Archive for the ‘scitech’ Category

Crime, Punishment, and the Singularity

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Another interesting social issue related to the is its effect on our penal system especially the millions of folks we’ve got locked up right now. Take a prisoner with a 50-year sentence. If he has to serve his entire sentence he wouldn’t be out until 2050, but by that time we expect inconceivable advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence/robotics, all of which could have implications for his case. (more…)

The Singularity is Near

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near ( ) is one of those books that really changes the way you look at things.

For instance, when the Supreme Court rules on virtual child porn as it did recently ( ), you see that the real issue goes far beyond Photoshopping some kidpix. (more…)

Getting guidance for your life from the web

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

A recent college graduate I know recently found himself most unhappy in his new job. But was there something really wrong with the company he had had such high hopes for, or was it merely a case of the freshman blues? Where to turn for advice? Friends? Parents? Professors?


Music can cause your brain to grow

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Italian neuroscientists have that bombarding mice with easy listening music increases levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor ( ), in their hypothalmus specifically. However, levels of another neurotropic factor, NGF (nerve growth factor), declined. The findings suggest, according to the authors, that physiological effects of music, such as lowered blood pressure and heart rate or mood improvements, “might in part be mediated by modulation of neurotrophins.”

IEEE Special on the Singularity

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

The magazine IEEE Spectrum is running a Special Report on the Singularity . Well worth glancing at.

Plaxo just doesn’t get privacy

Sunday, March 6th, 2005

Plaxo is the very cool on-line address book app that keeps you up to date with all your friends addresses, and them up to date with yours.

But recently I was flabbergasted to find that my Plaxo “add me” page, containing all my information, was being indexed by search engines. Not only mine, but other people’s as well. Just try the query site:http://www.plaxo com bob.

I was equally astonished at the response I got when I reported this obvious violation of privacy to Plaxo’s “privacy officer”. S/he informed me that it was my problem: after all, I had invited Google to index the Plaxo page by including a pointer to it on my own home page (which I did).

I quoted to them a line from Plaxo’s own privacy policy, that “your Information is your own and you decide who will have access to it.”

The unbelievable response was:

Correct. And my point is that if someone has posted the link to their Add_me page publicly, then they have to understand that public bots will likely find and attempt to index this information. This would be similar to the user creating their own page with their information and a link to the page. By allowing robots to follow the link, it makes it one step easier to contact the individual.

Guess what, Plaxo, there’s a huge difference here. I can take down my page at any time, or I can tell Google not to index it or cache it. But once my address info page on your site is indexed, it always will be. I don’t “have to understand” anything other than that you don’t know what a robots.txt file is.

But can’t I just take down my Plaxo “add me” page, solving the problem (except for the Google cache)? Oops, not so quick.

Changing or taking down the add_me page, once created is a enhancement request that we’ve targeted for a future version of the Plaxo server. Unfortunately, the only method of taking down this page that currently exists is to recreate your Plaxo account.

Worse yet, I found in the Google index a link to a page which allowed me to change someone else’s address book entry. Plaxo’s lame response to me pointing this out was to say

But as there is no benefit to indexing these pages, we will correct this problem.

When I re-iterated, in my fourth e-mail exchange, that “I continue to believe that you should not let searchbots index add-me pages”, the “privacy officer” responded:”

Point taken, and I’ll bring it up for discussion with Engineering, but I do not foresee changing the existing functionality.

Huh? You need to talk to Engineering about adding one line to your robots.txt file? Let me help you out here. All you need is:

Disallow: /add_me

Plaxo is a useful concept, but we can’t possibly use it until they “get” privacy issues.

Google Print is not worth much if they never scan in your book

Friday, March 4th, 2005

After five months, Google Print has still not gotten around to scanning in my book. They told me:

The amount of time it takes to get your book online will vary, depending on a number of factors. These can include the current volume of books to be scanned, as well as the complexity of your book. Because of these factors, we are unable to provide a specific time frame during which your books will go live, but we do make every effort to get your content live on our site as quickly as possible.

That’s lame. What use is their program, seemingly innovative in the way they share ad revenues with authors, if they never scan in your book and can’t even tell you when they will? scanned my book within one month.

Get it together, Google.

Self-efficacy: believing in yourself

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

“Believe in yourself.” “You can do anything you put your mind to.” “Your possibilities are unlimited.”

Sounds like a load of pop-psychology crap.

Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura has given this concept a scientific basis (as well as a new name, self-efficacy). According to the review of his book Self Efficacy: The Exercise of Control:

This book is based on Bandura’s theory that those with high self-efficacy expectancies – the belief that one can achieve what one sets out to do – are healthier, more effective, and generally more successful….[there are] provocative applications of this work to issues in education, health, psychopathology, athletics, business, and international affairs.

An reader points out the life-cycle aspects of the theory:

Self-regulation and perceived self-efficacy help people to adjust to realities of each life’s stage, from early childhood till aging and preparation to death.

In general I’m leery of starting lots of new books, no matter how interesting they sound, especially since I already know so much. But this one sounds like it could be well worth the time.

Removable spillway weir

Sunday, January 30th, 2005

We humans owe a debt of gratitude to fish—after all, it’s a little bump that developed in their spines that is believed to be the precursor to the human brain. All the more reason to be concerned about preserving the salmon. In my childhood memoir, I recount the plight of these noble fish as they try to carry out their life’s mission, travelling up and down the Columbia across the dams (p. 93):

The young fish heading out to the ocean end up in a pipe called a “penstock,” filled with highly pressurized, fast-moving water, which hurtles them into a turbine rotating at 120rpm. Although it sounds like they ought to be chopped to bits, actually around ninety percent of the youngsters survive. Remember, though, that they have to make their way through not just one, but more than half-a-dozen dams before reaching the ocean. No more than fifty to sixty percent manage that.

Some dams also have a “juvenile fish bypass system” which is basically some screens in front of the turbines which deflect the fish into pipes which either dump them downstream, or in some case, into a holding pool from which they are carried downstream in a truck. The number of fish successfully deflected is called the “fish guidance efficiency,” and it ranges from thirty to eighty percent depending on the season and type of fish. Another concept is simply to spill water around the times of the migrations, with the fish getting an exhilarating ride over the dam.

Unfortunately, my description of “spilling water” over the dams was incorrect. In fact, the approach is to let the fish cross the dam under the spillways, through a high-pressure pipe whose entrance is sixty feet below the surface of the dam. This requires the salmon to make a harrowing dive to find the entrace, before being shot through the tunnel into the pool below the dam—where some are so disoriented they perish on the spot.

Now a new approach has been developed: the removable spillway weir, which requires the juveniles to dive just fifteen feet. They pass through under lower “veclocities” and “pressures”. The new weir, costing a cool $20 million, is said to improve survivability by several percentage points—which may not seem like much, until you consider that the salmon are navigating a half dozen dams or more, so the percentages add up. It weighs over 2 million pounds, and is 115 feet tall and 83 feet wide. The “removable” part of the name indicates that the entire device can be dropped to the bottom in flood situations. This device also supposedly “wastes” only 1/4 as much water per fish as existing approaches. It’s been installed on a trial basis at a dam on the Snake River.

But sorry, folks, you are still killing salmon. You’ve got to tear down the dams and let the salmon come and go as they wish.

Wilder Penfield and his cortical map

Monday, January 17th, 2005

Every neuroscience undergraduate learns about the Penfield map, a correspondence between locations on the stripe across the middle of the top of the brain (somatosensory cortex) to a sequence of locations on the body. This map was discovered by Wilder Penfield in the course of applying electrical stimulation to the brains of hundreds of epilepsy patients he was treating. The size of each area on the map corresponds to the degree of sensitivity we have in that area: areas for the tongue, or the hands, for example, are proportionally larger.

An odd aspect of the map is its placement of the human genitals right next to the feet. This is believed to account for the bizarre phenomenon that people with amputated feet feel orgasms in their phantom foot. It may also lie behind foot fetishes.

My theory is that the Penfield map is related to desirable sitting positions for meditation. In other words, meditation is more effective if body parts which are mapped to nearby brain areas are brought together physically—such as bringing the feet near the genitals in the full-lotus position. The fingers are brought together directly below the eyes, which they are positioned next to on the Penfield map.

Penfield was the exact opposite of a reductionist or physicalist. With his experience in electrical stimulation of the brain, he viewed the key question as: is there any electrical stimulation could make a patient decide or will or believe? His answer was no. He attributed these phenomena not to the brain, but to the “soul”.

Towards the end of his career, Penfield captured his thoughts on the neurological basis for the philosophical belief in the human soul in his book The Mystery of the Mind.

As an aside, Penfield was interested in bilingual children, and felt strongly that early exposure to a second language was highly beneficial to the child’s overall development.