5 Oct 2008

How does space smell?

This intriguing question was put to some astronauts when they came back from trips into space. The expected answer would have been that space is a vacuum and has no smell. The real responses given were descriptions of a metallic smell or again that of fried meat. It seems that NASA got into this complicated enquiry because they wanted to update the preparatory experiences astronauts received when training to fly into space. Weightlessness, G forces and the rest all formed part of pre-flight experiences and when returning crews described smells it was decided to incorporate that into the programme.

The question still remained of how to create these smells in a relatively naturally way. Surprisingly experts consulted were able to bottle these olfactory experiences. More surprising is the reason they are able to do this. It seems that the sense of smell depends less on the air going into your nose and more on the vibration of the molecules being sniffed. Thus smells can be created and changed by manipulating their movement and thus capturing the smells in a container - ready for use.

27 Sept 2008

The Cloud

The Cloud is the trendy name for the process of computing in Web2.0 when all our data will be on the Internet - in the cloud.

The advantages of this are that you can use the most up-to-date software without downloading it to your local computer. All your information will be available anywhere at any time since it is stored in the cloud, not in a personal machine. You will be able to access all your own data and any other information you might want on the move via a small reader like a 3G phone so 'offshore location' takes on a new, positive meaning. You will have everything with you, everywhere.

The Cloud sounds like a wondrous place to have your information stored. It has connotations of a big white fluffy blob in the sky. It is almost cuddly. The advantages it offers a mobile world seem endless.

However, one thing is the concept and another the reality. Google, among others, have been hard at work building the Cloud right here on earth. It consists of a series of computer farms spread round the globe at places where there is a rich supply of electrical energy. This is the down-to-earth picture of Google's cloud :

So why should big companies be spending so much cash on Web2? One reason is that the investment will probably be very profitable. The Apple iphone is paving the way for mobile computing which will require the Cloud if it's going to be successful. After all you can't expect people to lug around laptops containing their data forever. No, Apple and Google's android operating system will ensure that you can access all the information you want on a small screen.

The info., of course, won't be on your 3G phone, it will be in the Cloud. And guess who owns the Cloud? The owners will have to be trustworthy since they will be the keeper of all your data, who you are, what and how much you buy, where you move, when you go, your preferences... In a word your full and evolving profile.

Is the Cloud beginning to look blacker?

21 Aug 2008

Seeing things.

There is an interesting talk broacast on ted.com which purports to share a powerful idea about ideas. It is recommendable because the speaker shows us how we understand. The basic idea is that we are blind, we can't actually see, or more specifically we can't see actuality.

Kay summarises this in a catchy phrase: "We see things as we are." Not as they are. In sensory terms this means we filter the reality that our senses offer us and discard what we can't make sense of. Perception wins over 'reality'.

Reason gets us no further since it is always based on a belief; quite the opposite of reason.
Perspective: the world is not as it seems and we use science to rectify our distorted view of it. We use models to approach reality but we can't reach it.

We each view things through a distorted mirror. That's why we are condemned to negociate reality with one another.


12 Aug 2008

The Net result.

When I wrote with a typewriter I was actually just copying from a handwritten script, principally because updating the text meant typing it out again. I longed for a way of typing and updating at the same time. Along came the word processor to answer my dreams. It incorporates a spellchecker and synonym dictionary - all the better. Does this mean I write differently? Not really, the ideas still well up from my experience. The outcome is probably comparatively better though, since it is more checked, more varied and more revised.

Reading a newspaper I tend to look first at the economy section, then the international news, the opinion pages and finally the home pages. I read all these parts linearly starting on the first page of the section and turning over until the last.
Reading online is a completely different experience. I use the index page as my base and click out from there, sometimes following up other links within a story.
I do read web news differently, using more choice and less habit than with the printed press.

Searching for information on the internet is always a googling task for me. I sometimes get sidetracked but often find the answer to my question in a few clicks. I hardly ever consulted an encyclopaedia when a schoolchild so I believe Google has enriched my curiosity and learning. (Something quite different is to believing that everything read on Google entries is true.)

Surfing the web and cooperating on it can lead to disparity and lack of concentration but it is almost always stimulating.

7 Aug 2008

Sense of Direction

People have walked the Original Way or Camino Primitivo to Santiago for over a thousand years. It was opened by the Asturian king Alphonse II who saw great trade benefits in forging a route which linked the centre and western part of his kingdom.

Now there is a new route being opened for the same purpose of trading - a motorway running from Oviedo to La Espina which shadows the Original Way. At times the two routes intersect and it is the old way which loses out each time. From el Fresno, Grado, to well past Cornellana, half a day's walk, the hiker doesn't follow the original way but is rerouted along paths and an asphalt road. To someone interested in following the way's medieval footsteps this is a senseless part of the walk.

This is just the beginning of the clash between the two routes because the motorway is in its infancy. The keen santiago walker feels more routed than rerouted each time modernity's machines obliterate sections of the historical Way.

True progress leads us to a better future by respecting the past.


27 Jul 2008

Advertising sense

In Spain there is a famous anisette drink which rose to advertising glory at the beginning of the 20th. century.
In order to sell more of their alcoholic concoction the Bosch family from Badalona, Barcelona, put their drink into a suitably enlarged perfume flask design and depicted their pet monkey on the label. The unusual feature of this representation is that the monkey has a human face. A closer look reveals a striking likeness to Charles Darwin.

Taking advantage of the then hotly debated theory of evolution Bosch commissioned the drawing to figure on the bottle of spirits. The interpretation of this representation is still open to question: was it an attempt to scorn Darwin and his theory or a statement that this anisette was the most evolved one?

Whichever you choose to believe there still remains a rather bittersweet taste in the mouth


23 Jul 2008


My website editor would have me believe that 'What you see is what you get'. This is akin to asking me to believe that the website will be exactly like the model I build with my editor. This is not always true and I have to check the similarities and differences by actually uploading and viewing it online after editing.

The WYSIWYG belief is, I believe, spread across the net. We tend to accept what we read on the web as true. Google gives us access to boundless information sources that easily overwhelm our critical faculties and we end up by accepting that what you see is what is true. Doesn't the same habit kick in when consulting Wikipedia?

In fact we cannot always believe our senses. The camera does sometimes lie, or rather the photoshop editor always allows manipulation. Here's a spectacular example:

This photo is a composite of 4 pix: the sky, the background, the Antartica iceberg on top and the Alaskan berg, shot and flipped to fit underneath.

What you see/hear/smell/taste/feel is not always all there is.


21 Jul 2008


The prevalent Christian representation of the cross is the depiction of a crucified dead man. There is often plenty of blood, always nails through flesh and a couple of weeping onlookers. No hint of eternal life or resurrection. It is a symbol well suited to the hellfire and brimstone negative message of Western Christianity.
Not much hope there.

However, in the Eastern tradition a slightly different perception of the same crucifixion scene evolved. This was taken up by western European artists in the Romanesque period. One example is that of Italian artists in Tuscany who painted crucifixion scenes on wood. These show a brightly coloured picture of Christ in glory, well robed and with a serene expression. Here, instead of morbid death, there is hope of a resurrection, a pointing towards a better future, a positive outlook on life.

For example the Pisan master painter created this visual sense of hope for those who wish to believe:


1 Jul 2008

Hard and soft

In a recent interview Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun systems for 22 years, said that he and his company were fully behind the promotion of open source software. Now that sounds like music to the ears of those who want something for nothing. It makes Sun sound like a quasi-charitable organisation, all for the people, a sharer in the competitive society.

McNealy is no romantic computer scientist. In fact he was trained in the business field at Harvard University where he graduated with a BA in Economics. So you wonder how he could head such a free download company.

A closer look reveals that Sun's principal product is computer hardware, especially servers. So what Sun is really promoting is free software to run on their expensive hardware. The more information and gratuitous software available the more hardware needed to run it. Google knows that - it manages information searches using server farms full of hardware. Sun's motto "The Computer is the Network" has a harder look about it, somehow.

However, what is hard can be dressed up to look like soft for the occasion.


25 Jun 2008

Colours and Humor

Your state of mind can be influenced through colour according to the geocromotherapy model.

Red is an exciting stimulus. It capacitates and can overexite. (Think of fire)
Yellow stimulates the memory, concentration and internal wisdom. (Publicity's favoured colour).
Green awakens a sense of serenity and self-healing. (Hospital colour)
Purple is antidepressive and stimulates creativity. (Cardinals' clothes)
Blue infuses security and protection against adverse circumstances. (The TV news background)
Orange is dynamic, cleans the emotions. (The Dali Lama's clothes.)

Don't believe or disbelieve. Try it out. If it works then it's good for you.


13 Jun 2008

No pain, no gain.

George Soros, one of the most successful stock market players, revealed one of the clues to his knack for earning easy money in a BBC interview this week : his backache.

His son explained that his father knew when to invest because his back pain guided him. Soros gave a more interesting angle. He reckoned that when he was in a quandary about what shares to buy and sell this stress was reflected as backache. So the pain was actually psychosomatic.

So much for the mind / body division.


11 Jun 2008


David Gordon gave a workshop course on Modelling in Whally, Lancashire, UK. It was to complement his book on the subject. This was not an intellectual affair but based on experience, on the senses.

The aim of modelling is to study the beliefs, strategies and emotions of someone who performs well so as to be able to replicate their performance.

Imagine teachers were able to replicate the performance of the best students. They would quickly be able to really help struggling pupils by passing on this valuable experience.


4 Jun 2008

The Third Culture

In 'The two cultures, a scientific revolution' C.P. Snow noted that Arts and Science provided equally important ideas. However, somehow the leading literary lights managed to define themselves as 'the' intellectuals, leaving scientists a second place.

In the second edition of book Snow suggested that the scientists would gradually gain merited recognition alongside the literary leaders. This was to be the 'third culture'.

However it turns out now that scientists are by-passing the middlemen and speaking directly to the public who are hungry for their ideas. This is the real third culture: literate scientists.


3 Jun 2008

Two views

Humans have a tendency of trying to make sense of something by thinking of it from one of two basic viewpoints: detailed or general. At the level of detail we can't see the overall structure, and vice-versa. Glance at the two maps you can see here : one shows the outline; the other all the detail. The first represents top-down thinking ; the other is bottom-up thinking .
The deductive approach starts from an abstract level and works its way down to applications. However, if we think inductively then we have a preference for gathering details and building up the general picture from them.
Good thinking skills are inclusive and use both approaches.


30 May 2008

The flight of the bumble bee

You've probably seen many a bumblebee flying heavily around flowers in summertime in order to gather nectar and spread pollen for next year's blooms. They are difficult to miss with their striking black and yellow stripes, buzzing about in a their typically tipsy manner.

However, you might be rather surprised to learn that according to the laws of aeronautics bumblebees cannot fly! Restated in another way: the laws of aeronautics cannot explain how these insects manage to keep aloft. One conclusion is that the general model of aeronautics is not wrong, but it is deficient.

Human beliefs are like this aeronautical theory. They are personal constructions of how the world works, built up through daily experience. There is no problem with that until we succumb to the temptation to believe that our belief models really explain how the world works. This would be the aeronautical equivalent of bumblebees falling out of the sky.
(The flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky Korsakov)


29 May 2008

The Eye of the Beholder

When we humans look at something, a face, an object, a landscape, artwork ... we immediately judge its beauty. Now it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning that we each have our own canons of beauty as cultures and even as individuals.

However, there is a sight which is always pleasing to the eye. That is when we look upon the golden mean. In everyday life you can find this type of object - in the metro ticket for example. Measure it and you will find that its sides are in a proportion of 1:1.618 This is the golden ratio and allows the simple ticket to be pleasing to the eye.

Artists like Dali organized paintings such as the above, 'Last Supper', using this pleasing proportion. It is a sort of eye candy trick.

Well-proportioned faces also fall into this category. Both Cathérine de Neuve and George Cluny's faces measure up well.

Despite all this, could it be that the golden mean is not really 'out there' in faces, objects, landscapes and artwork but within the eye? In other words perhaps we perceive things as beautiful, or not, according to the structure, an innate golden ratio, in our own eye. Might beauty really be 'in' the eye of the beholder?


27 May 2008

Common Sense

An Obituary of the late Mr. Common Sense

'Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as: Knowing when to come in out of the rain; why the early bird gets the worm; Life isn't always fair; and maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement..

Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust; his wife, Discretion; his daughter, Responsibility; and his son, Reason. He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers; I Know My Rights, I Want It Now, Someone Else Is To Blame, and I'm A Victim.

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone. If you still remember him, pass this on. If not, join the majority and do nothing.'


26 May 2008

Sight and bees

The sense of sight may well seem obvious - you look and you see. However, there are realities that we do not see as we look. It appears that cats have no cones in their eye structure. This helps them see at night because they see only in terms of black and white. (A possible reason zebras have b/w stripes which of course mesh into a blur when they bob as they run at full speed from the pursuing big cats.)

Bees perceive ultraviolet light which helps them pinpoint flowers.

We see in rainbow colours, which is beautiful, but it is not all there is to see. Our maps of reality are limited by what we can and cannot see.
'How limited?', one wonders.


25 May 2008

Map & Territory

OK, so we all perceive the world in different ways and we construct individual maps of 'reality'.

These internal maps are personal images of how things are 'outside' ourselves. They are not reality only its image, rather distorted due to our filters of interpretation. In short, our map is not the territory, just as a street map is not the town.

This means that we can only understand reality in a partial form. The good news is that since nobody has the whole truth we are thus condemned to negotiate 'reality' with our fellow humans. This is another way of saying that discussion and counter discussion is our only way forward.



'niaroo' might seem a rather senseless webname for a blog called sense, so here's what it means:

Reverse the order of the letters and you get 'oor ain' which translated from lowland Scots to English gives 'Our Own' : this is our own blog. It belongs to those who write here.

The main title 'Sense' refers to how we make sense of our world. Living creatures see, hear, smell, taste, touch their environment, that's the way we 'make sense' of it. Each gets a different picture depending on the acuity of their senses. And so understanding is inevitably a cooperative effort since one person only perceives a part of the whole.

This is a journey across the internal maps we each draw, the image of our shared understanding