Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for April, 2009

A head (or body) transplant for Stephen Hawking


Some years ago I translated to Portuguese a nice piece by Ken Freedman telling “A Brief History of Disembodied Dog Heads”. It was a success, after all, it described the experiences of soviet Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko with disembodied dog heads kept alive artificially. And with a film to prove the point. How could you not be intrigued and disturbed by this?

The film in question recently inspired a music video by Metallica with nothing less than zombies. And although it almost certainly involves a reenacted (and exaggerated) portrayal of the results achieved by Bryukhonenko, the soviets did achieve some success. That included the creation of two-headed dogs by Vladimir Demikhov.


“Why create two-headed dogs?”, you may ask. And you would be asking the same as a brilliant Cleveland neurosurgeon named Robert J. White. Responsible for many innovative surgery techniques, operating on what he estimates as more than 10,000 brains, White explored the limits of his area going well beyond dogs. Searching for an animal model closer to us, he operated on rhesus monkeys. He wants to make head transplants in humans a reality. Or, as he calls it, “total body transplant”.

Keep reading for an intriguing documentary interviewing White and presenting footage with his experiments with monkeys. And hear the man claiming that head (or total body) transplants are not only possible today, but that figures like Stephen Hawking could be the first to benefit from it.

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“Elephant Man” Pareidolia


elephant-manpareidoliaI received this photo from Carlos Santos, from Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal. “I took this picture of a house near mine, I was just experimenting, but later found the face you can see when zooming in… and I can’t find a valid explanation”, Santos wrote me.

He sent the original file, and besides being a fascinating and slightly spooky image, it shows no evidence of tampering I could find. Perhaps it’s the expression, perhaps it’s because it’s in black and white, or because it does not show a complete face, but it looks eerily similar to Joseph Carey Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man as portrayed in the movies.

Keep reading for a suggested explanation (well, it’s in the title, but anyway).

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“UFO” fleet menaces east London? Nah

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bethnalflypastA FLEET of UFOs in formation has been photographed — on Google. The nine silver spheres hover above a row of shops, including a Coral bookies, on the internet giant’s new Street View service. … Yesterday baffled ufologist Nick Pope said he was “very excited” by the image, which he labelled “truly fascinating”. He added: “It appears to show nine objects flying in near perfect formation. About the only thing I know that can do this is the Red Arrows — and it’s not them.” Mr Pope, who used to investigate sightings for the Ministry of Defence, said: “I’ve run through the list of possibilities that normally explain these things, but I can’t find an answer.” 
Obvious source: The Sun, Google unearthly.

Well, Nick Pope should probably try harder. User “Lord feldon” at the Snopes message board seems to have found the answer:

“I’m going with the military formation idea. A line directly from Buckingham Palace down the Mall projected out to the East goes to the Northwest of the area in question, which is the way the picture was looking. I can’t find anything giving a date, but it looks like it could be June. In 2008, a formation of Tornado GR4 fighters in that shape was in the flypast. (3:19) There were no Red Arrows in the flypast last year, which would explain why no records of them being in the area could be found. (Assuming the "ufologist" even tried to research it.)
Edit: One bus in the area has an ad for Hancock starring Will Smith, premiering on July 2nd. It premiered in 2008, so I’m more certain this was taken on June 14th, 2008, during the flypast after Trooping the Colour.
Edit2: There’s also a bus advertising a Harrod’s sale from June to July 2008.”

A very nice piece of “ordinary” investigation. Indeed you can find more images of the RAF Trooping of the Colour 2008 here, as well as a video below.

And if you look again at the Google Street View above (that’s an embedded viewer, you can look around and zoom in), many people in the street are looking at the sky. They are probably watching the very nice display. From the earthly Royal Air Force. [via Google Discovery]

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UPDATE: As Lafayette has pointed in the comments below, he took a shot of the formation in Queen Victoria Street, London (click for the original):


Joe McGonagle also suggested another video of the Trooping of the Colour which shows the formation of nine aircraft. Click to watch (it’s halfway on):


I think the case could hardly be any more closed. [Thanks Lafayette, Joe!]

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The Evolution of Noise

“Open the last saved jpeg image. Save it as a new jpeg image with slightly more compression. Repeat 600 times”. The result, illustrated above in Generation Loss by David Elliott, is clear: the final image is almost unrecognizable, as something akin to noise takes over the whole frame. A sort of “digital noise”.

The JPEG image format, ubiquitous from webpages to digital cameras, is a “lossy” compression format. Information is irreversibly discarded, lost in the process, in return for a huge space saving and a nearly imperceptible apparent degradation. But as Yoda would say, degraded it is, as information has been lost and digital artifacts have also been introduced.

The simple lesson is that you should never re-save an image in a lossy format like JPEG, unless you are willing to lose information in the process. If you received the image already as a JPEG, recompressing it would not even save that much space, as compressing an already compressed JPEG will not do much. It will not degrade the image as extremely as shown in the video above, since most of the degradation there was due to increasing the compression – without it, recompressing a JPEG even 2000 times will not turn it into complete rubbish – but degraded it will be.

As ubiquitous as JPEGs are the MP3s, this gift from the computation gods that revolutionized the entertainment industry, much to its disgust. This compression format is also lossy. It discards information by the buckets, and you may guess where we go from here.

What happens if you open the last saved MP3 and save it as a new MP3, 600 times? Something like this:

The music is unmistakable, but shrieking noises are a torture. Worse (or better) than that is recompressing Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”… 666 times, in something like digital Satanism. Click below to listen to the results:


Can you hear the whispers from hell? Probably not, but all these noises and experiences can mean much more than you imagine.



The metallic noises from the Satanic MP3s may have sounded familiar. In bad quality cell phone calls and Skype conversations you may have heard them. Though they don’t use MP3 compression, they do pass through lossy digital compression, with effects, or artifacts, not that much different.

These digital artifacts resulting from a lossy compression begin to accumulate over the successive generations until they overcome the original signal. As they are digital and the algorithms are deterministic, the losses and artifacts are not random, and therefore not exactly “noise”, but if you saw and heard them, they are a sort of “digital noise”. We will get back to this peculiarity later.

Real noise is surely very easy to come up with analog systems, however. Patrick Andrews photocopied an image of himself 100 times, and got this:


If  you paid attention to the little details of any photocopy you may have found these blobs familiar. The toner shows some “artifacts” by aggregating into those globs, but those are usually not very noticeable. The recursive copies made them bigger. Very big.

And in 1970, composer Alvin Lucier performed an amazing work of art. Titled “I Am Sitting In A Room”, it consists merely of his voice dictating the following self-explaining text:

"I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

The result:

Creepy, isn’t it? And also fascinating. I’m not sure if what we hear in the end are indeed the resonant frequencies of the room and not simple microphony.

Either way, Lucier’s work became a cult classic. And Evan Borman made this video version:

Watch as the video, reproduced in a TV screen and then recorded repeatedly with a video camera, quickly degrades into the flickering between the image formed in the screen and the frame capture rate of the camera.

All too complex? But there is something very simple and extremely important that all these examples of recursive copies demonstrate. All of them degenerate into the noises and particular artifacts, initially almost imperceptible, of the systems used to copy them. The original is almost completely lost. The medium (noise) becomes the message.

Small JPEG artifacts initially seen only around magnified high contrast areas spread across the image and formed a series of huge Mondrianic abstract patterns. Metallic blips and shrieks in MP3s become a a long excruciating cacophony akin to whispers from hell. Small blobs of toner become huge blobs. Echoes and microphony took over a dictated voice, as flickering bars dominated a TV screen.

The noise took over the copies. Why is this important?



Recursion is the process by which a process is applied over itself, repeatedly. Recursive copy is therefore the copy of a copy (of a copy, of a copy…). Instead of copy, however, I could have used the word…

Reproduction. Recursive reproduction. And reproduction may remind you of something.

We reproduce ourselves. Animals reproduce themselves. Plants reproduce themselves. Living beings usually reproduce themselves. Prolifically. And the reproductions also reproduce themselves. Life involves a long series of recursive reproductions.

Biological reproduction seldom is, if it is at all, “perfect”. Not only because the child of Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe could have ended up with his looks and her brains, but because such an offspring would not be the simple recombination of the genes from both parents. Especially in complex organisms such as ours, there are always some errors in the reproduction, also known as mutations. Most of them are innocuous, but as Yoda would say, occur they do.

There are some noises introduced in each reproduction, and by now you know, after so many examples, what happens after so many successive recursive reproductions. The “noise” take over the original signal.

That’s a very simple and illustrative analogy for the aging process. As each cell in our body reproduces, even if they do not involve any recombination and are supposed to be exact copies, the reproduction is never perfect and the errors accumulate with time. At some point the reproduction will be so far off that it will not be recognizable. Usually the reproduction stops working far before that. We age. We eventually die. It’s an inevitable consequence of life.

But beyond the analogy with the aging process, there’s another important mechanism that involves recursive reproductions and radical changes over many generations. It’s known as… evolution. The evolution of species that we celebrate in this Darwin Year.

Of course, evolution is not a process of degradation. Contrary to what many assume, it is neither, necessarily, a process of enhancement, of progress. Evolution is in the broadest sense simply change. Not necessarily change for good, nor bad. Simply change.

And recursive reproduction surely leads to change. As we have seen, it’s inevitable. Evolution is a fact, and photocopying a photo 100 times is a very didactic demonstration of this inevitability. Unless Creationists claim that somehow all living organisms have developed some divine (haha!) way of perfect reproduction free from any transcription errors, then evolution is simply inevitable through the countless recursive reproductions that perpetuate life itself.

Granted, how evolution leads from unicellular organisms to complex ones like us is something that this analogy doesn’t help that much in clarifying, as there’s no selection of the changes that occur during the successive copies that we presented here.

Or maybe there is, in a way. The errors in the copies was not random, especially not so in the digital ones. In the case of the JPEG image with progressive compression levels, artifacts became noticeable and then started to multiply over themselves, until everything was artifacts. The algorithm that produces and, may we say, favors these artifacts is deterministic. And though the artifacts added are just slightly noticeable, recursive reproduction shows the power that it has in making small cumulative selections very, very noticeable.

Alright, that may not have helped that much, and this analogy is far from perfect, but it does suggest a point of view by which we are almost pure “noise” produced by zillions of recursive reproductions of a single original organism that emerged billions of years ago. It is provocative.

That would be a very special sort of “noise”, one that is not necessarily worse, or even better, than the original. Just different. And a noise produced and selected through all these generations in countless different, and not at all random, ways. It would not present evolution as a linear progression of individuals, but as the recursive reproductions of a singe original unicellular organism, reproductions that changed so much…

The original single-celled organism is still speaking “I Am Sitting in a Room”, and after billions of years, the result is us. Provocative it is.

– – – [via BoingBoing, Reddit, Microsiervos and with thanks to girino]

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