Friday, October 3, 2008

Head Cheese Gone Wild

I was plenty pleased when little porridges of cultured neurons took their first baby steps towards running flight simulators or operating robots in the lab; I was downright smug when folks noticed that I'd got there first. Now, though, researchers from the Missouri University of Science and Technology are planning on putting head cheeses in charge of real-world power grids in half a dozen countries, including China and Mexico (but not including, interestingly enough, the United States). According to this article, "…these networks could control not only power systems, but also other complex systems, such as traffic-control systems or global financial networks."

Traffic control systems. Financial networks. Being run by meaty neuron networks whose thought processes are, by definition, opaque. For real.

I wrote a trilogy about just this scenario. It did not end well (just ask Kirkus). Maybe someone could pass a copy on to this Venayagamoorthy dude.

Next up, two papers in today's issue of Science: one on the evolution of religious belief, the other on the perception of imaginary patterns under conditions of perceived helplessness. These dovetail nicely with some slightly staler findings on the arrogance of stupid people, the inherent fear responses of political conservatives, and last night's competing North-American neocon/centrist debates. But I have to actually watch those debates before I blog on that. (I was out at Don Giovanni last night. I didn't even know that they had dry-ice smoke machines in 1787…)

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Revenge of the Butterballs

A few years back — before he ascended into Heaven with the angels — Cory Doctorow submitted a nifty little story to the Gibralter Point writing workshop (an annual affair for which, come to think of it, I am about to depart this very weekend). I don't remember the title, but one of the central characters was this geeky pudgeball who, by hacking his own metabolic software, morphed into a ripped hi-def hard body without having to exercise. (This was at the height of the second Atkins craze, when eating a stack of bunless bacon cheeseburgers had stopped being a "weird-ass diet" and had started being a new way to "hack the body".) Sitting in the Commons afterwards, Cory expressed his outrage at the fact that the human body has to exercise for at least twenty minutes before flipping into fat-burning mode. "Suppose you want to read a book at night," he analogized, decrying the need for physical exercise, "and the light will only stay on if you keep hitting the switch every two seconds. We're supposed to applaud the guy who sits there all night hitting the switch? Why not just rig the damn thing so it stays on?"

"But Cory," said I, from my vantage point of greater age and vastly greater biological wisdom, "you're assuming that we're living in some kind of magical Corytopia where there's another option. You seem to think we all drag our asses out the door to go running at six a.m. because we're too stupid to just pop the hardbody pill in the medicine cabinet. But there is no hardbody pill. Not yet. So for the time being, you either keep hitting the damn switch or you stop reading when the sun goes down." And we both went away happy; me because I was right, and Cory because his story sold to Salon the next week and got optioned for a movie deal the week after.

Only now, Cory still has his option deal, and I'm not even right any more. Because now there's this new drug, AICAR, that tricks the body into thinking that it's just had a massive workout and had better start building more type-1 muscle fibers (original research here; NYT article here). Basically, we're talking triathlete-in-a-pill here. While the drug has so far worked its magic only on mice, they've already developed a test to detect its presence in cheating Olympic athletes so you know it's only a matter of time before people are using the stuff. And not much time, either; as obesity expert Richard Bergman opines, "the couch potato segment of the population might find this to be a good regimen". Duh, ya think?

You know what pisses me off about this, even more than Cory being right (again)? It's the fact that I've been hitting that damn switch every two seconds for pretty much my whole life. I first started doing pushups back in grade seven, when Keith Gill spat on my bike and I knew that he'd beat the crap out of me if I spat back on his, even though he was smaller than me. Ever since it's been a rearguard fight against entropy. I lose anywhere from six to nine hours weekly to running and working out, depending on the weather; I did an online questionnaire once and discovered that all this exercise will devour seven years of my life, and gain me only five in expected lifespan (which is a net loss of two years, if you're having trouble with the math). More than a workday per week devoted to fitness and I'm still only slowing the inevitable slide to terminal decay.

And now, any 200-kilo couch potato with a health card is gonna be able to pop a few pills and turn into The Rock while watching American fucking Idol? There better be side-effects, is all I can say. Really serious ones. I'm talking gonadal tumors the side of grapefruits. I'm talking primordial cysts erupting through newly-chiseled faces at time-lapse speed, right in the middle of a first date. I demand it.

Because otherwise, you know what? Life just wouldn't be fair.