Saturday, February 11, 2012


I recently had a few opportunities on a plane to catch up on some reading and podcasts.  A few of the more interesting things I came across:

A bunch of interesting articles in The Economist for the past few weeks:

January 28-February 3, 2012:

"Saving Lives: Scattered Saviors" -- harnessing social media and mobile devices to deploy first aid faster than an ambulance can arrive (United Hatzalah in Israel believes it will be able to have first responders on the scene within 90 seconds).

"China's new tribes: Ant tribes and mortgage slaves" -- a new vocabulary in Mandarin describing emerging social groups in China.  (Reminds me of Cory Doctorow's Eastern Standard Tribe.)

"Affinity fraud: Fleecing the flock" -- the rise in affinity fraud, especially religious affinity fraud, during the economic downturn, and why it works so effectively.  (Also see my blog post from 2008 and another on the same topic from the Secular Outpost in 2006.)  Briefly mentioned is the Baptist Foundation of Arizona affinity fraud, which victimized my step-grandfather by stealing most of his retirement savings.

"Visible-light communication: Tripping the light fantastic" -- an update on where we stand with Li-Fi (using LED lighting as a mechanism for data transmission).

February 4-10, 2012:

"Synaesthesia: Smells like Beethoven" -- A new study finds correlations between odors and sounds, even among people who are not synaesthetes.

"Scientific publishing: The price of information" -- On the boycott of Elsevier by scientists tired of excessive charges for journals, and the competition from arXiv and PLoS.

"Biomimetics: Not a scratch" -- lessons from the microstructure of scorpion armor for reducing wear rates on aircraft engines and helicopter rotors.


Philosophy Bites interview with Alain de Botton on Atheism 2.0: de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, argues that there are good and useful components of religion which can be secularized, and that it is as legitimate to borrow things we like from religion while discarding what we don't as it is to prefer different kinds of art and music.  (Also see the Token Skeptic interview with de Botton and watch his TED talk.)  I think his picture of religion, like that of Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust) and Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) makes more sense than the way some atheists talk about it as though fundamentalist religion is the essence of religion, and should be discarded completely (which doesn't seem likely to happen as long as we live in social communities).

Rationally Speaking interview with Joseph Heath: Heath, author of Economics without Illusions: Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism (Canadian title: Filthy Lucre: Economics for People who Hate Capitalism, which the publishers decided wouldn't sell in the U.S.), talks about misunderstandings of economics on both the right and the left.  (Also see this BloggingHeads TV interview of Heath by Will Wilkinson, who writes: "The section on right-wing fallacies is largely on the money and a great challenge for rote libertarians and conservatives. The section of left-wing fallacies is terrific, and it would be terrific if more folks on the left were anywhere near as economically literate as Heath.")  Heath's "Rationally Speaking pick" also sounds fascinating, Janos Kornai's The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism, which explains the creative but ultimately futile ways that human beings tried to replace markets with planning and design.)

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