shoot me now

From Scientific American:

Scientists report that they have developed a robot that can formulate hypotheses, design experiments to test them and analyze the results. What is more, it performs just as well as real grad students and spends less money.

OK, so it’s not as bad as the entry title makes it sound. The real punchline here is not the bit about equalling grad student performance, which a monkey could do if my own grad school work is any indication; nor do I think that automatic methods of generating hypotheses and/or interpreting data have any real future, except in cases so simple that doing it with wetware is trivial anyway. The real kick is the potential for drastic reductions in monkeywork: one of these doohickeys could slave away 24/7 on the boring, repetitive tasks that make up the bulk of labwork. I hate that shit, and can’t wait to dump it on someone (or somebot) else. Another thing about robots: they don’t require initial training, and upgrades are presumably simpler than is the case with their vertebrate competitors; furthermore, a robot will not care if I am disagreeably sharp of temper and tongue1. Given how hard it can be to get good hominid help (just ask my former employers!), I can see a real market for these things.
1 I think of this as the uncharitable interpretation of my reluctance to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise; but then I would, wouldn’t I?

portable music

Terrance shops for an MP3 player so I don’t have to. All in all, I think I agree with his choice, and will opt for the Zen when I get my next spendy toy fix. I take a bus to and from work; there are conversations I don’t need to overhear, and then there are conversations I need to not overhear. Must. Have. Portable. Music.

small world

This is about people I work with. It’s a bit misleading in that the lab I work in (also here) is not actually part of the copper project and has separate funding, but the quote about mutual benefits is true and we do have good collaborations between the two groups. I have to wonder whether Ninian Blackburn (whom I have never met; he works on a different campus) came across as somewhat patronising to the interviewer, given the quote with which the piece ends.

linky linky

Two from jwz:
Soviet exploration of Venus:

The Soviet exploration of Venus, from 1961 to 1984, is the largest effort ever undertaken to study another planet. The fundamentals of interplanetary spacecraft design and remote sensing were first realized in these attempts. Successful missions included 3 atmospheric probes, 10 landings, 4 orbiters, 11 flybys or impacts, and 2 balloon probes of the clouds.

And the best part? Pictures of the planet’s surface!
[Update: it occurred to me that “Venus is pretty hot, isn’t it?”, so I looked it up. Yes, Venus is very hot: almost 500 °C. Not only that, but the surface pressure is 90 atmospheres, and the perpetual clouds are mostly sulphuric acid. The probe Venera-13 survived 127 minutes on the surface in 1982.]
PERV (porcine endogenous retrovirus) can be transmitted to human cells from the pig/human chimeric cells that form in pigs grown from embryos into which human stem cells have been injected. One of the aims of the research is (was) to create tissues that could be used in xenotransplantation. Some researchers would disagree with me:

…the question is how widespread and how many of these hybrid cells were found? If they are very rare – and we haven’t found any in our experiments – then I don’t think it is that important.

but I think this is the end of porcine xenotransplants.

you got any poems on that intarweb doohicky?

Typing “poetry” into a search engine will get you nowhere; or rather, it will get you everywhere, which is no use at all. Every angsty teenager should write poetry, of course, but only in a vanishingly small number of cases should anyone else ever read it. Herewith a short list of readable poetry on the web.
Dead white men; or, “classical” poetry:
Steve Spanoudis’ Poet’s Corner offers 7600 poems by 780 poets indexed by author, title and subject. Biographies of about 30 and photographs of about 120 poets (many of them somewhat obscure) are also available. They accept submissions, if you have a favourite poet you’d like to see included (but beware copyright restrictions!). The daily poetry break features a poem a day from the Poet’s Corner collection, with commentary by Bob Blair. I frequently disagree with Bob’s opinions, but he’s interesting.
Representative Poetry Online includes about 2,900 English poems by over 400 poets. It’s based on a 1912 textbook but includes hundreds of additional poems and poets as well as biographical data, commentaries and other features.
The estimable Project Bartleby offers a wonderful selection of verse anthologies and volumes. Special mention here to the best anthology of English poetry ever made, the 1919 Oxford Book of English Verse. Quoth Q:

My wish is that the reader should in his own pleasure quite forget the editor


“…if you’re going to insist on meaning in life, you’re going to have to choose between intellectual dishonesty and unhappiness.”
Anapestic is the nom de web of a madman with a golden tongue. He has quite a way with words, too. Think of a waspish (not WASP-ish) American P G Wodehouse, and you’re halfway there.

up yours, Peter Jackson

So I finally saw LotR:RotK, and it sucked. Hard. I’m probably too late to do anyone any good with this, but if you haven’t seen it, don’t. Jackson treats the characters and the story without respect, pretty much exactly as I’d expected him to do in the first two movies. I was suprised when he exceeded my expectations with FotR and TTT, but the signs were there in some of the egregious abuses of character and plot, and the third movie makes it abundantly clear that Jackson simply does not understand the nature of Tolkien’s work. He reduces it to Hollywood pabulum — Graydon (in this thread) is exactly right when he says, “The generosity has been leeched out of [the story], along with the restraint.” Even viewed as schlock RotK is a lousy piece of work. Editing, pacing and visual continuity are all sloppy. The spousal unit postulated time/money problems and/or studio interference, but in the end Jackson must take the blame for turning a grand and epic tale into a stupid action flick.

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point

Amitai Etzioni presents an essay by David P. Barash on whether or not it is reasonable to be reasonable. It’s excellent, and you should read it.
One of the best parts is an elegant examination of something called the Wason test (after its inventor Peter Wason):

Imagine that you are confronted with four cards. Each has a letter of the alphabet on one side and a number on the other. You are also told this rule: If there is a vowel on one side, there must be an even number on the other. Your job is to determine which (if any) of the cards must be turned over in order to determine whether the rule is being followed. However, you must only turn over those cards that require turning over. Let’s say that the four cards are as follows:
T 6 E 9
Which ones should you turn over?

Got that? OK, now think about this:

You are a bartender at a nightclub where the legal drinking age is 21. Your job is to make sure that this rule is followed: People younger than 21 must not be drinking alcohol. Toward that end, you can ask individuals their age, or check what they are drinking, but you are required not to be any more intrusive than is absolutely necessary. You are confronted with four different situations, as shown below. In which case (if any) should you ask a patron his or her age, or find out what beverage is being consumed?
patron #1 Drinking Water
patron #2 Over 21
patron #3 Drinking Beer
patron #4 Under 21

For the answers, see Barash’s essay. I guess it’s old news to undergrad psych students, but I thought it was just fascinating. You can dig into the significance of the Wason test, and take another version of it, here.

lost art

For me, weblogs are largely about conversation. With trackback and comments enabled, a blog can host some amazing conversations; see Making Light and Crooked Timber for just two examples. I’ll be using this category to highlight interesting conversations I’ve come across, starting now with this one on Making Light. From the (relatively uncontroversial) observation that PETA are basically nuts, it has ranged across vegetarianism, ninja tarantulas and questions of natural law and the ordered universe, by way of such arresting anecdotes as this:

You can, actually, feel a lot of pain without showing any sign of it. Or at least that was my experience when my grandmother kindly tried to shave my legs with an electric razor while I was in a coma. The funny thing is, after all the fuss of pulling the plug, I didn’t die. For those who have not tried this form of dipilatory torture, may I say it ranks right up there with hot candle wax on a sunburn and veterinary needles through mucous membrane?

(Note: comments to these entries will be turned off; it’s not my intention to become a blog-parasite!)