Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bigger, Faster Bioprinter

Organovo and Invetech announce new 3-D organ and tissue printer.

To Irony and Back Again

Morgan Meis on Zadie Smith and the nature of writing in the current age:
The trick then is to be incredibly serious about the need and incredibly flexible about the means for getting there. In these days of collapsing boundaries and standards, it is essential both to keep your cool and to keep throwing yourself in the mix. This requires a certain intellectual nonchalance. But that nonchalance should never be confused with indifference or cynicism. There's a term I sometimes throw out among friends. I first heard it from the lips of my sometimes Sybil-like wife, the miraculous Shuffy: neo-sincerity. To me, the most important thing about neo-sincerity is the fact that it is earned. It is sincerity gained after first having lost it. The neo-sinceritist is therefore self-aware, lacks the genuine naivety of the first-time sinceritist. In neo-sincerity, you can never really be innocent of anything. But you've been through the washer of absolute irony and have ended up back at the doors of sincerity with the genuine desire to be let inside, warts, wounds, and all.

One of the two essays that have been passed to me repeatedly this year, along with Brian Eno on the Death of the Uncool. Really great writing about really great writing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Every Known Photograph 1836-1853

(via DM)

Dresden in 26G pixels

The Canon 5D is possibly the coolest camera ever made for the professional/consumer market*. Here, Holger Schulze captured a 26 gigpixel photomontage of the city of Dresden. (It's zoomable.)

(via Guy K)

*Cooler cameras include the one on the Hubble and some of the repurposed movie cameras Kubrick used, but you are unlikely to get your grubby hands on those, now are you?

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Economists Hit Pandora

Mighty God King reviews Avatar:
ME: You know, I have to admit – the Nav’i look totally natural.
FLAPJACKS: There is no uncanny valley.
ME: You only know that concept because of that one episode of 30 Rock.
ME: I’m just sick of critics who learned a new phrase thanks to Tina Fey and want to show off.
FLAPJACKS: Speaking of that episode of 30 Rock, I’m pretty sure I didn’t need to see the blue aliens doing it.
ME: Oh, quit whining. You barely saw anything.
FLAPJACKS: But now it’s in my head.
ME: Okay, the scientists are totally going about this the wrong way with Giovanni Ribisi, Businessman. They should have been all “this entire planet is a gigantic biological computer more advanced than anything we’ve ever imagined. Think about how much that would be worth.”
FLAPJACKS: Wouldn’t work. Giovanni Ribisi, Businessman, is all about the quarterly profit report. I know this because he said “it’s all about the quarterly profit report” at the start of the movie. He is an Exxon-type guy and you are presenting a Google-type business plan. Ne’er shall the two meet, because despite what people might say about Google, Google is never going to hire mercenaries to kill aliens.
ME: They might hire mercenaries to spy on aliens.
FLAPJACKS: Well, that’s Google for you.

The scary thing is, I heard the phrase about a planet scale biological network that can upload the consciousnesses of the dying, and thought, "they should really tell the business guys that that could be really valuable, so don't, um, fuck it up."

The Year in Reading 2009

The best books of the year, unranked, grouped by Borgesian principles.

Kicking things off at the start of the year, Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes is fantasy the way it should be done. It's a uniquely voiced view of a fully realized world filled with compelling characters. Old North English diction drives an initially fragmented story into coherence; it's like having folk songs sung to you while you rise into dreams. Like everything else from Small Beer Press, it's excellent. Also from Small Beer, Geoff Ryman's The King's Last Song reveals the Cambodia of the 1960's, 1990's and 1100's, through the life story of Jayavarman VII.

Another set of books involved various young people not wanting to go to Brown. Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You follows 18 year old James Schweik (aka Bryce Canyon) around Manhattan in search of love, or maybe just some peace and quiet. In a nonfiction effort, Brownie Kevin Roose, The Unlikely Disciple, takes a semester off from Brown to go to Liberty University for his semester abroad. Hanging behind the book are the questions of whether there are two groups of people (saved and unsaved) or only one? Is your membership in the group dependent on your own choice, or does someone else get to choose for you? The spiritual cliffhanger hinges on whether a nice liberal boy from Oberlin, Ohio will wake up one day to find himself converted on the one hand, or whether the Liberty kids will move closer to mainstream America on the other. The same questions of identity lie behind Chandler Burr's You Or Someone Like You. Main character Anne Rosenbaum draws her strength from literature, and from being, simply, human in the face of family trials. I recommended this book to more people than any other this year. Lev Grossman's Quentin Coldwater forsakes Princeton rather than Brown to attend Brakebill's College of Magical Pedagogy in The Magicians. It's been described as JK Rowling and CS Lewis meet Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt by too many reviewers, but...there you go. If Hogwarts were populated by snarky twentysomething malcontents with encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (and Etruscan linguistics), it would look like Brakebills. Marvelous and also Very Bad Things ensue.

Books about books filled much of the past year. Nicholas Basbanes' true stories of book collectors, librarians, publishers and others of the "gently mad" and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night are the sort of nourishing books that give one new perspective and the vim to face the day.

Elsewhere in nonfiction, out of a number of very good books about strategy, thinking and human endeavor, Winifred Gallagher's Rapt and Daniel Tammet's Embracing the Wide Sky proved the most insightful of the bunch, covering attention and neurovariant thinking as well as broader issues of cognition and strategy. In history, The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham, covers an era that I had little prior knowledge of (I guess that's why they call them the Dark Ages, nudge, nudge.) In history of science, The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson about uber-scientist and gadfly Joseph Priestley and The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes cover the 18th/19th century scientific revolution in thrilling detail.
Carl Jung was, quite literally, a wizard, or as much of one as it was possible to be at the start of the 20th century, based on the contents and construction of his Liber Novus/Red Book, which represents both a harrowing journal of his encounter with the unconsious mind using techniqes of active imagination (in which dream imagery is brought up ito te conscious mind), and a stunningly beautiful work of art. An illuminated manuscript kept in the family vaults for fifty years following Jung's death, the story of how it came to be published was also one of the best articles of the year.
On the to-read stack are several widely recommended books: Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann is up next.

Liberman, Landrieu are Too Tired to Do their Jobs

Perhaps they, and the other whining "centrists" should retire if the Senate is too hard for them.

Why CDO's Can't be Priced

Paper of the day:

Computational Complexity and Information Asymmetry in Financial Products Arora, et al.

via Felix. Interesting passage from his commentary:
...the solution to model risk isn’t more complex models, its less reliance on models altogether. And anybody who applied a simple smell test to the mortgages underlying the CDOs in question — rather than deciding instead to trust various quants both in-house and at the ratings agencies — would have come to the right conclusion without any computing power at all.
In other words, strategic thinking beats statistical thinking here too.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Quote of the Day

Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first glass and giving them free drinks.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Merry Christmas from Charlie Stross.

Obama's Inherited Deficit

From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
Some critics charge that the new policies pursued by President Obama and the 111th Congress generated the huge federal budget deficits that the nation now faces. In fact, the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic downturn together explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years

As Ezra Klein notes, Congressional Republicans want to use the huge deficits to browbeat the Democrats into...what, exactly? More tax cuts? Bigger deficits? Electoral defeat, yes, but there doesn't seem to be any realistic plan coming out of the minority to budget responsibly. In fact, short term frugality (through near-term spending cuts) will lead to a crippled recovery, and therefore a larger deficit in absolute terms along with a smaller economy for the coming decade.

That's not fiscal conservatism. That's holding your breath to try to get your way.

Happy Festivus!

For the rest of us.

And now, the airing of the grievances.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Future Is Now, Vol LXXVIII: Waking Up the Stem Cells

Amy Wagers wants to isolate the wound healing factors that are present in young animals that promote rapid healing and recovery.
Recently she has discovered a “partial pathway,” previously undescribed in the blood system, that is involved in the process of repair. “The reason we thought the factor that awakens muscle stem cells might be in the blood,” she explains, “is that organ systems decline globally with age, which implies that any signal has to reach many different locations.” A good place to look for a universal signal such as that, she reasoned, is in the blood.

In fact, her work has already shown that exposing an old animal to the blood of a young animal restores function to progenitor cells in a variety of tissues, not only in skeletal muscle. She is now collaborating with other Harvard laboratories to study such effects in the pancreas, liver, brain, and heart. “This might be a more broadly applicable mechanism,” she says, “an inroad for discovering pathways that can enhance repair activity.” In some cases, Wagers thinks, induced repair mechanisms that fail with age might overlap with genetic disorders, so that studying these pathways could advance research on cures for certain diseases. At the very least, she suspects that the “kinds of molecules we discover that enhance endogenous repair activity” could someday play an important role in readying tissues for cell therapy, once that field is mature. Adds Melton, “This has gotten us thinking more about not just fixing the human body when it is broken, but about how to harness the natural activity of stem cells for homeostatic repair to keep us healthy. We’re not there yet, but I think that is where we are headed.”

(via 3QD)

Danny MacAskill & His Bike vs. Edinburgh

(via NYmag)

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Biology of the Na'vi

The Na'vi, Avatar's humanoids, were built for looks, not so much for their local environment. For example, they have breasts, big eyes and sternocleidomastoids because human moviewatchers like these features, even though the Na'vi are described as being non-mammalian in other respects.
If you look closely, you'll see that the Na'vi have a little muscle running down their necks. We've got them, too—it's called the sternocleidomastoid muscle—and it's a uniquely mammalian feature. Ours make a very distinctive V-shape, and when creature designers want an alien to seem attractive and familiar to its human viewers, they often slap one on. "Even C3PO has it, in the form of little pistons on his neck. Watch Star Trek: The good guys always have them, and the bad guys don't. It's a classic alien designer trick."
Actually, I wonder if they aren't actually plants, a la the Delvians of Farscape, another bunch of blue skinned, sexy aliens.

More: Mark Morford on the kinky hotness of the Na'vi.

Burning the Brand

Obama came in with the best brand as a candidate in the last fifty years; through mismanagement, he's frittered a lot of the value away. It costs a lot to create a brand, and once it's gone, it's almost impossible to rebuild. Here's neuroscientist Drew Westen on the topic:
Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.

What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.

What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.

The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It's that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky "leftists." I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.

Read the whole article.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Keith Olberman on the Healthcare Bill

Ruined Senate bill is unsupportable.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Good for Keith.

First Sighting

While out driving, I noticed an older couple coming out of their house near the local high school. Both of them were dressed in red and white velvet, with long stocking caps on their heads. He had a smart-looking white beard and little gold reading glasses and carried a large red bag stuffed with toys. Mr. and Mrs. Claus smiled big smiles and waved as they climber into their car, which I am pleased to note was a Prius. Santa rolls environment friendly.

The sight just made my day.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gothic Lettering

Bruce Sterling points us to the last records of the Gothic language from a 16th century Flemish diplomat's letter. And by Goths...
I don’t mean “Goth” goths. We’ve got tons of those. I mean GOTH Goth goths.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What the Democrats Should Be Doing

Adam Green lays out the proper negotiating strategy to get a public option successfully through the Senate. If health care reform dies, it's because it has been abandoned in the winter cold.

Health Care Experts and Starting with a C

John Aravosis says it better than I ever could.


After the hacked emails of Climategate, the team at New Scientist not only showed that the scientific conclusions behind global warming, they've also published a handy reference to 10 debunked denier theories:

1. Fun with the sun

In 1991, the journal Science published a paper by researchers Eigil Friis-Christensen and Knud Lassen, then at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen. It included graphs that appeared to show a remarkably close correlation between solar activity and terrestrial temperatures – suggesting that other factors, such as carbon dioxide levels, have little influence on global temperatures.

The graphs were seized on by climate change sceptics and have been widely reproduced ever since. But according to Peter Laut of the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby, the close correlations in the original graphs, and in updated versions published in 1995 and 2000, exist only because of what he describes as a "pattern of strange errors".

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Problem of Consciousness

Julian Sanchez discusses John Searle's talk at Google on consciousness and free will, embedded above (via Andrew).

Consciousness could well be a spandrel. That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character. If conscious mental activity just is brain activity, and not some kind of strange excretion from it, however, then they have precisely the same causal properties, and it’s just a confusion to describe it as “epiphenomenal.”...Or to put it another way: The alternative picture is that evolutionary selection pressure might have produced these very strategic zombies—like vastly more complex insects, say, all stimulus-response with nobody home— but then some mutation won out that added this further feature, consciousness, to the system, because it yielded some additional improvement.

The big question is, why do we think there's a self inside of us? I've been working my way through Jung, who said essentially that there are two things: an I and a self. Self is essentially a way of identifying the set of complexes (mental things or processes) that belong to us, and the I is the complex that sits in the middle of all of that. But, the I is just one of a large number of characters that live inside our head, and the self is a spongy mass that can pick up or discard other bits of the mental landscape as part of the process of individuation.

Another way of looking at the problem of consciousness is via the evolutionary paradigm. We have a consciousness because that's the best way for a complex informational system to accomplish the set of tasks (predation, social interaction, anticipation of future states, interrelation of sensory and volitional data) necessary to support an organism of such complexity. It might also be true that there are informational, as opposed to biological laws at play. We might have a conception of self because its really difficult to process information without having a dynamic internal model referring to onesself, in the same way that its really complicated to describe what's going on in one's day without using a personal pronoun.

In any case, what becomes apparent is that despite a large number of attempts to identify a seat for the soul in a localized part of the brain, we end up with nowhere to point. There are many pieces of the brain where part of the soul might rest, but as we cut finer and finer the parts slip between our fingers. This is an argument for emergent properties in the nervous system. That, or non-materialism.

Free will presents a similar paradox. Julian suggests it may be a required by-product of biological structure. However, it might a by-product of the informational structure of the universe; to the extent that the universe contains phenomena that are indeterminate and unpredictable both in the future and in the past (one cannot either predict the shape of the puddle from the shape of the ice cube, nor reconstruct the ice cube's shape from that of the puddle it made), and because predictable events can result in conscious entities' taking actions that preemtively cause the predictable event not to actually occur, free will must be possible.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

“We should tell stories that we would have liked as kids. Twist endings, the unexpected usefulness of unlikely knowledge, nobility and bravery where it’s least expected, and the sudden emergence of a thread of goodness in a wicked nature, those were the kind of stories told by the writers and artists of the comic books that I liked”

-Michael Chabon
(via Bajira!)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dream Journal

A very intricate dream, involving virtually the entire cast of a high school production of A Christmas Carol that I'd been in in 1988 as Bob Cratchet. Strange to see all of these people again after such a long time, as themselves, as I might imagine that they look twenty one years later. Their names came back to me, too, even though I hadn't thought about any of them since I graduated, but there they all were, names, faces, personalities and all; it was like seeing the dead in the afterlife. We were only really friends for the duration of the play's rehearsals, but for that length of time, we led a heavily emotionally entangled existence. I wonder where these people are now, in waking life?

Green Shoots

The key signs of real economic recovery include the presence of large orders for capital investment projects. Here's one now, a $1.6B order for windmills from GE. This is a very good sign.

Now, we need a large company to begin hiring a thousand people or more in support of growth efforts.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Rachel Maddow vs. the Ex-Gay Charlatan

"Out of context?... I'm reading from your book, dude"

One forgets just how good a debater and interviewer Maddow is, until she shellacs an unwary charlatan.

Privacy is a Basic Human Need

Bruce Schneier effectively refutes Google CEO Eric Schmidt's assertion that we should all accept that Big Brother is watching us, and it's OK.

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.


For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that -- either now or in the uncertain future -- patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Mr. Pointy

Ripley's museums have a total of 26 vampire hunting kits, but does anyone really know how to kill the sparkly ones?

(via io9)

The Crystalizing Block Universe

How does the future differ from the past? A new model uses quantum mechanics to postulate a block universe in which the past crystalizes out of a fluid and uncertain future.

Today, Ellis and Rothman introduce a significant new type of block universe. They say the character of the block changes dramatically when quantum mechanics is thrown into the mix. All of a sudden, the past and the future take on entirely different characteristics. The future is dominated by the weird laws of quantum mechanics in which objects can exist in two places at the same time and particles can be so deeply linked that they share the same existence. By contrast, the past is dominated by the unflinching certainty of classical mechanics.

What's interesting is that the transition between these states takes place largely in the present. It's almost as if the past crystallizes out of the future, in the instant we call the present. Ellis and Rothman call this model the "crystallizing block universe" and go on to explore some of its properties.

They point out, for example, that this crystallization process doesn't take place entirely in the present. In quantum mechanics the past can sometimes be delayed, for example in delayed choice experiments. This means the structure of the transition from future to past is more complex than a cursory thought might suggest.

Ellis and Rothman suggest that their model provides a straightforward solution to the problem of the origin of the arrow of time. "The arrow of time arises simply because the future does not yet exist," they say.

Best Lists of Best Lists of Best of Lists

Monday, December 07, 2009

I'd Like More Science in my Stimulus, Please.

This table from the CBO has the multipliers for the various parts of the stimulus ranked rombest to worst, in what Ezra Klein calls the 32 flavors of deliciousness. Right at the top there are the energy & efficiency, NIH and healthcare measures. If we're going to do Stimulus II, especially if we don't want to call it that, we ought to throw another big chunk to the scientists on a spend-it-or-lose-it basis; that's the best program we have, and hey, we can always use a bit more science.

Friday, December 04, 2009


Michael Langan's short film about tennis balls, dancing cars and God. Or something like that.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Fueillade's Les Vampires

Damien Walters

Super Parkour

Grant Morrison Biopic

Grant Morrison gets the biographical documentary treatment by director Patrick Murphy.

Money quote: "Is this world hell? I've said it before, this is the part of heaven we're able to touch."

“His life is just as interesting as his work,” said Meaney. “In the ’90s, he went through an abduction experience, where he was taken outside of time and shown the nature of the universe. He used The Invisibles to explore the ramifications of that experience, and even lived a crazy rock-star lifestyle that was largely intertwined with that of King Mob, The Invisibles‘ main character.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Hot Stuff

The Jung Red Book arrived today. Beautiful, beautiful book. It looks like a wizard's diary, which I suppose is what it actually is.