Lay off, laserbrain.

It seems to me that modern society is based entirely on control.  The President is supposed to be in control of the country.  The boss is supposed to be in control of the office.  Individual citizens are supposed to be in control of their actions.  Of course, sometimes this control gets foiled.  Congress gets unruly, or the boss-man has some sort of weird spiritual awakening, or people have real, even medically unavoidable problems that affect their behavior.  Sometimes we can’t help ourselves from going a little loopy, but it’s usually still considered a social blunder.

Well, on the interior individual-mind basis, science is here to help.  Through a combination of glowy virus taken from algae and electric blue lasers, scientists have been able to stimulate nerve firings in specific groups of brain cells in monkeys.  The eventual medical applications are potential cures for diseases like Parkinson’s, or even depression.  Unlike past uses of lasers or electricity on patients, this new method would target only specific cell groups (those that weren’t working so great) and would avoid damaging the still-functioning parts of the brain.

Yet despite the limited nature of the approach, people are already speculating about mind control.  While there is some creedence to the idea that getting things to fire off in our heads could eventually be manipulative, especially when targeted to certain areas, I think the mind control thing is an overreaction.  Do we really think a little glowy light is suddenly going to make us do things against are will?  That kind of direct manipulation is ridiculous.  We don’t even know enough about the brain to tell which groups of cells to fire when to achieve certain behaviors.  It could never happen.

You’ll have to excuse me now, I have an emergency.  I just saw the Taco Bell sign and I need a burrito.

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The nose knows.

Late last night, I was having an in-depth conversation about Tycho Brahe.  Why?  Because that’s the sort of uber-smart super-cool person I am.  And because stars are cool, and measurements are cooler, and I’m the kind of nit-picky person who likes redundancy and repeated observations.  Of course, as all enlightened conversations do, ours eventually wound down into the mundane – Tycho’s fake nose (we’re appropriate conversationalists – we don’t get into mercury poisoning and UTIs).

Personally, I am all about the nose.  I love the smell of autumn, the smell of dew in the morning, and the not-quite-greasy smell of old metal.  I have allergies, so the consistent sneezing reminds me of my own nose.  In addition, my German heritage gives me the facial spine to judge other, lesser noses.  I get offended when people stroke my nose and firmly intend (at times) to knock other noses out of joint.  A nose is a terrible thing to lose, and I sympathize with Tycho.  In addition, carrying the weight of a plastered on metal fake-nose must have been a burden.

Still, the nose can occasionally get in the way.  When you’re peering out of a window, it restricts the angle of your vision.  When you’re smooching, it can be an awkward protuberance.  It’s one of the first things to get snapped ina  fist fight, and like ears (as Tycho can attest to) it can easily be lopped off.  One of my friends noted that making certain nighttime observations, the nose prevents a direct line of sight.  Of course, this little tidbit suggests the monumental question:  Did Tycho Brahe remove his nose to make celestial observations?  You be the judge.

More and less.

I bring to your attention, once again, the Transition, as currently featured in the Oven Glove news.  While I have my doubts as to just how roadworthy this plane would be in ‘bad weather’, particularly in icy or stormy conditions, it’s still awesome.

Also awesome is an article that recently came to my attention about the Pirahã.  Of course you say it like pee-da-HAN, but who really looks at the letters in a word, anyway?  Certainly not THESE Amazonians.  Considering that they don’t have letters.  Or art.  Or MATH (that one’s for you, Alex).  From my brief days of teaching language, I know how important it is to be able to work from shared concepts – concrete nouns, pantomimed action verbs, visible adjectives.  But what if these concepts are not shared, or cannot be communicated?  What then?  What happens when  a culture with words for ‘one’, ‘two’, and ‘many’ cannot conceive of or count to three, even in a language different from the native one? How do you communicate?

There is some debate as to whether the term for our number one is really a number at all – it could simply mean ‘a small amount’ or ‘few’, as opposed to the words for ‘some’ (two) or ‘many’.  The only thing that is real is the concrete, the immediate, the observable.  There is no recursion in sentences, no abstraction in terms, no hypothesizing or future planning.  What decoration or art there might be is solely for immediate purposes – the model of a plane just seen carelessly tossed away once the actual plane has left, or some other instant expression of an event or action.  Nothing is meant to last.  What is emotion, in this context?  Is it too abstract, or something transitory that is very real in the moment?  In a language where stress and tone matters more than syllable, vowel, or consonant, where singing possibly says more than saying, what does music mean?

Finally, in this article on linguistics and other wonders of the world, I was laughing at a Boston reference – Noam Chomsky as interviewed by Spare Change news.  Next time you see one of those guys asking for a dollar, just think about it.  You never know what gems might be on the inside.

Who studies the studiers?

I am interested in the increase and growth of knowledge.  The more bizarre facts of life, the odd little quirks of behavior and situation, fascinate me.  Finding out the root meaning of a word like awful or rediscovering that Rainbow Brite had an enemy named Murky AND one named Lurky are true joys for my oddly-cornered mind.  Mindless details about dinoflagellates interest me simply for sheer randomness.

And then of course, there’s the extrapolation.  How does language and TV culture and science form a social trend, a cultural belief, or a political understanding?  How do we think about what we do?  How do we understand who and why we are?  How do the big questions get answered through the tiny little details?

Stefan Helmriech is finding out.  His current area of study – microbial oceanographers, formerly known as marine microbiologists – is targeted towards understanding the people who do the science, why they do it, and how they see their role in the wider world.  I’ll leave you with the last excerpts from MIT’s article:

‘Helmreich says. “The question I wanted to answer was this: How is it that people working in the field of microbial ocean biology come to see their work as meaningful both to them and to the rest of us?”

He learned, for example, that Chisholm saw ocean phytoplankton as a kind of forest that could, in time-lapse photography, be seen to breathe. “I believe the earth is a living entity,” she told him. He saw DeLong as claiming that, “the entwined orders of nature and society cannot exist without microbes” and that “microbes are mostly allies to be understood rather than enemies to be defeated.”

DeLong said his post-doc students, whom Helmreich pressed to explain their work, benefited by being questioned about their underlying beliefs about science. “Sometimes we’re so swept up in the details, that we don’t see the forest for the trees,” DeLong says. “Often times we take a lot for granted. We consider many points of view and facts as being given, but they aren’t — they’re built on presumptions.”

Science, Helmreich concludes, cannot be divorced from culture. Medieval Christians saw the ocean as frightening chaos; 19th Century Romantics saw it as a symbol of the sublime, both beautiful and terrifying. In the 20th Century, filmmakers like Jacques-Yves Cousteau made the underwater world seem downright friendly. Today, we speak of saving the ocean from overfishing, pollution, and global warming. And, he says, we do not know whether the future sea will be friend or foe; much depends on what we humans do.’

Oceans of time

I’m a big fan of unrelated bits of knowledge that clog up your brain function and sidetrack you from basic daily tasks.  That’s why I was highly excited when I heard about some of the ocean-related new features in Google Earth 5.  I can follow the migrational paths of sharks?  Excellent.  I can examine coral reefs in the Red Sea?  Awesome.  I didn’t even know they HAD coral over there.

Very highly excited, I downloaded the new version and set about trying to figure out how to key into that whole shark-tracking thing.  Usually I am a somewhat tech-savvy person, a bit of a nerd but not so much so that I can’t talk other than in geek speak.  However, the search function on this program gave me no help finding the sharkies and made me feel consistently dumb.  I mean, how does shark migration get linked to data on shark attacks?  I mean, I know the shark has to be in the area ot bite, but still – one is delightful knowledge, the other is potentially painful.  As Seth Rosenblatt mentioned “For Google to fail so hard with its search algorithms is like Ford failing to stay on top of developing car tech.”  Eventually I just scrolled around coastlines looking for something good, and eventually came across a shark icon, which gave me this.  Hurrah!

gtopp

I especially enjoyed the little ocean floor ‘swim with me’ video that allows you to view at least some of what teh shark would’ve seen while swimming.

Finally, I have yet to explore the Mars maps, but they look interesting, as does all the good ol’ night sky stuff.  I look forward to spending future days pondering the available information, really delving in, and hopefully eventually being mroe able to instantly find what I want.

Doctorspeak

There was a short story someone once wrote which began with a yearly checkup at a doctors office for a 20-something girl.  In it, the doctor states that she will grow three inches and only fall in love once.  I have no idea what happened to, or in,  this story.  I encountered it as part of a writer’s workshop and the writer had not yet finished it at the time we read the first sections.  Still, the idea was intriguing – not only that a woman would grow at such an astounding rate in her later years, but that both her height and her heart were things predictable, were outcomes to be expected rather than hidden and unknowable futures.

I doubt that it is really possible for us to tell how much someone will grow.  I’m sure there are tests that can be done – on the growing spaces of our young bones, or in our calcium intake – and some reliable predictions might be made about our eventual height based on our family histories and statistical modeling.  But to truly anticipate a rapid spurt of growth seems somewhat fantastical and odd.  Still, it is possibly knowable within the realm of science.

At times I wish the other was.  At times, i would like to be able to say, based on my condition in life, my natural inclinations, my personality and my appearance, I will fall in love X number of times and then be done with the whole mess.  Whether that mess would end on a positive note or not would, of course, be entirely up to fate, but the idea of accurate predictions in such situations is reassuring.  But then, that takes something away as well.  Some of the magic of certain moments, the vitality of two people interacting in unknown proportions, would be drain away by reliable individual statistics.  Sure, there are numbers that say X many relationships or marriages fail, but that’s not quite the same as saying an individual or a certain group is more likely to fall in love a certain number of times.  On the whole, I think I like that variability.  It allows for the freedom of movement of the heart.

Squiddy elbows and conflicts of interest.

Ok, i found the actual info via this CNN video, but the National Geographic article is much more informative, so I’ll focus on that.

Basically, this thing is its own genus and species though it’s currently classified as a squid.  It has ten appendages like other squids, but on the Magnapinna the leggies are all the same – tentacles are not differentiated – and it has some sort of joints near the head on each leg that function similar to elbows.  they are even more elusive than the Colossal Squid – so far, no adult specimens have been confirmed, as far as I could find.  Most of what we know about them comes from the juveniles that wash up and the deep sea videos and photographs taken, some of which are random captures from deep sea oil drilling tools (well, at least it’s good for some human advancement). We don’t even know if they chase prey – the long trailing arms (up to 23 feet in length, longer than the giant squid) could be a form of trapping that drifts until bumped, then snaps up the intrusion. Take a look:

squid

Not something you’d want to meet in the dark depths of the ocean.

The story of THE FUTURE.

I was asked recently (as I seem to be asked whenever I complain about my current career or lack thereof) what I would do if the normal constraints of family, friends, finances and talent were eliminated.  Usually I go with some sort of writing, but in this particular instance, inspiration struck.  I would be a wandering storyteller.  I would wander from town to town, sharing stories and telling tales and generally amazing crowds with my talented tale-spinning and imposing persona.  I would be just like the minstrels of old, except without the lute.

It seems, however, that the MIT Media Lab has beat me to it.  They’ve recently created a new ‘Center for Future Storytelling‘ with the express purpose of “transforming storytelling into social experiences, creating expressive tools for the audience and enabling them to embellish and integrate stories into their lives, making tomorrow’s stories more interactive, creative, democratized, and improvisational”.  Hm.  Sounds strangely like the minstrels of old.

But before you get huffy about a supposed ‘tech’ school going old-fashioned, keep in mind that they plan a wide range of virtual tools to be integrated into this ‘modern’ storytelling.  Key features to be newly included are ‘synthetic’ characters (go robots!) and new imaging technologies, both of which are supposed to make stories more interactive and adaptable to audience response.  Of course, all this new stuff doesn’t add up to a real, live minstrel.  But one day it might, putting me right out of the job i never had.

Maps, yum.

Cartography has always been an area that has interested me.  How do we express our relationship to teh landscape in depictions that are supposedly ‘accurate’?  what features of landscape or human relationship do we emphasize?  What details reveal how much (or little) we know about a particular area?  What markers and symbols to we place on the edges of maps, at the edge of the known world?  How do we orient ourselves?

But recognizing those prejudices also allows the way for something else.  Recognizing the flaws inherent in representation, we can begin to tell other stories with these same shapes – the outline of borders, the sizing of regions.  And technology is beginning to help us in this flow of information manipulation, in this case, new software that creates equal area cartograms.  Using the software and compiled data, a book has been written and a website launched, displaying visually some of the more interesting and startling comparisons between nations in the world.  In particular, I thought the span of the Shinto religion was very interesting and spread over a strange area.  I guess it’s the Pacific Islands that make it that shape, but still, whoa.

A last frontier?

The United States was a country that was partially shaped by its idea of ‘frontier’ and ever-outward expansion.  To a certain extent, the modern American still has a sense of himself as ruggedly individualistic and ready to pit himself against the world.  That external world, however, has greatly changed.  The frontier, even in remote areas of Alaska, doesn’t truly exist the way it once did.  Now it seems that one of the last frontiers will become more easily reachable – the oceans.

Scientists around the world are currently cataloguing and delving deep into the oceans.  Their aim is to gather enough data to complete a sort of ocean ‘census’ by 2010.  The data already collected is already providing interesting results: new depths at which ocean predators like jellyfish are sucessful, new habits and migrations of sharks, massive congregations of aquatic life in unusual places.  Researchers will meet Tuesday to begin compilation of various data points.  They will be working in association with the website PLoS ONE to get the content out, which is fabulous.  Who doesn’t like direct access?

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