Sunday, February 27, 2011

Diania cactiformis

Around 520 million years ago, a walking cactus roamed the Earth. Its body had nine segments, each bearing a pair of armour-plated legs, covered in thorns. It was an animal, but one that looked more like the concoction of a bad fantasy artist. Jianni Liu from Northwest University in Xi’an discovered this bundle of spines and named it Diania cactiformis – the “walking cactus from Yunnan”. And she thinks that it sits at the roots of the most successful group of animals on the planet. If Liu is right, Diania is one of the earliest relatives of the arthropods – the group that includes insects, spiders, crabs, and more. These species all share a segmented body, a hard external skeleton and jointed legs. They are life’s winners, the most diverse of all animal groups.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Neanderthal feather accessories

A Neanderthal burial site in Italy reveals hundreds of bird bones mixed in with those of our hominid cousins. The bones had the feathers scraped off, as though the Neanderthals had removed them on purpose - and the only plausible reason they would do that is to wear the feathers. It's more evidence that Neanderthals were just as cultured as own ancient ancestors.
The woman shown in the above artist's impression is wearing what looks like a fascinator

Friday, February 25, 2011

Miranda sings

The unearthly sounds in this video are derived from electromagnetic signals picked up by the Voyager spacecraft as it flew past Miranda, moon of Uranus. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Programming as music and drama

Velato is a programming language in which the source code consists of MIDI music files, so that each program doubles as an electronic tune. This is how a "Hello World" program sounds, and this is an accordion rendition of a program that copies input to output.

Another strange programming language is Shakespeare, in which programs look like plays; variables have the names of characters and their values are determined by equations encoded as invective. The results are rather absurdist:
Scene II: Juliet and Ophelia's conversation.
[Enter Ophelia]
Thou art as good as the quotient between Romeo and the sum
of a small furry animal and a leech. Speak your mind!
Thou art as disgusting as the quotient between Romeo
and twice the difference between a mistletoe and an 
oozing infected blister! Speak your mind!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Crystallized dinosaur

Cross section of a dinosaur bone at 15× magnification. The bone (blue), from an unknown species, is about the size of a roll of duct tape and was found in the Morrison Formation on the Colorado Plateau, where fossils are common. The iron oxide (red) in the quartz-filled (white) sample could be part of the marrow or spongy bone, but Barker says “it could also be a tree root that grew and decomposed over the millions and millions of years it takes before the actual specimen becomes fossilized.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Watson, the Jeopardy-playing AI

Watson wasn't always this adept:
It botched the solutions to the game-show clues with howlers that filled IBM's research lab with laughter — and raised deep concern. Once, when queried about a famous French bacteriologist, Watson skipped right past Louis Pasteur and responded instead: "What is, 'How tasty was my little Frenchman?'" (the title of a 1971Brazilian movie about cannibals). Even worse, Watson churned away for nearly two hours to come up with such nonsense.
However, Watson's "intelligence" is artificial in more ways than one. Like a chatterbot, a clueless politician or the inmate of Searle's Chinese Room, it creates output appropriate to its input by associating between symbols without any understanding of their referents, and cannot deal with questions that require more subtle interpretation:
When it comes up with an answer, such as "What is 'Othello?,'" the name of Shakespeare's play is simply the combination of ones and zeros that correlates with millions of calculations it has carried out. Statistics tell it that there is a high probability that the word "Othello" matches with a "tragedy," a "captain" and a "Moor." But Watson doesn't understand the meaning of those words any more than Google does, or, for that matter, a parrot raised in a household of Elizabethan scholars...
This clue, for example, ties Watson into knots: "Look in this direction and you'll see the wainscoting." The answer is rooted in human experience, not data. Only a "Jeopardy!" contestant with a body is likely to understand it and come up with the right response: "What is down?"

Saturday, February 12, 2011


These creatures, also known as sea lilies, are related to starfish. Most living species are small and dwell on the sea floor, but in prehistoric times they grew to truly impressive proportions and drifted in the ocean currents:

Also, fragments of their fossil exoskeletons have been used as rosary beads.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sights on the pathway to sleep

Sketch of a form constant, a form of hallucination often seen when drifting off to sleep
Other dreamers may see falling tetrominoes, chess boards, or microscope slides behind their eyelids. I often see text-- apparently of a rambling, nonsensical character akin to the output of random generators, but with formatting resembling that of the books or websites I've been browsing. On a few occasions, I have even seen hypnagogic syntax trees.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Latinglish poetry

O, si vile, si ergo,
Fortibus es inero!
O nobile, demis trux.
Vadis indem? Causem dux.
Caesar adsum jam forte — Antonius sed passus sum.
Caesar aderat forte
Pompey adsum jam
Caesar sic in omnibus
Pompey sic intram
See here for explanation and more verses. See also "Oh Four Tuna".

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Possible worlds

How would the night sky look if our moon was replaced by one of the planets?