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The Write Way

26 December 2008

A New New Year and a New Species!


As we approach the end of one year and the start of a brand, spanking-new year, it seemed like a good idea to ponder some of the changes taking place in this little world of ours. Now I'm not going to spread gloom and doom by concentrating on those species which are extinct or threatened with extinction ... you can see enough of that everywhere you look these days. No, what I thought we'd focus on today, boys and girls, is those new species that have only recently been discovered.

And in the ultimate irony, it appears that these species are often only found by those in the process of destroying their habitats: "(A) ... legless reptile was recently discovered in central Brazil's Cerrado, a wooded savanna being converted to ranch and cropland at twice the rate of the nearby Amazon. ...

"The lizard—part of a separate evolutionary line from snakes—is one of 14 species believed new to science discovered on a four-week expedition to a 1.77-million-acre (716,000-hectare) protected area in the Cerrado. The team also found several threatened and rare species." (Source) 

Then there are the 52 new species discovered on Borneo, including a fish, which at 0.35 inches long is one of the tiniest vertebrates on Earth: (Source) 

Mind you, I think I'd perhaps be happier not knowing about the existence of "a cyanide-producing dragon millipede" or "the world’s largest huntsman spider, with a foot-long leg span." (Source) 

Egad! Now there's the stuff of nightmares!

But it's reassuring to know that there are so many wonderful creatures still around, and it doesn't matter if we never actually get to see them all, just knowing they're there is enough. (Making sure they're all still there for our grandkids to be delighted and astounded by is, of course, another matter entirely.)

Then there are the other fascinating critters that are evolving e'en as we speak, and I refer here, dear reader, to those teen cyborgs that inhabit so many homes around the world, plugged permanently into an iPod or Wii or whatever the latest gadget is.

But it's not just teens who have transmogrified into cyborgs. 

When it comes right down to it, if we use any artificial device to enhance or aid us, we ourselves become cyborgs. So driving a car, riding a bike, wearing glasses or contact lenses all qualify ... I like this definition that says any activity that involves interacting with machines can make us cyborgs, although some purists would demand that there needs to be some form of inter-relationship involved. So the mechanical parts that enhance the body's "natural" mechanisms need to include synthetic feedback mechanisms. In which case, all of you wandering around with a heart pace-maker, cochlear implant or the like are officially cyborgs! What fun, eh? 

There have been some fascinating experiments into this whole realm of man-into-machine.... 

A chap in the UK by the name of Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics professor at the University of Reading in England, has had a silicon chip implanted in his arm, which sends out signals to his building, so that in a prime example of Life Imitating Art, this chip "sent out radio waves alerting computers at the cybernetics department to his actions and whereabouts. As he walked through the main doors of the building, the computer welcomed him with a polite hello. As he neared his lab, it opened the door and turned on the lights." 

Shades of Marvin, the depressed robot in 'Hitchhiker's Guide!' (Source)

Not content with this, Warwick "imagines a future experiment: he is in London, his wife in New York. With her brain link on, her portable computer records a thought conversation, sends it over the internet to his computer, which in turn dispatches it to his brain. Her thoughts pop into his head." (Source) 

Now if ever there was a recipe for disaster, this is it.

Can you imagine trying to keep a coherent train of thought every second of the day in case someone wanted to pop in for a thought conversation

It's be like those times when people you want to think well of you (in-laws, potential bosses etc) tell you they "might drop in over the weekend." You spend the entire time all done up like a dish of fish, listening for car doors closing, nagging the family not to use the new hand towels in the bath room, afraid to make yourself a salad sandwich because you just know you'll drop beetroot on your clean shirt. And you don't get a jolly thing done while you wait in an agony of suspense.

The strain is unbearable ... Now imagine what it would be like if you also had to keep your thoughts in line as well. Instead of being able to go off on a nice little fantasy about how you'd distribute your millions if you won Lotto, you'd have to spend the whole day thinking sensible thoughts that would impress your in-laws or potential boss.

Scunners to that!

What do you mean, you've never heard of scunners before?

It's been a useful part of our family vocabulary for decades (thanks to my Scots mother-in-law). 

It means: 
1. to feel aversion.
2. to produce a feeling of disgust or loathing in.
3. a strong dislike (often in "tak a scunner", or "git oot o' ma face ya wee scunner").
4. an object of dislike; nuisance. (Source) 

This is a little Scots blessing from my family to your family for the New Year; it was a favourite of my mother-in-law ... she used to write it at the bottom of every letter and card she sent us:

‘Lang may your lum reek!’ (Long may your chimney smoke ... may you always be prosperous enough to have fuel.)

And in case you've ever wondered: The word “cyborg,” meaning “a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices” (The American Heritage Dictionary), was formed as a blending of the words “cybernetic” and “organism.”

This week's quiz:

Lots of us have Scottish ancestors, so we can all legitimately use some of their colourful terms ... See how many of these you recognise:

drookit, canny, glaikit, rammy, bumfle, crabbit, dreich, hen, puggle, wabbit  

1. miserable, cold and wet (weather) 

2. noisy fight 

3. dripping wet

4. stupid, glazed (expression) 

5. tire out 

6. careful 

7. pale and weak (as after illness or exertion) 

8. bump or raised area (in cloth) 

9. ill-tempered 

10. a general term of endearment for anyone (especially for a woman) 

And here's another of those studies that I could have included in my previous list of Outrageous Wastes of Taxpayers' Money:

University of Cincinnati researchers Julia Taylor and Larry Mazlack recently unveiled a "bot”  — more accurately a software program — that recognizes jokes. They reported the development at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence conference in Vancouver, Canada.

Here’s an example of one of the robot’s favorite jokes:

Mother to boy: “Johnny, you’ve been working in the garden a lot this summer.

Boy: “I know. My teacher told me to weed a lot.”

“Notice that the boy says the teacher told him to WEED. Since ‘weed’ sounds similar to 'read,' the program can find this wordplay,” Taylor says.

Mantei (Professor Tom Mantei, a fellow researcher in UC’s College of Engineering) adds, “This research is another step toward approaching the capability of the human mind.”

Yes ... that was my first thought, too ... Why? 

Why do we need a computer program that recognises jokes? Spend five minutes with a group of preschoolers and you'll get your fix of corny Knock-Knock jokes!



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Last week's quiz

In all the excitement of getting ready for Santa's arrival last week, I forgot to give you the answers to the quiz! So this week, you get not one, but two sets of answers! Talk about a bargain!

So here are the answers to the quiz for the week BEFORE last week:

segue, dailies, beat, mixer, looping, gaffer, cutter, dolly grip, best boy, breakaway

1. assistant to the electrician - BEST BOY

2. specially designed prop or set piece which looks solid by shatters easily - BREAKAWAY

3. electrician -GAFFER

4. screening of footage before it is edited - DAILIES

5. crew member who moves the piece of equipment that the camera sits on to allow mobility of the camera - DOLLY GRIP

6. chief of the sound crew; responsible for the quality of the sound recording on a shoot - MIXER

7. transition from one shot to another in editing - SEGUE

8. single unit of action - BEAT

9. person responsible for assembling the various visual and audio components of a film into a coherent and effective whole. - CUTTER in-studio technique matching, synchronizing voice to picture - LOOPING

And a very short story about artificial intelligence ...

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?

And here are the answers to last week's quiz:

1. securities issued by companies and the government as a way of raising finance - BONDS

2. a reduction in national income and output - DEFLATION

3. in theory, an industry where one firm produces the entire output of a market - MONOPOLY

4. any possessions that have value in an exchange - ASSETS

5. market dominated by a very few sellers who account for a large proportion of output - OLIGOPOLY

6. a group of economists who believe that changes in government income and expenditure are the most effective instrument of government economic policy - KEYNESIAN

7. study of the whole economy - MACROECONOMICS

8. long term fixed interest loans to companies - DEBENTURES

9. a market in which goods or services are offered by several sellers but there is only one buyer - MONOPSONY

10.the transfer of financial resources and or good and services from a donor to a recipient - DISBURSEMENT


A ventriloquist doing a nightclub gig with his dummy on his knee tells a dumb robot joke; a beverage service robot stops and shouts at the ventriloquist, “What gives you the right to stereotype artificial intelligence that way? You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Flustered, the ventriloquist begins to stammer an apology.

“You keep out of this, buster!” it yells, “I’m talking to the little idiot on your knee.” 

A Little Something Extra

Some sobering statistics from UNEP's recent Convention on Biological Diversity:

Extinction rates have varied greatly, and species that are rare or otherwise prone to extinction must be poorly represented by fossils and so bias the record, but the average lifespan of a fossil species appears to be about four million years. Given this average, if 10 million species existed at any one time, the extinction rate would have been about 2.5 species annually. Applying this factor to recent birds and mammals (numbering about 10,000 and 5000 living species respectively) the expected background extinction rate would be around one species every four hundred years and eight hundred years, respectively. The known recent extinction rate appears to be some 100 or 200 times higher than background. Bias inherent in the fossil record makes it difficult to achieve greater precision in such estimates, but the general direction of the trend is well supported. http://www.cbd. int/gbo1/ chap-01-02. shtml 

Word of the week: Cyber: a prefix used to describe a person, thing, or idea as part of the computer and information age. Taken from kybernetes, Greek for "steersman" or "governor," it was first used in cybernetics, a word coined by Norbert Wiener and his colleagues. cybernetics is the science or study of control or regulation mechanisms in human and machine systems, including computers

Oxymoron of the weekSince we've been in the world of cyborgs ... what else but Virtual Reality? Or Cyborg Culture? Perhaps Scientific Worship?

And what else for our Latin phrase this week but this old chestnut?

Deus ex machina

[DAY-oos ECKS mah-KEE-nah]

(God from the machine) 

In Greek and Roman drama, this was the term given when a god was lowered by stage machinery to resolve a plot or extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation. It's come to mean any inferior plot device that expeditiously solves the conflict of a narrative, and by extension, a person or event that provides a sudden and unexpected solution to a difficulty. 

All in all, something we might like to keep handy as the New Year rolls around!

Did you know that you can have your very own Latin reminders? How about undies proclaiming, Bene est rex esse? (It's good to be king) Or a shopping bag that warns, Emptrix nata sum (Born to shop)? 

Kind regards,


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