In this week’s episode of the TED Radio Hour, Scott Fraser, Daniel Kahneman, and I talk about human memory.
I’m honored to have received two pieces of good news this month. I was awarded a 2013 fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and was named a finalist for the Livingston Award for national reporting, for my New Yorker piece “Utopian for Beginners.”
Subscribers to my Quarterly.co mailings should have received their latest package this week, a pair of “lying-down spectacles.” From my letter to subscribers: The enclosed prism spectacles allow you to maintain your neck at a comfortable angle, while directing your eyes downward to the book in your hands. Sure, these glasses may be an outsized solution to one of life’s very minor annoyances, but that’s why I’ve grown so fond of them. We should embrace ridiculous solutions to life’s problems, if only because they make life less ordinary. At the very least, I think you will find that you will now be able to fall asleep while reading twice as fast.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been in the Congolese rainforest, almost completely incommunicado thanks to a finicky satellite phone. While I was away, my first ever segment for NPR’s Radiolab aired, as part of an episode devoted to the subject of speed. It’s about one of the world’s longest running science experiments, underway at the University of Queensland in Australia since 1927. If, after listening to the piece, you’re interested in becoming a “pitch drop junkie” yourself, you can do so here. The ninth drop is expected to fall sometime in the next year. Will you be watching live?
Each week the Daily Beast interviews a different author about his or her writing habits, for a series called “How I Write.” I talked about my favorite underwear, superstitions, and my morning routine. A couple answers below. Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them. I have a woodshop in my garage. If I’ve made good progress in the morning, I’ll reward myself by going out back to spend an hour making sawdust, before returning to work for the afternoon. Woodworking requires a completely different kind of thinking and problem-solving ability than writing. With writing, you take a set of facts and ideas, and you reason your way forward to a story that pulls them together. With woodworking, you start with an end product in mind, and reason your way backward to the raw wood. If you can’t envision the entire journey that a plank of wood will take on its way to becoming something finished, you will make uncorrectable mistakes. With writing, each step of creation justifies the one that comes before. With woodworking, each step has to justify the one that comes after. On a good day, I’ve had … Continue reading
Quarterly Co. is a subscription service that enables people to receive physical items in the mail from contributors of their choice. The theme of my quarterly mailings is “Machines for Experimental Living.” My most recent mailing was an Horologium Florae, or flower clock. Below is the letter I sent to subscribers: Dear Quarterly Subscriber, Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, divided the flowering plants into three groups: the meteorici, which change their opening and closing times according to the weather conditions; the tropici, which change their opening and closing times according to the length of the day; and the aequinoctales, which have fixed opening and closing times, regardless of weather or season. Linnaeus noted in his Philosophia Botanica that if one possessed a sufficiently large variety of aequinoctal species, it would be possible to tell time simply by observing the daily opening and closing of flowers. He commented, to the consternation of several local horologists, that his floral clock would be so accurate that it “could put all the watchmakers in Sweden out of business.” Though Linnaeus seems never actually to have planted an horologium florae, or flower clock, we shall. Enclosed in this package are seeds for a variety of aequinoctal flowers that can be used in … Continue reading
I’ve been following John Quijada, inventor of an artificial language called Ithkuil, for five and a half years. This week, my story on him ran in the New Yorker: Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible. Ideas that could be expressed only as a clunky circumlocution in English can be collapsed into a single word in Ithkuil. A sentence like “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point” becomes simply “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx.” Read More UPDATE: Here is a discussion the piece on the New Yorker’s “Out Loud” podcast.
This is a topophonic telestereoscope, a machine I built for exaggerated three-dimensional vision and sound. It is a mash-up of two nineteenth-century inventions: the topophone and the telestereoscope. The topophone, shown at right, was invented by Alfred Mayer, a professor of physics at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, to help locate distant sounds. It worked by artificially exaggerating the distance between the ears, and amplifying their inputs. An 1880 Scientific American article, from which this image is drawn, explains the topophone’s intended purpose: The aim of the topophone, which was invented and patented by Professor A. M. Mayer, last winter, is to enable the user to determine quickly and surely the exact direction and position of any source of sound. Our figure shows a portable style of the instrument; for use on ship-board it would probably form one of the fixtures of the pilot-house or the “bridge,” or both. In most cases arising in sailing through fogs, it would be enough for the captain or pilot to be sure of the exact direction of a fog horn, whistling buoy, or steam whistle; and for this a single aural observation suffices. Acoustic locators were later widely used to pick … Continue reading
A five-way conversation published in the Observer between me, Stephen Pinker, Lone Frank, James Gleick, and Brian Greene about the state of science writing.
Are you looking for just the right gift to give to that beloved uncle, aunt, cousin, or co-worker? May I humbly recommend a signed copy of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything? Order by December 9th, and I’ll inscribe the book with whatever custom message you want (at no extra charge). Fill out the form and order now.