Thursday, July 30, 2009

This just in! Sperm gets retracted! Er, I mean, a paper on sperm creation gets retracted...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Today's Science Headline Standouts

Progress in the hunt for dark matter.

A tree in New Zealand still harboring genes it really hasn't needed ... for 500 years.

A look at a new approach to do-it-yourself microevolution.
I grow increasingly worried about Scott Carson. Facebook is sucking him away from his blog and, as a result, I have no direct way to link to various gems of his, such as this one:
Like a stopped clock that's right twice a day, Nietzsche hit the nail on the head in Beyond Good and Evil when he wrote "It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world...and not a world-explanation." The word "physics" here may stand for any of the empirical sciences, including psychiatry.
Come back, Scott! Before it's too late....

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Possibility of Impossible Cultures
Imagine Finnegan's Wake written in an impossible language. I imagine many people who've tried to read it have already concluded that it was written in an impossible language. But in fact what makes the book so nerve-wracking is that it was written in syntactically recognizable English, but with a slew of invented names, places and verbs occupying the place of more familiar subjects, predicates and adjectives, and no punctuation anywhere in sight.

No, what I mean is: imagine a language that, for example, mandates placing a particular word in a fixed position in the sentence, no matter when it is used. Or a language in which a statement of fact can be converted into a question by reversing the order of the words. (What kind of logic would follow from such a language?)

Marc Hauser, professor in the Departments of Psychology, Human Evolutionary Biology and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard has a fascinating article (registration required) in the July 9th issue of Nature on the contraints placed on human cultural evolution. Or rather the possibility of getting around what have been observed to be the constraints on cultural evolution.

The article is detailed and I don't want to just cut and paste chunks of it here. But I do want to look briefly at Hauser's discussion of the sharp differences between animals and humans when it comes to various reflections of intelligence, and how it has been assumed that these differences between animals and our own species amount to a matter of degree, and not kind. Brain science has a lot to say about this.

The simple use of tools, for example, was long considered a significant distinction between us and other animals, until research of primates and other species showed that chimpanzees make use of natural items, like branches, for use as tools, as do some species of birds. But making use of tools for one thing, and making use of them for several different something else.
Although anthropologists disagree about the timing of the human cultural revolution... many researchers point to fundamental changes starting some 800,000 years ago in the Early Palaeolithic, with a crescendo of change at around 45,000–40,000 years ago in the Late Palaeolithic. This period is associated with the generation of symbols (mathematical, artistic and ritualistic), controlled fire for use in cooking and other forms of environmental transformation, and tools with multiple components and functions (for example, tools used for expressing both aggression and music). Given that this interval of several thousand years is barely noticeable on an evolutionary timescale, and that such cultural expressions emerged rapidly, the parallel with the Cambrian is striking: that is, something similar to a genetic revolution must have occurred during this period, providing humans with an unprecedented set of capacities for generating novel cultural expressions in language, morality, music and technology.
The human brain, Hauser goes on, changed from a system with a high degree of modularity with few interfaces to one with 'numerous promiscuous and combinatorially creative interfaces.' These interfaces are what bestowed on humans a set of abilities to generate novel cultural expressions in language, morality, music and technology.

At this point in the article, Hauser really brings the distinction into a fine relief (to borrow an art term) by pointing out the limits of other animals' intelligence.
Although many vertebrates have evolved brains with reciprocal connections or loops between different cortical areas (for example, basal ganglia to the cortex and back), these loops are restricted to particular functions....At the most general level, it is clear that the motor systems of all animals must involve recursive operations to allow organisms to take a discrete set of motor options and generate a vast range of functionally meaningful motor acts or sequences in novel environments. For example, whether an organism flies or runs, its legs must repeatedly lift and fall or its wings must repeatedly beat. However, because an organism's habitat and climate is constantly changing, the iterative or recursive rule of cycling through leg lifts or beating the wings must be flexible so that the animal's response can vary in response to environmental change.

That said, the recursive properties of the motor system seem to be locked into motor function in all animals but humans. For example, in striking contrast to the recursive operations in human language, with its unrestricted use of different content or classes of words, the looping circuitry that is necessary for song acquisition in songbirds only supports singing and, in some cases, mimicry of other biological and non-biological sounds. This circuitry is not, however, used when they acquire the calls that constitute their repertoire more generally, including the sounds used in social interactions, food discovery and alarm calls.

Another example of generative computation comes from the domain of artefacts, in particular the creation and diversity of human tools. Unlike many of our simplest tools, such as the pencil, animal tools consist of a single material, never include more than one functional component, are typically dispensed after their first use and are never used for functions other than the original one. The first two features reveal that, unlike human tools, the representation of animal tools is not combinatorial. A pencil can combine four materials (graphite, wood, metal and rubber) to create four functions (graphite for writing, wood for holding the graphite, metal for attaching the rubber to the wood, and rubber for erasing). Moreover, each material can be used for a variety of other functions: for example, rubber can be a component of chewing gum. As experiments reveal, if a young child is asked what she can do with a pencil other than write, she will immediately offer such functions as holding up her hair, puncturing a plastic cover and poking a friend...Only humans think of artefacts as being designed for a particular function but, as a result of promiscuous interfaces, entertain many other possible functions. [emphasis mine]

I realize this may not be news exactly, but I like how Hauser has drawn such careful attention to these distinctions, which I think do tend to be overlooked in general science writing on evolution. It isn't just a matter of degree.

His article goes on to discuss what kinds of research might more clearly map out, for lack of a better term, the blind spots in human cultural evolution, what kinds of cultural expressions have not become evident either because they are impossible for us to evolve, given the constraints on our evolution, or because they would be so complicated as to not survive and take root.
It's not just about the Science

Astrophysicist Giovanni Bignami reflects on the importance of thinking big for the benefit of science's future in space.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it was à la mode in Europe to join US scientists in shouting that the planned station was robbing us of precious space science. I joined in wholeheartedly — but in the late 1980s began to have doubts. My misgivings were triggered by the advice of a learned friend, whom I won't name in deference to his modesty.

This man was my mentor when I started working as an adviser for the European Space Agency in 1984. He instilled in me the idea that governments — of all stripes — will never part with the huge sums space demands for just 'doing science'. He helped me grasp that the funding of space science, such as the building of satellites for astronomy, happens because projects such as the station and its astronauts are easy for politicians to understand, and hugely attractive to industry. So if the whole lumbering station-plus-astronauts machine was kept rolling, then space science could ride smoothly on its back, more or less unnoticed. And it did so very well for two decades.

As the millennium turned, I saw that the already ageing International Space Station was not enough. You can't sell the future, especially in a time of crisis, on something that is decades old. You need a new mission to spark enthusiasm — such as sending people to Mars.

Which brings us to today. The Alpini captain was right: it is just ordinary people doing science that drive progress. Occhialini was wrong to pit science against astronauts. Forty years after the first Moon landing, it is clear that only a great new programme of space exploration, robotic and manned, will carry us forwards. It is the only way to keep improving on the beautiful technologies we've swiftly turned into services, from telecommunications to Global Positioning System navigation satellites.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Do it, ass%$le!"

Outstandng SNL spoof of mucho annoying kids cartoon Dora the Explorer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Houghton Fills a Gap

According to the latest Publishers Lunch:
In what many may view as a sign of at least temporary stability for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's adult trade lines, the unit has filled the vacant position of publisher. (Adult trade publisher Becky Saletan resigned last December and was not replaced.)

Bruce Nichols--who saw his position as publisher of the Collins imprint diminished in the reorganization at HarperCollins in February that left him as publisher of the smaller Collins reference line and executive editor at Harper--will take the role as svp, publisher of of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Adult & Reference Group on August 3.

HMH trade & reference president Gary Gentel says, "Nichols is widely recognized in the industry for his leadership, innovation and keen editorial judgment, and his ability to find topics and writers that attract national attention. We want to build on our legacy, but also look to the future, and I'm thrilled to have Bruce guide our Adult and Reference programs." And he adds, "In a happy historical coincidence, it turns out Bruce's grandfather, Stephen W. Grant, spent his entire career at Houghton Mifflin, from 1931-1973, serving as the company's president from 1963 - 1973."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Over at Streaming Media, Dan Rayburn is excited about Sorenson's new Sorenson 360 video platform.
After being hands on with the offering for the past three months, I've come to the conclusion that it's one of the most well thought out platforms on the market for small and medium sized customers.

While the company markets their new service as a "Video Delivery Network", the new SaaS based offering is really a video platform that has been built specifically for those who may not need all the bells and whistles of more complex platforms like Brightcove or Ooyala. Sorenson's new 360 system was designed for the needs of small and medium sized businesses and bundles in transcoding, storage, management, player design, delivery and analytics all in one easy to use system, all hosted by Sorenson.

While I've personally used a lot of video platforms myself, many of them are designed for content owners who have a lot of complex needs or are trying to monetize their content. As a result, many platforms have all sorts of functionality for ad insertion and monezitation which makes the platforms quite difficult to learn and use. While there's nothing wrong with these systems and are valuable for content owners who need that functionality, there's also another large segment of the market who simply needs to get their content online quickly and easily without all the bells and whistles. That said, I found the Sorenson 360 platform to be not only easy to use, but also rich in functionality.

I just upgraded to Squeeze 5.1 which includes an invitation to try out 360. Going to have to check it out....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It looks like a big Fall for the publishing industry (at least in fiction) in spite of the economy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Humor Dept.

The Progression of 'New' Atheism:

1. Jason Rosenhouse: It's all "a glorious accident."

2. PZ Myers: "Life is what you make of it..."

3. Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless..."

4. Barefoot Bum: "'s all useless bullshit."

Guess which of these gents is the most objective and rational.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Morale is still low in the publishing industry, according to Publisher's Weekly:
While there are many statistics to chose from, three stand out as a testament to the issues confronting industry members.

As the chart shows, 35% of workers did not receive any raise last year, while another 21% received a raise of less than 3%. That combination was a major factor in limiting the average raise in 2008 to just 3.3%, the lowest in more than five years. The percentage of industry members who didn’t receive a raise in 2008 seems likely to increase in 2009 as 70% of respondents to the survey—e-mailed this spring—reported that their company had instituted a salary freeze, with 63% saying there was also a hiring freeze. Sixty-one percent of industry members said their companies have had layoffs. Only 10% of publishers had not taken any action to control personnel costs in the 18-month period. Given the drumbeat of bad news, it is not surprising that publishing employees have never felt less secure about their jobs. Only 13% of workers say they feel very secure in their jobs, an all-time low, while 11% feel very insecure, an all-time high. Editorial employees had the highest rate of insecurity, with 38% saying they are worried about their jobs.

Excellent interview with Terry Eagleton.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Michael Reiss, Anglican priest and scientist (the latter first, it should be added), discusses how he was booted from the Royal Society for not being sufficiently dogmatic about creationists.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Amy Welborn has been blogging from Sicily these past few weeks. Check out her entries for great pictures and insights.

Monday, July 06, 2009

St. Patrick's First Church

This is a just a quick view of what we saw on Inchagoill Island in the middle of Lough Corrib. Flirting with the usual cliches to say so, nevertheless, standing on the very ground where over 1,500 years ago St. Patrick built his first church and laid the grave marker of his trusty oarsman does put things in perspective.

Especially when one considers that so long ago, Christianity was already centuries old....

Saturday, July 04, 2009

John Scalzi, articulating what many writers have been thinking for years now: how utterly pathetic is it that the three major science fiction magazines, Asimov's, Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction, still don't accept electronic submissions.
HT: Chad Orzel.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Pat Buchanan, still giving ammunition to his opponents.
The inimitable Thony C. (who has been an invaluable resource for this writer on more than one occasion) has started his own blog. (The words 'finally' having been exhaled from more than one blog quarter.)

Check him out when you get a chance.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Ireland in June

County Clare. Dromoland Castle dates back to Brian Boru in the late 16th century. Not far from Shannon Airport and a convenient spot from which to launch day trips to visit the relatives....

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Well, you know you're in the country in Ireland, when your relatives live on roads with no names like this.

(Bag End)

Glanworth is near Fermoy. One road through the town with a convenience store named O'Flynn's.

Memo to famous science fiction author: we may be related.