Where’s the duct tape?

Obviously, I did it all wrong. I have a digital video microscope in my lab, but what I did was spend about $20,000 on a nice microscope, $1000 on a digital still camera and about $500 on a digital video camera, and $200 on a pair of custom adapters to link them together. The principle is simple enough, though; you’re just mounting a camera on the scope where your eye would be and grabbing images with a standard computer interface. So here’s New Scientist bragging about building a video microscope for £15.

I’ve done something similar in the past, but I can one-up Lewis Sykes: I made my adapter with cardboard and duct tape, instead of going all out and fabricating fancy-pants acrylic rings.

I should confess that there is a little bit of a quality difference between the images I get on my lab scope and the ones you can get out of $30 microscope. As long as you’re not trying to resolve sub-micron details, though, you can probably get by.

Evolve a car

Looking for a nice demonstration of genetic algorithms? Here’s a simulation that takes randomized connected collections of polygons and wheels and scores them for their ability to traverse a rugged 2D landscape. I tried it last night, and it gave me an assortment of very bad vehicles: for example, a lot of them were just polygonal lumps that fell flat and sat there, while some had an odd wheel here and there, but also pointy bits that acted as brakes, or wheels that pointed upward at the sky and did nothing at all. So I just left it running and went to bed.

This morning, I’ve got strange vehicles running races on my computer screen. Unsurprising, but still kind of cool.

How to game Google Scholar

I’ve heard back from a few people now who contacted Google about the issue of indexing creationist sites in Google Scholar; these are informal remarks from the team, not an official policy statement, but they’re still interesting. And revealing. And useful. They’ll change your perspective on Google Scholar.

The premise of the petition to Google to stop serving up creationist claptrap is a misconception. Google Scholar does not index on content; it can’t, it’s just a dumb machine sorting text. Google Scholar does not, and this is the surprise to me, index on the source — it makes no decision based on whether it’s an article from Nature or from a kindergarten Sunday School class fieldtrip. There’s nothing they can easily tweak to exclude garbage from one source and include jewels from another: the internet is one big garbage heap to Google, and they’ll dig for you, but it’s your job to sort gems from trash.

The way items get on Google Scholar is based entirely on whether they’re formatted like a scholarly paper. They aren’t sharing the details, but it has to be fairly general stuff, like having a title and author and not being surround by advertising bric-a-brac, or whatever. Any ol’ nonsense will do, since they don’t evaluate content, and any ol’ author will also do, since they don’t care if it’s being published by the university or the insane asylum, just make it look sort of like a serious paper, and it will show up.

And now you know how Answers in Genesis can find their twaddle on Google Scholar. If there’s anything they’re good at, it’s pretending to be scientific, going through the motions while demolishing the substance. This is good information to have, actually, and you should pass it on to your students, and take it into account when using the service.

If ever I lose an arm…

OK, I bow to popular opinion: almost 100 people have sent me a link to this story about a prosthetic tentacle. It’s a brilliant idea, but I don’t know anyone who has lost a limb who would suggest that their prosthesis is even an adequate alternative. It’s a little insensitive to swoon over one, then…but still, I like the idea of going outside the bounds of the human model to come up with a solution.


But I wouldn’t be satisfied until it had full sensorimotor integration and color-changing technology.

The final decision on the biotechnology debate at the Economist

After the total votes were added up in the big GMO debate, the Economist scores it 62% against biotechnology, 38% for biotechnology. They also explain that there was a huge turnout and that there was a lot of active campaigning for particular views.

The voting has shifted dramatically during this debate, starting out heavily in favour of the motion, swinging strongly in the other direction (seemingly in response to an organised campaign by anti-GM activists), and then swinging back towards the middle. But in the end the opponents of biotechnology—or, more precisely, the opponents of genetic modification in its current form—carried the day with 62% of the votes, against 38% for supporters of the motion.

So, one strike against genetically modified organisms, one big win for pharyngulation. These online polls are a terrible way to resolve debates, since all it takes is a few big sites charging in to advocate a view to greatly skew the results. The Economist seems to fail to grasp that concept even now, unfortunately.

What about these anti-GM activists? I pointed out one example. It turns out that another bunch of them were at Crazy Mike’s Sewer Pipe of Misinformation, where Mike Adams now gloats about his ‘victory’. He’s also got some wild conspiracy theories, and fascinating descriptions of you, fellow readers of Pharyngula.

Today’s “scientism” followers (the cult worshippers who call themselves “science bloggers”) don’t value life, knowledge or truth. For some astonishing reason, they pick the most evil side of every issue. On the issue of GMOs, for example, they automatically side with Monsanto and DuPont, calling for more biotech Frankenseed interventions that threaten the very future of life on our planet.

Well, I think if you actually look at the discussions that went on here, you find a lot of opposition to corporate abuse of technology; there were many people who thought biotech was fine, but Monsanto…not so benevolent. You also found people who opposed genetically modified organisms, and the vote from this side was not monolithic at all.

On the issue of Big Pharma and the mass-drugging of world citizens with patented synthetic chemicals, the science bloggers of course side with the drug companies! Big Pharma and the FDA can do no wrong in their eyes, and the solution to health is, they say, found in prescribing more chemicals to more people!

If these people were living back in the 1950’s, they would no doubt side with Big Tobacco, because the “science” at that time said cigarettes were actually good for you! The Journal of the American Medical Association, by the way, actually used to run full-page advertisements for cigarettes. And they were endorsed by doctors and scientists, too.

Actually, no, the science in the 1950s found cigarettes to be a serious risk factor. Tobacco companies funded biased research to argue otherwise, for the purpose of confusing legal and political interests. The scientific interests weren’t fooled.

Gee, no wonder they keep losing all the legitimate polls and surveys. Does anyone still believe that modern medicine is working? Does anyone really think that the answer to the problems facing human civilization is to be found in more chemicals, more genetic alterations, more playing God with nature and more corporate control over our food, medicine, genes and ideas? (The science bloggers, by the way, also support corporate ownership of human genes, 20% of which are right now patented by corporations and universities. This is an affront to natural law and a crime against humanity…)

Science bloggers, by the way, do not actually represent science. They worship a cult called “scientism” that pushes a corporate agenda which seeks to concentrate power in the hands of the few while denying food, freedom and health to the people.

I favor corporate ownership of human genes? Wow, you learn something new and wrong every time you read Crazy Mike.

Christianity shall fall to the power of Slashdot

So Slashdot ran a short article on the rise of religious search engines — customized web search engines to return preferred sources to fit one’s personal superstitions. I can’t say how true that is, because the examples they gave, such as the Christian SeekFind page, has collapsed under the sudden weight of a multitude of geeks overwhelming their database.

This isn’t the Christian world anymore. We live on Nerd World. And I for one welcome our new aspie overlords.

In which my faith in Apple is shaken

This is very bad news: I don’t mind at all that Apple’s Mac/iPhone/iPad technology is closed and proprietary, but when they use that to censor delivered content, I get very, very unhappy. Mark Fiore is a fabulous web political cartoonist, and he came out with an iPhone app to provide access to his work…and Apple rejected it.

But there’s just one problem. In December, Apple rejected his iPhone app, NewsToons, because, as Apple put it, his satire “ridicules public figures,” a violation of the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement, which bars any apps whose content in “Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.”

A while back, apparently Apple blocked a whole bunch of apps that were basically soft-core porn — girls in bikinis, that sort of thing — and I didn’t notice, because I’m not in the market for that stuff, and don’t favor that kind of exploitation of women anyway. But when we didn’t stop the censorship of soft-core girlie pictures, who knew the next stop would be the censorship of political satire?

Apple needs to get out of the censorship game. Review apps for compatibility, but not content; it’s OK if Apple will only market neutered, innocuous apps through their branded store, but not OK if they use their tech to restrict access and allow no other app outlets.

This is a serious enough danger that I’ve decided to put off any purchase of an iPad until I see some resolution of this problem. Unlock the apps.