31 January 2013

Leafy shadow growing out of a quartz intrusion.

30 January 2013

"But no, no! The seductive mystics are lying. There are no Caribbean Seas in the world, no reckless buccaneers are sailing them, and no corvettes are chasing them, no cannon smoke drifts low over the waves. There is nothing, and there never was! There is only a stunted linden tree out there, an iron fence, and the boulevard beyond it… And ice melting in the bowl, and someone’s bloodshot eyes at the next table, and fear, fear…"
Bulgakov, Mikhail (1967). The master and Margarita. Translated by Mirra Ginsberg.

29 January 2013

27 January 2013

Kohlrabi. Martian vegetable related to cabbage, cauliflower and turnip.

Step one: Make into angry face using stems-stumps as eyes and mouth.

Step two: Model hand with angry Kohlrabi face.

Step three: Remove remaining Kohlrabi leaves.

Step four: Peel Kohlrabi fully.

Step five: Slice, and serve with lightly-sprinkled salt.

Foggy hike up Echo Mountain. Sigh! I do love you, Altadena mountain worlds.

26 January 2013

2013 Sundance Shorts up on YouTube. Here, the end of the world, in a consumerist’s vernacular. Beautiful, haunting. The scenes recall those windswept beaches of my university town, in darker times.

25 January 2013

Cyborgs... have we reached the future?

For a long time, science fiction spoke of wonders such as flying ships (literally — wooden ships with wings); rocket ships and trips to the moon and to distant stars; teleportation; televisions, the internet, computers. Some of these have come true. Some of them not yet. Of the ones that haven’t, we may be a matter of years away from it - or it may be totally infeasible. Or, in the case of teleportation, infeasible and deeply unethical even if we could figure it out.

Image credit: jv.gilead.org.il

But as technology catches up with the predictions that are made about it, we have a choice: to assimilate the vocabulary used in science fiction writing, adopting along with it the myriad associations those terms have come to connote in books and television — or to invent new terms.

For instance, we regularly use the term ‘robotics’ to describe automated machines that perform tasks, and can react to their surroundings and even learn from them; that’s a term that was born into science fiction in the 1920s, long before computerized robots began to be invented, yet is one that has now been adopted into regular usage. Assimilated.

So how about a word that has carried more negative usages? Cyborg: "Cybernetic Organism.” Dates from before the 1960s, when the idea of humans being meshed with metal to create a still organic yet functional being was in the distant realm of science fiction. Cyborgs are not beings that are generally considered as having the same level of compassion or humanity as pure humans. Throughout sci-fi writing they have been portrayed as killers; famous movie/tv cyborgs include Darth Vader, Dr Who’s enemies the Cybermen, the Cylon of BSG, the Replicants of Bladerunner… Of course, there are good cyborgs as well, like Iron Man, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. But even the Terminator is outnumbered by his evil cyborg brethren. Cyborgs are an entity that has been made so powerful with its built-in technology that we can’t help but imagine it as evil. After all, they are still part human, with all our inherent weaknesses and thirst for power.

I mean, check out what happened to Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Enterprise after being assimilated by the Borg - bad news:

Image credit: Wikipedia - the Borg
We are entering an age in which people are beginning to have more and more implants made of plastic and metal and microchips inserted into their bodies. Pacemakers that electrically stimulate the heart? Cochlear implants that transmit sound directly to the inner ear? Retinal implants that will one day restore basic vision?

Okay, all right, those are for disabilities or health-related issues. So where do we draw the line before these implants fall under “cyborg” status? When they start being used to achieve better-than-average performance? Like maybe this guy:

Image credit: Steve Mann, wearcam.org

Steve Mann wears an eye piece that both “displays computer information to the user and… allows the computer to process and possibly alter what the user sees,” so that the computer can “augment, diminish, or otherwise alter a user’s visual perception of their environment, which creates a Computer Mediated Reality” (Eyetap device invented by Steve Mann). After all, Mr Mann has no medical reason to wear his device — but wearing it arguably improves his perception of reality.

That sounds pretty cyborg to me. Not gonna lie, eye-piece computer technology makes me think of the creepy bio-mechanical cult guys from Cité des Enfants Perdus

Image credit: grumpfactory.wordpress.com (good review of film)

So there are implants, cyborg-ing us from the inside (there’s a verb that did not make it out of early science fiction: to cyborg, meaning to make into a cyborg, c 1970s). What about prosthetics, “cyborg-ing” us on the outside? After all, cyborgs are readily identified in film by their visible bionic limbs, not by their internal metal workings.

In the past, a prosthetic limb has been something that is attached to a stump without taking over any of the capabilities of the missing limb. It may have been shaped in a useful way that allowed the amputee to maneuver it to move things more adeptly; but ultimately it was a separate entity.

As we move forward, prosthetics are beginning to have more and more capabilities, to the point that the amputee can now control movement in several directions, and with some models can even receive sensory feedback. New prosthetic knees have sensors that allow them to respond accordingly to gait and speed, and provide the appropriate bounce and resistance to allow for a natural-feeling walk. Myoelectric prosthetic hands such as Bebionic sense muscle contractions in the arm and translate them into electrical signals that mimic the intended motion in the prosthetic fingers; while neural prosthetics such as SmartHand are literally hooked up to nerve endings in the stump so that signals sent from the brain go directly to the to the prosthetic. Scientists are experimenting with different methods for providing sensory feedback - at the moment users of these prosthetics can feel how tight they are gripping something, for instance, but not necessarily the subtler differences of textures.

Image credit: deathstarpr.com

Image credit: folkeryden.com
In instances where it is not feasible to use nerve endings or muscle contractions in the limb, such as with quadriplegics, methods are being developed for translating motor control directly from the brain to the prosthetic. In recent experiments run by the University of Pittsburgh and Brown University, patients with quadriplegia have been able to manipulate a robotic arm that is controlled by micro-sensors places on the patients’ motor cortex. Neuron activity in the motor cortex is translated via the sensors into electric signals that move the robotic arm in the direction that the patient wants; with practice, they can improve the mobility, as well as the strength of grip that the hand has on objects they pick up.

Taking a different approach, one in which the prosthetic is not controlled by muscle movement or neural stimuli, a motorized exoskeleton called the ReWalk gauges movement in the upper body and moves the legs forward one at a time accordingly, allowing forward movement, increase and decrease of speed, and stopping. This allows paraplegics to walk and stand (with the aid of crutches for balance)

So can we start calling people cyborgs? Or is cyborg a word that has too much negative connotation out of its decades as an antagonistic force in science fiction? Will people be up in arms at the idea that disabled people (who are the ones to who initially will predominantly be making use of these technologies) will be perceived as the first cyborgs in society? From a financial point of view, our first cyborgs are going to be limited either to early volunteer test subjects, or people with very deep pockets. Cyborgs - the next incarnation of the very wealthy?

For me, although we are looking at all of these insane developments that are based on an incredible and ever-growing comprehension of the brain and the body’s nervous system, it doesn’t quite feel cyborg yet. The only thing here that truly rings cyborg to me is Mr Mann and his glasses set; the difference being as noted previously that his bionic addition is not a medical necessity. Every single other one of these developments has been made to try to compensate for some sort of deficiency — incomplete sight, hearing, mobility, etc — so that people with disabilities can be on the same page as people with full functionality. It doesn’t feel any different (other than being significantly more high-tech) than me putting in my contacts in the morning.

Don’t get me wrong. It is still cyborg technology. And the moment it starts being used to enhance people’s performance beyond normal is the moment that I will start thinking of people using it as cyborgs. When retinal implants allow for night vision or zooming or infrared capabilities, those will be bionic eyes. When we can hear bats echolocate with our cochlear implants - definitely cyborg. And when people are literally opting for bionic hands instead of their own natural ones, well… society will have reached a tipping point of crazy if that happens.

But seriously; once this technology is on the table and begins to become reasonably affordable, a whole lot of companies will grab it up and start trying to make us better and stronger and healthier and fitter. Implants to control eating urges would be the new kind of diet; implants that override pain receptors might be the new sports doping. Or maybe, even though you’re not a quadriplegic, you want to prepare dinner from the couch — so you use the wireless sensors on your motor cortex to get the robotic arms in the kitchen to chop the vegetables, while you sit back and relax. Or how about the ReWalk combined with those amazing new bouncy knees, refitted to be the ReBuildingLeaper. Superheroes at work.

And as technology reaches that point, I think a huge contingent of people will continue to adopt the word cyborg to describe it. But I think other terms will be coined as well — cyborg will be the non-PC term to use, the one that’s rude or offensive. Maybe we’ll call people with cyborg qualities bionically enhanced or bionically modified. The field won’t be called cybornetics, for fear of causing insult, but rather bionetics (actually, though, is that used in Star Trek to describe the Borg’s technology?).

All food for thought, as we enter the age of the Cyborg.

Some good links on this subject:

24 January 2013

"The swan was in her movements, and the morning in her smile."
Silly Wizard. “The Queen of Argyll”

Sunset over LA.

23 January 2013

La ciudad del torre

This past weekend I had my first opportunity to explore downtown Fresno, the city that my mom is going to be moving to after 40 years here in the LA area. “Why Fresno?” you may well ask.

That is a good question.

Fresno is not a well-known port of call here in California, nor has it historically had much to offer as a tourist destination. It started in 1885 as a train stop on the Southern Pacific train line and gradually grew as a hub for retired forty-niners; people found that living next to a railroad was handy, and they didn’t like being flooded by their gold-rush rivers.

At 14.4%, Fresno has one of the highest unemployment rates in the US. And let it not go un-noted that while other cities’ National Historic Monuments are old buildings or beautiful parks, Fresno’s is a landfill — okay, okay, so the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill was the first modern landfill in the US and has been used as a model for others since, which I guess counts for something. But still. National Historic Landfill? Just doesn’t ring right. Fresno reaches soaring temperatures in summer, frequently hovering around 95-100°F (35-38°C), and dips to below freezing in winter; no gentle mediterranean climate there.

And yet - Fresno has its strong points, too. Its location in the Central Valley makes it an ideal jumping-off point to the Sierras - King’s Canyon and Yosemite are both within easy driving distance. And because it is still reasonably cheap to live there, it is slowly attracting a rich artist community. Being a starving artist in LA or San Francisco? Basically undoable. But in Fresno? Game ON.

But are artists and mountains enough to redeem its soaring temperatures and its patchy economy? After all, I can’t go camping every weekend, and I doubt I’ll be going to art galleries every day. What I look for in a city is that hipster edge: cafes, live gigs, snobby young people in skinny jeans drinking coffee and debating music; restaurants of every kind, hole-in-the-wall sandwich joints. Places that are cheap and grungy and full of character, and that let me feel self-congratulatory when the chocolate is stamped Fairtrade.

So. With the list of pros and cons for Fresno rapidly growing, I am still faced with the inevitability of my mom’s move there in a month’s time. The move, scheduled for the end of February, ticks inexorably nearer. And so the investigation of Fresno, of what it has to offer me, begins.
To help me explore, I conscripted a friend to come up with me for the weekend (no small request!). I will lay out our quest, the places we found (and approved of) We headed out to Fresno’s Tower District in the early afternoon after getting some fresh fruit at the Vineyard Farmer’s Market. The Tower district is apparently where everything goes down around town; misleadingly, it is not actually the part of town that has the three (sort-of) tall buildings, but rather is centered around the old Tower Theater in a distinctly one-storey neighborhood.

After first exploring a few shops and art galleries in the Tower (The Brass Unicorn, a purveyor of incenses, astrological charts, and purported healing crystals; and Studio 74 across the street, an art gallery that takes part in the monthly Art Hop event), we found a poster for Café Corazón and directed ourselves to it for some tasty espressos. On the way we passed a cupcake shop (is that still the big new thing?) and the beautiful cafe-styled Succulents Shack.

By this point it had begun to get cold, and we were getting hungry. We cracked out Yelp (SmartThings, I love you) and found Million Elephant Cafe & Bar on Olive, open till 3am (the all-night eatery of the Tower?). DELICIOUS. Yellow curry with tofu and Million Elephant fried rice… (un)fortunately the serving sizes were normal human, not blue whale super hero; otherwise I could have kept on eating for the rest of forever. Especially at 3 in the morning after a night of rocking out at Sequoia to live blues bands.

Walking back along Olive we discovered Teazer, a tea room complete with jazzy background music, blooming tea, an informative book rich with hilariously awkward quotes from the 1700s (Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire by Roy Moxham), and most importantly, THAT HIPSTER VIBE. Apparently they have live music and comedy nights, which I can look forward to. Fresno, in the end, yes! You have won my love! Food, tea, music. That was all I ever wanted, and you have provided.

So all in all, it was a success. It was an exploration into the legendary urban center of Fresno, embedded at the center of many miles of stripmalls and freeway overpasses and endless unappealing landscape that is overshadowed by the Sierras only when air quality is sufficiently good; I mean really, you can understand why I believed the Tower was a myth. But I have been proven wrong, and for once I can put my relief before my pride. Cool Fresno EXISTS. And you shall find me there in….. 29 days. Bam.
Joshua Tree National Park. Free-standing boulders* shape a cobbled, baren landscape. By summer, unbearably hot; by winter, only survivable next to a roaring campfire.

*The boulder rock (monzo-granite) was formed ~45 million years ago during the Mesozoic as the oceanic Farallon plate subducted under the continental North American plate, creating giant magmatic bodies called plutons that, as they cooled, developed planes of weakness on both vertical and horizontal axes. As groundwater percolated down through the plutons over time, the rock was weakened along these joints; by the time the rock was uplifted and exposed, it had already been eroded into unattached boulders - hence the dramatic landscape of free-standing boulders in Joshua Tree (and elsewhere in CA).

22 January 2013

Encore une fois

The blog. It lurks. It waits. It guilts. It whispers at your shoulder “Well hello there human. Remember me? I WAS YOUR FRIEND BUT YOU FORGOT.” And that cyber-rattle of a breath reminds you…. you made a commitment to a daily/weekly/monthly update, and where —oh WHERE— is your honor.

Well. My honor is easily distracted, and as such it was been a long time since any blog started by me was loved. But that changes now (empty promise? Soon to be seen). So here on these cyber-pages begins a tale of travel, of intrigue, of fascination with obscure re-tweetable reports of technological advancements. A relative outsider’s view of political issues, thoughts on recently read books, recently viewed films. A bit of everything, honestly, doused with humor and sarcasm and probably a lot of me putting my foot in it. (Who doesn’t love that?)

And so, here we go.