Sunday, August 20, 2006

Postcards from a Post Human (pt 2)

Sorry I haven't blogged again about the crazy emails from the future. The past couple weeks have just been too strange, and it's only now, as things start to settle down, that I even think to take the time to catch up.

As I review my last post, I see that I never got to explain the third email. That was the one that kicked off the week of weirdness.

You'll have to forgive me for not sharing it with you verbatim, but you'll understand my reasons in a moment. I'm happy to give you the gist, though.

Essentially, the email explained a series of steps that I should take to get my "mind into a receptive state" (which is how he - or I, depending on your degree of credulity, put it). After a short primer on Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, as well as a brief explanantion of a theory of the role of the frontal lobes of the brain in human cognition, I was instructed where to purchase a device that would help me "think better."

A brief background is necessary here to understand what happened next. It seems that the frontal lobes play a strong role in actually supressing or masking certain brain functions in other parts of the cerebral cortex. In a nutshell, all those talents exhibited by "idiot savants", such as phenomenal memory, mathematical calculations, attention to detail in art and drawing...all of these are present in everyone's brain. However, there are parts of the frontal lobe that actually keep these other areas supressed in a normal brain. Autistic children, many who have smaller or malfunctioning frontal lobes, often exhibit the latent skills present in these other brain areas.

Most autistic children become so absorbed by the detail of what they see and hear that it overwhelms them. Normal human brains supress these capabilities. Why?

The theory is that while it may have served our small prey ancestors well (as it does other prey animals - read Animals In Translation for more on this), the development of the ability to model the outside world and predict events became much more useful. And you can't do that sort of modeling/prediction well if you're too absorbed with how the light from the sun highlights those pretty auburn hairs on that big kitty - the tiger gets to make a big snack of you.

Those "idiot savants" aren't really idiots - they just don't have the ability to turn off those portions of the brain which provide those savant skills. And normal humans don't have the ability to turn them on.

Till now.

Enter Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and it's cousin Direct Current Stimulation. I won't bore you with the details (you can follow the links or google for more), but basically these techniques allow the activation or supression of specific parts of the brain. They are used today by neuroscientists in mapping the brain.

They are also used by early post-humanists to activate or supress parts of the brain to unlock more of the brain's potential.

After purchasing the components described in the email, I was ready to begin.

Well, almost ready.

"Are you fucking out of your mind?!" Pam yelled at me. She, of course, was the one person who was my confidante in this crazy venture. "You're going to shoot a bunch of electricity - through your brain - on the say so of some stupid email?"

We'd been over this. Over and over. Apparently, even though neither of us could explain how someone could pull it off, Pam was still convinced that the emails were some kind of hoax. Some kinds of scam, who's punch line had yet to be revealed. An early April Fool's joke, with me playing the Fool.

"You don't have to watch," I said, as I sat down and carefully adjusted the location of the transducers. "But if you'd like to be helpful, you could help me move this to the right spot - this mirror isn't helping me much."

"Oh no, I'm not touching that thing. You turn yourself into a drooling vegetable, I'm not having my fingerprints on it." Pam threw up her hands and started to walk away.

"Could you at least help me wipe the drool off the floor afterword?" I said as I tried one last time to align the headgear as close to the instructions as I could.

I heard her walk away down the hall, slow down, then stomp back. "Fine. I'll be here to call 911." She threw herself down on the couch next to me. "Idiot."

"That's idiot savant to you," I muttered. "Okay - here goes!"

I pressed the button.

The feeling was hard to describe. Slowly, I started looking around and seeing details I had never noticed before. The dust motes in the ray of light from the window. The reflections of light from the floor. A yellow book jacket, blazing in contrast to the others next to it on the bookshelf.

And sound. The dog outside, barking. A siren, blocks away. The sudden, very loud sound from the person right next to me.

I looked over at Pam, who was yelling at me, but I couldn't understand her. I knew she was saying something, but the meaning was just out of reach, like I knew that language was familiar but I couldn't quite remember what those words meant.

I tried to respond, but I couldn't remember how to speak the words either. I guess some sort of sound came out, because her expression changed and she grabbed me and shouted in my face. Which did not set well with me at all.

I was overwhelmed. I was swamped by the freckles on her face, trying to count every one. The cacaphony sound was so loud, and there were so many different, interesting sounds going on at once. And the reflections of the light from her earrings were like a sharp, physical pain cutting through my head.

I curled up into a ball to try to shut out the sensations, and eventually they faded. It all faded into stillness.

When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital bed. The lighting was dim, and it appeared to be dark outside the window. Pam was asleep in the stuffed chair in the corner.

I felt fine. I still had extraordinarily vivid images of recollection from the time just before I must have passed out. The dust. The book cover. Pam's freckles.

"Six hundred and thirty-two," I said, apparently out loud because Pam came awake with a start.

"Whaaa?" She cleared her throat. "What did you just say?"

"That's how many freckles you have," said, grinning. "Six hundred and thirty-two. Although a very tiny scar kind of cuts off one of them, but I counted it anyway."

Pam frowned. "Let me get the nurse," Pam said and turned to go out the door.

"No, wait!" She stopped and looked back. "It's okay. Really." I nodded. "I'm okay. In fact, never better." I smiled again when I realized it was true.

"You passed out. You scared the shit out of me." Pam said, still looking dubious as to my state of mind.

"I'm sorry. I must have done something wrong. But I really do feel okay."

She came back over to the side of the bed, an odd expression on her face. "What?" I asked.

She hesitated, then let out a long sigh and handed me a sheet of paper. "It came when you were doing your little experiment." She walked back to the chair and sat down.

She went on. "After all the excitement of the ambulance and shit, they said you seemed to be okay and just needed to come out of it on your own. I got bored just sitting here listening to you snore, so I went out to the lounge and checked my email. That," she gestured at the sheet in my hand, "was in my inbox. I figured you'd want to read it."

I glanced at the sheet. It was from him - me - again. It started out "Don't worry - you didn't hook it up wrong, and you haven't suffered any damage. In fact, just the opposite..."

I looked up at Pam, and she nodded. "When you said you must have hooked it up wrong, it reminded me."

The email went on to explain what had just happened. I had supressed portions of my frontal lobes, as well as Broca's area and other language related functions. At the same time, I had stimulated some of the pure sensory processing areas of my brain. This gave me an incredibly enhanced ability to focus on the detail of what those senses were telling me, without the executive functions and language areas getting in the way, trying to interpret and reinterpret what I was seeing and hearing.

Once the artificial supression was shut-off, the normal functions of those areas of the brain returned. But I had retained the detailed memory of what I had seen.

I could now recite, in order, the title of every book on my bookshelves. It was like I was reading them off from a photograph. When I tried, I could recollect where every item in the study was, from a ball of trash next to the trash can, to a piece of red thread that came from god knows where and was lying on the couch next to where Pam was sitting.

I could remember everything.

The email went on to identify a few more experiments to try, and we decided to wait until the next weekend to do so. I had to go to work, and Pam had things to do as well. And I wasn't ready to tell anyone else about this. Not yet.

Not until yesterday, when everything changed yet again.

(to be continued)

Bazaar Security

Why is it that advocates of market forces push capitalism as the best solution to everything - except when it comes to security?

I listen to arguments all the time about how we should just let efficicent market forces work in matters like retirement pensions, global trade, health care, and roads.

I even listen to capitalist extremists explaining why we should get rid of welfare, social security, and other "socialist" concepts ("this is a country of opportunity, and people who can't make enough money to live here are just lazy and undeserving").

Yet I never hear even these Ayn Rand wannabes advocating leaving the airline security situation to market forces.

Why not let the airlines compete freely? Some will offer the beefy security being dictated by the Bush administration - no toothpicks, shoes, or toothpaste allowed on-board. Others could offer the "security lite" version (maybe only 1 box cutter per passenger, school IDs accepted in lieu of government ID, etc). Presumably, the security lite version would be cheaper (and faster), and the heavy security version would be safer.

Let Americans decide which they prefer. Those who want to be protected against the 1 in six million chance1 of being killed in a terrorist attack on an aircraft could gladly pay the premium for the privilege. Those who prefer to save their money for other priorities could do so as well.

We already do this with automobiles. In a given year, the odds of dying in a car wreck are dramatically higher than dying in a plane wreck (about 1 in 7,000, vs. about 1 in 400,000). And the odds of dying in a small car are almost double those in an SUV (59% vs 35%).

Yet we let people choose to drive over fly, and we let them pick the kind of car they want to drive in.

Heck, even Merry Ol' England, land of socialized medicine, has stauncher capitalist proponents that the U.S. of A. The CEO of Ryanair is threatening to sue the British government over their airport security restrictions as being overly burdensome on commerce.

Where are those staunch Republican Capitalists when they're needed most? Cowering? (Or do they just all work for defense and security contractors?)

1(The odds of being killed by a terrorist are hard to identify, since they're usually lumped in with other kinds of assaults, but they are somewhat less than 1 in 77,000. With the odds of dying in a plane crash at 1 in 392,000, and 6% of those being caused by sabotage, the odds of being killed by terrorist sabotage of a plane are about 1 in 6,500,000).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Postcards from a Post Human

The emails from the future began on a Friday.

Being in a hurry to grab a happy hour beer ($2 Shiner - beat that!), I noticed only in passing that someone had made it past my spam filter with an odd subject line - "Don't Open Till Saturday (merry xmas)." I didn't actually read it until the next day, well past noon and a very late breakfast taco.

Still a tad drowsy, but at least better hydrated and no longer with that stabbing ice pick pain behind my right eye, I wandered by my computer and remembered the email. What a great way to procrastinate, said my subconscious, so I sat down and logged in.
I know you're receiving this email, since it already happened. That is, I'm pretty sure you are, since I remember reading it so many years ago. It's important that you read my emails over the next few weeks, since it's up to you to kick-off this kick-ass post-human world in which I now live. If I remember correctly (too bad my augs aren't retroactive), you are a bit hungover when you're first reading this, but the thing that really stands out in my memory is that I'm supposed to tell you that the phone is going to ring in about 30 seconds. Answer it - it's important.

That's all for now. You'll understand better when you read the rest of the emails, but don't do it yet - just answer the phone.
Oooookay. That was weird, I thought. I saw that there were two more emails after this one, and I was about to click on the next one to see what the hell the punchline was supposed to be, when the phone rang.

At first I was a bit freaked, a tingling shudder running through my body. But then I laughed - life is absurd that way, with little coincidences occuring just often enough that you start to think that maybe life is a little more magic than it really is. You know how it goes - you start thinking about a song, then turn on the radio and there is that song playing. You think about a friend, and they call.

I bemusedly walked over to the phone, remembering the last time that happened. I had been thinking of Pam, wondering if I should call her, when the phone rang. It was of course Pam.

I picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"Mike?" I knew that voice. It was Pam. I felt that tingle again, that pending sense of anticipation that something is about to happen.

"That was weird. I was just thinking about you," I started.

"Oh My God! That's just what he said you would say!!" Pam exclaimed.

"What? Who? Say what?" I know, I wasn't making much sense. But neither was this situation.

"Listen, are you home? Can I come over?" Pam said, a sense of urgency in her voice. "I need to show you something."

I looked down. I was still in my underwear from last night, hadn't taken a shower, and still smelled like cigarettes, beers, and bars. "Sure. Give me a half hour first, though - I need to take a shower."

"Whatever. I'm coming over right now." She hung up.

I figured it would take her at least ten minutes to get here, even if she walked out the door right now, which I don't think I'd ever seen Pam manage before (having to pick out just the right shoes, check her hair, and find her purse before even thinking of being seen in public). I started to get up and hit the shower, when I remembered the email.

I sat back down and reread it. Hmph. Very weird. I figured any one of my drinking buddies from last night could have sent it, knowing we were going out, knowing I'd be hung over. They all know I love sci-fi tropes.

But whoever sent it somehow knew about the phone call, Pam wasn't out with us last night. I suppose she could have known I was out, but even if she was trying to fuck with me, how the heck did she time the phone call to coincide with the prediction in the email so closely?

Ah, how about a return receipt on the email? She could see when I opened it, then could time the call pretty closely to the time I would finish reading it. Good trick. I smiled. Pam was my friend because she was always coming up with ways to keep life interesting. I'd have to give her a pat on the back for the effort, but I thought she might be a little disappointed to see how fast I figured it out.

Wait. There were two more emails from the same address. Now interested to see where the off-season April Fool's joke was heading, I clicked on the next one in line.
Ok, you should be done with the phone call from Pam. And no, it wasn't - isn't? - her sending these emails. (English syntax doesn't handle time anomalies well at all, does it?)

Pam is going to come over and tell you a story about the email she got. Yes, that was from me too. I'd tell you what was in it, but you'll find out soon enough.

Look, this isn't one of your friends fucking with you. (Well, I suppose you could interpret it that way, but you'd be missing the point). Trust me. Well, ok, you don't have to trust me, just go along with me for a bit - consider it an adventure. It'll make a great story for your blog. (I know - I have a record of it still.)

Here is what you need to know.

I'm going to tell you some things over the next few weeks. If you follow up on them like you did before, then you're going to end up living through some very interesting and exciting adventures. And by the time you get where I am now, you'll be very glad you did.

When you're done hearing what Pam has to say, read the next email I sent. You won't have time right now - she's going to ring the doorbell any second.
Oh crap - Pam.

I looked down at my watch. Crap, she could be here any minute, and I still haven't taken a shower or gotten dressed. I started to get up, then paused. If I click on the email now, then this asshole - who I surmised is supposed to be me talking from the future - would be wrong, wouldn't he?

I started to sit back down and click, when I heard the door open and Pam shouting out "Mike? Hello? Where are you?"

Shit - I needed some pants. I jumped up and grabbed my jeans from last night and threw them on, buttoning them just as Pam walked into my bedroom. "Oh, there you are." She sniffed, then wrinkled her nose. "I thought you were going to take a shower."

"I was. You got here too fast."

"How long does it take to walk 10 feet and turn on a shower?" She put her hands on her hips. "I don't want to hear you giving me a hard time anymore about taking forever to get ready."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever." My head was starting to hurt again. "What was so important you had to rush over here?"

"Why? Don't you like to see me? Am I keeping you from all the important things you were getting accomplished this morning?" Pam liked discursive sarcastic banter. Said it kept conversations more interesting if they took three left turns instead of one right turn getting to the same place.

"Please." I put up my hand. "No harranging till I can get rid of this headache."

"Ha! Serves you right. You're the one who just had to be Mr. Funny last night with your inebriated email." She gave a little snort. "You techies. Can't you just drunk dial like everyone else?"

Email. I remembered why Pam said she had to come over. "Email?"

"This." She pulled a folded sheet of paper out of her purse and handed it to me. I opened it up.
Sorry about the obscure return address - hope this makes it past your spam filters.

You're not going to believe this. In fact, you'll think it's some sort of joke. And in a way it is, but not in the way you think.

Here's the thing. I'm going to make some predictions. You're going to see that they come true. Then you're going to drive over to Mike's house as soon as you can and get him to explain it all to you. He's the only one who can help you figure out what is going on.

Here's the first prediction. You normally have coffee and toast for breakfast. But this morning, for some reason, you decided to have cereal instead. While you were eating the cereal, you were watching the news and saw that the American winner of the Tour de France had failed his second (or "B") test.

Here's the next prediction. You're going to look up and see your cat licking the milk from your cereal.

Now call Mike. Right now. Tell him you're coming right over. Don't worry - he'll be expecting your call - in fact, he's thinking about you right now.

And don't forget to print out this email and take it with you.
I looked up at Pam. "Did all this happen?"

She looked solemn and nodded. "Exactly like the email said. At first I thought it was some joke, but that bit about the cat...when I saw Spot licking my cereal bowl I about had a cow." Spot was her cat. "But then I knew it had to be a trick. You wrote it, right? Do you have me under surveillance or something?" She sounded half mad, half scared.

I shook my head. "You need to see something."

I turned to go read the third email.

(to be continued)