All that dentistry for nothing

Ok, I’m cunningly going to sidestep the question of what my new game is about one more time and hope you don’t notice.

That’s partly because my PC gave up the ghost this week, so I’m still in the middle of setting up a new one. It didn’t help that the first replacement I bought had a suicidal disk controller, and the second has a bug in the video driver that meant my DVI monitor would just go blank in the middle of installing Windows, leaving me without a clue what was going on and the computer baffled about why I wasn’t answering its questions.

But here’s pause for thought: my new PC (or Next Month’s Rent, as I like to call it) has four 64-bit CPUs, each running at 2.5GHz. It has 8GB of RAM and a one-terabyte hard drive. OH… MY… GOODNESS! Even the graphics card has 320 data execution paths and 512 MILLION transistors.

I still have the second computer I ever owned, from way back in 1979. It had one 8-bit CPU running at 4MHz, being fed by 640 bytes of memory and no disk drive. The first disk drive I owned had 360KB of storage.

So the processor clock is now 640 times faster, not to mention having four times as many cores, eight times as many bits and a lot more fancy gizmos like caches, FPUs and a separate GPU to do a lot of the work. Disk space has increased by a factor of 1.6 million, and memory has shot up by a factor of 13 million!

Just imagine if cars were 640 times faster than they were in 1980, capable of scooting along at up to ninety thousand miles per hour! (They’d be spacecraft, in fact, since escape velocity is only 17,500 mph.) What would it be like if your cupboards could hold 13 million times as much stuff before it all started to fall out every time you opened a door?

Isn’t technology wonderful? So how come robots haven’t taken over the world yet?


I got to thinking about this because I was talking about my first computer in an interview for FlagNews, a local TV and Web infotainment show that I like and seem to have become mysteriously drawn into. Tyrus, the producer and one of the presenters, is a really nice guy who works hard to bring only good news to the people of Flagstaff and environs, and to create a video archive of the local culture on a shoestring budget. Some weird kind of synchronicity brought us together and I’m delighted to have met a friend. I’ll probably end up helping out at the show in some capacity – making tea, coiling cables and interviewing local scientists; that sort of thing) and I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of the team. Anyway, my interview is up on their website today (7/3/09). Tyrus and Pez (the editor, who I met at the folk festival last weekend) have kindly managed to pull it together into something that sounds like I knew what I was talking about (I’m a bit rusty).

But here’s the thing: I always hated doing television and would turn down nine out of every ten requests, because if I ever plucked up the nerve to watch myself all I could ever see were my damn teeth – a random collection of great yellow things that stuck out at all angles. So about six months ago I had them fixed, and I felt so much better about myself. But there they are again! They’re disco-white and straight now, but they still dominate my face like Al Jolson’s lips in blackface makeup. Oh well.

I also did an interview for EuroGamer yesterday – by email. My teeth look so much better by email. With all this sudden attention I guess I’d better get on and DO something. More news on that in the next post. Probably.

P.S. And in a continuing flurry of interviews, Norm just pinged me to say that his recent interview with Ann (my first wife), about her research on Open Science and Public Engagement, is now up on the web at Machines Like Us. Hers has a lot more content in it than mine.

P.P.S. FlagNews really needs support, so if you happen to live in Northern Arizona and found my interview interesting (or not, for that matter), send ’em a little cash, why don’t you? There’s a PayPal link on their website. The same goes for MachinesLikeUs. People do this stuff out of the kindness of their hearts and we should encourage that as much as we are able.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

7 Responses to All that dentistry for nothing

  1. Vegard says:

    That’s a very nice interview, thanks for giving it and publishing the link!

    In particular, I liked what you said about memory, and how it is scattered all around the brain, and how taking away a part of it will just make it a bit fuzzier. (I guess I knew a part of it, but I hadn’t thought about it explicitly.)

    I found myself wondering the other day about what exactly happens, physically, in the brain, when a memory is created. It so happened that the phone rang while I was reading a book. I took once glance at the page number and put the book away. When I came back to the book, I realized that a very specific memory of three digits had been created with just a glance. No conclusions were drawn about how this happened.

  2. stevegrand says:


    I can’t draw any conclusions from it either. The other day Norm and I were discussing how we remember the temporal sequence of events and that’s a mystery too! You read a lot of talk about researchers gradually getting to grips with what memory is, these days, but they always seem to be talking about processes at the synaptic level, which is a bit like saying you understand Miscrosoft Word because you’ve finally figured out how a bit is stored on a hard drive!

    I’ve a feeling that ALL data in the brain are more distributed than we’d like to believe. Even primary visual signals seem to be highly blurred (convolved) by the time they hit cortex. We don’t really have the math for thinking about things like that.

    Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the interview and thanks for the observations – fascinating, innit?

  3. Daniel Mewes says:

    Thanks for pointing us at the interview. I liked it very much (did not find your teeth very annoying 😉 ).

    Regarding the memory thing I especially find it interesting that it don’t are the neurons that are the building blocks for a memory, but actually the connections between them. As you also said in the interview, a single neuron may be part of a lot of memories. So it is not the neuron that is the memory, it are the connections between a whole lot of neurons that make a memory what it is.

    Regarding spatial diversion I think that it generally is important to not draw too many conclusions about how the brain works from how we tend to build things. I mean if we want to build something complex, we always try to think of it as a set of functional units. Those units may also exist in real brains, but there really is not point for nature to put them in spatially discrete places. Why not mix them all together and overlay them? We talk about 3-D space so there really is a lot of space to place and mix things available everywhere. There certainly are structures that strongly depend on locality. However many of them I think rely on it more on a micro- than on a macroscopic level. Also a lack of complete spatial isolation of functional units allows for a lot more complex and interesting interaction between them.

    I personally even believe that the spatial placement and non-placement in this sense is not only part of the concrete “implementation” of a mind, but is central for a whole lot of the mechanisms that go on inside our heads.
    This is something I intended and still intend to explore as part of my “NeuroMind technology” project. Unfortunately I have not spend a single hour on it over the last few months due to other stuff I always had to do (studying especially)… Hope that I will be able to find more time for it in the (hopefully) near future.

    • stevegrand says:

      I agree, and the connections between any neuron and its close neighbours are so amazingly dense that it might be better to describe the brain as an unusual state of matter – more like a gel than a network.

      I also agree about the importance of spatial arrangement – I think it’s the primary code for the brain. I think we can visualise every point on the surface of cortex as optimally representing a specific thing – a concept, a point on the body surface, a movement schema, etc – except that these aren’t discrete points, more interleaved fuzzy blobs. And then different neurons at each point represent different aspects of that thing – I am receiving that sensation, I am imagining that sensation, I am focusing my attention on things that give that sensation, etc.

      Sorry to hear the project has been slow going. I know that feeling all too well!

  4. Pius Agius says:

    Hi Steve,

    I saw the entire video it was great fun to watch you on the television once more. You never to seem to age.Your interviewer , Tyrus kept the whole talk lighthearted and fun. What an interesting set you guys were in for the talk. I hope to see more in the future.

    Take care,


    • stevegrand says:

      > You never seem to age.

      You’re too kind! 🙂 I certainly feel old and careworn lately, but thanks, Pius!

      It was filmed in the Coconino Center for the Arts, where they were having an exhibition based around dance.

      You may well see more of me on that show, but on the interviewing other people side of things. We’ll see.

  5. Pingback: GreyThumb.Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: