Human-eating sand dunes re-open


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Four years after 6-year-old Nathan Woessner got eaten by the Mount Baldy sand dune  in Indiana, the dunes are reopening. Nathan lived even after spending three-and-a-half hours trapped in a narrow hole, and geologists like Erin Argyilan have spent the last four years trying to work out what the hell happened.

Turns out “the entire dune had shifted 134 metres away from the lakefront between 1938 and 2007, swallowing up long-forgotten trees, trails and stairs along the way.”  As the sand-covered trees rotted over a seventy year period, “fungi on the covered trees formed a sort of cement that enabled the sand to keep its hollowed-out shape as the wood decayed and collapsed inward, leaving holes more than 10 feet deep in the dune.”

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The Mount Baldy dune, Indiana. Photo by Gail Fisher on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Tree-trunk-shaped hole, meet small boy. Voila,  a parents’ worst nightmare. My favorite part is Argyilan — who was actually there that day — not believing the parents when they said their son had been eaten by the dune, because science said sand dunes couldn’t be hollow. See, Nathan is an N of 1, and anecdotal experience is not evidence. Statistically, even now, no one has ever been eaten by a sand dune. Argyilan figured the kid was hiding.

After authorities recovered Nathan, still and cold and “gasping like a fish”, ground-penetrating radar found more than 60 spots where the sandy surface covered voids lurking beneath.

And now I’m wondering if there are any skeletons lying unsuspected inside the dune: very thin humans who took an unwary step and didn’t have doting parents as witnesses. One day the dune will move again, and we might all find out. And if you’re visiting the Indiana lakeshore, watch your step.

Two heads are better than one

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Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero just practised for his proposed human head transplant by transplanting a second head onto a rat. In multiple iterations. None lived for longer than 36 hours, but that’s a hell of a lot better than the results from 20th century animal head/brain transplants.

The isolated beating heart at the beginning of that video looks macabre, but those animal organ experiments directly led to human organ transplants, which are commonplace now.

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Canavero’s full paper is here, but it’s not public access. And frankly, that sucks. All academic knowledge should be free to read and not held ransom by journals.

Canavero used a third rat as a blood bag to keep the blood pressure up in the donor rat and the recipient rat during surgery.

Hopefully Canavero will use a different technique during human surgery.

Maybe Canavero will attempt his human transplant this year as promised, maybe not. But someone will, somewhere, eventually.

Head transplants work on the basis that that bit of us that is “me” lives in our brains is a fixed unchanging essence, and our bodies are only interchangeable shells we use for ambulating and oxygen processing. But this ignores the fact we’re embodied beings: we experience reality through and in our bodies. For one thing, our bodies are home to at least as many bacterial cells as human cells. There’s increasing evidence that our bacteria alter the way we think, feel, and love: like the outgoingness of humans infected with toxoplasma gondii, or the link between gut bacteria and obesity.

Transplanting a brain onto another body isn’t just giving an existing personality a new home, it’s creating a whole different being. I think we should go for it, but we have to acknowledge we can’t know what the outcome going to be like.

The future is barreling toward us and we’re not ready.

Gattaca is coming and you should be worried

Photo by University of Michigan School of Nursing, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Hey , Americans. Did you know H.R.1313 – Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act has gone to your Committee of Ways and Means? Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Who wouldn’t support Employee Wellness?

If passed, HR1313 will overturn the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) George W Bush signed in 2008.

GINA means “it is against the law for your employer to use family health history and genetic test results in making decisions about your employment.”

If HR1313 passes it will now be legal for “workplace wellness programs to ask employees questions about genetic tests taken by themselves or their families, and to make inquiries about the medical history of employees, their spouses, their children, and other family members” and that if you refuse you will face a financial penalty “of up to 30 percent of the total cost of an employee’s health insurance.”

This raises the spectre of next being required to submit this information right at the hiring process. Imagine getting turned down for a job because your grandfather has Parkinsons, therefore making you a potential liability in twenty years. Or because your spouse is a carrier for sickle cell disease. Or being fired because your baby has long QT syndrome.

This shouldn’t be a thing. Knowledge is power, people.

I for one will not be welcoming our robot overlords

If you haven’t been following what Boston Dynamics is up to lately, it’s time to get shivers down your spine.

TLDR: Skip to 3:41 for wheeled action

Boston Dynamics’ early products were designed in a research partnership with DARPA, aka the US Department of Defence. Google X currently owns them, although they are looking to sell: mainly because developing machine AI is a harder task than software AI, takes longer, and offers a much longer lead time before producing profitable enterprises. While Boston Dynamics’ robots move realistically, they still can’t think for themselves. In all those shots of robots walking around forests and deserts a human is guiding them by radio control.

Guess who has the money for long-term investment?

I’d like to think these guys evolve to delivering pizza and  safeguarding kids at the playground, but the realistic part of me knows this technology will inescapably end up with military and policing capabilities (these two are increasingly the same).

How about we combine Boston Dynamics tech with these transparent gel robots from MIT.

Big can be avoided. Big can be managed. What’s really fucking scary is miniaturization.

So, you’re invading a country. Maybe you’re after some dwindling natural resources.  Drop ten thousand transparent, waterproof, gel-like robots in the waters of the harbor. Another ten thousand in ponds and lakes. At beach resorts. Program them to pull under and drown any human not wearing the right transmitter.

Follow up with ten thousand of these self-organizing suckers on land.

Arm them with poison. Or tiny tiny scalpels. Or explosives. Just enough to really terrify the populace, disrupt everyday life, and reduce resistance.

Sure, they need to follow a projector’s instructions. For now.

Forget military uses. How about you just deploy them in a city, listening to and recording conversations and digital communications to identify undocumented immigrants. They’re small. They could be anywhere. Hey, disguise them as discarded coke cans. Or Starbucks cups. Better check under the bed at night.

This tech will develop faster than we think. We’re not ready for the consequences of what we can do. Drones and missiles will be the least of our worries.