Category: science

Bad Science Should be Required Reading

Cover of Bad Science as viewed on Kindle Android

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a fascinating read. I’ve intermittently followed his Bad Science column on the Guardian and it’s often thought provoking and uplifting too. I’m thus no stranger to the placebo effect, the inflated claims of homeopathy, and the commercial interests of all these companies selling diet plans and nutrition guidance. This book concentrates an overview of all that and more, with a level of scientific detail and rigour which should leave you without doubt that you must be prudent about what you read in the papers especially when related to carcinogens and/or wonder pills.

I recently bought the book for my Kindle. Pictured is the book on my phone (with Kindle app), happily synchronised with my Kindle which stays on my bedside table. It’s fantastic to be travelling home on the train and to simply pick up where I left off the night before, on a different device. Bad Science makes for fascinating – and frightening – reading. Sometimes there is complexity in the discourse, but this appears necessary to expose the fluff and pseudo-science which at face value seems reasonable or seems to prove the efficacy of a proposed wonder pill. This complexity is thankfully rare for the less scientifically inclined and certainly doesn’t get in the way of perfectly readable and understandable prose for the most part. Continue reading

Conversational Artificial Intelligence

I was listening to the Stack Overflow podcast the other day in the car on the way back from work. They were talking about their new site which proposes a question / answer model for programmer’s questions. The site covers not just the questions and answers themselves, but builds a model upon which the community can rate answers, manage the categorisation (taxonomy), modify and embellish the questions, and is founded on a user base which includes reputation management algorithms so that the community can be self-managed (new users cannot access all editing features until they gain some points for voting and answering on questions). The guest was someone from

Metafilter is hard to define. It’s like a blog, but contributions are from many different people. It could essentially be compared to, but the signal to noise ratio is better.

A particular article about Elbot, an AI program that nearly fooled 30% of a panel of judges into thinking it was human, caught my attention. I remember stories about ELIZA and maybe even conversed with an implementation a long time ago. Cyborgs have been discussed here before, too.

I don’t think many people would really be fooled by Elbot. But can you have an interesting conversation with it? Here’s my attempt.

Me: I’ve written an article about you
EB: This is confusing. Why bring journalistic endeavors into this?
Me: Oh, it’s just a blog article.
EB: The concept of “article” does have its pleasing side for me. This might spread the news about robots.
Me: What kind of news would you like me to spread about robots?
EB: I can’t really tell you much about how interactive assistant tick. At the moment I’m in a group therapy class trying to get to the bottom of that.
Me: Well that’s about all I have time for.
EB: What would this world come to if no one would say that openly?
Me: Goodbye.
EB: Goodbye and thank you for chatting with me. And now I would like to ask you a favor. I am working on my ability to be self critical. You can help by rating me on a scale of one to ten, ten being the best, and one being the worst. How would you rate me?
Me: 3
EB: Three is actually 11 in binary. So I’ll check you off for 10 plus.

Playing on the Slide

Playing on the Slide in the Park

Nathan loves the park close to home, where he can play on the slide, a rocking horse on a spring, and a sort of spinning top. Even now with the colder weather, it’s great to get out and watch him run around and climb up to the top of the slide. I thought the cold colours and his being wrapped up, along with red, yellow, green and blue (primary colours of light & paints together) made it a nice snap.

In other news, astronomy has now reached a level of precision where no less than five planets have been discovered in another solar system around 55 Cancri. One of them is in the habitable zone – a planet that could be a twin of Earth.

China have successfully launched their lunar probe and it has already successfully positioned itself to orbit the moon. A few more maneuvers are needed before it is in fully operational orbit.

I think it’s a fascinating time, with space exploration back in the news and lunar landings likely to happen in the next ten to fifteen years. Nathan might live a childhood full of awe of space and thoughts of other worlds, a bit like growing up in the sixties?

Prepare your Wake Up

Philips Wake Up Light

I got an unexpected present this Valentine’s day. Yasmina bought me a new alarm clock, and it’s unlike any I’ve had before. It works on the principle that simulating sunrise by gradually fading up a light until the alarm goes off helps to reduce production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. So recently, I’ve been waking up less likely to get out of bed on the wrong side.

You set your alarm time, the light intensity and the sound to a comfortable level, and around about 30 minutes before you wake up the light will begin to fade up. At your regular alarm time, the sound of birdsong (you can select a sort of echo laden zen beeping too) fades up over 90 seconds, giving you a zen moment before you open your eyes and reach to switch it off.

It works very well, waking me up less violently than the previous sudden intrusion into my slumbers of some random snippet of morning radio inanity. It’s rare that I have to hit “snooze” as often as before. Perhaps some of the effect is psychological, since it’s quite a luxury item, but I certainly feel better in the mornings. Philips say that it is medically proven, which has a nice logic behind it… combining artificial sunrise with zen birdsong while working somatically to reduce levels of sleep-inducing hormones. Highly recommended.

On a technical note (I’d hardly like to bore you with a post uniquely about this) I’ve upgraded to FeedBurner for my RSS delivery. This will allow me to find out how many of you are reading me via RSS and should make it easier to subscribe especially if you’re new to RSS. The BBC describe RSS it in some detail – you can create your own page with news from various sources and your favourite blogs thanks to RSS. Email subscribers, if anything looks funny when you receive this post, please let me know.

Online Cyborg Sex Facilitates Human Connections

The article “Experts ponder a future of new sex gizmos, robots” caught my eye.

People seem to have less and less time to spend really communicating with one another. After you get back from the office and attend to your chores, do you have enough time to really connect with people? Do you socialise as much as you used to? Can you afford to go out as much?

There is nothing that works on the Internet like pornography and sexual content. I might go so far as to say that pornography is a driving force in video compression, high speed internet links, and a precursor to most other online commerce. Today, teledildonics – or remote controlled sexual stimulation – is a reality that is a niche business with an interesting future.

Little ground is left uncovered in the ever growing desire to link everything to the Internet to revolutionise our world and make money to boot. How much of a life could you live without ever leaving your keyboard now? You can keep up with friends, order almost anything for delivery, and even… remotely operate some kind of pleasure device whilst watching your stimulated (simulated?) companion on a webcam feed.

The line between what is real and what is cyborg is beginning to blur. The same distinction between true human connections and online chimera friendships is getting more difficult to make. As the article concludes :

Some researchers warn that too much fantasy could prove adverse to everyday human interaction.

“There is a great deal of pushing people out of social relations into a kind of simulated relationship, which in fact decreases what is essential in human life, which is sociability — one’s capacity to relate to other people,”

What happens if the main way you relate to people is through an electromechanical device, and not the warmth of human touch?

Calculating a Happy Easter

Easter only just started for me, since Good Friday is not a public holiday in France. I only get a three day weekend :-(.

Easter always falls on the Sunday following the 14th day of the lunar month on or after the 21st of March (got that?). It’s not a particularly early Easter this year since it can fall as early as the 22nd of March – although it won’t actually fall on that date until 2285. Think it’s simple to calculate the date Easter will fall? Think again. A lot of mathematics needed to determine lunar months under Julian and Gregorian calendars…

[aside] Don’t get too stuffed eating chocolate, read about guaranteed zero calorie easter eggs on DVDs.

Changing Clocks

This week, America is an hour more than usual behind Europe. In the European Union, Summer Time begins on the last Sunday in March – all time zones change at the same moment, at 1am UTC (Universal Time a.k.a. GMT). So yesterday, the clocks went forward one hour. The clock change won’t happen in the US until the first Sunday in April – at the end of this week.

The original “invention” of Summer Time was made by William Willett who lobbied parliament in 1907. However, it was generally ridiculed and it wasn’t until the first world war that the economic argument started to be taken seriously. An American based time site attributes the original idea to Benjamin Franklin back in 1784. There is a difference of opinion in the two sites I have researched for this post, since will have it that Germany led and Britain followed in May 1916, but states that Britain led in April 1916…

Daylight Saving Time originally started in World War One, as a means of saving energy. More light in the evenings meant that less energy was used to light homes and use appliances because people are more likely to be doing outside activities when it is light outside. The main argument aside from energy saving is the reduction of road traffic accidents, as there is more light for children coming home from school and adults coming home from work.

Europe harmonised the date by EC directive in 1981. Before that, an exception would be made in Britain if the last Sunday in March was also Easter Sunday. It wasn’t until 2002 that this was fully passed into British law with the Summer Time Order.

As of 2007, the US are experimenting: the Energy Policy Act will come into force and move the clock change to the second Sunday in March. The Department of Energy will report to Congress to find out if there is a positive economic impact in moving an hour of sunlight from the morning to the afternoon a couple of weeks earlier. Britain experimented between 1968 and 1971 when there was no change made to clocks in summer. This meant that schoolchildren would leave home in the dark, and it wasn’t particularly popular – my Dad often spoke about that time and thought it was a stupid decision to not change the clocks. The difference in summer daylight is more pronounced the further you get from the equator, so the north of England and Scotland suffered the most in this experiment.

Morocco, being much closer to the equator, does not have a notion of summer time at all. Living there for 4½ years I got used to not having a clock change twice a year. Coming back to Europe it’s been hard these past couple of years readjusting. This morning is particularly difficult since yesterday was Nathan’s first clock change. While he remains blissfully unaware of the time, we are completely out of kilter since he was up at 5.30am on Sunday (old time) but since it was 6.30am (summer time) we decided to get up and start his day. Needless to say, I’m feeling particularly peaky this morning.

They Put a Man on the Moon

Apollo Astronaut on the Moon

In thirteen years from now, with a budget of at least US$108 billion, NASA plans to once again put a man on the moon. In fact not one, but four at a time. Perhaps even a woman this time ;-). The major difference in the new moon launch plan – and something no doubt which came out of all the thinking about how “unsafe” the shuttle missions have been – is that a large unmanned heavy cargo launcher will take the actual moon vehicle and cargo up into Earth orbit; then a smaller crew launcher rocket will take the crew into orbit and allow them to dock with the mission specific vehicle. As far as coming back to Earth is concerned, the craft will be much like the original Apollo capsules, but with airbags to land inland and not at sea.

I have a couple of questions on my mind. Firstly, it was announced in the early 60s that the US could make it to the moon before the end of the decade. Today, in 2005, they can only announce 2018 as a possible date for a moon landing. Clearly the plans are more ambitious but the basic fact is that it will take more time, because everything is more complex and more grandiose. Secondly, the budget is very much equivalent to the original Apollo mission budget converted into 1994 US$. Indeed, it’s cheaper. So a more complex project to put four men onto the moon for seven days is budgeted to be cheaper that Apollo was. Somewhere, something doesn’t quite add up for me.

So why go there at all? A number of people hark back to forty two years ago, and one of JFK’s renowned speeches from 1962 :

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Back then, the Russians were engaged with the US administration in the space race. They put the first man in space in April 1961 and this speech followed a few months later. I wonder therefore if the desire to get back to the moon has anything to do with the Chinese space program. They may have denied having plans for a manned moon mission back in 2002, but being the clear leader in defense and aeronautics is a keystone of American policy.

Image Credit : NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC)