Saturday, December 29, 2007

Rap Music I Can Stand

Caught a few minutes of "8-mile" and remembered why i hate almost all rap- except for these- the only 5 good rap songs ever made/written ... i include 'Wham Rap' in this list as it was the 1st rap song i ever heard.. even though it is terrible.

Cephalopods : The Nautilus

Don't ask me why but for some reason i have become obsessed by cephalopods. I have a small Ammonite fossil given to me as a present by my dad when i was 12 ... to the uninitiated it looks like a few snail shells embedded in grey rock. Ammonites went extinct along with the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago but their relative- the Nautilus- survives as a "living fossil" - apparently unchanged in form. It only needs to eat a meal every few weeks- perhaps this explains it's success.

Essentially it is a cuttlefish stuck in a shell. The shells have a regular, mathematical beauty ... but the squid-bit is pretty ugly. Unlike it's relatives the Octopus and the Cuttlefish - it's eye is rather simple - 'pinhole' in nature and without a lens.

What an otherworldly thing it is ... but look at the anatomy- it's got a heart, a kidney a mouth and an anus just like ours. When the real Aliens come they are going to make this thing look like a close cousin.

Tom Waits

I love Tom Waits. First thing i heard was a track from "Bone Machine"... unlike anything i had ever heard before- it's the only CD i ever bought twice! (lost it once). I then bought a few of his earlier albums- "Blue Valentines". The stuff over the last 5 years has been horrible carnival music.. but i love the new stuff... esp "Make it Rain" from the album "real Gone" (2004) .... esp the lyrics.

Make it Rain

She took all my money
and my best friend
You know the story
Here it comes again
I have no pride
I have no shame
You gotta make it rain
Make it rain!

Since you're gone
deep inside it hurts
I'm just another sad guest
on this dark earth

I want to believe
in the mercy of the world again
Make it rain, make it rain!

The nite's too quiet
Stretched out alone
I need the whip of thunder
and the wind's dark moan

I’m not Able, I'm just Cain
Open up the heavens
Make it rain!

I’m close to heaven
Crushed at the gate
They sharpen their knives
on my mistakes

What she done, you can't give it a name
You gotta make it rain
Make it rain, yeah!

Without her love
Withour your kiss
Hell can’t burn me
more than this
I’m burning up all this pain
Put out the fire
Make it rain!

I’m born to trouble
I’m born to fate
Inside a promise
I can’t escape
It’s the same old world
But nothing looks the same
Make it rain!
Make it rain!

Got to make it rain
Make it rain
You got to make it rain
Got to make it rain
You got to...

I stand alone here!
I stand alone here!
Sing it:
Make it rain!
Make it rain!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

More Brain Food:

Think DIY interviews with so not-groovy headsets and you've got blogging heads TV! .. but at least the content is good. Carl Zimmer does a few good ones ... didn't expect those gappy teeth though! Not sure what boring video has on simple podcasts- particularly enhanced ones... oh well. Here is the search page- select your topic of choice.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Whilst browsing through porn -sorry- "Nudes" at my local bookstore (New York girls as you've never seen them before- naked mostly except for one or two glass dildos) - i came across an amazing photographic book called "Creature" by Andrew Zuckerman. I guess the animals were also mostly nude- and also that the girls were also strictly speaking animals (mammals).

I digress- here is the website- my favourite portrait is of the Cougar. Every last hair , every fleck of color in it's green eyes is visible- the online image doesn't do it justice. I hesitated- and didn't buy it. Who buys those big books anyway? Even if you're a photographer (or a zookeeper) really- how many times are you going to get it out? It's not as if you need to be reminded what a turtle looks like. I'd like to get a few posters though ...

Mathemagic : The World is Thinking
If you love Ted Talks- (but the endless BMW ads give you the shits) then is for you. For the uninitiated, it's like YouTube only more thinkerified. So STOP watching those home-made movies of cute kittens !

Global Boiling: Why Worry?

Unlike Prophet Gore, i have little faith in my own species of murderous apes to prevent global warming. We are despairingly short-sighted.

The engine of capitalism has given us so much freedom, but the downside of the greed that is required to grease it's wheels is environmental catastrophe. Science won't save us- and nor will blogging! People just don't believe in science. What's needed is a kooky new reinterpretation of eco-Jesusism.

I had thought that we'd run out of fossil fuels before we could do too much damage- but now it seems there are trillions of barrels worth of methane trapped in ice crystals (methane hydrates or clathrates) at the bottom of the ocean. If the methane escapes- we'll get a runaway greenhouse effect: the so called "Clathrate Gun". If we burn it for fuel, we'll generate so much CO2 we'll probably get the same effect.

So now I think we are essentially flucked. The end is nigh.

I suspect many prominent environmentalists are privately very pessimistic and are in therapy - but paint a brave facade of optimism: "YES-You CAN make a difference!".

There's just not much real point circling with a "We are Doomed!" placard- you might as well go find a nice beach to sit on and read a book and wait for the end to come. I've heard it said that one good thing about global warming (and rising sea levels) is that we'll all own beachfront property one day!

It should really be re-branded as "Global Boiling" - 'warm' makes it sound so nice- you can now grow tomatoes in Finland- so what's wrong with that? Perhaps rebadging it as an "Unavoidable Disasterous Global Dying Event" would help.

No government can think in terms of the "long now"... and i don't know if anybody is taking those crackpots at the "Long Now Foundation" seriously. Don't get me wrong- i love the LNF and those crackpots are my heroes (i even subscribe to their podcasts).

We absolutely must build a clock to last a zillion years - so when the cockroaches evolve to sentience they will know what time it is.

Their roach-o-pologists will probably need to go scuba diving to find our artifacts (rising sea levels again)... perhaps they will think of us as we think of the ancient Egyptians .. until they dig up a few fossilized roach baits .... eh? i wonder what this was used for?

Really, we should get 'over' ourselves- sure we're going to auto-extinctify ourselves and lots of polar bears etc- but there have been many mass extinctions before. The largest one ever occured 251 million years ago and wiped out 96% of all marine life, and 70% of all life on land. Do we weep for those lost trilobites? I doubt it. In any case, when the sun expands at the end of it's life, the earth will be sterilized, shortly before being literally engulfed by it. But don't worry, the ultimate heat-death of the universe is coming.. and nothing will be able to survive that.

Friday, December 21, 2007

It's All in the Mind

“By convention there are sweet and bitter, hot and cold, by convention there is color; but in truth there are atoms and the void”


“I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated”

Galileo Galilei, 1623

“For the rays, to speak properly, are not colored. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this or that color.”

Isaac Newton Optics 1704

Pain? I tell patients just before i stick needles in them: "It's all in the mind!". I chuckle to myself ... it's an "in" joke - but only in for myself.

(I do the same things when i have to examine an anus (rarely) i mutter under my breath an exhalatory whispered "arsehole!" - and i think about my home extension/mortgage - this helps me put up with it. Doctors are human too- we're just trying to get by.)

Anyway- the joke is that EVERYTHING is 'all in the mind'- love, pain, memory, music, art, warmth and color. There really isn't much outside our subjective experience of the universe.

Take color- just varying wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. You get the same thing if you grab a fridge magnet and wave it up and down (you just get VERY low frequency light). Newton hit upon this idea after squishing his eyeballs and sticking pins in his eyes to fire up his retinae - producing colored scintillations.

The separate 'colors' we see as distinct- but they probably are more like shades of gray in reality! We see green-ness as qualitatively different to redness- but really, there is only a quantitative difference in the wavelengths. Also interesting is why we percieve a 'color wheel' to make sense- in other words- why should red be able to merge seamlessly with blue (through purple)? .. when these are like black and white- at opposite ends of the wavelength spectrum.

Below the wavelength of red is (obviously) infrared... but what is not so obvious is why we perceive this as radiant heat, rather than a new color. The retina gives up and the sense organs in the skin take over. Without humans (or other living things) to feel the 'warmth' from the sun- this would just be yet another short segment of EM radiation.

Red objects aren't really "red". Red objects simply hold on to all colors except red, which they reflect. I wonder, given the vogue for black roof tiles- could there be a specific "black" color that absorbs all visible light, but reflects the infra-red... i.e. a "cool black"? Would save lots of money on air-conditioning. Maybe if you could spray whatever metallic film they put in "low-e" window glass on top? Maybe glossy black roofs are better than matt ones?

... After an exhaustive googling: found this BASF low-e paint- you could paint the interior of your house and stay warm in winter!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When the Robots Take Over They Will Kill Us.

This video (from New Zealand digi-folk duo 'Flight of the Conchords') depicts life post Kurzweilian 'Singularity'- the humans are dead, robots rule the world. There are also no elephants it is true- but then again, there is also no cruelty to elephants. Ha! Similar arguments can be made about vegetarianism and the proposed extinction of domesticated animals- (see Peter Singer: Animal Liberation). Is it better to have lived and suffered, than to never have lived at all? I digress.

Ray Kurweil is an amazing guy- though not quite as amazing as he thinks he is. He thinks that by swallowing 45 dietary supplements a day he has warded off diabetes. Ray thinks he's discovered the fountain of youth. He needs it - because he wants to live forever- because he doesn't want to leave the world without our Ray.

He's written several books- interesting ones- but ones that contain an enormous amout of stuffing. His basic premise is that once computers (artificial intelligence) can self-replicate, an incredible positive feedback loop will begin that rapidly will allow AI's to outsmart humans. This he calls the 'singularity'.

I guess "We'll make great pets". As 'Porno for Pyro's' asked :"Will there be another race to come along and take over for us?". Although i think they were thinking about Martians.

"Who knows- maybe the robots will have to get rid of us for our own utilitarian good... wait didn't i see all this in Battlestar Galactica? If the robots look like fembot Tricia Helfer, sign me up for a brain upload.

Today i read an article about Alex Lemaire- an amazing human 'computer'- able to perform incredible mental arithmetic (or is it algebra)- getting the 13th root (i hesitate to make a cheap joke about my 13th root).

He has one of those rare savant minds that can visualize numbers... they have an intrinsic 'meaning' to him- as different to each other as blue is to red for us. No effort is required to process this information- it just 'is'. I have heard a description of this type of calculation (by someone who does it) as akin to flying over a landscape of numbers- when you 'arrive' at your destination, you simply look around and 'read' the scenery. People who can do this are often as mystified as anybody else as to the underlying mechanism/process (although perhaps not entirely in this case).

Interestingly, Alex is completing his PhD in Artifical Intelligence- but says what he does is "AI in reverse".

In other words, he 'programs' his brain to perform certain algorithms and act like a digital computer.

At the moment he's only able to do this with certain mathematical stuff- but he hopes to be able to find a way of 'programming' his brain to be a 'general purpose' computer.

Once he can do this, he'll be able to simulate his entire consciousness INSIDE his own brain! He will have meta-consciousness, although the 2nd level one might be thinking at a slower speed. Where will it end? An infinite regress of meta-meta-meta consciousnesses-esses-esses? Here are his phone numbers- you can ask him yourself- but you'll need to speak French: téléphone: mobile +33(0)628195447 +33(0)326780835.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Douglas Hofstadter: I am a Strange Loop

Mobius Strip II, 1963
Douglas Hofstadter has a new book- hooray! Knowing Doug the title is almost certainly an anagram (? "A Magnolia Poster" - click here for all the others).

Mr Hofstadter nearly derailed my medical studies into cognitive science. I read "Godel Escher and Bach" about 15 years ago - VERY slowly and with a dictionary. I confess i only understood about 60% of it- but some of the stuff i still think about- particularly his dialogues: "Ant Fugue", and one on AI- "Who Pushes Who Around the Careenium?".

I went on to struggle through Metamagical Themas - and actually did find this more accessible. When i found out he took over his Scientific American column from Martin Gardner i bought all his books too- including "The Ambidextrous Universe" and "The Why's of a Philosophical Scrivener".

A year or two later i stole my friend's copy of "The Minds I" ... thereby also discovering Rene Magritte who also popped up on the cover of a strange book called "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat". I bought this one because of the Magritte pipe painting- and discovered the incredible Oliver Sacks. He nearly diverted my career into Neurology - but didn't - since most of the neurologists i met and worked with were complete dickheads.

I probably should have been out screwing girls rather than reading all this stuff- but luckily for me they weren't interested.

Great Christmas Present Idea Ree

ISBN: 9781921259883 - History's Greatest Hits

This book (available from all good bookstores including Planet) would make a tremendous addition to any thinking man's home library.

I'm Dishillusioned!
Dishillusion: (n) the false belief that you have finished washing the dishes - when in fact you have left a few bits of dirty crockery and cutlery on the dining table. (see also Dishappointed).

... just in case you had any qualms about our level of household hygeine- let me reassure you.. the plates here are so clean you could almost eat off them.

Wooly Jumper

Ok i know this is probably a terrible film- but it does look cool. It reminds me of The Tomorrow People's "jaunting" (teleportation). I was mesmerized by this very poorly produced BBC TV show in the early 80's. Psychotic children hearing voices were just telepathic Tomorrow Youth picking up stray transmissions from other Tomorrow People. I wanted to be one but nothing ever 'telekinesed' for me despite hours of furrowed brow concenrtation.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Nautical Casimir : A Mysterious Vacuum Attraction Explained

If you put 2 thin plates very close together in a vacuum, they are attracted to each other- this is known as the Casimir effect. The odd thing is- this attraction is not due to gravity (which is much much weaker) or electrostatic charge. This attractive force seems to come for free - out of nowhere! Creepy.

I've been fascinated by this since i first heard about it a few years ago- but have never been able to understand the mechanism behind it. What i needed was an anaolgy nearly totally devoid of physics- and now i've found part of a really interesting lecture on "nothingness" by Dr John Barrow- i.e. the history of zero, vacuums etc.

Here is the best bit:

"I discovered a few years ago a wonderful nautical version of this (Casimir) force. Back in the 1820s, the French Navy produced a handbook of advice to their sailors, and one of the pieces of advice to captains is rather extraordinary. There’s no reason for the advice, it’s just based on experience, and the experience was that if you had two large ships and you were sailing in a strong swell but there were not high winds, then if the boats were to come quite close together, 30 or 40 yards close to one another, then the captain should set down small boats full of 20 or 30 men, and they whould attach lines and pull the boats apart, because experience showed that once the boats which were gently swaying together got closer than about 30 or 40 yards, they would be pulled together and their riggings would become entwined and there would be disaster. If you calculate this, you find that it’s exactly the same effect in the large, that you get an out of phase generation of waves between the boats, so the crests of one wave match the troughs of the other, so it’s in effect there is no wave motion between the two boats, but the waves coming in and rebounding off the outside push the boats together. Mathematically, it’s exactly the same type of effect, but not with quantum waves, just with classical waves. In fact, a little mathematics shows you, if you have two ships that weigh about 700 tons or so, then a couple of small boats with 20 or 30 men will be able to overcome the force that pulls them together, so it’s a nautical Casimir effect.".

So... Could this vacuum energy from empty space power a perpetual motion machine and solve the worlds energy and climate crises forever? No. Just like a brick falling to Earth gravitationally- you'd have to keep pulling the two Casimir plates apart again and again- and each time you did so, you'd use up just the same amount of energy created in the first place.

Dr Barrow's other lectures look equally interesting- here's a list of 'em.

Malaria was a Plant

When you look at an elephant and a banana side by side, it's obvious that one is an animal, and one is a plant- and you're unlikely to be able to kill the elephant with a schpritz of "roundup".

When you look at unicellular organisms however, it's hard to tell. Presumably, if there are chloroplasts present - it's a plant. If not, it's an animal.

Chloroplasts started off life as free living cyanobacteria-like bugs. In a warm tidal pool a few billion years ago, one was gobbled up by a host "plant" cell. These chloroplasts were not digested, but continued live and reproduce inside the original cell- forming the first eukaryotic algae.

As it happens, the bug that causes Malaria -Plasmodium- contains a broken down old chloroplast (an Apicoplast) that doesn't do any photosynthesizing. (Not much sunlight inside a mosquito or a human red blood corpuscle).

The Apicoplast is however, needed for the parasite to invade new cells. Even more fascinating- common herbicides that are generally pretty non-toxic to humans seem to stop the Apicoplast from working.

Given that Malaria kills a few million African kids per year- a little bit of herbicide might do a lot of good.

The Self-Righteous "Gomboc"

This is pretty cool- a mathematically designed object that always rights itself- click to see video. I'm pretty certain i don't understand the maths behind it- but i still want one for christmas. (NY Times article here.). Apparently the universe (via natural selection on planet earth) has been computing this problem too and had already presented the answer in the form of a turtle.

p.s. I emailed Gabor from the "Gomboc Factory". He tells me pricing at present is 900 Euro (!)- due to the 0.01mm precision required to make it work properly- and the high cost of unionised elvish labour. Oh well- no Gomboc for Christmas.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Lettuce Hating Devil Worshippers
I'm a big fan of "Flying Spaghetti Monsterism"- hallelujah! i have been touched by the "noodly appendage"!

This spoof (?) religion that aims to jam the religious right's "intelligent design" argument with a "teach the controversy" idea of it's very own. Central tenets of this so-called "Pastafarian" religion are:

a) heaven contains beer volcanos and stripper factories
b) something to do with midgets
c) the decline in piracy (of the old fashioned type) has caused global warming.

Anyway- whilst listening to the fantastically excellent podcast of Stanford's "Geography of World Cultures" i learned of an even funnier religion. An ancient middle eastern religion (Yazidi or Yezidi) consisting of lettuce hating devil worshippers. This sounded to me like a South Park gag- but turns out it's true- if you can believe Wikipedia. As there is only an oral tradition- nobody can quite remember the exact reason why lettuce is forbidden. This farcical state of affairs underscores the need to chisel things on tablets now and then.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007