The (Vague) Science of ASMR

If you type ASMR into YouTube, you will find a plethora of videos that can strike people as quite odd.  Strangers whispering into the camera for long periods of time, a woman tapping on a chocolate bar for nearly an hour, or producing sounds from slime or lotion are some examples.  The name stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” though that mostly is just a name that was put together so that the little-known sensation could have a name (the history of the term is briefly discussed here).

Many who use the videos say that they have had an incredibly positive impact on their lives by reducing stress, anxiety and causing sleep.  Most ASMR enthusiasts believe that capacity to feel the ASMR sensation is something you either are or are not born with.  The ASMR sensation itself is often described as a pleasant tingling sensation in the head that can spread down the body.  Many viewers though say they don’t understand the attraction.  Some people react to the ASMR craze with a disdain either because the videos are deemed to be simply weird or are deemed to be a kind of fetish.

Situations in ASMR videos can include haircuts, doctor’s visits or android repairs-situations where someone is allowed to act in close proximity to another person (or robot).  It is this aspect of many ASMR videos that can creep people out.  The charge of that the videos are intended to be sexual deeply angers ASMR creators though since they do not wish do be viewed in that light and, furthermore, should public opinion turn too sharply against ASMR videos, demonetization will become a bigger threat for ASMR YouTubers than it already is.   Interestingly, one survey of ASMR enthusiasts found only 5% reported interest in the videos for sexual stimulation.

But is ASMR real?  According to research done by the University of Sheffield, it is, but only in some people.  Participants who reported that they experienced the ASMR feeling were shown to have lower heart rates when exposed to ASMR content in a lab.

“What’s interesting is that the average reductions in heart rate experienced by our ASMR participants was comparable to other research findings on the physiological effects of stress-reduction techniques such as music and mindfulness,” Dr. Giulia Poerio who lead the study.

As it is though, very little is understood as to what causes people to love videos depicting such simple stimuli so much.  Some compare the phenomenon to synesthesia while another hypothesis links the videos to the way we receive affection while young. Whether you love the trend, or are repelled by it, it seems the brain still has some more quirks we are yet to learn.

And who knows what the Internet will produce next.

Feel free to check out my other blog The Martian Muckraker or see this fun little “text an alien” webpage I made to learn a little PHP.


3 Strengths of Science Fiction Over Fantasy

Science Fiction.  Fantasy.  Horror.  Superhero.  Every geek proudly defends his chosen genre.  While art is always subjective, it can be interesting to explore how each genre has its narrative strengths…and pitfalls.

I love fantasy.  The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest epics of all time, and, yes, I am a member of a Dungeons and Dragons club.  #WaterdeepDragonHeist #NoShame

But, I do feel that science fiction has some narrative strengths over fantasy, which is why that is genre I am currently dabbling in for my creative writing.  These are general patterns, there will always be outliers.

Strength #1:  Sci Fi Avoids the Messiah Complex (When Done Right)

Fantasy stories frequently have a messianic character.  Frodo.  Harry.  King Arthur.  The Pevensies. These “chosen ones” are a very common fantasy trope. There is a time and place for this type of storytelling.  I am a Christian and I do think that sometimes Providence calls people to certain missions.  These fantasy characters (at least in Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia) can serve a christological function if done right.

However, it can be hard to relate to these characters.  I don’t have a prophesy telling me what my role will be.  History is not micromanaged by prophecies or chosen ones.

Consider Star Trek.  Are the characters gifted?  Yes.  Are they in a unique position given the technological eliteness of the Enterprise?  Yes.  However one can more easily see oneself becoming a psychologist, like Troi, or an engineer, like Shorty, or a captain (albeit not of a Starship) like Picard than one can imagine being marked for greatness like Harry Potter.

Yes, some Sci Fi falls back on fantasy tropes (Star Wars, I’m looking at you). However Science Fiction generally does not need a “chosen one.” That makes the characters more relatable and raises the stakes.  If there is a prophecy, we can trust it will be fulfilled.  If a character is just one member of the crew among many…well they don’t have fate to shield them from danger.

Strength #2: We Can See Science Fiction Coming True

Wizards, as fantasy understands them, are not real and never will be real.  The crocodile is as close as we are ever going to get to a dragon.

On the other hand, the communicators of Star Trek have come true in cell phones.  The book burning world of Fahrenheit 451  is all too real in some countries (and will come to our own if we are not careful).  And while we may not have cyborgs, like in Ghost in the Shell, human beings are becoming more and more attached to technology and that technology is providing a new platform for warfare.  We may not be able to reanimate dead corpses like Victor Frankenstein, but the history of science is filled with less-than-ethical science experiments.

When we read fantasy we have to suspend disbelief.  When we read science fiction the scenarios are often all too real.


Strength #3 Science Fiction’s “What If…”

Fantasy’s “What if” is often well…a fantasy.  People joke all the time about how they are “still waiting for their Hogwarts Letter.”  People wish they could go to Narnia.  People wish they were a wizard.  People wish they could find a genie.

With SciFi…it ain’t so simple.  Do you wish you had an X-gene?  Where your powers may be unstable, may cause you to kill your boyfriend if you kiss him, and will cause you to have to live in hiding from the fearful human population?  It may be cool to be an X-man…but not completely.

We don’t wish to be Katniss from the Hunger Games, or the humans under attack in War of the Worlds.  We don’t wish to be a Loonie from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Science Fiction makes it easier to pick “what if’s” that are blessings…and curses.  This can make it all the more exciting and believable.

Furthermore, fantasy often falls back on recycled Lord of the Rings knockoffs.  Elves, dwarves and dragons again and again and again.  Science Fiction’s need for novel “what if’s” has spurred a great diversity.  Just see the range from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Deep Space Nine, from the optimism of Star Trek to the crushing despair of Frankenstein. There is a massive difference between Xenomorphs and Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still. 

I will go back to Narnia soon.  But for now, I will hear the prophets warning and celebrating an all too close future.


Robot Image by Comfreak on Pixabay

Fantasy Image above by peter_pvw on Pixabay

300x300 BIG CABLE

Battle Brews over Supervised Injection Sites

Many US cities, such as San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia, are considering opening Safe Injection Sites for drug users, despite the open anger of the Federal Government.  The defenders of these sites argue that drug use is a reality, a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless.  These sites would try to reduce the harm addicts face by providing clean needles, health information and medical care in the event of an overdose.  It is also argued that a more compassionate approach to the drug problem will be more effective at bringing people to recovery.

“We know from every other city and country-Australia, Canada, Europe-every other place that does this-has succeeded.  Safe injection Sites lower crime rates, lower infection rates, get people into recovery.  This is exactly where we should be going…We are urging our great friend Governor Brown to sign AB 186,” California State Senator Scott Wiener said in a press conference.

Despite his optimism, at this time there is no strong scientific consensus on how effective these sites are.

The US Attorney’s Office regards these proposals both as unlawful and as bad policy. A statement regarding a proposed initiative in Vermont says, “As to policy, the proposed government-sanctioned sites would encourage and normalize heroin use, thereby increasing demand for opiates and, by extension, risk of overdose and overdose deaths… Such facilities would also threaten to undercut existing and future prevention initiatives by sending exactly the wrong message to children in Vermont: the government will help you use heroin.”

Scott Wiener in the aforementioned Press Conference that “[San Francisco is] not scared to push the envelope of public health policy even if…the Federal Government threatens us with criminal prosecution…We did it with needle exchange…we did it with medical cannabis…these are all situations where we were being threatened by the Federal Government…but we persevered…[and] down the line needle exchange is being done in a lot of places, medical cannabis is being embraced even in Republican states.”

Whether this idea ultimately triumphs or falters, there are sure to be many standoffs between the States and the Federal Government in the meantime.




Tokyo Ghoul

Sci-Fi Manga and Anime Review:

There has been a slew of “maybe the monster isn’t that bad” stories.  Manylike Twilighthave left some viewers disgusted with the genre, and yearning for a time when the only good vampire was one with a stake in his heart.

Tokyo Ghoul, however, is a cut above.  Kaneki, the central character, finds himself in a horrific situation.  He is a human, but, after nearly being crushed to death, was given an organ transplant from a ghoul.  Now he struggles with a newfound hunger which, left unchecked, could lead to him eating those he loves.  As the story progresses, he finds himself torn between the society of humans and the society of ghouls blending in among those they long to devour.

Kaneki is quickly taken in by a group of ghouls that try to minimize the amount of carnivorous damage they do.  Nonetheless, even their methods often make them do ethically dubious things…like scavenging for already dead bodies to eat.

What makes Kaneki’s journey fascinating is that he quickly learns to see the personhood of both the humans and the ghouls without succumbing to an easy relativism.  He soon realizes that he is uniquely suited to try and create a truce between the warring species.

What are you allowed to do if survival requires you to do something horrible?  The situation of the show may seem extreme, but there are plenty of real world corollaries.  What do you do if economic survival requires you to break the law?  What do you do if your country drafts you into a less-than-just war?  What do you do if you will be fired for doing what is right?

To enjoy the show one has to allow the ghouls some moral rounding, rounding that perhaps we would not grant in real life.  But the show does have a necessary moral core: those we think of as monsters are perhaps just people in a desperate situation.  And are we sure we would do any better?

The art and action are flawless.  Just make sure you have a strong stomach for some scenes.  Also be warned that the show can hint at some intense issues…as if its central premise wasn’t intense enough.  Overall this is a brilliant take on the “maybe the monster isn’t that bad” genre, and one of the finest animes out there.

Click Here to see beautiful animation of the show’s opening theme.

Note: At present I am almost through season 1.  I look forward to what unfolds next, and may write more reviews as I finish more of the show.  

You’ll Need to Save the Planet to Secure the Boarder

Too often climate change is seen as a nebulous intellectual theory that may or may not bring some sort of apocalyptic doom in a far-fetched future that never seems to come.  The fact is that climate change is having a real impact right now.  We are seeing it at our border.

This is worth reflecting on because today, June 30th, has been declared a National Day of Action Against Family Separation by a movement called Family’s Belong Together.  The event was called to criticize Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance policy” which led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents.

What does climate change have to do with this?  According to Lauren Markham writing in the New York Times, rising temperatures are making it harder for Guatemalan farmer’s to make ends meet.  This exacerbates already dangerous conditions in the country and can make the highly risky and undignified journey north seem more attractive.

In fact 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate and weather related causes, according to the International Displacement Monitoring Center and the UN.  As climate change continues to accelerate, we may see more and more immigrants seeking asylum.

It would do well for the leader of the free world who has said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” to consider that it is perfectly natural for the hungry and desperate to move toward food.  And given that the USA is a major polluter on the world stage, we should do more minimize our impact to these people’s plight before we demonize them and rip their children away.

Trump’s immigration policies have led to international outcry and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights rebuked the policy saying, “The American Association of Pediatrics has called this cruel practice “government-sanctioned child abuse” which may cause “irreparable harm,” with “lifelong consequences.”  Trump currently seeks to continue a zero-tolerance policy and detain families together.

This is not to say climate change is the only cause of our current immigration crisis, but it is a cause that can’t be ignored.  Climate change deniers seek to make so much noise that no decisive action will be taken.  Time has officially run out.  We needed to get serious about this issue a long time ago.  To many people have already paid for our failure to act.

I highly recommend Lauren Markham’s article.  In addition to conditions in Guatemala, she discusses other examples from El Salvador and around the world.

The High Hopes and Political Risks of the March for Science

(First published before April 22nd 2017 March; new posts coming soon)

This Earth Day, April 22nd, scientists and science advocates will be marching in support of evidence-based policy making in Washington DC and at over 500 sites across the world.  According to the official website of the movement, “People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.  We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely…We must stand together and support science.”

The movement, which originated on social media, has grown very popular, getting endorsed by the editorial staff of leading science journal Nature and garnering over a half-million likes on Facebook.

Some are more skeptical of the movement however.  A scientist-authored opinion piece in the New York Times warns that this march “will turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate” and is instead recommending that supporters of science take measures that are more personal and help put a “face on the debate.”

More recently, an Op-Ed piece in the New Yorker has warned that, “there is a genuine risk that the March for Science will be widely regarded as a manifestation of the great urban-rural divide that helped elect Trump.”  The March for Science states that it is nonpartisan and that “anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle.”  This nonpartisan spirit is not shared by all.  The East Bay Times Editorial Board advocates the March as a way to stand against certain policies of President Trump and even calls the March for Science a matter of “Life or Death.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts include steep cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (targeted for an 18% cut) and the Environmental Protection Agency (targeted for a 31% cut).  For supporters of the march, such as the aforementioned Editorial Board of the East Bay Times, the planned cuts to NIH and possible future cuts to the National Science Foundation are projected to jeopardize medical research and harm the economy.

The endorsement in Nature acknowledges the risk the march could feed the (false) narrative that science is a “left-wing” issue and blur the line between science and politics.  Nonetheless they assert, “that line is already much fuzzier than some try to argue.”  Ultimately they, and scientists around the world, hope “despite internal wrinkles, the positive message that crowds of pro-science people on the streets present to the broader world will surely show through.”

Measles Outbreak Occurs Amidst Renewed Interest in Vaccination Politics

(First published in 2017; new posts coming soon)

The largest outbreak of Measles in Minnesota since 1990 comes at a time where the anti-vaccine movement has gained strength.  Donald Trump has met with a prominent advocate concerned about vaccine risks and has allegedly proposed a “vaccine safety commission.In the state of Texas, activists have succeeded in electing many politicians willing to defend their alleged right to refuse to vaccinate their children.

The current outbreak is impacting Minnesota’s Somali immigrant community where the belief that Autism can be caused by the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR) led many to refuse to immunize their children.  One of the originators of this hypothesis, Andrew Wakefield, as well as other activists, had met with parents of the community prior to the outbreak.  Wakefield is one of several authors of a study published in 1998 that originated the fear that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism.  Wakefield’s study has since been withdrawn.  The study is widely regarded as a fraud for many reasons including an ethical conflict of interest resulting from Wakefield’s involvement in a lawsuit that stood to benefit from his publication.  Wakefield has stated that he feels he was “framed” by the pharmaceutical industry in a response to the many charges against him.  There are numerous studies thoroughly debunking Wakefield’s ideas.  He claims no responsibility for the current outbreak.

The vaccination issue draws strong opinions from all involved.  Those that believe parents have the right to refuse the MMR vaccine assert that parents, not the state, should have the final say on medical decisions impacting their children.  Defenders of vaccines believe that allowing parents to opt out of immunizations hurts their children as well as the general community.  The issue became personal for Jim Jacks, a pediatrician, when his daughter was potentially exposed to measles by an unvaccinated child.  In a scathing letter, he explains that some children, like his daughter, cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons and thus “cannot be protected … except by vaccinating people around them.”

It is possible that the current outbreak will help fuel desires for stricter vaccination laws, such as the current law in California.  California requires vaccinations for school attendance.  This law was challenged in Witlow v. California where the free exercise clause, equal protection clause, and due process clause were used to argue that it was unconstitutional to eliminate a personal belief exemption to the vaccine.  The court ruled that the state’s interest in fighting the spread of disease outweighed any claim of protection that those clauses could provide.  The LA Times has recently reported that vaccination rates in California have improved due to the new law.