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!


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

Sadly, it’s no more than
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).


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?