The pigeons that could discriminate between a Monet and a Picasso

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In The Guardian, psychologist Tom "Mind Hacks" Stafford outlines five classic scientific studies that underpin much of today's thinking about how we learn things. One of Stafford's favorites is BF Skinner's 1930s claims that "with the right practice conditions – meaning that correct behaviour is appropriately rewarded – any task can be learned using simple associations." In 1995, Keio University researchers took Skinner's efforts further by training pigeons to discriminate between paintings by Monet and Picasso.

Like (Skinner), they believed that we underestimate the power of practice and reward in shaping behaviour. After just a few weeks’ training, their pigeons could not only tell a Picasso from a Monet – indicated by pecks on a designated button – but could generalise their learning to discriminate cubist from impressionist works in general.

For a behaviourist, the moral is that even complex learning is supported by fundamental principles of association, practice and reward. It also shows that you can train a pigeon to tell a Renoir from a Matisse, but that doesn’t mean it knows a lot about art.

"The science of learning: five classic studies" (The Guardian)

And here's a PDF of the 1995 paper: "Pigeons' Discrimination of Paintings by Monet and Picasso" Read the rest

The truth about Ada Lovelace

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Stephen Wolfram set out to find the truth about Ada Lovelace, the 19th century mathematician hailed as the first computer programmer, and who died young. In "untangling the tale," he found a mystery much harder to unravel than he expected.

Historians disagree. The personalities in the story are hard to read. The technology is difficult to understand. The whole story is entwined with the customs of 19th-century British high society. And there’s a surprising amount of misinformation and misinterpretation out there. But after quite a bit of research—including going to see many original documents—I feel like I’ve finally gotten to know Ada Lovelace, and gotten a grasp on her story. In some ways it’s an ennobling and inspiring story; in some ways it’s frustrating and tragic.

Little-known until recent decades, her star rose with that of Charles Babbage and the mechanical computers he designed but was unable to construct. Which is to say that our understanding of her is clouded by his successes and shortcomings.

Indeed, her death cheated us of the profound likelihood that Babbage's mechanical computers would have been constructed as a result of her efforts … and improved.

What If…?

What if Ada’s health hadn’t failed—and she had successfully taken over the Analytical Engine project? What might have happened then?

I don’t doubt that the Analytical Engine would have been built. Maybe Babbage would have had to revise his plans a bit, but I’m sure he would have made it work. The thing would have been the size of a train locomotive, with maybe 50,000 moving parts.

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North Carolina town rejects solar because it'll suck up sunlight and kill the plants

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A town meeting in Woodland, North Carolina heard public comments on a proposed solar farm in which citizens, including a retired science teacher called Jane Mann spoke out against the proposal. Read the rest

In case you were wondering, there's no reason to squirt coffee up your ass

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Coffee enemas have been around since the 19th century (when medical science was a mess) and they persist today (when woo advocates like to hold up the fact that medical practices have persisted since the 19th century as proof that they work). In case you were wondering, they're bad for you. Read the rest

Robert Silverberg's government-funded guide to the psychoactive drugs of sf

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In 1974, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse commissioned sf giant Robert Silverberg to research and write Drug Themes in Science Fiction," a survey of 75 sf stories and novels that included fictional psychoactive drugs. Read the rest

Undercover Greenpeace activists buy off corrupt academics in a climate science sting

L-R: Dr. Will Happer, Dr. Richard Lindzen, Dr. Patrick Moore.

The environmental activism group Greenpeace today disclosed that it led an undercover investigation to expose how easy it is for big oil, gas, or coal companies to pay academics at leading U.S. universities to write research that sheds doubt on climate science, and promotes the commercial interests of the fossil fuel industry.

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The real bubble boy's impact on medicine

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David Vetter (1971-1984) suffered from severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a disease that required him to live inside a sterile environment, a plastic "bubble." Eventually, he tested a special suit developed by NASA so that he could venture out of his bubble. Vetter's story partially inspired the 1976 TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," starring John Travolta (full film below), the asinine 2001 comedy "Bubble Boy," and a Seinfeld episode. Vetter's life and tragic death continues to help physicians understand and treat immunodeficiency diseases.

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Make: the simplest electric car toy, a homopolar motor

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Put round magnets on either end of a AA battery and set it down on a sheet of tinfoil and watch it spin! It's a homopolar motor, a simple electric motor that relies on the Lorentz effect to set it in motion.

Kottke explains: Read the rest

Woman adds vaginal yeast to sourdough starter, Internet flips out

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When Zoe Stavri woke up with a yeast infection, she had a strange and intriguing idea: what about adding some of her vaginal candida to sourdough starter? Read the rest

The last quarter-century of climate talks explained, in comics form

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Nick Sousanis, who delivered his doctoral dissertation in comic book form, has a new comic in the current Nature magazine, explaining the last 25 years' worth of climate talks, as a primer in advance of the Paris climate talks next week. Read the rest

Randall "XCKD" Munroe's Thing Explainer: delightful exploded diagrams labelled with simple words

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Randall "XKCD" Munroe's Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words arrives in stores today: it combines technical diagrams and wordplay in pure display of everything that makes XKCD brilliant and wonderful in every way.

What do bats and skateboarders have in common?

Bats and skateboarders have something special in common. They both use inertia to land their tricks which, in a bat's case, means landing upside down.

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Watch this film about living with Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) by a filmmaker who has it

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Don't miss this amazing film.

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500 phrases from scientific publications that are correlated with bullshit

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Matthew Hankins catalogs 500 phrases used in scientific articles that researchers use to figleaf the fact that their results aren't statistically significant, and to hand-wave-away the fact that they're publishing anyway. Read the rest

How scientists trick themselves (and how they can prevent it)

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A smashing editorial in Nature catalogs the many ways in which scientists end up tricking themselves into seeing evidence that isn't there, resulting in publishing false positive. Many of these are familiar to people who follow behavioral economics (and readers of Predictably Irrational). But, significantly, the article advocates a series of evidence-supported techniques (some very simple, others a little more mostly/tricky) to counter them. Read the rest

Our Generation Ships Will Sink

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As noted in Cory's review, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora makes an undeniable case for ecological stewardship through a rigorous, gripping technological speculation about climate science, biology, space propulsion and sociodynamic factors. In this exclusive feature essay, Robinson explains the technology behind the best science fiction novel of 2015.

Gorgeous glass cabinets of curiosity

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Danish artist Steffen Dam creates exquisite, minimalist "cabinets of curiosity" fashioned from glass and containing specimens of his own creation.

"My aim is to describe the world as I see it," Dam says. "One could also say to describe what’s not tangible and understandable with our everyday senses. My cylinders contain nothing that exists in the ocean, my specimens are plausible but not from this world, my plants are only to be found in my compost heap, and my flowers are still unnamed."

See more at his site: Steffen Dam (via Instagram/saatchi_gallery)

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