Thursday, 5 August 2010

Science News

Wherein your favourite Brain Food Generator peruses the headlines in New Scientist and passes judgement on the contents.

When I wandered into the dumpster this morning I was astounded to find the 17th July issue of aforesaid rag lodged behind the cistern in place of the usual "Anal Housewives on Toast". "Funny", I thought. "Funny. Perhaps someone is trying to drive my cup-sharing flatmate out of her tiny, yet perfectly formed skull by the abstraction of her favourite bathroom periodical". And also, "I wonder if I'll get blamed. Perhaps I had better prepare a precautionary wetsuit".

As these thoughts ran through my small, but perfectly formed mind, I absently picked the thing up and started reading, pausing only to drop my keks. Shutting my ears and hardening my scrotum to the furious reprisals of the thirsty cat trapped below, I start to read ...

"Ecobot III - the power and the poop: It's not the most glamorous, or even sanitary, of advances in robotics, but the most basic bodily functions could give robots the freedom to roam"

Fuck me! What's this! Didn't famous Fashion and Shopping TopBlogger CJ Michiels only last week claim that robots could never aspire to complex cognition like humans until they experienced everything that we experience, including crimping off a length? Yet here we are. It's as though the editor of New Scientist is reading CJ's blog.

It's all very logical though. Biomass as a fuel source. Equip robots with sensors to seek out organic matter, a digestive tract, and a mechanism for getting rid of the spent waste (or "roboarsehole" as it is known in the trade), and release them from their volkswagen-manufacturing shackles every once in a while to forage. It could save billions.

The philosophers among you will of course spot the weakness - if you want to save on costs by developing autonomous robots to do the drudgework instead of humans, eventually you're going to end up with a robot that is to all intents and purposes identical to a human and you might as well employ a human to do the job in the first place. Jethro Tull was on the right track, I reckon.

And what if these organic-matter-seeking robots develop a taste for, you know, LIVING organic matter? "Ah!" say the scientists. "We'll keep them well down the food-chain and equip them to digest sewage, like giant mechanical dungbeetles".

So there you have it. Shit-eating shit-producing robots. The way of the future.

I read on ...

"An evil atmosphere: The right-wing think tanks that deny climate change is even happening are advocating geoengineering to fix it. Don't heed them, warns Clive Hamilton".

Clive goes on to warn us that if we come to depend on sulphur dioxide injections in the stratosphere to counter climate change then there will be no incentive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and we'll have to keep on injecting the stuff for ever.

Thanks for nowt Clive. Sure, prevention is obviously better than cure, but what if - just what if - climate change is not primarily caused by humans, or is not reversible by humans eh? And if it's not preventable - do we throw away a possible cure? Do we stop trying to develop vaccines for malaria because it will reduce the incentive for Africans to use mosquito nets? Do we abandon hospital emergency services in case it undermines efforts to improve health and safety in the workplace?

If there's one thing that winds me up worse than televangelists, its people who politicise science - buggers who spout inanities because their real focus is not on improving the world, but on dragging down the buggers on the other side of the fence. And I'm not pointing the finger at either left wing or right wing. There are single-issue "win-this-and-you've-won-everything" fuckwits on both sides.

Wait a minute! It says here "Clive Hamilton is Professor for Public Ethics in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University. His new book Requiem for a Species is published by Earthscan". Well that explains it then. A glorified fucking spin-doctor.

Damn! Pussy is getting restive. I might have to relax one of my buns of steel a tad and let the bugger scramble to safety. Maybe in a minute or two ... What's this?

"The president of Astronauts4Hire on how the commercial space race is changing what it means to be an astronaut". Brian Shiro says "Our aim is to train a highly qualified group to become the first scientist-astronauts for hire by researchers wanting to fly experiments in space. People will be able to go to our website and search for astronauts with the type of scientific and flight expertise they want".

What a great idea! Take a highly-skilled one-in-a-million profession and use modern internet technology to maximise your chances of getting the right person for the job.

Now, what other highly-skilled one-in-a-million and even more mission-critical professions can you think of? How about running the country? Why don't we choose our next leader of the nation the same way? Hire them off Or why not go to the other extreme and start choosing astronauts by voting? At least we'd be guaranteed that they'd have good hair.

"We are all from Alpha Centauri: In a fast-paced world that needs nimble brains and sophisticated thinking, we must junk stereotypes about gender differences once and for all", says Lise Eliot.

Now this is one I can agree with wholeheartedly (although not whole-arsedly - I'm letting you out right now you feline ring-ravager).

Eliot says "I see how little the science of gender differences has penetrated popular culture and am hoping to set the record straight on behalf of both sexes. Yes, boys and girls, men and women, are different. But most of these differences are far smaller than the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus stereotypes suggest. Nor are the reasoning, speaking, computing, empathising, navigating and other cognitive differences fixed in the genetic architecture of our brains. All such skills are learned, and neuro-plasticity - the modification of neurons and their connections in response to experience - trumps hard-wiring every time." And "increasingly, biologists appreciate the role of epigenetics in shaping body, brain, mental traits and propensity to disease. Why should sex differences be any different?"

Aye, well, there you have it in a nutshell - a fucking verbally overblown nutshell, but a nutshell nonetheless. HOWEVER. We still need to recognise that those stereotypes have not been junked by the world just yet, and that, for whatever reasons, most women and men behave differently RIGHT NOW. It's not going to stop me getting my daughter an Uzi though. As soon as she comes into existence.

Approaching the last movement now I flip forward to the article that caught my attention on the front page in the first place ...

"What happens if we all quit meat? Why eating greens won't save the world."

I was rather hoping for an epistemological examination of the philosophical paradox of how you can stop eating meat and at the same time eat members of the Green Party - perhaps by reclassifying vegetarians themselves as vegetables - but no: we get a rambling yet ultimately apposite argument in favour of not eating AS MUCH meat but at the same time not wasting the nutritional and ecological benefits of farming animals on marginal land unsuitable for crops. What a let-down. On the other hand it bodes well for the economic future of Scotland and Cumbria, and indeed my back yard, which can all be classified as "marginal land" par excellence. Sales of scrawny bracken-fed sheep are going to go through the roof once feedlots and lush pastures are banned.

I lose interest at this point and use the thing to wipe my arse, since the cat is not to hand.

Next week: Why I love Drew M

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