Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Time and Politics 8: Alexey Navalny's Zombie Apocalypse

Alexey Navalny. Image Source.

Could a blogger become the Russian President? All eyes are on Alexey Navalny, the 37-year-old Moscow lawyer and activist. He uses blogging to tackle Russian corruption and shows immense political promise. Over the past three years, the consensus in the western press is that he is the Russian opposition figure to watch. In April of this year, he declared his intention to run for President. He registered to run for mayor of Moscow on the 17 July 2013.

Navalny's political hopes may increase or decrease as the Putin establishment has begun to crack down on him. Navalny was charged last summer on trumped-up charges. On 18 July 2013, he was sentenced to five years in jail for embezzlement, which could potentially break his political influence. He has just been temporarily released on the 19 July while appealing his sentence and has resumed his municipal campaigning.

A Matrix-like photo of Putin and supporters. Navalny said: "This is the real mafia family." Image Source: Navalny's blog, 16 July 2013.

On 19 July 2013, Navalny likened harassment from authorities to being chased by zombies: "I want to note that I would really like it if all my possible arrests and jailings had only this visual and musical accompaniment." This is the intro to the 2009 American film, Zombieland.

4-D Smart Buildings

MIT's Skylar Tibbits at his recent TED talk. Image Source: Stratasys.

In February 2013, Millennial architect Skylar Tibbets announced that he is combining building design with our increasingly minute scale of understanding of the physical world through genetics and nanotechnology. Tibbits and his colleagues plan to replace traditional construction practices with "people, machines and materials that collaborate," through organic programming and 3-D printing. Structures will build and rebuild themselves over time, hence making the tech '4-D.' These designs are pre-programmed on the nano-scale to remodel themselves while drawing energy from the environment. BBC reports:
The way we build our structures has become more and more sophisticated. But the materials we build them from are static, waiting for us to fit them to the required shape.

What if they could assemble themselves – and even change form if they needed to? The emerging technology of 4D printing – where 3D-printed material changes shape over time – means we may be able to build things that can adapt to our use or the environment around them, says MIT’s Skylar Tibbits.

Tibbits believes this technology could lead to more resilient, lighter structures – ones which can respond to the world around them.
There is some talk about using 4-D printing in space exploration, although that will depend on how the building materials function in space. WebProNews reports that this future construction revolution depends on new materials and how they react to water:
Stratasys says that it’s heavily invested in the future of 4D printing. It’s currently researching a new type of material for 3D printers that can self assemble after being printed. Here are the details from the Stratasys blog:
What makes the transformation and self-assembly possible is the breakthrough development of a new material used in multi-material 3D printing by Stratasys Objet Connex 3D Printers. The self-folding material is actually composed of two base materials – one that is water expandable and the second that is not water expandable. The water expandable material, which is still in the R&D phase, is able to absorb water and to be programmed to behave and transform in a specific way. It is a highly hydrophilic material that absorbs water molecules when immersed and can change its volume by more than 150% relative to its dry state. When this material is coupled with the static material it can drive predictable shape transformation of the multi-material 3D printed object. Both materials are printed simultaneously on a Stratasys Objet Connex 3D Printer.
Research into 4D printing is only just getting started, but Tibbits already has some ideas on how 4D printing can benefit certain industries in the short term. The big one is space exploration as self-assembly could help NASA and other space agencies reduce costs by simply sending the parts into space, and then those parts self-assemble into an object at the desired location.
See a TED talk with Tibbits explaining his architectural 4-D tech below the jump.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Smallpox Afterlife

Shapona, the West African God of Smallpox (1969). Image Source: CDC (ID #15226).

Caption for the above photograph: "This is a statue of Shapona, the West African God of Smallpox. It is part of the CDC’s Global Health Odyssey (GHO) collection of artifacts. A uniquely carved wooden figure, it is adorned with layers of meaningful objects such as a monkey skull, cowrie shells, and nails. Donated in 1995 by Ilze and Rafe Henderson, it was created by a traditional healer who made approximately 50 Shaponas as commemorative objects for the CDC, WHO, and other public health experts attending a 1969 conference on smallpox eradication."

Officially, smallpox was eradicated in 1979. One of the most feared of illnesses, it still exists in disease research centres in the United States and Russia. The disease was eradicated through a global mass vaccination campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. To see photos of the disease symptoms, and of the gruesome occasional reactions to the vaccinations, go to the Centers for Disease Control site (here). The images are not for the faint-hearted.

The last people who naturally contracted two variations of smallpox both survived and are still alive. One was Rahima Banu Begum, who had the last known case of naturally occurring Variola major smallpox in 1975, on Bhola Island in the Bangladesh district of Barisal. In a 2009 interview, she stated that she is still treated poorly by villagers and family members because she once had the disease. The other is Ali Maow Maalin, a Somalian cook who contracted the last case of naturally occurring Variola minor smallpox in 1977. Interviewed most recently in 2006, he now works for the World Health Organization to promote vaccination campaigns.

Smallpox and humans have a long history. The virus emerged around 10,000 BCE. Wiki notes some of the virus's modern history: the disease devastated Native American populations with the arrival of European colonists in the 16th century; with no previous exposure, they died at the rate of 80 to 90 per cent. Sometimes, Europeans infamously spread smallpox to Native Americans on purpose, although historians debate the degree to which this occurred. Smallpox killed about 400,000 Europeans annually at the end of the 18th century. It killed between 300 million and 500 million people in the 20th century.

Vaccination against the disease also had a long history. Intentional exposure of healthy people to another's smallpox scabs was practiced as far back as 1,000 BCE in India; this exposure might cause death, but usually brought on a mild form of the disease, which one might survive, thereafter becoming immune. The smallpox vaccine was the world's very first vaccine to be developed, by Edward Jenner in 1796, through his use of the milder cowpox virus. Similar treatments had preceded Jenner's work as early as the 1770s. The term 'vaccine' comes from the Latin vacca for cow.

The development of a stable vaccine in the 1960s led to the World Health Organization's innoculation campaign between 1967 and 1977. After a fatal 1978 accident at a UK repository, only two repositories of the disease remained: the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR) in Koltsovo, Russia.

Since then, smallpox lurks in hideous sleeping afterlife, always promising to reemerge as the ultimate bio-threat. When one considers that smallpox was humanity's constant companion for some twelve millennia and has only been at bay for a mere 33 years, it is easy to see why it is still a cause for worry. Most disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility that weaponized artificial smallpox could be created as bioengineering gathers pace. But another thread appears through all the fears of pandemics, the politics, the foreign policy and secrecy: the smallpox vaccine offers a potential cure for some cancers

Below the jump, see some points about smallpox which have come to light since 1990.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nuclear Leaks 28: The Devil is in the Details

Image Source: Snippets and Snappets.

There are a few unsettling nuclear headlines circulating at present. Bill Gates is set to spend billions of dollars of his own money on the development of mini nuclear reactors which will operate continuously for 30 years. Presumably, this means that he expects to make many more billions back on his investment. After a leak at a Swiss nuclear plant which contaminated drinking water from Lake Biel, attention returned to Japan.

Steam was seen rising today from reactor #3 at Fukushima (you can see a video of the steam entering open air below the jump). This is a cause for "alarm" since reactor #3 contains deadly MOX fuel, which combines plutonium and uranium; the vapour is coming from the fifth floor near the MOX fuel pool; at the same time, local groundwater has unbelievable levels of contamination:
The steam was noticed at 8:20am by repair crews tasked with removing contaminated debris from the building, which was badly damaged by the magnitude-9 earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011, and further battered by the subsequent tsunami.

The roof and walls of the upper stories of the building were torn off by a hydrogen explosion in the days after the disaster.

"All work to remove debris in and around Unit 3 was stopped," a spokesperson for Tokyo Electric Power Co. told The Daily Telegraph. "We have confirmed that radiation levels around the pressure chamber have not changed and at 9:20am we were able to confirm that the reactor has not reached criticality."

Tepco is collecting samples of air above Unit 3 and the assumption at the moment is that the steam is from rain that entered the reactor building and collected in the well beneath the pressure chamber where it became heated.

The incident is likely to raise new concerns about progress to bring the situation under control at the Fukushima plant.

Tepco confirmed recently that high levels of radioactivity had been detected in ground water in a well drilled to determine the spread of radioactivity beneath the plant.

Some 900,000 becquerels of radioactive substances were found per litre (0.22 gallon) in a sample taken from the well, which is just 80 feet from the coast. The radioactivity included strontium and Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Agency has set the safety level for radioactivity in drinking water at 10 becquerels per litre.

The authorities have said it is highly likely that the radioactivity is already leaking into the sea around the plant, despite efforts by Tepco to complete a concrete wall set deep into the ground to restrict the flow of groundwater.
There is some concern that there is an uncontrolled nuclear reaction taking place in reactor #3 (see The Japan Times and AFP). NYT:
[W]orkers were ready to inject water containing boric acid into the reactor from the outside at any signs of further trouble, like a rapid rise in temperature or radiation parameters, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Such spikes would raise the chilling possibility of criticality in the reactor’s damaged fuel, most which is thought to have melted and slumped to the bottom of its containment structure after the hydrogen explosion, one of several at the site in 2011. Boric acid would slow that rate of fission, preventing the worst-case scenario of uncontrolled nuclear chain reactions in the core.
In other words, if the core in reactor #3 were to reach criticality, we would have a nuclear reaction open to the environment, as happened at Chernobyl. However, officials urge calm, because the steam is apparently coming from between the Device Storage Pool (DSP), or from an area between the DSP and the containment lid. The most recent guess from TEPCO is that rainwater was heated and steaming on the containment lid. Should the lid really be that hot?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Time Off in Purgatory for Followers of Papal Tweets

Image Source: MSN.

The Catholic Church is offering indulgences - tokens of remission of an otherworldly temporal punishment due to worldly sin - to followers of Pope Francis's social networks (he is on Twitter here and Facebook here).

Image Source: Facebook.

The Independent and Guardian both report on this story, along with several other MSM outlets. In The Guardian report, the Vatican official who was interviewed stated that any virtual engagement with the faith must be heartfelt and real:
In its latest attempt to keep up with the times the Vatican has married one of its oldest traditions to the world of social media by offering "indulgences" to followers of Pope Francis' tweets.

The church's granted indulgences reduce the time Catholics believe they will have to spend in purgatory after they have confessed and been absolved of their sins.

The remissions got a bad name in the Middle Ages because unscrupulous churchmen sold them for large sums of money. But now indulgences are being applied to the 21st century.

But a senior Vatican official warned web-surfing Catholics that indulgences still required a dose of old-fashioned faith, and that paradise was not just a few mouse clicks away.

"You can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine," Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks – such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate's house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.

But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on 22 July, can also win an indulgence.

Mindful of the faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil, the Vatican's sacred apostolic penitentiary, a court which handles the forgiveness of sins, has also extended the privilege to those following the "rites and pious exercises" of the event on television, radio and through social media.

"That includes following Twitter," said a source at the penitentiary, referring to Pope Francis' Twitter account, which has gathered seven million followers. "But you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet."

In its decree, the penitentiary said that getting an indulgence would hinge on the beneficiary having previously confessed and being "truly penitent and contrite".

Praying while following events in Rio online would need to be carried out with "requisite devotion", it suggested.

Apart from the papal Twitter account, the Vatican has launched an online news portal supported by an app, a Facebook page, and it plans to use the online social networking site Pinterest.
The papal Decree according to which Special Indulgences are granted to the faithful on the occasion of the 28th World Youth Day [Rio de Janeiro, 22-29 July 2013] (9 July 2013), is listed in Italian, and in Latin as follows:
quo, occasione "XXVIII Mundialis Iuvenum Diei"
Indulgentiarum conceditur donum


quo, occasione "XXVIII Mundialis Iuvenum Diei", Indulgentiarum conceditur donum, vertente Fidei Anno, in civitate Sancti Sebastiani Fluminis Ianuarii peragendi.

Beatissimus Pater Franciscus, exoptans ut iuvenes, sociato corde cum spiritalibus Fidei Anni finibus a Benedicto Pp. XVI indicti, desideratos sanctificationis fructus attingant e "XXVIII Mundiali Iuvenum Die" qui, a die XXII usque ad diem XXIX proximi mensis Iulii, sub proposito: "Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes (cfr Mt 28, 19)" in civitate Sancti Sebastiani Fluminis Ianuarii celebrabitur, in Audientia infra scripto Cardinali Paenitentiario Maiori die III vertentis mensis Iunii concessa, e thesauro satisfactionum Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, Beatissimae Virginis Mariae omniumque Sanctorum, maternum Ecclesiae sensum patefaciens, iuvenes omnesque fideles, congruenter paratos, Indulgentiarum dono frui posse diebus supra signatis annuit prout sequitur:

a.- plenaria conceditur Indulgentia christifidelibus vere paenitentibus et contritis, suetis sub condicionibus (sacramentali confessione, eucharistica communione et oratione ad mentem Summi Pontificis) semel in die lucranda, quam etiam animabus fidelium defunctorum per modum suffragii applicare poterint, si sacris ritibus et spiritalibus inceptis, in civitate Sancti Sebastiani Fluminis Ianuarii devote interfuerint.

Christifideles legitime impediti, easdem condiciones spiritales, sacramentales precationisque implentes, plenariam obtinere valebunt Indulgentiam, si, eliciens affectum filialis subiectionis erga Romanum Pontificem, sese in spiritu dictis functionibus et spiritalibus inceptis univerint, dum instrumentis televisificis et radiophonicis propagabuntur vel, semper piissima mentis intentione, per nova communicationum socialium instrumenta, simul sequi poterint;

b.- partialis conceditur Indulgentia christifidelibus, ubicumque fuerint dum praedictus celebrabitur conventus quoties, corde saltem contrito, Deo fervidas admoverint preces, concludendas officiali "Mundialis Iuvenum Diei" prece, piis invocationibus Beatae Mariae Virginis, Brasiliae Reginae sub titulo "Nossa Senhora da Conceiçao Aparecida" invocatae, necnon aliorum Patronorum et Intercessorum eiusdem Conventus, ut iuvenes in Fidei professione et in vita sancte ducenda adiuventur.

Quo autem facilius christifideles caelestium horum munerum participes fieri queant, sacerdotes, ad sacramentales confessiones audiendas legitime adprobati, prompto et generoso animo sese praebeant ad ipsas excipiendas et fidelibus publicas preces pro bono ipsius "Mundialis Iuvenum Diei" exitu proponant.

Praesenti pro hac vice valituro. Quibuscumque in contrarium facientibus non obstantibus.

Datum Romae, ex aedibus Paenitentiariae Apostolicae, die XXIV mensis Iunii, anno Incarnationis Dominicae MMXIII, in sollemnitate Sancti Ioannis Baptistae.

Emmanuel S. R. E. Card. Monteiro de Castro
Paenitentiarius Maior

Christophorus Nykiel

Destiny in the Palm of Your Hand

Pontius Pilate washes his hands of guilt in the judgement of Christ. Image Source: Daily Bible Plan.

The hand is the most potent symbolic indicator of human ability, tool use and technology. Several cultures over thousands of years associate the hand with 'what you can control,' or 'what you can do' in a given set of circumstances. Hence, the hand is deeply associated with many concepts of fate and destiny.

Recent research from 2011 found that people unconsciously wash their hands when they believe they face bad luck. Similarly, they sense that washing their hands after a streak of good luck will make them lose their good luck. From Machines Like Us:
Do people believe good and bad luck can be washed away?

Yes, according to an advanced online publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that was co-authored by Rami Zwick, a University of California, Riverside marketing professor in the School of Business Administration.

Zwick, working with Alison Jing Xu of the University of Toronto, and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan, designed two experiments that showed risk taking depends on whether participants recalled a past episode of good or bad luck and whether they washed their hands before engaging in a risky decision making task. ...

[P]articipants were given a managerial decision task. Taking the role of a chief executive officer, they had to adopt or reject a product improvement recommendation based on two consequences of action.

Under the first option, if they stayed with the existing product profits would remain at the current level, about $20 million per year.

Under the second option, the product was modified, but profits would depend on acceptance by consumers. Marketing research indicated there was a 75 percent chance of strong acceptance, which would result in an increase in profits to $24 million, but there was a 25 percent chance of weak acceptance, resulting in a drop in profits to $12 million.

The researchers found those who recalled an unlucky incident and cleaned their hands and those that recalled a lucky incident and didn't clean their hands were more likely to select the riskier option.

Of those who recalled an unlucky incident and cleaned their hands, 73 percent selected the riskier option, while only 36 percent who recalled an unlucky incident and didn't clean their hands picked the riskier option.

Of those who recalled a lucky incident, 77 percent who didn't clean their hands picked the riskier option, while only 35 percent who cleaned their hands selected the riskier option.

In the second experiment, students and staff from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where Zwick formerly taught, were given HK $100 (US$1 = HK$7.8) to gamble with. They were told this was "for real" money that they would keep at the end. Indeed, they were paid based on their decisions and luck.

The experimenters showed participants a pink ball and a green ball and placed them in a bag. Participants selected one of the colors as their "winning" color and blindly picked a ball from the bag. If they picked the winning color they won HK$50. If not, they lost HK$50. They repeated the task until they lost their HK$100, won an additional HK$100 or completed four rounds.

Next, an ostensibly unrelated product evaluation study served as a cover story for the hand-washing manipulation. Participants evaluated organic soap. Half were told to wash their hands with the soap. The other half were told not to use the soap.

Finally, participants did a second round of gambling. They received HK$50 and were told they could bet any amount from nothing to HK$50.It was the same game as last time, but with only one round.

Researchers found participants who had good luck in the initial round bet more money in the second round than participants who had bad luck.

However, participants who had bad luck in the first round bet more money in the second round if they washed their hands. The difference was an average of HK$31.15 versus HK$17.47.

In contrast, those who had good luck in the first round bet less money in the second round if they had washed their hands. The difference was an average of HK$28.08 versus HK$37.75.
Then there is the superstitious art of palmistry, where your future fate is literally drawn in the lines in your hands. The practice arose from the arcane idea that the larger workings of the universe are literally imprinted into our bodies. Prevalent in ancient cultures from Tibet to the Mediterranean, palmistry is one of the oldest forms of attempting to see the future, or divination. Palmistry in China dates in the written record back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), although it extends through oral tradition back at least one thousand years before that.

"From left, before and after photos of a patient who underwent palm surgery to engrave an 'emperor’s line,' heralding great success and good fortune." Image Source: Shonan Beauty Clinic via The Daily Beast.

The emperor's line (覇王線) is a three-pronged fork on the palm. Image Source: Creatorz.

Palmistry, also known as chiromancy, is alive and well today. Daily Kos compared the palmistry of Obama's and McCain's hands during the 2008 American election. There are plenty of palmistry analyses of Obama's hands online, one of which notes he has a double life line. Palmistry experts have analyzed celebrities' photos in cases where stars' palms are exposed. See: Albert Einstein; Marilyn Monroe; Osama bin Laden; Prince Charles; Vladimir Putin; Kim Jong Un; Pope Francis; and Angela Merkel.

Several MSM news outlets carried a story this week from Japan, where people are getting plastic surgery to change the fate lines on their hands. From The Daily Beast:
In Japan, where palm reading remains one of the most popular means of fortune-telling, some people have figured out a way to change their fate. It’s a simple idea: change your palm, change the reading, and change your future. ...

Need some good fortune? Add a money-luck line and you might win the lottery or be promoted to vice president in your firm. For the smart shopper—one willing to undergo palm plastic surgery—the future isn’t what it used to be.

“Doctor, I want you to change my fate. Please change my palm.

Even in Japan, where odd surgery requests are not unknown—like the man who had his penis removed and served it as a special dinner—Takaaki Matsuoka, a plastic surgeon at the Shonan Beauty Clinic’s Shinjuku branch, was taken aback. It was January 2011, and a female patient wanted her palm reformatted to bring her better luck. Matsuoka wasn’t sure he could do it.

He scoured medical journals until he found examples of such surgery being done in Korea, studied the methods, then confirmed with the patient what she wanted done, and performed the surgery for ¥100,00 ($1,000). It went well.

The surgery had to be performed with an electric scalpel—which burns the flesh, creating the scent of burnt hot dogs, and leaves a semipermanent scar.

“If you try to create a palm line with a laser, it heals, and it won’t leave a clear mark. You have to use the electric scalpel and make a shaky incision on purpose, because palm lines are never completely straight. If you don’t burn the skin and just use a plain scalpel, the lines don’t form. It’s not a difficult surgery, but it has to be done right.”

From January 2011 to May 2013, 37 palm plastic surgeries have been performed at the Shonan Beauty Clinic alone, 20 of them by Matsuoka. Several other clinics in Japan offer the surgery, but almost none of them advertise it. Word-of-mouth is more than enough. Shonan Beauty Clinic did advertise the service briefly, but couldn’t keep up with the demand.
Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: imgfave.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Nail Palmistry. Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: Life via We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Image Source: We Heart It.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In the Shadow of the Colossus

El coloso (The Colossus), by Francisco Goya, or a Goya follower (1808-1812). Image Source: Wiki.

Yesterday, while reading this post at JenX67 (aka Are You There God? It's Me, Generation X), I had a Repo Man 'plate of shrimp' moment. That is, I saw part of the 'lattice of coincidence that lies on top of everything that is part of the cosmic unconsciousness' (see my post on this here). The coincidence, in this case, was the word Colossus. The blogger at Are You There God? It's Me, Generation X, Jen, described an exhibition by artist Laurie Frick, in which Frick has catalogued the minute data of her daily life and translated those bits of information into multi-coloured collages and drawings which form a holistic creative vision. Frick has taken her fragmented life, and conveyed the message that our chaotic reality is one interconnected whole.

Jen's post began with reference to another synthetic experiment during the Second World War. This experiment was the first electronic computer, the Colossus.

Colossus, the first generation computer, breaking code in 1943. Image Source: The National Archives (United Kingdom), document record FO850/234 via Wiki.

Jen explained that the Colossus was designed to break German codes at Bletchley Park:
They said they were part of a shooting party, ready to fire hundreds shells at wild birds. But, in reality, they were scholars turned code-breakers who’d come to evaluate the estate as a wartime location for intelligence activity. They were members of the Government Code and Cypher School, and, their journey into the English countryside would not prove in vain.

Bletchley Park went on to play a vital role in World War II. It employed 10,000 people involved in gathering military intelligence. Among the workers were pattern recognition experts who cracked enemy codes and helped bring an early end to the war.

Some say, the information age was born at Bletchley Park, home to the world’s first electronic computer, Colossus.
I also ran across the word Colossus the other day on the Wiki page for Guillermo del Toro's 2013 film, Pacific Rim. This is the summer blockbuster flick which is getting medium-fair reviews, about sea monsters confronting giant, human-controlled robots. Wiki: "Del Toro drew inspiration from Francisco Goya's The Colossus, and hopes to evoke the same 'sense of awe' with the film's battles."

The New Yorker review of the film dismissed the monster-robot conflict for its tedious overemphasis on size:
Does size matter? It does to Guillermo del Toro, whose new film, “Pacific Rim,” pays homage to the humongous. So what if the script is feeble, the plot is perforated, and the characters are so flimsy that you wouldn’t risk blowing your nose on them? The point is the fight between the big guys. It’s like watching a pair of angry cathedrals going dome to dome. In one corner, Kaiju—scaly monsters that rise from a cleft in the ocean floor and lay waste to large conurbations. When they roar, which is most of the time, their open mouths give off a bright-blue glow, as if they had just breakfasted on a bowl of crunchy police cars. Ranged against them are the machines built by man and known as Jaegers: metallic giants, kitted out with missiles, superswords, nuclear reactors, corkscrews, bottle openers, and so forth. Each is driven by two pilots, one for each side of the device’s brain.
That is a good simile - two cathedrals - because the film symbolically shows a very Millennial conflict between tech and organic matter, between humans and the environment, between mind and body. It may be thin on plot, but del Toro's film speaks truly about two gargantuan forces, which wear many guises today, but boil down to control and chaos.

This metaphor neatly encapsulates the yin and yang of our times, the sometimes obscene balance that is continually being struck and re-struck between an exponential technological boom and our emotional, spiritual and intellectual lives. Did we think that vastly expanding our ability to do things by means of a global technological revolution would not bring up the most profound moral questions about soul and agency? Technology creates a gap in moral potential; it inspires a crisis of consciousness. When that crisis is not addressed, technology creates a runaway train of compulsion and misperception.

Indeed, it has been one of the puzzles for analysts of our times that as our technology has become ever more sophisticated, human relapses into savagery and brutality become more acute, bizarre and frightening. The era began with that combination: the Holocaust's sickening industrial efficiency paired with the development of the atomic bomb. Why do genocides, wars, outrages (such as the 2012 Delhi gang rape case in India or the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan) proliferate as human beings become more technologically advanced? Perhaps it is because huge advances in the tools we use take a human toll on the collective unconscious, on the body politic, on whole worlds of old norms, cultures and traditions. There are inevitable organic reactions.

A similar phenomenon is evident in the Fifty Shades trend of Millennial amusements, which are always pushing the boundaries. These pastimes locate some impulse, the need to become harsher and ever more self-indulgent. That search continues on the Web every day, with no compromises or apologies.

The New Yorker review of Pacific Rim also covers another film, the strange 2012 docu-mocumentary, The Act of Killing, directed by Gen Xer, Joshua Oppenheimer. From the review, by Anthony Lane:
There are good reasons to see The Act of Killing, a new documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, but pleasure is not among them. A more likely response will include convulsive nausea and disbelief. The setting is Indonesia, where, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, a plan of mass murder was carried out against anyone suspected of being a Communist, and against the ethnic Chinese. At least half a million died. We see no footage from that time, nor do we meet survivors; rather, Oppenheimer interviews a number of perpetrators, who, far from fearing exposure or justice, are keen to discuss their deeds. And why not, when the purges are still celebrated by a current government minister and, even worse, by the smiling female presenter of an Indonesian chat show?

One of her guests is Anwar Congo, whom we follow throughout the film. Elderly, personable, and light on his feet, he shows us how to snuff out a life with a simple garrote of wire and a length of wood, and he recalls his use of a machete for decapitation. ... Oppenheimer ... invite[d] Congo and a fellow-killer, Adi Zulkadry, to restage—or reflect upon—their activities in any way they choose. We get musical sequences, and passages of grotesque cross-dressing; scenes in which torturers play their former selves, or, pasted with fake blood and flesh, their own victims; and the reconstruction of an assault on a village, in which local women and children are hired as extras and left in traumatized tears. This is difficult to watch, and, by the end, even the implacable Congo is affected, retching and groaning like an animal at the acknowledgment of his sins.
The killers interviewed here fascinate because they have 'normalized.' They sit, barely burdened by guilt or trouble, having transgressed everything that supposedly forms the boundaries of stable, functioning society. There is no correlation between the stability or even prosperity of a society (or an individual therein) and the 'virtue' of a society. These killers sleep just fine at night. And even if they do not, they can still function normally, which, if their society was truly outraged, could not happen.

Why is this heart of darkness brought into ever sharper relief? Because we live in the shadow of the technological Colossus, and are traveling in the night of first ages. The Technological Revolution challenges the soul. We may be lucky, like the artist, Laurie Frick, and find peace and balance through creative syntheses of our vast, new found capabilities. But the darker corners of recent history, and of ongoing daily affairs on the Internet, testify that for many people, shiny technology has unleashed the Id, and a timeless, thrusting reach into oblivion.

Laurie Frick: Installation for Walking, Eating, Sleeping at Oklahoma Contemporary June 11 – August 23, 2013. Room size patterns of self-tracking data experiments. Image Source and © Laurie Frick.

Laurie Frick: Quantify Me, installation for Walking, Eating, Sleeping at Oklahoma Contemporary June 11 – August 23, 2013. Room size patterns of self-tracking data experiments. Image Source and © Laurie Frick via Oklahoma Contemporary.

See the trailer for The Act of Killing below the jump.

The Powerful Promises of Synthetic Life

Synbiosafe DVD cover (2009) © Markus Schmidt and Camillo Meinhart. Image Source: Synbiosafe.

More breathless excitement: MSN reports that scientists are on track to build a synthetic yeast life form by 2017 (via Machines Like Us):
British scientists are taking part in a global effort to build the first synthetic life form whose cell structure resembles that of plants, animals and humans.

The researchers have been given almost STG1 million ($A1.67 million) in government funding to help them construct one of the organism's 16 chromosomes.

They are part of an international consortium committed to creating an artificial version of yeast by 2017.

It will be the first time scientists have built the whole genome, or genetic code blueprint, of a "eukaryotic" organism whose DNA is stored within a nucleus.

All animals and plants fall into this category. Bacteria and blue-green algae are examples of more primitive organisms that lack nuclei.

Three years ago a team led by American geneticist Craig Venter created a synthetic bacterium genome from scratch in what was described as a landmark achievement.

The new project takes the creation of artificial life to the next level by making the jump to a eukaryotic organism.

Professor Paul Freemont, a leading member of the team from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, said: "It's a massive leap forward. Yeast is a eukaryote - it's a much more complicated cell. These are chromosomes that mimic the chromosomes in our own cells."

But he made it very clear this was not a first step towards attempting to build Frankenstein-like human life in a lab.
The Imperial College site for the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation notes:
Synthetic Biology is the engineering of biology. It is an exciting new area of research combining science and engineering to design and build new biological functions and systems, and to understand existing biological life through its rational re-design.
Is there any cause for larger moral concern, or concern about weaponized synthetic biology? Scientific American mulled these questions over vaguely in a 2010 article. While the writer,

Excerpt from Adventures in Synthetic Biology (2007). Image Source: MIT/Nature via h+ magazine.

In 2007, Wired reported on a bit of MIT publicity outreach, published through Nature, which was designed to make synthetic biology more friendly and accessible to the public, and especially to children interested in studying science: "MIT’s Synthetic Biology Working Group partnered with cartoonist Chuck Wadey, to create a comic book, Adventures in Synthetic Biology, to showcase the principles of the field." You can see the whole comic, starring Bacteria Buddy, Device Dude, and System Sally, here.

In 2007-2008, a project, Synbiosafe, won 236,000 euros to explore the ethical and safety issues associated with synthetic biology. The grant came from an EU program, New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST). The Synbiosafe project was coordinated by Austrian scientist Dr. Markus Schmidt. Just his affiliation - with the Organisation for Internal Dialogue and Conflict Management (IDC) - should clarify where researchers think synthetic biology could go.

Schmidt's personal site notes that he works
in the area of technology assessment of novel bio-, nano- and  converging technologies (such as synthetic biology); [he] explores the interface between science, society and art; and [he] engages in documentary film production and art-science exhibitions. Schmidt is founder of Biofaction and co-founder of IDC.
IDC's project list shows the spheres which synthetic biology touches: environmental pollution; a sustainable energy policy for Africa; promoting biodiversity conservation in Cambodia; improved agricultural portfolios in Europe and Asia; biosafety and genetically modified crops in South Africa.

That's comforting: "Survival of the fittest – the constant battle for resources, the dynamic equilibrium between growth & decline, survival & adaption - is as valid at a human scale as at a microscopic scale." Yeast Pixels 1.0 art installation by pavillon 35/ Silvia Hüttner. Image Source: Pavillon 35.

Biofaction's work tends to concern the 'softer' impacts of synthetic biology, such as an exhibition this summer on how artists understand this technology, or this artistic collective, Pavillon 35 [sic: this is German for 'pavilion']. You can see Pavillon 35's bioart projects here. They have also launched a video game, Synmod, which teaches synthetic biology through science gamification. You can download the Synmod app here.

It looks like the limitations on the burgeoning merger of biology and engineering may not come from ethical considerations, but simply from patents. Like many aspects of today's exploding Tech Revolution, property rights exert a drag and pull effect. They slow things down. That might be a good thing, in some cases, because deeper thinking about what is going on during the tech boom can be thin on the ground in places.

Nevertheless, patents also worryingly corner the market for big players. The question that comes up behind all our new, shiny tech, again and again, is energy, and who controls it. In this case, biofuels are a central focus of this research. The promise of biofuels awakes competition and power grabs just as ruthless as any in the petroleum or nuclear industries. From The Council for Responsible Genetics:
[I]n 2007 the J. Craig Venter Institute applied for a frighteningly broad patent of its "minimal bacterial genome" called Mycoplasma laboratorium. This organism was an attempt to create life with the minimum number of genes by cutting out as many DNA sequences as possible without removing its ability to reproduce or survive. U.S. patent numbers US2007 0264688 and US2007 0269862 describes creation of the first-ever, entirely synthetic living organism-a novel bacterium whose entire genetic information is constructed from synthesized DNA (but whose genome is a near-replica of a naturally occurring genome).

This patent claims exclusive monopoly on the genes in the minimal bacterial genome, the entire organism made from these genes, a digital version of the organism's genome, any version of that organism that could make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen, any method of producing those fuels that uses the organism, the process of testing a gene's function by inserting other genes into the synthetic organism, and a set of non-essential genes. These patents are not restricted to any specific cell type-it currently applies to prokaryotes and eukaryotes - or size of a synthetic genome.

While these patents have yet to be granted, the claim shows the extent to which some synthetic biologists are testing the limits in the battle to control the fundamental building blocks of life and actual living organisms. While it is likely this specific patent application's scope will be limited to cover only bacterial cells, such a patent would still grant Venter and company an exclusive license to create synthetic fuel-producing bacteria and the tools to create such organisms. Conveniently, Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, has contracts with both Exxon Mobile and BP to produce "next-generation" biofuels from synthetic cells (or at least genetically engineered cells that contain synthetic DNA sequences).

Amyris Biotechnologies is a synthetic biology company that used genetically engineered yeasts that contain synthetic DNA to break down sugarcane to produce isoprenoids-which are then being converted to biofuels, industrial chemicals, among other products. Patent US 7,659,097, granted to Amyris in February 2010, covers the production of many different isoprenoids created though a number of different microbes. Amyris already has deals with major oil and chemical companies to turn Brazilian sugarcane into high-value commodities. Again, Amyris' "biosynthetic pathways" are near-copies of metabolic pathways found in nature with some "tweaking" of the DNA pathways to allow the yeast to do some things that traditional genetic engineering could not accomplish.

The novel challenge created by the emerging field of synthetic biology is that not only can natural or synthesized DNA be patented, but the processes used to synthesize DNA and create synthetic organisms can also be patented. Furthermore, the living organisms created with synthetic DNA are covered in these patents, as are the products they are engineered to produce. ...
What must be done
While it is clear to us that current court rulings would likely support the patenting of synthetic genomes as developed by Venter's lab and other researchers, Congress should prevent the patenting of DNA sequences that simply copy naturally occurring DNA. To do otherwise would in effect allow another way to patent natural occurring organisms and their DNA-just make synthetic copies of them. That is in no one's interest but the patent holders'.   
See the videos below the jump which promote and debate various synthetic biology concepts. There is also a Youtube playlist of 2011 talks delivered at the Royal Academy of Engineering here; the first video in that playlist is below the jump.

Monday, July 15, 2013

PayPal Galactic: Building Better Worlds

"Once space colonies exist, PayPal Galactic might be useful, but until then the announcement of PayPal’s new initiative appeared to primarily confuse space commercialization with space exploration." Image Source: NASA/Ames via The Space Review.

The Space Review had some sharp words to respond to PayPal's recent announcement that the latter will make their online financial transaction service available from space with the help of the non-profit SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Writer John Hickman expects that this is a sign of coming commercialization of space exploration. More specifically, he felt he detected a libertarian, anti-statist message in reporting on this story, which he did not like:
Where would we be without our shared delusions? Perhaps no longer trapped in low Earth orbit. Physical danger, lack of funding, and legal uncertainty are widely acknowledged as obstacles to human exploration and economic development beyond Earth orbit, but the constraint imposed by ideological belief goes largely unrecognized. Evidence for this proposition is found in the news coverage of the recent announcement that PayPal would sponsor an effort to figure out how to conduct financial transactions in space. ...

In a Fox News article, Michael Roppolo quotes PayPal executive Anuj Nayal as saying, “As we travel through space and explore new planets, we will still need to pay for life on Earth and out there…” There is no indication that he stopped Nayal to ask the obvious. Explore new planets? What new planets? ...

Although it is tempting to simply dismiss all of this as the product of an endemically sycophantic business press, that explanation would overlook the ideological message for the space news audience. What we are meant to believe is that private firms managed by brilliant entrepreneurs can and will take over responsibility for human space exploration from government agencies. We will soon be touring the solar system—or is it the galaxy?—all thanks to the magic of free enterprise. ...

The problem with this particular millennial vision is that private firms do not open new frontiers. States do. Private firms profit from frontiers after they have been opened by states. The reason for this division of institutional labor is that opening a new frontier involves accepting high risk and absorbing unrecoverable cost. Businesses hate both. That’s why they wait for governments to do the heavy lifting. Mind you, if the real space frontier that lies beyond low Earth orbit is ever reopened to human exploration and opened to economic development, private investment will have an important role to play. However when humans return to the Moon and if they land on Mars for the first time, count on a state to have paid the freight. The real question is not whether but which state will be writing the check.

The persistent anti-statist message in space news coverage is therefore a puzzle. Although it is tempting to think of the reporters as shills for corporate executives, they should be credited with exercising more agency than that. More probably, reporters and the executives they quote or misquote share the same libertarian convictions. That would be harmless if it had no effect on public opinion about space policy. Unfortunately, it leaves the naïve waiting for business to do what only government will.
This argument reflects the recession-driven tension between cash-strapped government-sponsored space programs and the big money of private space initiatives. Even our future empires are up for grabs in the Millennial political debate.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

How to Wash Your Hair in Space

NASA astronaut and Gen Xer, Karen Nyberg. Image Source: Wiki.

This story comes from the excellent blog, Spaceports, whose blogger discovered a Youtube video showing Expedition 36/37 (Soyuz TMA-09M) Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg demonstrating how she washes her hair aboard the International Space Station. Walgreens advertises the no-rinse shampoo that Nyberg uses for $7.99 here. The shampoo's features:
  • Soft, clean, manageable hair without water.
  • Ready to use.
  • Absolutely no water necessary.
  • Just apply, lather and towel dry.
  • Hospital tested and approved.
  • Leaves hair fresh, clean and odor free.
  • The choice of healthcare professionals throughout the world.
  • Effective, efficient personal hygiene since 1948.
  • No Rinse Shampoo is the comfortable, convenient and safe alternative to traditional shampoos.
  • pH Balanced to be mild and non-irritating to the scalp, hair is left sparkling clean, odor free, soft and manageable.
  • Used by NASA.
  • Made in USA.
100% Satisfaction Guaranteed.
Apply generously until hair is completely wet. Massage to a rich lather. Immediately towel dry with an absorbent towel. Repeat for heavily soiled hair. No Rinse Shampoo can be used as often as necessary.
The shampoo is made by No Rinse Laboratories in Springboro, Ohio. Their products are also used by the US Military Special Forces, for disaster and survival prep, and for convalescent and senior care.

The Soyuz TMA-09M mission patch. Image Source: Wiki.

ISS mission 36 mission patch. Image Source: Wiki.

ISS mission 37 mission patch. Image Source: Wiki. 

The Soyuz TMA-09M mission members, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen L. Nyberg, and Luca Parmitano in Red Square before their mission, 8 May 2013. Image Source: Wiki.

See the video below the jump.