I Guess I’m An Old-Fashioned Cuttlefish

The young folk say it’s all about branding. Me, I just like everything about it, from the smell, to the texture, to memories from childhood. And yes, I do remember melted wax seals from my childhood, and no, I’m not 400 years old. I guess my parents were weird, too.

It’s on its way–Now all I need is a local supplier of sheepskin vellum, and I can get off the internets for good and just tuck scrolls of pentametric verse into the knotholes of trees and bottles tossed into the North Atlantic. The way it was back when poets were real poets.
wax seal of my cuttlefish sigil
(Click to embiggen) This is a pic of the actual stamp, as I understand it. Nice of them to send a preview!

Neurophrenology

Scannily, cannily,
Neuropsychologists
Use pretty pictures to
Search for the mind;

Sadly, it’s no more than
Neophrenology—
Looking for lumps of a
Different kind

I think if I read one more article using fMRI (or any other brain scan) to find the substrate for this that or the other experiential phenomenon, I may have to hurt somebody.

And not just because it is technologically inadequate; it is also that they are looking at the wrong thing. What we call “mind” is not (and, I would wager all my ink, can never be) found in snapshots of the brain–it is extended both in time and space. Don’t get me wrong–I am not proposing any sort of supernatural mind, of non-physical stuff; rather, that which we call mind is inferred from our own and others’ behavior, as we and they interact with a changing world over time. Such things are no more reducible to instantaneous brain states than “War and Peace” is reducible to a limerick.

1957 (Beep! Beep!)

On this date, little Sputnik was shot into space
Just one shot, of many, in a war-proxy race
There were thousands, or millions, who were all losing sleep
Cos an object above them was going “beep…beep…”
There were others, of course, who were not so entranced–
When they heard the “beep…beep…” they just got up and danced.

Louis Prima, “Beep! Beep!”, recorded 1957. Lyrics, if you want.

In honor of Sputnik, launched this day (October 4) in 1957.

I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

Our data we once kept in drives and disks,
Protecting it for use some future day;
Predictably, we did not know the risks:
Its storage starts the process of decay
But scan a sonnet; digitize a play
Record a speech—whatever you might choose
And store it in synthetic DNA
Encoded there in zeroes, ones and twos—
Your data, but converted to base three,
Recorded in nucleic acid bases
(We often write them A, C, G and T)
Which guard against the stuff that time erases
Who would have guessed the cutting edge would find
A storage system older than mankind?

So, yeah, take a look at this. I have, in my office, several copies of the works of Shakespeare, in different formats. Facsimile editions of early issues, the Riverside edition, some other things… one on CD-ROM, and (a gift from someone who knows me very well) a wonderful miniature Romeo and Juliet about the size of a matchbox. At my undergrad college, there was a set of Shakespeare in the general collection stacks of the library that was a limited edition printing, with gilt-edged pages and hand-printed illustrations–I wanted to steal it to keep it safe from people who wanted to… erm… steal it. (I didn’t. I hope it is still there.)

Whether you store your Shakespeare in paper form or in ones and zeroes on a flash device, hard drive, or CD-ROM, your choice of medium has a lifespan. It will decay. Electronic storage that continually checks for errors can be, in the long long long term, expensive. At least expensive enough that researchers are willing to look for alternatives. And it turns out, there is a tried and true method of data storage that can handle incredible amounts of data in very little physical space, in a stable medium (given reasonable storage–even in bad conditions, this medium has been known to accurately store data for tens of thousands of years).

DNA.

In case you missed it, that’s a link to a CNN article on data storage in DNA.

Scientists have developed a technique of storing information in DNA, the molecule found in living creatures including humans that contains genetic instructions. The experiment is discussed in a new study in the journal Nature.

Y’know, it’s kind of funny to hear people talk about how we are going to make this giant leap forward when the singularity comes and we can download our consciousness to some digital form. We practically fetishize digital storage. How does DNA storage compare?

The technique, researchers said, could even encode a zettabyte’s worth of data. That’s enough to encompass the total amount of digital information that currently exists on Earth, which would be “breathtakingly expensive” right now, Birney said.

Researchers used five different kinds of digital information to show that their method would work to preserve a variety of media in DNA. These included a text file with William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, a PDF of a scientific paper, a photo in JPEG format of the European Bioinformatics Institute, and an MP3 audio excerpt of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Scientists showed that they could encode these files in DNA and then, by sequencing the DNA, reconstruct them with 100% accuracy.

Damn, that is cool.

It’s not in binary, though, much as I love my ones and zeroes; that’s not the way DNA stores data:

Text on your computer, while it may look like words, is actually encoded in your computer as ones and zeros – this is called binary. For the purposes of DNA synthesis, scientists took that information and converted it to base 3 – that is, zeroes, ones and twos.

From there, the data gets translated into collections of DNA’s nucleic acid bases, represented by the letters A, C, G and T.

That’s how scientists encode the DNA fragments.

One last thing… my silly little sonnet, up above there? If that were converted to DNA, what size of storage device are we looking at?

DNA has the advantage of being light and small, researchers said. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets would weigh 0.3 picograms (10^-12) grams, said Nick Goldman, lead study author.

At the risk of repeating myself… Damn, that is cool.

(Blog post title from sonnet 123, if you were wondering.)

Robot Octopus!

Robot Octopus. Two words that are awesome together.

I want a robot octopus
To play with in the pool
To go for walks on rainy days
And follow me to school
To count upon its tentacles
And help me out with math
To find my rubber ducky
When I lose it in the bath

I want a robot octopus
I’ll take one, any size!
With sensors in its tentacles,
And artificial eyes
I’ll run it by remote control
It’s gonna be such fun…
I want a robot octopus
Could someone make me one?

AAAAArrrrrgh!

I’ve called the support here at Cuttlefish U.,
I’ve watched all the viddies they’ve asked me to view,
I’ve followed each step they’ve prescribed me to do
But I can’t get the program to run!
I’ve cleared all my cookies; I’ve emptied the cache
Deleted old copies (‘twas quite a large stash)
Been nice to the laptop I wanted to bash
But the program’s not even begun

I’ve told of my problem, to techies I’ve called,
How, yes, on my desktop, I got it installed,
But failed on my laptop, and sat there and bawled
Cos it should have been done in one try
I can’t see a reason (nor, frankly, can they)
When I ran the procedure both times the same way
And it’s so very helpful to hear, when they say
“I don’t know, but good luck, and goodbye!”

So, does anyone know of particular problems loading the tegrity video recording software onto Macs? I’m at wit’s end, and I’m only a halfwit to begin with.

The GOP’s Bright Shining Light Of Freedom

God bless the GOP.

I hope you know me well enough to read that with the appropriate ironic tone. The GOP have allowed me my first chance to repeat a post written originally by me, not on the old blog but on this one! The “Gilding Our Past” party, faced with the effects of G.W. Bush’s energy-efficiency law, have decided that before they do anything about …well, anything… they are gonna save the 100-watt incandescent light bulb. For freedom. (more, after the jump:) [Read more…]

Headline Muse, 11/6

Though the thought, I am sure, left them weary
Google answered the government’s query
Though they couldn’t tell yet,
There’s a very real threat
In the form of the audible “Siri”

Headline: Schmidt sees Siri as a ‘threat’ to Google’s search business

My dumb phone is already smarter than I am; I doubt I will have a smart phone until the cool kids are getting an even newer model implanted into the bones of their skulls.

Do Not Taunt The Bionic Monkey

When historians of later years look back, as well they may,
It’s clear the reign of cybermonkeys had its start today
Electrodes let a monkey’s brain control a robot’s arm—
It’s scientific progress! There’s no reason for alarm!

My comment for the scientists: I’m questioning the need
For monkeys that can fling their shit at hypersonic speed
I’m not against technology; that’s not my major fuss;
It’s just… shit-flinging monkeys are already too like us.

Real story, after the jump:
[Read more…]

One Person Per Car

Look at them driving—one person per car—
Some driving forever; some not very far
They want to be somewhere that’s not where they are
So off they go driving, one person per car.

Some drive for a living; some drive just for fun
Some drive to the gym, then get out and go run
Then a bottle of juice and an energy bar
And away they go driving, one person per car

It’s not that they’re lazy, or selfish, or mean
Or under the thumb of some wastefulness gene
It’s not that they’re stupid; they’re not unaware
And it’s certainly not that they just don’t care
They’re the same as I am, and the same as you are
But off they go driving, one person per car

The drivers are heard to complain as they pass,
Of the costs of insurance, the high price of gas,
The taxes, inspections, repairs and the lot,
And there’s practically never a good parking spot
And the traffic! Imagine the time they have lost
As they sit, breathing everyone else’s exhaust
Till the roofs of their mouths taste of asphalt and tar
And they sit there—just sit there—one person per car

The car manufacturers sound a bit troubled;
They wish that their mileage could somehow be doubled
Without major changes—or any at all,
Cos the public won’t buy if the car is too small
It has to have room for a trip to the shore
With a couple of riders, perhaps three or four
And they need to have room for the blankets and gear
For the trips they might take, maybe one time a year
But of course they spend most of their hours, by far
Just sitting in traffic, one person per car

If the energy used as they try to explain
How they can’t take the subway; they can’t take the train
How they can’t join a carpool or hop on a bike
But drive to wherever, whenever they like
If the energy used as they make their excuses
Were tapped, for the energy bullshit produces…
Distill it, refine it, and fill up a jar
And off they’d go driving, one person per car

slight rant after the jump:
[Read more…]