Sapiens: spot-on on Homo; way-off on viruses.

Hi folks!

The other day I finished reading the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari: an accessible and at times blunt and cynically portrayed history of mankind. It starts with the appearance of our biological species, its spread across the world, its complex journey through all kinds of pan-human revolutions (cognitive, agrarian, and various technological ones), and ends in the current era. At first the book appears to be a solid popular-science work on a par with Guns, Germs, and Steel or The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. However, as you progress through the pages, nagging doubts start to form in your mind; then at times comes amazement at some of the inconsistencies; then it gets like… totally… WHAT? But I’ll get to that in due course…

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Actually, a lot of the facts given in the book have been known for ages. Some we learned in school, others in books we’ve read, yet others in anthropological documentaries or news from archeological digs. However, for me, up until now all that seemed to be stored in my brain in separate bits. Only after reading this book has it all come together as one. So respect is at least due there.

Now, everyone’s heard of Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man (our ancient ancestors), and that they lived around the same time and often on neighboring territories. But there were also other Homo species. For example, the Denisova hominins, and the hobbit-like Homo floresiensis (Flores Man) from the Indonesian island of Flores. And there will have been many more, no doubt, which have yet to be discovered. Curiously, many of them disappeared relatively recently: Flores Man, for example, lived around 12,000–13,000 years ago; Neanderthals – between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.

This means that the definition of homo, or ‘human’, in actual fact doesn’t refer to just folks like you and me. It turns out there are a dozen other biological species that add to that full definition, all of which died out; and Wikipedia agrees with this. We (Homo sapiens) lived together with these other human species at the same time and in the same geographical areas on the planet, and we even crossbred with them (as confirmed by genetic research). Then those other species disappeared, while we stayed. That is, Homo sapiens overcame all its ‘competitor-relatives’ – completely destroying them at the very roots, all to free up for itself an ecological niche to provide for its own sustenance, propagation and further expansion.

But it wasn’t just other human species Homo sapiens wiped out.

Read on…

Rubik-therapeutic in the Pacific.

Over the New Year holidays a group of friends and I headed down to Ecuador for our traditional festive portion of unusual/active/exotic trekking/volcanism/photography. As usual, it was ‘active tourism until you drop’, cramming in as much we possibly could. Anyway, I’ll be writing blogposts on the trip – coming up shortly, but in the meantime I’d like to share with you a personal achievement I’m rather proud of – one completing a certain puzzle…

First: rewind…

Games/puzzles/toys. They come; they go. Some come and then disappear very quickly. Remember Tamagotchis? They were the biggest toy fad of the 1990s – early 2000s. Kids got so attached to their ‘digital pets’ that some were even driven to suicide when they suddenly broke. No, really.

More recently there was Pokémon. Once all the rage; now – all but disappeared. But there is another category of games that come – and stay. These are the timeless games that are just so darn good they’re not going anywhere. Chess, cards, dominoes… – been around centuries if not millennia, and will be around for millennia to come. Some modern-day games fall into this category of ‘stayers’ too. Not many, but some. Tetris, for example. It came, it became a fad-craze, interest died down a bit, but it didn’t go away. (I remember playing for hours on end on one… until one day I saw ‘blocks’ falling down in front of me in the street; that was when I realized it was time to quit:). The same thing happened with the Rubik’s Cube

I used to complete this cube-riddle using the standard cross method. Then I mislaid my Rubik’s Cube and mostly forgot about it (like many others did) – for 35 years! Then, just recently, while isle-hopping around the Galápagos – as you do – I recalled I’d packed some Rubik’s Cubes after recently finding them in a store somewhere and purchasing them, so one evening on the boat with not much to do I had a trip down memory lane and solved them. And not just the standard 3×3 model; also the 4×4 and the 5×5:

Really glad I packed them. I got at least five other fellow adventurers hooked on the 3×3, while a Rubik’s expert among us told me of a ‘secret’ method for solving the 3×3. Meanwhile, I learned how to do the 4×4 and 5×5. An engrossing, enthralling, entrancing exercise. Highly recommended! Especially in Ecuador!…

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Midori-Kuma 2019.

Hi folks!

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about our beloved green bear-mascot Midori Kuma – nearly two years in fact. That’s a long time in anyone’s life, but especially in this green bear’s – as his schedule is just so full non-stop all year round. Not that it’s all work-work-work though: just recently he’s been kicking back in full chill-axe mode in the snowy expanses of Russia, no less. Quite why, when he’s often to be found in idyllic tropical resorts, I don’t know, but, well, he is a bear after all. Must be an instinct thing. I wonder if he hooked up with some brown bears while there. But I digress…

Anyway. Since his Russia trip he’s taken up a new hobby: he’s now an artist, as in – a painter. And he clearly is a natural. Just look at some of his early works, below. What can I say? Bright, unusual, and incorporating many different styles. And it’s not just me thinks that. Many of his paintings have been snapped up for vast sums already at auctions around the world…

Read on…

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Secure elections of the future – today.

“Online voting – it’s the only thing that’ll save democracy, since the younger generations will only vote if they can do so online”. This is something I’ve been saying for years now. Younger generations – ‘digital natives’ – are used to doing a great many things online instead of off-line; it’s what they’re used to and what they prefer, and that needs to be understood, accepted, and embraced. If not, only the folks who have been used to going to polling stations in person will be voting – the older generations: hardly a good, balanced, representative cross-section of the adult population.

Statistics show that voter turnout has been declining steadily in established democracies since the 1980s. Reasons for this vary: there can be crises of trust in the authorities; in some places there are problems with access to voting facilities. There’s even a new social sub-grouping of largely passive participants in the political system: interested observers – folks who are interested in what’s going on around them but don’t get involved in any of it. And this isn’t some tiny, insignificant new sub-group either: in the U.S. it’s said to reach nearly 50% of the adult population! And these interested observers look like the ideal target audience for online voting: folks used to getting news and information from the internet – and that includes of course the younger generations right down to millennials. To have the best chance of high voter turnouts for elections, voting needs to be a simple, natural addition to a typical daily online routine. Social networks – checked; a few photos – uploaded; online purchases – made; (for some) a day’s work performed largely online – done; (for some) online gaming – done; online voting – also done.

Online voting systems around the world have been developing slowly for quite a while. When the first online vote took place I’m not sure, but I do recall how in January 2003 the Helkern worm (aka Slammer) nearly derailed some inter-party elections of a Canadian political party. The first e-elections at state level were those in 2007 in Estonia. Online voting continued to slowly proliferate in other countries, but with differing degrees of success. Why? Because there is the obvious question of security – the high risk of a hack and direct manipulation of the voting process; this issue, btw, has often been raised by critics of online voting. In 2014 a group of experts conducted a penetration test on the Estonian e-voting system. Not only did it find that it was real easy to install malware on the servers of the system, but also that, theoretically, the result of the voting could be changed – leaving no trace of that having been done whatsoever. In 2015 there was the electronic voting scandal in Australia. Here, a New South Wales election used the iVote online voting system, but it was found that around 66,000 votes could have been compromised via a hack of the voting site.

Clearly the above all shows that online voting systems need protecting (authorization, connection, transaction), and that includes the storing and counting of the results (server-cloud part). This idea came about in our business incubator a few years ago, which eventually led to the introduction at the end of 2017 of the Polys project – a platform for electronic voting based on blockchain.

All data relating to voting (including the final results) are stored not on servers but in blocks of data on the devices of all voting participants, which makes the platform simply unhackable. It provides anonymity of voting, and also permits hiding interim results – the final result becomes known to participants only after all counting is completed. But what’s more important – the Polys platform is convenient, simple, and suitable for any kind of voting – even… to decide what colors the roses should be in the local park! Indeed, the overarching mission of Polys is to bring the pluralism of opinions and happiness for all to the masses :). But don’t just take my word for it. Have a look for yourself! That the future is blockchain-voting many agree with.

And if you think this is all just theory, here’s some fresh news: Polys has been officially used already! In Russia’s Saratov region the local parliament elected deputies for its youth parliament. 40,000 folks voted! And last year the platform was used for conducting similarly-sized voting for Russia’s Higher School of Economics. And I’m sure this is only the beginning

So there you have it – we’re saving the world yet again but in a new way: protecting voting against fraud. So if you need to run a vote on something, no matter how trivial or how important, and you want to be able to guarantee voters it will be 100% protected, 100% fair – check out the Polys site!

And for those interested in the technical side to Polys – go here; you should find all the answers you need there. In short, have a look, try it (it’s free for now), get a feel for it, and tell your colleagues and friends about it!

And remember – your vote counts!

 

Mathematical fanatical 2019 – the answers.

Hi folks!

In yesterday’s post, you’ll recall how I gave you, dear readers mathematicians, a mathematical brainteaser: how to get ‘2019’ using the four main arithmetic operations [+, -, ×, ÷], plus parentheses [(, )’], and the figures 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1; and not in any order but in the order given [10 down to 1] – and with no joining up of the numbers to make bigger numbers.

Budding mathematicians among the readers of my blog in Russian sent in their answers. Here are some of the more elegant runners-up among them:

( 10 * 9 * 8 – 7 * 6 – 5 ) * ( 4 – 3 + 2 * 1 ) = 2019 (by Skarbovoy);

( 10 + 9 ) * ( 8 + 7 + 6 ) * 5 + 4 * ( 3 + 2 + 1 ) = 2019 (by eve_nts);

(10 + 9 * 8 * 7 – 6 – 5 ) * 4 + 3 * 2 + 1 = 2019 (also by eve_nts).

A big thanks to everyone, btw, who sent in answers! I had great fun picking out the right ones, checking for mistakes – and coming up with some formulations of my own.

But back to the podium…

Read on…

Mathematical fanatical: How to turn ‘1’ into ‘2019’?!

Hi folks!

2019. Is it two thousand nineteen, or twenty nineteen? How does it sound to you? “It’s just a number – the number of the year,” you say? Hmm. I think your saying that might mean poetry or just rhythm-and-rhyme aren’t your fortes. Right? For – and not a lot of people know this – there’s a phenomenon known as digital poetry. There are all different kinds of digital poetry, as a quick glance at that Wikipedia page will show you. One kind I find rather intriguing is the one where numbers are substituted for the words of the works of the great poets – and you need to work out who that poet is based on the way the numbers are pronounced – which words are stressed, the number of syllables, and so on.

Here, for example, are some numbers that, when spoken, reflect the poetry style of Alexander Pushkin (at least, in Russian:):

 17 30 48
 140 10 01
 126 138
 140 3 501

I wonder, does it work the other way round? I mean, can a poem be made up about 2019? Might there be some budding digital poets among you, dear readers, who might be able to conjure up a poem about 2019?

Meanwhile, for the mathematicians and physicists among you, my traditional annual arithmetic puzzler…

I hope you remember the rules. If not:

You need to get the number of the current year – this year being 2019 of course – using the four main arithmetic operations [+, -, *, ÷], plus parentheses [(, )’], and the figures 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1; and not in any order but in the order given [10 down to 1] – and with no joining up of the numbers to make bigger numbers (e.g., 1 and 2 making 12).

For example:

 ((10 + 9 – 8) * 7) + (6 + 5) * (4 – 3 + 2) + 1 = 111

Hmm. That gives 111. But I wanted 2019.

All righty. Try it! Who does it first is the winner!

 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 = 2019
 …

Did you do it? Well done!

Now, let’s continue the fun by upping the difficulty a bit: let’s drop the 10:

Read on…

Top-100: North America.

Hi folks!

Next up on this world tour of the Top-100 Must-See Places in the World – North America…

1. Alaska.

Southern Alaska is a land of mountains, waterfalls, lakes and glaciers. More salmon than you can shake a fishing rod at, whopping whales in the ocean, and all sorts of other interesting beasts. Northern Alaska is all about harsh Klondike Gold Rush scenes straight out of Call of the Wild or White Fang. I was there in August and all it did was pour it down. I need to get back there in June or July, which they say are the best times. Details – here.

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Read on…

Top-100: Central America.

Another week – another peek… – at the next regional update to my Top-100 Must-See Most Beautiful Places in the World: Central America.

13. Teotihuacan.

The ancient city and pyramids of the Aztecs. A completely separate branch of the modern history of mankind. A climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun to gaze at the sunset (or sunrise) – simply obligatory.

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Read on…

Top-100: South America.

Hi folks!

And so we reach the next world region in my Top-100 Must-See Places in the World – South America.

And, not surprisingly, there’s plenty to must-see here too. So without more of a do, let’s get on with this!…

21. Angel Falls, Venezuela.

The highest waterfall in the world; almost a kilometer of free-falling water. Haven’t been myself, but have heard rave reports and seen prodigious pics.

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Read on…

Top-100: Russia.

Hi folks!

On we go with my journey around what are to me the 100 most beautiful places in the world, all of which I reckon need visiting at least once in a lifetime without fail – so as not to live the rest of that lifetime with regret!

Next up, the world’s largest country!…

Russia.

Russia’s East European Plain doesn’t have anything outstandingly must-see when it comes to natural beauty. Of course, there are beautiful places – and many of them, but none quite make their way onto my Top-100. Then, east of the Urals there’s the West Siberian Plain – a rather plain… plain, this time all tundra/taiga/steppe (from north to south, respectively), marshes, rivers, lakes, oil extraction and mosquitoes. Things only start getting Top-100-worthy still further east. But I’ll get to that in a bit. For now though…

39. Red Square and the Kremlin.

Many foreign friends who come visit us here in Moscow tell us that Red Square – with St. Basil’s Cathedral at one end, the Kremlin to one side and GUM on the other – is the most beautiful spot in Europe, especially at night when lit up. And who am I to argue? I too am a big fan.

Note: St. Petersburg is in the Cities section of the Top-100 series.

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Read on…