Tuesday Tech Digest

Tuesday, April 04, 2006
The model of the world we all learned in school, where everything is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, is not only wrong but is woefully incorrect. For example, the neutron is actually not a fundamental particle, but is a proton, neutron, and another little guy called a neutrino all stuck together. Neutrinos have no mass and no charge so they're darned near impossible to get ahold of and study--or so we believed. The proton itself isn't really fundamental but is comprised of three smaller particles called quarks. The theory says you can never pull them apart separately, so a proton is pretty close to being fundamental. We've all heard for years about other strange particles but they sounded too confused and abstruse to bother about. The "standard model", illustrated at the left, shows that the situation really isn't that bad. The main part is pretty simple really: there are only six quarks and three leptons that really matter (the electron, the muon, and the tau). Almost everything is made of these. Further, each of the main leptons has an associated neutrino, shown above it, and each the four fundamental types of force has its own particle to carry the force, these being shown on the right of the chart. Unfortunately, just when things started to settle down into something comprehensible, the standard model must now be rejiggered because it has been confirmed that--contrary to the standard model and nearly everyone's belief--the neutrino has mass after all(!).

For this week's quantum weirdness discovery, it was found that "entanglement", the process by which one particle "knows" what another one is doing, even though they have absolutely no way of communicating with each other, can be transferred like momentum from one particle to another entirely different one.

In scam land, the latest thing to worry about is an email going around claiming that you're subject to a lawsuit. It looks real, but avoid it at all costs. The technique, called "phishing" in the hacker community, has been around for quite a while, but the lawsuit angle is new. This is very dangerous--a close relative got phished just a couple of weeks ago with an email which seemed to be from the bank. Once the credit card or bank account information is obtained, it is sold online. As an aside, this link, which goes to the NYT, is yet another example of a phenomenon I noted sometime back: the presse ancienne is continuing to work overtime to disparage the Internet in every way it can muster. Gee I wonder why.

Google still wasn't sitting on its thumbs this week. It released fantastic three-inch-resolution imagery. Just open up Google Earth and go to Las Vegas to check it out. There's an interesting background to this tale. More on that later.

A "live" CD is one which allows you to run the whole operating system from the CD. You just pop it into the CD drive and boot from there and the whole OS is loaded into memory. Your hard drive remains untouched. This is a great way to fix your system if broken or to try out a new OS with no fear of breaking your installed system. While this has been available literally for years in the Linux world, Windows users should be thrilled that a Windows bootable CD was released this week. You still have to have a legitimate license for Windows and can only be using your license on one machine at a time.

Apple meanwhile announced the latest free upgrade to Mac OS X 10.4, is working closely with Intel to develop the desktop world's best parallel computing algorithms, and sought to convince a court that blogging about Apple secrets should be illegal.

Apple is allegedly putting "virtualization" into Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X due out this Fall. This would allow users to run Windows as an application within their Macintoshes, so that all of the Windows software would now run on the Macintosh. The implications could be serious for Microsoft, or they could be minimal, depending on how people react. My guess is that it will help Apple somewhat but most people will still avoid Macintoshes like the plague. Microsoft is putting its own version of virtualization into the next version of Windows, Vista, due out next year. This will allow users to run Linux inside Windows. As usual, this technology is available in Linux today, so that Linux users can run Windows inside Linux right now if they so choose.

Speaking of Bill Gates, a test is now online which allows you to check whether you are autistic or just weird. But it turns out that autism may end up being an evolutionary advantage because a new study shows that the brains of very smart kids mature later. And a new device has been created to help autistic people determine when they are acting inappropriately in social situations--it warns you that you are boring or irritating the people around you. I've needed one of those for years.

Speaking of cool devices making life better, something promised in my childhood has now become reality. A new artificial eye has allowed a blind woman without eyes to see. We live in a miraculous age. We should be thankful.

More good news on the health front--researchers at the University of Texas shown in the photograph have found a possible amelioration or cure for Alzheimers disease. They use the immune system itself to remove the protein (amyloid-beta 42) known to be associated with Alzheimers from the brain. The new approach has been proven to work very well in rats so far.

Surgeons believe that they will now be able to fix hearts with closed-heart surgery, greatly enhancing the prospect of surviving a heart attack.

In other biology advances, cockroaches have been discovered to possess a form of democracy, bacteria apparently move around using a jet of slime, and Greens everywhere will be bitterly disappointed to learn that whale strandings are not the fault of the US Navy.

A very cool online simulation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is available here, courtesy of the US taxpayers.

In psychology, it has been discovered that people sometimes ignore the evidence of their own eyes, that the Dutch and the Germans have the highest IQ's in Europe, and that the scent of fear causes higher scores on standardized tests, rather vitiating the very idea of IQ to some extent. Psychiatrists are once again trying to treat depression with a more refined form of electroshock (this always gives me the willies); patients report that
"When we turn the current on, the emptiness disappears." On the bright side, a new study shows that "just the expectation of a mirthful laughter experience boosts endorphins 27 percent".

In a major blow to the world's culture, the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, arguably the greatest science fiction writer of all time, passed this week. He was the author of Solyaris (Solaris), where both the Russian movie and the book were infinitely superior to the American movie. If you haven't read it yet, put it on your list. It's one of the few science fiction books that deeply speaks to the human condition.

Finally, this week's biggest endorphin booster: Japanese robot wrestling has arrived.

Update: The neutron is not quite what I said--I fudged a bit--see chuck's comment below for the full picture.

Update 2: Link to device fixed.


chuck said...

For example, the neutron is actually not a fundamental particle, but is a proton, neutron, and another little guy called a neutrino all stuck together.

Um...the neutron is two down quarks and an up quark. In beta decay one of the down quarks (-1/3 e ) converts to an up quark (2/3 e), making a proton, and charge is conserved by the production of an electron (the beta). It was noted early on that energy and momentum weren't conserved in the decay, exhibiting a continuum of values. This fact led Pauli to postulate the existence of the neutrino, which is the third particle produced.

loner said...

I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.

—Stanislaw Lem, the concluding sentence of Solaris (translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox)

When I first read that I was reminded of the concluding paragraph of Montaigne's Of Vanity (translated by Donald M. Frame):

It was a paradoxical command that was given us of old by that god at Delphi: "Look into yourself, know yourself, keep to yourself; bring back your mind and your will, which are spending themselves elsewhere, into themselves; you are running out, you are scattering yourself; concentrate yourself, resist yourself; you are being betrayed, dispersed, and stolen away from yourself. Do you not see that this world keeps its sight all concentrated inward and its eye open to contemplate itself? It is always vanity for you, within and without; but it is less vanity when it is less extensive. Except for you, O man," said that god, "each thing studies itself first, and, according to its needs, has limits to its labors and desires. There is not a single thing as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe: you are the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and all in all, the fool of the farce.

RIP, Stanislaw Lem—no fool you.

Thanks, MHA. Perhaps one day I'll attempt a review of my favorite Andrei Tarkovsky movie, Andrei Rublev, but it won't be anytime soon.

truepeers said...

Amazing list of links MHA. Unfortunately, i think i also need one those annoyance meters, but the link you gave is now dead.

I got a chuckle from the "Cockroaches make group decisions... govern themselves in a very simple democracy" story. This anthropomorphism forgets the etymology of decision - i.e. decido, to give the final blow in a sacrificial rite - and hence to obscure the root of the difference between human cultural and hard-wired "decision making". Those studying the conflict between our biological instincts and the extra-biological necessity that led to the emergence of our cultural behaviours, i.e. the difference between the natural pecking order and unnatural human democracy, may well be on the road to developing an anthropology that will become central to future understandings of autism. But a big gap between the natural sciences and the humanities remains to be bridged.

terrye said...

rejiggered is a word?

David Thomson said...

“rejiggered is a word?”

It will be if enough people use it. This is how new words are created. The hoi polloi start the ball rolling. Eventually, the linguist establishment gives its blessing.

Syl said...


Yes, humans have culture, creatures do not. I think language has more to do with that than anything else. One cannot assume that all creatures simply have blank minds that only react to stimuli in a 'hard-wired' predictable manner. "Anthropomorphism" is an accusation that needs further thought. It is not that creatures behave like us, it is that we behave like creatures. Mammals have limbic systems, for example, so they feel emotions.

We simply have something extra: Language and a desire to find a power greater than ourselves.

Other than that, the differences are simply degree.

Syl said...

Just to throw this in here, this business of running one OS inside another is old. I ran a full-blown Macintosh under my Amiga OS.

That was well over a decade ago.

Syl said...

LOL my word was Yay, I'm a Kiwi. (without the punctuation, of course).

If I start writing with an accent, you'll know why. :)

MeaninglessHotAir said...


"Rejiggered" is in Webster's.

brylun said...

Wow. Better than the Science Times: Flares' Tuesday Tech Digest!

I was still in the proton, neutron, electron era (high school physics in 1967). It sure was a lot easier to understand then.

I'm waiting for the 3" maps of Tehran - it's pretty blurry there now on Google Earth.

On running one operating system inside another, I always thought the problem was a lack of speed.

I think I have read every book written by Isaac Asimov, but it's been ages since I've read any science fiction. Thanks for the Stanislaw Lem recommendation.

terrye said...


smarty pants.

Rick Ballard said...

"it's pretty blurry there now on Google Earth."

It's gonna get a lot blurrier pretty quick - even with higher resolution.

truepeers said...

Syl: One cannot assume that all creatures simply have blank minds that only react to stimuli in a 'hard-wired' predictable manner. "Anthropomorphism" is an accusation that needs further thought. It is not that creatures behave like us, it is that we behave like creatures. Mammals have limbic systems, for example, so they feel emotions.

-yes, i think that's right; animals certainly have emotions and even in some sense concepts (they can make associations on certain levels, e.g. between sounds and things). What they don't have, i believe, is the ability to go "off-line" in order to reflect on or process information. So, while animals certainly make decisions (e.g. fight or flight) it is not a matter for reflection but, shall we say, their decision reflects, some of the time, the unpredictable in nature?

We simply have something extra: Language and a desire to find a power greater than ourselves.

-yes, i agree, but it's interesting to reflect on how inherent to our language is the desire to find a power greater than ourselves.

Our signs are arbitrarily chosen. That's to say, there is no inherent reason why an apple need be represented by the sounds a-p-p-l-e.

This suggests that our signs can only be shared among ourselves through a communal memory of the event or moment in which the arbitary signifier - "apple" - was chosen and made significant to all. This implies, in turn, that the community must put its faith in something or someone, that this arbitrary gesture or sound - "apple" - will retain its significance over time, that it is guaranteed by a Being that subsists on the scene of our communal memory, even when the particularly significant apple that first caused us to sign a-p-p-l-e is long gone.

In order for "apple" to have one day emerged as significant to primitive people, they must have accorded both the thing - a particular apple - and the sign they either created or were seemingly given - "apple" - some sacred power that they would have ultimately located in a divine Being.

To think this way can never resolve the question of whether we are created by God or ourselves creators of the God idea; it simply is a way of clarifying the paradox and honing the questions that must be left to faith.

Syl said...


it's interesting to reflect on how inherent to our language is the desire to find a power greater than ourselves.

I don't see it. Sorry.

You say we arbitrarily choose words for things. That's true. But meerkats have arbitarily chosen specific sounds to represent specific enemies.

And these sounds are passed along through communal memories.

Nothing sacred about it.

truepeers said...

Syl, i don't know anything about meerkats but i'm sure your right there is nothing sacred about their language. But why do you say they can arbitrarily choose sounds to represent enemies? How would that work? If one of them comes up with a new sound for the first time, how can the others know what it means, unless their memory entails the ability to remember the scene of danger - the context - on which the the sound - the text - first emerged? In order to remember scenes of shared communal significance - and our memory is inherently scenic - humans need the sacred.

No doubt the meerkats can signal each other when there is a dangerous enemy about. But to see this signal as the equivalent of a human sign we would have to show that they can distinguish (and also feel compelled to repeat) a particular sound-thing relationship from an instinctual understanding that a certain kind of sound means danger. But how will they distinguish the sound that sounds like danger from the sound that means "this particular kind of dangerous thing (considering all the attributes that a dangerous thing has - species, size, gender, anger, etc.)", or "this particular dangerous place"?

Syl said...


Meerkats have one warning sound for snakes, another for larger predators. I think so far the observers have counted three different sounds representing three types of dangers.

The other meerkats know what the sound means and they all take turns as spotters. It's really not that hard to figure out how it came about.

It's not magic. It's not mystical. Sounds have meaning. Nobody is saying meerkats have language. You only get close to that with dolphins and some apes.

But they do communicate using specific sounds that mean specific things.

Syl said...

In order to remember scenes of shared communal significance - and our memory is inherently scenic - humans need the sacred.

I'm sorry, but I haven't a clue what this means. Seems to me that humans attributed lots of phenomena to the sacred until they figured out what they really are. We seem to have this need to determine cause and effect. Animals do too but not to the extent humans do. An animal doesn't ask why the sky is blue. It doesn't have time :)

truepeers said...

Syl, it's tough to talk about the sacred because culture progresses by moving ever further away from its sacred origins. It was much easier for our primitive forebears to know the reality of the sacred because they lived, a lot of the time, in mythological and ritual worlds, and when they didn't their language and ideas remained highly constrained by them. But like the Hebrews' God, so much of modern language and culture depends on making our relationship to the sacred unfigurable, and also forgettable.

Yet, to the modern anthropologist, the sacred remains a fundamental constituent of all culture. Perhaps the most basic way to think of this is in terms of motivation. If I ask you what motivates you to speak, write or to make art, you could no doubt give me many reasons. Still, there is a generic quality, a force, to human motivation and desire that is common to all our reasons. Furthermore, this generic quality cannot be simply reduced to natural appetites or impulses - on the whole, you don't write because you're hungry, or looking for a mate, or trying to become the alpha of the pack. You write because you have a human desire for meaning that is supplementary to any animal appetite.

Once we factor out our natural appetites and drives, we are left with cultural desires, i.e. desires for significance, for meaning. And what motivates these desires? The generic force which motivates us to use language or peform art is, in most basic terms, the power of the sacred (to which we can have positive and negative relationships).

But what, you are asking, is the sacred, other than this mysterious force? Well, for one thing, we can make certain things sacred, at least temporarily. Something that we (or God) make sacred, say the apple in the Garden of Eve, or a virgin's virginity, is something that is being made inaccessbile to our appetitive drives (at least it is inaccessible for a time - later we might get a piece of it it in a profane or licensed act).

Since it has been made inaccessible (by God or, if you prefer, by the logic of human society), we can only approach it through representations. The representation basically says "this thing is significant because it is sacred, because i cannot fully grasp it"; or, to put it in a more modern turn of phrase (modernity tends forgets the sacred motivation that our primitive forebears knew more intimately) "this thing is significant because it is an integral piece of a scene that we would like to share with each other as part of human communication and bonding about what is important."

But why is it important? Think about all the things that don't have a name, that aren't yet significant - say that little crack on your wall over there. You will only be motivated to represent it to me if for some reason you can imagine it having a potential signficance on the scene of my imagination, say it becomes integral to some story you want to tell me.

But why should you ever want to tell me stories?

You will not be able to explain this need or desire to represent the crack, in terms of animal needs (you tell me a story precisely because you don't want me to relate to you like an animal, grabbing what i might want). Rather, the explanation lies in the fact that we are beings who must restrain ourselves and bond through culture, by sharing imaginative scenes on which there is some explicit or implicit sacred (untouchable) presence that motivates the scene's shared significance. If we could just instantly have or understand whatever we wanted, nothing would be significant and we would have no need for stories.

We are such restrained beings because this is how our society is organized (as a profane human periphery jostling and trading around an often invisible sacred center), for reasons having to do with how humans must live, once the animal pecking order no longer works to keep us all in line.

Syl said...

Both humans and animals seek knowledge of the environment they live in and thereby learn cause and effect.

Humans are just so much better at it. Magnitudes better at it.

We are constrained because we have learned consequences. (Though sometimes it feels like we have learned little at all.) We have written language and can pass this knowledge through generations. Animals cannot do this.

Sacred origins, to me, simply means superstition. Early man did not understand thunderstorms and therefore attributed an angry god as the cause. I do not see sharing symbols as being sacred.

Our uniqueness is in the desire to find a cause for everything we see and if we can't find it, we seek an Other. And we are self-referential and know we are thinking. But our knowledge of our own thinking is limited to language--we ignore our non-verbal thoughts except as expressed through music and art.

I think it dangerous to draw a line in concrete separating animals from humans because as our knowledge grows we learn that certain things we always assumed to be on our side of the line are not. I do think the line definitely exists, I just don't think it's placement is finalized yet.

truepeers said...

You're right, tHe line is fuzzy in the sense that we can, with a lot of work, teach chimps to use our symbols. They have some mental capacity for this. But once they go back to their own company they have no need to use them. They don't begin building up the equivalent of human culture, whereas we could not live without them. So the difference lies not so much in biology, as in history and the necessity it has imposed on us.

Some say it is arrogant to focus on what makes humans distinct, but if attributing human qualities to animals weren't deeply rooted in our cultural past (e.g. in nursery parables) then we'd say that doing this was arrogant.

Ultimately we must pursue what we think is true. I believe that the sacred is fundamental to humanity. You can say it is superstition, but then I ask, well then, what is superstition? Why aren't animals superstitious? When a Jihadist comes after me because he says I have defiled the sacred memory of the Prophet (pbuh), am i best advised to write him off as a superstitious crazy, or should i take his motivation deadly seriously because many others will take it seriously? When I'm in business and people want to give me twice as much for brand name products as the same thing without the name, should i just shrug and say they're crazy, or should I try to take seriously and understand what motivates this desire to have the names with which they tell the stories of their lives?

loner said...


Do you recognize this?

Every "Age of Enlightenment" proceeds from an unlimited optimism of the reason—always associated with the type of the megalopolitan—to an equally unqualified scepticism. The sovereign waking-consciousness, cut off by walls and artificialities from living nature and the land about it and under it, cognizes nothing outside itself. It applies criticism to its imaginary world, which it has cleared of everyday sense-experience, and continues to do so until it has found the last and subtlest result, the form of the form—itself: namely, nothing. With this the possibilities of physics as a critical mode of world-understanding are exhausted, and the hunger for metaphysics presents itself afresh. But it is not the religious pastimes of educated and literature-soaked cliques, still less is it the intellect, that gives rise to the Second Religiousness. Its source is the naive belief that arises, unremarked but spontaneous, among the masses that there is some sort of mystic constitution of actuality (as to which formal proofs are presently regarded as barren and tiresome word-jugglery), and an equally naive heart-need reverently responding to the myth by means of a cult. The forms of neither can be foreseen, still less chosen—they appear of themselves, and as far as we ourselves are concerned, we are as yet far distant from them. But already the opinions of Comte and Spencer, the Materialism and the Monism and the Darwinism, which stirred the best minds of the nineteenth century to such passion, have become the world-view proper to country cousins.

Syl said...


I'm not arguing against the notion that humans have a desire to find a being greater than ourselves. I'm sure there is a reason for that and the most logical is that the being we seek gave us the desire to seek him.

I don't know if that's true, but I have no arguments against it, nor do I wish to seek out such arguments.

But as far as animals go, I think you still don't accept that there is some symbolism involved in certain animals' communication. I'm not saying nor never have said that animals are 'like us'. I think the converse is true. That in many ways we are discovering that we are more like animals than we thought.

And I don't think that should be a threat to anyone or anyone's beliefs.

truepeers said...

Loner, no i don't recognize this passage; i find it rather misanthropic in its elitism, and in some ways mistaken.

For example: Its source is the naive belief that arises, unremarked but spontaneous, among the masses that there is some sort of mystic constitution of actuality (as to which formal proofs are presently regarded as barren and tiresome word-jugglery), and an equally naive heart-need reverently responding to the myth by means of a cult.

- i certainly value projects of de-mythologization (mythology, as i understand it, after Rene Girard, is that which cannot hypothesize the basis of its own emergence in sacrificial violence).

But the best de-mythologizing projects don't lead us to some complete demystification of human reality because this reality cannot be neatly distinguished from the always somewhat mysterious means by which we represent and understand it.

For example, no one has ever been able to tell us, exactly, what makes a great story work. The basis by which the revelatory sign (or the story that tells of the sign's emergence) comes out of worldly experience and creates a transcendent significance will always remain something of a mystery. I have no idea what are the formal proofs this writer invokes (does he propose to overcome what countless studies of literature and language have failed to do?), nor what exactly is naive about recognizing that there is something mystic about the constitution of human reality. It would be naive to deny it.

It's not that i would defend silly cults, but i would maintain there is more anthropological knowledge in the Bible than in the anthropology department at most universities. I take it this writer would disagree?

There also appears to be some belief here that consciousness (human consciousness? is there any other kind?) is originally the product of some wholesome relationship to nature, but that it has been lost due to human mystical folly. But there is no obvious sign that this writer has grappled with the problem of how one might begin to distinguish the mental apparatus of our pre-human forebears from that which came into being with language.

Language entails the emergence of consciousness focussed on the irresolvable difference between our signs (and the memorable images they invoke) and the things or reality the sign represents. The painter's attention constantly ocillates between his significant painting and his subject. The scientist's mind oscillates between his theory and scripts, and what is actually happening in the lab.

If it were not for the sign, that surely first emerged in the context of a human social necessity (one that is at first, and still largely today, understood mythologically) then we would not have the possibility of the consciousness of nature this writer seems to embrace. In fact I have suspicions that this writer has not himself come to terms with his own sacrificial or mythological thinking - i almost suspect he would like to rip open and toss all the world's bourgeois Babbitts off the top of Teotihuacan.

But I'm afraid it's not entirely clear to me what this writer believes :)

truepeers said...

Syl, your comment reminds me of something the philosopher Wittgenstein said about the ultimate mystery being the nature of sameness and difference. Yes, I don't believe animals have a symbolic consciousness, at least not in anything but the most primitive form and then i'm only really thinking about primates. But how this belief should lead me to tote up sameness and difference, well that i have no idea.

loner said...


That excerpt is from the Modern Library translation (abridged edition) of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. I'm often reminded of that tome when reading you. Once upon a time my primary intellectual passions were anthropology and history. I was attracted to Spengler's cyclical view of history not only because it meshed somewhat with my own already formed views, but also because, going to school and then living in Berkeley for many years, I encountered people with utopian outlooks of all sorts with whom I could argue should I so choose.

At some point decades ago I decided that history was trending against mutual assured destruction and space exploration and toward a transportation and communications future in which in those two areas it would make little or no difference where on this planet one is physically located. My interest and passion faded.

I did come to understand (I hope) more about your views (or is it those you offer affirmative argument for?) while reading this thread.


truepeers said...

Loner, Spengler is on the reading list, but I suppose I'm still waiting for the moement. One of my intellectual guides and favorite essayists, Tom Bertonneau, is a Spengler fan, as you can see in this essay. So I am not surprised to hear i might have affinity for his ideas. My thinking has been shaped by historical study, but lately and in large part by the discipline of Generative Anthropology, founded by Eric Gans, a student of the above-mentioned Rene Girard.

BTW, I took out a copy of That Hamilton Woman from the library and much enjoyed it. Do you see anything Spenglerian about its ending?