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To Stem Ageing: Could Skin Stem Cells be the Solution?

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The secret to the fountain of youth lies in awakening ‘sleeping’ stem cells in the skin, according to new research.  We know that stem cells are supercells that can control the creation of other cells. They are crucial to repairing damaged skin, but as we get older these stem cells seems to suffer a regeneration forgetfulness and allow the skin to become wrinkled and lose its elasticity. British and U.S. scientists say the breakthrough may open the door to the development of better beauty treatments to zap wrinkles and saggy skin for good.

As you may have guessed this study and report was sponsored by skin product manufacturers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the findings are iffy.  The University of Sheffield did the research, in conjunction with well-known Olay skin cream makers Procter & Gamble. It was published in Nature Scientific Reports. The study stretched (like skin?) over three years and tested the three most popular considerations and hypotheses about skin regeneration.
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Engineer Dr Xinshan Li (pictured above) said:
“‘The theory which seems to fit best says skin has a population of “sleeping” stem cells, which sit in the lowest layer of the skin but do not constantly divide to make new cells. However, these sleeping cells can be called into action if the skin is damaged, or if the numbers of other types of more mature skin cells decrease, ensuring the skin can be constantly regenerated under all conditions.

Co author of the report Dr Arun Upadhyay, a computational biologist at Procter & Gamble, said: ‘

“These models permit exploration of hypotheses in very short periods of time, relative to the lab based bench work. The ability to follow virtual skin models over decades may be especially important to skin cancer research. Environmental damage caused by ultraviolet radiation or chronic wounding can cause sleeping cells to harbour the mutations which cause skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, a very aggressive type of skin cancer.”

Simply put the trick then is to stimulate “good” stem cells whilst keeping mutant stem cells latent (lest they cause cancers). While the research has a long way to go to fruition to create a pill or cream that can activate the best stem cells and cause them to regenerate “old” skin for many many years, while leaving the bad stem cells dormant, this is an important first step. A road map has been created and all that’s required is time, energy, money and innovation to travel that road to a successful conclusion. And to skin that regenerates on demand; surely an elixir of eternal youthfulness and longevity as was found in Sir Rider-Haggard’s character in his book “She”  in Shangri La?

SHE

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Ingested Sensors are Coming!

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Just as “wearable technology” is becoming “de rigeur”, with cameras in hats, wrist watch internet computers, and sensor/computer glasses with built in sat-nav, be prepared for the next logical step: under-skin technology.  Yep,  while it may seem like it has come from a Michael Crichton sci-fi story, we will soon all be able to have sensors and micro-chips inside out bodies. For some people it’s here already. Think pacemakers for those with heart disease; the latest models can be scanned by clinicinas to access information about how the assisted heart is performing.

Picture courtesy bc.co.uk

Picture courtesy bc.co.uk

“We are going to see more sensors everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before those migrate under our skin into our bodies,” said Peter Eckersley, the lead technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (photo below).

Peter Eckersley

But with advances in miniaturisation, data collection, storage and access, it’s probably only round the corner when a tiny probe in the body could supply you and your doctors with a mass of information about your body’s functions. Clearly this would have great advantages in helping to treat chronic illnesses. You could go to your own PC or lap-top and allows it to pick up from your body-sensor relevant information about your condition, and send it via the internet to a clinician who can  monitor the real-time information and let you know what’s happening and why within your own body. No more having to go in to a hospital and wait to be hooked up to a machine.

The types of information that can be collected from ingested sensors include how the patient’s body reacts to drug regimes, the patient’s dose timing and other physiological responses like heart rate, activity levels and skin temperature. In ten years’ time, some experts are saying that a third of people in developed countries could have sensors inside their bodies, either temporarily or permanently.

However as with any new breakthrough, there could be side effects- not those that affect your health, but those that affect you pocket. Could you imagine a time when health insurance companies refuse to give you beneficial premiums unless you are prepared to have ingested sensors and permit the companies to have access, and perhaps even own, the data about your own body? How would the privacy protectors feel about that?

With new advances in technology it’s important that there are similar advances in responsibility for making sure that the advances are used only for the benefit of mankind, and that by allowing a mini-probe to be sited within you, you have not surrendered your individuality, privacy and soul to others!

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The Naked Mole Rat: The Key to Increasing the Human Life-span?

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The naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber)  is an unappealing un-cuddly subterranean rodent with wrinkled hairless skin, virtually blind, and large sharp curved upper and lower incisors. It lives all its life below the surface of the earth, has never seen or felt the sun, and often lives in toxic conditions with the sort of lack of oxygen and CO2 concentrations that would kill all other mammals.

For its size, its life-span should be 2-3 years.  For all other mammals the life size is related too size, so the bigger the mammal the longer they live- ergo elephants and whales. But the mole rat lives to a ripe old age of 30 plus. Not only that, a mole rat has never been found that has had cancer, and is almost impervious to disease. It also doesn’t age. A 6 month old Mole Rat looks no different from one in its final year. It is also impervious to pain.

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Scientists are studying the mole rat to see if they can find anything in its make-up, DNA, life-style, diet or lack of exposure to the outside world that makes it such a survivor. If the replication of the naked mole rat characteristics could be harnessed and applied to humans we could expect to live up to 6 times longer than now, without ageing- that’s nearly 500 years!

One just hopes that it doesn’t require us to shave all our skin every day,  live underground, and feed on a  diet of plant tubers!

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Of Mice and Men…and Reversing Ageing!

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While one may want to argue the merits of living forever, or the burden that will fall on the young as the old get older and live longer, but who would not jump at the chance for a magic pill to stop or even reverse the ageing process? Oh to regain that lost youth (and retain our experience)  that, as Oscar Wilde said was “wasted on the young”.

Researchers in the US (Harvard University)  and Australia (University of New South Wales) anticipate that an anti-ageing product can be trialled on humans in 2014, following success in reversing the ageing process in muscles in laboratory mice.

It involves a process of restoring the efficiency of cells: Two-year-old mice were given a compound over a week, moving back the key indicators of ageing to that of a six-month-old mouse. Researchers said this was the equivalent of making a 60-year-old person feel like a 20-year-old:  As a man nearly at his sixtieth the birthday, the idea of springing out of bed one morning, cycling to the bowling alley and clocking up strikes and spares galore like I did 40 years ago is somewhat appealing!

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But if successful, the compound may not just reverse ageing, but also reverse and roll-back (and therefore treat) diseases such as cancer, diabetes and dementia.

Without getting too technical, the research concentrated on an area of cells, called mitochondria, which produce energy. Over time, the vital communication between this area and the cell nucleus degrades, leading to the ageing process. Researchers injected a chemical called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, which reduces in the body as we age. The addition of this compound led to the breakthrough reversal in the ageing of the mice. The process was also rapid- almost overnight the reversal of ageing began. The compound is also based on something that naturally occurs in the body and so no or few side effects are expected. It may not allow us all to live till we’re 200, but will mean we will be healthier in our later life.

As always there’s a cloud to ruin an otherwise azure summer sky. This one is cost. The one-a-day magic pill made from the compound for a human would cost about $50,000. Imagine then a world where rich people live longer, healthier and presumably happier than the rest of us. Wait a minute doesn’t that occur already?!!

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“Of mice and men” is of course from the John Steinbeck novel, which in turn took the line from the penultimate stanza of Scot’s poet Robbie Burns’ “Ode to a Mouse”:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

 

 

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The Kraken Wakes…

Giant octopus attacking a sailing ship in medieval times

..or at least seems to be in the news a lot this year.  There have been tales of ships pulled down to their watery doom by a kraken; a sort of octopus/squid/whale hybrid of massive proportions- as visualised in the Pirates of the Caribbean-

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Could it have been that a dinosaur-sized aquatic creature survived the meteor that wiped out its landlubber cousins and survived through to the ascent of man, occasionally plaguing their ocean-crossings?

Professor Mark McMenamin, a paleontologist at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, thinks so. He claims to have discovered markings on the remains of sea creatures which proves that an ancient, giant species of octopus – like the mythical Kraken – was behind their demise, and supports the claims of human mariner survivors to have witnessed ships succumbing to its tentacled overtures.

Prof McMenamin says his evidence of the Kraken, which would have been up to 100 feet long, comes from the vicious injures it inflicted on the giant marine dinosaur reptile ichthyosaurus, either by drowning the creature or snapping its neck. He claims he can tell by examining the placement and sucker markings on bones.

The Professor also noticed, because of the arrangement, that they had been carried away from where they were killed, leading him to think they had been dragged to the Kraken’s lair and dumped in the pattern of the mysterious creature’s tentacles in what is known as a ‘midden’ – a pile of remains accumulated by the beast.

Could the Kraken still exists? In another report, a few months ago, scientists filmed the first video of a live giant squid swimming some 2,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The footage was shown on the Discovery Channel and is due to be repeated over this Christmas and the New Year.

Image: Still image taken from video shows a giant squid near Ogasawara islands

The largest squid ever caught was 55 foot long (see photo below). The one filmed (see above) was at least 100 foot long. While something that size may not be able to pull an ocean-going galleon down to its doom, a smaller craft such as a dingy or small yacht may not be safe from its suckered embrace!

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tunity like this.”

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Are you Sitting Comfortably? The Universe is about to End!

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Well we may all be congratulating ourselves that on 21 December last year the world didn’t end, but whereas the end of the Mayan calendar didn’t wink us out of existence, the reversing of the Big Bang may. And it could be happening sooner than you think.

It’s been long thought that the expansion of the universe that took place after the Big Bang (with the red shift effect- everything moving away from everything else) was slowing down and would eventually stop. And then go into reverse, contracting back to a central point when another Big Bang might occur.

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It used to be thought that this scenario would happen millions of years hence, but physicists now say it could happen sooner rather than later. It’s a team at the University of Southern Denmark that have calculated that a universal “phase transition” could start at any point after every particle in existence becomes “extremely heavy”.

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It’s all rather complicated and involves the Higgs Boson “God” particle- the one that gives matter mass, shifts to a lower vale than before making all elementary particles inside the field becoming super-heavy and causing as chain reaction that would pull apart the universe at the seams.

Let’s hear from Jens Frederik Colding at the University’s Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology:

“Many theories and calculations predict such a phase transition– but there have been some uncertainties in the previous calculations. Now we have performed more precise calculations, and we see two things: Yes, the universe will probably collapse, and: A collapse is even more likely than the old calculations predicted. The phase transition will start somewhere in the universe and spread from there. Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe. Maybe a collapse is starting right now right here. Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years.”

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Hardly precise measurements- no need to cancel getting next year’s diary. And there are counter arguments. Some scientists say there may be other undiscovered particles in the universe that would prevent this reaction occurring. So in summary, business as usual. Probably.

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E-Formula 1 is Coming!

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For over a hundred years, the world of motor racing, and Formula 1 has meant noise, fumes, speed, excitement, thrills, spills, and merchandising. Imagine all that, but without the noise and fumes. Can it be done? I recently saw a prototype GT racing car speed round part of the old motor racing circuit at Crystal Palace, South London. It was silent. It was, well, weird. I could hear the bloke next to me saying under his breath “t’ain’t right…”

But there could be a bright future for electric cars to race thanks to support from one Leonardo DiCaprio, actor, film star… and now it seems, e-race enthusiast. The 39-year-old star has teamed up with Venturi Automobiles owner Gildo Pallanca Pastor to create the team, which will be based in Monaco, where the “real” Formula 1 takes place each year.

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Ok. Electric cars are hardly cutting edge science and technology, but they have an image problem. They are dullsville.  This may just change things. Starting next year, Formula E will feature battery powered racing cars, similar in design to today’s Formula 1 cars. The aim is to attract more car buyers into the electric vehicle market and to speed up development of E cars by manufacturers. It’s to be an international  Formula One, with ten of the world’s leading cities, including Beijing, Los Angeles, London, Berlin and Buenos Aires, all to host races.

It’s also not being sneered at by the established teams; Renault and McLaren, as well as technology group Qualcomm, tyre manufacturer Michelin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group are all investing in the series.

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DiCaprio, who has long been recognised for his green credentials and environmental work, said:

“The future of our planet depends on our ability to embrace fuel-efficient, clean-energy vehicles.”

Of course they may have to be fitted with! artificial engine sound creation devices to make them sound like the real macho fossil-fuelled Formula 1 engines cars! And will they have real drivers behind the wheel, or robots controlled from the pit-lane?

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Are We Alone in the Universe?

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The universe is a big place.  In the 6th century BC Anaximander suggested that other worlds were endlessly forming and disintegrating in a universe of infinite size. In the 5th century BC Democritus, a Greek philosopher argued that there were countless other worlds containing countless other lives. Into the medieval ages and beyond, telescopes became more and more powerful, yet still the edge of the universe could not be found.

Bust of Democritus

Bust of Democritus

Today we can watch stars forming in the nebulae of dust and gas, and from the Hubble telescope a snapshot of 10,000 galaxies- each containing billions of stars.  And the theory is we are still only seeing 95% of what there is out there. Statistical extrapolations for the 1000 potentially “Goldilocks planets already identified lead to the conclusion that there are about 20 billion earth-like planets in our galaxy.

Yet… we have never found evidence of extraterrestrial activity. It was eloquently put by Enrico Fermi in his book “5 billion years of solitude: “Where the hell are they?!”

Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi

If we assume that there are many planets capable of having intelligent life spawn on them, and that those planets will allow civilisations to develop for at least as long as our human ones, then why indeed have we not had any contact from them? One theory is that the distances between earth and other earth-like planets are simply to vast to be traversed. If we can never travel faster than the speed of light, and there aren’t thinks like wormholes in space, then we should resign ourselves to the fact that even if we are not alone, we will never meet another extra-terrestrial species.

The other theory is more interesting. They are avoiding us. For whatever reasons (and maybe we don’t look very nice as a species from our history) intelligent life out there has no wish to contact us. Perhaps they consider that species should rise and fall without any foreign intervention. Perhaps they are afraid of us. Perhaps they just wish to make us remain in splendid isolation, less we taint others with our warlike tendencies. Maybe they have evolved to another level of life where physical bodies have been dispensed with and we would not be able to see or understand them even if they were skimming past earth.

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Whatever the reasons, we still spend a lot of time, money and effort in trying to see if there is intelligent life beyond earth. Perhaps as science develops apace in the next few hundred years we will have made some progress towards extra-terrestrial contact. Or perhaps we are just doomed to having another 5 billion years of solitude.

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A Nutty Way to Cheat Death?

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Eat nuts, and live longer. That seems to be the outcome of a large study supported by National Institutes of Health and a research grant from the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. One of the key findings was that people who ate a daily handful of nuts were 20 percent less likely to die from any cause over a 30-year period than those who didn’t consume nuts. And this conclusion isn’t from a bunch of wobbly pseudo-scientists; the people who were engaged to do the spadework were  say from the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital  and the Harvard School of Public Health. Their report was published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine.

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The research also found that regular nut-eaters were slimmer than those who didn’t eat nuts. It was previously believed that heavy nut-eaters were prone to obesity. The report also looked at the protective effect of nut-eating on specific causes of death.

Charles S Fuchs, the Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Centre at Dana-Furber, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the report , said;

“The most obvious benefit was a reduction of 29 percent in deaths from heart disease — the major killer of people in America. But we also saw a significant reduction — 11 percent — in the risk of dying from cancer.”

The reduction in mortality was similar for both peanuts (a legume, or ground nut) and for tree nuts — walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, pistachios, and pine nuts.

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What about previous studies on the effects of nuts on life and death?

Several previous studies had found an association between increasing nut consumption and a lower risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, gallstones, and diverticulitis. Higher nut consumption also has been linked to reductions in cholesterol levels, oxidative stress, inflammation, adiposity, and insulin resistance. Some small studies have linked an increase of nuts in the diet to lower total mortality in specific populations.

As part of the study, participants in the studies filled out detailed food questionnaires every two to four years. With each questionnaire, participants were asked to estimate how often they consumed nuts in a serving size of one ounce. A typical small packet of peanuts from a vending machine contains one ounce. The researchers found that individuals who ate more nuts were leaner, less likely to smoke, and more likely to exercise, use multivitamin supplements, consume more fruits and vegetables, and (perhaps surprisingly) drink more alcohol. However, the detailed analysis was able to isolate the association between nuts and mortality independently of these other factors.

Ying Bao of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and first author of the report said:

“In all these analyses, the more nuts people ate, the less likely they were to die over the 30-year follow-up period. Those who ate nuts less than once a week had a 7 percent reduction in mortality; once a week, 11 percent reduction; two to four times per week, 13 percent reduction; five to six times per week, 15 percent reduction; and seven or more times a week, a 20 percent reduction in death rate.”

One thing is for certain, there’s always going to be a bowl of nuts on my coffee table from now on!

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The Haunted Launch Pad

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It’s a sombre, desolated place. Weeds growing between the concrete cracks, a wind that whines through the remaining structure that was once LC-34.  People visit it regularly, read the two plaques, and bow their heads in prayer or sorrow.  This is launch pad 34, the pride of Cape Canveral, Florida in the early sixties. It was primarily used to launch the giant Saturn 1 and Saturn 1B rockets heaven-wards.

So why then do people claim that they hear not just the mournful wind, but the screams of men? Why have the authorities stopped official tours to the location? Why do certain groups want to have the place exorcised?

The answer lies in what happened on the evening of Friday 27 January 1976. Three of the United States’ finest astronauts were aboard for Project Apollo: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. First off Grissom complained of a foul odour- like sour buttermilk. Air samples showed nothing wrong.  Roger Chaffee climbed aboard, taking the right-side seat, and Ed White took the centre seat. The command module’s hatch was closed, the Saturn IB boost cover was sealed and pure oxygen was steadily pumped into the cabin. Their fate was sealed.

There were lots of minor problems, mainly with the communications and the countdown was stopped a number of times. Suddenly the controllers noticed the crew’s biomedical readings jump. This was a tell-tale indicator of increased oxygen flow in their space suits. At the same time, around 6:30:54 pm, other sensors registered a brief power surge aboard Apollo 1. Ten seconds at 6:31:04 later came the first cry and only from the spacecraft that contained language. It was the voice of  Roger Chaffee. The word was “fire”. The other sounds were distressing screams as the men expired.

Five days before on  22 January 1967, shortly before flying to the Cape for a ‘plugs-out’ launch pad test, Grissom plucked a lemon from a tree in his Houston backyard, flew it to Florida in his baggage and hung it over the Block 1 spacecraft’s hatch. He had no confidence in the mission.  It was a combination of  an “atmosphere” in the cabin of pure oxygen and an immovable hatch, that was coupled with a mysterious ignition source, never traced, that would spell incineration for Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a chamber of death.

Many visitors, relatives and witnesses to the tragedy, including NASA employees, say a weird feeling comes over all who approach the now-abandoned launch pad and some habe heard the mercifully  brief dying screams of the astronauts, and the single word “fire”. As the space programme moved, LC-34 was closed to the public. No one wanted to be reminded of one of the darkest days at Cape Canaveral, and relatives didn’t want to risk hearing the screams of their loved ones each year when visiting the shrine to their ambition, and the place of their death.

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Did Aliens Kill off the Dinosaurs?

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While the generally supported theory is that a freak asteroid hit lead to the demise of the dinoasurs, alternative theories suggest that it was no accident.

Consider the likelihood that there is intelligent life on other planets. Most scientists now think that even if life is as rare as hen’s teeth, the number of stars  makes it likely that there will be Goldilocks planets circling some of them, and that some of those planets are a lot older than earth. It is also feasible that a new form of propulsion might have been discovered by some of those alien races that enable them to traverse the gulf of space and develop interstellar travel. Be it some form of ion drive, or wormhole jumping, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that these advanced aliens came upon the Solar System many years ago:

They see a young world that has almost arrested development. Dinosaurs have been the dominant species on the planet for million of years. Evolution is so painfully slow, that it is unlikely they will ever devlop into intelligent life even given many more millions of years. Intervention?

Some might argue that an advanced alien race would have a “no interference”  policy when coming across inhabited worlds, much as wildlife documentary makers don’t interfere when a lion brings down a gazelle, or a pack of hyenas ambushes a baby giraffe. But what if they have some higher, more lofty goal? What if they believe that they should encourage the development of intelligent life on planets in the multiverse? It might be some quasi-religious drive that spurs this apparent altruism towards giving worlds a helping hand towards more advanced development. Rather like in the film 2001:A space Odyssey, they trigger a rush in progress of apes to man- except that this race visited earth long before the mammals, at the time of the dinosaurs. And perhaps they realised that mammals would never become dominant, and that dinosaurs could never develop into intelligent life. What to do?

Rightly or wrongly they decided to end the dinosaurs. Deflect a metoer to cause extermination of almost all life, but allowing mammals a chance to flourish. Did that really happen? Did aliens play God? No evidence, but it’s a plausible story.  One wonders what we earthlings would do if we developed interstellar travel. Would we just leave a planet and its inhabitants to evolve (or not) or would we try to encourage creation in our own image?  Well, we can put that question on hold until after we’ve developed a practical means to travel to the stars. Unles there’s life on Mars….

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The Lightning Conductors

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They say lightning never strikes the same place twice – and we all may think that’s probably not true- but how about lightning striking a person twice?  Very rare, yes? Three times? Unheard of??  Four times? No No No!  You’d be forgiven for thinking that you must be some kind of human lightning conductor, Does he wear metallic underwear and walk around in the open with a large metal rod in the air, with a T-shirt saying “strike me again-I dare you!”

The country is South America, and the man has been treated in hospitals there for four separate lightning strikes to his body. And he’s still alive to tell the tale. But unsurprisingly he tends not to go out in thundery weather…

While we’re on about acts of God- well, Mother Nature- what about the time when an entire Congolese Football Team was killed while playing a game. Even more startling was that the opposing team went back to the changing rooms unscathed. Perhaps it was something to do with their rubber-soled Adidas soccer boots?  Kinshasa daily newspaper L’Avenir said local opinion – known to believe in charms and spells – was divided over whether someone had cursed the team. The two sides were drawing 1-1 in the match in eastern Kasai Province when the lightning struck the visiting team.

Then there’s the incredible report  of a Croatian motorcyclist who got a lightning bolt to the penis while stopping for a roadside pee.  Wow, that must have been some whack-off!

With more people in the world and climate change bringing more electric storms, expect to see more tales of human lightning conductors.

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Memento Mori, Santa Muerte and the Mexican Drug Cartels

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Introduction

Turning on the television to see the new season of the award-winning Breaking Bad, I was presented with a curious spectacle. It looked like Mexico, and a dusty old man is crawling across the desert ground.  Is he trying to escape from something or someone? A drug gang maybe? He’s clearly not that happy and  yet cars, villagers, and chickens walk past him. The camera pans out and he’s not alone. Scores of Mexicans now are crawling across the dusty village,  on their bellies, inching painfully forward with their elbows, like some form of spastic human-bat hybrid. A flash car draws up and two young men with shaved heads in expensive suits get out.  They look around them, and then bizarrely, also get down on their stomachs and start crawling in the same direction as the villagers. I noticed that on their black patent leather boots they had silver skulls on the toe of each boot…

They are all crawling towards an adobe hut, festooned with flowers. It’s a shrine of some sort. Inside, there are dozens of candles  and small statues of skulls. There is a large statue, a ghostly apparition of death that seems to have been assembled from Paganism crossed with Catholicism, a zombie Mary Magdalene. The smartly dressed men rise and place something next to the statue, it’s a name of someone that they are calling upon this saint to help them find, and kill. The saint is Santa Muerte. Saint Death. Holy Death. I was intrigued and started researching…

This article looks at the relationship between Momento Mori, Santa Muerte and the Mexican Drug Cartels.

Definitions
Memento Mori is latin, and means “Remember that you must die”. It is also used to describe an object, such as a skull, used for worship, as a reminder as to human mortality and the inevitability of death. It is thought that the phrase originated in ancient Rome when a general, Consul, Prelate or other high-ranking official was celebrating his triumph through the streets of Rome, a trusted slave would walk behing him saying  “Memento mori“… reminding him that he may be high and mighty and grand today, but tomorrow he could be dead.
Santa Muerte means “Saint Death” or “Holy Death”. It is usually depicted in drawings, paintings and statues as a sacred feminine skeletal figure often in a shroud, a cowl or robes.
Dia de Los Muertos “Day of the Dead” is a Mexican celebration that takes place on 1-2 November, coinciding with the Catholic Church’s All Saints/Soul’s Day. It’s the day after Walpurgisnacht, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, 31 October.  Skulls and skeletons made from sweets are exchanged. Its origins can be traced back to an Aztec Festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (pictured below).
Background
Memento Mori were evident in early medieval europe, usually depicting divine judgement upon death in Christianity. “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” is used in services for Ash Wednesday and is a classic memento mori expression. Another, from the Bible is “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.” (Ecclesiasticus 7:40)
For physical manifestations of memento mori, these are abundant in funeral art and architecture, such as cadaver tombs; tombs that depicts the decayed body of the deceased. This became popular in Victorian England and earlier with Puritan tombs in the United States fashion in the tombs that boasted winged skulls, skeletons, or angels extinguishing candles. There are lots of examples of such tombs at one of the two Highgate Cemeteries (the one that is normally closed, but open a few days a year for tours and visitors- well worth a visit- especially the Catacoombs where Bram Stoker gort the inspiration for his novel “Dracula”.
Clocks are also reminders of Memento Mori… time ticking away till your demise. German 18th century mechanical clocks had a death figure striking the hours. Others had the latin for “Time Flies” (or flees)- Tempus Fugit. The arts too had many references, in poems, songs, plays, books and music- and not just funeral music. If you want to get up close and personal in a poem, try Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, that contains these oft-quoted stanzas:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
 
and in Coleridge’s Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, it is death that stalks us:
Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
Relationship to Mexico
Much memento mori art is associated with the Mexican festival the Day of the Dead which involves  skull-shaped candies and bread loaves adorned with bread “bones.”
Many of Mexico’s poorest Catholics count themselves among the devotees of a skeletal woman saint called La Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death. Members of Mexico’s notorious drug cartels have been known to construct private shrines to “the white lady” in their mansions. Now the government of Mexico has begun destroying public Santa Muerte shrines—more than thirty of them in the last year—as an act of psychological warfare in their battle against the cartels.
The Santa Muerte cult is certainly anti-establishment and at first blush appears to glorify criminal behavior.  Although not all members of the cult are criminals, all live an existence that is dominated by crime.  The cult seems to be linked closely to prisons, prisoners, and family members of prisoners.  There are many shrines to Santa Meurte, but these are becoming less public (because they attract the attention of the Police) and so secret shrines are being found in private houses, shops and even in hidden away rooms at the back of Catholic churches. Most prisoners are allowed a small effigy of Santa Muerte in their cells.
On 12 March last year the Sonora State Police arrested eight people for murder of a woman and two ten year old boys. There was evidence that they had been killed as a sacrifice to Santa Muerte to find favour with her.
In the late 2000s, the founder of Mexico City’s first Santa Muerte church, David Romo, estimated that there were around 5 million devotees to the cult in Mexico, constituting approximately 5% of the country’s population. It has now spread northwards to parts of the United States.
While not a fully developed religion, Santa Muerte has self-proclaimed priests, temples and shrines, and many ritualized elements.  So what do the Catholic Church make of all this? While the cult was tolerated for a while, provided Mexican catholics continued to pray to other Saints, such as Saint Jude, the links with crime have made the Vatican step in. The Vatican has deemed the cult blasphemous and a “degeneration of religion”. The Catholic Church points to satanism, black magic, devil-worshipping and idolatry as being rife among Santa Muerte followers, but stops short of excommunicating followers, or branding them heretics. But this largely falls on deaf ears for those who see no problem in following the teachings of Christ, and also the cult of Santa Muerte.
Santa Muerte rituals vary, and worshipers disagree about some of the symbolism and the proper procedures to gain the spiritual and physical results petitioned. However, adherents generally consider Santa Muerte a jealous and vengeful deity who demands that her followers conduct the rituals and sacrifices properly to avoid her divine wrath. Candle magic, herbs, oils, amulets, spiritual energy, and various mystical items play an important role. She also does not tolerate worship of other Catholic Saints according to some adherents, making it obvious why the Vatican see this a dangerous cult.
Non-drug cartel ritual killings are common: In the rough neighborhood of Tepito, Mexico City, in 2004, authorities arrested a local car thief who later died in prison. A powerful (non-narco) criminal figure, he killed virgins and babies once a year and offered them as sacrifices to Santa Muerte to gain her favor and magical protection. In Ciudad Júarez in 2008, authorities found decapitated and stacked bodies at crime scenes in five separate incidents. Links were inferred to Santa Muerte worshipers.  In July 2011 in Ciudad Júarez, Mexican police discovered a skeleton dressed as a bride at a Santa Muerte altar in a house used to hold kidnap victims for ransom.
In the macho world of Mexico, one might be forgiven for thinking that the only woman allowed in the Santa Muerte cult would be the dark lady herself. But no. Yolanda Salazar is a priestess of the Santa Muerte cult in Ciudad Juarez. Salazar lives in and runs a  Santa Muerte sanctuary, which is located in the heart of the city, just a drive of a few minutes from the border with the United States.  She says:

“Here in Juárez, people pray for protection, but also health, and for love. What’s important is it comes from the heart. If your intentions are true, it will help you.”

She had just a handful of followers in 2010, when she first opened her Santa Muerte sanctuary, where there are over 100 small and large statues of Santa Muerte. Now, her weekly prayer vigils to Santa Muerte draw in a crowd larger than the local Catholic church for Mass. She will soon need bigger premises, such is the growth of the cult. “That stuff’s for sicarios — for killers!” said one of her worshippers, explaining what her family thinks of the cult vigils she attends every weekend.

Links to Drug Cartels
The Mexican authorities find the cult linked to drug trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, kidnapping and homicide. Altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both North Mexico and the United States. Simple appeals to the saint are for a rival to be caught or killed, to escape the law, and to bring luck and good business. More morbidly some appeal to her for a “clean” death. She is seen as the Saint of Last Resort. When you have been abandoned by all the “normal” catholic saints (or choose to ignore them) Santa Muerte will be there for you, in life and in death.
Many organised gangs, including those at the top of the organisation right down to foot soldiers respect and pray to Santa Muerte. Two gangs have been found to have direct links- the Gulf Cartel (headed by boss Gilberto Garcia Mena pictured here) and the Mara Salvatrucha.
Worship of Santa Muerte was documented in the 1940s mainly in Mexico City but it first came to mainstream popular attention in Mexico in August 1998, when police arrested gangster Daniel Arizmenmdi Lopez (pictured below) and discovered a shrine to the saint in his home.  This was widely reported in the press and led to even more notoriety for Saint Death. During the operation, the arresting officers found Arizmendi hiding in his bathroom, where he had constructed an altar to Santa Muerte.  Arizmendi asked the arresting officers for permission to take the statue with him; they granted the request.  He took the statue with him when he was remanded to the La Palma Maximum Security Prison!

The narcotics wars in Mexico have increased in scope and intensity since President Felipe Caldéron’s December 2006 de facto declaration of war against the cartels and gangs. Since this conflict began, over 45,000 people have died in the fighting, and although there have been some successes, there are large areas of Mexico that are virtually under the sole control of the cartels. As always, the cartels hold their sway of the local population by a mixture of fear and generosity (ie protection from other cartels and the Police, plus small gifts and events for the people). Because the cartel bosses have so much money and influence, it is thought by many poorer people that they surely have Santa Muerte in their pay (or at least on their side) and this just adds to the bosses perceived untouchable nature.

 There is a read-across from the gladiators of ancient Rome, who fought, sometimes to the death, for their Ludus and their Dominus (owner).  Glory in their short  life or a glorious death in the arena were what they hungered for.  For most of the cartels’ foot soldiers and their gang associates, short lives and brutal deaths are highly likely. This imminent mortality makes the worship of Santa Muerte not a joyous affair, but spiritually dark.  Control or be controlled. Kill or be killed. With the stakes so high, the sacrifices and offerings to Santa Muerte have become primeval and barbaric. Whereas it used to be offerings of  food, beer, and tobacco,  the offerings have become much more morbid, including the heads of victims or even sacrificed members of their own gang, in order to show how serious the worship is, and presumably, how serious and powerful the expected blessing will be.
Cartel killings and links to Santa Muerte are widespread:
During 2008 in Nuevo Laredo, Gulf Cartel enforcers captured Sinaloa Cartel members, took them to public Santa Muerte shrines, and executed them. Analysis by a U.S. law enforcement officer suggests that the perpetrators killed them as offerings to Santa Muerte.
In April 2010 in Camargo and Miguel Aleman, perpetrators tortured and decapitated individuals, carved the letter “Z” into their chests, and placed the victims’ heads on the roof of a desecrated, graffiti-covered roadside chapel. Based on the graffiti messages, the victims belonged to the Gulf Cartel. The perpetrators comprised members of the Los Zetas Cartel, which has embraced Santa Muerte as its patron saint. Many of the group’s members have tattoos of her image on their upper arm or  chest.
 In Culiacan in January 2010, a suspect placed a decapitated head by the tomb of deceased cartel leader Arturo Beltran Levya. Earlier, after Beltran Levya was killed in his apartment, authorities found items related to the cult of Santa Muerte, suggesting that one of his former fellow gang members may have presented the head as an offering.
In a recent undercover investigation, a news reporter cobducted an interview with a Cartel hit man, and was told about the relationship between La Nina, “La Flaca” the skinny one; Santa Muerte, and his profession. He doubles as a grocery store owner.  He said that when he is not acting for the cartel, he does one-off killings on behalf of the Saint to encourage more people to worship her (and presumably increase his business). He said he needed a full-body photo of the victim.  After the murder he will cut up the body and bury it in seven different cemeteries. He says he is working for the Saint of Death.

He says he has to maintain lit candles in his shrine to her, night and day, saying that Saint Death is very jealous and can turn on you if she thinks you are deserting her. If she becomes angry, you may have to kill and offer sacrifices to her to placate her. As for his links to the cartel, he says many of the drug lords don’t really believe in Santa Muerte, but what’s to lose if you pay her and her cult lip service? At worst you waste some kilos of cocaine or a few thousand dollars at a shrine, but at best, you’ll evade the law and get one over on your rival drug cartels. And then there’s the fear. If people in other cartels who do believe, think that you have her on your side, then they’re going to be running scared.

Conclusions and Forward Look

One of the US greatest fears is that the inspired and ritualistic killings associated with this cult could cross the border and take root and then spread in the United States. With a high hispanic population, many of who are poor, the attractions of Santa Muerte seem tangible and possibly represent a way out of poverty and into power and wealth. In fact that’s already happening.

Despite condemnation from the church, law enforcement agencies and the Governments of both the US and Mexico, no one believes Santa Muerte is going anywhere anytime soon. It is spreading. There are reports of secret shrines in San Francisco, Oregon and even across to Baltimore and Boston.

Finally, back to Breaking Bad. Gregory Beasley Jr., 35, believes he landed acting roles in the series and the 2008 movie “Linewatch” after a traditional Mexican-American healer introduced him to La Santa Muerte. It’s where fact and fiction and fantasy combine. In these times you ignore Santa Muerte  at your peril…

 

Memento Mori

The above print is available here

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Japanese Space Cannon for 2014

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It sounds like something out of Star Wars or a 1950’s Ray Bradbury Sci-Fi story, but it’s true. The Japanese have invented, built and now successfully tested (on earth) a space cannon, with the intention of- wait for it- shooting an asteroid.

It’s called the Hayabusa 2  and will be launched into space next year. It’s first target is not just any old asteroid, it will be aiming at asteroid 1999 JU3. The intention is to create a crater for gathering mineral samples.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has reported that the mission “is progressing as planned”, and is still on track to arrive at the asteroid in 2018. The asteroid is in a stable orbit inbetween earth and Mars.

When it arrives the cannon which actually detach from the mothership, where it will travel to the other side of the asteroid before detonating itself. Once in position close to the asteroid, the space cannon will detach itself and remotely fire a 4lb metal projectile into the surface of the miniature planet. The mothercraft will then land on the asteroid and collect samples that have been disturbed from underneath the surface of the asteroid. The previous ship, Hayabusa 1 skimmed material from the surface of an asteroid and successfully returned to earth. This latest project will hopefully expose valuable minerals from inside the asteroid, ones that are usually not available.

Jaxa said:

“the potential to revolutionise our understanding of pristine materials essential to understanding the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life,” 

It’s natural to think of an extension of this project being able to blast open or throw off course any large asteroid that might be heading towards earth.  The next potantially world-ending asteroid id expected about 2032.

Unfortunately, the cannon is nowhere near large enough to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. We’ve only got less than a couple of decades to sort something out for that. Ine idea being considered is  a giant catapault in space to launch a large captured asteroid towards any incoming body.  Being in space, the velocity of the launched asteroid will remain constant until it impacts aginst the invader. But one problem has been the corrosive effect of space on elastic and rubber. So perhaps we’re back to just building a much bigger space cannon. Hayabusa 3 anyone?

 

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The Slender Man

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You may well have heard of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and Area 51 aliens… but the Slender Man Monster?

The Slender Man started life in 2009 as a 100%  fictional character created on the Internet by user Victor Surge on the Something Awful forums. It is depicted as a thin, unnaturally tall man with a blank and featureless face, and wearing a black suit. The Slender Man is commonly said to stalk, abduct, or traumatize people, with a penchant for children.

On June 10, a forum poster with the user name “Victor Surge” displayed two black and white images of groups of children, to which he added a tall, thin spectral figure wearing a black suit. The Slender Man. Surge supplemented his submission with snatches of text, supposedly from witnesses, describing the abductions of the groups of children, and giving the character the name, “The Slender Man”

The Slender Man soon went viral, scary stories told in short snatches of easily copyable text were contributed that spread across the net.  In 2012, the Slender Man was adapted into a video game titled Slender: The Eight Pages. The game has been downloaded over 2 million times. Several popular variants of the game followed, including Slenderman’s Shadow and Slender Man for iOS, which became the second most-popular app download. Several non-Hollywood independent films about the Slender Man have been released or are in development, including Entity and The Slender Man, released free online after a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. In 2013, it was announced that Marble Hornets would become a theatrical film.

Inevitably, there are those who now claim that The Slender Man is real. He has been spotted in woods near the North American/Canadian border, and also in mid-West towns, near playgrounds and schools, after dark.

There have been some attempted abductions of children in Maryland by someone described as as tall as a basketball player, very thin, and wearing a black suit and a mask similar to that worn by the Elephant Man. Sadly, it seems that someone with the extra “y” chromosome (making a man tall, thin and prone to aggression) has decided to make a reality out of a myth.

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Lost Planet that could have Contained Intelligent Life…

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We all know how close we came to getting wiped off the solar system map before we even made an appearance on earth, when an asteroid smashed into earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Curiously it was that close shave that actually enabled mammals, and eventually humans, to become the dominant species on earth.

But it seems another planet out there might have not had such a lucky escape as out own: Astronomers studying a dying star have discovered the mashed-up remains of a water-rich asteroid. This suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago that start system may have harboured a “goldilocks” planet, with conditions not disimilar to our own, that could well have had intelligent life on it. The research appears in the latest issue of the journal Science.

Given that the conditions for life to have flourished on earth are so rare, and must include water and an atmosphere, to find evidence that there seems to have been another planet at one time, is both uplifting and concerning. Uplifting in that it may point to us not being alone in the Universe, concerning for two reasons: What happened to the inhabitants- unless they were sufficiently advanced to develop interstellar travel, they would have perished when their sun went through the final cycles of  its life. Scientists believe that the star would most likely have had a number of planets in its system before the star, expanded to become a red giant, burning everything on any planets, and then shrinking and eventually going cold.

This is also the likely fate of our planet, assuming we don’t get hit by another giant asteroid. Our sun too will become a red giant and then a white dwarf, and finally a black dwarf- a dead star emitting no heat.

Astronomers studying the light emitted by the asteroid, known as GD 61, located 150 light years away from the Earth, detected an abundance of “rocky” elements such as magnesium, silicon and iron. They also found oxygen in quantities that indicated a very large amount of water. Only a water-rich massive asteroid, or minor planet, can explain the observations. GD61, at least 90 kilometres in diameter, would have been drawn in by the white dwarf’s powerful gravity and ripped apart. It is highly likely that rocky, water-covered, Earth-like planets also existed in the system.

Dr Jay Farihi, from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, said:

“The finding of water in a large asteroid means the building blocks of habitable planets existed – and maybe still exist – in the GD 61 system, and likely also around substantial number of similar parent stars. These water-rich building blocks, and the terrestrial planets they build, may in fact be common – a system cannot create things as big as asteroids and avoid building planets, and GD 61 had the ingredients to deliver lots of water to their surfaces. Our results demonstrate that there was definitely potential for habitable planets in this exoplanetary system.”

 

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Two Men’s Accurate Predictions for the Future

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Nostradamus was, of course, the Godfather of Prophecies, but when you look closely at his words, there’s a fair amount of fudging, fiddling and “I think he must have meant this..” in order to make them fit later events. That got me to thinking what have been the most accurate predictions/prophecies/gazings into the future? Here are a three of the ones that seem uncanny, and inexplicable. Please note that Dynamo:Magician Impossible does not appear on the list!

John Elfreth Watkins Junior was a civil engineer on the US railroads until an injury forced him into another career path- that of curator of the Smithsonian Institute. In 1900 he wrote a piece for a journal, entitling it “What may Happen in the Next 100 years”

While not all his predictions were accurate, you don’t have to twist his words much at all to see that when he said:
“Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later . . . . photographs will reproduce all of nature’s colors.”
That’s digital photography and image sharing nailed! He also predicted a form of internet,  satellite television, freeze-dried foods and refrigerators. Pity he died just three years later and saw none of these predictions come true!
Ray Kurzweil, born in 1948, is an author, inventor, futurist and much more besides. In December 2012 Kurzweil was hired by Google in a full-time position to “work on new projects involving machine learning and language processing”…He is the current Director of Engineering there. His success rate for predicting the future is astonishing. Take for example predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union by 1991, a computer regularly and consistently beating the best grandmaster human at chess by 2000, wireless internet by the early 2000s.
He has been found, by independent sources to be accurate in his predictions 86% of the time.  He believes that 20 to 25 years from now, we will have millions of blood-cell sized devices, known as nanobots inside our bodies fighting against diseases, improving our memory, and cognitive abilities. But stemming on from this, one of my favourite predictions is that within this century we will have conquered death, and become immortal. Nice… if you want to live forever!

 

 

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The Brain in BMW

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We’ve come a long way since the speaking clock, but transactions over the phone or online can still sometimes be frustrating affairs. Endless options repeated just to get your bank balance, and not having a 24 hour service can be a pain. But if you want to ask something, anything about the new BMW electric car, the i3, you’ll get a swift and expert response… from a computer. The BMW I genius is a remarkable programme, known as “The Brain”.

Dimitry Aksenov, 21 years old, founded technology company London Brand Management in 2011. The company provides an AI service for big companies who want to outsource customer/staff interactions to computers.

 BMW UK marketing director Chris Brownridge said:

“BMW I Genius is capable of understanding each question and responding accurately every time as if you were talking to an expert from the company. The system operates around the clock, allowing the consumer to ask any question relating to the “i” cars but without the hassle of having to pick up the phone or go into a dealership.”

Not only can the computer recognise the question, and provide an answer. It does it within three seconds. It reads and recognises keywords, as well as understanding context, and learns about you during the exchange and is capable of having a meaningful conversation as well as providing answers to questions about the car.

 LBM’s system is cloud-based, and so it can be accessed from anywhere . It can deal with thousands of enquiries simultaneously, and its database has a virtually unlimited memory capacity. It’s the equivalent of having hundreds or even thousands of call centre staff, with the added advamtage that it remembers and learns, and there is no downtime. Much better then than our human brain?

Aksenov provides the technology to brands under licence with a one-off implementation fee to “teach” the system. Unlike hiring humans, the AI only has to learn once and that’s it for good. He said:

“Within five years we will have a system that truly knows more than a human could ever know and is more efficient at delivering information. It will replace many of the boring jobs that are currently done by humans. Unfortunately, this may take some jobs from the economy by replacing human beings with a machine. But it is the future.”

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iCub is Growing up Fast!

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Financed by the European Union’s cognition unit (€8.5m)  iCub is a robot with an impressive AI. It has has sophisticated motor skills, which include the ability to grasp and manipulate objects. However, unlike other “programmed” robots, iCub acquires its skills naturally,  using its body to sense, then gbather information and then explore the world. This is of course similar to the way a two-year-old baby learns and interracts with the environment around it. That may be why iCub has a baby-like face.

iCub is not a single entitiy anymore; a creche of 25 iCubs have been rolled out to centres across Europe, the US and Japan who are collaborating in the programme. Most specialise in some aspect of AI/robotics, such as Dominey’s facility in Lyon, where they are concentrating on iCub’s ability to interact with humans on shared tasks through language and action. Others focus on the more practical side of manipulation of objects.

All the various parts of this series of ambitious projects are connected by using how a baby/child learns as he or she grows and advances . By 18 months, a human can already understand the gesture to pick up a pencil.  This is not about language (at least not to begin with). Young children are born equipped to explore their environment and interact and co-operate with their parents before they can speak or understand speech. These social developmental drives are built into iCub’s operating system. Then, it’s simply a question of interacting with iCub and letting its own body and sensors guide it. Using a bow and arrow? No problem!

Through repetitive play, one team has taught iCub to distinguish a stuffed toy octopus from a purple car, this despite iCub never having seen the objects before. New gestures are learned by grasping iCub’s arm and rotating it in a certain way. These are then recorded in its autobiographical memory. Consequently next time it can make the gesture without being prompted. In the same way iCub can be taught new words and concepts, by through interacting with its human tutor, much in a way a baby interracts with its mother during play.

Recent developments include a touch-sensitive skin to enhance iCub’s ability to gauge when it is getting too close to an object and is in danger of hitting it. This is onviously a prerequisite for persuading people that it is safe to interact with robots at close quarters!

Watch out for more news about iCub as it learns and grows- perhaps into an iWolf?

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Look for 30 Seconds at the center of this image and then watch Van Gogh’s Starry Night come to live

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