Poetry After Robots

And four other intriguing things: DNA facial reconstruction, virtual airlines, west African vinyl, and the practice of naming.
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1. The human response to robopoetry.

"Learning to detect the difference between these two mingled kinds of poetry could be the legacy of early robopoetics and games like Bot or Not. In the words of Bot or Not’s creator, 'The ability to tell whether something is of human or computer provenance… might become really important. We will all be like blade runner people, trying to tell if a text is human.' In a universe where robopoets are only a Horse_e click away, human poets may find lucidity and ego exert a stronger tug than they once did."

 

2. Using DNA to reconstruct the faces of criminal suspects, murder victims, or Neanderthals.

"Bruce Budowle of the University of North Texas in Fort Worth, formerly the FBI's leading expert on forensic DNA analysis, hopes that the method will also lead to better facial reconstructions of people from skeletal remains. 'It's an easier step, because the skull gives you an anchor,' Budowle says. 'If you have genetic information that could guide the artist, so that they're not just freewheeling it, that might help us identify the remains.' Then there is the intriguing possibility of producing facial reconstructions of extinct human relatives. Even for Neanderthals, where there are numerous fossil skulls, palaeoanthropologists have little idea about the soft tissues of the face."

 

3. Virtual airlines and the pilots who never leave the ground.

"'Frankly, I wouldn’t be satisfied flying a single-engine Cessna,' he said, referring to a typical trainer airplane. 'I want to fly jets,' which he does for FedEx Virtual Cargo, one of hundreds of virtual airlines. If it’s an airline in the real world, there’s probably a virtual version. One of the largest, Delta Virtual Airlines, has 2,000 active pilots who must pass written and virtual flight tests in order to advance through the ranks as well as to fly progressively larger and more complex airplanes. They fly the same routes as the actual Delta Air Lines, sometimes on the same schedules. While a number of real Delta pilots and employees participate, Terry Eshenour, 70, a former Coca-Cola executive who serves as Delta Virtual Airlines’ president, emphasized that there was no formal affiliation with the real airline."

 

4. Heaviest crate digging imaginable: a quest to preserve and re-release west African vinyl lost in the rush to cassettes decades ago.

"One find in Nigeria was sensational. It was in the basement of a building owned by a hotelier who had run a record label and a chain of record shops. When LPs became obsolete he had shovelled his stock into the huge space. Records and debris filled the 10ft-high room to a depth of 6ft. Gossner and his friends waded through them, trying not damage any that were salvageable. 'The windows, most of them were broken so you had insects coming in and nesting within those records. It was just like a tsunami of vinyl that flooded the entire space, there was no rhyme or reason, no kind of sorting and no way to get around.'"

+ This from Steve Silberman, whose Twitter feed could be renamed 56,900 Intriguing Things.

 

5. The surprisingly fascinating process of naming a medical device

"After I met with the Medtronic team in Santa Rosa, California, I developed a naming brief to guide the creative work. Our naming objectives—what Medtronic hoped the name would communicate—included 'effortless,' 'leakproof,' 'navigating difficult terrain,' 'kink resistant,' 'flexible,' 'seriousness,' and 'prevents leaks passively.' Competitors’ names used 'flow,' 'seal,' 'flex,' and 'check,' so we had to avoid those words and their derivatives. The negative outcome 'leak' was also undesirable as a vocabulary source.

"With all the obvious directions off the table, I explored other words: security, impermeability, guidance. I looked at words whose letter shapes (a slender I or V) suggested the pinpoint accuracy of the Medtronic device. I considered metaphorical names like Passport and Pilot.

"One of the more promising directions turned out to involve the concept of 'guarding': the sheath protects the instrument it conveys, and it also protects the body’s vessels and organs. Sentrant emerged from this exploration. A blend of sentry and entrant, it combines the concepts of protection and entry."

 

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

aweigh. Of an anchor, just clear of the ground, so the ship can make headway. Anchors aweigh and the ship is under way (not weigh.)

+ Can I admit to you that I always thought the phrase was "Anchors away!"

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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