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August 06 2018

04:00
2762 a4a3
Disaster Movie
Really, they'd be rushing around collecting revisions to go into the next scheduled quarterly public data update, not publishing them immediately, but you have to embellish things a little for Hollywood.

August 03 2018

04:00
1593 15a7 500
Complex Numbers
I'm trying to prove that mathematics forms a meta-abelian group, which would finally confirm my suspicions that algebreic geometry and geometric algebra are the same thing.
Reposted byastela astela

August 01 2018

04:00
2403 f9dd
Lightning Distance
The index of radio refraction does have a lot of variation, which might throw off your calculations, so you can also look at the difference in brightness between the visible flash and more-attenuated UV and x-rays.

July 30 2018

04:00
0652 e1f1
Heat Index
The heat index is calculated via looking up the "effective temperature" in a table of air temperature and humidity values, and then adding a bunch more degrees because it feels WAY hotter than that.
Reposted byvictoriansoberjanuschytrus

July 27 2018

04:00
1762 331d
Peer Review
Your manuscript "Don't Pay $25 to Access Any of the Articles in this Journal: A Review of Preprint Repositories and Author Willingness to Email PDF Copies for Free" has also been rejected, but nice try.

July 25 2018

21:02

HemiHive, in Hiding

If you’ve been following my writing for any length of time, you’ll know how fascinated I am by Krista and Tatiana Hogan, of British Columbia. I’ve cited them in Echopraxia’s end notes, described them in online essays; if you caught my talk at Pyrkon last year you might remember me wittering on about them in my rejoinder to Elon Musk’s aspirations for “neural dust”. Longtime readers might even remember their 2012 appearance in this very column.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it's someone at the CBC so it's taxpayer-funded.

Not entirely sure who gets the photo credit, but it’s someone at the CBC so it’s taxpayer-funded.

Can you blame me? A pair of conjoined twins, fused at the brain? A unique cable of neurons— a thalamic bridge— wiring those brains together, the same way the corpus callosum connects the cerebral hemispheres in your own head? Two people who can see through each others eyes, feel and taste what the other does, share motor control of their limbs— most remarkably, communicate mind-to-mind without speaking? Is it any wonder that at least one neuroscientist has described the twins as “a new life form”?

If the Hogans don’t capture your imagination, you’re dead inside. I’ve been following those two from almost the day they were born in 2006 (the year Blindsight came out— and man, how that book could have changed if they’d been born just a few years earlier.) I’ve been trying to, anyway.

They don’t make it easy.

Bits and pieces trickle out now and then. Profiles in the New York Times and Macleans. Puff-piece documentaries from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, heavy on saccharine human-interest and cutesy music, light on science. Eleven years on, the public domain will tell you that Krista processes input from three legs and one arm, while Tatiana processes input from three arms and one leg. We know that they’re only halfway to being a true hive mind, because there are still two of them in there; the thalamic bridge carries lower bandwidth than a corpus callosum, and is located down in the basement with the sensory cables. (We can only speculate what kind of singular conscious being we’d be dealing with if the pipe had been fatter, mounted higher in the brain.) We know they share thoughts without speaking, conspire nonverbally to commit practical jokes for example (although not in complete silence; apparently a fair amount of giggling is involved). The twins call it “talking in our heads”. Back in 2013 one of their neurologists opined that “they haven’t yet shown us” whether they share thoughts as well as sensory experience, but neurons fire the same way whether they’re transmitting sensation or abstraction; given all the behavioral evidence I’d say the onus is on the naysayers to prove that thoughts aren’t being transmitted.

We know they’re diabetic and epileptic. We know they’re cognitively delayed. We know that their emotions are always in sync; whatever chemicals provoke joy or grief or anger cruise through that conjoined system without regard for which brain produced them. We know Krista likes ketchup and Tatiana doesn’t. We know— and if we don’t, you can be sure the documentarians at CBC will hammer the point home at least twice more before the next commercial break— that they’re God’s Little Fucking Miracles.

If you look closely at the video footage, you can glean a bit more. The twins never say “we”. I frequently heard one or the other refer to “my sister”, but if they ever referred to each other by name, that never made it into the broadcast edit. They sometimes refer to each other as “I”. They must have a really interesting sense of personal identity, at the very least.

But that’s about it. After eleven years, this is all we get.

We’re told about MRI scans, but we never get to see any actual results from one. (The most recent documentary, from just last year, shows the twins on their way to an MRI only to cut away before they get there; I mean, how do twins conjoined at a seventy-degree angle even fit into one of those machines?) There are plenty of Hogan references in the philosophical literature (for obvious reasons), and even the legal literature (for more obscure ones: one paper delves into how best to punish conjoined twins when only one of them has been convicted of committing a crime). They’re all over popular science and news sites. Some idiot with the Intelligent Design movement has even used the Hogans to try and put lipstick on the long-discredited pig of dualism (i.e., souls).

But actual neurological findings from these twins? Scientific papers? Google Scholar returns a single article, from a 2012 issue of the “University of British Columbia’s Undergraduate Journal of Psychology”— a student publication. Even that piece is mainly a review of craniopagus twins in the medical literature, with a couple of pages squeeing about How Much The Hogan Twins Can Teach Us tacked onto the end. A 2011 NYT article describes research showing that each twin can process visual signals from the other’s eyes, then admits that the results were not published. And that’s it.

Eleven years after the birth of the most neurologically remarkable, philosophically mind-blowing, transhumanistically-relevant being on the planet, we have nothing but pop-sci puff pieces and squishy documentaries to show for it. Are we really supposed to believe that in over a decade no one has done the studies, collected the data, gained any insights about literal brain-to-brain communication, beyond these fuzzy generalities?

I for one don’t buy that for a second. These neuroscientists smiling at us from the screen— Douglas Cochrane, Juliette Hukin— they know what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve discovered something so horrific about the nature of Humanity that they’re afraid to reveal it, for fear of outrage and widespread panic. That would be cool.

More likely, though, they’re just biding their time; sitting on an ever-growing trove of data that will redefine and quantify the very nature of what it is to be a sapient being. They’re just not going to share it with the rest of us until they’ve finished polishing their Nobel acceptance speeches. Maybe I can’t blame them. Maybe I’d even do the same in their place.

Still. The wait is driving me crazy.

And if any of you are on the inside, I’d kill for a glimpse of an MRI.

Reposted bygregorczykm gregorczykm
04:00
7038 84be 500
Light Hacks
Life hack: Wait for an advanced civilization to be briefly distracted, then sneak in and construct a slightly smaller Dyson sphere inside theirs.

July 23 2018

04:00
7921 772b
Y-Axis
We've also developed the semi-semi-log scale, where the Y-axis for the left half of the graph is a log scale but on the right half it isn't.

July 20 2018

04:00
7116 1df6 500
Sports Champions
For a long time, people thought maybe Usain Bolt was the one for running, until the 2090s and the incredible dominance of Derek Legs.

July 18 2018

17:58

Extinction and the Reset Button

 

 

I’ve just finished reading The Re-origin of Species, by Torill Kornfeldt (2016 in the original Swedish). The English translation is just barely out in Australia and the UK; here in North America it’s slated for a November release. (I scored an early copy from a publisher eager for blurbs.) Re-origin is about the burgeoning de-extinction— well, movement seems too coherent a term for what appears to be a few dozen labs scattered around the world, more often than not operating on shoestrings budgets and shoehorned in around the edges of other more respectable projects, laboring towards goals that range from transmuting chickens into velociraptors all the way over to inundating parking lots with bird shit. Maybe cause. Maybe revolution.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It was easy to blurb. I learned a lot of new stuff, and was reminded about a lot of old stuff— because as it happens, I wrote a column for Nowa Fantastyka on this very subject, way back in 2014. Strangely I can’t find it anywhere on the ‘crawl; I don’t think I ever recycled it here.

Until now.

 

The Reset Button

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix, now with Recent Insights!)

Resurrection is a wonderful thing in video games.  No matter how many zombies eat your brains, no matter how many skyscrapers fall on you, no matter how many times the Big Daddy smacks you across the room with skeleton-shattering force, you’re always back in the game for the price of a 30-second reload and the few minutes since your last save. Sure, it may make you a bit reckless— you end up taking chances and trying insane Hail-Mary strategies you’d never risk in real life— but it’s only a game, right?  And what’s the alternative: being cautious, being careful? Acting as though one life is all you’ll ever have? Give me backups, every time. When immersed in a video game, the Reset button is a godsend.

In real life, maybe not so much.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Gregory Benford first advocated the collection of DNA from the world’s endangered species, a genetic Noah’s Ark to serve as a fallback measure for those inevitable and myriad cases when conservation didn’t work (or more likely, when it wasn’t even attempted). It may have seemed fringe then— the essay actually appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction— but these days, so-called “de-extinction” is all over the news. We’re bringing back the mammoth and the passenger pigeon  (something like them, anyway). We’ve already resurrected the Pyrenean ibex— for seven minutes at least, before its collapsed lungs caused it to suffocate in agony. England’s Frozen Ark project is on track to store DNA samples from twenty thousand of the world’s most endangered animals; Norway maintains a vast underground seed vault to do the same for crops. The New York Times had an extensive profile of the whole de-extinction thing in their Sunday Edition a few years back. De-extinction is all over TEDx.

As you might imagine, the very premise is controversial (back in 2014 PLoS Biology reviewed the debate swirling around the subject; it swirls still[1]). Proponents point out the myriad sins that can be undone, the vital ecological nodes that can be restored. The dodo, the sabre-tooth cat, all those species we’ve wiped out over the centuries: brought back not from the brink, but from the very grave. Detractors point to items on their own lists: the thing that comes back won’t be the same as the thing that went away, for one thing. The need to gestate the resurrectee within the womb of a related (non-extinct) creature introduces a host of developmental complications; the injection of its nuclear DNA into the egg of a living relative means that its mitochondrial DNA will belong to the extant mother, not the extinct father. We wouldn’t be bringing back the dead, some argue; we’d be creating some new hybrid of extinct and extant, some bastard fusion never before seen on the planet.

Others point out that ecosystems which have equilibriated to some new state might be thrown out of kilter all over again by the reintroduction of long-absent species (how would the Arctic respond to the reappearance of thousands of woolly mammoths stomping across the tundra?). And what about the ethics of bringing something back using techniques which only work in once in a while? What about the suffering and death inflicted upon all those also-rans who die convulsing at birth because their parts didn’t link up the right way? And perhaps the most profound misgiving: if extinction isn’t forever, why even worry about it? If we wipe something out, we can just hit the reset button; bring it back again.

I’m not convinced by the Hybrid objection. The point of de-extinction is not to recreate a pristine snapshot of the past, but to restore functional ecological relationships; if an elephant-mammoth hybrid occupies the same niche as a purebred mammoth once did, who cares about racial purity? And the Ethics Argument seems legitimate only in terms of the current state-of-the-art, which is bound to improve. Arguing that we shouldn’t ever use these techniques because they cause pain and suffering today is tantamount to arguing against cell phones because you can’t fit a rotary dialer into your pocket.

As for the disruptive effect of of reintroducing old species into extant ecosystems— well, that’s actually the point of the exercise. Extant ecosystems— impoverished, weedy— could benefit from a bit of disruption. Adding predators to a system changes the behavior of the herbivores, motivates them to avoid some areas and frequent others; this allows the untouched patches to go their own way, increasing the overall dimensionality of the habitat. Massive storms of resurrected passenger pigeons would process and redistribute seeds and nutrients all over the place (including your windshield, but we all have to make sacrifices). Mammoths— get this— mammoths would knock over trees, keep forests in check, and allow more productive steppe-lands to make a comeback. (Out in Siberia, even as we speak— according to Kornfeldt’s book— Soviet biologists are joyriding around in an old armored Soviet personnel carrier, bashing into trees as a kind of ecological mammoth-surrogate.)

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

Multiply by 300,000. Save the planet.

The most mind-boggling ecological justification for bringing back mammoths, though, has to be the claim that they could help mitigate climate change. We’re in for a world of hurt when the carbon currently locked in the melting permafrost gets out, you see; and one way to slow that melting is to reduce the insulative effect of the snow that shelters the ground from the bitter cold of Arctic winters. And one way to do that is— wait for it— trample the snow flat under the piledriver feet of thousands upon thousands of mammoths, resurgent upon the Arctic landscapes of Canada and Russia.

(Hey, I’m not saying I buy it. I’m just saying people have put it out there. Apparently they’ve even run the numbers.)

The Reset Argument carries more weight for me— but not because of some video-game scenario where we boot up endless backups to keep things humming along. My fear is the exact opposite— because at some point, extinction won’t be such a big deal any more. So we’ve wiped out another species. So what? Just squirt a dab of DNA from the dearly departed into an egg from a close relative, roll the stone away, command Lazarus to come forth. As one of Blindsight‘s epigraphs puts it: “Species used to go extinct.  Now they go on hiatus.” Nothing dies forever. We can bring it back again, any time we feel like it.

Just not today.

The economy’s a bit weak right now, you see. The mortgage bubble looks like it might burst again; wouldn’t want to start something and then run out of funding halfway through, would we? Or maybe we should wait until we know a bit more about how climate change is going to rearrange our coastlines— no point in bringing back the Florida panther if its habitat is going to be wiped out by rising sea levels anyway. But no problems, no hurry; we have the technology. We’ll get around to it. Eventually.

Here in the real world, I fear, the natural tendency to restore from backup will be the exact opposite of what it is in Fallout or Witcher 3. It’s not that we’ll hit the Reset button too often. It’s that— complacent and comfortable in the knowledge that it’s always there— we won’t use it at all.


 

[1] Be sure to read the comments, in which the scientist Powledge takes her shots at fires back a few of his own.

04:00
9935 243c
Software Development
Update: It turns out the cannon has a motorized base, and can make holes just fine using the barrel itself as a battering ram. But due to design constraints it won't work without a projectile loaded in, so we still need those drills.
Reposted byvictorian victorian

July 16 2018

04:00
7803 38db
Negative Results
P.S. We're going to the beach this weekend, so I'm attaching my preregistration forms for that trip now, before we find out whether it produces any interesting results.

July 13 2018

04:00
6737 9811 500
An Apple for a Dollar
I'd like 0.4608 apples, please.

July 11 2018

18:37

The Man Behind the Infodump: Denis Lynn, 1947-2018.

There’s a chapter three-quarters of the way through Maelstrom— “Mug Shot”, it’s called. It’s an executive summary of the apocalyptic microbe βehemoth.  It contains such gems as

βehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis; once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog. βehemoth then competes with the host cell for nutrients. Host death can occur from any of a several dozen proximal causes including…

It goes on like that for almost four pages. Some might even say it stops the plot dead, but after two decades I still kinda like it. Maybe the issue it addresses would only ever occur to one reader in ten thousand— assuming I even had ten thousand readers— but that’s what makes this SF hard, right? Respect for the science. Respect for the fine print. Coming up with cell entry via receptor-mediated endocytosis (thanks to its Blachford genes, βehemoth can fool steroid receptors on the host cell membrane) is actually something to take pride in.

The Man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

The man, and one infinitesimal sliver of his legacy.

Or it would be, if I’d come up with it myself. As it is, I have to thank a dude called Denis Lyn for making me even think about it in the first place.

Denis died a couple of weeks ago. Apparently he was collecting samples from a tide pool out on the west coast and a freak wave took him out, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever. He was 71.

Denis assumed a faculty position at the University of Guelph about the same time I arrived there as a student. Rumors kicking around the department said that just a few years earlier he’d been a real hippie— hair down to his ass, marched on Washington at the height of the Viet Nam protests. By the time I met him, though, the man was Dr. Ciliate: he went on to be President of the International Society of Protistologists, and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. He was an impossibly nice, generous, helpful guy, strangely out of place in a department loaded with backstabbers and infighters. (At least one online memorializer remarked that they’d never heard Denis utter an unkind word about anyone. I can’t say the same; down at the St. Andrews field course one summer, upon hearing that UoG’s widely reviled president Donald “Ducky” Forster had snuffed it, Denis raised his beer and softly toasted “Ding dong, the Duck is Dead!”. Honestly, though, that only made me like him more.)

I fell out of touch with him when I headed west to do my Ph.D. Fell out of touch with pretty much everyone else when political bullshit sent me screaming from academia entirely.  But Denis looked me up when the release of Starfish was imminent— a mutual friend had pointed him to the first home-built edition of this very website— and I, of course, didn’t hesitate to ask if I could pick his brain about the sequel. And of course he said yes. And his responses to my (frankly naïve) thoughts about my fake microbe were, well…

… what happens once the vesicle is internalized?  Usually, these vesicles are destined for the GERL pathway (Golgi, Endoplasmic Reticulum, Lysosome) and end up fusing with lysosomes and digestion occurs.  Can B subvert the signal molecules on the outside (=cytoplasmic side) of the vesicle so that the vesicles don’t fuse with lysosomes?  This would be a trick much like Toxoplasma uses to survive in the parasitiphorous vesicle…

…detailed.  The man also sent me a free copy of Lodish et al‘s Molecular Cell Biology— a real doorstop, 1400 pages. Twenty years later I still use it.

Denis’s last email to me was sent on January 21, 2002.  It ends: “P.S. I wouldn’t turn down a beer even in the daytime, but NOT BEFORE 1130h.”

I don’t remember if we ever had that beer. All I know is, that’s the last documented contact I had with him. After that he retired from Guelph, moved to the west coast, became an adjunct professor at UBC. And got killed, absurdly, by a stupid wave while sampling stupid mussels from a tide pool, leaving our species— by his absence— just a tiny bit more deserving of extinction.

I can’t claim to have ever been close to the man. That’s kind of my point, though; far as he was concerned I was just another dumb student passing through the system— ultimately, someone who didn’t even stay in the system— and still he bent over backward to lend a hand. He was that way to everyone. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s kind of cool that a teensy bit of his essence has been uploaded into Maelstrom.

And if you find that maudlin, well, I can just say fuck you. Because Denis Lynn never would.

04:00
6788 69a5 500
Wall Art
At first, I moved from pokémon posters to regular oil paintings, but then these really grumpy and unreasonable detectives from the Louvre showed up and took them all. They wouldn't even give me back my thumbtacks!
Reposted bysobernishe1

July 09 2018

04:00
4640 0a18 500
Stargazing 2
I mean, it wasn't exactly MY thesis. When the FAA came to shut down our observatory for using the telescope mirror to shine light at airplanes, I took a thesis and a bunch of doctorates from the supply cabinet on my way out.

July 06 2018

04:00
4853 c4ef
OEIS Submissions
SUB[59]: The submission numbers for my accepted OEIS submissions in chronological order

July 04 2018

04:00
2994 ff5e
New Phone Thread
I'm going to tell the manufacturer that their business practices are ADMIRABLE and ETHICAL and their developers are ATTRACTIVE and I'm going to report them to the FCC for their IMPECCABLE VIRTUE.

July 02 2018

04:00
4962 c681
JWST Delays
Since delays should get less likely closer to the launch, most astronomers in 2018 believed the expansion of the schedule was slowing, but by early 2020 new measurements indicated that it was actually accelerating.

June 29 2018

04:00
5247 7a13
Rock
It traveled so far to reach me. I owed it my best.
Reposted byjessaminexempxNaitlisz
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