Sunday, May 10, 2009

Climate Change: Bulletproof Meat Eating Spiders

This tongue-in-cheek response from The Register referring to a report from National Geographic, talks about warmer arctic conditions having a particular influence on a type of meat eating spider. In a single year of warming the spider´s exoskeleton was 2% thicker. The Register over-extrapolates this to produce a doom scenario in 2060, but the essence of the article is curious to say the least. How many other species will adapt more quickly to climate changes than others, creating a shift in balance in dominant species and the food chain?

Wolfram Alpha: Natural Language Search Tool

The BBC has a report about Dr. Stephen Wolfram´s search engine, the computational knowledge engine, based around answering questions rather than just matching web pages.

I´ve seen examples of expert systems in the past and to a certain degree they are useful provided the information is structured in the right way. But very soon you get into the realm of vague questions that humans are generally very good as resolving but machines aren´t. I have some doubts about how well this will work like Dr. Boris Katz describes in the same article, since natural language requires context to work correctly, the same words can have different meanings and how a question is phrased can insinuate a different angle of querying.

Another worry is deciding which sources to use when answering a single question, when in fact different sources may provide different answers - how can the system make those kinds of decisions? Even today, news articles from different sites very often all refer back to a single or limited number of original sources. I still feel there needs to be a level of personal decision making and common sense applied when accessing the web and not to totally trust an automated system as a final authority on any subject.

Mexican Flu

H1N1 is the flu variant that regularly affects humans, only the new swine variant contains elements that usually only affect pigs and birds. Mexico is the epicentre but it has since spread to the US, Canada and parts of Europe. Although there have been three deaths in the US at the time of writing, in Europe it would appear to be relatively mild. The threat level has been set to five by the WHO, one less than a full blown pandemic, the level requiring that countries prepare sufficient vaccine to be able to handle a large outbreak. Mexico seem to be lowering restrictions now, so that schools and public places are open again, although masks are still being worn.

People are now saying that Mexico overreacted, but I don´t think that´s fair. These virusses van mutate fairly quickly and as soon as people start dying it´s well to be prepared for any eventuality. There are now over 4500 cases worldwide and no-one is saying when it´s going to be over.