Filed under: Brave New World, Connections, General Musings, Genetic Testing, Health, NPR, Science, tech, Wired | Tags: Allen Institute for Brain Science, blogging, BRAIN Initiative, health, jim downey, Katie M. Palmer, NPR, Rob Stein, science, technology, Wired
Two brief news items in the last day or so illustrate just *how much* fundamental knowledge we don’t have about our own biology.
The first is this good article from Wired about building a comprehensive model of the human brain: A First Big Step Toward Mapping the Human Brain
The Allen Cell Types Database, on its surface, doesn’t look like much. The first release includes information on just 240 neurons out of hundreds of thousands in the mouse visual cortex, with a focus on the electrophysiology of those individual cells: the electrical pulses that tell a neuron to fire, initiating a pattern of neural activation that results in perception and action. But understanding those single cells well enough to put them into larger categories will be crucial to understanding the brain as a whole—much like the periodic table was necessary to establish basic chemical principles.
Consider that: we’re just now really building a good map of how the different neurons interact within one small component of the brain. And not even the human brain, at that.
And this news story, which came as a shock to me when I heard it on NPR: Seasons May Tweak Genes That Trigger Some Chronic Diseases
From the story:
The seasons appear to influence when certain genes are active, with those associated with inflammation being more active in the winter, according to new research released Tuesday.
* * *
Other researchers say the findings could have far-reaching implications.
“The fact that they find so many genes that go up and down over the seasons is very interesting because we just didn’t know that our bodies go through this type of seasonal change before,” says Akhilesh Reddy, who studies circadian rhythms at the University of Cambridge but was not involved in the new research. “And if you look at the actual genetic evidence for the first time, it’s pretty profound really.”
Again, this is a really basic bit of science — akin to understanding how the sequence of gene expression leads to the development of an organism. Learning that your genetic activity changes during the year means that illnesses are much more dynamic than anyone realized previously.
Not to get too Rumsfeldian, but it really is important to know what we don’t know, as seen between the two items above. In the first case, researchers set out to build a model because they knew that they needed the basic knowledge. In the other, it was investigation of a mystery which led to an unexpected discovery.
And in both cases, it’s science at work. And very cool.
Filed under: Brave New World, Connections, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, tech, Wired, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, Communion of Dreams, jim downey, predictions, science, Science Fiction, Tactum, technology, Wired, writing
From page two of Communion of Dreams:
He paused there at the railing, right hand manipulating the thin-film controls under the skin on the back of his left hand. Looking out over the herd of slowly moving animals, a see-through display came up before him. Nothing new on the nets. So, whatever the emergency was, it wasn’t public knowledge yet. He turned, opened the door to the station, and stepped inside.
From a new article on Wired this morning:
Gannon is exploring modeling techniques that use the human skin as their primary interface. Her prototype is called Tactum. Instead of creating free-floating models in software like CAD, Gannon’s setup uses a Kinect camera and a projector to create a virtual modeling environment right on your hand.
The projector beams blue lights onto the skin. That light represents the base geometry of the band you’ll eventually wear. The Kinect tracks your body and space and keeps the projection aligned. To adjust the design, you drag it with your fingers; there’s no layer of mediation, you just manipulate the form directly. “You could be pinching, touching, poking, prodding and that visual geometry on your arm without having to go through any computer,” Gannon says. “Your skin and hand are the equivalent of the mouse and keyboard.”
Another step in Communion of Dreams becoming reality.
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Bad Astronomy, Connections, movies, NPR, Phil Plait, Predictions, Science, Science Fiction, Singularity, Slate, Space, tech, Wired, YouTube | Tags: ALMA, art, astronomy, Bad Astronomy, blogging, Blood Sweat & Tears, Interstellar, jim downey, Kip Thorne, movies, music, NPR, Phil Plait, photography, predictions, reviews, science, Science Fiction, space, technology, video, www youtube
The reviews have been mixed, but one aspect of the new movie Interstellar is pretty cool: the rendering of the black hole depicted in the movie. Even moreso since it is as scientifically accurate as possible, based on close collaboration with noted astrophysicist Kip Thorne:
Still, no one knew exactly what a black hole would look like until they actually built one. Light, temporarily trapped around the black hole, produced an unexpectedly complex fingerprint pattern near the black hole’s shadow. And the glowing accretion disk appeared above the black hole, below the black hole, and in front of it. “I never expected that,” Thorne says. “Eugénie just did the simulations and said, ‘Hey, this is what I got.’ It was just amazing.”
In the end, Nolan got elegant images that advance the story. Thorne got a movie that teaches a mass audience some real, accurate science. But he also got something he didn’t expect: a scientific discovery. “This is our observational data,” he says of the movie’s visualizations. “That’s the way nature behaves. Period.” Thorne says he can get at least two published articles out of it.
And in a nice bit of serendipity, there’s another fantastic bit of astrophysics in the news just now: actual images of planetary genesis from ALMA. Check it out:
A new image from ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, reveals extraordinarily fine detail that has never been seen before in the planet-forming disc around a young star. ALMA’s new high-resolution capabilities were achieved by spacing the antennas up to 15 kilometers apart . This new result represents an enormous step forward in the understanding of how protoplanetary discs develop and how planets form.
ALMA has obtained its most detailed image yet showing the structure of the disc around HL Tau , a million-year-old Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus. The image exceeds all expectations and reveals a series of concentric and bright rings, separated by gaps.
That’s not computer-rendered theory. That’s an actual image, showing the formation of planets around this very young star.
Filed under: Civil Rights, Connections, Constitution, Failure, Government, Privacy, Society, Terrorism, Wired | Tags: blogging, civil liberties, Constitution, FBI, freedom, government, jim downey, privacy, Rahinah Ibrahim, security, terrorism, TSA, Wired
I know sometimes people think that I am anti-government or anti-authority because I rant about infringements of our civil rights and personal liberties. I’ll cop to some of that, since I do believe that trading freedom (or even privacy) for a false security is foolish.
But more importantly, I think that the whole notion of secret courts or secret laws or secret lists are dangerous because they can be abused not due to an over-enthusiastic effort to protect the country, but because of personal grudges or to cover up incompetence. Without the ability to challenge these secret acts/actions, those abuses and incompetence cannot be brought to light and corrected. This is the perfect example of that:
The government contested a former Stanford University student’s assertion that she was wrongly placed on a no-fly list for seven years in court despite knowing an FBI official put her on the list by mistake because he checked the “wrong boxes” on a form, a federal judge wrote today.
The agent, Michael Kelly, based in San Jose, misunderstood the directions on the form and “erroneously nominated” Rahinah Ibrahim to the list in 2004, the judge wrote.
“He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote (.pdf) today.
* * *
Much of the federal court trial, in which the woman sought only to clear her name, was conducted in secret after U.S. officials repeatedly invoked the state secrets privilege and sought to have the case dismissed.
Doctor Ibrahim is the first person to successfully challenge in court being put on a government watch list in the US. It’s highly doubtful that she is the only one to be placed on such a list incorrectly.
National security may benefit from secret lists and hidden actions. But so does bureaucratic incompetence and hidden agendas.
Filed under: Augmented Reality, Bipolar, Brave New World, Connections, Feedback, Predictions, Psychic abilities, Science, Science Fiction, Society, tech, Wired, Writing stuff | Tags: bipolar, blogging, jim downey, Kevin Dutton, literature, predictions, science, Science Fiction, Scrivener, St. Cybi's Well, technology, writing
As I’ve noted before, writing a long work of fiction is a strange thing, at least for me. I spend a lot of time intensely chewing over ideas, doing research, starting to conceptualize a narrative theory for the book, outlining various relationships between images and characters, sorting out what it is I really want to say more than the actual words to use.
Betwixt & between all of this, some honest to goodness writing gets done, then reorganized and shuffled, with plans and outlines changing. More research, more thinking, more feeling my way through the darkness with the only illumination occasional flashes of lightning.
This morning, after a lot of consideration, I downloaded Scrivener. Over the next week or so I’ll play around with it a bit, see whether it will be a useful tool.
And over lunch, some research & reading. It might be interesting, or even telling, what it was that I found. Here’s an excerpt:
The effects aren’t entirely dissimilar. An easy, airy confidence. A transcendental loosening of inhibition. The inchoate stirrings of a subjective moral swagger: the encroaching, and somehow strangely spiritual, realization that hell, who gives a s—, anyway?
There is, however, one notable exception. One glaring, unmistakable difference between this and the effects of alcohol. That’s the lack of attendant sluggishness. The enhancement of attentional acuity and sharpness. An insuperable feeling of heightened, polished awareness. Sure, my conscience certainly feels like it’s on ice, and my anxieties drowned with a half-dozen shots of transcranial magnetic Jack Daniel’s. But, at the same time, my whole way of being feels as if it’s been sumptuously spring-cleaned with light. My soul, or whatever you want to call it, immersed in a spiritual dishwasher.
So this, I think to myself, is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear—all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.
And not unlike the high which comes with creating. Or entering a manic phase in my mild bipolar cycle.
Yes, interesting. Quite.
Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Civil Rights, Constitution, Government, Music, Predictions, Privacy, Science Fiction, Society, tech, Wired, Writing stuff
Hmm. Quoting a lot of music lately. Wonder why that is.
It’s not explicit in the book, but there is an implication that the Experts of the government have access to pretty much *all* private conversations and communications in 2052. Having true Artificial Intelligences makes it fairly easy to break most routine security, and that’s why you have things like ‘privacy screens’ and military-grade isolation fields – it’s an attempt to maintain some level of privacy. There are also some explicit passages like this one from the beginning of Chapter Nine:
“After he experienced several instances of unusual dream activity, Jon asked my thin-film counterpart back on Earth to collect data on the subject. Reports in discussion groups, news sources, and public postings on any significant change in the
frequency of dreams or their content. My dup went back through the last year’s datafiles to establish a baseline for the study, then I compared that to activity for the last few weeks. There is a significant deviation from the norm.”
Think about that – Seth, Jon’s ‘Expert’, can casually go back through all the material of the previous year looking for a specific pattern to conversations. That is an immense amount of data, and a similarly immense amount of computing power.
And that’s the world we live in today. If you have any illusions that you have some modicum of privacy from our government, read this:
* * *
In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret. To those on the inside, the old adage that NSA stands for Never Say Anything applies more than ever.
* * *
Breaking into those complex mathematical shells like the AES is one of the key reasons for the construction going on in Bluffdale. That kind of cryptanalysis requires two major ingredients: super-fast computers to conduct brute-force attacks on encrypted messages and a massive number of those messages for the computers to analyze. The more messages from a given target, the more likely it is for the computers to detect telltale patterns, and Bluffdale will be able to hold a great many messages. “We questioned it one time,” says another source, a senior intelligence manager who was also involved with the planning. “Why were we building this NSA facility? And, boy, they rolled out all the old guys—the crypto guys.” According to the official, these experts told then-director of national intelligence Dennis Blair, “You’ve got to build this thing because we just don’t have the capability of doing the code-breaking.” It was a candid admission. In the long war between the code breakers and the code makers—the tens of thousands of cryptographers in the worldwide computer security industry—the code breakers were admitting defeat.
* * *
In addition to giving the NSA access to a tremendous amount of Americans’ personal data, such an advance would also open a window on a trove of foreign secrets. While today most sensitive communications use the strongest encryption, much of the older data stored by the NSA, including a great deal of what will be transferred to Bluffdale once the center is complete, is encrypted with more vulnerable ciphers. “Remember,” says the former intelligence official, “a lot of foreign government stuff we’ve never been able to break is 128 or less. Break all that and you’ll find out a lot more of what you didn’t know—stuff we’ve already stored—so there’s an enormous amount of information still in there.”
The article is long, but informative. And frightening. That is, if you have any illusions that you have some modicum of privacy. As they also say in the article: “Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. ‘We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,’ he says.”
But are we even that far?
Again, I almost regret that “I . . . see . . . things.”
*Don’t say words you’re gonna regret
Don’t let the fire rush to your head
I’ve heard the accusation before
And I ain’t gonna take any more
The sun in your Eyes
Made some of the lies worth believing