Brian Keaney

Month: February, 2010

Stealing a book judged by its (political) cover

It was generally accepted among my classmates in college that Republican women were better looking than  their sisters in the Democratic Party.  Even as a Democrat myself I had to agree.

Now it appears you can tell quite a bit about someone just by looking at them.  No, I am not talking about whether Michael Jordan wears boxers or briefs.  It actually turns out you can tell which political party someone belongs to just by looking at them.   (Hat tip Freakonomics)

Republicans were perceived as more powerful than Democrats. Moreover, as individual targets were perceived to be more powerful, they were more likely to be perceived as Republicans by others. Similarly, as individual targets were perceived to be warmer, they were more likely to be perceived as Democrats.

I can only wonder how someone like Michael Scott would fare.  As an uber-Machiavellian he wants people to be afraid of how much they love him.

Contrast that with this item that popped up in my Recommended Items feed on Google Reader.  There is now a smart phone application that allows you to take a photo of someone and it will search social networking sites for their profiles.

At first I thought this was a pretty cool feature.  We’ve all been at a party and across the room you see someone you are sure you’ve met, but you just can’t remember their name.  If you can surreptitiously snap a photo of them then the problem is solved.  It might also work if you see someone across the room you would like to know, and want a couple conversation ideas before you saunter over and buy them a drink.

I then began to think of the privacy concerns, however.  Say you are at a bar, and someone grabs a photo of you without your knowledge.  A Facebook search will give them your name and likely hometown, and a quick Google search will give them your address.  Guess what, the bad guys now know where you live, and, more importantly, that no one is home.

This is the same problem that has recently been discussed by the fauz-social networking site, Please Rob Me.  This service alerts would-be robbers when you’ve left home and checked in somewhere on Foursquare.  A running feed on the homepage gives criminals an up to the minute list of people with empty homes just ripe for the robbing.

Both Recognizr, the facial recognition software, and Foursquare (and, by extension, Please Rob Me) are opt-in services.  For now, unless you sign up for the service, criminals won’t be able to grab your photo in a crowded bar and find out where you live.  I bet it won’t be long until someone creates a similar program that can do the same thing with or without your consent.  Some enterprising criminal may develop his own app, complete with Mapquest directions from the bar to your home.

If you don’t think that is possible, just think.  A few minutes ago you didn’t think you could pick out a Republican by site.

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Only 10 shopping months until Christmas

I don’t like being known as the oldest of all my cousins.  I much prefer to be known, and I think it is universally accepted that I am, as the biggest kid.  If I’m not directly responsible for the vast majority of the screaming, yelling, laughing, and horsing around, you can bet that I am at least involved in it.

For Christmas I picked up a present my great-aunt was giving to my youngest cousin, who is also usually responsible for most of the ruckus taking place.  It was a remote controlled helicopter, but it came with a note from Santa Claus.  The little one was not allowed to even unwrap the present unless he agreed to a few conditions.

The first was that I got to play with it whenever I wanted.  It was also stipulated that he had to bring it on vacation with him in the summer, so that I could play with it whenever I want.  If he didn’t agree to these terms then Santa was going to send an elf down from the North Pole to take it away from him and give it to me.

I should have held out for more.  After viewing this video, an 18 inch helicopter doesn’t seem nearly as cool anymore.

Santa, if you are reading this, next year I want a fighter jet for Christmas.  And, since those guys got a scale model, I want a real one.  I don’t think that is too much to ask.

Cogito ergo sum… a hologram?

As an undergrad at a school with a great philosophy program I heard lots of bad jokes.  Most philosophy majors were either on their way to becoming lawyers or priests, neither of which is known for their sense of humor.  Perhaps the most common was the standard Saturday night AIM away message of “Bibo ergo sum.”  I drink, therefore I am.

It was a play on Descartes‘ famous maxim that cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.  I still remember pondering the implications of this statement when I read it in my own philosophy class.  Could it be possible that everything I’ve ever known is a hoax? That the laptop in front of me doesn’t really exist?  Niether does my Jeep, or my bowl of Cheerios, or my mother?  That this is all just some big cosmic joke?

Turns out, it might just be.  New Scientist magazine is reporting that our entire universe might be a hologram (registration required).  No one is saying for certain, but it does explain some background noise researchers have been getting while trying to measure gravitational waves.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The “holographic principle” challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.

Of all the sciences, physics has always been my favorite.  I have a copy of Einstein’s book explaining the special and general theories of relativity to laymen like myself – and I even understood it.  I still have plenty of questions, and even a pecking order for them.  At the top of the list is about the structure of the atom (all the empty space shouldn’t work, and how electrons get from one orbit to another) and how the universe could possibly curve and thus provide a boundry (by definition it seems it should be infinite).

This, however, has to jump to near the top of the list.  I always assumed one day I would get the opportunity to ask a physicist about them.  Now I’m back to worrying that just because I can ask the question, that doesn’t mean she will be able to answer it.  After all, she might not really be standing in front of me.

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