Do trees talk to each other? A German forester says yes

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, has become an unlikely publishing sensation. His book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, written at his wife’s insistence, sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany, and has now hit the best-seller lists in 11 other countries, including the United States and Canada. A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of trees, and Wohlleben is the first writer to convey its amazements to a general audience. The latest scientific studies, conducted at well-respected universities in Germany and around the world, confirm what he has long suspected from close observation in this forest: Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated—and even intelligent—than we thought.

Margaret Atwood’s vision of Utopia

Shortly before she turned 83 last month, the author Margaret Atwood taught an eight-week course, “Practical Utopias,” on an online learning platform in Canada called Disco. About 190 students from 40 countries imagined how to rebuild society after a cataclysmic event — say, a pandemic or rising sea levels. Ms. Atwood, who taught the class from her home in Toronto, surprised students by submitting her own vision for a post-apocalyptic community, called Virgule. “It’s a community, so I expect they will vote,” Atwood said. “To prevent tyrants, the community is divided in two. Each half rules for a year. So they will have to enact laws while they are the rulers that will benefit them when they are the ruled.”

Continue reading “Do trees talk to each other? A German forester says yes”

How devious can copyright maximalists get? Ask Sony

I remember hearing a little about this when it happened, but not as much as I probably should have. I was reminded of it by a recent interview with Cory Doctorow, the science-fiction author and activist, in which he mentioned the secret Sony “rootkit” scheme, which the music and technology giant implemented in 2005 or so. Believe it or not, this involved Sony sending out tens of millions of music CDs with not one but two secret software programs on them. Both of these programs that were essentially what programmers call “rootkits,” meaning they gave Sony access to the deepest levels of a user’s operating system and allowed it to make changes without informing the owner.

As Doctorow explained, one of the programs that secretly installed itself actually changed the user’s operating system so that it couldn’t recognize any program that began with a specific string of characters, and then installed software that used that same string of characters in order to make it impossible to copy the content from the CD. The other secret program sent regular reports on the user’s listening habits to Sony without telling the computer’s owner. In a really killer twist, the software was configured to do this even if the user refused the the company’s end-user license agreement (EULA).

Continue reading “How devious can copyright maximalists get? Ask Sony”

Former master of disguise helps disfigured people

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

It looks like there are body parts everywhere. That’s how Steve Butler knows he has come to the right place. There are at least three noses on the counter. There’s a stack of eyes, and a box full of ears and fingers. In the corner, there’s the lower half of a man’s face, complete with a moustache. “It’s like something out of a movie,” Steve says, as he looks around. Barron’s modest Virginia office downplay the miracle of his work. When people walk through the door, they’re often desperate. Some have told him they are suicidal. By the time they leave, their physical differences are practically invisible to the outside world.

Why frogs survived the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs

No creature could have prepared for the disaster. When an asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago, the world was shaken up as earthquakes reverberated out from the impact site and falling debris from the collision heated the air to the equivalent of an oven on broil. Three years of “impact winter” followed; temperatures plummeted, and photosynthesis nearly ceased. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction wiped out roughly 75 percent of known fossil species virtually overnight. Not only did all the non-bird dinosaurs go extinct, but mass extinctions also decimated lizards and mammals. But frogs fared better than average.

Continue reading “Former master of disguise helps disfigured people”

Neanderthal footprints in Spain could be 275,000 years old

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

A little over a year ago, scientists reported on a large area at the foot of the Asperillo cliff, on the coast of the Doñana Natural Area in Huelva, Spain. There, along with numerous animal footprints, other footprints had been found – those of hominids. Until then, the only time reference that allowed the age of the site to be established was the dating of one of the dunes that covered the surface to around 106,000 years ago. The researchers dated them in line with the environment in which they were found, and the first hypothesis was that they belonged to Neanderthals, who lived in the Upper Pleistocene. However, in the course of the investigation, they sampled the surface where the footprints were found, and the dunes above. It turned out to be about 295,800 years old (Middle Pleistocene)—this is to say, much earlier than previously thought.

The intelligence of swine

Over the past few decades, research has demonstrated pigs’ capacity to comprehend symbolic language, plan for the future and discern the intentions of others. Studies have found them to rival chimpanzees in their ability to learn and play joystick-operated video games, despite the fact that their feet and snouts are inevitably less adept at handling the mechanisms. “The average intelligence of a pig on our farm is somewhere between a four-year-old and a fourth-grader,” says Greg, who insists that humans have not grasped the depth of their internal lives. Measuring nonhuman intelligence is a sticky business, but those who try typically categorize swine alongside dolphins, elephants and higher primates in terms of memory, spatial reasoning and capacity for abstract thought.

Continue reading “Neanderthal footprints in Spain could be 275,000 years old”

How car makers invented the idea of jaywalking

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

In the 1920s, the auto industry chased people off the streets of America, says Clive Thompson, by waging a brilliant psychological campaign. They convinced the public that if you got run over by a car, it was your fault. Pedestrians were to blame. People didn’t belong in the streets; cars did. It’s one of the most remarkable (and successful) projects to shift public opinion. Indeed, the car companies managed to effect a 180-degree turnaround. That’s because before the car came along, the public held precisely the opposite view: People belonged in the streets, and automobiles were interlopers.

This artist can only paint while he’s asleep

Lee Hadwin writes for the Guardian: “Watching videos of me painting is very strange, as I have no recollection of it. I often wake up feeling as if I have done something in my sleep but I can never quite remember what. I paint with both hands, but awake I’m only right-handed. T will leave my art supplies in my drawers and when I’m asleep I’ll know where to go. At a friend’s place, I drew on a plasterboard using chicken bones and coal left over from a barbecue we’d had in the garden. I’ll use any tools I can find, sometimes knives and forks. That’s the only thing that worries my partner – that I’ll accidentally hurt myself. But it hasn’t happened so far. People sometimes assume I’ll always paint a fully developed work of art in the night. In truth, my success ratio is more like one in 50.

Continue reading “How car makers invented the idea of jaywalking”

Bow Valley Ranch in Calgary’s Fish Creek Park

We flew out to Calgary for a work Christmas party and spent the weekend with friends, and had a great dinner at the Bow Valley Ranch in Fish Creek Park. When we lived in Calgary, our house backed on to the park, and I used to ride my bike past this old ranch house, which was boarded up and abandoned. I wished at the time that someone would fix it up and turn it into a restaurant, and obviously someone heard me! We saw a couple of deer on our way to the parking lot, but I didn’t get a picture of them because it happened too quickly.

Moonrise over the mountains

When we were in Calgary for the weekend, we went out to visit the mountains, because I still miss them, and we had a great lunch at the Banff Centre for the Arts and then took a drive up to Lake Minnewanka, just in time to catch the last rays of the sun on the mountains and the moon rising above the peaks.

Physicists created a tiny black hole inside a quantum computer

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

A group of researchers announced on Wednesday that they had simulated a pair of black holes in a quantum computer and sent a message between them through a shortcut in space-time called a wormhole. Physicists described the achievement as another small step in the effort to understand the relation between gravity, which shapes the universe, and quantum mechanics, which governs the subatomic realm of particles. “This is important because what we have here in its construct and structure is a baby wormhole,” said Maria Spiropulu, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and the leader of a consortium called Quantum Communication Channels for Fundamental Physics. “And we hope that we can make adult wormholes and toddler wormholes step-by-step.”

What it’s like to be a food writer when you can taste everything you see

Julia Skinner writes about what it’s like to write about food with synesthesia, which in her case means that everything she looks at has a taste: “Some people hear colors. Some taste sounds. A few, like me, can taste everything around us. The condition of synesthesia—experiencing one or multiple senses through another sense—offers a world informed by the intersection of our experiences rather than the boundaries between them, a world that exists between sense and sensation. In my world, I experience flavors on my palate unique to each thing I see. Here are a few of the flavors I experience: The road itself “tastes” kind of like blueberry Pop Rocks, while the light poles are almost like smooth, cool black licorice. Each building has its own flavor, some informed by the color of the facade—Argosy’s, with its dark-stained wood, is caramelly.”

Continue reading “Physicists created a tiny black hole inside a quantum computer”

The death of the key change in modern music

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Almost one quarter of the Number One hits on the American music charts between 1958 and 1990 were in multiple keys, like Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” where the key change is one of the most memorable things about the song. At the 2 minute and 52 second mark, Jackson sings “change” backed by a gospel choir, as the key moves from G major to G# major. More than half of the key changes found in number one hits between 1958 and 1990 employ this change. You can hear it on “My Girl,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” among many others. What’s odd is that after 1990, key changes are employed much less frequently, if at all, in number one hits.

My great-great-grandfather and an American tragedy

Michael Allen investigates his personal connection to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which hundreds of Native Americans were brutally murdered, including women and children: “As dawn broke over the eastern Colorado prairie on Nov. 29, 1864, a hastily assembled regiment of volunteer U.S. cavalrymen approached their target: a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho wintering on Sand Creek. Somewhere in the ranks rode my great-great-grandfather William M. Allen. His commander, a fiery former Methodist preacher, reminded the men of previous Indian attacks against settlers. “Now boys,” he thundered, “I shan’t say who you shall kill, but remember our murdered women and children.” Over the next nine hours, the troopers slaughtered up to 200 people, at least two-thirds of them noncombatants.

Continue reading “The death of the key change in modern music”