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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Public Science Triumphs: Cat-Inspired Computing of the Future

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Why your cat is 83 times smarter than your computer, or how government funding can bridge the gap.

This month, io9 editor Annalee Newitz approached a roster of leading science journalists and independent writers with an ambitious project: Public Science Triumphs — an ongoing series of articles highlighting the importance of publicly-funded scientific research in an effort to influence Congress’s budgets supercommittee, which on November 23 will present a proposal for $1.2 trillion in cuts to government spending. For more on what public science actually is and why it matters, see Annalee’s excellent primer on the importance and urgency of the issue.

Brain Pickings is participating, so today we’re highlighting the promise of public science through an intersection of two of our running themes — biomimicry and the future of computing, which converge in the work of University of Michigan researcher Wei Lu. In 2010, Lu led a biologically-inspired computing research project, in which his team used the face-recognition circuitry of the cat brain to model a new kind of machine that promises to outsmart a supercomputer in learning and recognizing faces, making complex decisions, and performing more simultaneous tasks than current computers can manage. For comparison, a typical supercomputer with 140,000 CPUs and a dedicated power supply performs 83 times slower than a cat’s brain. The research was made possible through DARPA funding.

We are building a computer in the same way that nature builds a brain. The idea is to use a completely different paradigm compared to conventional computers. The cat brain sets a realistic goal because it is much simpler than a human brain but still extremely difficult to replicate in complexity and efficiency.” ~ Wei Lu

To mimic how feline brains perform higher-level computations as their synapses link thousands of neurons into complex pathways that store past interactions, Lu’s team connected two electronic circuits with one memristor. This created a system capable of a process called “spike timing dependent plasticity,” which is thought to be the foundation of memory and learning in mammalian brains.

Lu’s research is not only a pinnacle of the cross-disciplinary exploration at the heart of some of the most groundbreaking innovation, but also holds remarkable promise for everything from supercomputer performance to memory and facial recognition technology to sophisticated artificial intelligence decision-making. It’s also a reminder that, rather than a glamorous Eureka! headline, the most valuable research, the kind that serves as a wayfinding signpost for future study, is often just a small but significant step in the incremental process of innovation — a step that takes countless person-hours in the lab, a great deal of technical and intellectual resources and, yes, public science funding to make it all possible.

This article is part of the Public Science Triumphs series. Do you have a story about how publicly-funded science is making the world a better place? Share it at [email protected], with the subject line “public science triumphs.”

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Tales for Little Rebels: Radical Politics in Famous Children’s Books

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What Dr. Seuss has to do with gender politics, or how Carl Sandburg carried out anti-war propaganda.

I have a soft spot for beautiful and thoughtful children’s books, especially children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature explores how the political beliefs of famous mid-century American authors shaped their cherished stories, teaching children to question rather than obey authority, to stand up and out rather than conform, to develop critical thinking skills rather than seek redemption through prayer.

Featuring 43 mostly out-of-print stories, comic strips, poems, primers, and other illustrated literary ephemera for pre-teen readers, the collection spans work by such icons as Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Norma Klein, Langston Hughes and Carl Sandburg, as well as lesser-know authors, many of whom blacklisted at the time. The stories cover everything from civil rights to gender politics to environmental responsibility to dignity of labor, and each piece is prefaced by an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.

Editor Julia Mickenberg offers an instantly sensible explanation for the project’s proposition:

People interested in changing the world have to be looking towards the future and are therefore interested in children.”

Jack Zipes writes in the book’s introduction:

The very idea of ‘radical children’s literature’ may be surprising, because we do not commonly think about the connections between children’s literature and politics. But children’s literature has always been ideological. Consider an ABC from the 1680s: ‘A. In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned all.’ And, next to a picture of a Bible, ‘B. Thy Life to Mend / This Book Attend.’ The New England Primer teaches more than just literacy.”

Zipes points out the perplexing paradox in how we tend to think about what the appropriate and inappropriate subjects of children’s literature are, arguing that morality and politics are both embedded in

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s ‘innocence.’ [...] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.”

Tales for Little Rebels made me think of the subtle ideological messages in some of my favorite recent children’s books — in Blexbolex’s People, a meditation on human duality challenging commonly held stereotypes; in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, a reflection on our search for belonging in an ever-confusing world; in Fani Marceau’s Panorama, a passionate case for biodiversity conservation; in Christoph Niemann’s That’s How!, a playful prompt to question the accepted explanations we’re given about how the world works.

via Meta Filter; images courtesy of NYU Press

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Animated Adaptation of The Giving Tree Narrated by Shel Silverstein to Celebrate a New Posthumous Book

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Never-before-seen treats from the beloved children’s author, and a rare chance to hear his spoken voice.

Shel Silverstein is one of the most beloved children’s authors and illustrators of our time, his masterpiece The Giving Tree one of those rare gems of children’s literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

Every Thing On It is a lovely new book of 137 never-before-seen poems and drawings, only the second posthumous anthology published since Silverstein’s passing in 1999.

A spider lives inside my head
Who weaves a strange and wondrous web
Of silken threads and silver strings
To catch all sorts of flying things,
Like crumbs of thought and bits of smiles
And specks of dried-up tears,
And dust of dreams that catch and cling
For years and years and years . . .

To celebrate the new release, here is a 1973 animated adaptation of The Giving Tree, read by Silverstein himself — a priceless memento of one of our era’s most wholehearted creators.

via Open Culture

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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