Category Archives: Technology

Robert Edwards, R.I.P. Brought in vitro fertilization from repugnant transaction to Nobel prize

I like the short example of changing visions of morality.  When this technique appeared like much of science related to reproduction, it was pronounced to raise:  “moral issues”.  I’m never sure that I know that means other than it makes me uncomfortable that someone is doing this.

Robert G. Edwards Dies at 87; Changed Rules of Conception With First ‘Test Tube Baby’
“Working with Dr. Patrick Steptoe, Dr. Edwards essentially changed the rules for how people can come into the world. Conception was now possible outside the body — in a petri dish.
“The technique has resulted in the births of five million babies, many in multiple births, according to the International Committee Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies, an independent nonprofit group.
“Yet, like so many pioneers of science, Dr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe achieved what they did in the face of a skeptical establishment and choruses of critics, some of whom found the idea of a “test tube baby” morally repugnant. Denied government support, the two men resorted to private financing. And they did their work in virtual seclusion, in a tiny, windowless laboratory at a small, out-of-the-way English hospital outside Manchester.
“It was there, after outwitting a crowd of reporters, that they delivered their — and the world’s — first IVF baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. Her parents, John and Lesley Brown, had tried for nine years to have a child — a period that virtually coincided with Dr. Edwards’s research.”
Here’s my earlier post on the occasion of his Nobel, including some dissenting voices at the time:

From repugnant transaction to Nobel Prize in Medicine

Robert Edwards, R.I.P. Brought in vitro fertilization from repugnant transaction to Nobel prize
Al Roth
Sat, 13 Apr 2013 12:27:00 GMT


The Rise of Tape Recording



Bing Crosby played a key financial role in the rise of tape recording because he wanted to spend more time playing golf.

From David Byrne’s book How Music Works, pp. 99-100:

Milner tells the curious story of the advent of recording tape—the next medium on which sound would be captured. The sequence of events that led to the adoption of tap is so accidental and convoluted that its invention and adoption were far from inevitable.

Just before WWII, Jack Mullin, an engineer from California, tried recording onto various mediums other than discs, but with limited fidelity or success. When he was stationed overseas during the war, he sometimes heard broadcasts of radio programs featuring German symphonies. Nothing unusual about that: lots of radio stations had their own orchestras that played live in large studios or theaters, and those performances were primarily broadcast live. The odd thing was, these “performances” were happening in the wee hours of the morning, and Mullin heard them when he was working late. So unless Hitler was commanding orchestras to perform in the middle of the night, Mullin’s only conclusion was that the Germans somehow had developed machines that could record orchestras with such fidelity that on playback they sounded live. 

Through a happy accident, Mullin ended up in Germany right after the end of the war, and someone said that those radio transmissions had come from a town near where they were stationed. Mullin went to look, and sure enough, there were a couple of tape machines that had been modified in such a way that their fidelity vastly improved on what any other existing technology could achieve. German technical innovations, like their rocket technology, were now free for the taking, so Mullin dismantled one of the machines and had the parts sent to his mother’s house in Mill valley. 

When he got back to California, he reassembled the machine, and in the process figured out what the Germans had done. Among other things, they had added a “bias tone” to the recordings—a frequency that you can’t hear but that somehow makes all the audible frequencies “stick” better. Mullin eventually put these machines to work, and he discovered that in addition to being a good recording medium, tape also opened up some unexpected possibilities. If a radio announcer flubbed a line, Mullin could edit out the mistake by splicing the tape. You couldn’t do anything like that on disc! If a comedian didn’t get the same laughs he got on his run-through, then, assuming the run through had been recorded, the laughter from that performance could be spliced into the “real” performance. The birth of the laugh track! Furthermore, laughs could be reused. “Canned” laughter could be added to any recorded program if the live audience didn’t yuk it up sufficiently.

The use of editing and splicing meant that a “recording” no longer necessarily represented a single performance, or at least it didn’t have to. The beginning of a song, for example, could be from one “take” and the end from a take done hours later. The broadcast version could even be the result of performances that had been done in many different places spliced together. The elements of a “performance” no longer had to be rooted in contiguous time or space. 

After seeing a presentation by Mullin of his tape recording device, Alexander Poniatoff formed a company, Ampex, to make more tape machines based on Mullin’s designs.  The banks, however, wouldn’t give Amex the loans they needed in order to get things up an running—constructing the early machines required considerable capital—so it looked bad for the future of tape-recording.

Around this time, Bing Crosby, the singer who had mastered an innovative use of microphones, was getting tired of having to do his very successful radio show live every day. Bing wanted to spend more time playing golf, but because his shows had to be done live, his time on the links was limited. Crosby realized that by using these new machines to record his shows, he could conceivably tape a couple of shows in one day and then play golf while the shows were being broadcast. No one would know the shows weren’t live. He asked ABC radio if they would agree to the plan, but when they saw Poniatoff’s “factory”—which was a complete shambles, with parts scattered all over—they said no way. So Crosby wrote a personal check to Ampex that guaranteed the machines would start getting built. They did, and after Crosby’s initial order, ABC soon ordered twenty more. The era of tape recording, and all the possibilities that went with it, was under way.

I read this passage in the light of what Charlie Stross said in his post “On the diminishing marginal utility of Stuff”

So why do the rich keep trying to acquire more money, long past the point at which it can make any noticeable difference to their lifestyle?

I have three answers. One: it becomes a habit. You don’t generally get to be hyper-rich without many years of continual effort; after a decade, just about anything becomes an ingrained habit. Two: it becomes a game, a way of keeping track of how well you’re doing at whatever it is you want to do. And three: you’re trying to build up a war chest that will buy you a very expensive toy—one that isn’t currently available at any price, so that if you want one you’ll have to sink billions of dollars and years of your own time into building it.

The latter is unusual but not unheard-of. Elon Musk has repeatedly explained that he wants to retire on Mars. That’s a not-available-at-any-price option right now, but he’s definitely serious about it; which is why he sank most of a gigantic fortune into building his own space program.

The Rise of Tape Recording
Sat, 06 Apr 2013 12:01:43 GMT

Can Computers Be Taught to Be Funny?


What’s the Latest Development? While mastering a human language is an enormous task for a machine, the ability of computers to interact with with people is improving, from speech-based call centers to Apple’s Siri. Enter humor, the glue that binds many bits of human conversation. Computer …
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Can Computers Be Taught to Be Funny?
Orion Jones
Sun, 06 Jan 2013 16:27:20 GMT

The Paperless Office: Are We Headed that Way at Last?

As computers became widespread in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a common prediction was that we were headed for the “paperless office.” But that prediction went badly astray, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper pointed out in their 2002 book, The Myth of the Paperless Office.
For example, they cited evidence that consumption of common office paper rose by 14.7% from 1995 and 2000 and they argued that that when organizations started using e-mail, their consumption of paper rose by 40%.

But although the transition took some time, it now appears that at least U.S. offices are becoming, if not quite paperless, much less paper-intensive. Here’s a figure from the Environmental Paper Network’s State of the Paper Industry 2011, which came out last year. Notice in particular the decline in paper use since about 2007 in North America and Western Europe.

I think the way that information technology first drove paper usage up, and now it appears down  is an application of price theory.  You can think of it as the many affects of an increase in productivity.

The ability to get the same amount of product with less input of labor has two effects.

The first seems pretty straight forward.  To produce the same output requires few workers, so a firm may well reduce the number of employees.  This effect has dominated in the dramatic reduction in the number of farmers.  (Not so many generation a large majority of humans spent time hunting, scavenging, foraging or growing food, but not it is a tiny percent.)

That’s not the whole story though.  If less labor can produce the same amount of a good, the cost/price of the good in terms of other goods is less.  If demand is elastic then, the amount of the product purchased in an industry rising productivity may rise so much that the total amount of labor employed will increase.  It’s been argued that energy efficiency programs realize less savings  or even no saving if people for example drive 20% more if cars are 10% more efficient.  If I buy a computer to right:  I may well spend more time writing not less, because I can produce much more in an hour and respond to this by increasing my writing more than my productivity increased.  This effect didn’t predominate in agriculture, because the demand for food is pretty inelastic to price.  More efficient farmers has meant much fewer farmers.

The increase in the use of paper with computers was clearly an example of that.   The use of the computer to communicate in writing supplanted the use of the phone in office a great deal I think.  You don’t hear nearly the phone conversations you use to in an office.  More writing swamped the effect of less paper per written communication for a long-time.

But I think accumulation of human capital happened over time too.  People stopped using computers to create paper and realized that the purposes of writing could be accomplished with out all the paper.  Think about how in the early the 80’s the objective of word processing was to produce documents that looked like they had been typed!!! 

Remember how common the use of courier was as a font, though it isn’t that attractive.  The whole Dan Rather fiasco grew from the doubt that a proportionate font would have been used when Mr. Bush was avoiding the draft by hook or crook.  That’s not true now.  People generally don’t use word to produce a document that looks like it was produced on a typewriter.

That process has cumulative in acceptance of paperless documents, and reduced paper usage.



I remember stories from the old days of computerized offices, maybe 15-20 years ago, about executives who wanted all their e-mails and reports printed out. Those days are gone. But it’s interesting to me that even for a change that seems as obvious as electronic communication leading to less paper, it took some years and the pressures of a recession for substantial change to take effect. Similarly, it wasn’t until about 2006 that the volume of mail carried by the U.S. Postal Service took a nosedive. All the consequences of major technological changes can take decades to ripple through an economy.

The Paperless Office: Headed that Way at Last?
Timothy Taylor
Tue, 20 Nov 2012 15:00:00 GMT

Driverless Cars?

Are driverless cars a boon or bane?  Are they coming soon?  Here’s a comment from Tyler Cowan of George Mason:

transportation is one area where progress has been slow for decades. We’re still flying 747s, a plane designed in the 1960s. Many rail and bus networks have contracted. And traffic congestion is worse than ever. As I’ argued in a previous column, this is probably part of a broader slowdown of technological advances.

But it’s clear that in the early part of the 20th century, the original advent of the motor car was not impeded by anything like the current mélange of regulations, laws and lawsuits. Potentially major innovations need a path forward, through the current thicket of restrictions. That debate on this issue is so quiet shows the urgency of doing something now.

They may have crossed one of those regulatory hurdles. 

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a law making it legal for driverless cars to travel on public roadways, demonstrating once again that the Left Coast has a way of prodding automakers to innovate faster.

Kodak’s Legacy? Arms Dealer For The Patent Wars?


As many people expected, Kodak has officially moved to sell off its patents to whoever can abuse them the most. Since the company is in bankruptcy, it needs permission to do this, but that’s the easy part. These days, thanks to a totally broken patent and legal system, the patents are incredibly “valuable.” Not because they represent any kind of actual innovation, but because they represent a magic tollbooth that lets the holder force other companies to pay. Of course, some of that magic wore off last month when the ITC noticed that one of Kodak’s key patents — one that it had used to score nearly a billion dollars in licensing revenue, was blatantly obvious and never should have been granted in the first place. Kodak claims it’s going to appeal, but the patent sale will likely happen prior to any appeal going through. Either way, like other companies who failed to keep up with a changing market (hello, Nortel!), Kodak’s final legacy may be supplying weapons to yet another battle in the era of technology patent nuclear war. It’s not something to be proud of.
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Kodak’s Legacy? Arms Dealer For The Patent Wars?
Mike Masnick
Wed, 13 Jun 2012 04:01:00 GMT

Mobile phones to speak, but no water to drink!


David Zetland has this graphic which highlights that by 2008, the number of people in developing countries with mobile phone subscriptions exceeded those with household water connections.

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Mobile phones to speak, but no water to drink! (gulzar)
Sun, 10 Jun 2012 00:43:00 GMT

Firstest or maybe Secondest with the Mostest is Bestest, or Even if you try harder: # 3 through N are Screwed

This quote seemed appropriate, but given that its pretty colloquial I wanted make sure I’d spelled firstest (or misspelled) it correctly.  That’s an interesting story in itself, so see this.

This little post came from my thinking about Google+.  I ‘ve tried the service, and find it has some nice features.  One of which is just its from Google, a well known name with other useful services to call upon.

Irrespective of that, is it getting any traction in the market?  This is a quote from Larry Page CEO of Google:

Over 60 percent of Google+ users use Google products on a daily basis. Over 80 percent of Google+ users use Google products every week.

This wouldn’t make me feel good as a Google shareholder.  It seems to me to answer the wrong question.  Namely it tells me how Google plus may be getting more folks to try Gmail, or Picasa.  But isn’t the bigger question will Google+ cut into Facebooks tasty piece of the market?  People are already using Google services like Gmail in large numbers; they aren’t using Google+ in large numbers.  Even if Google+ is adding to use of Google+ other services, there nothing Page’s quote to suggest this is a large effect.

Google in entering Facebooks market may be facing factors related to early (though not always the first mover advantage).  Folks go to social networking because others they know are there.  Once those networks are in place, its going to be hard to break in with a me too service later.  My most important contacts are on Facebook and I can’t see getting them to move to Google+ for a marginal advantage (if there even is one). 

Facebook at times has seemed to have some teething problems that could prove fatal, especially related to privacy, but I think they are being dealt with through introduction of more controls over what you share with who.  Early issues with social networking eventually killed the once so hot myspace site.

I observe that Facebook users seem to be getting pretty familiar with how to use controls on who they share with.  Two years ago, you saw all kinds of posts from Facebook friends that you really didn’t know well, at least not anymore.  None Facebook users would generally snort at the point of having numerous friends you’d never actually met.  I think people have developed lists and controls and limit sharing mostly to people they have none virtual relations with.  Facebook has gained an advantage from being an early (but not first) entrant into the social networking market, one that even Google can’t overcome.

Given that Google+ is really about the 4th major foray into social networking after:  Myspace, Facebook, Buzz (Google’s ill fated first attempt at social networking); it’s too late.  Had Google been second into the social networking market in say 2004 after Myspace started implode due to problems inherent to social networks, they might dominate it today by having dealt with issues such as controlling who you share what with.  Google foray into social networking may just be an expensive diversion from Google’s core businesses.  So though its could be said that number 2 tries harder, best advice to number 4 is to not show up at all.

Computers Can Now Tell If You’re Nice or Mean [Video]


Can’t get a date, fellow geeks? Perhaps it’s your face. No, we not putting you down: it’s just that people are known to make snap judgments on whether other people are nice or mean, trustworthy or a crook, competent or inept in the first fraction of a second upon seeing their faces.

Now, computer scientists have created a software that can do this, too: [Source]

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Computers Can Now Tell If You’re Nice or Mean [Video]
Thu, 25 Aug 2011 01:00:20 GMT

Airplane of the Future