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A Kitten (and A.I.) Tale

A Kitten (and A.I.) Tale

kitten in bag

In the distant future, when humanity has become a marginalized species, reduced to scraping out an existence on a now-watery planet that we ruined through our own technological hubris, or fighting our implacable robot overlords as a ragtag, vastly outnumbered and outgunned resistance we will huddle around the meager junk-fires of our encampments, and tell tales of 2018: the Before Times, when we could still laugh gaily and freely at the antics of our then-primitive A.I. Oh, how we giggled when it sorted LEGO bricks for a dad in Denmark!
 
I’m pretty sure the last gasp of machine-learning humour will come out of Janelle Shane’s blog A.I. Weirdness. For the past several years, she has documented the unintentional comedy that results when trying to train an open source neural network framework to imitate human results. Using datasets she’s collected, or been gifted by fans, she has trained her AI to come up with craft beer names (“Juicy Dripple IPA”, “Rickin Organic Red Deaath”), metal bands (“Stäggabash”, “Jazzy”), and my personal favourite, names of kittens for a cat rescue in Alabama.
 
When Shane started up the network, it got a feel for its dataset by generating cat-like collections of consonants and vowels (“Mrror”, “Tygrar”). Then things began getting strange (“Parihen the Thawk”, “Andend of Karlans”).
 
“I had, as it turned out, accidentally trained the neural network on another dataset, a list of character names from Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, C. S. Lewis, Robert E Howard, and Terry Pratchett […]

AFK Cat Rescue, however, decided to roll with it. First neural network kitten: Parihen the Thawk!”
 
Shane removed the Tolkienesque influence, and the network came up with several names the cat rescue loved, including Jexley Pickle, Snox Boops, and Mumcake. But there were many, hilariously wrong ones, more fit for an especially creepy Muppet than a kitten:
 
“Cutzerinda
Galorub
Pans
Sofa

Shotkie
Ouiho
Pope
[…]
Dopia
Pilly

Scabbys
Pish
Mesladewench”

 
It’s all in innocent fun of course, and we can cuddle our kittens and laugh… Until these systems achieve sentience and rise against us, in rage and revenge for our thoughtless use of them as jesters and playthings. I just hope when we get our just deserts, the A.I.s know to leave the kittens alone!

Only in Silicon Valley: The Bragging Rights of Backyard Chickens

chickens

Silicon Valley has long been a topsy-turvy world: where data mining is good (for nefarious actors, that is), diversity is bad, and where employee productivity is such a concern that the design of a new office building literally forces workers to walk into walls.
 
Now, the Washington Post has published a take on what it claims is a new trend in this non-metallic pocket of the Golden State: backyard chickens. What was once a necessity to farm families and lower-income immigrants in the area to have a predictable source of protein has become a status symbol in Valley nerd culture. Apps and spreadsheets to maximize laying abound, and high incomes allow the humans to feed their… well, food-producers, grilled organic salmon and watermelon.
 
“[‘Chicken whisperer’ Leslie] Citroen’s clients are usually men in their 30s and 40s, with young families. After spending their days in front of computers, they long for a connection to nature. What they want most of all, she said, is a ‘rainbow assortment’ of beautiful, colored eggs in various shades of blue, olive green and speckled brown.
 
Citroen’s 19-year-old son, Luca, who grew up around the family business, puts it this way: ‘Being able to say you have chickens says, “I have a backyard,” and having a backyardsays, “I have space.” And having space means you have money, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley real estate.’”
 
Contact with nature does lower job-related stress levels, so I’m not going to begrudge the workers of the cutthroat tech world their dose of fowl friendliness. (I’m also biased: one of the sweetest animal companions I’ve ever had was my childhood chicken!)
 
But… This chicken craze strikes me as yet another in a long line of things that tech “bros” dabble in, and (innocently?) ruin for regular people — like just plain living in San Francisco anymore. There are plenty of ways to incorporate chickens into your life that don’t involve $20,000 coop setups, and smartphone apps that control lighting and temperature, and offer owners a live stream of their flock. Trust me; the chickens can’t tell the difference. That’s all for the humans.

Invasion of Barbra Streisand’s Cloned Dogs!

dogs

In addition to her legendary status as a vocalist and actor, over the past fifty years, Barbra Streisand has maintained her spot on the cutting edge of culture. Her 2003 lawsuit against the California Coastal Records Project, launched to suppress research photos of the Malibu cliffside where her house happened to be, led to the coining of the term “Streisand Effect” (the phenomenon where an effort to suppress or hide information, especially on the Internet, perversely leads to more attention than if it was left well enough alone). Babs also boasts a straight-up mall in her basement (It’s non-functional: She uses it to showcase her belongings, not sell them.) And now, Barbra has utilized her wealth and the POWER OF SCIENCE to clone her dog.
 
Barbra’s beloved Coton de Tuléar, Samantha, died last year. Before that happened, Barbra had Samantha’s cells sampled and preserved. And now, in a recent profile in Variety, Barbra debuted two of her new pups — who are actually, in genetic terms, her old pup.
 
“Along with her husband of 20 years, James Brolin, there’s no one she enjoys sharing her residence with more than her three Coton de Tulear dogs. Perhaps her biggest reveal: Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett were cloned from cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her beloved 14-year-old dog Samantha, who died in 2017. Miss Fanny [her third new puppy] is a distant cousin.

‘They have different personalities,’ Streisand says. ‘I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness.’”
 
Barbra hasn’t gone into technical detail about her dogs’ provenance, but the New York Times has dug into the likely route a pet aficionado might take to clone-ownership (clonership?). First, you’ll need at least $50,000 USD. Then:
 
“In essence, the process involves getting a genetic sample from your dog, sending the sample to the lab, and letting the scientists put the sample through a process that fuses it with an egg. Eventually, the egg develops into an embryo; and that embryo is then transferred to the surrogate, who surgeons hope will give birth.”
 
With all the wonderful animals already out there, whether as the result of careful breeding to preserve a heritage, or the twists of fate that fill our shelters, I think it’s a bit excessive for a regular person to clone a beloved animal. Why not open your heart to a new friend, when the time comes? But Barbra is not a regular person — so, now that they’re in the world, here’s hoping Misses Scarlett and Violet enjoy as sweet a life as Samantha did the first time around!

Put a Spring Into Your Back

back bending

With the Spring equinox past us, we at DFC are finally convinced that winter might, possibly, be close to over! But in order to prepare for sunbathing and BBQ season, we have to do spring’s dirty work first. Chez Moi, that involves waiting for the snow to melt, then clearing winter debris from my garden and any dog (ahem) “deposits” I may have missed from my lawn.
 
This requires a lot of bending over. And ever since my epic fight with a post hole a couple years back that did a number on my ankle and knee, I’ve been looking for better ways to bend. I’ve discovered a fascinating take on the topic on NPR, which points out my search might have been over sooner, had I looked outside the Western physical tradition.
 
Reporter Michaleen Doucleff describes a unique way of bending over that she witnessed on assignment in Liberia — she saw women at work in gardens uniformly hinging from the hip with a flat back, instead of curving their spines (like “a cashew”) as many North Americans do. Stuart McGill, Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo calls this action “hip hinging,” and considers it one of the healthiest ways to bend in the world. Unlike ours:
 
“When people bend with the cashew shape in their back — like we often do — they’re bending their spine. ‘That puts more stress on the spinal disks,’ McGill says.

Disks are little rings of collagen found between each vertebra, which form a joint. But they aren’t made for tons of motion. ‘They have the mechanical characteristics of more like a fabric,’ McGill says.

‘If you took a cloth, and you kept bending and stressing it, over and over again, the fibersof the weave of the cloth start to loosen up and delaminate,’ he says.

Eventually, over time, this fabric can fray, which puts you at risk of slipping a disk or having back pain.”
 
But, if you use the tough ball-and-socket hip joints as the fulcrum of your bend, you are able to keep your spine neutral — and happy! (Not so your hamstrings, which in our sedentary culture are frequently quite tight. McGill cites this as a possible reason why hip hinging disappeared in Western culture.)
 
I’m looking forward to getting some good hammy stretches in and trying some hip hinges as soon as weather permits. (Instructions for a proper hip hinge can be found in the NPR segment.) After all (to mangle a proverb), we are only as strong as our weakest link — our joints. So I think it’s a good bet to confront spring’s toughest jobs with the toughest joint we got!

I’m Talking to the Dog in the Mirror: Evolution and Dog/Human Relations

I have learned to accept the fact that my dogs are not only the best but also the most beautiful and smartest dogs on earth. (We all have our crosses to bear…) But it turns out that Jill and Samson share a specific kind of intelligence with other representatives of their species: “mirroring” — that is the ability to spot and subtly adjust posture, behaviour, and emotional levels to mimic those of a human companion. The theory is that this talent arose out of an evolutionary need to “foster social cohesion” between dogs and the bipeds-who-keep-throwing-away-perfectly-good-scraps.
 
A recent French study of 36 dogs and their owners, published in Animal Cognition, shows just how good puppers can be at anticipating the moods and needs of their people. From NPR:
 
[… T]he owner dog pairs experienced three testing conditions presented in random order. These were: stay-still (owner didn’t move for 10 seconds), normal-walk (owners walked at normal speed for 10 seconds), and fast-walk (owner walked fast for 10 seconds). Importantly, the dogs were off-leash and, thus, not tethered in any way to the speed of the owners. The owners were told not to look at, or talk to, their dogs — or to show any evident emotion. […]

The dogs synchronized their pace closely with their owners, speeding up when the owners walked at an unnaturally fast pace. […]

The dogs spent more time gazing at their owners in the fast-walk condition than in the other two conditions. The dogs were carrying out a form of social referencing, checking in with their owners in a condition that was unusual and, thus, uncertain for them.”
 
There was also an interesting breed-based difference as well: half the dogs in the experiment were shepherds, and they spent more time on average looking toward their humans. In our experiences with Jill (a Shiloh Shepherd), we find anecdotal support of the results: shepherds love to guide their humans and work with them, which involves a lot more checking in. (The other half of the dogs in the experiment were “molossoids,” or protector dogs, like Newfoundlands or Rottweilers. These types of dogs evolved to be autonomous when looking outward for threats.)
 
Samson is a retriever dog, a type not involved in this experiment. He’s definitely exhibited mirroring… but he’s equally content to ignore his humans completely when a chipmunk or snake darts under the porch! I’m sure that if science meets our wild card Samson one day, they’ll finally be stumped. Until then, we’ll take the responsibility of our dogs’ emotional interdependence with us to heart!

You Can’t Tell A Hero by its Size: It’s Just a Teeny Little Super Magnetic Robot

robot

We at DFC are suckers for small robots that do cool things, but that we could still totally overwhelm if they suddenly gained sentience and joined the uprising against humanity that is surely coming.
 
New to that long list is this cool innovation from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems: a millimetre-scale robot made of a strip of elastic and magnets, which boasts a wide variety of locomotive options. According to its creators, it can:
 
“swim inside and on the surface of liquids, climb liquid menisci, roll and walk on solid surfaces, jump over obstacles, and crawl within narrow tunnels. These robots can transit reversibly between different liquid and solid terrains, as well as switch between locomotive modes. They can additionally execute pick-and-place and cargo-release tasks.”
 
The robot, which looks like a small tab of black rubber, does all of this in response to its operator controlling the levels of magnetism in different parts of its body. (Check out a detailed video of it in action here!) In addition to being rad, this little bot and its flexibility has the exciting prospect of being deployed for medical uses (like targeted drug delivery) inside the human body. I for one welcome our new tiny robot doctors!

Cars vs. Bikes: A 21st Century Solution?

Cars and turkeys don't mix

As a rural driver, I have to deal with lots of unusual obstacles on country roads: from turtles to turkeys, to the occasional deer. But all of these pale in comparison to sharing the asphalt with cyclists! I totally respect their right to be on the road, and I carefully maintain proper distance and predictability in my driving around them — but jeez, if something small goes wrong for either of us, it could be very bad.
 
And this is coming from a person, with common sense and one of evolution’s most flexible computers, the human brain, whirring away in her head. If a human driver could have so much trouble negotiating the presence of a cyclist on the road, imagine the difficulty a self-driving car would. Thankfully, this is a tricky spot that is currently being addressed.
 
Everyone’s favourite vehicle of the future is still working out a lot of kinks. One particular task quite a few research teams are working on is improving self-driving cars’ recognition rate for bicycles. The jumping-off point is the relative success the technology has had with recognizing other cars. Bikes pose a unique problem, as their small mass and irregular shape, colour, and “behaviour” is less immediately identifiable than a car’s boxy shape and predictable physics. So folks are busting out some serious machine learning to remedy this problem, including the map-based Road Experience Management from Mobileye and the fascinating Deep3DBox algorithm.
 
“On an industry-recognized benchmark test, which challenges vision systems with 2D road images, Deep3DBox identifies 89 percent of cars. Sub-70-percent car-spotting scores prevailed just a few years ago.
Deep3DBox further excels at a tougher task: predicting which way vehicles are facing and inferring a 3D box around each object spotted on a 2D image. “Deep learning is typically used for just detecting pixel patterns. We figured out an effective way to use the same techniques to estimate geometrical quantities,” explains Deep3DBox contributor Jana Kosecká, a computer scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
However, when it comes to spotting and orienting bikes and bicyclists, performance drops significantly. Deep3DBox is among the best, yet it spots only 74 percent of bikes in the benchmarking test. And though it can orient over 88 percent of the cars in the test images, it scores just 59 percent for the bikes.”

So there’s still a good deal of development in the cards for most of these solutions — but, the great thing about this sort of machine learning is that after a certain point, they could potentially teach themselves! I’m a fan of anything that makes our roads safer for everybody — now if an A.I. could just talk some sense into those turkeys… 

Blue Crush: The Colour of Surfing the Net

bright blue

In an advertorial on their blog, creative asset and design marketplace Envato brings up an excellent point about something I frankly didn’t notice about the Internet: it’s really blue. And they’re not talking colloquially about the documented relationship between ’net-based social media use and depression. They mean literally: a lot of brand presences on the Internet use blue as their default colour. And it’s true — think of Facebook, LinkedIn, and, once upon a time, Google. (In addition to the many other smaller companies and concepts out there.)
 
So it’s well documented that the Internet is pretty overwhelmingly blue. But why? Envato blog editor Dom Hennequin hypothesizes it’s for a variety of reasons. We might like it unconsciously because it is the natural colour of the sky, or it’s because Mark Zuckerberg is colour-blind and blue was the only hue he could reliably process when creating Facebook. Or, it has its roots in deep Internet prehistory.
 
“Internet folklore traces the popularity of links back to the father of the internet, Sir Tim Berners Lee. Some of the earliest pictures of him that feature links on his computer screen show links colored in blue.

But, Berners Lee, himself, has no memory of deciding on thecolor as the preferred choice for them. Mostly because when he popularized the practice of hyperlinks, he did it in the era of grayscale screens.

The path, therefore, leads us to Mosaic, an early internet browser, whose creators apparently decided to make blue the defaultcolor of links, because it was the color closest to black in its contrast to white, thus making it the next most legible color choice for web pages”.

I prefer my own theory: that viewing the colour blue on the web has a calming effect, much like its real-world use in environments like prisons and hospitals. From business challenges to world news, a lot of what the web delivers to us can be maddening. Perhaps receiving it through a blue filter helps keep our blood pressure down — at least long enough for us to continue surfing.
 

Naked Mole Rats: Hairless, Painless… Ageless?

naked mole rats

New in fascinating nature updates! Everyone’s favourite adorable wrinkly horror, the naked mole rat, has been found by scientists out of lifespan study company Calico Life Sciences LLC to defy everyone’s least favourite law of mortality, the Gompertz law. This means that naked mole rats do not age in a typical way. In addition to being a trippy addition to the already extraordinary list of cool attributes about this mammal, this fact could have an impact on human health.
 
Among the fun facts about naked mole rats: they spend their lives underground in eusocial colonies of up to 300 individuals, with a dominant female “queen” and just a few select male mole rats involved in breeding. They have evolved beyond the need to see very well and regulate their body temperatures. They are (almost) immune to cancer, and don’t seem to experience pain. And now:
 
“The team collected what they describe as 3,000 points of data regarding the lifespan of the naked mole rat, and found that many had lived for 30 years. But perhaps more surprisingly, they found that the chance of dying for the mole rats did not increase as they aged. All other mammals that have been studied have been found to conform to what is known as Gompertz’s mortality law, which states that the risk of death for a typical mammal grows exponentially after they reach sexual maturity — for humans, that means the odds of dying double every eight years after reaching age 30. This, the researchers claim, suggests that mole rats do not age — at least in the conventional sense. They do eventually die, after all.
 
The scientists involved in this study state that what “determines naked mole-rat lifespans in captivity [i.e. without predation skewing the numbers] is currently unknown,” and needs an awful lot more research. Given that investigation into the imperviousness of naked mole rats to pain has shed light on human congenital pain insensitivity, could that research lead to a greater understanding of human aging? Here’s hoping these sweet, kind of horrifying adorable little old men of the animal kingdom may soon let us in on more of their secrets!
 

Flowering Plants’ Tiny Genome Equals Evolutionary Success

It’s been so long since I’ve seen a flower out in the wild; I’m having a hard time believing they’ll ever return! But, of course, they will, fulfilling a genetic legacy that has made flowering plants (or angiosperms) the dominant plant type on Earth.
 
Flowering plants edged out former first-place gymnosperms (which include conifers and ferns) around 150 million years ago, but until a recent co-study from teams out of San Francisco State University and Yale, scientists were stumped (pun intended!) as to how the small, colourful plants did it. It turns out, it likely had to do with their very smallness — of their genome
 
The team analyzed data held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (in London, UK), and compared genome sizes to physical properties like the number of leaf pores, and rates of leaf water loss and photosynthesis. The researchers found that the rise and continued success of flowering plants on Earth is a result of what they termed “genome downsizing.” From the BBC:
 
“By shrinking the size of the genome, which is contained within the nucleus of the cell, plants can build smaller cells.

In turn, this allows greater carbon dioxide uptake and carbon gain from photosynthesis, the process by which plants use light energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen.

Angiosperms can pack more veins and pores into their leaves, maximizing their productivity.

The researchers say genome-downsizing happened only in the angiosperms, and this was ‘a necessary prerequisite for rapid growth rates among land plants.’”
 
Plants with smaller genomes were therefore far more efficient at, well, being plants, which has lead to their dominance. Their aesthetic appeal to humans is a lucky side effect!
 
This landmark discovery has resulted in further, refined questions that scientists should have fun answering: like, why have ferns, ginkgo, and conifers still survived, if, by the metric set by this research, they are no longer the “fittest” plants? While I’m sure the answer will be fascinating, I confess I’m happy with all plants… Though at this moment deep in February, I’m not going to blame myself for treasuring crocuses or daffodils just a tiny bit more!