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Here's a strange story about a Chinese baby who was born with three arms (two left, one right), which apparently happens frequently enough that doctors were able to say that this boy's case was a "rare" instance in which both left arms were equally well-developed. . . .
Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently.
Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid
more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while
students from China spent more time studying the background and taking
in the whole scene, according to University of Michigan researchers.
The researchers, led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett,
tracked the eye movements of the students — 25 European Americans and
27 native Chinese — to determine where they were looking in a picture
and how long they focused on a particular area.
Well, I suppose you can draw some conclusions from that, but notice that the comparison group consists of European Americans vs native Chinese. So, assuming that the distinction is statistically relevant and not the product of small sample sizes, it could be a genetic factor or a cultural factor. We can't tell between those two possibilities.
On the other hand, if the study had included a third group -- Americans of Asian descent, like me -- you might be able to tell which it is. My guess is that on a test of perception like this, I'd score like the European Americans, but you never know.
Now that we've entered the dead zone of TV, I've started pulling out DVDs on my shelf that I haven't yet watched. I felt like seeing the "special editions" of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, and while watching the original "Star Wars" (aka "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope"), I noticed some things that bothered me on this viewing. And I don't mean the ridiculous Greedo scene. . . .
1) Let's start with the lack of safety designs in the Death Star. This thing has some kind of power coupling that's built into a column that's in the middle of some deep abyss, and yet there are no guardrails to keep users from falling to their deaths. Think of the products liability lawsuits that would generate.
2) In addition to the bizarre lack of guardrails by the power coupling station, the Death Star has these catwalks (also missing guardrails) that retract. Why? If it's for security purposes, why not just have a door?
3) Having tracked our heros to the moon of the planet Yavin, where the rebel base is located, the Death Star ponderously manuevers itself into position to blast the moon. This adds 29 minutes to the process. Why not just blast Yavin? If the resulting shockwave and planetary fragments don't destroy the rebel base, it won't take long before the remaining fragments scatter, and with the resulting loss of gravitational attraction, the moon would spin into space (ala "Space: 1999").
4) As the rebel fighters attack the Death Star, an Imperial trooper tells Darth Vader that the fighters are too quick for the Death Star's conventional lasers to hit. So Vader says the solution is to chase them in TIE fighters. Does it really make sense to go from trying to hit moving targets from a fixed platform (i.e., the Death Star) to trying to hit moving targets from a moving platform (i.e., the TIE fighter)?
5) What happened to Princess Leia's British accent? She had it during the scenes with Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, but sounded American when talking with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.
Finally, this goes outside the original "Star Wars," but why doesn't Kenobi remember C-3PO and R2D2? After all, in "Revenge of the Sith," Kenobi is giving orders to R2 -- who ultimately saves him and Anakin from the falling elevator! (Not to mention, why, in "The Empire Strikes Back," is Kenobi surprised by Yoda's statement that "there is another"? Didn't he remember that he, Yoda, and Senator Organa split up Luke and Leia as babies?)
Last night, we (re)watched the Governator flick, "The 6th Day," which is set in the near future where a corporation has not only developed the ability to clone people, but can make a "syn-cord" (i.e., a synchronized recording) of your memories and upload them into the clone. In other words, if you die, you can be "restored" to the point of your most recent syn-cord into a new cloned body. This makes for some fun mayhem, as Arnold goes around killing the bad guys, only to confront them again.
This follows my recent reading of Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, set about 500 years in a future where human consciousness can be digitized and store in a "cortical stack" that's implanted at the base of your brain. If your body is killed, as long as the stack is intact, you can be put into another body (which they call "sleeves"). The really rich can afford "remote storage," whereby their digitized consciousness is uploaded once a day to a secure location. This too results in mayhem and violence. . . . (In fact, if Altered Carbon were a movie, I think it would be rated NC-17 for extremely graphic violence and graphic sex.)
The idea of digitizing your consciousness and thereby achieving immortality isn't as simple as it seems, however, and both "The 6th Day" and Altered Carbon do manage to confront some of the difficulties. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In "The 6th Day," the evil CEO Drucker gets mortally wounded by one of his inept henchmen, so he makes a syn-cord and brings a clone online. Due to Arnold's mayhem, the cloning process is only 84 percent complete when interrupted, so the resulting clone looks kind of yucky, but in fact is Drucker. But the mortally wounded Drucker isn't dead yet, even as the new clone demands his clothing. "You mean, you aren't going to wait until . . . ." sputters the old clone.
To the external world, "Drucker" is still alive (or would have been, if Arnold hadn't taken care of the new clone Drucker). But the old Drucker clone must certainly feel as if he is dying. . . .
In Altered Carbon, things get even weirder. The narrator and hero Takeshi Kovacs has been resleeved in the body of a corrupt police detective; the body's owner is cooling his heels in stasis for about 200 years, the result of judicial punishment. At some point, however, Kovacs illegally duplicates his digitized consciousness into a synthetic sleeve so as to be able to trick the bad guys. He then ends up having a conversation with himself, of a sort, and since the novel is narrated from his point of view, we have the odd situation of having -- at that point -- the synthetic sleeved Kovacs picking up the story and describing the conversation with the corrupt cop sleeved Kovacs, even though the latter was the narrator up to that point in the novel!
Philosopher Richard Hanley addressed similar issues in his book, Is Data Human? (aka The Metaphysics of Star Trek). Hanley points out that the bodies that we inhabit today are not the same as the ones we inhabited 10 years ago, if you look at a cellular level. Old cells died and were replaced by new ones, not all at once, of course, but by now, your body has replaced itself. . . . Are you still you?
Scientists have been debating the origins of the hippopotamus (Hexaprotodon sivalensis) for thousands of years. Ancient scientists believed the hippo was related to the horse, while modern scientists believed it was related to the pig. As it turns out, both views are wrong -- the hippo's nearest surviving relative is actually the whale:
"The problem with hippos is, if you look at the general shape of the animal it could be related to horses, as the ancient Greeks thought, or pigs, as modern scientists thought, while molecular phylogeny shows a close relationship with whales," said [Jean-Renaud] Boisserie. "But cetaceans -- whales, porpoises and dolphins -- don't look anything like hippos. There is a 40-million-year gap between fossils of early cetaceans and early hippos."
In a paper appearing this week in the Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Boisserie and colleagues Michel Brunet and Fabrice Lihoreau fill in this gap by proposing that whales and hippos had a common water-loving ancestor 50 to 60 million years ago that evolved and split into two groups: the early cetaceans, which eventually spurned land altogether and became totally aquatic; and a large and diverse group of four-legged beasts called anthracotheres. The pig-like anthracotheres, which blossomed over a 40-million-year period into at least 37 distinct genera on all continents except Oceania and South America, died out less than 2 and a half million years ago, leaving only one descendent: the hippopotamus.
In a finding that deepens our understanding of animal social cognition, researchers at Duke University Medical Center have demonstrated for the first time that monkeys, like humans, value information according to its social content. People readily pay to see powerful or sexually attractive individuals, and, according to this new study, monkeys will also "pay" to view these kinds of images.
In the new work, researchers Robert Deaner, Amit Khera and Michael Platt, all of Duke University Medical Center, tested this hypothesis by measuring how much fruit juice monkeys would accept or forgo to see photographs of familiar monkeys, permitting the researchers to compare monkeys' valuation of different types of social information. Male monkeys "paid" in juice to view female hindquarters or high-ranking monkeys' faces, but required "overpayment" to view low-ranking monkeys' faces. Despite living in a captive colony, the value monkeys placed on information about potential sexual partners and powerful individuals matched the relative importance of these individuals for behavioral success in the wild. This study demonstrates that monkeys assess visual information by its social value and provides the first experimental evidence that they spontaneously discriminate between images of others based on the social rank or classification of individuals.
I've always thought venus flytraps were pretty neat plants; after all, I hate bugs, and venus flytraps eat bugs. They actually sell them here at the local supermarket chain in the summer, but the problem is that venus flytraps really only grow well in the Carolinas, and our winter weather is much different.
The headline reads: "Global warming has already hit Latin America." Pretty alarming stuff. But the lead paragraph reads: "BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Intense storms and hurricanes lashing Latin America and the Caribbean
are early symptoms of global warming, said a report delivered at a UN
conference on climate change."
A pretty important qualification, isn't that?
I was drawn to this misleading headline and to the story because I just finished reading Michael Crichton's State of Fear, which is Crichton's attempt to slow down the rush of acceptance of the theory of global warming. It's typical Crichton: action interspersed with a scientific know-it-all who spouts large chunks of exposition. For example, in Jurassic Park, we would have an exciting scene where Alan Grant and the kids are being chased by a T-Rex, and they just get away, only to confront velociraptors. . . . And then we cut to annoying mathematician Ian Malcolm prattling away about how chaos theory predicted this disaster.
In State of Fear, these expository chunks generally consist of MIT scientist/government agent Kenner asking people why they believe in global warming, and then providing references to published scientific studies that refute the evidence. The book comes with footnotes to real sources. From a lay perspective, assuming that Crichton has accurately cited the reports, there are good reasons to wonder about whether global warming -- as caused by mankind -- is a real event and if so, whether it's a calamity as predicted by its supporters. There's a report cited in the novel that is devastating to the relevance of the Kyoto Treaty -- even if the U.S. were to ratify and comply, the net predicted effect over the next century would be to save an increase in average temperature of 0.04 degrees Celsius (about 0.07 degrees Fahrenheit).
Obviously, climatology is not my field of expertise, and there must be scientific studies contrary to the ones Crichton cites. But it appears that there are some legitimate questions to be asked about whether this really is a big deal. Misleading headlines like the one cited above certainly don't help.