Dawn of Flight

Listen to the audio for this essay here.

The author says that the Wright brothers succeeded due to a combination of having the right skills at the right time, and putting in the work they needed to refine the design of what was (probably) the first practical fixed-wing, heavier-than-air aircraft. No matter how much belief you put in other claims of being first, the Wrights came up with better controls along all three axes needed for flight, including simultaneous roll and yaw, than anyone before them.

Inventions are often attributed to a single inventor. In reality, one person is rarely responsible for a breakthrough in technology. The technology itself is rarely a breakthrough, but is instead a refinement or extension of existing concepts and the equipment needed to put the ideas into practical use. One of the most famous equations in history, E = mc2, was built upon the ideas of past geniuses.

There was a TV series called Connections that talked about how “modern” inventions had their origins in the past, sometimes surprisingly far back and through indirect paths.

For example, waterwheels became power supplies for industrial processes. Looms gradually changed from being a labor-intensive device into a machine that could run more or less by itself. The combination led to looms powered by waterwheels, one of the first machines of the industrial revolution, and the same system of cards used for producing different patterns on those looms eventually were used for programming computers. So, the computer you are using to read these words has its origins in a piece of technology invented well over 2000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome.

(You can view some episodes of the original Connections on YouTube and you can buy an updated copy (2007) of the book that was originally based on the 1978 TV series. I highly recommend getting the paper copy instead of the cheaper ebook version because there are hundreds of color illustrations.)

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That Wasn’t in the Manual

Download the audio for this article here.

Japanese customer service is often praised, but the training for that generally good level of service often results in inflexibility. In the United States, you can ask for substitutions or additions to orders, in both regular restaurants and fast food places. In Japan, you normally cannot substitute anything or make any special requests. This makes some people think that Japan’s customer service is all surface and not sincere; a result of training rather than true thoughtfulness and willingness to serve the customer.

The core problem is inflexibility. Inflexibility in Japan isn’t limited to the service industry. The image of salarymen points to the same problem of diligence without originality or initiative, and an inability to cope with situations outside assigned duties. The stereotype indicates that the inflexibility is so strong that even a salaryman’s activities in his free time are either highly structured, or socially tied to his office.

Another indication of societal inflexibility is in intellectual achievements. Japan has relatively few Nobel Prize laureates despite patent applications nearly as high as the United States, which has roughly 3 times the population of Japan. What this shows is that Japanese tend not to have breakthroughs in original research, but do well with process- and group-based thinking.

In order for Japan to continue to achieve well in the future, when the effects of the Information Age will be felt more strongly, Japanese society will need to encourage flexibility and independent thinking. Currently, social pressures have resulted in phenomena such as hikikomori, freeter, and NEET for a distressingly large number of young people who are negatively affected by the rigidity of Japanese education and employment culture.

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The Influence of Television

Listen to the audio here.

In a previous post we talked about how the Internet was studied and criticized in its early days. At the time this essay was written, in 1993, television had been broadcast in the US for at least 52 years, since the first commercial broadcasts in 1941. If you count from the early days of experimental TV broadcasts in 1928, the technology had already been in use for 65 years.

The Internet is a much younger technology. ARPANET — the project that eventually became the Internet — was in use by researchers as early as 1970, but the later TCP/IP based network that we now call the Internet only became widely accessible to the public around 1995, when government regulations about commercial use were made less strict. That means that the Internet has had only a single generation to influence society.

The researchers’ interpretation of the Internet study we looked at earlier was that Internet use caused depression, but a similar study on TV done in 2008 found that unhappy people watch TV more. In other words, the conclusions of the researchers who did these very similar studies were exactly opposite in cause and effect.

Changes often make people uncomfortable. This is why even though the effects of widespread Internet access on society are probably no worse than the effects of TV broadcasting, many people have a stronger reaction to the changes the Internet has caused. We are closer to the impact, and that makes it seem more dramatic.

People in their 30s or older remember a time before the Internet, and the older generations are the ones who have the strongest negative opinions of the technology. Ironically, their parents and grandparents had virtually the same opinion of television that they have of the Internet.

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Internet Alienation

Listen to the story here.

The article was probably about a study done at Carnegie Mellon University in 1998. In a discussion page, that HomeNet Project answered several questions about the study and its design.

The researchers say that they were surprised by the results. They had expected internet use to provide some social benefits. Instead, they found that there was a slightly negative effect.

A few questions remain, however. This study was done over the course of 1 to 2 years, with people who were using the internet for the first time. Are people who are more prone to being depressed use the internet more than those who have better social ties? Would the results be the same now, nearly a generation later, with people who have been using the internet regularly from childhood? How have online social networks — which were in their infancy in 1998 — changed both real-life relationships and online relationships since then?

A 2010 study at Leeds University also found that a small group of users showed addictive tendencies, and that they were more likely to be depressed than other people. They were also more likely to use websites that were related to sex, gaming (or gambling), and online communities than other internet users.

This suggests that the type of use is important. Using the internet to meet new people or keep in contact with people you already know could be a healthy extension of social communication. Using online communication as a substitute for other social relationships could make you feel more isolated and so make you more prone to depression.

Like any technology, there are benefits and harmful effects when first introduced. Cars made it possible for people to live outside the city in nicer, larger homes with yards, and access to nature. But they also led to smog and other pollution, traffic jams, tens of thousands of people dying in accidents every year, and urban sprawl. The internet is simply a newer technology, and we will take some time to explore the benefits, and deal with the negative consequences of its use.

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Descendants of Dinosaurs

Listen to the audio for this story here

Harry Seeley came up with a classification system for dinosaurs — Saurischians (lizard-hipped) and Ornithischians (bird-hipped) — that is still used in paleontology. The only modern descendants of dinosaurs are birds. Recent discoveries like the fossils of proto-birds that have been uncovered in China only make that theory stronger. All other kinds of dinosaurs died out in the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event which was probably caused by the impact of a large asteroid or comet near what is now Chicxulub, Mexico 66 million years ago.

Modern reptiles are the descendants of animals which were the cousins of dinosaurs. Despite the English translation of Saurischians as “lizard-hipped”, scientists are fairly sure that all Saurischian dinosaurs died out in the K-Pg event, and only some Ornithischian species survived and evolved into modern birds. Or, as one of my favorite cartoonists said, “Birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs, they are dinosaurs.” (XKCD Birds and Dinosaurs)

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Flying Spiders

Listen to the story about how spiders fly, while reading along.

The research at Rothamsted, discussed in your assignment paper, was reported on by the BBC in 2006. Research from last year (2013), reported on by Discover (original paper here: PDF) shows that the mechanism is probably more complicated than either wind or turbulence can explain. Peter Gorham at the University of Hawaii proposes an electrical charge in the silk as a better explanation for these feats of arachnid flight.

You can see a video of a small spider taking off, with an explanation in Japanese.

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The Virtue of Patience

Here is the audio for the article. Listen and read along.

In the article, two main ideas are presented about time perception: engagement and focus. Focus makes time seem to pass more slowly because your brain has to process more information. This makes you think that the moments are longer, because it seems like more happened in that time. This is part of why children feel the passage of time more; they have to focus on everything in their environment in order to make sense of it and act appropriately.

Engagement, on the other hand, makes time seem to pass more quickly because we ignore the seconds passing while we are performing tasks. Time feels unimportant when we are very involved in doing something.

The author suggests using a discussion of processes to distract children from focusing on time (which would make the time seem even longer) and involving children in processes in order to provide engagement.

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