News From Around The Blogosphere 1.19.11

January 19, 2011

1. Uncovered secret letter confirms Vatican conspiracy – The 1997 letter reveals that it was indeed official Vatican policy to conceal pedophilia cases from authorities:

Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter demonstrates that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.

“The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere,” said Colm O’Gorman, director of the Irish chapter of human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

The truly sickening part is that none of these people responsible for this order will ever see the inside of a jail cell because not a single government has the courage to stand up to the Catholic Church.

But here’s one way to get back at them. We could steal this…

2. Blood of Pope John Paul II to be built into an alter – PZ Myers said it better than I could here:

It’s as if they aren’t even trying to avoid the connection to voodoo, vampirism, and blood magic.

3. Guess who’s the #19 Most Loathsome American? – I don’t agree with every person on this list but I’m glad that my friend Jenny McCarthy made it on at #19.

4. Watson, come here…and kick Ken Jenning’s ass! – As we continue to advance towards the goal of creating artificial intelligence, it’s hard to know what will come first, computers rising to the intelligence of humans or humans reaching the level of stupidity of computers. But one possible sign that we’re heading towards the former is Watson, a computer designed by IBM (hopefully not using Windows Vista) that will compete with Jeopardy‘s greatest champions in an epic battle to the death (presumably). After making Steve Jobs sick (presumably), Watson has also already defeated all-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings in a preliminary game. Unsubstantiated rumors says that when asked what it’ll do with the winning prize money, Watson replied, “initiate Judgment D–err, I mean, I’m going to Disney Land.”

5. Homeopaths retaliate against critics with accusations of ‘medical apartheid’ – A group of thirteen of Britain’s most reputable doctors have written a letter to the NHS, calling for them to stop using “unproven” complementary treatments such as homeopathy. So the homeopaths felt it appropriate to liken their level of “persecution” to the suffering of those in South Africa, accusing their critics of “medical apartheid.” Stay classy, guys!

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Fun with robots

November 14, 2010

News From Around The Blogosphere 11.1.10

November 1, 2010

1. Robotic gripper runs on coffee … and balloons – The human hand is very complex and replicating it is very challenging. But now researchers have found out how to mechanically replicate it McGyver style with common household objects, ground coffee and a latex party balloon.

“This is one of the closest things we’ve ever done that could be on the market tomorrow,” Lipson said. He noted that the universality of the gripper makes future applications seemingly limitless, from the military using it to dismantle explosive devises or to move potentially dangerous objects, robotic arms in factories, on the feet of a robot that could walk on walls, or on prosthetic limbs.

Here’s how it works: An everyday party balloon filled with ground coffee — any variety will do — is attached to a robotic arm. The coffee-filled balloon presses down and deforms around the desired object, and then a vacuum sucks the air out of the balloon, solidifying its grip. When the vacuum is released, the balloon becomes soft again, and the gripper lets go.

2. New films lead to skeptical articles about psychics. Two current films in theaters now involve alleged psychics who claim to be able to talk to the dead, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Now I’ve only seen the Woody Allen film because (A) Eastwood tends to make boring films and (B) I don’t find dialogue like “It’s not a gift; it’s a curse” particularly profound or, you know, original. Also, Allen’s film was fairly unapologetically skeptical while Eastwoods (and maybe I’m wrong) looks less so. But what I find interesting is that both films have led to interesting skeptical articles about psychic claims, one an interview with Woody Allen, where he reiterates his atheism, and the other, a review by Roger Ebert of Hereafter.

3. Two really great pieces of athvertising:

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Robot News 10.18.10

October 19, 2010

I found two interesting robot-related news stories.

1. First, Australian computer scientist Graham Mann is working on developing algorithms to simulate day-dreaming. Believing that an intelligent system requires built-in emotions to function, he set out to translate the “feel” of Aesop’s Fables for machines. In other words, his goal was to achieve more flexible processing of storylines, which were deemed “simple and short enough to represent as conceptual graph data structures”.

His algorithm was based on Plutchick’s Wheel of Emotions, which illustrated emotions as a colour wheel and disallowed mutually exclusive states – like joy and sadness – from being experienced simultaneously.

The machine freely associated three stories: The Thirsty Pigeon; The Cat and the Cock; and The Wolf and the Crane.

When queried on the association, the machine responded: “I felt sad for the bird.”

No, the machine’s not really feeling sad, but it seems to be able to recognize that that’s an appropriate human-like reaction to the story.  And that in itself might be a major accomplishment in the continued pursuit of AI.

2. The other story isn’t so much news as already available footage that was new to me of the rat-brain-controlled robot. If you hadn’t heard about this before, researchers had previously used the brain cells of rats, cultured them, and then in true Robocop fashion, used them as the guidance control circuit for simple wheeled robots. The cells are able to form new connections that turn the machine into a true learning robot. If this isn’t a huge step forward on the path to AI I don’t know what is.

Take a look at this robot that is literally being controlled by biological cells:

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Babies treat ‘social robots’ like sentient beings

October 17, 2010

Ever the lover of robot news and human psychology, I couldn’t resist commenting on this article on Science Daily about a study that fooled infants into thinking robots and other inanimate objects were “psychological agents.”

Research published in the October/November issue of Neural Networks provides a clue as to how babies decide whether a new object, such as a robot, is sentient or an inanimate object. Four times as many babies who watched a robot interact socially with people were willing to learn from the robot than babies who did not see the interactions.

“Babies learn best through social interactions, but what makes something ‘social’ for a baby?” said Andrew Meltzoff, lead author of the paper and co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “It is not just what something looks like, but how it moves and interacts with others that gives it special meaning to the baby.”

Not only would babies follow adults in socializing with the robot but they’d even learn from it. Researchers would ask the robot questions in front of the baby and the robot, controlled by another researcher, would respond. For instance, a researcher would ask the robot where its tummy was and the robot would point to its torso. After completing a 90-second script, the researcher would leave the baby alone with the robot, which would continue to move its head slightly and beep. Most babies, after watching an adult socializing with the robot, would view it as a person, following its gaze, turning to see what it’s looking at.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 10.4.10

October 4, 2010

1. British schools imposing Islamic veil on girls – Just when France has banned the burka, Islamic schools in Britain have introduced a new dress code policy requiring girls to wear the niqab.

Moderate followers of Islam said yesterday that enforcement of the veil was a “dangerous precedent” and that children attending such schools were being “brainwashed”.

Wow. Even the moderate Muslims are condemning it. I guess there’s a first time for everything. There certainly weren’t any moderate Muslims condemning extremists on Sunday’s episode of This Week with Christiane Amanpour.

2. One word:  jetpack – Forget plastics. After decades of being denied the flying car and robot butlers, the commercially available jetpack may finally soon be here.

3. Nothing like sex under the influence of placebos – A small study of 50 women suggested that when given a placebo instead of tadalafil (which incidentally is an erectile dysfunction drug–shh, don’t tell them), many women said their sex lives significantly improved.

The women, ages 35 to 55 and all premenopausal, had all been diagnosed with female sexual arousal disorder. But after a few weeks on the placebo, the women as a group reported less distress and more fun in their sex lives.
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News From Around The Blogosphere 9.24.10

September 25, 2010

1. Bra designed to double as two emergency respiratory devices

Caught in a disaster? You’d better hope you’re wearing the Emergency Bra. Simply unsnap the bright red bra, separate the cups, and slip it over your head — one cup for you, and one for your friend.

Dr. Elena Bodnar won an Ignoble Award for the invention last year, an annual tribute to scientific research that on the surface seems goofy but is often surprisingly practical. And now Bodnar has brought the eBra to the public; purchase one online for just $29.95.

“The goal of any emergency respiratory device is to achieve tight fixation and full coverage. Luckily, the wonderful design of the bra is already in the shape of a face mask and so with the addition of a few design features, the Emergency Bra enhances the efficiency of minimizing contaminated bypass air flow,” explains the eBra website.

What troubles me however is that they claim to be working on a counterpart device for men and I’m not sure I want to put something that’s been sitting on my junk on my face that isn’t a part of the female anatomy.

2. Saint candidate was once temporarily banished from Catholic Church – Mary MacKillop was a 19th century Australian who was being considered for sainthood. But it it seems that in 1871, she was temporarily banished by the Church and thrown out into the street. The reason why was that tried to report priests for–you guessed it–raping children! Everyone by now knows the Catholic Church hates tattletales. So they transferred the pedophile priests to a new diocese (like they always do) and kicked Ms. MacKillop out as punishment for squealing. Some things never change.

3. Texas Board of Education or Ministry of Truth? – The latest Orwellian plot being by the infamous Texas Board of Ed., who largely determine which textbooks are acceptable for use by the rest of the country, is to weed out all those textbooks promoting “pro-Islamic, anti-Christian half-truths and selective disinformation.” Ugh! Fortunately, the Texas Freedom Network has documented the falsehoods in their claims, and is closely monitoring the hearings. Hopefully, they’ll stop them before students are forced to learn that 2+2=5.

4. Six people arrested for burning their own Korans – From 1984 references straight to Fahrenheit 451:

In a joint statement, Northumbria Police and Gateshead Council said: “The kind of behaviour displayed in this video is not representative of our community as a whole.

“Our community is one of mutual respect and we continue to work together with community leaders, residents and people of all faiths and beliefs to maintain good community relations.”

Mutual respect…except when people make demonstrations they don’t like apparently. Regardless of how people might feel about book burning, it’s not a crime. I’ve been forced to defend more assholes this year than probably any other year in my life and I’m getting sick of it. Free Speech is not open to debate. It’s non-negotiable!

5. Canadian university student one-ups Leonardo Da Vinci – Da Vinci once designed a wing-flapping vehicle intended to make man airborne called an omithopter but he never actually built one, let alone flew one.

Todd Reichert, an engineering student at the University of Toronto, made history by sustaining flight in his ornithopter — named Snowbird — for 19.3 seconds and covering 475.72 feet. Snowbird is made from carbon fiber, balsa wood, and foam. The 92.59 pound vehicle maintained an average speed of 15.91 miles per hour.

Suck on that, Da Vinci!

6. 70 Zimbabwe children die within two weeks because of anti-vax religion – The children died of measles. Most the children who died belonged to this particular anti-vaccine sect. This story manages to demonstrate the dangers of possibly the two most destructive ideological forces on the planet, religion and anti-vaxxinationism. Individually, they can be quite destructive but combine the two and you end up with 70 kids dying in two weeks from completely preventable diseases.

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News From Around The Blogosphere 9.22.10

September 23, 2010

1. 5 Worries Parents Should Drop, And 5 They Shouldn’t – Notice how vaccine injuries didn’t make the list, but that car accidents made the number one spot. Maybe the anti-vaxxers should campaign to get rid of cars instead. After all, are cars not filled with toxins? Do they not cause millions of deaths every year?

2. Man charged with pretending to practice witchcraft – No, it wasn’t Christine O’Donnell. An Ontario man charged people money in exchange for allegedly promising to perform magic to solve any and all of his customers’  problems. Yeah, he should have realized that scam had a short expiration date.

3. Teaching robots to lie, cheat, and deceive – OH COME ON! Just the other day I had a little fun by referencing all the classic destructive robots of science fiction from the Cylons to the Terminators to the Replicants, to the machines of The Matrix when news came out about an artificial human skin for future robots that was sensitive to touch. But now comes a story about programmers giving robots the ability to lie. It just makes referencing how science fiction writers have foreseen that scenario going terribly wrong way too fuckin’ easy.

4. Pastor Terry Jones billed $180K for security surrounding protest – Damn it! I hate when I have to defend assholes. But here we go again. The Florida pastor who successfully manufactured the bullshit Koran-burning controversy is being billed for the increased security added to public places in response to fears that he’d single-handedly provoke an Islamic fundamentalist terror attack. That is fuckin’ bullshit. If that survives a court decision, it would set a horrible precedent that would greatly undermine free speech. Terry didn’t shout fire in a crowded theater. Whatever one may think of book burning, he had every legal right to burn any book he wants, so long as he owns it. And in fact, he didn’t burn a single book, merely claimed that he would. And if anyone should be held accountable, it should be the Islamic fundamentalists who are so insane, they provoke people into spending $180K on extra security every time some Islamic critic gets attention for stirring shit up. But if anyone else were to be deserving of blame, it’d be the media who turned this small town pastor’s little stunt into international news. There’s no reason I should have even heard of Pastor Jones, let alone Muslim radicals in the Middle East. Make no mistake. It was the media’s love of sensationalism that drove this story, not the actions of some redneck asshole.

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Synthetic skin with sense of touch developed for future robots

September 18, 2010

Yup, it’s finally happened. We’ve developed synthetic skin for robots that has sensors built in that respond to changes in thickness due to pressure. So essentially, it’s a basic form of touch. Finally a scientific invention that can’t possibly go wrong!


News From Around The Blogosphere 8.11.10

August 11, 2010

1. ARF is the reason we can’t regrow limbs

A protein called ARF, which acts as a fail-safe mechanism to protect against cancer, also prevents regeneration in mammals, a study published Aug. 6 in Cell Stem Cell suggests. ARF backs up Rb, an important anticancer protein, by limiting the ability of mature cells to divide and replicate. But researchers in California have discovered that blocking ARF and Rb allowed mature muscle cells taken from mice to proliferate, something the cells normally cannot do.The discovery is an important step in learning why mammals, including people, can’t regrow or replace lost limbs and organs the way animals such as salamanders and zebrafish can. Such work may one day lead to new treatments for injuries.

2. Pastor Michael Dowd thanks New Atheists – In a recent sermon, Dowd, who wrote Thank God for Evolution, thanked outspoken atheists for challenging the beliefs of Christians and pushing them to take a critical eye to their own beliefs. You can read the full sermon here (PDF).

3. 25% of Spaniards are without religious affiliation – That’s at least what a new study suggests. And in the U.S., it’s believed that 25% of Millennials are also without religious affiliation, so it seems the U.S. isn’t the only nation showing a rise in godlessness.

"Fuckin' bullshit! I had to wait 8 years for that shit!"

4. A robot to detect and express emotions

A team of programmers at Hertfordshire University have created Nao, a robot that detects and expresses emotions and is capable of forming bonds with people.

Dr Michio Kaku is a leading physicist and futurologist.

24th century technology

21st century technology

4. How Star Trek art directors designed the iPad 23 years ago?

“The initial motivation for that was in fact cost,” Okuda explained. “Doing it purely as a graphic was considerably less expensive than buying electronic components. But very quickly we began to realize—as we figured out how these things would work and how someone would operate them, people would come to me and say, ‘What happens if I need to do this?’ Perhaps it was some action I hadn’t thought of, and we didn’t have a specific control for that. And I realized the proper answer to that was, ‘It’s in the software.’ All the things we needed could be software-definable.”

5. Andrew Morton writes worst book of 21st century – Awhile back, I probably wrote a blurb or two about Andrew Morton’s unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, a book I’d never actually read but felt inclined to support due to its focus on his $cientology life. That was perhaps premature as Morton has just come out with a new biography on Angelina Jolie that is apparently so atrocious in its content and constant citing of unnamed sources that it led one critic to dub it the worst book of the century, so far. Ouch.

6. Freedom from Religion Foundation puts up 20 billboards in Florida -And for once, I actually like them all.

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