The Intelligent Plant

“The New Yorker” (TNY) Christmas 2013 edition is a favorite of mine; in fact, I can’t remember being so entertained by another TNY in a long time. At the very top of the list of reasons why I adored this particular edition, is one article, by Michael Pollan, titled “The Intelligent Plant”.

“The Intelligent Plant” is about ongoing research on plants’ adaptive behavior, the analogies that can eventually be made with animals, and the divide that some wording and expressions can cause, namely in “Mancuso et al”. vs “Alpi et al.”. Stefano Mancuso and Amedeo Alpi are both scientists researching plants but with different perspectives on how to approach, or how to word, their studies on plant behavior. Naturally many other scientists work on the field, and related fields, and these two names are highlighted by the TNY article only because of the way Pollan decided to structure it and do his interviews, and also because of the academic citations’ format, which when a paper has more than one author, tends to present the collective by identifying the first or the designated author (Alpi) followed by “the others” (et al.).

It happens that Mancuso makes a case for the appropriateness of wording his research with expressions such as “plant neurobiology”. The problem is that because plants have no literal, or animal-like, neurons, others find it inappropriate: “plant neurobiology” is famously criticized in a 2007 article published in “Trends in Plant Science”, by 36 scientists: Alpi A, Amrhein N, Bertl A, Blatt MR, Blumwald E, Cervone F, Dainty J, De Michelis MI, Epstein E, Galston AW, Goldsmith MH, Hawes C, Hell R, Hetherington A, Hofte H, Juergens G, Leaver CJ, Moroni A, Murphy A, Oparka K, Perata P, Quader H, Rausch T, Ritzenthaler C, Rivetta A, Robinson DG, Sanders D, Scheres B, Schumacher K, Sentenac H, Slayman CL, Soave C, Somerville C, Taiz L, and Thiel G, Wagner R..

Pollan’s article is so enjoyable because it refers experiments, facts and research on plants’ adaptive behavior, that most people aren’t aware of, and that are just astonishing: did you know that plants can make some animals help them?, and that they can fight back to the point of killing their animal predators?, that their behavior relatively to other plants is not always competitive and that they can communicate to help each other? Well I knew a little, learned more and, above all, got my plant curiosity spiced up to unprecedented levels :) mainly because I found there is a strong case to be made for bridging this research to forms of distributed intelligence in the animal kingdom, namely stigmergy-based.

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rFactor 2 is awesome

If there is one gaming genre that can be unfair to those really pushing ahead, it is the “racing” genre. Regular gamers are used to absurdly unrealistic software, where vehicles respond like they’ve done since the ZX Spectrum days, meaning like indestructible spaceships that make good use of the surrounding structures to stay on course. The average gamer can’t be bothered to learn about precision driving and delicate handling, using proper input devices. Surprisingly, professional game critics usually adhere to the same shallow standards: the “F1″ series from CodeMasters is a very good example of how ridiculously deceiving ratings and scores can be. The “F1″ games score high in most specialized publications and have been celebrated in BAFTA events (!), but they are less interactive than playing with a toy train in rails.

CodeMasters’ “F1″ looks wonderful, but plays horribly, tricking the user to think that he/she is in control, when in fact, the player’s freedom is severely limited; it is literally like driving on rails with narrow margins for anything creative. It is disgusting because for casual racers and other outsiders it appears a worthy experience. It is not a worthy experience, and it is unfair that the true racing simulators must flourish in niches, under the shadow of such miserable titles.

From my experience, one of the “true” simulators available today is “rFactor 2″ (RF2).  RF2 is fun, demanding and reasonably realistic. If you ever drove a competition car, you’ll probably notice the extra care: for example, tires start cold, then get warmer; tires will get flat spots if you lock them under braking; and the car will get damaged, and respond accordingly, even if in very subtle ways, if & when you hit obstacles.

RF2 tires’ physics is unique. I am not writing about different temperatures for each tire – I am writing about different temperatures across different regions of every tire! It feels “organic”, it feels true! The vehicles are responsive and the pedals truly analogue. It is literally a physical exercise to put consistent fast laps against 100% strong computer opponents: in fact, you’ll probably sweat and burn a significant amount of calories. For real!

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Shameless, 3 seasons later

Last night I watched the first and second episodes of “Shameless”, three years after this TV series’ premier. I am still not sure what to think of it: should I continue watching it? From what I understand, season 4 is around the corner, starting this January.

“Shameless” wants to, at least, be funny and sexy, and it can be funny and sexy, but it travels an uncomfortable path to do so. For me, as a viewer, the first problem is the exaggerated number of characters: a family of eight, plus a network of friends, acquaintances, foes, and other orbital entities. I remember when I first watched “Breaking Bad” (BB) and how much I enjoyed the lengthy, credible, process of building Walter White and Jesse Pinkman… contrast this with “Shameless” and its gamut of people, thrown at you in the very first minutes, as creatures ranging from drunk to sober, young to old, gay to straight, smart to intelligent and dumb… it is a much different building process, eventually as effective as BB’s, but – again – I think it is too early to say.

At times, “Shameless” can remember “Californication”, which makes it unsuitable to watch with young kids around; it also often asks for viewer credit, as in “please endure a few more moments and this will feel right”. On the other hand, it is original, it features very good acting and, until now, I think no one fired a gun, which is oh so refreshing. It can get better. Will it get better?

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Shameless (USA) – Season 1 [DVD + UV Copy] [2012]

Shameless: The Complete Second Season [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

Shameless: Complete Third Season [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

Restart

New year, new site. This time I made the very difficult option to start from tabula rasa, saying goodbye to nearly 1 GB of data, corresponding to many posts since 1996. Of course there was no WordPress CMS in 1996: those were the days when I coded each post by hand, in plain HTML, and… it was fun, it really was. The Web has since become industrialized and personal sites like mine simply don’t stand a chance in the market of attention now; however I just want to rediscover the fun and the learning that can happen in a humble Web presence. So it all restarts, again.

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