Glitches, uh, find a way

Core scientific theories often sound tautological, yet we keep them around because they lead to useful ideas. The prime theorem of biology is that life comes from life. Life coming from life doesn’t mean that spontaneous generation is impossible. It had to have happened at least once. But it’s so much less efficient than reproduction that it no longer has a chance. Before two amino acids can start rubbing together in just the right way on the road to making Life 2.0, some version 1.0 bastard comes along and eats it. That leads you to the idea of natural selection, evolution, dimorphic sex, and the rest of it.

The prime theorem of computing is that any computer can simulate any other. But for all of the talk about “artificial life”, the two mechanisms are subtly different. Lifeforms compete by turning each other into food. Computerforms compete by turning each other into memes. [Read more…]

From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain

What can one neuron tell us about brain function?  It can tell if we are looking at a picture of Jennifer Aniston. Brain surgeon and researcher Itzak Fried, in 2005, was probing a certain brain region in patients with epilepsy to pinpoint the source of their seizures.  This is open brain surgery done while the patient is conscious (the brain doesn’t have pain receptors).  These patients agreed to additional probing in the interest of science.  Fried was showing patients pictures, some of famous people, and kept running into neurons that would fire to multiple representations of the same person or object, and to nothing else (within the limited but large set of images used).  “The first time we saw a neuron firing to seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston–and nothing else–we literally jumped out of our chairs,” recalled R. Quian Quiroga, who did subsequent work on the phenomenon with Fried.

In a study by Quiroga, Fried and others, severe epilepsy patients each had 64 tiny probes implanted in different parts of the brain, to study how the seizures manifested. The patients also agreed to view sets of images while the probes were monitored. A number of invariant responses (the same neuron firing to multiple views of the same person/thing) were found.  “In some patients, Jennifer Aniston neurons would also fire to her fellow actresses in Friends, … But they would never fire to other similar-looking, but otherwise unconnected, actresses” (Nature Magazine).  Either way, a connection was made between a concept and a single neuron.  Finding connections between a specific neuron and one specific memory has been going on for seven decades, and single neuron stimulation has triggered laughter, remembered childhood scenes or hearing snippets of music, but this association, apparently with the concept of a certain person, instantly became and remains a major focus of brain research.

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Memory Transplants and Climate Risks

Guest post by Lisa M. P. Munoz

Fourteen years ago, I visited the small town of Orting, Washington. Sitting in the shadow of the magnificent yet menacing Mount Rainier, it resembles other small Pacific Northwest or even midwestern towns, but something there was different. The residents, more than any other group I have met, have a profound understanding of risk.

Lahar, Mount St. Helens eruption (public domain)

While Mount Rainier is an active volcano that will eventually erupt, the residents there fear something more hidden: lahars. These massive mudflows – often triggered by glacial melts – have raced down Mount Rainier and buried the valley before and will likely do so again. Orting residents face a 1 in 7 chance that lahars will occur in their lifetimes. But unlike many people who live near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico who don’t think a life-threatening event will ever truly threaten them personally, Orting residents seem to truly believe a lahar could take their lives.

What makes Orting different? Why do its residents relate so uniquely to the risks in their environment? And do their approaches generalize to other risks and populations, in particular,  global climate change risk? The key, I’ve come to believe, is a kind of cultural memory transplant.

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Cloud Viruses in the Invisible Republic

Q: What do an air-gapped private datacenter, a public cloud offering rented servers, and a botnet all have in common?

A: Sooner or later, they’re all wormfood.

That probably requires some explanation. There are technological and environmental pressures that force spook shops and criminals to carry out permanent infiltrations into the computing infrastructure that the world economy depends on. It’s possible that the attack/defense cycle will produce an infrastructure that has better “antibodies”, and even co-options, but will never rid us of the infection. Meanwhile these pressures will continue to produce truly weird beasts. Can you guess what the pink beast plotted on the 2×2 below is?

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Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship

As a kid, I enjoyed thinking about my address in the universe. You know — the one that extends your regular postal address with Planet Earth, Solar System, Orion Spur, Milky Way. I think we like this game as kids because it provides us with a comforting sense of being at home in the universe. When you know your whole address, there is no foundational ambiguity left in the human condition, cosmically situated, as you experience it. Moral and ideological relativism may leave you disoriented with respect to loftier aspects of it, but at least you know that you’re home relative to material reality. And that there are no horizons beyond which lurk unnamed, unplottable horrors, threatening to refactor that determinate condition. You’re in a universe with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Including you. A universe where true surprise is profane.

Betty Bowen Command Deck of Spaceship Earth. Coordinates: tidy.advice.curry

Addresses though, are for plants, and at home in the universe is a sessile way of thinking. Real Humans™ are defined by their mobility more than they are by their stationarity, and there ought to be a way to relate to the universe that emerges from a fundamentally mobile, nomadic outlook on life, the universe, and everything. A Hitchhiker’s Metaphysics of the Universe, so to speak, based not on the home metaphor, but perhaps on something closer to the Spaceship Earth metaphor popularized by Buckminster Fuller: the entirety of the planet construed as both a literal and figurative vehicle for the shared human adventure.

Allow me introduce you to my version of Spaceship Earth: the Mongolian Earthship. Its defining feature is one shared by the Spanish Inquisition of the Monty Python universe: nobody expects it.

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Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants

For our pre-technical ancestors, the clockwork at the bottom of the material world was so clothed in messiness that hardly a trace of it appeared on the surface.  But you could say that three exposed bits collectively formed a Rosetta stone to the mathematical language of nature:  a thrown rock, a pendulum, and the solar system, revealed by the night sky.  The last had to be viewed from such a difficult angle that reams of tables, centuries worth of exact observations, and a huge advance in mathematics were required to see it, but it was there to be seen.

Antique Orrery, source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 20

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has driven many philosophical debates for centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are “ultimately just machines”. I.e. underlying all the messy organic complexity of the world’s surface is a level at which things function with mechanical or mathematical precision.  Sometimes it is then too blithely concluded that this proves we can eventually replicate anything, including the human brain.

But if “everything is a machine”, it can’t contribute anything to any argument  because it doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else.

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The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible

A short story.

The city was content in the deepening twilight, as the Sun set with the air of a job well done. Wrought iron street lamps flickered to life and small birds twittered in the bushes on the gentle hillside sloping down towards the water. From the patio of the Em Cafe, two thin and earnest young men looked out across the bay, nursing their cold brews with an air of reluctant contentment.

“Would it be bourgie to say ‘this is perfect’?” asked the ginger-infused cold brew.

Classic cold brew pondered the question gravely for a moment, and opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it again as a homeless black woman shuffled into view, pushing a shopping cart, and muttering something under her breath in a disturbed undertone.

Ginger cold-brew shuffled uncomfortably, “Well, you know what I mean. The bay view, the weather, the coffee. Not, you know, life.”

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Weird Crowds, Weird Planet

Here’s the pre-read for the third and fourth sessions of Refactor Camp.

For our session tomorrow, Tuesday the 26th on The Weird State of the Crowd, we are running a bit behind, so have a partial pre-read for you in the form of  this short summary document on Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. The session will be led by Renee DiResta and Megan Lubaszka. I’ll add the summary deck, which will also cover Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believerto this post, once I have it. Apologies for the delay.

Update: the slides are in!

And for our final session on Thursday the 28th, which will attempt pull it all together via the capstone theme, Weird State of the Planet, here is the slide deck. This session will be led by Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.

Screenshot 2016-07-25 21.29.21

The Daredevil Camera

Once upon a time I was reading a Popular Mechanics article, the title of which eludes me. Something about playing different music for different parts of a dance floor. They were describing a way to focus sound towards different people.

What struck me about the idea was that there was a way to focus sound. It was a piece of mesh of some sort, which acted as a lens for ultrasonics. This sparked an idea for what ended up being the most complex and expensive of my hobby projects to date.

Imagine using such lenses to focus sound onto a plane of microphones. Just like light in a camera. One microphone is one pixel. An ability to see sound.

duga

Duga 3 radar, image from Wikimedia commons.

I didn’t actually read Daredevil comics until much later, but those who have can see where this is going.

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Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints

Nearly every science-fiction novel seems to agree on one thing: in the future, work will be indistinguishable from art. Such wide agreement suggests that work is far more than a means of income generation. Even in a robot servant utopia, with all our practical needs taken care of, human work will still have a purpose. To find or make meaning, to know thyself, to create beauty or value in the world. Productivity is helpful in these deeper pursuits because the fundamental questions it seeks to answer—how order arises from disorder, complexity from randomness, and ends from means—are the very same questions essential to understanding sentience, life, the universe, and everything.

It’s been noted that the best writers know the rules of writing well enough to break them in creative ways. The rules in this way are more than rules. In the beginning, they are crutches. Later, they become guides and useful defaults. Eventually, they become springboards. They crystallize the moments where a writer has to decide what she believes, who she isn’t, and by process of elimination, who she is.v7.001

This is the same role, I believe, that “tips and habits” play in productivity: rules that are designed to be broken in a journey of self-discovery. They resist a little bit, asking “Are you sure you want to choose your own adventure?” Which is helpful, because many times you shouldn’t. This changing role makes it irrelevant whether a piece of productivity advice is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is how fruitful of a domain it circumscribes, and thus whether it’s worth the effort to redesign it. It’s not important whether you “believe in it” or not, but whether you can articulate how it fits (or doesn’t) within your personal system of truths.

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