Friday, February 01, 2008

News From Science 'n Stuff

Next year it will be 25 years after "1984" - is there anything planned to celebrate it? The Science Fiction world managed 2007-07-07 to celebrate Heinlein's 100th.

CrystalSpheresNewestCheck out the the StarShipSofa site, where they have some really terrific podcasts of classic science fiction stories. They made an earnest effort to recite “The Crystal Spheres” -- though it’s a very hard story to do in audio, filled with combined-words that most readers need to eye scan a few times in order to grasp or put in context. Something most can do unconsciously, but cannot do in audio. That understood, this narrator does a fine job with this Hugo-winning story (also available on Kindle and Nook).

Wow! A robot in Kyoto, Japan, mimics a monkey walking on a treadmill (background) in North Carolina last week. Neuroscientist Miguel A. L. Nicolelis at Duke University says it is the first time that brain signals have been used to make a robot walk. Name him Waldo!

Chemical Robots (ChemBots): soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; reconstitute size, shape, and functionality after traversal; carry meaningful payloads; and perform tasks.

For those of you who have seen Cloverfield (also called the “Blair Godzilla Project”) try this appraisal of how smart and well prepared (CERT-trained?) people might have handled the same situation. (Thanks Stefan.)

Design guru Don Norman offers the following interesting tidbit: “Two thousand years ago, Socrates argued that the book would destroy people’s ability to reason. He believed in dialogue, in conversation and debate. But with a book, there is no debate: the written word cannot talk back. Today, the book is such a symbol of learning and knowledge that we laugh at his argument. But take it seriously for a moment. Despite Socrates’ claims, writing does instruct because we do not need to debate it with the author. Instead, we debate and discuss with one another, in the classroom, with discussion groups, and – if it is an important enough work – through all the media at our disposal: printed newspapers and magazines, radio and television, Internet websites and discussion boards. Nonetheless, his point is valid: a technology that gives no opportunity for discussion, explanation, or debate is a poor technology.”


Lacking time/energy to sift these in with my regular link-missives -- and certainly lacking time to hot-link -- I'll just paste in these cool items and let Ray tell you about em. More from the singularity front. That is, if we can maintain a forward-looking civilization.

The Times' 70 best ideas of 2007 include Wireless Energy, Wave Energy, Crowdware, Wikiscanning, and The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid....

CyberLover's automated chats is good enough that victims have a tough time distinguishing the "bot" from a real potential love interests.

University of Vienna researchers have trained dogs to distinguish photographs that depicted dogs from those that did not.

From the firing of a type of neuron, researchers can tell what a person is actually seeing.

Researchers at Cornell are attempting to use the same energy that drives sperm to power nanoscale robots.

UCLA researchers report that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals clear differences in the areas of the brain involved in belief, disbelief and uncertainty. Their results suggest that the differences among these cognitive states may one day be distinguished reliably.

The US Air Force Research Lab is developing an electric motor-powered micro air vehicle that can "harvest" energy when needed by attaching itself to a power line, even temporarily changing its shape to look more like innocuous piece of trash hanging from the cable. Much of the "morphing" technology to perform this has already been developed.

Nanosolar has begun selling its solar panels made with a new manufacturing process that "prints" photovoltaic material on aluminum backing, which the company says will
reduce the manufacturing cost of the basic photovoltaic module by more
than 80 percent to less than $1 per watt.

Organisms invented in 2007 include insulin-producing lettuce, yeast with poison-sensing rat genes, cancer-fighting Clostridium bacteria, artful fluorescent tadpoles and butanol-producing E. coli....

A new Microsoft patent describes a system that monitors certain behaviors tied to frustration (such as elevated heart rate or taking an abnormally long time to complete a task), then triggers a routine that asks other users for help. (Um... right...)

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico have found a way of using sunlight to recycle carbon dioxide and produce fuels like methanol or gasoline. (Randy Montoya/Sandia) The Sunlight to Petrol, or S2P, project essentially reverses the combustion process, recovering the building blocks of hydrocarbons.

The partnership between Intel and the One Laptop Per Child educational computing group has dissolved in a conflict between Intel's $350 Classmate PC and One Laptop's $200 XO.

Well well. Pixel Qi, a company spun off from the One Laptop Per Child project, aims to create a $75 laptop. Technology advances planned by Pixel Qi include a sunlight-readable display system optimized for low-power operation.

A UCLA study shows that the central nervous system can reorganize itself after spinal cord damage and follow new pathways to restore the cellular communication required for walking.

Brighter LED Lights Could Replace Household Light Bulbs Within Three Years.

Metaplace wants to enable its users to build virtual worlds that could exist anywhere on the Web. With Metaplace, designers can build worlds using a markup language, style sheets, modules, and a scripting language. Every world acts like a Web server, and every object in a world has a URL. Raph Koster, president of Metaplace, based in San Diego, and former creative lead for the influential game Ultima Online, believes that the Metaverse should look decidedly different.

Merck researchers report that the cannabinoid receptor blocking drug taranabant helped obese patients lose weight during a 12-week trial, even at low doses ranging from 0.5 to six milligrams. Taranabant is the second appetite suppressant and weight-loss drug that works by blocking cannabinoid receptors.... (aw, where's the fun in that?)

General Motors has partnered with Coskata, a company that claims it can make ethanol from wood chips, grass, and trash--including old tires--for a dollar a gallon, using a hybrid approach that involves thermochemical and biological processes.

A controversial new study from Imperial College London scientists says traces of vast cosmic strings have been found in the cosmic microwave background radiation. If confirmed to exist, cosmic strings could offer an unprecedented window into the extreme physics of the infant universe....

...more, when possible...


Anonymous said...

Hi David - This is my first comment on the blog, though I've been reading it for a while (As well as all your novels). Sorry it is off topic.

Perhaps this has been mentioned and I missed it, but has anyone noticed the reference to "The Postman" on the last Simpsons episode?



Anonymous said...

I consider it likely that Dr. Quiroga is doing legitimate research on how the brain acts when recognizing familiar things, but this article is making both my crackpot and badly-reported-science alarms go nuts. I find it very hard to believe that there is a neuron in someone's brain that fires only when they think about a particular celebrity, which is what this article seems to be claiming. Given the 10^11 neurons in a single human brain and the relatively tiny number of potential stimuli the researchers could have tested (I'd handwavingly say between 5 and 100,000 images/names/sounds), I find it hard to believe that they managed to stumble upon even one single matched pair of neuron and stimulus. (On slightly further introspection, this might be possible if one could observe large portions of the brain at one time for activity and narrow your search in sections. This doesn't make the idea that there's a single unique stimulus for this neuron any more likely, but in the sci-fi universe where this is true, I suppose it makes finding it conceivable.)

A casual reading of this article by someone who doesn't know much about the subject could easily come to the even worse conclusion that the firing of this neuron is a complete description of how the brain represents this person. (This isn't explicitly stated, but referring to the "Halle Berry neuron" is only going to reinforce this damagingly common oversimplification.)

Giving Dr. Quiroga the benefit of the doubt, my guess is that his claim was merely that they managed to isolate a neuron that happened to be one that often fired for this particular stimuli but not for the others that were tested. Would this neuron always fire for anything related to Halle Berry, regardless of the mindset of the subject? It seems possible, but it also seems possible that they found one that wouldn't fire while the subject was having an argument about actresses or in the middle of enjoying a movie. Without further information, I don't really know whether the neuron's activity was central to the concept of this particular actress. Maybe it's part of a pattern that emerges upon viewing black hair or upon remembering something connected but tangential to the actress.

Articles like these give so little information that I almost feel less knowledgeable than I did before I read them (and not in the exposing-subconscious-prejudices kind of way).

David Brin said...

Hi John and welcome to speaking up.

No I didn't catch the episode. Seldom get to see Simpsons anymore. Was it blatant? Do they run clickable-access on the Fox site?

erwenn, yeah, skeptical here, too. Ray sometimes does get carried away. But that's his job.

Anonymous said...

(Zorgon the Malevolent. Logon no mas.)

The Kurzweil site remains a well-known sinkhole of pseudoscience, as evidenced by the debunking of one of the claims you cite, the Cambridge/Sussex claim of "detection" of cosmic strings.

Peter Woit has already axed this particular piece of pseudoscientific hype on his blog "Not Even Wrong":

To be fair to the authors, the press release and paper don’t contain that much hype, nothing about how they are “testing string theory”. What they do is fit the CMB data using an additional parameter they call f10, which has to do with the fractional contribution of cosmic strings to the temperature power spectrum at multipole l=10. They claim to get a slightly better fit to the data with a non-zero version of this parameter and power-law tilt ns=1, versus the usual fit with gives a ns less than one. When they also take into account non-CMB data, the effect goes away.

This isn’t really convincing of anything, so it’s unclear why it deserves a press release. According to the New Scientist story on this, which is pretty reasonable and hype-free, the chief scientist for WMAP, Charles Bennett thinks it’s a statistical fluke:

Calling it a detection is odd… I’d be very surprised if cosmologists were excited about this at this stage.

See Woit's debunking at Not Even Wrong for shootdowns of various pieces of pseudoscientific string hype. There's about one piece of string "theory" hype per week. It's all vacuous twaddle, no more substantive than scientology's discussion of thetans. None of the claimed "tests" of string "theory" are actually tests, and none of the alleged "predictions" supposedly made by string "theory" actually predict anything when you examine 'em closely.

The science news that really struck me this week is that human males are no longer needed for sperm production:

Researchers basically took a female stem cell and turned it into a spermatazoon.

At this point in a typical science fiction story, all the women turn on all the men and herd them into camps, or liquidate 'em outright. Somehow I doubt that's going to happen... Still, remarkable news.

Speaking of prediction markets, someone did an analysis of Confederate bond prices and correlated it with the perceived probability that the South could have won the civil war:

The south's chances never rose above 43%, and by 1863 had plummeted to 15%. Of course this represents backwards prediction, but still provocative insofar as it touches on prediction markets.

In a more ominous development, a Massachusetts lawyer has been arrested and criminally charged for using his cellphone to video-record police arresting a 16-year-old.

This represents a serious attack on transparency and has reportedly drawn the ire of one of the best-known criminal defense attorneys in the state. Let's hope this attack on transparency gets shot down like all the others.

To round out this week's science breakthroughs,
British scientists have created a beating heart in the lab using only the collagen structure of dead rats' hearts along with heart cells from newborn rats:

Looks like Niven's organleggers are never going to exist. I wonder what kind of criminals Gil the ARM will wind up chasing? Perhaps third-world kids stealing the genetic code for pest-resistant plants...

NoOne said...

I saw Kurzweil give a talk at a conference and came away with the impression that he was a crackpot. He was talking about consciousness in machines and insisted that it was "just around the corner" a claim that I - as a researcher in machine learning - find laughable. And when Tony Bell challenged him on his singularity hypothesis - by pointing out that exponential buildups in nature are invariably followed by an asymptotic leveling off - he had no answer.

And as for reading your thoughts from a single neuron, I'm going to send that article to a computational neuroscience friend of mine. Should raise his blood pressure.

Anonymous said...

"Looks like Niven's organleggers are never going to exist."

Uh . . . there was a big bust in India this week of a sinister gang that coerced or forced poor people to "donate" kidneys.

Police hunt for doctor in kidney -snatching ring

Hmmm. Kurzweil. There is no doubt whatsoever that he is a brilliant engineer and on top of all sorts of stuff. But I think there's a bit of . . . well, wish fulfillment isn't the right phrase. Perhaps: There's a sort of memetic resonance between the Singularity and religious concepts like the Rapture. The promise of salvation from a short life in a stinky animal body is so alluring that it can warp one's thinking.

Anonymous said...

(Zorgon the Malevolent again.)

Stefan Jones remarked:
The promise of salvation from a short life in a stinky animal body is so alluring that it can warp one's thinking.

Have you noticed how only pasty-faced pudgy nerds who spend all their time in front of a computer seem to yearn for the Singularity?

You don't hear any supermodels lamenting their "stinky animal body." Hollywood stars and famous rappers don't seem to have a problem with "a short life in a stinky animal body." Athletes and ballet dancers don't seem dismayed by having a "stinky animal body."

Guys like Kurzweil and the other singularitarians need to get some exercise and a girlfriend.

Anonymous said...

(John, with more Simpson's details)

The episode is entitled "That 90's Show" which showed Homer and Marge before kids living in the 90's - lots of cultural references back.

The scene is brief, and not exactly favourable for your book (the movie specifically). Still, it beats being ignored, and it was pretty funny.

It occurs about 3:30 into the episode. Marge is opening a mail box and retrieving her mail as she narrates:

"But our happiness was about to unravel,
just like Kevin Costner's career.
Because of the postman."

No idea of you can access it from the Fox site, sorry.

David Brin said...

Ah well... c'est la vie...

sociotard said...

Guys like Kurzweil and the other singularitarians need to get some exercise and a girlfriend.

I dunno. Kurzweil isn't just a nerd, he's also a health nut. He takes something like 200 pills a day, plus weekly treatments right in the vein. His picture looked fairly strong and healthy.

Unknown said...

Charges against the Boston man who filmed an arrest on his phone have been dismissed. (PDF)

Refreshing breath of sanity.

David Brin said...

The more of these things get thrown out, the more case law and precedent develops in favor of transparency.

I have to say I sympathize with the fix that average decent cops are in. They are in a business that pumps adrenaline in mega doses and subduing some of their "clients" with violence is part of the game. Now they will be watched all the time, unable to slip up. I hope that society will develop a habit of giving officers the benefit of the doubt, when a judgment call if somewhat iffy.

I also hope we'll be willing to pay enough to attract grownups and professionals, so that the last of the thugs can be eased out, in an era when thuggishness and abuse of power will be caught,

As for nerdy extropians, well, that's a stereotype and a silly one. For every ten silly nerds, I know at least one or two who are handsome, cool, with-it and fully girlfriend-mate-equipped!

I got no problems with transhumanism... as a hobby or professional research interest. But we should remember all the caveats I write about, at:

Jumper said...

I would bet that a sort of self-folding tensegrity bot is more likely to creep under doors...

I am in the midst of Kiln People, and it's providing me with much enjoyment. I like its originality, too. Hard to shake up the old SF tropes , but indeed it does. It's also loads of fun. Thanks.

I know for a fact that karate students are taught to not lose their tempers. To claim the police should remain incapable of the same training is absurd. More power to transparency.

Anonymous said...

An excellent book, and now on the cheap rack, is Breaking Ranks : A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing by Norm Stamper, the guy who was the Seattle Police Chief during the WOT mess, and served something like 30 years in the San Diego PD.

One of the great points he makes is the tendency to ignore years of good service and throw a beat cop under the bus if the Media gets into a tizzy over a relatively minor violation, but to white wash horrible behavior if the press isn't paying attention.

Every time a cop helps me out, I send a thank you card to them at work. At the same time, I've participated in protests against cops who have murdered - there was no nicer way to put it - homeless people.

We have to discipline the overly heated up cops who swings even after the suspect surrenders at the end of a high speed chase, but we also need to respect the officer for keeping his finger off the trigger in that situation and understand that there is a lot of discipline available between white wash and termination.

In Los Angeles, I've noticed a lot of complaints about police brutality in situations where SDPD would have fired live rounds. If police are afraid of a street fight, they get trigger happy.

Back on topic ;)

Police officers need to be better educated about the rights of citizens beyond Miranda, and they need to be penalized for violating them.

Tony Fisk said...

In Australia, there is evidence that the 'decade of the patronising bastard' has ended':

"ONE thousand of the nation's "best and brightest brains" will be invited to an "Australia 2020 summit" in a bold attempt to reshape the country's future."

What a good idea! (Well, I think it is. A number of others seem to think he should 'just get on and govern'!)

Will someone pass it on to those expectant folk currently galloping around the US? When they pause for a breather, one of them might find it worth copying. If they ever get the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Anybody else notice this: "NASA to Beam Beatles' 'Across the Universe' Into Space"


The Bush Administration still has one more year to fully screw up our world.

Tony Fisk said...

"Nothing's gonna change my world ...."

It would be a fitting epitaph if October Surprises start getting serious.

Meanwhile, in a far off Oort cloud, antennae twitch.
An intelligence vast and cool contemplates the signal Jai-guru-deva-om

And the berserker hurls an emissary response ahead of itself:

'Wanna bet?'

sociotard said...

For your moment of funny:

Get your new Bush Coins!">

David Brin said...

Yipes! Great satire! Now why couldn't I get ANYONE to do a far simpler chant/satire of Bush-clinton-clinton-bush-bush-clinton-clinton?

Catch this inspiring Obama video:

Anonymous said...

You need a coin with Bush on one side and Clinton on the other.

Anonymous said...

(Zorgon the Malevolent, logon klaatu barada nicto)

From the blog of hard-core conservative John Cole:

"...More appalling police abuses for the law and order tase at will crowd to excuse.

"It will be fun reading all of the excuses- “But she gave them her sister’s ID!” and “They have to keep people naked in jail so they cant hurt themselves!” and “They were just following procedures- you don’t know how tough it is to be a cop!”

"Things are out of control when people can do things like this and think they are doing “the right thing.” Check their faces- an odd sort of professionalism, going through the motions pinning this defenseless woman to the ground and essentially raping her, and no one stops to think it is inappropriate for men to be in the room (not to mention against clear procedures). No one asks “why are we doing this?” No one asks “Why is this woman here” (she was the one who called for help- I bet she will not make that mistake again). No one asks why she needed to sit for hours naked, humiliated, hysterical, and alone in a cell for anyone to walk by and gawk at her in a completely vulnerable state. No one thought to give her a blanket or talk to her as she was covering herself in toilet paper to keep warm.

"What is wrong with our system? What is wrong with the police that it is not a radical belief for me to think “I should probably cross the street, there is a cop walking down this side.”

"Things have got to change. The police have a bad rep, and every day, they go out and earn that bad rep."