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Archive for March, 2009

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Work Talk, or How Biology Ticks

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Actually, the fledgling AI wasn’t on the list of trends I wanted to discuss. Talk about the elephant in the room.

It’s probably because hubby and I had a row about his working hours. He must have come close to a hundred a week. I’m not kidding. He summed it up thus, “Last week I clocked up sixty hours of CPU time.”

“So what? I clock up a few myself when Firefox freezes or Jarte goes into a sulk because I type ‘control-t’ for a new tab and it tries to access the online thesaurus instead.” It’s ‘control-n’ for new file. Jeez.

“No, I mean I clocked up sixty hours of meaningful CPU time on an eight core machine. It was processing.”

“Hrmph.” I shrugged.

“You never take any interest in my work!”

Now wait a minute! I thought we had agreed not to talk about work. Every time I—”

He dismissed me with a wave. “I still know more about any of your projects than you care to remember.”

That is true. I don’t have his memory. “Yeah, but compared to computer programming, biology is easy to understand. I need a degree in computer science to follow what you do. Biology’s intuitive. But doing it is another matter.”

And that brings me neatly to the next item on the list.
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Brave New World

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

I don’t usually science-blog (that niche has been well and truly filled), but three recent developments have caught my eye.

On May the first, the world will change when the first true AI comes online. No, it’s not Hal9000 and it’s not going to take over the world. Except in the sense that Google has taken over the world.

It will be the end of Google search, which is a shame because it’s the only thing that Google does well. Except for Google Earth. In yesterday’s Independent there was a small feature about cars sporting the Google logo and camera rigs that have been driving around London over the past year, getting a street-level view. This may be what will underlie the augmented reality applications coming to a cell phone near you (this is last year’s news but, hey, I’ve been travelling.) Crucially, this is an Open Source development, and with the release of the iPhone developer kit, Apple is about to dip into this self-same talent pool. And once the iPhone is in on it…

And the third? Well, I’ll have to talk to you tomorrow. I have a chicken in the oven. Just one more thing: Wolfram Alpha will not be alone. There is another one about to be hatched, and it’s in the family. And if I know of one, how many more do you think will be out there, waiting to be released into the wild?

From May 1st, everything will be just that little bit different.

The Fifth Quarter: Cow Heel Soup

Monday, March 16th, 2009

not what it should look like!

Even before the credit crunch, eating offal and ‘neglected cuts’ (such as ears and feet) became fashionable among the chattering classes, thanks to celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fergus Henderson. But they are mainly regarded as things to chat about, not get stuck in day-to-day.

For me such meats have always been on the menu. I grew up in the countryside, and my elders tolerated no fuss when it came to eating. But I remember that most of the dishes were quite dull. The challenge is to come up with new and exciting ways to cook them. And, as always, travel provides the answer.

Tails, trotters, ears, noses and some bits of offal are what is generally known as the ‘fifth quarter’—food that was sold to the poor or given to slaves. While the Brits and North Americans nowadays tend to grind this sort of thing into their hot dogs, these items are still for sale in ethnic neighbourhoods (and some farmers’ markets), and they greatly influence the cuisines of the Caribbean and the US Deep South.

Nothing rams history down your throat like eating local fare. You can get pig tail stew a scant three-minute stroll from Tobago’s five-star Coco Reef Resort. Ditto cow heel soup. Cow heel soup is everywhere in Trinidad and Tobago. But as with so many ethnic dishes, over here it’s a closely guarded secret, and I had to go to T&T to find out what the fuss is about.

So when we were in London last week, I took a deep breath and pointed at one of the huge scorched cow’s legs that are for sale at the butchers in Deptford, wondering how I would get the thing into my pot.

No problem. Every ghetto butcher’s comes with a band saw.
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