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Flipper Committed Suicide – Not the Only Take Away From “The Cove”

12 Sep

Photo: Pug Father

The Academy Award winner for last year’s best documentary was The Cove. I recommend it to each and every one of my readers – it is a combination of a government conspiracy theory, undercover espionage, and educational-activist-type documentary. The film focuses on a small fishing village in Japan that kills over 20,000 dolphins a year.

I won’t give much away, but I wanted to write a little bit about the films main character, Ric O’Barry. Ric was the person that made dolphins famous back in the 1960’s – he was the trainer for the 5 dolphins used on the TV show Flipper. He also went on to become the most outspoken critic of dolphin captivity.

Why the change of heart? In 1970, the main dolphin used in Flipper committed suicide. Wait… what? Ric O’Barry was very close to the dolphins he trained and maintains he could tell their emotions through body language. The dolphin swam up to Ric that fateful day, looked him in the eye, and took her last breath, deciding not to take another. He believes the dolphin committed suicide because of its depression living in captivity.

How likely is this? Keep in mind we are not talking about humans who breathe unconsciously. Dolphins don’t always have access to air to breathe – they spend most of their time under water, unable to take in oxygen. They must consciously return to the surface to breathe. Thus, this is certainly plausible and I am inclined to give Ric the benefit of the doubt.

If dolphins (and whales for that matter) have to consciously tell themselves to take a breath when they are out of air, how do they sleep? My guess would be that they would draw in a large breath and take a quick nap before returning back to the top for more air. But how what if they don’t wake up in time? DEAD! Turns out they have a “semi-sleeping” state where they effectively shut off half of their brain at a time. They are still conscious enough to rise to the surface for a breath, but asleep enough to rest. Dolphins spend roughly 8 hours a day in this state.


Introducing Auctions in Unexpected Places

16 Aug

Google didn’t become the behemoth that they are by having the best technology. They didn’t invent a faster computer to retrieve the most accurate search results in .15 seconds. They became the leader in search and online advertising by being creative – and they did it through auctions. Yes, Google is the world’s largest auction company.

Have you noticed the advertisements that come up whenever you do a common Google search? They show both on the top and side of your search results (see image) and match incredibly closely to what you are looking for. Have you ever thought about how Google decides to place the accurate ads? Behind the scenes a genius little auction is held for every search that takes place.

Advertisers place bids for what they would be willing to pay to show up next to search terms that they believe are close to their product. Google also ranks the relevance of the ad using a complex algorithm. These two pieces of data are combined to rank each potential advertisement. Then a Vickrey auction is held to determine the price each advertiser must pay and the order of the ads. I highly recommend this extremely concise explanation from Wired magazine (only 226 words).

Well that isn’t so complicated, how much money did they make with that idea? Sure one step of the process is technologically complex, but even if their relevance ranking was created in one day, it would be able to get the job done. The real genius is applying an automated auction system to online advertising, optimizing for price and relevance while allowing the advertiser a high degree of control. So that begs the question – where else can I apply an efficient auction process that will make me billions of dollars?

Of course there are a lot of reasons Google is where it is today, I don’t mean to oversimplify things. But this simple auction is a good chunk of the $24 billion in revenue they made last year.


  • Descending-clock auction for electricity – Trade Electricity Like Pork Bellies
  • Terrific full Google article in the Wired magazine issue – Secret of Googlenomics: Data-Fueled Recipe Brews Profitability

Rethinking Clothes – Fashion and Cleanliness

13 Aug

Photo: Chet Thomas

I watched a fair amount of the cartoon Doug on Nickelodeon as a kid. Doug wore the same outfit every day. In fact, he had a closet full of the exact same outfit. And the best part about this dream world – no one seamed to notice or care! *

Why is it that we change outfits entirely from one day to the next? Why is there a social stigma that you shouldn’t wear the same thing two days in a row, or even two days in the same week? I am blessed that I am not the smelly kid in the class (you know who you are, I hope) – do I have to play by the same rules as everyone else? If I put on clothes to sit in front of my computer all day, they certainly aren’t going to get dirty. Regardless, the next day I have to get out a completely new set of clothes that will once again stay perfectly clean while I sit still for 90% of the day.

I believe this is an antiquated approach – not so long ago people sweated a lot more than today. There was much more physical labor, but now we have machines that can do it at a push of a button. There was a time when clothes were made of heavy wool, but now we have incredibly breathable fabrics. There was a time when a hot day was unavoidable, but now we have air conditioning to keep our environment at a constant 72 degrees. We even have air conditioning in our cars!

If we don’t sweat as much, the clothes don’t get dirty nearly as soon, so we don’t have to wash them after every use. And yet isn’t this the norm for most articles of clothing? And if we don’t have to wash them at the end of the day, why don’t we just lie them out and wear them the next day? Assuming you are going to be in a similar environment, it doesn’t make any sense to put outfit A back into your closet, and scrounge around the next morning to come up with outfit B. Then you have the difficulty of keeping track of how many times you have worn outfit A to know when it should be washed. Alternatively, if you wore it 3 days straight, then you could just throw it straight into the wash!

I can see two main arguments against this – 1) fashion and 2) cleanliness. Some people enjoy picking out a cute new thing to wear every day to impress their coworkers. I don’t and feel I am in the majority, at least for guys. Rather than having the minority impose their will on the majority, why doesn’t the majority band together to make it socially acceptable to wear the same thing multiple days in a row? As for cleanliness, you are either washing your clothes too often because that is what you were taught to do OR you are the smelly kid. Smelly kids should continue to wash their clothes after every use.

I do remember one episode of Doug where they dealt with clothing. For some reason Doug’s characteristic green sweater vest ensemble became the hot new fashion trend. So hot in fact that the entire school showed up one day wearing it. Doug was just one of the crowd, and no one believed him that he had been wearing it for years. Then the next fashion trend came and the whole school ditched the green sweater vests – except for Doug! Everyone thought he was a dork for wearing the old trend, and no one believed him that he had been wearing it all along.


Genetic Inherited Trait Mapping – Would You Want to Know?

3 Aug

Photo: Horia Varlan

Here’s a common quandary for you – if you could know exactly when you are going to die, would you want to find out?  For me the answer is pretty easy – no way Jose!  I don’t want to live my life neurotically counting down to my death.  But what if you draw the line a little farther back?  What if you could know the likelihood that you will have a certain disease in your lifetime?  Or even the trivial: would you like to be told some of your insignificant traits that you may otherwise never even know?

Is this even in the realm of possibility?
If you recall from the pea pod example in junior high, each gene is made up of two alleles – with each allele either being dominant or recessive. To show the recessive trait both alleles must be recessive.  But for humans it is rarely this simple.  These genes combine in incredibly complex ways to make you who you are – most characteristics are determined by more than one gene.  Even though it is incredibly complex, I think it just a matter of time until every conceivable human trait is identified – it should be possible with enough data and large enough computers crunching the numbers. (geek tangent)

Affecting your lifestyle
What would I like to know?  Areas where I could potentially take action to prevent a calamity before it strikes, rather than just worrying for worrying’s sake.  The obvious example are lifestyle diseases such as lung cancer, skin cancer, heart disease, and stroke.  Am I in the top 1% of the population for genetic risk of heart disease?  If so you better believe I would be extra careful to watch what I eat and make sure I exercise.

Keep reading…


Open Source Development for Creating Laws – Introducing Wikilaw

20 Jul

Photo: Brian Turner

A couple days ago I posted about the intriguing notion that anyone can write bills, which with a little hard work and a lot of luck can become a law.

Open Source Movement
I just started reading the book “Drive” which examines the motivation for human beings to behave the way we do. The hypothesis is that a simple cost benefit analysis is not enough to explain human behavior – there are other factors that must come into play because we do not always act in our own best interest.

An obvious example of this is the current trend of open source software. Why would anyone spend 20+ hours a week of their free time to work on open source programs? THEY AREN’T PAID FOR IT! But they do feel challenged, get the feeling of contributing to something larger than themselves, and develop their programming skills. Sometimes this is enough to convince a software developer to contribute.

A Wiki For Writing Bills
Let’s take the whole concept of Wikipedia and apply it to laws. Anyone can contribute to bills on the Wiki and therefore the whole responsibility does not rest on any one person. A mother in Ohio may work on one section, a farmer in California another, and a retired lawyer in Florida can make sure the wording is correct. By combining our efforts we can accomplish much more than individually and hopefully patch up the holes in our legal system.

This is inherently more difficult than Wikipedia – whereas Wikipedia is based on facts, Wikilaw is based on opinion. But this could be the best part about it! Your goal should be to produce bills which both Republicans and Democrats support. This can best be achieved with a bipartisan effort working together online on the same bill. Once the bill is complete, the community can vote on it – if it passes it is time to find a sponsor, if not it is back to the drawing board. (more…)