Saul Griffith is an inventor, not many people would have this as their main identification occupation/tag today; but when you read up his profile, he really fits the title of an inventor, basically a scientist who problem-solve through inventions. In one of his talk on TED.com, he talks about programming self-assembling systems, very much like creating life itself.
There's is already what we call biohacking taking place in homes of people, much like the geeks of the 1970s who were assembling computers in their garage. Already, The Economist points out how this parallels the beginnings of the computer age where the geeks had their kits consisting of basic chips for computers.
Going back to mechanical stuff, objects can be 'programmed' to build themselves based on sequencing their materials in a certain way like what is shown in the presentation by Saul Griffith. A 3-dimensional object, in this sense, can be defined by a sequence of bits (in a digital sense). Seeing the universe - reality - as a compiler, changes the way we think about our world; it helps us see how everything contains information and how properties of objects are able to convey additional information about things they are interacting with.
Griffith also co-writes Howtoons, cartoons that teaches people how to build/make stuff.
I guess ERPZ recommends too much readings sometimes and so I think you could try watching more videos. Charles Anderson talks about his work and especially that with globe skimmer dragonflies on TED.com. It is interesting how he made the discovery of the migratory route of the globe skimmer dragonflies just through rather informal research himself; cycling through the island of Maldives and counting dragonflies, calling friends to ask them which time of the year they observed swarms of dragonflies out there. His spirit of inquiry of nature is admirable.
Students of General Paper who are into Science & Tech questions should definitely watch a presentation by Kevin Kelly on the evolution of technology. He asks the question, 'What does technology wants?' in the evolution kind of way; a little like questioning what the genes are trying to achieve and what each organism is trying to do as it lives life. He tries to identify the trends of technology, the direction everything is heading towards, comparing it with biology - where there is increasing complexity, diversity, ubiquity and such. He even defines technology as the seventh kingdom of life, integrating the man-made with nature, reconciling the arguments on man versus nature.
Interestingly, this issue that Kevin Kelly touched on is something I visited in the past on my personal blog. At that time, I was reading Origins of Wealth by Eric D Beinhock and was introduced to the idea of complexity. I was fascinated by it and believed that the idea of evolution as a proliferation of 'experiments' had great applicability beyond Biology and Economics. It's such a pity I loaned out the book and seriously have no idea who it is with.
If TED.com is not enough for you, there's always Academic Earth, which is way more academic in that it is practically university course lectures.
Our views towards climate change are often tinted with a veil of emotions - fearful of our children's safety, the prospects of more disasters and such. As a result, we proceed as cautiously as possible when studying it and would rather we err on the side of exaggerating the effects of climate change than to downplay it. Robert P. Murphy, an economist specialized in climate change economics, gave the whole story a more objective treatment in his article, The Benefits of Procrastination: The Economics of Geo-engineering
The article mentions some interesting geo-engineering schemes that are currently explored, but the main issue of the article is not the technologies involved but the cost-benefit analysis for the choice between waiting for more options to fight climate change and fighting it now through emission reductions. He argues for wait-and-see approach towards climate change and encourage geo-engineers to get on with their innovations and research.
Murphy believes that procrastination might give us a better assessment of the effects and extent of climate change our economic activity is resulting in and thus allow us to respond with more effective initiatives without compromising our economic growth at present and paying too high a cost from preventive measures such as reducing emissions.
Interestingly, discount rates isn't even the issue. The significant idea Murphy is after is that we could buy time to refine our assessment of climate change and also the means to tackle them. And that it's worth it. I'm not sure if the potential life loss from the risk is accounted for but his suggestions would sound insane to those who are suffering at the frontline of climate change, like the Inuits in Arctic region.
Even as an economist-to-be, I know that these issues is not always about economics and when we are thinking about global issues and aggregating cost, we almost definitely will leave out the non-monetary cost borne by the fringe groups. Perhaps Murphy could re-do his calculations and analysis after he reviews the cost of the effects of climate change even using more conservative estimates of the effects.
It's Christmas today and I have no Christmas gifts for my readers besides a new discovery. Scientific American offers a great podcast series called '60-Seconds Science'. It offers bits of scientific discoveries from recent research within 60 seconds; the information is smaller than bite size and definitely don't require much chewing, which makes it perfect for anyone tuning in to look for an anecdote for a speech or introduction for an article.
'If Time flew, you had fun' is a pretty interesting one and the same can be said for Caffeine Merely Masks Alcohol's Effect. The narrator delivers their science bits in the most entertaining way for something so academic. For people who fancy social sciences and the less technical areas of science, the podcast is a wonderful window to the science mankind is engaging in today.
For other intelligent content delivered in 60 seconds, check out 60-second Psych and 60-second Earth. Who knows, you might just pick up some bits of interesting facts to start a conversation with a stranger.
Tech Quarterly is here again and here are some highlights.
There's an interesting study about the contagious effects of loneliness. It sounds kind of paradoxical since the fact that it can be spread at all shows that the victims are already interacting with people and thus not 'lonely' technically speaking. In the area of medical research, there's a glue designed for aiding bones to heal.
As for gadgets and machines, readers might be interested in an article on E-readers and potential future developments that these devices will move towards - especially having coloured displays. The discussion on ways of typing different language text on mobile phones helps you understand more about non-latin languages.
Finally, there's something on mechanization of agriculture; the article reveals surprising labour shortage in this field of work. I thought the solution might be to move the unemployed people from the urban areas to these agricultural regions but well, they designed all sorts of machine to do the job so that means the unemployed will have to find something more complex to earn a living.
We are dependent on oil not only for energy but something almost as ubiquitous in modern day products. Shaking off other aspects of our dependence on oil is thus as important as diversifying sources of energy. And some Koreans just found out how to make an alternative kind of plastic way faster.
Meanwhile, Brian Palmer wrote a piece on Slate.com about how we might be able to overcome bacteria resistance to anti-biotics, a problem we have faced since the invention of anti-biotics. Fighting evolution is not the ultimate solution, as Palmer argued; he believes we need to adapt the rules of evolution and manipulate the bacteria with other strategies to overcome the problem.
Johann Hari writes on moreIntelligentLife about how Arctic is changing as experienced by the Inuits living there. Many of us may know about climate change and perhaps some of the sciences behind it but our lives goes on pretty much the same except for periodic violent weather we might intuitively attribute to climate change. To climate scientist, arctic is at the front line of this phenomenon and Hari writes convincingly about the reality of climate change in the arctic and how the lives of the Inuits are affected. The writing reflects a deep respect for those who lives in the arctic; something lacking in most other appeals for attention to global climate change. Ultimately though, it reflects how people are all looking at the problem with different lenses and focusing on different consequences. If anything is to be done at all, we'll have to connect the different groups together.
On other green matters, Nina Shen Rastogi asks on Slate.com, Should You Flush Your Drugs Down the Toilet?
The Economist ran a story about counterfeit handsets in China lately. Counterfeiting and piracy is not exactly all imitation and no creativity but it does actually hurt the economy, or so claimed by original manufacturers because it affects their incentives to innovate. The difficulty lies with assessing whether the consumer would even consume the good in the first place if the imitation is not available. As a matter of fact, I think the best way for these problem to solve themselves is for consumers to realise which one of the products (real or fake) offers them the utility they need. In most cases, people may just be satisfied with imitations then so be it; the original manufacturers simply may not have profited from these group of consumers who would otherwise not be able to afford the real thing.
It is only when the utility functions of these products coincide and people switch from using original to fakes that matters (but the difference should be made up by the disparity in quality or the time lag in introduction of imitations) and becomes a huge problem. And it would be a bad thing if manufacturers ends up engaged in the competition of who is best able to prevent piracy - that's senseless innovation that penalizes the society in general. Take Digital Rights Management (DRMs) for example. It sucks, everyone hates them and games like Red Alert 3 lost business because of it (though most part of its lack of popularity was attributed to its poor interface design and lame scenarios) and consumers hate big firms for them.
Perhaps intellectual property should be contained in ways that are stricter such that innovations built upon ideas that belongs to others are welcomed. In many sense, parodies are imitations, and so are fan fiction, built upon characterization or story frameworks that belongs to others. We should perhaps start treating the NPhone's relation with iPhone like Shrek's relation with Matrix. A joke.
It's a long time since I last directed readers to a lengthy prose penned at The New Yorker; while some of those long-winded stuff are reserved for pure entertainment when one is really bored in front of the computer, Jeremy Groopman wrote an interesting narrative report about robots that cares for patients. If you've some time to spare, it'd be good to go through some of these technology stuff that is more elaborate and human in reporting than those featured in The Economist.
The same magazine reports about another kind of careful technology. Seymour M. Hersh explores a more remote topic that less people would really bother about seriously despite its implications on many.
While the big stuff like satellites seem to be doing a great deal for our planning and crops, the small stuff in the field of nanotechnology is doing pretty scary stuff with carbon nanotubes again. The nanotubes actually end up being integrated into the plant cells, how disgusting can that get. Okay, I'm a little paranoid.
This week's read/watch/listen parcel starts with a little introduction of a new book The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins and a Q&A session that follows under Berkeley's Arts & Letters programme on FORA.tv. The site holds a wonderful collection of intellectual and academic videos from different events and places.
The book itself was recently published and praised by The Economist for its educational value. To be frank I've never read Richard Dawkins but from his readings of The Greatest Show on Earth in the video, I reckon I'd enjoy his style of demonstrating his arguments using long analogies that are probably closer to the heart of readers (rather reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln's speeches).
He compares Creationist to Holocaust Deniers, those who argues that Evolution is full of gaps to a stubborn lawyer who declares that more evidence is less. He questions the plausibility of Marsupials engaged is some sort of migration programme where they emigrate en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia - such was the witty humour that Dawkins use to entertain readers and frustrate those who believed in the literalism of Noah's Ark. Dawkins is critical and knows clearly what exactly he is out defend in the book.
Next, some readings on the fertility decline around the world in The Economist, something I wrote about previously as well as an article on price wars on The New Yorker by James Surowiecki. There's a video accompanying the article from The Economist about population.
Finally, find out more about Vincent van Gogh's life from The Economist's Editor Highlights Audio.