Geeta Dayal

May 04

It’s rare that a book review makes me this incensed, but Dick Teresi’s

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It’s rare that a book review makes me this incensed, but Dick Teresi’s smug throwdown of the new tome “Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids” in the New York Times Book Review this week did just that. While the book itself might be too sweeping in its dreamy sci-fi “soon we will all be cyborgs” rhetoric, the review is even more sweeping in its urge to carpet-bomb attack. Teresi constructs the most tired straw-man argument possible, wheeling out old chestnuts of roboticists as reductionists, near-automatons who work in realms of numbers and not “feelings.” It reminded me of how irritated I got waiting in line at the post office recently, as I eavesdropped on a conversation between two women–one, an American woman, and the other a Chinese immigrant. “You see, in America,” said the blonde woman in an exaggeratedly slow, condescending tone, “the emphasis is not on math; it’s on the humanities. In this country, we emphasize creativity.” The quiet Chinese woman nodded her head politely. But math in its purest form is creativity so fine and distilled that you could pour it on the rocks and drink it; privileging one discipline over another is just stupidly myopic.

Consider the hideous trainwreck of flawed reasoning in the second paragraph of the review:

The biologist makes no distinction between human and nonhuman life-forms. The roboticist takes this a step further, refusing to distinguish between living and nonliving objects. An object is the sum of its behaviors. Duplicate the behavior of a person and your robot is human. Out of this obtuse worldview come simplicity and the singleness of purpose required to build metal-and-silicon men.

One of the most painful things about reading reviews like this is that they attempt to attack things for lacking nuance by using the least nuanced, most overgeneralized arguments possible. You can condemn technology for being too cold and black-and-white, for lacking the grey areas of humanity and the ineffable, but it doesn’t help things any to use the broadest, most obtuse strokes possible, to use empty binaries in an attempt to denounce exactly that which you’re railing against.

The grand conclusion that this review draws is that it is impossible to construct robots that match the endlessly complicated wonders of human beings. Sure, but so what? Any fourteen-year-old in biology class could have told you that much. But how can robotics help us to develop our understanding of what it means to be human? It’s a shame that the review didn’t take the time to actually analyze anything in depth, to grapple with ideas of consciousness in a thoughtful, informed way. Instead, we’re treated to an arrogant, half-formed repudiation of half-formed ideas; kneejerk reaction in place of any meaningful action.

Mar 04


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Selected lines
“They have female external genitalia, a blind vagina, and no uterus.”

“His skin became very thick and formed loose spines that were sloughed off at intervals. When he grew up, this “porcupine man” married and had six sons, all of whom had this condition, and several daughters, all of whom were normal.”

PRINCIPLES OF GENETIC ANALYSIS Richard Lewontin, David Suzuki, et al

Cute cover with a cheesy computer graphic of fruitflies with DNA and pedigrees. Glossy pages, and the text is set in a rather stuffy Garamond-looking font. There are plenty of pictures, but you need to poke around for the really cool ones. Don’t buy this textbook if you, like me, just wanted to learn how to genetically engineer mutant human beings; this book won’t tell you the answer. But there is a silver lining. Skip the rest of the book and only look at chapters 2 and 3 for fascinating pictures of genetic disorders, like the pictures of people with six fingers and the men born with female genitalia and all that. Those chapters alone save the book, moving it from a measly 1.5 to a more respectable 2.5 on our scale.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Feb 04

Juicy quotes:

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Juicy quotes:

The reviewer died of boredom while attempting to find interesting lines from this book.

MACROECONOMICS Olivier Blanchard.

Okay, so the link between ‘economics’ and ‘science’ is pretty thin. But here we have it: the cover appears to depict the planet Earth as a gear with several other, presumably economics-related gears turning it, which conjures up some rather disturbing economics-God-complex implications. The book passes the glossy paper and color standards, but fails miserably on the level of the text, which is dry, boring, and deep-sleep-approaching-death inducing. Large portions of this book could probably be read with near-lethal doses of legal and illegal stimulants. It will also probably depress the gentle reader to know that the word ‘people’ is used perhaps twice in the entire 600-page or so wasteland of bad derivations.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5 stars.

Feb 04

Juicy quotes:

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Juicy quotes:

“At the time, prefrontal lobotomy or orbitofrontal undercutting — a less radical
method of treating severe mental disorders — might have been useful in treating
severely psychotic patients without causing more disruption.”

“While the patient was unconscious for fifteen minutes, the lobotomy was
performed by jabbing an ice pick through the bone above each eye and wiggling
it back and forth.”

COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF THE MIND Michael Gazzaniga, Richard Ivry, and George Mangun.

Wow. Now this is what every textbook wished it could be — it just screams ‘suave’ with a post-modern (ho ho) sensibility. We can only assume that the cover art is an ironic comment on the place of optical illusions in our pre/post-apocalyptic society, and the title’s set in high contrast black-on-white, with slick, modern typography. Flipping through the pages, we notice a pleasing pastel color scheme, with several large, interesting color pictures of brain sections, Picasso art pieces, and photographs of famous scientists sprinkled generously throughout. The writing is at once highly informative, professional, and scientific, with just a dash of pleasing asides and colloquialisms. As for the color scheme, periwinkle, eggplant, slate, and oatmeal dominate, oddly reminiscent of colors of loathsome ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ sweater merchandise, but peculiarly becoming in a textbook setting. Each chapter contains a thought-provoking interview with a prominent neuroscientist. What’s next for this textbook, reviews of German minimal techno 12″s? It’s hard to see how this book could get more hip than it already is.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Feb 04

After a miserable morning

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After a miserable morning of standardized exam-taking in Brookline, Massachusetts, I happened upon a combination Russian grocery store and cafe. The cafe, on the second floor, is a giant space, with bare white walls, a massive skylight, and white-finished hardwood floors adding to the overwhelming emptiness. Then again, it could have also felt empty because I was the only person there.

Not that the place was without decoration, though. Charmingly cheesy gold tinsel garlands were wrapped around pillars, and there were a few stern-looking Russian paintings around. The Roland XP-50 and the white baby grand piano that were tucked in the corner made me certain that the place was was all one big hallucination. Great. I must have gone insane after the Analytical Section.

I was handed a menu by a kindly and extraordinarily surreal Russian waiter, who seemed to disappear and reappear out of thin air. As I had expected, the one page menu contained mostly beef, cabbage, and potato dishes with several charming misspellings. ‘Dear Guest, this menu represents the most popular items serving for lunch in Russia. We hope you will find your meal delicious. Bon appetite [sic]!’ Items on the menu included ‘Blintzes Stuffed with Meat: Very Russian”; ‘Chicken Cutlet ‘Pozharsky”, (which was described as ‘Breaded ground chicken meat with our special sauce’); and ‘Ground Meat Cutlet ‘Russian Village’: Our special…just yami-yami’ (?!) Borscht was described as ‘famous Russian soup rich of red beats [sic], potatoes and carrots.’ I tried two of the four non-cow things on the menu — the cabbage pirozhki appetizer ($4) and potato vareniki ($5). Cabbage pirozhki were phyllo dough pastry puffs filled with a wisp of cabbage and what appeared to be approximately one pound of melted butter. Vareniki were enormous potato dumplings topped with fried onions, swimming in butter. I couldn’t really handle the pirozhki; they were so heavy that even though I was nearly dying of hunger, I couldn’t manage more than a few bites. The vareniki, on the other hand, was possibly the most well-executed Eastern European potato creation I had eaten in a long while. I couldn’t finish that either, though.

They didn’t have any of the desserts listed on the menu, except for the fruit salad with ice cream, which I thought would be boring. It ended up being kind of interesting, actually — presented by Surreal Waiter with a flourish as a rather unconventional mixture of finely chopped fruit in a flower-shaped wafer bowl, topped with strawberry ice cream that tasted rather oddly and pleasantly of bubble gum (I had ordered vanilla ice cream, but the cook ‘didn’t understand,’ according to Surreal Waiter, who apologized profusely. I told him I didn’t mind.) With whipped cream and those little colored sprinkles on top. It’d been about ten years since I’d eaten anything with colored sprinkles on it.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why I love this place. Maybe it’s because of the intermittent sounds of people screaming in Russian over the intercom, which made me nostalgic for my childhood piano lessons. Or maybe it was the Louis Armstrong piped over the speakers, oddly calming and yet strangely incongruous with the whole Russian cafe concept. (The abrupt transition from Louis Armstrong to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, though, was incredibly harrowing.) The big mirror ball hanging from the skylight, and the dodgy hours that the cafe is open (Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 3 pm) made me wonder if the whole cafe concept was really just a front for some sort of underground Russian discotheque. And, shit, I can’t think of many things more suave than Russian disco. Take that, hipper-than-thou hipsters!

After it was all over, I walked outside. The snow had stopped and the sun was shining intensely. I walked across the street to Gimbel’s and bought a bottle of whiskey.

The exam soon became a distant memory.

Feb 04

A new series — punXoR science textbook reviews

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A new series in Proven by Science — punXoR science textbook reviews!

Juicy quotes
“The behavior of norbornyl systems in solvolytic displacement reactions were suggestive of neighboring-group participation.”
“Attack by acetate at C1 or C2 would be equally likely and would result in equal amounts of enantiomeric acetates.”

ADVANCED ORGANIC CHEMISTRY Francis A. Carey and Richard J. Sundberg

The book is a frighteningly large paperback, about the size and weight of a David Foster Wallace novel and less readable. The cover color borders between inviting fuchsia and cold purple. The text appears to be completely set in Times New Roman, tipoff number one to the gentle reader that this book is serious and traditional. A quick flip through the book reveals all black text on white paper, with no pastels to be found. The paper isn’t even glossy, and all of the pictures — of molecules, spectra, and various reaction mechanisms — are in black and white. What’s up with this? The text is dry, but earnestly written, and the drama of the carbonyl group and its spicy leanings leave enough for the eager student of chemistry (or psychoactive drug experimenter) without necessity on the author’s part to sprinkle in several gratuitous photos of handsome, aloof Werner Heisenberg in his early 20s to hold the reader’s interest. Read this book, and learn important words like “homoaromaticity” and “cyclopropylmethyl singlet diradical” to spout nonchalantly at your office’s next cocktail party to confound and impress your colleagues. Alternately, they’ll just think you’re a pretentious bastard, but they probably thought that already.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Feb 04

The United States government has boldly (ha ha)

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The United States government has boldly (ha ha) banned Courier New 12.

“In an internal memorandum distributed on Wednesday, the department declared “Courier New 12″ – the font and size decreed for US diplomatic documents for years – to be obsolete and unacceptable after February 1.”

What will they take next? Our children? Is nothing sacred?! I don’t think I know my country anymore!

Feb 04

Settled into one of my usual neighborhood diner haunts this weekend…

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Settled into one of my usual neighborhood diner haunts this weekend, as I normally do, with a copy of the New York Times and a cuppa coffee. One of those real American kinds of diners where you can get eggs made fifteen different ways and the chocolate malt is something that’s made by instinct. Now, I’m great at making breakfast, but on Sunday mornings I like someone else to make it for me. It’s the little things, you know. Anyway, so I’m sitting there reading the paper and a smile is playing on my face as I watch two horrifyingly skinny girls walk in and ask the poor waitress if she could adjust their menu choices to “not have any carbohydrates in them.” I’m always bemused by this particular request (particularly at DINERS!) because to me, someone with a chemistry background, it’s kinda like asking if you could get your food made without esters in it, or without polysaccharides or proteins (“tertiary-folded proteins are fine, but no quaternary ones!) “Can I get my organic compounds made without carbons, hydrogens, and oxygens in it?” I guess I’ll never fully understand people, but this is also, I suppose, why I’m not into marketing. Or crazy anti-carbohydrate diets.

Super Bowl Halftime Show: Play-by-Play

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Super Bowl Halftime Show: Play-by-Play

My scrawled notes, typed out for your amusement!

-J. Lo and other celebs instruct us in cautiously neutral tones to “choose to vote,” to soft U2 cocktail-party background music; any potential political impact of said commercial immediately defused by cheerleader leading the call “Choose to paaarty!” Fuck off, CBS!
-Okay, so Janet Jackson’s outfit: a sort of swashbuckling pirate motif? What’s with that white ruffly flouncy thing in the back?!
-Haha P. Diddy! As stilted and wooden as ever! This is much better than Janet though
-TONI BASIL!!!!!!!! Hey Diddy you’re so fine…my brain has turned to rice pudding
-It’s a medley with Nelly! GENIUS!
-Nelly makes everything else look like amateur night. Wow. I hadn’t heard ‘Hot in Herre’ in a very long time (after hearing it nonstop for months, obv) and it still sounds like the greatest song ever penned.
-Kid Rock is wearing an American flag cut into a poncho. Yes, a poncho. I am going to cry now.
-Okay explain to me why Justin Timberlake (who is way cuter when he shaves, I might add — that stubbly thing ain’t doin’ NOTHIN for him) gets to laze around on stage in a t-shirt and baggy khakis, looking like he’s about to head out to play Gamecube with his buddies, while Janet has to robo-dance with pinpoint razorsharp precision in an exceedingly uncomfortable-looking patent-vinyl catwoman gladiator corset job: WE WANT FAIRNESS HERE!!
-But then Justin redeems himself with THAT MOVE!! Hahahahahaha!

Additional notes: job search commercial featuring sped-up version of “I Feel Love”: YES YES YES!
-All SUV commercials can fuckin’ die already
-Message to America’s frat boys: Budweiser will NOT get you laid
-Commercial for new sitcom featuring girl who can “talk to God”: please God make it stop
-Unfortunately the car commercial featuring ‘Metal Machine Music’ and giant spiders only existed in my fevered brain!!

Jan 04

A new science curriculum proposed in Georgia…

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A new science curriculum proposed in Georgia for high school teachers has been edited to avoid all mentions of the term “evolution.” Republican state school superintendent Kathy Cox backs the changes — it’s a crusade of hers, in fact — and she has described evolution as “a buzzword that causes a lot of negative reactions.”

Now, there are a few states — mainly in the “Bible belt” — that have skirted around the evolution bugbear, but this is ridiculous. These changes will make Georgia the first state to actually remove the word “evolution” from lesson plans after having it in place for years. The plan also conveniently “forgets” about topics such as fossil evidence, the emergence of single-celled organisms, and even the life of Darwin.

All vanished from the curriculum with nary a trace — it’ll be up to Georgia teachers to teach evolution, and there will be no state guidelines in place to even make sure that high school students learn about, say, Gregor Mendel’s pea plant experiments, crucial to understanding how genes make up life to begin with. Truly a tragic state of affairs.