked on prior Nautilus expeditions. Normally (99.9% of the time, according to Phillips) Deepstaria is shaped like an upside-down bucket, just hanging out trying to catch prey (this is the shape it appears in during the first 40 seconds of the video).

  • AN ARGUMENT FOR GETTING RID OF THE PHYSICAL "CAPS LOCK" KEY Photo of caps lock key

    Daniel Colin James thinks it's time to get rid of the CAPS LOCK key on physical keyboards.

    Why? Partly because it's a relic of history, created in the 60s by the Bell Labs engineer Doug Kerr, who noticed that people often wanted to type street addresses in all caps — but there was no key in existence that would capitalize letters but not numbers.

    Colin James actually called up Kerr, who's still around, to get the story, which is quite interesting. As Colin James writes on Medium …

    The QWERTY keyboard debuted in 1873 on a typewriter that could only produce capital letters. A few years later came the Shift key, which toggled the typewriter's output between lowercase and uppercase letters.

    The Shift key physically shifted the internals of the typewriter, so it took some effort to press it down. Eventually, a Shift Lock key was created to hold it down. With Shift Lock engaged, letter keys produced their uppercase counterparts, but number keys produced symbols. That was a problem.

    Doug Kerr was a telephone engineer working at Bell Labs in the 1960s. He watched his boss's secretary repeatedly get frustrated after accidentally typing things like "$%^&" instead of "4567" in addresses because of Shift Lock.

    So he did something about it. Doug Kerr invented the "CAP" key. CAP performed the same function as Shift Lock, except it only affected the letter keys.

    "CAP" became Caps Lock, which made its way onto the computer keyboard, where it has remained part of the standard layout ever since.

    So it's a historic relic that, Colin James argues, just eats up space on a physical keyboard. Why not have CAPS LOCK engaged the way it is on smartphone keyboards — i.e. with a double-tap on the SHIFT key — and free up the CAPS LOCK key to toggle on something more useful, like emoji?

    Apparently even Kerr agrees it's time for the physical key to go.

    I'm down. Though I gently diverge from Colin James' argument that "most of us don't often have a reason to type anything in all caps today," given that we have bold and italics. I frequently use all caps on Twitter, since it's the best way to indicate that you are well and truly hollering something at the top of your lungs for emphasis. And isn't that like TOTALLY TWITTER amirite

    Almost as much as is the art of ending a sentence without punctuation

    Which, contextually, doesn't work as well on blog posts does it

    (CC-2.0-licensed photo of the CAPS LOCK key courtesy the Flickr feed of i_yudai)

  • Scholar finds John Milton's copy of Shakespeare, marked up with corrections and improvements Photo of a folio copy of Shakespeare, with marginalia written by John Milton

    University of Cambridge lecturer Jason Scott-Warren was looking at an original 1623 folio copy of Shakespeare's plays, when thought he recognized the handwriting in the margins: John Milton.

    Was it possible that he'd identified Milton's personal copy of Shakespeare? It was jammed full of marginalia, and scholars for years had wondered who had written those scribblings. If it was Milton, then they had a record "of arguably the second-greatest 17th-century writer reading the first."

    So Scott-Warren went to his blog and wrote a post arguing his hypothesis, hit "publish" — and the world of 17th-century English literary studies went faintly nuts. Turns out they agreed with him and now they're all flipping out with excitement.

    One of the best parts about Milton's notes is that he keeps on suggesting corrections and improvements to Shakespeare. As the Washington Post writes (my apologies if this is paywalled):

    Milton's marginalia range from line-editing — crossing out an adjective and offering an alternative — to flagging preferred passages to fixing Shakespeare's meter, ensuring it conforms perfectly to the rules of iambic pentameter. At one point, Milton rewrites the title of what may be Shakespeare's most famous work: The play becomes "Juliet and Romeo," not vice versa. [snip]

    Bourne came to cherish particular edits. For example, the time the commenter suggested "wicked tongue" instead of "idle tongue" in Hamlet. Or the time he proposed that Juliet was "past hope, past cure, past help" instead of "past hope, past care, past help" in "Romeo and Juliet." [snip]

    It's unclear why Milton may have made the marginalia and revisions. But — despite the man's well-documented massive ego — Scott-Warren, Bourne and experts cautioned against the idea that Milton saw himself as a superior writer entitled to edit Shakespeare.

    It was more likely that Milton saw himself as correcting others' errors — saving Shakespeare, who died seven years before the folio appeared, from the printer, according to Scott-Warren.

    "I don't think it's about wanting to do it better than Shakespeare; I think it's about appreciating the immense potential of the texts," Scott-Warren said. "Milton is a real admirer of Shakespeare. He thinks Shakespeare is a brilliant writer, and he wants the text to be as brilliant as it can be."

    The Guardian also has a good story on this, and the post at the Intelligencer is probably the funniest on the subject.

  • Right wing freaks out over eco-art in Austria: "Go away and take your shitty forest!" Photo of artwork

    Back in 1970, Max Peintner drew a picture — "The Unending Attraction of Nature" — showing a stadium full of people all watching a forest of trees down on the field.

    This year the Swiss curator Klaus Littman decided to make it a reality. He took 300 mature trees, some weighing up to six tons, and planted them in Austria's Wörthersee Stadium, turning it into a massive art project. Much like the original Peintner drawing, it's a haunting meditation on our relationship to nature, made additionally resonant given the today's depredations of climate change.

    Of course, because it's about climate change, the reactionary right is pitching a hissy fit about the art. As Artnet reports:

    Two hard right parties, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), have publicly criticized the project, which is the brainchild of Swiss curator Klaus Littmann. Among other things, they have falsely claimed that the installation, which fills a local soccer stadium with a grove of 300 trees, was taxpayer-funded.

    The resulting public controversy has taken on alarming dimensions. In a recent profile in Der Standard, Littmann claimed that he has not only faced verbal criticism for the project, but was also physically attacked on the street and pushed into traffic. According to the curator, his assailant shouted, "Go away and take your shitty forest!" ("Verschwind mit deinem Scheißwald!")

    Before the September 8 opening, the BZÖ rallied supporters on social media, instructing them to gather in front of the stadium during Littmann's opening and make a statement with "non-functional chainsaws." In the end, the debut was a largely celebratory occasion, but as a result of the furor the stadium is now being guarded day and night, according to Deutsche Welle.

    "I had not previously experienced such reactions," the curator told the publication. "Meanwhile people have come to thank me and talk about the project. The reactions are still bitter on social media though, where it's obviously easier to lash out."

    It's a truly gorgeous work of art — I wish I could see in person myself. The official web site has some great pix (one of them below), and it also curates some wonderful ones posted by visitors on Instagram; worth checking out!

  • I talk about punch cards, AI and "CODERS" with Joel Spolsky Image with the photos of CliveThompson and Joel Spolsky

    Earlier this summer I stopped by the office of Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow, the mammoth forum for software developers, to talk about my new book Coders, which is all about the subculture of programmers and their impact on reality. (And which you can acquire right here folks, step right up.)

    We were supposed to talk about coding but at first got totally sidetracked when I noticed Joel had a huge archive of issues of OMNI, so we spent 15 minutes excitedly babbling about the role that magazine played in our nerd youths. (They even hunted down some of the original ads for Heathkit robots.)

    When we finally got around to talking about the culture of software creation, it was pretty fun, and they transcribed parts of our talk. Here's Joel talking about how he originally got into coding:

    Clive: What was your original pathway into coding?

    Joel: My parents were professors at the University of New Mexico, and the University bought a mainframe and didn't know what do with it. They gave every professor an account. And the professors gave those to their kids.

    So I was part of a group of teenage kids just hanging around the computer center trying to figure stuff out.

    Clive: So what was it, FORTRAN?

    Joel: It had an interactive operating system because those had gotten trendy at universities. They had an interactive terminal system that had BASIC, FORTRAN, and PL1. Many, many years later I realized there was no way they had enough memory for three compilers and in fact what they had was a very simple pre-processsor that made Basic, Fortan, and PL1 all look like the same mush. It was a very crappy subset of each of those three languages.

    Clive: Oh my god, that's trippy. For me, it was the generation of BASIC computers you could plug into a TV, that's what got me in. But also, hilariously, my high school in Toronto had set up a computer programming course you could take in your fourth year, where we learned FORTAN on punchcards. You fed them in and came back two hours later for them. I'm glad to have done it, because when I interview coders in their 70s and 80s, we can bond over tripping while walking down the hallway carrying a stack of 100 cards you forgot to number.

    True story, that latter one. In my high school I took the single class they offered in computer programming, which for me was 1986. I and my friends had already been programming for years in BASIC, so we showed up thinking that we'd learn that, or maybe Pascal or Assembly.

    Nope. It turns out that some years previously — likely, a decade previously — they'd signed up for an agreement to use a semi-decommissioned PDP-somethingorother parked in the basement of the University of Toronto, on a timeshare basis, to teach us FORTRAN on punchcards, batch-style. We were kind of baffled; by the mid-80s, punchcards seemed pretty retro, since realtime coding on a screen seemed the Way of the Future. But like I said in the interview, I'm now glad I got a chance to try my hand at that craft.

    I've occasionally toyed with the idea building a punchcard reader for programming Javascript, just because why not. Maybe some weekend I'll roll up my sleeves and do it.

  • Why it's hard to measure who dove deeper into the Mariana Trench Photo of James Cameron

    In 2012, James Cameron went in a submarine down to the floor of the Mariana Trench, one of the deepest parts of the world's oceans. He says he dove down 10,908 meters. Last May, Victor Vescovo went down into the Trench — and reached 10,924, precisely 16 meters deeper.

    But as Matt Simon writes in Wired, precision is incredibly hard to measure in waters that deep — so there's still quite an argument about who went deeper.

    Why is it hard to measure things down that far? Well …

    … if you wanted, you could drop a 11,000-meter-long cable down into the Challenger Deep and measure depth that way, but the thing will be buffeted by 7 miles of currents, obliterating any pursuit of accuracy.

    Instead, scientists and explorers typically rely on sound or pressure to measure depth, or both. Pressure, of course, increases as you go deeper. "Pressure is probably the best way to get an absolute measure of depth," says Mark Zumberge, a research geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But that alone won't suffice, because water pressure can fluctuate as you descend—it depends in part on the water's density, which changes up and down the water column based on temperature and salinity.

    "To convert pressure to depth, you need to know the water density over the full water column and also the local value of gravity, which varies by about half a percent over the surface of the Earth," Zumberge says. And if you're trying to be really precise, it's worth noting that gravity "even varies by a couple hundredths of a percent from the sea surface to the bottom of the ocean."

    The other way to measure depth is using sonar, but that comes with its own complications. The idea is to ping the sea floor with sound and time how long it takes for the signal to get back to your boat. You have to know the temperature along the path to get an accurate reading, because sound travels faster through warmer water. Plus, if the sea floor is covered in sediment, as with the Challenger Deep, the ping might pierce that muck and end up bouncing off rock.

    Given the bragging rights that come with being the deepest diver ever, I'm looking forward to seeing how this one shakes out.

    (CC-2.0-licensed photo of James Cameron courtesy the Flickr feed of Gage Skidmore)

  • Why chess wrecks the bodies of grandmasters Photo of Magnus Carlsen at a chess tournament

    TIL that the physical rigors of competitive chess are so hard that grandmasters have begun to train like soccer players.

    The exertions of chess are intense. The mental effort burns ferocious amounts of calories; the rigors of sitting for hours wreak havoc on the body. The upshot is that grandmasters can be a total wreck after a tournament, as this fascinating story in ESPN documents:

    In 2004, winner Rustam Kasimdzhanov walked away from the six-game world championship having lost 17 pounds. In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess — or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.

    Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters' stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience.

    "Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners," Sapolsky says.

    It all combines to produce an average weight loss of 2 pounds a day, or about 10-12 pounds over the course of a 10-day tournament in which each grandmaster might play five or six times. The effect can be off-putting to the players themselves, even if it's expected. Caruana, whose base weight is 135 pounds, drops to 120 to 125 pounds. "Sometimes I've weighed myself after tournaments and I've seen the scale drop below 120," he says, "and that's when I get mildly scared."

    (CC-2.0-licensed photo of Magnus Carlsen at a chess tournament courtesy the Flickr stream of Federació d'Escacs Valls d'Andorra)

    (Thanks to Damien Joyce for pointing this one out!)

  • "Missing" woman joins in search party looking for … herself Photo of a newspaper story about a woman involved in a search party for herself

    Aren't we all, really, involved in a search party that's desperately hunting to locate ourselves?

    I've seen this one making the rounds on Twitter, but The Poke transcribed the news story, in case it's hard to read in the photo above:

    Missing woman mystery solved

    A group of tourists spent hours Saturday night looking for a missing woman near Iceland's Eldgja canyon, only to find her among the search party.

    The group was travelling through Iceland on a tour bus and stopped near a volcanic canyon.

    Soon, there was word of a missing passenger. The woman, who had changed clothes, didn't recognise the description of herself and joined in the search.

    But the search was called off at about 3am when it became clear the missing woman was, in fact, accounted for and searching for herself.

  • Toymaker to produce line of plastic army women Photo of prototypes of plastic army women figurines from BMC toys

    BMC Toys, a Scranton firm that makes a line of traditional dark-green plastic army men, has decided to make a line of plastic army women.

    As the owner Jeff Imel writes on the company blog, he decided to start the line of female figurines after getting a few inquiries this year from a woman who served in the Navy and a young girl:

    June of 2018 I received an email from JoAnn Ortloff, Fleet Master Chief (Retired), US Navy. She was looking for female toy soldiers for her granddaughters, and made a compelling case for why Plastic Army Women should be produced. I spent a good chunk of a weekend putting together the basics for the project, set up an email list, wrote a blog post, and got some art made to illustrate the idea. Initial response was very positive, but my schedule and budget for the year was full, so not much happened until…

    Early August 2019 I received a copy of the letter from 6 year old Vivian asking "Why aren't there any girl army men?". I responded to Vivian's Mom to let her know about the BMC Toys Plastic Army Women project. Soon after, I started to get inquiries from reporters, including CNN and Entercom Communications. With the new attention, I posted an update with some new concept art and customer feedback I'd collected over the past year. The story of VIvian's letter spread throughout dozens of local media outlets, and BMC Toys was mentioned in a lot of them. Then, a national television network called to talk about running the story. I figured I'd better get the project moving along just in case, so I commissioned more art, requested rush quotes from my factory partners, and even hired a sculptor to create a prototype. [snip]

    All the media attention, increase in the newsletter subscribers, and positive support in general have led me decide to definitely produce a set of Plastic Army Women. I have a budget in place that will allow for at least 4 different poses and will be offered in a pack of about 24 figures.

    The photo above is the company's protoype of one of the figurines; their concept art is below …

  • Painting freaky illusions on the road as virtual speed bumps Photo of floating-bar illusion painted on a road

    A town in Iceland has installed some innovative speed bumps — a set of painted bars on the road that create the illusion of floating in the air.

    As Bored Panda writes:

    Not only does the innovative design give foot-travelers the feeling of walking on air, but the 3D painting also gets the attention of drivers, who will be sure to slow down their speed once they spot the seemingly floating 'zebra stripes.' Icelandic environmental commissioner Ralf Trylla called for its placement in Ísafjörður after seeing a similar project being carried out in New Delhi, India. With the help of street painting company Vegmálun GÍH, his vision of pedestrian crossing signs became a reality.

    I love the concept, but almost wonder if it wouldn't cause some possible accidents on its own, as drivers unfamiliar with the illusion suddenly grind to a halt upon seeing bars apparently floating in the air in the road ahead.

  • French city makes its buses free, spurring new ridership and decreasing car use Photo of a bus in Dunkirk, France, by harry_nl

    A year ago, the city of Dunkirk in France made its bus system entirely free — causing a boom in ridership, as well as a drop in car usage.

    In the year since, as France 24 notes, an academic study of the system has found …

    … that ridership has spiked over the last year, more than doubling on weekends and increasing by around 60 percent during the week.

    More revealing than the simple increase is the way that the free buses are changing residents' habits. In a town where a large majority of residents (about two-thirds) have typically depended on their cars to get around, half of the 2,000 passengers surveyed by researchers said they take the bus more or much more than before. Of those new users, 48 percent say they regularly use it instead of their cars. Some (approximately 5 percent of the total respondents) even said that they sold their car or decided against buying a second one because of the free buses.

    The free buses are also unlocking entirely new activity — of those new riders, 33% say they're taking new trips they wouldn't have taken before at all. (I gleaned this from reading the academics' preliminary report here, via my rudimentary Canadian French and some Google Translate.)

    I'm not surprised it unlocks new demand; if you make something free to jump on and off, you remove not just the sticker price (significant, obviously) but the fiddly little transactional costs (do I have the right change/money/pass on hand right now?), prompting evermore spur-of-the-moment usage.

    On top of that is the potent symbolism, as the editor of a city magazine in Dunkirk observes:

    It's become a synonym of freedom," she says, attracting those who might not otherwise have used public transport. In this largely working-class city, "people of limited means say they've rediscovered transport" – a prerequisite to finding a job, maintaining friendships or participating in local arts and culture. But it's not only disadvantaged or working-class people who take the bus. It is also attracting white-collar workers, students and pensioners, according to Delevoye.

    Me, I'd love to see an analysis of the impact on a few other aspects of city life. One is the economic ledger — i.e. the cost of making the system free, measured against its economic benefits. (I'd imagine that on top of attracting new residents, it'd spur all manner of economic and cultural activity, and improve the efficiency of how people access government services.) The other is the environmental and climate impact; shifting so much travel from cars to buses probably reduces emissions, and I'd love to see how much.

    (CC-2.0-licensed photo of a Dunkirk bus courtesy the Flickr stream of harry_nl)

  • Debunking the "Bereitschaftspotential", the brain signal that seemed to kill off free will A photo of the 1964 experiment documenting the Bereitschaftspotential

    In 1964, a German experiment asked people to randomly tap their fingers — whenever they wanted — while having their brain's electrical activity monitored. The scientists discovered something nifty: The Bereitschaftspotential, a little burst of electrical activity the subjects' brains gave off in the milliseconds just before the finger-tap. Neuroscientists were fascinated: We now had a glimpse of the brain's crucial planning activities.

    In the 80s, things got super weird. The American physiologist Benjamin Libet repeated the experiment and observed the Bereitschaftspotential occurring about 350 milliseconds before the subject decided to move their fingers. In other words, your brain and body were deciding to move your finger before you yourself were aware of your intent to do so. Free will was an illusion.

    Armchair philosophers went to town on this, as you can imagine: Consciousness is an illusion! We're well and truly just self-deluding bags of meat! etc etc.

    Then in 2012, Aaron Schurger — a scientist at Paris' National Institute of Health and Medical Research — proposed a different explanation for the Bereitschaftspotential. As he knew from his research, the brain is constantly a hive of activity and electrophysiological noise, and like any natural phenomenon with tons of little jittering components, it produces wave-like crests of activity.

    So maybe the Bereitschaftspotential was just that. Maybe it was just the product of a noisy brain. A couple of top neuroscientists wondered if the original 1964 finger-tap experiment had been misinterpreted, and its correlations misunderstood. Since the decision to tap your finger randomly isn't terribly consequential, maybe the subjects were unconsciously timing their fingertaps with the Bereitschaftspotential. Or to put it another way, the ebb and flow of the Bereitschaftspotential produced moments of easier activation for the motor system. In other words, the Bereitschaftspotential's timing was just an artifact of that particular experiment.

    But what if you did a controlled experiment designed to strip away that artifact? Recently, Schurger did precisely this, and presto — the eerie precognitive timing of the Bereitschaftspotential vanished.

    As Bahar Gholipour writes in The Atlantic

    In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet's experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn't move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn't tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet's original experiment.

    In other words, people's subjective experience of a decision—what Libet's study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

    Now, as Gholipour notes, this debunking of the Bereitschaftspotential theory doesn't move us anywhere closer to solving the mystery of free will. That one's still a fantastic mystery. It just indicates that it'll probably be an even deeper mystery than we've assumed for the last few decades.

  • Mountain chickadees remember the location of tens of thousands of seeds Photo of a chickadee by Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor

    Apparently mountain chickadees have crazily awesome memories:

    Despite weighing less than half an ounce, mountain chickadees are able to survive harsh winters complete with subzero temperatures, howling winds and heavy snowfall. How do they do it? By spending the fall hiding as many as 80,000 individual seeds, which they then retrieve — by memory — during the winter. Their astounding ability to keep track of that many locations puts their memory among the most impressive in the animal kingdom.

    When I read that, I was like: Okay, you have my attention. The rest of that piece in Knowable Magazine is an intriguing Q&A with a researcher who's been doing experiments trying to probe the dimensions of chickadee memory, and how it confers survivability.

    (CC-2.0-licensed photo of a chickadee courtesy the Flickr stream of Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor. BTW, it's not a mountain chickadee, it's a black-capped chickadee. But it's … mountain-chickadee-adjacent, I guess? Anyway.)