A fantastic story of a love affair with physics

"At its most base level, everything is nuts. So f#*$ it." In which a bartender from Queens becomes obsessed with theoretical physics. Read the rest

Did Neanderthals speak with a high-pitched voice?

Neanderthals had different bodies than we do. In general, they were stockier and shorter, for instance. And there were other physical differences, as well. It's hard to say what these differences meant in practice but it's fun to speculate. You could build up a pretty good about how those short, study bodies might have helped Neanderthals be better adapted to cold. Or, you could look at the shape of a male Neanderthal's voice box, and think about how that shape might affect the sounds that came out.

So that's what this video is about. I have no idea how widely accepted "high pitched voice theory" is. I couldn't find a lot of references to it outside of the BBC special this clip comes from. Here's what the BBC says:

Professor Bob Franciscus, from Iowa University, is part of a multi-national group attempting to do just that. By making scans of modern humans, he saw how the soft tissue of the vocal tracts depends on the position of the hyoid bone and the anchoring sites on the skull. Computer predictions were then be made to determine the shape of the modern human vocal tract from bone data alone. The same equations were then used with data from a Neanderthal skull to predict the shape of a Neanderthal vocal tract.

The Neanderthal vocal tract seems to have been shorter and wider than a modern male human's, closer to that found today in modern human females. It's possible, then, that Neanderthal males had higher pitched voices than we might have expected.

Read the rest

A thermite reaction on 9/11?

Still think that something other than a mere plane crash brought down the World Trade Center towers? According to a Norwegian materials expert, you may be right. Just ... you know ... not in the way most Truthers probably expect.

Christian Simensen thinks the Twin Towers were ultimately felled by a thermite reaction.

"If my theory is correct, tonnes of aluminium ran down through the towers, where the smelt came into contact with a few hundred litres of water," Christian Simensen, a scientist at SINTEF, an independent technology research institute based in Norway, said in a statement released Wednesday.

"From other disasters and experiments carried out by the aluminium industry, we know that reactions of this sort lead to violent explosions."

Given the quantities of the molten metal involved, the blasts would have been powerful enough to blow out an entire section of each building, he said. This, in turn, would lead to the top section of each tower to fall down on the sections below.

The sheer weight of the top floors would be enough to crush the lower part of the building like a house of card, he said.

I honestly don't know how plausible an idea this is. It sounds reasonable to a layperson, but I'm curious what those of you with more engineering expertise think.

The AFP has a write-up about the theory. There's also a more-detailed explanation on the website of SINTEF, the Norwegian research lab where Simensen works. Finally, this appeared in the trade journal Aluminum International Today, and they've got an email address where you can request a copy of the story. Read the rest

Debate with Nina Paley about noncommercial licenses

Recently, Nina "Sita Sings the Blues" Paley and I conducted a protected email exchange debating the merits of the Creative Commons "noncommerical" licenses (like those used on my novels and here at Boing Boing). It was an instructive and sometimes productive debate, and Nina's edited the thread and posted it.

Here's my perspective: the purpose of any cultural policy or regulation should be to encourage a diversity of both participation and works (that is: more people making art, and more kinds of art being made).

ISTM that your assertion amounts to: "Whatever forms of participation that come into existence as a result of the capitalization opportunities that accrue in an exclusive rights regime, they are dwarfed by the works that lurk in potentia should such a regime perish."

IOW: we unequivocally get *some* participation in culture as a result of exclusive rights regimes, some of which would not exist except for exclusive rights. You believe that if this regime and the works that depend on it was to vanish, the new works that would come into existence as a result would offset the losses.

I don't know how either assertion could be tested. We both have firsthand experience of both modes of creativity -- I know of works that wouldn't have been capitalized absent the higher returns expected in the presence of exclusive rights; I also know of works that could only have been made in their absence.

Paley & Doctorow argue over Non-Commercial licenses

Nina Paley's wonderful "Sita Sings the Blues" cartoon Nina Paley passes Netflix DRM and thousands of dollars Nina Paley and EFF: Sita Sings the Blues benefit in San Francisco ... Read the rest

In Praise of Passion

Kerov writes:

The nature of propaganda is to use emotion to bypass rationality. That, to me, qualifies it as a "bad thing" generally.

In my post on propaganda, I mentioned that propaganda is a tool that can be used for good as well as evil. This is a concept that the "great generation" largely accepted, but we "baby boomers" and "post-boomers" have never been required to understand. After the jump, I'll explain why appealing to emotions is so important, both in words and with a classic cartoon... Read the rest

The Biology of Music: Why we like what we like

As a rule, humans are very picky about their music. I don't mean stylistic choices. Whether you like country, western, or both is up to you. I'm talking about something more basic than that.

A tone is a sound, like a note before it gets a specific name, and a scale is a collection of tones grouped in ascending or descending order. We are able to hear a huge number of tones and, theoretically, there's billions of ways to group them, but humans tend to focus on a very small number of scales, usually made up of either five or seven tones. The same scales are used over and over, throughout most of Western music and much of human music as a whole, said Dale Purves, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at Duke University and director of the Duke-NUS Neuroscience Program in Singapore. In fact, even styles of music that sound completely different--say classical Chinese music vs. Western folk music--use the same scale, he said. They just use it differently.

So why are we so drawn to certain tones and certain groups of tones? Purves' team thinks they have an answer--an explanation that links what humans like with who they are, biologically. Read the rest