After three political postings in a row, let’s take a break for a bit. I spent the last week of March back at my old alma mater - Caltech - serving on NASA’s NIAC board of advisors, helping judge which fantastic new proposals would get initial funding - possibly leading to the great space technologies of tomorrow. I will tell you what I can, pretty soon.
Meanwhile, how about a potpourri about science, technology and changes in society?
==April Fools' Day Technology==
April Fools' Day "product releases" are infamous, but this is one I sure
hope they actually implement as an app. (Anyone care to try it?) "Tap"
is an implementation of two-thumb texting that would let you exchange
messages truly eyes-free... via Morse Code! (Hey, I even portrayed this
in my new novel Existence (June release) without knowing of Tap in advance!)
Check out the advance features they "promise"-- which I hope they will
implement. Not mentioned? Using a phone's vibrate mode to *receive*
Morse incoming messages. Wouldn't it be a hoot if this restored Morse
usage and took off?
Google promised a self-driving car for NASCAR, Richard Branson
"announced" his plan to take passengers to the center of the earth, and
Sony lives up to its slogan -- "Make. Believe." -- with its April Fools'
Day introduction of quarter-sized laptop "with a gorgeous .75-inch by
1.25-inch high-definition display."
==Brain Science: Fiction, Memories and Parasites==
brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading
about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the
same neurological regions are stimulated. "Reading produces a vivid
simulation of reality, one that “runs on the minds of readers just as
computer simulations run on computers.” Read the article in The New York Times:
— with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive
descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich
replica... The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the
exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence
that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and
movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions
among fictional characters as something like real-life social
encounters. ... Reading great literature, it has long been averred,
enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim
is truer than we imagined."
* In a new MIT study, researchers used optogenetics to show that memories reside in very specific brain cells,
and that simply activating a tiny fraction of brain cells can recall an
entire memory. If you read the article - the generality of the result
may be overstated. On the other hand, this suggests intracellular computation really does take place. And if so, the Singularity may require a LOT more computing power than today’s transhumanists expect.
brain imaging from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) indicates an elegant simplicity in the
brain’s wiring. “Far from being just a tangle of wires, the brain's
connections turn out to be more like ribbon cables — folding 2D sheets
of parallel neuronal fibers that cross paths at right angles, like the
warp and weft of a fabric,” explained Dr. Van Wedeen of Massachusetts
General Hospital -- a pervasive 3D grid structure with no diagonals.
* I have written before about the Toxoplasma gondii parasite that millions of humans get from close affiliation with cats. (It also features in my next novel, Existence.)
Rats who are infected with T-g develop unique neural and behavioral
traits that make them easier for cats to catch. Cats are the natural
T-g hosts (where the protozoans breed). So what happens when humans are
infected? (55% of French people and about 15% of Americans, for
example.) T-g appears to cause many sex specific changes in personality.
Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more
introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them,
and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand,
presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing,
trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.
Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended
to have more. Those who tested positive for the parasite were about two
and a half times as likely to be in a traffic accident as their
uninfected peers. Now, more findings associate infection with schizophrenia.
Read the fascinating article in The Atlantic: How Your Cat is Making You Crazy.
T-g is just one of many parasites that are being discovered to alter
their victims' behavior and even neurology, in ways that Greg Bear seems
to have foreseen in his deeply disturbing novel Vitals.
It is a new frontier that makes us wonder, might some of the calamities
of human behavior not always be our fault? Might our civilization
benefit simply from the right antibiotics?
==Shifting Online Empires==
Visual displays of the rise and fall of internet empires.
If you track the histories of MySpace, AOL, Yahoo, and several
others... Facebook may be riding for a fall. Indeed, the interface is
so bad, so cumbersome and lobotomizing, that some group with wonderfully
new approaches to social media ought to eat FB's lunch.
On Star's Family Link
now offers real-time tracking of your family's automobiles, enabling
you to follow cars driven by teens and/or spouses, with updates sent to
your PC or smartphone. On Star is advertising "peace of mind"... Yipe.
Both creepy and inevitable. We are SO going to have to be agile in
this coming age.
Creepy... and shades of the movie Gattaca! Employers are now asking for Facebook log in
information. So they can prowl through your past postings for
pecadillos, and evaluate the kinds of people you hang with? Mind you
this is inevitable, at some level. (As they portray in Gattaca.) But
where is the effective ability to look back? The human resources folk
who do this judging should somehow have to answer to the people they are
nosing into. Facebook responds
that users should not have to share their passwords "or do anything
that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the
privacy of your friends."
Hackers are winning:
The FBI’s top cyber cop offered a grim appraisal of the nation’s
efforts to keep computer hackers from plundering corporate data
networks: “We’re not winning,” and the current public and private
approach to fending off hackers is “unsustainable. Senior officials say
there is not a single, secure unclassified computer network in the
If you haven't reached your full quota of depression and outrage yet, have a look at accumulating evidence that pesticides and plastics
have saturated us with artificial hormones that are affecting the next
generation in countless ways. e.g. the age of puberty in girls has been
plummeting to around ten years old. I do not know enough to be certain
that the alarmists on this issue are right in the intensity of their
warnings. (In fact, I would bet good money they exaggerate by a lurid
degree!) But suppose they exaggerate by even a factor of ten. Even
then, isn't it time to boost and unleash science, and not squelch it?
Take a gorgeous “street-view” voyage down the Amazon...
Three new studies of using aspirin to prevent cancer,
led by researchers at Oxford University, raise the possibility that a
daily low dose of the drug could be effective, not just as a
preventative measure, but as an additional treatment for those with
cancer. This follows the finding that aspirin can reduce the chances of
You will find this entrancing & captivating: 500 years of female portraits.
Someone test SWIPE -- a new method to sift Wikipedia for more complex answers than a simple keyword search. Report back to us!