Wednesday, September 17, 2014

10 controversial future technologies

Our future will be a technological one.

That's obvious, I know.  Even a plow is a form of technology.  But futurist George Dvorsky at io9 has put together a superlist of "10 Horrifying Technologies That Should Never Be Allowed to Exist."

As I scrolled through the list, I had one of my usual reactions to this sort of cautionary cry but after reading further in the text, I saw that Dvorsky couched his list with the same thought and that made me feel better.  The idea is this: several of these technologies are not innately "horrifying" and could be of tremendous benefit to the world.  Once operational, they could help bring an end to hunger, clean the environment we've managed to ruin, favorite...modify the human body and eliminate our defects (please, somebody do something about depression.)

I have always cautioned, however much I've harped about the future, that there are pitfalls and we need to be aware of them.  There is also the Law of Unintended Consequences.  More than anything, the end result of these technologies will be determined by human nature...which I have even less faith in than I do the Big Invisible Sky Daddy.  Anyway, without further ado, let's take a look at the list.

-Weaponized nanotech.  I'll admit it.  This does scare me.  Swarms of micro-scale robots that can self-replicate and devour.  It's a scenario that doesn't stop with "grey goo." The nanobots would be organized and systematic in their attack while humans would be all higgleddy-piggleddy the face of it as nearly everything we depend on for life would be broken down.  Ultimately it would lead to human extinction.  The article features a clip from Animatrix to accentuate this point.

-Conscious machines.  This is different than artificial intelligence.  This would a device that as the name indicates, is conscious of itself and its situation.  Many philosophers have argued it would be unethical and torturous to have such a conscious imprisoned for its existence in a box like a computer.

-Super artificial intelligence.  Despite what Stephen Hawking says, I don't believe that AI is the harbinger of our doom.  There are many benefits to AI and since it already exists in at least a rudimentary form, it is naive to think that it won't advance as the technological genii is now fully out of the bottle.  What needs to happen is regulation to prevent an AI from seeing itself as our superior and therefore our master.  I don't know how you do that and I'm not sure anyone else really does either.

-Time travel.  Won't happen.  Not going to concern myself.

-Mind reading devices.  Orwell would've loved these things.  I, on the other hand, could do without them.  To quote Prince: "If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind, make me an electric chair for all my future crimes."

-Brain hacking devices.  As I've mentioned in regard to depression and boosting intelligence, I'd love to hack my brain with implants.  Dvorsky cautions against his, smartly pointing to the example of Ghost in the Shell when a malevolent intelligence was able to enter human brains through the network and actually modify their memories and desires.

-Autonomous robots designed to kill humans.  We already have trouble with drones and collateral damage.  The potential for even bloodier shenanigans becomes all the scarier with the idea that the armed drones could think for themselves.  "Please put down your weapon.  You have thirty seconds to comply..."

-Virtual prisons.  Your body is dead but your mind and your consciousness exist forever, imprisoned for all eternity within a computer system.  Makes the Phantom Zone from Superman (cited in the article) look like a low-security spa for Wall Street insider traders.

-Hell engineering.  I had not heard of this concept before reading the article.  Futurists usually think about ways to create utopia-like existences where the majority of our ills will be erased.  But the universe seems to have a tendency to balance itself out.  Having a good year?  Be prepared for the eventual downslide and vice versa.  If you can create heaven, then hell might be a natural byproduct.

-Weaponized pathogens.  I reordered this item to the end of the list because it genuinely terrifies me.  In 2005, there was much controversy over the publishing of genomes of deadly viruses.  Such a thing could be seen as a cookbook for bioterrorists.   A virus could be engineered to be highly contagious and guaranteed lethal.  Frighteningly enough, it seems that ISIS already has this in mind.

I certainly would never advocate to block progress.  You can, however, still progress while doing so with caution.  That's what we need to do.  Perhaps even more chilling is the idea that it's not enough to ban these ten technologies.  Instead, we should be looking at ways to respond and contain them when they inevitably arise from unscrupulous minds.

Sleep well, everybody!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Enhanced intelligence: it works in mice


I just know that you read that word with a deep exclamation and a Thomas Dolby voice.

Sometimes scientific research can be amazing but its practical application can seem murky at best.  That may be the case with the following experiment but bear in mind, much eventually comes from original research.

Mice have been genetically modified to carry the human gene, Foxp2.  This is the gene thought to be responsible for the human abilities of speech and learning.  So the mice could talk and read T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland?

Of course not.  Don't be ridiculous.

They were, however, able to navigate a maze and nab a reward much faster than those in the unmodified control group.  As the Discover article reports:

"When placed in a maze where mice could use both landmarks and floor texture, mice with the human gene performed far better than normal mice. They learned the route in 7 days rather than the 11 days it took normal mice. However, when mice could only use one cue — landmarks or texture — there was no significant performance difference."

Great, you might say.  So what are we to take from all of this?

For one thing, this experiment grants further evidence of the importance of Foxp2 in the development of the human mind.  It is what allows a learned skill to become an unconscious behavior.  How much do you think about reading?  If you're reading and comprehending this post now, you likely don't give the actual act of reading much thought.  That's what we're talking about.

Knowing this may open up new doors in gene therapy.  If someone has a cognitive disorder, alterations that involve Foxp2 may be the ticket.  I'm sure you've already guessed that I'm thinking of the other applications.  As technology advances, could the same techniques be employed to enhance an already healthy and functional human brain beyond its inherent capabilities?  It only seems far-fetched right now.

The other notion is that now that this procedure is known, an unscrupulous individual may conduct the same experiments on other animals.  Like say, chimpanzees?  I will try to ablacate from a Planet of the Apes scenario, regardless of how much it excites me.

That's it.  I'm building my army of super-intelligent apes and mice.  That way I have stealth and strength.


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Monday, September 15, 2014

The respect barrier

She is lucky to be alive.

On August 8th, adult film actress Christy Mack (above) was brutally beaten in her own home, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, War Machine (yes, that is is his legal name having changed it from Jonathan Koppenhaver.)  War Machine, a mixed martial arts fighter, is said to have found Mack in bed with a male friend.  This allegedly resulted in the choking, beating, and sexual assault of Mack.  Mack suffered ten broken bones, a broken nose, a fractured limb, several broken and missing teeth, and a severely ruptured liver as the result of being kicked in the side.  War Machine fled for a time but was apprehended by police shortly thereafter.

On his Twitter account, Mr. Machine has made tweets in months prior to the assault where he proudly claims to have raped Mack.  He also wears a t-shirt that reads "I do alpha male shit" in his profile pic.
Apparently, such "alpha male" activities include bludgeoning women half his size and strength.  Perhaps the same "alpha male" logic can be applied to several posters in the comments section of sites carrying this particular news story.  Weighing in on the subject, these armchair pundits suggested that Mack somehow attracted or deserves her injuries given the nature of her profession.

The most polite word I can conjure for such thinking is "flapdoodle."

All of this bobbles in the thick of already turbulent waters.  Ray Rice and several other players in the NFL have been accused of committing domestic violence (as Vice President Joe Biden says, however, we really should just start calling it "violence."  There is nothing "domesticated" about it.)  Thinking individuals are left wondering how violence against women could ever be seen as a viable option in an industrialized nation of the 21st Century and how offenders can often evade proportionate penalties.  Without question there are numerous sociological factors that contribute to the presence of domestic violence, but here I am going to argue that our political leaders  and the news media that covers politics are contributing factors.  Not only do women remain an underrepresented population in our government, many of their male counterparts as well as commentators in the media create and reinforce attitudes that at best paint women as second class citizens and at worst...targets.
Let's take a look at a few politicians and their views on the crime of sexual assault:

Granted, it would be safe to say these views are extreme and that most leaders would not advocate such things for their female constituents.  But like pollutants in the atmosphere, these statements remain in the air, wafting about on the currents of the zeitgeist and feeding into attitudes and perceptions.  Additionally, what happens when women enter the political arena in an effort to lead and participate in the process?   How are they perceived and treated by their peers?  Perhaps more importantly, how are they covered and represented in political news media?

For her film Miss Representation, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom created a montage of TV news clips where pundits and hosts made commentary on female political leaders.  Among the more noxious points in the film:

-One commentator called Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, "Wicked Witch of the West."
-Another said of Pelosi: "If you waterboarded Nancy Pelosi, she wouldn't admit to [having] plastic surgery."
-A headline on a news site labeled Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin as "The bitch and the ditz" respectively.
-Greta Van Susteren of Fox News asked Sarah Palin, "Breast implants.  Did you have them?"
-Bill O'Reilly, again of Fox News, asked a guest what the "down side" of having a female president might be.  "Besides the mood swings and PMS?" his guest responded.

If you can stomach it, take a look at those statements and scan them for subtext.  Once the infantile insults are removed, the true focus of what our media culture seems to want from female leaders is revealed.  Are they being asked about their stance on immigration reform?  On climate change?  Hell, even the budget?  Do we want to know about their stance on issues?  At other times, perhaps.  As the documentary shows, however, the discourse invariably comes back to questions of how a woman looks.  We're asking about breast implants, about plastic surgery, or why Angela Merkel won't buy a new outfit.  Yes, that's a foreign example but the principle remains the same and it's still our media in the reporting.  

Given this kind of treatment, is it any wonder that more women don't seek office or that when they do they aren't given serious and fair consideration?  Should we really be that perplexed that only 17% of Congress is composed of women and that fact places the U.S. in 90th place in the world in terms of women in legislatures?  The absence of basic respect can be quite the dissuading force...and it would be naive to presume that the disrespectful attitudes cited from the mouths of our own leaders and media in Miss Representation don't help mold every day social norms.

To prevent more incidents like Christy Mack or abused NFL wives/girlfriends, effective and comprehensive strategies and policies are needed.  This can't happen without more women involved in the process, having a say over the societal and legal mechanisms that affect their very health and safety.  When that population is excluded from the room when the decisions get made, it's hard to see how a fair and reasonable outcome can result.

Seriously, why is this shit even still a thing?

"Men are afraid women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid men will kill them." --Margaret Atwood

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Another year on Earth

Today is my birthday.

I have lived out yet another year.  Humans seem to think that is something worth "celebrating" for whatever reason.

What will I do for this occasion?  Nothing.

Yes.  I'm okay with that.  I'm also at peace with being my age.  After all, I've got all the inner angst and loathing of a 16 year-old so it feels...I dunno...youthful.  There are still no shortage of things that piss off Jonny Nichols: Angry Youth.

I checked to see if anything significant happened on this day in history.  The answer to that is "a whole lot of nothing." Guess I shouldn't have expected anything less.  Well, it was the date of the final mission of NASA's Gemini series.  I guess that's significant.  Listed for my actual birth date is the destruction of three airliners hijacked by Palestinians.  Figures I'd share the day with a tragedy (and narrowly missed 9/11 occurring on "my day.")

Who else was born on this date?  Science fiction author Stanislaw Lem for one.  I'm hoping that bodes for a positive trajectory that combines myself with science fiction.

You didn't know it was my birthday?  You didn't get me anything?  That's okay.  It can be late.  I don't mind.  Wondering what to get me?  This Zaxxon stand-up arcade machine will do.  There's room for it in my office.  Really.  I measured.

But if you're really serious about a gift, please give to the World Wildlife Fund and "adopt" an endangered animal.

What do I have planned for the year ahead?  I have at least two books I want to complete writing.  I thought writing them in a contiguous manner would keep me from getting bored but as the old saying goes, "in trying to catch two hares I ended up catching neither." Or however it goes.  Once finished, the books will likely be released independently and with the assistance of a literary "kickstarter" such as Pubslush.  I would also like to see a few other areas of the world.  Towards that purpose, I am deadly serious about an expedition to New Mexico next summer in order to complete my research for In Green Blood.  I am also serious about taking applications for research assistants (I already know Bernard is down for it.)

If I can accomplish those things as well as keep perpetuating my forward momentum in academics, I'll consider myself a success.

"I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday
I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday
'Cause you're evil
And you lie
And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
(But I won't cry) "

--The Smiths

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Berwyn Mountains UFO incident

As I went through my mental convalescence from depression, I read many UFO books.

Most were geared towards my research on the story of (the alleged) Dulce Base but a few were of a more general nature.  One of them mentioned a UFO incident unknown to me previously.  As by happenstance, two researchers recently appeared on Coast-to-Coast AM and discussed the very case.  British UFO researcher Steven Lumley has written a book on the event and joined another UK UFO investigator named Russ Kellett (himself a professed abductee) on the program.

It is called the Berwyn Mountains UFO incident.  It is purported to have happened in January of 1974.  On C2C, Lumley claimed that the chain of events actually began in the Irish Sea as ships of the Royal Navy came down the Scottish coast in pursuit of "something below the surface of the water." Ships popped off photoflash bombs in an effort to expose their quarry.  While this was all underway, numerous fighter jets from the RAF dropped flash bombs into the area, working to box their targets into a corner, Kellett reckons.

Kellett's research alleges that three saucer-shaped UFOs then shot out of the ocean and attempted to flee the area.  One of these UFOs hid in a lake in the Berwyn Mountains of Wales and another exploded nearby.  This latter event may or may not have been the result of combat with the RAF aircraft.  It's the case of the third craft where things really get interesting.

This UFO is said to have landed on a road near a town in the mountains.  Kellett cites five witnesses who claim that several entities disembarked from this saucer with two of their number appearing "distressed" (how so was never made clear.)  Heavily armed units of the British military arrived on the scene and shooed away the witnesses.  Before they could be fully chased off the scene, witnesses told Kellet they that observed the aliens being taken to a vehicle and then driven away.  The UFO was lifted onto a flatbed truck and whisked away from the scene as well.  With no small amount of precision and expediency, the affected area was entirely cleansed of anything unusual ever having happened.

It is a rather lorn case in Ufology it seems and I am admittedly still trying to learn the facts of it all, but it does have several standard earmarks of the "mythos" as it were.  First of all, Unidentified Submarine Objects or USOs are nothing new.  There has been considerable UFO activity within and around the world's oceans.  In his book Invisible Residents (one of the ones I read and will soon review), Ivan T. Sanderson proposes that there is an entire intelligent and even advanced race living beneath the sea.  Additionally, there is the trope of downed saucers and the government showing up to scoop up any evidence.  This site called Bubble News (and name like that just cries out "journalistic integrity") even alleges that witnesses from the area villages were visited and intimidated by Men In Black.

What do Lumley and Kellett cite for evidence?  Well there are the witnesses plus calls to local police about the strange doings of the night in question.  There are also a few documents Kellett was able to obtain.

Not everyone, however, is keen on that evidence.  The content writers of Xpose UFO Truth sure aren't happy with Kellett and Lumley.  "Berwyn Mountains UFO Myth Dismantled" and "hoax" are phrases prominently shown on that site.  They also allege that the government documents Kellett cites are fraudulent and that no such incident "could ever have happened."

There is always competing research in these matters and things can rapidly devolve into pissing contests.  What is the truth?  Well it would seem that the burden of proof is on Kellett and Lumley so their evidence would need to be convincing.  The only way to know for sure is to do the reading and the research.

I invite you to do so and make up your own mind because I know I certainly will.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Been thinking about Wild Cards

Yes, George R. R. Martin has written other books besides Game of Thrones.

Martin was editor of a science fiction anthology called Wild Cards.  It is one of my favorite science fiction franchises and that is perhaps due to the collection's superhero angle.

Wild Cards was initially the product of a group of writers who all played the Superworld role-playing game.  Together they created a shared universe not unlike the kind inhabited by DC or Marvel superheroes.  Multiple writers wrote short stories set within this common milieu, creating a sort of mosaic novel.  Among the talent that has visited this series are Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, and Pat Cadigan.

But just what is the story of Wild Cards?  Glad you asked.

Just after World War II, an alien named Dr. Tachyon arrived on Earth from the planet Takis.  Tachyon was a geneticist who had helped his people create a virus that human doctors came to call Xenovirus Takis-A.  Known as "the Enhancer" to Takisians, the virus was intended to amplify the aliens' natural telepathic abilities.  Would it work?  Only one prudent way to find out.  Just as we would do to chimps, the Takisians decided to test the virus on a species with DNA similar to their own.  Namely the humans of Earth.

The spaceship that carried the virus to this planet was downed.  It was in this wreckage that a scar-faced, Nazi-sympathizing, mad scientist named Dr. Tod found the pressurized canister of the virus and rightly presumed it to be a bioweapon.  In "Thirty Seconds Over Broadway," one of the introductory stories of the series, Dr. Tod placed the virus inside a blimp and hovered it over New York City.  He announced by radio that if he did not receive 20 million dollars (remember, a lot of money back in the 1940s), he would detonate the blimp and send the virus sprinkling to the populace below.  Oh the bastardous scaramouch!

All-American hero Jetboy is then called in to deal with the matter.  Jetboy was an orphan who fell into the possession of an experimental, prototype jet fighter called the JB-1 after its designer, Professor Silverberg, was gunned down by Nazis.  Jetboy went on to become a flying ace in the war, earning numerous victories.  He was not so lucky over Broadway.

Jetboy crashed the JB-1 into the blimp's gondola and confronted Dr. Tod.  Both men reached for the bomb's detonator...

Jetboy's final words were: "I can't die yet, I haven't seen The Jolson Story."

The virus was released after all.

What would happen to the infected was, as the Wild Card name would imply, a luck of the draw.  The vast majority of people died from illness, drawing "The Black Queen." A very small percentage of people, however, might draw a Joker.  That means that they would mutate into an unattractive form.  You might grow a tail or scaly, lizard-like skin might form over your body.  You might even exude a hideous odor from every pore of your body as in the hapless case of Snotman.  An even smaller number might draw an Ace, meaning they would develop super powers.  These can include the traditional superhero fare such as flight, telepathy, or super intelligence or perhaps animal based like Spider-Man.  An Ace might also draw a Deuce, meaning their superpower is utterly being to grow body hair at will.

Like the virus itself, what you got from the stories depended very much on who was writing them.  The story might take a pulpy form as it did with Jetboy, it might be more traditional in the comic book way, or it might be otherwise realistic science fiction with graphic sex, accurate violence, and societal problems.  Something for everyone.

While published in 1987, Wild Cards remains one of the freshest takes on the "mass pandemic" subgenre of fiction.  Instead of a dreadful illness or the trite redundancy of the "zombie apocalypse," why not include the possibility of something extraordinary happening?

The slim chance of acquiring powers would almost make me want to take the Wild Card risk.


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