March 29, 2015

Andy Goldsworthy - Letting nature take its course

Andy Goldsworthy is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist who produces site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings.

He was born in Cheshire in 1956 and grew up on the Harrogate side of Leeds, West Yorkshire, in a house edging the green belt. From the age of 13 he worked on farms as a labourer. He has likened the repetitive quality of farm tasks to the routine of making sculpture: "A lot of my work is like picking potatoes; you have to get into the rhythm of it."

Photography plays a crucial role in his art due to its often ephemeral and transient state. According to Goldsworthy, "Each work grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its heights, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expressed in the image. Process and decay are implicit."

Goldsworthy is generally considered the founder of modern rock balancing.

Goldsworthy's absolutely stunning documentary " Rivers and Tides " is available on youtube in full. ( ). It might take a while to get into but if you just go with the flow it'll take you on a journey.

Sex redefined - Escaping the binary prison

This collection of hard hitting snippets from an excellent Nature article worth reading in full makes clear how the societal boundaries between the sexes are beginning to break down under the weight of reality. Hopefully mainstream knowledge of work like this will ultimately help us move away from having to conform to expectations surrounding both sex and gender.

As a staunch advocate of transhumanism I can draw a lot of inspiration from the LGBT community who is in many ways our advance guard. For decades they have been trying to establish the right to construe one's own identity instead of being forced into one of the two rigidly defined prefabricated package deals. They have done so in the face of enormous adversity which makes their perseverance especially admirable. Considering that the LGBT community has trouble getting the world to accept them for who they are, it's nigh impossible to imagine a world embracing people for who or what they want to be. If people are forced to make their case by explaining that they were born this way and thus don't have a choice, this does not bode well for the expanded cognitive and morphological rights transhumanism hopes to enshrine.

I can only hope that some day soon my home country of Belgium follows Germany's excellent example and will too introduce a third gender. It's rather infuriating that we currently lack both the common decency and the basic courtesy to implement even the barest minimum.

As a clinical geneticist, Paul James is accustomed to discussing some of the most delicate issues with his patients. But in early 2010, he found himself having a particularly awkward conversation about sex.

A 46-year-old pregnant woman had visited his clinic at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia to hear the results of an amniocentesis test to screen her baby's chromosomes for abnormalities. The baby was fine — but follow-up tests had revealed something astonishing about the mother. Her body was built of cells from two individuals, probably from twin embryos that had merged in her own mother's womb. And there was more. One set of cells carried two X chromosomes, the complement that typically makes a person female; the other had an X and a Y. Halfway through her fifth decade and pregnant with her third child, the woman learned for the first time that a large part of her body was chromosomally male.

doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person's legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

That the two sexes are physically different is obvious, but at the start of life, it is not. Five weeks into development, a human embryo has the potential to form both male and female anatomy.

For many years, scientists believed that female development was the default programme, and that male development was actively switched on by the presence of a particular gene on the Y chromosome. In 1990, researchers made headlines when they uncovered the identity of this gene which they called SRY. Just by itself, this gene can switch the gonad from ovarian to testicular development. For example, XX individuals who carry a fragment of the Y chromosome that contains SRY develop as males.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the idea of femaleness being a passive default option had been toppled by the discovery of genes that actively promote ovarian development and suppress the testicular programme.

These discoveries have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or amounts of molecules (such as WNT4) in the networks can tip the balance towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes. “It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at sex; that it's a balance,”

Studies in mice suggest that the gonad teeters between being male and female throughout life, its identity requiring constant maintenance. In 2009, researchers reported deactivating an ovarian gene called Foxl2 in adult female mice; they found that the granulosa cells that support the development of eggs transformed into Sertoli cells, which support sperm development. Two years later, a separate team showed the opposite: that inactivating a gene called Dmrt1 could turn adult testicular cells into ovarian ones. “That was the big shock, the fact that it was going on post-natally,” says Vincent Harley, a geneticist who studies gonad development at the MIMR-PHI Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne.

Many people never discover their condition unless they seek help for infertility, or discover it through some other brush with medicine. Last year, for example, surgeons reported that they had been operating on a hernia in a man, when they discovered that he had a womb. The man was 70, and had fathered four children.

Studies of DSDs have shown that sex is no simple dichotomy. But things become even more complex when scientists zoom in to look at individual cells. The common assumption that every cell contains the same set of genes is untrue. Some people have mosaicism: they develop from a single fertilized egg but become a patchwork of cells with different genetic make-ups. This can happen when sex chromosomes are doled out unevenly between dividing cells during early embryonic development.

Biologists may have been building a more nuanced view of sex, but society has yet to catch up. True, more than half a century of activism from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has softened social attitudes to sexual orientation and gender. Many societies are now comfortable with men and women crossing conventional societal boundaries in their choice of appearance, career and sexual partner. But when it comes to sex, there is still intense social pressure to conform to the binary model.

This pressure has meant that people born with clear DSDs often undergo surgery to 'normalize' their genitals. Such surgery is controversial because it is usually performed on babies, who are too young to consent, and risks assigning a sex at odds with the child's ultimate gender identity — their sense of their own gender.

In most countries, it is legally impossible to be anything but male or female. Yet if biologists continue to show that sex is a spectrum, then society and state will have to grapple with the consequences, and work out where and how to draw the line. Many transgender and intersex activists dream of a world where a person's sex or gender is irrelevant. Although some governments are moving in this direction, Greenberg is pessimistic about the prospects of realizing this dream — in the United States, at least. “I think to get rid of gender markers altogether or to allow a third, indeterminate marker, is going to be difficult.”

So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.


photo; Andreja Pejić, self-described as living in between genders.

Clark - "merging techno, electro, noise, classical, ambient, and post-rock with the skill of a virtuoso" -Pitchfork

Clark was born Christopher Stephen Clark in 1979 in England. He started making music as a teenager, and also began experimenting with building his own primitive equipment, including a "home-built stylus made out of a hook and some masking tape". He went on to attend Bristol University. As a student, his music teacher told him that if Chris were to buy a drum machine, he would give up all hope in Chris' musical ability. Whilst still a student, Chris first impressed staff at Warp Records playing under the moniker Chris From St Albans at their Nesh party in December 2000. He was subsequently signed to Warp, and released his debut album Clarence Park in April 2001. He currently resides in Berlin.

Clark's music is generally considered to fall under the genre of electronic music, although Clark himself finds this label ambiguous and describes Turning Dragon as a "techno album". He often experiments with forms of degradation, distortion and decay associated with different mediums, employing techniques such as re-recording samples and field-recordings in different environments. Describing such processing, he has said "What I tend to do is just jam stuff through as many boxes as I can, until everything sort of bleeds into itself and all its surrounding parts".

For your convenience I've made a playlist collecting some of what I believe to be his best work. Check it out!

Where there's a will, there's a way

Many of you have likely heard a thing or two about the recent Nobel prizes awarded for the development of the blue LED (physics), the discovery of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain (Physiology/Medicine), and the super-resolution fluorescence microscopy technique (chemistry). If not, I've included some links below that will bring you up to speed.

One article I particularly enjoyed was one from nature that, apart from digging into the incredibly awesome science behind the discovery of the specialized brain cells that enable us to navigate our surroundings, also took some time to cast a light on the lives of the husband and wife team largely responsible for the breakthrough.

If anyone knows how we navigate home, it is the Mosers. They shot to fame in 2005 with their discovery of grid cells deep in the brains of rats. These intriguing cells, which are also present in humans, work much like the Global Positioning System, allowing animals to understand their location.

In 2007, while still only in their mid-40s, they won a competition by the Kavli Foundation of Oxnard, California, to build and direct one of only 17 Kavli Institutes around the world. The Mosers are now minor celebrities in their home country, and their institute has become a magnet for other big thinkers in neuroscience.

The Mosers' work has also given them traction at one of the most challenging twenty-first-century research frontiers: how the brain computes. Just as computers use programming languages such as Java, the brain seems to have its own operating languages — a bewildering set of codes hidden in the rates and timing with which neurons fire as well as the rhythmic electrical activities that oscillate through brain circuits. These codes allow the brain to represent features of the external world — such as sound, light, smell and position in space — in a language that it can understand and compute. With their grid-cell work, the Mosers have been the first to crack one such code deep in the brain; now the challenge for the field is to find all the rest.

The Mosers grew up on different Norwegian islands in the North Atlantic, where summer days seem eternal and the long winter nights are brightened only by the dancing Northern Lights. They were both from non-academic families and they went to the same school. But they didn't get to know each other until 1983, when both were at the University of Oslo, both were wondering what to study and both were starting to realize that their true passion was for neuroscience and the brain.

Suddenly, everything sparked: romance between the two of them, intellectual curiosity and the beginnings of their mission in life — to find out how the brain generates behaviour. The Mosers visited one of the university's more famous faculty members, electrophysiologist Per Andersen, and asked to do their undergraduate projects with him. Andersen was studying the activity of neurons in the hippocampus — a brain area associated with memory — and the two students wanted to try to link this precise activity of cells with the behaviour of animals. Andersen, like most neuroscientists at the time, was sceptical about making such a big leap across the black box of the brain. But the pair wouldn't leave his office until he gave in and offered them an apparently simple project: how much of the hippocampus could you cut away before a rat could no longer remember new environments?

In 1984, while still undergraduates, the couple got engaged on top of the dormant volcano Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. (The bitter temperature at the peak forced them to rush their exchange of rings, the quicker to get their gloves back on.) The pair had decided how their joint lives should be: children early, postdoc experience abroad and then their own lab together, somewhere in the world. These plans panned out — just a little faster than they had anticipated.

Not every couple would find it easy to work together in such apparent harmony. The Mosers ascribe their ability to do so in large part to their patient temperaments and shared interests — in science and beyond. Both love outdoor activities: May-Britt runs every other day across the rugged hills around their coastal home, and Edvard hikes at weekends. They share an obsession with volcanoes — hence their engagement at the top of one — and have climbed many of the globe's most spectacular peaks.

Edvard and May-Britt Moser: A journey into entorhinal cortex

It took some months before it dawned on them that they needed the rats to run around bigger boxes, so that the pattern would be stretched out and easier to see. At that point, it came into view: a near-perfect hexagon lattice, like a honeycomb. At first they refused to believe it. Such simplicity and regularity was the last thing they had expected — biology is usually a lot messier than this.

There were no physical hexagons traced on the floor; the shapes were abstractly created in the rat's brain and imposed on its environment, such that a single neuron fired whenever it crossed one of the points of the hexagon. The discovery was exciting for more than its pleasing pattern. This representation of space in brain-language was one of the long-sought codes by which the brain represents the world around us. “It was a long-drawn-out eureka moment,” recalls Edvard.

The Mosers also found that the different cells in the entorhinal cortex generate grids of many different types, like overlapping honeycombs — big, small and in every orientation and position relative to the box's border. And they ultimately came to see that the brain's grid cells are arranged according to a precise mathematical rule.

The cells that generate smaller grids, with narrower spacing, are at the top of the entorhinal cortex, and those that generate bigger grids are at the bottom. But it is even more exact than that: cells that make grids of the same size and orientation seem to cluster into modules. The modules are arranged in steps down the length of the entorhinal cortex, and the size of the grid represented by each module expands by a constant factor of 1.4 with every step.

The discoveries also astonished and thrilled theoreticians, because the hexagonal pattern is the optimal arrangement for achieving the highest-possible spatial resolution with a minimum number of grid cells. This saves energy, showing how beautifully efficient the brain can sometimes be. “Whoever would have believed that such a beautiful hexagonal representation existed so deep in the brain?” says Andreas Herz, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Munich in Germany.

Mindblowing stuff. There's a lot more where that came from so check out the article in full!

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March 14, 2015

Patricia Piccinini's monstrously beautiful works

Piccinini was born in 1965 In Sierra Leone but moved to Australia in 1972 with her family. She initially studied economic history before enrolling at art school in Melbourne. Since 1991 her work has been exhibited around the world.

Piccinini works in a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, video, sound, installation and digital prints. She has an ambivalent attitude towards technology but enjoys exploring what she calls... the often specious distinctions between the artificial and the natural. She is keenly interested in how our changing understanding of these concepts will effect the further evolution of our society. Specific works have addressed concerns about biotechnology, such as gene therapy and ongoing research to map the human genome. She is also fascinated by the mechanisms of consumer culture.

Probably one of my all-time favorite artists, each and every one of her works invites and rewards closer study. What at first sight appears shocking often reveals something surprisingly tender. Most of her work is very layered and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.

Albert Bierstadt's unnatural second nature

Born in Germany in 1830, Albert Bierstadt was brought to the United States at the age of one by his parents. He developed a taste for art early and made clever crayon sketches in his youth. On his twentieth birthday, he began to paint in oils. After a trip to Germany where he studied painting for several years he returned to the US where in 1858 he began painting scenes in New England and upstate New York, including in the Hudson River valley.

In 1860 he was elected a member of the National Academy; he received medals in Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany. During the American Civil War, Bierstadt paid for a substitute to serve in his place when he was drafted in 1863.

Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt used studies from his many westward travels as the source for large-scale paintings for exhibition. He continued to visit the American West throughout his career. In 1867 he traveled to London, where he exhibited two landscape paintings in a private reception with Queen Victoria.

A trip to the Yellowstone region in 1871 yielded numerous drawings of the area's geysers and picturesque topography. These works were instrumental in convincing the United States Congress to pass the Yellowstone Park Bill in 1872, thus establishing the first national park in the world.

Despite his popular success, Bierstadt was criticized by some contemporaries for the romanticism evident in his choices of subject and his use of light was felt to be excessive. His exhibition pieces were brilliantly crafted images that glorified the American West as a land of promise.

In 1882 Bierstadt's studio at Irvington, New York, was destroyed by fire, resulting in the loss of many of his paintings. By the time of his death in 1902, the taste for epic landscape painting had long since subsided. Bierstadt was then largely forgotten.

"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous." -Aristotle

The many hands that make light work want you to see it anew

Physicists around the world are gearing up for the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL), which kicks off later this month at an official opening ceremony at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Some 1500 delegates are set to converge on the French capital for the event, which runs from 19 to 20 January, and will include representatives from the UN and UNESCO as well as the Nobel laureates Zhores Alferov, Steven Chu, Serge Haroche and William Phillips.

Honestly, they couldn't have picked a better year. 2015 marks the anniversary of several important milestones in the study of light, including the 1000th anniversary of the publication of Ibn al-Haytham's seven-volume treatise on optics. Alhazen's work transformed the way in which light and vision was understood, earning him the title the "father of modern optics". 200 years ago Fresnel proposed that light behaved like a wave, 150 years ago James Clerk Maxwell published his Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, a 100 years ago Einstein embedded light in cosmology through general relativity and it's been 50 years since Wilson and Penzias discovered the cosmic microwave background.

"One of the most exciting aspects of this International Year is the way in which it brings together such a wide range of different communities, from astronomy to medicine and photonics to arts and culture," says Beth Taylor, chair of the UK National Committee for the IYL. "It creates a unique opportunity to cross traditional cultural divides and engage new and different audiences with the excitement of light and its applications."

The IYL will consist of a series of co-ordinated events around the world to communicate the importance of light and optical technologies in society – ranging from the Story of Light Festival in Goa, India, to Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. Hundreds of events are planned in countries all around the world.

You can find out about events near you using light2015's event programme;

If you haven not yet seen the amazing BBC4 series Light Fantastic, make this the year you do.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” -Plato

Some other interesting links;
White light through prism
A History of Light
The electromagnetic radiation spectrum

Henryk Siemiradzki - A forgotten master of academicism

Siemiradzki was a Polish 19th-century painter known for his depictions of scenes from the ancient Graeco-Roman world and the New Testament. He was born in 1843 to a Polish noble family near the city of Kharkiv in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine).

He entered the Physics-Mathematics School of Kharkov University and studied natural sciences there with great interest, but also continued to paint. After graduating from the University with the degree of Kandidat he abandoned his scientific career and moved to Saint Petersburg to study painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts in the years 1864–1870. Upon his graduation he was awarded a gold medal. In 1870–1871 he studied under Karl von Piloty in Munich on a grant from the Academy. In 1872 he moved to Rome and with time, built a studio there on Via Gaeta.

At one point his paintings were loved through most of the western world. He even received the French National Order of the Legion of Honour in 1878, but today he has been largely forgotten. Most likely because all his work is on display in the national museums of Poland, Russia and Ukraine which draw relatively small crowds when compared to museums like the Louvre or the Metropolitan.

Siemiradzki died in 1902 and was buried originally in Warsaw, but later his remains were moved to the national Pantheon on Skałka in Kraków.

March 2, 2015

How to map a billion frames of mind?

Shortened edit of a NYT article worth reading in full;

In 2005, Sebastian Seung suffered the academic equivalent of an existential crisis. Seung was growing increasingly depressed. He and his colleagues spent their days arguing over how the brain might function, but science offered no way to scan it for the answers. “It seemed like decades could go by,” Seung told me recently, “and you would never know one way or another whether any of the theories were correct.”

That November, Seung sought the advice of David Tank, a mentor he met at Bell Laboratories. Over lunch Tank administered a radical cure. He informed Seung of a former colleague in Heidelberg, Germany, Winfried Denk, who had just built a device that imaged brain tissue with enough resolution to make out the connections between individual neurons... Less than a month later Seung arrived at the Max Planck institute where Denk introduced him to the high-resolution brain-imager he had built.

Now, eight years later, Seung has become the leading proponent of a plan to create a wiring diagram of all 100 trillion connections between the neurons of the human brain, an unimaginably vast and complex network known as the connectome.

If science were to gain the power to record and store connectomes, then it would be natural to speculate, as Seung and others have, that technology might some day enable a recording to play again, thereby reanimating a human consciousness. The mapping of connectomes, its most zealous proponents believe, would confer nothing less than immortality.

For now he hopes to prove that he can find a specific memory in the brain of a mouse and show how neural connections sustain it.

What makes the connectome’s relationship to our identity so difficult to understand, Seung told me, is that we associate our “self” with motion. We walk. We sing. We experience thoughts and feelings that bloom into consciousness and then fade. “Psyche” is derived from the Greek “to blow,” evoking the vital breath that defines life. “It seems like a fallacy to talk about our self as some wiring diagram that doesn’t change very quickly,” Seung said. “The connectome is just meat, and people rebel at that.”

When Seung started, he estimated that it would take a single tracer roughly a million years to finish a cubic millimeter of human cortex — meaning that tracing an entire human brain would consume roughly one trillion years of labor. He would need a little help.

In 2012, Seung started EyeWire, an online game that challenges the public to trace neuronal wiring — now using computers, not pens — in the retina of a mouse’s eye. Seung’s artificial-­intelligence algorithms process the raw images, then players earn points as they mark, paint-by-numbers style, the branches of a neuron through a three-dimensional cube.

Ultimately, Seung still hopes that artificial intelligence will be able to handle the entire job. But in the meantime, he is working to recruit more help. In August, South Korea’s largest telecom company announced a partnership with EyeWire, running nationwide ads to bring in more players. In the next few years, Seung hopes to go bigger by enticing a company to turn EyeWire into a game with characters and a story line that people play purely for fun. “Think of what we could do,” Seung said, “if we could capture even a small fraction of the mental effort that goes into Angry Birds.”

To explain what he finds so compelling about the substance of the brain, Seung points to stories of near death. Like the one of a young doctor named Anna Bagenholm who miraculously recovered from being clinically dead for more than 2 hours. Even after the cold arrested Bagenholm’s heart and hushed her crackling neuronal net to a whisper, her connectome endured.

At the Janelia Research Campus you can find MERLIN, a pair of hulking beige devices, a next generation brain-imaging system. The system combines slicing and imaging: An electron microscope takes a picture of the brain sample from above, then a beam of ions moves across the top, vaporizing material and revealing the next layer of brain tissue for the microscope. It is, however, a “temperature-­sensitive beast,” said Shan Xu, a scientist at Janelia. If the room warms by even a fraction of a degree, the metal can expand imperceptibly, skewing the ion beam, wrecking the sample and forcing the team to start over. Xu was once within days of completing a monthslong run when a July heat wave caused the air-­conditioning to hiccup. All the work was lost. Xu has since designed elaborate fail-safes, including a system that can (and does) wake him up in the middle of the night; Janelia has also invested several hundred thousand dollars in backup climate control. “We’ve learned more about utilities than you would ever want to know,” Hess said.

Here at Janelia, connectome science will face its most demanding test. Gerry Rubin, Janelia’s director, said his team hopes to have a complete catalog of high-resolution images­ of the fruit-fly brain in a year or two and a completely traced wiring diagram within a decade. Rubin is a veteran of genome mapping and saw how technological advances enabled a project that critics originally derided as prohibitively difficult and expensive. He is betting that the story of the connectome will follow the same arc. Ken Hayworth, a scientist in Hess’s lab, is developing a way to cleanly cut larger brains into cubes; he calls it “the hot knife.” In other labs, Jeff Lichtman of Harvard and Clay Reid of the Allen Institute for Brain Science are building their own ultrafast imaging systems. Denk, Seung’s longtime collaborator in Heidelberg, is working on a new device to slice and image a mouse’s entire brain, a volume orders of magnitude larger than what has been tried to date.

As connectomics has gained traction, though, there are the first hints that it may be of interest to more than just monkish academics. In September, at a Brain Initiative conference in the Eisenhower building on the White House grounds, it was announced that Google had started its own connectome project. Tom Dean, a Google research scientist and the former chairman of the Brown University computer-science department, told me he has been assembling a team to improve the artificial intelligence: four engineers in Mountain View, Calif., and a group based in Seattle. To begin, Dean said, Google will be working most closely with the Allen Institute, which is trying to understand how the brain of a mouse processes images from the eye. Yet Dean said they also want to serve as a clearinghouse for Seung and others, applying different variations of artificial intelligence to brain imagery coming out of different labs, to see what works best.

It’s possible now to see a virtuous cycle that could build the connectome. The artificial intelligence used at Google, and in EyeWire, is known as deep learning because it takes its central principles from the way networks of neurons function. This could, in the coming decades, lead to more insights about neural networks, improving deep learning itself — the premise of a new project funded by Iarpa, a blue-sky research arm of the American intelligence community, and perhaps one reason for Google’s interest. Better deep learning, in turn, could be used to accelerate the mapping and understanding of the brain, and so on.

Eve Marder, a prominent neuroscientist at Brandeis University, cautions against expecting too much from the connectome. She studies neurons that control the stomachs of crabs and lobsters. In these relatively simple systems of 30 or so neurons, she has shown that neuromodulators — signaling chemicals that wash across regions of the brain, omitted from Seung’s static map — can fundamentally change how a circuit functions. If this is true for the stomach of a crustacean, the mind reels to consider what may be happening in the brain of a mouse, not to mention a human.

“If we want to understand the brain,” Marder says, “the connectome is absolutely necessary and completely insufficient.”

Seung agrees but has never seen that as an argument for abandoning the enterprise. Science progresses when its practitioners find answers — this is the way of glory — but also when they make something that future generations rely on, even if they take it for granted. That, for Seung, would be more than good enough. “Necessary,” he said, “is still a pretty strong word, right?”

Microbes given a new lease on shelf life

Critics of genetic engineering have long worried about the risk of modified organisms escaping into the environment. A biological-containment strategy described this week in Nature has the potential to put some of those fears to rest and to pave the way for greater use of engineered organisms in areas such as agriculture, medicine and environmental clean-up.

The new approach gives GMOs an Achilles heel. The researchers who have produced the organism have built in vital dependency on an artificial nutrient. If the nutrient is withdrawn, or the organism spreads to where it is no longer available, then the organism cannot survive.

The research marks an elegant step forward for the growing field of synthetic biology. In the first paper, Farren Isaacs and his colleagues at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, describe how they have produced various GMOs whose growth is restricted by the expression of multiple essential genes that depend on synthetic amino acids (A. J. Rovner et al. Nature; 2015). In the second, separate study, George Church at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues redesigned essential enzymes in a GMO to make it metabolically dependent on synthetic amino acids (D. J. Mandell et al. Nature; 2015). The modifications are made throughout the genome to make it harder for the altered sequences to be ejected.

The new technique originated in the laboratory of George Church. Two years ago, Church and his team (which included Isaacs) reported the synthesis of a strain of Escherichia coli that had a reprogrammed genetic code3. Instead of recognizing a particular DNA triplet known as the amber stop codon as an order to terminate protein synthesis, the recoded bacterium read the same instruction as a directive to incorporate a new kind of amino acid into its proteins.

Church and Isaacs have independently made this engineered microbe reliant on unnatural amino acids. The Isaacs team used genomic sequencing to identify sites in essential bacterial proteins where the microbes could incorporate synthetic amino acids without affecting overall function, whereas Church’s group started with the protein structures and added elements to help integrate and accommodate the artificial amino acids. “This is really the culmination of a decade of work,” says Church.

These organisms are also more resistant to viruses than their natural counter­parts because of the mismatch between the genetic code of the virus and that of its host3. Looking ahead, Church and his team are working to co-opt seven different codons, instead of just one.

The research in both papers is with bacteria, but there seems no reason why the techniques they describe could not be used to engineer more-complex, multicellular organisms — including crops — in the same way.

So what is the downside? Much of the controversy over genetic modification relates to early, clumsy, attempts by big business to commercialize crops, and to gain control over where, when and how they were grown to maximize profit. A crop that needs constant nourishment with a bespoke foodstuff — unavailable elsewhere and with manufacture protected under probable patents — could be presented as a way of tying vulnerable farmers still closer to largely unloved seed companies.

David Černý - revolting?

1. rise in rebellion.
2. cause to feel disgust.

Born in 1967 in Prague, Černý learned his trade from 1988 to 1996 at the Academy of Applied Arts in the country’s capital. He spent several years abroad, studying in Boswil during 1991 after receiving a grant from the Swiss government. He lived in New York City from 1994 to 1996 where he first enrolled at P.S.I Artists Residence New York and later took part in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.

Lots of his work can be seen in many locations throughout Prague. His output tends to be somewhat controversial and often shocks those who unexpectedly bump into it while strolling through Prague's late medieval alleys. He gained notoriety in 1991 by painting a Soviet tank pink, to serve as a war memorial in central Prague. As the Monument to Soviet tank crews was still a national cultural monument at that time, his act of civil disobedience was considered "hooliganism" and he was briefly arrested.

When asked why he created a fountain sculpture featuring male figures that urinate into an enclosure shaped like the Czech Republic he stated that “I just enjoy pissing people off”. I am not sure if his statements should be taken at face value. I often get the feeling that he's just putting on a show, wanting to create the impression that he's punk, that he doesn't think before he does, that he's all about fucking with authority, consequences be damned... Although those elements sure play a large part in many of his creations I also get the feeling there is a very different side to Černý. The side that made works like Metalmorphosis and Speed seems to be much less concerned with pissing people off and more with depicting aspects of the human condition we take for granted but perhaps should not.

Apologies for the sometimes poor quality of the included pictures. I've searched far and wide for decent ones but he does not seem to have a huge online presence. In fact, some of his best stuff is missing from this album. His art travels the world though so if it ever shows up in an exhibit near you, make sure to go take a look! :)


London Booster


2 men pissing

Cerny sculpture work

Still waters run deep

The below clip is a trailer of sorts for an upcoming non-verbal film titled Prograve by Italian filmmaker and documentarist Sandro Bocci. The feature is billed as (translated from Italian) “an experimental film orbiting scientific and philosophical reflections on time and space, and that through various shooting techniques, fields of magnification, and an exciting soundtrack, weaves a web between science and magic.” The section shown here depicts beautiful macro timelapses of coral, sponges and other aquatic wildlife filmed under ultraviolet light.

It looks to be a film in the style of those like Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka. Definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Peter Paul Rubens fleshed out the body of classical myths

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), was a Flemish Baroque painter. A proponent of an extravagant Baroque style that emphasized movement, colour, and sensuality. Rubens is well known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp that produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically educated humanist scholar and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV, King of Spain, and Charles I, King of England.

His father, a Calvinist, and mother fled Antwerp for Cologne in 1568, after increased religious turmoil and persecution of Protestants during the rule of the Spanish Netherlands by the Duke of Alba. Jan Rubens became the legal advisor (and lover) of Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William I of Orange, and settled at her court in Siegen in 1570, fathering her daughter Christine. Following Jan Rubens' imprisonment for the affair, Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577. The family returned to Cologne the next year. In 1589, two years after his father's death, Rubens moved with his mother Maria Pypelincks to Antwerp, where he was raised as a Catholic.

In Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaeght. Subsequently, he studied under two of the city's leading painters of the time, the late Mannerist artists Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Much of his earliest training involved copying earlier artists' works, such as woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcantonio Raimondi's engravings after Raphael. Rubens completed his education in 1598, at which time he entered the Guild of St. Luke as an independent master.

In 1600, Rubens travelled to Italy. He stopped first in Venice, where he saw paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, before settling in Mantua at the court of Duke Vincenzo I Gonzaga. The coloring and compositions of Veronese and Tintoretto had an immediate effect on Rubens's painting, and his later, mature style was profoundly influenced by Titian. With financial support from the Duke, Rubens travelled to Rome by way of Florence in 1601. There, he studied classical Greek and Roman art and copied works of the Italian masters. The Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön and his Sons was especially influential on him, as was the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. He was also influenced by the recent, highly naturalistic paintings by Caravaggio.

Rubens travelled to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1603, delivering gifts from the Gonzagas to the court of Philip III. While there, he studied the extensive collections of Raphael and Titian that had been collected by Philip II. This journey marked the first of many during his career that combined art and diplomacy.

Upon hearing of his mother's illness in 1608, Rubens planned his departure from Italy for Antwerp. However, she died before he arrived home. His return coincided with a period of renewed prosperity in the city with the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp in April 1609, which initiated the Twelve Years' Truce. In September 1609 Rubens was appointed as court painter by Albert VII, Archduke of Austria and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia of Spain, sovereigns of the Low Countries.

He received special permission to base his studio in Antwerp instead of at their court in Brussels, and to also work for other clients. He remained close to the Archduchess Isabella until her death in 1633, and was called upon not only as a painter but also as an ambassador and diplomat. Rubens further cemented his ties to the city when, on 3 October 1609, he married Isabella Brant, the daughter of a leading Antwerp citizen and humanist, Jan Brant.

In 1610, Rubens moved into a new house and studio that he designed. Now the Rubenshuis Museum, the Italian-influenced villa in the centre of Antwerp accommodated his workshop, where he and his apprentices made most of the paintings, and his personal art collection and library, both among the most extensive in Antwerp. During this time he built up a studio with numerous students and assistants. His most famous pupil was the young Anthony van Dyck.

Rubens used the production of prints and book title-pages, especially for his friend Balthasar Moretus, the owner of the large Plantin-Moretus publishing house, to extend his fame throughout Europe during this part of his career.

In 1621, the Queen Mother of France, Marie de' Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.

After the end of the Twelve Years' Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions. While in Paris in 1622 to discuss the Marie de' Medici cycle, Rubens engaged in clandestine information gathering activities, which at the time was an important task of diplomats. Between 1627 and 1630, Rubens' diplomatic career was particularly active, and he moved between the courts of Spain and England in an attempt to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces. He also made several trips to the northern Netherlands as both an artist and a diplomat.

At the courts he sometimes encountered the attitude that courtiers should not use their hands in any art or trade, but he was also received as a gentleman by many. Rubens was raised by Philip IV of Spain to the nobility in 1624 and knighted by Charles I of England in 1630. Philips IV confirmed Rubens' status as a knight a few months later. Rubens was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629.

Rubens's last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him but he also explored more personal artistic directions. In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife Isabella, the 53-year-old painter married his first wife's niece, the 16-year-old Hélène Fourment. Hélène inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s.

Rubens died from heart failure, which was a result of his chronic gout on 30 May 1640. He was interred in Saint Jacob's church, Antwerp. The artist had eight children, three with Isabella and five with Hélène; his youngest child was born eight months after his death.

Welcome to a new reality

HTC has just announced the Vive, a virtual reality headset developed in collaboration with Valve. It will be available to consumers later this year, with a developer edition coming out this spring. The company has promised to have a significant presence at the Game Developers Conference next week, where devs will have a chance to play with Valve's VR technology.

The Vive Developer Edition uses two 1200 x 1080 displays that refresh at 90 frames per second, "eliminating jitter" and achieving "photorealistic imagery," according to HTC. The displays are said to envelope your entire field of vision with 360-degree views. The company says in a press release that it's the first device to offer a "full room-scale" experience, "letting you get up, walk around and explore your virtual space, inspect objects from every angle and truly interact with your surroundings."

The device uses a gyrosensor, accelerometer, and laser position sensor to track your head's movements as precisely as one-tenth of a degree. Most surprisingly, there will be something called the Steam VR base station, which will let you walk around the virtual space instead of using a controller. A pair of the base stations can "track your physical location ... in spaces up to 15 feet by 15 feet."

Of course we don't yet know the precise specs that Oculus' consumer headset will launch with. The specs of this headset are leaps beyond those of their current crescent bay prototype. Considering we still don't have a firm idea of when the rift will launch, it's beginning to look like Oculus might have spent just a bit too much time perfecting their HMD. Unless they've got something in the works that blows this out of the water, their drive for perfection might just have lose them the race to market. Either way, Google, Sony, LG, Apple, ... are all working on VR headsets as well so this space was bound to get increasingly hot... We as consumers will no doubt benefit from this heated competition.