Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Resistors, Inductors, Capacitors... Memristors?

It seems HP Labs has brought to fruition the physical realisation of an additional, theoretically predicted, fundamental circuit element: the memristor. Originally described in Chua, 1971, numerous sources are claiming that HP has produced a 'practical' (for some value of practical) physical incarnation of the predicted device. ("The Missing Memristor Found" abstract)

My understanding is that the memristor functions as a time-varying resistor whose resistance varies depending on the history of its voltage. What will the consequences be? So far there is a lot of talk about practical applications including persistent memory and faster pattern recognition... I want to hear about the (presently) impractical applications.

"Building an analog computer in which you don't use 1s and 0s and instead use essentially all shades of gray in between is one of the things we're already working on," says Williams. -- Wired, Scientists Create First Memristor, April 30th, 2008
Next thing... a neural interface?

Richard Dawkins this Saturday

I may just be the only reader of this blog in the NY area, but I believe this is worth mentioning anyhow. Richard Dawkins will be giving a talk bright and early this saturday morning, and you can apparently RSVP in the comments section of this post to get put on the list to attend.

There's probably a catch, but I'd say it's worth a shot.

Update: Full! My new plan is to crowd around the entrance and scream like a teenage KISS fan the second I see someone I've seen a picture of before. They'll be forced to let me in.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Beautiful Robots



Those are via Engadget.

Also there's the AirRay:

I got to see the AirRay as well as a couple pneumatic water-dwelling robots on display at the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit at the MoMa on Sunday. I'll be posting some details of all I saw there here or on the other blog before too long. So neat!

OH! And this is a natural place to link Theo Jansen's Strandbeasts, kinetic sculptures that Jansen speaks of as living beings that will roam the beaches.

The View From Heaven

The Earth Observatory site has an article about nighttime shots of various cities around the world taken from the ISS, as well as some thoughtful commentary on certain features and trends that can be found in the images. They also link to a 126mb quicktime video tour that I highly recommend pulling down and watching.

A while back an astronaut put together a barn door tracker out of spare parts that allowed him to take long-exposure shots and keep the target in the center of the frame while the ISS hurdled through space above it. It's really spare parts, too--he's using an electric drill to turn the knobs!

The picture above is of Tokyo. Its bluish-green color, they say, is indicative of all Japan for their use of mercury vapor lighting. Something else I found interesting (hand-picking from a great many interesting things here) was that some cities bear a striking resemblance to other nasa images, particularly of nebulae found way on the other side of the ISS.

Via Kottke.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Science in Art: H2O

Paintings by an anonymous artist with a Ph.D in DNA crystal structures. View more molecules at Art of Chemistry.

Photos for thought. Allometry.

Human and chimpanzee babies share a similar skull shape. As chimpanzees develop certain facial bones grow rapidly compared to others resulting in the characteristic pronounced brows and elongated jaw of an adult chimpanzee. These facial bones grow in humans too, but at a much slower rate. A consequence of this is that our adult skulls look more like the juvenile skulls of both species, but a mature chimpanzee's skull looks pretty different!

Growing different parts of the body at different rates is called allometric growth and it plays a central role in proportioning the adult form. Because a small genetic change can alter relative growth rates significantly, mutations that affect allometric growth can result in very different looking adult forms in closely related species.

An image of Pinkie, a chimpanzee who lives in a sanctuary for orphaned primates in Tacugama. Her unusual coat of white fur makes this infant picture of her quite striking. Click it to see a larger version.

Math Followup

What's more fun than math toys?

Math food.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Science in Poetry (or Song)

PhaWRONGula is a blog of verse inspired by Pharyngula, a blog of biology and atheist polemic. The poetry is sharp, scientific, progressive and very topical -- funny too. It's a lyric collection that easily connotes a modern day Swift and Twain.

Martin Luther, Christian hero,
Rated all the Jews as zero:
Work them! Out them! Purge the stain!
We're at fault for Jews not slain.

Charlie Darwin fancied finches,
Measured up their beaks in inches,
Gathered gobs of evidence...
OMG! This all makes sense!

Martin Luther gave the stinking
Nazis all his Christian thinking:
When you meet an evil Jew,
Ask: What Would Jehovah Do?

Charlie Darwin, keen observer,
Used his brain, not Christian fervor,
Found that Mother Nature works
By keeping beneficial quirks.

Adolph Hitler used his Bible,
Buoyed by Luther's lurid libel,
To support his sick solution--
Roundup, rail truck, execution.

Christian anti-science kooks
Seem ill at ease with history books.
Rather than accept the shame,
Guess which hero gets the blame?

Read more about the content of this poem at Pharygula: The Great Godwinization.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Better intuitions about biology: Paedomorphosis

This charming little salamander doesn't look much like other salamanders you've seen! That's because this species of salamander exhibits a condition called paedomorphosis, a condition in which a species retains certain juvenile characteristics of their ancestors through adulthood.

It is an axolotl, and is closely related to the tiger salamander.

While these two species look awfully different in adulthood, it can be difficult to tell a larval tiger salamander and an axolotl apart.

Scientists may administer hormone treatments to axolotls that cause them to metamorphose, losing their juvenile features. These artificially metamorphosed specimens look like adult tiger salamanders.

While the weird cuteness of an axolotl is enough to make it interesting by itself, it's example of paedomorphosis shows us that a small genetic change can result in species which look and live very differently from their closest ancestors.

Toothbrush Robotics

These bristlebots look cheap and easy to make, as well as like a lot of fun!

Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories -- Bristlebot: A tiny directional vibrobot

These guys move surprisingly fast and produce interesting and unpredictable movements.

Speaking of brushbots, here's a short sci-fi piece about another sort: Conversations With and About My Electric Toothbrush.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Math Toys

In my spare time, I like to play with math. And flash. And now, I'll share a couple with you. Do keep in mind that the following experiments are completely bare bones and share little consistency with one another at this point, but I digress. Clicking these two titles will take you to a new window in which to experiment with two rather fascinating mathnerd toys.

Cellular Automata:
A very simple application of a one-dimensional cellular automata, allowing you to manipulate the rule (0-255), the initialization value (string of 1s and 0s), the total number of steps (Flash allows up to 2000), and the constraint (some value less than twice the length of the steps value). There are some great explanations of cellular automata on Wikipedia and Stephen Wolfram's Mathworld site. This is about a straightforward an implementation as possible. Changing a value takes effect by either changing then hitting enter, or tabbing out of the text field.

Fibonacci Game:
Very recently I've been working on a Flash adaptation of a very old Javascript app I created years and years ago with the hope of playing around and exploring the intricacies of these patterns in ways I couldn't before. The idea centers around the Fibonacci Sequence, specifically exploring the patterns found in isolating the final digits within all possible bases. (IE: base ten, then base in which we tend to think.) I talked to a 2nd degree friend at my very favorite IHOP many years ago. While the idea is almost entirely his, I took it upon myself to create a program that would automate the whole process. The application is slightly interactive; press 'h' to toggle the help window.
Also keep in mind that with the Fibonacci app, the higher the base, the computation time increases more or less exponentially, depending on the number of sets required to complete the entire sequence. This will require a fair amount of optimization, as it times out on my macbook pro some time around base 71, but it's fun up until that point!

This was a very brief introduction to these. I'll post a much more detailed exploration either here or at my personal blog soon enough. Just wanted to get this out and let you play!

Edit: This post has been severely edited, because (as is now obvious to me) I should never be trusted to write anything in the middle of the night after an enjoyable evening at the local pub. So if you read this last night and anything struck you as making zero sense, I've hopefully noticed that too and corrected it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cooking Korean Food with Maangchi!

I just came across this very informative site, "Cooking Korean Food with Maangchi", which describes in great detail traditional Korean dishes including ingredients, recipes and techniques along with comprehensive video demos of cooking steps. Is it possible that I might learn some cooking after all..?! (Well, at least I have to learn to make jja jang myun ['black bean noodles'] which I used to eat 'instant noodles'-style when I lived in Ottawa!)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Mysterious Stranger

Oh wow.. I totally forgot about this. I saw it when I was young. It seems the 80s was an edgy era for children's television.

Life itself is only a vision, a dream. Nothing exists save empty space and you, and you are but a thought. -- An Angel

What a bizarre segment. Courtesy of Mark Twain and a very random post on, of all places,

Podcast Round-up

Long walks with the demanding new pup prompted me to go searching for something to amuse the brain with while strolling about. Here are a few of my finds:

1. The history of modern physics, at Berkeley -- a broad overview of changes in theory and practice, given context through discussions of government, politics, industry and war.

2. In a parallel universe, Cory Doctorow battles the MAFIAA and sciomancers amidst a flurry of red cape and goggles. A fanfic peice by Kyt Dotson entitled "Hello Cory".

3. NeuroPod appears to be a derelict podcast from Nature: Neuroscience, which is unfortunate -- because I enjoyed every episode that I listened to very much, and I think that they're accessible enough that you will too.

4. "The Tech Guy" -- an ongoing netcast from This Week in Tech hosted by Leo Laporte

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Restful Living?

I wish I could live in this low impact woodland home! There's something deeply calming and attractive about it's organic lines and humble design. Built by two full-time parents with nothing more than time and £3000 -- it's enough to prompt my first feelings of buyers regret over our small condo.

Eco Villages

These communities are super neat. Residents live in sustainable homes like the one featured above, they grow their own food, and raise their own livestock -- but that much we expect when we hear the words "eco village". What you might not expect is that these groups are also making an intelligent and concentrated effort to foster community, democracy and human happiness wherever they take root.

If that sounds like a plateful -- it isn't so much as it sounds. Methods include farmer's markets, sharing skills and buying locally, and physically integrating eco villages with the towns they reside in. The Village at Cloughjordan in Ireland has included buying into, and revitalizing the main street of this town with new shops, activities and local artworks. The entrance to the eco village intersects this main street, encouraging village and town members to interact and get to know each other as neighbours.

Click image to see a full size planning layout for The Village at Cloughjordan.

You can learn more about eco villages by watching these short, documentary style videos entitled "Living in the Future". I recommend them, they're interesting and fun! And they might make you wonder if eco village living isn't a little slice of paradise...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A dated mathematical estimate of technologically advanced civilizations in the galaxy, and it's tangents.

I enjoyed this cute clip where Carl Sagan uses some simple math to estimate how many alien civilizations capable of radio astronomy might exist within the Milkyway galaxy.

Some points of interest:

- At every step, Sagan is able to make a highly conservative estimate (about how many habitable planets there might be, how many with civilizations, etc.) and still retain an excitingly large number -- with one exception. When Sagan attempts to estimate how many civilizations might survive to technology maturity (as opposed to destroying themselves), he finds it takes optimism rather then conservatism to retain any number at all. A fair reminder of how close we have come.

- Sagan uses radio astronomy as the measure, and seems to envision the sort of alien civilizations that have dominated all but the most recent sci-fi. But today, images of enlightened civilizations composed of humanoid artisans and interstellar spaceships seem increasingly naive. Like Sagan, we're able to fuel our imaginations with the science of our time -- modern microbiology, computing, nanotechnology and even the subatomic physics that I understand so poorly. Personally, I find Kurzweil's view both intuitive, and difficult to find challenges for (criticisms of timescale aside). Which leaves my imagination in wondering: What does intelligent matter of astronomical proportions look like? What sort of conditions might allow it to spread explosively rather than gradually? How might we detect this stuff, and if we can't ... what are the implications of that?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Science in ... parody, rap and hilarious animation?

I wasn't going to put this here, but I just have to.

How often do you get to see one of your heroes (and a bunch of other interesting folks) rap dancing to a song with so many clever references from science history? (Mixed with some rather rude, but fair, one line zingers.)

Listen for a swift kick at the prime mover argument, and references to the 1860 Oxford evolution debate and Scopes trial -- to pick out just a few.

This one was above my head, but apparently the bit about soap is a second jab at "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce.

Eugenie Scott rubbing her belly makes me smile every time.

As an aside, I'm constantly amazed at the way the Internet + creative tools in the hands of regular people are allowing us to have and frame the great discussions of our time.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Science in Art: Brendan Monroe

Brendan Monroe is a long time favourite artist of mine, and it's likely that some of you will recognize his artwork from visiting my home. While his earlier works (which I'm frequently sore I didn't acquire more of when I had the chance) seem to deal with more interpersonal themes, his recent work -- with names like "Increase of Ciculation", "Greater Mitosis" and "Building Blocks" (a peice reminiscient of epithelial tissue) -- manifest the uniquely modern experience of living with microscopic knowledge of one's own biology.

Sequence of Thoughts

See more of Brendan's work here, and at the Richard Heller Gallery.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why is Relativity Necessary?

Anyone who reads science fiction probably knows that something strange happens when objects move at high speeds relative to each other. A space traveller can take a one year journey in a high speed ship, only to return and find out that hundreds of years have passed for the rest of humanity. More realistically, one of two synchronized clocks can be taken up into a fast moving plane and, on its return, found to read earlier than the one that remained stationary.

How can we possibly believe that time slows down for objects/beings moving with respect to us? Even stranger, to the moving being, WE are the ones moving, and they would view our time as slowed. Well, to my mind, all this strangeness springs quite naturally from a single strange starting point: the speed of light is constant.

Imagine I clap my hands, and you can measure the speed of the soundwave as it passes you by. If you were to turn and run away from me at 5m/s, then the speed you measure would of course be reduced by exactly 5m/s. Moving away from the source of the sound seems to slow the speed of the sound wave. Well, with light waves, this is not the case! Say I flick on a lightbulb instead of clapping my hands, and you measure the speed of the passing light wave using a stopwatch and a meter stick (no comments on the quick reflexes required please!) You could stand still, run away at 5m/s or fly away in a jet at half light speed. In all cases, you'll measure the speed of light to be exactly the same! (this of course is straightforward - if not easy - to verify experimentally)

Here's an example to show how this ruins our intuition about time. Imagine the bulb is flicked on, and we have two observers, one (call him A) is stationary with respect to the bulb, and the other (call him B) is flying away at half light speed. By the time A sees the wave travel 1km from the bulb, B has of course travelled half a km, so for B the wave has only moved half of one km. Yet, when each measures the speed of the wave, they get the same result, though B only saw it move half as far!

Something has to give in this contradictory scenario, and it turns out to be time (actually, distance as well, but let's not get too complicated...). The reason A and B can agree on the speed of light, but disagree on it's distance travelled is that they also disagree on how much time has passed.

Does this make anyone else's heart beat quickly?!

It turns out that some creative high school trigonometry can give you the exact formula to determine at what rate B's clock is moving as observed by A (slower), but as the textbooks say, I'll leave that as an excersize :)

Daily caffeine 'protects brain'

This popped up in my morning reads, and I couldn't help but think of you Ashley.

Coffee may cut the risk of dementia by blocking the damage cholesterol can inflict on the body, research suggests. -- BBC News

I've also heard of other studies that indicate a neuroprotective role for caffeine in ischemic attacks (restriction of blood flow in the brain, for example - due to stroke or cardiac arrest).

Of course, these claims should all be taken with a grain of salt. Even if they do stand, a lot more work will be required to show what sort of net effect caffeine has on the brain and body.

Caffeine molecule painting by Ali, at Ali's Art Adventures.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Are there parts of the brain that are genuinely not used?

Trauma and Cortical Map Plasticity

Generally, the answer to this question is no. However, certain types of trauma can result in brain areas that are no longer being used – at least for a little while.

For example, imagine that you've just lost your middle finger in a wood workshop accident. Oops! Now the area of your brain that received sensory input from this finger is receiving silence – it's no longer being used.

But the competition for cortical space is fierce and the price of not using is often losing. Thus, during the weeks of subsequent disuse following your accident the area of your brain that was once devoted to your middle finger undergoes a major rewiring. In time, no sensory representation of your middle finger remains; instead, the space it once occupied has been overtaken by neurons that represent your two adjacent (healthy and attached) fingers.

Another outcome is possible and it is responsible for the “phantom limb” sensations reported by a majority of amputees. In the case of phantom limbs neurons become cross wired as the deprived cortex seeks input and active, adjacent cortex pushes into it's area.

The image to the right depicts the location of sensory representation for different parts of the body across the primary sensory cortex. Notice that the area of your brain that receives sensory input from your hand is adjacent to the area that receives sensory input from your face. Where you to lose your entire hand in the workshop accident you might wind up like many amputees who have also lost a hand -- that is, feeling sensations from your “phantom” hand when someone touches cross wired regions of your face! Some amputees have complete maps of their missing hand on their faces.

Note, you may have heard that violinists have unusually large sensory areas devoted to the fingers of their left hand (this is the hand that fingers the strings). This is true! Just as disuse leads to atrophy and replacement, increased stimulation leads to expansion. Cortical maps are constantly changing and adjust proportionately to the amount of stimulation they experience. This type of plasticity occurs in the visual, auditory and motor systems as well.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

iTunes U and the NYPL

So this seems neat. I've never heard of iTunes U before, but according to Apple's site it "puts the power of the iTunes Store to work for colleges and universities, so users can easily search, download, and play course content just like they do music, movies, and TV shows."

Via they've added a new institution: The New York Public Library. Put together by NYPL Labs, this thing has all sorts of talks and transcripts and whatnot. I've barely explored, but it seems pretty exciting already! To check it out in iTunes, just follow this link.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Whitney Music Box

Jim Bumgardner offers us (two years ago; sorry!) a tantalising visualisation which triggers musical notes. It is something akin to a music box and inspired by John Whitney's attempts to capture music graphically.

Stay awhile and listen! (also old but good)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A matter of changing perspectives.

Check out this weird and very striking "spinning silhouette" optical illusion. The effect is so strong that many people accuse the computer of playing a trick on them; it's not! The switch that you feel you see is the result of your brain changing it's interpretation of ambiguous data.

Friday, April 4, 2008

If humans use 100% of their brain, what would happen if you used only 50%?

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor thinks she knows.

The most fascinating part of this talk for me was listening to Taylor describe the experience of her stroke in amazing detail. She's also a highly engaging, and engaged speaker.

While I can't advocate for the amount of lateralization she seems to believe in, her portrayals of the right and left brain are interesting.

From TED Talks: My stroke of insight.

Video length < 19 min.

If humans only use 10% of their brain, what would happen if you used all of it?

It's not uncommon to hear people use this familiar adage while surmising that full use would lead to telepathy, world peace, and the ability to fry soup cans with eyebeams. If only!

Well, it happens that a small percentage of the population have managed to use all of their brains all at once -- these people have experienced what is called a grand mal seizure (the kind we think of when we imagine epilepsy) and it's characterized by a loss of consciousness and violent bodily contractions.

Of course, it's not true that we only use 10% of our brains. We use all of it, but we selectively activate and inhibit certain parts as appropriate for getting things done.

For example, there's a part of thalamus (the VLo) that we want to keep turned off (inhibited) most of the time. This part of the thalamus transmits voluntary motor commands and we allow it to turn on exactly when we want to transmit them, the rest of the time we keep it turned off so that static firing doesn't send our muscles into wonky contractions. A loss of this inhibitory ability results in ballism, a serious condition involving violent and uncontrollable flinging movements.

To get any idea of just how active your brain is consider that the brain represents about 3% of your body's weight and uses almost 20% of your body's energy.

How The Internet Lets Us Share the Love (and cost us our private lives).

Yup, I discovered the awesome and articulate Clay Shirky this evening.

This first clip is very The Wealth of Networks -- Shirky describes how the organizing power of the web allows us to power operating systems, encyclopedias, relief efforts and protein folding on love. ;)

After watching this, I couldn't help but think of independent mini-MMO developer Eskil Steenberg -- who named his project Love. (The screenshots for Love are just beautiful.)

In the second clip, Shirky discusses personal privacy in a world with Facebook and MySpace -- to name only the most salient pair.

And hay, he has his own book -- Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations -- which is going straight to my wishlist.

Cory Doctorow says, " -- not only is he smart and articulate, but he's one of those people who is able to crystallize the half-formed ideas that I've been trying to piece together into glittering, brilliant insights that make me think, yes, of course, that's how it all works."

You'll definitely have a few of those moments if you watch these clips. The big "aha" for me was listening to Clay nail exactly how I feel about respecting (and invading) other's privacy on the Internet. If only I could have been so articulate when the person we bought our house from brought up personal information from the web in conversation; at the time I wrinkled my nose and said, "You Googled me?!" (implied: you creepy fucker).

So, in summation -- awesome stuff. Have a look see.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Queen Rania addresses YouTube, "Send me your stereotypes".

Queen Rania launched her first YouTube video March 30th and is asking viewers to send her their stereotypes and questions about the Arab world. After a summer of collecting messages from YouTubers, she'll reply -- answering questions and breaking down stereotypes. Her intention is to foster a world with fewer barriers and more understanding.

A fantastic move on her part, and it's already generated a lot of attention! Almost 500,000 views in just four days.

World Science Festival

It was just announced that the 2008 World Science Festival will be held this year in New York City, my own town!

Brian Greene is apparently one of the co-founders, and it looks like they've got a pretty thrilling lineup. I'll get to see Daniel Dennett. :] So! Anyone want to come to Manhattan the end of May and hang out with me?

Correction, some thrilling things. Lots of filler.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Patient's Paradox

The patient in question is a living embodiment of the familiar Liar's Paradox ("this statement is false") -- a deeply delusional man whose delusions are nevertheless completely accurate. Psychiatrist and philosopher Bill Fruford describes him in his enticingly titled book Philsophical Psychopathology:

[There is an] even more fundamental sense in which delusions may not be false beliefs, namely that for some patients this would present us with a paradox.

I have reported one such case that occurred in Oxford... The patient, a 43-year-old man, was brought into the Accident and Emergency Department following an overdose. He had tried to kill himself because he was afraid he was going to be "locked up". However, this fear was secondary to a paranoid system at the heart of which was the hypochondriacal delusion that he was "mentally ill".

He was seen by the duty psychiatrist and by the consultant psychiatrist on call, neither of whom were in any doubt that he was deluded. Indeed, both were ready on the strength of their diagnosis to admit him as an involuntary patient.

Yet had their diagnosis depended on the falsity of the patient's belief, as in the standard definition, they would have been presented with a paradox: if the patient's belief that he was mentally ill was false, then (by the standard definition) he could have been deluded, but this would have made his belief true after all.

Equally, if his belief was true, then he was not deluded (by the standard definition), but this would have made his belief false after all. By the standard definition of delusion, then, his belief, is false, was true and, if true, was false.

via Mind Hacks

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I stumbled on Scholarpedia this afternoon while searching for computational neuroscience articles.

From the Scholarpedia main page, "The approach of Scholarpedia does not compete with, but rather complements that of Wikipedia: instead of covering a broad range of topics, Scholarpedia covers a few narrow fields, but does that exhaustively.

Currently, Scholarpedia hosts Encyclopedia of Computational Neuroscience, Encyclopedia of Dynamical Systems, Encyclopedia of Computational Intelligence and Encyclopedia of Astrophysics."

Authors include a slew of famous names, including Koch, Minsky, Damasio and Ramachandran. Indeed, the Scholarpedia isn't shy about telling you that amongst it's contributors are 12 Nobel Laureates and 4 Fields Medalists. All these in the computational neuroscience section alone.

Eventually editions of the encyclopedia will be made available in hard copy, as well as online where they will continue to be updated.

Amazing! Why haven't I seen this before?