Invisibility study looks at new ways to treat anxiety, and more

JLister, for Geeks are Sexy:

The invisibility study stems from work on phantom limb syndrome in which amputees still perceive pain and other feelings from the missing limb. Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute have previously found it possible to create a form of phantom limb syndrome in non-amputees by placing the subject’s arm out of sight behind a screen, and repeatedly stroking both the arm and the empty (visible) space with a brush at the same time. When they then stopped stroking the arm and instead only stroked the empty space in front of the subject, the subject still “felt” the stroking on their arm.

The researchers decided the next step was to see if that illusion could work for an entire body. They got test subjects to wear a virtual reality headset that was hooked up to a camera pointing down at another spot on the floor. That meant whenever the subject looked down, they would appear to see an empty space beneath them where their body should be.

It all started in good fun with the so-called The Rubber Hand Illusion (YouTube), but basic VR gear is now allowing people to explore more radical transformations… and deeper questions, too.

More recently, BeAnotherLab developed The Machine To be Another to explore a crude but eerily convincing body-swapping illusion. If it’s useful to study our sense of self, empathy, or morality, I’m all for it. But I also look forward to the day when we can swap bodies (or projections) with no visible gear, and just the subtlest of gestures.

Italian explorer Alex Bellini to live in iceberg-borne survival capsule for a year

Ben Yeager, for Outside Online:

Bellini spent two years searching for the appropriate survival capsule, but most were too heavy to plant on a berg. But then, in October, he contacted aeronautical engineer Julian Sharpe, founder of Survival Capsule, a company that makes lightweight, indestructible floating capsules, or “personal safety systems.

They can hold from two to ten people, depending on the model, and are made from aircraft-grade aluminum in what’s called a continuous monocoque structure, an interlocking frame of aluminum spars that evenly distribute force, underneath a brightly painted and highly visible aluminum shell. The inner frame can be stationary or mounted on roller balls so it rotates, allowing the passengers to remain upright at all times.

For Bellini, I get the impression that this is a stunt and an art project — he’s hired Italian designer Pietro Santoro to customize the pod — as much as it’s about research. A story with an isolation aspect always appeals to me. But it will be interesting to see what we might glean from the project. I hope he goes through with it.

Artificial photosynthesis advance seen as a breakthrough

Chris Chang, at at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley:

“In our system, nanowires harvest solar energy and deliver electrons to bacteria, where carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of a variety of targeted, value-added chemical products.”

Lynn Yarris-Berkeley, at Futurity, elucidates:

By combining biocompatible light-capturing nanowire arrays with select bacterial populations, the new artificial photosynthesis system offers a win/win situation for the environment: solar-powered green chemistry using sequestered carbon dioxide.


Project Elysium promises a “personalized afterlife experience”

Mark Walton, for Ars Technica:

Where do we draw the line between what’s ethically acceptable in the real world and what’s ethically acceptable in the virtual world?

One of the developers putting this question to the test is Australia-based Paranormal Games. Project Elysium, its entry into the upcoming Oculus VR Jam 2015, treads some shaky moral ground by promising to create a “personalized afterlife experience,” reuniting people with loved ones who have passed on.

Matters like this divide me. On the one hand, we don’t yet have the sophistication to create anything more than texture-mapped automatons in a room, and I’m eager to see the state of the art pushed toward actual, procedural simulation.

On the other hand, as Alfred Korzybski said, the map is not the territory. Simulations are all we’re going to get for quite some time. Certainly not a being that has that spark of life, and who can muse about shared experiences.

NASA’s NExSS Coalition to Lead Search for Life on Distant Worlds

JPL News:

The key to this effort is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “system science” approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets.

NExSS will tap into the collective expertise from each of the science communities supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:

  • Earth scientists develop a systems science approach by studying our home planet.
  • Planetary scientists apply systems science to a wide variety of worlds within our solar system.
  • Heliophysicists add another layer to this systems science approach, looking in detail at how the sun interacts with orbiting planets.
  • Astrophysicists provide data on the exoplanets and host stars for the application of this systems science framework.

It’s a call for people from many disciplines to come together in support of a single important cause. It’s truly inspiring to see.

New atomic clock won’t lose or gain a single second in 15 billion years

Deborah Netburn, for LA Times:

But the clock isn’t just steady, it’s also amazingly accurate. So accurate in fact, that it can detect tiny changes in the speed of its ticks depending on whether it is 2 centimeters closer or farther from the center of Earth.

“Time can be intricately connected to gravity,” said Jun Ye, a physicist at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It sounds like science fiction, but these measurements are a reality.”

Time is one of those torments that makes less sense to me the more I think about it. We experience its passage, though there’s a very good chance that humans can only peer at a sliver of time’s entirety through a perceptual slit. Do a search for “why does time move at a certain rate?” and you’ll get more scientific papers than you have time to read. Still… that doesn’t mean that the devising of a means of measuring its relative passage under predictable circumstances isn’t a valuable pursuit. Right?

An oral history of Airplane!

Will Harris, for The A.V. Club:

We spoke with as many people involved in Airplane! as we possibly could—including the Zuckers, Jim Abrahams, and cast members Robert Hays, Frank Ashmore, Al White, Lee Bryant, Ross Harris, Jill Whelan, Maureen McGovern, David Leisure, Gregory Itzin, Marcy Goldman, and Jimmie Walker—and asked them to reflect on their experiences while making the film as well as their astonishment that audiences still love Airplane! Sadly, Otto declined to go on the record with his reminiscences, but those who were willing to open up had quite a story to tell, which you can read straight through or use the section guide on the right to flip around.

These A.V. Club oral histories are vast treasure troves. Growing up, we had Airplane! on video disc — the old analog kind — and Airplane was on constant replay.

Lonni Sue Johnson’s amnesia leaves her marooned in the present

Daniel Zalewski, for The New Yorker:

[Lonni Sue Johnson’s] “temporal window”—the period of time that she can reliably keep track of—slams shut after only a minute or two. If something distracts Johnson, her mental continuity can last a few seconds. As Aline put it, Johnson “flosses her teeth, washes her hands, and says, ‘What do you want me to do next—floss my teeth?’ ” Sometimes, mid-conversation, you can see a mental hyperlink break, as Johnson’s eyes start darting, covertly seeking orientation. Her life is an endless series of jump cuts. In our age of pinging distractions, people often express a desire to “be present,” but Johnson belies such sentimentality. She is marooned in the present.

Even this doesn’t fully capture the lonely oddity of Johnson’s sense of time. “We tend to assume that she experiences life the same way as the rest of us do, from moment to moment, and just doesn’t store anything,” Turk-Browne told me. “This assumption seems wrong. It underestimates the role of memory in perception—our ongoing experience is always being informed by the past.”

Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat first introduced me to this peculiar brand of memory loss. Johnson’s tale is both fascinating and horrifying. Well, maybe horrifying for the casual onlooker. But it’s a “dark gift” for researchers, and for Johnson herself, time nothing more than a narrow window that moves with her through life, and ignorance is bliss.

Cruise control for pedestrians — there’s an app for that!

Michael Rundle, for Wired UK:

“Actuated navigation” is a new concept proposed by a team from the universities of Hannover, Stuttgart and Munich to combine GPS and electrical stimulation of the muscles and literally drive you around an unfamiliar location, without having to consult a map.

The paper (“Cruise Control for Pedestrians: Controlling Walking Direction Using Electrical Muscle Stimulation“) by Max Pfeiffer, Tim Dunte, Stefan Schneegass, Florian Alt, and Michael Rohs outlines how the idea would combine GPS navigation with a new, direct method of delivering that information to the human locomotion system. The idea works by delivering weak electrical signals to the muscles, using non-invasive electrodes on the skin. The signal interacts with motor nerves, which contracts the relevant fibres and forces you to change direction.

And, just in time, technology arrives… to solve a problem that it started.

The scale of the universe, in 11 images

A little context can be a good thing. Joseph Stromberg, writing for Vox, provides some examples to remind you how there’s always something larger. Of note are some excellent examples collected from enthusiast astronomer John Brady, founder of Astronomy Central, some of which aren’t in this list. Still it’s nice to have all of these in one place.


Pluto takes 248 Earth years to orbit the sun. To put it another way, the entirety of US history has occurred during a single Plutonian orbit. When Pluto was last in its current location, we hadn’t invented aviation, let alone spaceflight.

Looking at these, I can’t help but be reminded of the Powers of Ten, Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 documentary, which I watched for the first time in the Air and Space Museum. Definitely check that out [YouTube] if you’ve somehow missed it.

“Placebo buttons” are everywhere, to make us feel good

Chris Baraniuk, for BBC Future:

It turns out that there are plentiful examples of buttons which do nothing and indeed other technologies which are purposefully designed to deceive us. But here’s the really surprising thing. Many increasingly argue that we actually benefit from the illusion that we are in control of something – even when, from the observer’s point of view, we’re not.

In 2013, BBC News Magazine writer Tom de Castella discovered that pedestrian crossings up and down the UK were hotbeds of placebo buttons. A crossing in central London had programmed intervals for red and green lights, for example. Pushing the button would only impact the length of these intervals between midnight and 7am. In several other cities during busy periods, the crossings were programmed to alternate their signals at a specific rate. The buttons did nothing, but a “wait” light would still come on when they were pressed and, yes, people still pressed them presumably believing that their actions were having an effect.

I first learned about so-called placebo buttons a long time ago, but it really just confirmed what I’d always innately expected. Personally, I refuse to press buttons in public, under the assumption that they’re all placebo buttons… unless I’m with someone, and there’s some icky social expectation that I’ll press the button. But that always feels like a tiny defeat.

Research confirms that games can provide meaningful experiences

To a gamer, the title above might sound somewhat snide. But I’m sure there are people out there — non-gamers, I’d imagine — who would be surprised to read such a thing.

Matt Swayne, for Penn State News:

In a study of people’s experiences with video games, players indicated that they not only enjoyed playing games, but that they also frequently appreciated them at a deeper, more meaningful level. These findings should be encouraging to video game developers who want to invest in producing games that examine more meaningful, poignant or contemplative topics.

“Video games are often stereotyped as something that is just fun and entertaining, but not something that is deeply appreciated,” said Mary Beth Oliver, Distinguished Professor in Media Studies and co-director of Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State. “Video games do not seem to have the same critical acclaim as, for example, books and plays or even music.”

Participants in the study suggested that story details in the game were critical to feelings of appreciation. They also indicated that more meaningful games were associated with heightened feelings of insight or enrichment.

For a gamer who grew up playing Infocom’s text adventure games, it comes as no surprise that games can be immersive, compelling, and give you the sense that a thriving world exists independent of the user’s session. In the decades that followed that early era, games embraced pretty lights, and, with few exceptions, became roller coaster rides, going for the easy visceral thrill. And it was fun! But we’re entering a more exciting time for gamers. Virtual worlds are larger and more immersive than ever, sure. But developers seem to be embracing story and character development, which harkens back to those early Infocom adventures, where the narrative was all we had. It’s no longer just about the pretty lights.

NASA’s WISE orbiting observatory scan of 100,000 galaxies finds no signs of life

The team’s non-detection of any obvious alien-filled galaxies is an interesting and new scientific result. “Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes. That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them,” Wright said.

Two things leap to mind, the first being that our own universe wouldn’t pass this test. We’re advanced enough — and curious enough — to have an inkling about how to go about looking for space pals… but we don’t leave much of a footprint.

The second item is brought up almost immediately in the comments: the tools employed by a somewhat sophisticated civilization might be “noisy” as far as radiation goes. But with greater advancement comes greater efficiency, with cooly-operating components, and narrow-band, point-to-point communication that may not be picked up from the outside.

So, to the above I say that we need to keep looking.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Teaser #2 (video)

From the description:

Lucasfilm and visionary director J.J. Abrams join forces to take you back again to a galaxy far, far away as “Star Wars” returns to the big screen with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

I can’t help it — this is just cool as hell. The three prequels were such a massive letdown that I feel inoculated against stupidity. But I’m really not worried about that this time out. I think J.J. Abrams and company were a good choice. He seems like as much of a SW geek as I am, and his favoring of practical fx vs. digital is spot on. So, I’m letting myself remain kid-level enthused for now.

Teens used cheap gadget to break into car

Damon Lavrinc, for Jalopnik:

There are two kinds of keyless entry systems: The ones where you have to press a button on the key fob to unlock the door and the proximity-based systems that broadcasts a low frequency signal to recognize when the key is in your pocket, and then unlocks the doors when you’re close by or touch the door handle.

Bilton’s Prius had the latter, and that’s where the power amplifier comes into play:

Mr. Danev said that when the teenage girl turned on her device, it amplified the distance that the car can search, which then allowed my car to talk to my key, which happened to be sitting about 50 feet away, on the kitchen counter. And just like that, open sesame.

It’s a clever and simple hack, really. And I’ve just put two signal-blocking pouches on order.

Preparing for the journey to Mars

Tom Kizzia, for The New Yorker:

Beyond a rocky parapet near the eight-thousand-foot elevation, a two-story white vinyl geodesic dome came into view, perched on the mountainside like a gigantic golf ball sliced high into the rocks from a Kona resort. Multicolored lava fields fell toward the valley, where a thread of highway could barely be seen. Binsted asked me to whisper. Inside the dome, six volunteers were mimicking the life of astronauts on Mars for a NASA-funded test of team dynamics in space. They had been in the dome since October and would remain until June; at the moment, they were just a few days away from setting a North American record for a study of the effects of isolation and confinement.

Binsted wore a red polo shirt with the project’s logo: HI-SEAS, for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Her short brown hair was barely cinched in a ponytail. As the principal investigator for the study, which is being run by the University of Hawaii, she had recruited and trained three men and three women, ranging in age from twenty-six to thirty-eight, preparing them for the austerities of travel to another planet.

I’ve always maintained that I would do very well in isolation. (In fact, I think I’d do even better on a solo mission than with crewmates, but maybe that’s not so unusual.) But, unlike stranded seal hunting ships of yore, the first Mars-bound crew will be going into it with eyes wide open, and I think that will make all the difference as far as their overall outlook. But me, all I’d need is workout gear and a few iPad apps.

Probabilistic programming: machine learning via inference algorithms

Larry Hardesty, writing for, speaks with Tejas Kulkarni, contributor to a new paper about probabilistic programming for scene perception:

In a probabilistic programming language, the heavy lifting is done by the inference algorithm—the algorithm that continuously readjusts probabilities on the basis of new pieces of training data. In that respect, Kulkarni and his colleagues had the advantage of decades of machine-learning research. Built into Picture are several different inference algorithms that have fared well on computer-vision tasks. Time permitting, it can try all of them out on any given problem, to see which works best.

Moreover, Kulkarni says, Picture is designed so that its inference algorithms can themselves benefit from machine learning, modifying themselves as they go to emphasize strategies that seem to lead to good results.

I think Kulkarni illustrates the idea best when he says, “When you think about probabilistic programs, you think very intuitively when you’re modeling. You don’t think mathematically.”

First results: a map of the dark matter of the universe

Jonathan Webb, for BBC News:

Once the DES team has finished its map of dark matter, spreading its massive tendrils across the cosmos, they will be in a position to measure just how fast those tendrils, along with all the matter we can see, are flying apart.

This expansion of the universe is happening at an increasing rate, and dark energy is the force physicists have proposed to account for that increase.

“How fast the dark matter clumps together tells us about how fast the universe is being stretched apart,” explained Prof Bridle.

Researchers compute trillion particle “dark sky” simulation

Michael Byrne, for Motherboard:

Particle-based simulations, in which large-scale cosmic features like gas clouds and stars (and the interactions between them) are represented by simple points, are a crucial tool for both connecting the realm of particle physics and cosmology and for studying the structural development of the universe since the Big Bang.

As can be seen in the composite image, the universe is composed of galaxies, filaments or tendrils connecting galaxies, and vast voids in between galaxies. The result is surprisingly uniform across space.

An impressive feat. But, if simulating a slice of universe requires so much computational power, just imagine how much computing power is required to simulate our universe. Are we tapping into the computational constant?

The lifespan of a black hole

Fraser Cain, for Universe Today:

Quantum theory suggests there are virtual particles popping in and out of existence all the time. When this happens, a particle and its antiparticle appear, and then they recombine and disappear again.

When this takes place near an event horizon, strange things can happen. Instead of the two particles existing for a moment and then annihilating each other, one particle can fall into the black hole, and the other particle can fly off into space. Over vast periods of time, the theory says that this trickle of escaping particles causes the black hole to evaporate.

It’s fascinating to contemplate, to be sure. Still, when I see something like this, I can only wonder what time means to the particles that “pop in and out.” What is time like to a black hole? Why does life seem as long or short as it seems to us?

Pixar’s virtual tools help bring imaginary worlds to life

Matthew Panzarino, for TechCrunch:

For Inside Out, there were a couple of unique issues because the worlds inside and outside Riley’s head had to be significantly different. They looked and felt different from art direction and design viewpoints, of course. But they also had to feel different to the viewer. So different virtual camera techniques were used to film the two worlds.

In addition, as the story progresses, the camera techniques move from a swooping, 30’s-style mechanical camera into a much more modern hand operated camera style.


[They] had human operators walk around a physical space, allowing all of the subtle details of a camera operator’s ‘performance’ to inform the scene.

Things like an ever-so-slightly ‘missed’ focus that makes a scene feel more energetic as a character moves quickly. Or the very human flex of a knee stepping down off of a curb to follow the action.

I’ve long been fascinated by the work that goes on to make things look imperfect and based in the physical world. The more powerful the tools become, the better they are at being worse. (Okay, I jest, but it’s funny to say.)

Dissociative amnesia causes woman to forget 17 years of her life

This unusual phenomenon actually happened to Naomi Jacobs seven years ago, but this brief interview is new. Jacobs is promoting her book, Forgotten Girl, about what it was like to go to bed aged 32, and wake up as a confused teenager. (Basically, it seems like a particularly confusing form of time travel.)

Jacobs’ original article, from 2008 is in The Guardian.

Two NASA spacewalk videos

Sean O’Kane, for The Verge:

Astronaut Terry Virts uses the action camera to capture a stunning view of Earth passing by, and in the second one we get a strapped-on view of what it looks like to navigate the underbelly of the International Space Station.

And it’s pretty stunning to see in good quality video.

Russian man volunteers to become first head transplant victim, against everyone’s wishes

Christopher Hooton, for The independent:

Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Centre, who described Dr Canavero as “nuts”, believes that the bodies of head transplant patients “would end up being overwhelmed with different pathways and chemistry than they are used to and they’d go crazy.”

Or just crazy enough to work!

Wait, no, that didn’t make any sense. Sorry, there’s no way that this doesn’t sound doomed.

Then again, the subject, Valery Spiridonov, already suffers from the most severe type of spinal muscular atrophy. It’s amazing he’s even lived to be 30, given that “affected children never sit or stand and usually die before the age of 2 years.”


“Am I afraid? Yes, of course I am. But it is not just very scary, but also very interesting. But you have to understand that I don’t really have many choices. If I don’t try this chance my fate will be very sad. With every year my state is getting worse.”

I’ll be watching, whether or not I want to.

Giving robotic hands a sense of touch

Medgadget reports on research from UCLA’s Biomechatronics Lab:

While tactile sensors have been used before in order to create a rudimentary sense of touch, the UCLA team is taking this technology a step further by introducing smart algorithms to process what the sensors are feeling.

Specifically, the researchers are building a “language of touch” that can be used to help humans to intuitively operate robotic devices.

A lot of ink has been spilled lately about haptic feedback, but not so much about tactile perception. (They’re both aspects of somatic senses, but haptics relates to the perception of forces during movement.) Our robots and prosthetics will need to sense all of these things, and be able to provide feedback to the fleshy creatures on the other end.