The Gillette Singularity

This is brilliant.  An article at The Economist tracks the progression in the number of blades in razors:

So what does the future hold? With only five data-points, it is hard to be sure exactly which mathematical curve is being followed. If it is what is known as a power law, then the 14-bladed razor should arrive in 2100. The spate of recent innovation, however, suggests it may be a hyperbola. In that case, blade hyperdrive will be reached in the next few years and those who choose not to sport beards might be advised to start exercising their shaving arms now.

Link: Shaving technology | The cutting edge |

Via Clive Thompson, who writes:

Friends, it’s clear what’s upon us: The Gillette Singularity
— the moment at which the act of shaving becomes so radically unlike
any shaving before it that history no longer provides us a guide to
what lies before us.

Link: collision detection: The Gillette Singularity.

SENS Challenge: Aubrey’s Verbosity

One of Aubrey de Grey’s common tactics is to say that critics haven’t read enough of his work to understand him.  But how much is enough?  I get the impression that he expects anyone "serious" about criticizing him to have read absolutely all of his work.  That’s clearly nonsense — it’s untrue that competent criticism requires it, and if all academics were forced to follow this rule then papers and grants would never get reviewed and approved.

How much would you have to read anyway?  I count 68 items in Aubrey de Grey’s publication list, and all but a few are dated 2000 and later.  That’s an amazing publication rate.  Of course it’s true that he started his own journal, in which about a dozen of these were published.  Closer inspection might reveal other curiosities.  Being prolific isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I’m sure many of us envy that kind of productivity — but some people really do need an editor.

Here is some text from Aubrey de Grey’s contact page that I find rather amusing:

The only reliable way to contact me quickly is by email to I am a very reliable email correspondent; in particular, I read my email every day even when I’m travelling (which is a lot of the time). Conversely, if you try to reach me on the telephone you will be very likely to waste a lot of time. I realise that sometimes a telephone conversation is necessary; the way to reach me by phone is to email me and arrange a mutually convenient time and number.

You’re probably wondering why I don’t publicise a cellphone number. Simple: I have never owned a cellphone and I doubt I ever will. The cellphone is an uncivilised abomination that deprives busy people of the rare periods of solitude that they so desperately need in order to maintain peak efficiency. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.

And another thing. I have created this page not only for your benefit and mine, but also for my poor benighted coworkers who have to field cold calls trying to reach me when I’m in a different continent. Please respect these instructions.

Link: SENS: how to contact Aubrey de Grey, and how not to.

Wow!  Someone needs a copy of Strunk & White.

Yes, I realize this is just a throwaway web page.  I’m not seriously
proposing anyone use this to judge his academic writing skills.  And besides, there’s nothing wrong with it — it’s just an amazing example of verbosity.

Given the high standards he applies to his critics, you have to wonder how de Grey finds the time to do his own reading.  It must be a huge task to keep up with all the published material in all the fields he’s active in, given that he spends so much time writing and speaking.  Presumably he does what everyone else does — samples publications through abstracts or other filters.

By the way, his anti-cell phone rant is kind of strange.  I mean, it’s a fine point, but who cares?  It’s hardly a unique sentiment, and writing about it seems wasteful for someone so concerned with "peak efficiency."

Are You Hungry for Test Tube Meat?

Wired brings us the latest on lab-grown meat:

What if the next burger you ate was created in a warm, nutrient-enriched soup swirling within a bioreactor?

Edible, lab-grown ground chuck that smells and tastes just like the real thing might take a place next to Quorn
at supermarkets in just a few years, thanks to some determined meat
researchers. Scientists routinely grow small quantities of muscle cells
in petri dishes for experiments, but now for the first time a
concentrated effort is under way to mass-produce meat in this manner. […]

"All of the technology exists today to make ground meat products in vitro," says Paul Kosnik,
vice president of engineering at Tissue Genesis in Hawaii. Kosnik is
growing scaffold-free, self-assembled muscle. "We believe the goal of a
processed meat product is attainable in the next five years if funding
is available and the R&D is pursued aggressively."

But why do this?  Because…

A single cell could theoretically produce enough meat to feed the world’s population for a year. […]

If successful, artificially grown meat could be tailored to be far
healthier than any type of farm-grown meat. It’s possible to stuff if
full of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, adjust the protein or
texture to suit individual taste preferences and screen it for
food-borne diseases.

It has been well established that we produce more than enough food to feed the world, and have for decades.  The problem is not that we need expensive, technological solutions like lab-grown meat and genetically modified crops.  The problem is distribution and economics.

As for engineering healthier meat, we would do better to invest in promoting healthier lifestyles and safer, organic food production.

Thankfully the article left out another common and irritating argument for lab-grown meat — that vegetarians will love the stuff and stop complaining.  (It did make it to the comments, though.)  Plenty of vegetarians, myself included, are doing just fine without meat, and see absolutely no need for this technology.

Link: Wired News: Test Tube Meat Nears Dinner Table.

SENS Challenge: More Thoughts

I’ve read through all the submissions, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals that make up Technology Review’s SENS Challenge, which concerns Aubrey de Grey’s "program to defeat aging."  All three submissions score serious (fatal, you might say) points against de Grey, but I think the third, by Estep et al., is the strongest.

In fifty-plus pages of argument there is much to comment on, and I may write up something longer later.  Where the debate gets into scientific minutiae it’s difficult to come away with a clear picture; both sides can cite plenty of experts and references, and can write sufficiently opaque jargon.  More interesting is the discussion of de Grey’s overall approach to the problems and of his public activity.  Estep et al. are convincing in characterizing de Grey’s program as pseudoscience, albeit pseudoscience that "camouflages" itself with the real science contributed by others.

The results from Technology Review’s judges are to be announced July 11th.

Previously: Technology Review’s SENS Challenge Submissions.

Does the Net Encourage Plagiarism?

From the BBC:

Students of the "Google generation" often do not understand what plagiarism is, says an expert on the issue.

Many of the new generation of students raised on the internet see nothing wrong with copying other people’s work, says Professor Sally Brown.

Prof Brown, of Leeds Metropolitan University, will tell an international conference that the net has made copying and pasting too easy. […]

"They are post-modern, eclectic, Google-generationists,
Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognise the concepts of

Link: BBC NEWS | Education | Net students ‘think copying OK’.

It’s easy to exaggerate here — cheating on assignments has always been with us, so the internet didn’t invent the problem.  But I think there’s something to the argument that it is phenomenally easier today, and perhaps to a dangerous extent, and that certain mindsets do encourage less respect for authorship.

Ethics for Sexy Robots

From the Times of London:

The race is on to keep humans one step ahead of robots: an international team of scientists and academics is to publish a “code of ethics” for machines as they become more and more sophisticated.

Although the nightmare vision of a Terminator world controlled by machines may seem fanciful, scientists believe the boundaries for human-robot interaction must be set now — before super-intelligent robots develop beyond our control.

“There are two levels of priority,” said Gianmarco Verruggio, a roboticist at the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, northern Italy, and chief architect of the guide, to be published next month. “We have to manage the ethics of the scientists making the robots and the artificial ethics inside the robots.”

Verruggio and his colleagues have identified key areas that include:
ensuring human control of robots; preventing illegal use; protecting
data acquired by robots; and establishing clear identification and
traceability of the machines. […]

“Security, safety and sex are the big concerns,” said Henrik
Christensen, a member of the Euron ethics group. How far should robots
be allowed to influence people’s lives? How can accidents be avoided?
Can deliberate harm be prevented? And what happens if robots turn out
to be sexy?

Link: No sex please, robot, just clean the floor – Sunday Times – Times Online.

Despite the sex angle of this particular story, it does seem like an important area of research.  For more, see

Freeman Dyson on Daniel Dennett’s Religion

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a review by physicist Freeman Dyson of Daniel Dennett’s newest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  The full article is available free online.  Excerpt:

Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously
successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe.
Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or
spiritual universe that transcends the material universe. To understand
religion, it is necessary to explore it from the inside, as William
James explored it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. […]

The sacred writings, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran and the Bible, tell us more about the essence of religion than any scientific study of religious organizations. The research that Dennett advocates, using only the scientific tool kit that was designed for a different purpose, will always miss the goal. We can all agree that religion is a natural phenomenon, but nature may include many more things than we can grasp with the methods of science.

Link: The New York Review of Books: Religion from the Outside.

Nuclear Spin in Ontario

It’s not just in the US that pro-nuclear propagandists are spinning climate change to their advantage.  The Ontario government announced this week that they’ll spend $40 billion over the next twenty years on new and refurbished reactors.  (Links:  Globe & Mail: Ontario to build two nuclear reactors, New York Times: Ontario Revives Nuclear Power Plan.)

To take action, see:

Help Write Douglas Rushkoff’s Dissertation

Douglas Rushkoff wants your help writing some sort of wiki-dissertation for his PhD:

[The] dissertation (tentatively entitled "New Media, New Literacies"), will look at the core issues behind what I’ve been studying and writing about for the past ten years. Basically, it’s about the way new media (from text to computers) change our fundamental relationship to the human story.

The recent hubub about Wikipedia makes my thesis – that our current media are more biased towards collaboration than sole authorship – all the more relevant. I’m also trying to prove that the biases of our collaborative media extend to everything else we do, as well, from the creation of value to the creation of currency.

That’s why I’m wondering if there’s a way to turn the dissertation, itself, into something of a collaborative project. A Wiki, if you will, where I take input from everyone who is interested, and offer full credit as well as whatever the "gift economy" we’re in allows.

The dissertation thus *proves* itself by its very existence – and ends up challenging the values of the cultural institution underwriting its legitimacy. What say you? For those of you who think it’s an easy way out, believe me: It’s harder in many ways to corral a public of writers (and then check their work) than to simply sit and write something oneself. I’m really thinking of it more as a proof of concept than a cheat.

Link: Douglas Rushkoff: Open Source Dissertation?

There’s a lot of discussion happening in the comments too, though much of it is just offers to contribute (and suck up to a semi-tech-celebrity).

I’m sure there could be a successful dissertation about this experiment, with an analysis in the body and the wiki in the appendix, which is one of the ideas Rushkoff floated in the comments.  (And I’m sure there have already been a few dissertations about wikis or collaborative writing.)

Take away the current mythology over wikipedia and the "wisdom of crowds," and what’s new here?  Rushkoff wants to co-author a book with other people.  I think that’s been done before.  Could it be better than one he wrote himself?  Yes, if the co-authors have something intelligent and unique to contribute.  What’s the best way to find collaborators like that?  Should you talk with a few knowledgeable colleagues in related fields and form working relationships, or start throwing darts and hope that those you hit will magically self-organize into an expert?

There’s a point to all the coursework and comprehensive exams you have to suffer  through before qualifying to do a PhD.  Yes it’s a flawed process (I know from experience), but I doubt you can just throw it all away and replace it with a hive mind with no consideration for authority.