Sunday, March 30, 2008

Val Plumwood, author of Being Prey, was found dead on March 1st, 2008. I read the story of her being (almost) prey due to a crocodile attack in The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2001, edited by E. O. Wilson (the crocodile incident, where she nearly fell prey, happened in 1985). The 2001 booklet has several other fascinating stories as well (not least, Wilson's introduction). Being prey is of course not normally how we think of ourselves... but it happens. Val calls the report on her near death experience (while being in a crocodile's death roll) a ...
"... humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability"
It is of course another example of an inversion (albeit a "traditional" one) ...

Stiff People’s League

I learned about Stiff People's League via a LabCast from MIT that I recently saw. For me this is another example of a strange inversion: This virtual soccer game is primarily played in Second Life but also real people at a foosball table can join the action. But they are really secondary. So when you're inside of Second Life you see these clumsy proxies of real-world people inside of the machine. Tron: "Are there users?". In the Stiff People's League you can see proxy actions of real users. The borders keep melting, possibly faster than the polar ice caps. Let the Ka be with us...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Your Hair as a Water Provenance Recorder

It's been said that Life is just one damned thing after another (Elbert Hubbard, 1856 - 1915) and similarly for history (another damned thing after another!) Some go even as far as suggesting that It's not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over (Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 - 1950).
Either way, provenance is the processing history of things. How one thing happened after another. Our DNA has a scrambled provenance record of how life evolved as the Great (really Awesome) Tree of Life. It's important and difficult to unscramble it. Which is why it's called science (or phylogenetics, evolutionary biology, etc. in particular).

Recently I heard an exciting talk by Evan Eichler on Human Genome Structural Variation, Disease and Evolution which, as I understand it, points to an evolutionary explanation of certain diseases:
Unscrambling the history of life and understanding details of the mechanisms driving and controlling evolution is a formidable task.

But there are also ways how history can be captured and recorded much more easily: Your usage of cell phones, credit cards, web browsing, email (and gmail in particular), doctor's visits, FasTrak passes over the Bay Bridge, and many other things leave wonderful e-traces behind that are being integrated, data mined, or just kept lying around for future generations to marvel at what kept us busy in our days.

There are also inbetweens: processes not acting on the time-scales of eons (e.g. how dinosaurs related to birds), nor of the quick heart-beat of eBay transaction. More like at the speed of have a cup of tea made from your local tap water. You are what you eat (in German even nicer: Man ist, was man isst) and what you drink. Turns some of what you drank is recorded in your hair: Hair Reveals Where Murder Victims Drank Water. For the science of it see the Feb. 25 online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in human hair are related to geography).

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Great Minds Like a Think! Or Like Thinks a Great Mind??

So I'm fond of this idea of an inversion. A bit like Pollan's corn domesticating us, instead of the other way round.
Or the inversion in 'office automation': we used to be in charge. Now we've become gmail transducers.
The idea is not new... but can still be intriguing. Biologists can tell you all about it: Check out co-evolution! Who is the parasite and who the host?

Anyways, here's another one: When you get up at 3am in the morning, and half-asleep stumble to find a pencil and paper to write down an idea. Why then are we saying that
I had an idea! And I had to write it down!

Are we really having an idea? Or is the idea having us?
Well, well -- It sure feels like a forced move. Gotta think about this: is there a way to distinguish whose in charge and who is simply reacting?
It seems things are often a bit more symmetric than we would wish ...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Are you a Gmail Transducer?

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan asks whether we have domesticated Corn, or whether Corn has domesticated us. Strange inversion of reasoning you might think. Isn't it evident that we are in charge, controlling where corn is grown, how much of it, etc? Sort of... and after all, we have free will, right?

So how is your free will coming along recently, as you are consuming a constant stream of incoming messages, reacting to it by producing a stream of outgoing message, slavishly following a Getting-Things-Done scheme?

Wikipedia says:

A transducer is said to transduce (i.e., translate) the contents of its input tape to its output tape, by accepting a string on its input tape and generating another string on its output tape. It may do so nondeterministically and it may produce more than one output for each input string. A transducer may also produce no output for a given input string, in which case it is said to reject the input.

Sounds familiar? Doesn't this idea of being a Gmail Transducer give the notion of Office Automation a totally new meaning? It used to mean that we tell the machine what to do. The tedious, repetitive stuff. But things change and life co-evolves with those changes. We have now perfectly adapted to our new, self-inflicted work environment. A toast to plasticity and adaptation! We have turned ourselves into the cogs of the meme replication networked mega-machine!

Welcome then to the Wonderful Life of gmail transduction -- and enjoy your stay!
And please don't forget to output a comment after you've input this message...