What Can Shakespeare’s Superior Psychology Teach Today’s Experts?

Too many top minds have “positive capability” bias. That (unideal) label usefully contrasts with Keats’ “negative capability,” a poetic idea that applies to unpoetic “scientific” experts.

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  1. Keats said “negative capability” formed “the Man of Achievement, especially in Literature.” He was “capable of being in uncertainties … without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.” Shakespeare had negative capability “enormously,” but “Coleridge … would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude” because he couldn’t be “content with half-knowledge.”
  2. “Negative capability” was easier for Shakespeare than for Coleridge — Shakespeare wrote before Newton had enthroned the idea of underlying universal mathematical laws, and Coleridge after.
  3. Colin McGinn says Shakespeare was a “naturalist without being a scientist.” He described what he saw, without presuming underlying universals drove human behavior (whereas Freud’s universalizing led to imagining all unconsciously suffered oedipal desire).
  4. After Newton “subsumed the universe” to math, our thinking universe changed, to presuming universal mathematical patterns underlay everything. But Newton was lucky — nothing in physics chooses. Or innovates. Or needs game logic. But we do. The language of physics basically needs only four force verbs. The syntax of our reality — how its parts fit — is richer. (See also Newton pattern vs. Darwin pattern.)
  5. Obviously, I’m not against “facts and reason,” but many thinkers often now reach unthinkingly (and unskillfully) for data, and statistics, and studies. Whereas much that matters isn’t in “the numbers.” And much is true without data (see analytic vs. synthetic truths, and the logic of needism).
  6. Pureeing “Big Data” in the stats blender can easily mislead— e.g., the average human has one testicle and one ovary. Without skilled qualitative distinctions, quantification can confuse. Statistical tools were developed in fields with relatively stable populations and patterns. Much in our lives isn’t; e.g., we know sports stats aren’t safely predictive.
  7. Data, like poetry, depends on metaphors. Data typically has at least two: a) Pythagoras’ fruitful, but limiting, “all things are numbers,” and b) that “the numbers” mathematically mimic reality.
  8. Data in history (or social science) often isn’t like data in physics. People aren’t biological billiard balls: We react varyingly. (As Rochefoucauld said, “At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.”)
  9. Economics needs more “negative capability.” As Noah Smith notes the necessity of “being in uncertainties” arises because “macroeconomic data is too weak.” Experts who don’t advise contingencies accordingly, suffer “positive capability” bias: overreliance on the beloved ideas and tools they’re expert in (see the one-trick hedgehog, and one billionaire’s view). Why assume economic stats are more like those in physics than sports?
  10. The conceptual skeleton (interconnected deep metaphors) many experts use risk cognitive rigor mortis. The logic of language provides wider metaphors to animate our thinking than math. Perhaps our lives are more grammatical than mathematical, and more polymorphic than physics. E. O. Wilson advises scientists to think more “like poets.”

Blake prayed “May God us keep / From Single vision & Newton’s sleep.” Whether God will or won’t, skilled reasoning should.

Analytical Activities to Engage Your Baby’s Brain

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Today’s featured Big Think interview features tightrope artist Philippe Petit, who speaks on the importance of strengthening children’s intuitions. Petit advocates for handing kids creative problems to solve and allowing their minds to explore various answers. This way, analysis and decision-making becomes innate. You can view the interview below:

Coincidentally, Newsweek has a special issue out right now all about boosting your baby’s brain. It too advocates for creative and analytical activities to help guide a child’s decision-making and intuition. This piece, for instance, suggests several games you can play both before and after birth to help guide the development of your little bundle’s fledgling brain. Here’s a simple example of one to help guide toddlers:

“Opposite Day
Once infants begin to age into toddlers and preschoolers (after ages 3-5), parents can engage with them using more structured games. One activity that helps with impulse control is making a set of simple flash cards together and running through them with the child. Example cards might include a picture of the sun to represent ‘day’ or a picture of the moon to mean ‘night.’ Once the infant understands the concepts, the parent can begin the game in earnest and tell the infant to shout “day” when shown the night card and vice versa.”

Targeting Gut Bacteria May Be The Key To Preventing Alzheimer’s

Diet could be a powerful mode of prevention.

A new study suggests that a gut-healthy diet may play a powerful role in preventing one of the most feared diseasesin America.

Mounting research continues to show the links between the health of the gut and that of the brain. Now, a new study from Lund University in Sweden finds that unhealthy intestinal flora can accelerate the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

 The report, published Feb. 8 in the journal Scientific Reports, demonstrates that mice with Alzheimer’s have a different gut bacterial profile than those that do not have the disease.

The gut microbiome is highly responsive to dietary and lifestyle factors. This suggests that a gut-healthy diet may play a powerful role in preventing one of the most feared diseases in America.

 “Alzheimer’s is a preventable disease and in the near future we will likely be able to give advice on what to eat to prevent it,” study author Dr. Frida Fak Hållenius, associate professor at the university’s Food for Health Science Centre, told The Huffington Post. “Take care of your gut bacteria, by eating lots of whole-grains, fruits and vegetables.”
In the new study, Hållenius and her colleagues revealed a direct causal association between gut bacteria and signs of Alzheimer’s in mice. When a group of bacteria-free mice were colonized with the bacteria of rodents with Alzheimer’s, they developed brain plaques indicative of Alzheimer’s. When the bacteria-free mice were colonized with the bacteria of the healthy rodents, however, they developed significantly fewer brain plaques.

Beta-amyloid plaques between nerve cells in the brain are a central marker of the disease. These sticky protein clumps accumulate between the brain’s neurons, disrupting signals and contributing to the gradual killing off of nerve cells.

“We don’t yet know how bacteria can affect brain pathology, we are currently investigating this,” Hållenius said. “We think that bacteria may affect regulatory T-cells in the gut, which can control inflammatory processes both locally in the gut and systemically ― including the brain.”

The contributions of microbes to multiple aspects of human physiology and neurobiology in health and disease have up until now not been fully appreciated.

The gut microbiome is intimately connected with the immune system, since many of the body’s immune cells are found in this area of the stomach, Hållenius added.

Anything that happens in the digestive tract can affect the immune system, she explained. “By changing the gut microbiota composition, you affect the immune system of the host to a large extent.”

The findings suggest that Alzheimer’s may be more more preventable than health experts previously thought. The composition of bacteria in the gut is determined by a mix of genetics and lifestyle factors. Diet, exercise, stress and toxin exposure all play a huge role in the gut’s bacterial makeup.

Now, the researchers can begin investigating ways to prevent the disease and delay its onset by targeting gut bacteria early on. And in the meantime, anyone can adopt a plant-based, whole foods diet and probiotic supplementation as a way to improve the health of their microbiome.

“The diet shapes the microbial community in the gut to a large extent, so dietary strategies will be important in prevention of Alzheimer’s,” Hållenius said. “We are currently working on food design that will modulate the gut microbiota towards a healthier state.”

The study is far from the first to show a connection between gut bacteria and Alzheimer’s. In a 2014 paper published in the journal Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, researchers listed 10 different ways that the microbiome may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, including fungal and bacterial infections in the intestinal tract and increased permeability of the blood-brain barrier.

“The contributions of microbes to multiple aspects of human physiology and neurobiology in health and disease have up until now not been fully appreciated,” that study’s authors wrote.

Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work? Ask a Transgender Person.

Having experienced the workplace from both perspectives, they hold the key to its biases.

Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique and 40 years after Title IX, the question of why women lag in the workplace dogs researchers and lay people alike. While women are entering the professions at rates equal to men, they rise more slowly, and rarely advance to the top. They’re represented in smaller numbers at the top in fields from science to arts to business.

Some suggest that there is something different about women—women have stalled because of their personal choices, or their cognitive and emotional characteristics, whether innate or socialized. Another possibility is that the obstacles to women’s advancement are located within their environments—that they face barriers unique to their gender.1

But while bias has been experimentally demonstrated, it’s hard to study in the real world: Just as it’s hard to isolate a single environmental pollutant’s effect on human health, it’s been near impossible to isolate gender as a variable in the real world and watch how it affects a person’s day-to-day experience.

Until now. Trans people are bringing entirely new ways of approaching the discussion. Because trans people are now staying in the same careers (and sometimes the very same jobs) after they change genders, they are uniquely qualified to discuss the difference between how men and women experience the workplace. Their experience is as close to the scientific method as we can get: By isolating and manipulating gender as a variable and holding all other variables—skill, career, personality, talent—constant, these individuals reveal exactly the way one’s outward appearance of gender affects day-to-day interactions. If we truly want to understand women at work, we should listen carefully to trans men and trans women: They can tell us more about gender in the workplace than just about anyone.

Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it—seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.” (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”

This experience, it turns out, is typical for transmen. For her book Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality, sociologist Kristen Schilt interviewed dozens of FTM (female to male) transgender individuals. One subject noted that when he expresses an opinion, everyone in a meeting now writes it down. Another noted, “When I was a woman, no matter how many facts I had, people were like, “Are you sure about that?’ It’s so strange not to have to defend your positions.” When they suggested women for promotions, other men said, “Oh! I hadn’t thought about her”—they were able to promote women because their advice was taken more seriously. Personality traits that had been viewed negatively when they were women were now seen as positives. “I used to be considered aggressive,” said one subject. “Now I’m considered ‘take charge.’ People say, ‘I love your take-charge attitude.’”

The effects of FTM transition, however, aren’t universally positive. Race, it seems, has the ability to overshadow gender when it comes to others’ esteem. Black transmen, for instance, found they were perceived as a “dangerous” post transition. One subject said he went from being “obnoxious black woman” to “scary black man”—and was now always asked to play the “suspect” in training exercises.

What happens when the opposite transformation takes place—when a man becomes a woman? Joan Roughgarden is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Jonathan Roughgarden until her early fifties, and her experience was almost the mirror image of Barres’s. In her words, “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.” In an interview, Roughgarden also noted that if she questioned a mathematical idea, people assumed it was because she didn’t understand it. Other transwomen have found changes not only in perceptions of their ability, but also their personality. In Schilt’s work with transwomen for a forthcoming book, she found that behaviors transwomen had as men were now seen as off-putting. What was once “take-charge” was now “aggressive.” And they had to adapt; the transwomen quickly learned that “being the same way in the world would be detrimental to your career.”

Unlike those of us who have only experienced the world a single gender, Schilt’s subjects were able to see very clearly that “men succeed in the workplace at higher rates than women because of gender stereotypes that privilege masculinity, not because they have greater skill or ability.” Bias is a hard thing to acknowledge. “Until a person has experienced career-harming bias,” wrote Barres in his response to Summers, “they simply don’t believe it exists.” And people tend to think the problem is located elsewhere: “Everyone thinks that there’s bias out there, but ‘I’m not that person,’” says Schilt.

But, says Schilt, bias is both more pervasive and less invidious. And addressing it is going to take more than just waiting around for the old guard to retire: The “fantasy of a demographic shift just isn’t true,” Schilt says. ”It’s our culture. It’s how we organize gender, separate by gender, men’s rooms and women’s rooms—it’s so ingrained in us that these things are different. And it’s not just men, it’s also women who have the same ideas.” The experiences of trans people are bringing these factors to light in a wholly new and unclouded way.

Of course, the sample size is small here. And there’s no perfect agreement on cause-and-effect. Chris Edwards, a trans advertising executive, says that post-transition, he was given greater levels of responsibility—but he thinks it’s because the testosterone he took changed his behavior. He became less timid and more outspoken—and was seen, at work, as more of a leader. Indeed, some suggest that transmen might experience these workplace benefits partly because, post-transition, they are happier and more comfortable, and that this confidence leads to greater workplace success. But if that’s the case, one would expect that transwomen, armed with this same newfound confidence, would see benefits. The opposite seems to be true.

To truly understand trans people’s experiences of workplace gender bias, more research is needed. But the window to do so may be closing, as people are able to change genders at younger and younger ages. Puberty-inhibiting medications are becoming more mainstream, meaning young trans people can choose to suppress the development of secondary sexual characteristics from a relatively early age. (The treatment became available in the U.S. in 2009.) A child who identifies with the opposite gender and seeks treatment is now able to experience the world, for most of their life, as that gender alone.

And the group of trans people who are vocal on the subject is already fairly small; many seem to feel they have much larger issues facing them. When asked how people react when she describes the different treatment she receives as a woman, Roughgarden responds simply, “I don’t bring it up.” Ultimately, Schilt says, it’s not trans people’s responsibility fix gender bias. Roughgarden agrees. “We’re trying make a life,” she says. “We have to live in our actual roles, we can’t sit in a coffeehouse and complain about how this is the world. This is the world and we have to live in it. We have to navigate it.”

  1. It’s been shown, for example, that both women and men attribute women’s success more often to luck, and attribute men’s more often to ability. Women also received fewer rewards for sharing opinions and taking leadership roles. One study showed that a female fellowship applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to be deemed equally competent.

Latest Research Suggests Alzheimer’s Disease Is In Our Food

Some of our paleo ancestors ate 100% vegetarian, new study finds

Our earliest ancestors didn’t have the luxury of toothbrushes. That’s a boon for scientists studying Neanderthals, because dental plaque can provide unique insights into what early humans were chomping on.

A recent study published in the journal Nature revealed there was no single standard diet among Neanderthals, after whom paleo diet subscribers attempt to model their meat-heavy diets. Scientists sequenced the DNA from dental plaque found on five Neanderthal skulls, the Atlantic reported, explaining that skulls found in Belgium had plaque indicating a more meat-centric diet, while skulls found in Spain had plaque indicating “entirely vegetarian” diets.

Some of our paleo ancestors ate 100% vegetarian, new study finds

Source: Giphy

The research team found no evidence of meat in the diet of the Neanderthals from Spain. Their analysis revealed traces of edible mushrooms, pine nuts, forest moss and poplar bark — a tree that contains the “natural pain-killer salicylic acid,” researchers noted in the study. Previous research also provides evidence at least one Neanderthal in that area might have been “self-medicating” with their diet, researchers wrote.

Meanwhile, the skulls from Belgium indicated the Neanderthals in that region dined on meatier fare. Researchers found traces of edible mushrooms, wooly rhinoceros and wild sheep.

“We need to revamp the view of Neanderthals as these meat-eating, club-toting cavemen,” Laura Weyrich, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Adelaide, told the Atlantic. “They had a very good understanding of what foods were available to them.”

Eating foods available to them? Sounds a bit like being a locavore, eh?

“When people talk about the paleo diet, that’s not paleo, that’s just non-carb,” Weyrich told the Atlantic. “The true paleo diet is eating whatever’s out there in the environment.”

 Modern day paleo diet enthusiasts subscribe to the belief that our ancestors had a healthy diet that included lots of meats. But it wasn’t all wild boar and sheep — shockingly, early humans apparently ate one another. A study published in July found that skeleton remains revealed bones had been cut such that scientists concluded early humans might have practiced cannibalism, Mic previously reported.

Studies show modern iterations of the paleo diet may still have some flaws. One small study found that people following the paleo diet had lower intake levels of calcium compared to people following Australia’s diet guidelines.

Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor

Today is the world wide web’s 28th birthday. Here’s a message from our founder and web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee on how the web has evolved, and what we must do to ensure it fulfils his vision of an equalising platform that benefits all of humanity.


Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.

1)   We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.

2)   It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web

Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.

3)   Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding

Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?

These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments. We must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.

Our team at the Web Foundation will be working on many of these issues as part of our new five year strategy – researching the problems in more detail, coming up with proactive policy solutions and bringing together coalitions to drive progress towards a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all. I urge you to support our work however you can – by spreading the word, keeping up pressure on companies and governments or by making a donation. We’ve also compiled a directory of other digital rights organisations around the world for you to explore and consider supporting too.

I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community. All kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power, accessibility and security of the technology, and people who have protested in the streets. In the past year, we have seen Nigerians stand up to a social media bill that would have hampered free expression online, popular outcry and protests at regional internet shutdowns in Cameroon and great public support for net neutrality in both India and the European Union.

It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.  If you would like to be more involved, then do join our mailing list, do contribute to us, do join or donate to any of the organisations which are working on these issues around the world.


Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The Web Foundation is at the forefront of the fight to advance and protect the web for everyone. We believe doing so is essential to reverse growing inequality and empower citizens. You can follow our work by signing up to our newsletter, and find a local digital rights organisation to support here on this list. Additions to the list are welcome and may be sent to contact@webfoundation.org

Please share this letter on Twitter using the hashtag #HappyBirthdayWWW


The Inventor of the World Wide Web Says These Are His 3 Biggest Fears for Its Future

Happy 28th birthday to the Web.

 Losing control of our personal data. The spread of fake news. The lack of regulation around political advertising. These are three of the biggest threats facing the Web today, according to its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee.

On March 12, 1989, the computer scientist submitted a proposal to CERN for what would become the World Wide Web.

 To mark its 28th birthday, Berners-Lee – now founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation – has written an open letter discussing three issues he is “increasingly worried about”, and believes “we must tackle in order for the Web to fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves of all humanity”.

The full letter is worth a read, but in short, the trends are:

Fake news

Large numbers of people are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of misinformation online – from fake news being cynically peddled to make a quick buck off advertising to sophisticated political propaganda campaigns.

Social networks “show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire”, Berners-Lee wrote.

“And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”

Losing control of personal data

People are surrendering their personal data when they sign up to sites, and this has got Berners-Lee worried.

“As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it,” he said.

“What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.”

The risks are multiplied in countries with authoritarian regimes, where collaboration between companies and governments can put citizens’ lives at risk.

Political advertising

The father of the Web argues that sophisticated modern advertising is putting democracy at risk.

“There are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls.”

“Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?”

There’s a common thread running through all three of these trends: The power of huge tech companies like Facebook and Google, and how, unchecked, they can have corrosive effects on our civil society.

There’s no simple solution to all the problems.

Berners-Lee suggests everything from encouraging companies to explore subscriptions and micropayments rather than advertising, to ensuring we have “more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed”.

“It has taken all of us to build the Web we have,” he concludes, “and now it is up to all of us to build the Web we want – for everyone.”

Humpback Whales Are Forming Mysterious ‘Super-Groups’, and No One Can Explain It

They’ve never teamed up like this before.


Humpback whales are known for being the loners of the sea – while they tend to migrate, feed, and mate in groups, they spend much of their existence in solitude, or in small, short-lived groups of up to seven individuals.

But something could be brewing in our oceans, because scientists are reporting 22 separate instances of humpback ‘super-groups’ that defy explanation – never-before-seen groups of 20 to 200 whales all appearing off the southwest coast of South Africa in recent years.

 “I’ve never seen anything like this,” lead researcher Ken Findlay, from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa, told New Scientist.

According to a new study, 22 instances of humpback super-groups were witnessed on three research cruises in 2011, 2014, and 2015, as well as a handful of public observations from aircraft over the south-western Cape region of South Africa.

Researchers are calling the behaviour “novel and intense”, saying it could be a sign of the mysterious resurgence of humpbacks in recent years.

“[W]e propose that the ‘super-group’ feeding phenomenon (as tightly spaced large groups of whales) is a relatively recent behaviour exhibited by these whales,” Findlay and his team report.

“[N]o such dense feeding aggregations have been reported elsewhere in low or mid latitudes during Southern Hemisphere humpback whale migrations. Indeed, aggregations of whales of this size have seldom been reported in the literature, with ‘large’ groups often numbering in the range of 10 to 20 or less.”

It’s not just the size of these groups that’s weird – the location doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

 By gathering near South Africa in summer, the humpbacks are choosing to bolster their numbers thousands of kilometres away from their usual feeding grounds in the southern polar region of Antarctica, and scientists are at a loss to explain the sudden change in behaviour.

During the summer months of June, July, and August, Southern Hemisphere humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) tend to congregate in Antarctic waters to feed on massive amounts of krill and fish each day in an effort to build up fat stores for the winter.

Once they’ve had their fill, they’ll migrate north to calving and nursery grounds in subtropical and tropical coastal waters for the winter.

So why are their routines all messed up?

The researchers aren’t ready to explain the behaviour just yet, as they still have a lot of evidence to collect, but say the new feeding strategy could be due to changes in prey availability due to shifting conditions in the world’s oceans, or it could simply be the result of increasing humpback numbers – as weird as that sounds.

We’re so used to hearing about species in decline these days, but Southern Hemisphere humpbacks are actually bucking the trend, with Australia’s humpback population reportedly at its healthiest levels since whaling ended along the east coast in the 1960s.

Findlay and his team suggest that this rapid increase could be the reason for changes in prey availability, forcing some to switch up their feeding strategies and end up in South Africa.

It could also be that this behaviour isn’t actually new – as Mallory Locklear reports for New Scientist, humpback whales were found feeding off the south-west Cape coast of South Africa once in 1914, before whaling reduced their numbers by around 90 percent.

Now that their numbers are increasing, the whales could be returning to a behaviour established long ago, or perhaps a few have been doing it this whole time, but until they formed super-groups, no one had noticed.

Regardless of the actual mechanism behind the appearance of these super-groups, the researchers remind us of a very important truth – if a 30,000-kg (66,000-pound) animal has decided it wants to be somewhere, you really don’t want to mess with it.

That means if the South African coast is to be the new humpback hangout, we need to make sure the area is safe for the annual krill slaughter.

“Despite the unknown cause of this recent behaviour, we postulate that the area has developed or is developing into an important seasonal humpback whale feeding ground that attracts significant immigration into the region in the late austral spring/early summer,” the team concludes.

Either that, or it’s a sign of the apocalypse, but whales wouldn’t do that to us, right?

By Mapping Buildings’ Interiors, Your Phone Could Save Your Life

A building’s interior being mapped by a mapping sensor. Image courtesy of Indoor Reality.

What if we told you that, right now, your phone was making a map of your interior surroundings — whether you’re at work or at home — and sending that data to places unknown? Would you be upset, or is privacy truly dead? Would you be more upset to learn you agreed to this when downloading a popular gaming app?

What if that map were given to firefighters sent to save you from a burning building?

That is but one application of 3-D interior mapping suggested by Avideh Zakhor, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley  and CEO/founder of Indoor Reality. A company which specialises in indoor 3-D mapping. She is also a Hertz Foundation Fellow and holds a doctorate from MIT.

This article is part of a series sponsored by The Hertz Foundation. Discover more of what remarkable students can do in the sciences: — Bob Dylan & The Oregon Trail Inspired These 2 Math Problems. Can You Solve Them?

But hold on a minute, let’s get back to the “mapping my house” thing.

Dr. Zakhor wishes to remind you that, the smartphones, already one of the greatest technological miracles of all time, is hard at work taking all the information it can from you. Remember when you agreed to that data collection? Didn’t you read the terms and conditions on that one app? No? Oh well, it’s happening anyway.

Dr. Zakhor:

All of us, through this amazing device we carry with ourselves, cell phones, are continuously collecting signals and images and data about our surrounding. Whether or not we know it, and whether or not we like it, we’re doing that unconsciously all the time through crowdsourcing. So if you get the aggregate of all the people who are going into all these indoor spaces, you have the potential to map every indoor space. The typical cell phone has over 40 sensors. There’s accelerometers, gyroscopes, barometers, thermometers, Wi-Fi signal, Bluetooth, all kinds of RF signal gathering capability. I hate to say it, but a lot of [us] are being tracked because, to use a lot of the applications on your phone, you allowed the company that sold you the phone to collect that information. And that’s almost synonymous with mapping. So those could be used in order to map the interiors.”

While the questions of privacy might be pressing to some, the idea that the slew of sensors on our phones could be used to create a detailed map of all interior spaces we visit is intriguing. After all, who hasn’t gotten lost in a new place before? Couldn’t we all benefit from knowing that a map of the place we’re in exists and was made with the newest technology?

As seen by a smart device mapping the interior of a building. Image courtesy of Indoor Reality.

The benefits of 3-D mapping via crowdsourcing method are many. The pure potential reach by itself is astounding. But perhaps most interesting, is the idea of using all this data to create smart buildings: structures which use the data you create to save energy, operate more autonomously, and better serve the people who use them.

As Dr. Zakhor imagines:

You can control the many, many sensors and actuators that are inside the building to your liking. So suppose that I like the temperature in my office to be no warmer than 64. Just because there’s a map and because they know where I am, that I’m not in my office, there’s not going to be any cold HVAC air being pumped into it. That saves energy. And when a day that I’m not working in my office but working in the conference room across the hall from my office the same temperature preferences can be applied to that room. Localizing people enables them to be more comfortable and more in tune with the environment that they’re in. And it could result in potential energy savings inside buildings if that information is readily available.”

Is 3-D interior mapping on the horizon? Will it be the emergency information of the future? Will your next call to the paramedics include an easy to read map of your home? Will the fire department be able to know which rooms to search before they arrive at a fire? Will you soon enjoy coming to work in your smart office, which knows your preferences better than your coworkers do? If Dr. Zakhor has anything to say about it, the answer will be yes.

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