Archive for February, 2015

How Odd Behavior in Some Young Horses May Reveal a Cause of Autism – Facts So Romantic

February 28, 2015

By gently squeezing maladjusted foals, veterinary researcher John Madigan recreates the experience of traveling through the birth canal, lowering the levels of certain neurosteroids and “waking up” the young horses.Joe Proudman / UC Davis

As a toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, Isaac Pessah focuses on how different molecules regulate human brain function and development. Yet when he found himself at the university’s equine research center, watching a troubled newborn foal, he was struck by its eerily familiar clinical symptoms.

Horses are prey animals, and like most animals whose chief form of defense is flight, they are up on their feet almost immediately after birth. At first they stagger around in the straw in their stalls, pitching their outsized legs out like tent poles for support, but within an hour or two they are on their feet and nursing.

For foals born with a disorder called maladjusted foal syndrome (MFS), that transition isn’t so smooth. These foals are detached and disoriented. They don’t seem to recognize their mothers, failing to make normal sounds or try to nurse. One foal at the UC Davis center couldn’t find his way out of a corner and tried to climb into the…
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Yes, You’re Irrational, and Yes, That’s OK – Issue 21: Information

February 26, 2015

Imagine that (for some reason involving cultural tradition, family pressure, or a shotgun) you suddenly have to get married. Fortunately, there are two candidates. One is charming and a lion in bed but an idiot about money. The other has a reliable income and fantastic financial sense but is, on the other fronts, kind of meh. Which would you choose?

Sound like six of one, half-dozen of the other? Many would say so. But that can change when a third person is added to the mix. Suppose candidate number three has a meager income and isn’t as financially astute as choice number two. For many people, what was once a hard choice becomes easy: They’ll pick the better moneybags, forgetting about the candidate with sex appeal. On the other hand, if the third wheel is a schlumpier version of attractive number one, then it’s the sexier choice that wins in a landslide. This is known as the “decoy effect”—whoever gets an inferior competitor becomes more highly valued.

The decoy effect is just one example of people being swayed by what mainstream economists have traditionally considered irrelevant noise. After all, their community has, for a century or so, taught that the…
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Is DNA the Language of the Book of Life? – Facts So Romantic

February 26, 2015

Thinking of nucleobases as a long sequence of letters may contribute to the illusion that DNA is a language.Neil Palmer / CIAT via Flickr

When we talk about genes, we often use expressions inherited from a few influential geneticists and evolutionary biologists, including Francis Crick, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins. These expressions depict DNA as a kind of code telling bodies how to form. We speak about genes similarly to how we speak about language, as symbolic and imbued with meaning. There is “gene-editing,” and there are “translation tables” for decoding sequences of nucleic acid. When DNA replicates, it is said to “transcribe” itself. We speak about a message—such as, build a tiger! or construct a female!—being communicated between microscopic materials. But this view of DNA has come with a price, argue some thinkers. It is philosophically misguided, they say, and has even led to scientific blunders. Scratch the surface of this idea, and below you’ll find a key contradiction.

Since the earliest days of molecular biology, scientists describe genetic material to be unlike all other biological material, because it supposedly carries something that more workaday molecules don’t: information. In a 1958 paper, Crick presented his ideas…
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Will Humans Be Able to Control Computers That Are Smarter Than Us? – Facts So Romantic

February 24, 2015

The ominous eye of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey

If humans go on to create artificial intelligence, will it present a significant danger to us? Several technical luminaries have been open and clear with respect to this possibility: Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has equated it to “summoning the demon”; Stephen Hawking warns it “could spell the end of the human race”; and Bill Gates agrees with Musk, placing himself in this “concerned” camp.

Their worry is that once the AI is switched on and gradually assumes more and more responsibility in running our brave, newfangled world—all the while improving upon its own initial design—what’s to stop it from realizing that human existence is an inefficiency or perhaps even an annoyance? Perhaps the AI would want to get rid of us if, as Musk has suggested, it decided that the best way to get rid of spam email “is to get rid of humans” altogether.

No doubt there is value in warning of the dystopian potential of certain trends or technologies. George Orwell’s 1984, for example, will always stand as a warning against technologies or institutions that remind us…
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Forget “Earth-Like”—We’ll First Find Aliens on Eyeball Planets – Facts So Romantic

February 21, 2015

Imagine a habitable planet orbiting a distant star. You’re probably picturing a variation of Earth. Maybe it’s a little cloudier, or covered in oceans. Maybe the mountains are a little higher. Maybe the trees are red instead of green. Maybe there are scantily clad natives … OK, let’s stop there.

That image may very well be completely off-base. There is good reason to think that the first potentially life-bearing worlds that are now being detected around other stars (see here for example) probably look very different than Earth. Rather, these planets are more likely to look like giant eyeballs whose gaze is forever fixed on their host stars (which is not something I recommend doing with your own eyeballs).

Let’s take a step back. The easiest planets to find are those that orbit close to their stars. The sweet spot for finding a habitable planet—with the same temperature as Earth—is on a much smaller orbit than Earth’s around a star much fainter than the Sun. But there are consequences of having a smaller orbit. A planet close to its star feels strong tides from its star, like the tides Earth feels from the Moon, but much stronger.…
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Nostalgia Just Became a Law of Nature – Issue 21: Information

February 19, 2015

John Ruskin called it the pathetic fallacy: to see rainstorms as passionate, drizzles as sad, and melting streams as innocent. After all, the intuition went, nature has no human passions.

Imagine Ruskin’s surprise, then, were he to learn that the mathematics of perception, knowledge, and experience lie at the heart of modern theories of the natural world. Quite contrary to his stern intuition, quantitative relationships appear to tie hard, material laws to soft qualities of mind and belief.

The story of that discovery begins with the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, soon after Ruskin coined his phrase at the end of the 19th century. It was then that science first strived, not for knowledge, but for its opposite: for a theory of how we might ignore the messy details of, say, a steam engine or chemical reaction, but still predict and explain how it worked.

Boltzmann provided a unifying framework for how to do this nearly singlehandedly before his death by suicide in 1906. What he saw, if dimly, is that thermodynamics is a story not about the physical world, but about what happens when our knowledge of it fails. Quite literally: A student of thermodynamics today can translate the physical…
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Mumbling Isn’t a Sign of Laziness—It’s a Clever Data-Compression Trick – Facts So Romantic

February 19, 2015

Many of us have been taught that pronouncing vowels indistinctly and dropping consonants are symptoms of slovenly speech, if not outright disregard for the English language. The Irish playwright St. John Ervine viewed such habits as evidence that some speakers are “weaklings too languid and emasculated to speak their noble language with any vigor.” If that’s so, then we are swimming in a sea of linguistic wimpiness; Keith Johnson found that speakers relaxed or dropped sounds in more than 60 percent of words spoken in conversation. Happily, the science of mumbling offers a far less judgmental—and more captivating—account of our imperfectly crisp pronunciations.

Far from being a symptom of linguistic indifference or moral decay, dropping or reducing sounds displays an underlying logic similar to the data-compression schemes that are used to create MP3s and JPEGs. These algorithms trim down the space needed to digitally store sounds and images by throwing out information that is redundant or doesn’t add much to our perceptual experience—for example, tossing out data at sound frequencies we can’t hear, or not bothering to encode slight gradations of color that are hard to see. The idea is to keep only the information that has the greatest impact.

Mumbling—or…
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The Brilliant “Baloney Slicer” That Started the Digital Age – Facts So Romantic

February 17, 2015

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Air Force Supply Depot in Ohio was looking for a faster way to store and fetch information from its sizable inventory. They had 50,000 items in their records and wanted instant access to each one of them. The dominant storage technologies of the time—punch cards, magnetic tape and magnetic drums (and filing cabinets)—were unreliable and slow. The information on magnetic tapes, for instance, was largely sequential, and one could wait seconds, minutes, or more for the roll to unravel to the right point. Even the depot’s expensive mainframe computer had a huge lag time since it collected lists of the depot’s parts count and then processed it in batches. As data piled up between the processing batches, the computer records were out of date. 

The Air Force sent a request to IBM, soliciting a bid for a “material information flow device.” Coincidentally, IBM had recently set up an advanced research lab in San Jose in 1952, partly to look into ways to speed up information storage. The problem simmered in IBM’s satellite lab in what would soon become Silicon Valley, but was then still dotted with orchards.…
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The Future of the Web Is 100 Years Old – Issue 21: Information

February 12, 2015

The Earth may not be flat, but the web certainly is.

“There is no ‘top’ to the World-Wide Web,” declared a 1992 foundational document from the World Wide Web Consortium—meaning that there is no central server or organizational authority to determine what does or does not get published. It is, like Borges’ famous Library of Babel, theoretically infinite, stitched together with hyperlinks rather than top-down, Dewey Decimal-style categories.1 It is also famously open—built atop a set of publicly available industry standards.

While these features have connected untold millions and created new forms of social organization, they also come at a cost. Material seems to vanish almost as quickly as it is created, disappearing amid broken links or into the constant flow of the social media “stream.” It can be hard to distinguish fact from falsehood. Corporations have stepped into this confusion, organizing our browsing and data in decidedly closed, non-transparent ways. Did it really have to turn out this way?

The web has played such a powerful role in shaping our world that it can sometimes seem like a fait accompli—the inevitable result of progress and enlightened thinking. A deeper look into the historical record, though, reveals a different story:…
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Why Spaceflight Will Never Be as Safe as Modern Aviation – Facts So Romantic

February 12, 2015

Charles Lindbergh in 1923, four years before his trans-Atlantic flight.

A light drizzle greeted Charles Lindbergh as he arrived at Roosevelt Field on May 20, 1927, at a little before three in the morning. Weeks of rain had ensured that the runway at the Long Island airport was in poor condition, soft and strewn with puddles. If Lindbergh was nervous about the condition of the field, he provided no outward signs, as his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, was fueled and prepared for takeoff. What Lindbergh was about to attempt had never been done and the odds were decidedly against him. Over the previous nine months, the race to be first to cross the Atlantic had resulted in 11 dead. The public was beginning to wonder whether it was all worth it.

For Lindbergh and the others who took up the challenge, there was no doubt. The rewards for success included not only the achievement of an historic first—we still write and read articles about Lindbergh—but also the prestige of winning the Orteig Prize. The prize, created by New York Hotelier Raymond Orteig in 1919, offered a $25,000 reward, a large sum in those days, for the…
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