29 February 2012


Though experiments probing the information structure of the human brain are still in their early stages, mathematical simulations have shown that integrated information can in fact be measured in other systems. Tononi and his colleagues devised a system so simple that its phi [a measure of integrated information] can be calculated — a simulated animal called an animat. Relying on sensors that detected the environment, actuators that allowed it to move and places to store data as it learned, this animat worked its way through a computer maze. The animat also possessed an ability that most living organisms take for granted: It could gradually evolve over 50,000 generations of maze running.

At the start, the animat had a hard time navigating. But around generation 14,000, it got good. Along with this performance boost, the animat’s phi, the amount of information successfully shuttled among its constituent parts, went up. Different bits learned to communicate. By generation 49,000, the animat whizzed through the maze with its high phi.
-- report, paper.

Only connect

I like to ask people to imagine the map that you see in the back of in-flight magazines but to imagine that the map had one hundred billion cities and out of every city there were ten thousand flights. That's the kind of complexity in your brain.

...To do entire the connectome for a human brain would be a goal for forty years from now. Right now we're...shooting for a small chunk of brain, maybe a cubic millimetre. That would be 100,000 neurons and billion synapses. That's a tall order in itself.
-- Sebastian Seung, author of Connectome, talking to Nature Neuropod
The connectome is of C Elegans has 300 neurons and 7,000 connections

27 February 2012

26 February 2012

The Zone

Once I was a man, with a soul and a living body and now I am no more than a being...I hear and see, but no longer know anything...I now live in eternity. The branches sway on the trees, other people come and go in the room, but for me time no longer passes.
-- a schizophrenic patient as reported by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception. The passage is quoted by Geoff Dyer in Zona.

The difference, perhaps, for sane humans in the Zone (which can be described as a place, or state, of heightened awareness to everything) is that, while we feel a sense of oneness with the Zone ('to be in the Zone is to be part of the Zone'), we do not altogether loose our sense of individuality. (The pain of individuality is, perhaps, what makes us sane.)  Even when we think we forget time we are still at experiencing it. Consciousness only exists in time.  Tarkovsky may be cinema's great poet of stillness, as Dyer writes, but his stillness is animated by the energy of the moving image.

23 February 2012

'Symmetrical as the fossilized imprint of a trilobite'

One day, Mother returned home from town with a preoccupied face.

'Look, Joseph,' she said, 'what a lucky coincidence. I caught him on the stairs, jumping from step to step --' and she lifted a handkerchief that covered something on a plate.  I recognized [Father] at once. The resemblance was striking, although now he was a crab or a large scorpion. Mother and I exchanged looks: in spite of the metamorphosis, the resemblance was incredible...

...She put the plate down, and leaning over him, we observed him closely. There was a hollow place between his numerous curved legs, which he was moving slightly. His uplifted pincers and feelers seemed to be listening. I tipped the place and Father moved cautiously and with a certain hesitation onto the floor. Upon touching the flat surface under him, he gave a sudden start with all of his legs, while his hard arthropod joints made a clacking sound...
-- from Father's Last Escape by Bruno Schulz. Nicole Kraus reads the story and discusses it with Deborah Treisman here.

22 February 2012

The Matrix and the Rambunctious Garden

Matt Ridley has a vision of the future:
With much of the world’s meat grown, brain-free and legless, in factories, and much of its fruit and vegetables in multi-storey urban farms lit with cheap fusion power, there will again be vast steppes, savannahs, prairies and rain forests, teeming with herds of wild game. Perhaps even a few woolly mammoths among them.
To some, parts of this scenario may look more like a nightmare.  Even on the most optimistic reasonable view there are grounds for doubt. How do we know future 're-wilded' ecosystems will take the form we want them to if system interactions and changes are more complex than we can model and predict? The uncertainties are even greater if,  as the evidence indicates,  large scale  changes to the Earth system as a whole are also already underway?

Perhaps, in the event of relatively benign outcomes in which humans are still a major presence, the future will see not so much 'the revival of wild ecosystems' as the creation of new ones -- hard to predict combinations of old and new by human hand and accident.

See Emma Marris on the Rambunctious Garden and Garry Hamilton on Welcome Weeds: How alien invasion could save the Earth.

And on this blog Sperm to worm, womb to tomb and erection to resurrection.


Large regions of the open ocean are being starved of oxygen because of warmer sea temperature...

“The vertical distribution of deep-ocean species is shifted upwards. They have to move to avoid the low-oxygen waters. At the same time, the surface waters are getting warmer and more acidic and creating less suitable habitat from above,” [says Lisa Levin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography].

“The appropriate habitat for many ocean animals is being compressed causing many animals to live in a smaller area at higher densities in waters that may be shallower than normal.

“This changes their interactions with other species, with predators and competitors and it also makes them much easier targets for fishermen.”
-- report.

21 February 2012

Omega frog

The last known Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum) now lives by himself at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia after the zoo euthanized the only other member of its species. -- report

A reminder

Biodiversity has essential social, economic, cultural, spiritual and scientific values and its protection is hugely important for human survival. The rapid loss of biodiversity, unprecedented in the last 65 million years, is jeopardising the provision of ecosystem services that underpin human well-being. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that 15 of the 24 ecosystem services evaluated were in decline, 4 were improving, and 5 were improving in some regions of the world and in decline in other regions. Measures to conserve biodiversity and make a sustainable society possible need to be greatly enhanced and integrated with social, political and economic concerns. There is a need to value biodiversity and ecosystem services and create markets that can appropriate the value for these services as a basis for a ‘green’ economy.
-- from Environmental and Development Challenges – The Imperative to Act by Blue Planet Laureates

Meanwhile, Canada says it "will not hesitate to defend its interests" (sic).

 David Graeber reminds us:
[Thomas Hobbes argued that] even if we are all rational enough to understand it's in our long-term interest to live in peace and security, our short-term interests are often such that killing and plundering are the most obviously profitable courses to take, and all it takes is a few to cast aside their scruples to create utter insecurity and chaos.

20 February 2012

Angelic corporate beings

Legally, [the European and US] notion of a corporation is very much the product of the European high middle ages. The legal idea of the corporation as fictive person...a person who, as Maitland the great British legal historian put it, 'is immortal, who sues and is sued, who holds lands, has a seal of his own, who makes regulations for the natural persons of who is composed' was first established in canon law by Pope Innocent IV in 1250AD, and one of the first kinds of entities it applied to were monasteries as also universities, churches, municipalities and guilds. The idea of a corporation as an angelic being is not mine, incidentally. I borrowed it from the great medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz who pointed out all that this was happening right around the time that Thomas Aquinas was pointing out that angels were really just the personification of Platonic ideas. According to the teaching of Aquinas, he notes, every angel represented a species. Little wonder then that finally the personified collectives of the jurists, which were juristically immortal species, displayed all the features attributed to angels.
The jurists themselves recognized that there was some similarity between their abstractions and the angelic beings. In this respect it may be said that the political and legal world of thought of the later middle ages began to be populated by immaterial angelic bodies, large and small. They were invisible, ageless, sempiternal, immortal and sometimes even ubiquitous, and they were endowed with a corpus intellectualae or mysticum -- an intellectual or mystical body -- which could withstand any comparison with the spiritual bodies of the celestial beings. All this is worth emphasizing because while we are use to assuming that there is something natural or inevitable about the existence of corporations in historic terms they are actually strange exotic creatures. No other great tradition came up with anything like it.
-- from Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.

See also Griffin.

P.S. an online seminar on Graeber here

19 February 2012

Small miracle

An as-yet-unextinguished marvel in a time of mass extinction:
A songbird weighing just 25 grams makes a 14,500 km journey twice a year. Northern wheatears fly from Alaska, across Asia to sub-Saharan Africa -- one of the longest migrations on record.
-report, paper.

See too A godwit's flight.

Souped up

Armen Mulkidjanian makes the case that life as we know it originated in freshwater thermal springs not unlike Darwin's warm little pond. Jack Szostack is sympathetic but Nick Lane continues to argue that deep sea vents are a more likely starting point. Martin Brasier, who discovered the oldest fossils so far -- 3.43 billion year old bacteria in Australian rocks -- holds fire. He says 'The rock record is the only safe witness we have.'

I tried to cover these issues in outline in the Xenophyophore and Yeti crab chapters my forthcoming book.  It looks as if I didn't go too far wrong.

Mobile marine reserves

Instead of restricting areas by their location, mobile reserves would identify particular conditions that attract marine life "The stationary reserves do little to protect highly mobile animals, like most of the fish, turtles, sharks and seabirds," [says] Larry Crowder [of] Stanford University. "We think of protected areas as places that are locked down on a map. But places in oceans are not locked down, they move."
...One potential mobile marine reserve could protect the north Pacific convergence zone, a region where two giant currents meet head-on, bringing plankton, small fish, turtles and major predators together. The zone is always teeming with life, but it moves from season to season.
-- report

9 February 2012


'The City [of London] does have at its heart something very beautiful - this ancient story of the power of the citizenry within the ancient constitution, which flows through the memory of the City.'

I asked [Father William] Taylor how he reconciled this beautiful side with his notion of a demonic spirit inside the same conceptual framework. He answered immediately. 'A demonic spirit is a fallen angel. This is the problem. It is not serving its intended purpose. It has become suborned to another purpose. In its ceremony the City continues to articulate the power of the citizenry but it has been completely overtaken by the money men. I conceptualise the City not as an evil in itself but as a thing that has become perverted from its true vocation.'
-- from Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

See also Angelic corporate beings

The fish in the sea

A study suggests that most fish in the oceans today are descended from freshwater species. One possible implication of this, notes a report is that:
it is possible that seas may be more prone to extinctions than land, rivers or lakes; while rivers and lakes form an "arc of survival" that can reseed the oceans when marine species are lost. 
"I don't think our results show that seas are strongly inhospitable, but they may become so at certain points in time," [says study co-author John Wiens]. Unfortunately, the strong ocean acidification that is predicted for the near future means we may be heading for one of those times now, he adds. 
Today, however, rivers and lakes may not be healthy enough to help re-supply the oceans...

7 February 2012

Flow is a force that gives us meaning

As if they were needed, reminders -- one and two -- that human enhancements are most likely to be seen first and predominantly in the military-industrial killing complex rather than in some libertarian fantasy world.

P.S. 19 Feb: The Brain, weaponized

Ancient seagrass

A swathe of seagrass in the Mediterranean could be the oldest known living thing on Earth. The 'meadow' is probably 80,000 to 200,000 years old. Despite its historical robustness, the seagrass is now threatened by climate change. The Mediterranean is warming three times faster than the world average, and each year P. oceanica meadows decline by around 5 per cent. "They have never experienced the speed of climate that the Mediterranean is currently experiencing."
--report, paper

3 February 2012


If what is or is not an ethical truth is contingent on the types of biological organisms that we are, then changing the types of biological organisms that we are will change the nature of what is or is not ethical.
So writes Greg Nirshberg in a reflection titled Genetic Modification and Human Ontology. This is probably useful as far as it goes.

One of the matters scarcely explored, however, is that significant modifications to the human genome and associated systems, will, if undertaken at all, be undertaken in the context of changes in even larger the systems in which they are embedded. [1] To (mis?)use the language suggested by Andrew Pickering, there will be a 'dance of agency' between (on the one hand) scientists and society and (on the other) the world as revealed through performance. Agency -- and therefore ethics -- will be an emergent property of interaction between the two.

But even if we are necessarily ignorant of many of ethical (and spiritual) questions that will confront us or our descendants can we not still develop working hypotheses (or ideas to explore in performance rather than cognition)?  So, for example, we may consider this from James Lovelock, (echoing Lewis Thomas here):
The remaining life span of the biosphere is unlikely to be much more than 500 million years, so that if humans died out the chances of our replacement by another intelligent communicating species is improbable. If this is true then we have a goal a purpose. As part of the Earth system our job is to help keep our planet habitable and perhaps become a step in the evolution of an intelligent planet.
One small but essential way of pursuing such a goal would be the tending of forests and other ecosystems through interaction and learning over time: techniques of ecological restoration/recreation/new-creation that are 'alive to emergence.'


[1] See also level 3 systems complexity as described by Brad Allenby and Dan Sarowitz in The Techno-human Condition, plus their short posts here.

(Image from Solaris - Lem/Tarkovsky)

P.S. 9 Feb: 'You...have to consider the possibility that cognitive enhancements may go hand in hand with moral enhancements.'