28 March 2007

Reno, NV: Where Men are Men and Sheep are Part Human

I'll give a shoutout to Slashdot for alerting me to this surprising item. Researchers at the University of Nevada at Reno have created a herd of sheep whose organs are, at a cellular level, 15% human. This article describes the research, but raises more questions than it answers. I found a more thorough article from 2003 in New Scientist.

The original goal of the UNR work was to study possible methods for in-utero correction of genetic defects. The idea is that stem cells can be taken from the developing human embryo, given some gene therapy to correct the disorder, and then transplanted back to outcompete the defective cells as the fetus matures. Naturally, such experiments cannot be done with human embryos. So the team used sheep fetuses. They injected them with human stem cells and some human growth factors. They then let the fetal sheep develop and observed what happened to the human cells. The lead researcher's paper can be found here.

The transplanted human cells could have all died off, but as the sheep fetus was pre-immune, they did not. Instead some became persistent human stem cells (as for bone marrow). Others, however, committed and became human organ cells. The human cells apparently coexist with the sheep cells in the organs. This has raised the possibility that such "humanized" sheep could be used as a source of tissue, or even whole organs, for transplant. Imagine a patient who sustains severe liver damage. Both the lack of available organs for transplant, and the difficulty of tissue rejection make for a dire prognosis. But this research offers a different approach as it suggests a method whereby the patient's own stem cells could be used to develop replacement organ tissue that would be harvested from the sheep after birth.

Getting stem cells to specialize and grow into organs in the lab isn't something we can expect in the near future. However by using the sheep fetus as a natural factory for tissue development the team has already succeeded. I'm surprised that the major US media have not jumped on this story. Both the medical promise and the ethical issues raised are big news. In the UK several groups are now wading through government bioethics panels so that they can begin similar research.


The market is Open

08 March 2007

Evolutionary Advantage

I have to imagine at some point in our evolutionary past, the ability to sort through and shut off sensory input was an attribute that some of us organisms had and some didn't. Presumably the ones that didn't have this mojo were unable to distinguish which of, say, that beautiful sunset or the rapidly approaching carnivorous thing required more immediate attention, and didn't live to reproduce.

I can't quite grok the current analog to this situation, even as the sheer level of input from universe to the individual continues to rise seemingly exponentially. A professor giving a talk at my undergraduate institution (and this was fifteen years ago before the rise of internet-as-information-conduit) once compared the rising network of global information exchange to a nervous system. When one part sustains damage, the information about it immediately radiates to all (connected) parts of the globe. Some parts respond, some parts don't, depending upon the input. But there doesn't seem to be an evolutionary disadvantage in the inability to handle the flood of information that comes at an individual-as-brain-cell in the information age. If the makeup of your brain is that the nonstop flood of instant everything causes it to short-circuit and you to curl up in a non-responsive little ball, well, you might not be able to function in society, but it's not the kind of thing that stops you from reproducing, is it?

So the analog is perhaps not evolutionary in the survival-of-the-fittest/luckiest sense, but evolutionary in another way?

03 March 2007

Sometimes i'm dreaming

I stand in a mall. About me rise three wide floors of shops and stalls. Ads, logos, and merchandise vie for my attention. But it's the music that arrests my mind. Am I hearing this? Is this real?

Floating through the air of this consumer palace is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure. And yes, all the faces, all the voices blur. Overcome by a Proustian swoon I drift back a quarter of a century. This was the music of my youth. Old Cure, back when Robert Smith was just that guitarist who used to play with Siousxie. Out of the cocoon of these sounds would Goth emerge.

This was the emblematic music alternative from the pop-cultured drivel, this the edgy "New Wave". Now, in our still-new century, it plays in a mall. And if I could travel back in time, how could I explain this moment to my earlier self? But the water that passes under the bridge is far deeper than even this. More than music have I to explain. How could I describe, to the person I was, the people I have become?

Not even the science fiction of that age dreamt this moment. I look around. People shop. Most walk from store to store, arms and legs pumping with that stiff gait of those new in this world. They must go up to each display to see it because they haven't learned to use the camera. But I am content to stand, my pose changing every now and then. I stretch, or shift my weight. And with my magic sight I roam the floors of the mall.

Boots. I need boots. Shiny black with buckles and platform heels. Knee-high, I'm thinking, to go with that jacket I bought last week. Something to wear to the club tonight, live music arranged by a friend in a brand new venue.

But something else has caught my eye. I don't quite grasp what I'm looking at, but know I need to look closer. I zoom in. Suddenly it all gestalts. It's called "The Vixen Muzzle". You see, this world has a lot of non-humans, especially one type called Furries whose avatars are animal shapes. This world also has a lot of people into BDSM play. And this object is, well, it's a bondage toy for Furries. I guess your typical ball gag doesn't look quite right on a furry snout, hence the muzzle.

Somewhere a mind reels. Acting with cerebellar familiarity a hand drives a mouse. A cursor slides, dual clicks on a HUD control. In-world a grin spreads across my face. My head tilts back. And in the chat channel these words appear:
Savannah Nihilist laughs out loud.

22 February 2007

Palindrome Riddles

Let me introduce you to a sub-genre of word puzzle which I call the palindrome riddle. You are given a clue, often in the form of a question, the answer to which reads the same backwards and forwards, excluding punctuation and case. The answer may be one or more words. For example: What kind of beer does the king drink? Regal lager, of course. Or, what innovation helps older arthritic doggies climb up onto truck beds? The pet step.
That should give you the idea so here you go.

1) What do you have to do to avoid an encounter with the Late Night talk show host who's looking for you?

2) Dance productions inspired by a character from A Streetcar Named Desire.

3) What do you call the appointed official in charge of Reggae affairs?

4) Cats with Alzheimer's.

5) What do you call the person who comes to collect you and all your effects and take you to the '60's theme (or '70's, western, Victorian era...) resort?

6) Peruvian city questions its identity.

7) The chihuahua is out. Do you know the name of the fast food chain's new mascot?

8) How did the rude customer address the young man who was stocking some tropical fruit at the time?

9) Vulcan law enforcement.

10) Impersonate a renowned fabulist.

11) What the groupies realized when they discovered that their favorite New Wave band no longer resided at the same address.

(and my favorite)

12) An owl perches on the branch of a tree on a very balmy night. Another owl flies up and lights on the branch next to him and asks,"Why are you so quiet tonight?" The first owl responds, "Oh, man, it's --------".

Have fun with these. I didn't include any of the more obscure ones but answers can be made available.


19 February 2007

Crossing the Uncanny Valley

I'm always alert for neologisms and phrases of the moment. So when I heard the term "uncanny valley" recently I knew I had to blog about it. In case this isn't already part of your lexicon, I'll give a brief description, but the wikipedia article goes into much greater detail.

I encountered the term with regards to a new android built in South Korea: EveR-2 (the pictures may take some time to load, but it's worth it). The Uncanny Valley is not a physical place, but rather a "valley" on a graph. Specifically it's a graph for how humans respond to human-like creations. Along the x axis goes increasing human verisimilitude. Up along the y axis is increasing favorable emotional response. The idea is that as robots (or other human creations) acquire elements of human appearance we tend to respond more and more favorably to them. The graph starts to rise as it goes to the right. But at some point a sharp inflection is reached, and suddenly we begin to see the robot as grotesque and even monstrous. Thus the curve falls steeply below the baseline. However, as even more humanness is added to the creation, it becomes human looking enough to rise out of the valley, so to speak, and again we have a favorable response. The wikipedia article referenced above illustrates the curve and gives several examples.

What's interesting is that since this phenomenon was first described (1970!) it has expanded beyond robotics. Characters from modern films (ex: Gollum from LOTR), TV commercials, and video games can be examined in light of the uncanny valley hypothesis. Pixar, for example, has used the uncanny valley to make their villains seem especially grotesque. Several ideas on what causes the uncanny valley response are listed in the article. The one I find most compelling is from evolutionary psychology.

When I'm hit with a feeling of the uncanny valley I note that it is a strongly emotional response that simply wells up from some part of my brain. I can't really reason out why I have that response. One thing that does it for me are the Burger King commercials. For some reason the King character is extraordinarily horrid to me. But why? It's just a mask. The evolutionary psych explanation suggests that it is some very primitive part of my brain alerting me that there is something "wrong" with this being, and I should avoid it.

As many of this blog's readers and writers know, I spend more than a bit of time in Second Life. One would think that such a place would be deep in the Uncanny Valley. Surprisingly though, I find that this isn't the case. SL avatars rarely evoke that deep grotesque reaction, and in fact usually evoke favorable responses. There are, of course, exceptions. Every once in a while my avatar will do something that looks nasty. Usually this happens while standing on uneven terrain and one of my av's legs will suddenly shoot out sideways at a physiologically impossible angle. Or perhaps my av's knees will buckle and even bend backwards briefly. Then there are self-inflicted trips to the valley which are more funny than grotesque. Like when a newbie acquires a vehicle and doesn't know how to use it, so selects "wear". Suddenly they are wearing a full-size car around their head. This is especially hilarious if they do this in a crowded room. As their head turns the cars smacks everyone nearby.

I'll end with a link to an Uncanny Valley Expo for Second Life avs. Here the focus was on making your av give a very humanlike expression, coming up the far end of the valley back into the good zone. I didn't learn about this Expo in time or I would have sent in an entry myself. Many of the entries use a simple "emoter HUD" to create the facial expressions, and then rely on framing the shot and avatar position to convey body language.

-- Per

The market is Open.

16 February 2007

(Uninformed) Thoughts on GUIs

Unlike other members of this blog, I have little to no actual technical knowledge. But I'm still a techie of sorts (early adopter, and so forth), and since this is a blog I figure my credentials matter not at all. So here are recent musings on user interface design.

It strikes me that when I read about UI as something people are thinking about on the meta level, the writing tends to take a rather narrow perspective by trying to judge which particular UI is 'better', 'easier to use', 'more efficient', or 'more intutive'. Those are all important questions to ask, but I was struck this week by a different dimension of UI and UI design. Putting aside what UI is 'better' there's still the question of what the UI encourages you to do and what it encourages you not to do.

This musing came about when I was sitting on the sofa earlier this week and thought, 'damn OS X rocks!'. This spontaneous head-thought came about because at that moment I was doing the following:
  • ripping a DVD in Handbrake, which requires intense video encoding
  • copying a huge file over the WLAN to the Mac mini
  • copying another file over an SSH tunnel to my office computer
  • exporting a Video clip from MPEG Streamclip
  • working on a huge Keynote presentation (filled with video clips)
  • checking my email in the background
  • actively typing something in Pages
(Of course there were a dozen other apps open that I wasn't using, and quite a few *nix processes running of which I almost always remain happily unaware.)

So by 'OS X rocks' I meant to express how impressed I was that both the OS and the processor could handle all this, and not make me think for a moment that I'd have to wait for the machine.

But, of course, this is complete OS X chauvinism: any modern multithreaded operating system (OS X, XP, Vista) running on the Intel Core Duo processor could do all of this. It was not necessarily something special about OS X.

However, I then got to thinking about how my XP friends and colleagues actually use their machine, and it seems to me that they are very unlikely to really take advantage of their Core Duo chip or their multithreaded OS. Indeed, just the day before I watched as my utterly computer literature colleague interacted with his XP machine. Seriously, this guy understands computers far better than most. But like everyone I watch use XP he interacts with every app in full-screen mode. And he never really switches between apps; instead, he constantly clicks the little icon that sends the window down to the bottom of the screen, but the idea of leaving an app with 5 windows open just sitting there while sliding over to a different app is just a thought he's never had. In this particular session we were looking at a few different word files that I had emailed him, and then working out a structure in a different word Doc. We'd be working on the main doc and every time he needed one of those other word docus he would do the following:
  1. Switch to MS outlook
  2. Find the email I sent him
  3. Click on the Zip attachment
  4. Answer yes to unzipping each of the 6 files
  5. Select the file he wanted and have it open in word

My very much speculative point is this: isn't it the case that the set-up of XP encourages this type of time-wasting behavior and discourages more sophisticated multitasking? Every window wants to be full screen. App switching (as in, through the dock or command-tab in OS X) doesn't seem readily available that I can see. Users are encouraged to think about their computer the same way they thought about it in DOS. That's sad.

11 February 2007

Furtherafield reviews Amazon Noir



About one year after the release of Google Will Eat Itself the artists PAOLO CIRIO (PC), ALESSANDRO LUDOVICO (AL), Hans Bernhard and Lizvlx (both UBERMORGEN.COM (UC)) out foxed Amazon.com, the second global Internet player. The results of the Media/Art-event Amazon Noir - The Big Book Crime were presented to the public on the 15th of November 2006. In the following interview the Amazon Noir Crew talks about the framework of the project, its coding and art historical background, the official feedback and copyright issues."