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Archive for October, 2007

Get a human

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

We’ve all had the experience of being trapped in an automated telephone menu system, cursing and pressing buttons at random in a desperate attempt to get a human representative to talk to you. But what if you knew exactly what buttons to press? The gethuman 500 database gives you that information for hundreds of companies and government agencies: the number to dial and which buttons to press in order to reach an actual live human being. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your own.
Source: American Digest

Brain test

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Which way is this dancer spinning: clockwise or anti-clockwise? Your answer supposedly indicates how your brain works, although the article doesn’t explain the basis for that claim, or even where the picture came from.
My own results are puzzling. I initially saw the dancer to be spinning clockwise, which puts me in the right-brain category. That’s just plain wrong; I’m one of the most stereotypically left-brained people you will ever meet. I tried for several minutes to change the direction of the dancer’s spin, but couldn’t do it just by mental effort. Finally I discovered that by looking at the shadows of her feet, I could convince myself that she was spinning anti-clockwise. Now I can easily switch the direction at will. I’m not sure what any of this means, but it sure is interesting.

Source: Freakonomics

Prophecies: calculators

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

From 1941 to 1949, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of science fiction stories about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire. These stories were published in the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1950 were reprinted in three volumes titled Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Collectively, the three volumes became known as the Foundation Trilogy.
When the first four stories were assembled into the book Foundation, the editor complained that the story began too abruptly, and asked Asimov to write a fifth story to precede the other four. Asimov complied, producing an account of how mathematician Hari Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve the knowledge of the human race and serve as nuclei for the formation of a Second Empire. At one point in the story, Seldon is shown using the tool of his trade:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.

In 1950, the standard calculation tool used by mathematicians and engineers was the slide rule, but Asimov described a future in which the slide rule was replaced by something new: a handheld electronic device.
As luck would have it, I read the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in the early 1970s, just as the first pocket calculators were appearing in stores. They looked exactly like what Asimov described, right down to the belt pouches and glowing red symbols (the earliest calculators had displays that used red LEDs). Two decades before its invention, he had predicted the calculator with virtually perfect accuracy. And it did completely replace the slide rule.
A few years later, Asimov wrote a short story (“The Feeling of Power”) in which pocket calculators are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to perform calculations without them. This idea seemed farfetched in 1958, but today . . .