Things 45: Ant Colony Sculpture, Maunder Minimum, Photoshop Effect

(Originally sent April 2009)

What happens if you fill an underground ant colony network with concrete, let it set, then excavate the resulting sculpture? [Removed, try this – metatim 18/08/2015]


The sunspot cycle typically lasts 11 years. We are currently undergoing an abnormally long period of low (and therefore cooler) activity, still going 12.8 years after the last solar minimum, which some speculate heralds the beginning of a new Maunder Minimum. However, NASA say this is unlikely and will not have a significant effect on global warming.

The links
Maunder Minimum

How unusual is current activity:

NASA’s take:

I like it when you get a complete story in the few seconds of conversation you hear as you walk past someone. I overheard this:

Teenager: … and then he says-
Adult [interrupting]: “Why have you got no clothes on.” I told *you* that joke.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last time I asked what you could buy for less than £5 which consists of the largest number of things, where the number of those things is written on the packet/box/tin. For those still working on it, do not click on the following link which goes to the best answer I’ve been able to find – 5,000 things for £2.71.
[Update – the same idea can now yield a score of 10,000 – T.M. 16/4/11]

This time, the question is simple: why do house front doors almost always open inwards?

It is reasonably well known that photo manipulation is common on magazine covers, but it’s good to be reminded of how much distortion actually goes on sometimes, in examples such as this:

An interesting collection of images demonstrating the point the other way round can be found in these front covers of an apparently forthcoming edition of the French Elle magazine.


Things 84: Sleep or Draw, Free Will Test, Ursa Magus

Tim Link
I’d like to get better at drawing, and I know the best way to do that is to draw every day. But previous attempts to form this habit always run out of steam. My new plan is to post each drawing on Tumblr, and also to tell people that I am doing so (so you reading this is an integral part of the plan). Even if nobody ever follows that feed, the fact I’ve published it theoretically creates the sense of accountability I need. I’m also very impressed at how good Tumblr is at streamlining the publishing process, and highly recommend it for this kind of endeavour:

Sleep or Draw
(Note: link contains screen-high female manga characters, which depending on your workplace may be considered NSFW)

Despite familiarity with Google Streetview, being presented with random locations on earth by this site does feel strangely magical.

Observed on Facebook:

Commenter: “People do give a damn but most can’t be assed to show their support”
Profilee: “Well then they don’t give enough of a damn for it to be worth a damn.”
Commenter: “Damn!”

I was fascinated to read an article in the Daily Telegraph which suggested that the fact you can artificially create a stimulus in someone’s brain that will cause them to make a physical movement somehow proved that Free Will does not exist. Whatever you might think about Free Will, it seems pretty clear that being able to get some kind of effect by one method doesn’t exclude the possibility that a different method could still provoke the same effect, so the leap to ruling our Free Will seems premature.

Still, I think there’s an instructive puzzle here: given an arbitrary budget, and any science-fiction technology you care to imagine, how would you devise a test to see if Free Will exists? Feel free to use any definition of Free Will you think might be useful.

I tested this game (from with a friend while stuck on a delayed tube train. I recommend it.

Previous Week’s Puzzles
In Things 82 I asked why street lights weren’t at least partially solar powered, and in Things 83 I gave some guesses. Richard pointed out that since both street lamps and council buildings are already connected to the grid, any effort in this area would be better spent on the latter, where solar panels would be far easier to deploy and maintain.

He also notes that:

The street furniture I’ve seen with solar/wind panels tends to be speeding signs in rural areas, where the sign is only illuminated occasionally, appears to be LEDs, where a connection to the grid might be costly, and where a power failure would not be inconvenient.

Russell points out that the Mars rover proved more resilient to sand build-up than originally expected because the Martian wind did a good job of keeping the panels clean (so bolstering the potential of the solar-powered street lamps I originally linked to); he also links to the appealing prospect of solar-energy-harnessing paint.

Then, in Things 83 I asked why fingers wrinkle in water and the rest of your skin doesn’t. Russell noted that from his diving experience he knew for a fact that your palms will also eventually go wrinkly after an hour or two, and attributed this to surface-area:volume ratio differences.

The internet tells me that the first barrier to the water is the layer of sebum, and only once that is washed away can the water get in and wrinkle the skin. An unknown internet person claims the finger tips have the least sebum, so are first to wrinkle. However, the first link (which sounds pretty authoritative) also claims that “no one is really sure” exactly what drives the wrinkling process, and wikipedia cites a paper which claims sebum “may serve little or no purpose in modern humans,” so it seems as if the whole thing remains somewhat mysterious.

There’s also a deeper question behind these answers: is this wrinkling thing a Bug or a Feature of our skin, or to put it another way, did it evolve for a reason? Being a fan of the (heftily discredited) Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, I like to imagine it’s actually a feature designed to improve grip when we’re in the water, an idea which presumably could be tested with some kind of gripping experiment, which I may at some point try to carry out.


Things 3: Overheard, Glasses, Illusion

(Originally sent in December 2007)

This week’s film – one line review
The Golden Compass takes very naturally to film and clearly has a lot of talent poured into it; unfortunately the script itself contains the worst screen writing I’ve heard since Eragon.

Next week’s film
I’m going to see Hitman because for some reason I can’t get enough of films about human weapons that end up fighting their creators.
Imdb rating: 6.5
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 14%!

Hitman Trailer

Prognosis: Judging by the Rotten Tomatoes rating, this may well breach the so-bad-it’s-good barrier.

A Puzzle
Why do you always find things in the last place you look?

Answers to previous puzzles
Answer to puzzle from Things 1: A number less than 103. I won’t tell you what it is because it’s too good a puzzle to spoil.
Answer to puzzle from Things 2: 1.

A Quote
Digby, circa 1992: “I had one, right, and then I had another one – funny how they come in ones…”

A Link
Actually, it’s just more quotes.

A video
My favourite viral. I think I’ve worked out how most of it was done.

A picture
An example of the most powerful optical illusion I know.