Friday, November 30, 2007

Flight of the Conchords

These guys (Brett and Jemaine- think Hall & Oats) are unbelieveably hysterical! 2 New Zealanders that now have their own TV show - set in new York- about 2 struggling Kiwi musicians! Find out why they call them "business socks", and why love is like a roll of tape: "put the pencil in the paper give the paper to the people let the people read about the sellotape!"
My advice- type "Flight of the Conchords" into youtube and watch everything you can find!
Champagne comedy!!!

The New Commandments? Dan Le Sac

Maps of War: The Middle East

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Death of a Language: Why Care?
When your dog dies, you know it's bad without having to be told why. When a language dies (and they die every week) it dies quietly and without a fuss. Why care? It's hard to really know. I think senescent languages should be allowed to die peacefully- just as long as they are not murdered along with their speakers.

Is the 'death' of a language really a 'death' if the dictionary is still there? Perhaps a language is like a crystallised virus- hibernating for thousands of years until the next appropriate 'host' (anthropologist) is found.

Even if the language itself can never be resuscitated- it can be translated. This is where the comparison with 'biodiversity' fails (despite many comparing language extinction with species extinction). When the information contained in the species known as "leopard" dies out in the next few decades, it cannot simply be re-booted on another animal (yet).

Other arguments seem to stem from a more utilitarian perpective: "If we only knew what (extinct plant) the speakers (of this extinct language) used to treat headaches!"- but is ethnopharmacology really the way "Big Pharma" discovers new drugs? I doubt it.

We can certainly learn more about history /culture if we can understand how languages evolved with their speakers. Dead languages need to be translatable for research purposes- but who cares if there aren't any people speaking "linear B" anymore?

History is written by it's victors- and in their language. In a globalised world- one in which typing on a computer keyboard empowers an alphabetic language- i think English is the best bet. If voice recognition improves, alphabets won't be as important- and Chinese may dominate. Either way, probably about 97% of all languages will die. Overall, i think this will be a good thing.

A common language doesn't mean an end to war- but i think mutual understanding is a necessary precondition for peace. Once linguistic unification is achieved, we'll be able to build " Tower of Babel II".

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Imp of the Perverse: Self-Mutilation and the Lesch Nyhan Syndrome

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When I was a medical student and working at the local pediatric hospital i met a young boy with a terrible condition. I was hovering at the back of the large team on the morning ward round- and wasn't paying much attention until one of my colleagues whispered to me conspiratorially : "Last week he chewed a bit of his tongue off and spat it at the nurse.".

Needless to say this comment suddenly piqued my interest in the "case". It turned out that the child had a condition known as Lesch Nyhan syndrome. This is known as an 'inborn error of metabolism' - a term that does no justice to the horror of being afflicted.

I had always thought that the self mutilation was due to a combination of sensory deficit and mental retardation- but it is much more horrible even than that. There is a great article from earlier this year from the New Yorker about the condition- and it turns out that some sufferers can have normal intelligence and can describe the horrible compulsion they have to gnaw their own body parts- they can completely chew off their lips, tongue, fingers. They have been known to enucleate their own eyes.

These seem to be true 'compulsions'- ego-dystonic, irresistible mutilatory urges. Who could think of a more horrible state?- like living in a nightmare or horror film.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

iTunes University Podcasts

I have recently (re) discovered the iTunes University. This consists of podcast lecture series available for free download from the iTunes store. Many of these are 'enhanced'- meaning they come with a slideshow. This is useful, but watching on a last-gen ipod is almost impossible- unless you have a magnifier handy. (It's a lot easier to read them thru iTunes on the lap/desktop). The other problem with the 'enhancement' is that there is no way to see where the lecturer's laser pointer is pointing.

Content-wise, most of these far outshine the average radio episode podcast- although they are a lot less polished. Speech impediments, overinclusiveness, digressions and bad nerdy jokes are the order of the day. Nothing seems to be edited at all.

Favourite lecture series : (go to iTunes and do a search from there)
1) Geography of World Cultures, by Martin W. Lewis (Stanford).
2) The Ancient Mediterranean World, by Isabel Pafford (Berkeley)

Saturday, November 24, 2007


I wonder if the myth could possibly be true- most children reared by animals have great difficulty learning language, walking upright and integrating in any way back into society- much less founding one of the world's greatest civilizations.

Oliver Sacks has written about such children. Most seem to have been reared by dogs, although monkeys come a close second. Sacks talks about a particular "wolf-boy" who was able to learn a language fluently and then describe what it was like to be "pre-linguistic"... there was no such thing as "A Tree", only "The Tree". It is interesting that the capacity for logical thought appears to require the presence of language- of some sort (he includes sign language and algebra).

There is a story attributed to an ancient Egyptian pharoah who decided to find out what the original human language was by raising a few children in complete isolation from birth. It turns out they don't say very much. Unfortunately, these results were not published in the Journal of Negative Results- and the experiment had to be repeated in 1211 AD by a German Emperor. This is analogous to my idea of rearing 2 children in (separated) isolation for 38 years. Following this, they are shown both a Porsche and a Hyundai and asked to say which they feel is the sexier car.

Pork Chop or Pet? Our Animal Ambivalence.

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I have just finished reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivores Dilemma" ... and i agree (and have always felt) that it's fascinating how we draw a line around some animals as if to say "You are a pet, and we will not eat you."

He points out that most pigs are probably more intelligent than the average dog- yet we are quite happy to eat them without a second thought. If you're "kosher" i think you're only allowed to eat pork at certain restaurants.

(The Chinese however do have the "Chow Chow" breed - which was bred to actually be "Chow"- although according to wikipedia this is actually not how it got it's (English) name! )

I think that ethically we should separate the killing of animals from the actual eating of meat. I don't actually think there is any good argument not to eat meat per se- but unfortunately you usually have to kill animals to get it. As Homer put it "If God wanted us to be vegetarian, why did he make animals out of meat?". (Also in that episode Lisa has a nightmare in which she is chided by a pig: "You don't eat our meat, but you glue with our feet!"). Hopefully we will be able to grow enough twitching clumps of cloned striated cow muscle before long- and then we can all stop feeling guilty.(see In-Vitro Meat). Once this technology matures, we'll able to order up any sort of meat or meat combination- lion, elephant, whale, human. Cannibal-themed restaurants will open- you'll have to be careful if you order a 'Bloody Mary'.

Pollan argues that we should eat meat from animals that have led a 'good life'- doing whatever it is that's in their instinct to do- graze on grass in a field, rather than be stuck in a feedlot prison eating corn and being pumped full of antibiotics. Yes, it's true that without us there wouldn't be domesticated farm animals. Yes, without B12 we die. Yes, it is the "instinct" of a feral human to eat meat..... but even so we should try to be nice to the animals before we put a bolt through their brains and BBQ them.

Perhaps the ultimate extension of this is to re-draw the circle and actually start to eat our pets - obviously only once they have died of natural causes and exhausted either our ability to extend their lives, or our ability to pay the vet fees. Once venous access becomes too difficult for Mr Tibbles' dialysis- then we put her down, and stick her in a stir-fry. (Alternatively, "Roadkill Ragout" would also be an ethical dish.)

This week i also read two articles in the same newspaper that i thought juxtaposed our conflicted feelings towards animals.

In one article, it was reported that neglected aboriginal childeren in northern Australia had been found roaming the desert, suckling on dogs- "The very depths of depravity" i thought. The international news section had an article about the newly discovered monument found in Rome- honouring the site where Romulus built his mud hut. "Cool" i thought- i had no negative emotions thinking about those poor little abandoned fratricidal Italian boys.

Why is the idea of a baby suckling on an animal so disgusting when we are happy to drink milk squeezed from the breast of a cow?

Humans were all originally lactose intolerant (after weaning) however the genes for metabolising lactose into adulthood evolved in us along with our domestication of the cow.

It's fascinating to think of the steps involved: big-brains -> "milking a cow" meme -> cow domestication -> human lactose tolerance (approx 4000BC). Actually, only 30% of the world's population in lactose tolerant- but the process of letting milk rot into cheese breaks up the lactose, making it digestible.

In a sense, the cow has also domesticated us, thereby assuring it's own survival.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Profiting and Pirateering in the era of aXXo

Some months ago, a guy i know gave me a bootlegged copy of the latest "Pirates of the Carribean"- it was blurry, with bad sound and you could see people moving in front of the screen. Luckily, it was such a bad film that it didn't matter. Is it still a crime if you hate the film?

When 'busted' by my spouse (who is a vehement anti-pirate) about the illegalities of bittorent etc i explained that it was OK as the producers of "POTC" were also profiting from piracy. "Think about all those poor people who have been killed by pirates! This film mocks that sad history".

Question: who is aXXo?

Note the the uppercase central X's.. cool. Who is aXXo ? He's a pirate! He's considered by those in the know as one of the most reliable DVD rippers in bittorrentland- but nobody actually knows who he is. (I can reveal he is not me if that helps).

Yes aXXo is a modern-day Robin Hood, a veritable and venerable HERO no less... for doing what exactly? Sticking a DVD into his computer and pushing a button- incredible how little it takes these days to be worshipped.

He usually rips them to fit on a CD (around 700MB) so the quality is OK- though very far short of "hi-def!". Crazy when HD-DVD/Blu-ray is out more and more people are actually watching LOWER definition downloaded stuff , or ultralow stuff from YouTube .. although this will presumably change - e.g. with Vuze setting itself up as a hi-def portal.

There are even meta-pirate aXXo rips- i.e. people who pretend to be aXXo... and now there's a guy riding his coattails called KLAXXON whose name cleverly comes up every time you search for an AXXO.

Apparently aXXo never releases stuff in RAR format. For those who don't know- this is a 'pain in the ass' format where the movie file gets chopped up into 30 little bits, which you then need to reassemble using yet another program before you can watch it.

Other pirate related trivia in this (overinclusive!) post:

1. Who is Bob?
Bob, of the "History according to Bob Podcast" had a great series on pirates through the ages- (i think he's a little obsessed) and there was a particularly fascinating one about female (cross-dressing/bisexual?) pirates including Anne Bonny... (that's one biography that reads like a hollywood script) -but unfortunately only the last 20 or so podcasts are still available. I wonder if i can upload a podcast to the blog?

2. The Explainer
I read a great article earlier this year from Slate (from a great & funny column called "The Explainer!") about the origins of "pirate talk"... turns out the "aaaarrrgh" was invented by an actor (from Dorset) who played "Long John Silver". Other columns include topics such as "Can steroids enlarge your head?", and "How to Fight Monkeys".

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (TDBATB)

I've just recently changed my homepage from igoogle to "mynytimes"... and so have been reading a lot of the New York Times online. You can add/subtract whatever bits of the paper you find interesting/boring- once again ensuring you never have to read news you might get upset by, or opinion you might disagree with. (Part of the reason i cancelled my subscription to The Guardian Weekly International Edition).

Anyway, found a great article about Julian Schabel- artist cum director who has a new film based on "The Diving bell and the Butterfly". I have 2 copies of this slender book- both in hardcover and i haven't read either. It's written by a French magazine editor who suffered a 'locked in' syndrome after a brainstem stroke that rendered him mute and immobile. He was, however able to communicate with the movement of one eye (!) - and dictated his book in this manner.

I have always dreaded being buried alive- waking up face-to-face with the cushiony quilted purple silk lining that i imagine all expensive coffins have. You know- you have to bite the tip of your finger off in order to scrawl the words " i was still ALIVE" on the fabric. Imagine the horror of being confined in your chair on an infinite airline flight in economy class - multipled by a trillion. Imagine being COMPLETELY aware of the pain, and the 'gallows humour' of the ICU team on their rounds. Believe me- i know- i've been on them- working under a 5 foot genius Intensivist with a wit to rival the great S J Perelman.

BP: And how about cardiac? Any arrythmias overnight?
Self: A short run of SVT only-
BP: Short? SHORT? Around here we don't use that word. We say "petite", we say "gamine".. we say "lithe"... but we never say "short".

the whole day went on and on like this..

I have been waiting for the right time to read one of the books-but i've never been so unbelievably happy in my life that no neurological horror story could upset me.

So, when i read this great article from NYTimes about Julian Schnabel (FOOTNOTE: Schnabel? Schnabel! .. how do you do the Blog?Shlog! yiddish put-down when the word already starts with 'sch'?) about his new film TDBATB- i thought maybe i can stand to watch the film instead- in french, with english subtitles! The photo at the top makes it look like "Weekend and Bernies" .. "He's in a locked-in state but he's the life of the party!". But i don't think i will.

Yet, i did manage to read an article about a film about the book(s) so that's something i guess. It was a very well written article- and Julian Schnabel sounds like a fascinating guy- artist, director, millionaire married to a model. What else could you wish for? Except that his art is crap.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Evolving Computers

I read this article (from the Economist of all places!) a few years ago. It describes some 'turn of the century' stuff about using 'genetic algorithms' to allow computers to evolve their own solutions to problems presented to them. The program that does the job effectively gets to live and mate with other similar bits of code. In this case, the hardware was also programmable.

The article requires login, but i did find a copy of it here.

This is the best bit from it:

Dr Thompson performed a seminal "proof of principle" experiment which described the evolution in hardware of a simple analogue circuit that could discriminate between two different audio tones.

The type of chip that Dr Thompson selected to carry out the evolution was a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). Unlike an ordinary chip, an FPGA's architecture is not "hardwired". Instead of being fixed, a string of bits specifies the chip's design by telling it what linkages to forge between its various components (in this case, groups of transistors known as logic cells). By changing this bit string, the FPGA's circuitry can be altered on the fly. Thus, when a genetic algorithm runs on the chip, the effectiveness of each configuration can be measured directly on the circuit rather than in some costly simulation.

As it turned out, conducting the evolution in hardware produced some results that could not have emerged through mere simulation. After around 4,000 generations of bit strings, a unique circuit emerged. The surprising thing was that, while the new circuit relied directly on only a few of the FPGA's logic cells, it appeared somehow to take advantage of clusters of other cells nearby. These unconnected neighbouring cells could not be removed without damaging the circuit's performance. Further investigations revealed that these detached cells exerted some subtle electromagnetic influence on the wired-up part of the circuit, allowing it to perform its task efficiently.

Remarkably, the circuit had adapted itself in a way that allowed it to exploit the underlying physics of the FPGA's semiconductor material. And it had done this despite the fact that the human experimenters were completely unaware of the physical quirks in the semiconductor that the genetic algorithm was taking advantage of.

Four years on, this bizarre circuit has still not been completely
deciphered. What has become clear, however, is that EHW's ability to adapt automatically means that it can exploit the physics of materials in ways that researchers do not even consider, let alone

The Secret of Happiness

I have always maintained that the "secret" of happiness is to accomplish a series of very difficult (but achievable) goals. Not that i am a particularly happy/unhappy person.

Winning a zillion in a lottery would (i assume) make you less happy than building a zillion dollar empire from the 'ground up'.

Reading of Schopenhauer (aka "The Buddah of Frankfurt") paraphrasing Buddah, i am told this is actually the recipe for UNHAPPINESS! Apparently, true happiness occurs when you stop wanting anything- (even happiness?).

Unfortunately, our capitalist society (imperfect as it may be) relies upon individual greed. One needs to want in order to get out of bed in the morning, work like a dog, pay taxes, buy a plasma screen- at least until we achieve retirement nirvana.

Advertising reminds us of the things we forgot we wanted. The thing that emerges from this greed is a secular, modern, capitalist state- like a beautifully fragrant flower growing out from a cow-pat.

Communism seemed to rely on the miscalculation that it's citizens (victims) were instrinsically altruistic. It's interesting to note that such lofty axioms resulted in a police state!

Here comes a politically incorrect bit. Many indigenous Australians live in remote communities. Too often, they live a life of deprivation- with squalor, violence, child abuse, alcoholism and high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, chronic unemployment and welfare dependence-and with life expectancies equivalent to the worst parts of the developing world.

They live in a bizarro parallel world to our own. They do not get up at 6am to go to work to save up for the big family ski trip to Aspen, or the new boat or beachouse, or the next investment property. They have been 'opted out'... but they have not achieved Nirvana. My solution: more advertising.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Consciousness and The Chinese Box

"Searle's Chinese Box" is a "thought experiment" designed to demonstrate how 'computers' (or computer programs) could never actually be anything more than 'fake' intelligences.

In other words, although you might be able (say in a thousand years time) to program a supercomputer to converse in spoken chinese with you- and carry on a perfectly good conversation about the weather etc etc- it would, nevertheless, not really "understand" chinese like a person would. It would just be manipulating symbols backwards and forwards.

In the Chinese Box (or Room), Searle (who cannot read or write or understand chinese) imprisons himself in a closed room with only 2 mail slots open to to the outside- input, and output. Through the input slot, chinese people write their questions in chinese characters on bits of paper.

Searle has in his posession a huge instruction book (maybe trillions of pages long) that tells him how to manipulate the symbols- based on the input scrawls that he has received. After processing for however long it takes (lets say billions of years), he finally scribbles things down on another bit of paper, and pushes it out thorough the "output" slot. Viola!- the chinese room understands chinese. Searle is the hardware, and the book is the software.

Searles argument is that nothing really understands anything. Certainly Searle himself does not understand Chinese - he's just 'pushing symbols around' after all. The big instruction book just sits there- surely it doesn't 'understand' much- and there isn't much else left in the room.

In the annals of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Searle's position has been humorously described as "Zen Holism"- the idea that human consciousness is something a computer program could never get.

There's a great article here about opposing arguments of "Zen Holism" vs "High Church Computationalism" (!).

I'm a High Church Computationalist- i agree Searle's 'chinese box' is conscious (or at least understands Chinese) when considered in it's entirety- despite Searle himself just pushing bits of paper around inside.

In this sense, he acts as if he were an unconscious group of neurons - just doing it's duty and not itself being aware of the big Chinese picture. I also like the idea of this form of consciousness as being 'slowed down' by a factor of billions- the change in time scale makes things look strange and "unconscious".

What would an overclocked alien consciousness running a million times faster than ours look like? God. Come to think of it- the Aliens probably wouldn't post themselves into interstellar space but their own artificial intelligences. The "life" SETI will pick up is likely to be synthetic i think.

Replusive, Grey Fatty Thing

How does the repulsive grey fatty thing in your head give rise to the conscious mind? Is a philosopher more likely to find the answer than a neuroscientist? This is a great podcast from a series called "Philosophy Bites". (Remember "Reality Bites"? -Free Winona Horowitz!)
Nigel Warburton (blog here) has another podcast where he essentially reads chapters from his latest book - an introduction to philosophy. It nearly ALMOST always makes sense- highly recommended.
Once again, i find "thinking about thinking" (meta-thinking) sets off an infinite loop that always ends in a headache. Maybe one day it will end in enlightenment. Is it possible the human mind is so complex that no individual human mind could EVER hope to understand it in it's entirety? I wonder if this could be proven mathematically - or maybe it has already by Godel?
Previous Posts on this stuff: Ask Philosophers, Split-Brainers

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Grass Chair: I'm-a-gettin' me one for Hanukah!

The "Terra Grass Chair"- Ok so it soes seem a little overpriced: 75 pound stirling (can't find it on my keyboard) for interlocking bits of cardboard ... but still.. obviously i'd want 2. I suppose you could plant anything in it- reminds me of Jeff Koons (kitch-porn) "Puppy" which seemed to have a sprig of the 'evil weed' sprouting from it's ear when it was set up in Sydney 10yrs ago.

Death Cab for Cutie

I've just discovered these guys... apparently their name is an obscure 'Beatles' reference. Really love these songs:

I'll Follow You into The Dark: More of a love song than the video gives credit to!

A Lack of Color: starts off with a discussion about retinal image inversion! Sounds a little Elliot Smithy "ahhhhhooohhhhh" in bits. This video by the way is just someones own home production- what you get when you get songs from youtube! i think this makes things even more interesting- often more so than some crappy jiggling home video from a concert with really bad sound. Official Website here.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Things Go Better with Batman: even Russian Literature

This is great! Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" as a Batman comic: full comic here. Read on to discover how a fixed belief in Utilitarianist morality can ruin you life!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Our Closest (Non-Primate) Relative: The Colugo

Although David Attenborough says "We don't know who it's closest relative is" .. we now know that it's him! (our us).

Internet Porn

Wow... what a great set of "stats"... and she's got a nice tush too. Amazing that the internet porn industry is worth close to 3 BILLION dollars! If the internet was a newspaper, the "serious news" would be the same size as one of those little "call me now" porn ads at the back.

Spearmint and Caraway

Years ago i read a book by Martin Gardner called the Ambidextrous Universe. At the time, i was studying organic chemistry in the early years of med school- and trying to learn about "chirality" and stereo-isomers/enantiomers. These are chemicals made of the same 'stuff' but put together in a differrent 3-D way- they resemble each other as a left hand resembles a right hand.

Interestingly, the odour (carvone) of spearmint and that of caraway are related in this way. Other pairings include:

lemon vs orange smell
nasty thalidomide (teratogenic) vs good thalidomide (anti-emetic)

Around the same time i discovered one of my favourite books ever "The 4th Dimesion and How to Get There" by Rudy Rucker. One way to tell if you have been flipped 90 degrees to reality (i.e. through a 4th dimesion) while you were sleeping is to chew your Wrigley's spearmint gum- if it tastes like spicy rye bread then you know. Obviously, there would be other clues- all writing would look reversed. Your heart would still be on your left side- it's just that the rest of the world would disagree with your definition of "left". Given that all your gut enzymes are designed to digest "Left handed" protein, and "Right handed" carbohydrate- you'd probably develop a bad case of malabsorption.

Madeleine Peyroux

I know this is a few years old- but i heard it again recently and remembered how much i loved it.... very 'Lady Day'. Must check out her latest stuff.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Myostatin Man

One of my receptionists at work is dog-crazy and breeds whippets. Recently i came across an amazing photo of a so-called "Bully" Whippet- the Schwarzenegger of Whippets!
This dog is homozygous for a loss-of-function mutation in it's myostatin gene. Heterozygote whippets are faster runners than wild-type.
Belgian Blue cattle have been bred to have a similar genetic mutation. These "double muscled" cows produce 20% more meat but are so bulky they need to be delivered by caesarian!
The absence of myostatin in laboratory mice reduces the severity of obesity and diabetes , as well as helping muscle strength in the mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. (There is currently a trial testing a monoclonal antibody to myostatin in patients who have a form of muscular dystrophy known as fascio-scapulo-humeral dystrophy).
There have been several cases of myostatin mutations in humans including a case report in NEJM in 2004 of a baby boy born with enlarged muscles, and stimulus induced myoclonus (muscle twitching). The latter settled in 2 months, and other than being incredibly strong and 'muscly' is otherwise well with no cardiac dysfunction. Interestingly, his mother was a professional athlete, and his pedigree contains a number of relatives with exceptional strength. I suppose they could buy him a bully whippet for christmas.
I wonder if the presence of a myostatin mutation invalidates the mother's athletic achievements?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sea Lion

Atheist will become A Theist

I am an agnostic- i believe in only the possibility of the existence of god- not a personal god you could pray to, nor the petty historical god. If we could ever prove, however, that some super-advanced culture lit the fuse on the big-bang, or seeded the planet with a bit of RNA then i'd consider myself a 'creationist'.
I doubt we'll ever know- but there is another way. We will know that god exists when we ouselves create life- and then we will be god! Why not? The creation of life is god's fundamental characteristic.
Craig Venter is (as we speak) stitching together half a million base pairs of a stripped-down mycoplasma genome with plans to stick it into an existing mycoplasma 'cell' to create a new bacteria. That's pretty cool- but it wouldn't pass my "god" test. For a start, he's using existing bacterial membrane structures, cytoplasmic enzymes, ribosomes etc. Yes, he's assembling a new genome from scratch but really he's just using it to hijack another bacteria. (New Scientist article)(BBC News article)

Others are actually trying to create self-replicating metabolic cycles in lipid bilayers- i.e. a "bottom-up" approach. There's some REALLY interesting stuff including videos here from a convention called "Synthetic Biology 3.0". (streaming/download and low/high quality video feed). Presumably this stuff will take several centuries before it bears 'fruit'.
I suppose even after a successful godlike creation event, we'd still only have "dumb" slimy life. Hacking biology to create life seems messy and entirely unnecessary. (Does a helicopter look/work like an "artificial bird"?) Anyway, we don't want "life" (though that would be enough to be godlike) - what we really want is synthetic intelligence. Even if this couldn't "self replicate" (in the absence of a human culture to tend to it) it would still probably do for me.
In an ironic twist, we could always programme the artificial intelligence using DNA computing- although as yet this is only powerful enough to code for tic-tac-toe. This way, the DNA could "code" for the mind directly without having to first build a body or brain.

Emergence Again

Further to my original post about emergence...

Here's another good article about emergence by Carl Zimmer- winner of the National Academies 2007 Science Communication Award, and one of my favourite science journalists/authors.

He has a great blog called "the Loom"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Mesopotamians: They Might Be Giants

I haven't heard about these guys since "Dr Worm".. but this is bloody funny. They sound a lot like Cake i think.
There's a very obscure intertextural reference to a bad haircut that makes one of the Mesopotamians look like a "Mohenjo Daran".... this is funny as Mohenjo Daro was one of the city-states of the Indus Valley that independently developed 'civilization'. (From memory the Harappans were another). Got to love that ancient history! -my favourite book is one i bought when i was 21- the "Oxford History of the World". Here's a link to my previous entry on Gilgamesh.

House Plans- click plans to enlarge


Over the last 10-15 years i have become obsessed with architecture/furniture design. I blame the 1994 Ikea Catalogue- (remember the opening of 'Fight Club'?- that's me!) cheap, nasty but with a nordic minimalist streak. Now i'm hooked on the heavy stuff- Le Corbusier lounges, Eames recliners along with newer stuff: USM Haller Systems ($15,000 for a black metal shelf), Minotti sofas etc etc.

Poliform is beautiful stuff. Everything is either stainless steel, black, white or wood. These two photos have inspired our house extension- which hopefully will commence in the next month or two. The 'black' fits well into the existing art deco house.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


The BAFTA Award winning Pocoyo (not to be confused with 'TroTro' the whinging donkey) is one of my favourite shows on TV- and i'm not actually kidding! My 2 year old son loves it too.. we often watch it in the mornings on our little kitchen TV. Unfortunately, another parent (nameless) wiped most of the episodes off the hard drive so the ones that remain are especially priceless. Each episode is a little work of art. There's a fascinating blog by one of the animators- interesting to see how the characters have evolved- particularly Pato, the exploding duck.

Maira Kalman

"I'm trying to figure out two very simple things- how to live, and how to die- period. ...and i'm also trying to have some meals and have some snacks."

Maira Kalman

Amongst other things, Maira is a children's book author- there are now a few of hers on my amazon wish list (for the kids) including "What Pete Ate A-Z".

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Nostalgia - A Pain in the Nost

K34 Bee

When i was about 12, my Dad bought me this book back from one of his travels: "Spacecraft: 2100-2200" - a big picture book full of amazing painting of spaceships... i spent hours looking through it. I gave the book away a few years later but have regretted it ever since. Obviously there are now quite a few online fan sites dedicated to this series! My favourite spaceship was "The Bee".

Current Objects of Lust light, Beolab 8000 loudspeakers, Eames Recliner.


Well, what a fun few days. Just returned from overnight stay in hospital having had my tonsils whipped out along with a bit of my soft palate, a couple of turbinates trimmed and my buckled septum refashioned. Maybe when its all healed my voice will sound like Charlton Heston rather than Woody Allen.

Everyone (including my anaesthetist!) told me how terrible the post-op pain was going to be- but it wasn't THAT bad. Cheers to my ENT -or as 'Dr Nik' refers to himself on the Simpsons -"Doctor of the Head Holes".

I'm having pretty vivid dreams - particularly detailed in a visual sense- probably from the Tramadol- although nothing unfortunately that would inspire great art like a good heroin addiction would (see Heroes).

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Kings of Leon: Bucket

Kings of Leon - The Bucket

Crammed with vocal hooks, simple but compelling guitar lines and a gloriously throbbing wall of sound.

I love KOL .. remember exactly where i was when i 1st heard this song a few years ago ... entire album is incredible... but as always i like their old stuff better than their new stuff.

iMAC: Like a Sexy but Annoying Foreign Girlfriend.

About a year ago i made the switch from PC (Dell) to Mac - and now have matching white laptop and last generation 24" iMAC. I thought it would be like trading a hyundai for a porsche... but more accurately it's like having a really sexy but annoying foreign girlfriend. In the afterglow, little things start to bother you and you begin to wonder how long the relationship will actually last.
Here is but one example. For months, Safari was pissing me off- but i thought i'd stick with it until the frustration of not being able to open web pages got too much. So, i downloaded Firefox, and picked an OSX "skin"... working well.
But... every f$^%ing pdf that i read ended up being downloaded to the desktop. This was despite setting the correct options under Firefox's preferences.
It turns out, i had to open Safari again and set the preferences from there (even though i don't even use Safari now) - so that all this crap now goes to a folder marked "pdf crap- empty folder regularly".
Still.. it is sexy....

Inner Life of a Cell

This incredible animation shows what happens when a leukocyte slows down inside a capillary and gets ready to sqeeze through the lining endothelial cells... bear in mind this sort of thing happens probably billions of times a second when you have a cold! I particularly like the 'walking protein'.

One thing that i've been wondering about for a while about is the fact that proteins are built from 1-dimensional linear chains of amino acids- coded for by linear chains of DNA/RNA. What an inefficient way to make a 3 dimensional structure. It's like having to bend a "chair" out of a single very long length of coat-hanger wire, rather than just banging 4 legs on to a base.

Maybe life began as self-replicating (linear) RNA and the process was adapted to serve the building of "bodies" made of (linear) amino-acid chains.

There MUST be a better nano-construction method- and i'm sure the Aliens will have discovered it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

New Form of Life Discovered: Another Good Reason Not To Have Sex With Animals.

Yes i know that sounds a little hyperbolic but it's TRUE! I'm not sure why everyone isn't as fascinated by this as i am...

Actually this is not exactly a new story. For some time (since 1876) veterinarians have been describing a type of tumor in dogs that occurs in the genital region of dogs. it is known by various monickers including CTVT (Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor), Sticker Tumor, and Infectious Sarcoma.

It has long been thought of as being a sexually transmissible disease- and it is- but with a twist.

Ok- so there is nothing new about sexually transmitted infections, and really nothing new about sexually transmitted viruses that contain ongogenes that cause cancer. Well known examples are genital wart viruses (of certain genotypes) that lead to squammous cell cancers of the cervix, and Hepatitis B virus that can lead to cirrhosis and hepatocellular (liver) cancer. (Three cheers for the Australian scientists who discovered a vaccine to prevent HPV induced cervical cancer).

The amazing thing about this dog venereal tumor is that THERE IS NO VIRUS (or anything else) that causes it. Here comes the amazing part: it is the tumor ITSELF that is infectious!

This is quite bizarre. We all know that "cancer " isn't supposed to be "catching" or contagious.

This condition is more like a parasitic skin graft (allograft) than any previously known infectious disease. Genetic studies have shown that it probably arose a few thousand years ago in a single dog- and has been transmitted through biting and dog sex ever since. It probably began life as a skin tumor that then mutated to somehow avoid being detected by he dog's immune system (perhaps by downregulating expression of MHC surface molecules). In the process, it's ditched a few unwanted chromosomes completely.

So... in summary... this organism is a thousand-year-old bit of dog tumor. Should it be classified as a sub-species of canine? .. or should it be classified next to "Dog" on the evolutionary tree as an infectious unicellular organism?

It turns out that this sort of thing also happens to a certain type of russian hamster- and also may be resposible for a mysterious "Facial Tumor Disease" currently decimating the population of Tasmanian Devils on the Island of Tasmania (off the south-eastern corner of Australia for the eographically challenged). The dog disease, however, rarely metastasizes and only kills puppies (so thats OK).

I wonder if any human diseases will/do/have evolve(d) in this manner. (Sounds like a plot to a B-grade shlock-horror film).

CELL article pdf from last year
Wikipedia here

The Rapping Rabbi: Matisyahu

This guy is a bona-fide Yeshiva boy - and not a bad 'beatboxer'.. but i think the Jamaican accent is probably not authentic! Still, i think he's great!