Monthly Archives: September 2013

More on Empathy and HumAndroid connection

Philip K. Dick used the presence of empathy as the dividing line between human and machine. Interestingly, the field of social neuroscience has been looking in-depth at the human side of this interface. Science Magazine offers a state of the discipline overview through a profile of its founder, Prof. Dr. Tania Singer  of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, at

The article is behind Science’s paywall.  The full reference is below and should be worth a schlep to a library that gets the journal.

Science 20 September 2013:
Vol. 341 no. 6152 pp. 1336-1339
DOI: 10.1126/science.341.6152.1336

Concentrating on Kindness
by Kai Kupferschmidt

Singer combines sophisticated functional MRI methods with much squishier techniques such as transcendental meditation to see if humans can be (re)programmed to be more compassionate towards one another. The mind/body problem is difficult and frankly uncomfortable territory for science – one with a history of questionable claims and outright quackery.  More than the usual skepticism should apply but the account of the present research is intriguing. Addtionally,  Singer is aware of the pitfalls and has structured her studies to have the required controls. If it does play out as correct, one wonders when the empathic response will eventually be modulated, manipulated, mandated, or outright mimicked by circuitry.

For the first-person version, Singer’s eBook “Compassion: Bridging practice and science” is available here.

The fine theatrical exploration of this topic continues at The Sacred Fools until 19 October in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.

The Deep Space Network – Helping Voyager phone home

The Voyager Spacecraft – Image courtesy NASA and JPL

It is now official, humankind has put its toe into interstellar space as Voyager 1 crossed into the heliopause nearly a year ago. This milestone has been hotly debated in the scientific literature as heavyweight teams presented evidence pro and con. It was only in the last few weeks, however, all parties have agreed on what the data from the probe mean. And they agree that it is now past the interface between the solar wind and the great beyond.
Continue reading

Science videos on the rise: Hart, Haran, and the Campbells

In the distant past, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and PBS had good, often great, shows about science and technology. No longer. There is no latter-day Ustinov narrating aircraft documentaries, no George Abells creating Project Universes for distance learning. Explosion-happy disaster-porn rules the day. And Punkin Chunkin.

Many independent filmmakers have jumped into the void distributing mostly short-form documentaries on Youtube with mixed results. There are young, flat-voiced, rapid-fire hipsters. Of these, Vi Hart is brilliant, bordering on genius. There’s a lot of Martin Gardner in this ‘recreational mathemusician‘ who sketches, doodles, scissors, and glues to bring abstractions into graspable reality. Once the viewer has something to hold, she takes off like a wild mustang usually through the fields of symmetry and structure. It’s an exhilarating ride although older viewers may enjoy her unique voice at judicious intervals.
Continue reading

Dreaming Androids at Sacred Fools

Philip K. Dick‘s novels have led to several visually stunning, iconic films. It is difficult to imagine how his sprawling stories could be adapted to the limits of a small theatre but the Sacred Fools have pulled it off with a wondrous staging of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Those of us who know Dick only through film need to take Edward Einhorn’s adaptation on faith. It was a prescient work. After a dozen years of forced-marching to dystopia, we have arrived in Dick’s bleak vision for the world. The hardware androids have a little ways to go yet but the software versions are there and getting better. His predictions about mass media have been met and depressingly exceeded.

The production very smartly uses video and a multilevel set to weave threads of freedom, faith, and the disappearing line between man and machine. Robots and humans test one another to see which is which and to determine which should live. All the while hidden powers and voices consolidate power and control ever scarcer resources on a post-nuclear earth. At the sheep level, Androids want to be equal to humans, exhausted humans are not sure whether it matters any longer.

Technology and theatre don’t always mix well with the flash often becoming an end unto itself. Here the artistic and technical crews complement one another seamlessly in serving the story. The carcasses of discarded computers, each once the top of the technological heap, lie in the public and playing spaces. Video screens and dark, static-filled projections convincingly allow the characters to be poke, prod, and investigate one another and to quickly snap the audience’s attention from one location to the next with a simple turn of the head. The excellent choreography of actors, stagehands, and crew sustains the needed illusions through split-second timing. Even the props glow, chirp, and beep exactly on cue. All of this is necessary. This could not be a radio play. Coherent visuals, sound, and design language – typical of Theatre Movement Bazaar, City Garage, and the late, lamented Collective – make or break works like this and could not have been easy. It would be interesting to know how much of this had been worked out in the 2010 New York premiere.

Director Jaime Robledo marshals a strong cast and crew with Kimberly Atkinson shining as Rachael/Pris, the robot your mother warned you about. Eric Curtis Johnson is nicely hang-dog as bounty hunter Deckard. One wonders how it may have played if he switched roles with Rafael Goldstein‘s revolutionary Roy Baty. Henry Akona‘s haunting score, heard through recordings, offer instrumentals that frame the story. The songs in the Pierrot Lunaire style sung by the appropriately named Luna Luft (Emily Kosloski) are a matter of taste but should be popular with the young people. Singling out the crew is unfortunately difficult. Leaving any of them out would be unkind, repeating the list from the website would be lazy. Seeing the play is the best acknowledgment of their efforts.

The twists and turns require the audience to prepare and stay focussed. This was also the case in Robledo’s recent Sherlock Holmes outing especially with reference to the power of suggestion and memory but “Androids” offers far more to assemble and digest on the drive home and beyond. Familiarity with the novel is of course the best option. Failing that, assimilating a synopsis will be time well spent. It all goes well beyond the recursive ‘guess the robot’ game and into the heart of memory, empathy, and what we think sets humans apart from other life and mechanistic approximations of life. The one-act clocks in at a crisp ninety minutes and leaves us wanting more. A longer version would better flesh out the ideas but intermission would break the magic. The ideas are, in turn, no longer the realm of fantasy. The Tonegawa group at MIT has successfully implanted false memories in mice by manipulating the animals’ hippocampi. Their abstract chillingly concludes, “Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviorally expressed fear memory via artificial means.” It will not be long before the ethical issues raised by Dick will have to be confronted for larger life forms.

SEPT 13 – OCT 19, 2013
Thurs, Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Sacred Fools Theatre
660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90004
Reservations: (310) 281-8337
Tickets online

Brain in a jar – Major progress

It’s a Petri dish, not a jar but the results from a lab in Vienna are intriguing. Stem cells have been directed to grow so as to form structures reminiscent of brain-like tissue. There is an excellent summary of the work and its implications in Science magazine although the paper by Madeline Lancaster and coworkers appeared in Nature.

Summary Article
Science 30 August 2013:
Vol. 341 no. 6149 pp. 946-947

DOI: 10.1126/science.341.6149.946

News & Analysis

Lab Dishes Up Mini-Brains

Gretchen Vogel

No bigger than apple seeds, the cell clusters are simply referred to as “cerebral organoids.” But that careful language in a paper in this week’s issue of Nature belies the excitement of many neuroscientists at what it reports: the growth from human embryonic stem cells of semiorganized knots of neural tissue that contain the rudiments of key parts of the human brain, including the hippo campus and prefrontal cortex. …

Original paper
Cerebral organoids model human brain development and microcephaly
Madeline A. Lancaster, Magdalena Renner, Carol-Anne Martin, Daniel Wenzel,
Louise S. Bicknell, Matthew E. Hurles, Tessa Homfray, Josef M. Penninger,
Andrew P. Jackson, & Juergen A. Knoblich

Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12517

Published online
28 August 2013

Turning off the roar in the head – Silent Stay

It is of course ironic to post a link to an article about disconnecting from the Internet grid. Nevertheless, Avital Andrews’s Bring on the Solitude article in the LA Times about Silent Stay is worth a look. This resort in Vacaville, CA offers a chance to experience peace and quiet, subtly enforced by policy. It sounds very tempting although Andrews confesses that it didn’t completely take with her.

The retreat’s website is at

Sounds similar to the San Francisco Zen Center’s Tassjara Mountain Center

Old Time Radio fans may recall the Mr. Costello, Hero episode of the terrific X Minus One series of the 1950s. Theodore Sturgeon’s not-so-subtle slam at McCarthyism centers around a society where forbidding solitude became a means of social control.

Addendum: In her article, Andrews writes “That’s when I noticed that the silence wasn’t really silent. When you banish the sound of traffic, the phone, the alarm clock, the laptop and the TV, what’s left isn’t soundlessness. ” The LA Phil will be performing Cage’s 4’33” at its 2013 Gala Opening.