Archive for May, 2009

Sea lamprey to U.S. cybersecurity: Yes we can!

May 31, 2009

Remember how U.S. cybersecurity sucks?

Here’s Ars Technica‘s John Timmer on the new cybersecurity report [pdf]:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the report, however, is that it suggests that the US may be facing the prospect of being left as a technological backwater when it comes to security, and a national effort will be required to avoid that fate. The authors suggest a historic analog: “similar to the period after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October, 1957, the United States is in a global race that depends on mathematics and science skills.” In response, it suggests that the new office develop a research and development framework, and accompany it with a public information campaign that will stress the importance of security considerations. If necessary, the government should incentivize the use of secure practices and equipment by private industry through programs like targeted tax breaks.

From Digits, the WSJ tech blog, here’s one expert’s reaction:

“They’re suggesting in this paper that if you don’t have good security, that you’ll be punished for it. The problem is that this is an evolving threat,” he said. “They seem to be waving the stick around a lot without having any serious carrots.”

I have absolutely no expertise in this area, so I’ll just point to some cool ideas for modeling computer security on the immune system.

While I’m at it, did you know sea lampreys have an unexpectedly sophisticated immune system?


From Science magazine’s Origins blog:

These eel-like creatures are often called “living fossils” because they are thought to have changed little since they arose 450 million to 500 million years ago, as part of a branch of jawless creatures that split off early from the rest of the vertebrate tree. Lampreys and hagfish are the only survivors of that jawless branch, and accumulating evidence indicates that the animals have developed an immune system far different from that of other vertebrates, including people. Today, in Nature, a team led by Max Cooper of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, unveils the latest chapter in this emerging evolutionary tale, providing data indicating that the sea lamprey has its own versions of B and T cells, the two cell types central to the so-called adaptive immune response found in people.

It’s not clear yet if the lamprey evolved its immune powers independently of the rest of us vertebrates, but if so, Holy convergent evolution, Lamprey-man!

I guess the lesson for us is this: if a living fossil can evolve itself an adaptive immune system, then surely the U.S. can find a way to keep the free world safe from even the wiliest of Chinese and Russian Lawnmower Men.

Update: NYTimesContractors Vie for Plum Work, Hacking for U.S.


Every drum circle needs a Nobel Prize winner

May 31, 2009

Via BoingBoing, a cool video of Richard Feynman playing drums:

Reminds me of Kraftwerk’s Ruckzuck.

He also juggled.

The pleasure of finding things out

May 30, 2009

Have you read this book? You might try it.

<i>The Pleasure of Finding Things Out</i> by Richard P. Feynman

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P. Feynman

I’ve owned it for a year or two at least. A few minutes ago I flipped through it at random. The name of a magazine, Omni, caught my eye. I read from some old interview.

One day I’ll be convinced there’s a certain type of symmetry that everybody believes in, the next day I’ll try to figure out the consequence if it’s not, and everybody’s crazy but me. But the thing that’s unusual about good scientists is while they’re doing whatever they’re doing, they’re not so sure of themselves as others usually are. They can live with steady doubt, think “maybe it’s so” and act on that, all the time knowing it’s only “maybe.” Many people find that difficult. They think it means detachment or coldness. It’s not coldness! It’s a much deeper and warmer understanding, and it means you can be digging somewhere where you’re temporarily convinced you have the answer, and somebody comes up and says, “Have you seen what they’re coming up with over there?”, and you look up and say Jeez! I’m in the wrong place! It happens all the time.

I stopped reading, and I realized the book in my hands was no longer a book. It was a pearl, mirror-smooth and big around as a medicine ball, and I was cradling it in my arms. The man shat wisdom, people. You would too if your mind did nothing but think all day, every second. Unfortunately, we live in a world where “genius” is a rare gift bestowed on the genetically chosen few, and me and the other stereotypes are too busy clocking our time to say otherwise.

MMA’s newest badass rebirths karate

May 29, 2009

Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida:


Is he a truth serum? A puzzle box? The Wayne Gretzsky of mixed martial arts? Unclear. We know he’s an unbeaten 31-year-old mixed martial artist (as of tomorrow) who cut his teeth on Shotokan karate and dismantled Rashad Evans last Saturday night to take the UFC’s light heavyweight championship. We know he darts in and out of range to punish fighters without taking damage himself [links to video below]. And we know he’s already being spoken of in the same breath as Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva and George St. Pierre.

Here’s Jake Rossen, MMA’s smartest writer:

Lyoto Machida made history Saturday night by becoming the first mixed martial artist to win a major title by wielding an art perceived as primitive and nearing extinction. He didn’t outwrestle Rashad Evans, he didn’t submit him and he didn’t gorilla-press him. He feinted, floated out of the way of hammering strikes and applied the principles of Shotokan karate he established while still in diapers to send Evans down and thinking of his sleep number.

Jordan Breen reviews the tape:

Machida being technically dominant is nothing new, but it was the first time I took note of how glaring he made his opponent’s faults look. Upon opening up the library, I realized this was absolutely nothing new. It took him about two minutes to realize Thiago Silva didn’t tuck his chin or bring his hands back after engaging, which led directly to two brutal knockdowns and set the table for a first-round stoppage. Tito Ortiz’s reaction to Machida’s feints — an incredibly high guard, shielding his own face — made it easy for the karateka to smash up his legs and body, allowing for the brutal knee to the body that nearly ended the bout.

Here’s Machida quoted in ESPN:

“In my karate, there is a time which is called the Kyo, which means the fighter has no defense,” said Machida, 30, who improved to 15-0-0 and still hasn’t lost a round in UFC competition. “I study to make sure I attack right at the correct Kyo, and that’s what I did.”

Bloody Elbow contextualizes:

[A]ll good boxers know there is a time when an opponent can be attacked and they cannot defend, it is a moment when the mind is in reset mode so to speak, and in Shotokan there is a name for that moment. In boxing there is not. I remember training zanshin, and training how to measure and time a strike or counter strike not just based on physical moments, but by your opponent’s breathing, his eyes even would tell you when they are ‘blanked out’ or in ‘reset mode’ and can be attacked.

Maybe I’ll torrent Machida’s 4-DVD set:

First, the footwork translated from his karate background is extremely quick and efficient.  Each movement serves a purpose and no energy is wasted.  Second, like a good poker player, Machida offers no visual clues to what he will do next.  During several techniques, Machida takes great strides in stressing the importance of maintaining and returning to your base stance before, during, and after each technique.  By doing so, Machida masks his intent for as long as possible, reducing his opponent’s window to react in time.

But I’d better get started:

The problem with Shotokan Karate in MMA is that it is a style of fighting that takes a lifetime of training to master.  The use of fixed stances, kata, 5 step sparring etc… are training techniques designed to develop a fighter over millions of repetitions and decades of time. And, there are no shortcuts.

Hmm, is anybody else thinking brain downloads?

Post script on video: 

By now the UFC will have forced down most videos of the Machida-Evans fight [oops — they missed one], although if you poke around you might be able to download or torrent it.

Here’s Machida taking out Thiago Silva. (Listen for Joe Rogan talking about Machida’s “great package.”)

Here are highlights from Machida’s first 12 fights.

These highlights start off slow — the beginning shows him doing kata on the beach at sunset — but they include his 13th fight, against former l.h.w. champ Tito Ortiz.

I’ll take my pseudoscience with drugs, please

May 28, 2009

I’ve been looking for an excuse to trash 2012, the New Age Y2K. Now that journalist Ron Rosenbaum has done my work for me in Slate, I am free to take the broader view.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan “Long Count” calendar is supposed to turn over after a 5,139-year “Grand Cycle,” and the 2012 meme holds that the date will mark a passage to a new, more globally spiritual era. Drug culture superstar Daniel Pinchbeck has helped fuel the whole thing with his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. (I’m waiting on my copy from the library.)

Rosenbaum links to a nice debunking of the astrological significance of Dec. 21, 2012. Of course, to anyone who believes in 2012 astrology, “debunking” is jerk-speak for “proof.” Which is why Rosenbaum’s trashing is so much preaching to the choir:

The best cultural explanation I found for this flowering of idiocy said that New Age fads like the Hopi prophecy and 2012 are a kind of cultural colonialism in which white people endow the minorities they have wiped out or repressed with mystical powers made more mysterious by their virtual vanishing.


Maybe those obsessed with making the world conform to rigid rationalities are the most vulnerable to the shambolic visions of mystics who can “explain” the anomalies and mysteries that elude their “Science of Detection.”

I agree whole-heartedly with the second statement. But if Rosenbaum thinks colonialism is a bad thing, why isn’t he sensitive enough to realize that an impulse toward spirituality, self-integration, connectedness — whatever you want to call it — is a very human thing, and that even if 2012 is a “silly scam,” maybe it’s being abetted by a dominant culture that doesn’t accept spirituality in nonsecular secular [oops] forms? Our culture does seem to have a hard time publicly affirming the value of subjective experience, hence Marianne Williamson’s goofy quantum advice and George Bush’s unwavering convictions. I mean, as much as I disagree with Jenny McCarthy, all she wants is validation of her feelings.

The tension, as always, is between subjectivity and objectivity. First, 2012ers need to accept that modernism isn’t going anywhere. And second, the Rosenbaums of the world should get on board with the judicious, therapeutic use of illicit psychoactive drugs. And then let’s everybody hold hands and be all Kumbaya and shit, ok?

Uncle Enzo was on to something

May 28, 2009

It always stuck in my head that in Snow Crash, when Uncle Enzo is trying to get the drop on Raven at the end, he opens his mouth to hear better.

That’s my random association from this Sci Am news story:

In the study, a specially designed robotic device stretched the mouths of volunteers slightly up, down or backward while they listened to a computer-generated continuum of speech verbalizations that sounded like “head” or “had,” or something in between. When the subjects’ mouths were stretched upward, closer to the position needed to say “head,” they were more likely to hear the sounds as “head,” especially with the more ambiguous output. If the subjects’ mouths were stretched downward, as if to say “had,” they were more likely to hear “had,” even when the sounds being generated were closer to “head.” Stretching subjects’ mouths backward had no effect, implying a position-specific response. Moreover, the timing of the stretch had to match that of the sounds exactly to get an effect: the stretch altered speech perception only when it mimicked realistic vocalizations.

Next experiment:

Ostry and his colleagues hope to help answer this question with follow-up work that inverts the experiment: instead of hearing a continuum of sound, subjects will endure a continuum of stretches to see if auditory input can influence what they feel. 

And that reminds me of Alexander technique.

Stem cells: let the disappointment begin

May 28, 2009

The problem with turning a scientific issue into a political football is that the passionate rough-and-tumble of the game can leave the science itself rather scuffed. When opponents of ESC [embryonic stem cell] research likened it to genocide and Nazi concentration camp experiments, its proponents countered by emphasizing how irreplaceable ESCs were and how miraculous the cures arising from them could be. Whether or not those claims wandered into rhetorical excess, at least a few false hopes and misimpressions have probably been left behind.

That’s Sci Am on the inevitable disappointments of stem cells.

What is the sound of one million neurons firing?

May 28, 2009

Here’s Nobel winner Gerald Edelman, from another great Discover Q&A:

Eugene Izhikevitch [a mathematician at the Neurosciences Institute] and I have made a model with a million simulated neurons and almost half a billion synapses, all connected through neuronal anatomy equivalent to that of a cat brain. What we find, to our delight, is that it has intrinsic activity. Up until now our BBDs had activity only when they confronted the world, when they saw input signals. In between signals, they went dark. But this damn thing now fires on its own continually. The second thing is, it has beta waves and gamma waves just like the regular cortex—what you would see if you did an electroencephalogram. Third of all, it has a rest state. That is, when you don’t stimulate it, the whole population of neurons stray back and forth, as has been described by scientists in human beings who aren’t thinking of anything.

In other words, our device has some lovely properties that are necessary to the idea of a conscious artifact. It has that property of indwelling activity. So the brain is already speaking to itself. That’s a very important concept for consciousness.

Thanks, Cosmic Variance

Landau-Kleffner Syndrome

May 28, 2009

Who am I kidding? I’m a fricking nerd.

From Epilepsy Currents:

Landau-Kleffner syndrome is characterized by acquired aphasia [first manifestation: “Parents report a child no longer responds to their commands, even with raised voices”] and paroxysmal, sleep-activated EEG paroxysms [“highly correlated with the occurrence of clinical seizures“] predominating over the temporal or parieto-occipital regions. Secondary symptoms include psychomotor or behavioral disturbances and epilepsy with a favorable outcome for seizure control. The prevalence is unclear. A male predominance exists, with an approximately 2:1 ratio. This regressive syndrome affects children after having achieved early developmental milestones, with 3–9 years being the usual age of presentation.

LKS “has commonalities with autism spectrum disorder.”

Communication deficits in autism include abnormal development of spoken language and impaired ability to initiate or sustain conversation. The autistic child’s language is often stereotyped, repetitive, and idiosyncratic, with echolalia and neologisms 11. Confusing the picture is the fact that seizures may occur in autism, and EEG abnormalities are common. Furthermore, at least a third of autistic toddlers demonstrate neurodevelopmental regression, involving language, sociability, play, and cognition. LKS represents selective loss of language in association with an abnormally paroxysmal EEG, eventually characterized by electrographic status epilepticus of slow-wave sleep (ESES).

McCarthy’s son started seizing when he was two, so if he has LKS, it seems like he presented earlier than usual.

Only 10% of children with LKS regress before three years [versus “the great majority of children with autism who undergo language regression”]. As regression in autism occurs early, it usually entails the loss of single words, versus more drastic changes in LKS children who are typically older and have more developed vocabulary and language. LKS does not feature the behavioral profile that encompasses the core deficits of autism, i.e., abnormalities of reciprocal social relatedness and restricted stereotypical patterns of interests and behaviors. There is an intricate relationship between LKS, autism, ESES, and developmental dysphasias and the interaction between epileptiform discharges and cognitive dysfunction remains enigmatic.

Autism is so interesting: Why would there be multiple autism-related disorders?

Trendwatch: hugs, Great Books

May 28, 2009

Either I’m paying attention to more trend pieces, or some serious trends are underway.

For Teenagers, Hello Means ‘How About a Hug?’

Girls embracing girls, girls embracing boys, boys embracing each other — the hug has become the favorite social greeting when teenagers meet or part these days. Teachers joke about “one hour” and “six hour” hugs, saying that students hug one another all day as if they were separated for the entire summer.

The Great Books are coming back?

I kept running into more and more students fed up with militant multiculturalism and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism. Although pomo’s demise has been widely reported, one can’t ignore how sclerotic academe is. […] But every orthodoxy, as they say, breeds its own apostasy, and I was getting the message that this might be the hour for recuperation, renaissance, resurrection, recovery, renewal, and revival of the Great Books’ perennial questions. Old ideas become stale — perennial questions do not.