Tags: bio

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Sunday, June 28th, 2020

Hemimastigophora

Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.

Jessica and I were taking turns at the microscope when we were told that.

Let me back up a bit and explain how we found ourselves in this this situation…

It all started with The Session, the traditional Irish music community site that I run. There’s a big focus on getting together and playing music—something that’s taken a big hit during this global pandemic. Three sections of the website are devoted to face-to-face gatherings: events (like concerts and festivals), sessions, and the most recent addition, trips.

The idea with trips is that you input somewhere you’re going to be travelling to, along with the dates you’ll be there. It’s like a hyper-focused version of Dopplr. The site then shows you if any events are happening, if there are any sessions on, and also if there are any members of the site in that locality (if those members have added their location to their profiles).

Last August, I added the trips I would be taking in the States. There’s be a trip to Saint Augustine to hang out with Jessica’s family, a trip to Chicago to speak at An Event Apart, and a trip to New York for a couple of days because that’s where the ocean liner was going to deposit us after our transatlantic crossing.

A fellow member of The Session named Aaron who is based in New York saw my trip and contacted me to let me know about the session he goes to (he plays tin whistle). Alas, that session didn’t coincide with our short trip. But he also added:

I work at the American Museum of Natural History, and if you have time and interest, I can provide you with vouchers for tickets to as many special exhibits and such as you’d like!

Ooh, that sounded like fun! He also said:

In fact I could give you a quick behind-the-scenes tour if you’re interested.

Jessica and I didn’t have any set plans for our time in New York, so we said why not?

That’s how we ended spending a lovely afternoon being shown around the parts of the museum that the public don’t usually get to see. It’s quite the collection of curiosities back there!

There’s also plenty of research. Aaron’s particular area was looking into an entirely different kingdom of life—neither animal, nor plant, nor fungus. Remarkably, these microscopic creatures were first identified—by a classmate of Aaron’s—by happenstance in 2016:

The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.

That’s like a doctor announcing that they’d come across a hitherto-unknown limb on the human body. The findings were published in the paper, Hemimastigophora is a novel supra-kingdom-level lineage of eukaryotes in 2018.

In the “backstage” area of the American Museum of Natural History, Aaron had samples of them. He put them under the microscope for us. As we took turns looking at them wriggling their flagella, Aaron said:

Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.

Friday, June 26th, 2020

We Are As Gods

A forthcoming documentary about Stewart Brand (with music by Brian Eno).

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Strangest of All: Anthology of Astrobiological Science Fiction [PDF]

Eight sci-fi stories gathered together by the European Astrobiology Institute. This free book is also available as .mobi and .epub.

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

Life Under The Ice

Here’s the latest wonderful project from Ariel—explore microscopic specimens from Antarctica:

The collected Antarctic microbes were found living within glaciers, under the sea ice, next to frozen lakes, and in subglacial ponds.

Beautiful!

Friday, December 13th, 2019

The Deep Sea

After showing us the size of space, here’s a fascinating intereactive visualisation of the ocean depths.

Friday, September 27th, 2019

The Octopus: An Alien Among Us | Literary Hub

An excerpt from the book Rethinking Consciousness by Michael S. A. Graziano, which looks like an interesting companion piece to Peter Godfrey-Smith’s excellent Other Minds.

Also, can I just say how nice this reading experience is—the typography, the arresting image …I like it.

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

A song of AIs and fire

The televisual adaption of Game of Thrones wrapped up a few weeks ago, so I hope I can safely share some thoughts with spoilering. That said, if you haven’t seen the final season, and you plan to, please read no further!

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the style of the final series or two. To many people, it felt weirdly …off. Zeynep’s superb article absolutely nails why the storytelling diverged from its previous style:

For Benioff and Weiss, trying to continue what Game of Thrones had set out to do, tell a compelling sociological story, would be like trying to eat melting ice cream with a fork. Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories. They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.

Let’s leave aside the clumsiness of the execution for now and focus on the outcomes.

The story finishes with Bran as the “winner”, in that he now rules the seve— six kingdoms. I have to admit, I quite like the optics of replacing an iron throne with a wheelchair. Swords into ploughshares, and all that.

By this point, Bran is effectively a non-human character. He’s the Dr. Manhattan of the story. As the three-eyed raven, he has taken on the role of being an emotionless database of historical events. He is Big Data personified. Or, if you squint just right, he’s an Artificial Intelligence.

There’s another AI in the world of Game of Thrones. The commonly accepted reading of the Night King is that he represents climate change: an unstoppable force that’s going to dramatically impact human affairs, but everyone is too busy squabbling in their own politics to pay attention to it. I buy that. But there’s another interpretation. The Night King is rogue AI. He’s a paperclip maximiser.

Clearly, a world ruled by an Artificial Intelligence like that would be a nightmare scenario. But we’re also shown that a world ruled purely by human emotion would be just as bad. That would be the tyrannical reign of the mad queen Daenerys. Both extremes are undesirable.

So why is Bran any better? Well, technically, he isn’t ruling alone. He has a board of (very human) advisors. The emotionless logic of a pure AI is kept in check by a council of people. And the extremes of human nature are kept in check by the impartial AI. To put in another way, humanity is augmented by Artificial Intelligence: Man-computer symbiosis.

Whether it’s the game of chess or the game of thrones, a centaur is your best bet.

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Opinion | It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning - The New York Times

The New York Times is publishing science-fictional op-eds. The first one is from Ted Chiang on the Gene Equality Project forty years in our future:

White supremacist groups have claimed that its failure shows that certain races are incapable of being improved, given that many — although by no means all — of the beneficiaries of the project were people of color. Conspiracy theorists have accused the participating geneticists of malfeasance, claiming that they pursued a secret agenda to withhold genetic enhancements from the lower classes. But these explanations are unnecessary when one realizes the fundamental mistake underlying the Gene Equality Project: Cognitive enhancements are useful only when you live in a society that rewards ability, and the United States isn’t one.

Friday, May 24th, 2019

The Bit Player

Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!

I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.

Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.

Monday, April 8th, 2019

Tellart | Design Nonfiction

An online documentary series featuring interviews with smart people about the changing role of design.

As technology becomes more complex and opaque, how will we as designers understand its potential, do hands-on work, translate it into forms people can understand and use, and lead meaningful conversations with manufacturers and policymakers about its downstream implications? We are entering a new technology landscape shaped by artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and synthetic biology.

So far there’s Kevin Slavin, Molly Wright Steenson, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, with more to come from the likes of Matt Jones, Anab Jain, Dan Hill, and many, many more.

Friday, April 5th, 2019

Simon Collison | Identity at Dot York 2018

After two decades in tech, I realise phones and social media won’t be going away, so we work with them. My take is that I now need to seek positive digital tools that connect more of us to the non-digital world and really benefit our lives.

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Is the universe pro-life? The Fermi paradox can help explain — Quartz

Living things are just a better way for nature to dissipate energy and increase the universe’s entropy.

No anthropocentric exceptionalism here; just the laws of thermodynamics.

According to the inevitable life theory, biological systems spontaneously emerge because they more efficiently disperse, or “dissipate” energy, thereby increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In other words, life is thermodynamically favorable.

As a consequence of this fact, something that seems almost magical happens, but there is nothing supernatural about it. When an inanimate system of particles, like a group of atoms, is bombarded with flowing energy (such as concentrated currents of electricity or heat), that system will often self-organize into a more complex configuration—specifically an arrangement that allows the system to more efficiently dissipate the incoming energy, converting it into entropy.

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

The Ecological Impact of Browser Diversity | CSS-Tricks

This is a terrific spot-on piece by Rachel. I firmly believe that healthy competition and diversity in the browser market is vital for the health of the web (which is why I’m always saddened and frustrated to hear web developers wish for a single monocultural rendering engine).

Tuesday, August 21st, 2018

Design Laws in Nature by Jordan Moore

A deep, deep dive into biomicry in digital design.

Nature is our outsourced research and development department. Observing problems solved by nature can help inform how we approach problems in digital design. Nature doesn’t like arbitrary features. It finds a way to shed unnecessary elements in advancing long-term goals over vast systems.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Orion Magazine | State of the Species

A great piece from Charles C. Mann from five years ago, where you can see the genesis of The Wizard And The Prophet.

For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans? - The Atlantic

So, could researchers find clear evidence that an ancient species built a relatively short-lived industrial civilization long before our own? Perhaps, for example, some early mammal rose briefly to civilization building during the Paleocene epoch about 60 million years ago. There are fossils, of course. But the fraction of life that gets fossilized is always minuscule and varies a lot depending on time and habitat. It would be easy, therefore, to miss an industrial civilization that only lasted 100,000 years—which would be 500 times longer than our industrial civilization has made it so far.

Friday, March 9th, 2018

How To Become A Centaur

We hoped for a bicycle for the mind; we got a Lazy Boy recliner for the mind.

Nicky Case on how Douglas Engelbart’s vision for human-computer augmentation has taken a turn from creation to consumption.

When you create a Human+AI team, the hard part isn’t the “AI”. It isn’t even the “Human”.

It’s the “+”.

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Cooking with Ursula K. Le Guin

Recipes inspired by The Left Hand Of Darkness.

I mostly stuck to Le Guin’s world-building rules for Winter, which were “no large meat-animals … and no mammalian products, milk, butter or cheese; the only high-protein, high-carbohydrate foods are the various kinds of eggs, fish, nuts and Hainish grains.” I did, however, add some hot-climate items found in Manhattan’s Chinatown for their space-age looks and good flavors (dragonfruit, pomelo, galangal, chilis, and kaffir limes).

Serve with hot beer.

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.) - The New York Times

Steven Johnson dives deep into the METI project, starting with the Arecibo message and covering Lincos, the Drake equation, and the Fermi paradox.

He also wrote about what he left out of the article and mentions that he’s writing a book on long-term decision making.

In a sense, the METI debate runs parallel to other existential decisions that we will be confronting in the coming decades, as our technological and scientific powers increase. Should we create superintelligent machines that exceed our own intellectual capabilities by such a wide margin that we cease to understand how their intelligence works? Should we ‘‘cure’’ death, as many technologists are proposing? Like METI, these are potentially among the most momentous decisions human beings will ever make, and yet the number of people actively participating in those decisions — or even aware such decisions are being made — is minuscule.

Friday, March 17th, 2017

The Ray Cat Solution

A website dedicated to one of the most, um, interesting solutions to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage problem:

  1. Engineer cats that change colour in response to radiation.
  2. Create the culture/legend/history that if your cat changes colour, you should move some place else.

There are T-shirts!