Science is hard

I have two sweeties in school right now pursuing postgraduate degrees related in some way to neuroscience, brain mapping, or brain modeling.

Brain mapping is hard. Really, really, really hard.

It’s not just that there’s a lot of neurons in the brain (though there are–about 100 billion1 or so). It’s not just that they’re wired together in beastly complicated ways, though that, too, is true.

It’s that “beastly complicated” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

This is a drawing of a type of brain cell called a Purkinje cell, taken from a 1918 copy of Gray’s Anatomy. 1918! We’ve known about these things for a long time:

There are a lot of these in your brain, mostly in your voluntary motor control areas. A single Purkinje cell has one axon, which is basically a nerve cell’s output, and as many as 200,000 dendrites, which are basically a nerve cell’s input. Purkinje cells regulate motor control, primarily by inhibiting other neurons from firing. All your motor control is mediated by these brain cells. They’re also hooked into “climbing fibers,” axons from other neurons which pass from the center parts of your brain outward.

At rest, these guys fire regularly, sending inhibitory signals to neurons deeper down. When activated, they fire much more rapidly, more strongly inhibiting downstream neurons. All well and good, but…

…a single Purkinje cell can have two hundred thousand inputs. Read that again so that the pure horror has time to sink in. A single Purkinje cell can have two hundred thousand inputs.

So, if you were to, say, want to map a person’s brain, that would basically mean recording each brain cell and a list of all the other brain cells it links to. If you had 100 brain cells and each one could link to one other cell, you’d have, potentially, 100 links to record. If you had 100 brain cells and each one could link to 10 other cells, you’d have 100 times 10, or 1,000, links to record. If you had 100 brain cells and each could link to 20 other cells, you’d have 100 times 20 links to record. Makes sense, right?

And if you have 100 billion cells, and each cell can link to 200,000 other cells, you have 100,000,000,000 times 200,000 links to record.

This is a really, really, really big number. This is the kind of number that’s within the same order of magnitude as the number of grains of sand on the entire freaking planet. Imagine tagging, isolating, and recording the relative position of every freaking grain of sand on the entire freaking planet and you’ll start to gain an appreciation of the magnitude of the challenge involved in mapping a human brain.

Even your own DNA doesn’t record this information–it can’t. If you were to dedicate the entire information storage capacity of the entire human genome just to mapping the connections between all your brain cells, you’d fall short by several orders of magnitude. The process of building a brain is dynamic; your DNA only describes the gross physical structure, and then as your brain forms it wires itself up more or less randomly2. That’s why it takes such a long time to make a human brain–a process that isn’t really finished ’til you’re out of puberty3.

Which is very depressing, when you consider just how valuable that model will be. And makes my sweeties all the more amazing, I think.

1 American billion (1×109), not British billion (1×1012).

2 Well, not really randomly,, but not deterministically according to a blueprint either. Each nerve cell sends out dendrites, which hook up with whatever nearby nerve cells they happen to hook up with–a neuron that fails to hook up to any other neurons typically dies. The direction and number of dendrites are determined, in general ways, by your genes, but the specific connections that get made are not. And these connections remain dynamic throughout your entire life; long term memory, for example, appears to be encoded in patterns of connections.

3 Interestingly, most of the late-stage development, that takes place during and just after puberty, is inhibitory. Kinda explains a lot, doncha think?


“If there is someone on your friends list you would like to take, strip naked with, let them tie you to a bed post, have them lick you until you scream, then fuck until both of you are senseless and unable to fuck anymore, then wait about five minutes and do it all over again, post this exact sentence in your journal.”

Several people, actually. Some of whom I have done these things with, and some of whom I haven’t. A couple of the folks on my friends list I’d like to do this with might not even know I’d like to do it with them, in fact…I’m devious and canny like that.

And with one or two of ’em, after I’m done…the washer for you!!!

Another day, another massive Web hack by the Zlob gang

I blame the_xtina for the fact that I discovered this evening what appears to be a large, coordinated, and widespread attack on multiple Web hosting providers.

I hadn’t actually intended to do any computer security stuff today; my plans for the evening involved playing WoW. the_xtina speculated during an IM conversation this evening about the existence of Viking porn, so naturally I did a Google search, and got rather more than I expected.

A Google search for “viking porn” turns up a few hits with a Google “this site may harm your computer” tag. Both of the first two I looked at–because I can’t stay away from the “this site may harm your computer” tag–had a couple of interesting things in common: they were hosted on iPower Web, the notoriously insecure Web host I’ve written about on several occasions in the past; both had malicious redirection files in a directory named /backup/, both used a complex series of traffic redirectors before ending up at the malware site proper, and both were heavily seeded throughout Google using a very large number of popular pornographic and non-pornographic keywords.

In other words, all the hallmarks of the Russian Zlob gang. God, how I hate those people.

I widened the Google search using both common keywords (like “porn”) and keywords I know the Zlob gang favors, and specifying inurl:/backup/ as part of the search.

What I ended up with was a VERY long list of compromised Web sites, each with a directory named /backup/ containing large numbers of files stuffed full of keywords and each of which redirects through a series of redirectors to a site that attempts a drive-by malware download.

Click here for more technical details (down the rabbit hole we go!)

Some more thoughts about sex toys, with a bit about dishwashers

Okay, let me start by saying that guys don’t get nearly enough credit.

Seriously. When it comes to sex, we really don’t get the props. It’s surprisingly hard work propping yourself up and doing the grunt-n-thrust, and any woman who’s ever tried a strap-on for the first time will probably discover muscle aches in muscles she didn’t know she had.

Now, I’m a big fan of strap-on sex. Receiving or watching (hey, I am a guy; watching two–or more!–girls get it on never gets old. I swear it’s genetic.) And, fortunately, I’ve been graced with a number of partners who dig strap-on play too. The biggest problem, at least from a strictly physical perspective, is that it’s generally not as much fun for the giver as it is for the receiver, which is why this thing exists:

This is the Tantus Feeldoe. If it doesn’t look like an ordinary dildo, that’s because it’s not. It’s the Ferrari-frikkin’-Formula-One race car of dildos. This thing has a patent on it, and seriously, who patents a dildo?

The “strapons are more fun to receive than to give” engineering challenge has been tackled before, of course. The old-fashioned double-ender was an early attempt to design around this problem, and today modern science has given us other specialized strap-ons that try to work the same way (like the Nexus and the Share, or if you’re a mutant extra-terrestrial creature whose ideas of Earthly delights come from watching tentacle hentai beamed into space from Japanese network television, and perhaps had had a female vagina described to you but had never seen one up close, the Tango), but none are as successful as the Feeldoe, at least from the point of view of your humble recipient.

The Feeldoe comes in four sizes, which Tantus calls “Slim,” “Original,” “Stout,” and “More.” People who use them for girl-on-girl vaginal fun might call them “small(ish),” “medium,” “large(ish),” and “large;” for teh mad analz, they might more reasonably be described as “big,” “really big,” “really really big,” and “holy mother of God!” They’re conveniently color-coded, so you can avoid those awkward after-sex “are you sure that was the size you intended to use?” conversations.

And did I mention they vibrate? Seriously. There’s a cunning little slot in the base for a small but remarkably powerful little vibrating device.

Plus, silicone! You can wash it in the dishwasher! I don’t actually know anyone who washes silicone sex toys in the dishwasher, but everything I’ve ever read about silicone always mentions that you can, so…you can wash it in the dishwasher! I don’t recommend it if your mother or your aunt Mildred lives within easy driving distance and has the habit of popping over without warning; “Hey, Mildred! Come look at what I found in the dishwasher! It’s…it looks like…Oh my God!” But you can. If, y’know, that appeals to you. Or you have a dishwasher fetish. Or something.

So, yeah. Good for the giver as well as the receiver; that’s the general engineering notion here. There is actually a downside (and I don’t just mean with the “Holy mother of God!” model) and that’s the fact that it isn’t a strap-on for beginners.

Any hands-free, harness-free design, no matter how clever, takes some work to learn how to use, which is probably another of those places where we guys really don’t get near enough credit. Granted, you can use this dildo with a harness; you get one of the harnesses that uses rings to hold the dildo in place, you take out the panel behind the ring, you put on the dildo, you put the harness on over it, and it ain’t goin’ nowhere, so you end up with the best of a harness design and the “oh my God it gets me off to give it to you!” benefits of the hands-free design, and that’s all well and good.

Gets a bit spendy, though. This toy won’t be the cheapest thing on your shelf to begin with (though I happen to believe it’s more than worth the cost), and a high-quality harness is going to double the price, so it…

Well, now that I think about it, it’s like anything else. Spend the money to do it the easy way or spend the time to learn how to do it the hard way, I suppose.

As for the rest, it’s pretty much what you expect from a well-designed sex toy. Yes, awesome G-spot stimulation (for both the giver and, if the receiver is a woman, the receiver). Yes, Incredible, mind-blowing orgasms, of the kind apt if they are not well-regulated, to have you waking up some hours later with a chunk of missing time and a “what the hell just happened?” expression. The state of sex toy design being what it is, these should be baseline givens in any good toy, and the Feeldoe meets those expectations admirably.

And it has a bit of that “mad scientist’s lair” look to it. I’m always partial to things that look at home in a mad scientist’s lair.

I have two of these, in the “big” and “really really big” sizes. If you prefer the “holy mother of God!” size, then you’re a far better man, or woman, than I.

Rural Decay

If you drive along Interstate 80 through Nebraska, you’ll see a lot of wheat fields, a lot of corn fields, and very little else.

If you keep at it, and drive until you feel the endless flat landscape pressing against your sanity like Nyarlathotep descending on a tasty morsel of virgin consciousness, you’ll reach exit 382.

There’s nothing there, really. A golf cart store, a gas station, a sign advertising an inn that’s been closed for years…that’s about it. There is also, just to the north of the interstate and a little more than a quarter of a mile from the exit, the ruins of a tiny wooden church, collapsing into decay.

The church itself is here:

When we drove past the church, I had no choice but to stop and photograph it. The ruins are beautiful beyond all comprehension. It’s a pretty hard slog from the exit, through thick brush, and a barbed-wire fence along the interstate prevented me from getting behind it. Plus, I got ticks while getting these pictures. Ticks! *shudders*

Some of these pictures would make awesome posters.

Clicky here for more!

High Weirdness of the Week: Lawson’s Vaginal Washer

From the depths of Victorian sexual prudery comes this device, the Lawson’s Vaginal Washer, designed to clean the inside of one’s vagina by means of a perforated water-spraying tube surrounded by–and I shudder to say this–rotating squeegee scrapers.

I can think of about a dozen uses for this in a BDSM context right off the top of my head. Just over half of them involve joreth. That brings two questions to mind:

1. Anyone know some person in the Portland/Seattle area with the necessary craft skills to build one of these?


2. Hey joreth, when are you coming to visit?