Thursday, January 19, 2017

Going quiet for a while


I have just received demoralizing news.

I can't go into specifics just yet, other than it's one of the greatest existential crises one can face short of death. Consequently, I don't feel much like writing and besides it's tough to do that on a laptop while in fetal position and cocooned with blankets. Sorry for that less-than-flattering depiction, but that's how things are.

Besides, the things I'd write would be beyond negative and I know nobody needs that right now (not that they ever really did before.) I'm in despair. I'm terrified. Cut loose and lost and nowhere to go. I have daymares of horrific scenarios: I am once more marooned in a row of cubicles with others as we spend 50 hours of our week trying to sell widgets. Not that they know anything's wrong...overfed, vacuous, and eyes glued to their smartphones believing their suburban surroundings to be nothing short of paradisaical.

For me it's a dystopian nexus.

Might also be worse than that. I could end up in the most rural of rural settings, which would be equally toxic to my mindset.

Sounds like complaining no doubt in this "do what you have to do" world. I can see that, but it's also difficult for many to understand how certain milieus can be utterly debilitating to personalities like mine.

I'm supposed to try to relax at this time. I'm not sure that I can. I have great new books to read, like Rudy Rucker's Transreal Trilogy and Greg Egan's Permutation City, but I can't concentrate enough to get through a page. So I put it down. Then a sort of paralysis sets in, leading to exhaustion, then sleep. Then I wake up and the whole terrified/despondent loop kicks in again and I can barely go out and function in the world.

Anyway, I'll be quiet for a while. Just not feeling up to blogging. How long will I be gone? Can't say for sure. I hope not too long but...these days you never know.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Female android impresses


Once again I'm teaching a class on transhumanism and robotics.

How much longer I get to do that is up for debate, but let's table that for now.

Today I showed the class Ex Machina. Naturally they were a bit disturbed by it as any sentient being should be. A few of them afterward clung to the idea that "we're nowhere near an 'Ava' level of things right now" or that "it could never really happen."

That's when I had to show the article on Jia Jia.

Jia Jia is an android in Singapore. She is one of the most human-like robots I've ever seen. Seriously. There's video of her at the link that you really need to check out. There's something very David Cronenberg about it all, yet it's fascinating to watch. Jia Jia is capable of holding a simple conversation while giving corresponding facial expressions. No one's being totally forthcoming as to what applications a Jia Jia would have, apart from the statement that "in 5-10 years there will be a lot of applications for robotics in China."

In a preliminary role, I could see such a female android acting as a concierge or desk attendant at a high end hotel. There would be a certain charm in that, especially in Asia where the large cities have always seemed like they exist somewhere twenty minutes in the future.

Maybe Jia Jia could also make it as a comedian.


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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Neurology Gangnam style




Image from Discover magazine online.


While I'm not sure just how much this advances neurology, I saw the headline and couldn't resist.

Chinese researchers have discovered characteristic patterns of brain activity associated Gangnam Style.

The reference is of course to 2012's one-hit-wonder "Gangnam Style" by K-pop legend, Psy. You may have thought his 15 minutes have long since evaporated, but that could never truly be. Because science.

In case you must be reminded, here's the song.

Now it's stuck in your head. Not part of the experiment, but let's press on.

In said experiment, 15 volunteers listened to the song and a "light music control," a piano composition called "A Comme Amour." The results? As per the article:

"Chen et al. say that Gangnam Style was associated with “significantly increased fMRI BOLD signals in the bilateral superior temporal cortices, left cerebellum, left putamen and right thalamus cortex”. They conclude that these results reveal something about the mechanisms for the “Gangnam Style-induced” positive emotional response. But I don’t."

Sorry. The "I" there in that quote is the writer of Neuroskeptic for Discover magazine. The article's author goes on to say that the results of the study are debatable as the response may be due to the test subjects' likely familiarity with "Gangnam Style" over the other piece. There were also objections to the volunteers being subjected to a PET scan, which involves the injection of a radioactive tracer dye which is suspected of increasing someone's likelihood of cancer.

Ethically dubious, yes. I'd also argue that exposing human test subjects to possibly repeating plays of "Gangnam Style" is rather inhumane in and of itself.

Naturally there is question as to just how useful any of this will be. Only further scientific jurisprudence will tell. I've long been a supporter of all kinds of research as you never know down the road what information will be useful. I'm trying to keep that same optimism here, but...yeah. It's tough. But there is at least one shining ray of hope offered by this study.

If Psy can be brought back for a university study, might we also revive William Hung?


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Monday, January 16, 2017

Woman dies from infection resistant to all 26 US antibiotics


We like to think we are smarter than disease.

Or at least we know ways to prevent it.

While we may be constantly improving at the latter, I worry about the former. Nature has a way of adapting and microorganisms seem especially tenacious and resilient. To combat infections of these "bugs," we have been rather reliant on antibiotics and with good reason. They work. Long term use of these drugs has, however, made microbial life more and more resistant. Which makes the following news particularly scary.

A woman in Nevada has died from an infection that was resistant to all 26 American antibiotics. You can read the full report from the CDC here.

The Nevada woman, in her 70s, had been previously hospitalized in India after breaking her leg which led to an infection in her hip. None of the 26 antibiotics in the US inventory were effective against this infection. Later testing of the bacteria that killed her showed fosfomycin to be somewhat effective, but that antibiotic is not approved in the U.S. to treat that type of infection. This hapless woman was kept in quarantine while in the U.S. hospital and there are zero signs that the super-resistant bacteria that caused the infection has spread. That might sound like good news, and it is, but Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic explains why we should still be worried:

"The danger isn’t just that a single pan-resistant bacteria emerges and terrorizes the world. It’s that pan-resistant bacteria can keep emerging independently. The nightmare might go away, only to come back somewhere else."

When first read this news, I had an odd chain of reactions. My initial response was as a germaphobe. I don't even like touching the handles of public washrooms. The idea that germs completely resistant to all antibiotics can just pop up is enough to make me want to swim in hand sanitizer (although such products may be contributing to the problem in their own way.) Then a snide side of me rather liked the kick this gives to human complacency. We like to think we have reason and rectitude on our side. We're clever. We're special. We can figure our way out of most anything. Yeah. Well, maybe not this time.

Then again, this is something of a relief. Worried about your job? Your finances? Living in tyranny? Well good news! A fast-spreading, untreatable pandemic might end all your anxieties for you.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Chase Danner 5: Castaways on Zaslone




No, this has nothing to do with John Carter. The picture is meant as inspiration and tone-setting. If it’s your pic and you want it removed, let me know.


CHASE, PLEX, and their newfound “frenemy,” Princess ARDELIA began their escape from the central fortress of the Trindando. Chase managed to disarm the reptilian guards through a dazzling display of swordsmanship…but there would be more soldiers on their way to reckon with. If they were going to make their move, it had to be now…

Out the window they went. Using the “rope line” Ardelia and Plex formed from tablecloths, curtains, bedsheets, and any other linen not nailed down in the stateroom, they began to repel down the rounded side of the stone fortress. As he pushed away from the wall with legs, again and again and again, Chase began to sense something strange on his skin and in his head. The air seemed to crackle with an energy.

“Funny,” Chase said as his nose sniffed. “Do you feel that electrical sensation? I smell something like ozone, too.”

“Yes,” Ardelia said. “And it’s not a good thing.”

The beautiful green woman released her grip on the cloth line and dropped to a hard roof. From there she sprang to the street below and landed with a bound. Chase and Plex followed in her movements and hit street level as well. That’s when the first laser blast hit, sending dirt, rock, and yes Chase and Plex, up into the air.

“They’re shooting at us!” Chase said, picking himself up from the ground.

“Indeed,” Plex said. “And for what reason? I daresay they don’t even know us.”

“No, I mean how?” Chase asked. “All I’ve seen them carry are swords and spears. They’re not supposed to have weapons that…”
And that’s when he saw it: a laser cannon turret atop the fortified wall swiveling toward their direction.

“Run!” Ardelia barked.

The cannon fired once again and both Chase and Plex did as Ardelia said. They managed to clear the minimum safe radius from the blast. Many Trindando ran as well in the streets and marketplaces, their governors seeming to give no care for their safety as they continued to blast away with the laser cannon.

“That sensation you had?” Ardelia asked Chase as they ran. “It was the cannons charging. Come on!”

Ardelia turned a corner and down a narrow pathway between two buildings. She found an iron grate in the ground and lifted it free from its place. Heaving it aside, she jumped into the ensuing dark hole.

“Sir, should we trust where she’s taking us?” Plex asked.

A third laser blast boomed into the street and many Trindando shrieked.

“Do we have a choice?” Chase asked.

He followed Ardelia into the dark.

Soon all three were making their way through a dim subterranean tunnel of hewn rock.

“This city is ancient,” Ardelia said without looking at either of them. “The Trindando have tunnels down here that they’ve long since forgotten about. A few were built by their rulers as a means of escape should calamity strike. Others for conveyance that would offer shelter from the heat of Zaslone. And others still with purposes and locations long since forgotten. Except to my father, King Corloss. Our people have mapped many of these catacombs right under the scaly noses of the Trindando. That’s how I came to be a…guest of theirs.”

“I don’t follow,” Chase said.

They kept walking and the light grew dimmer. Chase found himself struggling to still see Ardelia’s facial expressions due to her deep green skin tone in the growing darkness.

“For all their faults, the Trindando have a rich and fascinating culture,” she said. “I study archaeology and history at university. I wanted to see the ancient structures of their city for myself, maybe even get to examine their fabled artwork. For my intellectual curiosity, I was rewarded with an ambush from a Trindando patrol.”

“But it’s so refreshing to find someone risking themselves for mental expansion,” Plex said. “For all we know, it’s outlawed by now in the galaxy.”

The rocky, crumbly ground soon became structured in a cobblestone pattern. Chase looked about and saw that the tunnel displayed all the hallmarks of masonry and design, like a passageway in a castle.

“Yes, I suppose we’re all fugitives now,” Ardelia said. “But I am going home and that has value in and of itself. Tell me, Chase Danner. This ‘Allegiant’ you spoke of. Would you not consider working out a peace with it so that you might go home again as well?”

Chase gritted his teeth.

“And live under the boot heel of that scumbag Monarch? Never,” he said.

 An archway came into sight ahead and beyond it a staircase that turned downward.

“Never,” Ardelia mocked. “Such an absolute word.”

“Quiet!” Chase hushed.

He drew the sword that he purloined from the soldier back at the fortress.

“Something moved ahead of us…”


TO BE CONTINUED…


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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reflections





Heartbreak is one of the worst experiences of human existence. So why not animate it?

Artist Morgan Gruer has done just that. And it's magnificent.

Rendered in watercolor, the two minute animation (embedded above for your convenience) is fluid, never seeming to stop for too long as the subject floats...and sometimes nearly drowns...within the waves of each emotion. At times in the piece, reality seems to bend. She sees her former love and reaches out, but of course he is no longer there. She catches instead wisps of multicolored smoke.

How often have we done that in the wake of such events? You can truly sense that the subject is weighed down by these emotions, myrmidon to them for the time and with no end in sight. The music accentuates all this as well, hitting you (explosively at times) with each breaking wave of anguish and grief. I'm reminded in a sense of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." Nothing makes sense anymore, everything is a funhouse distortion of what it once was, the center of the universe has fallen away and we're left wandering to find a new one. If we're lucky, that is.

Depressing? I guess, but you know I'm all about that. It's real. It's not romantic. It's unlikely to give you any real sense of comfort. That is unless you count the sensation that you'll know you're not alone in experiencing these moments. I certainly count that as a plus.

Looking forward to more from Morgan Gruer.



Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets