Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our Future with Social Media

Gerd Leonhard is a futurist in the Media, Technology and Communication Industries. On the video below, he talks about social media and how he thinks it will change the way we live, communicate and make money in the near future. He also talks about the probable consequences of these changes on privacy, advertising, intellectual property and business paradigms.

It is very interesting.

PS: you can skip the first 60 seconds of the video. The introduction is not worth watching.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Collection of Interesting News and Facts

Due to the fact that I have been out of time lately, I stopped writing for a little while. During these few weeks I found various interesting subjects that I would like to have written about.

As long as I cannot write about them all, I decided to list some of them and provide links to sites on which they can be found.

A Delicate Balance of Sexual Identity

By Gretchen Vogel

ScienceNOW Daily News

The Psychology of Climate Change Denial

By Brandon Keim

Wired Science

Shroud of Turin Not Jesus', Tomb Discovery Suggests

Mati Milstein in Jerusalem

National Geographic News

Five laws of human nature

Michael Marshall

New Scientist

Cancer genomes reveal risks of sun and smoke

Brendan Borrell

Nature News

Wahn und Visionen

Jörg Böckem

Spiegel Online

Rudiments of Language Discovered in Monkeys

Brandon Keim

Wired Science

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help


The New York Times

FUTURE HUMANS: Four Ways We May, or May Not, Evolve

James Owen

National Geographic

Le réchauffement climatique pourrait atteindre 7 degrés en 2100

Le Monde

Genes That Make Us Human



Brain scanners can tell what you're thinking about

Ewen Callaway

New Scientist

The Things People Say

Rumors in an Age of Unreason

Elizabeth Kolbert

The New Yorker

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Putting a Price Tag on Human Life

In the early 1970's, the Ford Motor Company introduced in the market a subcompact automobile called Pinto. The car was a success, with nearly 100,000 units sold between September 1970 and February 1971. Nevertheless, the vehicle became the object of a dark chapter of Ford's history. Due to a design flaw, the fuel tank was easily damaged in rear end collisions, which, in some cases, resulted in deadly fires and explosions. It later came out that the car maker had since long known about the vulnerable fuel tank. In spite of that, the company decided not to take the necessary corrective actions. This decision was based on a cost-benefit analysis that indicated that it would cost approximately $138 million to improve the car safety, while only nearly $49 million would be necessary to pay off eventual lawsuits for the resulting deaths and injuries.

The case related above is far from being unique. Companies and governments often use cost-benefit analysis to put a dollar value on human life.

The first part of the video that follows shows a very interesting lecture on utilitarianism, by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, in which he discusses cases like this and the ethical considerations involved.

Watch it on Academic Earth

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Roots of Human Moral Behavior

When it comes to understanding the sources of moral behavior, Michael Shermer's “The Science of Good and Evil” is the best book I have ever read on the subject. He traces the evolutionary roots of our sense of right and wrong and shows how it emerges out of our life together as social beings.

In the following interview, Shermer provides a summary of the book.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Taboo: Weird or Simply Different?

The cultural differences that exist between human societies all around the globe are fascinating. What some societies consider to be sacred, is seen as disgusting, barbaric or criminal by others. What some consider to be normal, others see as bizarre, irrational, obscene or ridiculous.

Would you eat penis meat? What about letting your kids take part in a self-mutilation ritual? Do you consider rats sacred animals? Would you sell one of your kidneys? (You have two of them and they are yours. Shouldn't you be allowed to do it if you wanted?)

The videos below are extracts from a National Geographic documentary series called "Taboo". They show interesting cases of rituals and traditions practiced in some societies that are shocking to many others.








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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Navigating Restaurant Wine Service

When you order a wine in a restaurant, what are the right things to do? What should you look for when the bottle is presented to you? When should you reject the wine? Can you return a wine bottle if you simply do not like the wine? Should you smell the cork?

Find the answers to these and other questions on the video below.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Shedding Light on Out-of-Body Experiences

by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

René Descartes claimed that consciousness requires an immaterial soul, the core of our being. Modern science, however, suggests that there is no one central “place” within ourselves where consciousness takes place.

As the philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it, “the brain events that discriminate various perceptual contents are distributed in both space and time in the brain. (…) [T]here is no single, constitutive 'stream of consciousness' but rather a parallel stream of conflicting and continuously revised contents”.

Nevertheless, phenomena like out-of-body experiences seem to defy such arguments. There seems not only to exist a center of the self, but one which is independent from matter. How do out-of-body experiences happen? What does science have to say about them?

Evidence suggests that out-of-body experiences are triggered by malfunctions in a specific area of the brain, called temporoparietal junction (TPJ). It is generally linked to epilepsy, migraines, strokes, brain tumors, drug use and near-death experiences, although healthy people can also have one at some point of their lives.

The TPJ processes sensory information to create a feeling of embodiment, making us know where our body is and where the frontiers between it and the rest of the world are. The out-of-body experiences might arise when the TPJ fails to do this properly.

But how can people who have such experiences see themselves as well as others who eventually happen to be in the same room with them? Another bizarre phenomenon known as sleep paralysis helps shedding some light on it. During sleep paralysis a person can dream of moving or flying while he/she is conscious, yet the brain is aware that the body cannot move. In an attempt to resolve this sensory conflict, the brain might split the self from the body.

But how could someone see what is around him/her while his/her eyes are closed? Something like synaesthesia, yet another strange phenomenon, could be an explanation. The brain could convert acoustic stimuli into visual images.


Time and the Observer: the Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain (Daniel Dennett and Marcel Kinsbourne)

Out of your head: Leaving the body behind (by Anil Ananthaswamy)

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

BMW GINA - An Amazing Concept Car

GINA is a BMW concept car that challenges our idea of what a car should be. The car's skin is made of a special fabric (polyurethane-coated Lycra), instead of metal or composite materials. The fabric is stretched over an aluminum frame controlled by hydraulic and electric actuators that allow the driver to change the vehicle's shape at will. It is really cool!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A new way of communication: "what e-mail would look like if it were invented today"

Google Wave is a new service that can change the way we communicate online. Many of its features already exist separately in social networks, regular e-mail, wikis and instant messaging. However, the service as a whole is unique.

It seems to be very interesting. Watch the video below to know more about it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Exciting News About Human Evolution

Scientists have recently brought to public attention the oldest known skeleton of a putative human ancestor, the Ardipithecus ramidus. Watch the video below and learn why this early hominin is so important when it comes to understanding the history of human evolution.

Click here to get access to much more comprehensive information, including the research papers.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rio 2016: Pack your Kevlar Clothes

The video below shows some inconvenient facts bout Rio, the city which was awarded the 2016 Summer Games.

It is true that the video shows only the dark side of the city. But what a dark side!

Saturday, September 26, 2009


by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest that free will might be an illusion. If it is indeed so, the ethical, religious and scientific implications could hardly be overestimated. No individual could be held responsible (and, therefore, morally accountable) for his (her) own decisions, actions and choices anymore. At least not fully.

Data published last year suggest that our brain takes decisions up to seven seconds before we are aware of them. Some scientists and philosophers argue that this implies that our behavior is not self-generated and freedom is an illusion.

It does not mean that we simply respond to external stimuli. However, human behavior would totally depend on our internal states (unconscious neural processes), the product of genes and environment in mutual interaction (“nature” and “nurture”).

To Martin Heisenberg, a professor emeritus in the department of biology at the University of Würzburg (Germany), this does not imply that we aren't free:

Does this tell us anything about freedom in human behaviour? Before I answer that, let's establish what I mean by freedom. One acknowledged definition comes from Immanuel Kant, who resolved that a person acts freely if he does of his own accord what must be done. Thus, my actions are not free if they are determined by something or someone else. As stated above, self-initiated action is not in conflict with physics and can be demonstrated in animals. So, humans can be considered free in their behaviour, in as much as their behaviour is self-initiated and adaptive”.

It does not seem to be much of a comfort. We cannot change the facts by giving them other names. Our behavior would be deterministic anyway.


Heisenberg, Martin

Nature 459, 164-165 (14 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/459164a; Published online 13 May 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Changing the Climate for Good: Really?

by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

Recently revealed data shows that climate change is happening at a much faster rate than previously expected. The video below shows how.

If CO2 emissions are not reduced to half of their 1990 levels, an increase of almost 4 degrees Fahrenheit may occur until 2100. The consequences would be catastrophic (watch the video below).

This less than auspicious scenario may prompt calls for Geoengineering, i.e. the deliberate manipulation of climate. This would be an effective though palliative response if such circumstances arise. If we manage to reduce the amount of sunlight that hit Earth by nearly 2%, we will probably reverse the effects of climate change. It is feasible.

One way of doing it would be pumping chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from the planet, mimicking the effects of a major volcanic eruption.

Geoengineering is however highly controversial due to its ethical, political and ecological implications. Watch the video below to know more about it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

September 11th Conspiracy Theory Debunked

The september 11th terrorist attacks are the object of various conspiracy theorists' claims. Some people argue that the collapse of the twin towers, for instance, was a fabrication. According to them, the towers must have been brought down by a controlled demolition (and not by the fires initiated by the jet fuel).

A computer model created by the American Society of Civil Engineers, in conjunction with the Purdue University, debunks such claims.

The computer simulation shown on the video below is a result of the 2 years study they carried out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Islands of Enlightenment

As any internet user already knows, most of what can be found on the net is garbage. Nevertheless, there are islands of enlightenment as well. and Academic Earth are two of them. offers a large video collection drawn from live events, lectures, and debates at universities, think tanks and conferences.

Academic Earth offers video lectures from leading american universities such as Harvard, MIT and Yale.

The videos below are good examples of that. The first one is a lecture on science and religion (the first of an interesting series), by Professor Courtenay Raia (UCLA).

The second one is an interesting discussion about Leon Trotsky on the TV show “Uncommon Knowledge”.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Warmer it Gets... (Part 2)

Last week I published a post about permafrost melting and its effects on climate. The video below gives a more comprehensive view of this very serious problem.
It is amazing how so many people take our survival on this planet for granted, simply ignoring the alarming facts that are happening around us!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Einfach Schön!

This is one of the various videos that can be found on the Deutsche Grammophon's You Tube channel.
Click on the video to watch Magdalena Kožená sing Vivaldi. It is beautiful!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ocean Acidification

When CO2 reacts with water, the result is carbonic acid:

CO2 + H2O H2CO3

Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed nearly 25% of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fuels.

As a result, the ocean acidity has increased 30% since then. If this trend continues, the ocean acidity will double by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial times.

This will probably cause the extinction of numerous species, and will seriously harm the balance of the food chain all over the world.

Click here to watch a video that explains how it happens.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

That is What "Big" Means

The blue whale is the biggest animal that has ever lived on Earth. 30 meters long, nearly 200 tons heavy...


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Warmer it Gets...

Image: National Oceanography Centre, Southampton

The sonar image above shows methane bubbles being released by the Arctic Ocean floor. As the water temperature increases due to climate change, methane is released by the reserves of methane hydrate beneath the sea bed.

Methane is one of the gases that cause the greenhouse effect and it is far more harmful than CO2 (20 times more damaging). It is estimated that nearly 20 megatons of methane are being released each year by this hydrate deposit, located near Norway.

In addition to that, the melting of the permafrost in Arctic regions has a similar effect. The permafrost covers about 25% of the earth's land area and stores large amounts of organic carbon.

That is the size of the problem.


New Scientist

Innovations Report

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Closer Look

The National Geographic Magazine is famous for its magnificent photos. Frequently their contexts are as fascinating as the photos themselves. In the videos below, the circumstances in which some of such remarkable photos were taken is explained.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Little Jazz

Marcus Miller is an American jazz musician, composer and producer. Although he is a multi instrumentalist, he is best known for his distinct bass playing.

In the video below, he plays "The Panther". It is worth watching.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who is Afraid of the Black Hole?

By Alexandre Couto de Andrade

Experiments that will be conducted in the world's largest particle accelerator (Large Hadron Collider), located in the northwest suburbs of Geneva, have been the subject of much controversy in recent times.

The gigantic particle accelerator (27 kilometers in circumference), that is part of the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), will hopefully help scientists to understand some great mysteries of the universe. If their expectations are fulfilled, the scientists will not only change the way we understand reality, but may also allow the development of revolutionary technologies.

The particle accelerator will recreate conditions that existed just after the Big Bang. The experiments will probably create tiny black holes, that are supposed to almost instantly evaporate. And that is what all the controversy is about. Some scientists, like Prof. Dr. Otto E. Rössler (video below), state that one of these black holes could eventually grow and destroy our planet. The majority of the scientific community, however, does not agree with him. According to most scientists, there are radiation sources in the cosmos that naturally accelerate particles that are constantly colliding with each other all around us. Although the energy involved in such collisions can be much higher than that that will be produced by the experiments, Earth have never been destroyed in billions of years.

Prof. Rössler, however, says that the conditions that occur naturally are different from those that will be created in laboratory. This introduces new variables that may lead to unpredicted consequences.

As a non-scientist, I can only wonder how many of the “certainties” these scientists have go beyond unconfirmed mathematical models. In science, humility should have as much value as skepticism and inquiry.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Do You Want a Second Opinion?

A team of researchers and computer scientists from Berkeley, California, has developed a web tool that highlights disputed texts on a web page and gives links to other sites where different perspectives on the same subject can be found.

The tool is called “Dispute Finder” and is a Firefox add-on. Watch the video below to know more about it, and find out what else this browser extension can do.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Think Vitamin Supplements are Beneficial? Think Again!

by Alexandre Couto de Andrade

Free radicals are believed to contribute to the aging process. This is one of the main reasons why many people take antioxidant supplements such as vitamins C and E. Nevertheless, a German study suggests that these vitamins might actually shorten life through a yet unknown mechanism. A possible explanation for this fact is that free radicals might help the body prevent cellular damage after exercises.

Its worth noting, however, that when you get these vitamins through vegetables and fruits, the effects on your health seem to be good. This possibly happens because food contains other compounds that can exert a protective effect against the damages caused by the antioxidants. Besides, the supplements generally contain much higher doses of vitamins than those found in food.

Reference: “Vitamin supplements may cut benefits of exercise” (by Linda Geddes - New Scientist - issue 2708)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bizarre Animal Behavior

I have selected some videos from the National Geographic and BCC You Tube channels that show very bizarre cases of biological interactions between different species of animals. They show exotic parasites and parasitoids, as well as cases in which one animal makes slaves of others. It is really interesting.

2012: The End of the World (Again)?

By Alexandre Couto de Andrade

"Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."

Have you ever heard or read anything like the statement above? Does it seem familiar to you? Well, if you have been living on Earth for a while, it certainly does. This particular statement is nearly five thousand years old. It was found inscribed upon an Assyrian clay tablet and is the oldest known doomsday prediction. It is very probably not the first one ever. We cannot be sure. One thing, however, is certain: people never ceased to make predictions like this ever since. The website “A Brief History of the Apocalypse” provides a list of more than 250 dates on which the world should have ended according to the most relevant prophecies. Take a look. It is worth reading.
Some doomsday prophecies are simply ridiculous, while others are elaborate and have probably sounded very convincing to many of those who heard them. Many of them were pronounced by eminent religious leaders or written in sacred books. In some cases, the predictions were made when the circumstances really suggested that humankind was on the path to imminent self-destruction (the Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, viewed World War I as the Battle of Armageddon). Some predictions were purely mystical, while others were supposed to be “scientific”, at least in some degree. All of them, however, have something in common: the facts they foretold have obviously never occurred.
My purpose in this post is to write about the most recent of these prophecies: the 2012 doomsday prediction. Based on the Mayan calendar (Long Count), some people believe that the world will end on December 21 or 23, 2012. That's when the calender ends. This apocalyptic interpretation is disputed by academic scholars of Mayan civilization.
Pseudoscientists and mystics generally have very peculiar opinions about ancient civilizations. Many pseudoscientists simply underestimate them. According to Erich von Däniken, for example, the ancient egyptians needed extraterrestrial help to build the pyramids (a claim supported only by ignorance). Other pseudoscientists, as well as most mystics, on the other hand, overestimate them. Myths and superstitions are seen as “ancient knowledge”. Vague and obscure “prophecies”, that can mean almost anything (Nostradamus', for instance), always find a convenient interpretation (generally after the “foretold” event has occurred). That is clearly what happens in this case. How could the Mayans possibly have determined when the world is going to end? What kind of special knowledge did they have?
The proponents of the 2012 doomsday are not intimidated by questions like these. There are “other evidences”, after all. They are provided by astrology. Well, if you think that astrology is credible, read my first blog post (Astrology: What does Science have to say about it?).
Some people also argue that the wars, famine, natural catastrophes, diseases, among many other misfortunes that the world faces nowadays are signs that indicate that the end is indeed near. But haven't these problems always been with us? As a matter of fact, although things are still very far from being good, humankind has never been so prosperous as it is now.
We, human beings, will undoubtedly eventually face extinction. Nevertheless, the end is neither written in the stars, nor was predicted by any primitive people.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Worsening Climate Crisis

In a recent talk at the TED 2009 conference, Al Gore showed updated information about the alarming effects of global climate change.
Watch the video below.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

“Genocide never again”?

I have just watched the impressive The Devil Came on Horseback (by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg). It is a documentary on the Darfur genocide, based on the book by Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine Captain who worked in Sudan as an unarmed military observer.

Almost as shocking as the genocide itself is the incredible fact that nearly no one does anything to stop it. Some even deny the facts.

Watch the trailer and access the Save Darfur organization website. We can do something about it!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Seven Basic Principles of Magic

Human perception is not as reliable as we might think. The brain takes shortcuts to handle the overwhelming quantity of information constantly provided by the senses. That creates blind spots and other perceptual illusions that are intuitively exploited by magicians to fool their audience.

No matter how intricate magical tricks can be, magicians always rely on the same set of principles: palm, ditch, steal, simulation, load, misdirection, and switch.

In the first video below, magicians Penn and Teller show how it is done.

In the second one, magician James Randy shows how Uri Geller's “psychic powers” probably really work.