Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"And the worms ate into his brain..."

That's it.

I'm seeing a neurologist tomorrow.

Or at least I would like to. This old article from Discover magazine has convinced me that it would be in my best interests. For you see there is a silent epidemic among us, one that manifests itself in the form of paralysis, blindness, impaired speech or eyesight, epileptic seizure, or even coma. The reason.

Tapeworms. Inside the brain.

Tapeworms are usually known as these elongated, ribbon-like parasites that can inhabit the intestinal region of the body. They start out small, though, in a larval stage as cysts and that's when they can end up in the brain. This condition is known as "neurocysticercosis."

Worms in the brain. Think about it.

Perhaps most insidious of all is the fact that there's no telling how many people have this as the outward symptoms can masquerade as neuro-conditions such as epilepsy. That's why an MRI is required to locate the blobbish, white cysts inside the brain. A blood test for antibodies that are produced against tapeworms is needed for additional evidence.

How does this happen to someone? Same way tapeworms find their way into anyone: consumption of undercooked pork. Larvae of the tapeworm get into the muscle tissue of a pig and are then carried into a human when the pork product is not sufficiently heated. These larvae sometimes "lose their way," as the article says, and flow through the bloodstream and into the brain. The article goes into all manner of ghoulish and chthonian description as to what exactly happens when the worm larvae end up in the cerebrum. So if you want to know more I'd suggest clicking the link. One especially gruesome anecdote depicts a man who had a tapeworm wrapped his brain stem. After the worm eventually died, the ensuing swelling of the brain sent the man into a coma.

If you think you have tapeworms in your brain, there are treatments such as a drug called praziquantel, but that brings problems of its own. Prevention, as always, is a better course of action. There are efforts underway to vaccinate pigs from ever getting tapeworm to begin with and...better yet...we can all take action and choose to reduce our consumption of meat. Wow am I more glad than ever that I decided to do that. I'll probably toss bacon out of my diet altogether.

I also want that MRI just to be sure.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

One day it will all end

We certainly seem to have no shortage of crises.

What, when you consider Ebola, ISIS, ecological disaster, and the potential for economic collapse, human extinction can almost seem at times to be a given. If that's not enough of a cheery thought for you, the fine folks over at io9 put an even sharper point on it. There are likely more crises coming up "around the hood ornament" so to speak that carry the capability to wipe out all of humanity. What's more, they will all be our own doing.

Yet we don't seem that concerned. As the article states: 

"Yet, these risks remain understudied. There is a sense of powerlessness and fatalism about them. People have been talking apocalypses for millennia, but few have tried to prevent them. Humans are also bad at doing anything about problems that have not occurred yet (partially because of the availability heuristic – the tendency to overestimate the probability of events we know examples of, and underestimate events we cannot readily recall)."

So what does the author consider to be the five biggest culprits for extinction on the horizon? Let's take a look at them. I will be treating them in ascending order of "what scares me the most."

-Nanotechnology. Face it. Robots on the molecular or even atomic scale scare people. It's that threat of the unseen, of tiny mechanisms that can enter your body while you are none the wiser. A maniacal mind could use such micro-sized devices to poison or perhaps control someone or even just driving them crazy by making them think they have a poltergeist in the house. This is to say nothing of the "grey goo" scenario where self-replicating nanobots get out of control and devour everything in sight, thus sending humanity into extinction.

Then again, this technology could aid us in getting climate change under control or defending our nation. Stop thinking about what could go wrong and consider what could go right.

-Superintelligence. This covers everything from enhanced human cognition to artificial intelligence. The concern stems from the fact that high intelligence does not always come with a high sense of ethics. A highly intelligent person...or a position of authority or control might see a situation in terms of pure logic and not be sensitive to side consequences of a decision.

While I can share a bit of concern over this possibility, I again see this as another case of "rise of the machines" Luddite reactionary fatalism. See above.

-Human created pandemic. Now I'm getting scared. While pandemics such as Ebola have killed many, they generally aren't favored by nature as extinction tools as wiping out their hosts is problematic to their own survival. Someone eventually demonstrates resistance to the pathogen. Human ingenuity can overcome that defect, however. We can make diseases more contagious and more robust against resistance. A study on bird flu demonstrated that the contagious quality of that virus could be deliberately boosted. Bioweapons. If we can turn nature into a weapon, we will.

-Unknown unknowns. You might wonder why I place this Donald Rumsefield-esque entry second to last and not the first as the article lists it. Well again, as the writer states, I suppose I fall to the "availability heuristic." It's hard for me to be afraid of something I don't know about. That being said, I know that the law of averages and probability states that humans can only face so many catastrophes before our number is up.

-Nuclear war. I've written about it on here so many times that it isn't even funny, but this Cold War child is still scared to death of it (thank you, John Chancellor.) While a full-tilt nuclear exchange between the armed nations seems unlikely at this time, it still isn't far from our minds. Putin is sending nuclear-armed bombers and submarines closer and closer to the United States as a means of waving his genitalia about. There is always the threat that a terrorist organization such as ISIS will get their hands on a nuclear device left roaming about after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even a regional exchange between say, India and Pakistan would have drastic global consequences. We're certainly good at finding ways of killing ourselves.

In the end, that might be the factor that belongs at the top of this list. Human beings carry such a streak of avarice, selfishness, and short-sightedness.

That may be the biggest threat of all.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 27, 2014

Music videos pt 2

Video killed the radio star.

And I'm ok with it, too.

Sure, MTV had numerous drawbacks, collateral intellectual damage, and unintended consequences, but think of what it brought us. Before video, music was often a guy in a bushy beard sitting on stool and strumming an acoustic guitar while incense and bongo beats wafted in the background. Once in a while he might even look out at the audience.

Blessedly, music video did for that kind what Nirvana did to hair metal in the early 1990s.

I have given a great deal of thought to music video after a recent conversation I had on Facebook with the lovely Talia of I'm Having a Moment. It has led me to reflect on a few videos...both recent and eldritch...that I did not include in my previous post on the subject.

First up, Radiohead with "Paranoid Android." It's an animated short that showcases all manner of insanity. At the same time, I find it to be a rather accurate depiction of real life.

"When I am king you will be first against the wall."

Speaking of animation, behold Daft Punk with "Harder Better Faster Stronger." Push aside the "corporate ad" nature of the song's title and drink in the video. I'm aware that it's not a "video" in the strictest sense as it's a clip from the anime film, Interstella 555, but I'm including it anyway. The anime has no dialogue and the audio track is composed entirely of recorded for the most part by Daft Punk (I think Barry Manilow might enter the mix as well since he's a big fan of techno. I'm serious.) Plus, even though the story takes place in a star system far far away, it would make a great theme song for the transhumanist movement.

Portishead made a short film called "To Kill a Dead Man." It's based around a political assassination but rapidly morphs into a fast series of weird, black and white existential visuals. Ingmar Bergman would be proud. Taking the short film approach, Portishead took video back to the artform it was intended to be.

"More Than This" is pure cheese from Roxy Music but I like it anyway.

You want more cheese? Check out "Space is the Place" by Sun Ra. Sun Ra was something of a jazz musician who professed that he was not from Earth but from Saturn. He wanted to lead enlightened people away from Earth and towards space which was "the place." Just watch this video unfold of him in a bizarre landscape with odontoid plantlife and mirror-faced beings.

David Bowie was always a video innovator. During the 1990s he teamed up with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (can you say, dream team for Jonny?) on a few songs, a tour, and this video. In it, Trent plays a deranged cab driver named "Jonny." That's right! Jonny. I couldn't have been happier when I saw it. Plus, just like David Bowie, "I'm Afraid of Americans."

If you're interested in reading any more of my thoughts regarding music video, check out my breakdown of the M83 trilogy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, October 24, 2014

Moon of Saturn may have water

Time now again for Science Friday, ESE style.

It has been jokingly referred to as "The Death Star."

Mimas, one of Saturn's smaller moons, has an enormous impact crater, granting it an appearance similar to that of the giant space station from Star Wars (the big crater looks like the dish-shaped opening for the planet-killing laser get the idea.) Aside from that, space scientists have found Mimas to be rather unremarkable.

Now the thinking is that Mimas may have water. Mimas wobbles significantly as it orbits Saturn. So much so that data obtained by the Cassini space probe suggests that there must something in the moon's core to cause such a wobble. It is strongly suspected that this "something" is an ocean of liquid water cloistered within Mimas' center.

In a previous post, I blogged about a study that found that over 50% of Earth's water actually came from space, suggesting that water itself is likely more plentiful in the universe than we might have originally suspected. The oceanic core of Mimas, though not conclusively proven yet, would be a moon-sized glop of evidence heaped onto that line of thinking.

Of course whenever we talk about water in space, there is a certain accompanying level of excitement. Our myopic tendencies bring us to the axiom "where there is water, there is life." I could go on to explain how that's a narrow means of thinking, but that would take away from a post on Mimas. Suffice to say that the chances of life in the center of that Saturn moon are very slim, but this finding is significant in and of itself.

And it would further demonstrate how little we know about our own solar system as well as tantalize us with the prospects of further discoveries in the vast cosmos.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Captain Marvel

I have been reading a lot of Captain Marvel comic books lately.

Whenever you say that to a comic book geek, you typically need to clarify just which character you mean. DC Comics has a Captain Marvel known colloquially even if erroneously as "Shazam." Marvel Comics has several characters with said name. Me? Well, there's only one in my eyes.

It was 1977 and I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Spent the summer there as my Dad was at an academic conference. That was where I saw Star Wars for the first time. It was also where I had my first Slurpee at a 7-11. At the time, such frozen concoctions were being sold in superhero collector cups. The cup I selected was one featuring a comic book hero that I had actually never seen before. He was clad in red and blue, which seems to be a standard superhero color scheme, had a frock of blond hair, and was flying through space. Clearly, this Captain Marvel was a science fiction superhero.

And he looked really cool.

In time I would learn his history. His real identity was Mar-Vell, a military officer of the alien Kree Empire. Loyal ESE readers who suffered through my long dissection of the Kree-Skrull War know this already and no doubt it comes with a pang of misery. Think it was rough for you to read? Imagine blogging it. But I digress...

Mar-Vell came to Earth as part of a Kree detachment. His task was to infiltrate human society and evaluate whether or not Earth is a threat to the Kree Empire. What better place to do this than Cape Kennedy? As he carries out his mission, however, Mar-Vell begins to admire humanity (for reasons that pass understanding) and he gradually comes to believe that it is the Kree who are in the wrong. This earns him the branding of "traitor" and lifelong animosity from his own people. So Captain Marvel makes the best of it on Earth. He wears his original green and white, 1950s-style "space cadet" outfit and uses his enhanced strength and endurance as well as sophisticated technology to defend all of humanity from supervillainous threats.

He eventually gets the costume pictured above and I actually think that's an improvement. The issues I've been going through have him teaming up with Drax the Destroyer (name should ring a bell if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy this past summer) and fighting Kree sentries and super criminals such as The Living Laser. It was one particular battle though that made Captain Marvel rather unique in all of comic books.

In taking on a super criminal named Nitro, Captain Marvel needed to disarm a bomb before it went off and dispersed a nerve gas called "Compound 13" across a populated area. He is successful in doing so but in the process comes into contact with Compound 13. An antidote is administered and Marvel suffers only exiguous effects.

Or so he thinks.

Captain Marvel eventually learns that the Compound 13 gave him cancer. Even for a superhero, there would be no stopping the disease. You see, Marvel wears bracelets called "nega-bands" which are a source of his power. They slow the cancer from spreading but they also cause him to resist all treatments. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Even the advanced technology on Saturn's moon of Titan is of no help. Therefore, across the span of a year or so of comic book time, Captain Marvel slowly faces death the same way as any mortal would and finally succumbs to it. All this is brilliantly depicted by Jim Starlin in The Death of Captain Marvel.

Perhaps this is Captain Marvel's ultimate appeal for me. Despite his heroic nature and the fact that yes, he looked cool and could do cool things, he was just as vulnerable as the rest of us. How often have you heard, "What did that superhero die from? Oh, lost a long, drawn-out battle with cancer. So sad." And so real. There's more than a touch of humanity to Captain Marvel and that's saying something given that he's a Kree. In the end none of his powers mattered. He still faced the same sort of death that the rest of us do.

Face it he did. With grace, with calm, and with dignity.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Great Martian War

I forget when exactly it aired (last spring?) but I remembered my mixed reaction when I saw it.

It was a two-hour BBC program called The Great Martian War. It was all shot "mockumentary" style with actors portraying historians and survivors of a conflict called "The Martian Invasion of 1913." So you guessed it. It was a mash-up of World War I and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

The 1913 portrayed in the mock-documentary is much the same as that of our actual historical reality. All of Europe is itchy and twitchy as it appears Germany is girding itself for war. So when a massive explosion booms out from the Black Forest, the world naturally assumes that Bismarck has tested a superweapon. That line of thought all changes when the German government sends out a telegram begging for help, stating that a "cylinder" full of alien war machines is laying waste to the nation.

And things just begin to deteriorate from there. The Martians (as they are somehow determined to be) have ominous technology at their disposal. There are the "Herons," towering tripod war machines much like the kind Wells described in his novel. There are the "Spiders," which are smaller versions of the Herons and act rather as the foot soldiers to the Herons battlefield commanders (more on that in a moment.) Perhaps most insidious of all are the "Lice."

After the armies of Germany, France, and Britain engage the alien enemy, they find themselves losing. After all, infantry and cavalry are no real match for what geeks might recognize as essentially "battle mechs." It's a slaughter. Perhaps even more disturbing than the carnage is the fact that the morning after a large-scale engagement, the battlefield is utterly barren. There is no wreckage. There is no debris. Creepiest of all, there are no bodies. Survivors tell the camera that they at first speculated that Martians took the bodies during the night for nefarious purposes. In a way, yes.

The Lice, stubby, crawly robots, move across the battlefield and devour whatever is in their path. They take what is useful to the Martians, namely things made of metal or composed of crude electrical components, and then discard the rest. "The rest" in this case being the corpses of humans and horses. They were ground up and dispersed back into the soil. The inorganic material became raw resources for the Martian military to resupply itself. With this kind of self-sustaining supply line added to advanced technology and firepower, the area under Martian control grew to extend as far north as Denmark, as far south as Italy, and westward into France.

The seas are no picnic, either. Just like in the real World War I, the United States and Canada encounter deadly lurkers in the deep as the two nations attempt to move men and supplies across the Atlantic. Instead of U-Boats, this time it's Martian robots "running silent, running deep."

Eventually, things start going right for the humans. Once a Heron steps on a landmine and is destroyed, the Spiders deactivate. Taking the hint, the Allies target the Herons as command and control figures. Additionally, a riff on the original Wells ending becomes the main reason that humans are able to turn things around. A Heron comes to an impotent stop in London. Inside it is a dead Martian who is found to have no resistance to the bacteria and viruses of Earth. Once again taking a hint, the Allies inflict the horse virus glanders upon the Martians. Sick and dying, the Martian advance utterly halts and the war is over.

A cool twist for history buffs is that this type of biological warfare forms a parallel to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 where people begin to contract the virus and not just the Martians.  Instead of Wells' humility of humans being saved by the smallest of creation, however, we see a pavonine strutting of "oh humans are so strong" that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'm left wondering just what the motivation was for this mock-documentary. It's a unique concept, yes, but where were the producers going with it? It's a quality production. I mean, you're not going to get anything less than that from the BBC, but it's just odd. It's almost as if it's too small in scope to be a feature event and not fully-developed enough to become a series. There is a springboard for a series (what that would look like I have no idea) in the sense that the recovered Martian technology called "victicite" has made it into the contemporary electronics of the world of the documentary. There is an insinuation that victicite might actually be biotech with a sense of sentience. Is it trying to make us into Martians?

Who the hell knows. They don't tell us.

This is not to say that The Great Martian War isn't worth a look online or the next time you see it listed on BBC. If you like history or if you like science fiction or if you're like me and you like both, this is one to see. Just don't expect much more than entertainment.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets