Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Engrish #2

... as opposed to back towards your front.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Where there's a Market ...

As discussed in an earlier post, the yearning to spread ones genetic material is one of the most deep-seated of all human instincts. This naturally leads many people to desire to procreate, as often as possible, even if steps have been taken to avoid the spreading of genetic material during said procreation. In fact, the urge to procreate is often so strong that even in the absence of a sex partner, people will still find ways of satisfying it. It is in the service of these people, those who, for whatever reason find themselves without a willing co-gene-spreader that the market has responded with perhaps the ultimate possible solution; the Android Sex Doll.

When I was a nerdy kid, the sci-fi stories of the day painted a number of vivid scenarios in which the android of the future would be employed, from mega-soldier to incredibly patient super-teacher, but the future has (as usual) turned out to be a somewhat sleazier place than most of us ever imagined as kids. Just as most of the great advances in web technology were made in support of the emerging cyber-porn industry, it seems our most practical steps towards commercially-realizable human-replica robotics are being taken in the name of erotic anthropomorphism.

Abyss Creations in Southern California have been in the business since 1996, "using Hollywood special effects technology to produce the most realistic love doll in the world". These things are amazingly lifelike, and if domination is your thing this may well be your perfect partner as these things are as submissive as it comes. Though their titanium skeleton perfectly replicates the functioning of the human skeleton, and they can be posed in any position a standard human can, they don't actually move ... yet ... but the company assures us it won't be long before their products will have the ability to talk, blink and buck "just like the real thing".

Of course, when it comes to technology the Japanese are always a step ahead. In 2003 the Kokoro company released the Actroid; which was "developed to recreate the human-like natural yet charming expressions with high functionalities retained." The Actroid has 47 actuators in its body which are controlled by compressed air and enable the android to mimic natural, human-like movements to a truly remarkable extent. They can blink, breathe and are able to recognise and process speech and respond in kind.

There is even such a thing as Robot Fetishism, with its very own Wikipedia page, and many devotees who refer to themselves as Technosexuals.

In case you're wondering whether anyone has yet built a completely functional, walking talking android yet ... one that perfectly replicates a human being, the answer is - sadly - no. This technological marvel is still a little way off. But you can be sure plenty of very smart people are working on it, and as soon as the perfect android has been developed I'm prepared to lay bets on it seeing far more action in the bedroom than fighting our wars or teaching our kids.

Monday, 28 May 2007

The Story of the Universe: Part 2

By the time evolution brought forth a species called Homo Sapiens, on an undistinctive planet called Earth, the universe had already existed for over ten billion (10,000,000,000) years. This species spent most of the next 600,000 years eeking out a meager existence, battling with the other cohabitants of the planet for mere survival, but eventually, after most of that 600,000 years had passed, they briefly gained the upper hand over all other species of the Earth and managed to dominate them in spectacularly successful and brutal fashion.

Compared with the eons that had preceeded it, at only a handful of millenia, the reign of Homo Sapiens was pitifully short, and despite the enormous amount of energy and enthusiasm they collectively dedicated to making an impression on the universe, in the end the existence of Homo Sapiens amounted more or less to nothing at all.

Following their demise, the ecology of Earth gradually regained its balance and evolution continued to bring forth a widely varied array of organisms for a further 2 billion years. None of these organisms happened to possess the same level of intelligence Homo Sapiens had, and no-one noticed, or was by any means the worse-off for it. Eventually the Sun, the star around which the Earth had been orbiting for six and a half billion years, began to exhaust its reserves of hydrogen, and as this was taking place the concentration of helium at its core rose, causing in turn a dramatic increase in its production of heat and light. On Earth this caused a runaway greenhouse effect, by consequence of which all the oceans evaporated, and practically all life became extinct. In this sterile environment only thermophilic bacteria were able to cling to life, but after a time even these hardy organisms were extinguished as the Sun continued to swell.

Once all the helium at the Sun's core had been completely extinguished it became a red giant, loosing much of its mass to evaporation in the process, which caused the planets, including Earth to slip into more remote orbits. The Sun continued to grow and at its largest, was 100 times its earlier size. At this time the surface of the Earth was completely molten. Eventually the Sun exploded into a planetary nebula, which, had there been any sentient life forms around to observe it, would have appeared quite picturesque. After this the Sun assumed it's penultimate form of a white dwarf and subsequently, very very slowly, faded to black.

100 trillion (10 to the power of 14) years after the extinction of Homo Sapiens, all the stars in the universe had exhausted their fuel supply, and the only remaining objects were dead stars in the form of brown dwarfs, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. The protons that formed the atoms from which the matter of these dead stars were composed then started decaying. For another 10 trillion, trillion (10 to the power of 25) years, the only thing that happened in the universe was the unbelievably slow, inexorable decay of dead stars.

Eventually this process too, was complete and the only things left in the universe were black holes. The black holes also decayed, even more slowly than the dead stars. The decay of black holes took place over such an unimaginably huge span of time that words do not exist to describe the amount of years it took, we can only use numbers: After 10 to the power of 100 years, all the black holes in the universe had evaporated, and there was nothing remaining in the entire cold, dark expanse except the occasional stray, lonely photon, neutrino, electron or positron, flying about in meaningless, random patterns, hardly ever encountering one another, forever .....

Sunday, 27 May 2007

The Story of the Universe: Part 1

In the beginning there was incredible heat, heat that was so unbelievably hot that atoms could not exist. Heat that was so intense that even protons and neutrons - the particles that make up atoms - could not exist.

The things that are smaller than protons and neutrons - called "quarks" - were the only things, at the beginning. There were quarks that were made of matter and quarks that were made of antimatter, in almost equal parts. For every thirty million antimatter quarks there were thirty million and one matter quarks. The matter and antimatter annihilated each other. The almost statistically insignificant prevalence of matter over antimatter led to the emergence of a universe made of matter.

At this stage the universe was thirty microseconds (.000030 of 1 second) old. By this time the remaining matter quarks began condensing into protons and neutrons. While the protons and neutrons were assembling themselves, the universe was expanding, very very quickly. It started from a single point and became truly, stupendously enormous within just a fraction of a second.

When the universe was 1 second old, nuclear fusion reactions began fusing the protons and neutrons into light nuclei such as helium, deuterium and lithium. By this time the temperature had dropped to only ten billion degrees kelvin (9,999,999,727 degrees celsius). Creation of light nuclei continued for about three minutes, after which continued expansion cooled the universe to about one billion degrees kelvin and the epoch of nucleosynthesis came to an end.

For the next few eons the universe didn't do anything much except continue expanding and cooling. It was still very hot and very bright. After about 300,000 years it had cooled to an average temperature of about 3000 degrees kelvin (2,726.85 celsius) and atoms were able to form. Some areas of the universe were slightly denser than others in their atom populations, and this density caused these first hydrogen and helium atoms to fall under the influence of gravity and start forming massive aggregations of gas, which much later became known as galaxies.

Within these aggregations, there were some even more dense aggregations, which were drawn together by gravity to become stars.

Nearly 9 billion years after the universe began, a star which later became known as "The Sun" formed, and during its formation a number of solid and gaseous objects also formed in orbit around it. Some of these objects were large enough to be classified as Planets. Some 1.2 billion years after the formation of the planets, random chemical reactions on one of them, which later became known as "Earth", caused the formation of amino acids. These amino acids in turn formed proteins. A random product of this process was ribonucleic acid (RNA). This substance had the property of being able to encode a sequence of proteins, and was also able to duplicate itself. With the formation of proteins and RNA, a new form of chemistry emerged on Earth, known as life.

With the process of protein sequence encoding and duplication, there also came a new phenomenon known as evolution. This process pitted organisms against randomly mutated replicas of themselves in a never-ending struggle for survival. If a mutation possessed qualities that provided itself and its offspring with improved survival prospects, that mutation would take hold and the original organism would die off.

For the next several billion years the process of evolution brought about life forms with increasingly complex structures, and after about 3.1 billion years, a new and highly complex kind of organism emerged, known as "animals". These first, incredibly complex animals were flatworms, jelly fish and algae. Impressive though these organisms were, evolution was not done yet. It continued to arrange animals into more and more complex structures until only 500 million years later "Mammals" began to appear. One hundred million, four hundred thousand years later, evolution created a mammal that was able to combine a large and complex brain with an ability to stand on its hind legs and use its opposable thumb and forefinger to manipulate objects. This mammal became known as "Homo Sapiens", and its unique survival technique was the ability to utilise its intelligence and manual dexterity to fashion and utilise "tools".

A further consequence of this intelligence was the propensity (among some of the species) to contemplate the universe and their place within it. This contemplation produced the mistaken conclusion (or philosophy) that life and intelligence are important and significant qualities and further, that the universe was created specifically in order to provide a habitat for things that possessed these qualities.

Homo Sapiens spent the next 600,000 years labouring under this misconception, and improving their tools. In the process they discovered electricity, which greatly enhanced the scope of their tools. Eventually they built electronic tools with the ability to perform simple calculations. These tools themselves evolved and became more complex, eventually evolving into more general information processing machines known as computers. Shortly thereafter, the advent of miniaturisation allowed computers to become small and inexpensive enough to be possessed by a great many of the Homo Sapiens, whereupon an international electronic communications network, known as the "internet", developed.

After only a decade or so of popular internet usage, a new pastime evolved whereupon bored Homo Sapiens with too much time on their hands would share whatever facile thoughts they happened to be experiencing, with other users of the internet utilising communications interfaces known as Web Logs, or "Blogs". Within only a couple of years over 7 million blogs had appeared, testifying to the vast amount of time Homo Sapiens had on their hands. Some of these blogs contained interesting information, the vast majority didn't, but one almost universally adopted theme discussed in these blogs was the unique specialness and inherent value of the Homo Sapiens species; supported by their achievements in social, technical, artistic and other fields.

Despite the absolute lack of impact intelligence, or even life could be observed to have had on the universe; despite the lack of evidence that life or intelligence had even emerged on any other planet in the universe, the Homo Sapiens still harboured a belief that intelligence and life were in some way important and significant properties.

Homo Sapiens flourished on the Earth for a brief flyspeck of time, and the impact they made on the universe was so infinitesimally tiny as to be statistically negligible.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Engrish #1

Travelers leaving their bags with security staff while shopping in Kunming, China will have their attention drawn to the following instructions:

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

An Influential Psychosis

Anyone who believes the Christian Bible is boring has never read the Book of Revelation, the last canonical book of the New Testament. This is the part of the Bible based on prophesies of the last days of Earth. It's all about the second coming of Jesus, God's final judgment of humanity, and the apocalypse that destroys the Earth and condemns all non-believers to an eternity of suffering in Hell ... exciting stuff.

The Book of Revelation was written by somebody called "John of Patmos" (Patmos is an idyllic little Greek island situated in the Aegean sea), but nobody really knows exactly who John of Patmos was. All we know is that, for reasons never adequately explained, John was exiled to Patmos. It's quite clear though, from reading the book, that whoever he was, and for whatever reason he was exiled to Patmos, John was profoundly mentally ill and suffered from severe psychotic episodes. John's book is based entirely on two of these episodes, which clearly had a big impact on him. In the book he calls these psychotic episodes; "Visions" and relates how during these visions, first Jesus, and secondly God himself, appeared to him and told him some extremely scary stories.

At the time John wrote the Book of Revelations (somewhere between 60AD and 100AD) the science of Psychiatry was yet to be invented and it was not uncommon for the "visions" of psychotics to be misinterpreted as messages from the divine. Ironically, during the middle ages the reverse tended to be believed by Christians. Far from experiencing messages from God, people with a mental illness were considered to be "possessed" by Satan and were consequently imprisoned, tortured and frequently killed. In modern times, mentally ill people still experience scary episodes but thankfully we now have science, which attempts to explain these episodes in non-metaphysical terms and therefore help the sufferers progress to a less-scary place in life.

Despite the long litany of visions experienced by other mentally ill people throughout the ages since 100AD, for some reason not one of them ever joined the visions of John of Patmos in the Christian Bible as examples of God's Word.

Today, despite our understanding that visions such as those experienced by John of Patmos, are actually the result of an ill brain, there are many, many people who choose to believe the psychotic episodes described in the Book of Revelations represent a true and accurate prophesy from God Himself about actual events to come. A lot of these people believe the events described in Revelations are due to befall the current generation, and they are actively preparing for, and looking forward to the end of the world when they will be saved and taken to Heaven to live with their friend Jesus.

Despite being described by some commentators as a dangerous lunatic fringe, this movement of Apocalyptic Christians has been able to wield considerable political power in America and has been largely responsible for placing the current President in office and keeping him there for two terms. The reason they have chosen to support this particular president is because they believe he is one of them.

Though it has not been firmly established, it is the source of wide conjecture, that as a born-again Christian, George W. Bush is, in fact, also a believer in the impending Biblical apocalypse. He has often publicly identified with and shown strong support for the far Christian right and claims that God speaks both to him and through him. Since the failure and stagnation of his war on Iraq, Bush has turned his posturing to strengthening an enmity with all sworn enemies of Israel, most particularly Iran. Israel also happens to be the focal point of the final apocalyptic battle prophesied in Revelations. This battle occurs in a town called Megiddo, (the Hebrew Har-Megido, or Hill of Megiddo, became known as "Armageddon" in the modern Bible). Is it simply coincidence that America’s foreign policy under the current administration has consistently sought to increase the divide between Israel and its enemies?

Imagine for a moment the scenario where an insane, apocalypse-believing fundamentalist religious sect is allowed to significantly influence the foreign policy of a major military power. Imagine if control over the fate of the planet was handed over to a man who believed in, and actively looked forward to its destruction, in order that he and his brethren got to ascend to some fictional salvation?

Sounds scary doesn’t it? But we’d never be so stupid as to let something like that happen ‘round here, would we?

Monday, 21 May 2007

Manufacturing Discontent

In their famous 1988 book: “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argued that it is the role of modern electronic and print media to; “inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society”. Their analysis presented media as a propaganda machine, designed to facilitate the acceptance by individuals of the roles society (meaning the Ruling Class) has ordained for them.

Now, while this may be one effect of modern mass media, it would be difficult to argue that the media establishment (at least in the democratic world) was purposefully designed to fulfill this purpose. Advertising, on the other hand, is a different story.

In the meaningless wilderness of modern existence, there are few evils at large in the world that are quite so evil as advertising. As the agent most chiefly responsible for diverting us from the otherwise fulfilled lives we could be leading, and enticing us instead with the promise that we could be happy if only we bought a better car than our neighbour, drank a cooler brand of soft drink than the losers, or had marginally whiter teeth than we currently do, advertising is the enemy of contentment and the most potent instrument of control ever devised.

But advertising hasn't always been the mendacious, mind-control drug we know today. Advertising can trace its history to a simpler, more honest ancestor that served a far less evil purpose.

In the case of the semi-mythical American lemonade stand, if the sign announced lemonade for 25c, the customer could reasonably expect to get a cup of lemonade for 25c. The sign didn't exist to convince us that we needed a cup of lemonade. The kid knew the lemonade would generate a desire-to-buy based on its own merits. That's why he was selling lemonade as opposed to, say, leeches or doses of bubonic plague.

Advertising originally existed more-or-less to inform consumers about what a product did, and what it cost. Simple classifieds first emerged in seventeenth century newspapers as a fairly straightforward description of a product or service, and a price, and advertising remained in this fairly honest form for a few hundred years, but in the early 20th century something came along that changed the face of advertising forever. The two world wars happened at a time when technology was able to provide generals and politicians with a brand new weapon, which they didn't hesitate to harness in the cause of their war-efforts.

Wartime propaganda took advertising for the first time, above and beyond the realm of the honest. Truth has (as the saying informs us) always been the first casualty of war, but never before had the means existed to twist and subvert the truth and broadcast it so effectively, and so frequently, to so many people.

Postwar advertisers did not ignore the lessons of the wartime propagandists. As keen students of the psychological games employed by the various propaganda departments of Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and the rest; modern advertisers became scientists, utilising market research techniques to convert products into icons.

The advertising man of the Brave New World (at least from the 1950's onward) had at his disposal two exciting new innovations that would provide never-before-seen opportunities for truth-twisting. One was the burgeoning consumer society; the flooding of the market-place with a never-ending catalogue of must-have items, which commenced in America and spread in short order to the rest of the capitalist world. The second great innovation was television, a technology that provided advertisers with unparalleled access to the conscious and subconscious minds of the consuming public. Technology gave the advertiser both an unending supply of new commodities to sell, and also the most powerful means yet devised to brainwash people into buying them.

It became the job of advertising to create need in the mind of the consumer. And the two-pronged approach to this was to:

a) Constantly create new commodities that people could be convinced they needed, and
b) Build obsolescence into these products so it would never be too long before a replacement had to be purchased.

This whole system underscores the way of life for most people in modern societies. It provides us with our self image, a stereotype to conform to, the illusion of happiness, a reason for being, and most importantly, a reason to buckle down and continue contributing to the capitalist economic machine.

It might seem from the above analysis that I'm suggesting advertising has displaced true meaning from our lives and replaced it instead with a shallow facsimile of meaning, but imagine what our lives would be like if the system was suddenly shut down? Imagine if we all reached a point where we discovered that the commodities in our lives are adequate. That we don't need a better kind of car, soft drink or toothbrush. Imagine if the advertisers didn't have anyone to convince any more. If the products stopped changing every week and the adverts just disappeared. Imagine a whole generation of individuals opening their eyes for the first time, thinking for themselves and having to find something real to replace the vanished pseudo-meaning once provided by the products and the advertising. What a horrible world that would be.