Friday, May 29, 2015

A Look Inside a Brain Synapse

I've always been amazed by anatomy & biology. Life is mysterious, & any explanations we may try to formulate cannot penetrate that essential Mystery.

Science is the ongoing investigation of this infinite Mystery, which gives rise to endless additional mysteries! Scientific understanding and technology (especially 3D digital imaging) allow us to explore aspects of reality that were previously inaccessible, or even unimaginable.

The brain & nervous system is especially interesting, because it it the source of our conscious experience. The video below that I saw on National Geographic is a specific look at the synapse of a neuron, or brain cell. It is from a scientific paper that maps the proteins in these synaptic connection points on the ends of each cell, that allow chemical messages to be sent through the neural network.

 click to enlarge

The mind-boggling fact is that all this complexity is packed into a single synaptic area, on a single neuron. There are billions of these cells working together at near-instant speeds to maintain our biological functions and to create the holographic sensorium in our heads called "consciousness".

As much as I love to understand and learn about the world & the universe, looking deeply into these infinitely complex features is enough to melt your brain.

 Speaking of which, here is another video that gives some basic information about the brain and neurons that is still thought-provoking. There is nothing like the brain trying to understand a video about itself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bernie Sanders 2016

Growing up, I never had a interest in politics or current events. I always had a pretty good idea what was going on in the country and the world, but never really cared about who was President or what Congress was doing.

That changed completely after George W. Bush was selected by the Supreme Court in 2000, and we subsequently entered an 8-year neoconservative nightmare. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, my 23-year old self sat up and started to pay attention, like so many other people. This blog served as an outlet for my frustrations and disbelief at the insanity being perpetrated at the time.

Along with the rest of the world, I watched with horror as Dubya and his puppet-master Dick Cheney launched (unfunded) trillion-dollar wars of invasion & occupation in the Middle East. It was perfectly clear to anyone with even a bit of insight that these wars were meant to exploit the region's resources, gain imperial footholds, and enrich defense contractors & investors. Waging war & fighting terrorism are often a means of making more money for wealthy, unscrupulous people.

The occupations of Iraq & Afghanistan were giant historical blemishes on America's foreign policy, but there were countless other problems created in those years- resulting from the incompetence of the Bush administration and short-sightedness of conservative policy, in general.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, a giant sigh of relief swept over much of the world. Although Obama's terms have been, in many ways, a vast improvement over Bush's, it has become clear that he is not the progressive savior people thought he would be. In fact, the U.S. government under the leadership of President Obama has continued or expanded some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration. Unfortunately, it seems like there is only so much a President can do to change the mind-numbing bureaucracy of the government, the power of the military industrial complex, or the intransigence of an opposition Congress.

So, what should the citizens of the United States do?...

Should we throw our hands up and refuse to vote or participate in our democracy, claiming the system is hopelessly rigged for the benefit of monied interests? The answer is, "No!"

Politics, as vile as it can be, affects everyone in our society. It is much too important to leave to the devices of those who would seek to control or disenfranchise us. There is strength in numbers. Only by overwhelming consensus and cooperation can we, the people, overcome the imbalance in political power wielded by the top 1% in control of the wealth of this country.

As this election season started to add potential Presidential candidates for 2016, it looked like we might be doomed to an un-inspired choice of Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush- either way, a continuation of a political dynasty backed by Wall Street and big money.

Then, out of the blue, came Bernie Sanders from Vermont- the only Independent U.S. Senator. I've viewed a lot of cable news & have followed politics closely throughout my adult life. Having watched him over the past decade, Sen. Sanders has been a consistent voice of common sense policies and responsible government that functions for the benefit of the majority of working-class citizens. After hearing the incessant bullshit spewing from the other national politicians and TV talking heads, it was always refreshing to hear Bernie Sanders speak to the issues in a way that any reasonable person would understand and agree with.

Today, Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for President of the United States, much to the delight of myself and many other people looking for fundamental reform in the way this country operates.

If you want to know what he is about, watch the many videos of his interviews online, or find out about his policy positions & what legislation he has backed.

One thing is certain, he is a more authentic champion for the average American than Hillary Clinton, or any of the corporate puppets that the Republican party can shove into the spotlight.

The media will try to marginalize him at first- by depicting him as a "fringe" candidate, the political equivalent of a crazy uncle, or *GASP!* a Socialist.

As support for his campaign continues to grow, he will become a force to be reckoned with. If enough people hear his message he will have a real shot at becoming the President and bringing some much-needed real progressive policy to the White House.

So, on the day of his campaign announcement, I'm enthusiastically supporting Bernie Sanders and what he stands for. I'll be spreading the word about this man- who has the proven integrity, honesty, and solutions we need to address the complex and seemingly insurmountable problems this country faces.

Here is the full video of Sen. Sanders' speech announcing his candidacy, in which he details his ideas for changing the American political landscape for the better:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Stereoscopic Music Video

Being a visual artist, I love optical illusions. One that still fascinates me is the stereoscopic image.
Although it is challenging to "see" at first, once you figure out how to view a stereogram, you can do it at will.

By slightly un-focusing & crossing your eyes, you can make a pair of images overlap within your visual field to form a 3D image.

This music video for "Black is Good", by Young Rival, uses stereoscopy to achieve moving, 3-D forms out of what appears to be random static.

For best results, practice the technique on stereoscopic still images first- then watch the video in HD.

Young Rival also had another captivating video for "Two Reasons", with a series of entertaining face paintings:

Monday, May 18, 2015

American Horror Story: Freak Show

I don't really watch TV anymore... The only programming I ever watched anyway was cable news, documentaries, & Comedy Central shows. Now, I don't even bother with TV news, and I only watch content from Comedy Central occasionally. My girlfriend & I both try to find more constructive uses of our time, so neither of us invest ourselves in full seasons of any TV series.

However, we decided to make an exception & watch "American Horror Story: Freak Show", because it appealed to our appreciation for the bizarre and weird. After months of intermittently watching an episode here & there, we finally watched the series finale last night. I enjoyed the series and think it's worth seeing, for all its grotesque craziness.

When I first started watching AHS: Freak Show, I immediately recognized the strong influence of the 1932 cult classic film, Tod Browning's "Freaks". It became one of my favorite movies in high school, after I bought a VHS tape from a video store that I worked at as a teenager. "Freaks" shocked audiences of the day with its casting of real circus freaks and sideshow acts, leading to it being banned from theaters.

Internet Archive:

As a kid who liked anything strange & out of the ordinary, "Freaks" was right up my alley. It was disturbing, yet thought-provoking and profound. It also gave deep insight into human nature and questioned the nature of our perception of "normal".

Tod Browning & the cast of "Freaks" (1932)

"AHS: Freak Show" is a modern day incarnation of the black & white film, in the form of a TV series. Most of the characters are direct adaptations of the real-life freaks that were cast in the original classic movie.

Many of the themes in the show are very similar to the movie. The feeling of rejection & being an outcast from society plays heavily in the show. A solution to this sense of rejection is the strength that can be found by "finding the others," as Terence McKenna used to say. By sticking together with other freaks, they could become a surrogate family for one another. This provides protection for one another through a communal existence, independent from the rest of society.

Another theme that I love in both the show & movie is the idea that the truly twisted and monstrous characters are actually the "normal" people, who are narcissists, sociopaths, and outright killers. The freaks just want to perform and live together in their traveling carnival, but the schemes of those outside their community constantly threaten their existence.

The owner of the freak show, Elsa Mars

The owner of the freak show is Elsa Mars (played by Jessica Lange), a German woman with dreams of becoming famous and moving to Hollywood. She loves her "monsters" as she calls them, but ultimately her narcissism is greater than her concern for the freaks. She has horrific demons from her past that come out as the series progresses, and this throws into doubt whether or not she can be considered a freak herself.

The utterly crazy Dandy Mott
One of my favorite non-freak characters is a rich, spoiled psychopathic man-child named Dandy Mott. He is a person that you love to hate, because he is such an evil & arrogant bastard. However, his craziness & complete disconnect from normal human behavior can be entertaining.

 Twisty the Clown

'The creepiest and most horrifying character was the Killer Clown who was featured prominently in the first several episodes. I personally find clowns to be have a slightly disconcerting quality anyway, but this clown was just plain terrifying. Unfortunately, his character didn't last throughout most of the series.

The leading "freak" characters of AHS: Freak Show

There are a lot of good characters in the show, including- Sarah Paulson as the 2-headed girl Dot & Bette, Kathy Bates as a bearded woman, and Neil Patrick Harris as the shell-shocked traveling salesman with his creepy murderous doll that speaks only to him.

Although the plot led to some shocking surprises and mind-bending circumstances, the acting and extraordinary characters are the show's strongest element.

I would recommend "American Horror Story: Freak Show" to anyone with an interest in the macabre, grotesque, or downright insane aspects of humanity. It makes you consider whether we are ALL freakish on some level.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Future of Food: Urban Farming

In this age of endless innovation, sometimes the best technology is actually nature-based technology.

Food is an essential part of life. How we produce, transport, and consume food has a enormous impact on society. People are starting to question the traditional methods of large-scale factory farming, and bringing food production back into the hands of local communities.

Especially in unused or abandoned urban areas, there is potential for people to learn how to farm and grow gardens. This would bring fresh, whole foods into the local area and allow people to connect with life through a purposeful activity.

I recently saw this profile of Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, which aims to educate people about growing methods & implementing programs to get communities to produce their own food.

Huffington Post:

Kijani Grows is another company trying to bring on the urban farming revolution.  I watched this video awhile ago, with the founder Eric Maundu explaining the computer-controlled aquaponics system he uses to maintain a continual cycle of growth with recycled water & biomatter. 

Aquaponics is a self-sustaining growing system, which uses waste from aquatic animals as fertilizer for plants. It uses the natural ecological cycles of life to efficiently grow plants and vegetables.

Another developing trend for future food technology is the idea of vertical farming. This is the use of high-rise buildings to house hydroponic & aquaponic growing facilities, to create more food in cities or other places where a smaller footprint is needed.

By reclaiming urban real estate for growing crops, using modern green technologies, we can address many of the problems with food availability in cities and densely populated areas.

There are solutions to all our pressing social problems, we just need the resourcefulness and intelligence to find effective ways to address them.


Web Urbanist:

(click to enlarge)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Game Review: Assassin's Creed Black Flag

In recent years, I have spent much of my limited time for playing video games on the 'Assassin's Creed' series.

The Monkey Buddha Archives:

I've elaborated on the overall storyline in my previous posts (linked above), but there is basically a struggle going on between 2 secret societies- the Assassins and the Templars. This struggle is based on both sides' attempts to find powerful ancient relics, from a civilization that existed on Earth before humanity. This "First Civilization" were an advanced race that actually genetically-engineered human beings, but were wiped out after a cosmic cataclysm- specifically, a massive solar flare tens of thousands of years ago. Relics of their advanced technology are scattered around the globe, and the Assassins and Templars have been in a millennia-old race to find these artifacts.

One tool that is being used to find where these artifacts have been used throughout time is called "The Animus". It is a virtual reality simulation, which reads DNA to unlock the genetic memories of one's ancestors. Essentially, in Assassin's Creed you are playing a historical simulation within the simulation of the video game itself. In the game, you can also step outside the Animus into the "modern" day, in which the Templars have established a front company for their activities, called Abstergo Industries. This global corporation has now set up Abstergo Entertainment, a video game company that brings The Animus technology to the masses. In reality, though, it is a subversive way for the Templars to get more people to scan history for the location of the Artifacts from the First Civilization.

I love how the storyline for the Assassin's Creed games works on the different levels. There is plenty of thought-provoking material about ancient mysteries, conspiracies, and puzzles in each title. At their core, though, these games are action & stealth-based historical simulations.

The last installment that I played, Assassin's Creed 3, was set in the Revolutionary War. Though it was a good American history lesson, it wasn't as fun to play as previous AC games. I was hoping that Black Flag, a pirate game set in the Caribbean before AC3, would be more enjoyable.

Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.  If I were to describe Assassin's Creed: Black Flag in one word, it would be- EPIC.

All the AC games are huge in scope, with expansive maps full of detailed scenery. However, Black Flag might have been my favorite so far. I loved the tropical setting- full of islands, cities like Havana, and even Mayan ruins deep in the jungle. Even though I'm still playing on a PS3, the graphics look great. I always appreciate the meticulous details in the various environments throughout the game.

The most expansive environment is, of course, the ocean. In Black Flag, you get to travel over the sea with a crew aboard your ship, The Jackdaw. As you play the game, you collect sea shanties, different songs for your crew to sing as you sail from place to place. Although you can travel by ship to any location on the map, you can also use "fast travel" options as you unlock different areas. I still found myself sailing to many places, just because it's fun to control the ship & also raid merchant vessels along the way.

By building up your ship's guns & armor, you wage battle on ships from various countries also sailing the seaways. If you can overpower a ship through superior firepower and tactics, you can approach and board it. Depending on the type of vessel you are trying to take over, once you board it you may have to defeat a certain number of enemies, climb up the mast to destroy their flag, or blow up gunpowder stockpiles on the deck. Once this is accomplished, you gain whatever cargo the ship holds & either lower your wanted level or repair The Jackdaw. These battles on the high seas are exciting & really capture the feel of a pirate raid.

In addition to sailing over the water, you can explore the ocean depths in certain areas, using a diving bell. These underwater areas contain shipwrecks full of treasure, and caves with dangerous eels and jellyfish. There are also aggressive sharks patrolling, which you can evade by hiding in clumps of seaweed or the ruins of a sunken ship. The diving sequences were a great addition to the gameplay.

Another unique feature is the ability to get into a rowboat at certain places and hunt sea creatures with a harpoon, such as sharks, whales, and orcas.  These are very intense encounters, especially when you don't have your equipment upgraded.

Even when just sailing around, you are bound to see dolphins or whales jumping out of the water. There are also a wide variety of land animals that can be hunted, such as jaguars, deer, crocodiles, and monkeys. Any materials you gain from an animal can be used to craft items for your inventory. There are also domesticated animals that you can't kill, but can pet or feed, like cats, dogs, cows, and chickens. It is a vibrant virtual world that reflects the ecology of the American tropics.

Most of the gameplay should be very familiar to anyone who has played other Assassin's Creed titles. The combat and free-running controls are still very fluid. You can climb almost anywhere- on buildings, trees, walls, and up the sides of ships. I tend to want to run from place to place, but I also try to slow down & walk so I can take in the virtual scenery and people that give an accurate sense of what that time period was like.

Throughout the game, you interact with historical figures from the age of piracy, such as Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Blackbeard himself. This adds to the feeling of being immersed in the pirate culture of the time.

Because I play video games so sporadically & leisurely, this game took me months to finish. I completed the main story, but also have tried to finish all the side missions and find all the items located around the map. There are also treasure maps with clues to find booty hidden throughout the many islands. I'm currently at 95% completion, so I've experienced most of what the game has to offer. I can say that it offers quite a lot!

My only complaint would be the abruptness of the story's ending, although the final scene during the credits was good & ties back into AC3. This tendency to end out of nowhere seems to be the case with all AC games... all of a sudden, it's over! I also would've liked more elements about the First Civilization or the Observatory that is discovered during the game.

These minor concerns are insignificant compared to the amazing amount of work, thought, and detail that went into this title. If you enjoyed other Assassin's Creed games, are interested in experiencing history, or just think pirates are cool, you should definitely play Black Flag. As I said in the beginning of this review, it is a truly epic experience.

• Official Monkey Buddha Rating: 9.75

Monday, May 11, 2015

GTA:V- Monkey Mod

I don't play video games on a PC anymore, but there are many advantages to computers over consoles. One thing you can do on the computer, that you can't do on console systems, are add "mods" to games, which basically modify the core game in some way.

Many mods are used to enhance the game's graphics capabilities for better visual imagery. However, there are also mods that allow you to do all kinds of crazy things. I posted before about one that allows you to play the game "Grand Theft Auto: V" as a different animals, including an ape...

The Monkey Buddha Archives:
I saw this video on showing the player as a chimp, shooting cars out of a gun and flying across the city. Awesomely absurd.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Virtual Reality Arcades

I used to go to video game arcades sometimes when I was a kid. I didn't really enjoy them that much, though. I'd much rather play on a console at home & not have to keep feeding money into the machine.

This idea of a virtual reality theme park or arcade will be a new wave of public entertainment. It basically becomes a playground of the mind, with infinite possibilities.

There is still a lot of technology to develop to make this possible, like wireless VR headgear. However, I do think that this will happen eventually.

I often struggle with the value of digital or "virtual" experiences, versus "natural" experiences.

I'm not so sure there is any difference in the source of the stimuli, whether virtual or physical. It is all just information, translated into the conscious lightshow going on inside our heads.

All that seems to matter is that the mind wants to assimilate novel experiences. Virtual reality & digital art can add to the depth and variety of new information processed by the brain.

Ultimately, the distinction between 'real' and 'artificial' experience is an illusory one.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

"The Most Astounding Fact" by Zen Pencils

I have previously posted about this inspiring soliloquy regarding our cosmic origins, by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

 The illustrator Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils created this excellent comic strip representation of Dr. Tyson's quote. 

Click the link for a larger version: 

by Zen Pencils

Monday, May 04, 2015

Star Wars Day 2015

Today is May 4th, which is now known to many people as "Star Wars Day".

Star Wars is one of my favorite topics to post about, and it's been my favorite movie series since I was a kid.

Like most fans, I didn't think I'd ever see more movies that took place after the original trilogy. Now, with Disney & J.J. Abrams taking control of George Lucas's vision, there are more films on the way to expand the already rich Star Wars fictional universe.

Today, Vanity Fair released a few new photos from the set of the next movie, "Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens".

Vanity Fair:

Resistance pilot Poe Dameron & the newest version of the classic X-Wing fighter.

Star Wars Day Bonus!
Here's a previous post, with a GIF of a lightsaber-weilding monkey:

Person Gives Monkey The Finger & Gets Kicked

 In my last post, I was talking about the inner life of animals. Many animals, especially primates, have complex social behaviors & dominance hierarchies.

From the looks of this video, it definitely seems that monkeys can feel insulted.

This kid was apparently taunting the monkey, before giving it the middle finger. The monkey didn't take that crap & gives him a 4-foot flying dropkick. The guy looks like he can't believe he got knocked over by a monkey kick.

As much as I  love discussing a wide variety of topics on this blog, I never get tired of amusing monkey antics.