Sunday, April 27, 2008

Going Out on a Limb: the Universe is NOT a Giant Brain Cell

I twittered last night about an interesting blurb that cycled up to the top of Digg, called "A Brain Cell is the Same as the Universe." I broadcasted the URL for the article, because I thought that the similarities were quite striking, and that something interesting could be learned about both structures because of this comparison....

...then I went to sleep - or tried to - and thought about this in bed for awhile. It occurred to me that the title of the article wasn't that the structures were similar, so much as they were the same. It was probably that title alone - plus the astonishing photos that accompanied it - that moved this article into the top of the Digg heap.

There are a few interesting fields in several branches of the sciences that focus on taxonomy - these fields are usually called "comparative," (as in "comparative biology"), and were quite popular when I was a college student back in the dawn of time. In a nutshell, the idea is that if something quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck. Ok, that was ridiculously simplifed and probably insulting, but - hell's bells - it was fun to get to finally put that phrase in print.

In a larger nutshell, it works like this: if the structure of an organism allows it to operate in a certain fashion (say, a duck's respiratory system, vocal cords and gullet size allows it to make noise of a certain harmonic), it's a safe bet that if you find an unknown, unclassified organsim that has the same structure (say, lungs, simple vocal cords and same sized gullet) that it probably utilizes that structure in a similar fashion. (It probably quacks just like a duck.) There are other versions of this comparison study: comparative physics, comparative chemistry, etc.

This type of logic served us well enough - and, people will argue still does - until two things started to occur:

  1. Science & Technology got better.

    Before we had the ability to peer inside of structures (both large and small scale) and really understand (instead of just playing the "inferring game") how a given structure of an unknown construct functions, comparative xxx was really the only way science had to make assumptions about the unknown.

    Case in point: Venus has Dinosaurs. Until sometime in the 60's, there was a belief among some comparative astronomers that Venus had dinosaurs - this was a belief popularized by chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1918, which was picked up by Science Fiction writers everywhere. Now, before we make fun of long, dead Svante - consider this: he was a real guy. An honest-to-god scientist who was taken very seriously. He was not some I-had-a-beer-with-an-alien loony-tune, and his logic (which employed comparative sciences) was not bad:

    We cannot see the surface of Venus with a telescope. (True)

    Venus must be covered with clouds. (True)

    Venus is close to the sun, so if it's overcast all the time, it must be very hot due to greenhouse effects. (True)

    Clouds have water. (Uh, well...kinda true, but...)

    If it's hot and cloudy and wet there, it must be raining all the time! (Um, wait a second...)

    So, the surface of Venus must be swampy!!!!!!!!!! (Well, if it's raining water, I guess, but...)

    What do we have in our past that reminds us of a rainy, swampy surface?? (Uh...hold on...)

    The Carboniferous Period!!! (Wait, wait...stop!)

    There were dinosaurs in the Carboniferous Period!!!!!!!!! (Well, that's true, but...)

    Ergo, Venus has dinosaurs!!!!!! (Ergo???)

    Fortunately, it was soon after that humans developed the ability to do spectroscopic analysis using telescope data, and found that the Venusian clouds are composed of sulfuric acid, not water. Ergo, no dinosaurs -- however, the whole episode does remind us that making comparisons of anything is treading on dangerous waters. It's best to say "I have NO idea what the hell that thing is!" then to make comparative analysis.

  2. Comparative Analysis Started Jumping Disciplines.

    and this is where the field really jumped the shark, because two things happened at once:

    a) The rapid pace of science discovery and technological innovation outstripped the general layman's ability to keep track of what was going on in any particular field. (Well, that and the rise of reality television and the evangelical right, but I digress.) This causes a public relations problem, of course, and increases the need for trust in scientific opinions and publications.


    b) Reportedly real scientists like Clifford Pickover of Yale, have begun to engage in dangerous public speculations using comparative anaylsis between diciplines (in this case neurobiology and cosmology) as a base. (See? I brought this back around to the subject of this post in the first place! Yay!)

    Pickover, in his "A Brain Cell is the Same as a the Universe" blog posting is absolutely violating this construct: he is clearly comparing the structure of a nanometer object in neurobiology (a brain cell), to the largest scaled cosmological structure that we know (the Universe) and QED'ing a ridiculous conclusion.

Now, there is nothing wrong with doing the comparison, and both fields of study might actually learn something: Take a look at the two objects: clearly there are structural similarities that are worth investigating. Gravitational and string forces holding the structure of the universe together (and allowing information to flow back and forth) are clearly arranged in similar pathways to neural tendrils which perform basically the same function of holding the neurons together and facilitating communications.

Where Pickover goes dangerously off the rails - and judging by the forum posts in the Digg article, a lot of layman have followed him - is his implication (because he never actually says anything in his blog posting aside from his exclamatory title and a few wizened passages from Abdu’l-Bahá) that the structures aren't just similar (thereby performing similar functions) but that they are exactly the same (thereby implying that the Universe a giant brain cell in someone else's head - how hermonculous of him).

I'll go on record here for all to see: uh, the Universe is not a giant, fucking brain cell. I'm not using any fancy-pants science or technology here to make that leap of logic, just common sense, a reasonable understanding of how the world works, and no book of my to hock in my blog...ok, I am using a little comparative analysis of my own:

Pickover is a respected, published scientist on-the-fringe. (True)

Arrhenius was a respected, publish scientist on-the-fringe (True)

Both Pickover and Arrhenius engaged in wild, public speculation in order to gain attention (True)

Arrhenius was so far wrong that history only remembers him as a crackpot. (True)

...uh...ergo....uh.....well, you get the idea.

Credits to Mark Miller of Brandeis University for the micrograph of the neural structure, and to Astrophysical Union for the computer representation of the large scale structure of the Universe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

...Chumby Decended from Audrey, Cornelius?! Heresy!

I read an interesting article in Wired the other week, which claimed that a growing amount of traffic on the internet was from "hidden devices." Meaning that non-obvious consumer products were using the internet for various reasons: updating information, exchanging status data, accessing internet radio, etc.

This idea was presented as though it was a new trend - but the practice has been around for quite a while - TiVo and ReplayTV being a few of the first consumer devices to "hide" their internet activity. In the mid- to late-90's, these little gizmos were called "Internet Appliances," a term that has been revived by the now popular "Chumby."

For those of you living a reasonable life, reading the New York Times and eschewing anything to do with any pop culture relavence for the past 6 months, "Chumby" is a cute little device with a screen that looks like a digital picture frame. It's encased in what can only be described as a "beanbag." It's adorable, really.

So, what does Chumby do? Anything - sort of. It's a WiFi enabled, fully web configurable internet device that can do everything from simply display the time and digital pictures, to play internet radio and display Twitter Tweets. It will dock to multiple iPods, playing the content through its cheery little speakers. The API is extremely open, and has become a plaything not only for weekend hackers, but also soccer moms who want something cushy next to the Sanyo coffee maker. It's captured the imagination of a lot of people, and has gotten quite a bit of media attention. "Why didn't anyone think of this before?" decried one reviewer...?

...they did. Allow me to (re) introduce you to "Audrey," which was manufactured by 3Com (remember them?) during the heyday of the dot-com era. (1999-2000.) Audery was, well, a fully web configurable internet appliance that could do everything from simply display the time and digital pictures, to play internet radio and display email. It would dock to multiple Palm Pilots, happily aggregating and resync'ing the families address books and calendars. The OS was a Linux varient that could be accessed via an xterm window, and had become a plaything not only for weekend hackers, but also soccer moms who wanted something friendly next to the Krups coffee maker. (The device got its name from the daughter of one of the designers, and the thing actually giggled when you turned it on.)

The difference between the two machines? Chumby's exterior is squishy, Audrey's is kitchen-appliance sleek. Oh, and Chumby appears to be poised for commercial success, while the Audrey contributed to the downfall of 3Com. Why? Oh what a difference 10 years makes...

Back in the late 90's, dot-com companies were everywhere, and promising to change your life via the internet. Few companies made good on that promise, of course - but several companies attempted more than just new takes on shitty web site concepts...a few tried creating actual, physical products that did specific tasks. The problem with 99% of these products was that they did those specific tasks extraordinarily badly. While their aim was nobile enough (i.e. be as easy to use as a piece of stereo equipment), the consumer electronics industry didn't have the experience under its belt to create easy-to-use internet devices, and the animosity between the CE manufacturers and the computer manufacturers practically guaranteed mutually assured destruction if these two worlds ever tried to cooperate. (There were exceptions, of course, such as TiVo and the iPod - both of which filled a niche that no one realized needed to be filled, and both did so with an exceptional user experience coupled with a slick, seamless connection to the net.)

The Audrey was a device that stands nearly alone in that it was a machine that provided a slick, user friendly experience, and filled a distinct need in the home (it functioned primarily as an "always on" computer, aggregating information about the user family's daily life so that the home could exchange information as easy as could an enterprise business. Preprogrammed websites could be "dialed" into via the single knob on the front, to display new, weather and movie times.) It was relatively inexpensive (tallying in at slightly less than $300 vs. Chumby's $180 price tag), came in about 12 colors to fit in with most home kitchen color schemes, and was waterproof incase little Muffy spilled the orange juice on it.

So what went wrong? Classic, really: the device was too early. In 1999, which was only 9 years ago, computers were still large, expensive, confusing things...iPods were just catching on...and Palm Pilots were still considered nerdly toys. In other words, most family members were not part of the digerati, and most homes were not wired for allways-on internet. (A requirement for both Audrey and Chumby.) Essentially, no one needed what it offered...yet. Today, however, Audrey would be quite happy nestled into the kitchen, giggling away as the family sync'ed their iPods to it, its glowing touch pen happily shining green whenever a Tweet appeared.

So - be proud of your ancestry, Chumby - you have much to be thankful for...

The End of Human Life as We Know It, Part Three

...ok, the final piece of evidence (well, for a while)... meet "SWORDS," the fully-autonomous, all-terrain, artificially intelligent kick-ass robot solider. Oh - did I mention it's packing heat? And, uh, did I also mention it started to, quote, "move [it's gun] where it was not intended to move?"

DARPA, the defense agency responsible for building and deploying this little gem in Iraq, decided - wisely - to pull the plug on the project. Hopefully, that's it for a while - according to the Army's Program Executive Officer for Ground Forces, Kevin Fahey, "Once you've done something that's really bad, it can take 10 or 20 years to try it again."

How old was John Conner in 2008 in the movies? Doesn't 10-20 years make it just about right? Sigh.