Vol. 2.41 | 10.25.19

Read time: 4 minutes
The Big Effects of Tiny Biases

I’m always delighted when I come across an example of someone illustrating a complex idea through visuals and metaphors that make it accessible. It literally unlocks understanding and produces a genuine light bulb “A-ha!” moment. This website is an example. By using a cute, clever metaphor of mildly “shapeist” polygons and some slick javascript programming, the folks behind this site show how singular, individual decisions motivated by just a little bit of bias results in large scale segregation — even though nobody wanted large scale segregation! More generally, this playable simulation is also a great illustration of the concept of emergent properties and how it operates in a complex system.

The Quantum Search Algorithm That May Explain Life

Whenever I come across anything with the word “quantum” in it, I’m reminded of this classic scene from Seinfeld: quantum mechanics, quantum computing and the like are way too intense for me to study intently with any hope of understanding. Doing so will just make my brain hurt, like looking directly at the sun. You have to “get a sense of it, then you look away.” With that in mind, this article is a good approximation of that in describing how “Grover’s Algorithm” for searching a database actually occurs in nature. This surprising fact may explain natural phenomena such as why DNA is made up of 4 nucleotide bases (and not 3 or 6 or 27) and why protein construction uses combinations of 20 basic amino acids. Those numbers — 4 and 20 — aren’t random. 

Solving the Cube

Speaking of algorithms, here’s an online Rubik’s Cube that you can play with and solve, seeing the algorithm needed based on any scrambled state of the cube. Really cool programming lies behind this slick website, for sure. (Yes, that’s twice I’ve used the adjective “slick.” Sue me.) I remember getting my Rubik’s Cube as a kid … and never coming close to solving it. Gave up a long time ago. Then one day a year or two ago, a friend was over watching football. As we sat in my basement, he saw my unsolved cube sitting on my bookshelf, playing the role of whimsical-yet-brainy nostalgic decoration. Less than 20 moves later, he set my completely solved cube onto the coffee table, grabbed a handful of chips, and returned his attention to the game. I was dumbfounded.

The Facebook Scam Playbook

Another week, another story of how scammy bad actors have been able to systematize fraud through the massive reach and scale of Facebook. It is becoming increasingly clear that Facebook is the digital version of a “bad part of town” in which you run risks of being abused or victimized by your very presence there. Hang out there at your own risk.

It’s a Small but Gorgeous World

It’s not quite down to the quantum level, but camera maker Nikon hosts an annual competition for photomicrography (photography of images through a microscope), and the images and videos from this year’s entries are stunning. This year’s 1st place winning entry is titled “Fluorescent turtle embryo.” Definitely take a few minutes and check out the rest of the images from this year’s competition.