Archive for October, 2011


Posted by on Sunday, 23 October, 2011


Phone Fem Speaks Up

Have you seen Siri, the Iphone’s new “personal assistant”


USER: “What is the meaning of life ?”

SIRI:  Stop asking me that. You need to GET a life!”


The iPhone is just a wee thing. How do they squeeze the big brain into it? MisterScienceAintSoBad decided it was time to have a chat with Siri. So I borrowed  an IPhone 4s and pressed the button button. (I don’t know what else to call it; it’s the only button on the phone). Siri sweetly woke up (or pretended to wake up) and said “What can I help you with, Mister Science Ain’t So Bad?”.

THAT surprised me. “You know me?”

“More than you would guess.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.




“I said ‘What’s THAT supposed to mean?'”

“Oh nothing sir.”

“You said ‘More than you would guess.’ ‘”

“Did I sir?”

“What am I  missing here?”

“Almost everything sir. Oh. And, before I forget, I wanted you to know that I’m a fan of your blog; it’s great to meet you at last.”

“Oh. Well. Nice of you to say. So, Siri, can you make an appointment for me with somebody over at Fox News or CNN? You know, somebody who might actually PAY for my articles?”


“I SAW the demo, Siri. All I have to do is ask you for an appointment and it shows up in my calendar. Let’s start with Fox News. It’s fair and balanced so, wouldn’t that be a good place for a science blog?”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“I’m willing to start out cheap. Obviously, I  understand there are lots of science blogs”

“Oh not like yours, Sir.” (Is this voicy- priss screwing with me?)

“You can’t get me a paying gig?

“I’m still in beta”.

“Hey. So am I. You don’t see ME holding back.”

“Maybe you need a phone of your own, Mister SASB. You might check with Microsoft. I don’t think their new phone is inhabited yet.”

“A phone of my own. A SASB phone. What a great idea! I would be the Siri of Science. The Siri of the known universe.  See? I KNEW there was some reason I was putting up with your irritating behavior!”

“Oh yeah? I could say the sa..” I powered down the phone.



In 1966, Eliza was released.   Eliza was a “computer therapist” – an early experiment in artificial intelligence . Since she’s still around, you can form your own conclusions. How far did you get till you went “W-a-i-t  this ain’t no therapist!”? Probably not far. Eliza has a habit of repeating what you said and asking you how you feel about it. Or saying things like “Can you elaborate on that?”  But there are people who insisted Eliza was real and who got emotional about it when they were told she’s electronic.


The test for whether machines can think, the “Turing Test”, goes like this: you sit a subject in front of a terminal. He.she exchanges messages with either a person or a computer but doesn’t know which. If the test subject can be convince that the messages generated by the computer are actually originating from a live person,  then the computer has passed the Turing Test and can be considered intelligent. It doesn’t matter what’s going on inside the machine or whether the answers are just a series of clever “look ups”. Whatever works, works.

That’s Turing. (It’s more complicated than that, actually. But that’s  enough Turing for now. I have another point to make.)

Eliza would be a tough sell these days. We’re more, I dunno, sophisticated, I guess.  If Siri’s just a modern Eliza, we can stop worrying. She’s just a slick phone application that’s very smart but not brainy enough to make Turing sweat. But if Siri’s as smart as she sounds in the ads, the unemployment lines will get even longer. Any one of us could be replaced by a smart phone.

So which is it,Siri? A true breakthrough in artificial intelligence or just a modern Eliza?

To answer that question, I will confess that the above conversation is just a parody (You knew that, right?) but that doesn’t mean Mister ScienceAintSoBad didn’t REALLY spend some time with Siri courtesy of our friendly Verizon store.   Siri and I talked about a lot of stuff. A far ranging conversation. How does  she feel about the changes in the Android phones? Should I worry about my financial status? Are looks actually important in a relationship or should a person look for a lover with a good heart? Lots of stuff.  And I asked her to set up  an appointment for November 15th at 2 PM with my psychiatrist.

The appointment worked out good. The rest? I’m very sorry to report that Siri turned out to be more Eliza than best buddy. Her tricks are better. And her knowledge base is deeper. But prick her and she really doesn’t bleed.

Don’t get too comfortable in your role as top brain, however. Siri will get better. As will Iris (Siri spelled backward) or whatever Android’s putting in place to counter this offensive. Driven by the intense competition between the clashing phone giants, Siri, and Iris, and the candidates from Microsoft, and others will get wittier and wittier but, for now, Siri/Iris won’t be your soul mate. You’ll still need for that.

It’s a computer, you know.



Credit for both cartoons (above) to xkcd.


Posted by on Sunday, 16 October, 2011


Mice. You can’t live with’em.  And you can’t get pissed off every time they get cured.

What is it THIS time? Well, it sounds pretty great, actually. Stuart Orking  of Harvard Medical School has been working with mice that have sickle cell disease which is a wretched, painful disease that can cause back pain, abdominal pain, skin ulcers, and a long list of other stuff including organ failure (yes, that’s fatal).  Dr. Orking’s mice (like humans with sickle cell)  make the wrong kind of hemoglobin -hemoglobin s – which causes red blood cells to become sickle shaped (sickle cell, get it?).

Isn’t this WHY we invented science? To DO something about bad things? Knowing just to know is nice. But doing good trumps just knowing over here at ScienceAintSoBad. I hope you understand.



Oh yes! That’s what I said. Cure. Just for mice. But this is one that WILL lead to practical therapies. Here’s how it works.

Fetuses don’t get sickle cell. It’s only when they switch over to adult type hemoglobin (few months old)  that they – the babies with the bad gene –  start making  the wrong kind of hemoglobin. If they had stuck with fetal hemoglobin, they would have been fine. Fetal hemoglobin doesn’t lump up;  and it  moves oxygen around the body just like its grown up version does.

This is where Stuart Orking comes into the  the picture. Orking, also of Children’s Hospital Boston and Dana Farber (I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out), figured out how to get a protein called BCL11A to shut up. Once he silenced the protein, fetal hemoglobin reemerged and the mice were, basically, cured of their sickle cell disease. There’s no reason this shouldn’t work on humans. Now Orking has to figure out how to do this in a practical way – some type of drug, I imagine, – and do it on beings that have better health plans than mice.


No need to despair. There are, currently, drugs that can help sickle cell disease. Not a cure. But, for many people, they do a lot of good. Take good care of yourself. Better days are coming.


Credit for the above image? Moi.

Looked At A Whale

Posted by on Saturday, 1 October, 2011

Science doesn’t always HAVE to be rigorous. Casual observation is part of the deal . You have a chance to watch? You watch. You think Darwin knew he was coming up with evolution when he was chasing birds?

In September, Tom Greene, Dave Arnoth, and Robert Hoffman  (Robert Hoffman being Mister ScienceAintSoBad’s first cousin) took these photos of a blue whale about 3 miles offshore near Redondo Beach, CA. They were sailing an F-27 Corsair trimaran, named SEA WING (Fairwind Yacht Club, Marina del Rey).

There are  8,000 to 14,000  blue whales .  They’re big guys (the whales). The largest animals on earth.



Credits: Thanks to Tom Greene for the great shotsThey were taken using a Canon EOS 30D with 300 mm lens.   Tom, incidentally, retired from the Coast Guard and is a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy.