World GDP changes – 2012/2013

http://www.google.com/fusiontables/embedviz?q=select+col0%3E%3E1+from+13sIKjdseRfxfglShOX6q7uoWoX-hxB5q4jDOvXeF&viz=MAP&h=false&lat=41.19335759364503&lng=180&t=1&z=1&l=col0%3E%3E1&y=2&tmplt=2&hml=KML

 

World GDP per country (Russia took exception to being included for some reason)

The redder it is, the greater the contraction in 2013. The greener, the larger the positive rise.

Information from worldbank.org

World economies, 2012-2013

World GDP: 2012-2013

A fusion map of the GDP’s of the world, measures as +/- changes throughout 2012-2013.

Information from http://www.worldbank.org.

Catches of the week (07/19/2013)

Flesh and Blood

A new type of ceratopsid dinosaur with funny horns and a big nose has been discovered. ❤ for new dinosaurs.

Certain ants, like Rome, can't get by without their slaves. Enter the ant version of Spartacus.

The arts:

A cute movie about seemingly unrequited bench affection between a boy and a girl. In the sequel their gazes sync up and the sparks fly.

Kuriositas’ picks from the selections at this year’s 1-minute Film Festival. At one minute apiece, there’s no reason you can’t go check them out.

I tried, and quite early gave up on, James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d be willing to give it another try, now that its coming out in graphic novel format.

Dogs wearing capes, babies sleeping in fields of fabric, and people recreating photos from yesteryear: Mental Floss’ list of delightful photo projects.

Amazingly crafted drawings that jump out at you by the very talented Alessandro Diddi.

History:

The nachthexen, or night witches: Soviet fighter pilots and female daredevils who piloted wooden biplane bombers on the Eastern Front and raised hell for their German adversaries.

What did people name their pets in the medieval ages? Title says it all.

Technology:
The Oatmeal raised over a million dollars for the Tesla museum so that we could know about his automated war boats? What?

Oldest winemaking site in France tells of the grape’s western march

Image originally taken from the Bordeaux Discovered Wine Shop blog (http://bordeaux-undiscovered.co.uk/blog/)

Roman mosaic of a wine press.

My father used to tell me that the Romans, archetypal wine lovers that they were, were smart enough to expand their empire only where the grapevine would grow and no further. If that’s true, France should be very grateful. England, not so much.

Now a new study by archeologists working at an ancient site in southern France has pushed back the earliest confirmed native wine making in the region to around the 6th century BCE. Additionally, we now know the original spreaders of viticulture to that part of the world weren’t the Romans themselves but rather their esteemed predecessors, the Etruscans, from whom they adopted many of their social and religious customs.

The proof came from a trifecta of evidence: some grape leftovers, pieces of pottery, and an ancient wine press, all hailing from the ancient port city of Lattara, just south of the modern city of Montpellier. Lattara once served as an important commercial hub for the Etruscans, and its status as a big deal can be gauged by the fact that may be the sole site* in France where the Etruscan language, an extinct tongue unrelated to Latin and in many ways an isolate, has been found.

To reach their conclusion the researchers gradually fit together the evidence by using simple deduction and not so simple laboratory equipment. The grape remains (consisting of skins and seeds), for example, unequivocally indicated the presence of whole grapes at Lattara. This by itself wasn’t conclusive enough to prove that any ancient winemakers were stomping in full force some twenty five hundred years ago, or that native grapes were used, but it was a start.

Exhibit two featured shattered clay pieces that once belonged to containers known as amphorae. Shaped somewhat like inverted spades with handles and sometimes quite large, amphorae were used to store goods and transport them, especially by boat. There were dozens of different styles, each heralding from a certain region or people, and sometimes included a counter-intuitive ‘foot’, or tapering point, which seemingly made them unable to stand upright. In actuality these feet were used to stick the amphorae in to the earth, or in sand transported aboard ships, both for stability as well as temperature control. This particular style was undeniably Etruscan, and the Etruscans were known as big players in the wine trade: one shipwreck off the Italian coast contained some eight hundred amphorae. That is a lot of wine.

Though their contents are long gone, it is still possible to determine what they contained by using technology that can see what the naked eye cannot. This is where fancy science like gas chronomatography and spectrography is used to pick up and categorize chemical traces leftover in the clay itself.

After analyzing the inner surfaces of the amphorae the researchers were not only able to conclude that wine had sloshed around inside, but resins and spices like thyme, basil, and rosemary had been added to the mix, with the first acting as a preservative and the latter added for flavour or as medicinal ingredients. Now we know Lattara had grapes and traded wine, but did they make their own?

This is where the wine press came in, a rare find by itself. Luckily what worked on the amphorae was just as good when it came to analyzing the wine press itself. The presence of tartaric acid, a key indicator of grapes, was detected on the limestone surface in concentrations strong enough to prove that at some point somebody had employed it to crush grapes. Since it’s unlikely the press was used elsewhere only to be brought over and discarded, it’s safe to say it helped make several Lattaran vintages during its operational lifetime.

This is a notable discovery for several reasons. Besides exposing us to a facet of Lattara’s once vibrant existence, it puts ink to page on an important period of wine’s history and fills in a gap in its expansionary narrative. The French love of wine started in places like Lattara:

Major wine production centers in red. Lattara was where Roussillon is now.

More broadly the paper suggests how the Latin, Greek, and Phoenician communities that existed on the Western Mediterranean periphery between classical and ‘barbarian’ cultures weren’t insular in their use of wine for pleasure and ritual. They interacted with their neighbours culturally and commercially, and one byproduct of this interaction was the spread of wine to such local peoples as the Celts and Iberians, who originally had no native tradition of viticulture. No matter, for they were fast learners: today these regions are some of the finest wine regions in the world.
What the Etruscans planted, the Romans bottled, and you now enjoy. A votre santé!

Check it all out here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/05/30/1216126110

* Or so I am told by an article without sources

 

The Prophet and the Frog: A short history of pregnancy testing

What did people use to uncover conception before they peed on test sticks? Why, they peed on plants, in jars, and in animals, of course!

Pregnancy has always been a big deal, and finding out whether or not you were pregnant was a useful fact to know. Unfortunately, for the longest time humans lacked the necessary science to prove a woman’s body was with child by methods other than visual. This naturally left much to be desired.

Fortunately, people weren’t that off base when it came to understanding their bodies. They correctly surmised that the answer lay in a woman’s urine millennia before we could prove it, even if all they had going for them was what we would today characterize as folk medicine and superstition. Armed with their ways, the methods they came up with were downright silly and strange, but also ingenious and inventive.

The Ancient world: Egypt

An ancient Egyptian lady had many different and relatively easy options. One text calls upon a woman to be laid on the ground and be given sweet beer. Should she vomit, she was pregnant. The amount of times she vomited told her how many children she would bear. Owing to the damage to the medical papyrus in question, other ingredients (experts suspect a ‘potion’ of various and probably vile ingredients was used) may have been involved, so we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that the Egyptians habitually encouraged potentially pregnant women to drink until their bodies couldn’t take it anymore.

Later on, during the Middle Kingdom around the halfway mark of the second millennium BCE, things had improved to the point where an inquirer simply sprinkled a flask or bag filled with a mix of dates, grains, and sand with urine and noted if the grain grew. Easy. Doubly helpful was the tests compatibility with male urine in determining if he was sterile or not.

A third method was to place a clove of garlic inside a woman’s vagina and see if her breath smelled the next morning. The ancient Egyptians believed the birth canal connected to the esophagus, and so the logic went that a fetus in the belly would block the passage of any aroma. Hence, garlic breath indicated there was no blockage, hence no baby, and all involved could breathe easily.

The basic rubric of examination of plant or cereal growth watered by urine wasn’t limited to the ancient Egyptians. It was widely practiced around the Mediterranean and beyond by many different peoples. For example, the renowned Roman physician Galen (a pretty influential guy that was ancient medicine’s answer to Aristotle) outdid the accuracy of the Egyptians by claiming to be capable of not only predicting pregnancy but the sex of the baby. All it required was urinating in two holes, each seeded with either barley or wheat, and seeing what grew first: barley signaled a boy, and wheat predicted the girl. If neither sprouted, the woman wasn’t pregnant. What happened if twins were on the way? What if both grew? What if it happened that neither grew but a baby still came out? Awkward.

Middle Ages

Taken from http://www.sdmags.net/

A medieval uroscopy wheel used to analyze urine.


Urine played a prominent role through the middle ages and the early modern period when it came to diagnosing physiological conditions. Uroscopy, or the study of urine, became an elaborate process practiced in medieval Europe and the Middle East, even as its history stretched back millennia. Very bright people wrote legitimate texts on the topic, no doubt owing to the fact that urine was plentiful and easily replenished, and hence easily studied, and could reveal health issues like diabetes or kidney problems. Everything about urine – its taste, colour, smell, consistency – could tell the experts something about a paying customer’s body. Perhaps disparagingly, the learned men of the 17th century dubbed these individuals ‘piss prophets’.  

Pregnancy prediction was just another skill for these urine diviners. The story of Notke the Stammerer illustrates this well. Notke was a 9th century monk in St. Gall, Switzerland asked to test a certain duke’s urine. What he didn’t know was that the duke, perhaps suspicious of the man, gave him the urine of a pregnant lady of the court. Not one to be fooled, Notke managed to make the correct pronouncement and declared the duke’s pregnancy nothing short of a miracle. Sufficiently impressed (or merely gracious at being beaten at his game), the duke rewarded him. Apocryphal or not, this suggests that uroscopy was practiced by a diverse number of individuals hailing from diverse occupations. Undoubtedly, owing to their better understanding of their own bodies and perhaps a finer sense of discretion, women must have played a very large party in it, too. It also illustrates the complicated relationship between these piss prophets and prophetesses and the public. Notke and his kind were both supported by enthusiastic believers and denounced by critics who protested what they saw as the fraudulent preying on the naïve.

Approaching modernity: Victorian era and bioassays

Flash forward to slightly more modern times. The scientific method as applied to medicine was on the way to becoming established. People were tinkering in the lab, analyzing the body, breaking down its components. In the 1830’s, French scientists supposedly discovered kyestein (Greek for ‘early pregnancy’), a white cakey layer formed on the standing urine of pregnant women. These were explained in several ways, from microorganism blooms to pronouncements that it was casein, a protein component of mammalian milk. Whatever the reason, the so called ‘kyestein pellicle’ test never caught on. Short of a medical text or two from the 1860’s, it fell in to unknown obscurity.

Animals as intermediates

The first instance of pregnancy bioassays, or the usage of other organisms in the study of substances and chemicals, concerns two German gynocologists, Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zhondek, and their collaboration in figuring out the human endocrine system. In studying the biology of pregnancy, their search isolated a certain hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).

HCG functions as a sort of intermediary between the ovarian follicule and the uterus during ovulation, when the follicle splits off in to an egg and a substance called the corpus luteum. This corpus luteum secretes the hormone progesterone which causes the lining of the uterus to thicken in readiness for a fertilized egg. If fertilization does not occur, the corpus luteum wastes away and, with it, the uterine lining. This is what is expelled when a woman menstruates.

However, if the egg is fertilized, hCG causes the corpus luteum to continue progesterone secretion, which in turn causes further change in the uterine wall. It becomes ever more packed with blood vessels and eventually ends up turning in to the specialized placenta that will nourishment the fetus; the umbilical cord that once connected your bellybutton to the uterus was anchored in the placenta. HCG is thus an early cog that pushes several levers in the process of constructing a baby.

This is where the first test subjects – mice – came in. As they are placental mammals with similar biologies to our own, Aschheim and Zhondek correctly reasoned that exposing mice to hCG would create detectable physiological changes. Accordingly, they injected mice with urine several times a day over several days and inspected the consequences. If the ovaries had changed, the woman in question possessed hCG and was certifiably pregnant.

 Unfortunately this meant the end of the mouse, since the quickest way of examination involved dissection. Taking the time and effort to perform gentler procedures which would have spared the mouse’s life was deemed overly time consuming and unnecessary.

 The process, marketed as the A-Z test, became a standard for nearly half a century, and gained the euphemistic moniker of the ‘Rabbit Test’ when rabbits were found to be quicker indicators. “The rabbit is dead” became a colloquial response to a positive test result, and the A-Z test had an impressive 98% accuracy rate.

Yet there were serious drawbacks. One was the length of time necessary for a result. Like now, customers wanted things done quickly back then, too. Another was that the A-Z test never easily accessible or mass producible. Many people had rabbits, but few wanted to open one up each time they had a suspicion to assuage. Another problem with using animals was that in many cases the urine of certain people proved too toxic and concentrated, leading to their deaths. It had to be diluted to keep the animal alive, but this dilution lowered the sensitivity of the test and led to a prevalence of both false negatives and false positives.

Like with all things, science was working towards something better. By the 1940’s general testing had found Xenopus Laevis, a species of African clawed frog favoured in experiments because of the ease with which it could be studied and manipulated in the lab. The presence of human hCG caused the frog to lay eggs within eight to twelve hours (unlike the rabbit test, which took up to two days), eliminating the need to dissect the creature. Several years later, a species of toad cut the wait time down to a mere two to five hours.

Less bloody and shorter than your average Lord of the Rings trilogy, there was still one major issue. Even the best bioassays were only sensitive enough to detect hCG concentrations several weeks after conception. This was an annoying limitation that needed to be solved.

Beyond animals: Immunoassays

The answer lay in fashioning an ultrasensitive test that could directly pick up the faintest whiffs of what was to come. These were immunoassays.

As their name suggests, immunoassays are different than bioassays in that they use specialized biological molecules such as antibodies to specifically bind to a target – in this case, hCG – and announce their presence. Because they are tasked with the critical job of correctly classifying ally from foe, foreign from native, the immune system proved to be perfect tool for detecting the subtlest body chemistry. By creating a chain that magnified the detection and altered the way the results were expressed, it was possible to announce the end of the process by something as visually appealing as a colour change. Companies invested in this innovation, miniaturized it, and packaged it for cheaper until it eventually led to the home pregnancy kit. What began with chamber pots decipherable only by professionals ended as a litmus test encased in plastic and intelligible to one and all. A revolution in reproductive control for women and their families was ushered. The rest is history.

So what’s happened since then to some of the main players in our story?

Home pregnancy kits are ubiquitous and relatively accurate.

Rats and rabbis are still used in testing, but not for pregnancy. I think.

Piss prophecy is no longer a lucrative specialization.

African clawed frogs have gone on to bigger and better things. They were the first vertebrate to be cloned all the way back in 1958 (Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned), and they were blasted in to orbit aboard space shuttles to test the effects of space on reproduction and embryo development. Domestically, they’ve become intrepid and destructive explorers: after the demise of the A-Z test the frogs were released into North American ecosystems, only to proliferate wildly and wreak havoc with the native fauna.

The ancient Egyptian urine method was finally put to the test in the early 1960’s by researchers who reported, amazingly enough, that in at least one case study urine from a pregnant woman did help with plant growth.  Go figure.

To date, nobody has attempted to predict twins with barley and wheat.

Euro trip 2013

So tomorrow we (being my girlfriend and myself) embark on a quick, one month trip to Northern Europe. On the docket:

  • Stockholm (and, hopefully, Uppsala)
  • Helsinki,
  • Tallinn and the western regions of Estonia
  • Riga and the environs
  • Lithuania’s Vilnius
  • A quick sojourn to Warsaw
  • Journey’s end in Berlin

I’ll be bringing plenty of pen, paper, and laptop, not to mention a camera, so there’ll be no excuse not to write, and comment, and share about our journey. It’s gonn’ be gooooood.

Going short to go further

Copyright Maggie Smith, Flickr.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/slomaggie/

One of the fundamental tenets of evolution is when the times change, you either change with them or end up between a rock and a hard place.

The idea of man as an evolutionary pressure – perhaps the evolutionary pressure – is not new, and some have taken to calling this a new geological age, the anthropocene, due to the wide scale changes we have ushered. Our disruptive reach is ubiquitous, highlighted by poster boys like global warming, overfishing, and habitat destruction.

Yet we forget that even the most commonplace of man’s creations can have a profound impact on the animals we share our space with. Take for example our cities and cars and the carnage they wreak on bird populations. Though firm numbers are hard to come by up to several hundred million birds could be victims of collisions with windows, and another eighty million are killed due to traffic. This is only in the United States alone. These are hidden casualties, ones we don’t see, but they’re real all the same, and such indiscriminate culling can have significant evolutionary consequences. Enter the cliff swallow.

Scientifically known as Petrochiledon, the family is divided up into about a dozen species of small migratory bird coloured in shades of whites, dark blues, and rusty oranges. Insectivorous, they often travel long distances, from as far as Argentina, to mate in North America. As their name suggests, they construct their nests on the sides of cliffs or the undersides of manmade structures like bridges and overpasses. Though quick, they can’t always escape the relentless movement of wheeled metal below their nests. All too often they end up as road kill.

Now it seems the cliff swallow is fighting back. A recent study by Charles Brown of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and coauthor Mary Bomberger Brown seems to indicate that these little birds are increasing their chances the only way they can: by evolving.

The pair have studied cliff swallows for some thirty years, both alive and dead, collecting and analyzing various metrics from some two thousand specimens. Over these three decades their data has shown that even as traffic has increased and vehicles have become bigger, cliff swallows have not only increased in number, but have become less likely to die from road attrition.

By comparing road fatalities with individuals dead by other means, the only noticeable physiological difference was one of wing span: those killed by something other than traffic had, on average, shorter wings.

How much shorter were these wingspans? One or two millimeters, on average, and while this may seem insignificant to us, it certainly isn’t insignificant to the cliff swallows, who gain greater maneuverability from their clipped wings.

The hope is that with these adaptations, cliff swallows can continue to change from unfortunate automobile victims to sedan-dodging acrobats. Conceivably, this also raises the possibility that other birds facing similar pressures could adapt.

The original paper can be found at http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)00194-2

The Man in the Slumbering City

     The man’s footsteps refused to echo, even in the open heart of the city.
He walked in a straight line, following the curving sidewalk, the shadows thrown upon him by overhanging lights rising before him and toppling behind like clockwork so long as he moved.
     This part of town was filled with shops of the creative kind, self-contained areas of culture and quiet ambitions. They were empty and well lit, their glass facades and windows displaying serene, untouched scenes.
     Empty shops stretched far, far away, broken by older residences carved in granite and sandstone. All of man’s settings were here, arranged as they should be: the cars, the lights, the open store fronts. But there was nobody beside the man as far as the eye could see.
     He walked unhurriedly, in a daze, passing neatly tucked taxi cabs with lit tops, silent engines and unoccupied seats. Overhead the icicles and snow dripped. The weather had turned warm and the snow had changed from hard and firm to heavy and dense, the perfect consistency for snowballs or a winter sculpture. His shoes emitted a wet squish with each step.
     His eyes scanned his surroundings, looking for a sign of someone: the glimpse of a silhouette under a distant streetlamp, or the shifting fabric of a curtain disturbed by a passing form, or a figure seen for an instant between the frames of a high-rise window.
     He stopped dutifully before the ruby lights guarding each desolate intersection and waited for them to turn emerald. The absurdity of this act escaped him, for his faculties had not gleamed the implications of his condition. His subconscious still believed itself in a world of action and movement, and thus populated by others, and all the old reasons, no longer valid in fact, remained dogma at heart: a car could come through, and drivers were crazy in this city; one did not walk when it was red; jaywalking tickets were expensive, and he couldn’t afford one right now. Imperceptibly these beliefs crumbled, were dissolved by the acid of desolation which undermined his foundations of conduct.
      Several blocks down, he ignored the red eye, and paused in his traverse of the road, and stood in the middle and looked in each cardinal direction.
     From on high the roads descended, stretching off in to the distance. Without moving obstructions, he could see very far down the empty road. At some point the laws of perspective crushed detail and smudged it together, but he hoped for movement – any movement. He longed for the sound of rubber on asphalt, or the ephemeral beams of distant headlights cutting through the mist. The boulevards, bordered by houses and sagging trees, stretched on in slumber.
     He made his way past an open space, now snowed in, that served as a park in the summer. In the snow were the sunken footprints of boots, small and child-like, dancing and trampling over one another in playfulness. Where, he asked himself with rising anxiety, were these children now?
     He made his way past the park, uneasy at the traces of a humanity he had yet to find. He came across a stylized apartment building. Through an expansive window he could see a brightly furnished room of red couches and orange curtains arranged around an inviting wooden table atop which lay an open laptop. He couldn’t make out the particular program or webpage, but he knew it was running, that it was on. It showed that somebody had, at some point, turned it on.
     Like individual drops that add to overflow the largest container, each passing moment added to his dread. Walking through the slumbering void that was the city filled him with the disquiet of the solitary man whose distress was destined to remain unregistered, whose cries were endlessly in vain. The droplets of condensation in the swirling fog covered him. They infiltrated his clothing, put in a haste and inadequate; the spaces between his fingers; his eyes and ears and nose. They percolated to his bones, and brought with them a chill wholly separate from the external temperature, a spiritual rather than physical shuddering.
     His eyes locked on a semicircular window at street level, a basement apartment’s access to the outside world. He paused before the kitchen scene. There was a stainless sink of two compartments, and both were filled high with water, though only one held dishes. There were soap bubbles collecting on the sides of the square sink like amphibian eggs in a pond, their outer form hugging the square edges, the inner surface forming a spherical frontier of containment against the water. Occasionally one would dissolve with a mute pop, sending barely perceptible ripples outwards. He strained to see the water, praying for steam, praying for something to tell him how much time had elapsed since the world had been taken away. Nothing disturbed the scene save for occasional pops. The secret remained safe, a laughing whisper mouthed but left unvoiced.
     Barely a week had elapsed since the New Year, when the streets were flooded with revelers, and smokers huddled and hopped for warmth outside bars. Now only the unadorned, stiff forms – slowly browning but still mostly green – of Christmas trees jettisoned on the sidewalks gave hints of past revelry.
     If the neighbourhood had been industrial and fabricated from hulking factories or a metropolis overshadowed by stately offices and skyscrapers, the man could have eked out a defense through the impersonal scene of grandiose, seemingly immortal architecture – so opposite to the small and insignificant individual – that surrounded him. The straight lines and unyielding facades, so unrelatable to the emotional mind, could have served as a temporary antidote to the creeping madness. But the rows of family homes and modest enterprises that stretched out did the exact opposite. These symbols of warmth and company and safety fired the cabin fever within him.
     Take for example the wedding store before him. The great glass window, slightly curving outwardly, held displays at odds with the season: airy silks, breezy wedding dresses, jovial invitation calligraphy on still pieces of paper. A plastic bride reclined in the awkward pose of a mannequin, showing off a frilly gown of white matching the grey pallour of her skin. Her face was locked in an eternally indifferent expression, and it was differentiated from the rest of her body solely by her eyes, painted black, which stare out blindly and would never see. What was a man to do when he saw such a sight, except recede from this remnant of happier times, and look elsewhere for sanity?
     The man continued in the light mist, surrounded by the windless night, weighed down and confused by the picturesque scenes of an abandoned world. The tranquility of it all maddened him. So why didn’t he scream and rail, or take to the windows with fists and bat, and defy the silence? Only the man knew.
     He came across the bicycle without registering it at first – or perhaps the fog had hidden it until the near collision. It was apple red and lithe, a colour and style fit for a young, lighthearted woman, and it sat there unchained, kickstand extended, ostensibly poetic underneath a streetlight’s shining eye.
     It couldn’t have been long, the man thought. It couldn’t have been long. The bike was here, and it was upright. Could someone have been riding it minutes before? Had he missed her by mere minutes? His hand felt the seat, searching for warmth. His eyes darted to the closed door at whose doorstep the bike stood. It was undoubtedly shut, the circular, submarine-style window leaking darkness.
     He had seen empty cars and ornate, deserted apartments. He had seen the steps of people in rapidly melting snow and wondered if they had been happy, or angry, or neutral, before they were no more. He had peered inside homes and family shops and spied upon the amassed remnants of aspirations and dreams.
     But it was this simple bike, arranged so innocently, which tipped his mind. Tears collected on the ledges of his eyes and tumbled to the sound of a quiet sob. Why did he hold back? Who could hear and judge him now?
     Broken, he started for the mountain (in actuality a hill) that lay at the center of the city. He wished for one more confirmation to his suspicions yet simultaneously held out with a last hope. The mountain was wild, or as wild as it could be in the city, surrounded by bushes and bare branches painted snow white. His only companions uphill were the dreaming trees.
     He climbed the wooden path, step by step, flight by flight, that took him to the tip of the geographical top, and when he was there a cold plaza, bounded by walls, waited in the night. He felt the stone walls with his fingers as he lifted himself. A substantial distance separated him from the forested slopes below. A plunge headfirst would almost certainly be lethal.
     Purposefully he rose, in defiance of lethargy, keeping his face towards the lights emanating from the city. The pinpricks of streetlights and homes and factories, all amalgamated in to a melancholic glow, bathed his face in ghostly shades of yellow. They mirrored the distant stars caught above in the spiderweb of night. The city appeared vibrant and alive, each source of light an unfolding story. But it was a lie. All those lights were no different than the superficially lit sewers and deserted subway tunnels that lay underground. They were empty. Were there any people left here – or anywhere?
     He waited on the edge of the precipice for the answer from anyone or anything. How long did he have before the silence dismembered his resolve?

     With each passing second he neared closer to the ultimate act of courage and cowardice.

Why you shouldn’t fear the Singularity (if it ever happens).

Cyber Dante Photo credit: The PIX-JOCKEY (photo manipulation) / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

The Singularity is near, transhumanists say, and it’s inevitable: that moment in history when we give birth through our creativity and technology to something greater than us. The Singularity heralds an entirely novel plateau in mankind’s evolution. How much time do we have? Some futurists say as little as a generation.

The question then isn’t when or how. The question is: what then? And should we panic?

There are two broad types of Singularity projections. The first is creating a conscious, self-propagating AI orders of magnitude more complex and intelligent that its creators that will evolve and expand in ways wholly unknown. Will the AI be friendly and constrained by fail safes or willingly benevolent, or will it be malevolent, sharing none of our goals and beliefs? I can’t say, and for that reason this road in the fork won’t be explored here.

The second – and the one I’ll take – is the transition of mankind from sausage casings of lipids, carbohydrates, and amino acids to entities existing in virtual environments inside future computers. This is what I mean by a transhumanist Singularity: the joining of man with machine to augment and expand our abilities and experiences. I see it as man’s consciousness being translated to the digital realm.

Despite my misgivings about simulated reality and translating said consciousness from neurons to electrons, I’ll go along for the sake of argument.

So: what then?

If you’re my friend Keith, post-Singularity will be a bad time to remain a fleshy human. From an accessibility viewpoint the Singularity’s benefits will never trickle down. Instead the Singularity will end up monopolized by the ultra-wealthy, that top slice of society with the influence and resources to be the first – and last – to benefit from the momentous occasion. It will be the end of history, but not of the democratic Fukuyamaesque type. Rather, it will be a Marxist’s nightmare, with the chasm of economic inequality ballooning to a cosmic divergence of form and ability. The proletariat will be left far, far behind.

I’ll bite. Modern innovation has almost always come top-to-bottom, even if the lag has been barely perceptible. That’s the way economics works. Things start out out expensive, affordable to few. The higher-ups in the food chain will get first dibs.

But the rules that dictate supply and demand also allow for the solution to the problem of exclusivity. Capitalism aims at getting the maximal utility for its buck, and this means it will be in the company’s interests (I’m assuming it will be corporate sponsored)  to refine, improve, and make it more accessible to a larger purchasing base. Like any technology, it’ll start off expensive and become more affordable. I’m not saying it’ll become corner store cheap, or made from do-it-yourself backyard items. It’ll stay pricey because people will be willing to shell out big bucks to have it.

The bigger question will be what these Singularity personalities will do once they’re ushered past the Perl-y gates. According to said friend Kieth, this new elite (or, rather, the old elite in a new guise) will promptly begin to lord over the rest of us from their binary thrones.

I think where we disagree is in predicting how man will act when the ordinary constraints of man are eliminated. Pessimists think that by wiping death from the list of terminal human conditions, and throwing out all the wants and petty concerns we have to negotiate with in everyday existence, the only human desire worth acting upon shall be one’s will – or, for that upper slice of humanity, the achievable act of dominating and ruling. Humanity will have given birth to Nietzschean ubermen, will to power and all. To free humanity from the constraints of life – the fight for procuring  and keeping shelter and resources and allies and mates – will unleash our worst desires for control, rather than, as I believe, eliminate them outright. We’ll end up as the play things of (hopefully enlightened) cyberdespots.

I consider myself a cynic and a realist. History has shown that the upper crust of society – exceptions excepting – have never cared much for the common man unless something is in it for them. It’s only been the ability of mankind to increase the pie through technological innovation that’s allowed progress to be made; we’re as unwilling to share our own slice now as at any other time. Nor do revolutions work: one elite is replaced by another, a revolving door that maintains the water-and-oil of have and have not’s. So I won’t disagree in the last bit to the supposition that the first to see the benefits of this technology will be those sitting at the pointy tip of the social pyramid. But I, pessimist though I am, have a rather optimistic view of this future.

Firstly, nobody will be stupid enough to let this come about (famous last words?). The networks and systems will be made resistant, though perhaps not invulnerable, to tampering from the inside. Humans won’t just hand over authority, transfer their factories,  and bury their tanks and guns. (On a sidenote, it would be interesting to speculate to what degree persistent lines of sentient computer code could manipulate and hack their environment.)

Secondly, there’ll be the personality safety guard. This refers to the fact that the most powerful people, like the least powerful people, all share the same emotional makeup, the same propensity to goodness. To demonize them in to virtual psychopaths once the switch flips ignores them for the people they are. Though, I will admit it would be hard to predict how their psychological makeups would evolve post-Singularity.

Thirdly, and more importantly, the difference between all earlier stages of history and the Singularity will be one of scope. It won’t be a conventional transition, an exchange of bronze for iron or feudal rights for financial derivatives. Nor will it be like the abandonment of slave power for oil power or the theology of paganism for the theology of monotheism. In all these previous cases something, sometimes better, replaced something, sometimes less better, but things were still operating under the same dynamics. Iron gave you the advantage over bronze, but it did not free you from the tasks of feeding and clothing yourself.

The Singularity will be completely different. I don’t think anybody can appreciate that enough. The pillars that support the gears that run the world – resource scarcity, limitations of space and time, the fragility of the body – will become obsolete. I believe there’ll be no more reasons to fight, to steal, to kill. There will be no opportunity to do so.

Free from all the mundane concerns of existence, humanity will transcend its petty psychoses and turn to other, higher pursuits. Maybe these pursuits will be ones of knowledge, exploration and the creation of art in all its myriad forms. I suspect religion will be the biggest monkey wrench in the machine. Some individuals might sink in to religious apathy or atheism, but others will bring it along, even cling to it all the firmer if they see their transition as a validation of their faith. With religion comes the dogma,  prejudices, and morals for motivation independent of material conditions. They could end up as saints or devils.

So how will things be after the technological singularity? For flesh and blood humans, life will go on. Perhaps Singularity technology will become the virtual equivalent of real-estate, with families making it their main financial investment, a nest-egg for the future and one hell of a retirement package. I think a sizable percentage of mankind will persist in clinging to the flesh, because of economic, religious, or philosophical reasons.

As for Singhumanity ( see what I did there?), I don’t see it as running rampant, but neither do I see it as segregate itself from lowly humanity, either. The technology that maintains their existence will exist in the here and now . It will be vulnerable to acts of nature, man, and time. It will have to be upgraded, repaired, and maintained. Thus, there will always be a need to keep contact with the material world and this unavoidable dependency could conceivably become the last link between a hyper evolved humanity and its predecessors.

All these very important individuals – business magnates, cultural superstars, politicians and religious figures – will have to be integrated in the legal and economic frameworks of society and state. There would be many thorny legal issues to navigate and clarify. What happens to the property of individuals that have made the transition: their houses, cars, bathmats, goods, bank accounts, stock portfolios, multibillion dollar corporations?  It’ll be a field day for the new generation of Singularity lawyers.

Initially there will be a chaotic and less than romantic integration of these new types of citizen in to the social and legal framework of society. Important questions will be asked about their status under the law. For example, how will the laws of citizenship, with its associated responsibilities and privileges, apply to them?

These concerns might not come up. Nobody can say how Singhumantiy will react.  Will they keep their possessions  or renounce them? Will they hold their previous assumptions about the nature of citizenship or, say, privacy laws? Will they think they could do a better job of things and push to have their way? I don’t know. But I do believe an equilibrium will be reached, and apocalypse averted.

What do you think?

(Side note: In the long term, being a part of the Singularity would bring about an existential crisis of ultimate proportions. After all, what’s the point of anything if mortality banished, and there limits extended beyond the horizon? Not to overly philosophize, but is life satisfying if you can get almost anything you want for zero risk? After the novel nature of this new existence wears off – say, in a few centuries of millennia – will you be able to keep existential ennui and boredom at bay?)

Bali funerals: a pyromaniac’s delight

Source: http://blog.baliwww.com

My, that’s tall.

What if, upon your death, your family and friends spent a good chunk of their savings on a pile of fine furniture, art, and jewelry  and then promptly set it ablaze, all in the sake of getting you through the pearly gates? Would that seem strange to you? If you’re from Bali, it would be strange not to.

On the Indonesian island of Bali, where Hindu traditions have persisted despite the  conversion of the archipelago to Islam, funerals are carnivalesque affairs of  pomp and colour. Unlike the Muslim majority, whose religious traditions ask for much simpler ceremonies, the Balinese cremate the departed in spectacular events that, while religiously orthodox, are anything but in terms of pageantry and reflect the influence of native animist and non-Hindu traditions.

So, what exactly is the Bali funeral ceremony?

Like here, the first step is to have a funeral, followed by interring the dead in a grave. At some point in the future, perhaps years later and when conditions are auspicious and enough money has been saved, local priests are consulted and give their blessings. Calendars are pored over and stars are carefully watched for favourable signs. It’s also a good thing if the local elite are planning a cremation, though I don’t know if this is a sort of heavenly piggybacking or the Balinese love of festivities. In any case, spiritual mediums are hired to channel the spirits and allow them to express their desires in real time, to their families, in a sort of haggling or bargaining process where loose ends are tied up. Then the bodies are dug up and brought to fresh air and prepared.

Meanwhile, preparations are in order for the showy side of the spectacle. The structures that will serve as artistic mobile funeral pyres need to be built. Often, they are of humbler size, in the shape of a bull or large palanquin, but their worth is deceptive.  For average Balinese, the effort and resources that go in to a cremation ceremony can be quite high, and families that subsist on less than a dollar a day can splurge hundreds for the event; years of income can go up in smoke (pun intended). Modernity has done little to dent the tradition, with corporate sponsors sometimes sharing the expenses in exchange for advertising space. For royalty, the whole affair can and does become an extravagant holiday. A 2008 funeral of a Balinese prince had thousands of participants.

Source: http://www.globalrums.com/bali1.htm

So pretty, yet destined for ashes.

While finite resources limit how fancy the funeral processions of commoners can be (even when costs are split), some funeral pyres can be stupendous in their size and attention to detail. The multistory pagoda towers called bade are the epitome of funeral largesse and can only be afforded by the wealthiest, and it shows: built from a scaffolding of  wood or bamboo overlaid with delicate paper and fabric, they can rise twenty to thirty meters in to the air and weigh multiple tons. Luxurious silks sewn with pearls are painted with bright, bold hues that span the colour spectrum, and the structures are festooned by garlands and feathers; golden ornaments and gold leaf are liberally applied. What appear like papier mache wings rise, stiffly and proudly, in to the sky. The smell of myriad incenses and herbs are in the air. Animal forms, anatomically flawless but stylistically alien to Western eyes, poke through.Since conventional animals aren’t enough, fierce demon heads reminiscent of Gothic cathedral gargoyles glare with glazed eyes and bared fangs at the assembled crowds.

As with all ceremonies, there is a symbolic side to things. The social rank of the deceased prefigure in the size of the bade, with increasingly important notables achieving higher structures with more levels, always built in odd numbers. Royalty reserve the right to the highest possible levels (11 tiers). Additionally, the bade represents sacred Mount Meru, the cosmological navel of the universe in Hindu mythology around which existence organizes itself. The middle tiers, representing the normal world, is where the body is placed. The levels below and above represent the underworld and heaven, respectively. Often, human remains are set in the model of a Garuda bird, a mythological creature that serves as mount to the god Vishnu.

If the body has been previously burnt (or, I’m guessing, incomplete for whatever reason). an effigy can be constructed as a stand-in. Like the rest of the ceremony no expenses are spared. In the book Making an Exit, writer Sarah Murray recalls witnessing a Balinese funeral ceremony and describes the details of one such model: “The effigy signifies the rebirth of the soul, so it must be made of materials that symbolize renewal and revitalization. Mirrors form the eyes, so they are clear and sparking, iron nails stand in for strong teeth, and fragrant flower buds become the nostrils.” Maybe a bit too gaudy for my tastes, but I wouldn’t mind going out like that.

When everyone has arrived, and the funeral pyres are ready, hundreds of pall-bearers participate in the lifting, hoisting them upon their shoulders. Then the procession starts and onlookers mix with the immediate and extended families of those about to be burned. There is singling and chanting. The procession continues until they reach their destination, usually a field or beach. Priests utter prayers and final rituals are completed. The reason underlying this joyful approach to what is a sorrowful undertaking is simple: the Balinese believe negative emotions hamper the dead’s ascendance in to the afterlife. That, and death is not final in a religion where reincarnation is one of the basic tenets of faith . As a result, people are encouraged to put a positive spin on things and remain cheerful, though I wouldn’t doubt there is as much weeping as there is celebrating.

Source: VirtualTourist user Rinjani

The climax comes when and oil (and other combustibles) is splashed upon the funeral pyres and the matches are thrown. I’ve never seen the ceremony, but I can imagine the heat and light the conflagration gives off as the beautiful – but frail – structures go up in flames, body and all. A much more stirring account (with wonderful pictures included) can be found here. How long does the whole event take? Probably hours, since celebrations, gift giving, and feasting await afterwards. A final sendoff consists of scattering the ashes in a river or the sea. With obligations fulfilled, family and friends – and society – can return to their regular rhythms, content in knowing they’ve done their best to prepare their loved ones for what lies beyond.

The best part? You aren’t limited to one participation: it is common for already cremated individuals to participate again (via effigy) alongside kin or at the funerals of the more prestigious. Then the whole magnificent spectacle begins anew.

(P.s: Check out some pretty amazing bade pictures here )