Tag Archives: research

What It Feels Like to Die

Science is just beginning to figure it out, writes Jennie Dear at The Atlantic:

“Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades. The way death is talked about tends to be based on what family, friends, and medical professionals see, rather than accounts of what dying actually feels like.

James Hallenbeck, a palliative-care specialist at Stanford University, often compares dying to black holes. “We can see the effect of black holes, but it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to look inside them. They exert an increasingly strong gravitational pull the closer one gets to them. As one passes the ‘event horizon,’ apparently the laws of physics begin to change.”

What does dying feel like? Despite a growing body of research about death, the actual, physical experience of dying—the last few days or moments—remains shrouded in mystery. Medicine is just beginning to peek beyond the horizon.

Today’s creative writing: 778 words on “The Reluctant Magician”

866 words total. I’m just getting started.

Rather, I’m just getting started for the third time. I made a couple of false starts.

Then I read this essay from Michael Moorcock on how to write an adventure novel in three days.

I do not plan to write this novel in three days. If I can finish it in a year, I’ll be satisfied. But the essay got me thinking about outlining.

Moorcock doesn’t outline exactly. But he does have situations and locations worked out in advance, at the ready, like a metaphorical briefcase into which he can dip and pull out whatever he needs to keep the writing going.

I’ve never tried creative writing with an outline. I always thought outlining was the opposite of creative, and looked down on it. But after reading the Moorcock essay I realized that’s just a silly prejudice. Some excellent writers work from outlines. Others work freestyle. It’s just a matter of what works best; outliners are no better than non-outliners. Maybe outlining would work for me?

I did some research on outlines and came across the snowflake method. You’re outlining your novel by starting from the center and working outward. Like a snowflake — get it?

You start with a one-sentence summary, build that to a paragraph, expand further to studies of your secondary characters, and so on. I started with the snowflake method but abandoned it immediately after the one-sentence-summary stage, because it wasn’t working for me. But outlining was working for me.

I don’t mean a formal outline, with roman numerals and all that. I mean I just started writing down notes about the novel, in sequence. Who were my main characters, what was their problem, how were they going to solve it?

I also remembered a tip from Cory Doctorow on how to structure a novel: A character gets in trouble, does something intelligent to solve the problem but that only makes the problem worse. Repeat that several times until all is very nearly lost, and then the character does one more intelligent thing to solve the problem, and this time it works

Or something like that. I can’t find where Cory said that; the closest I can find is this article on InformationWeek that I wrote nine years ago but have no memory of writing. (That happens sometimes. I write a lot of articles.)

I worked on my outline for a couple of weeks and ended up writing 3,178 words, which I think covers the whole novel.

I think an outline is great for me for a couple of reasons: First, it allows me to forget about the big picture for a little while. I don’t have to hold the whole novel in my head every day, just whatever bit I’m working on at the moment.

The outline is also helpful because the novel I’m working on is a cross between a caper story and urban fantasy, in a fantasy city resembling 1970s-80s America in some ways, and drastically different in other ways, with a lot of background that needs to be explained in a lively fashion and moving parts to keep track of.

I’m not going to claim “aha! I’ve solved the problem of creative writing and will just keep plugging along and producing one novel after another!” I’ve thought that was the case many times before.

45% of waking hours spent staring at screens, say researchers

Aditya Kishore, Telco Transformation:

It seems our electronic devices now own us, rather than the other way around. New research has found that the average US consumer spends 50 hours every week in front of some kind of screen.

I don’t even want to think about how that number works out for me. It’s one of the reasons I’m a virtual reality skeptic. “Not enough time connected to the Internet” is not one of the problems I have in life.


Skeleton helps solve 150-year-old mystery of Smithsonian scientist’s death

Robert Kennicot was a charismatic, handsome young explorer and naturalist who died mysteriously in 1866 while on a struggling Yukon expedition. Now, forensic anthropologists examining his skeleton have likely found out how he died.

Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post:

The last anyone heard of Robert Kennicott was his cheerful hum as he strolled into the Alaskan wilderness early on the morning of May 13, 1866.

It was good to hear the scientist sing. It had been a long and punishing winter at Fort Nulato, where Kennicott’s expedition to map the Yukon had spent the last five months, and he bore the setbacks badly. The frigid cold and endless dark left no time for exploration or research, a fact that rendered Kennicott “entirely broken down,” a friend wrote.

This was not a young man used to failure. By age 30, Kennicott had become an accomplished explorer and celebrated naturalist for the Smithsonian Institution. He was bold, brilliant and fearless; someone who handled venomous snakes with his bare hands.

When Kennicott didn’t return, his men began to worry. The expedition’s engineer brought up a note their leader left for him that morning, which included instructions “in case of any accident happening to me.”

A search party was hastily mobilized; rescuers fanned out across the bleak, mountainous landscape. Soon two of them arrived at the Yukon River, just south of the fort, where their worst fears were confirmed. Kennicott lay on his back on the muddy shore, his arms across his chest, his hat fallen on his face, his body completely still. He was dead.

Tenderly, the devastated men lifted their leader’s body and began to carry it back to the fort. That’s when they noticed something strange: The small vial of medicinal strychnine that Kennicott always carried with him was missing.

In 1866, whispers traveled faster than ships. By the time Kennicott’s remains were returned to his family homestead in Illinois, called the Grove, eight months after his death, the rumor that Kennicott had killed himself with a fatal dose of the poison had already taken hold. What else could explain the death of a man seemingly in his prime of life?

Stephan Swanson, director of the Grove, which is now a National Historic Landmark, as well as Smithsonian anthropologists Kari Bruwelheide and Doug Owsley, initially intended to return Kennicott’s skeleton for reburial at the Grove. Instead, with the permission of Kennicott’s descendants, the skeleton is being added to the museum’s human anatomy collection, and is already being used to research the effects of mercury-based dental fillings and test the accuracy of facial reconstruction software.

“We think he would like that,” Owsley said. “He’s a collector who was collected.”


Robert Kosara, a research scientist at data visualization software company Tableau, has been solving puzzles using the US’s nearly 4,2000 ZIP codes for years, writes Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post. Kosara had a question:

What would it look like if you drew a single line through all Zip codes in the lower 48 in numeric order? Kosara wrote some code and let it rip, and what he ended up with was a map that clearly delineated state boundaries and gave a reasonable approximation of population density to boot. Since it looked as though it were created by scribbling in arbitrary regions of a U.S. map, he dubbed it the ZIPScribble map.

Kosara ran some calculations and discovered that if you started at the lowest-numbered Zip code (00544, Holtsville, NY) and walk through every Zip code in the continental U.S. in numeric order all the way up to the highest-numbered Zip code (99403, Clarkston, WA), the path you’d need to take would be roughly 1,155,268 miles long. Which naturally brought up a second question: What would be the shortest route you could take through all 37,000 of those zip codes?

This type of problem actually has a storied history in computer science. It’s known as the Traveling Salesman Problem: Say a salesman has a bunch of cities in his route — what’s the shortest trip he can take through all of them? This type of computation is used as a benchmark in computer science because it has a lot of applications, from route-finding to the creation of circuit boards, and because it gets complicated really, really quickly. For instance, a network of only 20 points contains roughly 1.2 quintillion(1,200,000,000,000,000,000) possible solutions, only one of which can be the shortest. That’s on the order of magnitude of the number of grains of sand on earth.

What, then, of a traveling salesman problem with more than 37,000 points?

Kosara took a crack at it. He called it the Traveling Presidential Candidate Problem, after a hypothetical presidential candidate who wanted to visit all 37,000 contiguous Zip codes to clinch the nomination.

Back to Evernote

I’m getting back into using Evernote more. Primarily for interview notes and research materials for articles. I haven’t found anything as good for mixing media types (plain text notes, PDFs, and images), and I like the synch between multiple platforms. The recent price increase doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t look like much money, frankly.

I had nearly abandoned Evernote in 2014 or so because it was bloated and slow on my then-primary computer, a 2010 MacBook Pro. And I really didn’t like the public statements by then-CEO Phil Libin about the way the company was going to go. It looked like Evernote was going to get worse, not better, adding more useless features in an attempt to steal Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information.

I’m encouraged by comments by the new CEO that they’re looking to refocus on note taking, rather than being a company that sells socks and software to take food selfies. Maybe they’ll even kill work chat, which nobody likes.

I’m still writing in Ulysses, though I’m not using it to take notes anymore. One thing I liked when I was taking notes in Ulysses was that the notes and article would be together in a single folder. My solution now that I’m using different apps for research and writing: Tags. I tag each article, starting with the letter n to be sure all the tags are grouped in the list, followed by company name or keyword, short code for day of the week, followed by the date I start work on the article. Example: “n Microsoft Thu 2016-06-30”. I use the same tag for every document, Ulysses sheet, and Evernote note related to that article. Seems like that will work. Ask me again in a year.

I found a note in my journal from three years ago saying I’m getting back into Evernote. So this is not my first turn on that merry go round.

Space drive

New paper claims that the EM Drive doesn’t defy Newton’s 3rd law after all

Earth to Mars in just 10 weeks! If it works. Which is a mighty big if.

First designed by British scientist Roger Shawyer back in 1999, the EM drive uses electromagnetic waves as fuel, and creates thrust by bouncing those microwaves back and forth within a metal cavity to trigger motion.

Newton’s Laws say engines need to push something to go. A car pushes against the ground, and a jet or rocket engine pushes out exhaust. But the EM drive is apparently exhaustless. Yet it’s survived a few tests.

However, new research from physicists at the COMSOL company, the University of Helsinki, and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, suggests the EM drive produces exhaust after all. The theory is that the EM drive achieves compliance by emitting paired photos that are essentially invisible to detection.

[Fiona MacDonald/Science Alert]

A different kind of subtext

X-Rays Reveal “Hidden Library” on the Spines of Early Books [Jason Daley – Smithsonian.com]

The first book printers, in 15th Century Europe, used handwritten manuscripts to reinforce spines and covers of the new printed books. Now, using technology called “macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometry,” researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands are able to read these old texts without ripping apart the almost-as-old books.

As part of the experiment, the team scanned 20 books. According to a press release, their discoveries include fragments from a 12th century manuscript from the early English historian Bede as well as text from the Dutch Book of Hours. The X-ray was also able to separate out texts that had been pasted on top of one another.

“Every library has thousands of these bindings, especially the larger collections. If you go to the British Library or the Bodleian [in Oxford], they will have thousands of these bindings,” [says Leiden book historian Erik Kwakkel] “So you can see how that adds up to a huge potential.”

But it may be a while before the hidden library is fully revealed. The current method is painfully slow, taking up to 24 hours to scan a book’s spine. The researchers hope that advances in X-ray technology will soon help speed up the process.

Millionaires don’t move

Chris Christie says high state taxes drive millionaires away. Here’s why he’s mistaken.

Millionaires don’t move from high-tax states to low-tax states in significant numbers, according to a recently published study. And when they do move, it’s to Florida, disproportionately more than other low-tax states, such as New Hampshire, Tennessee and Texas. That suggests the millionaires are moving for reasons other than fleeing taxes.




study followed 14 contestants on The Biggest Loser and found that 13 of the 14 had slower metabolism and burned significantly fewer calories than their peers who had not lost weight. And 13 of the 14 (a different thirteen, if I’m reading this article right) regained all the weight they’d lost on the show, with some gaining back even more.

Matches my experience. Based on my Lose It settings, I burn 24% fewer calories than the average man my size and activity level, or 550 fewer calories per day.


Real Game-of-Thrones-type action, spanning tens of thousands of years, according to recent DNA research – Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post

The entire drama of human history is encoded in our DNA.

Where we went. Who we slept with. How we died — or almost did. It’s basically a scientific soap opera, complete with occasional discoveries of long-lost cousins we never knew we had.

Take Ice Age Europe, for example. A new study of genetic material from the period reveals a continent roiling with change.

First, an upstart band of modern humans arrived, slowly pushing their ancient predecessors out of existence. But soon that new lineage was swept aside by a group of big game hunters. For the next 15,000 years, the older community lay in wait in a remote corner of the continent before bursting back onto the scene. The usurpers were overturned, and history barreled forward. And all of this happened against a backdrop of dramatic environmental change — waves of cold and heat that sent glaciers surging back and forth across the continent.



“The older and wiser we get, the more bewildering our past decisions can seem.”

This American Life tells stories about people who revisit past decisions, including a story it did a year ago about a groundbreaking study that was discredited, but seems to have some truth to it anyway:

A year ago, we did a story about a study that found that a simple 20-minute conversation could change someone’s mind about controversial issues like gay marriage and abortion. But a few weeks after we aired the story, the study was discredited. A couple of researchers decided to redo the experiment the right way, and released their results this week.

The initial study was done in two parts, with political canvassers gathering data about their methods and a researcher compiling it. The researcher was discredited, but the initial data is still good. A new researcher looked at the findings and determined:

… a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months.

This American Life played tapes of the canvassers’ work. Changing minds starts with respecting the perspective of the person who disagrees with you.


Comedian Chris Gethard has a new podcast called Beautiful Stories by Anonymous People, where people can call in to talk to him about anything for an hour. Our editor, Joel Lovell, tells us about his favorite episode thus far – featuring a man who calls in desperately seeking Chris’ guidance.

And this cringeworthily hilarious segment:

Senior Producer Brian Reed tells Ira about a book entitled “Now I Know Better,” where children write cautionary tales recounting horrific accidents they’ve endured. He also interviews one of the book’s contributors about his childhood mishap.

Six tiny microbots weighing 3.5 ounces pull a 3,900-pound car

Slow but steady does it.

John Markoff at the New York Times:

A group of researchers at the Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory at Stanford University has been exploring the limits of friction in the design of tiny robots that have the ability to pull thousands of times their weight, wander like gecko lizards on vertical surfaces or mimic bats.

[Modeled After Ants, Teams of Tiny Robots Can Move 2-Ton Car / John Markoff / The New York Times]

Golly, swearing is good for you

Research shows cursing helps you endure pain, but people who swear habitually experience less relief. Other research shows swearing helps strengthen social bonds and group morale. But swearing also has social drawbacks.

So swear, and swear often. But don’t overdo it, you fucking cunt.

A Strategic Guide to Swearing / Stephanie Hayes / The Atlantic


Photo: Anna Frodesiak / Wikimedia Commons

Researchers extract audio from potato chip bag and other vibrating objects in video recordings

Salt and vinegar chipsResearchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal from minute vibrations of objects in a video recording, including recovering intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed 15 feet away through soundproof glass.

The researchers also successfully extracted audio from video of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and the leaves of a potted plant.

I wonder whether the technique might become sensitive enough to capture sound from old silent movies, newsreels, and home movies.

Extracting audio from visual information: Algorithm recovers speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag filmed through soundproof glass

Photo: Salt-and-Vinegar, by Gerolsteiner91. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

This is how danah boyd works


For years danah boyd has been watching the internet through an academic lens, studying how society interacts with technology. Her recent book, It’s Complicated, looks at how teenagers, born into an online world, are navigating social media and whether they’re better off for it.

I’m danah boyd, Researcher at Microsoft, and This Is How I Work

Dogs and robots work together on emergency response teams

Doggy 1399372800411

Dogs are “fast, efficient, able to cover all sorts of terrain, can understand both verbal and gestural commands, and they run on dog food.” But dogs can’t move rubble or fly. Robots can do those things.

What if robots and dogs could work together on emergency response? That’s a job for the Smart Emergency Response System (SERS), a joint project involving MIT and other universities along with National Instruments, Boeing, and other businesses. Robots communicate with a command center using whatever wireless networks are available.

The dogs are intended to be an integral part of this system, and they’re being outfitted with modular “cybernetic suits” that can be rigged up with a variety of sensors depending on the situation.

The suits also monitor the dogs themselves, sending back their heart rates so that their handlers can make sure that they’re doing okay. It works in the other direction, too, with speakers on the vests relaying vocal commands, and embedded tactile systems providing gentle nudges to steer the dogs remotely.

Emergency Response Teams Combine Mobile Robots, Drones, and Dogs – IEEE Spectrum