The Russians have a Level 7, kind of.

In an interesting article from Wired, Nicholas Thompson details some of the specifics on a Russian doomsday device that was built during the Cold War.  It is a fascinating piece that, while chock full of information, seems to imply that Russian device is entirely automatic; a fact not refuted until the final paragraphs of the article.  In fact, with the human “fail safe” the whole system reminded me eerily of Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7, particularly in the last section of article when Thomspon states, with perhaps a touch of hyperbole:

Yes, I agree, a human could decide in the end not to press the button. But that person is a soldier, isolated in an underground bunker, surrounded by evidence that the enemy has just destroyed his homeland and everyone he knows. Sensors have gone off; timers are ticking. There’s a checklist, and soldiers are trained to follow checklists.

Not too far from push button operator X-127, eh?  The full article is HERE and of course I still highly recommend you check out Roshwald’s book.


We apparently live in Spelljammer

From a article about the recently discovered “dark flow” (massive amounts of our universe flowing towards a fixed point at ridiculous speeds) comes this little gem on “inflation theory”:

A theory called inflation posits that the universe we see is just a small bubble of space-time that got rapidly expanded after the Big Bang. There could be other parts of the cosmos beyond this bubble that we cannot see.

So…apparently we live (might live) in a “bubble”  of space time in a universe that exists outside of our observable surroundings.  I will give $20 to the first NASA scientist that dubs this material/area outside our bubble “The Phlogiston”.

Also, someone better plug that hole in our universe quick!  Beofre things get ugly!

Inches Closer to Armageddon

In what almost amounts to a continuing series on the pending robot apocalypse we have this news bit about an early generation replicating computer. While it is primarily design to easy production of everyday items it’s creator hopes it can be used make other computers.

Scariest sentence:  “The machine has also successfully copied all of its own structural pieces.”

At least we can be comforted that it isn’t being made by Japanese company CYBERDYNE, creators of, and I shit you not, HAL (the hybrid assistive limb).

A different singularity

Ferrante and I have a lot of shared interests.  Video games, music, music games, and scifi/fantasy to name a few.  But we’re individuals and of course we have our differences.  He’s got comics; I’ve got sports.  He sports a full beard, while my facial hair is more akin to that of a middle schooler.  And he’s got computers, while I’ve got science.  I’m not saying I’m not computer literate.  I am.  But I can’t (also won’t) make my own computer.  Full control over the GHZ or whatnot is outside the realm of things I need from the machine I’m currently typing on.  Hell, the Dell laptop I’m using has a broken graphics card fan that makes a high pitched whining noise sometimes.  Most computer nerds would probably have a seizure over that.  Anyway, I fill the void left by lack of computer skills with science.

Fortunately, science and computer technology are not too terribly far apart (hence the name computer science?).  And they’re getting closer all the time.  So sometimes we have a meshing of our individual fields, like when scientists start using bacteria for problem solving. The method is pretty cool.  They inserted a plasmid carrying mixed up pieces of an antibiotic resistance gene into E. Coli.  They then inserted a Salmonella enzyme to randomly flip genetic material, waited for a bit, and exposed the E. Coli to antibiotics.  Any bacteria that survived would have had to form the entire resistance gene, thus “solving” the problem.  I’d be interested to know where they go next with this kind of technology.  Clearly the DNA computing system they’ve created can solve certain problems much faster than a normal PC.  But the obvious problem is priming the system so that it actually solves the problem.  You have to put in the plasmid/enzyme/etc that’s akin to the code for a computer program.  The more complex problems you want to solve with bacteria the more “stuff” you have to prime the system with and, as every scientists knows, there are always consequences of putting foreign materials into living things.

On the other hand, I’m looking forward to a day when I try to calculate something in Excel and my computer transfects bacteria to do it.

The Singularity

the IEEE
Spectrum has a Special Report on the Singularity up on their site.  Wikipedia has a handy basic definition of technological singularity:

The technological singularity is a hypothesised (sic) point in the future variously characterized by the technological creation of self-improving intelligence, unprecedentedly rapid technological progress, or some combination of the two

A vague definition that only scratches the surface of the varied theories and ideas behind the Singularity, but suitable as an introduction.  Popular films like The Matrix and The Terminator series reveal some dangers of the Singularity while Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs’ novels (Altered Carbon, etc.) focus on the immortality aspect of human consciousness transformed into something resembling a software program housed in hardware (i.e. our body).

In truth, at least as I see it, the concept (or theory if you prefer) is a weird intersecting of disparate sciences and philosophies that is fused into something that almost resembles religion; or spirituality at the very lest.  Viable or not it makes for interesting discussion and even more interesting fiction.

In vitro chicken-meat…?

Science allows us to do plenty of cool and creepy things.  But whether you’re into weird science for resurrecting extinct species or just to grow ears on the backs of mice, PETA wants you to know that they’ve one-upped you.

PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the contest participant able to make the first in vitro chicken meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The contestant must do both of the following:

• Produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.
• Manufacture the approved product in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states.

First off, I would like to salute PETA on this. Usually they strike me as militant dolts, but the phrase “in vitro meat” is a stroke of brilliance. The idea itself is doomed to failure at the moment though. Many vegetarians won’t eat the meat because “animal cruelty” is not their primary reason for being vegetarian in the first place. And the number that do switch over to eating in vitro meat will probably be offset by people who are scared or weirded out by the concept itself and refuse to eat it. Plus, even if they can get people to eat it, there’s still the problem of cost. The amount of R&D needed to grow edible tissues in culture will be astronomical (and the $1 million prize is likely a laughable drop in the bucket). All of that money will be reflected in the price of the meat and realistically, crazy organic-loving hippies aside, there’s probably not a huge market for bizarre pseudo-chicken that costs more than regular chicken.


Upon seeing this I immediately thought of an episode of Sci-fi Channel’s blissfully goofy Eureka.  It took me a while to find the info but a blog over at tvguide by pgoody had a succinct summary of what I remember:

With that crisis averted, Jack turns his attention to the “dumb virus” and soon deduces that all the dummies all ate chicken at Café Diem. After investigating the chicken farm, Jack finds out that the chicken farmer doesn’t want to kill birds so she uses stem-cell technology to grow independent chicken parts (yummy?). The cloned chicken parts, while organic, causes some chemical reaction that makes people who eat them stupid. A vegetarian doctor, who kept her smarts, develops the antidote, and all goes back to “normal” at GD.

Episode was from Season 2 called “E=MC…?” Not that I expect anything of the sort to happen in real life but it reminded me of that whole fiction to reality surealness I posted about earlier.


It’s evolution, baby

It’s been a big week on the evolution front. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is looming on the horizon, threatening to again paint our country as a bunch of backwards yokels who don’t understand a) the distinction between faith and science (and why one can’t substitute for the other), b) what a scientific theory is and why it’s different than a theory in everyday language, and c) that not all scientists are atheists but rather all scientists have to ignore faith in their experiments because it’s not a valid part of the scientific method. For those that don’t know what the movie is about, let me give you the tl;dr summary: “The Man” (referring to scientists here) is keeping creationists down and blackballing them. Plus evolution brought us Social Darwinism and the Holocaust, therefore it’s bad.

You might be tempted to think I was using hyperbole here to mock the film. Nope. They actually went so far as to edit Darwin’s writings to make it look like he approved of eugenics, despite the unedited paragraphs saying exactly the opposite. Expelled is just now filtering out to audiences that can actually analyze the movie’s content instead of just test audiences from the uber-right and the reviews have been predictably bad. Watch the movie (preferably by finding yourself a copy on BitTorrent) and understand that we live in a country where the teaching of evolution is threatened in numerous states, including right here in PA.

But it hasn’t been all bad for Darwin and his theory. He got his complete works put up online for all to see at no cost. There’s some great stuff on there, including original sketches from his time on the H.M.S. Beagle. Plus Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania just announced 2009 to be the Year of Evolution. Philadelphia is frequently mocked (sadly with good cause) for being low brow and a second-tier city, so it’s good to see the city take an active role on the front lines of an intellectual battle.

Digg: Astroids, Cyborgs, and Quantum Physics

Three Diggs caught my eye this morning:

The first is about a 5,000 year old astroid being recorded on an Assyrian tablet that sounds like something out of a movie.  I am particularly fond of the sixth paragraph.

This is a cool video of a new prosthetic robot arm.

The last is a short bit about scientists bouncing photons off of a satellite and recording their return trip.  Cool in that it raises the potential for quantum communication.