Books: Department of Mind-Blowing Theories by Tom Gauld

Cover of Tom Gauld’s latest book

Department of Mind-Blowing Theories
by Tom Gauld
published by Drawn + Quarterly
2020

This is a charming book of science cartoons, which had previously appeared in New Scientist magazine, collected here by the excellent comic/graphic novel publishers at Drawn + Quarterly. They are subtle, funny, brainy cartoons with really fantastic contraptions, many explosions, heartless thesis committees, and at least one appearance of Cthulhu.

This book is for you if: you wish the text message “LOL!” really stood for “Let’s Observe Lobsters!”

(Speaking of LOL, I did laugh out loud at the bear cave strip, and several others.)

I want all of the contraptions.

Science: Jupiter

This is so beautiful, I can hardly stand it:

Astronomers capture new images of Jupiter using ‘lucky’ technique

Astronomers have captured some of the highest resolution images of Jupiter ever obtained from the ground using a technique known as “lucky imaging”. The observations, from the Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s dormant volcano Mauna Kea, reveal lightning strikes and storm systems forming around deep clouds of water ice and liquid.

Science: Coronavirus Vaccine Approaches

As someone who has long conversations with a biologist friend about protein sciences, I have many opportunities to discuss and ask about science. Well, biology pal PYT came through by recommending this excellent feature in the April 30th issue of the science magazine Nature.

The race for coronavirus vaccines: a graphical guide

More than 90 vaccines are being developed against SARS-CoV-2 by research teams in companies and universities across the world. Researchers are trialling different technologies, some of which haven’t been used in a licensed vaccine before. At least six groups have already begun injecting formulations into volunteers in safety trials; others have started testing in animals.

News/Humor: Do Not Apply Lava To Your Skin

This started out as a sort of joke, but morphed into an excuse to learn about archaea!! 🙂

Can Lava Kill The Coronavirus? An Investigation

I was recently asked, via email, if lava can kill the new coronavirus. It can, but there’s a good reason why no-one is using it in the fight against the ongoing pandemic: nothing else would survive the encounter with molten rock either.

Archaea are interesting prokaryotes, and I’m happy this inspired me to read more about them – not just about the extremophiles, but (via Wikipedia) about their abundance just about everywhere, including inside us.

News: SF COVID-19 Data

My City believes in data! And it even develops graphics to display it so it can be easily interpreted and visualized.

This is a serious topic, and I appreciate how the City is making such an effort to be sure we UNDERSTAND it.

Advocacy: Algorithmic Justice League

After reading about all of the biases that can be introduced into AI systems which can have life-and-death influences on real humans in real life, I remembered reading a GREAT interview with the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, who is helping people understand, and hopefully avoid, the dangers of blindly trusting software that may have profound flaws.

Prevent incorrectly trained software from mathwashing bad ideas!

AJL’s website is worth a visit:

Book: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

Cover of You Look Like a Think and I Love You by Janelle Shane

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You
by Janelle Shane, Ph.D.
published by Voracious (Little, Brown and Company)
2019

I’ve enjoyed Janelle Shane’s site, aiweirdness.com, for some time, and when she mentioned that she had published a book on the same themes, I couldn’t resist it.

What are her themes? Machine learning, mostly, and how difficult it is to train a neural network to do what you really want it to do. You THINK you are training your software to recognize cancerous lumps, and it does well with your training data, but it doesn’t work so well in real life. In retrospect, you trained it with images of cancerous lumps that have rulers next to them to show the size of the lump, while no one cares (or measures) what size benign lumps are. Your program relied on the rulers to know whether or not a lump is cancerous: ruler = yes, no ruler = no. You invented… a RULER-DETECTOR.

Why I am reading about this geeky, specialist topic? I have to deal with the limitations of “AI”s of various designs all the time. Voicemail hell? That’s a not-very-intelligent program imitating an AI, possibly with AI voice recognition. Applying for a job? Software is screening my resume. Getting a laboratory test? Software may be screening that for me, too!

If you’ve ever gotten into an argument with your phone, you know that these programs are… not perfect. Depending on whether you have a high or low voice, they may not seem to work at all. My father is still amused that one of his friends couldn’t get her voice assistant on her phone to understand ANYTHING she said, but my father (who sounds like Darth Vader) could ALWAYS be understood. Why? Because it was trained this way.

Janelle Shane finds amusing ways to talk about how neural networks and other near-AI programs work, what they are good at, why they fail at so many tasks, and how the data sets they train on can make them vulnerable to manipulation.

You will laugh, as I did, as an AI trained to generate metal band names learns to generate ice cream flavors! You’ll laugh often, really: Ms. Shane has some good stories, and good quotes from people who fought to teach their AI something specific, and their AI interpreted them literally and won. The challenges she sets up for the simple neural nets she build are VERY FUNNY.

It isn’t just jokes and witty examples: you won’t laugh at the idea of a navigation-bot telling you to drive TOWARD a fire (because there is less traffic in that direction!), nor at racial and gender biases that oblivious employees train software with, nor at the fact that image recognition programs that train on the same free (manipulatable) data sets can be mis-trained to see things that aren’t visible / obvious / correct to humans.

Maybe there’s a rare but catastrophic bug that develops, like the one that affected Siri for a brief period of time, causing her to respond to users saying “Call me an ambulance” with “Okay, I’ll call you ‘an ambulance’ from now on.”

Excerpt From: Janelle Shane. “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/you-look-like-a-thing-and-i-love-you/id1455076486

It is good (and refreshing) to truly think about the serious implications of our rush to be dependent upon machines, and the hazy way we think that machines are neutral decision makers, when nearly every application we have developed for them is not neutral in inputs, programming, or impact.

Book: Maria Merian’s Butterflies by Kate Heard

Cover of Maria Merian's Butterflies

Maria Merian’s Butterflies
by Kate Heard
published by Royal Collection Trust
2016

I LOVE scientific illustrations – they are a glorious combination of art and science! I received a postcard with a gorgeous botanical illustration on it by Maria Sibylla Merian, and decided I needed to learn more.

This remarkable illustrator was born in 1647, and devoted her life to the study and documentation of insects, along with the plants they feed on. She became fascinated by insects at age 13, and studied them throughout the rest of her life. Her father and stepfather both made their living by painting; she taught young girls (including her daughters) to paint, and her painter husband (one of her stepfather’s former apprentices) helped her publish her first book on entomology of local (northern European) insects. After several complex life changes, she wound up selling most of her possessions and taking one of her daughters to a Dutch colony in Suriname to study insects in their natural environments. That trip provided the content that she developed into the publications that became her major life’s work, which were collected by scientific societies, royalty (which is how this book came to be published by the Royal Collection Trust), and wealthy amateurs.

It’s not ONLY that she was a remarkable observer, or that she could draw and paint: she also had to master printing arts to be able to sell editions of her work (printmaking is another skill set entirely), and business to sell different variations of the results at different price points (discounted advanced subscription prices, higher prices after publication; uncolored prints for one price, prints hand-colored by her and her daughters for a higher price, and painted variations on vellum for luxury editions…) . She also collaborated with a botanist to provide in depth information about the included plants.

While this little book is just about 6×8″, the printing is on heavy stock and of high quality. Not only are her plates shown in their entirety with their original titles, but there are many pages of details, so you can enjoy the precision and skill of both her drawing and coloring. It’s the color and detail excerpts that really pulled me in.

collage of details from Marian Merian's Butterflies

The book covers her early work, as well as her work in Surinam. (Note that, while she was born in Germany, she lived in Amsterdam, and the colony she visited was under the control of the Dutch at that time. There is a lot of discussion now about the meaning of the “Dutch Golden Age,” especially since so much of the wealth of Amsterdam was generated by exploitation (the death rate of Dutch sailors working for the Dutch East India Company was shockingly high), colonialism, and slavery. It’s good that this concept of whose hard work the country’s success was based upon is ongoing.)

The Royal Collection Trust has images of their copy of her book on Surinam, which I’ll link to here for your enjoyment:

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) – Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

Maria Sibylla Merian travelled in 1699 with her younger daughter to Suriname in northern South America, to study the flora and fauna. The resulting natural history plates were published in Amsterdam in 1705, at her own expense.

I’m delighted with this book. I even inadvertently learned some things about moths! 🙂