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Showing posts from May, 2006

It's a small (very small) world

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Nanotechnology is developing at a pace that makes many sci-fi scenarios outdated almost daily. This time, I'd like to report about tools and light. Carbon nanotubes are incredibly strong. They can resist to pressures as high as 40 gigapascals (ca. a tenth of the one at the center of the Earth). They have now been used to create metalworking tools (nanoscale jigs or extruders, see picture on the right). This could become an alternative way to manipulatating structures at the nanoscale. You could build them as you build a table. ( Science , "Carbon Nanotubes as High-Pressure Cylinders and Nanoextruders" Vol. 312, No. 5777, pages 1199 - 1202). So, fancy building a nanoship in a nanobottle? Well, if your objection to the exercise is that it is too dark down there for anyone to appreciate your work of art, it's time to cheer up. It is now possible to grow glowing nanowires to light up the nanoworld. Nanowires made of semiconductor materials can now be used to build pr

Seeing viruses

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25 years ago, the first case of AIDS was diagnosed. Now, groundbreaking research (just published in the online edition of Nature , click on the title) by scientists at Florida State University has produced remarkable three-dimensional images of the virus and the protein spikes on its surface that allow it to bind and fuse with human immune cells. Courtesy of the usual, pervasive and omnipresent digital technology, the picture you see here is not a drawing but the first, detailed, macroscopic image of the virus and its viral spikes. The images were produced using cryoelectron microscopy tomography . This generates three-dimensional images similar to those from a CAT scan, but at the level of viruses and molecules rather than tissues and organs. Seeing the structure of the virus, even if through our digital lenses, will give us a much clearer idea of the pathogen's complex molecular surface architecture that facilitates the infection process. It's like shooting at a target in

Informational Faithfulness and Loyalty

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First piece of news. A survey by Nielsen NetRatings for The Independent on Sunday indicates that Britain is the fastest growing market for the Internet adult pornography business: more than nine million men (almost 40% of Britain's male population) used pornographic websites in 2005 compared with an estimated two million in 2000 one in four adults, including 1.6 million women, download porn images each month one in four men aged 25 to 49 (2.5 million) have visited an adult website in the last month (April) alone some 1.5 million women used Internet pornography in the last 12 months, up from one million in the previous year. men and women spent an average 40 minutes each month looking at pornographic websites while half of all couples watched pornography on the Internet together. more than half of all children (60% or seven million) have come across pornography on the Internet while looking for something else. the British porn industry is now estimated to be worth about one billio

Human machines

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This is a brilliant advertising by the German company Jobsintown , a job finder website. These creative posters should be placed in any university cafeteria. The message? Let machines deal with things and money. Humans are the only semantic engines we know of in the whole universe. We are far more suited for jobs that require intelligence, understanding, insights, inspirations. Technology should be liberating. A way to gain time to think. After all, if we do not practice this rare art, who will?

Brain Machine Interalliance

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TOKYO, Japan, May 24, 2006 "Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International ("ATR") and Honda Research Institute Japan Co., Ltd. ("HRI") have collaboratively developed a new "Brain Machine Interface" ("BMI") for manipulating robots using brain activity signals. This new BMI technology has enabled the decoding of natural brain activity and the use of the extracted data for the near real-time operation of a robot without an invasive incision of the head and brain. This breakthrough facilitates greater possibilities for new types of interface between machines and the human brain. An interface is as much a threshold between two realities as a channel of communication. If we had an interface with hell (any hell, Dachau would do, no need to think of the Sistine Chapel) we would behave very differently. It is because we have interfaces with computers that we behave accordingly. Two years ago, I was using a very unstable OS (how did y

Manchenwiler Workshop on Information Theories

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On the 17th and the 18th of May I had the great pleasure to participate to the international workshop organised by Giovanni Sommaruga & Jarg Kohlas of the Theoretical Computer Science Research Group of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. It was what a "meeting of true minds" should be: interesting, stimulating, informative, challenging, well-organised, friendly and culturally attractive. The place choosen was the beautiful Schloss Manchenwiler . All papers (you can read the presentations by clicking on the title of this blog) were of high quality and most interesting if, sometime, a bit difficult. Personally, the talks on information algebras would already have been worth the trip, and there was all the rest in the menu! It was great. I recommend at least a brief look at the work done on the topic by Kohlas' research group to anyone interested in information theory and in the philosophy of information. And I look forward to a philosopher-friendly version of i

Who needs a $100 laptop?

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Click on the picture. See the boy on the right, smiling, the one with all his teeth? He looks so Brazilian. I go to Brazil almost every year, sometime twice. My wife, a neuroscientist in Oxford, is from Rio (yes, sometime even Hollywood gets it right: there is a gorgeous Brazilian top-scientist in Oxford). We have been involved with kids from orphanages. It is not fun. The kids in the street live on nothing. They collect cans, plastic bottles, tourists' wallets, coconuts, your towel if you are swimming. Most of them cannot read or write. They are smart, in the usual street (sorry, it's Rio) beach way. They can trick anyone, they fight, they know and often handle guns, they survive, they are loyal to the group. Jorge Amado's Captains of the Sand (1988) is still a reliable picture of their lives, hopes and fears. You only need to add more violence, drugs (especially cheap ones, like glue) and weapons of all sorts. We are talking about kids between five and fifteeen. Whe

The Last Stand of an Utopian View: Net Neutrality

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"[IN the US] Both the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are expected to review Net neutrality-related bills later this week. " In many countries (the UK is an exception) museums are not free: people pay to enjoy their culture. In many countries (the UK, again, is largely an exception), drivers pay tolls to use motorways. Sometime they can choose longer and slower but free routes instead, sometime they just have no alternative. In every country, people pay different rates for different postal services and for different flight routes. So why the Internet, whether you compare it to a motorway, to a museum, to ordinary mail or to aerial transports, should not be subject to the same usage-related rule? Users (read: companies) should be able to choose among ordinary (slower) and premium (faster) delivery services. What's wrong with this? Well, several things. Many of the social and economic counter-arguments are rathe

The global empire

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"Though tourists know Xian for its army of terracotta warriors, the capital of Shaanxi province is quietly becoming one of China's most modern cities. Xian is the birthplace of the nation's space programme, its aircraft-construction hub and home to one of China's biggest technology parks—a 35-square-kilometre Chinese Silicon Valley housing 7,500 companies and supported by more than 100 universities that churn out 120,000 graduates a year, half in computer sciences alone. And that is just the start. The Xian High-Tech Industries Development Zone will eventually span 90 square kilometres at a cost of 100 billion yuan ($12 billion), says Jing Junhai, its director. " ( The Economist , Special report - Outsourcing to China, Watch out, India May 4th 2006) 3006, which empire is dominating? What language are we speaking? And which currency are we using? Smart money is on China, but not on Chinese, nor on yuans. In 3006, globalization has created the first empire that doe

Jane Austen and Alexandre Dumas as philosophers of information?

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If you have watched The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), directed by Kevin Reynolds, and the more recent Pride and Prejudice (2005), directed by Joe Wright, you may have noticed that both revisit a classic in terms that are essentially informational. Communication and the managements of information is what drives the plot, and what determines feelings and passions, actions and interactions. Start with Dumas. Reynolds directs a film in which the whole plot is geared around the exchange of misinformation (Edmond Dantes [a sailor who then becomes the Count of Monte Cristo] is falsely accused of treason by his best friend Fernand through a letter), the acquisition of information by Dantes (not only cultural but also financial, through a "privileged" access to an excellent source, the Abbe' Faria) and Dantes' merciless use of his newly-acquired information to take revenge. This exchange is the key to the film: "[Abbe' Faria] In return for your help, I offer you

Should Blu-ray Disc be called Red-ray instead?

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Of the three oldest professions practiced since we moved from the sunny top of a tree to the darkness of a cave, two have always had a fundamental impact on the development of IT. No, not philosophy. Unfortunately, thinkers tend to be rather luddistic, for reasons that go back to a disgraceful divorce between Sophia and Techne. I'm talking about prostitutes and generals. We all know about Turing's job and ARPANET. These are clear, if sheer-lucky, proofs that not all money spent by the army is entirely wasted and harmful. Generals have pushed the development of IT at the rate of billions of dollars of investment. We sometime forget, however, that the pornography industry, which generates an estimated $57 billion in annual revenue worldwide, is a major drive in the choice of standards. The Internet started as a defence system, had an infancy as a scientific tool, but it also developed as a means of mass masturbation. It happen already with the development of printed illustrations

Skype me up Scotty

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According to Skype, there are 100 million registered users, with another 200,000 signing up every day. Very likely, you are among them. Version 2.5, (beta) just recently released (Windows-only; users of Skype's Mac and Linux clients will have to wait) is more than a mere upgrade. I cut and paste: "Easier international dialing to landlines and cell phones (you tell Skype what country you're calling, rather than having to remember country codes). Easier payment (from within the software) for Skype's various fee-based services. Sharing of contact groups (sounds handy for coworkers, friends, or family who have mutual contacts). The ability to send SMS messages from within Skype. Support for viewing and calling Outlook contacts within Skype." The conceptual question, however, is another: why Ebay ever decided to buy Skype? Valuable investment only? Or is there a more interesting strategy/vision behind? Ebay deals with things, though only as a service that puts offers

What makes a country better than another for your life?

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We know that ranking countries on the basis of the information provided by their GNP is not satisfactory. There are so many other measures of well-being and quality of life . But what we are often offered as alternatives are only partly satisfactory as well, for they seem to be based on people's self-assessment of how happy and satisfied they are with their lives and conditions at that moment in that place. This may mirror cultural attitudes as well as real levels of well-being or, more often a bias in the choice of the "right" sort of population being modeled. So I'd like to propose an alternative test. People should be asked the following question: with the exclusion of your own country, rank countries of preference (here one provides the list) according to where you would like to live if you were (choose your ordering): - a child from a very poor background - a very poor adult - an adult without health insurance - a completely uneducated adult - a member of a diffe

If you see it and manipulate it then you really understand it

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Visual thinking has been around since the Greeks' passion for eidos (idea). But of course computers have transformed it into an art, whose dynamic simulations and graphic representations of concepts and abstract entities is orders of magnitude more effective and impressive than anything done in the past. This website, for example, offers some remarkable pictures that visualise prime numbers and their beautiful patterns. If you find the topic interesting, then I may recommend Modelling Reality - How Computers Mirror Life . It is a very well-written, interesting and accessible text on how computers have transformed our way of dealing with the world of information, including cellular automata, Shannon's measure of information, deterministic chaos, fractals, game theory, neural networks, genetic algorithms, and of course Turing machines. It comes with a CD full of applications that actually allow you to experiment and see the processes and theories discussed. And if you share m

Mastering nature's information: the blue rose

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Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of information : a) information about reality, like a train timetable, or what you tell a friend regarding last night dinner party; b) information for reality, like recipes and algorithms; and c) information as reality, like the pattern of rings in the trunk of a tree, or one's fingerprints. If you can access a key piece of information as reality which is also information for reality, like the DNA of an organism, then you can modify its outcome and, magically, modify that piece of reality. "Magically" because magic spells try to do exactly that: they use words (semantic information about reality) to change (hopefully but unsuccessfully) the corresponding piece of reality. ABRACADABRA, if it were code instead of gibberish, would work like GATTACA ( meaning ). All this to explain that the truly (mind the faked, pale, or "coloured") blue rose by Florigene is part of the informational revolution. If you read some relevant

From the Windmill to the Quantum Computer

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Are we getting close to the first quantum computer (QC)? Maybe. The theory on paper is clear and rather straightfoward, but the technological implementations are fearsome. The following (between //) is a summary from a nice article just published in The Economist (4 May 2006): //What distinguishes a QC from a classic (Newtonian) computer on you desk is the number of calculations it can do in parallel. Both QCs and NCs use binary arithmetic, but a NC employs bits which can be in only one state at at any given time. QCs, on the other hand, use qubits, which can be in more than one state simultaneously (superposition). So every time you add a qubit, the process scales geometrically. A QC with two qubits could run four calculations in parallel. A 1,000-qubit device could process more simultaneous calculations than there are particles in the observable universe. So far, only small-scale devices have been demonstrated, and many of these need to be kept in strictly defined conditions. One re

Paradisiac information

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When it comes to cataloguing paradises , there seems to be two main categories, the information-rich and the information-poor. Information-poor paradises are based on as little interaction as possible, which usually means being present somewhere, mainly watching, at most listening. The closer one is to the source of light and sound the better. Dante has roughly this in mind when he describes his Paradise . It's the ultimate TV experience. Information-rich paradises are made of more than light and sound. Touch, smell and taste are at least equally important, and interactions, often of a rather erotic nature, may be involved. The Garden of Eden must have had paradisiac smells, not just marvelous colours and shapes. And of course, in other paradises, dancing virgins, fresh water, tasty honey or ambrosia sound like a real bonus. So one way of looking at the development of interfaces and virtual realities is in terms of how well they can pass the paradise test. So far, they can provide

Too much travelling...

Who is more representative these days, Socrates and Kant, who hardly ever left their Athens and Koeningsberg, or Wittgenstein, who seemed to be unable to live in the same place for too long? Cheap airlines, a more international community, a de-Europeization of philosophy... all factors that have made us academics with this strange job (philosophy) travel around too frequently, for too short times. Three days in Pescara (Italian Philosophical Association annual meeting), a weekend in Guarcino, three days in Salerno for two talks, then Bari for some further work, then Oxford, then Freiburg, then ALife in Bloomington, then ECAP in Norway, then Chicago, then... Better learn to reflect while churning miles (a bit like having one's best thoughts while shaving) or start saying more nos than yes.

Firefox 1.5.0.3

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Firefox 1.5.0.3 now available (click on the title above). If you are running Firefox 1.5 you should receive the upgrade automatically. If you are not running Firefox, my suggestion is to start as son as you can. The upgrade fixes an important security problem. And for those web sites that (like MS own) can be surfed only by using IE, there is a nice, free Firefox extension that let's you work with Microsoft's Internet Explorer by embedding it in tabs of Firefox, so you do not need to open IE anymore. IE Tab for Firefox is the extension that helps you quit IE-ing, download it from here .

Escher's Worlds and Impossible Worlds

If you thought that Escher's buildings and pictures were "impossible", here is a video you may wish to watch, just click on the clip. Shigeo Fukuda has masterfully recreated Escher's "Belvedere" illusion, with those impossible stairs and incredible balconies. This reminds me of a current debate, which involves modal logic, semantics and ontology. Are there impossible worlds (BTW: no such entry in Wikipedia as of today)? Worlds in which, for example, you can prove that Goedel was wrong, that the Halting problem is solvable, that the circle can be squared, that unicorns have and do not have four legs in the same sense of the expression and at the same time. If the answer is yes, is there more than one impossible worlds? (Compare: empty sets are possible, but they actually "collapse" into only one, The empty set = {}). My inclination is to suspect that the idea behind the possibility of impossible worlds (something you need for some other theore

Your typo$ are worth money

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Wat's wrong wit tis blog? Noting, you are still able to read it, despite the absence of "hs". But of course, if you wish to book a Hotel, you won't find it under "otel". Typos and misspellings. Nightmares for anyone who needs to use a written language that, to an Italian, just makes so little sense, when it comes to a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and signs. Italian is read as it is written, but in English you can never tell how the surname of anyone will appear on paper, or indeed how that name on paper may sound. So? So, there is money in it, and quite a lot. Ever thought about all those mistyped or misspelled items on ebay that nobody buys and that you could get for a penny? Visit TypoTracker , it will help you to search for them and get a better bargain. And what about misspelled/mistyped urls that lead nowhere? Google, as usual, is there already, placing advertisements that pop up when you look for things like www.compani.com instead of ww