Monday, February 19, 2018

The android is us, maybe?

I’ve been reading Blade Runner (in French) and it’s gotten me to think a lot about human programming. Androids like those in Blade Runner are now a common feature in today’s literature, cinema and television. They provide an instrument to interrogate a number of things, one being how technology can affect us as humans. But a more interesting thing to me is the interrogation of what it means to be human at all. In fictions such as Westworld, Her, and Blade Runner, the robotic “fake” humans reach a level of sentience and that makes the reader or viewer wonder at what point can these creatures still be considered not human? Can they ever be considered human? All their behaviors and memories can be ascribed to programming. They are thus not natural sentient beings. But these fictions also make rethink about my own humanity and how much programming determines my own behaviors, thoughts, emotions and memories as well. Yes, programming of humans. We have within us free will to choose to respond to a situation in very different ways. If I drop a cup and shatter it, I can: get angry, get frustrated, get sad, or I can laugh. What determines which reaction it will be? Perhaps how my day went before the incident. But where’s the free will? Perhaps a bad day at work will “program” me to be grumpy. But can I not re-program myself out of a bad mood so I can react to the broken cup with laughter instead? I think so. I think somewhere in there is some Buddhist thinking too, about the nature of the mind. There might be some science here as well. In research on things like stereotype threat, we see how societal biases and stereotypes can program us to underperform. But that these programs can be buffered by interventions such as value affirmation writing exercises. The documented positive results of these interventions are pretty impressive, all from a 5 minute writing exercise that ends up short circuiting the otherwise negative programming that comes with stereotype threat. So in a way, androids in fiction are a thought experiment of a simplified human that allows us to think about the nature of what it is to be human. Though we are now on track to see androids and artificial intelligences reach a state close to sentience pretty soon. Perhaps all the fiction that has been written on this topic may allow us to be better prepared, ethically and emotionally, to the advent of such new creatures on this planet.

Friday, February 16, 2018

I work at an art school now!

It's been a long time since I've posted here, and no better time that this new lunar year in my new home in Chicago, where I am currently a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). This place is amazing in so many ways, and especially for a scientist that appreciates art as much as I do, it's kind of dreamy. SAIC has a science requirement for its students, so there are loads of science classes offered and lots of scientists teaching here. I am currently teaching a course called the Science of Food. Yum. There is a Scientist in Residence Program, and just last week I got to see the coolest talk on the complicated nature of light from a physicist's (SAIC professor Kathryn Schaffer's) perspective. It was an amazing talk, well illustrated in both words and pictures on a topic that challenges our ability to communicate. How does one draw or describe something like light, which takes up space but is not a material thing, behaves both like a particle and like a wave, is invisible and yet allows us to see? That's where math comes in. But how to talk about the wave function in the equations? It's a challenge that stirs up all we take for granted in describing the physical world around us. And as a science educator, the talk made me think more carefully of how I used illustrations to convey nature to my students. If one is not careful, illustrations may give students the wrong impression about science and the nature of the universe.

The images used in the above poster for the talk, for example, are three different ways to represent light. Light propagates through space as a disturbance in the electric field. An electric field has both a strength and a direction, and the convention has been to indicate direction with an arrow, and strength with an amplitude or height of an arrow, hence the wave shape of how light is normally illustrated. But that can be a deceiving depiction, leading many to think that light actually moves that way in a sinusoidal fashion. It does not! Professor Schaffer prefers the bottom depiction, that conveys strength of the field by the thickness of the arrows, rather than by their length. It still conveys the same information as the top diagram of light, showing how the strength and direction of the fields alter as light moves through.

Now that I'm in a milieu where all sorts of things science and art are explored and discussed, I hope to get back to writing here. More soon to come!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Better Living Through Charts and Graphs

Back in March 2013, I decided I'd lose some unwanted 10 pounds I had gained and go back to what I considered my ideal weight and waist size so that I can fit into my favorite pants and shirts I simply refused to give away or replace. I managed to reach my goals in 6 months, with the help of a couple of smartphone apps that allowed me to monitor my caloric intake and expenditure through diet and exercise, respectively. But just as important, if not more, was simply measuring on an almost daily basis my weight and waist size. It gave me a solid and immediate readout to how well I was eating and working out. Ultimately, it was trying on those clothes and not feeling them too tight to button that showed it had all worked.

But suddenly, things started fitting tight again. What happened?

I looked back at the chart of the numbers I had been tracking all these months and saw that I had suddenly gained both weight and inches. But why then all of a sudden? The graph of my data gave me some clues.

As I've indicated by the two icons, my sudden gain in pounds and inches coincided with two things: the autumnal equinox (September 23), after which the days get progressively shorter, and Halloween (October 31), around which candies become excessively and too easily available.

Click on graph for larger view.

Every year, around this time of year, my body and my spirits slow down. I start to eat more and move less. I feel less motivated to do anything and I sleep more. So this, coupled with very easy access to large amounts of sugary candy, probably combine to explain my sudden gains.

Knowing this now motivates me to crank up my exercise routine, something I should have done earlier in the fall in anticipation for my annual slow down. And also keeps me from munching on the leftover Halloween candy in my office.

Many people track fitness and other progress by taking pictures, which is great. But there's nothing like a graph, a picture of the actual numbers that measure what matters, to tell you what's going on, and how you're progressing, as well as offer you a handle on unexpected changes in course.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Monthly music video: Chartsengrafs by Grandaddy

Chartsengrafs by Grandaddy
No video. Just the song, and a graph.

From the album "The Sophtware Slump" (2000)

"birds come...and then they go"
i traded laughs
in for charts & graphs
but all that's only fun
until evening comes
your guess as good as mine
as to just what kind
of trouble i might find
tonight out of my
my mind
my mind
my mind
my mind

Sunday, October 20, 2013

ART and SCIENCE breakthrough contest - DNA, in your face!

The PAX3 gene is involved in the development of the face. Toronto based scientist Dennis McCormac had his PAX3 gene sequenced, and in collaboration with an artist, had his particular sequenced of A, C, T and Gs compose a portrait of his face. Edward Tufte, are you seeing this? Talk about making a visual connection between genotype and phenotype, between DNA and the trait it determines! This is gold to me.

This collaborative art and science work is in the running in a science visualization contest. If you like this as much as I do, please VOTE HERE for this piece by scientist Dennis McCormac and artist James Fowler!

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Genesis Tank

A few weeks ago I went to a flea market looking for a lamp and chairs, and came back with a 10-gallon fish tank instead. I filled it with water, added some gravel, and turned on the water pump. I also went to a nearby pond and grabbed a few pieces of aquatic plants to add to the tank.

A few weeks later, some of the plants had grown, but the duckweed, which I had hoped would have been covering the surface, were not doing so hot. I thought maybe it was that the current was too strong, so I turned off the pump so the water would be more still.

A few days later, the duckweed had indeed grown a little tiny bit better. But the water surface was now filmy. And on that surface film was a constellation of tiny organisms moving around.

I can't be sure, but under a magnifying glass, I spotted what I think were Daphnia (tiny crustaceans also known as water fleas), and tiny baby Planaria (little flatworms with triangular heads), gliding on the bottoms of the surface of the film (I had seen bigger ones gliding on the aquarium walls a few days before.) Since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated with both of these organisms. Daphnia, because as a tropical fish hobbyist I learned they were a favorite food of fish, and Planaria because of the well know regeneration properties: cut them in half and they form two new worms.

Suddenly I felt like Lisa Simpson, in the Treehouse of Horror VII segment called The Genesis Tub, where she performs a science experiment with a corroding tooth in a small tub that results in the creation of a tiny universe.

I can't wait til I've created Lutherans!