Sunday, March 30, 2008

Oldest recorded voices sing again -- redux

Another article, this from the NY Times, about the early recording mentioned yesterday. This one contains an excerpt from a 1931 recording of the same song, "Au Clair de la Lune", to give a clearer rendition.

It begins:

"Invention may be mothered by necessity. But determining the father can require a paternity test.

Take the sound recording. Researchers said last week that they had discovered a recording of a human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman two decades before Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph.

An unusual case of innovation misconception? Hardly.

The reality is that the “Aha” moments of industrial creation are preceded by critical moments far less heralded. Behind and beside every big-name inventor are typically lots of others whom history forgot, or never knew. And it’s unusual that an innovation is created in a vacuum (including the vacuum, which itself claims several progenitors).

“It’s rare that you’ve got a major breakthrough that wasn’t developed by multiple people at about the same time,” said Mark Lemley, professor of intellectual property at Stanford Law School."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Oldest recorded voices sing again

From the BBC:

An "ethereal" 10 second clip of a woman singing a French folk song has been played for the first time in 150 years.

The recording of "Au Clair de la Lune", recorded in 1860, is thought to be the oldest known recorded human voice.

Click here to listen

A phonograph of Thomas Edison singing a children's song in 1877 was previously thought to be the oldest record.

The new "phonautograph", created by etching soot-covered paper, has now been played by US scientists using a "virtual stylus" to read the lines.

"When I first heard the recording as you hear it ... it was magical, so ethereal," audio historian David Giovannoni, who found the recording, told AP.

"The fact is it's recorded in smoke. The voice is coming out from behind this screen of aural smoke."

Sheet music

The short song was captured on April 9, 1860 by a phonautograph, a device created by a Parisian inventor, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.

The device etched representations of sound waves into paper covered in soot from a burning oil lamp.

Lines were scratched into the soot by a needle moved by a diaphragm that responded to sound. The recordings were never intended to be played.

It was retrieved from Paris by Mr Giovanni, working with First Sounds, a group of audio historians, recording engineers and sound archivists who aim to make mankind's earliest sound recordings available to all.

To retrieve the sounds scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California made very high-resolution digital scans of the paper and used a "virtual stylus" to read the scrawls.

However, because the phonautograph recordings were made using a hand-cranked device, the speed varied throughout, changing the pitch.

"If someone's singing at middle C and the crank speeds up and slows down, the waves change shape and are shifting, Earl Cornell, a scientist at LBNL, told AP.

"We had a tuning fork side by side with the recording, so you can correct the sound and speed variations."

Previously, the oldest known recorded voice was thought to be Thomas Edison's recording of Mary had a little lamb. The inventor of the light bulb recorded the stanza to test another of his inventions - the phonograph - in 1877.

"It doesn't take anything away from Thomas Edison, in my opinion," Mr Giovannoni told Reuters.

"But actually, the truth is he was the first person to have recorded [sound] and played it back."

The new recording will be presented on 28 March at a conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University in California."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cute Dog Plays Fetch With Himself

To counteract the creepiness of the robot dog in the earlier post below, here's technology to keep your dog happily playing all day.

Cute Dog Plays Fetch With Himself - Watch more free videos

Arthur C. Clarke, 90, Science Fiction Writer, Dies

"Arthur C. Clarke, a writer whose seamless blend of scientific expertise and poetic imagination helped usher in the space age, died early Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. He was 90.

The author of almost 100 books, Mr. Clarke was an ardent promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. It was a vision served most vividly by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the classic 1968 science-fiction film he created with the director Stanley Kubrick and the novel of the same title that he wrote as part of the project.

His work was also prophetic: his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945 came more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight."

Read the full coverage in the New York Times here.

I grew up reading Science Fiction, and Clarke's 'Childhood's End' had a profound effect on me.

Years later, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article on 'Dragutin', which was the name I gave to my table tennis practice robot, which I had to help me prepare for the '88 Olympics. Clarke had the same machine, and the last paragraph of the article mentions him here.

Debate Over ‘Little People’ Intensifies After Recent Island Discovery

From the New York Times:


The dispute over the “little people” of Flores continues, unabated.

The bones and a single skull of these “little people” are believed to be remains of a separate species of the human family that lived about 18,000 years ago on an island in Indonesia, as the scientists who made the sensational discovery concluded in 2004.

But persistent skeptics have contended in a recent flurry of scientific reports that they were nothing more than modern humans with unusually small bodies possibly malformed by genetic or pathological disorders.

Neither side is backing off in this sometimes bitter row, which intensified last week with the announcement of the discovery that in Palau, in the Western Caroline Islands of Micronesia, other abnormally small-bodied people had lived long ago. Their bones were found in two caves and described in the online journal PloS One.

Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and his colleagues said the Palauan bones, representing at least 25 individuals, were from modern humans about four feet tall, close in size to some pygmies living in this region of the Pacific. Populations on isolated islands with limited resources often evolve short statures.

The Palauan specimens shared facial, chin and dental traits with the Flores people, the scientists said, but had larger braincases “possibly at the very low end or below that typically observed in modern, small-bodied humans.”

For these and other reasons, the scientists say, these Palauan people, who lived from 1,400 to 3,000 years ago, suggest the possibility that the Flores people were not a distinct species, designated Homo floresiensis, but “simply an island adapted population of Homo sapiens, perhaps with some individuals expressing congenital abnormalities.”

In previous reports and interviews, other skeptical scientists have contended that the extremely small brain size of the Flores people, close to that of a chimpanzee, was more likely a consequence of any number of growth disorders. Teuku Jacob, an Indonesian paleoanthropologist who was one of the first to examine the Flores bones, immediately suspected microcephaly, a genetic condition causing a small head.

This hypothesis has been argued back and forth, and last month an Australian scientist offered another possible explanation. The scientist, Peter Obendorf of RMIT University in Melbourne, reported that an image of the base of the Flores skull showed evidence of an enlarged pituitary gland, suggesting the individual may have suffered from cretinism, which can cause stunted growth and a small brain.

The two principal scientists who advanced the separate-species thesis — Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist, and Michael Morwood, an archaeologist, of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia — have said they are unmoved by the criticism. And prominent experts on early humans have endorsed the new-species interpretation, including Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, and Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.

After the publication of Dr. Berger’s findings, Bernard Wood, a paleoanthropologist at George Washington University, said, “Obviously the Flores material came as a bit of a surprise to many of us, but it was not a surprise that might not have been anticipated.”

Dr. Wood, who was not involved in the original research, said the one fairly complete Flores skeleton and other fragments have got “all sorts of intriguing morphology” that distinguishes the individuals from modern humans. He and a group of other scientists have prepared their own assessment in a report to be published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“All of these exotic explanations being proposed require the suspension of any fragment of common sense,” Dr. Wood said. “They are seeking a much more exotic explanation than the one for a distinct species that looks like an earlier Homo.”

Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University who has examined casts of the Flores braincase, disputed the microcephaly argument and the Berger paper.

In a study comparing the Flores specimen with known microcephalics, Dr. Falk and researchers at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University concluded three years ago that the ancient individual did not suffer such a disorder. Its wide brain and frontal lobes, she said, were not like the brains of microcephalics.

“Suites of features from head to feet set the Flores individuals apart from Homo sapiens, which is why this is a new species,” she said in an interview.

William L. Jungers, a paleoanthropologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who has worked closely with the Flores researchers, said in an e-mail message that the Berger paper “is really much ado about nothing,” adding that modern human pygmies of the size reported on Palau “are old news in this part of the world.”

Dr. Jungers said that none of these small-bodied humans “are as short as the various individuals of Homo floresiensis” or have similar limb proportions, cranial capacity, jaw anatomy, wrist bones and other characteristics.

The new-species proponents concede that they would have a stronger case if it rested on more than a single skeleton with a skull and assorted bones of about 12 other individuals.

Dr. Berger, whose research at Palau was supported by the National Geographic Society, emphasized in an interview, “I’m not on either side of this debate.” But he defended his report, which he said was preliminary yet based on substantial fieldwork and analysis, as a contribution to “the discussion of modern human variations that has been missing in the Flores debate.” These variations, he added, “occur with high frequency or we would not have found them so readily.”

Awesome Lifelike Robotic Dog

Very impressive technology...but I think I may have nightmares tonight!

Awesome Lifelike Robotic Dog - Watch more free videos

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened -- as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding -- she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.

Why you should listen to her:

One morning, a blood vessel in Jill Bolte Taylor's brain exploded. As a brain scientist, she realized she had a ringside seat to her own stroke. She watched as her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, self-awareness ...

Amazed to find herself alive, Taylor spent eight years recovering her ability to think, walk and talk. She has become a spokesperson for stroke recovery and for the possibility of coming back from brain injury stronger than before. In her case, although the stroke damaged the left side of her brain, her recovery unleashed a torrent of creative energy from her right. From her home base in Indiana, she now travels the country on behalf of the Harvard Brain Bank as the "Singin' Scientist."

"How many brain scientists have been able to study the brain from the inside out? I've gotten as much out of this experience of losing my left mind as I have in my entire academic career."

Jill Bolte Taylor

Friday, March 07, 2008

Wade Davis: Cultures at the far edge of the world

With stunning photos and stories, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis celebrates the diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, now disappearing from the planet at an alarming rate. He argues passionately that we should be concerned not only for preserving the biosphere, but also the "ethnosphere" -- "the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination."

Anthropologist Wade Davis is perhaps the most articulate and influential western advocate for the world's indigenous cultures. His stunning photographs and evocative stories capture the viewer's imagination. As a speaker, he parlays that sense of wonder into passionate concern over the rate at which cultures and languages are disappearing -- 50 percent of the world's 6,000 languages, he says, are no longer taught to children. He argues, in the most beautiful terms, that language isn't just a collection of vocabulary and grammatical rules. In fact, "Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind."

Davis, a Harvard-educated ethnobotanist, believes humanity's greatest legacy is the "ethnosphere," the cultural counterpart to the biosphere, and "the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness." He beautifully articulates the intellectual, emotional and moral reasons why it's in everyone's best interest to preserve the world's cultures.

To this end, Davis serves on the councils of Ecotrust and other NGOs working to protect diversity. He also co-founded Cultures on the Edge, a quarterly online magazine designed to raise awareness of threatened communities. Perhaps his best-known work is The Serpent and the Rainbow, an international bestseller about zombification practices in Haiti. Wes Craven adapted the book into a 1988 film, which Davis denounced as a betrayal of the book's spirit. His latest book is The Clouded Leopard: A Book of Travels.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

‘Hobbits’ linked to nutritional deficiency

"MSNBC staff and news service reports
updated 12:43 p.m. ET, Wed., March. 5, 2008

HONG KONG - Small humanlike skeletons found in a cave on a remote Indonesian island were actually human, and their miniature features were probably due to nutritional deficiency, researchers in Australia have suggested.

Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the scientists said these were more likely to be cretin offspring of normal mothers who suffered from iodine and other dietary deficiencies. Cretinism is a condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth due to a congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones.

Ever since the 18,000-year-old skeletons were found in Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores, four years ago, anthropologists have debated whether or not they represented a previously unseen species of dwarf hominid — or merely a group of deformed humans. The newly published research opens an additional argument for the latter view.

"We believe they were Homo sapiens, but with this disorder ... cretins born without the thyroid gland," Peter Obendorf of the School of Applied Sciences at RMIT University in Melbourne told Reuters in a telephone interview. "The mothers would be iodine- and selenium-deficient, and would be exposed to certain plant food that would release cyanide into the body."

Obendorf said the fossils were found inland, where their communities were cut off from seafood, a key source of iodine.

They probably relied on bamboo shoots and certain tubers, which could have released cyanide into their bodies given the primitive cooking methods they were using.

These plants are still found in forests in Flores.

"When there's a drought, people utilize them. In modern times, they are cooked better," he said.

‘Hobbits’ debated
Initially, the fossils were classified as a new species called Homo floresiensis, considered an offshoot of Homo erectus. Based on measurements of the skulls and skeletons, scientists said the hominids stood about 3 feet (1 meter) tall and had brains roughly the size of grapefruits.

The fossils were quickly dubbed "Hobbits," referring to the diminutive inhabitants of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Some skeptics argued that the small size of the Flores skulls more likely resulted from a genetic condition known as microencephaly, characterized by a small head and short stature. Other scientists sought to put those doubts to rest by citing comparative measurements of skeletal dimensions.

Obendorf and his colleagues put forth a different argument against the designation of a new species, contending that the "Hobbits" were essentially modern humans affected by diet rather than genetics.

"We think the population was normal, but many of the women had goiter. In the middle of a drought, some were forced to eat unsuitable food ... and they had cretin children," Obendorf said.

The researchers said certain structures of the fossils, such as the arm bone, matched descriptions contained in medical literature of cretin skeletons found in Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland.

"The dwarf cretins in Europe have just the same structural rotation of the arm bone," Obendorf said.

This report includes information from Reuters and"

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Pentagon's Ray Gun

From CBS News 60 Minutes (there's a short commercial that comes up first):

Court Upholds Navy Sonar Ban Off S. Calif.


"The Navy must abide by limits on its sonar training off the Southern California coast because the exercises could harm dozens of species of whales and dolphins, a federal appeals court ruled.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday night rejected the Navy's appeal of restrictions that banned high-powered sonar within 12 nautical miles of the coast and set other limits that could affect Navy training exercises to begin this month.

Also on Friday, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a similar ban for that state's coastline.

In the California case, the appellate judges let stand most of a lower court injunction that set the limits, but altered two restrictions that the Navy argued could harm the readiness of its ships for combat.

Conservation groups that had sued to block the Navy's use of high-powered sonar said the decision was a victory for their side.

"The court is saying that neither the president nor the U.S. Navy is above the law," Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Saturday.

"The court found that the Navy must be environmentally responsible when training with high intensity sonar, and that doing so won't interfere with military readiness," he said.

The Navy has argued that additional restrictions would hamper its ability to train effectively.

"In ordering additional mitigation to reduce the risk to marine mammals, the order shifts the risk to sailors and Marines," Capt. Scott Gureck, a Navy spokesman, said in a statement responding to the Hawaii ruling.

Southern California's coastal waters are home to dozens of species of whales and dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Nine species are federally listed as endangered or threatened.

The appellate court said the Navy has acknowledged that high-powered sonar may cause hearing loss and other injuries to marine mammals. The court said the Navy has estimated that its Southern California exercises would expose more than 500 beaked whales to harassment and would result in temporary hearing loss to thousands of marine mammals.

The ban requires the Navy to limit the decibel levels of its sonar under certain ocean conditions and to stop using it altogether when a marine mammals is detected within 2,200 yards of a sonar source.

The Navy said those restrictions would limit its ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare training and possibly prevent certification of some naval strike groups preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf.

The appellate court staggered the sound-level reductions during certain ocean conditions and tied them to the proximity of a marine mammal. The court also said the Navy can continue to use sonar - although at a lower sound level - when a marine mammal is within 2,200 yards if the sonar is being used "at a critical point in the exercise."

In the Hawaii decision, U.S. District Judge David Ezra ordered the Navy to look for marine mammals for one hour each day before using sonar, employ three lookouts exclusively to spot the animals during sonar use and stop sonar transmission altogether when one of the mammals is within 500 meters, which is nearly 547 yards.

The Navy plans to conduct as many as 12 exercises off Hawaii over the next couple of years. Navy officials say Hawaii waters provide a unique environment that includes both deep and shallow water for training.

The Navy undertakes "extensive measures" to protect marine mammals during training and is considering asking for more review, possibly by the U.S. Supreme Court, said spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Moore.

"We're a country engaged in two wars. When we send America's sons and daughters into harm's way, we must ensure they have the best possible training," she said."