Are humans really THAT special?

3 05 2008

Everytime a documentary runs on National Geographic saying “Humans evolved from apes”, I switch the channel as it is usually a repetition of the same facts proposed over and over by many researchers. E.g: Pictures of hunched humans, bone structure comparisons and capability comparisons. Today however, Wayne told me about this TED video which proposes something along similar lines with a unique twist.

The presentation was made by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, a researcher who has spent decades in the field of ape language studies who believes that the unique traits(intellectual thinking, language learning) human beings possess may have been culturally nurtured rather than biologically in-grained into our DNA. Her research with the Bonobo ape species has shown that in a culture of interaction where researchers are not “aiming to teach” but rather be part of the Bonobos’ daily lives, these mammals were able to learn through observation very human tasks like starting a fire with a lighter, playing Pac-man and delicately using a scissors to groom their offsprings. A comparison made between stone knives crafted by the Bonobos and those by pre-historic humans from 2 million years ago show stark similarities, creating the notion that we may have once lived like how the Bonobos are living today.

After watching the presentation, I was very convinced that humans developed the traits and capabilities we have today through millions of years of cultural interaction and development. If what Rambaugh proposes is true, then does the widely championed phrase “Humans are special” still hold? Or are we just equals of animals who happen to culturally advance through some chance encounters and interactions with a mix of other species’?

Here’s the video to fascinate your mind:

Organizing the multitude of information on the Web

26 09 2007

For those of you who are tech-inclined, you’ve probably heard lots of talk about the need to consolidate and organize web content (videos, photos, articles, blog posts) so that its navigatable and “less messy” than it currently is. When you search for data on a certain topic, you have to separately search for articles in Google, videos on YouTube/Veoh and photos on Flickr/Google Images/Picasa. Then again, you might not get the relevant results you are looking for unless you patiently sieve through the content yourself especially when it comes to video and photo searches.

However, a computer scientist, Jonathan Harris, came up with a concept of organizing data via visual data design which holds promises of a more organized world wide web that is soon to come. In his video presentation at, Jonathan talks about 3 projects he has worked on which demonstrates this:

1) We Feel Fine
– interesting project that searches through all blog posts for human emotions and compiles all these sentences with human emotions together. It will automatically analyze the data into various categories like “popular emotion of the day” based on demographics, gender, weather, and etc.

2) Yahoo! Time Capsule
– Somehow I didn’t really get the essence of this project. It just seems like a project where people submitted photos to and Yahoo! organized it with some quotes and captions. Maybe I missed what its all about?

3) Universe
– Now this is the solution all of us have been waiting for! A really cool project that organizes all the data visually into an easily navigatable format. Not only does it present the data visually, it pulls all the related photos, videos and articles on topics together. For example, if you were to search Bill Clinton on Universe, it will return results of newspaper articles on what he did in the past week. Upon clicking on a story, it will return more articles from different perspectives on the same story, related photos and videos. There’s also a data analyzation function which can plot a map of where Bill Clinton has been travelling to in the past week. In a way, you can say its an intelligent search engine that not only categorizes but analyzes data for its users.

Some of you may be thinking that this is just like any another search engine and I thought so too, until I watched the video and realized how much undiscovered potential there is in visual data organization and design. It brings a whole new perspective to the field of Computer Science (especially for a student like me who thinks its just all about boring text programming) and what you can do with such knowledge. Yay! Computer Science rocks!

Anyway, enough jabbering from me. Here’s the video! Enjoy! ^_~

Boy builds Windmill at 14 to give his house electricity

4 09 2007

One of my close friends was telling me earlier today about his failure to secure a promotion and how his future career is now all doomed. He was extremely depressed and seemed to be stuck in this “DOOMed for life” world he created, and wouldn’t let anyone in to get him out. I decided to reduce the number of words I was about to say to him and replace it with this short but inspiring 6 minute video I found.

Its a video of William Kamkwamba, a young African boy who built a windmill to provide his house with electricity back when he was 14! If you look at the “ingredients” he used for his windmill, they are mostly junk parts which you will probably be able to find around your house. I don’t know how long it took him to build the windmill but it definitely doesn’t look like any easy feat. The windmill looks HUGE!! Also, believe it or not, he learnt how to build it from a book he found at the library.

Wha?! All I’ve been using the library for is to get the books I needed to study for exams. Shame on me. It really goes on to show how the high emphasis on exams in our education system has hampered our creativity and lead us to spend most of our time studying for exams rather than being creative in applying the knowledge we have. 😦

Anyway, enough rants from me. Just thought of sharing the video to inspire others who are facing turmoils in their lives to look at things differently. William shows that our life is only how we perceive it to be. Instead of complaining about his government, corruption and how poor his life was, he chose to look at it differently and take the initiative to improve his life himself instead of waiting for something to happen. And, he ended up at TED. He really deserves the honour ! 🙂

Additional resources:

Meeting William Kamkwanba

William’s blog

Bumptop: Revolutionizing the Desktop interface

19 08 2007

I found this TED Talk video on Teng Foung’s blog earlier today which left me speechless! Its a demo of Bumptop, an application which revolutionizes your desktop in a way that allows you to interact with it like your REAL office desk.

According to Bumptop’s creator Anand Agrawala, we’ve been putting up with such a crappy, boring desktop interface for the past 30 years of pointing and clicking that its time we had something better. And yes, Bumptop is DEFINITELY better. Very creative, interactive, allowing you to push and pull your objects, stack them on top of each other, paste notes on walls, flip through pages of documents, stack them up like dominoes and much much more. Before I continue to furnish you with more spoilers, here’s the video for your viewing pleasure. (Note: If somehow WordPress fails to embed the video, you can view it here.)

Its surprising how no one thought about this simple concept before. The farthest we ever went with desktops was cool skins. Anand really brings creativity and innovation to a new level of originality. We should stop jumping on the web2.0 wave of social networking and media sharing websites. The last time I checked, there are 4 social networking websites under development by NUS students/graduates. Its as though there’s this neverending affinity in the web2.0 developers sphere for these kind of websites. Seriously, there’s more to web2.0 than just social networking and media sharing. We really need to move on.

Quick update: I wasn’t able to embed the TED Talk video but I found a demo by Bumptop on YouTube! Enjoy! ^_~

New approach to combatting AIDS

18 07 2007

AIDS is one of the most widespread diseases in Africa, with poverty and lack of education constantly being blamed for it. Millions of dollars have been spent on AIDS campaigns in Africa to educate the masses on safe and protected sex. The campaigns in Uganda was a success story and ever since then, the same program has been replicated throughout Africa. However, Emily Oster, a 26 year old economist at the University of Chicago, says that there may be other aspects in play which severely affected the prevalence of AIDS in Uganda, leading to its success story.

In her recent presentation at TED, Emily talks about how maybe funds should be spent on national economic policies that have a higher effect on AIDS. She presents some economic statistics which show the direct relation between economic exports and prevalence of AIDS, with prevalence decreasing as exports decrease and vice versa. There is no clear explanation to this but statistics have proven that this is a fact. My guess is that when exports decrease, people are generally poorer and spend more time working to earn more money. When they are better off, they spend more time “enjoying life”.

Do watch the video as it gives a refreshing and valuable insight into how economic statistics could be used to analyze the cause and effects of social issues, like AIDS. Maybe social researchers and analysts should apply this approach for future projects.