I recently came across the article Buddhism and the Brain, in which the author (Dr. David Weisman – a Neurologist but not a Buddhist) discusses the significant overlap between ancient Buddhist understandings of the mind and our best modern understandings of Neuroscience. In fact, the overlap between Buddhism and science is not limited to just the realm of the brain. There are numerous parallels to Buddhism in the modern fields of cosmology and particle physics as well (for a deeper dive, I highly recommend the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom). Dr. Weisman’s conclusion (with which I agree) is that the founders of Buddhism were fundamentally empiricists – they started with no preconceptions about how the world should work, but instead studied how it does work with an open mind and a willingness to be proven wrong.
The one place in which I disagree with Dr. Weisman’s article is in his hope that Buddhists will “allow neuroscience to render their idea of reincarnation obsolete.” The idea of reincarnation within Buddhism solves two fundamental human needs which science has not yet (and may never) be able to solve. The first, and most obvious, is the fear of death and the question of “where do we go after we die?” Science’s answer of “nowhere, you just cease to be” is unsatisfying to many (though not all) people.
The second need is less obvious, but much more problematic. This is the issue of “free will.” In a purely scientific understanding of the brain, there is no mechanism for free will. Our brains are entirely composed of atoms and molecules which obey the well-understood laws of chemistry and physics. Whether or not a single neuron fires is solely determined by the chemical and electrical inputs it receives. Although the combination of billions of these neurons acting in concert is far too complex for us to trace every possible pathway, in a deterministic universe, the behavior of every one of these pathways is entirely determined by the inputs it receives. Therefore, the brain as a whole operates in an entirely deterministic way based solely on the external factors operating on it from the environment.
With the advent of quantum mechanics, we now understand that the brain isn’t truly deterministic because of the probabilistic nature of quantum fluctuations within atoms. However, this just means that the actions of our brains (and thus the decisions we make) are a combination of deterministic and random. This still leaves no place for “free will” which has led some to conclude that free will does not actually exist and is merely an “illusion.”
The issue of needing free will is more fundamental than just satisfying people’s own personal belief that they have it. All societies are based on the principles of personal choice and responsibility. If free will is merely an illusion and does not actually exist, then we can no more praise Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi than we can vilify Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot. Nobody can be said to be “responsible” for their actions – they are merely reacting to external forces.
The Buddhist concept of Vijñāna can solve the problem of free will while coexisting nicely with all of our modern understandings of the brain, chemistry and physics. The brain can be understood to follow all of the basic laws of science, but the Vijñāna exerts an undetectable influence over our brains which skews the quantum mechanical fluctuations of particles so that they are not purely random, but instead act in concert to influence our decisions and actions in a non-random way.
Unless, or until, science is able to explain the existence of free will (or to answer the question of how can we hold people responsible for their actions in the absence of free will), then there will always be a place for the “idea of reincarnation” within Buddhism.
The idea of a video phone has been around for decades. While there have been a handful of real video phones, they were never widely available for the average Joe. Then, a company with a strange name harnessed the power of the internet and the ever-growing ubiquity of webcams to bring that dream to the masses. But what does the name Skype have to do with talking to other people online?
Skype is a peer-to-peer communication technology, meaning one person connects to another person, via the Skype service. Of course to the average person, the connection is happening in a mysterious, ethereal realm. So when they were developing the name, they hit upon the rather descriptive “Sky peer-to-peer,” which was shortened to “Skyper.” However, when they went to register the web address for their new product, skyper.com and the other .something variations were already taken. So, they decided to try dropping the “r” and, sure enough, skype.com was available. In hindsight, it worked out for the best – saying you’re “Skypering” with your friend sounds a bit clumsy.
Would President Obama have fought so hard to keep his “LeapFrog” phone? Because the phone was leaps and bounds over everything else on the market, this was one of the names considered for the BlackBerry. Another possibility was “Strawberry,” because the tiny keys resembled seeds. But when someone felt the word “straw” sounded too slow, another berry was suggested. For anyone addicted to their BlackBerry, the origins of the nickname “CrackBerry” should need no explanation. More possible names were mentioned in a 2011 article in The New Yorker: EasyMail, MegaMail and ProMail.
One of the fastest-growing websites around, Reddit was started in 2004 by then-college students Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. The site allows community members to submit links to online content, which is then voted up or down to decide which submissions are most worthy of being read by everyone else.
The name Reddit is little more than a play on the phrase “read it,” as in, “I read it online.” But, as one member of the site (also known as a “redditor”) pointed out, there is a Latin parallel to the site’s name that turned out to be a pretty cool coincidence. One loose translation of “reddit” is “render,” which can mean “to submit for consideration or approval,” which is exactly what people do on the site. [See Also:Our 2008 interview with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian]
Whether you’re cleaning out the attic or looking for a deal on your next must-have gadget, there’s a good chance you’re going to wander over to eBay. But where did this powerhouse of e-commerce come from? And what the heck does that name mean, anyway?
Oddly enough, there’s actually a legend surrounding the founding of eBay. For a while, it was widely believed that, in 1995, then-28-year old software developer Pierre Omidyar created a website called AuctionWeb just so that his fiancee could buy and sell collectible PEZ dispensers. While the PEZ part isn’t true – Omidyar was simply looking for a way to make something cool online – it does make for a good story. What’s not legend, though, is that the first item sold on eBay was anything but glamorous – a broken laser pointer. Omidyar only intended the laser pointer listing to be a test, but was surprised to find that someone actually bought it — according to legend, someone who collected broken laser pointers.
Thinking he might be on to something, Omidyar started working in earnest on the program. While contemplating names for the site, he initially planned to use the name of his computer consulting company, Echo Bay. However, echobay.com was already taken (and still is). So Omidyar shortened the name to “ebay” and bought the web address we all know and love.
E-readers have really hit the mainstream in the last couple of years, with the strangely named Kindle from Amazon leading the charge. The name is not meant to be a dig at paper books (as in “kindling” for a fire, now that e-books are so common). The company says the name refers to an intellectual fire of new ideas that could spread to readers all over the world who now have quick and easy access to the vast digital library at Amazon.
Since 2004, Woot has offered a new item every night at midnight to devoted fans, known as Wooters, who obsessively check Woot’s sites to buy everything from computers to flashlights to a “Bag of Crap” (BOC)—a coveted, mystery grab bag that is often sold out within minutes of its unveiling.
If you’re at all familiar with internet culture, you’ll know that “woot” is also an expression of excitement, sometimes spelled “w00t.” According to Matt Rutledge, Founder/CEO of Woot.com, that is where the company got its name, but it goes a bit deeper than that.
“The company Woot was designed from the ground up to fit that name and adapt itself as a public ’employee store’ type of liquidation retailer,” Rutledge said. “What type of store would you load up and say “w00t!” to? Answer…that would be what we built and strive every day to reach.”
So Woot is named after “w00t,” but where does “w00t” come from? That’s actually a bit of a mystery. Some believe it first appeared in the mid-90s, adopted from the songs “Whoomp! (There It Is!)” and “Whoot! There It Is!” Others define it as the acronym, “We Owned the Other Team,” originating as a victory cry for online gamers. Still others say it comes from an old hacker term used whenever someone has gained full, or “root,” access to a server, exclaiming “w00t! I have root!”
Whatever the origin, there are a few important distinctions between “w00t!” and “Woot.” The company name does not have the zeros replacing the Os, and the exclamation point is only used in the logo or when there is genuine cause for excitement.
Founded in 2005, the online marketplace Etsy has amassed over seven million registered users and saw revenues of just over $300 million in 2010. And while the name is catchy, many have often asked what it means.
For a while, the company was pretty tight-lipped about the origin, leaving users to come up with their own acronyms or explanations. However, in a January 2010 interview for Reader’s Digest, founder Rob Kalin finally revealed the secret:
“I wanted a nonsense word because I wanted to build the brand from scratch. I was watching Fellini’s 8 ½ and writing down what I was hearing. In Italian, you say ‘etsi’ a lot. It means ‘oh, yes.’ And in Latin, it means ‘and if.'”
When Microsoft was developing the name for their new search engine, they wanted something that was a single syllable, memorable, and easy to spell. Of course once they got into the naming process, there were other things to consider as well. For example, one idea—“Bang”—was rejected because you couldn’t make a verb out of it without sounding, well, inappropriate. (“What other movies has Kathy Bates been in?” “I don’t know. Bang her and find out!”)
So the marketers decided to put their money on “Bing.” Not only was it a single syllable, easy to spell, and easy to remember, it also sounded like “Bingo,” which is usually said when you’ve found what you’re looking for. The name also reminded people of the moment an idea is hatched, sort of like when that little light bulb goes off over a cartoon character’s head. You hear a “Bing,” which is what Microsoft hopes will happen when you use their website. Even better, in China, the website is called bì yìng, which translated means, “very certain to answer.” But Bing’s detractors are quick to suggest that the name is really an acronym: Bing Is Not Google.
Can you imagine if, instead of “TiVo-ing” the latest episode of Lost, you were “Bongo-ing” it? “Bongo” and “Lasso” are just two of the 800 possible names the marketing folks kicked around before settling on TiVo. The final name was cobbled together from “TV” and the engineering acronym “I/O,” which stands for “input/output.” Little did they know their noun would become a verb and their oddly-named invention would forever change the way people watch television.
Despite the lack of dignity displayed by people who shout into their Bluetooth headsets wherever they go, the name of the device actually has a rather regal origin. In the 10th Century, Danish King Harald Blatand was able to unite warring factions in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark under one banner. Similarly, the developers of the Bluetooth signal wanted to unite many different forms of technology — cars, computers, and mobile phones — under one communications network. So when they were coming up with a name, they went with the English translation of the Danish king’s last name, “Bluetooth.”
Hulu means many things to many people. To some, it’s a great online resource for watching their favorite TV shows and movies. But to a native Hawaiian, it means “hair.” To someone who speaks Swahili, it means “cease.” To an Indonesian, it means “butt.” While these translations are accurate, the folks behind naming hulu.com were inspired by a couple of Mandarin Chinese definitions instead ““ “interactive recording” and “a hollowed-out gourd used to hold precious things.” Despite this often misunderstood word, the website is rapidly becoming one of the biggest names in streaming video. Well, except in Indonesia…
12. Nintendo Wii
Although the off-color jokes almost write themselves, Nintendo had other ideas when they named their latest video game system. First of all, the word is pronounced “we,” which emphasizes the social concept that Nintendo envisioned for the console. The name is also universal, without any direct translation into any particular language, reinforcing that all-inclusive idea and avoiding any Hulu-like situations. They even liked the double-i spelling because it looks like two people standing side-by-side. The name was not popular at first, but the concept obviously caught on, because Americans have purchased over 20 million Wiis since its debut in 2006, making it one of the most successful video game systems ever.
While the origin of the second half of the name might seem rather obvious, the first half is still a mystery to many. “Wiki” is used to describe any website content that is specifically designed to be edited by its users. The name was first coined by Ward Cunningham to describe software he wrote back in 1994 that was meant to speed up the communication process between computer programmers. He borrowed the word from the Hawaiian language, where it means “fast”, after hearing it in the Honolulu airport when an employee told him to take the “Wiki Wiki Shuttle” between terminals. Many people mistakenly believe Wiki is an acronym for “What I Know Is.” However, that definition was actually applied to the word after the fact, making it instead a backronym (which is now my new favorite word).
14. Asus Computers
Netbook computers are the hottest gadget out there, with around 14 million of the cheap little laptops sold in 2008. One of the big names in netbook production is the Taiwanese computer company, Asus, which gets its name from the winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus. But if you took a quick glance at the phone book, “Pegasus” wouldn’t have been too high in the directory of computer companies. So, to increase their visibility in alphabetical lists, they dropped the first three letters of their name. It was an unusual strategy, but apparently it worked.
While developing the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, Toyota believed the Prius was going to be the predecessor of the cars of the future. So to name their groundbreaking car, they turned to the Latin word, “prius,” meaning “[to go] before,” the root of our modern word “prior.” And with the growing popularity of hybrid vehicles, it appears they were right about the Prius’ legacy. What they couldn’t have predicted, though, was the controversy the name would create when people want to refer to more than one of the cars. Many think the plural is “Prii”; others believe it should be “Priuses.” The official word from Toyota used to be that there is no plural form, it’s just “Prius” (sort of like “moose”). That was until 2011, when an online poll crowned “Prii” the official plural. But really, I’m sure they really don’t care what you call them if you’re buying two or more.
What the supreme court upheld today was that the “individual mandate” is, legally speaking, a tax. In fact, it is exactly equivalent to the type of tax that fiscal conservatives want the social security and medicare taxes to become. (Think about it, it’s a tax where you pay into a public system, but you can opt out by paying your money into a private system instead – this is exactly the privatization of social security that Cato and Heritage have been pushing for!)
This is why the whole idea of an individual mandate for health insurance was invented by the Heritage Foundation in 1989 (it was originally created as an alternative to Clinton’s Single-Payer system) and not by the democrats. If Obama had any balls, he would have rammed through a public option, but instead, he decided to take a Republican plan and call it his own thinking (foolishly) that the Republicans couldn’t possibly slam him for promoting their own idea!
Personally, it doesn’t matter to me whether there is an individual mandate or not – I’m going to have health insurance either way – but I definitely approve of the idea of making taxes (in general, not just this one) more transparent (having tax money specifically ear-marked for particular purposes and not “dumped into the general pot”) and in having the ability to opt out of taxes if you can meet the same requirement through the private sector (think private school vouchers). If either Clinton or Obama had pushed through a single-payer system, there would be a huge republican movement to privatize it in exactly the way that the individual mandate does (think social security privatization). The only difference here is that we’re going directly to the Republican’s plan from the 1990’s without having to pass through the democrat’s plan from the 1990’s first…
Informatics is a field that is primarily concerned with making sense of large amounts of data. In particular, informatics researchers strive to develop software for finding patterns in data that allow it to be organized, modeled, visualized, understood and manipulated in a comprehensible way.
The goal of an informatics system is to present the end-user, whether that is a researcher, a physician, or a member of the public, the information that is most relevant and useful to them. To accomplish this, informatics draws from a number of different fields including artificial intelligence, cognitive science, database systems, library and information science, statistics, and software engineering.
The term “informatics” was coined in the 1960s to mean “applied information science.” During the decades since, informatics has grown and evolved; making its biggest impact in medicine and biology. Medical informatics is primarily concerned with the information processing and communication tasks of medical practice, education and research. Bioinformatics, on the other hand, focuses on the interpretation and management of biological data (including human genome data).
Today, informatics is being used to deal with an ever increasing variety of data. The ability to discover knowledge from sources as unstructured as the world wide web will drive research in many different areas.
I read a couple of journal articles this afternoon on “the coming Semantic Web meta-utopia.” After I stopped laughing, I re-read Cory Doctorow’s piece from 2001 to see if all of his “insurmountable obstacles” were still relevant…. They are.
For years there has been a theory that millions of monkeys typing at random on millions of typewriters would reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. The Internet has proven this theory to be untrue.