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What Math?

Replica_catapult

If venture capitalists existed in the fifth century BCE, they would have invested in the catapult building enterprise without much thought. Social networking was not the big thing then.

The invention of the catapult had a major impact on ancient warfare and it was assumed that the catapult builders knew the principle behind the steelyard balance. Turns out that the catapult was built around fifth century BCE and Archimedes and other mathematicians of the Hellenistic era (time from Alexander’s death to the defeat of Cleopatra) came up with the theory, some 200 years later.

“They didn’t all go to Plato’s Academy to learn geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices,” Schiefsky said, adding that craftsmen combined some improvisational trial and error with years of practice to make their machines functional.

The steelyard, which used unequal arms and weights to weigh items, was one device in use well before the advent of the math that explained it. It was a simple case of necessity being the mother of invention, with things like meat needing to be weighed and some method required to do so, Schiefsky said.

Athenians also understood the mechanics behind a basic pulley system well before Archimedes came along and invented the compound pulley, which the Greeks famously used to hoist and topple enemy ships during battles at sea. [Catapults Invented Before Theory Explained Them]

The only help mathematicians provided was to make the catapult more precise so that if an Epicurean wanted to fling a projectile on a Stoic’s head he could do so with precision.

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Small things that matter

More than a decade back when  Yahoo! and Hotmail provided webmail services it was a great innovation, but over time those services became stagnant without any major break through. These services provided only a paltry 4 MB of storage, but were reliable. Then Google came and changed the game. Besides providing storage in the GB range, Gmail also provided a threaded view of the mails which is not a Google innovation, but was something new in the webmail world.

There was one small innovation which Gmail did, something which the other providers did not think about. In Gmail, when you start typing the first few characters of the receiver’s name, it auto completes the name. This not so hard to implement feature saves a few keystrokes in typing the address, a few mouse clicks in finding it from the address book and spares a few neurons from having to remember the email addresses.

No one takes the concept of distinguishing themselves from the crowd more seriously than Apple. If you go to an Apple Store to buy something, you will find that they don’t have the traditional cash counters. Instead, the staff will take a hand held device, scan your items, and  send the receipt to your email address. The staff can walk around with these devices and thus preventing any queues in the store. Sending the receipt to your email address keeps Al Gore, an Apple board member, happy too.

Costco did not get rid of the cash counters, but instead if the queues were getting too long, an employee would walk down the queue, scan your items and give you a bar coded receipt. At the counter you hand over the paper and pay  thus speeding up the queue.

The small things that make a difference can be found by studying your competitors. If you are an NRI account holder in HDFC Bank, you need to dial an Indian number to get help. When you call that number you are often asked to come to the bank and when you go to the branch you are asked for your ration card. All that is for another post. If you have a Citibank account, they provide a 1-800 number which also takes you to India, but at least it is toll free.

In a field where there are many competing players, it is small things like these which distinguish the great ones from the ordinary.

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Day Dreaming Explained

The most difficult task while sitting for meditation is to bring the wandering mind to focus on a single thing, like the breath or a mantra. Usually when you attempt these things the mind will go back into the past or future and start pondering various useless questions. Scientists have now found the neural mechanism which causes the mind to wander.

But now psychologists and neuroscientists in Aberdeen and America have revealed that a collection of areas in the brain termed the default network, supports what is known as mind wandering.

The findings are published today in top journal Science.

The scientists carried out their research with the help of volunteers whose brains were scanned as they performed simple memory tasks.

The results revealed that when participants performed practised tasks with which they were familiar, activity in regions of the default network was associated with episodes of mind wandering, a finding that underscores the importance of this system in guiding the stream of consciousness.

The paper in Science entitled Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought was a collaboration involving the University of Aberdeen; Dartmouth College, Hanover, USA and Harvard University, USA. [What happens when the mind wanders?]

The default network are those parts of the brain that is active when you don’t need to concentrate and this day dreaming is the brain’s default setting.

He says that the new work suggests that activity in the default network is necessary to generate spontaneous thoughts and adds to evidence that it makes an important contribution to our inner life. In one published case study, Raichle notes, a woman who suffered damage to part of the default network initiated almost no spontaneous thoughts. “Her mind was empty,” Raichle says.

The study leaves open the question of why minds wander, says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Schooler suspects that mental rambling is generally beneficial. “A lot of the time, people are thinking about worries or problems that they need to work out,” Schooler says, adding that creative insights often happen during these episodes. The new study could be a big help to researchers if it leads to a way to use fMRI to detect mind wandering without interrupting an experimental subject, Schooler says.[Peering Inside the Wandering Mind]

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Train your mind, Change your brain

There was a study done some three years back on the effect of meditation on the brain and it was observed that during meditation the brains of monks showed increase in brain waves called gamma waves during compassion meditation. There is a new book called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which has more details on the research in this area.

The question asked by the Dalai Lama was “Can mind shape brain matter” and the answer provided by neuroscientists was that physical states give rise to mental states and not the other way around. Now there is evidence that it can happen the other way as well.

Prof. Davidson then used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks’ and novices’ brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one’s emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.

“This positive state is a skill that can be trained,” Prof. Davidson says. “Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way.”[How Thinking Can Change the Brain]

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