Friday, March 16, 2018


And now for some news from the world of Technology Beyond Good Sense.
According to George Dvorsky at Futurism, scientists at MIT and 21st Century Medicine have developed a new mammalian brain preservation technique that makes it possible to save the information stored within the structure of the brain—memories, for example, or sensory data—after the death of brain tissue. The technique, called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation (ASC), has so far been tested on rabbits and pigs, and is promising enough to have earned its developers a research grant which would help them take the first steps toward long-term human brain biostasis.

Though the scientists hasten to add that they are nowhere near that point now, but results of their studies have been independently verified and published in the scientific journal Cryobiology. One of the scientists, Robert McIntyre of MIT, has gone so far as to establish a private company with the stated goal of developing a technology

to preserve your brain well enough to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favorite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family. We believe that within the current century it will be feasible to digitize this information and use it to recreate your consciousness.

Am I the only one who finds this a little creepy? Especially when you learn the ASC technique doesn’t actually preserve the brain itself, but turns the thing into a kind of “plasticized object,” an object, we can only hope, retains the relevant information contained in the grey matter it, um, replaces during the cryogenic process.

Dvorsky puts it this way: 

For those of you thinking this is a path towards immortality, you may be in for a profound disappointment. Technical hurdles aside, the ASC approach doesn’t guarantee a continuity of consciousness. As mentioned, [euthanasia to preserve the brain before death by terminal illness} is a form of destructive preservation, where biological matter is basically transmutated into a temporary storage device. While your memories and personality stand a chance of revival, your seat of consciousness will likely be obliterated for all time. Brain preservation in this manner is thus a form of suicide, but with knowledge that a digital “copy” of you may live to see another day.

Okay, wow. You can replicate your personality and memories, but not your actual consciousness? And where, exactly, does that consciousness reside? Certainly not in the brain tissue, if I remember my Sunday school lessons correctly. (And I think Buddha, Muhammed, the Taoists, priests and shamans of multiple faiths and even some wiccans would agree with those lessons.) And what good is retaining your memories and personality, if your consciousness is somewhere else?

Of course, plot bunnies are hopping all over my consciousness at this point. The simplest and most obvious use of this technology would be military (or should I say military intelligence). Your spy dies in the field? No problem! Just “download” his brain to get that vital information! Combine this tech with cloning and you’ve got any number of copies of James Bond—all dispensable.

A frightening idea. And, now one that is ultimately possible.

Cheers, Donna

Information for this post taken from “New Brain Preservation Techniques could be a Path to Mind Uploading, by George Dvorsky, Futurism, March 14, 2018,

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Unintended consequences

Renowned astophysicist Stephen Hawking has died. At 76, he exceeded his life expectancy by over fifty years, having been diagnosed with ALS, a rare form of motor neuron disease, at age 21. I'm sure all of us have seen this small, hunched person contorted into a motorised wheelchair, giving his speeches through a disembodied computer voice.

I guess to me Stephen Hawking is the epitome of the triumph of mind over body - and, indeed, a cautionary tale. He's one of the greats of science, up there with Newton, Galileo, and Einstein.

He was much more than a theoretical physicist, though. He appeared on the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, the Simpsons, and other popular shows, as well as giving academic lectures. It has been said he enjoyed his position as a famous scientist - but maybe he did these shows as much to make science accesible to people like me as anything else. Perhaps also to make a point that people with physical disabilities are not necessarily stupid. I like to think so.

I mourn his passing. But please let me share this wonderful piece of (pointed) humour. Do watch right to the end - you won't be sorry. Oh - and put your coffee down, first. You don't want it on your screen or your keyboard.

Professor Hawking actually had some influence on my science fiction, and how I think about some of the ways scientists delve into matters we don't know enough about. It's the eternal theme of SF, isn't it? Unintended consequences, such as taking  an alien life form on board the Nostromo.

Specifically, in my case, I wondered about manipulation of the human genome. Don't misunderstand - genetic modifications can often be very sensible if the intention is to eliminate a disease. But it's a delicate balance and there is still, always, a risk that taking something away might release something else, or take away more than just the disease. Just think. If a decision had been made to abort a foetus because it would develop motor neuron disease humanity would have lost an oustanding brain. Of course, if there's a specific gene for motor neuron and it had been elminated in vitro, Professor Hawkins would have had a much more comfortable life. But would he have had that amazing brain? It's a messy, grey area with so many 'what ifs'.

In one of my earliest books, Morgan's Choice, Morgan Selwood, who is a human cyborg, is discussing life and things with alien Admiral Ravindra. He and his people are gentically modified humans with some of our 'faults' specifically eliminated. Ravindra has found some sexually explicit images on Morgan's starship and is quizzing her about them.

"Look, same sex couples are tolerated in our society—where I come from, at least. It’s common in the Fleet. Boys locked together in an airtight cylinder, you know? Sure, there are women in the Fleet, but the men outnumber them, just as in your fleet, and some of the women prefer each other’s company, too. I had a friend at the Fleet Academy who was like that. When I first met her she carefully checked to see if I’d be interested in… her way of doing things. I wasn’t and after we got past that, we became friends. I was curious, though, because like you I find it all a bit odd. I looked up what information I could.
"A few centuries ago, there was a debate going on about what changes could be made to the human…" she wondered what the Manesa equivalent of ‘genome’ would be and gave up, "…to improve the species."
"You could do that?" interrupted Ravindra, eyebrows arched. But the look in his eyes signaled skepticism.
"Yes, we could—can. I take it you can’t?"
He frowned, stared at her as if he was trying to see into her soul. "Not that I know of." He waved his hand in a circular motion. "Continue."
"They started by making changes to the human genome to eliminate disease. The scientists isolated the genes they thought were responsible for certain conditions and modified them. They did a lot of that. That’s a good thing, sure. But, hey, it doesn’t always work quite so easily. You eliminate one thing and it affects something else where there was no obvious relationship. That was a problem for the same sex thing. The people who are that way don’t see it as an issue, and they weren’t happy at seeing their preferences called a disease. Eventually, after a lot of discussion it was agreed that the human structure would not be altered any further, but that children could be tested in the womb so that potential diseases could be eliminated in vitro. They say that humanity has adapted and changed and survived over the millennia and that if we play with our structure, we’ll jeopardize that resilience. Having said that, there are lots of Coalition planets where testing isn’t done at all."
"And yet you have been heavily modified, have you not?"
Oh, yes. Heavily modified. Even before she was born. "That’s because of the Cyber Wars."
"Which you will, of course, explain."
"The Cyber Wars ended about two thousand years ago. Humanity was on the verge of extinction. A problem with smart machines, you see."
"Like you?"
She bristled. "I am not a machine." Although he wouldn’t be the first person who thought so. "I… people like me… are a result of the Cyber Wars. Before the war, machines were being used to do all sorts of work that people used to do. It was cheap. Machines don’t need food, they don’t go on strike, make demands, want holidays. They took over in more and more jobs: working the fields, tending children, making goods for sale, designing things, building them and so on and so on. Running spaceships, controlling transit systems, buildings, you name it. The machines became smarter and smarter. Eventually, so the story goes, on the more advanced planets, they took over and flesh and blood people became inferior beings."
"And people like you took over."
"No. Shut up and listen." Uh-oh. Not the smartest thing to say, but it was what she would have said at home. She shot a lightning glance at him. One eyebrow lifted but he said nothing.
"What happened was that people were forced into poverty because machines did all the work. Those people rebelled and fought back against the machines and destroyed them. Millions, billions died just on the advanced planets. But that wasn’t the end of it. The smart machines had kept everything going so when they were destroyed there was disease and starvation on top of all the deaths that had happened already. Nobody knew how to keep the ordinary machines going anymore. Then people started killing each other in a struggle to survive. It became a self- perpetuating thing. Somebody got a disease on planet A and moved to planet B to start a new life, bringing the disease along for the ride. Or tribe A killed tribe B for the food they’d grown. Eventually, the survivors stopped fighting and started again. And the survivors, needless to say, were the primitive people on the backward worlds who knew how to farm."

Somewhere out in space, humanity’s past is about to catch up with its future.

When Morgan Selwood’s spaceship is stranded in unknown space she is relieved to be rescued by humanoid aliens. But her unusual appearance and her extraordinary technical abilities mean that everybody wants a piece of her. Who’s it to be? Autocratic Admiral Ravindra, who press-gangs her to help against a shadowy threat from the stars, or the freedom fighters who think she’s a legend reincarnated, returned to help them throw off the yoke of oppression?

Morgan doesn’t much care which it is until the uprising and the atrocities start. While civil war rages across the planet the shadowy threat from the stars emerges as an implacable killer bent on destroying all intelligent life. Morgan will need every bit of her superhuman, bio-engineered intelligence to save the man she has come to love and his people from annihilation. And spare a little to save herself.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Hellos and Goodbyes

I haven't had anything much of interest to post lately, and if any of you saw the recent weather reports for us in the UK related to The Beast From The East and Storm Emma, you can imagine life was a little more complicated for a few days.
But despite nothing of interest writing and SFR wise, I know some of you like my chicken updates and there's been quite a bit of development there, so I thought I'd do a quick recap on that at least.
First the bad news...

Farewell to Pitch
Of course the snow storm would hit us just as we moved the girls to a new coop and run. With the coop being plastic (which I always feel lacks the warmth of wood) and bigger with the intention to house more chickens, I fretted over whether my girls would be able to keep warm in the sub zero temperatures. Fortunately there are wiser people in several of the chicken groups I belong to, and after taking some precautions - extra bedding (deepening the layer of wood shavings and adding straw), sheets of cardboard for insulation plus a couple of thick blankets over the top to conserve heat and cut down any drafts - my girls appeared to keep cosy and dry throughout. My main concern was my two older girls Kairu and Scoop - non-farmed chickens tend to live 5-7 years and these two retirees are currently 4.5 and 6 - and younger, smaller Firefly. But everyone was happy and apparently healthy. The snow cleared, I removed all the insulation, and all seemed fine...until I opened the coop the morning of the 7th to find Pitch had passed away in the night. She was just two years old, still young for a chicken. She'd shown absolutely no signs of illness or distress the evening before, enjoying a brief romp in the garden with the flock and eating her share of bedtime corn. Chickens, like most creatures, are capable of hiding any signs of weakness to the point where they are often too sick to save by the time they show it, but when you know your pets well you can usually pick up that something is not quite right. We didn't.
You can't help but feel to blame in this situation with a young bird. We haven't lost any of them since a fox attack two years ago, and one to old age before that. Pitch was always such a feisty, lively character who liked to be in the middle of anything we mere humans might be up to, especially if she thought food might be involved. She hatched and raised two beautiful chicks last year, one of whom is Firefly. She was joint second in command of the flock, sharing seniority with our two oldest girls. She'll be missed.
Pitch when we first brought her home
"Are you sure you don't have food, human?"
Doting mama

Testing out the new coop a couple of weeks ago

Fun in the snow
Baby Firefly Is All Grown Up!
On a happier note, we have cause to celebrate. Baby Firefly has laid her first eggs! It's always a concern for the first one - chickens can get egg bound, which can prove fatal, or can suffer a prolapse which involves things you probably don't want to know about. So a successful first lay is a relief. We thought she might have been responsible for a tiny egg two days previously, but I didn't catch her in the act until she laid her second.

BTW, those aren't both her eggs - Mama Pitch had been in there laying with her. Bless!
Hello Girls!
And despite the weather and distance (sometimes it feels like fate is throwing everything in your way, doesn't it?) we were finally able to pick up my two new girls: a pair of lemon millefleur sablepoots (also known as booted bantams). I've been trying to get hold of these for a while as I want to expand the breeds of bantam we have, and it hasn't been easy! Sablepoots have a reputation for being friendly, though these two apparently need more handling since they won't even take food from me right now. And if you think the Pekins are small...these darlings are almost half the size! We've taken a break from the TV/film character names for these two and gone for yellow flowers instead: Saffron and Jasmine. Saffron is definitely the boss, and the noisier and more active girl in the video.

"What this shiny thing, Hand That Feeds?!"

These two are currently in quarantine - I haven't done this before, but with another avian flu outbreak and now having the facilities to cordon off new birds, and with Pitch's passing too, it seemed wise. The two flocks can see each other to get used to the sight, sound and potentially smell as well before I introduce the new ones. I suppose at least now I'll have room for an extra hen further down the line...

The Great Chicken Run Build
While the coop is done and the main construction too, I still need a roof. The wet weather, followed by heavy snow, followed by more wet weather has not only prevented me from working on that but proved I might need to scale up my ideas more than I planned. I found myself using a broom to try sweeping the melting snow off the temporary roof I'd put up because it was fountaining into the run and soaking my girls, so something better needs to go on. Just as soon as I get some dry weather to do it. O.o I'll finish with some photos of the big freeze!

Kala: "Stay put, girls, the damn Hand That Feeds let all that cold, white stuff in the run again!"

A nearby park
Firefly: "Nope, going to sleep through the white stuff, night night!"
Kala: "Why you let this nasty white stuff in, Hand That Feeds?"
Phasma: "Maybe if I stand really still, no one will see me..."

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