Category Archives: Feature

Cybernetic Prostheses in the Star Wars Universe


Luke’s missing hand is supposed to foreshadow that he is becoming more like Vader, and as the new trailer demonstrates, Luke is destined to eventually succumb to the dark side of the force.

Modern prosthesis in the real world are becoming more functional, including the ability to control movement of prosthetic limbs through brainwave reading technology, and in some cases directly attaching electronics to nerve tissue. These movement-controlling features are one way, with the brain signals ordering a machine to following commands properly.

Just around the corner from now, prosthesis will be able to send signals back to the brain, allowing the user to experience a sense of touch in their artificial limb. When this technology becomes available, the brain will actually be communicating with an artificial limb, an external piece of machinery that can influence the brain and create false impressions in specific areas of the mind.

The Star Wars movies don’t always explain how their technology works but there is an obvious symbolic pattern. When characters in Star Wars get an artificial limb, it works better than anything we have in the real world, today. It looks like a real hand, blending seamlessly with the humanoid it’s attached to. Most importantly, it can feel, even feel pain when a robotic tool pokes his fingers to test the tactile sensitivity.

Luke’s new hand can receive signals from his brain but it can also send signals back into his brain. Symbolically, this is the beginning of Luke’s long journey to the dark side. Luke is becoming more like his father in more than one way.

When this thought initially struck me, I went so far as to speculate that maybe the dark side of the force lives within the machinery, the computerized components of the Star Wars universe’s technology. There are some other examples of the light side of the force helping Luke aim photon torpedoes in order to blow up the original Death Star, which he did by specifically abandoning the computerized guidance system.

The flaw in this theory is this: The Emperor is the only character who can use the dark side of the force besides Darth Vader, when the original Trilogy, A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were made. The Emperor doesn’t seem to have prostheses.

Back in our world it’s a dangerous precedent to associate cybernetics with evil, as workable prostheses become more likely to happen and a superstition associated with artificial limbs could become a form of bigotry against the disabled people who use prostheses. While no one wants to create a false worry, making a fully tactile prosthetic hand would actually involve manipulating the brain and indeed the mind itself.

Read more about artificial limbs with Biomimicry and the Search for New Tech

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Memetic Warfare and the Sixth Domain Part Three


Can an image, sound, video or string of words influence the human mind so strongly the mind is actually harmed or controlled? Cosmoso takes a look at technology and the theoretical future of psychological warfare with Part Three of an ongoing series. 

Click here for Part One.

Click here for Part Two.

A lot of the responses I got to the first two installments talked about religion being weaponized memes. People do fight and kill on behalf of their religions and memes play a large part in disseminating the message and information religions have to offer.

Curved bullet meme is a great one. Most of the comments I see associated with this image have to do with how dumb someone would have to be to believe it would work. Some people have an intuitive understanding of spacial relations. Some might have a level of education in physics or basic gun safety and feel alarm bells going off way before they’d try something this dumb. It’s a pretty dangerous idea to put out there, though, because a percentage of people the image reaches could try something stupid. Is it a viable memetic weapon? Possibly~! I present to you, the curved bullet meme.

How-to-curve-path-of-bullet

The dangers here should be obvious. The move starts with “begin trigger-pull with pistol pointed at chest (near heart)” and anyone who is taking it seriously beyond is Darwin Award material.

Whoever created this image has no intention of someone actually trying it. So, in order for someone to fall for this pretty obvious trick, they’d have to be pretty dumb. There is another way people fall for tricks, though.

There is more than one way to end up being a victim of a mindfuck and being ignorant is part of a lot of them but ignorance can actually be induced. In the case of religion, there are several giant pieces of information or ways of thinking that must be gotten all wrong before someone would have to believe that the earth is coming to an end in 2012, or the creator of the universe wants you to burn in hell for eternity for not following the rules. By trash talking religion in general, I’ve made a percentage of readers right now angry, and that’s the point. Even if you take all the other criticisms about religion out of the mix, we can all agree that religion puts its believers in the position of becoming upset or outraged by very simple graphics or text. As a non-believer, a lot of the things religious people say sound as silly to me as the curved bullet graphic seems to a well-trained marksman.

To oversimplify it further: religions are elaborate, bad advice. You can inoculate yourself against that kind of meme but the vast majority of people out there cling desperately, violently to some kind of doctrine that claims to answer one or more of the most unanswerable parts of life. When people feel relief wash over them, they are more easily duped into doing what it takes to keep their access to that feeling.

There are tons of non-religious little memes out there that simply mess with anyone who follows bad advice. It can be a prank but the pranks can get pretty destructive. Check out this image from the movie Fight Club:

Motor Oil

Thinking no one fell for this one? For one thing, it’s from a movie, and in the movie it was supposed to be a mean-spirited prank that maybe some people fell for. Go ahead and google “fertilize used motor oil”, though, and see how many people are out there asking questions about it. It may blow your mind…

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Sorry Nerds, There’s No Warp Drive


It makes for a sensational headline but NASA didn’t even come close to discovering warp technology.

The mechanism behind their fuel-free propulsion has no clear link to warping space-time. In fact, space-time is not proven or understood to exist as a material substance able to warp. It’s all nonsense. So what really happened?

Richard Feynman once said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

You should have been suspicious when the story made the rounds on social media. The headlines were claiming NASA successfully tested something called the EM Drive. The EM drive is awesome, and it’s real science. It’s a propulsion engine doesn’t use propellant, which seems to violate the laws of physics by creating a reaction with no initial action.

First, let’s examine the actual finding. NASA has developed a hollow device that can be  pumped full of electromagnetic radiation which reflects back-and-forth, tapped inside the chamber, generates thrust, causing the device to accelerate in a direction based onthe shape of the chamber. You might ahve seen the story or similar reports over the last year because iterations of it have been built by Roger Shawyer (the EM Drive), one from a Chinese group led by Juan Yang, and one from Guido Fetta (the Cannae Drive), all claiming successful thrust. The stories on science news sites claim the acceleration created is caused by warped space of an Alcubierre Drive, the completely fictional “Star Trek” design.

Here are some problems. First off, none of the tests showed results from gadations in power. If this is a viable prototype for an engine, the science behind it hasn’t proven why a tiny acceleration in relation to a huge amount of relative power is worth any sort of real consideration for space travel. It’s a weak engine with no sign of how it can be scaled.

Secondly, the thrust they created is so small it might just be a mistake in mathematics or caused by an unknown factor, unrelated to warp tech. A true test requires an isolated environment, with atmospheric, gravitational and electromagnetic effects removed from the equation.

Thirdly, good science is reproducible. These tests lack a transparent design so no one else can verify that this actually works.
Finally, a real report has to be created that can be peer-reviewed and understood before irresponsibly publishing the claims.

Optimism of this sort, claiming to be able to put people on mars with a warp engine, is not scientifically valid. This latest group declared they have broken the previously-held laws of physics. They assume we can scale up and implement this engine for space propulsion just because of some questionably positive results. They claim to be distorting space, they claim they might be causing light to go faster by approximately 10^-18 m/s. They made these claims without actually proving them, and told the general public, spreading misinfo.

Harold “Sonny” White at NASA, has made extraordinary claims about warp drive in the past. He is totally the kind of guy who would jump to warp drive as a conclusion. There is nothing in NASA’s report that shows they’ve created a warp drive. Sorry, Star Trek and Star Wars fans. Most likely this is a public relations move to get America and the world science communities more excited about space travel and science education.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Beards don’t actually have feces in them


Clickbait headlines claiming there is poop in people’s beards whipped around social media this week. It’s junk science based on common misconceptions about bacteria.
feces_wide-0aac9a2e67eb0eb36c446ad79ed80cd3d987c746-s900-c85

These headlines are shite: “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet shocking study reveals” – the Mirror “Shock new research reveals some beards contain more poo than a toilet” – news.com.au “Some beards are so full of poo they are as dirty as toilets” – metro.co.uk

Of course, I wanted to read the evidence for myself, like I do with all outrageous, suspicious claims. I couldn’t even find a study cited in any of the articles. All I found was some pretty crappy journalism~!

If there was no legitimate study by respected microbiologists and no instances of unintentional poop in people’s beards, where did this story even come from? As far as I could tell, the story originated from a local tv news segment out of  New Mexico, wherein a reporter swabbed some random men’s beards and sent it to a microbiologist to culture for microbes.

To some readers that might sound like legit science. Here’s why it isn’t:

That’s a very small sample size. The reporter pretty much stayed vague about how many beards he swabbed but it was a “handful”. All it would take is a couple unwashed faces to make a petri-dish grow some gross stuff. So, yeah… bad science.

Just because a microbe lives in the guts doesn’t mean it isn’t on your face. Microbiologist, John Golobic called some of the bacteria found “enterics”, meaning bacteria that normally live in the intestines, “the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said, without telling the reporter or audiences how unbelievably common it is to find these microbes on various surfaces in everyday life, including shaved and unshaven faces. That’s all it took to get the rumor started and people rewrote, retweeted and reshared the story.

Most of the headlines and editorials about this left out that it was merely a bacteria that can also be found inside the intestine, and reported that actual poop was on people’s face, which has nothing to do with the original story and beyond bad science – it’s bad reporting.

Scientists in the microbiology field and pretty much anyone who has followed current thought on the subject know that the human body is home to vast diversity of microbes. Bacteria like E. coli is commonly found all over the body, inside and out.

Readers might remember a similar viral story about unidentified DNA found on swabbed subway cars, implying there are millions of unknown microbes people are being exposed to. In reality everything in the world is covered in millions of microbes, and there isn’t any real danger from being exposed to them everyday.

If you are looking for media that debunks the dangers of microbial paranoia, check out NPR’s articles about probiotics and Mythbuster’s entertaining critique of the “five second rule”.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Fake Time? Bill Maher and AntiVaccination


Bill Maher threw softballs at the most famous anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on”Real Time”

Kennedy isn’t the only prominent vaccine denier but he’s the current media darling for whatever reason. After several hints in the past about vaccine paranoia,  Maher took it to the next level and had a notable anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist on the show for a one on one interview. His normally pro-science stance and no-bullshit interview style was strangely abandoned and at one point Maher himself actually went on an anti-vaccination rant, falsely claiming the anit-vaccination crowd has some kind of legit point. I’ll unpack the rant after the video, below.

“Why can’t we have a kind of grand bargain on this?”

Because a lot of people will die, many of them children, if we don’t act appropriately. The anti-vaccination rhetoric isn’t just easy to fall for, it’s catchy. People hear the soundbites and repeat them, or share articles off of persistent tabloid sites that feed off of the traffic it causes. Spreading false or controversial medical data isn’t without it’s consequences.

“It just seems like we’re calling each other kooks and liars.”

That’s because spreading fear about vaccines is a kooky lie, since there isn’t any data supporting the accusations that vaccines are dangerous. That’s crazy, and if you participate in the lie, you are, in fact, lying. On other subjects, like, say, Climate Change Denial-ism, Bill Maher would be first in line to tell an anti-science arguer they are being crazy or outright lying. The point is that the pro-vaccine side of the debate has an abundance of reliable data supporting it’s efficacy- so much that neither Maher nor his guest tried to make a case that vaccines don’t work. Vaccines aren’t just safe, they are saving people from untimely, rather unpleasant deaths. Denying that is kooky at best.

“It seems like common sense that vaccines, even thimerosal, probably don’t hurt most people — if they did, we’d all be dead, because they’re in a lot of vaccines that we all took — but some do.”

therimosal

Saying Thimerisal “contains” mercury is like saying table salt contains a dangerous explosive just because one of the atoms in the molecule is sodium. Sodium explodes violently on contact with water. Is there an anti-table salt movement? nope.

It’s hard to even follow this because Maher’s conversational grammar is confusing. His grasp of the topic isn’t really demonstrated. It appears he thinks thimerisal is the name of a vaccine. Or maybe he left some words out? It’s hard to decipher a position that is illogical and wrong in the first place.

Marketed under the trade name Merthiolate, Thimerisal can be used as a preservative in vaccines. It has several other uncontested uses: immunoglobulin preparations, skin test antigens, antivenins, ophthalmic and nasal products, and tattoo inks. European Union, and a few other countries freaked out about it after an erroneous report of its link to autism back in the 1980’s. The current scientific consensus has repeatedly assured the public that it isn’t dangerous but the rumor of mercury poisoning and other ailments has persisted.

 

 

Obviously some minority gets hurt by this stuff.

Uh, no, actually it’s not obvious. What stuff? Thimerisal? Vaccines in general?

 

I don’t understand why this is controversial?

Because an embarrassingly ignorant internet meme successfully increased every American’s exposure to measles. It’s making people sick, dude.

 

Why we have this emotional debate about something that– there is science there.

No, There is no science supporting the anti-vaccine side. None.

It astounds me that liberals, who are always suspicious of corporations… and defending minorities, somehow when it comes to this minority that’s hurt…

It’s not about corporations. Liberals want people, including corporate entities to behave ethically. In this situation, the unethical behavior is not on behalf of a corporation. Secondly, there is no wounded minority. No one is getting hurt. Just the opposite.

 

It’s like, ‘You know what? Shut the fuck up and let me take every vaccine that Merck wants to shove down my throat.’

 

No, it’s not like that, obviously. If there was any alarming study demonstrating a dangerous aspect of vaccination the anti-science vaccination deniers wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. By putting anti-vaccination talking heads on tv and lending legitimacy to their wolf-cries, Bill Maher is helping to confuse the general public. Bill Maher references a vague minority that doesn’t actually exist. There is no evidence of anyone being hurt by vaccines. Liberals might defend oppressed minorities but there general public, the mainstream are the ones being threatened by a dangerous minority opinion in this case.  If liberal America impartially stood up for all minorities, they would be defending climate deniers and Ku Klux Klan members. The fact that the anti-vaccine rhetoric has to put words in an imaginary opposition’s mouth should speak for itself.

I’m surprised Bill Maher took this position but he did hint at it last February, when he told guests and audiences he’s an “anti-flu shot guy” and has a problem with anti-vaccinators being told to  “shut the fuck up” and “don’t ask any questions.” It might be appropriate to tell someone in a crowded theater to shut the fuck up if they keep yelling fire, or persistently asking the audience if the theater is on fire despite no smoke or alarms. Yelling fire is dangerous and gives people wrong information that may lead to a percentage of the hypothetical crowd being injured or killed in the ensuing panic.

Back in February, Real Time guest Marianne Williamson, agreed with Maher and objected to anti-vaccination supporters being called “anti-science” or “kooks”, which is silly because it is a blatantly anti-science position and that makes it pretty kooky to give it airtime.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Understanding Cognitive Bias Helps Decision Making


in·tu·i·tion
ˌint(y)o͞oˈiSH(ə)n/
noun
noun: intuition
  1. the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

People tend to trust their own intuition. Has there been much formal study about the veracity of intuition?

Brain science itself is a young field, and the terminology has yet to mature into a solid academic lexicon. To further increase your chances of being confused, modern life is rife with distractions, misinformation, and addictive escapisms, leaving the vast majority of society having no real idea what the hell is happening.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to do something kind of recursive. I am going to document my mind being changed about a deeply held belief as I explore my own cognitive bias. I am not here to tell you what’s REALLY going on or change your mind about your deeply held beliefs. This is just about methods of problem solving and how cognitive bias can become a positive aspect of critical thought.

Image: "Soft Bike" sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus http://www.ilovemashanda.com/

Image: “Soft Bike” sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus
http://www.ilovemashanda.com/

I’m advocating what I think is the best set of decision making skills, Critical Thought. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (I’m torn between the terms Critical Thinking and Critical Thought, although my complaint is purely aesthetic.)

Ever since taking an introduction to Logic course at Fitchburg State college I have been convinced that Logic is a much more reliable, proven way to make decisions. Putting logic to practice when decision-making is difficult, though. Just like a math problem can be done incorrectly, Some logic can even counter-intuitive. My favorite example of intuition failing over logic is always chess. Even as I write this I can’t convince myself otherwise: I have regretted every intuitive chess move. It’s statistically impossible that all my intuitive moves have been bad moves yet logic works in the game so much better that my mind has overcompensated in favor of logic. In the microcosm of chess rules, logic really is the better decision-making tool. Often the kernel of a good move jumps out at me as intuition but then must still be thoroughly vetted with logic before I can confidently say it’s a good move.

In high school, I was an underachiever. I could pass computer science and physics classes without cracking a book. My same attempt to coast through math classes left me struggling because I could not intuitively grasp the increasingly abstract concepts. The part of my mind that controls logic was very healthy and functioning but my distrust for my own intuition was a handicap. I would be taking make up mathematics courses in the summer but getting debate team trophies during the school year.

duchamp

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz posing for the photographer Julian Wasser during the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art, 1963 © 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.

I’m not just reminiscing; everyone’s decision making process is an constantly-updating algorithm of intuitive and logical reasoning. No one’s process is exactly the same but we all want to make the best decisions possible. For me it’s easy to rely on logic and ignore even a nagging sense of intuition. Some people trust intuition strongly yet struggle to find the most logical decision; everyone is most comfortable using a specially-tailored degree of intuition and logic. People argue on behalf of their particular decisions and the methodology behind them because a different method is useful in for each paradigm.

In chess, intuition is necessary but should be used sparingly and tempered with logic. It’s my favorite example because the game can be played without any intuition. Non-AI computers are able to beat the average human at chess. Some AI can beat chess masters. So, I’m biased towards logic. Chess is just a game, though. People are always telling me I should have more faith in intuitive thinking.

“But,” you should be asking, “Isn’t there an example of reliance on intuition as the best way to decide how to proceed?”

At least that’s what I have to ask myself. The best example I found of valuable intuition is the ability to ride a bike. It is almost impossible to learn to ride a bike in one session; it takes several tries over a week or longer to create the neural pathways needed to operate this bio-mechanical device. Samurais trained to feel that their weapon was part of themselves, or an extension of their very arm.  The mechanical motion of  the human body as it drives a bicycle becomes ingrained, literally, in the physical brain. The casual, ubiquitous expression, “It’s like riding a bike”, is used to idiomatically describe anything that can be easily mastered at an intermediate level, forgotten for years, but recalled at near perfect fidelity when encountered once again.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day episode 133

Destin at Smarter Everyday put together a video that shows the duality of intuitive thinking. It is completely possible to train the human mind with complicated algorithms of decision making that can be embrace diversification and even contradictory modes of thinking.

Cont. below…

After watching this video, I embraced a moment of doubt and realized that there are very positive and useful aspects to intuition that I often don’t acknowledge. In this case of reversed bicycle steering, a skill that seems to only work after it has been made intuitive can be “lost” and only regained with a somewhat cumbersome level of concentration.

The video demonstrates the undeniable usefulness of what essentially amounts to anecdotal proof that neural pathways can be hacked, that contradictory new skills can be learned. It also shows that a paradigm of behavior can gain a tenacious hold on the mind via intuitive skill. It casts doubt on intuition in one respect but without at least some reliance on this intuitive paradigm of behavior it seems we wouldn’t be able to ride a bike at all.

This video forced me to both acknowledge the usefulness of ingrained, intuitive behaviors while also reminding me of how strong a hold intuition can have over the mind. Paradigms can be temporarily or perhaps permanently lost.  In the video, Destin has trouble switching back and forth between the 2 seemingly over-engaging thought systems but the transition itself can be a part of a more complicated thought algorithm, allowing the mind to master and embrace contradictory paradigms by trusting the integrity of the overall algorithm.

Including Confirmation Bias in a greater algorithm.

These paradigms can be turned on and off and just as a worker might be able to get used to driving an automatic transmission car to work and operating a stick shift truck at the job site and drive home in the automatic again after the shift.

This ability to turn on and off intuitive paradigms as a controlled feature of a greater logical algorithm requires the mind to acknowledge confirmation bias. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction that logic comprises the greater framework of a possible decision making process anytime I see evidence supporting that belief. There are just as many people out there who would view intuition as the the framework of a complex decision making process, with the ability to use or not use logical thought as merely a contributing part of a superior thought process. If my personal bias of logic over intuition is erroneous in some situations, can I trust the mode of thinking I am in? Using myself as an example, my relief at realizing data confirms what I have already accepted as true is powerful.

That feeling of relief must always be noted and kept in check before it can overshadow the ability to acknowledge data that opposes the belief. Understanding confirmation bias is the key to adding that next level to the algorithm, in the video example from Smarter Everyday, steering a normal bike is so ingrained in the neural pathway that the backwards steering’s inability to confirm actually fill in the blank and the mind sends an incorrect set of instruction of the mechanical behavior to the body. Understanding the dynamics of confirmation bias would enable the mind to embrace the greater thought system that would enable the mind to go back and forth between those conflicting behavioral paradigms. I’m positing that it should be possible to master a regular bike and the “backwards bike” and be able to switch back and forth between both bikes in quick succession. The neural pathways between both behavior paradigms can be trained and made stronger than the video shows.

I believe that with practice, someotrciksne could alternate steering mechanism quickly and without as much awkwardness as we are seeing in the video just as my initial confirmation bias, now identified, doesn’t have to dictate my decision and I might be more open minded to an intuitive interpretation leading to the best decision in certain situations.

An inability to acknowledge that one’s own mind might be susceptible to confirmation bias paradoxically makes one more susceptible.  Critical thinking is a method of building immunity to this common trap of confidence. Identifying the experience of one’s own confirmation bias is a great way to try and understand and control this intuitive tendency.  No matter what your thoughts are regarding logic and intuition, examining one’s confirmation biases and better embracing them should lead to better decision making skills.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Spider Silk Continues to Inspire Biotech Advancement


From folklore to children’s stories, it seems humans have always been fasterrificcinated with spider silk, the diverse material produced in abundance, at will from the body of nearly all species of spider. Studying the biomechanics of the spinnerets and the chemicals that combine to produce various textures of silk at a molecular level has allowed scientists a new perspective on efficiency and biosynthesis.

The golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila clavipes) produces so much silk everyday it has become the most studied spider in the world, and was even included in a trip to the International Space Station in a special terrarium. Golden Orb-Weaver silk is 30 times thinner than your average human hair. If Spider-man were to produce a proportionate thickness of the same material the line would likely hold, maybe even hold the weight of two adult humans(Valigra, 1999.)

Spider-manIt’s hard to find a material as strong while still retaining the flexibility and elasticity of spider silk. Maybe impossible. The dragline of the average spider silk is five times more durable than the Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests(Benyus, 2002, p. 132), plus, it’s lighter and breathes better. Kevlar is a petroleum product and requires pressurized vats of intensely hot sulfuric acid (Benyus, 2002, p.135; 2001). Biologically-inspired materials might be drastically more efficient on energy costs to create. Oil-based synthetic molecules often create dangerous bi-products which are hazardous to handle, expensive to store and virtually impossible to dispose. Spiders create superior materials with a very small amount of energy, heat or byproducts. (Benyus, 2001). NASA studies found that Gold Orb Spider spinneret systems can be so efficient they include reusing spider silk eaten and ingested after use.

silk

Electron-microscope imaging shows the variety of textures a single spider can produce from its body.

Spider silk would be so incredibly useful it might not even be possible to anticipate the range of products it might inspire. Most materials knows to man are either elastic or have a high tensile strength but some  pider silks fall in a  rare category of scoring high in both areas (Benyus, 2001). Spider silk can stretch 40 percent longer than its relaxed state without losing any of it’s shape when it returns. Even the stretchiest nylon can’t perform that way (Benyus, 2002, p.132; 2001). Dupont materials compared silk to current steel cables used on bridges and standing structures worldwide and found dragline spider silk strong enough to be used as the quick-stop brake system on a jet in flight on an aircraft carrier (Valigra, 1999), at a fourth of the thickness of steel cables.

“spider silk is so strong and resilient that on the human scale, a web resembling a fishing net could catch a passenger plane in flight. If you test our strongest steel wire against comparable diameter silk they would have a similar breaking point. But if confronted with multiple pressures, such as gale-force winds, the silk can stretch as well; something steel cannot do” (Benyus, 2001, 2002).

Spiders evolved the ability to spin a web strong and versatile enough to  allow it to run across, pull and twist into position and manipulate with its many legs in order to trap prey, set complicated tricks into action and run along without becoming entangled. The elasticity and strength of the web are partly why it is so easy for another species to become ensnared. Researchers who have taken the time to examine closely have realized in awe the potential for application in spaceflight, industrial, commercial and even fashion industries.

Spider silk also shows incredible tolerance for colder temperatures without becoming brittle or falling apart. Spiders are able to hide underground or near the warm trunk of a tree and return to their outdoor webs later to repair and rebuild what is largely left intact. These cold-tolerant properties lend superior promise to its potential as aan advanced suitable for bridge cables, as well as lightweight parachute lines for outdoor climbing in military and camping equipment. Scientists have been hyping up its many bumberpotential medical applications such as  sutures and replacement ligaments (Benyus, 2001) and as a durable substance to fabricate clothing and shoes (made of “natural fibers”) and synthetic moldable solid material that can create rust-free panels and hyper durable car bumpers. (Lipkin, R., 1996).

“if we want to manufacture something that’s at least as good as spider silk, we have to duplicate the processing regime that spiders use” Christopher Viney, early biomimetic proponent (Benyus, 2002, pp. 135-6).

Take a look at the fascinating process as a spider creates silk and you will find something that more closely resembles human technology than animal biology. Spiders have evolved to create something highly specialized without tools or any sort of special diet requirements to fuel autosynthesis of silk.  Spider silk is formed out of liquid proteins within the spider’s abdomen. Several complex chemicals in a cocktail travel through the duct of a narrow gland. The substance is squeezed out in a very controlled manner through any combination of six nozzles called spinnerets. the protein collected from eating insects and various vegetable matters “emerges an insoluble, nearly waterproof, highly ordered fiber” (Benyus 2001).

Most spiders can produce a few different types of of silks. They can make threads that can be used to build structures, a strong dragline, or an elastic cable for repelling and reusing while creating the foundation for a web.  They can make a sticky, wet line that clings to itself and most other surfaces for fastening strong structures, making cocoons and trapping prey. There is much to be learned because all of human scientific knowledge on the subject still comes from a handful of studies of only fifteen or more spiders to date. There are 40,000 spider species, most of which we know almost nothing about. There might be even better silk from some species.

“But yes there is probably a tougher, stronger, stiffer fiber being produced right this minute by a spider we know nothing about. A spider whose habitat may be going up in smoke” Viney (Benyus, 2002, pp.138-40).

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

biomimicry and the search for new tech


Biomimicry is the study of nature as inspiration for human designs in effort to fit  human technology into a more efficient and workable, sustainable model. Each organism alive today has the potential to teach humankind about the systems and rules it follows. Natural solutions aren’t just about having better materials.

They are about making products that might empower mankind against dwindling resources. Ecosystems aren’t just where we all live and consume resources but they are a resource of information as well. The ecosystem is self-replenishing and efficient and can be channeled and worked with in a way that has yet to be attempted. Potential new materials come with  side effects that warrant equal consideration. Biomimicry is a paradigm that fits many emerging techs. Take a look at spider venom’s effect on the drug industry, for example:

A peptide found in spider venom might lead to a safer class of painkillers. What other drugs, chemicals and designs are being inspired by biology and newly-studied species?

Biomimicry is a relatively young term, describing designs that derive inspiration by emulation of designs found in nature. The movement is focused on sustainable human endeavors and projects that will compliment the environment humans share with the rest of the natural world and thus better humanity’s chance for survival. Check out this video, the most recent by Janine Benyus, one of the idea’s most vocal proponents.

You might wonder why these chemicals are found in nature at all? There are many functions and motivations behind the diverse, unfound substances found in the Eco-system. Plants develop poison to discourage predators. some develop drugs to encourage other species to assist with seed dispersal. Evolution has provided the earth with highly diversified species of plants fungi and animals the vast majority of which have yet to be explored.

French researchers discovered a painkiller as powerful as morphine in the venom of e infamous African black mamba snake. Then there is a potential psoriasis treatment derived from the venom of the Caribbean sun anemone, undergoing testing in the U.S. might help sufferers with psoriasis, autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.gecko

Textures and surface patterns of geckos have been studied for stickiness. Skin textures of some animals have been proven to possess antimicrobial properties, in that bacterial colonies can’t find a way to attach to surfaces, making water currents and frequent rinsing enough to eliminate infective agents.

Artificial limb design and development has been greatly advanced by designs mimicking the weight-bearing capacity of other animals. New technologies are being developed to grant disabled people the ability to feel touch, as the natural mechanisms controlling pain, touch and movement are further understood.

 

In recent biomimetic news, we may see a mastery of understanding the human eye lead to a leap in ocular and immersive tech. MHOX is an Italian design firm who would like  synthetic replacement eyes.EYE to become an affordable, regular upgrade people opt for. Their work could restore sight to the blind and be the missing link to allow locative tech and a lot of web 2.0 concepts to become workable mainstream realities.

There is an initial shock in some people when these concepts are explained. Something about the current trends over the last few decades favoring straight, clean lines that are inspired by lifeless geometry over bio-inspired,  flowing shapes.

The drugs and prosthetics discussed, theorized and predicted in the biomimetics industries doesn’t have to turn humans into cyborgs, although some proponents wouldn’t be against that. It is likely that the public will be more inclined to accept these advancements as they are developed. Decades back people might have been less receptive to plastic hip replacements and artificial hearts, but the medical community has become very good at installing these prosthetics as minimally invasive, outpatient procedures.

 

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Spider Venom and the Search for Safer Pain Meds


Some of the most poisonous animals on the planet are found down under. Australian researchers retrieved exciting new data when taking a closer look at spider venom. Biosynthesized chemicals designed to be highly reactive with other organisms could inspire new drugs and, eventually, an entire new class of painkillers.

It can be defensive but the function of spider venom is often to incapacitate or kill prey. University of Queensland academics released their findings in The British Journal of Pharmacology, after they isolated seven unique peptides found in certain spider venoms that can block the molecules that allow pain-sensitive nerve pathways to communicate with the brain. One of the pepetides originated in the physiology of a Borneo orange-fringed tarantula. That peptide possessed the correct chemical structure, combined with a stability and effectiveness to become a non-opiate painkiller.

15% of all adults are in chronic pain, according a study published in 2012 Journal of Pain. Most readers are already aware of the danger of addiction and lagging effetiveness of opiate drugs like morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone. The medical community is hungry for a change in available medications. Opiates are all derivatives or inspired by opium plants which have been tried and tested for centuries. Venomous spiders are difficult to study but the motivation for new drugs has loosened funding with the help of promising finds like this one.

“Spider venom acts in a different way to standard painkillers,” ~ Dr. Jennifer Smith, research officer @ University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

While cessation from pain might in itself create an addictive reaction, this venom is promising, according to Dr. Smith, because it blocks the channel through which the pain would even reach the brain. Opiates merely block the widespread opioid receptors in actual brain cells, deep within and in the surrounding nerve tissue of the brain itself.

What’s the mechanism of action for this spider-drug? Some people are born with a rare genetic defect that renders them unable to feel pain. Geneticists identified the human gene responsible, known as SCN9A. Dr. Smith hopes the peptide will enable the cells of a human without the defect to shut down part of the DNA that manifests this immunity to pain.

There could be other breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry. The findings are awesome in the Australian project but those researchers only documented findings of roughly 200 out of 45,000 known species of spider.  Out of those 200, 40% contained peptides that interacted with the way pain channels communicate. The next step would be to test the painkillers on animals.

“We’ve got a massive library of different venoms from different spider species and we’re branching out into other arachnids: scorpions, centipedes and even assassin bugs,” said Dr. Smith.

 

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

The future of Auto Theft


We live in a time where auto theft is incredibly impractical. Criminals in 2015 struggle to figure out how to get past electronic security and alarm systems,  reflecting an over 90% drop in NYC auto theft since the early 90’s. These days, even a successfully stolen vehicle can be recovered with GPS tracking and incidences of theft are often caught on video.

It might seem like convenience is weakness but since car theft is way down,  this might not hold true at the moment. The security holes that seem most vulnerable to exploitation revolve around a key fob. Fobs are those small black electronic keys that everyone uses to unlock their car these days.  They work by using A pre-determined electronic signal that must be authenticated by the CAN system. If the authentication checks out, the doors unlock. In newer cars, the engine will start via push button if the fob is in the immediate vicinity of the car so the driver doesn’t have to fish them out of her pocket.

Etymology of the word fob:  Written evidence of the word's usage has been traced to 1888. Almost no one uses a pocket watch these days but a fob was originally an ornament attached to a pocket watch chain. The word hung around as an ocassional, outdated way to refer to key chains. In the 80's, the consumer market was introduced to devices that allowed a car to be unlocked or started remotely. The small electronic device was easily attached to the conventional set of carkeys, and within a few years the term fob key was generally used to describe any electronic key entry system that stored a code in a device, including hotel keycards as well as the remote car unlocking device usually described by the word.
Let’s take a look at three ways a fob key can be hacked.

Recording FOB signals for replay. This is one of those urban legends that’s been around since at least 2008. The story goes: thieves record the key fob signal and can later replay it with a dummy fob. The car can’t tell the difference and unlocks/starts as if the correct key fob has been used. It’s easy for the thief to control the schedule and catch the victim unawares because it doesn’t have to interact with the fob in real time. Sounds like the most effective way to hack a key fob, right? Problem is, each signal is unique, created with an algorithm than includes time. If the devices are not synchronized the fob can’t open the lock. A recorded signal played back wouldn’t open the lock. The conventional wisdom is that the devices, proprietary knowledge and experience needed to make this method work are not worth a stolen car’s worth of risk. Secrets leak but honestly, a team organized enough to steal a car this way would be able to use the same skills to make a lot more money legally. Lastly, if you could reverse engineer and record fob signals the FBI would already be watching you. The demographic that used to steal cars in the 90’s were largely  not like the fast and furious franchise.  The idea that a huge tech security op could be thwarted isn’t necessarily far fetched but there are no recorded cases. Not one. For that to change, someone needs to figure out how the sync code is incorporated into the algorithm and apparently no one has.

Amplifying FOB signal to trigger auto unlock feature. Not only is this method genius but it is rumored to be already in use. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen this in use and it sparked theories about the methodology. Unlike recording a signal, amplification is a lot cheaper and requires almost no proprietary knowledge of the code to pull off. It works like this: A device picks up a range of frequencies that the key fob is giving off and increases the range. Some cars feature the ability to sense the authentic key fob in a five foot range and auto-unlock or autostart their ignitions. With a signal amp, the engine can theoretically be started if the real key fob is within 30 feet. So, the keys can be on your nightstand but the car thinks you are at the car door. The thief can then open the door, sit in the drivers seat and the ignition can be pushbutton triggered as if the key fob was in the car with the thief. I thought about repeating some of the anecdotes I found online about this method but none of them are confirmed. No one has tested it but it looks like a signal booster can be bought online for pretty cheap if you know what to buy($17 – $300). Last week, NYT ran a piece about signal boosting. You can read that here.

Random signal generator. So unique frequency codes means you can’t record  the signal and reuse it without a proprietary algorithm but signal amplification might not work on some systems in the near future. The rumors of it working successfully already have car companies working on a sensitive enough receiver that it would be sensitive to distortion and interference caused by the amp. But there are exceptions, where the signal is not random, such as a service codes. Manufacturers have overriding unlock codes and reset devices to assist with lost key fobs and maintenance/emergency cases. When these codes are leaked, they often open up a brief but large hole in security, during which thousands of cars can be swiped. The main reason it isn’t happening already is more about organized crime not being organized enough to plan and exploit that security hole. Or, you know, maybe the codes just haven’t leaked yet.

Hardware construction.

hackrfConstructing the hardware components needed takes specialized knowledge of hardware. Searching for information about this stuff if bound to attract NSA attention when followed by parts being ordered. The kind of guy who likes to sit in a workshop ordering parts and tinkering all day isn’t always the one who wants to go out and take risks with newer, higher-end cars. That is the kind of multifaceted thief NYC was famous for back before the numbers plunged in the 90’s but the hardware is becoming more and more esoteric. People are not as apt to work on devices that have such small parts on projects that run with such high risk. For that reason, there is more money to be made in producing a bunch of low-cost black market devices that are already calibrated and tested to work. Buying this device on the street and using it before selling it off again might leave a smaller trail than building it in a sketchy apartment-turned-lab that is sure to be searched if a heist goes wrong.

Paper trail & identity theft.

Technology has made it really difficult to even take the car int he first place but once you have a stolen car they are almost impossible to get rid of these days. There can be multiple tracking devices and serial number locations in one car and if the operation isn’t extremely current, the likelihood of the car being found in red hands goes up quickly.

Once the car is stolen, a tech-savvy thief would need special equipment to access the on-board computer and do things like disable the GPS system, take any additional tracking system offline, and disable tech support from manipulating the vehicle’s electronics. Equipment to hack the car’s CAN system has been expensive and shrouded in mystery for the last couple decades but in recent days the internet has united hackers and security researchers to create custom hardware like CANtact Device Lets you Hack a Car’s CPU for $60. 

 

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY