Monday, July 27, 2015

(Non)-Virtual Reality: A Video Game About Cancer

On Living Memory


That Dragon, Cancer: Parkin of The New Yorker writes: “For Green, in other words, the game is no longer just a way to invite others into the dreadful realm of terminal illness; it’s also a way to preserve, and to celebrate, the memory of his son’s life.”

Some articles are more touching than others, striking a personal chord that resonates loudly and deeply. This is the case of an an article, by Simon Parkin, in The New Yorker about a father using his professional skills as a video-game maker to deal with his infant son’s cancer and his succumbing to it when he was five. Is this mawkish or exploitation? No, I would argue that this is a way to deal with devastating grief and profound inexplicable sadness.

Film-makers David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall have made a documentary about it. In “A Father's Video Game About His Son’s Terminal Cancer” (July 22, 2015), Parkin writes:
The film “Thank You for Playing,” which premièred at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, follows a young father who is making a video game about his terminally ill child. Joel Green was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010, at the age of one. By the time the film’s directors, David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, first met him, in early 2013, Joel’s young body had been subject to more than three years of surgery and chemotherapy. The tumors had left him partially deaf and blind. At one point, he had to relearn how to walk. Other families might document and express a similar experience through photographs, home videos, written diaries, or poems. But Joel’s father, Ryan Green, is a video-game developer, and he decided to bring narrative order to the devastating chaos of his son’s illness using the medium he knows best.
This makes sense to me; when you have cancer, your world is thrown into disorder. Order is one thing that you want, that you desire, using your diminished strength and tired mind to obtain some of what is lost. It is, after all is said and done, a losing effort, in the sense that something is lost when you have cancer. [see A Cancer Memoir.]

It is true that the losses vary among persons hit by cancer. What is universal is that your world is divided into two phases: Before Cancer (B.C.) and After Cancer (A.C.). This might not be done overtly; it is often done without conscious acknowledgment or awareness. You cannot return to the way things were B.C. and you have to adapt to the “new normal” of life A.C.

Cancer is no discriminator of persons; it is the master of disorder, and its success is no reflection of the human effort. Such is the way it is with a cruel and unrelenting disease; it is tricky and implacable foe, who uses deceit. Cancer makes the people it attacks feel alone, vulnerable and already defeated.

Joel Green was too young at age one to know what order is, and what he was facing, so it was up to his father to try to make sense of it all by taking an initiative and inviting others into his world, his humane battle, to do the same. “On March 14, 2014, in the early hours of the morning, Joel Green died,*” the article says. Yet, the little boy lives on, as a visual memory, in a video game and in a documentary. This provides a setback to cancer’s claim of victory, which provides to me some measure delight. It is not the same as having the presence of a flesh-and-blood son, to be sure, but it provides some sense of his being.

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For more, go to [TheNewYorker]

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I will return in a few weeks with more posts.

Sci-Fi Meets Reality In Silicon Valley

Tech Innovation


DARPA Robotics Finals: The finals challenge involved 23 teams and was held at the Fairplex in Pomona, California. The competition’s purpose is evaluating the ability of robots, the site says, “capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. “Taking first place and the $2 million in prize money that goes with it is Team Kaist of Daejeon, Republic of Korea, and its robot DRC-Hubo. Coming in second and taking home $1 million is Team IHMC Robotics of Pensacola, Fla., and its robot Running Man. The third place finisher, earning the $500,000 prize, is Tartan Rescue of Pittsburgh, and its robot CHIMP.” The winning time, as the article notes, was 44 minutes and 28 seconds.
Photo Credit & Source: IEEE Spectrum

An article/conversation, by John Markoff, in Edge looks at the Next Wave in technology, or, to put it more simply, what’s both possible and probable. At the heart of this discussion of technology are two camps: techno-optimists and techno-pessimists, the latter seeing technological trends as nightmarish, portending disaster; while the former seeing them as bringing about significant human advancement.

Markoff is a science and technology journalist for The New York Times and the author of a forthcoming book, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. Automatons or robots can be helpful, easily doing tasks that humans find physically difficult, highly dangerous or mentally tiring. But the idea of automatons, highly intelligent and rebelling—and thus subjugating humans—is the fare of science fiction, and represents one of humanity’s fears about technological advancement. There is also the very genuine fear of automatons displacing human workers in what is already a shifting and tightening global job market.

The subtext of this argument is the question of whether such technologies are needed in light of the social and economic problems, let alone the environmental problems, that pervade our world. Yet, the changes once predicted as probable might not be possible in the next two or three decades, hindered, so to speak, by very real engineering challenges. Markoff, who grew up in the high-tech area dubbed Silicon Valley, has this to say about the place he calls home in “The Next Wave” (July 23, 2015):
There was a wonderful moment when I went down to cover the DARPA robotics challenge in Southern California. There was a preliminary event in Florida about eighteen months ago where they had the finals. They had twenty-five teams. It was quite an event. It was a spectacle. They built these by and large Terminator-style machines, and the idea was that they would be able to work in a Fukushima-like environment. Only three of the machines, after these teams worked on them for eighteen months, were able to even complete the tasks. The winning team completed the tasks in about forty-five minutes. They had an hour to do eight tasks that you and I could do in about five minutes. They had to drive the vehicle, they had to go through a door, they had to turn a crank, they had to throw a switch, they had to walk over a rubble pile, and then they had to climb stairs.
I'd have been able to do it a lot quicker than five minutes. It took the robot about forty-five minutes. Most of the robots failed at the second task, which was opening the door. Rod Brooks, who's this pioneering roboticist, came down to watch and comment on it afterwards because he'd seen all these robots struggling to get the door open and said, "If you're worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed." We're at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.
What more can be said? That the robotics technology has not advanced enough to do what a young child can do, let alone a highly trained and skilled professional search-and-rescuer? That science fiction films are fun to watch, but they are to a large degree fantasy? That in some cases, reality does catch up to science fiction, but only decades later, as is the case with our smartphones and other hand-held communication devices?

In a sense, science-fiction has bumped into reality, the hard and unbending reality of nature and its immutable laws. So, I would not be worried right now about Terminator-style automatons taking control of humans; we are far way from this on so many technological levels, let alone the ethical concerns (e.g. Frankenstein’s monster, a modern tale of Prometheus and the implications of a society gone wrong) that these machines raise, should they ever come into design fruition.

It is true that we should not invent any “intelligent beings” if we do not have sufficient knowledge of the consequences of such initiatives, even if the original reasons were good. Can society design a blueprint for its general betterment, one that includes intelligent machines that are limited in their ability to rebel against their human "creators” as a measure of safety?

Even so, as the robotics competition shows, we are not there yet. These ideas make for nice after-dinner discussions, where they typically follow a path where someone would say that such ideas are catastrophic for humanity, perhaps citing Prometheus unbound. That science has over-reached; that humanity is foolish for taking this unguarded path. What often follows is a doom-and-gloom scenarios accompanied by much hand-wringing and renting of clothes.

Robots, automatons, androids, AI, and various combinations and permutations of all these words and concepts, are embedded in our imagination, in our mind’s-eye, if you will, and will likely remain there for a long time. That these machines, these future mechanisms of engineering marvel, will be endowed with a human-type consciousness—it remaining one of the “hard questions” of our times—is also hard to fathom today. How can it be so, when we do not fully understand human consciousness. The ideas surrounding machine consciousness, even if it were “highly developed,” sounds more like science fiction that probable reality.

That being the case, I am going to save you the time of reading this long article, by quoting the final thoughtful and insightful ending, which encapsulates two schools of thought: “The Kurzweil crowd argues this is happening faster and faster, and things are just running amok. In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it’s going to look more like it looks today than you think.” Time will prove which group was indeed right in its prediction of the next thirty years, but I suspect it will not be Kurzweil and company.

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For more, go to [Edge]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Place To Move & Breathe

Natural Science
Edwards Gardens in Toronto, a place we visit often, is a botanical garden in the midst of the city, a 30-minute drive from our residence. It has has miles of paths lined with flowers, shrubs, trees and wildlife, making it a perfect place to ruminate and clear the mind of muddled and conflicting thoughts. It has been a public garden since 1955, when the City of Toronto purchased the property from a private businessman, Rupert E. Edwards, proprietor of Canada Varnish Ltd., who, as the Toronto Botanical Garden puts it, “[desired] a place in the country…..with wide open spaces all around, with plenty of room to move and breathe.”
Photo Credit & Source: Perry J. Greenbaum, 2015

A Walk In The Park

Brain Walk


Neighbourhood Park: The G. Ross Lord Park, a public park that is a few minutes walk from our residence, is one that we visit regularly. Gretchen Reynolds, in The New York Times, writes: A walk in the park may soothe the mind and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental health, according to an interesting new study of the physical effects on the brain of visiting nature.”
Photo Credit & Source: Perry J. Greenbaum

Aarticle, by Gretchen Reynolds, in The New York Times says that taking a walk in parks has a beneficial effect on one’s cognitive abilities and over-all mood; while the effect was slight, it was nevertheless scientifically significant. Why this is so is not completely or sufficiently understood, but what is known and observed is that the brain pattern alters after a walk in nature.

This study becomes important in light of previous studies that show that urban dwellers who do not have easy access to public parks (or greens space), have higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than those who do. (As I wrote in a previous post, I am fortunate that I not only reside next to a large public park, but also have a good view of it from my sixth-floor balcony.)

In “How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain” (July 22, 2015), Reynolds writes:
These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.
But just how a visit to a park or other green space might alter mood has been unclear Does experiencing nature actually change our brains in some way that affects our emotional health?
That possibility intrigued Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, who has been studying the psychological effects of urban living. In an earlier study published last month, he and his colleagues found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.
But that study did not examine the neurological mechanisms that might underlie the effects of being outside in nature. So for the new study, which was published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bratman and his collaborators decided to closely scrutinize what effect a walk might have on a person’s tendency to brood.
Brooding is what we humans do when we have a hard problem to solve, and we figuratively turn it over in our minds. We ruminate trying to find a solution to it; while a change in setting is often helpful, going to a café or a shopping mall does not have the same effect, and neither does going to a museum, which, although informative and engaging, will not do the trick when dealing with a really knotty problem. It has something (or perhaps everything) to do with nature and what it provides: I also would suggest that walking heightens the ability to both problem solve and concentrate the mind where it is most needed.

Combined, the two give us humans something necessary that can’t be found in busy and noisy large cities: a quiet natural place to think. (Many people find that fishing on a lake provides the same calming effect on the mind; the reasons are no doubt similar.) Thus, public parks in urban areas are indescribably valuable to humanity—they are areas in which the sounds and sights of urban life are not found. Sometimes, life is a walk in the park, making life less anxious and more bearable.

One of the questions is whether solitary walks are preferable to walks with a companion or a group. You will notice, however, that even in groups people tend  to pair off. The answer, as is often the case, is “it depends.”

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For more, go to [NYT]