A Climate March, The Architecture Of Bureaucracy, And The Tale Of A Hoff-Bot

7:41 minutes

The 2014 People’s Climate March in New York. Photo by John Minchillo/Climate Action Network/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Researchers studying the remains of a 2,200-year-old palace complex near Oaxaca, Mexico report that the ruins may help reveal the rise of the earliest state governments in the Americas, when societies began to shift from groups led by a single powerful leader to bureaucratic institutions involving many advisors, representatives, and functionaries. The site, known as El Palenque, is a multi-functional palace, with rooms and spaces set aside for meetings and rituals. Annalee Newitz of Ars Technica joins Ira to discuss the story, along with other news from the week in science, including plans for a weekend march devoted to climate policy, and a short movie that incorporates dialogue written by a machine-learning algorithm.

[What it was like to march for science.]

Segment Guests

Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about the mastodon fossils that have scientists rethinking when humans first came to the Americas. Could Neanderthals have beat homosapiens here?

We’ll talk about it. It’s kind of interesting. But first, last weekend, perhaps, you were among the millions of people in 500 cities around the world who took to the streets on Earth Day for the march for science. I watched the Washington, DC march in a very rainy capitol. But it did not dampen the marchers spirits.

This week another march, this one solely for the climate. Here to talk about plans for the People’s Climate march and other selected short subjects in science is Annalee Newitz. She’s the tech culture editor at Ars Technica in San Francisco. Welcome back.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And Annalee, tell us about the Climate March this weekend. Who is it for? What are they marching about?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is another science related march. So if you liked last week’s science march, it’s great to come out again, or if you missed it it’ll be a good thing to go to. But what makes this march different is that it’s not just focusing on the science of climate and on environmental science, but also on the communities that are affected by climate policy.

So the organizers are asking people to think about places like Flint, Michigan, for example, where people are struggling to have clean drinking water and to think about poor communities, communities of color, places where people are directly affected by environmental policy. And so this is a march that’s for the science, but also to think about how science affects people’s everyday lives and even just the health of a community.

IRA FLATOW: Is this one– who would you count that as a more political one than last week?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: I don’t really think so, because one of the things that came out of last week’s march I think is that we realized how much science has been kind of unwittingly politicized. And so I think now we’re kind of in this new era, where you can’t think about science without politics.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking about politics and government, you have a story about the early days of bureaucracy in the Americas, where and when is it?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this about a city that was very bustling about 2,300 years ago in Oaxaca which is in southern Mexico. And the city is called El Palenque. And a couple of archaeologists have unearthed enough of the downtown area of the city that they are able to actually see what the political structure was like just based on the architecture of these downtown buildings.

IRA FLATOW: And what did they find out about it? Was it a palace for a king, or what was it?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So that’s what’s so cool about it is that they found a palace, but it wasn’t just for the king. So it’s actually this enormous palace that’s really two buildings. And part of it is just your standard kind of monarchy castle, where the king lives with his family. He’s got like a barbecue pit, lots of cool stuff.

But then another part of the palace, which is quite enormous, is devoted entirely to meeting rooms, sacrifice rooms, and a big open area, where the king and his advisers could address people who gathered in the plaza below. And so what this architecture tells us is that this palace that was running the city wasn’t just for one guy telling everyone what to do. He had a whole complicated group of advisors, ministers, priests who were helping to run this city.

And so we get a sense that they’re right on the cusp of going from kind of an old-school situation where a chief or a king is running things and a new situation a state where a bureaucracy is running it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s kind of interesting. It’s sort of an experiment in democracy or a modern government.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It really is. And what’s fascinating about it is that this is happening right around the same time that people in classical Greece were also experimenting with developing city-states. So you get this kind of nice sense of convergent evolution where two different cultures are kind of coming up with the same ideas about how to deal with what happens when there’s lots and lots of people living together.

IRA FLATOW: That it is interesting.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Let’s build a nation.

IRA FLATOW: Build a nation. Let’s change topics a bit by just a few thousand years. You have a story about writing a film using artificial intelligence. You know, this talk of a writers’ strike in Hollywood, do we not need them?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: So this is actually the second film that these filmmakers have made with an AI who they’ve named Benjamin. And Benjamin’s technical name is that he is a long, short-term memory recursive machine learning algorithm. And that is just a fancy way of saying that Benjamin learns by creating– Benjamin writes by creating long sentences based on a big body of writing that they gave him. And in this case, they gave him episodes of Knight Rider, the classic 1980s TV show about a man and his intelligent car.

And what happens is Benjamin is trying to predict what kinds of sentences might be written based on these episodes. And so what comes out is kind of in some ways sentences that sound exactly like what would happen this TV show. And sometimes they sound like a little bit of a mush.

SPEAKER 1: Activate Hoffbot.

SPEAKER 2: OK, Bob, pick me up.

SPEAKER 3: A dangerous of a man who does not exist.

SPEAKER 2: OK, put a little a button on that panel and do the control.

SPEAKER 3: Michael, I’ve increased speed, I’m sorry. I can’t make it.

SPEAKER 2: That’s OK, buddy.

SPEAKER 1: That was fed from his ’80s shows. Wait, the dialogue got all jumbled.

IRA FLATOW: It’s good. Who’s the voice? It’s a sound of a familiar voice there?

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yeah, that is David Hasselhoff, who played the character the main character in Knight Rider.

IRA FLATOW: Without his Speedos on from Baywatch.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: He was wearing– they threw in a little Baywatch just to make it interesting. He is, in fact, in the film, which is called It’s No Game, he is wearing his shorts from Baywatch. So he’s mixed it up a little.

IRA FLATOW: It doesn’t sound really sound totally realistic that so far. It needs some work I think.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: It does need some work, but what’s great is that because of the way that Benjamin the AI learns, he’s really good at picking out cliches from what he reads, because he is trying to predict what people will say based on what they’ve said a lot in the past. And so the guy who wrote this film, Oscar Sharp, said it’s really changed the way he writes to work with this AI, because just hone’s right in on any cliche. So maybe Benjamin has a future as like sort of like an ad blocker, but for cliches. So he could be like a cliche blocker for screenwriters.

IRA FLATOW: Finally, in the short time we have left is this new story about a caterpillar that eats plastic. And what’s more interesting is how they actually discovered this.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: Yes, so there is a scientist who works with bees. And one of the big problems is that worms called– they were caterpillars called wax worms sometimes come in and eat the honeycomb. So she was pulling these worms out and tossed them in a plastic bag and found out they were actually eating the bag and analyzed it and analyzed the worms by smooshing them up and analyzing them and found out that they’re actually digesting plastic.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, polyethylene eating caterpillars.

ANNALEE NEWITZ: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: I can see the horror movie now coming to a theater near you. Thank you, Annalee. Annalee Newitz is the tech culture editor at Ars Technica in San Francisco.

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