Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


With a program of alternating moderate praise and extreme displays of disapproval, researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have succeeded in training white rats to post only bland platitudes on Twitter. “These are important results that merit further research,” said an unsigned tweet from the lab.


Google spent more than six billion dollars on its first quantum computer, but the prototype was lost between the cushions in Larry Page’s couch.

The Chinese philosopher Lu Hsing created a mechanical device to simulate the laughter of a live audience at theatrical performances, and was executed in 839 a.d.

Thomas Edison succeeded in creating a machine to communicate with the world beyond, but the spirits had nothing to talk about except the price of gauze these days, and the canny Edison concluded that the device would never make a profit on the open market.

Mark Zuckerberg conceived of Facebook as a tool to bring humanity together in peace and friendship.

The Sea Daisy Frozen Seafood Corp. spent millions developing a machine to straighten the tails of shrimp, but the introduction of the “Lobsterette” product line was a disappointing failure.

Henry Ford’s first assembly line was a long conveyor belt that carried, at regular intervals, a meticulous craftsman and the automobile he was assembling. It was not until Ford thought of separating the workers from the conveyer belt that the true potential of mass production was realized.

Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, while useful for certain rudimentary calculations, proved unable to produce a single cat meme.


Imagine a world in which every knife has been replaced with a Swiss army knife. Think of all the things you can do with a good Swiss army knife! You can cut rope. You can open a bottle of wine. You can screw two boards together. You can cut your fingernails.

The only problem is that you cannot do any of these things very well. In particular, a Swiss army knife—in spite of its name—is not a very good knife. It is useful for opening a box, but you will reach for something else if you want to cut a steak. You will reach for a thing that is dedicated to the business of cutting, and does the job well.

In a world where all our knives had suddenly become Swiss army knives, you would get your steak cut eventually, but it would be a frustrating experience. It might be frustrating enough that eventually you would give up on steak and find something else to eat. The giving up would probably not happen all at once; you would never explicitly decide to give up on steak; but every time you thought of eating steak, you would think of the trouble and effort it would cost you, and you would be more and more likely to try hamburger instead. You might not like hamburger as much, but you can hold it in a bun and leave your Swiss army knife in your pocket.

In the end, in this hypothetical world of Swiss army knives, you would probably be reduced to consuming only things that you could eat with your hands, or things that could be effectively handled with a Swiss army knife. Bit by bit, your habits would adapt to the tool you had available. If the corkscrew was fun to play with, you might develop a drinking problem.

In our world, we have not replaced all our knives with Swiss army knives. But we have replaced our telephones with smartphones, and our little thought experiment will help us understand the effects of that change.

The smartphone is a tool that fits in your pocket and does everything, but the corollary is that it does not do anything very well. It has a Web browser; you are limited to what will fit on a small screen, but that is enough for Wikipedia to settle an argument about the exact dimensions of Jennifer Lopez or whether tiger swallowtails are man-eaters. You can send text messages and emails; the little virtual keyboard is cramped and inefficient, but it does the job. If you are persistent and something of a masochist, you can even get some writing done with a simple word processor. You can take pretty good pictures with the built-in camera. You can listen to music. You can watch a movie. None of these things can be done as well with a smartphone as they can be done with dedicated tools, but the dedicated tools do not fit in your pocket.

Finally, you can even talk on a smartphone. But you cannot do it very well. Dr. Boli has mentioned this before, but it is worth dwelling on: if what you want to do is talk, the 19th-century technology that runs our few remaining wired phones does a better job than our 21st-century cell phones do.

Dr. Boli estimates, and he is backed up here by extrapolation and imagination, that our economy loses tens of billions of dollars a year to cell-phone misunderstandings. Comedians reach for the voice-breaking-up joke in every routine, because it is a universal experience. You may recall, if you are old enough, that twentieth-century comedians loved the phone as a prop, but bad-connection jokes were few. Too many would have been implausible; it was simply too rare an experience to have an inadequate connection.

And yet the 19th- and 20th-century telephone was a poor tool for its job. The limited range of sound made it impossible to distinguish S from F, or K from T. The fact that we have settled for worse sound and less reliable performance for the sake of convenience tells us something about our culture.

And bit by bit we are adapting to that decision we made. The telephone is being retired as a telephone. Voice calls are becoming rarer, because they do not work very well for most of us. Oddly, we can do effective videoconferencing with these smartphones of ours, but we have a hard time making simple voice calls work.

One of the unforeseen effects of the smartphone revolution has been an extension of the domination of the written word. In the late 20th century, it was not hard to find pundits who would predict the imminent end of writing as a tool of communication, except for specialized uses. What happened instead was that everybody became a writer. Most of us did not become good writers, but we all began sending text messages hither and thither through the ether, many of us accumulating thousands of words a day in written communication. Text messaging was attractive because it is much more reliable than voice calls. If you send a text message, you know that it arrived at the recipient's phone in exactly the same state as when you sent it. There are mechanisms to make sure of that. Your voice may sound very different at the other end of the call, but if your text message is misunderstood, you have no one to blame but yourself. (Or, of course, the recipient, for being too stupid to understand a simple dancing-rat emoticon.)

Another obvious effect has been to make us a culture of one-liners. Text messages, Twitter, and Facebook all discourage reasoned argument. If you cannot say what you have to say in the number of words that will fit in a little talk bubble on a phone screen, then what you have to say simply will not be heard. Dr. Boli is not misty-eyed with nostalgia for the good old days when ordinary Americans settled their differences with reasoned discussion and carefully marshaled arguments, because those good old days never existed. Ordinary Americans have always settled their differences by hurling insults, and, when those failed, brickbats. But it is true that now even our pet intellectuals are forced to speak mostly in one-liners. If they do not, they are no longer our pets. Our universe is a New Yorker cartoon.

What are we to do about all this? Nothing, obviously: market forces have taken command, and they will lead us whither they please. It makes one nostalgic for the lovely old Soviet Union, where technology that worked continued in use for decades, because there was no market incentive to make superficial improvements to what was already quite adequate. But the Soviet Union had its own little cultural difficulties.

So if you, like every patriotic American, are the proud keeper of a smartphone, you might consider how to make the best use of it. Do you rule the phone, or does the phone rule you? How much of what you are—your actions, your conversation, your thinking—is dictated by the little black slab in your pocket? And what can you do to get out from under its thumb?

Dr. Boli has a suggestion, but it may be subversive, so look both ways and lean close. This will alert Homeland Security that you are up to something subversive. Now here is the suggestion: Go for a walk without the phone. Start easy—perhaps just fifteen minutes. Work up to half an hour or even an hour.

You may discover after a while that your phone does not need you as much as you thought it did.


A typical paleo diet as depicted in a cave in Altamira, Spain. Photograph by Yvon Fruneau, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license.

Dear Dr. Boli: This chocolate truffle cake says it’s “paleo friendly.” What does that mean? —Sincerely, A Shopper in the Packaged Desserts Section of Whole Foods.

Dear Sir or Madam: It means that this cake was not responsible for the extinction of the mastodon.

That was a little joke, of course. It really means that the food in question is suitable for the “paleo diet,” a dietary program in which the subject is supposed to limit food intake to those foods that were commonly available in paleolithic times, such as meat, root vegetables, nuts, fruits, and chocolate truffle cakes. There are strict FDA regulations for paleo friendliness, which require the manufacturer to certify that all materials used are more than 11,000 years old. If you observe the shelf tag, you will note that the price of “paleo friendly” foods generally reflects these requirements.


Our guessing game yesterday provoked some intelligent guesses, and even some correct guesses. Moreover, the incorrect guesses were, as we predicted, more interesting, and arguably more useful, than the actual purposes for which these appliances were designed.

A common assumption may be discerned in many of these inventions: if some part of you is too fat, it can be corrected by squishing. A program of aggressive squishing maintained long enough will cause the affected part to stay squished.

Our correspondents improved upon the original inventors’ ideas in all cases but one. No. 5 was not improved upon, because No. 5 cannot be improved upon.

No. 1 eliminates double chins, as “Mrs. Bat” correctly guessed.

Nos. 2 and 3 both correct misshapen noses, as more than one correspondent guessed. No. 2 appears to have minute adjustments, perhaps so you can specify the shape of your nose to match your favorite movie star’s; No. 3 involves quite a bit more of the head in the operation.

No. 4 is a rubber appliance for reducing and shaping the ankles. Fat ankles were a constant source of worry in the 1920s.

No. 5 is indescribably effective for pretty much everything, so any answer may be counted as correct. It is possible, however, that we are meant to infer more than the text actually states from the words that the advertiser set in bold. “The Natural Body Brace overcomes WEAKNESS and ORGANIC AILMENTS of WOMEN and MEN. Develops an erect, and graceful figure. Brings restful relief, comfort, energy and pep, ability to do things, health and strength. Does away with the strain and pain of standing and walking; replaces and supports misplaced internal organs; reduces enlarged abdomen; straightens and strengthens the back; corrects stooping shoulders; develops lungs, chest and bust; relieves backache, curvatures, nervousness, ruptures, constipation, after effects of Flu. Comfortable and easy to wear.” A brace that provides the ability to do things seems like a boon to humankind, and especially to women and men, who might like to do things together. How they work around the brace is not explained in the advertisement, but perhaps a diagram is provided with your order.

No. 6 shows both the Bust Reducing Bandeau in cream colored rubber (remember that this was the jazz age, when a flat chest was a desirable attribute for a woman) and the Neck and Chin Reducer. If the Neck Reducer is tight enough, it will probably lead to a rapid reduction in all other fatty parts of the body as well, solving multiple problems at once.


You are defective. No matter how well you are formed, no matter how pleasing your countenance or artistic your shape, there is something wrong with you. We can be sure of that because it has been the first premise of advertisements in the backs of magazines since there have been advertisements in the backs of magazines.

The second premise of advertisements in the backs of magazines is that your embarrassing deformities can be corrected, easily and painlessly, by the expenditure of a very reasonable sum of money. These days the money is likely to bring you a pill of some sort, perhaps a homeopathic cure for ugliness made from a 13C dilution of toad. But in the 1920s, the treatments might be much more aggressive, taking their inspiration from the Spanish Inquisition, with the cleverly American twist of making the victims specify and pay for their own tortures.

As he was harvesting illustrations from a 1924 magazine, it occurred to Dr. Boli that these advertisements might make an amusing guessing game. Here is the game: Can you guess what hideous deformity each of these appliances is intended to correct? The answers given by the advertisements themselves will be published in this space tomorrow, but Dr. Boli is certain some of his readers can give better answers than the original advertisers themselves came up with.

No. 1.
No. 2.
No. 3.
No. 4.
No. 5.
No. 6.


Sir Isaac Newton, inventor of calculus, discoverer of the laws of gravitation, and world-class alchemy crank.

Our frequent correspondent Mary asks a very interesting question:

I’ve been enjoying learning about different types of cranks! Is there a word for this study?

It is a very interesting question because there does not seem to be a good answer. If you ask the Internet at large for a word for “the study of cranks,” nothing obvious comes up.

When there is no obvious term, we make one up ourselves. What would we call a “crank” in Greek? Perhaps “false prophet” would be the best equivalent in meaning. A false prophet is a ψευδόμαντις, so we might call the study of cranks pseudomantology—a word that seems to be available, since a Google search finds not a single instance of it on the Internet. It is distinctive and memorable, and it will—thanks to our correspondent—be Dr. Boli’s term for this discipline from now on.


Although bees have been manufacturing honey for millions of years, they have never developed an instinct for marketing it.

Every month, on the third Thursday, at precisely midnight, a 1948-vintage PCC car arrives at the Drake loop, though the Drake line has been out of service since 1999. It discharges one passenger and returns whence it came. The passenger then drives away in a 1948 Nash coupe, which no one can remember having seen parked there before. It is possible that the mystery might be solved if someone interrogated the passenger before he got into his Nash, but no one in Upper St. Clair wants to be that rude.

In spite of highly paid programmers and nearly four decades of refinement, every iteration of the Microsoft Windows operating system is less efficient than the previous one.

Measured as the crow flies, the distance from Akron to Cleveland is detectably longer than the distance from Cleveland to Akron. Ornithologists have not been able to explain why crows fly this way, unless they are drunk.

During the late twentieth century, thousands of previously sedentary nouns were turned into verbs by unaccountable social forces.