BERG’s Robot-Readable World

Paul Raven @ 04-08-2011

I was on a focus group panel last week, and had a real fanboy moment when I discovered that one of my fellow panellists was employed by the notorious polymathic design consultancy BERG. When I expressed a fascination with their output, I was assured that their studio – far from being the Wonka-esque factory of chaotic genius I liked to imagine – largely consisted of people sat staring at computer monitors. (I still think I was lied to, and they just do the magical stuff out back somewhere.)

Name-dropping anecdotes aside, there’s a more pertinent reason I mention BERG, and it’s this post by Matt Jones, titled “The Robot-Readable World”. It is long, and it is full of stuff; Jones collects a whole disparate bunch of thinkers and thoughts and synthesises it all into something coherent, compelling and challenging. It also pretty much sums up why I count myself as a BERG fanboy – even if all they do really is just stare at monitors a lot, if that results in this sort of output, then I can feel a lot better about my own working practices.

TL;DR: I’m a bit busy today, so go read something awesome someone else wrote. It’s about robots ‘n’ shit, yeah?


The Plato Code

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2010

Another weird announcement from academia… one that comes with the possibility of a tie-in novel, a subsequent Tom Hanks cinema vehicle and a whole raft of poorly-moderated discussion forums populated by users with names like *HemlockSpitter77*. Dr Jay Kennedy at the University of Manchester has cracked the secret code in Plato’s writings[via SlashDot]!

Some highlights from the press release:

The hidden codes show that Plato anticipated the Scientific Revolution 2,000 years before Isaac Newton, discovering its most important idea – the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. The decoded messages also open up a surprising way to unite science and religion. The awe and beauty we feel in nature, Plato says, shows that it is divine; discovering the scientific order of nature is getting closer to God. This could transform today’s culture wars between science and religion.

That’s set my alarm bell to ringing… unless it’s the sound of bookstore cash registers I can hear.

Dr Kennedy explains: “Plato’s importance cannot be overstated. He shifted humanity from a warrior society to a wisdom society. Today our heroes are Einstein and Shakespeare – and not knights in shining armour – because of him.”

Yes; kind of; erm, not really.

Over the years Dr Kennedy carefully peeled back layer after symbolic layer, sharing each step in lectures in Manchester and with experts in the UK and US.

He recalls: “There was no Rosetta Stone. To announce a result like this I needed rigorous, independent proofs based on crystal-clear evidence.

“The result was amazing – it was like opening a tomb and finding new set of gospels written by Jesus Christ himself.

And there goes the Krank Klaxon. Awoooogah!

To be fair, I suppose it’s possible that there really is a code, and that Kennedy has ‘cracked’ it. Though I’m still inclined to think his theory is more likely a load of bollocks.

Best of all is the selection of Plato aphorisms included at the end of the press release for lazy science hacks, because it includes this aposite little gem:

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”

Maybe there’s a secret code in there for you, Dr Kennedy?


Swine flu compared to computer viruses

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2009

influenza virusHere’s an interesting link, coming to us via the one and only Bruce Schneier. Haker/maker type person Bunnie draws a fascinating analogy between influenza viruses (like our topical and quite possibly overhyped amigo, swine flu) and the computer viruses with which he is more familiar. The result? A computer geek’s guide to molecular biology…

For those not familiar with molecular biology, DNA is information-equivalent to RNA on a 1 to 1 mapping; DNA is like a program stored on disk, and RNA is like a program loaded into RAM. Upon loading DNA, a transcription occurs where “T” bases are replaced with “U” bases. Remember, each base pair specifies one of four possible symbols (A [T/U] G C), so a single base pair corresponds to 2 bits of information.

[…]

If you thought of organisms as computers with IP addresses, each functional group of cells in the organism would be listening to the environment through its own active port. So, as port 25 maps specifically to SMTP services on a computer, port H1 maps specifically to the windpipe region on a human. Interestingly, the same port H1 maps to the intestinal tract on a bird. Thus, the same H1N1 virus will attack the respiratory system of a human, and the gut of a bird. In contrast, H5 — the variety found in H5N1, or the deadly “avian flu” — specifies the port for your inner lungs. As a result, H5N1 is much more deadly because it attacks your inner lung tissue, causing severe pneumonia. H1N1 is not as deadly because it is attacking a much more benign port that just causes you to blow your nose a lot and cough up loogies, instead of ceasing to breathe.

Researchers are still discovering more about the H5 port; the Nature article indicates that perhaps certain human mutants have lungs that do not listen on the H5 port. So, those of us with the mutation that causes lungs to ignore the H5 port would have a better chance of surviving an Avian flu infection, whereas as those of us that open port H5 on the lungs have no chance to survive make your time / all your base pairs are belong to H5N1.

So how many bits are in this instance of H1N1? The raw number of bits, by my count, is 26,022; the actual number of coding bits approximately 25,054 — I say approximately because the virus does the equivalent of self-modifying code to create two proteins out of a single gene in some places (pretty interesting stuff actually), so it’s hard to say what counts as code and what counts as incidental non-executing NOP sleds that are required for self-modifying code.

So it takes about 25 kilobits — 3.2 kbytes — of data to code for a virus that has a non-trivial chance of killing a human. This is more efficient than a computer virus, such as MyDoom, which rings in at around 22 kbytes.

It’s humbling that I could be killed by 3.2kbytes of genetic data. Then again, with 850 Mbytes of data in my genome, there’s bound to be an exploit or two.

[image by kat m research]


Games and economic misbehaviour

Tom James @ 03-08-2009

wolfram_fractalsGeorge Dyson has an excellent and compelling essay on game theory, economics, information theory, computer science, banking, finance, technology, and John von Neumann:

We are surrounded by codes (some Turing-universal) that make copies of themselves, and by physical machines that spawn virtual machines that in turn spawn demand for more physical machines. Some digital sequences code for spreadsheets, some code for music, some code for operating systems, some code for sprawling, metazoan search engines, some code for proteins, some code for the gears used in numerically-controlled gear-cutting machines, and, increasingly, some code for DNA belonging to individuals who serve as custodians and creators of more code. “It is easier to write a new code than to understand an old one,” von Neumann warned.

The monograph over on Edge discusses von Neumann’s intellectual antecendants and the development of game theory and statistical modelling. It also includes some interesting commentary on our recent economic difficulties. Definitely worth a read.

[image from kevindooley on flickr]


Coding for cars

Tom James @ 17-02-2009

road_lightApparently the media and navigation systems of a high-end Mercedes now require more lines of code than a 787 Dreamliner:

Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to be delivered to customers in 2010, requires about 6.5 million lines of software code to operate its avionics and onboard support systems.

Alfred Katzenbach, the director of information technology management at Daimler, has reportedly said that the radio and navigation system in the current S-class Mercedes-Benz requires over 20 million lines of code alone and that the car contains nearly as many ECUs as the new Airbus A380 (excluding the plane’s in-flight entertainment system).

There is a considerably more awesome car than an S-class described in Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling, but I can’t find my copy to tell you how many lines of code that needed (I remember it was specified somewhere).

[via Charles Stross][image Aitor Escauriaza from on flickr]


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