spooky stuff

Lord only knows I’ve talked plenty of shit about the not funny comedian turned not funny but actually astonishingly reasonable US Senator Al Franken, and I’m probably not done. But credit where credit is due – the guy can draw one hell of a map of the United States from memory. Which doesn’t really sound that impressive, until you see it happen and realize there is no fucking way you could do it. Observe:

Dr. Henry Markram of Switzerland’s Brain Science Institute has suggested that we could see the first fully functioning computer model of a human brain in as little as 10 years. “I absolutely believe it is technically and biologically possible. The only uncertainty is financial,” said Markram.

If Markram is right, we could be just a decade away from an unparalleled tool for understanding the most opaque inner workings of the human brain and diagnosing and treating neurological disorders. Not to mention the means to keep our greatest mad scientists alive and terrorizing the planet with killer robots for centuries to come.

For those of you playing along at home – Ray Kurzweil just got a boner.

One of the weirder corners of the cryptozoology/Fortean phenomena world concerns occasional encounters with the terrifying menace of phantom clowns, which are exactly what they sound like. In the early 1980s, and again in the early ’90s, rashes of phantom clown encounters cropped up across the United States, with some reported in the UK as well. A typical phantom clown encounter involves a clown, either on foot or in black van, acting in a menacing fashion towards passers by. Phantom clowns typically try to kidnap children, attack people, or chase them around. They then drive off or escape into overgrowth, always managing to elude later detection or capture. Being that these are presumably people dressed as clowns, making themselves inconspicuous is not exactly a simple task.

And now, as if times weren’t troubled enough, we may be seeing the beginnings of another rash of phantom clown attacks. A man in South Bend, Indiana, just miles from where I grew up, was chased by a clown who then disappeared into the woods early in the morning on August 11th. The threatening harlequin was never found by police.

This means one of two things: either there are evil clowns with eerie supernatural powers out there who are intent on harassing us, or the juggaloes are simultaneously becoming more aggressive and improving their stealth technology. Neither of these things could even remotely be classified as ‘good news.’

Hey, St. Louis! Chill the fuck out!

Look, I’m glad that Democrats are starting to show up at these town halls and show Republican nut job protesters that they don’t have a patent on being loud and disruptive. It’s nice to see some backbone out of the lefty base, after all. But seriously, shit’s about to get really real in St. Louis, with anti-health care reform protesters encouraging one another to bring firearms to townhall meetings and hurt their pro-reform adversaries “badly.” By the way, Twitter asshole Scott Oskay – carrying a gun, even with a permit, to a meeting of a government body is a crime under Missouri law. Thanks for inciting!

And if that’s still too classy or subtle, give a listen to this number in which a woman from Oregon threatens the SEIU.

Extra points for ending a phone call threatening to cap motherfuckers with the phrase “stop the violence” aside,  lets’ just hope someone is keeping an eye on these whackadoos who, make no mistake, are threatening to come to public meetings to shoot people. There’s a lot of fringe right whackos out there right now who seem to feel that the best thing they can do for their country is shoot up an abortion clinic or a museum – hold a good thought that we don’t have to add townhall meeting to that sad list.

Oh, BBC, you’ve put me in a wicket that is ever so sticky.

On the one hand, I’m as ready as anyone for a serious rethinking of how we use Predators and other UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s particularly important in the latter theater, where civilian casualties caused by drone strikes play a major part in turning public opinion against US and NATO forces. The fact of the matter is that we don’t win the war against the Taliban in the region until we end public perception that we are the enemy, and we don’t end that perception until we stop killing civilians. Because frankly, until we stop killing civilians, we are the enemy to the vast majority of people on the ground in Afghanistan.

Since I’m on record as feeling this way, I couldn’t be happier to hear that Professor Noel Sharkey, who has been talking for years about the need for a reconsideration of whether the new face of modern warfare is a net improvement. For the soldiers who get to control these heavily armed automatons from half a world away, it certainly seems like it. But if we’re unable to distinguish civilian from combatant – a task that’s often difficult enough for a soldier on the ground – then are we really making wars more winnable? Or are we just making the rules a little different?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

Maybe, by their definition, there’s no such thing as a safe weapon. But there’s a clear line between weapons that are ready to be used safely and ones that aren’t. And it’s time for a serious conversation about where UAVs and other robotic weaponry are in that process. Are they highly advanced? No doubt – technology has made undeniable strides from the days when all that robot warriors could do was rock ’em and/or sock ’em. But are they fool proof? Hardly, and when they’re not, the results are disastrous. So yeah, I’m happy that the media is giving the subject some love.

But really, BBC – did you have to run Jason Palmer’s excellent story on the matter under the headline ‘Call for debate on killer robots‘?

Best of luck to David Farrier and his compatriots as they set out across a vast and unforgiving dessert in search of  an animal that, if it exists, is as strange and dangerous as any on the face of the planet.

Farrier and his team begin trekking across the Gobi today in search of the Mongolian death worm. Depending on who you believe, this legendary monster is a red, segmented snake or worm, up to seven and a half feet long and resembling a length of cow intestine. Unlike a cow intestine, however, the death worm can spit a lethal venom, and is also capable of killing from a distance with what is apparently some sort of electrical discharge.

Farrier isn’t foolhardy enough to go in search of such a deadly creature unprepared, though, so he’s doing what any sane, thinking person would do – bringing along lots and lots of explosives. Ostensibly, the explosives are meant only to create vibrations, which supposedly cause the creature to surface so expedition members can capture images of it on film. But to be fair, anyone who goes looking for this thing and doesn’t keep a grenade handy is in dereliction of duty. Short of a large hydraulic piston and a pair of metal hooks, it’s the only responsible thing to bring along on an expedition like this.

Virologists at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have completed a detailed study of the H1N1 swine flu virus, and the news is…well, it’s less than good.

The virus, which has demonstrated a filament shape unusual in flu viruses, has the potential to be much more severe than most researchers have thought so far. That’s because, in addition to being more apt to reproduce itself within lung tissue, the H1N1 virus has demonstrated an ability to infect cells deep within lung tissue far beyond that of a standard seasonal flu virus.

This capacity for infiltrating further into the lungs distinguishes the H1N1 virus, according to researchers, including study leader Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who stated that “There is clear evidence the virus is different than seasonal influenza.” Where most flu viruses only affect the upper respiratory system, the H1N1 bug can go much deeper, bringing about pneumonia, bronchitis and possibly death.

The truly unnerving thing to note about this study, published this month in the journal Nature, is that the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs is something we’ve seen before. The trait was also expressed in the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. The fact that people born before 1918 seem to have antibodies against the H1N1 swine flu further suggests that we’re looking at a flu virus whose closest corollary wiped out significant swaths of humanity almost a century ago, when passing flu from one community to another was significantly more difficult.

In other words – this could be a bad one. And while most people seem to have stopped worrying about it, I’m staying at a Level Orange Alert (at least while we still have one) on the matter of a swine flu pandemic. Not every disease du’ jour is going to be the next big thing in global health crises (see also, SARS, bird flu, West Nile virus) but eventually, something is going to break big, and the current H1N1 strain is a pretty likely candidate for doing some real damage. Add to that the fact that a serious outbreak (deaths, high fear of contagion, etc.) during  flu season in the US this year would deliver a hammer blow to a global economy still struggling to get it’s feet, and set back progress on that front at a time we can ill afford it?

Sound like a worst case scenario? It is. But it’s not at all one that’s outside the realm of possibility right now. And I know I may sound unreasonably doom and gloom, but hey, a paranoid is just someone who has all the facts, right? I’m not saying the sky is falling, but the common consensus seems to be that this thing is no cause for concern, an I just don’t buy that line.

The study does have a silver lining, in that anti-viral drugs seemed to be an effective first line of defense against the virus. But with a working vaccine probably unavailable until the end of the year, they’re also the only line of defense at this point.

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