This is what we do here: we comment on all that is awe-inspiring, passing judgment where it seems appropriate on what seems hopeful, perilous, beautiful, or doomed.
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Irony doesn’t come much easier than this. Saturday’s New York Times featured an article on “The Overconfidence Problem in Forecasting,” about the almost universal tendency for people to think their assessments and decisions are more correct than they really are. The article closes smartly with this quote from Mark Twain:
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Very tidy. Except there’s no good evidence that Mark Twain ever wrote or said those words. (And neither did humorist Will Rogers.)
The actual author? It may be Charles Dudley Warner, an editorial writer for the Hartford Courant who was a friend of Mark Twain and who might have been paraphrasing him… or someone else… unless he was simply piping an imaginary quote for better copy. We may never know.
Bob Kalsey examined the roots of these fatherless words in 2008, and pointed out that similar sentiments were voiced by Confucius, Socrates and Satchel Paige, among others.
Over at Neurotic Physiology—one of the spiffy new Scientopia blogs, as you surely already know, right, pardner?—Scicurious offers a helpful primer, in text and diagrams, on the basics of neurotransmission. In closing, she remarks:
What boggles Sci’s mind is the tiny scale on which this is happening (the order of microns, a micron is 0.000001m), and the SPEED. This happens FAST. Every movement of your fingers requires THOUSANDS of these signals. Every new fact you learn requires thousands more. Heck, every word you are looking at, just the ACT of LOOKING and visual signals coming into your brain. Millions of signals, all over the brain, per second. And out of each tiny signal, tiny things change, and those tiny changes determine what patterns are encoded and what are not. Those patterns can determine something like what things you see are remembered or not. And so, those millions of tiny signals will determine how you do on your calculus test, whether you swerve your car away in time to miss the stop sign, and whether you eat that piece of cake. If that’s not mind-boggling, what IS?!
Indeed so. The dance of molecule-size entities and their integration into the beginning or end of a neural signal happens so dizzyingly fast it defies the imagination. And yet what happens in between a neuron’s receipt of a signal and its own release of one—the propagation of an action potential along the length of a neuron’s axon—can be incredibly slow by comparison. Witness a wonderful description by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden, which science writer JR Minkel calls “The most striking science analogy I’ve ever heard.” I won’t steal the thunder of JR’s brief post by quoting Linden’s comment, but read it and you’ll see: that’s slow!
Remember, too, that in Linden’s thought experiment, the giant’s transatlantic nerves are presumably myelinated (because I’m assuming that even planet-spanning giants still count as mammals). That is, her nerves are segmentally wrapped in fatty myelin tissue, which electrically insulates them and has the advantage of accelerating the propagation speed of action potentials.
Most invertebrates have unmyelinated axons: in them, action potentials move as a smooth, unbroken wave of electrical activity along the axon’s length. In the myelinated axons of mammals and other vertebrates—which apparently have more need of fast, energy-efficient neurons—the action potential jumps along between the nodes separating myelinated stretches of membrane: the depolarization of membrane at one node triggers depolarization at the next node, and so. Because of this jumpy mode of transmission (or saltatory conductance, to use the technical term), the action potentials race along in myelinated neurons at speeds commonly between 10 and 120 meters per second, whereas unmyelinated neurons can often only manage between 5 and 25 meters per second.
Roughly speaking, myelination seems to increase the propagation speed of axon potentials about tenfold. The speed of an action potential also increases with the diameter of an axon, however, which is why neurons that need to conduct signals very rapidly tend to be fatter. (Myelinless invertebrates can therefore compensate for the inefficiency of their neurons by making them thicker.) I suppose that someone who wants to be a killjoy for Linden’s great giant analogy could question whether his calculation of the neural transmission speeds took into account how much wider the giant’s neurons should be, too: presumably, they should be orders of magnitude faster than those of normal-size humans.
So I’ll throw out these two questions for any enterprising readers who would like to calculate the answers:
- If the width of the nerves in Linden’s giant scaled up with their length, how much faster than normal human nerves should they be, and how might that affect the giant’s reaction time?
- Suppose the giant was not a fee-fi-fo-fum human giant but an ultramega-giant squid with unmyelinated neurons? How fast would the nerve signals travel in it?
Update (added 8/24): Noah Gray, senior editor at the Nature Publishing Group, notes that Sci accidentally overstated the size of the synaptic cleft: it’s actually on the order of 20 nanometers on average, not microns. Point taken, and thanks for the correction! Sci may well have fixed that by now in her original, but I append it here for anyone running into the statement here first. Further amendment to my update: Actually, on reflection, in her reference to microns, Sci may have been encompassing events beyond the synaptic cleft itself and extending into the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons (for example, the movement of the vesicles of neurotransmitter). So rather than my referring to this as a mistake, I’ll thank Noah for the point about the size of the cleft and leave it to Sci to clarify or not, as she wishes.
Next time someone seems skeptical of the idea that anthropogenic climate change represents not just an environmental threat, or a threat to economies, or even a human catastrophe, but an actual threat to global security and political security… point to this on Pakistan’s horrific floods by Robert Reich at Salon.com:
Flooding there has already stranded 20 million people, more than 10 percent of the population. A fifth of the nation is underwater. More than 3.5 million children are in imminent danger of contracting cholera and acute diarrhea; millions more are in danger of starving if they don’t get help soon. More than 1,500 have already been killed by the floods.
This is a human disaster.
It’s also a frightening opening for the Taliban.
Kentucky’s Creationist Museum, notwithstanding its stated goal of reaching out to those beyond the Young Earth Biblical creationist community, can make many nonbelievers uncomfortable, according to a study by Bernadette Barton of Morehead State University, as presented Sunday at the American Sociological Association meeting and reported by LiveScience. As she described, ex-fundamentalists, skeptics, gays and others in the groups that she brought on field trips to the museum reported feeling uncomfortable there, fearing that if their beliefs or orientations were revealed, they would be ejected or otherwise persecuted.
This pressure is a form of “compulsory Christianity” that is common in a region known for its fundamentalism, Barton said. People who don’t ascribe to fundamentalism often report the need to hide their thoughts for fear of being judged or snubbed.
At one point, Barton reported in her paper, a guard with a dog circled a student pointedly twice without saying anything. When he left, a museum patron approached the student and said, “The reason he did that is because of the way you’re dressed. We know you’re not religious; you just don’t fit in.” (The student was wearing leggings and a long shirt, Barton writes.)
The pressures were particularly tough for gay members of the group, thanks to exhibits discussing the sinfulness of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. A lesbian couple became paranoid about being near or touching one another, afraid they would be “found out,” Barton writes.
I can sympathize with the discomfort of Barton’s student group, because it is never pleasant to be surrounded by people (not to mention guards with dogs) who regard everything you represent to be deluded and sinful. Within the bounds of lawful civil liberties, of course, the Creationist Museum, as a private institution, has the right to convey whatever messages and attract whatever clientele it wishes. Most of us in the normal course of our lives would simply avoid places so hostile to us—if we have that choice. (Of course, many people in regions dominated by Christian fundamentalist culture don’t have that choice.) The Creationist Museum may fail at outreach, but that’s hardly a surprise, because no one who has been there could think it is sincerely meant to convert unbelievers: it exists solely to whip up the faith of the already Christian base.
I know this, and something of how uncomfortable the Creationist Museum can be, because I went there late in 2008. That Christmas, my wife and I were visiting her family in southeastern Indiana, and because the Creationist Museum was only an hour’s drive away, some of us decided to made an expedition there.
The potential for trouble seemed real. I had argued against creationism on television and radio and had written a widely distributed article for Scientific American with the gentle title “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense.” Larry, my father-in-law, is not only an avowed and combative atheist but seems to have taken it as a personal goal to try to bring down the Catholic Church during his lifetime as one step toward the total elimination of all religion. On our drive there, I imagined various scenarios in which either or both of us could be drawn into some messy confrontation.
Just yesterday, Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff’s article “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” was officially posted on Wired.com. In it, they argue that the rise of apps for smartphones and iPads, RSS feeds, proprietary platforms like the Xbox and so on signal the end of the Web as the center of most people’s online lives. In many ways, it argues loosely for a vindication of Wired‘s notorious “PUSH!” cover story from 1997, which also argued for the end of browsers’ relevance.
But honestly, between Alexis Madrigal’s beautiful rebuttal at TheAtlantic.com, Rob Beschizza’s devastating graphics on Boing Boing (reworking Anderson and Wolff’s own choice of data), and other quick rebuttals springing up, has any ambitious piece of Internet-related punditry died a faster, more ignominious death? It seems as though the plausibility of this idea has been drained away even before issues of the paper magazine could have reached subscribers.
I don’t think Anderson and Wolff’s argument is entirely without merit, but the somewhat more nuanced version of it that seems more resilient is one that Farhad Manjoo endorsed in a couple of columns for Slate early this year, “Computers Should Be More Like Toasters” and “I Love the iPad” (both concurrent with the debut of Apple’s iPad, which I don’t see as even remotely coincidental). Manjoo was arguing for a simpler, more appliance-level interface for computers rather than the death of something as rich and vital as the Web still is. In effect, unlike Anderson and Wolff, Manjoo avoided the trap of arguing for the historically disproven “zero sum game” model of newer technologies driving older ones to extinction, which Madrigal debunks. Even if interfaces and operating systems become more app-like, the browser-mediated Web may continue to be a crucial part of most users’ lives.
There’s no reason to think the Web as we know it won’t eventually die; most things do. And apps seem destined to play a more ubiquitous role in all our lives for some time to come; terrific. It seems doubtful those two propositions are causally linked, however.
Update (added 8/21): Far more sophisticated discussion of the points raised in the Wired article, including additional smart rebuttals, is available in this series of exchanges between Chris Anderson, Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle—served up by Wired.com itself, to its credit.
Ray Kurzweil, the justly lauded inventor and machine intelligence pioneer, has been predicting that humans will eventually upload their minds into computers for so long that I think his original audience wondered whether a computer was a type of fancy abacus. It simply isn’t news for him to say it anymore, and since nothing substantive has happened recently to make that goal any more imminent, there’s just no good excuse for Wired to still be running articles like this:
Reverse-engineering the human brain so we can simulate it using computers may be just two decades away, says Ray Kurzweil, artificial intelligence expert and author of the best-selling book The Singularity is Near.
It would be the first step toward creating machines that are more powerful than the human brain. These supercomputers could be networked into a cloud computing architecture to amplify their processing capabilities. Meanwhile, algorithms that power them could get more intelligent. Together these could create the ultimate machine that can help us handle the challenges of the future, says Kurzweil.
This article doesn’t explicitly refer to Kurzweil’s inclusion of uploading human consciousness into computers as part of his personal plan for achieving immortality. That’s good, because the idea has already been repeatedly and bloodily drubbed—by writer John Pavlus and by Glenn Zorpette, executive editor of IEEE Spectrum, to take just two recent examples. (Here are audio and a transcription of a conversation between Zorpette, writer John Horgan and Scientific American’s Steve Mirsky that further kicks the dog. And here’s a link to Spectrum‘s terrific 2008 special report that puts the idea of the Singularity in perspective.)
Instead, the Wired piece restricts itself to the technological challenge of building a computer capable of simulating a thinking, human brain. As usual, Kurzweil rationalizes this accomplishment by 2030 by pointing to exponential advances in technology, as famously embodied by Moore’s Law, and this bit of biological reductionism:
Previously, I slightly differed with David Crotty’s good post about why open blogging networks might be incompatible with the business models of established publishing brands, particularly for scientific brands, for which credibility is king. David had diagnosed correctly the very real sources of conflict, I thought, but those problems should only become unmanageable with networks whose pure, principled openness went beyond anything publishers seemed interested in embracing anyway. The more important consideration, in the eyes of the bloggers and the increasingly digital-savvy audience, will be how the brand handles the problems that will inevitably arise—in the same way that how publications manage corrections and mistakes already becomes part of their reputation.
Or to put it another way: the openness of a blogging network doesn’t imperil a brand’s editorial value so much as it helps to define it. (Would that I had thought to phrase it so pithily before!)
Nevertheless, I do think blogging networks potentially pose at least two other types of problems that could be more seriously at odds with commercial brands plans. But neither is exclusive to blogging networks. Rather, they are business problems common to many digital publishing models—the presence of a blogging network just amplifies them.
For the most part, I agree with the individual points and criticisms that David raises. Whether I agree with his bottom-line conclusion that open networks are incompatible with established brands, and maybe most especially with brands built on scientific credibility, depends on the purity of one’s definition of open.
Unquestionably, leaving a troop of bloggers to their own scruples while publishing under your banner is fraught with risk, but as problems go, it’s neither unprecedented nor unmanageable in publishing. In fact, I’d say the open blogging network problem is really just a special case of the larger challenge of joining with fast-paced, out-linking (and poorly paying) online publishing culture. Some of the best prescriptions seem to be what David is suggesting or implying, so perhaps any disagreement I have with him is really over definitions rather than views.