Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

From Canada's Toronto Star, an amusing roundup of a year's ideas

A year's worth of ideas

1. Adaptive unconscious

We humans are not the rational creatures we like to portray ourselves as. In fact, we are more likely to make important decisions so quickly that we don't even know we've done so.

"The part of the brain that leaps to conclusions is called the adaptive unconscious, and the study of this kind of decision making is one of the most important new fields in psychology," Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an excerpt from his bestseller Blink.

As Gladwell asked, "When you walk into the street and suddenly realize that a truck is bearing down on you, do you have time to think through all your options? Of course not. The only way that human beings could ever have survived as a species for as long as we have is that we've developed another kind of decision-making apparatus that's capable of making very quick judgments based on very little information."

Gladwell describes the adaptive unconscious as "a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings."

It is not the same as our subconscious, nor is it the part of our brain that slowly processes our options before reaching a conclusion. It is more along the lines of taking an instant liking or disliking to someone, and it's why the bromide about first impressions being correct is accurate more often than not.

"Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea, whenever we're faced with making a decision quickly and under stress, we use that second part of our brain," wrote Gladwell.

2. Anti-Americanism, Stupidity of

There is a limit to how much anti-Americanism is good for a person, because at some point its excess can become moronic. So wrote Dominic Hilton, a British journalist, in Ideas in February.

"Anti-Americanism that breeds terrorism and tyranny is a major problem for us all and one the United States of America must fully address; anti-Americanism that doesn't result in suicide missions is not America's problem, it's the problem of its moron perpetrators," Hilton wrote. "Non-Americans that find comfort in blaming America for all the world's ills — poverty, war, environmental destruction, the death of high culture, their own pitiful inadequacies — suffer for such fatuous bunkum. Their own houses rot as they drone on at dinner parties and terrorist camps about American `crimes against humanity.'

"They are all morons, but the difference is that America can and should ignore the dinner guests. They pose no threat. Especially not an intellectual one. The philosophy of `damn you if you do, damn you if you don't' is not worthy of serious contemplation. Insularly isolationist or intensely imperial, America is castigated for both, often by the same people."

Hilton quoted Jean-François Revel, the French philosopher, who broached the same subject in his 2004 book Anti-Americanism: "The illogicality at base consists in reproaching the United States for some shortcoming, and then for its opposite. "Here is a convincing sign that we are in the presence, not of rational analysis, but of obsession."

3. Anti-science movement, The (Republican)

It manifested itself mostly in the theory of intelligent design, which suggests man is the intended result of a deliberate evolution managed by God, our extremely flawed nature notwithstanding.

But the Republican Party's anti-science movement was felt in other ways, most of them catalogued in Chris Mooney's book The Republican War on Science (Basic Books).

As Jeet Heer reported, over the past three decades the two pillars of the Republican Party, religious conservatives and big business have found themselves increasingly at odds with the scientific community.

The religious right is uncomfortable with the teaching of evolution, as well as with social and technological trends that sever the link between sex and reproduction.

Meanwhile, large corporations bristle at the use of science, particularly on environmental issues, to bolster the case for more government regulations.

To curry favour with these key supporters, Republican politicians have been going to great lengths to attack mainstream science, often muddying the waters of public debate by giving legitimacy to fringe views upheld by pseudo-scholars and hirelings who work at right-wing think tanks.

Thus, as Mooney writes in his book, we get theories such as the following, promulgated by the anti-gentsia:

Former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay argued that school shootings are caused by the teaching of evolution, which he describes as the theory that people are "nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud."

Dr. W. David Hager, a Bush appointee to the Food and Drug Administration, recommended a unique remedy for premenstrual syndrome: Bible reading. Due in part to Hager's political sway, the contraceptive Plan B (popularly known as the morning-after pill) is still not available over-the-counter in the U.S.

Bush appointees coerced the National Cancer Institute into issuing an online fact sheet suggesting that abortion might be linked to breast cancer, a claim rejected by the vast majority of scientists who have studied the issue. (The fact sheet has since been removed.)

In a 2003 speech, Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the pivotal Committee on Environment & Public Works, suggested that global warming was a conspiracy.

"With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phoney science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?" Inhofe asked. "It sure sounds like it."

4. Artists, Sexual life of

Researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the Open University in the U.K. found that creative people can have more than twice the number of sexual partners as non-creative people.

The researchers believe people who make art and poetry are in effect drawing attention to themselves, which translates into more sexual encounters.

"We found that people who create poetry and art are attracting members of the opposite sex by displaying their works," said Daniel Nettle, the lead author of the study. "It's a creative peacock effect."

The researchers asked 425 people about their sexual history, mental health and level of creative production. The results showed that artists and poets had been with four to 10 sexual partners, whereas non-creative people had been with only three. As well, the number of sexual partners increased with the amount of creative production.

Not only are artists having all the sex, they may be transmitting schizophrenia to future generations.

By cross-referencing the results of creative people with those of schizophrenics, they were able to identify a link between creativity and mental illness. Which, Nettle said, explains why schizophrenia continues to exist in spite of the low reproduction rates of the people who suffer from the condition.

The sexual prowess of artists ensures that both creativity and mental illness will persist in our gene pool. "You'd imagine the genes (that cause schizophrenia) would become rarer and rarer and eventually disappear, but (since) the same temperament is also found in lots of people who are attractive and charismatic — people who are likely to reproduce — then that solves the puzzle," Nettle said.

5. Beauty and estrogen

Beauty, as it turns out, isn't skin deep. A study at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, showed that attractiveness in females relates to the hormonal composition of their blood.

Researchers found that men tend to be attracted to women who have high levels of estrogen, a naturally occurring sex hormone linked to fertility. The report also found that women with high estrogen levels had more feminine features, such as bigger eyes, fuller lips and smoother skin.

The researchers photographed 59 women between 18 and 25, who were wearing no makeup, and took a urine sample from each subject for hormone analysis. A group of men then rated the women in the photographs for health, femininity and attractiveness.

The results showed that men were most attracted to the women who tested for high levels of estrogen. Miriam Law Smith, who helped carry out the research, said men were, in effect, choosing the women best poised to bear children.

"From an evolutionary point of view, it would now make sense that men prefer feminine female faces because those are the women who have higher estrogen levels, and who are ultimately more fertile," said Law Smith. "In our evolutionary past, men who favoured women with feminine features would be choosing the more fertile female, thus would have had more babies and be passing on more of their genes."

6. Beer, Automated reordering for

It's the kind of gadget that could only be invented in a bar: a beer mat capable of ordering a refill.

The brainchild of Andreas Butz, a professor at the University of Munich — who came up with the idea while he was (where else?) out drinking with his students — it uses a system of hidden radio sensors to detect the weight of the drink placed on it and calculate how much liquid is left in the glass.

Once the glass is empty, the beer mat sends a signal to the bar, which then sets off a blinking light to tell the waiter that the occupants of a particular table are in need of a top-up.

The sensors also allow customers to convey the urgency with which they require a refill simply by moving the mat around in an increasingly frantic motion.

7. Beer, Open source

In the spirit of sharing ideas with the whole world, a group of students in Copenhagen posted a beer recipe on the Internet and invited one and all to develop, brew and sell their product.

Vores yl, which means "Our Beer," is a traditionally brewed beer that is enhanced with guarana, a South American bean known for its caffeine-like, energy-boosting properties. The students also designed a bottle and label for the beer, and developed a marketing campaign.

"The recipe and the whole brand of Our Beer is published under a Creative Commons licence, which basically means that anyone can use our recipe to brew the beer or to create a derivative of our recipe," the groups writes on its website, "You are free to earn money from Our Beer, but you have to publish the recipe under the same license (e.g. on your website or on our forum) and credit our work. You can use all our design and branding elements, and are free to change them at will provided you publish your changes under the same license."

The idea for open-source beer, as the group refers to it, comes from open-source software like Linux, wherein software programmers make their codes available so that anyone can use and develop them.

8. Bees, Disappearance of

Environmentalists and scientists are beginning to worry that bees are becoming an endangered species. Some troubling signs:

More than 400 species of wild bees in western Europe are listed as threatened in the national Red Lists compiled for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Many species of bumblebees have declined sharply in recent years, and field naturalists have found no evidence of several species in locales they once frequented.

The number of commercially managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. plunged from almost 6 million in the 1940s to below 2 million in 1996.

Two once-common species of bumblebees, one from the east coast of North America and one from the west, are missing and presumed gone.

"When you explain the importance of bees and the pollinators to people, it's like you were telling them that ghosts lived among us, an unseen army of workers on which we're very reliant," said Laurie Adams, co-ordinator of the grassroots North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.

Many scientists are increasingly concerned that extinction may be stalking not only commercial hive bees but also thousands of species of wild bees that ensure that flowers bloom and crops ripen.

9. Brand integration

On an episode of ABC's The View this fall, noted the Hollywood Reporter, "Sears sponsored a surprise dorm room makeover for two freshmen that included a shopping spree at the department store for practically every new item that went into the room. On Martha Stewart's new syndicated daytime strip, Martha, GE sponsored a multi-episode dream kitchen makeover segment featuring major roles for its appliances. And on the day before American Thanksgiving, The Tony Danza Show featured Campbell's Soup in a holiday segment depicting 25 family members who win a Thanksgiving reunion trip to New York sponsored by the packaged-food manufacturer."

Welcome to "brand integration," where manufacturers buy their products a role on shows in what amounts to a celebrity endorsement. The move into daytime television reported by the Hollywood Reporter is just the latest in what has become the hottest idea in marketing.

Video games are already well into the trend, featuring specific models of cars and other products that players interact with, raising their awareness and generating "calls to action," such as purchasing or recommending the product, according to a Nielsen Entertainment study praising the effectiveness of brand integration.

It got so big in 2005 that this month the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild went public with their demands that networks and producers give writers and actors a creative say in, and financial compensation for, writing brands into story lines or appearing with them onscreen.

A white paper prepared by the WGA cited several examples of integration of products into stories, including the character played by Eva Longoria on ABC's hit Desperate Housewives getting a job as a spokesmodel for the Buick LaCrosse, and story lines about Procter & Gamble's Herbal Essence and Swiffer brands on the WB Network's What I Like About You.

10. Bullets, Why you don't want to be hit by

"Remember your high school physics?" asked Dr. Michael Pollanen. "Energy equals one-half mass times velocity squared. The wounding power is determined by velocity, not the mass of the bullet."

Pollanen, medical director of the Toronto Forensic Pathology Unit, saw three gunshot victims in four days in October.

If a bullet leaves the muzzle of a gun at about 300 metres per second, it may slow down to 60 metres per second as it passes through a car windshield. A bullet has to travel between about 50 and 65 metres per second to puncture skin. Often the entry wound is small, round, and gives little indication of the wreckage it has left inside the body.

As the bullet leaves the firearm, hot gases, unburnt gunpowder and carbon go with it, said Pollanen. If fired at close range, these substances also enter the body.

As the bullet tears through tissue — especially dense organs — it can become deformed and change shape. It can also change direction. As it does so, it starts to divide and tear open tissue, creating a zone of destruction.

In this effect, known as mushrooming, the diameter of the bullet can double in size.

And as it comes to rest in the body, the bullet carves out a hole, which temporarily expands outward — this is known as the cavity effect — sometimes creating a space as large as an orange.

11. Cars as bulletproof home theatres

If the world unfolds as the car company Ford imagines, in 2010 we will be living in cities so torn by violence that we will want our vehicles to be as secure as armoured cars. We will also want to use those cars as home theatres.

Ford unveiled the SYNus at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, describing it as a "rolling urban command centre" and a "mobile techno sanctuary."

In practical terms, it is a small, narrow, four-seat minivan modelled on the design and security features of armoured cars. When parked, the car deploys protective shutters over the front and side windows, a feature not required for windows on the side, at the back, and on the roof, because those ones are bullet-resistant.

Instead of a rear window, there is that vault-style door, on the inside of which is a 45-inch flat-screen TV that can be used to surf the Internet, watch DVDs or view what's going on outside the car with the help of video cameras. The rear-view mirror is actually another screen hooked to a rear-mounted camera.

To top things off, the SYNus's seats can be reconfigured to face the television, turning the car into a "mini home theatre," said Ford. Because who wouldn't want to park their car in a race riot and start watching a DVD?

12. Catherine the Great, Coming to terms with

The Art Gallery of Ontario's blockbuster exhibit Arts for the Empire: Masterpieces from The State Hermitage Museum (to Jan. 1) highlighted Catherine the Great's ostentatious side. It also put David Olive in a mood to defend the monarch, and to try to persuade readers that there was much more to her than tales of sexual deviance and excess. As he wrote:

"More than a century ahead of her time, Catherine II was a model of sexual emancipation, a beloved figure known to more often than not give rather than take direction from her male counsellors. She appointed women to high positions of authority and launched Russia's first girls' school, the Smolny Institute, in 1769.

"Determined to make St. Petersburg the equal of Paris and Berlin as a cultural capital, ... Catherine II transformed the Russian seat of power with resolute panache, blazing a trail for the autocratic machinations of Baron Haussmann in Paris and Robert Moses in Manhattan.

"There was the Hermitage, of course, now grown from the original 255 paintings Catherine II bought from the City of Berlin to the current 2.7 million items on display in the most tourist-trod wing of the Winter Palace. But her urgent patronage extended to the creation of expansive new premises for the Academy of Fine Arts and the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the opening of the city's first public library (now the Russian National Library).

"She launched Russia's modern book-publishing industry, to both disseminate Slav culture abroad and translate foreign works of the Age of Enlightenment in Russian, and sponsored the creation of intellectual journals throughout the country."

13. Christmas decorations, Pavlovian effect of

Christmas decorations in stores do more than look pretty — they trigger a desire in shoppers to spend money on gifts, according to Lars Perner, professor of marketing at San Diego State University.

Perner said we're conditioned to shop when we see holiday decorations — just as Ivan Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate when they heard that famous ringing bell.

"Most likely there's some kind of classical conditioning going on that's similar to Pavlov's dogs," Perner said. "It's basically an association between events. Clearly, the Christmas decorations may induce people to start shopping and spending early."

In the Russian scientist's experiment, dogs were exposed repeatedly to stimuli that paired food and a ringing bell. The experiment showed that, eventually, the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell, even when no food was presented.

Perner believes the same model applies to humans when it comes to Christmas decorations and shopping. We're used to heightened spending during the holidays, so exposure to holiday symbols can trigger a subconscious desire to shop.

For many families, Christmas is also a time for togetherness, thankfulness and passive-aggressive standoffs. This is a time to eat, drink and probe the layers of disappointment and resentment that haunt the very core of a disparate group that can be called a family only in the most technical, unromantic sense of the word. If Christmas imagery elicits such feelings, an emotionally rattled shopper might be less likely to exercise restraint.

14. Eschewing gum litter

There is no longer a reason for chewing gum to end up on the street, thanks to readers of the Ideas section who proposed a series of solutions to gum disposal in 2005.

Chewing gum litter is an international epidemic, with cities everywhere trying to cope with the problem. In Toronto, there can be as many as 2,000 gum stains in a 350-square-metre section of sidewalk, according to Geoff Rathbone, the city's director of solid waste planning.

The challenge to readers was to design a new gum package that includes a convenient gum-elimination system; in the spirit of innovation, participants were asked to include with each submission a sketch of their idea on a napkin, cocktail or otherwise.

Veronica Clarke-Hanik designed a container that obliges the user to deposit used gum in the top before they can get a fresh piece out of a swinging door at the bottom. "The idea is to make it fun not to deposit gum on the ground," she wrote."

15. Fascism, The return of

A government-led worship of big business and unrestrained capitalism can lead to fascism, argued Paul Bigioni, a lawyer and writer who is preparing a book on fascism. Bigioni traced the rise of fascism at the beginning of the 20th century, and noted similarities between the politics of that era and those of today.

"It was the liberals of that era who clamoured for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammelled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom that is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such `freedom' was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early 20th century. The use of the state to protect such `freedom' was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.

"In the post-war period, this flawed notion of freedom has been perpetuated by the neo-liberal school of thought. The neo-liberals denounce any regulation of the marketplace. In so doing, they mimic the posture of big business in the pre-fascist period. Under the sway of neo-liberalism, Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney and George W. Bush have decimated labour and exalted capital. (At present, only 7.8 per cent of workers in the U.S. private sector are unionized — about the same percentage as in the early 1900s.)"

16. Fire Bibles

At least two Christian websites pitched Fire Bibles in 2005, one of them in these terms: "When was the last time your class saw how HOT God's Word is? Open this authentic-looking Bible and begin to share the scripture for the day as real flames begin to rise from the pages. This full-size book comes with a battery-operated ignition system. All you supply are the batteries, lighter fluid and nerve."

In other words, it's a $44.95 (U.S.) fake Bible that, during a sermon demonizing Charles Darwin or the Supreme Court, will emit a rather tame yellow flame from its pages at the touch of a button.

To see it in action, go to

17. iFood

A Toronto designer, Davin Risk, claimed the top prize in a U.S. contest that asked artists to interpret the iPod Shuffle using food. Risk won with a delicately crafted facsimile made of banana, apple, and spaghetti.

He was drawn by the promise of winning a real, non-edible iPod Shuffle for the best entry. "I'd been thinking about getting some kind of iPod or MP3 player anyway, so I just thought this would be a fun way to possibly win one."

The contest was organized by Seattle-based Web design know-it-all Mike Davidson, of Mike Industries.

18. iLog, The

The iLog, created by Manchester-based artists Simon Blackmore and Antony Hall, doesn't play MP3s — it produces electronic music and is "quite unpredictable," said Hall.

But still, it does borrow from the iPod's marketing campaign., the artists' website, said: "At just over 3 inches thick, the iLog fits comfortably in the palm of your hand and slips easily into your pocket — and your life."

"It's about having to buy into technology in order to be creative, and we thought by making our own technology we could be critical of that in a way," explained Hall.

The iLog v1 comes with a new operating system, Shrew 2005 (replacing Vole 2004). It is, however, no longer available this Christmas.

19. iPersonality

Much has been written about the iPod's "shuffle" feature and its uncanny ability to play a song that seems perfectly suited to its user's mood. An article in The New York Times in August 2004 had people baldly stating that the iPod could read their mood and play appropriate music. The article also quoted two people who believed the device could "learn" what kind of music they preferred.

Speck Products took that conceit a step further in 2005 with iGuy, a protective iPod casing complete with stubby legs, wonky arms, and a hole for your iPod's "face."

"We wanted to create something that celebrated the fun of the iPod," said Tim Hickman, general manager of Speck Products, based in Palo Alto, Calif. "Some people already think of it as a little friend, and iGuy matches that enthusiasm."

In other worlds, iPod users are slightly mad. Which is why we like them.

20. Keeping the `Other' away

It was in the month of May that it became apparent Toronto is gripped in a new kind of class war. As Christopher Hume noted, "In the last few weeks alone, residents' groups and their political stand-ins have thwarted an attempt to create a new agency that would have fast-tracked affordable housing projects, tried to stop a condo complex on Bloor St., and announced they will fight to the bitter end to keep Tim Hortons from moving into Cabbagetown.

"During the debate over the proposed affordable-housing agency, city council was witness to an outburst from Rob Ford (Etobicoke North) in which he insisted Torontonians have the right to choose who their neighbours should be.

"Last we looked, Toronto was still an open city and Canada a free country."

It's a free country, as long as you have the same tastes as the people you want to live beside.

"What started as NIMBYism has escalated into an all-out battle to keep out the dreaded Other, the unwelcome stranger who might want to move in next door, or maybe stop for a coffee or go for a walk," wrote Hume. "... This increasing fear of what's next, the desire to keep everyone else at bay, out of the neighbourhood because, after all, they don't belong here, is troubling. And in recent years it has taken on a nastiness that's not healthy in a city that has staked its future on multiculturalism and diversity.

"It seems the more diverse Toronto becomes, the more resistant its neighbourhoods grow."

21. Lebowskiism

"Perhaps it is time we did a rethink on our approach to the problem of disappearing free time," Andrew Potter wrote in April. "We need to consider the possibility that the cause of all of our trouble is not our work ethic but our leisure ethic. That is to say, all of this praising of leisure can't be the solution to the problem of overwork, because it's actually the cause."

Potter's answer to overwork and its downsides (stress, marital break-up, working too hard)? The Dude. That's the memorably lazy character played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski.

"The Dude lives like a pig, wears a housecoat in public, and drinks White Russians all day long. When asked what he does for recreation, he answers, `Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback,'" wrote Potter, co-author of The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed.

"But mostly he bowls. In fact, the Dude and his friends appear to have little to do except practise their bowling. Watching the Dude in inaction helps us to understand the difference between having leisure time, on the one hand — possessing time that is at one's disposal, to be spent as one chooses — and being indolent, useless, idle, on the other. Leisure is competitive; idleness is not."

There is a social benefit to the non-competitive nature of laziness, Potter wrote. "After all, if competitive leisure is like an arms race, with thousands of people all striving to outdo one another, the idler is someone who practises unilateral disarmament. Ideally, the government would pass laws forcing us to work less (as France tried to do with its 35-hour work week), but if enough people ease off voluntarily, it might ease the burden on the rest of us. And it might be possible to get a critical mass of slackers in a concentrated area.

"If you live in a neighbourhood lousy with the lazy, it becomes an urban playground where it's all long lunches, afternoon sex, endless conversation, and lots and lots of drinking. You can spend your days imagining that you're in Bloomsbury or Paris in the 1920s, or Montreal in 2005."

22. Light bulbs, Emails from

A light bulb developed in Japan can send out its own death announcement, informing owners by text message or email that it has burned out.

Here's how it works: A special signal is "engraved" into a contact component inside the bulb. When that component ceases to function, it triggers a message telling you to replace the bulb or stop on your way home to buy a new one.

23. Living Latin

When the Vatican elected its new pope this year, the official announcement came in Latin: Habemus Papam. That's a useful phrase, so we asked Christopher Hutsul to come up with other everyday phrases in a dead language. The translations were provided by a British Web-based company, Quintus' Latin Translation Service. A few of our favourites:

Crapulam patimur We have a hangover.

Ascensum est We have lift-off.

O diem nefastum! We're having a bad day.

Nolebamus rogare qua eundum esset, et nunc a via deerravimus We have refused to ask for directions and are now lost.

Crystalla dilithii nobis deficiunt We have run out of dilithium crystals.

Societatem sui iuris quae iuvenalia vendit fecimus We have created an independent youth marketing firm.

Habere volumus quae illi habent We'll have what they're having.

24. Making children work for their television

A British design student invented an insole in 2005 that keeps track of the amount of activity a child gets in one day and converts it into TV watching time.

If, at the end of the day, the wearer hasn't done enough exercise, the TV automatically shuts off. Only more running around — about 100 steps equals one minute of TV time — will revive the tube.

Basically a pedometer in an insole, the device can be placed inside any shoe. It counts the number of steps a child takes in a 24-hour period, and radio transmits the information to a base station connected to the TV set.

The base station converts the number of steps into number of minutes earned and displays them to the child. When the TV is turned on, the minutes count down; when there's no time left, the TV automatically turns off.

"It disconnects the power," said creator Gillian Swan, a 22-year-old student at Brunel University in west London. "The kids have to run around and earn some more time."

25. Memory augmentation

It was just a prototype in 2005, but its potential is obvious. The Personal Awareness Assistant, invented by Accenture Technology Labs, uses a combination of voice recognition, audio recording and global-positioning system (GPS) technology to back up the ever-unreliable human memory.

Example: You meet someone new. When you shake his or her hand, you say the key phrase, "Pleased to meet you."

This signals your PAA, a small wearable computer carried on your belt and attached to a discreet earpiece and camera, to record the person's name, take his or her picture, and fix the location of the meeting.

A week or two later when you see the same person but utterly fail to recall his or her name, you say, "Nice to see you again..."

The PAA takes this as a signal to take a picture of the person, compare it to photos in its databank and, when a match is made, whisper their name into your ear as well as where you met them, all in a second or two.

"...Bob. I haven't seen you since that conference in Reno."

Technology like this could make name rackognition (see next entry) a thing of the past.

26. Name rackognition

A phrase defined as "the process of racking your brain in an attempt to recall the name of a person whose name you used to know but have since forgotten. (

27. New mourning, The

On Aug. 20, the ashes of Hunter S. Thompson, who had killed himself six months earlier, were fired from a cannon in Woody Creek, Colo., along with fireworks. It was a fitting end to the life of Thompson, who had requested the explosive send-off in his will.

It was also the most obvious example of a new trend in dying: expressing yourself one last time at your funeral.

Church attendance has dropped dramatically in this country: Only one in five Canadians now attends church every week. More than four in 10 don't go to church at all. So these days many funerals don't dwell on the afterlife but, rather, are celebrations of the deceased, complete with PowerPoint presentations, sound and light shows, art displays, a hired harpist, and/or home movies.

"(Younger) generations place different values on a funeral," reported Lee Bingley of Ward Funeral Home. "We want to mark it as an occasion."

Bingley said it's not unusual for the clergy member at a funeral to act more as an emcee than the dominant player, now that death and dying have become an individual's last chance to leave a mark. Which can mean anything from cannon blasts to being buried with your motorcycle to going out to the strains of a favourite rock song.

28. $100 laptop, The

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of MIT's Media Labs, announced it in January — a durable laptop PC that would sell for less than $100 and be sold as an educational tool in developing countries.

It was the brainchild of Seymour Papert, a well-known theorist on child learning and a pioneer of artificial intelligence. Papert had dreamt of it since 1970, when he saw his first computer.

"I had a sense that this thing was amplifying my power," he said. "Kids need to have their intellectual power amplified in the same way."

But in 1970 computers were phenomenally expensive, as they are today. "The computer industry has adopted a policy almost since the beginning of maintaining the price level; creating an atmosphere of thinking that computers are expensive and don't last long. This is pure marketing policy, and it's been highly destructive for the development of education."

"If learning had been the primary criteria, the thing to do would be to start to work on making computers less expensive and more durable."

In early 2005, Papert teamed up with Negroponte and a third partner, Joe Jacobson, to do just that. They established OLPC — One Laptop Per Child.

And now it's December and the laptop has a design and a manufacturer. Negroponte said last week the device, which has a hand crank to generate power if there is no electrical source available, will be built by the giant Taiwanese computer notebook manufacturer, Quanta.

The first 5 million to 15 million units will get shipped to China, Brazil, India, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria and Thailand in the third quarter of 2006, according to OLPC.

The laptop computer will run on the Linux operating system and be able to communicate wirelessly with the Internet and other $100 laptops in its vicinity.

"Suppose you've got a bunch of villages," Papert said. "There might be a few hundred of these computers in a small area, and their communicating with one another creates a whole lot of community possibilities. Helping one another. Establishing a different kind of connectivity."

29. Pasta (why it shatters)

Science solved a culinary riddle in 2005 — why spaghetti shatters into dozens of pieces when you snap it in half, instead of breaking in two as desired.

To the human eye, a bent piece of pasta appears to break into several pieces simultaneously. But researchers in France using high-speed cameras found that's not the case. According to their experiments, when the first break occurs, it sends "flexural" waves of stress down the noodle, causing other breaks.

30. Postering as life

Can a city be too clean? Yes, according to Dave Meslin, coordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee, a group that advocates against the commercialization of public space. He was responding to a proposed city bylaw that would have outlawed postering (the city has since put the bylaw on hold until the spring).

For Meslin, postering is not a blight to be banned but, rather, the essence of a beautiful city.

"A community without posters isn't a community at all," Meslin said in a story by Christopher Hutsul in February. "When I walk through Kensington Market or Queen St. West, I'm reminded that there are people in the city who are engaged in creative communities because of the posters.

"When you go to Yonge and Dundas Square or Bloor and Bay (where there is little or no postering — but plenty of billboards), you're not in a community. There's really nothing interesting there at all; you could be in any city in the world."

30. Quarantine, Ineffectiveness of

Scientists and government health officials have pretty much promised us that North America will be hit by an avian flu pandemic at some point. So what to do?

One possibility would be some kind of quarantine, you'd figure. There is, in the popular imagination, a pretty clear picture of what major quarantines look like: masses of sick people segregated from the rest of the still-healthy population.

The problem is, wrote Kenneth Kidd, if there are already sufficient sick people to load up, say, the local arena, then the virus has already gone native. Quarantine at this stage may amount to an exercise in mass triage. In other words, it's more about patient care than stopping the disease's spread.

"That's still a bit open for debate, the whole quarantine piece," said Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto. "You won't really know until the virus shows up in terms of how infectious it is."

Gardam said quarantines would probably work best at the earliest stages of an outbreak. And it helps if the disease is relatively hard to spread, since that reduces the chance of someone transmitting it before going into quarantine. If it's highly infectious, the soon-to-be quarantined may have already spread the disease far and wide.

And there's another wrinkle. SARS was hard to spread, but the public health authorities had a further advantage: People with SARS weren't infectious until they showed symptoms. Influenza isn't like that: People are infectious days before they start presenting symptoms.

"So the benefit you're going to get from quarantine is relatively limited," said Gardam. "If you have a true influenza pandemic and it's gathering steam, you really can't stop it. You can only slow it down, and then only for a short while."

31. Relocation, A Canadian social experiment in

Last week, 120 Hurricane Katrina evacuees from New Orleans moved into 49 three-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot houses on a site designed by Canadians in the shadow of the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. Each home will have a living room, kitchen, dining room and utility room, featuring covered porches in front and back, new furniture and central air-conditioning.

The 336-hectare spread has been dubbed "Canadaville," and has been described as a "bold social experiment." A Canada House community centre will feature soccer fields and basketball courts with state-of-the-art lighting for night games. And the development will eventually become an organic farm for growing vegetables and raising chicken, hogs and cattle.

The project was conceived by, and is being paid for, by Frank Stronach, the chairman of Magna Corp., the Aurora-based auto parts company. As part of a $10 million, five-year commitment, Stronach has agreed to pay for water, sewage and infrastructure upgrades, and he has provided money for the town of Simmesport, where Canadaville is located, to hire three more police officers and buy two new police cruisers.

The real experiment is whether a community of displaced New Orleans residents can thrive in rural Louisiana, where there are few jobs and the inclement conditions have forced more than one farmer out of business. If they can't find jobs, they'll be required to put in their time tending to the organic farm, which Stronach, despite agricultural experts who state otherwise, believes will turn a profit within five years.

His theory is simple: "Most of the time, these people had no hope," Stronach told the Star's Tim Harper. "Here we would instil some pride in them.

"It is the old adage — teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime."

32. Seamheads, The

To celebrate Opening Day this past spring, Star book critic Philip Marchand put together his literary baseball dream team. The starting lineup:

Pitcher: Marianne Moore

Catcher: Morley Callaghan

First base: Marshall McLuhan

Second base: George Bowering

Third base: John Updike

Shortstop: Paul Auster

Left field: Warren Kinsella

Centre field: Bernard Malamud

Right field: Walt Whitman

33. Sexy space suits

The bulky, loose-fitting pressurized spacesuit that kept Neil Armstrong warm and safe on the moon in 1969 has seen a number of improvements since then, but none of them compares to the suit scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are envisioning for the year 2020.

Existing spacesuits are pressurized by inflating them balloon-like, which makes it hard for astronauts to manoeuvre in space and on planet surfaces.

MIT is working on a suit that would provide "mechanical counter-pressure" through a skin-tight inner layer, according to a report by the MIT Man-vehicle Lab in Cambridge, Mass.

In other words, instead of pressurized air keeping astronauts from exploding, as has been so gruesomely depicted in many sci-fi films, the skin-tight suit would hold them together. It would be topped off by the usual pressurized helmet.

Scientists believe the polymer suit could be sprayed directly onto the skin in a shower-type applicator, after the astronaut has first donned a helmet.

Wearable computers and conductive materials could be imbedded between layers of the polymer, turning the suit into a walking sensor and computer.

The inner suit would be covered with a light armour and an oxygen tank, making astronauts who land on Mars extremely mobile and able to rappel into craters, do geological surveys, and perform other dextrous activities envisioned for the eventual exploration of that planet.

34. Soulmates, Myth of

"The cultural emphasis on finding a soulmate leaves a particularly difficult and contradictory legacy for (women)," wrote E. Kay Trimberger in an excerpt from her 2005 book The New Single Woman. "The contemporary soulmate ideal originates in the idealism and egalitarianism of second-wave feminism, but it reinforces the idea that only through coupled love can one be truly fulfilled. For some women, at certain stages in their lives, the search for a soulmate — and refusing to settle for less — provides a rationale for their current singleness. But such a justification does not help them envision or find support for a long-term single life.

"Since the soulmate ideal is both a very high and quite vague standard, it can justify remaining single in one's twenties or putting off a permanent attachment to one's current partner. It seems suited to an era when the average age of marriage is 25 for women and 27 for men; these figures are even higher for the college-educated."

Good advice for Pam Coburn, who declared to the media in October that she had had an inappropriate romance with her married city hall colleague Joseph Carnevale. The single mother said they referred to each other as "soulmates" in their emails, but never had sex. Now they don't have jobs, either, at least not at City Hall.

35. Stress is good

The idea that stress can have a positive impact in our lives rarely gets its due. Stress, as a concept, has been a dirty word since Time magazine claimed in the 1980s that we were in the midst of a stress pandemic. Since then, the word has been bandied about as though it's some kind of evil force that must be purged from our lives.

But now experts say a certain amount of stress is good for you.

The pursuit of food, shelter, and sex — all the good things in life — is driven by stress. Stress pushes us to get out of bed in the morning, tackle our chores and fight for a better lot in life. Stress also lets us know when there's a problem that needs to be dealt with, and prompts us to mobilize a coping mechanism.

In other words, feelings of stress, if we act wisely, lead to coping — the process by which we deal with things.

"There's no question, stress increases our productivity," said Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress.

"It's very much like the stress of the tension on a violin string: If you have too much stress, it could break the string or create a shrill, annoying note. If there's not enough, it makes a dull, raspy sound. But just the right amount creates a beautiful tone. Similarly, we have to find the correct amount of stress that allows us to make beautiful music in our own lives."

36. Talking tombstones

The "Video-Enhanced Grave Marker" allows its owner to record messages that can be replayed by loved ones or, according to the inventor, anyone armed with a remote control and time to kill.

"I envision being able to walk through a cemetery using a remote control, clicking on graves and hearing what all the people buried there have to say," said Robert Barrows of San Mateo, Calif., who applied to patent the device in 2005. "They can say all the things they didn't have the opportunity or guts to say when they were alive."

Not recommended for mothers-in-law and former spouses. The price: $8,000 (U.S.).

37. TV Kozies

Television sets are getting bigger and bigger, and thus harder to hide. Two Toronto entrepreneurs are offering a solution: the TV Kozy — a custom-made fabric sheath that slips over the set like an old-fashioned tea cosy and turns the lumpy appliance into a fashion statement.

"It's great aesthetically," said company co-founder Heather Azima, admiring the large burgundy TV Kozy draped over a 27-inch Samsung in her Queen St. East apartment.

"Unless you have a big, expensive cabinet, you're normally forced to work around your TV."

She and her husband and co-founder, Bard Azima, say the TV Kozy not only hides big, ugly television sets but also makes them less dominant in people's lives, thereby leading to less TV viewing by family members.

You can get more information at

38. The truth about terrorism, Part I

This year will be remembered for the moment when it was no longer taboo to say what many had been arguing since 2001 — that suicide terrorism like that of 9/11 is a response to specific grievances held against the United States, and not to a generalized distaste for Western civilization.

Susan Sontag and others were branded as traitors in the days and weeks after 9/11 for daring to say that the U.S. might want to examine its policies and actions in other countries when looking for an answer to why the horrible attacks occurred (Sontag called them a reaction to "specific American alliances and actions"). But in 2005, as noted in a column from the Boston Globe Ideas section (the inspiration for this section, we cheerfully admit), "no one is hurling charges of crypto-treason at Robert A. Pape, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago."

Pape's 2005 book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House), "is a prime example of the mainstreaming of Sontag's once-taboo view," Christopher Shea wrote.

"Suicide terrorism is a response to occupation," Pape told Shea. "Islamic fundamentalism has very little to do with it."

In his book, Pape examined 315 suicide bombings that occurred from 1980 through 2003. Only 43 per cent came from religiously affiliated groups, he found, while the rest were carried out by secular groups. And 70 per cent of the suicide attackers, whether motivated by religion or not, were Christian.

Wrote Shea: "The thrust of (Pape's) argument is that suicide terrorism is an eminently rational strategy. Everywhere it has been used, the countries that face it make concessions: The U.S. left Lebanon; Israel withdrew from Lebanon and now the West Bank; and Sri Lanka gave the Tamils a semi-autonomous state."

39. The truth about terrorism, Part II

Neil Bissoondath released The Unyielding Clamour of the Night in 2005, a novel in which he tries to get inside the head of a terrorist. That the novel was well received is yet more proof that the taboo about demonstrating empathy for terrorists has dissolved. For Bissoondath, writing in Ideas on Sept. 11 of this year, terrorism is made possible when people lose all meaning in their lives.

"While our security forces must engage in battle, ending suicide bombings can't be done without addressing the conditions that deny individuals the opportunities — social, political, economic — to acquire meaning in constructive ways. Insurgencies, almost by definition, arise from within. As `Che' Guevara learned in the jungles of Bolivia, they aren't, perhaps can't be, imported. They germinate and grow among the people and are sustained by them through conviction or fear. These same people who daily run the risk of becoming collateral damage give birth to the engineers of their fate — their sons and daughters."

40. Top 10 signs you might be an uptight Torontonian

10. You call the phone numbers on lost-dog posters at Withrow Park and hector whoever answers about being a careless pet owner.

9. You think Kensington Market is in England.

8. You are in favour of banning hot dog vendors.

7. "I'm sorry but I don't have time for this sort of thing."

6. You quote from The Globe and Mail at cocktail parties.

5. You think the fish used in sushi restaurants should be dipped in liquid nitrogen before being served.

4. You know the dimensions of your property down to the nearest millimetre.

3. You adore the city's multicultural flair, but you're still afraid to eat in Chinatown.

2. You don't "get" homelessness.

1. That "No ball-hockey-playing" sign on your street? It was you who got it erected.

41. WD-40, New uses for

If you're a bar owner plagued by cocaine-using customers and their over-exuberance, you can fight back by spraying the multi-purpose aerosol lubricant WD-40 on flat surfaces in your bathrooms. A liquor licensing officer in Bristol, England, discovered in 2005 that WD-40 sprayed on cisterns, toilet-paper dispensers and counters causes cocaine to congeal and then start to dissolve. Drug users subsequently discovered that trying to inhale the globs brought on nosebleeds. The practice swept U.K. bars, according to The Times of London.

42. Why Toronto beats Paris, Part I

"All `creative' cities being equal (in terms of assets), there is one thing Toronto does in the multicultural forum that dumbfounds other cities: Toronto sidesteps the matter of `culture' in the transactions of daily life," wrote Toronto poet laureate and Ideas stalwart Pier Giorgio Di Cicco in August. "This is the best kept secret in Toronto; that the people get along with each other because they have jumped to the `universals,' with the understanding that cultures will just snag them down.

"And this has nothing to do with becoming Canadian, or learning about other cultures (who has the time to do more than visit another culture?). What the citizens of diversity do here is understand that a code of common humanity is all that will keep them from tearing each other apart.

"The alphabet of this humanity has nothing to do with social strategy, policy or the branding of cheap notions of `tolerance.' This alphabet is made up by the native sense of the universal heart — an instinct that said we are all in this together, and that the only way to survive in a globalized environment is by identifying with one another; not by claiming your identity, but by identifying with the next person. No one knows by what weird alchemy this takes place in Toronto, but it is becoming a matter of fact among other cities that Toronto has this odd elixir that might keep global multiculturalism from the explosive.

"Wishful thinking? This might all change with a subway bomb. But if the chances are good that we as Torontonians have discovered universals as a means of living together, we might do well to glamorize it, and even call it something like `soul.'"

43. Why Toronto beats Paris, Part II

Erik Rutherford, writing in uTOpia, a new collection of essays about Toronto (Coach House Press), explained that he moved back from Paris to Toronto, and recounted meeting fellow expats in a Paris bar for a goodbye party. To his surprise, his friends were supportive of his decision to trade the City of Light for the less romantically named Hogtown.

Wrote Rutherford:

"Pierre the bartender has been listening in. He decides to defend his city. `I don't understand you people. Paris is the most beautiful and brilliant city in the world. Do you condemn a woman for being too brilliant and too beautiful?'

"Trevor, with a hint of drunken slur, offers an answer:

"`She was brilliant and beautiful. Now she's well past her finest hour, but because she thinks she's still got it, she bores you with stories of how she used to be the life of the party. She shows you her photo albums, all scrupulously indexed and labelled. And when you offer to take her memoirs home for a read, she forces them into your hand and makes you read aloud.'

"`Okay, then,' says Pierre, slapping his towel on the countertop. `What is Toronto? Une jolie jeune fille?'

"Everyone turns to me. I have never considered the question, but the conversation has conjured an image: `Well, I suppose Toronto is a young man, just out of university. He's done a degree in commerce with a minor in the humanities, where he shows surprising talent. He's always been an A student and done what is expected of him. When you praise him, he doesn't believe you; when you criticize him, his pride is wounded. He's still a little inexperienced, poorly dressed, a touch diffident, but full of youthful energy and ambition. And though he doesn't yet know the best way to achieve glory, he makes you feel he will.'"

44. Women attracting women for men is a New York City-based website that provides "wing women" to men trying to pick up other women. For $50 (U.S.) per hour, wing women will accompany a man to a bar and act like his friends, on the theory that this will make him more attractive to other women.

The company said the method works for the following reasons (as listed on its website):

Domino Effect Women are attracted to men who have women around them more so than men who have other men around them.

Limited Resources Women want what they can't have.

Let The Games Begin Women are very jealous and love to compete with one another.

Icebreakers Women tend to lower their defences around men who have other women around them. Most women tend to see these men as having a seal of approval and being less hostile.

45. Yogurt, Why it's next to godliness

Is all that scrubbing up that doctors do before surgery helping to spread bacterial superbugs in hospitals? That was the contention of Professor Mark Spigelman of the University College London and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Instead of antibiotics, he is calling for a probiotic approach — using good bacteria to keep bad bacteria at bay. In other words, doctors should rub their hands with yogurt after scrubbing up.

The problem Spigelman is looking to solve is MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus but has come to be used as the catch-all term for organisms that are resistant to commonly used antibiotics.

"How is it that when you get into the community, there's very little MRSA, but it's been in hospitals for 45 years?" he asked. "So what causes them? The simple answer is antibiotics.

"And the second thing is, what spreads them? It's people. These things don't float around in the air very much. They've got to be spread by something."

Spigelman believes that all that hand scrubbing might be creating a place for bad bacteria to thrive. Bacteria grow in colonies and tend to avoid each other, so washing away all the good bacteria on our hands leaves room for the bad stuff to settle in.

"If your skin is covered in harmless skin bacteria, the chances of MRSA or other multi-drug resistant-bugs surviving are much less," Spigelman argued.

Which is where the yogurt comes in.

46. Zapping car chases

High-speed car chases are a curse both on our highways and our television sets, and deserving of attention from the scientific community. Thankfully, Wired magazine reported this year that a scientist in California is developing a microwave ray gun that could kill the motor of a car involved in a police chase.

James Tatoian, chief executive of Eureka Aerospace in Pasadena, Calif., believes police could point the gun at speeding criminals and, by flooding the car's onboard computer microprocessor with interference, cause it to kill the engine. The driver would still be able to steer and brake but not accelerate, a critical function in high-speed chases.

(Written by Peter Calamai, Catherine Dunphy, Patrick Evans, Tim Harper, Jeet Heer, Christopher Hume, Christopher Hutsul, Kenneth Kidd, Philip Marchand, Raju Mudhar, David Olive, Rachel Ross, John Sakamoto, Peter Scowen, Leslie Scrivener, and Chris Young. Compiled by Peter Scowen)


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