Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Other, Other Voyager

No, not that Voyageur.

But this one:

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is a 722-kilogram (1,592 lb) robotic space probe of the outer Solar System and beyond, launched by NASA on September 5, 1977. It still receives signals and commands from, and transmits information to Earth, currently pursuing its extended mission to locate and study the boundaries of the Solar System.
Above are the "family portrait" photos of our solar system, which Voyager is responsible for.

It is estimated that both Voyager craft have sufficient electrical power to operate their radio transmitters until at least 2025, which will be over 48 years after launch.

The Voyager, it was just announced, has crossed the terminal shock and entered the heliosheath.

Our sun gives off a stream of charged particles that form a bubble known as the heliosphere around our solar system. The solar wind travels at supersonic speed until it crosses a shockwave called the termination shock. At this point, the solar wind dramatically slows down and heats up in the heliosheath. 

Anyway, this blog post isn't really about the Voyager either. It's about the other voyager on the Voyager; the Golden Record.

Click to enlarge. Actually, that works for any picture on the blog, 9/10.

So, what is the Golden Record? Really glad you asked.

The Golden Records (actually, as far as I understand, there are three: 1 on Voyager 1, 1 on Voyager 2, and 1 is locked up somewhere safely on earth) are phonograph records which were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, but Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation in about 40,000 years.

The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 116 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Jimmy Carter.

The collection of images includes many photographs and diagrams both in black and white and color. The first images are of scientific interest, showing mathematical and physical quantities, the solar system and its planets, DNA, and human anatomy and reproduction. Care was taken to include not only pictures of humanity, but also some of animals, insects, plants and landscapes.

Other sounds of Earth on the record include both natural noises, such as a rainstorm and a chimpanzee, and human-created ones, such as a train and a kiss.

Pictures can be encoded into information on a record. The Voyager golden record has 116 pictures.

Some images contain indications of chemical composition. All measures used on the pictures are defined in the first few images using physical references that are likely to be consistent anywhere in the universe.

The musical selection is also varied, featuring artists such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Stravinsky and Chuck Berry.

Wasn't this a Prince album cover?

Download the entire Golden Record contents here (torrent). For a quick look, click on the following links for audio of the 55 greetings in different languages, the music from earth, the sounds from earth, and some of the photographs included.

Each image on the record took up about 12 revolutions. Of the 116 images, about 20 were in colour. Colour was achieved by recording every colour image three times in succession, one greyscale image each for the red, green and blue portions; this gave a combined colour depth of 12 bits or 4096 colours (individual image depth was 16 shades of grey, or 4 bits). Combining the three would give the original image.

The first colour image was of the solar spectrum, intended as a calibration tool so the viewer could establish colour settings for viewing the rest of the colour images. It was believed any species capable of intercepting either Voyager probe would understand a solar spectrum.


Ok, let's do some math and see where/how this thing is going...

Seriously, this thing is travelling at ~17 km/s, 61,000 km/hr, and making no headway. Really. About 534 360 000 km/year, or half a billion km/year.

Let's take the 4th closest start from us, Wolf 359. It's in the Leo constellation (remember the Leonids?) and is 7.7 light years away.

First,1 light year = ~9460528472580.8 km, or 9.4605284 × 1012 km. 

So 7.7 Light Years = 72847624638872.16 km, or 7.28476246 x 1013 km. 

To put it another way, the Voyager has travelled 17.4 billion kilometers. How many light years is that?

But, 17400000000 km = only 0.001839 Light Years.

Not even 1/2 of 1% of a light year. INSANE! One light year is 9460000000000 km (or 9.46 trillion km).

SO, to travel 7.7 light years at its current pace, it's going to have to travel for (approximately, given I've done everything right.. ) 138,160 years to get there, or, to put it in perspective,* about the length of time Homo Sapiens have been around.

*Not really.

So, a long time, but not that long I suppose, when put into an even greater perspective. 

In about 40,000 years both craft should coast to within 1.7 light-years (Voyager 1) or 1.1 light-years (Voyager 2) of AC+79 3888, a fourth magnitude star. Voyager 2 should pass a similar distance from another star (AC -24 2833-183) 100,000 years later in Sagittarius, and about 375,000 years after that, Voyager 1 will pass within 1.5 light-years of AM +21 652 in the constellation of Taurus.

The records on board were meant to survive for a billion years (constructed of gold-plated copper and is encased in aluminum), in the hope that some day, against enormous odds, they might cross paths with an alien civilization.

There is also an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 electroplated on the record's cover. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years. It is possible that a civilization that encounters the record will be able to use the ratio of remaining uranium to daughter elements to determine the age of the record.


Ok, so, back to the actual record.
The record cover.

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle to play them. The cover of the record is pretty impressive. It is the key to using and understanding the information. The cover of the Golden Records tells:
  • How to play the record
  • How to get images from the record
  • Where our solar system is, mapped from several known pulsars
  • The length of 1 second

And an explanation of the cover diagrams:

For the sake of space, more good explanation here:


OK, one last, and great piece of information on the Golden Record.

Carl Sagan was put in charge of this phenomenal project. Of course, Sagan had a lot of help, including the creative director of the project, Ann Druyan.

"It was a chance to tell something of what life on Earth was like to beings of perhaps 1,000 million years from now," Druyan says. "If that didn't raise goose bumps, then you'd have to be made out of wood."

For Druyan, though, the summer of 1977 and the Voyager project carry a deeply personal meaning, too. It was during the Voyager project that she and Sagan fell in love.

After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2,500-year-old song called "Flowing Stream." In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married.

Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan circa 1977.

"We both hung up the phone, and I just screamed out loud," says Druyan, "It was this great eureka moment. It was like a scientific discovery." The first of the Voyager project's two spacecraft launched on Aug. 20, 1977. Druyan and Sagan announced their engagement two days later. They married in 1981, and were together until Sagan's death in December 1996.

But the evidence of their love has taken on a life of its own. Not long after that serendipitous phone call, Druyan had an idea for the record: They could measure the electrical impulses of a human brain and nervous system, turn it into sound, and put it on the record. Then maybe, 1,000 million years from now, some alien civilization might be able to turn that data back into thoughts.

So, just a few days after she and Sagan declared their love for each other, Druyan went to Bellevue Hospital in New York City and meditated while the sounds of her brain and body were recorded. According to Druyan, part of what she was thinking during that meditation was about "the wonder of love, of being in love."

How awesome is that.

Remember Matt Wilson? He's the dude from the sleep post who hooked up rat brains to neural signal monitors. Matt has gotten so good at decoding the neuronal signatures that he can now just listen to the brainwaves, and without looking at the rats, he knows what they're doing. So yeah, it definitely is possible to interpret actions, and most likely feelings, from firing neurotransmitters. And, awesomely, travelling through space, the sounds of a human body newly in love recorded, that feeling of love recorded, and to be potentially interpreted by some other species a billion years from now, long after we're gone. So fucking cool.


Anyway, there are a bunch of used hardcopies; hardbacks, paperbacks, CD-ROM versions, etc, of The Golden Record books available (see here), and they would, ahem, make a great Christmas gift.



Voyager and its record appear in the episode entitled "Parasites Lost" of the animated television series Futurama. Turanga Leela scrapes the spacecraft off her ship's windshield while stopped at a galactic "truck stop".

In a Saturday Night Live segment, Steve Martin announced that the first message from extraterrestrials was being received. Once decoded, the message stated, "Send more Chuck Berry."

Who is Edward Albee?

There is, what I consider, a pretty good interview in Vice with Edward Albee. Reading it and not fully knowing who he is (and still obviously not really knowing), I still pulled some good nuggets out of it; it was a good read.

But, I thought it might be interesting to get to know him a bit beyond Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward F. Albee was born in Virginia on March 12th 1928, adopted by Reed and Frances Albee. His father was part owner of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit.* Edward was raised in luxury, in the family's Larchmont mansion, also occupied by Mrs. Albee's mother to whom he became very attached. Grandma Cotter, to whom he dedicated his 1960 play The Sandbox, left him a trust fund that enabled him to strike out on his own.

*The origin of the term "vaudeville" is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the expression voix de ville, or "voice of the city." Another plausible etymology finds origins in the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for its style of satirical songs with topical themes. The term vaudeville, referring specifically to North American variety entertainment, came into common usage after 1871 with the formation of Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville, Kentucky. It had little, if anything, to do with the Comédie en vaudeville of the French theatre.

In May 1928, a controlling portion of stock Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit was sold to Joseph P. Kennedy (President Kennedy's father) from whom it was purchased in October by the (RCA) as part of the deal that created the Radio Corporation of Americamajor motion picture studio Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO Radio Pictures). After the establishment of RKO, motion pictures became the primary focus of entertainment at the former KAO theaters. Vaudeville survived only as an interlude for feature films.

Albee's first job was writing continuity dialogue for radio station WNYC. After leaving his parents' home to settle in Greenwich Village he spend years holding a variety of jobs -- including three years as a Western Union messenger. They supplemented his trust and were chosen because they were dead ends and would not interfere with his primary vocation: writing.

On his thirtieth birthday in 1958, he quit his job with Western Union and wrote The Zoo Story* in three weeks. Albee's first and major "hit" was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which opened at Broadway's Billy Rose Theater on October 3, 1963, starring Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill as the battling George and Martha. It ran for 664 performances and was made into a popular film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (download movie torrent here). Albee nabbed three Pulitzers, for A Delicate Balance in 1966, Seascape in 1975 and Three Tall Women in 1991. This last seemed to restore his popularity with New York critics and audiences who had been treating him like the unwelcome guests in plays like A Delicate Balance.
Trademarks Of Albee's Plays
Albee can be classified with theatrical experimenters whose work jumped the boundaries of American drama. His style embraces existentialism, abusurdism as well as the metaphysical. His plays tend to puzzle. While not easy "night out" fare they are also full of satirically witty and sharp dialogue. The Albee audience consists of those who value being challenged and appreciate theater that, if it existed, would fit into the School of Anti-Complacency. His failures at the box office are as well known as his critical successes. As described by the playwright himself his plays are" an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen."

Anyway, read the short interview with him here. Nothing profound, just curious. Basically, it's always good, I think, to listen to old interesting people when they talk about their lives.



*The Zoo Story: I fully realize this wikipedia summary below is both a crude and silly way to go about things, but what the hell; I wanted to understand the following cartoon.

This one-act play concerns two characters, Peter and Jerry. Peter is a middle-class publishing executive with a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets who lives in ignorance of the world outside his settled life. Jerry is an isolated and disheartened man who lives in a boarding house and is very troubled. These men meet on a park bench in New York City's Central Park. Jerry is desperate to have a meaningful conversation with another human being. He intrudes on Peter’s peaceful state by interrogating him and forcing him to listen to stories from his life, including "THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG", and the reason behind his visit to the zoo. The action is linear, unfolding in front of the audience in “real time”. The elements of ironic humor and unrelenting dramatic suspense are brought to a climax when Jerry brings his victim down to his own savage level.

The catalyst for the shocking ending transpires when Peter announces, "I really must be going home;..." Jerry, in response, begins to tickle Peter. Peter giggles, laughs and agrees to listen to Jerry finish telling "what happened at the zoo." At the same time Jerry begins pushing Peter off the bench. Peter decides to fight for his territory on the bench and becomes angry. Unexpectedly, Jerry pulls a knife on Peter, and then drops it as initiative for Peter to grab. When Peter holds the knife defensively, Jerry charges him and impales himself on the knife. Bleeding on the park bench, Jerry finishes his zoo story by bringing it into the immediate present, "Could I have planned all this. No... no, I couldn't have. But I think I did." Horrified, Peter runs away from Jerry whose dying words, "", are a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Possible HIV cure?

Doctors who carried out a stem cell transplant on an HIV-infected man with leukaemia in 2007 say they now believe the man to have been cured of HIV infection as a result of the treatment, which introduced stem cells which happened to be resistant to HIV infection.

The man received bone marrow from a donor who had natural resistance to HIV infection; this was due to a genetic profile which led to the CCR5 co-receptor being absent from his cells. The most common variety of HIV uses CCR5 as its ‘docking station’, attaching to it in order to enter and infect CD4 cells, and people with this mutation are almost completely protected against infection.

Doctors chose stem cells from an individual who had an unusual genetic profile: a mutation inherited from both parents that resulted in CD4 cells that lacked the CCR5 receptor. This mutation, called CCR5 delta 32 homozygosity, is present in less than 1% of Caucasians in northern and western Europe, and is associated with a reduced risk of becoming infected with HIV.

This is because all new infecting viruses need to use the CCR5 receptor on CD4 cells when infecting an immune system cell of the CD4 type.

Before the stem cell transplant the patient received chemotherapy treatment that destroyed most immune cells and total body irradiation, and also received immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the stem cells. One of the challenges for any approach to curing HIV infection is long-lived immune system cells, which need to be cleared before a patient can be cured.

The repopulation of CD4 cells was accompanied by the complete disappearance of host CD4 cells, and after two years the patient had the CD4 count of a healthy adult of the same age.

In the case of the Berlin patient CCR5-bearing macrophages could not be detected after 38 months, suggesting that chemotherapy had destroyed these longer-lived cells, and that they had also been replaced by donor cells.


The `Berlin patient`, Timothy Ray Brown, a US citizen who lives in Berlin, was interviewed this week by German news magazine Stern.

His course of treatment for leukaemia was gruelling and lengthy. Brown suffered two relapses and underwent two stem cell transplants, as well as a serious neurological disorder that flared up when he seemed to be on the road to recovery.

The neurological problem led to temporary blindness and memory problems. Brown is still undergoing physiotherapy to help restore his coordination and gait, as well as speech therapy.

Friends have noticed a personality change too: he is much more blunt, possibly a disinhibition that is related to the neurological problems.

On being asked if it would have been better to live with HIV than to have beaten it in this way he says “Perhaps. Perhaps it would have been better, but I don’t ask those sorts of questions anymore.”

If a cure has been achieved in this patient, it points the way towards attempts to develop a cure for HIV infection through genetically engineered stem cells.

Scientists were sufficiently intrigued by the Berlin patient that they met in Berlin in 2009 to discuss how they could coordinate efforts to identify CCR5-delta32 homozygous donors and expand the supply of stem cells from these donors, for example through sampling blood cells from the umbilical cord of babies born to mothers who are homozygous for CCR5-delta32, in order to eventually facilitate stem-cell therapy.


More CCR5 info.

People with two copies of the CCR5 delta32 gene (inherited from both parents) are virtually immune to HIV infection. This occurs in about 1% of Caucasian people.

One copy of CCR5-delta32 seems to give some protection against infection, and makes the disease less severe if infection occurs. This is more common, it is found in up to 20% of Caucasians.

Should everyone be tested for this mutation? Not necessarily. It would be dangerous to assume you are completely safe from infection if you have the CCR5-delta32 mutation.

It's not an airtight guarantee of never getting AIDS. Some unusual types of HIV can use other proteins for entering cells. Rarely, there have been people who have two mutant CCR5 genes who have died from AIDS.

Also, CCR5 is not the whole story of immunity to HIV infection. Some resistant people have been found who have two perfectly normal copies of CCR5. So other genes also contribute to slowing down HIV infection, and scientists are busy trying to identify them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


For I am an engine and I'm holding on
The world is all bending and breaking from me
For sweetness alone who flew out through the window
And landed back home in a garden of green

You're riding alone in the back of a steamer
And steaming yourself in the warm shower spray
And water rolls on off the round captain's belly
Who's talking to tigers from his cafeteria tray

And sweet babies cry for the cool taste of milking
That milky delight that invited us all
And if there's a taste in this life more inviting
Then wake up your windows and watch as those sweet babies crawl away

Jeff Mangum plays to 75 in NYC last Saturday night.

Elephant 6 collective in Toronto Friday March 18th:

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pilot Pietraszek

My cousin Justyna flying from Yellowknife - Inuvik - Whitehorse last week (nevermind the date thing on the photos.. ).  Apparently they flew C-130 Hercules in minus 29 degree weather.

This is amazing Justyna. Crazy amazing. I'm really proud of you.

The Gorey update

Here's the list for what went for what.

Most expensive coat?

Six grand for this one:

However, you could have taken this one home for around $1600 USD.
Anyway, check out the list... a few things ended up going unsold, including a few prints and first editions.

Just the illustrations here...

Anyway, cool shit, but what a weird dude.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Would YOU like to own a vintage Edward Gorey fur coat??!!

This Thursday, December 9th
Bloomsbury Auctions
6 WEST 48th st.


14 fur coats owned and worn by Edward Gorey.

Hide your Kids! Hide your Wife!

All proceeds go to charity (The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and the Edward Gorey House).

Thanks Anna!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Arsenic life? NASA is a joke.

It's starting to look like the arsenic life forms was a hoax/very bad science.

Long story short? The NASA team had a hypothesis and tried to prove it rather than try to find out what actually happened.

1) They improperly cleaned the DNA (or, not at all) before analyzing it. It's like me taking a bath in epsom salts, not showering down after, and then claiming that magnesium sulphate has entered my DNA.

"The Methods describes a standard ethanol precipitation with no washing (and no column purification which would have included washing), so I think some arsenate could easily have been carried over with the DNA, especially if it is not very soluble in 70% ethanol.  Would this arsenate have left the DNA during the gel purification?  Maybe not - the methods don't say that the DNA was purified away from the agarose gel matrix before being analyzed.  This step is certainly standard, but if it was omitted then any contaminating arsenic might have been carried over into the elemental analysis." (link)

2) Further, instead of actually looking at the DNA to make sure, they just analyze my entire body and tell me that because there is such a high concentration of magnesium sulphate attached to me, my DNA must be made of magnesium sulphate. There is a way (mass spectroscopy) to read the DNA directly... but not for NASA!

3) ok, so they did try to at least separate the DNA from the rest of the cell (not clean it, mind you). This process is called phenol-chloroform extraction, and it's apparently a fairly straight forward lab technique. Only one problem; it involves water.

The long standing and well known issue with Arsenic DNA backbones is that arsenic bonds are very unstable, and too unstable to sustain life. So when exposed to water, these bonds break up within minutes (they have a half-life of ten minutes in water). The NASA theory goes that the cell had developed protein machinery to overcome this half-life problem through protection or at least a constant repair mechanism. The problem of course arises when you separate the protein machinery from the arsenic DNA backbone; it should break-up. However, it didn't. The DNA was extracted from the phenol-chloroform process (submerged in water and chemicals) after an hour or so still in long strands! This kinda plainly shows that the DNA did not contain arsenic, and in fact was probably/most likely still made with phosphorus. 

4) Apparently this "depleted" phosphorus environment was not so "depleted". The second article below crunches the numbers and shows that there is actually more than enough phosphorus in the final substrate dilution for regular DNA to form.

For these bacteria to be able to form arsenic DNA strands, evolution tells us that there would have to be a selective pressure, or a reason why for the switch from the dependable phosphorus to the arsenic. Just because there is a lot of arsenic around in Lake Mono, doesn't mean that there is not enough phosphorus to form DNA. And in fact, that's the case. There is enough phosphorus in Lake Mono to form regular DNA strands.

The "depleted" phosphate solution provided to the bacteria by the experimenters had concentration of 3 micro molar phosphate. Is that a lot, or a little? Well, the Sargasso Sea has a phosphorus concentration that is 300 times less than the substrate phosphorus concentration provided by the NASA experimenters, and even there, the bacteria still use phosphorus in their DNA (they do succumb to the phosphorus pressures somewhat by removing phosphorus from their lipids, but keep it in their DNA...). So, with no evolutionary pressure, what made the experimenters think that they would take something that was admittedly abundant and incorporate it into their DNA? That's ridiculous.

That's like me saying I'm going to suddenly start incorporating lots of poo into my daily diet, because, ya know, there's a lot of it available!

Fucking NASA. I'm no rocket scientist, but looking for more funding by increasing the public perception that life on other planets is now "easier" to find? Uhhh... this is so frustrating. This is a joke, and will ultimately come back to bite them. Just. horrible. science. Embarrassing. NASA is a joke.

Re: arsenate hydrolysis, improper cleaning techniques without controls, no direct evidence (no mass spectrometer DNA sequencing done)  --

Re: more improper techniques, amount of available phosphate in solid numbers --


Sunday, December 5, 2010

I've got a lot, a lot of time for this man.

Yeah, no posts in a while; fair enough. Just exam time, and I feel like I'm in the consuming mode at the moment, not really in a producing one... 

I've got a few posts lined up (15 at last count) and will get them up starting Thursday and Friday, after the exams that count have passed. Until then, start catching up on your Feynman.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Of sleep and dreaming

So, lately I've been dancing around the issues of sleeping and dreaming. I've been putting up vague dreams and trying to somewhat interpret them without any real research other than that from my psyc classes and a few tid-bits picked up here and there, mostly from Freud, friends, and my father. I thought it might be interesting to ask the question and research the current scientific understand to why we dream, why do we dream about what we dream about, and moreover, why do we sleep at all?

I'm going to rely very heavily on the radiolab radio cast of this, cuz I think it's great and they are geniuses. Also, it'll provide some focus. This is meant to be an overview and if feel I need to add something and go back, I will add something and go back. This isn't brainiac mansion.


Ok, first of all, I'm going to assume that dreams don't not serve a purpose.. errr.. I think there is a purpose to dreams and dreaming. Evolution doesn't tend to do things for fun, and I think there must be some sort of connection from sleeping and dreaming to the grand scheme of things evolutionarily.

So, let's start at the beginning; sleep. Why do we need to sleep? All mammals do it. All known animals actually do it.. cockroaches too. And it's not a voluntary thing; sleep will be forced upon you at some point whether you like it or not. Sort of analogous to Shakespeare describing sleep as death. He also described orgasms as death* so... you know Shakespeare!

*A recent study of brain activation patterns using PET give some support to the experience of an orgasm as a small death:
"To some degree, the present results seem to be in accordance with this notion, because female orgasm is associated with decreased blood flow in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is crucial for behavioural control."[1]
Anyway, back on topic. We now know this is very far from the truth. Sleep is not death, it's not even the opposite of awake. Our brain is still working hard as we sleep, going through cycles of different types of activity.

I'm not going to go through or define these cycles cuz I think they're not important for this overall current examination, but maybe another time cuz it is interesting.*

*As a quick aside one of my favourite Northern Exposure episodes, Ursa Minor, involves Chris, the dj guy, making a sleep contraption that fits on to his head like goggles. In the goggles there are motion sensors that read his eye movements. When his eyes move as he sleeps, this indicates REM sleep (err, Rapid Eye Movement), which coincides with our dream cycle. Anyway, these motion sensors, when they detect eye movement would set off blinking red lights onto Chris' eyelids. He trained himself (and apparently it's pretty easy to do - there's software out there now that will help you, and yes, there's an app for that) to recognize the flashing red lights in his sleep, and those lights would cue him that he was in a dream, and hence provide the opportunity for lucid dreaming. Really, really awesome.

Ok, so yeah, there is a ton of brain activity when we sleep, we know that. I'm sure you've also heard that dolphins only sleep with one half of their brains at a time. Because they are conscious breathers (they need to actively think about breathing) and because they breathe air (and not through the water), the need to stay relatively awake and at the surface of the water as they "sleep". So, half their brains show classic sleep brainwave patterns for a few minutes while the other half shows classic awake patterns, and then vice versa (this will flip back and forth) as they lie like logs on the surface of the water. Uni-hemispheric sleep. Also, of note, they end up sleeping eight hours a day. Most aquatic mammals do this, but other animals do this as well.

For example, ducks are really interesting.

They tend to sleep in rows, like let's say five to a row. The inner three centred ducks all sleep with their eyes closed, but the outer most ducks sleep with ONE EYE OPEN. I bet you can guess which eye too.. yeah, the outer eye. They, the outer ducks, have even been observed to rotate their bodies 180 degrees as they sleep to allow for the other side of their brain to sleep! How cool is that. (link you need a subscription, but if anyone really wants to read the article and doesn't have a subscription, let me know and I'll just forward it to you. Alternatively, Scientific American back issues to 1993 are available on this torrent)

Now, this brings up an interesting evolutionary adaptation. We haven't really looked at why we need to sleep yet but, because we do, certain adaptation have evolved in animals because of the potential fear of predation.

Sleeping is dangerous. For dolphins, they don't want to drown. For ducks, there are always foxes and wolves. Lizards do this too. In lizard sleep studies, the introduction of a snake into the room overnight brought on the exact same one eye open sleep behaviour.

Uni-hemispheric sleep. Aquatic mammals have it. Birds, avians have it. Reptiles have it. But we, and all terrestrial mammals don't.

Following evolution, it figures we lost it somewhere along the way. To recap, sleep is necessary (we don't know yet why), but because it is, there are certain predatorary dangers involved. We may at times feel unsafe and insecure, for good evolutionary reason only hopefully, while we sleep.

So, the theory goes that the first terrestrial mammals were big hole diggers, and dug themselves underground to sleep, where they were safe and in the dark. They hid in caves, etc... Finally, safely hidden away from predation, the evolution and ability to sleep with both eyes closed developed/evolved. Not sure about the exact theory, but the simple idea is this: predation risk. If you feel safe and there is little risk of being killed, you can sleep easier. The obvious benefit is that you are then awake longer with both sides of your brain working.

How does this translate to humans? Well, there are sleep studies that people in novel sleeping environments (sleeping on a friend's couch for example, or a hotel for the first night) tend to have less deep sleep brainwaves. There is evidence that the sleep isn't as good, and that we are more alert sleepers when in novel environments. Buried deep in our reptile brain is some sort of predator alert system. A sort of fear radar when uncomfortable with our surroundings. Pretty neat stuff here. Evolutionarily, anxiety will translate into your sleep.

Alright. So, we've established that sleep is dangerous, evolutionarily, and that it can rightly cause us anxiety. If there was some way to circumvent it, wouldn't nature have allowed that/put pressure on that to happen? Or is there a requirement, an essential benefit to sleep that is so crucial to ALL our lives that these benefits outweigh the potential for death? Basically, what I'm asking here is why do we need to sleep.

Well, I couldn't find any Canadian numbers (surprise, surprise) but let's take a look at the 40+ million Americans, about 15% of the population, who can't sleep.

What happens when you don't sleep? You feel tired. Why do we feel tired? I mean, what happens chemically in our brains and bodies?

Dr. Allan Pack is perhaps the leading sleep biologist (he's up for a lifetime achievement award this year). He has been looking at sleep at the cellular level, and one of the things he’s found over and over and over — shown in mice, shown in rats, shown in the fruit fly — is that certain cells in all those different types of animals, when they are sleep-deprived, is that you don’t get proteins properly folding.

This is a phenomenon called the unfolded protein response. This is basically your worst nightmare (sorry, couldn't resist). Why do you need proteins to “properly fold”? Well, you’re made of proteins. Proteins are the essence of you. If your proteins are misshapen, if they’re not folded properly, if they don’t have the right three-dimensional structure, they start accumulating inside the cell, broken. Then these unfolded proteins can start to aggregate together and form clumps inside the cell and essentially clog it up, slow it down, and it’s really quite toxic. Clumpiness equals tiredness!

But when you get sleep, a group of "cleaner-uppers" go through your cells and removed these misshapen proteins so that, in effect, sleep is a housemaid, just in the hotel of you.

(This upcoming paragraph gets a bit technical, so skip it if you like; it's not essential.) Specifically, our body's unfolded protein response (UPR) are these "cleaner-uppers"(haha, "technical"), and they have two primary goals: (i) initially to restore normal function of the cell by first halting protein translation and (ii) activating the signaling pathways that lead to increasing the production of molecular chaperones involved in protein folding. If these objectives are not achieved within a certain time lapse or the disruption is prolonged, the UPR aims to initiate programmed cell death (apoptosis).

Honestly, there are no simple pictures of the UPR system. Seriously. If there were, I would put one here.

Blah, blah, blah... Ok, so what does this all mean? Well, sleep activates the clean up system and is really the main point here. Because not only are these cleaner uppers really really essential at preventing cancer, among other things, there is a theory that these cleaner-uppers could translate into learning.


Ok, so anyone who's played an instrument knows the score here, so to speak. You're practicing this one difficult section, or this one difficult drum rhythm, and you just can't get it... you keep on trying and trying until you finally give up for the night. You just can't nail it down.

So, you go to sleep.

Then, the next day, what inevitably happens is that you wake up, inevitably, and you go to the instrument and you try again. And what happens? You get it. You get that difficult parsing, or you get that rhythm down cold. Why? What happens?

Dr. Giulio Tunoni believes this is what happens as you sleep. Sleep helps you remember, by forgetting.

He believes that the space in your brain, what you can learn in a day is limited. And every experience you have in one day takes up space. Every experience uses up a little of what you have, and not only that, all these experiences interact with eachother and start to confuse themselves. Just talk to someone who's sleep deprived. They don't make sense, jumble up words and thoughts, can't concerntrate on immediate information, etc.. So the brain records and tries to learn/incorporate everything, whether you want to or not.

Experiences stick with us, having breakfast, talking to your mom, speaking with co-workers, even reading this; it all forces your brain to make new connections. I mean, think about it. Just the simple fact that you can remember what you read at the beginning of this sentence is proof that there have been new connections formed in your brain. Your brain is being reshaped. I am reshaping your brain right now!!! Ok, sorry, enough of that.

Ok, so now. You sit down with your cello or drum kit for two hours at the end of the day, and you start to play. Because you're concentrating more, perhaps you're making even more connections. Physical movements, proprioception, timings, memorizing. Everytime you do it all makes new connections in the brain.

The same thing with studying or learning. Everytime you think about something, you form new connections. If you think about something intensely, with emotion, the connections formed are going to be stronger and more numerous.

All of these synaptic connections are made during the day, and by the time you're ready for sleep, there is a giant mess in your brain! This is one argument not to have arguments at night, btw! Anyway, this is where sleep comes in, in Dr. Giulio Tunoni's opinion.

Sleep is like your housemaid, once again. Only, perhaps not in the way you think. The brain won't come through and pick and choose which connections should stay and which should go. It simply does an electronic sweep of EVERYTHING. Waves of electrical activity, starting at the back of your head, kind of like slow oscillations, 1000 times a night, will flow over your brain, and ALL of those synaptic connections will get just a little bit weaker. Again, it does not pick and choose which connections get stronger or weaker; this wave of electrical activity weakens all connections.

So, what does that mean? Well, the things you concentrated on most out of your day -- the things you spent the most time on, the things that had a strong emotional impact on you, that thing you couldn't get out of your head all day -- these things are the only things that will survive the general sweep.

Now, come next day, when you pick up that instrument, voila, you got it. Why? Because only those stronger connections survived. Even though they are weaker than last night, they are the only connections that survived. Moreover, because you practice the next day, you think about it the next day, these connections will once again start to strengthen. See the gradual pattern here? The connections that have survived the previous night are heard better because the background has become more silent, in a relative sense.

Once you start thinking about something over and over again, especially day after day, these connections are getting extremely strong. This is the reason (or at least the theory) behind learned behaviours and learning in general.

Of note, the brain learns both good and bad behaviours indifferently, cleans them all equally at night where only the strongest survive. If those behaviours are repeated the next day, they are just bound to get stronger. It really is a great system of reinforcement and temporary space usage!

Learning seems like the process of erosion. The things left standing the next day have an opportunity to be built up upon again.


Ok, so, we've discussed the evolution of sleep and why we need to sleep. Now, why do we dream and what do they mean!

Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, if you haven't heard of him, was the dude who came up with the idea of the benzene molecule being in the shape of a ring in his dreams. 

"...I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis." 

Ok,... not sure where that takes us. But think about it, it is possible that that is true, as weird as that sounds. I mean, just a few nights ago I had a dream of cottage cheese and gummy worms existing together as a desired, commercially available breakfast food. Weird stuff does tend to happen in dreams.

The stuff that you experienced the day before certainly does have the potential to enter your dreams. Think about playing Tetris. If you played Tetris as a kid and you didn't dream about it that night then you're lying. Even in daydreams, or just before bed, Tetris pieces were dancing on your eyelids.

And funnily enough, someone tested just that. Bob Stickgold of Harvard University sat subjects down in a room, made them play tetris for a good amount of time, then got them to sleep in a sleep lab, and then woke them up during their REM sleep and 60% of his subjects were dreaming about Tetris! Ok.. so, makes sense right!.. I mean, it's a pretty big deal, but whatever; it really isn't the whole answer right? I mean, sure we can dream about what we just experienced; no brainer.

Now here is where Matt Wilson comes into the picture. He studies brain waves from dreaming rats. He hooks the rats up to neural signal monitors and outputs these things, both audio and visual, for recording. What he did was during the day he sent these rats through a maze, and recorded their neuronal activity. Then at night, as they slept, he again recorded their neuronal activity. Guess what he found.

Yeah, they matched up. They matched up so well in fact that Matt Wilson was actually able to start to tell when the rats were running in their dreams, when the rats were stationary in their dreams, and when and where the rats were in the maze in their dreams. He started to be able to interpret, based on the lining up of the prior day's events, what the rats were dreaming about.

Specifically, when the rats ran through the maze during the day, let's say it took them 1 minute, they displayed a characteristic neuronal (fingerprint) message during that 1 minute. Well, that exact firing was again acheived while they slept, and Matt was able to line these up and interpret them! The rat was effectively re-running it's maze from earlier in the day. Matt has gotten so good at decoding the neuronal signatures that he can now just listen to the brainwaves, and without looking at the rats, he knows what they were doing.*

*Aside: remember this little fact, cuz it's gonna come up in a post a few days from now. Basically, Matt discovered how to read neuron activity, brain waves and thoughts in GREAT detail by comparing unknown wave patterns with known ones and experiences.

Ok, that is pretty great in and of itself, but, it gets better.

Now, at this point Matt put the rats through two different mazes, let's call them Maze #1 and Maze #2. He found that yes the rats dreamt that they were running in Maze #1 and dreamt separately that they were running in Maze #2 at different times in their REM sleep. But, he also found that the rats would in essence 're-mix' the mazes, and produce new patterns with parts of Maze #1 and parts of Maze #2. So, the implication is that the rat began to invent new mazes.

Sleep therefore seems like the opportunity to basically run through the events of the day and put them together in ways that may not have actually occurred while the animals were awake.

Now, isn't this what learning is?.. or, at least this synthesis is a part of learning? You take two things that are seemingly unrelated, figure out the connections between them, find out the hidden rules and figure out the undiscovered rules that will allow us to create something new and significant that could help us in the future.

Dreaming seems to allow us the opportunity to try out new possibilities and connections that were inhibited by consciousness in the waking hours. Some things end up making sense, some thing don't. But, when it does work, that, my dear, is a new connection and is learning. If it makes sense (even emotionally) and you thought about it, it has the potential to be reinforced.

Ok, so how does the brain decide what to try to connect? As in, what does the brain decide to put into a dream and what to leave out of a dream?


People don't really have dreams about word processing, about surfing the net, about reading a text book. These are debatably things we do the majority of the time during the day, right? So, why aren't these the things in our dreams? Bob Stickgold, the Tetris dude, has a hunch.

Instead of having his subjects play Tetris, he now had a group play "Alpine Racer 2".

A full body game. Also, a stressful type of game. Stickgold has the theory that as you go through your day, your brain will put a sticky note on memories with emotional content and involvement. The brain will flag those things that are significantly involving and that are important to be able to bring them up afterward in dreams. Then, all the brain has to do while in REM is go back and grab sticky notes.

Stickgold had his test subjests play AR 2 during the day, put them to sleep in a sleep lab, then woke them up after about 2 minutes of sleep and found that about 40% reported dreaming about skiing. Like, right away it seems the brain starts thinking about and processing the days events, the sticky notes.

Then, he let his test subjects sleep a little longer; he didn't wake them until 2 hours into their sleep.  After sleeping for two hours, he found almost no replay of the sticky events at all. The replays seems to have dissolved... into a re-mix. He started to get reports like "I was sliding down a hill", or "Rolling".. or "skateboarding".. or, "doing yoga on a ski slope"... So, as the dream goes on the brain seems to start to free associate.

What do I have in my past (so the brain may think) in all my other significant memories that seems to fit thematically or schematically with this major event from today. Sometimes weird stuff happens, sometimes things seem to make sense.

Dreaming then, seems like a time when you can work on the problems you have, allow your brain to start free associating these major significant events in your life, pull them apart, mash them together, and see if any of these almost random connections of important events that you normally wouldn't make during the day, make sense.

Hence, Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz's benzene-snake ring. And my cottage cheese-gummy worm breakfast delight. (I actually woke up the next morning and opened up my container of cottage cheese expecting there to be gummy worms. I was disappointed and I may have been half-asleep.)

Meh, you win some, you lose some. Just gotta keep dreaming it seems like. And reinforcing certain thoughts and dreams during the day to keep them learned! Cool how the mechanisms describing the theory and the practice match up.


So, take home messages:

Sleep is really important. Crucially important. It helps you clear your mind, quite literally, of unimportant thoughts and connections, jumbled ideas, and jumbled, broken clumped proteins. It's evolutionarily binding; no animal goes without this stuff. It is fundamental to survival and to learning. However, there is a fear of predation element involved, and hence the push and pull of evolution. Because most animals need to spend a third of their day sleeping, it seems like a pretty importnat thing.

Dreaming seems to be a free association of important emotional events. The longer you sleep, the more free association with past events takes place. However, this is probably a good thing as new connections can and will be formed, and eventually reinforced if thought about significantly and sufficiently throughout the next day. If they are garbage associations, they may not be thought about again. However, my cottage cheese-gummy worm idea is obviously not a garbage idea, so I will obviously continue to have this seed grow stronger and more salient in my mind, day after day, night after night, whether I like it (lucky I like it) or not.

Also, sleep and dreaming are both like housemaids looking after different parts of your brain. The sleep houemaid is responsible for removing clumps,the dream housemaid is responsible for eroding synapses and memories.


Here's Sloan - Keep on Thinkin', from the totally underrated Navy Blues.

Also, of note in this clip, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright cooking with Sloan?!?! Awesome. I'm not even being cool; they are actually cooking.

Christmas in Kingston, sort of

This past Saturday, the Kingston annual Christmas parade at night. That's right, we gotta be different.

 Not to be confused with the line up outside of Stages.

 Yeah, there really was no po-po presence.

 Here it comes!

Kingston is home to the World Champion Town Crier, dontcha know. Apparently his official duties have taken him to Australia, Belgium, England, Ireland, across Canada and the US to cry in praise of Kingston. I'm not sure if that posse follows him around permanently, but if I were him I would probably force them to.

Apparently his promotional duties did not include looking at the camera. Fucker.

The historical costume society (I'm not capitalizing that... ) followed by the RMC's flotilla device.

 Not RMC's flotilla device.

 They're everywhere, probably because they get free money and a place to drink beer.

 Most floats looked like this: a big truck hauling a trailer full of garbage and people.

Not sure what this thing is doing here. The #4 runs like this all year around here in Kingston. Also, an extremely drunk/high guy got out of this bus in front of us; apparently Bagot and Princess was his stop.

That's a good costume. 

Big trucks with Christmas lights. At least there was an effort. The mayor of Kingston drove through in a black Chrysler with a magnet on his door stating that he was in fact the mayor. He did not wave his hands and was alone in the car. I will not speculate as to what he was doing with his hands alone in the car.

The abrupt stop this thing made was pretty hilarious...

Not officially part of the parade. This is how the Kingston kids dress these days. 

And of course you have the Harry Potter float. 

We skipped the lighting of the tree, mostly because we were freezing and relatively bored (really, an hour of this is more than enough once a year), and instead opted for beer and burgers at the Kingston Brew Pub. Walking back, we found evidence it was in fact lit, and found its obvious sponsorship partner next door.

Glowing full moon between the best tree silhouette I could find.

Want to enter next year? Of course you do. And so do I. Julia looked up the application process. Official entry fee is $150, but you can easily work it down to $80 with a little creativity.

I already got some ideas.