Wednesday 24 June 2009

Afternoon roundup

  • Boing Boing points us to The Giant Pyramids of North Dakota. You can find them here on Google Maps.
    Giant Pyramid near Nekoma, North Dakota USA - part of the Antiballistic Missile system constructed over eight years for approximately $6 Billion and operational for not more than three days. Upon closure, the giant tunnels beneath were flooded with water.
    When I was a kid in the early 80s and you didn't need a passport to toodle on down to the States for an afternoon, we spent a day driving around randomly in rural North Dakota and came across the pyramids; we figured they were missile silos but didn't have all the details.
    The concept was to detect and shoot down incoming nuclear missiles over Canada where presumably no one would mind.
    We did worry about this kind of thing, or at least I did.

  • Swine flu numbers in the US. Note that New Zealand is fully in epidemic mode, with school closures and my University making arrangements for missed exams. The public health folks are projecting that up to half of Canterbury (the region) will catch the flu over the next few weeks. Fortunately, it's Ensign Trips rather than the Cap'n.

  • More on the dangers of religion: mass hysteria and dancing plagues edition. I'd always thought it was ergot; seems not. Long story short: a mystical, anti-rational mindset combined with hard times combined with the strictures of life in the nunnery can produce mass hysteria.
    Studies of possession cults in hundreds of modern cultures, from Haiti to the Arctic, reveal that people are more likely to experience dissociative trance if they already believe in the possibility of spirit possession (Rouget, 1985). Minds can be prepared, by learning or passive exposure, to shift into altered states. The anthropologist Erika Bourguignon (1991) speaks of an ‘environment of belief’, the set of accepted ideas about the spirit world that members of communities absorb, thus preparing them later to achieve the possession state. It is not necessary, however, to be formally trained. The dancers of 1374 and 1518 occupied an environment of belief that accepted the threat of divine curse, possession or bewitchment. They didn’t intend to enter trance-like states, but their metaphysical beliefs made it possible for them to do so.

    Similarly, it is only by taking cultural context seriously that we can explain the striking epidemiological facts that possession crises so often struck religious houses and that men were far less often the victims of mass diabolical possession. The daily lives of nuns were saturated in a mystical supernaturalism, their imaginations vivid with devils, demons, Satanic familiars and wrathful saints. They believed implicitly in the possibility of possession and so made themselves susceptible to it. Evangelical Mother Superiors often made them more vulnerable by encouraging trance and ecstasy; mind-altering forms of worship prepared them for later entering involuntary possession states. Moreover, early modern women were imbued with the idea that as the tainted heirs of Eve they were more liable to succumb to Satan, a misogynistic trope that often heightened their suggestibility.
    For the Enlightenment, let us give thanks....

  • Isn't it cool that Google runs these kinds of experiments?
    All other things being equal, more usage, as measured by number of searches, reflects more satisfied users. Our experiments demonstrate that slowing down the search results page by 100 to 400 milliseconds has a measurable impact on the number of searches per user of -0.2% to -0.6% (averaged over four or six weeks depending on the experiment). That's 0.2% to 0.6% fewer searches for changes under half a second!

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