Archive | April 2, 2013

Can We Patent Life?

An interesting question posed by Michael Specter in The New Yorker‘s new Science & Tech section:

On April 12, 1955, Jonas Salk, who had recently invented the polio vaccine, appeared on the television news show “See It Now” to discuss its impact on American society. Before the vaccine became available, dread of polio was almost as widespread as the disease itself. Hundreds of thousands fell ill, most of them children, many of whom died or were permanently disabled.

The vaccine changed all that, and Edward R. Murrow, the show’s host, asked Salk what seemed to be a reasonable question about such a valuable commodity: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Salk was taken aback. “Well, the people,” he said. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

The very idea, to Salk, seemed absurd. But that was more than fifty years ago, before the race to mine the human genome turned into the biological Klondike rush of the twenty-first century.

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An AI that “solves” Super Mario Bros.

Picture: Nintendo, Flickr user labnol (CC)

Super Mario Bros. has been around for 28 years, and is an important part of not only gaming history but international popular culture, and has spawned untold bundles of merchandise, fan films, street art, and even ghost stories. The ways that people are engaging with the iconic sprites from our childhood are seemingly unending; they engineer numerous mods, remixes, and even path-finding algorithms that allow bots to play for our amusement (appropriately called ‘Infinite Mario‘).

Moving this last concept towards its ultimate end, computer scientist Tom Murphy has now designed a program that can “solve” NES games like other mathematical problems.

via  Nobel Intent (WIRED UK):

At SigBovik 2013, [Tom Murphy] presented a program that “solves” how to play Super Mario Bros., or any other NES game, like it’s just another kind of mathematical problem. And for those who know that SigBovik is an annual computer science conference dedicated to spoof research, hosted on April 1 every year, Murphy stresses that this is “100 percent real.”

He outlines his method in a paper, “The First Level of Super Mario Bros.

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After God: What Can Atheists Learn From Believers?

Several authors answer the New Statesman‘s question.  Here are some excerpts.

Alain de Botton:

For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes.

The most sophisticated response we have yet come up with is psychotherapy. It is to psychotherapists that we bring the same kind of problems as we would previously have directed at a priest: emotional confusion, loss of meaning, temptations of one kind or another and anxiety about mortality.

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Sirius Business: Fear of the Unknown

Courtesy of our fantastic cousins over at SF Signal, here’s another look at the 2008 documentary about H.P. Lovecraft, “Fear of the Unknown”. Some on the fringes speculate that Lovecraft, in his dark isolation, believed some of the creatures that he interpreted for early twentieth century pulp fiction actually existed on the astral level. Lovecraft was possessed by a profound cosmic fear which seems more rational the further one digs into Reptilian mysteries.

Consider that one of Lovecraft’s early stories “Dagon” concerns a stranded mariner that encounters this hybrid thing:

“With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds.”

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‘Motorville’, Animated Short About U.S. Addiction to Oil

Motorville is an animated short film by Patrick Jean about a hungry city map in America that travels to a foreign nation in hopes of feeding it’s oil deprived body made up of “streets, highways and freeways.”

via Vimeo Staff Picks:

http://vimeo.com/62468031

The short film features sounds design by David Kamp and additional animations by both One More Production and Stephen Vuillemin.

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The Adventure Of Randomized Shopping

Craving the excitement that consumerism arouses, Darius Kazemi designed the Amazon Random Shopper, which buys random object each month, and documents the results. Could this randomized consumption prove more rewarding than shopping according to our supposed needs, desires, and tastes?

Recently I’ve been making a bunch of weird stuff that randomly generates things. The first iteration of this was going to be a program that bought me stuff that I probably would like. But then I decided that was too boring.

How about I build something that buys me things completely at random? Something that just… fills my life with crap? How would these purchases make me feel? Would they actually be any less meaningful than the crap I buy myself on a regular basis anyway?

So I built Amazon Random Shopper. It grabs a random word from the Wordnik API, then runs an Amazon search based on that word and buys the first thing that’s under budget.

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The House I Live In Takes a Hard Look at The War on Drugs

America’s longest war? The war on drugs. And many contend that it’s the most unsuccessful war as well. For the past 40 years, the war on drugs has resulted in more than 45 million arrests, $1 trillion in government spending, and America’s role as the world’s largest jailer. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available than ever.

From director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) comes an unflinching look at how the War on Drugs has disproportionately disenfranchised, incarcerated, and impoverished African Americans. Trailer below – the film debuts on PBS on April 8th.

For some more clips, visit the Independent Lens site.

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