Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Computers and Cosmic Rays

A transistor is just a fast switch
A computer has millions and which
If they fail to work right
Your plans they will blight
But the experts just say "It’s a glitch."

The very first computers used large valves as electrical switches and these often failed. The coming of the first transistors greatly improved reliability, and integrated circuits involving millions of transistors on a single chip has reduced that possibility of a single transistor failing when being used to almost nothing.

But not entirely. Individual transistors in an integrated chip are now so small that they can be affected by alpha-particles caused by radioactive decay in other components - and by the even more energetic cosmic rays - which becomes important in computers which are to be sent into space.

Where appropriate self-checking and redundant circuits can be used to minimise the possibility of the system becoming non-functional. 

If you are interested in the technical side you can find a detailed history and explanation at How Cosmic Rays cause Computer Downtime (pdf).

However for the average users with a pc, laptop or android system, 99.99% percent of gitches are going to be due to software bugs, malicious viruses, or good old human error.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Comet Siding Spring

The comet was named Siding Spring
It came as if thrown from a sling
From the distant Oort cloud
Passing Mars as it ploughed
Round the Sun, then it left with a swing.

The Comet Siding Spring, which originated in the Oort Cloud, passed close to Mars on 19th October and while it was photographed from the Mars Opportunity Rover and Mars Renaissance Orbiter (above) we will probably have to wait for the most interesting findings until a conference to be held in December. In the mean time the best places to find the latest news is on Wikipedia under the comet's official name C/2013 A1.

The Computer that was born in a Tea Shop

An excellent video of the origin of commercial computers in the UK.

I started work on a Leo Computer (see Working with Leo III at SMBP 1965-7) and the basic ideas behind CODIL arose when I was looking at ways to upgrade from the batch system provided by the Leo to an early interactive system.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Political Climate Deniers

In New York a great crowd in the city
Said that more climate change was a pity
While some congressmen fools,
Just as stubborn as mules,
Formed a "climate deniers" committee.

The most important box, in which we are all trapped, is the planet on which we live - and climate change is a very serious long term threat. I first got seriously interested in the subject in 1990 (see Global Warming - To Australia in a Box) and every year I get more worried as the signs of change become more and more obvious, and so little is being done.
This weeks limerick was inspired by Donald Prothero's article Signs of Hope—and Despair—on Climate Change which starts with the news that a quarter of a million people demonstrated on the streets of New York urging that action was needed at the United Nations level. Clearly a lot of people are worried - but is it too late to avoid very dramatic changes that will effect us all?

His article goes onto despair about the many scientifically illiterate politicians who sit on the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. If you have missed out on the kinds of nonsense arguments they are using to try and push climate change issues into the long grass you should read DOnald's article - and realise that as long as the public (everywhere and not just the USA) continues to vote for eloquent fools there is no hope of appropriate action being taken.

However there was one other interesting bit of news from the USA which may be a good sign. The Pentagon has issued a report 2014 Climate Change - Adaptation Road Map (pdf) which takes a serious look at the way that climate change could affect the U.S. military policy. IN addition to obvious matters (such as rising sea levels affecting coastal installations) it considers the potentially serious destabilization effects on governmens and economies around the world and suggests that climate change could be a "threat multiplier" which could make make increased terrorism more likely. While I do not support all aspects of US military policies I am delighted that a major organisation in the US is beginning to realise that the most important medium term threat is social disintegration of the most effected countries.

Climate change gives us all cause to fret
And the future look grim, I would bet.
There'll be more CO2,
With the seas rising too,
And so hot we’ll all end in a sweat.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rural Relaxation: Where have all the people gone?

The Cafe in Wendover Woods
The countryside changes with the seasons and with the weather, and the trees seem very different when seen on a dark and misty day which drains the colour out of the scenery so that even the pale pastel shades of the table parasols jump out at you. I took this earlier today, after a visit to Stoke Mandeville Hospital where I am thankful that with their help I can still enjoy such a view, even if today I enjoyed it from inside The Cafe in the Woods while having my lunch. If it had not been for hospital's help I would now be permanently viewing everything through a thick mist. Now with cataracts removed from both eyes, and the glaucoma in the left eye  now well under control, I still enjoy the countryside, come rain or shine, well into retirement.

And I mustn't forget that I can now hear the singing of the birds in the trees (except that today they were keeping very quiet) thanks to hearing aids provided by the hospital - and there are several other departments who over the years have helped to make my old age more bearable. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Killer whales learn to "talk" to Dolphins

Orcas - AKA Killer Whales
In land mammals, such as humans, it is very expensive to have a large brain but this is not the case with the whales which live in the sea. Their braain has a similar density to sea water so they don't have to worry about its weight. And while a large and busy brain consumes energy - which could be a problem for early humans living in warm climates, the whales live in cold water and need to keep warm. And what better way to generate the heat generated as a byproduct of thinking.

In addition living in the ocean means that sound is a good way of communication, especially in social groups which hunt together. This means that it should surprise no-one if orcas and dolphins use sound to communicate and this could be considered a kind of language which could have a far longer evolutionary history than our own. The recent press release by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is therefore very interesting. The research shows that Orcas held in captivity with bottle-nosed dolphins modify their calls as if they had learnt the dolphin communication language.

As people are trying to learn to understand and speak "dolphin" (What is going on in an animal's brain?) does this mean that, in the animal linguistic field, Orcas are better than humans?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick - The Language Enigma

The Tower of Babel
We use our intelligent brain
To speak phrases – both bright and mundane
Are we really so clever
That despite all endeavour
Its real workings we’ll never explain.

When I started this blog I drew attention to the black hole in brain research and have referred to the subject on various occasions since. Now a paper How Could Language Have Evolved published at the end of August by Johan J. Bolhuis, Ian Tattersall, Noam Chomsky and Robert C. Berwick which demonstrates that, at least as far as the origins of language are concerned, they agree that there is a significant problem. Their abstract begins:

The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma. In this essay, we ask why. Language's evolutionary analysis is complicated because it has no equivalent in any nonhuman species. There is also no consensus regarding the essential nature of the language “phenotype.” 

My views on the subject suggest that they have been busy digging a very deep hole in the wrong place.  I am just getting things back together after a month's holiday entertaining a visitor from Australia but hope to have a post describing where they should have been digging by the end of the week.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

How Humans invented Natural Language and why Animals don’t have it

Each species will balanced the use of resources between activities such as feeding, breeding, avoiding predators, and learning how to optimise these resources by using the brain. There are many different evolutionary strategies. For instance some fish lay millions of eggs while humans have small numbers of young and use their brain to maximise the survival of each youngster. However we can be certain that no animal evolves an organ bigger than it needs, and if conditions change an organ will shrink if it is bigger than necessary. This will apply to every organ and function and no species will not evolve a brain bigger than it needs.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Is Civilization making us (and our leaders) stupid?

I was most interested to see the article in The Atlantic with the title Is Goole making Students stupid? It suggests that the use of modern computer aids means that people are not having to be as imaginative as they would otherwise be . This would make their behaviour less intelligent when faced with unexpected and difficult problems.

But perhap the problem is far deeper that that, as there is some evidence that the human brain may have got smaller over the last few tens of thousands of years and I suspect that this is due to the similar effects cause by the whole process of civilization.

When all humans lived in small hunter-gatherer groups everyone needed to learn a whole raft of skills to keep themselves, and their family group, alive and well. However people started to develop specilist skills and trade so that for example, a skilled maker of early metal tools of bronze or later iron would not have to learn to hunt because he could get the food he needed by trading. As civilization advanced more and more people have become specialist, to the point where everyone has some very specialised skills (which depend on a stable society to be useful) and few general survival skills. The overall effect is, of course, that the collective knowledge and intelligence of society has increased enormously but, particularly on the most highly developed countries, everyone is dependant on the skills of thousands of other people simply to survive. Using all one's brain to lean to survive is no longer important and we have plenty of "spare capacity" to enjoy activities which have no real survival value - such as enjoying the works of Shakespeare or Mendelson, or even writing blogs.

This could have an evolutionary toll as there is no loner any evolutionary pressure to weed out people with minor disadvantageous brain mutations, and there would be a tendency for the brain's capacity to shrink very slowly over the generation because it is now "more powerful"  than is necessary to simply survive in a modern civilized society. After all the world population has exploded because the natural thinning out pressures of "evolution in the raw" no longer apply. We are likely to become even more dependent on "climbing on the shoulders of giants" and ever less able to look outside the establishment boxes set by our society mores and our leaders dictats.

So as civilization advances its members become more "domesticated" and more prone to practice "follow my leader" behaviours. But in the long run society can only survive if we have leaders with enough imagination and intelligence to tackle any challenges that may emerge - such as the effects of climate change. If we look at our current leaders and prospective leaders (I am particularly thinking of the coming UK general election) we see only unimaginative self interest and unintelligent short-termism. With our choice being restricted to such uninspiring prospective leaders the future looks bleak indeed.