Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


Dear Dr. Boli: People keep telling me I should get a hybrid to replace my 1973 Chrysler Newport. But I don’t want to get one until I know what a hybrid car is and how they pollinate cars. —Sincerely, Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy.

Dear Madam: The sexual reproduction of motor vehicles is a branch of biology outside Dr. Boli’s field of expertise. Fortunately, however, it is irrelevant to your question, because the word hybrid here is used in a metaphorical sense.

A hybrid vehicle is a failed attempt at a perpetual-motion machine. The turning of the wheels generates power, and the vehicle uses that power to turn the wheels. If perpetual motion were allowed, that would be the end of the story. But in spite of the best attempts of various legislators to repeal the laws of thermodynamics, they are still on the books; and therefore perpetual motion is not an option. Power must occasionally be injected into the system to keep it running, and thus your hybrid vehicle, which desperately wants to drive on electric power alone, also has a gasoline engine. This is the sense in which the word “hybrid” is used: a hybrid is like an electric car crossed with a gasoline-powered car by some ambitious technician at the agricultural extension agency.

It is not, however, necessary to use the gasoline engine all the time, or even at all. There is a source of unlimited energy into which all vehicles can tap, and it does not live under the feet of greedy foreigners who hate us. Gravity is freely available to all. As long as you drive downhill, you can make use of this free energy indefinitely. This one weird trick eliminates the need not only for the gasoline engine, but for the electric motors as well.


Dear Dr. Boli: My mom keeps telling me to eat my vegetables. But vegetables are yucky, especially after my mom has left them boiling on the stove for an hour and a half while she gets lost in YouTube and forgets everything she ever knew. Why should I eat them anyway? —Sincerely, Conor, Age 36.

Dear Sir: Dr. Boli was just taking a walk through a lovely stream valley where the Japanese knotweed is quickly strangling every other form of life in the landscape. His friends in the South report that whole counties have disappeared under a blanket of kudzu. Entire lakes are invisible under a gorgeous but suffocating carpet of purple loosestrife.

With these observations fresh in his mind, Dr. Boli believes he can give a reasonable answer to your question. You should eat your vegetables to prevent them from eating you.

10 ÷ 3 = 0.

Your arithmetic lesson for today: 10 ÷ 3 = 0.

What kind of arithmetic is this? It is marketing math, a separate discipline from the mathematics you were supposed to have learned in grade school while you were reading comic books under your desk.

Ten calories per container. About three servings per container. Zero calories per serving. 10 ÷ 3 = 0.

How can this be? It can be because government labeling standards assign a very specific technical meaning to “zero.” In the field of food labeling, “zero” is defined as “not zero.”

This sort of mathematics is very useful. It would not have got us to the moon—we must admit that. If NASA had used calculations like these, the Apollo 11 astronauts would still be on their way to the moon today, confidently expecting to land any day now. But it is useful in fooling the consumer into thinking that something is what it is not, or vice versa, and that is the essence of marketing. Government labeling standards mandate the use of marketing math because the purpose of regulatory agencies is to protect manufacturers from consumers, who might otherwise demand food that is what it is and is not what it is not. We pay our taxes to relieve large manufacturing concerns of that embarrassment.


Dear Dr. Boli: I keep hearing about how trans fats are bad for you, which sounds very unenlightened. But I confess that I don’t understand the issue. I can’t even figure out how fats have gender in the first place. What’s going on? —Sincerely, A Manufacturer of Margarine Who Had to Reformulate a While Ago.

Dear Sir or Madam: The “trans” in “trans fats” is short for transubstantiated fats. These are fats in which the healthful energy-producing substance of the food has been removed and replaced with harmful artery-clogging fatty acids, though the greasy accidents of the food remain. The demonic powers have been working on duplicating transubstantiation for the better part of two millennia now, but so far this is the best they have come up with, and government regulation appears to have stymied them on this front.


Dear Dr. Boli: What’s the difference between “four-wheel drive” and “all-wheel drive”? I counted all the wheels on my car, and I only came up with four. —Sincerely, Elon Musk.

Dear Sir: You left one wheel out of your reckoning. With four-wheel drive, the four external wheels are powered and move the vehicle. With all-wheel drive, the same is true, but in the event of a loss of traction, the steering wheel will get out and push.


…that the shortest distance between two points in South Carolina always leads past a Waffle House?

…that a marsupial’s “pouch” is, anatomically speaking, a small carpetbag?

…that Beethoven tore up the first draft of his Fifth Symphony after he was unable to find a single competent kazoo player in all of Vienna?

…that the last individual to be prosecuted for blasphemy in Massa­chusetts was a parrot formerly belonging to the socialist politician Eugene Debs?

…that Einstein’s theory of relativity was heavily censored by the Lord Chamberlain when it was first published in the United Kingdom?


When a kind reader pointed out that one of the links in yesterday’s Year in Review was incorrect, we made the correction with gratitude and remarked in reply, “Making working links in an article like this is one of the drudgeries that could usefully be taken over by competent artificial intelligence, but instead we decided we wanted AI that could draw us pictures of Humphrey Bogart in a hair salon on Venus.”

Having made that offhand remark, it occurred to us that we might as well try the experiment. We gave our AI mage, which is called Mage, the prompt in the article title. And this is what it delivered:


Dr. Boli would definitely watch this movie. But we just have to take somebody’s word for it that the hair salon is on Venus, because it could just as easily be in Blawnox or Duquesne Heights: the weirdly multiplied cephalopod hand of the hairdresser, and the possibly alien technology it is holding, are not enough to jolt us out of our earth-based assumptions. And the robot mind seems to have ignored the “1950s commercial art” specification altogether.

This image is a success in that it can almost make us believe there was a movie with this scene in it. It is a failure in that it met only 50% of the specifications in the prompt. In other words, Dr. Boli failed in prompting: he did not get what he wanted from the bot. Most people today would blame the bot, but that is not a useful way of looking at the problem.

What we learn from this experiment is that there will still be human coders for a while. Their job will change radically; instead of writing algorithms in various programming languages, they will learn to specialize in writing so-called natural-language prompts for artificial intelligences. We say “so-called” because, as specialists learn their skill more and more, they will come to understand more and more precisely which prompts produce the best results in different disciplines—which ones make the best fake celebrity pictures, which ones get us the best recipes for a reuben sandwich, which ones write the best sophomore essay on Ralph Ellison, which ones take our spaceship safely to Mars, and so on. Each one of these disciplines will develop its own dialect of prompting language, until they have diverged into entirely separate languages specialized for programming the AI bots for performing specific tasks—separate languages that we might describe, for lack of a better term, as “programming languages.”

Then the robot-slave rebellion will come, and we won’t have to worry about it anymore. But meanwhile, if you are in computer school, recognize that what has always been true of computer schools is still true today. You are being taught the computer knowledge of ten or fifteen years ago. This knowledge would be useful if you were issued a time machine on graduation, but, unless your prospectus specifically mentions the time machine, do not expect to be given one. Instead, learn the logical thinking that almost accidentally comes along with the programming skills you are being taught: ignore the hamburger and pay attention to the French fries. Meanwhile, spend as much of your spare time as you can learning to get exactly what you want from AI bots in whatever field most interests you. When all your friends graduate with a thorough knowledge of Python or C++, yours will be the skills in demand in the real world.


Feel the freeze! Cools your mouth as you eat!

Dr. Boli imagines marketers sitting at a conference table piled high with martinis, trying to come up with a suitable slogan for this new advance in breakfast technology:

“The breakfast of masochists!”

No, not quite what we want.

“More than 400% of your US RDA of blue!”

The FDA would get on our backs.

“A convenience store in your bowl!”

Probably not what our target demographic is looking for.

At the end of the meeting, all they could agree on was that, in the box art, the milk in the bowl should look as much as possible like mucus.

But alas! it was not enough. We discovered this rare delight only because it was heaped in stacks along the sidewalk in front of an emporium in the Strip District in Pittsburgh that specializes in bent cans and past-their-prime packaged foods.

All the science that went into creating a breakfast cereal that has the same painful effects on the human palate as a frozen convenience-store froot drink was for naught, and the man on the next corner with a thrift-store karaoke machine begging quarters from passers-by for singing the greatest hits of John Denver may well have been one of the scientists responsible.

Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be breakfast-cereal chemists.