Categories: buisness, politics, science, web

Good Links – Weekly (July 10)

The Great Montreal Link Exchange continues (sorry this is late): Every week Mitch (w / t) picks a link for me and a link for Alistair (w / t). Alistair and I do the same.

Losing Our Cool”: The high price of staying cool.

Alistair for Hugh: Since Montreal’s in the middle of a heat wave, with temperatures cresting at 41 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit for our friends to the South) I thought this would be a good fit for Hugh. It’s about air conditioners. I never gave them much thought, but according to Losing our cool, they’ve shaped us more than we know: encouraging people to reproduce in the summer months; swelling the ranks of voters in Southern states; contributing to a drop in immunity, and more.

How to Teach a Child to Argue.

Alistair for Mitch: For Mitch, who’s frequently called on to convince others, here’s a piece my extremely expectant wife found on teaching your children to argue. While that sounds like a horrible idea, critical thinking and rhetoric can help children reason and figure things out. As we trust crowdsourced data, upvoted stories, and word of mouth more and more, the ability to think discriminately and to distinguish good arguments from bad will become a vital life skill.

Quantum Entanglement Holds DNA Together, Say Physicists.

Hugh for Alistair: Talking to Alistair often leaves me with a sore brain. Another thing that gives me a sore brain is quantum physics, particularly quantum entanglement. Entanglement is a property of quantum systems that links two particles’ states, even if they are separated by vast distances. Or, to quote from today’s link: ‘Entanglement is the weird quantum process in which a single wavefunction describes two separate objects. When this happens, these objects effectively share the same existence, no matter how far apart they might be.’ Well that’s pretty weird. Even weirder would be if it turns out that quantum entanglement is what holds DNA together. Be sure to read the comment thread.

A short History of the development of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology by Dr. Joseph Woo.

Hugh for Mitch: Jaron Lanier has written critically about Wikipedia entries replacing the more idiosyncratic pages by individual experts/hobbyists that used to crop up in web searches in the ‘old days’. At least Wikipedia is for the most part real text written by real people with the intention of helping readers get the information they want. But recently there’s been a new scourge, vapid pages of filler commissioned to match search queries to high-value adwords (see: Demand Media). So, I was shocked and awed and thrilled when I did a recent search for ‘pre-natal ultrasound history’ and found this page: ‘A short History of the development of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology’ written by Dr. Joseph S.K. Woo of Hong Kong. Says the homepage: ‘Rated among the top 5% of all Internet sites by Lycos in 1995’ (!) … A lovingly put-together treasure from the early, innocent days of the web. And still #1 ranked on Google for ‘prenatal ultrasound history.”

Who Is The New CEO?.

Mitch for Alistair: A fascinating Blog post by Vineet Nayar over on the Harvard Business Review Blog where he asks: ‘What then is the role of the new CEO? Is it to personally add the most value to the business? Or is it to enable those at the heart of this new value zone? If, as I believe, the latter is the case, we need to rethink our leadership styles and adopt one that is aligned better with current realities.” As businesses try to re-define themselves in a post-recession and New Media world, why aren’t we looking for a new definition of our top leaders as well?

Cyber Dissidents: How the Internet is Changing Dissent.

Mitch for Hugh: Freedom of information is something we all need to be paying a lot more attention to. This is an excellent panel discussion (it’s a video) that looks at how online technology is allowing many stories to get told in real time. While many of us are quick to point to instances like the elections in Iran or the Haiti disaster, there are many, many other stories that are being told as well. None of this would be possible were it not for technology and Social media tools, channels and platforms. After watching this panel discussion, you may start thinking differently about Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as real tools of change and access to freedom.

Panel Today at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

I’ll be on a panel this afternoon about science, web, collaboration, and I’m not sure what else, organized by Steven Mansour:

On Saturday, November 29th, please join us for an informal discussion panel bringing together Scientists, Technologists and Designers to weigh in about the current and future influence of each of these disciplines on one another. The Mother-Child Health International Research Network, The World Association of Young Scientists and the Canadian Centre for Architecture invite you to a public conversation on collaboration between these three critically important – and increasingly interdependent – fields of knowledge.

This session will be structured around a series of questions posed to our guest panelists, followed by a discussion and open exchange with the audience.

Saturday November 29th, 2008, from 2:30pm until 4:00pm
Canadian Centre for Architecture: 1920 rue Baile, Montréal, Québec – Shaughnessy House.
Refreshments will be provided.

(By the way, it’s almost 2008, and the CCA does not have a URL for an event they are hosting.)

Categories: audio, science

The Cognitive Life of Bacteria

The most fascinating bit of audio I’ve heard in a long while, The secret life of bacteria – small, smart and thoughtful, from Australian Radio National:

We can´t survive without them — and we´ve long underestimated their prowess. Controversially, bacteria could even have cognitive talents that rival our own. Predatory behaviour, cooperation, memory — Jules Verne eat your heart out — Natasha Mitchell takes you on a strange adventure into the secret world of microbial mentality.

>Listen here.

wikipedia & feathered dinosaurs

In the fall of 2004, I quit my job consulting in the renewable energy industry in order to focus on writing. In addition to fiction-writing, I worked on a research/writing contract to develop an exhibit on dinosaurs (part of which is still online) for the Canadian Museum of Nature.

I’d never used Wikipedia much before, but I used it frequently on that project as a starting point for research. It was an excellent resource (to be backed up with others, of course), and since it was so useful, I thought I should contribute. I got hooked.

So it’s nice to see, three-and-a-half years later, that the article on feathered dinosaurs, for which I was the second editor, still contains a pretty good summary, I think, that I wrote about the history of these peculiar fossils:

Shortly after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, British biologist and evolution-defender Thomas Henry Huxley proposed that birds were descendants of dinosaurs. He cited skeletal similarities, particularly among some saurischian dinosaurs, fossils of the ‘first bird’ Archaeopteryx and modern birds. In 1868 he published On the Animals which are Most Nearly Intermediate between Birds and Reptiles, making the case. The leading dinosaur expert of the time, Richard Owen, disagreed, claiming Archaeopteryx as the first bird outside dinosaur lineage. For the next century, claims that birds were dinosaur descendants faded, with more popular bird-ancestry hypotheses including ‘crocodylomorph’ and ‘thecodont’ ancestors, rather than dinosaurs or other archosaurs.

In 1964, John Ostrom described Deinonychus antirrhopus, a theropod whose skeletal resemblance to birds seemed unmistakable. Ostrom has since become a leading proponent of the theory that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. Further comparisons of bird and dinosaur skeletons, as well as cladistic analysis strengthened the case for the link, particularly for a branch of theropods called maniraptors. Skeletal similarities include the neck, the pubis, the wrists (semi-lunate carpal), the ‘arms’ and pectoral girdle, the shoulder blade, the clavicle and the breast bone. In all, over a hundred distinct anatomical features are shared by birds and theropod dinosaurs.

Other researchers drew on these shared features and other aspects of dinosaur biology and began to suggest that at least some theropod dinosaurs were feathered. The first restoration of a feathered dinosaur was Sarah Landry’s depiction of a feathered “Syntarsus” (now renamed Megapnosaurus or considered a synonym of Coelophysis), in Robert T. Bakker’s 1975 publication Dinosaur Renaissance.[2] Gregory S. Paul was probably the first paleoartist to depict maniraptoran dinosaurs with feathers and protofeathers, starting in the late 1980s.

By the 1990s, most paleontologists considered birds to be surviving dinosaurs and referred to ‘non-avian dinosaurs’ (those that went extinct), to distinguish them from birds (aves or avian dinosaurs). Direct evidence to support the theory was missing, however. Some mainstream ornithologists, including Smithsonian Institution curator Storrs L. Olson, disputed the links, citing the lack of fossil evidence for feathered dinosaurs.

Fossil evidence

After a century of hypotheses without hard evidence, particularly well-preserved (and legitimate) fossils of feathered dinosaurs were discovered during the 1990s and 2000s. The fossils were preserved in a Lagerstätte — a sedimentary deposit exhibiting remarkable richness and completeness in its fossils — in Liaoning, China. The area had repeatedly been smothered in volcanic ash produced by eruptions in Inner Mongolia 124 million years ago, during the Early Cretaceous Period. The fine-grained ash preserved the living organisms that it buried in fine detail. The area was teeming with life, with millions of leaves and the oldest known angiosperms, insects, fish, frogs, salamanders, mammals, turtles, lizards and crocodilians discovered to date.

The most important discoveries at Liaoning have been a host of feathered dinosaur fossils, with a steady stream of new finds filling in the picture of the dinosaur-bird connection and adding more to theories of the evolutionary development of feathers and flight.

To improve the article, head on over to wikipedia. Kinda nice to know that for 95% (50%? 80%?) of the young, English-speaking, students of paleontology in the world, it’s my text that might first introduce them to feathered dinosaurs.

Categories: art, science, technology, video

emotional attachment to machines

Since we were kids, most of us got emotionally attached to things that aren’t real: cartoons, teddy bears, and talking cars, for instance. Usually these attachments are built on the stories that surround, for instance, our teddy bears – stories we create. In the case of cartoons, it’s other people’s stories.

But there’s something different, exciting, and scary happening here. Watch this, and tell me what you feel when a) the guy kicks the machine, and b) the machine slips on the ice.

I found it heartbreaking watching the machine try to keep its balance on the ice. “Go little guy, go!” I thought. And I thought the guy was a real jerk for kicking it… yet I’ve kicked many a machine that hasn’t done what I wanted it to do.

UPDATE: zeke points out that this is a military robot…I know! That’s what’s crazy, but when those feeble feet were skidding on the ice I reacted – involuntarily – with pity.

Here’s another one that really got me emotionally:

The movements of these giant contraptions are so organic that it’s hard *not* to think of them as sentient somehow, and to react accordingly.

Finally, here’s an amazing CGI woman, not quite lifelike, but damn close.

So what’s striking about all this is how important movement is in our emotional reactions to things. Part of that suggests that we’re getting closer to loveable robots. But another thing is to consider the information that gets lost in text-based communication.

scientists vs. publishers vs. wikipedia

From the New Scientist:

Scientists who want to describe their work on Wikipedia should not be forced to give up the kudos of a respected journal. So says a group of physicists who are going head-to-head with a publisher because it will not allow them to post parts of their work to the online encyclopaedia, blogs and other forums.


Leaving aside the problem that posting about your own work on Wikipedia, violates two policies (no original research, and don’t edit articles about yourself or your work) … this is an interesting showdown.

Open Access journals, free and open to web linking, is the way science publishing has to go, for the same reasons NYTimes can’t keep its articles behind registration walls. Value is increasingly defined by network authority (is there an agreed term for this, or can I claim coinage of “network authority”?), aka google juice; and if you are out of the network, you are out of the authority. Scientists realize this – hence the desire to get their stuff on Wikipedia … Journals realize that it chips into their control of information, which it does. But like all other businesses, fighting it won’t make it go away, and the sooner they rejig their business models, the better.

Which opens the question: with the web as publishing platform, is there really a need to have academic journals running as businesses? Or is there a better way?

Categories: science

a heart-warming bat story

From LibriVox friend annie. With photos:


Categories: science, technology, web

nervous system & electronic media

Norman Doidge (channeling McLuhan):

Electronic media are so effective at altering the nervous system because they both work in similar ways and are basically compatible and thus easily linked. Both involve instantaneous transmission of electronic signals to make linkages. Because our nervous system is plastic, it can take advantage of this compatibility and merge with the electronic media, making a single, larger system. Indeed, it is the nature of such systems to merge whether they are biological or man-made. The nervous system is an internal medium, communicating messages from one area of the body to another, and it evolved to do, for multicelled organisms such as ourselves, what the electronic media do for humanity — connect disparate parts.

Categories: science

neuronal connections

Says Gerald Edelman:

If we considered the number of possible neural circuits [in the human brain] we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeros. (There are 10 followed by 79 zeros, give or take a few, of particles in the known universe).

So there are roughly 12,500[10 followed by (1 million-79) zeros] times more neural circuits in a human brain than there are particles in the universe.

In a sense, books increase those neural circuits because one brain gets exposed to the neural connections in another brain. A library multiplies these connections again, and the web adds orders of magnitude more to the connections.

So: what happens next? I mean, what really happens? We’re just at the edge now.

Categories: audio, philosophy, science


I listen to lots of audio, my preference being radio documentaries while cooking. Yesterday I listened to the best thing I have heard in ages, a piece by WNYC’s RadioLab called Space:

In the 60’s, space exploration was an American obsession. But the growing reality of space has turned the romance to cynicism. We chart the path from then to now. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and golden record that travels through space. For a dose of reality, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle and just how insignificant we are

Listen here (on earideas). It’s fabulous.