Friday, April 5, 2013

Random things and stuff!

My new computer, which wasn't "supposed" to show up until the 16th, actually got delivered today.  Hooray!  But now I'm moving everything over, which is gonna take for-god-damned-ever.  It's easy, thanks to the aptly named Easy Transfer, which more or less amounts to a magic spell:  I wave my hands around and say, "You!  New 'puter!  Be just like my old 'puter!  Go!"  But Christ on a bike, this spell has a long-ass casting time!  I'm gonna be watching the progress on my sweet fuckin' 23" monitor until the wee hours, and until then I'm instructed, "Do not use this computer during the transfer."  Huh.  I sure hope blogging and blasting mp3s doesn't count as "using this computer."  :\

Anyway, I'm not up to any super-creative writing.  I'd meant to write another vignette for Tooth & Claw, I have it all planned out (more or less), but I just can't stop wanting my new 'puter to be ready.  So here are a few neat tidbits with no central organization.  First, scientists are hard at work decoding the visual experience of dreams from brain scans.  Here's a link to one article, focusing mainly on Japanese research.  And here's another one from Gizmodo, focusing mainly on what's been done at UC Berkeley (with video!).  An important note is that the constructed video is not a reading of the visual cortex, but actually a composite constructed from pre-existing video clips.  I caught the headline over lunch in USA Today (I think).  Those articles above are just what I was able to dig up in two minutes, but I have some more to say below the cut.

Second, here is a cool little infographic submitted to me by Allison on the visual IQ of Americans, showing how well (or poorly) we can identify certain people, symbols, and geographic regions on sight.

I was able to identify Boehner purely based on hatred of him as a person,
pick out the Euro, the Star of David, and the Twitter logo.  That... was it.

Third, Amina Tyler recently went missing after posting topless photos of herself on the internet in order to show that her body was hers to do with as she chooses.  The going speculation seems to be that her family kidnapped her, in direct contravention to Tyler's thesis, out of some bass-ackward idea of honor where "tits is bad" and it's somehow less embarrassing to abduct a member of your family than to let her do her own fuckin' thing.  Because Tyler's disappearance is probably going to be tragic, but it might not necessarily be just yet, (NSFW photos!) FEMEN recently organized a load of topless protests at a bunch of European mosques in order to say, "You think photos on the internet are bad?  Wait'll you see this all up in your fuckin' streets!"  OK, I was paraphrasing there, but here is an actual quote:  "We're free, we're naked, it's our right, it's our body, it's our rules, and nobody can use religion, and some other holy things, to abuse women, to oppress them... And we'll fight against them, and our boobs will be stronger than their stones."

Actions such as this were described as "evacuating" protesters.  Boy, those men
with truncheons sure evacuated the living daylights out of those half-naked protesters.

Fourth, some scientists seem to believe that they're on the cusp of experimentally confirming the existence of dark matter, which would quite frankly be rad as Hell.  What gives me pause for thought, however, is that they're looking at positrons in space - and positrons are antimatter.  The difference, briefly, is that antimatter is normal matter with its polarity reversed (protons become antiprotons, same mass but opposite charge; electrons become antielectrons or positrons, same mass but opposite charge).  We use antimatter in routine medical procedures - the "PET" in PET scan stands for "positron emission tomography."  Dark matter, on the other hand, is simply stuff that has mass and takes up space, but "doesn't shine" in the way that everything else in the Universe does - it's there, it exerts gravitational forces upon whatever's around, but we just can't detect it since it's not shiny like "normal" matter.  However, this positron/dark matter connection gives me faint and tenuous hope that Douglas' exclamation that dark matter (rather than antimatter) cancels out regular matter is actually oddly prophetic rather than a stupid fuckin' typo on my part.  Whatever, I'll probably change it anyway because I also have a few other infelicities to remedy for the next edition.  They're the scientists, I'll trust 'em until I hear better.  :)

OK, by way of wrapping up, here are some of my thoughts on the decoding of the visual elements of dreams.

There was an experiment done where they took a chimpanzee and showed it an image:  concentric circles with straight lines radiating out from it at angles.  Then they killed the chimp while it was looking at the picture - I'm fuzzy on exactly how.  But then the scientists extracted its visual cortex and found something really crazy:  the pattern the chimp had been shown was (effectively) drawn on its visual cortex.  It was kinda distorted, and I'm once again fuzzy on how exactly they determined what was where (it had to do with dying neurons based on... I'm not quite sure?  Neurotransmitter depletion?  I need to find this again...).  The point is that, details be damned, the chimp's visual cortex was basically drawing what it saw on its brain.

Now, this isn't surprising in and of itself - our brains have to somehow represent things to us, and at some level this is obviously going to involve our neurons, so the fact that there was some kind of representation is kind of "duh" when taken alone.  What is surprising - and useful - is that the representation was carried out in a way that more or less corresponded to the image itself that the chimp was seeing.  Random neurons at random locations weren't haphazardly wired up to the chimp's eyes all will-ye, nil-ye.  It was more like how a camera is wired up to a screen.

Keep in mind also that we had to kill the chimp and pull its brain apart to find this out.  See, brains are all wrinkly & stuff, as I'm sure you have seen in pictures, and that's in order to cram as much surface area as possible into an available volume.  If you "smoothed out" all those wrinkles, you'd end up with sheets, and that's more or less what the brain is:  a pile of neural sheets all wrinkled up so they'll fit into our skulls.  If the evolution of our brains had gone differently, we might have crests like a styracosaurus, except packed with smooth sheets of neurons instead of filled with bone or whatever.  Of course, that would be unwieldy to move around, and incredibly fragile even if it was coated in bone (not to mention incredibly heavy if it was going to protect such "flat brains" as well as our own skulls do).  So, to fit all these sheets of organic parallel processors into a protected area, nature hit upon a rather ingenious solution that both keeps the mechanism compact, and thereby reduces the cost of its protective casing:  fold it all up into a ball.

Now, it's not quite a matrioshka brain, but whatever.  We're talking about something that was kluged together over millions of years, not designed by an actual fuckin' engineer.  The point, though, is that while it's all folded up, it's a lot harder to read with an fMRI.  Notice:  harder, not impossible-er.  And even in the original experiment, the design was pretty well distorted, anyway.  What I'm saying is that, in principle, we could flash lights at a person, see where their visual cortex lights up with an fMRI, and from there it's just a matter of fidelity until we can know exactly what they're seeing with brain scans alone (instead of the indirect method of pointing cameras where their eyes are pointing and using other cameras to track their eye movements).

Now, it's a whole 'nother kettle of fish entirely to see if the visual cortex lights up the same way for what you actually see when you're awake as it does for what you merely think you see when you're asleep.  But I find it pretty plausible, on account of the visual cortex is what's responsible for the sensation of "thinking you're seeing," which happens both while asleep and while awake.  The only thing that gives me doubt is that the eyes aren't getting those inputs, so it's possible that there's further processing going on that's responsible for the phenomenology of vision, and the visual cortex itself is simply another instrumental intermediary like the optic nerve or the retina before it - so maybe while we're dreaming, the "whatever it is" that gives us the sensation of seeing things actually occurs "downstream" of the visual cortex.  And in that case, reading the visual cortex would be barking up the wrong tree.

Sadly, I didn't see in either article that the scientists were looking at the visual cortex itself - in both cases, they were merely running more-or-less brute force pattern recognition software against a full-on fMRI.  And yes, that is an excellent starting point, because if you search too narrowly and too quickly, you run into "Garbage In, Garbage Out."  And I know from cognitive science class that all sorts of post-processing goes into our vision - the first 90 milliseconds (or so) are spent just getting the signal back there, and then another 200 milliseconds (or so) are spent propagating the signal from Hell to breakfast so that we can figure out just what the fuck we saw.  I might have that wrong... that 200 milliseconds might subsume the first 90... look, that's not important, what's important is that we don't simply "accept" whatever it is that we see uncritically, we definitely engage in some post-processing before we're able to consciously react.

All this talk of post-processing makes me way the fuck excited to play Skyrim without a damned integrated graphics card, by the way.  Like, seriously.

Anyway!  The point is that I strongly suspect that decoding the visual cortex would give us a huge jump in that direction.  Even if not, we'd be able to "see what others see" along the way, and probably refine our ideas of neural visual processing (if not neural information processing in general) along the way.

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