Sunday, September 16, 2012

"I thought you said you could just read his brain electronically." "Oh yes,but we'd have to get it out first." "It's got to be prepared." "Treated."


Colleagues have been telling me that the vogue has peaked and ebbed for Zombie / Classic-literature mash-ups. "Piffle!" I have been responding, among other dismissive expressions of disbelief, including "Calenture fritillary hatstand!" and "Well cover me in peanut butter and throw me to the labradors!" which is totally not a literal request. Without further ado:

The Tale of Two Zombie Mice.
Zombie Tom Thumb set to work at once to carve the brain. It was a beautiful shiny yellow, streaked with red. The knife crumpled up and hurt him; he put his finger in his mouth.

"It is not thawed enough; it is hard. You have a try, Zombie Hunca Munca."

Then Zombie Tom Thumb lost his temper. He put the brain in the middle of the floor, and hit it with the tongs and with the shovel — bang, bang, smash, smash!
Zombie mice are irate because they went to the trouble of breaking into the rodent brain-bank expecting nommable brains frozen for later revival -- or at the least, pickled in alcohol -- but instead they have been plastinated.

This is apparently the wave of the future for post-mortem cerebral preservation. Instead of a tank of liquid nitrogen at the Cryonics Institute, all the cool kids are opting for immediate perfusion of their severed heads with glutaraldehyde ("a kind of advanced embalming process"), then impregnation with osmium tetroxide, followed by Gunter-von-Hagen style plastination. This preserves the sensitivity settings of every neuron and the rich neuron-to-neuron connectivity to be recorded and uploaded at leisure and emulated in software.* The "recording" phase involves slicing and scanning the plastic brain in a micro nanotome, but what could possibly go wrong?
Today, the Brain Preservation Foundation is running a prize competition to demonstrate that the connectome** is perfectly preserved using both chemo and cryopreservation techniques, in mice, rabbit, and pig brains.
The advantage of starting with mice is that when an emulated consciousness escapes from the confines of its private virtual reality and roams freely through the broader software environment of the computer housing it -- this always happens, it must be a tradition or an old charter or something -- it can be traced and contacted by luring it with the simulated smell of cheese.

Cordwainer Smith is VINDICATED:
"If it's frozen," said the first technician, "we won't be able to put in the computer. It will have to go forward with with emergency stores."

"This brain isn't frozen," said Tiga-belas indignantly. "It's been laminated. We stiffened it with celluprime and then we veneered it down, about seven thousand layers. Each one has plastic of at least two molecules thickness. This mouse can't spoil. As a matter of fact, this mouse is going to keep on thinking forever. He won't think much, unless we put the voltage on him, but he'll think. And he can't spoil. This is ceramic plastic, and it would take a major weapon to break it."
* The well-intentioned people at the Brain Preservation Foundation appear to be computer engineers rather than neuroscientists and thus they have seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task, such as has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE in the history of Artificial Intelligence. They seem to be under the impression that neurons and their axon-dendrite intertweaking are all that matter in cerebral activity, with glial cells there only as invisible graduate students support staff... there may be a few surprises in store about the connectivity of astroglial cells.

** PZ Myers elsewhere bemoans the fashion for using '-ome' and '-omics' to coin new names for scientific specialities (not to mention the inevitable journals). I agree that 'connectomic', 'synaptomic' and 'epigenomic' together bring us that much closer to Omicgeddon.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Riddledomics helped me put my life together again.

mikey said...

All of which is quite lucid and very clear, but I am left with two questions if I might.

First, I'd be very interested in precisely where the threshold lies between major and minor weapons. Is is between aerial bombs and atomic weapons, or is it somewhat further down the hierarchy?

Secondly, I'm intrigued by these astrglial cells. Are they the source from which astroglide is harvested? Because I honestly had not realized it was a naturally occurring substance...

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...


Gregory: good morning - things are
calm in the middle east now but the
U.S. is evacuating all our embassies
just to be sure

Rice: we were going to skip New Zealand
until those hobbits started getting restless

Another Kiwi said...

Those are too bad mice. Once we have plasticised brains in slices then can HAL be far away? And look how well that turned out.

M. Bouffant said...

To a disembodied brain such as myself, this is fascinating. Your article really hit the spot. Do you know where I can get more info on the subject?

P.S.: Favicon observed from this location!

Substance McGravitas said...

Major weapons make you smile, minor weapons make you sad.

Another Kiwi said...

Glad to see the L.A. enclave can see the flavicon. It did not get permanently on display on my devil box until a week had passed from me put it into Bludger.

Smut Clyde said...

For all the disembodied-brain readers.

Smut Clyde said...

Artist's impression of M. Bouffant.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

this did not make me hungry. I prefer my food without preservatives.

I am, however, a bit thirsty now.

H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

The sledge microtome might be profitably hybridized with the guillotine and advanced Ralph knife technology to section the plastinated subject (or lean corned beef) effectively.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Smut, I rather suspect MB looks like this.

Smut Clyde said...

I defer to H. Rumbold's expertise on microtomics.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

This preserves the sensitivity settings of every neuron and the rich neuron-to-neuron connectivity to be recorded and uploaded at leisure and emulated in software.*

How soon before my cloned descendents can have their own Mr Million?

Mandos said...

This brought some sort of chucklement.
Plastination is near. If you know anything about GMU econ, you'll realize how unintentionally funny this is.

Smut Clyde said...

Now Mandos must explain the GMU Econ situation and the unintentional humour.
It's the law, citizen!

Mandos said...

Fine fine.

GMU is a *public* Virginia university in the DC area that is Libertarian Central for academic economists. Robin Hanson is a Randroid-type who firmly believes that even the finest details of government policy should just be left to a sort of private derivatives market.

Anyway, he's all excited about the possibility that someone might freeze his brain in plastic, and he gave more money to this speculation as a donation than to any other charity.

I suppose it's consistent, but it all so weirdly un-self-aware.

Smut Clyde said...

I remember GMU in the context of the Wegman scandal... when an investigation of a dishonest, plagiarised, paid-for anti-global-warming report written by their leading statistician expanded into an inquiry into his entire *career* of plagiarism and dishonesty... and the GMU administration did their best to do nothing about it.

Robin Hanson is clearly a smart guy but I don't know where he gets off with assertions like "Actually, it is probably enough to just get 95% of the connections right, and a half dozen chemical densities."