WLAMF 2018 #2: On Being Alone in the Universe

I have written before on a couple of occasions about the Fermi paradox. To recap, the idea is: if life is plentiful throughout the universe and there are many sapient, industrial species, where is the evidence? The sky should be filled with radio waves and other telltale evidence.

Not necessarily because they’re trying to talk to us, but because a civilization that develops tools and high technology will eventually discover radio, and radio is massively useful. We are broadcasting our existence to the universe right now–not from an attempt to be chatty with any extraterrestrial neighbors, but simply by virtue of the fact that we broadcast all kinds of noise just by virtue of being a technological species.

There are three common answers to the Fermi Paradox, which can be summed up as:

1. We’re first.
2. We’re rare.
3. We’re fucked.

The “we’re first” and “we’re rare” answers suggest we don’t see the evidence of technological civilizations filling the skies because technological civilizations are very, very thin on the ground in the cosmos…err, that’s a jumbled metaphor, but you get what I mean.

Life may be common, but technological life might not. And there could be things–Great Filters, they’re called–that aren’t necessarily obvious to us, but that conspire to keep technological life rare.

Maybe it’s the distribution of planets in a solar system. People who believe life is common like to point to the fact that we are an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy–one of quadrillions in the observable universe.

But it turns out that while our star is unremarkable, our solar system is very weird indeed, and we still don’t know why. The other solar systems we’ve discovered so far tend to have planets all of about the same size. Ours decidedly does not. Our planet is really very small indeed, it seems.

So whatever caused our solar system to be so weird might be a Great Filter. It may be that it’s hard to get sapient life that uses technology and builds cities on a huge planet or a gas giant.

So that might be a Great Filter.

The third solution, “we’re fucked,” proposes that there is a great filter, but it’s ahead of us, not behind us. This solution suggests that the things a new sapient species needs to survive when it’s young–things like aggressiveness, tribalism, xenophobia, aggression, and violence–work against that species when it reaches the point of globe-spanning civilizations. The reason we don’t see the skies filled with traces of advanced sapient species is advanced sapient species tend to destroy themselves, simply by virtue of the fact that the traits they need to survive when they’re young inevitably act against survival when they’re mature.

Okay, so that’s the backstory.

Let’s talk about the James Webb Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope is due to launch next year. When it does, one of its primary missions is to examine the atmosphere of known exoplanets, looking for traces of oxygen.

Oxygen in the air is rather a big deal. Planets don’t have free oxygen without life. This planet started out with a reducing atmosphere, not an oxygenating one. It didn’t get oxygen in the air until the advent of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis.

Oxygenic photosynthesis is a complex, fiddly process that may have evolved only once. When it did, everything changed. Oxygen is poison to anaerobic life. The coming of cyanobacteria started the Great Oxygen Catastrophe–that’s actually what it’s called–that wiped out almost every species on earth. And paved the way for us.

Oxygen might be necessary for sapience, simply because cellular metabolism in the absence of oxygen is necessarily limited and sluggish. Active metabolisms require oxygen, at least so far as we can tell.

And brains require highly active metabolisms indeed. Information processing is horrendously energy-intensive. Your brain consumes a substantial fraction of your body’s total energy capacity. No Oxygen Catastrophe probably means no animals with central nervous systems and almost certainly means no sapience.

Oxygen can’t stay put. It’s too reactive. If every photosynthetic organism died, our atmosphere would return to non-oxygenating, as the oxygen in the air reacted and combined with things.

So if you see oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere, that means something’s continually putting it there. Like photosynthesis or some similar process. And that probably means life.

When James Webb is online, it will either see oxygen on exoplanets or it won’t.

If it doesn’t, that points to oxygenic photosynthesis as a rare innovation. Which means we might owe our existence to cyanobacteria, and that means at least one Great Filter is behind us.

It also means complex life with energetic metabolisms–animals–is probably incredibly rare in the universe.

On the other hand, if we see oxygen everywhere, that probably means that oxygenic photosynthesis is a common innovation, which suggests a universe not only teeming with life but possibly complex life.

It also means that at least one potential Great Filter behind us isn’t a Great Filter, which raises the odds of a Great Filter ahead of us.

I’m not sure which result I’m hoping for: a lonely universe with greater odds of our survival, or a teeming universe with lower.

For 12 hours today, my partner Eve and I are writing one blog post for every contribution we get to the crowdfunding campaign for our novel, Black Iron. We call it Write Like a Motherfucker. Want to make us dance? Send people to the campaign page! You can follow along via the #WLAMF hashtag on Twitter, or in the Facebook event. For the origin of the #WLAMF hashtag, see my first WLAMF first post from 2014.

Learning to be a Human

I don’t live in my body.

I was 48 years old before I discovered this. Now, such a basic fact, you might think, would be intuitively obvious much earlier. But I’ve only (to my knowledge) been alive this once, and I haven’t had the experience of living as anyone else, so I think I might be forgiven for not fully understanding the extent to which my experience of the world is not everyone’s experience of the world.

Ah, if only we could climb behind someone else’s eyes and feel the world the way they do.

Anyway, I do not live in my body. My perception of my self—my core essence, if you will—is a ball that floats somewhere behind my eyes, and is carried about by my body.

Oh, I feel my body. It relays sensory information to me. I am aware of hot and cold (especially cold; more on that in a bit), soft and hard, rough and smooth. I feel the weight of myself pressing down on my feet. I am aware of the fact that I occupy space, and of my position in space. (Well, at least to some extent. My sense of direction is a bit rubbish, as anyone who’s known me for more than a few months can attest.)

But I don’t live in my body. It’s an apparatus, a biological machine that carries me around. “Me” is the sphere floating just behind my eyes.

And as I said, I didn’t even know this until I was 48.

This is not, as it turns out, my only perceptual anomaly.

I also perceive cold as pain.

When I say this, a lot of folks don’t really understand what I mean. I do not mean that cold is uncomfortable. I mean that cold is painful. An ice cube on my bare skin hurts. A lot. A cold shower is excruciating agony, and I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this. (Being wet is unpleasant under the best of circumstances. Cold water is pure agony. Worse than stubbing a toe, almost on par with touching a hot burner.)

I’ve always more or less assumed that other people perceive cold more or less the same way I do. There’s a trope that cold showers are an antidote to unwanted sexual arousal; I’d always thought that was because the pain shocks you out of any kind of sexy head space. And swimming in ice water? That was something that a certain breed of hard-core masochist did. Some folks like flesh hook suspension; some folks swim in ice water. Same basic thing.

I’ve only recently become aware that there’s actually a medical term for this latter condition: congenital thermal allodynia. It’s an abnormal coding of pain, and it is, I think, related to the not-living-in-my-body thing.

I probably would have discovered all of this if I’d been interested in recreational drug use as a youth. And it appears there may be a common factor in both of these atypical ways I perceive the world.

Ladies and gentlebeings, I present to you: TRPA1.

This is TRPA1. It’s a complex protein that acts as a receptor in nerve and other cells. It responds to cold and to the presence of certain chemicals (menthol feels cold because it activates this receptor). Variations on the structure of TRPA1 are implicated in a range of abnormal perception of pain; there’s a single nucleotide polymorphism in the gene that codes for TRPA1, for instance, that results in a medical condition called “hereditary episodic pain syndrome,” whose unfortunate sufferers are wracked by intermittent spasms of agonizing and debilitating pain, often triggered by…cold.

I’ve lived this way my entire life, completely unaware that it’s not the way most folks experience the world. It wasn’t until I started my first tentative explorations down the path of recreational pharmaceuticals that I discovered there was any other way to be.

For nearly all of my life, I’ve never had the slightest interest in recreational drug use, despite what certain of my relatives believed when I was a teenager. Aside from alcohol, I had zero experience with recreational pharmaceuticals until I was in my late 40s.

The first recreational drug I ever tried was psilocybin mushrooms. I’ve had several experiences with them now, which have universally been quite pleasant and agreeable.

But it’s the aftereffects of a mushroom trip that are, for me, the really interesting part.

The second time I tried psilocybin mushrooms, about an hour or so after the comedown from the mushroom trip, I had the sudden and quite marked experience of completely inhabiting my body. For the first time in my entire life, I wasn’t a ball of self being carried around by this complex meat machine; I was living inside my body, head to toe. (I recall looking at Eve and saying “I go all the way to the ground!”)

The effect of being-in-my-bodyness persisted for a couple of hours after all the other traces of the drug trip had gone, and for a person who’s spent an entire lifetime being carried about by a body but not really being in that body, I gotta say, man, it was amazing.

So I did what I always do: went on Google Scholar and started reading neurobiology papers.

My first hypothesis, born of vaguely remembered classes in neurobiology many years ago and general folk wisdom about psilocybin and other hallucinogens, was that the psilocybin (well, technically, psilocin, a metabolite of psilocybin) acted as a particularly potent serotonin agonist, dramatically increasing brain activity, particularly in the pyramidal cells in layer 5 of the brain. If psilocybin lowered the activation threshold of these cells, reasoned I, then perhaps I became more aware of my body because I was better able to process existing sensory stimulation from the peripheral nervous system, and/or better able to integrate my somatosensory perception. It sounds plausible, right? Right?

Alas, some time on Google Scholar deflated that hypothesis. It turns out that the conventional wisdom about how hallucinogens work is quite likely wrong.

Conventional wisdom is that hallucinogens promote neural activity in cells that express serotonin receptors by mimicking the action of serotonin, causing the cells to fire. Hallucinogens aren’t well understood, but it’s looking like this model is probably not correct.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, psilocybin is a serotonin agonist and it does lower activation threshold of pyramidal cells, oh yes.

The fly in the ointment is that evidence from fMRI and BOLD studies shows an overall inhibition of brain activity resulting from psilocybin. Psilocybin promotes activation of excitatory pyramidal cells, sure, but it also promotes activation of inhibitory GABAergic neurons, resulting in overall decreased activity in several other parts of the brain. Further, this activity in the pyramidal cells produces less overall cohesion of brain activity, as this paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains. (It’s a really interesting article. Go read it!)

My hypothesis that psilocybin promotes the subjective experience of greater somatosensory integration by lowering activation threshold of pyramidal cells, therefore, seems suspect, unless perhaps we were to further hypothesize that this lowered activation threshold persisted after the mushroom trip was over, an assertion for which I can find no support in the literature.

So lately I’ve been thinking about TRPA1.

I drink a lot of tea. Not as much, perhaps, as my sweetie , but a lot nonetheless.

Something I learned a long time ago is that the sensation of being wet is extremely unpleasant, but it’s more tolerable after I’ve had my morning tea. I chalked that down to it being more unpleasant when I was sleepy than when I was awake.

It turns out caffeine is a mild TRPA1 inhibitor. That leads to the hypothesis that for all these years, I may have been self-medicating with caffeine without being aware of it. If TRPA1 is implicated in the more unpleasant somatosensory bits of being me, then caffeine may jam up the gubbins and let me function in a way that’s a closer approximation to the way other folks perceive the world. (Insert witty quip about not being fully human before my morning tea here.)

So then I started to wonder, what if psilocybin is connecting me with my body by influencing TRPA1 activity? Could that explain the aftereffects of a mushroom trip? When I’m in my body, I feel warm and, for lack of a better word, glowy. My sense of self extends downward and outward until it fills up the entire biological machine in which I live. Would TRPA1 inhibition explain that?

Google Scholar offers exactly fuckall on the effects of psilocybin on TRPA1. So I turned to other searches, trying to find other drugs or substances that promoted a subjective experience of greater connection with one’s own body.

I found anecdotal reports of what I was after from people who used N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester, a supplement developed in Russia and sold as a cognitive enhancer under the Russian name Ноопепт and the English name Noopept. It’s widely sold as a nootropic. New Agers and the fringier elements of the transhumanist movement, two groups I tend not to put a lot of faith in, tout it as a brain booster.

Still, noopept is cheap and easily available, and I figured as long as I was experimenting with my brain’s biochemistry, it was worth a shot.

To hear tell, this stuff will do everything from make you smarter to prevent Alzheimer’s. Real evidence that it does much of anything is thin on the ground, with animal models showing some protective effect against some forms of brain trauma but human trials being generally small and unpersuasive.

I started taking it, and noticed absolutely no difference at all. Still, animal models suggest it takes quite a long time to have maximum effect, so I kept taking it.

About 40 days after I started, I woke up with the feeling of being completely in my body. It didn’t last long, but over the next few weeks, it came and went several times, typically for no more than an hour or two at a time.

But oh, what an hour. When you’ve lived your whole life as a ball being carted around balanced atop a bipedal biological machine, feeling like you inhabit your body is amazing.

The last time it happened, I was in the Adventure Van driving toward the cabin where Eve and I are currently writing not one, not two, but three books (a nonfiction followup to More Than Two titled Love More, Be Awesome, and two fiction books set in a common world, called Black Iron and Gold Gold Gold!). We were listening to music, as we often do when we travel, and I…felt the music. In my body.

I’d always more or less assumed that people who talk about “feeling music” were being metaphorical, not literal. Imagine my surprise.

I also noticed something intriguing: Feeling cold will, when I’m in my body, push me right back out again. Hence my hypothesis that not being connected with my body might in some way be related to TRPA1.

The connection with my body, intermittent and tenuous for the past few weeks, has disappeared again. I’m still taking noopept, but I haven’t felt like I’m inhabiting my body for the past couple of weeks. That leads to one of two suppositions: the noopept is not really doing anything at all, which is quite likely, or I’m developing a tolerance for noopept, which seems less likely but I suppose is possible. Noopept is a racetam-like peptide; like members of the racetam class, it is an acetylcholine agonist, and while I can’t find anything in the literature about noopept tolerance, tolerance of other acetylcholine agonists (though not, as near as I can tell, racetam-like acetylcholine agonists) has been observed in animal models.

So there’s that.

The literature on all of this has been decidedly unhelpful. I like the experience of completely inhabiting my body, and would love to find a way to do this all the time.

I’m currently pondering three experiments. First, next time I take mushrooms (and my experience with mushrooms, limited though they are, have universally been incredibly positive; while I have no desire to take them regularly, I probably will take them again at some point in the future), I am planning to set up experiments after the comedown where I expose myself to water and cold sensations to see if the pain is reduced or eliminated in the phase during which I’m connected to my body.

Second, I’m planning to discontinue noopept for a month or so, then resume it to see if the problem is tolerance.

And finally, I’ve enlisted Eve to help do a controlled blind experiment involving capsules filled with noopept and capsules filled with confectioner’s sugar. Eve has offered to fill a month’s worth of capsules with each and then place them in numbered but otherwise unmarked bottles. The idea is to take the contents of one bottle, chosen at random with Eve not aware of which one I’ve chosen, for a month, recording how I feel, then take the contents of the second bottle for a month with similar record-keeping, and see if there’s any subjective experience that is not consistent with the placebo effect. (Yes, I know that a sample size of one is not exactly rigorous science. I’m looking for a way to connect with my body, not publish a paper.)

I’m fifty years old and I’m still learning how to be a human being. Life is a remarkable thing.

The Baloney Detection Kit: An update to the classic

In 1995, scientist and educator Carl Sagan published a book called The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I can not recommend this book highly enough. It is a manifesto of clear, rational thinking. If you’re at all interested in understanding the physical world or, more importantly, understanding how to understand the physical world, you really need to read this book.

Seriously. I mean you. Go get a copy.

One of the many brilliant things in The Demon-Haunted World is the Baloney Detection Kit. In a chapter titled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Sagan lays out an excellent set of rules for determining whether or not you’re being hoodwinked by pseudoscience–luncheon meat masquerading as knowledge.

I am not and never will be as brilliant as Carl Sagan. However, he lived in a time when pseudoscience, and specifically conspiracy theories about science, were not nearly as endemic in the public discourse as they are today.

So I would modestly like to propose an update to the Baloney Detection Kit.

Here’s the updated version:

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • In science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
  • If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise).
  • When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
  • Do not continue to make arguments that have already been discredited.
  • Do not trust a hypothesis that relies on a conspiracy to conceal the truth.
  • Arguments that rely on anecdotal evidence or have not been subject to peer review are not reliable.
  • While scientific consensus is not always correct, a hypothesis that contradicts the general consensus should be treated skeptically.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
Click on the image for a (much) embiggened version!

Sex tech: Wave your arms in the air like you just don’t care

The street finds its own uses for things.
—William Gibson, Burning Chrome

Imagine, if you will, a device you strap onto your lower arm. This device has a bunch of embedded myoelectric sensors that respond to hand movements, and accelerometers that track arm movements. Yoked to these is a Bluetooth transmitter that relays a stream of data about your hand position and arm motion to a computer or smartphone. Sound exciting?

Meet the Myo, a gadget in search of a purpose.

It’s a neat, if pricey, device still in search of a killer app. It comes with a PowerPoint plugin that lets you flip through slides by waving your arm in the air. There’s an interface for Skyrim, though it’s a bit laggy and you can’t play for long before your arm gets tired. There’s also a bit of software that lets you control a small drone with arm gestures, though with less precision than a conventional remote control. It’s very much a “build first, look for a function later” gadget, reminiscent of many tech innovations from the age of the dot-com bubble.

In most industries, the “build it and they will come” approach to project engineering is looked at with less and less favor these days. I am a long-time mad scientist with a particular flair for designing and building all manner of high-tech sex toys, though, so to me “build it and they will come” is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

As soon as I saw a demo of the Myo, my mind instantly went to sex. Controlling a device remotely by gesture and motion? What could possibly be more fitting in a sex toy? (In fairness, I did once, many years ago, build an Internet-controlled sex toy called the Symphony—a name that might perhaps be more appropriate for a device that you can operate by waving your arms. Dance, my puppets! Dance!)

So imagine my surprise when I Tweeted that this would make a cool controller for a sex toy and shortly thereafter one showed up on my doorstep, courtesy of AV Flox over at Slantist.

Electronically, the Myo is a Bluetooth LE radio, a set of myoelectric sensors, a suite of accelerometers, and a low-power processor core running proprietary firmware. Information from the myoelectric sensors is interpreted and translated into a set of posture information. This information is combined with data from the accelerometer and transmitted as a series of gestures and motions.

Conceptually, it looks a bit like this:

The Myo communicates with a laptop or smartphone. The laptop or smartphone interprets the messages from the Myo, then sends appropriate commands to an Arduino with a Bluetooth board connected, instructing it to to run (or stop) a vibrator attached to the motor driver.

The Arduino is a small single-board computer that was designed to do easy experimenting with programmable devices. Think of something like a Raspberry Pi, only far simpler and without an operating system. You can get many additional boards for the Arduino to do all sorts of things—Bluetooth, WiFi, networking, sensors, motor drivers, and other boards exist. The Arduino and its add-on boards are designed to be stacked on top of one another, to make project development easy.

The laptop or smartphone is necessary because of Bluetooth’s design. Bluetooth is a computer-to-peripheral technology. A Bluetooth network uses a master/slave topology, which means a Bluetooth peripheral can’t communicate directly with another Bluetooth peripheral—a “master” device like a laptop or smartphone is needed as an intermediary. When I first started working on a Myo-controlled sex toy, I did the development on a Macbook Pro laptop.

The Hardware

For the first-generation version of the gesture-controlled sex toy, I opted to use an Arduino Uno with a Red Bear Bluetooth shield and one of Kyle Machulis’ Pen15 vibrator controller boards, largely by virtue of the fact that I already happened to have all of them sitting on my workbench.

The Arduino is a small electronics board, roughly the size of an index card, that’s easy to program and capable of talking to all sorts of peripheral hardware. As a controller for a sex toy, it’s a bit large and clunky. Combined with a Bluetooth board and a motor control board, the whole ensemble is about as big as a pack of cigarettes; not exactly discreet. There are several much smaller development boards available, and a later version of this project will probably be about the size of a quarter.

The Arduino, Bluetooth board, and motor controller, all stacked atop one another, look like this:

The blue board on the bottom is the Arduino itself, and contains the processor, power supply, and USB interface for programming. The red board in the middle is the Bluetooth board. The green board on top is the Pen15, an interface board designed specifically to run a sex toy from an Arduino. All together, this stack of boards cost about $40 or so.

The Software

Assembling the stack of components to make a Myo-controlled sex toy was the easy part. Writing the software turned out to be a bit more aggravating.

There are two parts to the software: a program running on the laptop (or smartphone, but for convenience I wrote the first version on my laptop), and a program running on the Arduino. The laptop software needed to pair with the Myo and the Arduino’s Bluetooth card, accept incoming data from the Myo, figure out how to translate those data into sex toy functions, and then send appropriate commands to the Arduino. The software on the Arduino needed to accept those commands and run the vibrator accordingly.

The Myo does a lot of on-board processing to figure out what hand gestures are being done, then sends the gesture data to the computer. It can recognize certain gestures, like making a fist, spreading your fingers apart, and tapping your thumb and forefinger together. It also sends information from the accelerometers, to report motion data.

For the first version, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to look only at hand gestures, rather than arm motion. Making a fist, I decided, would turn the vibrator off; spreading my fingers would turn it on. (I opted not to control the speed of the vibrator, even though this is fairly straightforward for the Arduino to do, just to keep things simple.) This let me ignore accelerometer data and look only at hand gestures.

The Arduino software was relatively straightforward. The Arduino Bluetooth card comes with a programming library, which, much to my dismay, failed to work right out of the box. That’s surprisingly common in the world of Arduino development, where hardware and software is often designed by small groups of dedicated enthusiasts and may or may not work as expected the first time. An hour’s worth of Googling and some trial and error let me get the Arduino Bluetooth library working, and after that, things were a lot easier. I chose a command that would mean “vibrator on” and another that would mean “vibrator off,” and wrote a simple program that would poll the Bluetooth card looking for those commands and send the appropriate signal to the Pen15 board. All in all, the Arduino side of the equation took an evening to get sorted.

The computer/Myo side was a bit more complicated. The Myo I received was one of the first to ship, and the Myo’s software development kit was a mess when it was first released. (It’s still something of a mess now.) I had considerable difficulty pairing with both the Myo and the Arduino—something that wasn’t helped by the fact that Mac development is usually done in a language called Objective-C, and my experience with Objective-C is limited. It’s mostly like C++, mostly, but there are just enough differences to trip up anyone accustomed to C++.

I finally gave up on accessing the Myo directly and opted for a shortcut. The Myo comes with software that maps Myo gestures onto the keyboard, so I decided to make things even easier by going that route. I mapped an open-hand gesture to the letter ‘a’ on the keyboard and a fist to the letter ‘z,’ and decided to write the software so that it would send a “vibrator on” signal when it saw the letter ‘a’ and send a “vibrator off” signal when it saw the letter ‘z.’ I figured once I had that working, I could get more fancy and sort out accessing the Myo directly later.

It took a good bit of time to get even that part working. The software development kit for the Arduino Bluetooth card is, if anything, in an even more sorry state than the Myo SDK. It took a lot of hair-pulling to get the sample code to work properly, and it tended to break whenever I tried to modify it.

In the end, I did finally get it to work, after a fashion. It was (and still is) quite crude: it recognizes only two Myo gestures, which it translates into “run the vibrator at full speed” and “turn the vibrator off.” The software still has a maddening habit of losing touch with the Arduino occasionally, for no reason I can discern, but it works.

The test

I decided to try out the vibrator with one of my girlfriends who was visiting from the UK, where she lives. We had just finished a whirlwind three-week camping tour of ghost towns through the Pacific Northwest, a journey I am still chronicling.

We spent her last night in Portland at a hotel near the airport, and I thought, hey, this would be an awesome time to take the new toy for a spin, and maybe even get some video of the device in action. She thought that idea sounded splendid.

Unfortunately, the software had other ideas. As often happens, somewhere between being tested on my workbench and being tried in the real world, it decided to quit working. I debugged frantically while she lay naked in bed waiting. Eventually, she fell asleep, and the opportunity was lost.

Later testing would have to wait for a more favorable time. Eventually I was able to get it working again, but the moment to use it with her had passed.

The future

The current prototype gesture-controlled sex toy is quite primitive. Put together, it looks like this:

The hardware is still clunky. I plan to rebuild it using a DF Robot Bluno, which combines the Arduino and Bluetooth on a tiny board roughly the size of a quarter.

This should make it possible to create a discreet, miniaturized sex toy that can be worn in public. I have one of these sitting on my workbench, but haven’t had a chance to play with it.

Eventually, when I’ve made more progress on the strapon the wearer can feel and I have time to return to this project, I plan to refine the software, adding accelerometer control and allowing the vibrator to be controlled more precisely—perhaps by adding patterns to the vibration. (I have visions of doing a PowerPoint presentation at a business function while one of my partners sits in the audience wearing this device, as it responds to the same gestures I’m using to control the PowerPoint slides.)

Finally, I want to compile the control software for my iPhone, so I don’t have to lug around a laptop wherever I might want to use it. I can keep the iPhone in my pocket, where it silently listens to the Myo and sends signals to the sex toy.

The possibilities of remotely operated, Bluetooth-controlled sex toys that respond to wireless sensors, controllers, and other devices has a great deal of potential, especially if you’re a mad engineer like me. There’s rich territory here, just begging to be explored by intrepid adventurers. The early Myo prototypes are, I think, merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I can hardly wait to see what else is possible!

GMohno! Part 3: “Because Monsanto”

It’s an article of faith among certain people that Monsanto, Inc, the American seed company, is inherently and intrinsically evil. And not just evil in the way that you might say any large corporation is “evil,” in that it’s an organization of people with a vested interest in the organization’s survival, but maliciously evil–deliberately and vindictively harmful to others and to society as a whole.

So pervasive is this attitude that it’s accepted even by folks who don’t have a particular problem with GM food or agricultural biotechnology.

I can’t really complain about the folks who accept this idea. I used to be one of them. For many years, my conversations about GM food took the form “I think that genetic modification is a valuable tool for feeding a world of billions, and there is not the slightest evidence whatsoever that GM foods are in any way harmful or dangerous, even though I think Monsanto is evil.”

I couldn’t really put my finger on why I thought they were evil. I just knew they were. It was an idea I’d heard so often and was so pervasive I accepted it as true. (There is a quote that runs “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” It’s often erroneously attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels, though there’s no documentation that he ever said it; the idea appears to have been around for quite a while.) I consider myself a skeptic and a rationalist, but I am still not immune to accepting things without evidence merely because I have heard them often enough.

In fact, it was during an effort to prove how evil Monsanto is that I started to realize many of the things I’d believed about the company were wrong. Someone in an online debate had challenged me to support the idea that Monsanto is an evil company, and I’m rarely one to turn away from a challenge to what I believe. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “A few minutes and a half-dozen links ought to be enough. This ought to be about as hard as proving that Moscow is a city in Russia.”

If you Google “Monsanto evil,” you’ll find a vast river of hysterical Web sites that scream Monsanto’s vileness to the heavens, usually accompanied by ridiculous and emotionally manipulative pictures like this:

But this river of Google effluent is about as persuasive as a Flat Earth Society page, and I reasoned that if I wouldn’t find the source credible myself, it would be disingenuous to try to use it to support my argument. Besides, I thought, I didn’t need to cite crap sources like that–there was plenty of legitimate support for Monsanto’s encyclopedic catalog of evil from reputable sources.

So I kept going, past the Googlerrhea of sites like NaturalNews and GMOwatch, looking for the clear and obvious evidence I knew would be there. I had heard all the standard arguments, naturally, and was quite confident they would be easy to support.

It turned out to be not so simple after all. In fact, the deeper I got, the more Monsanto’s supposed “evil” started to look like smoke and mirrors–propaganda fabricated from the flimsiest of cloth by people frightened of agricultural technology.

First, I thought Monsanto was enormous. It’s not. As corporations go, it’s actually not all that big. It’s about the same size as Whole Foods. It’s smaller than Starbucks and The Gap. It’s way smaller than UPS and 7-11. (In fact, I wrote a blog post about that last year.) As of the middle of 2014, Monsanto’s size compared to other corporations looked like this:

In fact, this graph is now out of date; as of the last quarter of 2014, Whole Foods is significantly larger in terms of revenue than Monsanto. (People who believe that little guys like Whole Foods are sticking it to the big bad megacorps like Monsanto likely don’t realize what they’re doing is merely supporting one giant megacorp over another.)

Then I read the company’s history, and learned that when people talk about things like how Monsanto made Agent Orange, they’re showing ignorance of a simple fact I also used to be ignorant of: there are, in a real sense, two Monsantos.

A Tale of Two Companies

The first Monsanto was Monsanto Chemical, a company that manufactured food additives, industrial chemicals, and plastics. This Monsanto no longer exists. In the late 1990s, it developed the drug Celebrex. Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, bought Monsanto in 2002 because they wanted to capture Celebrex, a profitable and popular drug for treating arthritis.

Pfizer is a pharmaceutical company. As a pharmaceutical company, it’s not especially interested in being in agribusiness. In 1996, Monsanto (the chemical company) had bought an agricultural company, but Pfizer didn’t want to keep the agricultural business. So after the purchase of Monsanto, Pfizer spun off the agricultural business as a new company, which kept the old name Monsanto. This new Monsanto was entirely distinct from the old: new board, new directors, new business model, new bylaws, new incorporation. In what would prove an ill-fated decision, it kept the name “Monsanto,” which Pfizer also wasn’t interested in, to avoid having to rebrand itself. Changing the name, they estimated, would cost $40 million.

Was the old Monsanto evil? A case can be made that Monsanto (the chemical company) was a ruthless competitor. But a lot of the charges levied against it by the “Monsanto is evil” crowd turn out not to be true.

Monsanto invented saccharin? Not so fast

One of the claims I’ve heard many, many times is that Monsanto invented saccharin, the artificial sweetener. This is so far from true it’s “not even wrong,” as the saying goes. Saccharin was invented in 1879 by chemist Constantin Fahlberg of Johns Hopkins University. It was first manufactured in Magdeburg, Germany. Monsanto was one of many saccharin producers until 1972, but the claim they “invented” it is absolutely false.

In fact, these days, “Monsanto invented saccharin” is a litmus test I use in conversations with anti-Monsanto activists. If someone trots out this chestnut, I know he’s a person who can’t be arsed to do even a simple Wikipedia search to support his ideas. He is the sort of person who blindly accepts anything that supports his existing beliefs, and I stop talking to him.

Monsanto and Agent Orange

This is another factoid routinely trotted out to prove Monsanto’s despicable evil. Only an evil company could invent and manufacture so foul a substance as Agent Orange, right?

Well, Monsanto didn’t invent Agent Orange. It was invented by the US Army in 1943–the notion that Monsanto created it is another of those litmus tests I use to determine whether someone is interested in doing even the most rudimentary fact-checking or not.

During the Vietnam War, Monsanto wasn’t even the main contractor that manufactured Agent Orange–that dubious honor belongs to Dow. Monsanto was one of many overflow suppliers the government used when Dow couldn’t make it fast enough; the others included Uniroyal (the tire manufacturer), Thompson-Hayward Chemicals (now Harcros Chemical Co), Hercules (now Ashland Inc), the Diamond Shamrock Corporation (now Valero Energy Corporation), and Thomson Chemical Company.

It’s interesting that folks will tell you “Monsanto is evil because Agent Orange,” but not “don’t buy tires from Uniroyal; they’re evil because Agent Orange.” It is, sadly, a truism that we will use an argument to support a position we already believe even when that argument applies equally well to a premise we aren’t invested in.

Monsanto and glyphosate

The notion that glyphosate is bad is accepted as self-evident by many folks who oppose GMOs, and I’ve often heard a circular argument used in discussions about glyphosate resistance: Monsanto is evil because they make glyphosate, and glyphosate is evil because it’s made by Monsanto.

Monsanto (the chemical company) was only incidentally interested in agribusiness. Monsanto (the chemical company) developed the herbicide glyphosate in 1970. The patent on glyphosate expired in 2000, two years before Pfizer bought Monsanto (the chemical company). Pfizer wasn’t interested in making herbicides, so Monsanto (the seed company) kept the glyphosate business. They still make glyphosate today, but they’re not a huge manufacturer–because the patent has expired, most glyphosate manufacture these days is by other companies in China.

Old Monsanto aside, the new Monsanto is still evil!

So what about Monsanto (the seed company)? I keep reading tons of stories about how evil it is, but when I go to validate those stories, they tend to turn out not to be true.

A lot of folks fear GMOs, for the same reasons a lot of folks fear vaccines–there’s a lot of bad info out there. Some of it (like “GMOs aren’t tested” or “GMOs cause cancer”) is demonstrably false.

Monsanto gets a lot of its bad reputation on the basis that it makes GMOs and people are frightened of GMOs. A lot of other companies also make GMOs, but Monsanto is singled out for special hate, even though it’s not the biggest company in the GMO business (Syngenta, for instance, is bigger).

Another common argument on the “Monsanto is evil” side of the fence is that Monsanto patents seeds. If a corporation can control our seeds they can control our food! That’s clearly evil, right?

I touched on plant patents briefly in part 1 of this series. A lot of folks don’t understand plant patents, but many foods–including organic and conventional produce–is patented. (Yes, you read that right. The 100% organic, all-natural kale you buy at Whole Foods is patented.) Any kind of new seedline–whether GMO, hybrid, conventional, or organic, can be patented. The first plant patents in the world were issued in the 1800s; the first plant patents in the United States were issued in the 1930s…long before GM technology existed.

And not all GM food is patented.

If you want to argue that patenting plants is a bad idea, by all means, make your argument. But don’t get confused. That argument has nothing to do with Monsanto and nothing to do with GM food.

Saving Seeds and Monsanto Lawsuits

Once you get through the clearly false claims about saccharin and Agent Orange and patents, you start encountering the second wave of arguments for Monsanto’s evil evilness of evil, which usually ride into battle under one of two banners: “Monsanto doesn’t let farmers save seeds!” and “Monsanto sues farmers for accidental contamination!”

Here is where I believed I would find some real meat–some genuine, clear-cut evidence that Monsanto is bad news.

That evidence turned out to be a mirage–I saw it glittering on the horizon, but when I got close, there was nothing there but sand.

Now, it is true that farmers can’t save seeds from patented crops. This isn’t a GM issue; farmers also can’t save seeds from patented organic or conventional crops either. They also can’t save seeds from hybrid crops (seeds from hybrid crops don’t tend to breed the desired traits reliably, as I talked about in part 1). But I grew up in a farm town, and I’ve never met a farmer who wants to save seeds. It’s bad for business. Seeds are one of the cheapest parts of running a farm. Farmers who save seeds have to dry, process, and store them. Farmers who buy seeds get a guarantee that the seeds will grow; if they don’t, the seed company will pay them.

As for the idea that Monsanto is evil because they sue farmers for accidental contamination of their fields. I looked, but I couldn’t find any court cases of this. I did find court cases where farmers denied stealing seeds and said it must be contamination, but in all those cases, a jury or the court found they were lying. (Protip: If someone inspects your field and 98% of the plants growing on it are a patented variety, that’s not accidental contamination.)

Monsanto neonicotinoid GMO dead bees!

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about GM plants. And, unfortunately, that confusion tends to lead to a lot of conflation about entirely unrelated issues.

One complaint I’ve heard many times, including in the comments on an earlier part of this series, is Monsanto is evil because their GMO seeds are coated in neonicotinoid insecticides that kill bees.

It’s hard, at first glance, to tell where to begin to untangle this snarl, because it confuses entirely unrelated things into a tangled mess of misinformation and error.

I mean, yes, neonics might be harmful to bees, possibly, but…er, um…

…that technology was developed by Bayer, not Monsanto.

And it has nothing to do with GMOs. Neonics are insecticides, not herbicides. They are not poisonous to plants; you don’t need to engineer plants to resist them. (In fact, they are derived from nicotine, a natural insecticide made by plants. The name “neonicotinoid” literally means “new nicotine.”) Neonicotinoids are seed coatings–they’re applied to seeds after the seeds are collected, not produced by the seeds themselves.

Of course, all this information is irrelevant in the face of the final, last-ditch argument put forward by Monsanto’s detractors…

It’s all a conspiracy, man

The conspiracy theory is the final sanctuary of the person with no arguments. It’s an attempt to discredit an argument without looking at the argument directly, and also poison the well, by claiming that anyone who supports the dies of some debate you don’t support is in league with a sinister and all-encompassing evil.

I’ve received emails–many emails–from my blog posts about GM foods, asking me how much money Monsanto is paying me to write them.

The idea Monsanto has paid off all the world’s scientists to engage in a vast conspiracy to say GMOs are safe when they’re really not is so absurd as to be farcical. Look, ExxonMobil is enormous compared to Monsanto, and with their vast piles of money they can’t pay off all the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing! If ExxonMobil can’t afford to pay off scientists, how can a company that makes less money than Whole Foods?

So after looking into it, I was forced to change my mind and conclude that Monsanto (the seed company) isn’t particularly evil, at least not in a way that other corporations aren’t. ConAgra might be more evil, if you look at biotech companies. But Monsanto (the seed company)? Not so much.

Now if you’ll excise me, I’m off to buy another Lamborghini with the shill bucks Monsanto just paid me.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

GMohno! Part 2: Food safety

It’s much too early in the morning. You stumble blearily out of bed and put on the hot water for a nice cup of tea, or perhaps flip on the percolator to brew some coffee. Unfortunately, your morning beverage is laced with a poisonous chemical that keeps the crop from being eaten by insects–an insecticide that is toxic not only to bugs, but to humans too.

You go out to lunch. The server recommends the rainbow salad, which unknown to you, also contains a number of insect-killing chemicals. Your workmate from across the hall–you know, the one who always plays the stereo too loud and makes that weird snorting sound when he laughs–skips the salad in favor of a nice, healthy ginger tofu with peanut sauce. Sounds healthy? It, too, contains pesticide chemicals, even though there’s a little “organic” sticker on the menu right next to it.

Sound scary? We’ll come back to that in a bit.

One of the objections that people have about GM food is the idea that it’s intrinsically less healthy than normal or organic food. Fears about health and food safety are sometimes hysterical, as when Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa banned all GM food imports and destroyed donated food over GM fears in 2002, even though his country was facing a famine and millions were at risk of starvation, and sometimes more muted, as when people try to link GM food to cancer.

Food safety is absolutely a legitimate and valid concern. Imagine, for instance, what people might reasonably say if a strain of genetically modified zucchini were linked to widespread cases of illness. In our hypothetical example, if it were shown that something intrinsic to the zucchini–not an insecticide or herbicide the zucchini had been modified to resist, but a compound actually produced by this strain of zucchini itself–sickened people, we might expect that folks would voice some concerns about the safety of genetic modification.

And that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

This hypothetical case isn’t actually hypothetical. In 2003, a number of people in New Zealand were hospitalized by an outbreak of food poisoning linked to zucchini. Environmentalists jumped on the story, quick to point out the dangers of untested genetic engineering of food.

Problem was, it turned out the zucchini in question wasn’t genetically modified. In fact, it was organic–a fact that quickly caused the environmental groups to fall silent.

Plants are complex factories that produce staggering numbers of chemicals. Because plants can’t run away from hungry insects, they have evolved a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons designed to kill insects that try to feed on them.

In 2003, New Zealand experienced a severe aphid infestation. Conventional farmers who controlled the bugs with synthetic pesticides grew crops that were unaffected by the infestation. Organic growers, however, didn’t deal effectively with the aphids. The organic zucchini that survived the infestation produced large quantities of cucurbitacin, a toxic chemical zucchinis and other plants (like pumpkins and gourds) use to defend themselves from pests. The organic zucchini with elevated levels of cucurbitacin contained so much of the chemical it was toxic to humans as well, hospitalizing people who ate it.

Something similar happened in the 1960s. Farmers using conventional breeding techniques bred the Lenape potato, cultivated to fry without burning and make perfect potato chips. Unfortunately, potatoes belong to the same family as deadly nightshade, and like nightshade, they are toxic. Potatoes produce a glycoalkaloid poison called solanine, which is extremely toxic to humans–quantities as small as 3 mg per kg of body weight can be fatal. (That’s crazy poisonous, by the way.)

All potatoes produce this toxin. The potato root contains solanine, but not usually enough of it to cause health problems–it’s the dose that makes the poison, after all. But the Lenape potato had elevated levels of solanine–enough to sicken people who ate it.

And it wasn’t GMO. It was an ordinary hybrid bred through conventional agriculture.

So, back to the beginning of this post. When you drink tea or coffee, you are consuming a toxic chemical that belongs to a class of chemicals called cyclic alkaloids. This toxin, evolved as a defense against marauding insects, is a neurotoxin called 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine, or more commonly, “caffeine.”

And your lunch? The peppers in it contain capsaicin, a toxin that gives peppers their characteristic burning (and are also linked to cancer in animal studies). Such compounds exist all over nature–the wonderful aromatic smell of ginger, the sulfur compounds that flavor onions and leeks (and also make your eyes burn when you chop them)–all toxic chemicals that exist for their pesticide properties.

People who object to GMOs on food safety grounds tend to ignore the fact that any food potentially carries risks. Proponents of GMOs do not claim that GM food is always absolutely safe under all conditions; such a claim would be very silly indeed. GM food simply isn’t inherently any more dangerous than organic or conventional agriculture, that’s all. (In fact, if you judge strictly by cases of food recalls and documented foodborne illnesses, organic food is arguably the most dangerous of all broad classifications of food; it’s disproportionately represented in FDA food recalls for potentially health-threatening contamination, for example.)

One of the many organic foods recalled in the last 60 days because of potentially life-threatening contamination.

What makes GM food so much more frightening than other food, even when we know other types of food are more prone to dangerous contamination?

A lot of it is the same kind of fear that makes flying seem more scary than driving, even though the reality is exactly the opposite. We feel more familiar with driving. We feel more in control. Few people understand basic biology; fewer still understand agricultural science. Scientists overwhelmingly believe GM food is safe; laypeople don’t. Indeed, ignorance of basic science is so common in the US that many people don’t know what DNA is, and at least one poll has suggested that there are large numbers of folks who think that genes are only found in genetically modified food!

That ignorance leads to a common cognitive error called the appeal to nature–the notion that genetically modified food is “unnatural” and therefore intrinsically worse than organic or conventional food, which is more “natural.”

This cognitive error is inevitably on parade in almost any argument against GM food:

Not all objections are quite that uninformed, of course. Of the arguments that don’t boil down to “unnatural=bad, natural=good,” many of the health concerns about GMOs center around two things:

1. Concerns about pesticides such as glyphosate; and
2. Concerns about allergens.

A great deal of noisy press has been generated by the WHO’s classification of glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic.” This classification is based on a study that shows that people who handle large amounts of glyphosate, a key ingredient in Roundup, might be at greater risk of a form of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Strangely, the same study showed such people to be at lower risk of many other forms of cancer. Here’s the experimental data:

So what should we make of this? That Roundup causes some cancer and cures other cancer?

It’s not that simple. there’s a good writeup over here, but the TL;DR version is: The data make no attempt to control for confounding factors. These are “case control” studies (studies that compare people who have cancer with people who don’t, and look for differences between the groups) rather than “cohort” studies (studies that track people for long periods of time, note and isolate potential risk factors, and then observe the relative incidence of cancer).

Another issue is that food isn’t like, say cigarettes. We can eliminate cigarettes; I’ve never smoked in my life. We can not, however, stop eating. So we can’t look at an isolated risk factor for some kind of food production technique without comparing it to the risk of other food production techniques, because we all have to eat!

And when we do that, we discover that there’s not only no increased risk with GMO food, but in fact organic and conventional agriculture often uses more dangerous chemicals and more risky growing techniques. As I noted in Part 0 of this series, for instance, many people wrongly think that organic food is grown without pesticides. In fact, organic food is grown with pesticides, and those pesticides are often more toxic than synthetic pesticides.

One pesticide used by organic farmers is rotenone. It’s strongly linked to Parkinson’s disease, and its use is banned in California. It should be noted that the same WHO body that classified glyphosate as a possible carcinogen also classifies rotenone as a moderate toxin–a more severe classification than glyphosate. In 2006, the FDA revoked approval for use of rotenone on food. In 2007, under lobbying pressure from organic growers, the FDA allowed use of rotenone as a pesticide in food production. Rotenone and other “natural” pesticides are often found in high concentrations in organic foods, especially organic olives and olive oil.

There’s something really interesting going on here. If the FDA had revoked permission to use a synthetic herbicide like glyphosate, then reversed direction under lobbying from Monsanto a year later, it’s quite likely that anti-GMO activists would be quite upset and vocal about it. Strangely, they’re silent about it when it’s an “organic” pesticide, even though it’s linked to human health hazards and residues are found in organic foods.

This is similar to the lack of reaction when organic zucchini were found to be hospitalizing people, even while environmentalists made quite a lot of noise when they wrongly believed the zucchini in question was genetically modified.

To my mind, this demonstrates conclusively that it’s not evidence of harm that’s the motivating factor in resistance to GMOs. Opponents aren’t motivated by analysis of evidence; they ignore things that apply to conventional or organic agriculture that they use as arguments to oppose GMOs. So the arguments themselves are validations, but aren’t the real reason for the opposition.

The other argument often used against GMOs is the allergy argument. GMOs are genetically modified to express proteins that aren’t found in the unmodified plant, the reasoning goes. Novel proteins in plants can potentially be allergens. Therefore, GMOs might provoke dangerous allergic responses.

It’s a legitimate concern, and contrary to common isperception, GM food is rigorously screened for potential allergens and development is discontinued if a new allergen is discovered. While any food can potentially cause an allergic response, novel allergens are taken very seriously by agricultural researchers.

Organic and conventional agriculture is not screened for potential new allergens. The development of hybrids and the use of mutagenesis, both of which are common in conventional agricultures, certainly can create novel proteins and novel allergens–yet only GM food is tested, conventional and organic food is not.

But the assumption that a GM food must contain some new protein, like the assumption that GMOs are any foods that contain DNA from a different species, is based on a profound misunderstanding of what a GMO is.

Some GMOs contain nothing new, either from another species or from anywhere else. The Arctic apple, for instance, is an example of a GMO made by turning off an existing gene, rather than adding a new gene.

Arctic apples are a breed of apples that don’t turn brown when they’re cut. There’s a natural breed of grapes called Sultana grapes, which are used to make golden raisins. These grapes don’t oxidize on exposure to air. Researchers noticed they had a natural mutation that silenced a gene–one of the same genes that Apples have. So, they reasoned, switching off that same gene in an apple might cause the apple not to turn brown. And they were correct.

The tearless onion is another example of a gene-silenced modification. Onions naturally produce various sulfur compounds to poison insects. One of these creates sulphuric acid–battery acid–on contact with water. When you cut an onion, this chemical is released into the air; when it comes in contact with your eyes or nose, it produces acid, which results in the pain and tears you feel. No-tear onions have the gene that produces this chemical turned off. It’s difficult to understand the objection to this kind of genetic modification. There’s no rational mechanism for harm caused by turning a gene off.

The fact is, we’ve now been eating GM food for a very long time, with no evidence whatsoever of harm. Proposed mechanisms of harm that aren’t based on the appeal to nature are similar, and in some cases greater, than organic and conventional agriculture, yet GMOs are singled out for special fear. That fear is difficult to overcome, because you can’t reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into.

Note: This blog post is part of a series.
Part 0 is here.
Part 0.5 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.

#WLAMF no. 25: Nature is horrifying!

The balance of nature. This is a thing that people talk about, and every time they do, I cringe.

Wikipedia has an entry on the balance of nature, which has this (among other things) to say on the subject:

The theory that nature is permanently in balance has been largely discredited, as it has been found that chaotic changes in population levels are common, but nevertheless the idea continues to be popular.[1] During the later half of the twentieth century the theory was superseded by catastrophe theory and chaos theory.

In part 0.5 of my series on GMOs, which I’ll return to when the current madness is over, I talk about how one of the greatest predictors of whether a person is opposed to GMOs is whether that person sees nature as a gentle, benevolent force that exists in “harmony” and “balance.”

It’s easy for us, as humans with really short lifespans, to imagine there’s a “balance” to nature. If the number of predators in some place grows too large, they eat all the prey, and then they starve, and the number of predators falls, right? That lets the prey population rebound, and balance is restored. Balance! Harmony!

Except that it’s a load of rubbish. It sometimes (sometimes!) works that way in the short run, but in the long run, what looks like “balance” is more often two or more opposing sides that have reached an exhausted stalemate. A change in climate, a change in parasites, disease, a new adaptation, and that “balance” goes out the window. Catastrophes happen. Species go extinct, and are replaced with new species. There are no dinosaurs any more, or creodonts, or many other organisms. They didn’t disappear because humans upset the “balance of nature.” They disappeared because there is no “balance of nature.” Nature is neither kind nor benevolent; it’s only our privileged position at the apex of a very large and very bloody food chain that allows us to imagine otherwise.

Nature is, in point of fact, ruthless and amoral. Any adaptation that gives a species (or a population within a species) an upper hand tends to be propagated through nature.

And sometimes, the results are horrifying. I don’t mean just in the “species go extinct” kind of way; the adaptations that succeed are themselves often horrifying.

Exhibit 1 for the prosecution: Male Llamas Bite Off Each Other’s Genitalia.

See the teeth on the end? The canine and incisor? Those are fighting teeth. You know what they’re adapted for? Castrating other llamas. Why? Because if you have genes that code for teeth to castrate other males and the temperament to do so, you’re going to spread those genes pretty effectively, and before long, your whole species is full of individuals with a head for castrating each other and the tools to do it.

But wait! It gets worse! The anglerfish is even more horrifying.

This is a male anglerfish. It’s a little tiny blob of a thing, scarcely able to swim. When it finds a female, it bites her, whereupon she…absorbs it. She dissolves it, literally, until nothing is left but a pair of testicles, which remain glued to her body. She extracts the sperm from them and stores it for when she wants to reproduce.

Why? How could such a horrifying thing come to be? Because it works, and nature is amoral. Whatever works, works.

You might think that’s the bottom of nature’s basement of horrors, but you’s be wrong. Let’s talk about bedbugs, and a reproductive strategy called “traumatic insemination.”

Image: Rickard Ignell, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Traumatic insemination occurs when the male stabs the female and deposits his sperm directly into her body. If she survives, some of the sperm eventually reaches her ovaries. It’s the only way bedbugs mate. Why? Because nature is horrifying.

There is no harmony or balance of nature; those things are human constructs. What there is is unceasing warfare, constant change, and traumatic insemination. We’re very fortunate, you and I, to be born into a position that allows us to delude ourselves about the nature of mother nature.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015.

#WLAMF no. 16: Lego brains

The brain is a fiendishly complicated thing. Not so much because all its constituent parts are complicated (though they can be), but because it’s a network of billions of components wired together with trillions of connections. Well, at least your brain is.

There are other brains that are a lot simpler. When I was taking classes in neurobiology, back in my misspent college days, we used to talk a lot about the species of worm called C. elegans.

Back then, researchers were just beginning to map its brain. The brains of C. elegans are isomorphic, meaning they’re all the same. (That’s not true of more sophisticated animals; our brains grow organically, with neurons wiring up to other neurons in a dynamic process that means even identical twins don’t have the same brains.) They’re small (about 300 neurons, and around 7,000 connections.) They’re easy to understand, at least for folks who find neurobiology “easy.”

And now they’ve been replicated in a Lego scooter that, well…behaves a lot like C. elegans without being explicitly programmed to. The robot has no pre-programmed behaviors; it acts like a roundworm because, in a sense, it has the brain of a roundworm.

And I think that’s really cool.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977

#WLAMF no. 14: Big Science Happens Here

On the plains of New Mexico, there is a road. This road stretches for miles across empty desert. If you drive far enough on this road, eventually after you’ve passed miles of scrubbrush and have begun to imagine that all the people you’ve ever known have never really existed but are only the products of your own hallucinogenic dreams, you will see an enormous radio dish on the horizon. And then another, and another.

You’re not actually close to the Very Large Array yet; there is still a lot of driving ahead of you.

But if you’re up to the challenge, and if you’re patient and persistent, and if you don’t break an axle on the narrow and badly-maintained road, eventually you will come to a place where there are a lot of very smart people who are very dedicated to understanding the physical world.

This is the Very Large Array. It is a collection of radio telescopes that looks into the universe in a wide range of frequencies, frequencies our limited vision is altogether insufficient for. Its purpose? To understand the universe we live in.

Eve and I stopped here on our trip around the Southwest. She knows someone fortunate enough to work here, and we were invited for a tour.

It’s not what I expected. Big Science is never quite as…clean and tidy as Hollywood would have you believe. Big Science often means Big Engineering, and Big Engineering is all about getting things done.

These dishes can act individually, but usually they’re part of a collective whole, gathering and amplifying incredibly faint signals from very far away places. The entire array is, in a sense, a single instrument, and that instrument can be reconfigured to observe radio waves in all kinds of frequencies.

But the best way to align a set of dishes changes according to the frequenceis they’re observing, and that means these antennas move. I don’t mean they move as in rotate to sweep the sky, though they do do that as well. I mean move as in grow farther from each other or closer to each other, as the observations require.

They are huge, and moving huge things means big machinery. Each antenna sits on a pad, and each pad is next to a set of railroad tracks. Those railroad tracks are the roadways for enormous tenders, which literally pick up the antennas and carry them from place to place.

To save room, the train tracks don’t curve. They intersect at 90-degree angles. To make a turn, the tender sets down an enormous hydraulic ram, lifts itself and the antenna completely off the ground, spins around on its own axis, and settles itself back down on the track again.

We were fortunate enough to be able to climb one of the antennas, for a value of “fortunate enough” that means “allowed to take a harrowing climb up a creaking, swaying steel staircase onto the surface of a tremendous and steeply-angled dish made of surprisingly thin sheet metal that’s way, way higher off the ground than you think it is.” Those afraid of heights, falling, ladders, stairs, or swaying back and forth while a long way from the ground need not apply.

I am not afraid of any of these things, and climbing onto the dish was only a little short of terrifying.

Big Science happens here. This is the sort of place where we as human beings learn more about this world we are so uniquely blessed, for a short time, to exist in. There is no more noble nor essentially human quest than the quest for understanding, and places like this are where that happens.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977

#WLAMF no. 9: Fusion

A lot of the world’s social, economic, and resource problems are, when you come down to it, power problems. I don’t mean political power; I mean energy. Electricity.

Take fresh water, for instance. Three-quarters of the planet’s surface is covered by the stuff, yet much of the world doesn’t have reliable access to safe, clean water. 780 million people don’t have regular access to clean water. Nearly four million people die a year from water-bourne illness.

If we had unlimited quantities of cheap, clean energy, water would stop being a problem overnight. It’s easy to desalinate seawater…easy, but not cheap. The process requires enormous inputs of energy, and energy is expensive.

The holy grail of energy is, and has always been, fusion power. Fusion power offers vast quantities of energy from seawater…if we can make it work. And we’ve been chasing it for a while, though never with any serious determination; the world’s annual budget for fusion research is about 1/18th the annual revenue of the National Football League. (In the US, the annual budget for fusion research is less than what the Government Accountability Office spends on paperwork.) Fusion power promises one-stop shopping for reversing global carbon emissions, improving access to fresh water all over the world, raising the standard of living for developing nations, moving toward non-polluting transportation…

…if we can make it work.

It’s been a long road. A lot of engineers thought we’d have the problem licked by the mid-1960s. Here we are in 2014, and it’s only been in the last two years that teams at MIT and Lawrence Livermore have actually made fusion reactors that produce net positive energy…for short periods of time. It’s a very, very difficult nut to crack.

Enter Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin recently announced that their Skunkworks team has been quietly, and secretly, working on fusion power for a while. And they claim to be within 5 years of an operating prototype of a compact fusion reactor.

Now, I am of two minds about this.


– It’s the fucking Lockheed Martin fucking Skunkworks. These are not a bunch of cranks, kooks, or pie-in-the-sky dreamers. These guys built the SR-71 in the early 1960s, and the F-117 Stealth fighter back when the Radio Shack TRS-80 was the state of the art for personal computers.
– Lockheed doesn’t seem the kind of company to stake their reputation on a claim unless they’re really, really sure.
– They’re exploring deuterium-tritium fusion, which is a lot easier than ordinary hydrogen-hydrogen fusion of the sort that happens in the sun.
– Did I mention it’s the fucking Lockheed Martin fucking Skunkworks? They have money, engineering expertise, and problem-solving experience by the metric ton. They are accustomed to solving hard engineering problems 20 years before anyone else in the world even knows they can be solved.


– Fusion is hard. The pursuit of fusion has left a lot of broken dreams in its wake.
– The design they propose encloses a set of superconducting magnets inside the fusion chamber. That’s clever, and solves a lot of problems with magnetic containment, but superconducting magnets are fragile things and the inside of a fusion chamber is as close as we can get to hell on earth.
– Fusion creates fast neutrons. Those fast neutrons tend to run into stuff and knock it all out of whack. Solving the problem of the reactor vessel degrading under intense neutron flux is non-trivial; in fact, that’s one of the key objectives of the multibillion-dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being built by a consortium of countries in France.

Fusion power, if we can make it work, would likely (and without hyperbole) be one of the most significant achievements of the human race. It could and very likely would have farther-reaching impacts than the development of agriculture or the invention of iron, and would improve the standard of living for billions of people to a greater extent than any other single invention.

For that reason alone, I think it’s worth pursuing. I’d like to see it better funded…say, maybe even on the same scale as the NFL. I’m not sure of Lockheed can deliver what they’re promising, but I am very, very happy they’re in the race.

I’m writing one blog post for every contribution to our crowdfunding we receive between now and the end of the campaign. Help support indie publishing! We’re publishing five new books on polyamory in 2015: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/thorntree-press-three-new-polyamory-books-in-2015/x/1603977