“We do not know what the future will be…”

“It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.

“We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online.

But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

“These descriptions may seem overly dramatic. Some readers might consider them an unacademic form of writing. Which would be an interesting comment on why we even write at all. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical. As we are considering here a situation where the publishers of this journal would no longer exist, the electricity to read its outputs won’t exist, and a profession to educate won’t exist, I think it time we break some of the conventions of this format. However, some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse. Even though some of us might believe in the importance of maintaining norms of behaviour, as indicators of shared values, others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion to this situation has been that we need to expand our work on “sustainability” to consider how communities, countries and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles…”

Text: Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy

Image: Depiction of Hell, by Hieronymus Bosch

“The evil that travels in a straight line…”

“Was it Laurie Anderson who said that VR would never look real until they learned how to put some dirt in it? Singapore’s airport, the Changi Airtropolis, seemed to possess no more resolution than some early VPL world. There was no dirt whatsoever; no muss, no furred fractal edge to things. Outside, the organic, florid as ever in the tropics, had been gardened into brilliant green, and all-too-perfect examples of itself. Only the clouds were feathered with chaos—weird columnar structures towering above the Strait of China…”

“Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore. There’s a certain white-shirted constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates; conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.

“There is no slack in Singapore. Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.

“But Disneyland wasn’t built atop an equally peculiar 19th-century theme park—something constructed to meet both the romantic longings and purely mercantile needs of the British Empire. Modern Singapore was—bits of the Victorian construct, dressed in spanking-fresh paint, protrude at quaint angles from the white-flanked glitter of the neo-Gernsbackian metropolis. These few very deliberate fragments of historical texture serve as a reminder of just how deliciously odd an entrepot Singapore once was—a product of Empire kinkier even than Hong Kong.

“The sensation of trying to connect psychically with the old Singapore is rather painful, as though Disneyland’s New Orleans Square had been erected on the site of the actual French Quarter, obliterating it in the process but leaving in its place a glassy simulacrum. The facades of the remaining Victorian shop-houses recall Covent Garden on some impossibly bright London day. I took several solitary, jet-lagged walks at dawn, when a city’s ghosts tend to be most visible, but there was very little to be seen of previous realities: Joss stick smouldering in an old brass holder on the white-painted column of a shop-house; a mirror positioned above the door of a supplier of electrical goods, set to snare and deflect the evil that travels in a straight line; a rusty trishaw, chained to a freshly painted iron railing. The physical past, here, has almost entirely vanished.”

Text: William Gibson, Disneyland with the Death Penalty, Wired.

Pic & Video: Singapore 2065.

The Border Between Life & Non Life

“According to two papers published in Cell on January 11, 2018, the making of memories and the processes of learning resemble, of all things, a viral infection. It works like this: The shells that transport information between neurons are assembled by a gene called Arc. Experiments conducted by two research teams revealed that the Arc protein that forms a shell, functions much like a Gag, a gene that transports a virus’s genetic material between cells during an infection. For example, the retrovirus HIV uses a Gag in exactly this manner.

“We already know, thanks to the work of Lynn Margulis, that a number of organelles that power the cells of plants and animals descended from bacteria. This is called the endosymbiotic hypothesis. It’s now widely accepted as a fact of life. Margulis, who passed away in the winter of 2011, also believed that spiral bacteria evolved into the cilia and flagella that animal cells, such as sperm, use for mobility. (She went as far to suggest that the processes of animal thought or cognition were connected with cilia.) The spiral theory is still controversial. But now that scientists have basically concluded that the processes of memory and learning are closely related to innovations independently developed by viruses and adopted by animals deep in time (“Arc works in a similar fashion right across the tree of life, from flies to humans”), it seems foolish to not seriously re-envision animal and plant biology along Margulian lines.

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“There is more to think about. Most scientists consider viruses to be non-living. In fact, popular science writer Ed Yong recently made a statement in his piece, “The Viruses That Eavesdrop on Their Hosts,” that concerned a new discovery made by another brilliant scientist, Bonnie Bassler, and her student, Justin Silpe (that viruses can listen to the language bacteria uses for what’s called quorum sensing): “Viruses are not even technically alive! They’re entirely different entities from bacteria, yet they are intercepting and interpreting the same molecular messages. It’s like a rock eavesdropping on a bird.”

“If we can compare a rock to a virus—which appears to come alive when infecting a cell, and appears to be dead when doing nothing—then we must begin to suspect that there’s something life-like in non-biological things like clouds and hills. Are viruses really the border between life and non-life? Is there a border? A break? The 20th century Russian biochemist, Alexander Oparin, maintained there was a continuum from the inorganic to the organic. This is clearly the case from the stand point of the chemical elements. There is nothing in life that cannot be found in non-living things. We have known this since the 19th century, which experienced the demise of vitalism. But life appears to be not like a rock. And a virus appears to be more like life than a rock. Also life is weird. Viruses are weird. A rock is not. Lastly, it seems that animals and trees are wholly Margulisian—meaning, they are chimerical, or monsters that emerged from and are not separate from the ambiance of microganisms…”

Text: Charles Mudede, By Far the Strangest Scientific Discovery of 2018: Your Memories Are a Viral Infection, thestranger.com

Image: Rene Magritte, A Sense of Reality. 1963.

A Longstanding Relationship with Death

“Dr. Hank Hine, the executive director of the Dalí Museum, says the project was inspired by the artist’s unique sensibility. “I think that the seeds of this project were sown by the artist himself,” he tells artnet News. “Dalí was famous for his sense of his own eternal significance. It’s almost like, if had left instructions for us, this project would have been among them.”

“The museum tapped Goodby Silverstein & Partners, a creative ad agency based in San Francisco, for the project. Over the past six months, the two organizations assembled footage, photographs, interviews, and hundreds of other archival materials featuring the late Surrealist. They used the materials to train an AI algorithm to “learn” elements of Dalí’s facial movements and filmed new footage from a lookalike actor. The AI can now generate a version of Dalí’s likeness that matches the actor’s expressions.

“Most of the language used by the AI is sourced from quotes by the man himself. But the character will also comment on things that the real Dalí could never have said—musings on current events, for example, or references to local sports teams—drawn from the actor.

“This isn’t the first time the museum has collaborated with Goodby Silverstein & Partners. In a 2014 exhibition called “Gala Contemplating You,” the agency created a kiosk that turned visitors’ selfies into replicas of a 1976 painting of the artist’s wife. In 2016, the two organizations developed “Dreams of Dalí,” a virtual reality experience that allowed viewers to walk inside Dalí’s painting, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus” (1934).

“These experiments were big hits with the community, Hine explains. In a recent poll conducted by the museum, 97 percent of guests expressed a desire for “more digital interactive experiences.”

Text: Taylor Dafoe, This Unsettling AI Version of Salvator Dalí That Greets You at His Florida Museum May Be the Most Surreal Thing Ever art.net.

 

Layers of Heaven

“What is it about punk?

“Back in the ‘60s—now safe and cozy under a twenty-year blanket of consensus history—the basic social division was straight vs. hip, right vs. left, pigs ‘n’ freaks, feds ‘n’ heads. Spiro Agnew vs. Timothy Leary. It was a clear, simple gap that sparked and sputtered like a high-voltage carbon arc. The country was as close to civil war as it’s been in modern times. News commentators sometimes speak of this as a negative thing—burning cities, correct revolutionary actions, police riots—but there was a lot of energy there. ‘60s people think of the old tension as “good” in somewhat the same way that ‘40s people look back on the energy of WWII as “good.”

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“A simple dichotomy. But during the ‘70s times got tough, and all the ‘60s people got older. Madison Avenue turned hip into product. Businessmen got hot-tubs; and they weren’t necessarily faking—I know a number of present-day businessmen who are regular old-time acidheads, but…you’ve got to get the bread to send your kids to college, right? The gap between hip and straight is still there, but it’s faded, the jags have rubbed off.

“If you’re young, you want to come up with something new—that’s how the race grows. Some ‘80s youngsters may want to be straights—our country will always need sports fans and prison guards—but the smart ones, the ones who ask hard questions, the same kids who would have been hippies in the ‘60s—these people needed some kind of stance that would bug all old people. Thus punk.

“I used to live in the boonies, and LP records were my contact to what was happening. The only good music in the ‘70s was Zappa, and even he was getting old. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first punk records—the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, and then…the Clash. Of course that was all eight years ago (which, these exponential days, is a long time). It keeps mutating. Now I listen to the Ramones, Detox, and the Butthole Surfers. “Yes, the Butthole Surfers.” Doesn’t that tell you more than, “Yes, the New Yorker?”

“The real charm of punk is that stupid hippies dislike it as much as do stupid rednecks. “What’s the matter with them? What do they want?” Anyone who was ever a hippie for the right reasons—a hatred of conformity and a desire to break through to higher realities—is likely to appreciate and enjoy the punks. But a lot of basically conventional people slid through the ‘70s thinking of themselves as avant-garde, when in fact they were brain-dead. What’s good about punk is that it makes all of us question our comfortable assumptions and attitudes. Wait…look at that last sentence, and you can see I’m forty. How complacently I slip the “us” in there—trying to co-opt the revolution. How Life magazine of me, how plastic, how bullshit. What’s good about punk is that it’s fast and dense. It has a lot of information. Which brings us to “cyber.”

What is Cybernetics?

“It’s the title of an incomprehensible book by Norbert Weiner, mainly. Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs inventor of information theory, encouraged Weiner to use the word “cybernetics” because “No one knows what it means, Norbert, which will always put you at an advantage in an argument.” More seriously, if I talk about “cyber,” I really want to talk about the modern concept of information.

“Mathematics can be thought of as based on five concepts: Number, Space, Logic, Infinity, and Information. The age of Number was the Middle Ages, with their nitpicking lists of sins and layers of heaven. Space was the Renaissance, with perspective and the printing press spreading copies out. Logic was the Industrial Revolution, with great steam engines chugging away like syllogistic inferences. Infinity was Modern Times, with quantum mechanics and LSD. Now we’re starting on Information. The computers are here, the cybernetic revolution is over.

Text: Rudy Rucker, from What Is Cyberpunk?

Image: Peter Daverington, The New Colony-From Bierstadt to Neuromancer, 2008-2009

Troxler Effect

“This is called the Troxler effect, after the man who discovered it: Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler, in 1804.

“What happens here is that your visual system constantly adapts to all the external stimuli. This is why after spending a few moments in the dark, you start to see a little better. This capability allows you to be in different lighting conditions, while still maintaining a pretty accurate estimate of the lightness and colour of objects.

“So if you fixate on a certain point, after approximately 20 seconds, stimuli which fit in your peripheral vision will fade away and disappear. The effect is most powerful for some colours and patterns, and is more powerful the farther the object is from your center of fixation…”

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Text & Pic: Stare at this picture. It will disappear. ZMEScience.

Signs of Life

“If alien astronomers are out there searching for signs of life on Earth, they might just find it in the telltale pattern of light reflected by our plants, from redwood forests to desert cacti to grass-covered plains. That reflected fingerprint has been visible since vegetation first began carpeting our rocky terrestrial landscape about half a billion years ago. And as Earth aged and evolution marched onward, the reflected signal strengthened.

“Now, two astronomers are suggesting that plants could leave similar fingerprint-like patterns on distant exoplanets, and perhaps the first signs of life beyond our solar system could come from light reflected by forests covering an alien moon like Endor or cacti living in Tatooine’s deserts.

 
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“We’re trying to figure out—with all the planets we’re finding—what are the signatures that could indicate habitability?” says Cornell University’s Lisa Kaltenegger, who recently described Earth’s leafy signature in a study published in the journal Astrobiology.

“We really want to identify the handful, or two or three, that give us the best chance to pick up signs of life.”

“While this isn’t the first time scientists have suggested looking for life in a far-off planet’s light, Kaltenegger’s team adds a twist: Such reflections can also offer a good estimate for an alien planet’s evolutionary advancement, based on our knowledge of how things work on Earth.

“This idea that you could find vegetation on another planet has been around. But nobody ever used Earth’s own geological history as an archive,” Kaltenegger says. “We don’t have a second planet with habitability, but we do have our Earth through time, and it would be really smart to study it.”

“Several decades ago, the Galileo spacecraft, which was headed for Jupiter, swiveled to stare at Earth’s reflected light. It spied the signs of biology at work in the presence of atmospheric gases such as ozone and methane. More recently, astronomers have teased apart Earthshine, or the bit of Earth-light that sometimes dimly illuminates the darker part of a crescent moon’s face. They found life’s fingerprints there, too.

“Now, scientists searching for life beyond Earth are debating how biology might leave molecular marks in alien atmospheres, either by producing particular compounds or by shifting the mix of gases swaddling a planet.”

Text: “Want to Find Alien Life? Look at Older, Hotter Earths”, National Geographic.
Image: L’occhio di Shui (The Eye of Shui) by Shui Mao.