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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the highest form of intelligence?

January 5, 2015

Great Minds Puzzles | UncommonGoods


If you want to know about genius, might as well consult a bona fide genius like Alexander D. Wissner-Gross, Ph.D. His recent research asserts that, mystical as it may sound, the highest form of intelligence is the ability to predict the future—or at least possible futures. That is, intelligence acts to maximize future freedom of action. For those of us who aren’t card-carrying Mensa members, that means that it’s really smart to keep your options open—as many as possible, for as long as possible. By studying both biological intelligence (animal behavior) and artificial intelligence (computers), Wissner-Gross has found that the ability to predict and pursue probable futures (think chess master strategy) is beneficial to a being’s success in navigating the challenges posed by its environment.

To test these theories, Wissner-Gross developed an A.I. called Entropica, “sapient software” which learns to negotiate its environment without even being told what to do. But before you panic over an impending robot takeover, note that Wissner-Gross also posits that the accumulation of intelligence follows the process of taking control of an environment, not vice versa. In other words, Matrix-like dystopias notwithstanding, computers won’t become über-intelligent and then plot to take over the world. No, they’re becoming über-intelligent as they take over the world, helping their human architects thrive in the process. So take comfort in Wissner-Gross’ prediction—it’s the smart thing to do.

Great Minds Puzzles, $20

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Did a koala break into your house?

December 29, 2014

Tree Hugger Koala | UncommonGoods

If a koala did break into your house, vandalize your car, or commit any other array of felonies, the detectives would have a tough time figuring out whodunit—or, more specifically, which species-dunit. Turns out, we share fingerprint patterns with the adorably moody creatures. The prints are so identical that even a trained expert would have trouble telling the human and koala prints apart, even with a microscope. Koalas are in fact in the only marsupials to have these kinds of prints, a possible evolutionary advantage to aid in climbing. So what’s the real takeaway from this? Never rule out a highly advanced koala with a vendetta when investigating a crime scene.

Tree Hugger Koala, $90


Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is that a block of ice or a frog?

December 26, 2014

Zen Frog Garden Sculptures | UncommonGoodsBoth, because science! There are five known species of freeze-tolerant frogs in North America. Once winter hits, if the cold-blooded creatures can’t dig down enough into the soil to avoid the ice, they simply freeze over. Once the ice hits the skin, sugar is released from the liver and carried through the bloodstream to keep cells from dehydrating and shrinking. Eventually the heart stops and all other organs stop functioning. The frog doesn’t use oxygen and it appears dead. But then! The frogcicle melts and begins to thaw out, replacing damaged cells. He’s free to hop another day! The next time you’re trudging through knee-deep snow, feel free to be jealous of this hibernation tactic.

Zen Frog Garden Sculptures, $30-$58

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What animal is evolving the fastest?

December 22, 2014

Baby Puppy Slippers | UncommonGoods

You’d never guess and answer. First, because the answer is the tuatara, an animal you probably haven’t heard of unless you’re from New Zealand. And second, because its record-setting evolutionary rate is disguised by the fact that its appearance hasn’t changed much in millions of years. The tuatara resembles a lizard, except that it has features that are more closely related to fish and birds, as well as some truly unique attributes, such as a light-sensing third eye. These creatures are the last living members of an order of animals that thrived during the Mesozoic period (as in, the age of dinosaurs), and they actually predate the appearance of lizards and snakes. But while fossils reveal that the tuatara looks essentially the same now as it did then, DNA extracted from those fossils compared to DNA from living specimens reveals a faster rate of change than is found in any other animal. Sadly, climate change is having an adverse effect on the tuatara: their gender is determined by the incubating temperature of each egg, and as their habitat grows warmer, fewer and fewer females are being born. While they may be the fastest evolving species on earth, evolution itself is such a slow process that it won’t be able to outpace this problem.

Baby Puppy Slippers, $34

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is time travel possible?

December 21, 2014

The Only Constant is Change Desk Clock | UncommonGoods

Yes. It’s not only possible, but we have actual time travelers walking among us today. According to the Theory of Relativity, it is possible for speed or gravity to make time pass differently for separate observers. If that sounds vague and science-y, maybe a real-world example will help: if highly accurate, atomic clocks are aligned perfectly on earth, and one of those is sent into space, then one of those clocks will run faster than the other one. This is not caused by a mechanical problem with the clock, but happens through time itself being bent by the forces involved in space travel. So, all of those astronauts hanging out on the space station? Their time is passing faster than ours, and when they return to earth, they are actually younger than they would be if they had remained here. Ok, so not much younger, but it’s still true. Michael Finke and Peggy Whitson, who have spent more time on the space station than any other American man and woman, are 0.0093 and 0.0092 seconds younger, to be exact. And the man who has spent more time on the space station than anyone in history—Russia’s Sergei Krikalev, with 803 days in orbit—is a full 0.02 seconds younger! Maybe one day we will be able to reverse the time dilation, and these explorers can tell us about the wonders of life half a second in the future!

The Only Constant is Change Desk Clock, $68

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What do German weddings have in common with ghosts?

December 20, 2014

Tree Trunk Desk Organizer | UncommonGoods

A Polterabend, of course! Traditionally, German nuptials are preceded by an all-night fest that invites guests to smash dishes, tiles, pottery, even toilets—anything ceramic or porcelain. It’s not just a bunch of Germans getting really betrunken and breaking their ceramic steins accidentally. Nein. It’s a deliberate campaign to produce a mess of ceramic shards which, in the end, the lucky bride and groom-to-be have to clean up. This wantonly medieval destruction of dishware may symbolize a precious occasion that cannot be repeated (just as you can’t really reassemble a cup that’s smashed to smithereens). And the happy couple’s janitorial duty is meant to symbolize working together through future adversity—“picking up the pieces” when things get messy. But what does this oddly endearing ritual have to do with the supernatural? In a word: words! Polterabend is a combo of the German verb poltern (to make a racket) and Abend (evening). Essentially, it means “an evening of disruptive pottery smashing.” Seriously, in Germany you might receive an invitation that’s something like “Gerhard and Eva cordially invite you for an evening of symbolic china destruction. Regrets only.” But if the new Herr and Frau are unlucky enough to find a poltergeist (disruptive + ghost) in their new home, they could be in for another, more frightening round of dishware disruption. As if an all-night session of destroying brain cells, dodging sharp, flying shards of porcelain, and a big clean-up at the end weren’t intimidating enough…


Tree Trunk Desk Organizer, $33

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Do you want your gift quick or quickly?

December 19, 2014

Alphabet Factory Blocks | UncommonGoods

Most of us have had it pounded into our heads by dedicated English teachers that our adverbs should end with “ly.” We should “study diligently” instead of “study diligent,” and heaven help the child who tries to “talk correct.” But it turns out, this “ly” bias has not always been the case. For example, in the Old Testament, King Darius is “exceeding glad” that Daniel wasn’t eaten by lions. When Daniel Defoe was wanted to describe the weather on Robinson Crusoe’s island, he did so by saying it was “excessive hot” and the sea was “dreadful high.” It wasn’t until the 18th century when diehard grammar enthusiasts began insisting on an “ly” in order to distinguish between adverbs and adjectives. And yet some flat adverbs have stuck with is. We sleep tight, rather than tightly. Time goes fast, rather than fastly. And, of course, we all work very hard at work, rather than working hardly.

Alphabet Factory Blocks, $70

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How fast are rocks?

December 17, 2014

Coastal Bud Vase | UncommonGoods

Rocks don’t seem very fast, what with their lack of mobility and all. But they simply don’t let that stop them. The largest rocks on earth—our tectonic plates—move at cruising speeds reaching 2 inches per year. And falling rocks can really pick up speed, of course, as they accelerate at a rate of 32.174 ft/s2. In contrast, it has been much more difficult to calculate the speed of the mysterious sailing stones in Death Valley National Park. These rocks, ranging from pebbles to slabs weighing hundreds of pounds, are found scattered around the parched, dirt surface of the Racetrack Playa with what appear to be skid marks behind them, tracing a path hundreds of feet long and not always in a straight line. While these tracks have been observed for at least a hundred years, the rocks’ movement only occurs every few years, and it has never actually been observed by humans. Until 2013. In December of that year, some researchers used time lapse photography and GPS tracking, and were able to document the movement of 60 different stones. It turns out that, under certain winter conditions, a sheet of ice just millimeters thick that forms on the ground, providing a low-friction surface across which stones can slide when blown by the wind—moving up to 200 meters in a month.

Coastal Bud Vase, $19

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