Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Method Proposed for Detecting Exotic Biochemistry

As written previously, we can't assume that alien life would be based on the same biochemistry as Earth, and PCR reactions might come up with nothing. A new approach, still relying on nucleic acids, suggests that short oligos interact with many kinds of molecules, and that our sequencing technology could be adapted (and in a way, reversed) to detect even exotic non-nucleic-acid-based life. (Johnson Sarah S., Anslyn Eric V., Graham Heather V., Mahaffy Paul R., and Ellington Andrew D., Astrobiology March 8 2018.)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

SpaceX Falcon9 Launch from Vandenberg Visible from Northern California

Even though it's 300 air miles from my house to the launch pad at Vandenberg, I knew it would be quite visible - first, because in the pre-dawn twilight, the exhaust plume would be illuminated by the sun; and second, to be visible above the horizon at that distance you only need to be 18.5 km in the air, which an orbital rocket covers in a short period on the order of a minute. Sure enough at 6:18 Pacific Time I saw it. In the pictures below you can quite clearly see that the first stage has burned out and the second stage has ignited.

I was amazed at how quickly it appeared to be moving especially at this distance, but I didn't take video. Fortunately, Reddit user tKMagus did, from a plane as they were landing at LAX (about a hundred air miles, 3x closer):

Monday, January 15, 2018

Get Out Review - With Spoilers

A great movie, even if taken only as a horror movie. If you catch all the other commentary, much better. I will add a fifth to my other four favorites: Event Horizon, Martyrs, Jacob's Ladder, and the Hellraiser series (only the first and second ones of that franchise count.) Granted, it's the least scary of those five, but the most - interesting, I would say.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of Being John Malkovich when I saw Catherine Keener condemning people to be in the Sunken Place, from where you're mostly a passenger in your own body. (I wonder if Peele's fears of what happens to split brain patients influenced this, or he just watched the video for Metallica's One too many times.)

I can't help but wonder if the single Japanese party-goer was a reference to the single Japanese attendee at the birth of Rosemary's Baby.

I also notice that both Hellraiser II and this movie feature a malevolent psychiatrist and neurosurgeon doing their tricks on victims, although in Hellraiser it was the same person (Chennard appeared to be double-boarded.)

There were a few bits that were clearly intended to make theater-going audiences laugh ("T S fucking A, we get shit done" and all the sex slave discussion) but it wasn't done to the point where it damaged the movie's overall tone.

Then there's the racial commentary. First of all, at the ending, you're absolutely in the protagonist's shoes, thinking "Great, I almost escape, and here I am, a young black male at a murdered rich white family's estate, with police lights approaching. What chance do I have?" (Or, maybe the police are in on it.) Even forgetting that all the partygoers are sinister, their seemingly well-intentioned commentary on the protagonist's race are nonetheless douche-chill-inducing. And when the protagonist is talking by intercom to the blind guy whose brain he'll be hosting, he asks the blind guy "Why us?" (black people) to which the blind guy responds "I don't care what color you are." Yes, but the very real fact is that it is us, and here I sit - not some hypothetical demographically average person - strapped to a chair about to have my brain sliced up. Finally, the protagonist's buddy goes to the police and says "My friend from Brooklyn" (who the protagonist ran into by sheer chance) "must have been abducted. He's from Brooklyn, he didn't dress like that" to which the black police woman says "I'm from Brooklyn, and I never used to dress like this." And this is different...why?

I like that the protagonist doesn't hesitate (much) when it comes time to kill the bad guys, and does it in somewhat nasty ways. Antlers? TOTALLAY NOICE! But he does wait too long to try to escape. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered to his fate, but I would have been swimming across that lake as soon as that guy had his "seizure".

Betty Gabriel is a unique combination of very attractive, and very creepy. One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie is the tight shot on her face in the discussion about disconnecting the phone, and without her acting ability this would have fallen very flat. She actually turns into a grandmother in the scene at the end. I can't wait to see her in Westworld, which I also love, but hope she doesn't get typecast as a Stepford Wife.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Finding Extraterrestrial Organics is Old News; Let's Look for Evidence of Life

There's a new mass spec study[1] of crystals from two meteorites, one of which in turn has material originating from two separate parent bodies. The objects were about 4.5 billion years old, i.e. dating to the birth of the solar system, and showed evidence of organics resulting from aqeous reactions. Some findings of interest: "...signatures of low-mass C5 to C10 hydrocarbons at around 70 to 200 atomic mass units." Not much benzene, suggesting that any aromatic rings are locked up in larger structures. We're finding organics everywhere we look it seems, including Ceres, and that includes even amino acids and nucleobases. Given how quickly after the Earth formed we started seeing evidence of self-replicating molecules (at least the ancestors of cells, if not cells themselves), this means that life originated quickly on Earth, and therefore was a highly probable event.

It's also relevant that polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs - for instance, tar, graphite, anthracene in coal, and fullerenes) have been found in nebulas, as well as in Titan's atmosphere. Not only are they thought to be quite common in the universe, but possibly crucial to the origin of life (see PAH World Hypothesis.) PAH's are predicted to make up a large portion of the carbon at the surface of carbon planets. While carbon planet systems (unlike our own silicate system) were theorized only recently, it turns out that the Hypatia Stone, a bizarre meteorite found in the Egyptian desert, is loaded with PAHs and originated from outside our solar system - possibly as impact debris from just such a planet.[2] (It's becoming increasingly clear that objects from outside the solar system enter it frequently. First Wild-2 (which had amino acids in it), then Oamuamua, and now Hypatia. We've found these things on the Earth's surface without looking that hard for them! Given these observations, we should expect that interstellar mixing on relatively short geologic time scales is the rule.

This suggests several things and begs several questions.

- If a pile of complex molecules were delivered to Earth - say, a bunch of RNA that survived intact inside an impactor - that pushes back the question of the origin of life, but it also suggests it's very likely elsewhere.

- Have we looked for polymerized RNA or amino acids? Mass spec can detect and distinguish small fragments.[3]

- You might ask, why RNA? Why assume any similarity to Earth biochemistry? This raises the larger question of, if there is active extraterrestrial biochemistry in asteroids, how could we detect it? This is the question asked about desert varnish (which has been speculated as evidence of a shadow biosphere of non-DNA based life operating here on Earth under our noses.) If we did find alien biochemistry, how would we know what we were looking at, against the background of organics that we already know is there? While we haven't seen anything that obviously screams "alien biochemistry", that's the point - HOW does something look if it screams "alien biochemistry"? Are there general principles of such systems? You can't just look for macromolecules - if those are composed of the some monomers, they won't necessarily carry information (e.g. aliens trying to figure out our biochemistry from sequencing the fatty acids in our membrane phospholipids will not learn very much.) So it has to be a macromolecule with a limited number of discrete subunits. So far our samples have been limited t one biosphere. If we ever get enough complex organics from a sample return mission to be able to afford to destroy some of it in aqueous chemistry experiences, that will be a boon to astrobiology.

- If there is such a thing as a simple space-borne organism - or even the remnants of aberrant von Neumann probes that have "gone to seed" after eons-long selection for fecundity over their exploration functions - it would make sense to be adapted to low gravity bodies that are cheapest to move back and forth between. If Earth's biosphere is just overgrown von Neumann probes, that might just be because we're a dead end at the bottom of a gravity well.


[1] Queenie H. S. Chan, Michael E. Zolensky, Yoko Kebukawa, Marc Fries, Motoo Ito, Andrew Steele, Zia Rahman, Aiko Nakato, A. L. David Kilcoyne, Hiroki Suga, Yoshio Takahashi, Yasuo Takeichi and Kazuhiko Mase. Organic matter in extraterrestrial water-bearing salt crystals. Science Advances 10 Jan 2018: Vol. 4, no. 1, eaao3521. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao3521

[2] Georgy A.Belyanin, Jan D.Kramers, Marco A.G.Andreoli, Francesco Greco, Arnold Gucsik, Tebogo V. Makhubela, Wojciec, J.Przybylowicz, Michael Wiedenbeck. Petrography of the carbonaceous, diamond-bearing stone “Hypatia” from southwest Egypt: A contribution to the debate on its origin. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 223, 15 February 2018, Pages 462-492.

[3] Zhaojing Meng and Patrick A. Limbach. Mass Spectrometry of RNA: Linking the Genome to the Proteome. Brief Funct Genomic Proteomic. 2006 Mar; 5(1): 87–95.

The Eric Andre Show Simulates Psychosis

First of all: you should be watching the Eric Andre show. Why aren't you watching the Eric Andre show. If you imagine several cast members from Jackass were performing in a fake talk show co-written by John Cleese and Salvador Dali, you're getting close.

You could also say that when a healthy person watches the Eric Andre show, maybe that's what it's like (seriously) for a psychotic person to watch a boring regular talk show - and the simulation of psychosis is more intense for the guests who Andre delights in torturing.* You can see some of them essentially go into shock as they cease to understand anything happening around them, a learned helplessness that has kept all but two of them on the set for the whole hour-plus interview! (They interview people for over an hour and then cut it down to a few minutes containing the good bits.) There are also extremely creative, silly, frightening man-in-the-street stunts, resulting in at least two arrests so far.

[My justification in posting this "review" here is that a) I really love this show and b) it kind of is science fiction, in the sense that in some of the dark near-future scifi from the 70s, they portrayed the future's entertainment as disjointed and psychotic, essentially, this show. So it came true. Finally!]

Two excellent examples of interviews are first, Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock:

Or this one with Lauren Conrad - PLEASE watch both halves.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Here, specifically, is WHY this show simulates psychosis.

1) Reduplication illusions. In many neuropsychiatric illness there are various versions of believing that your arm is not actually your arm, or not attached to you (hemineglect; phantom limb syndrome), or feeling that you have an identical twin following you at all times or a few steps ahead of you, or believing that someone you know is actually an impostor despite looking exactly like them (Capgras delusion.) Bizarre as they sound, they can occur in schizophrenia or after strokes and head injuries. Witnesseth: both Jillian Michael and Pauly D had to endure identical twins of themselves and the co-host suddenly appearing in the middle of the interview. There's a street skit where Andre has multiple arms, all connected so they move on their own. There's another where he has multiple selves that he controls as he walks down the street. It's funny, but in a way uncomfortably bizarre. He has brought out multiple guests and interviewed them seriously as George Clooney or Jay Z - sometimes the hired actor physically resembles the celebrity, sometimes not.

I predict that the fifth season will contain Fregoli delusion skits, where Andre prances around the city and harasses the same hapless bystander while wearing different clothing and makeup each time. (For maximum effect, there must be other hired actors standing nearby claiming that it's someone different.) At the risk of (positive!) stereotyping, it was with some of the reduplication illusions that I finally said to myself "this show is so bizarre that there must be a Japanese person involved at some level" and indeed Kitao Sakurai is an executive producer.

2) Hallucinations. No, they can't make their guests hallucinate per se (although Andre said they wanted to give ayahuasca to one rapper, then watch him try to rap.) They frequently make the studio stink, in one case using rotten clams, then act as if nothing is wrong. The guest chair is often used for these psychological torments - often it's heated so the guests swelter, and in one case (when Jimmy Kimmel was the guest) someone was actually in a space under the chair tickling Kimmel's bottom through the fabric. "My chair feels like it's alive," Kimmel announced, and was ignored by the host, making it seem as if he had lost his marbles for imagining such a thing. Apparently the interviews are loaded with things that we in the audience can't even see, either because they're cut out, or they don't show up on camera (e.g. dropping used dental floss from the ceiling onto germ-phobic Howie Mandel.) In this vein, Andre has said in interviews they planned to have two transexual folks have sex next to the camera, where the viewers can't see it but the guest can, and act like nothing abnormal was happening.

3) Complete non sequiturs. When you try to talk to a badly psychotic person, one thing you might notice is how one sentence does not at all lead to the next one, at least not in any way you can understand. If a few hours later you try to reproduce the things the person said, you find that they've just fallen right out of your head - just like trying to remember a vivid dream that's faded by lunchtime. Andre's questions and statements - in fact, even the very next word out of his mouth - often make no sense, and you can see his guests desperately trying to grab on to any thread of meaning or familiarity. He asks one guest what her zodiac sign is and she brightens immediately - "I understand the purpose of this, I know where this is going!" - and then when he announces in the next sentence that he is gassy, you can see her go back into bewilderment.

4) The guests are under constant threat. There's no predicting when it will happen, which direction it will come from, or what it will be, whether it's a shouting head smashing out of a desk to ask about prices (and then later gliding by sinisterly in the background) or an abominable snowman emerging from the darkness, or a chain saw, or a re-animated corpse crawling out of the ground in front of your chair.

5) The primal, dream-like nature of many bits, featuring as they do frequent frontal nudity and dangerous or verminous animals.

6) There are no clearly delineated levels of truth and fiction - you don't know which parts are done for the show and which reactions are genuine. You know that Star Trek episode where Riker is in a strange virtual-psychological prison, and it's never clear not just what's real, but what "level" of perception he's in within the simulation? No? Okay, how about Jacob's Ladder? Or the film version of Tristram Shandy? These disturb me far more than any visceral shock like jump-scares or gore. In the same way, because the show is logically and cognitively such a mess, there really is no way to tell where Buress and Andre's reactions are part of the bit, or they're genuinely uncomfortable, and it looked good on camera so they just left it in (Lance Reddick slamming the table; the grizzly bear interview.) Not being able to know this really bothers me. For instance, in the Pauly D interview where Andre's doppelganger didn't follow Andre's lead in taking his pants off, was this just really a bit gone wrong because the look-alike didn't want to take his pants off? There's no way of telling, and this is even more bothersome. There have been several moments - in particular the ladder discussion - where what appears to be genuine camaraderie emerges, but I don't fully trust even that.

Other tidbits:

One of his set-destroying scenes involves him in a strait-jacket getting involuntary injections from white-clad orderlies, but that alone doesn't give us much of a signal since that's a visual which is frequently used in such settings. The real punchline is that Eric Andre's father is a psychiatrist. I'm not sure that the show is intentionally checking the boxes of first-rank symptoms - it would be more interesting if they were rediscovering psychosis all on their own.

One thing I don't like about the show is that Andre clearly likes attractive women, and he sometimes seems to soften his shtick to flirt with them (e.g. Tatyana Ali, Asa Akira.) It's played off as a bit but comes off a bit douchily, and disappointingly you can be pretty sure it's real. He claims to have slept with two guests and has identified one of them. A lot of the overall approach to the show also seems motivated by a need to display dominance, which comes across more clearly in the street skits but especially when he is interviewed on other shows. But again, is this character or real? He doesn't seem to have an Andy Kauffman-like discipline in maintaining any kind of wacky character when he's in public.

And finally, Kraft Punk is the best, and the closest thing to a concrete "convention" that the show has (a wacky neighbor sort of fellow with a consistent theme, in the sense that he's all about cheese and his color is orange) but even here, what the convention is bracketing is utter nonsense.

*In the same manner, I have been told that if you watch Zardoz or Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain while on mushrooms, it cancels out and becomes like a Martha Stewart special.

**For the record, I find the ranch dressing character much more annoying than Bird Up.