The Consciousness Conundrum#

Let's face it. The singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision. The science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod has dubbed it “the rapture for nerds,” an allusion to the end-time, when Jesus whisks the faithful to heaven and leaves us sinners behind.

Google Browser Sync --> Weave?

June 14, 2008

Update: It looks like a tab-syncing version of Weave will be released on June 20th!

A few days ago it was "announced" that Google was discontinuing support for Google Browser Sync, which is, without a doubt, the most useful Firefox extension I use. In a response to a user's inquiry regarding GBS support in Firefox 3, Google said the following:

It was a tough call, but we decided to phase out support for Browser Sync. Since the team has moved on to other projects that are keeping them busy, we don't have time to update the extension to work with Firefox 3 or to continue to maintain it.

Grr. I understand that they have much bigger fish to fry, and that GBS makes absolutely no money for them (as far as I can tell), but so many of us have to come to rely on it, and in a very big way. I'm not saying they should maintain it forever, or even that it should remain free, but it would be nice if it could be kept alive just a little longer; maybe at least until someone else offered something similar?

Well, it looks like the void may be filled sooner than we thought. Keep reading.

I hate inefficient, repetitive manual labor

I'll be honest, I don't care about 80% of what GBS does, and in fact, most of what it does can be done by other extensions or combinations of extensions. I mainly care about session restoration across multiple machines, something that no other extension, browser, or service currently supports.

I realize that my use case may be a little different than most — I generally cycle between two machines each day and my browser rarely has less than 50 open tabs — but I must admit that I was still very surprised to see so few mentions of the session-restoration aspect of GBS on sites discussing the death of the extension.

In any event, before GBS, I was made to do the following every singe day, twice:

  • Copy the URI of every open tab on the "first" machine (or every open tab up to a point where I knew the tabs on both machines were already "synced").
  • Paste these URIs into an email sent to myself.
  • Open the email on the "second" machine and open each URI in a new tab.
  • (If multiple windows were opened, each with multiple tabs that I wanted to keep in their respective windows, then the scope of this nonsensical manual labor increased commensurately.)

It's 2008. That's crazy. The Copy All URLs extension made the task bearable, but it was still something that made me angry every time I had to do it. And I had to do it twice a day.

GBS changed all that and allowed me to completely ignore what tabs/windows were open/closed on which machine — if I wanted to make sure that all the open tabs from machine one were available to me on machine two, I simply had to restart the browser on machine two. Period. End of story.

Sure, there were times when it broke, and badly, but it was nothing a little history-surfing and determination couldn't fix. For the most part, GBS worked brilliantly and saved me a lot of time, effort, and worry.

Enter Weave (hopefully)

Sadly, and I think surprisingly, there are currently no other options for multi-machine session restoration. Though relatively new, not even Weave, Mozilla's homegrown web services integrator, supports such a feature, though it seems it will be a part of the next release. From a recent post at the Weave discussion board:

Tab sync is not in the latest release, but it should be in the next one. The way it works is that it periodically saves a list of your open tabs to the Weave server, and it periodically checks the server to see if any tabs have been added by your other computers.

So when you open a tab on a computer with Weave, then go to another computer that also has Weave, Weave will notify you that tabs from the first computer are available and let you pick which ones you want to open.

Nice! If that second part is true, then Weave may actually turn out to be better than GBS, because you won't have to restart the browser to sync tabs/windows.

Given the current, overlapping features between GBS and Weave,1 and the cozy Google-Mozilla relationship, one can't help but think that GBS is being phased out in light of Weave.

I wonder if the tab-syncing version will be released together with Firefox 3 on Tuesday. Hrm.

  1. Yes, I realize fully that the big picture for Weave is much more grandiose than was ever intended for GBS, but its current, very limited feature set finds a lot of parallels in the Google extension.   

A new step in evolution#

Lenski started off with a single microbe. It divided a few times into identical clones, from which Lenski started 12 colonies. He kept each of these 12 lines in its own flask. Each day he and his colleagues provided the bacteria with a little glucose, which was gobbled up by the afternoon. The next morning, the scientists took a small sample from each flask and put it in a new one with fresh glucose. And on and on and on, for 20 years and running.


Over the generations, in fits and starts, the bacteria did indeed evolve into faster breeders. The bacteria in the flasks today breed 75% faster on average than their original ancestor. Lenski and his colleagues have pinpointed some of the genes that have evolved along the way; in some cases, for example, the same gene has changed in almost every line, but it has mutated in a different spot in each case. Lenski and his colleagues have also shown how natural selection has demanded trade-offs from the bacteria; while they grow faster on a meager diet of glucose, they've gotten worse at feeding on some other kinds of sugars.


Lenski's research has shown that in many ways, evolution is repeatable. The 12 lines tend to evolve in the same direction.

Scientists confirm that parts of earliest genetic material may have come from the stars#

The materials they have found include the molecules uracil and xanthine, which are precursors to the molecules that make up DNA and RNA, and are known as nucleobases.


The analysis shows that the nucleobases contain a heavy form of carbon which could only have been formed in space. Materials formed on Earth consist of a lighter variety of carbon.

On the origin of a theory#

"The only novelty in my work is the attempt to explain how species become modified," Darwin later wrote.


[W]e often act today as if Darwin invented the idea of evolution itself, including the theory that human beings developed from an ape ancestor.

In fact, scientists had been talking about our primate origins at least since 1699, after the London physician Edward Tyson dissected a chimpanzee and documented a disturbing likeness to human anatomy. And the idea of evolution had been around for generations.

Synapses found to be more complex up the evolutionary scale#

In worms and flies, the synapses mediate simple forms of learning, but in higher animals they are built from a much richer array of protein components and conduct complex learning and pattern recognition.


If the synapses are thought of as the chips in a computer, then brainpower is shaped by the sophistication of each chip, as well as by their numbers. From the evolutionary perspective, the big brains of vertebrates not only have more synapses and neurons, but each of these synapses is more powerful.

Read books via Twitter#

DailyLit is a nifty service that will deliver entire books to you over email in small, manageable bits. The idea is to read a tiny bit of the book every day until it's finished.

Worst. Idea. Ever. Get a grip people.

Can machines be conscious?#

What are the essential properties of consciousness, those without which there is no experience whatsoever?

We think the answer to that question has to do with the amount of integrated information that an organism, or a machine, can generate.


To be conscious, then, you need to be a single integrated entity with a large repertoire of states. Let's take this one step further: your level of consciousness has to do with how much integrated information you can generate. That's why you have a higher level of consciousness than a tree frog or a supercomputer.

The Machine That Changed the World#

Andy Baio has put a lot of time and energy into making available online the "longest, most comprehensive documentary about the history of computing ever produced," replete with excellent annotations throughout.

I've just finished this five-part, five-hour series from 1992, and am here to tell you that it's fantastic, a real treat. If you've any interest in computers, you almost have to watch this documentary — trust me, you'll enjoy it.

Thanks Andy!

Flash memory != Adobe Flash#

Just how will Apple meet expectations? Using the patent application as a guide, Apple appears to be making room on the iPhone for flash memory, which means an end to Apple's standoff with Adobe that's kept iPhones from easily viewing a plethora of Internet videos.

This has to be a joke, right?

Track packages using Twitter#

Just send a direct message (not a @reply) [to "trackthis"] with the FedEx/UPS/USPS/DHL tracking code [], followed by a nickname for the package.

Fat Profits#

Joe Keohane profiles CKE, the company behind Hardee's and Carl's Jr., and dissects its utterly unapologetic approach to producing and marketing gut-busting, "meat as a condiment"-type fare.

Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests#

To determine if it was possible for religion to emerge as an adaptation, Dow wrote a simple computer program that focuses on the evolutionary benefits people receive from their interactions with one another.


By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish. However, religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out – perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion.

Monkey thinks robot into action#

In a dramatic display of the potential of prosthetic arms, a monkey [] was able to use his brain to directly control a robotic arm and feed himself a marshmallow.


To achieve the feat, two monkeys had a grid of microelectrodes implanted into the motor cortex, [the] part of the brain that controls motor planning and execution. The animals had previously been trained to move an anthropomorphic robotic arm [] using a joystick. To learn to control the prosthesis with their minds, the monkeys had their arms temporarily restrained as they watched a computer move the arm through the required motions []. ‘They imagine themselves doing the task, like athletes do for sports,' says Schwartz. ‘The neurons are active as they observe the movement, and then we can capture the [neural signals] and use them for our own control.'

Twitter Tools, modified to ignore @tweets

May 27, 2008

For the past month or so I've been using Alex King's fantastic Twitter Tools WordPress plugin to display on this site the latest tweet from my Twitter stream (see sidebar). However, I have one semi-trivial issue with his very robust plugin, namely that it doesn't allow you to keep @tweets — tweets directed to a particular user — from being displayed. I changed that.

To ensure that my changes wouldn't break any of the "main" features of the plugin, the only function I modified in twitter-tools.php was aktt_latest_tweet() (i.e., the function that displays the latest tweet). If you use any of the other features and want this @tweet-exclusion to be plugin-wide, it shouldn't be too hard to incorporate my changes into the other functions you're using.

The modifications

I increased the query limit from 1 to 5, so that the last five tweets are retrieved instead of just the latest. These five tweets are then cycled through until a non-@tweet is found, at which point the loop breaks and the non-@tweet is output to your site. If your last five tweets are @tweets, then the function will simply output "No tweets available at the moment," which is what it would otherwise display if there was some error in initially retrieving the tweets. If you're constantly @replying to other users, you may want to bump the query limit to some larger number.

I should note that this is a modified version of Twitter Tools v1.1b1 (the latest version of the plugin is v1.2b1). If you're currently using v1.2b1, but invoking only the aktt_latest_tweet() function, then you can safely overwrite your twitter-tools.php file with this modified version. If you've made any modifications to either v1.1b1 or v1.2b1, or if you use any of the other available plugin features, then you'll want to overwrite only the aktt_latest_tweet() function.

Download the modified twitter-tools.php file (remember to change the extension from .phps to .php after downloading).

Future plans

I think at some point I may completely gut the Twitter Tools plugin, and release a much simpler version that does nothing more than display the latest tweet, minus @tweets.

Trashing (from) the command line#

A neat Mac OS X command-line tool from Dave Dribin that allows you to move files to the trash, instead of irretrievably deleting them with "rm."

If you live and die by the command line (like me), it might make sense to alias "rm -rf" to this program (e.g., for a bash shell: alias ‘rm -rf'="trash"), though I'm not yet sure how it handles subdirectories, etc.