Inventors, Part 3: Mold Saves the World Again

Thursday, May 28, 2009
Welcome to the last day of my three-day retrospective on the most important inventors of the twentieth century. If you haven't already, check out the previous posts, where I expounded on agronomist Norman Borlaug and chemist Fritz Haber.

Today's inventor is less of a dark horse. Plenty of "most important inventions" lists include the invention of Penicillin as one of the most significant of the twentieth century, and in this case, they get it right.

Prior to Alexander Fleming's discovery of Penicillin, the first anti-biotic, bacterial infections could and did rage through populations. From the bubonic plague to tuberculosis and leprosy, disease that scourged popualtions became easily curable with the advent of readily-available anti-biotics. There is no way to accurately estimate the number of lives saved by the invention of penicillin. Including all of the diseases treated by antiobiotics, hundreds of millions of lives saved by the discovery of the first antibiotic is a reasonable guess.

It's hard to imagine a world where every year thousands of people die from preventable diseases, or die from simple burns or treatable STDs. But were it not for a chance accident with some contaminated laboratory glassware, that's what the world might have looked like.

In 1928, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming left his lab bench for a two-week holiday. He accidentally left out a culture of staph bacteria, uncovered. A stray spore of a fungus called Penicillium notatum drifted onto the culture plate, setting in motion one of the most fortuitous and momentous discoveries in modern medical science.

When Fleming returned, he found the culture plate, still growing the staph bacteria, but now also home to a growth of Penicillium mold. And, in the circular halo around the mold, a clear section of culture, where no bacteria grew. Fleming realized the mold secreted a substance that killed bacteria, and the rest is history.

Antibiotics were heralded as 'miracle drugs' when they were introduced, and looking back, it's easy to see that the sentiment is far from hyperbole.

The ironic postscript to the antibiotic story is that the prevalence (and overuse) of antibiotics now have the potential to undo all of the improvements antibiotics have pioneered.

Situs Inversus

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Situs inversus is a congenital condition where the arrangement of internal organs in a person's body is reversed: a mirror-image of the normal arrangement. How weird is that?

And what about non-Fig Newtonian?

Ok, for those of you who don't remember 11th grade physics - A Non-Newtonian fluid is one where the viscosity is high enough to overcome the stress put upon it; stirring it leads to whirlpools even after you remove the spoon.

This property also means that when compressive force is applied to it, it resists the force in that particular spot.

There are a ton of practical uses for this property, but to hell with those:

Inventors, Part 2: Feeding (and Blowing Up) the World

Welcome to day two of my three-day retrospective on the most important inventors of the twentieth century. If you haven't already, check out yesterday's post, where I expounded on one of the most important inventors of the twentieth century: Norman Borlaug. But Borlaug's Green Revolution would have been impossible were it not for a German inventor with a checkered legacy.

In the early parts of the twentieth century, you could argue that Chile was the most important place in the world. Chilean Saltpeter was one of the raw materials used in the creation of gunpowder and other explosives, and perhaps more importantly, as a fertilizer, it was essential for most developed nations' agriculture.

By the time the early 1900s rolled around, a war had already been fought over Saltpeter (also known as Sodium nitrate). So, during the early parts of World War I, the seas around Chile were hotly contested territory. Eventually, a British blockade of the country was successful, cutting off Germany's supply of Saltpeter.

Enter Fritz Haber, a German chemist. He was instrumental in developing the process by which atmospheric nitrogen could be fixed, creating Ammonia, which could be used both in the creation of artificial fertilizers and explosives.

The Haber Process was eventually reverse-engineered by other countries after World War I, and it is now responsible for supporting one-third of the human population on Earth. Without the fertilizer produced by the Haber Process, agricultural yields would make the current human population wholly unsustainable: some have argued that the Haber process averted a worldwide Malthusian catastrophe. He was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for the process.

The Haber Process is still in use around the world. in fact, the industrial production of Ammonia consumes a significant portion of the global energy supply each year, at least 1% to 2% of all human-generated energy.

Haber's legacy, however, is dark: while the Haber Process has reshaped the face of human population, it also greatly prolonged World War I, by allowing Germany to produce explosives, and feed a much larger army. Haber was also a passionate proponent of chemical warfare, arguing strenuously for the use of poisonous gas in trench warfare in World War I, personally developing and overseeing the development and use of Chlorine and other poisonous gasses against soldiers.

Though he was decorated by Germany for his work during World War I, as a Jew, he was forced to flee Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution. Tragically, scientists at the chemical warfare laboratories he oversaw in the 1920s developed the formulation of Cyanide gas that would later be used in the Nazi extermination camps.

Check back tomorrow for Day 3 of my inventors retrospective: why not keeping some dishes clean might have saved the world..

Inventors, Part 1: Averting Global Starvation

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
When I was a youngster, I was fascinated by inventors. I was totally enamored of the romantic ideal of a lone enthusiast coming up with an idea no one had ever thought of before, and then changing the world with it. Perhaps it's not surprising that I idolized inventors: it's not like sports stars had any real appeal to the gangly kid with glasses.

Looking at typical lists of the most important inventions of the 20th century, most people can't help but think of computers, telephones, automobiles, airplanes or various household appliances.

But it seems like those kind of lists are missing the point: even though most people never interact directly with them, there are a few inventions that have radically changed the world.

So, over the next three days, I'm going to provide my shortlist for the three most important inventors of the 20th century
. Starting with an agronomist who pioneered the so-called "Green Revolution."

It's a small footnote in history today, but in the middle of the last century, it was widely predicted that the world was headed inexorably towards global famine and the deaths of millions of people. Bestsellers like 1968's The Population Bomb and 1967's Famine, 1975! spelled out dire predictions about the global population and food supply. Those predictions may very well have come true, if it weren't for the efforts of one American agronomist, Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug invented a strain of semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat. This invention allowed the global food supply to grow radically, and averted the potential global famine. Conservative estimates say that Borlaug's invention saved the lives of more than 240 million people. For his humanitarian efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Recently, Borlaug's work has been criticized by Western environmentalists, who decry Borlaug's outspoken support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture and support for large-scale farming. His response to such criticisms:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Watch for tomorrow's inventor, and find out how a single chemical reaction is now responsible for consuming more than 1% of the world's annual energy supply.

Escort Service

I can't remember the exact moment, or the circumstances, but I'm pretty sure I was impressed, delighted and amazed the first time I saw a computer-controlled character in a video game fight alongside me.

I'm not talking about Sophia from 1992's Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, a computer-controlled character who would simply follow you from room to room and wait while you did whatever it was you needed to do. You would play AS Sophia from time to time, generally to help Indy out of a jam, but the rest of the time she was there as a sprit guide.

This was innovative at the time (as was most stuff from early LucasArts). There was a time when the idea of a player character period was innovative, following from games like Defender, Pong, Lunar Lander, Asteroids, etc. But here we had ANOTHER character without a 2P controlling her.

But here's the thing. Sophia was dumb. She had strict hard-coded responses to questions asked of her, and when controlling her, was only ever meant to do exactly what LucasArts intended YOU to do with her. That might have taken a while, but since she could only respond to the objects you had her interact with, her responses either advanced you further along the path, or indicated that you were barking up the wrong tree. I'm not saying that Sophia, the character, was dumb, or that Sophia the concept was dumb. That would be wrong on both counts. But Sophia as a piece of computer software, as an actor able to function independently in the game was literally dumb, unable to concieve of and act on information that the player didn't provide.

And that was PERFECTLY fine. LucasArts knew that she didn't need to have intelligence, that they weren't going to be able to give her intelligence, and if they had, it wouldn't have improved the game much. So they went with a gameplay mechanic that made sense in the context of the game, and Sophia is one of the most beloved characters in Gaming. (Beloved in the sense that she's actually charming and interesting, not that she can carry 4,000 Big Guns and jump and kill aliens or whatever.)

Compared to this, Alyx, from 2004's Half-Life 2 is an amazing piece of software wrapped up in the guise of a character. She does interact with you and the world, commenting on your abilities, and helping you shoot... well whatever you're shooting at the time. Going from independently-acting sidekick to scripted drone is seamless, and really provides the gamer with the sense that she's a fully fleshed-out and deep character, 1000 times more interesting and charming than that game's Player, Gordon Freeman (mostly because she actually, you know, talks). Well, of course a game made a decade later is going to be more sophisticated. Alyx is by far the best computer-controlled character in any game I've ever played.

So what's this all about?

Even Valve, the creators of that 5-year-old masterpiece (5 years?? Already?), knew that their artificial intelligence wasn't good enough to completely convince you, and gave Alyx a conservative role in the game, staying behind you for the most part, and hiding, rather than trying to do a full-out assault on whatever the objective was. Even though the computer was ALSO controlling enemies, even a sophisticated character like Alyx isn't able to concieve of strategies and thinking that is humanlike enough to be effective in that situation.

Other developers on the other hand, fresh from their Intro to AI course at the local community college, don't share that same sense of modesty. They have a hubris which tends to ride into the disappointing, giving a share of the game's actual gameplay to their digital creations, rather than leaving it to the CPU sitting between the keyboard and chair. I hate games like this with a passion. But at least those characters are supposed to be helping you.

Enter the escort quest. Someone somewhere decided it'd be a super idea if you, the player, had to at some point "rescue" someone, or bring them from point A to point B, guiding them through whatever deathtraps spanned the two. Valve itself did this in the original Half-Life a couple times, though it never made the game's progression dependent on it. Games like Metal Gear Solid had times where the player would have to navigate whatever tricky situation he was in, while at the same time, making it safe for the important computer controlled robot that he was escorting.

It was at those points where scientists, high-ranking military officers, heads of state, other combat veterans, whatever, turned into the largest sacks of idiocy, showing no survival instinct at all, instead relying on the player to dive between the bullets or electrified floors that they would expertly avoid avoiding any instant your eyes were off them for a second.

No one is going to accuse Konami of being a poor developer of video games, but I would suggest a certain level of hubris in assuming that their Artificial Intelligence was good enough to give the player a rewarding experience in feeling like they were really working with someone to get through a tough situation. Instead you have people who your entire goal for 5 minutes is to keep safe, running around in circles in the path of enemy fire, falling into lava pits, and basically acting like a suicidial seizure victim. That'd be fine with me, if the game didn't require me to keep said victim alive to open a door, or get back to Washington, etc. etc. The worst is getting the person nearly there, having their life bar finally vanish because your camera was pointed at, you know, the goal, only to have them take the opportunity to run head first into the nearest bullet. A fact you are only aware of because the game instantly stops, and tells you Game Over, as though time itself hinged on the survival of this loon with no instinct for self-preservation.

This is bad enough when it's for one or two missions in a game, but for games where it is a large chunk of the action, like Resident Evil 4, it totally saps any desire to keep playing for me. I feel like if Ashley isn't smart enough to keep her head down when confronted with hordes of brain affectionados, then it's probably for the better that the President never see his daughter again. She's just baggage when the world rests on the shoulders of YOU. Taking care of one lobotomy patient while you're supposed to be saving the planet from the end times seems counterproductive, contrived and just plain irritating.

This makes the game not about defending the character from whatever trials await you and them, but about definding the character from themself, which is frustrating and stupid.

So what does Capcom do? Release Dead Rising, of course! A game which is basically a string of escort quests where the only consolation to your charge's suicidal tendency is that the opponents are just as stupid, often sitting there and ignoring you completely while you hit their next-door-neighbor with a shopping cart. Let me be clear: the concept of Dead Rising - swarms of slow-moving, slow-witted enemies and myriad ways to dispose of them - is not good enough to overcome the escort-questyness of the execution (har har).

Until game AI is good enough to simulate human thought, or at least approach it, these missions should be eliminated from all games. This will take nearly forever, which is ok. I'm fine with never seeing another one again. The fact is that AI still isn't good enough - even from top-tier developers in 2009 - to be convincing, and nothing highlights that more than the escort quest. So do yourself a favor, and stop including it in games, and we'll stop noticing.

If you need filler, consider turning your main character into a slow-moving, boring werewolf for 2 out of every 2.5 hours instead. I for one would prefer that epic failure.

[thanks to GameDaily for the image]