More Colorful Language

Another quick note on Alan’s colorful writing. He got an article on linguistic color references published in Language magazine.

“Language” has a fancy Flash-powered web-as-magazine interface, complete with flippy paper sounds. I can’t link you deep into it (which I suppose is how they want it), so you’ll just have to open it up and turn to page 30. Take a look here: Alan Kennedy’s “Colorful Language” in Language magazine.

Also, apropos of the orange discussion and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, I heard someone today describe the unrest in Egypt as a “color revolution.” The term was new to me, but not to Wikipedia. According to the article, it describes places where “massive street protests followed disputed elections or request of fair elections and led to the resignation or overthrow of leaders considered by their opponents to be authoritarian.” Just how colorful will this map get before the dust settles?

Fusion Power After All?

The standard joke about clean power from nuclear fusion is that it’s about 30 years away and it always will be. Given this state of affairs, I had pretty much given up on the fusion story happening this century. This made the gloomy prognostication about our ravenous energy future and its attendant carbon burden all the more depressing. Then Matt turned me on to this Long Now talk on fusion research at Lawrence Livermore. In it, Ed Moses of the National Ignition Facility talks about the remarkable progress being made toward a net positive fusion burn: Clean Fusion Power This Decade. Give it a listen. I found it very encouraging.

One decade… Maybe at last we’ve gone from fusion energy being forever 30 years away to the exciting prospect that fusion energy is instead forever 10 years away. Still, that’s progress!

Plenty of nothing: the Anti-Gift Certificate

As we emerge from our post-holiday hangovers, here’s a nice green gift idea to keep in mind: the Anti-Gift Certificate. For that special someone who could use a little more less.

I first saw this on BlogLESS. The artist who designed it is Christopher Gideon, and he’s happy to let you download a copy for free. It’s a nifty turnabout: a positive gift of a negative thing.

It’s always surprising to me how much it can shift your thinking when you flip around a mental model. Here’s an example of what I mean: we mentally assign an active power to vacuums. They suck things towards them. But that’s not what’s happening. Physically what vacuums are really doing is nothing. They’re not pushing back while something over there (say, atmospheric pressure) pushes harder. But it’s practically impossible to avoid the feeling that vacuums pull you in the way a magnet does.

There are all kinds of everyday concepts that seem intuitive but are actually strangely non-physical. Osmosis sucks water into a cell. Cities suck people from the countryside. These visualizations can be helpful as long as you keep in mind what’s really going on.

Once you get the hang of it, you can do these mental gymnastics on purpose. For instance, suppose I’m trying to keep myself from eating some greasy tasty treat (mmm… doughnuts). If I dwell on not being able to eat it, I’ll suffer and whine. But instead of not eating anything, I can think of myself as eating nothing. That is, I’m making a positive choice to eat the thing called nothing. It’s a small hack, but it helps.

One of my favorite mental flipflops comes from the noted conservationist Amory Lovins. In his talk Winning the Oil Endgame, he observes that whenever we save a barrel of oil, we’re actually creating what he calls a “nega-barrel”. By improving the efficiency of cars alone, we’d uncover a huge reservoir of nega-barrels – the Detroit Formation. In fact, we’re the freakin’ Saudi Arabia of nega-barrels! As he says, “we can use less oil faster than they can conveniently sell less oil.” That’s putting a good spin on it, eh?

It’s a small hack, but it really does help.

Wikipedia is Ten

In honor of Wikipedia’s tenth birthday, Clay Shirky has written a nice note for the Guardian about that now venerable internet institution: Wikipedia – an unplanned miracle.

Wikipedia is so very good and its appearance and continued existence is so surprising that I sometimes think that, like a self-creating god, it plucked itself out of nonexistence.

Shirky’s article has a little historical background and some perspective on what it all means. I like this quote:

Wikipedia is best understood not as a product with an organisation behind it, but as an activity that happens to leave an encyclopedia in its wake.

That’s a nice systems-oriented way of thinking. Many things are best viewed this way. Or perhaps I should instead say, most of the best and most durable things work this way.

And I’d like to point out that this year will bring in the tenth anniversary of the first mention of Wikipedia on these pages. That’s right, this blog has been on the scene for more than ten years, scooping the big stories for you. Keep on reading and I’ll tell you what’s going to be big ten years from now…

Consumption: conspicuous and collaborative

Here’s another TED talk, this time from Australia, on the topic of consumption.

The speaker, Rachel Botsman, talks about a new form of consumption that might help us deal with the Ponzi scheme of an “economy built on hyper-consumption.” It’s an odd thing that growth is always considered good in the business pages, and yet we also know that growth must eventually hit hard limits and stop. The fish can’t get bigger than the fish tank. Both of these things are true, and yet fitting them into a single historical trajectory is a painful thought exercise. What does a steady state economy look like? How would we get there? How do we transition from, in the words of Kenneth Boulding, a cowboy economy to a spaceman economy?

Plenty of people have been wrong in the past about exactly where we would hit the limits of growth. Have we hit peak oil or not? It’s hard to tell. But the fact that we may not have hit peak oil yet doesn’t mean that peak oil is a meaningless concept. Limits exist. The fish can’t get bigger than the fish tank, full stop. So it’s worth thinking about how to limit consumption while still having a pleasant life.

Rachel Botsman calls this collaborative consumption, which I think is a dandy phrase, but it’s really the thing we used to call “sharing.” And admittedly, in comparison to the big problems we face these days, this is pretty small potatoes. But it’s a step in the right direction, and crucially, I noticed that I was doing some of these things. I’m using Freecycle and eBay to at least stretch the economic value of things I might otherwise have thrown out. It feels good, and having dipped my toes in the water, I hope to do more.

Alan’s Color/Language Project is taking off

Language scholar Alan Kennedy has written here many times, and I’m honored to host his Color/Language Project on this site. Alan is fascinated with the ways color crops up in languages, and during his investigations of the subject, he learned that there really isn’t any complete collection of color idioms in all languages. So he decided to make one.

I helped out with the technical part because I was interested in trying out the forms interface for Google Spreadsheets. And I’m happy to say it works extremely well. Anybody can fill out the form and add a new idiom. For a long time there wasn’t much activity on the site, but then we started getting lots of new contributions all at once. Why? A little poking around revealed that Marc Abrahams was kind enough to add a link on the Improbable Research Blog. Improbable Research is, by the way, the same outfit that brings us the Ig Nobel prizes. So we are in august company.

Take a look back at Alan’s original article on colors and language, then browse the ever growing Idiom List (more than 300 so far!).

And if you can, please add a new phrase or forward this to someone who can add something colorful in a language we don’t have yet. I know some Telugu speakers out there with very colorful imaginations…