Archive for 'Improbable innovation'

University Course Proposal: “Calling Bullshit”

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Professors Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West from University of Washington have developed a new interdisciplinary course with the compelling title of Calling Bullshit.

From publication bias to fake news, bullshit is everywhere. And it’s important to be able to navigate it, separate delusion from reality, and call out bullshit when we see it. In a post-truth world, we need evidence and facts more than ever, and Professors Bergstrom and West have decided to do something about it.

                      Prof. Jevin West

As they write: “We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combatting it with effective analysis and argument.”

Naturally, if people learn how to detect subtle bullshit that might otherwise go under their radar, that also can make them better at producing bullshit. Bergstrom and West recognize this possibility: “As with biological weapons, there is no such thing as purely defensive bullshit research.” Like them, however, we see far more positives than negatives in educating people to become more effective at distinguishing bullshit from evidence and fact.

                Prof. Carl Bergstrom

“Calling Bullshit” (whose subtitle is “In the Age of Big Data”) isn’t yet part of a course catalog, but Professors Bergstrom and West have assembled a great selection of reading, and hopefully it will be an “official” offering soon. Their aim is to teach people “to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences” — in other words, to spot bullshit.

We encourage everybody to look at the course materials and fight for evidence and reasonable discourse (and for the right to party). Professor Bergstrom is in the Department of Biology and Professor West is in the Information School, so clearly bullshit crosses disciplinary boundaries, and their course promises to be both fascinating and educational.

(Thanks to investigators at the Bansal Lab for bringing this course to our attention.)

Closely related: In 2016, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the authors of the paper On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.

Dr. Nakamats, still very much alive, to have 88th birthday party, in NYC

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

The very much one-and-only Dr. Nakamats, who among his many other accomplishments (2) is an Ig Nobel Prize winner and (1) has outmaneuvered doctors’ predictions that he would die in 2015, will enliven his 88th birthday party by traveling to it.

If you will be in New York City on Friday evening, September 23 (the day after this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony!), you are invited to join Dr. Nakamats at the party, at the mMuseumm. This video is Dr. Nakamats’s personal invitation to you:


BONUS: A look back at Dr. Nakamat’s 86th birthday party.

A rather colorful insectivorist

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

Ryan P. Smith, writing in Smithsonian magazine, tells of the book that tells of “The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist“:

A new book details the sensational exploits of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., a scientist who had two wives and liked to dig tunnels

Dyar instigated fiery feuds with his fellow entomologists. He was concurrently married to two different women. And he dug elaborate, electric-lit tunnels beneath two of his D.C. residences, disposing of the dirt in a vacant lot, or else passing it off as furnace dust or fertilizer.

Long after his death, there were whispers that the tunnels had enabled him to shuttle between his lovers—an urban legend that, while apocryphal, speaks to the mystery in which Dyar seems perennially shrouded…


BONUS: One of our favorites of Dyar’s many scholarly publications: “Note on the secondary abdominal legs in the Megalopygidae,” Harrison G. Dyar,  Journal of the New York Entomological Society, vol. 7, no. 2 (1899): 69-70.


Dr. NakaMats discusses his ideas for better ideas

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Dr. NakaMats, possibly the greatest man in the world, who is about to make his grand farewell appearances in the UK, Denmark and Sweden, granted an interview to Jack Preston of Virgin Entrepreneur.

Dr. NakaMats was awarded the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize for nutrition, for photographing and retrospectively analyzing every meal he has consumed during a period of 34 [now, in 2015, 44] years (and counting). In March, in the company of several other Ig Nobel Prize winners, he will be the star of stars on the Ig Nobel tour of Europe [click here for the tour schedule], sharing his ideas with audiences, and gathering acclaim, in London, Aarhus, Copenhagen, and Stockholm.

Here are excerpts from the Virgin Entrepreneur interview:

Better ideas with Dr NakaMats

Yoshiro Nakamatsu, or Dr NakaMats as he is more widely known, is one of the world’s leading inventors with over 3,500 patents to his name. We sat down with the cult hero to find out how we can all come up with better ideas.

It’s not easy to forget Dr NakaMats’ most famous invention, the Floppy Disk, with the entrance to his Tokyo residence set inside a door-sized replica of the idea which he claims to have come up with in 1952, before later licensing it to IBM in the late 1970s. Since then he has worked tirelessly to cement his positon as one of the world’s most prolific inventors, with his list of patents including a self-defence wig, a cigarette for activating the brain, jumping shoes, the ‘Enerex System’ for generating hydrogen and oxygen along with a condom that comes with an embedded magnate for “improving sensitivity in the female organs”.

With a lifetime of weird and wonderful inventions behind him Dr NakaMats is now facing his biggest challenge to date, having recently being diagnosed with prostate cancer….


…To help with the recording of ideas during this time, Dr NakaMats has even invented waterproof paper and pencils, claiming “an idea comes instantly and disappears instantly”.

By getting as close to death as possible, Dr NakaMats believes we will have our greatest ideas. Let us hope that his theory is proven to be correct as he continues his mission to find his most important invention to date.

BONUS: The documentary film “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats“:

The director, Kaspar Schroeder, is now filming a second documentary. Parts of what happens on our March 2015 tour of Denmark will be in that documentary.

BONUS: The music group Full Metal Breakfast released their song about Dr. Nakamats. You can listen to it online.


3-D carving (rather than printing), for teeth

Friday, October 17th, 2014

The 3-D printing revolution gets most of the attention, but 3-D carving has already added a very real bite to modern healthcare. Dentists (and engineers) are leading the way.

A considerable number of people are strolling the streets, smiling, chewing the fat, and eating lunch — sporting dental crowns made through a process of 3-D scanning and then 3-D milling. The video above shows one dentist proudly showing off his tooth-milling machine.

Why milling (carving slowly, in a process that is literally grinding), rather than printing? Because teeth need to be hard, if they are to survive years of chomping….

So begins another Improbable Innovation nugget, which appears in its entirety on BetaBoston.