Brain Buffet

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The advancing state of biometrics - 21

Biometrics have been around for a little while. I first encountered them in a Mission Impossible movie, where they have to break into a secure room that requires a fingerprint, an iris scan, and facial recognition (I think). For me, at the time, it was firmly in the realm of sci-fi. The technology caught up pretty fast after that, if it wasn't already in play and I just didn't know about it, and then I saw fingerprint and then facial recognition hitting smartphones. It turned out to be a little klunky but as time has rolled on it's effective enough. The main caveats against it are:

1) Anyone ranging from commercial third-parties to governments can build or buy these databases to scan for their own purposes. Most recently this has happened with the genetic data from heritage websites

2) These can be easily spoofed. There are anything from 3D printed fingerprints to holographically projected faces which can break the biometric authentication methods of devices.

Something interesting that popped up at the tail end of the biometric development history is gait technology. I think I read something like >80% accuracy, something like 86%, based off of how a person walks / comports themselves. I can't remember if this has been spoofed yet or not but since it requires whole body movement it seems at least harder to pull off, for those situations where the threshold it has is sufficient.

The most recent development in this field is a Pentagon developed laser that can identify people by their heartbeat. It requires that a person sit or stand still for 30 seconds to be accurate but it's over 90% accurate and, so far but we'll have to wait until people actually get their hands on the tech, seems much more difficult to spoof than other biometric methods.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre - a review - 20

Genre: Adventure; drama; western
Rating: 8/10

Minor spoilers ahead.

A quick interesting note is that although many scenes were filmed in the studio and elsewhere in the US< this was one of the first Hollywood films shot on location.

Some of the dialogue would have been difficult to decipher without subtitles, especially when it comes to the old prospector, but I'm just picking at nits with that one. Although I don't consider it flawless, I ended up enjoying the movie immensely, enjoying the setting pieces that they staged for the camera, the realism in meandering about the plot and some of the characters so that some may seem random and happenstance and end up having a greater significance but does not forget that sometimes, shit just happens. The director's decisions didn't sacrifice a properly structured story for the sake of realism.

Not by accident, I'm sure, Bogart's character was the most interesting. His character is the one who has the most extreme arc, starting at one point of the moral spectrum and ending up somewhere so different from where he started that if he could look into the future to see the kind of man he becomes and the kind of things he does and the reasons for doing them, I'm confident the character would feel like he's looking at a stranger.

To capture the theme in a sentence, it's about "the corrupting influence of greed". I remember I saw a Tiny Toons cartoon a while ago called "the green-eyed monster" or something along those lines. While the characters were concerned about fending off an actual monster they later come to find that the green-eyes are the eyes of jealousy/envy, and that greed has made monsters of them. Now that I've seen Treasure I'm confident it was a nod to this because that's exactly what comes across - what can happen to perfectly ordinary, perhaps even good, men, who are tempted by greed and are alone in a remote location where they are, in effect, the only authority.

Great film.

Is that a ransom or are you just happy to see me? - 19

There's a better than decent chance that by now you've heard about ransomware. WannaCry, and later NotPetya, catapulted ransomware into the private consciousness. It hasn't been great for humanity at large, especially because these take advantage of unpatched systems and you tend to see unpatched systems the most in areas like government departments and hospitals and so those tend to be the places most frequently and most deeply hurt. But it has had the benefit of highlighting the importance of security, security professionals, and the standards to which we hold service providers.

Unsurprisingly where there's a problem, there tends to be a solution, and in the space between one and the other you're usually likely to find someone with a gate in front of the solution and their hand out to make sure you can pay your way to the other side of the gate. So firms have popped up in the wake of ransomware campaigns to help businesses reclaim their data without giving in to the data-nappers.

But all is not well - these firms are faking. At least two companies, and very likely more that just haven't been caught yet, have been found to actually just give in to the data-nappers rather than have any technical ability whatsoever to reclaim or salvage the data. Some fine-tuning of the wording around their services on their page may help them duck out of legal issues now that they've been caught, but these companies don't even make an effort. From the article, within minutes of being contacted by someone posing as a "victim", the company immediately reached out to the "bad actor" to negotiate an amount for the decryption key.

They managed to talk the bad actor down on the fee, which I can argue at least brings some value to the customer, except that they then turn around and ask four times the amount to which they've managed to negotiate. Often times it'll be more than the ransom and they'll try to play on a customer's desire to simply not negotiate with the bad actors.

What a sham.

Infosec Recommendations - 18

Maybe you already know this stuff but maybe some of it is new or as a collection it's something you find useful enough to share with someone you think needs it. Anyway, a few basic recommendations:

  1. Don't give out personal information to people you don't know (online, over the phone, or in person). This can include phone number, address, full names and personal social media accounts. Don't underestimate what someone can do with seemingly harmless information, especially with all of the people finder type websites available in the US.

  2. Enable two-factor authentication where possible. This is almost a given nowadays but you can add to this by making sure you use an authenticator app which rotating pin rather than one that gets SMS/texted to you, and where possible modern authentication that provides an approve/deny prompt is even more secure.

  3. Use strong passwords. Not patterns. Not simple passwords with letters switched out for numbers or characters. Passphrases are more secure and easier to remember. Personal biases make them easier to guess so avoid movies, books, and song titles, and use diceware if possible, which generates random words to make your phrase. Use spaces where possible as it adds entropy.

  4. Use a password manager where possible. All of them have their issues, have been hacked or exploited in some way, but they are still in every way superior to recycling passwords, simple passwords, or recording them in a spreadsheet.

  5. Use a secure search engine for anything you don't want tracked, such as DuckDuckGo.

  6. Use a privacy-oriented browser, such as Firefox or Brave.

  7. Use encrypted messaging where possible. SMS to SMS is not encrypted. iMessage is. WhatsApp is but as they are now owned by Facebook, who knows. Signal is the golden standard of secure messaging. Telegram, Line, Wickr, Wire, ChatSecure and Confide are a few more options.

  8. If using public / unsecured wireless, such as at a cafe or library, use a VPN where possible to encrypt your communications inside of the public and open wireless.

  9. Although HTTPS is always better than HTTP, don't put absolute faith in HTTPS either. Bad actors can also get domain verification and certificates, all the more so with third-party sellers of certification authorities like Comodo and things like OpenSSL.

  10. Haveibeenpwned is a useful website that will let you know if your email has been a part of any known security breaches. You can also sign up for alerts.

The concept of megascale desalination - 17

Israel is already doing it.

This company is building floating desalination barges.

The planet is mostly covered in water but less than 3% of it is fresh water and only 1% of it is accessible to human civilization. Absolutely essential to life; some places are stricken by drought while others get it for free or cheap. All of that is 1%. I can see the future having a market for double the earth's potable water supply. Once Israel continues to prove that economically lucrative it won't dominate that market for long.

Die Hard Quadrology - 16

Genre: Action / adventure
Overall rating: 8/10 (parts of individual movies flag at about a 6, so definitely a "take as a whole" rating)

One of the first things I'll point out is something that I learned from another show, The Office. Michael Scott points out that the protagonist, John McClane, goes from being an everyman who gets his feet cut on glass while trying to take down the bad guys in the first movie, to an action-hero badass that drives cars into helicopters.

That said it was apparently a movie / franchise that first introduced into the mainstream the idea of having the movie take place primarily in a fixed location, an office building in the first movie and an airport in the second. Following this train it's actually interesting to notice the telescoping nature of the setting, because in the third they go all over the city and in the fourth they go to various places in the nation.

Although there are some things I can pick at, there was a lot to like. I liked that the protagonist got hurt, a lot. I liked that he has some cunning in him despite a pretense to being simple, something which I've liked since the Big Sleep novels and movies. It's interesting that they had a black supporting character for the first three movies and don't for the fourth, which I don't know or think means anything but something I noticed and wanted to pass along; in the first two movies the supporting character had a positive relationship with McClane and in the third, it was almost antagonistic. Interesting directorial choices over the length of the franchise and how that sort of thing builds up its own internal dictionary.

The government is infested with cats - 15

Or should I say cat filters?

Yes, yes I should.

They're attributing this to human error, which could be anything from a slip of the finger and negligence to a practical joke played to a deliberate attempt to undermine the government in a micro-rebellious movement.

I don't know how it was received with regards to the people involved or what happened to the "human" in the "human error" bit but I think it lands somewhere in the middle, a little inappropriate but not a huge deal, that it was pretty funny and that if they said that it was on purpose I bet it would have made the officials seem more relatable and interesting. I mean they could call it a failed attempt to engage with the citizens but at least it'd be an attempt.

A hacker hacks hackers - 14

This article was tremendously fascinating to me and I had to share it. A hacker is going around hacking the IoT botnets of other hackers. And he did this by using honey pots coupled with simple port scanning and brute-force attacks of obtained C2 IP addresses

The fascinating thing for me is he goes on to say that he believes a large percentage of botnet operators are simply following tutorials and forget to change default credentials, or if they do change them, they're changed to passwords which are generally weak

The ability to operate a large-scale botnet is trivial to the point of simply following along with tutorials and are setup by people with a level of technical fluency that they forget to update default passwords and use weak passwords. This is the landscape!

Rambo First Blood - a review - 13

Genres: Action; adventure
My rating: 8/10

I'm sure I saw Rambo I around when it first came out but was young enough at that time that I barely remembered it, and decided a few months ago to revisit it. Although I'm a fan of action I settled on revisiting Rambo because of its endurance in popular culture and to see how much of what comes after Rambo cribs directly from the franchise.

There's a little bit of the Mary Sue in Rambo. When it gets revealed that he was a Green Beret, they talk about him like he's an untouchable deity. Which is to be expected when you want your singular protagonist capable of fending off a police force, even one from a small town.

The villain is simple. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because simple villains, and simple heroes, are more archetypes than they are people, and it's easier to take strong character stances with an archetype than it is with a character analogous to a real person, as real people tend to have a level of flexibility in their moral compass that would spoil a lot of straightforward narratives. The villain here hates Rambo because he thinks he's homeless, and that's all it takes.

The rest of the movie is what I've come to think of as pretty standard fare for an action movie but realize that what Rambo didn't invent outright for its franchise, it at the least refined into something that got picked up and used over and over, both for its own franchise and for other movies.

The interesting bit for me comes in almost at the very end, the last 15 minutes of the movie. Here there's a speech that Rambo gives where he opines on "the war", on how he and other soldiers were treated when they were killing people (like heroes) and how they were treated when they came back (being protested against and spitted on); he specifically uses an example of in the first being able to drive million dollar machines and in the latter, back home, not being able to hold down a job parking cars.

I didn't realize that PTSD, or at least its equivalent for when the movie came out, was being talked about in Rambo. I thought it was all just action, adventure, gunfights and the like. That was a great touch.

Nip/Tuck - the main characters - 12

Minor spoilers.

Nip/Tuck is a great medical drama. One thing I find fascinating is that while the show is very graphic, very little of that is the direct result of violence. There is plenty of violence on the show, but in terms of people getting cut up and things like that, most of that happens in a medical / surgical setting.

Another interesting thing is how the main characters are yin-yang foils and complements of one another.

There's a good bit of complexity to explore in a lot of the characters, as well as their relationships with each other, but what I want to focus on now is the main characters, Sean and Christian.

Sean is the "mind", or the "talent". He is the ostensible good, the boy scout, the star surgeon and has the stronger moral compass between the two. He pushes for the firm to do pro bono work for people that need plastic surgery for more than just vanity.

Christian is the "body", or the "charisma". He is the ostensible bad, the play boy, the sexual deviant who has a lot of sex with a lot of different woman, drives fast cars, drinks and does drugs. He's an emotional sadist and likes to hurt people, women in particular but anyone can find themselves in his crosshairs.

But . . .

Sean cheats on his wife. In the first three seasons Sean punches his best friend and his son. In the fourth season he shows prejudice.

Christian grew up in a foster home and was abused as a child. This can explain his behavior without excusing it at least. When it comes to children he shows surprising moral fortitude, and when it comes to raising a child that isn't even his, he goes above and beyond what you would expect even of a regular person, let alone the kind of person Christian has portrayed himself as through his actions.

Another interesting thing: when they're haunted by the ghosts / wounds of their past, Sean's tend to be mental images of people following him around. Christian's tend to be physical people who find their way back into his life to make him pay for however he might have wronged them.

It's an interesting dynamic.

When fun times lead to hard times - 11

A little while ago Snapchat debuted a "gender swap" filter. I'm unclear as to how complex this was to make, especially in the era of cloud computing and freely available neural nets and machine learning models that can apply themselves to images and video, but it has been intriguing enough to catch and keep a whole lot of attention. It not only increased Snapchat's userbase but it has quickly made the rounds in a variety of persisting memes.

Pretty fun all by itself, but here's where it gets interesting.

In California, a college student used the gender filter to draw people who seek out minors for sexual contact, creating a Tinder profile for a 19 year old girl who later reveals she is a 16 year old girl ("there's levels to it you and I know" - Kendric Lamar). And he caught one. A police officer, no less, who has been charged with one account an of communicating with a minor with the intention of engaging in sexual activity, and has been booked into a county jail at the end of a lengthy investigation..

There's a bit to unpack here. There's the level of sophistication in the filter, at least enough to drastically reduce the cost of successful catfishing campaigns. Maybe we'll see a revival of that TV show. There's the concerning fact that this is someone in law enforcement. I'm curious how much this can influence the range of his imprisonment. And finally just the sad absurdity of it all, but at the end of the day I'm glad this particular campaign worked.

Murder Mystery - a review - 10

Genres: Action; comedy; mystery
My rating: 7/10

This title is a new Netflix OC, starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston.

I used to like a lot of the older Sandler movies. Somewhere along the lines things just got sour for me, and I'm not sure if Sandler kept the caliber of his comedy high and I just grew distant from it or if he got distracted / bored / took things in a different direction that I didn't like. But either way I've avoided Sandler movies since "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" and "Grownups 2".

So in returning to the Sandler franchise, I admit that I didn't have high expectations.

All that said, I enjoyed it a lot. A little more than the current 6.1 IMDB rating and quite a bit more than the 38 Metacritic score. The plot won't blow you out of the water and you can tell the actors are having fun with it but the characters act and react in a believable (enough) matter, and the Adam/Aniston deliver their jokes with extemporaneous nonchalance that hit the mark and made me laugh out loud more than once.

I liked it.


Side note, Life in Plastic has had an update.

John Wick 3 - a review - 09

Genres: Action; crime; thriller
My rating: 6/10

Minor spoilers ahead.

For me a 6 means the movie is entertainment, so I don't regret spending time or money on it, but that it isn't good enough for me to turn to a friend and say "you've got to go out and watch this!"

JW3 was "fine", essentially. Rather than spend my time on the things that I liked just enough to not ding the score, I'll focus on the things that I didn't like which kept the movie from ranking higher.

  • The action isn't as hot as it was in the first two movies. This is mostly a nit I'm picking at since Keanu is older than he used to be and when an actor ages you can't expect them to be as physically dynamic as they used to be. Jackie "I do all my own stunts" Chan is a perfect example of this and I still enjoy his movies.

  • The exposition is clunky. There are a lot of moments where the movie highlights something as significant but gives very little for the audience to internalize or relate to, so it feels like you've just walked into the middle of an important conversation with no context. Halle Berry's character is the best example of this, which isn't to say I don't appreciate the strategy behind riddling your media with star power.

  • The pacing is off. I don't mind lengthy fights (the hallway scene in the original Oldboy is one of my favorites), so my gripe isn't that some of the fights were long, it's that they were too long for the story. If you trimmed the fat on the fight scenes, as well as a few others most notably the desert wandering scene, I think this 2hr+ movie could have come in at around 1.5hrs and told a better story for it

AI vs IA - 08

Our current tech ecosystem is focused on artificial intelligence. Much in the same way that we've replaced physical human effort with machinery the intent is to do the same with mental human effort. CGPGrey has a fantastic video on the subject that I've seen multiple times and highly recommend: Humans Need Not Apply

But it has competition in what is called intelligence augmentation. The argument from this side of the rubicon is that focusing on augmenting human intelligence, whether through cybernetics or through biological or chemical augmentation, will yield results superior to focusing on developing AI to the point it can compete with or supersede human intelligence on its own.

A good example of this is a recently human tested brain implant which boosts memory. Although these are clinical trials and the people being tested have some kind of brain impairment, the mechanism is interesting and I'm curious to see what will come of later testing. What the chip does is familiarize itself with the specific pattern your brain fires off when its encoding a memory. When the chip detects weaker than average signals it fires off an imperceptible "booster" to the naturally existing pattern and reinforces the encoding process by over 30%.

The interesting thing to note here, among many interesting things mind you (pun intended), is the fact that human intelligence is being compared to computers as they are rather than as they might be. A lot of the human brain's power comes from the massively parallel infrastructure it has built in and our machines currently interpret commands and store data sequentially. This might change with the quantum computer, and I'm interested to see how the benchmark shifts.

Happy Father's Day.

update 2019-06-06: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention nootropics, which are any substance that may improve cognition, in particular memory, motivation or creativity. On the softer end of the spectrum are ginseng and gingo biloba, and on the harder end are drugs like caffeine, nicotine, eugeroics and amphetamine.

Lastman - a review - 07

Genres: Animation; action; adventure; fantasy
My rating: 9/10

Lastman is a French comic series that came out in 2013. Its premise pivots around a pretty familiar to those of us who spend time immersed in animated features: a tournament. An annual grand tournament to be specific, held in a world where magic is accepted as reality.

Lastman the series came out in 2016, and is a prequel which explains how Richard Aldana, an amateur boxer with little prospects and little interest in changing the direction of his life, ends up going from our world to the Valley of the Kings.

To my knowledge in the states this series is only available on Vrv, which comes with a low premium of 10/mo but a 30 day free trial. Although I don't have a subscription with them right now, I enjoyed their selection when I did and am considering going back. Just this series is worth the trial.

This review is about the series.


And what a series it is.

If you take a look at the IMDB page you see an unassuming 500 or so reviews. Nothing that's going to break the bank. But it has an 8.8. At a few hundred reviews, that's nothing to sneeze at. And although the animation may not be as immersive as one might be used to with a higher budget, it makes up for this with substance squared.

Each of the 27 episodes is only 10 minutes long. If you're familiar with other short run animated series like Regular Show or Adventure Time this is probably not that odd to you, but if you aren't you may think that this isn't long enough to tell a good story. For Lastman at least, you'd be wrong. Each episode has a minimum of fluff on it. Every minute of it is essential to the story and the story is beautifully crafted without being just a port of an already written story into animation.

The main character, Richard, reminds me of John McClane. He's rough around the edges, he's pretty much rough all the way around. At first you may not think of him as a traditionally good guy but his actions define him very early on, and you can tell even if unconventional (to the mainstream; my comparison to Die Hard makes it clear he isn't totally unique either) Richard is a strong hero protagonist. He doesn't have any powers in the context of the truly supernatural characters, here called Wrens, but he does have the Power of Luck, which is common among action heroes.

None of the characters introduced are wasted. Every person you see means something to the story, sometimes to your surprise, sometimes with much more meaningful influence than you might think.

The environment / milieu is what I would consider "urban fantasy" or "low fantasy". Think Angel, Supernatural, and even Harry Potter. Instead of roaming hills and underground caverns and castles in the sky, you get skyscrapers and city streets and sewers. But there are magic and monsters, and how each gets dealt with by our protagonist is very "classic action hero meets grim fantasy world".

The exposition, the pacing, the plot, the rules of the fantasy, and character progression, are all laudable.

Highly recommend.

A framework for high productivity - 06

This isn't my creation. I read an article on this (I think), then stripped it down to the essentials for an easy reference which I'm including below to share with the world. If you know the source, let me know and I'll update with a link. My comments are in parenthesis.


First, plan your work based on your top priorities, and then act with a definite objective.

  1. Revise your daily schedule the night before to emphasize your priorities. Next to each appointment on your calendar, jot down your objectives for it.

  2. Send out a detailed agenda to all participants in advance of any meeting.

  3. When embarking on large projects, sketch out preliminary conclusions as soon as possible.

  4. Before reading any length material, identify your specific purpose for it.

  5. Before writing anything of length, compose an outline with a logical order to help you stay on track.

Second, develop effective techniques for managing the overload of information and tasks.

  1. Make daily processes, like getting dressed or eating breakfast, into routines so you don’t spend time thinking about them.

  2. Leave time in your daily schedule to deal with emergencies and unplanned events.

  3. Check the screens on your devices once per hour, instead of every few minutes.

  4. Skip over the majority of your messages by looking at the subject and sender (caveat emptor).

  5. Break large projects into pieces and reward yourself for completing each piece.

  6. Delegate to others, if feasible, tasks that do not further your top priorities.

Third, understand the needs of your colleagues for short meetings, responsive communications, and clear directions.

  1. Limit the time for any meeting to 90 minutes at most, but preferably less (I recommend starting at 30 minutes and scheduling more frequent or longer follow ups as needed). End every meeting by delineating the next steps and responsibility for those steps.

  2. Respond right away to messages from people who are important to you.

  3. To capture an audience’s attention, speak from a few notes, rather than reading a prepared text.

  4. Establish clear objectives and success metrics for any team efforts.

  5. To improve your team’s performance, institute procedures to prevent future mistakes, instead of playing the blame game.

A timeline of magical academies - 05

I started putting together this list while watching the third season of My Hero Academia, wondering at how often I've seen "Academy" styled fictional media, and then wondering how far back this trend went and what it looked like. The below list is the result of some light investigation.

In this case "magic" means anything which is not perfectly mundane, and so is inclusive of things like superheroes and sci-fi stories where the focus is on special young people doing special things.

Did I miss any?

1963 | The X-men | comic book series
1968 | A wizard of Earthsea | novel 
1974 | The Worst Witch | novel 
1985 | Ender’s Game | novel
1988 | Groosham Grange | novel 
1990 | Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls | game 
1991 | Wizard’s Hall | novel 
1994 | The Secret of Platform 13 | novel 
1997 June | Harry Potter | novel
2007 September | Umbrella Academy | comic book series
2013 March | Little Witch Academia | anime 
2013 July | RWBY | anime-style web series 
2013 October | Kill La Kill | manga 
2014 July | My Hero Academia | manga

Love, Death + Robots - favorite picks - 04

Minor spoiler warning

LDR is an animated anthology series on Netflix. The episodes are all short format with variable run time but always less than 20 minutes, and it deals primarily with robotics and science fiction although on at least one occasion deals with myth and more down-to-earth monster horror.

The episodes do not appear to be in any way related to one another, other than theme, and one episode is live-action rather than animated.

It's produced by one of my personal favorite creatives, David Fincher (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac, Benjamin Button, Social Network, Gone Girl; House of Cards, Mindhunter), as well as a few other notable names. An interesting note here is that LDR is a re-imagining of Fincher and Miller's incomplete reboot of Heavy Metal, the adult animated sci-fi-fantasy film from 1981. You've probably seen the posters.

alt text

With the background out of the way, below are my favorite shorts from the anthology series.


Beyond the Aquila Rift: An error in the routing plot of a spaceship causes it to travel for centuries and end up hundreds of thousands of light years from Earth.

  • The reason I like this - the protagonist meets an old flame who, apparently, had the same thing happen to hear. It turns out that this old flame is not what she appears to be, but is the projected image of a different kind of creature, one which is well-meaning but will that be enough? We only catch a clear glimpse of this creature, of the reality behind the curtain, at the end.

Good Hunting: A family tradition of hunting shape-shifters in 20th century China gets upended by a sympathetic son and rapid advancements in technology.

  • The reason I like this - sympathetic "monsters", sympathetic hero, the mix of ancient myth / mysticism and its clash against modern technology. It's a pretty common trope that iron interferes with magical creatures in some way, repelling them or even shorting out their magic, so mystical creatures having to deal with the modern age of man isn't new ground being broken, but I particularly like the way that it's handled here. And I like how the hunter's son and the monster's daughter coexist and adapt to the changing times.

Zima Blue: A journalist interviews a reclusive artist about to unveil his final work, work that has grown from simple portraits to paintings done on building walls, then asteroids, and so on. Zima reveals that though he is now a cybernetic human, he started life as a simple machine meant to clean the ceramic Zima Blue tiles of his owner's pool; upgrades over decades made the artist that has fascinated human society for years. And his masterpiece is the end-all be-all of his work.

  • The reason I like this - The sense of timing that comes from the incremental upgrades, with Zima growing in stages like a person would rather than being a final product all at once; the idea that the robot mind is interested in, on its own impetus rather than being programmed for it, creating art, and that the human society ends up being fascinated by it; the final return to fundamentals

The Secret War: A squad of Red Army soldiers hunt demons in the Siberian forests. It is something they have been doing for a while, after experiments with demonic forces for war purposes ended up not being a good idea.

  • The reason I like this - we live in a world where supernatural forces have not been proven to exist, but if they had, I have no doubt in my mind that it would be quickly co-opted by the State (or whatever form of government is around at the time) and that one if its first applications will be in war. It tracks against similar programs throughout documented human history, not least of which would be the Nazi regime's fascinating with the occult during Hitler's reign. It's an interesting look at what could have been if our reality variables were slightly different.

CRISPR - adventures with the human genome - 03

Have you heard of CRISPR?

It stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats". It's a tool, specifically a "family of DNA sequences", used to modify gene function and alter DNA sequences more easily than previous technologies. Cas9 is the most common enzyme referenced when CRISPR is brought up in popular usage, and is used to "cut foreign DNA" from a desired sequence. CRISPR became widely popular in late 2017 / early 2018 after a paper published by researchers from the University of Tokyo showed CRISPR in action for the first time.

It's so easy to do that a "biohacker" CEO of a biotech company injected himself with a CRISPR-Cas9 on a live feed. You can get an at-home CRISPR kit to edit the genes of a bacteria for less than 200 USD.

I'm deliberately writing in a mild tone but otherwise can't overstate how astounding this is. And this is before things really went wild.

In late 2018, just around a year since CRISPR came out in that paper, a Chinese scientists implanted edited embryos to make a pair of twins resistant to HIV. There are ethical considerations here around both consent and the inability to project far enough in advance the kind of risks they're introducing both to the twins and to the greater ecosystem, but perhaps the most important detail is that the edits happened at the embryo level.

A CRISPR edited gene in a human body will alter the genome function but that body will not pass down those edits. An edited gene in the embryo makes the edit persistent. This means that those twins will pass down their HIV-resistance to their children, if they have any.

The thing is that even though we've mapped the human genome, we're still uncovering how everything relates to everything else. When the scientists made those changes, they brought it up as something to fight disease and that making edits for vanity, from athleticism to intelligence, should be forbidden. But that's exactly what happened; these HIV resistant babies might have a genetic edge in intelligence.

That was announced just a few months after the implantation. And a few months after that? The discover that, for reasons we don't yet know, although very likely related to the fact that the edit deals with immune function, humans with HIV-resistance as a mutation have a 21% higher aggregated death rate span.

For all of their proclaimed good intentions the scientists made a mistake in springing this edit on the scientific community - we don't know what we don't know, but we're sure going to find out.


Side note, Life in Plastic has had an update.

Life in plastic . . . - 02

it's fantastic

Or so Aqua's 1997 hit single Barbie Girl might lead you to believe. I can't say for sure that's the case, but there have been some new, and some old, news items around plastic that I've been thinking about and wanted to touch on here.

To start, there's the Great Pacific garbage patch. This island of plastic garbage located between California and Hawaii (at the time of reporting - given currents, it is on the move) is 3 times the size of France as of March 23 2018, and its 617,800 square miles are made up of 79,000 tons of refuse. At least for me the numbers are pretty staggering to wrap my head around but the fact that it is multiple times the size of a country should say plenty.

Another chilling tidbit I've come across is the fact that a plastic bag was found during the deepest recorded manned dive in history. May 1 2019, Victor Vescovo visited the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, known as Challenger Deep, setting a new depth record of 35,843 feet (6.8 miles). There Victor and his team discovered four new species, a plastic bag, and candy wrappers.

Did you know that China is no longer recycling U.S. plastic waste? China has historically processed approximately 70% of the world's plastic, including millions of tons bought from the U.S., to recycle into new products. But last year China cut back on nearly all of its plastic imports, so the plastic is being routed to countries without as much capacity for recycling or safe disposal of the waste. Malaysia, for example, decreed it would be sending its plastic waste back to the foreign countries it came from.

Let's look at the other end of the spectrum.

Usually less than 10% of plastic waste can be appropriately recycled into new products. Researchers have come up with a new form of plastic called PDK plastic which is capable of being 100% recycled. There would be no waste with products made of PDK plastic - the challenge now is time and funding.

There's also the bacteria that eats plastic. This is very exciting news because it takes only the shortest leap of logic to bridge the idea of a bacteria that eats plastic and the millions of tons of plastic waste choking landfills and filling the ocean. Although it's never that simple, at the very least there is a path forward and a conversation happening around it.

So yeah, probably not all that fantastic. But there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Update 2019-06-11: "Corona lets beer drinkers pay with plastic waste for World Oceans Day " - "With the help of 25,000 volunteers, Corona and Parley have already cleaned more than 3 million square meters of beach. This summer, the goal is to pick up another 2 million square meters."

update 2019-06-18: Scientists found an edible mushroom that eats plastic