Author: pfrana

About pfrana

I am Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies & Independent Scholars at James Madison University and Associate Dean of the Honors College. I find highly motivated students, give them unique opportunities to flourish, and challenge them to make a better world.

Call for Contributors: Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence

Call for Contributors

Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence: The Past, Present, and Future of AI

Seeking contributors for a single-volume encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence, to be published by ABC-CLIO in spring 2020.

Some people believe that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will revolutionize modern life in ways that improve human existence. Others say that the promise of AI is overblown. And still others contend that AI applications could pose a grave threat to the economic security of millions of people by taking their jobs and otherwise rendering them “obsolete.” Or even worse, that AI could actually spell the end of the human race, as posited by Stephen Hawking in 2014.

This encyclopedia will provide readers with a complete overview of Artificial Intelligence and help users understand the reasons why AI development has both spirited defenders and alarmed critics. It will survey AI’s historic development and current status; explain existing and projected applications; profile AI’s biggest proponents and detractors; and explain theories and innovations using language and terminology accessible to a lay audience.

Contributors receive writing credit and eBook access to the published set. Contributors also get a free copy of the book for essays totaling 2500 words contributed (domestic) or 5500 words contributed (international).

If you are interested in writing for this project, please email encyclopedia co-editor Dr. Michael Klein (kleinmj@jmu.edu), with a list of areas of interest and expertise, and he will send you a current list of entries available for contract.

Thank you for your interest in this important project.

—Dr. Philip L. Frana and Dr. Michael Klein, James Madison University

AVAILABLE ENTRIES:

HEADWORD TARGET WORD COUNT
AARON (AI painting program) 500
Advanced Soldier Sensor Information Systems and Technology (ASSIST, a DARPA soldier-worn sensor program) 1500
Artificial Brains  1500
AutoClass (NASA system for automatic classification or clustering) 500
Automatic Film Editing (automatic video editing software) 500
 
Rodney Brooks (robotics pioneer and entrepreneur) 1500
Joanna Bryson (scholar of AI ethics; author of “Robots Should Be Slaves”) 1500
C3I – Command, Control, Communications and (Artificial) Intelligence 1500
Chatbots and Loebner Prize 1500
Clinical Reminder Systems (expert systems health alerts) 1500
Computability and Non-Computability (hypercomputation) 1000
Computational and Systems Psychology (computational cognition) 1500
Computer Chess 1500
Computational Theory of Mind (CTM) 1500
Connectionism and Artificial Neural Networks 1500
Deep Blue (IBM chess computer) 1500
DeepMind and AlphaGo 1500
Tom Dietterich (machine learning pioneer) 1000
Martin Ford (AI futurist and author) 1000
Future Combat Systems (FCS, US Army program for advanced combat and communications) 1500
Future Force Warrior (infantryman combat system) 1500
Rayid Ghani (scholar of data science for social good and public policy) 1000
David Gunkel (robot rights scholar) 1000
Dennis Hassabis (creativity and AI scholar, neuroscientist) 1500
Eric Horvitz (director of Microsoft Research Labs) 1500
Hugo de Garis (evolvable hardware, genetic algorithms, artilect war) 1500
Theories of Intelligence (and implications for AI) 1500
Intelligent Software Assistant (virtual assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Google Now, etc.) 1500
Intelligent Transportation Systems (automated and semi-automated traffic management) 1500
Intelligent Tutoring Systems (education) 500
John McCarthy (AI pioneer, Lisp) 1500
Marvin Minsky (cognitive scientist and AI pioneer, philosophy of mind) 1500
Robin Murphy (rescue robotics) 1000
Allen Newell (AI pioneer, list processing) 1500
Steve Omohundro (AI researcher) 1500
Seymour Papert (AI pioneer, among many other things) 1500
Pattern Recognition 1500
Rosalind Picard (director of the Affective Computing Research Group  at MIT) 1000
John Sladek (science fiction author) 1000
Herbert Simon (AI pioneer, sciences of artificial) 1500
Peter W. Singer (AI ethics, military AI) 1500
Smart Cities and Homes (embedded systems, ubiquitous tech) 1500
Strategic Computing Initiative (DARPA plan to achieve machine intelligence) 1500
Mark Tilden (robotics physicist) 1000
Pascal Van Hentenryck (optimization and AI researcher) 1000
Watson (IBM natural language computer system, Jeopardy! computer) 1500
Alan Winfield (roboticist) 1500
Eliezer Yudkowsky (friendly AI, MIRI researcher) 1500
Advertisements

The Real Geography of Science Fiction in America

Not finding a complete map of the “real” geography of science fiction in America, I decided to make my own.  Here find the location of important societies, library and archival collections, grave locations, and conventions. Recommendations for other high quality pilgrimage sites are welcome. The map also needs some sort of tentacled alien beast attacking the inset island of Newfoundland.

Click on the map (and click again) to enlarge the image. Original map is poster quality and 70″ x 44″.
Science Fiction Map

Crowdsourcing, the Long Tail, and Prosumption

A small group discussion guide to crowdsourcing and the “New Economy.”

Readings:

“Production, Consumption, Prosumption: The Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital ‘Prosumer’”

“The Long Tail in the Entertainment Industry”

“The Rise of Crowdsourcing”

“When the Crowd Isn’t Wise”

“Human Workers, Managed by Algorithm”

For reference purposes:

“The New Economy”

“User-Generated Online Content”

The “gist”: The New Economy has been brewing since the mid-1990s, but its major impacts have until recently been deflected by such things as the dot-com crash, 9/11, and the mortgage meltdown. But the reorganization of business and society since the Great Recession depends, in large part, on ideas introduced in these readings. Uncoordinated, amateur, and naive users are transforming American life on and off the internet. They are also creating value and abundance, possibly without appropriate remuneration.

The economy of the future depends on the creative labor and production of individuals as much as collective enterprise. It is also fiercely competitive as digital transparency (for example, online price comparison) drives profit margins down to near zero. Middlemen are being eliminated by technologies of disintermediation, and whole economies are being bypassed by globalization of commerce. Traditional authorities are increasingly undermined and becoming radicalized (examples: Tea Party members, Islamic fundamentalists, librarians).

Key terms and definition:

The Long Tail – A term coin by Chris Anderson in 2004 framing the phenomena of niche markets composed of products and services in low demand and low sales volume. Reduced marketing and distribution costs in the twenty-first century have made these niches potentially profitable for individuals, challenging the traditional markets for “bestsellers” and “blockbusters.”

Content Aggregator – An organization or individual that collects online media from various sites and repackages it for reuse or resale on another site.

User Generated Content – Media product and recommendations crafted by amateurs rather than recognized experts and professionals.

Virtualization – Changing physical objects into digital products. The movement of music from CDs and CD making factories to digital music download sites is an example.

Molecularization – The transformation of the markets for production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services from the masses to individuals. The new economies of scale are smaller, plural, and austere. Bigger isn’t better anymore.

Disintermediation – The removal of an intermediary, or middleman, from a transaction or communication. The user or consumer gains direct access to information that otherwise would require a mediator, such as a salesperson, a librarian, or a lawyer.  New technologies give users the power to look up medical, legal information, travel, or comparative product data directly.

Prosumption – A portmanteau coined by futurologist Alvin Toffler combining the terms “producer” and “consumer,” emphasizing the falsity of the dichotomy of the two.

Convergence – The combination of old industries into new and vital ones. One example is the combination of newspaper, television, and web companies into “new media” empires.

Wisdom of Crowds – Collective intelligence producing superior (or mediocre) judgment.

Folksonomy – Collaboratively sorting, tagging, or classifying content using internet technologies. Participating in such a venture is sometimes called microvolunteering (see for example Galaxy Zoo or Foldit).

Discussion questions:

Does crowdsourcing produce quality or mediocrity? Can a crowd really defeat experts and professionals at all things? Or is crowdsourcing really best for accomplishing simple or nonserious tasks? Consider the list of 2,000+ crowdsourcing sites at http://www.crowdsourcing.org/directory.

Who can actually make a living in a crowdsourced business like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or InnoCentive? Is a system based on large groups of competing workers paid little (or nothing) for their efforts sustainable over the long haul? Is this unethical exploitation of the labor market?

What motivates people to do work for free?

What mundane activities and personal tasks in your daily life would you like to outsource/crowdsource to TaskRabbit? (See https://www.taskrabbit.com/how-it-works)

Automation, Robotics, and Remote Work

A discussion guide on automation, robotics, and remote work.

Readings:

John Markoff’s “Skilled Work, Without the Worker”

Antonio Regalado’s “When Machines Do Your Job” 

The “gist”: Each day brings a raft of new stories about the potential of robotics and automation to revolutionize our economy. Usually, the story turns on the potential of machines to reduce menial labor and free up humankind for more creative and important jobs. Markoff’s article shows us a world where automation is eliminating factory work and manufacturing jobs – even in China. Some of that automation may make America more competitive again: robots don’t get paid whether they work overseas or right here at home. On the other hand, more and more humans are going to find they aren’t going to get paid for their work anymore either. Robots are able to take over work previously thought to require the flexibility and initiative of the human being.

In Regalado’s interview of Andrew McAfee it becomes clear that automation, robotics, and remote work are going to dramatically transform the way we do business in the near future. Those who own the machines and automated factories and resources are going to have an unequal advantage over everyone else. These machines will surely exacerbate unemployment numbers. White collar jobs for knowledge workers, as well as blue collar jobs in factories, will go away forever because of computer technology. Some brain workers and more creative human beings may find their livelihoods and futures threatened. Some people who survive the transition will find their skills in high demand, and will work longer and longer hours. And ironically, some menial jobs will remain because it is easier to make machines smart than graceful.

Key terms and definitions:

Remote work – Work done at a distance; in this instance, robots that are remotely controlled by workers or managers from another location, also called “telepresence” or “avatarization.”

“Hollowing out” the job market – High-wage, high-skill employment is still created as “top” or most desirable jobs, but so are many poorly compensated service industry jobs for food preparers, home care aides, and others. Employment in the middle ranges of salary and skill is disappearing: clerical, sales, and administrative jobs and those on factory floors.

Automation – The use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process. It is generally credited with raising efficiency and productivity and eliminating routine or repetitive work.

Moving “bits, not atoms” – It is much cheaper and easier to manipulate bits of information rather than atoms of material substance. This philosophy, applied to the economy, has made lots of traditional products and services obsolete. Netflix replacing physical video rental stores with online viewing of movies is one example.

Luddite fallacy – The notion that machines will only take away human jobs and our ability to support our families through work. Luddites are contrasted with technophiles, those who think computers and automation will usher in a new golden age for humankind and fix all of our current problems.

Digital Athens – The idea that computers will free us from the drudgery of daily life and give us time to practice complex entrepreneurial skills and become more creative.

Discussion questions:

  • If routine and unskilled work goes away, what will undereducated and less intelligent people do to support themselves?
  • Humans are creatures of habit. What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking away work that is repetitive, or even ordinary?
  • If we agree that job demand exceeds foreseeable demand, what should we do about it? Ban robots? Reeducate the workforce for something else? What else? Are public works and public service jobs the only fix to this inflection point in capitalism?
  • What kinds of mental work is it reasonable to assume will be automated? What kinds of mental work will be hard or impossible to automate? Watson the Jeopardy computer anyone?
  • Could personal robots be the answer to the problem of inequality? If everyone owned a 3D printer (factory) or robot, wouldn’t this make everyone rich and happy?
  • Will this movement for automation impact certain parts of the world more than other parts? Is this really a “first world problem” or a developing world problem.

Additional comments:

Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, argued strenuously that work is good for the human body. It seems likely that we’ll continue to need exercise. One of the consequences of the loss of hard physical labor is vast and expanding waistlines as well as vast and expanding rec centers. I wonder if we aren’t replacing one kind of human struggle for another, at the cost of lots of nonrenewable energy sources. There’s a lot one human being can do with a shovel. Perhaps we are underestimating manual labor and a set of values based on hard work and diligence?

Gadget Freakery

A discussion guide on the topic.

Readings:

Alex Hudson, “The Age of Information Overload” BBC News

Matt Richtel, “Silicon Valley Says Step Away from the Device” New York Times

Alexis Madrigal, “Are We Addicted to Gadgets or Indentured to Work?” The Atlantic

The “gist”: Hudson reports that human beings eat more data than ever before, and repeats the common complaint that there is now too much information. The consequence is a potentially paralyzing “information overload.” Most disquieting, he says, is multitasking, which makes it possible to have more than 24 hours of screen time in a single day.

Richtel says that even technology executives know that there is a problem with Internet addiction and gadget freakery. In fact, they may have noticed the effects of electronic obsessions before the rest of us did. Electronic screens, particularly interactive ones – as opposed to passive ones, like television – increase dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Instead of making us more productive, and augmenting our creativity, our digital devices have debilitated us.

Madrigal responds to Richtel’s piece, arguing that this is really a problem of Homo economicus, which has made us callous to our social needs for things like conversation, love, and acceptance. Our bosses are exacerbating the problem by instilling fear of job loss. Now it’s not only “all work and no play,” but “all work and no pay.” Madrigal recommends we revolt – not against the machines per se, but our political, cultural, and corporate masters.

Key terms and definitions:

Worker productivity – The ratio of production output to what is required to produce it (inputs); amount of goods and services that a worker produces in a given amount of time.

Homo economicus – Humans are rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends; contrast with homo reciprocans, which states that human beings are primarily motivated by the desire to be cooperative and to improve their environment.

“The Great Speedup” – an employer’s demand for accelerated output without increased pay.

Internet addiction disorder (IAD) –Internet overuse, problematic computer use, or pathological computer use; excessive computer use that interferes with daily life. IAD was originally proposed as a disorder in a satirical hoax by Ivan Goldberg, M.D., in 1995.

Discussion questions:

  • Do we really consume more data today than we did pre-Internet? Or are we just consuming different kinds of information than we once did?
  • Should kids still be learning how to write in cursive in elementary school? How about how to write a letter (snail mail)? Should these be replaced with keyboarding and texting/tweeting?
  • Is it duplicitous for computer companies to be making these products and at the same time telling us to use them only in moderation?
  • Is there a technological solution to every problem? Will our gadgets and technology inevitably save the world, or will they destroy the world?
  • Evaluate the following claim: Information is not just increasing exponentially; it is obsolescing at a rapid rate as well. It no longer makes sense to make students memorize vast quantities of information that will become outdated a few years beyond college.

Virtual Companies and the Death of the Permanent Office

Here’s a small group guide for a discussion of virtual companies.

Readings:

Max Chafkin, “The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company” Inc.

“Workplace Trends” [VIDEO] YNN

The “gist”: Virtual companies get their work done with minimal or no corporate headquarters or dedicated workspace. Sometimes they create cyberspace boardrooms using tools like Skype and ooVoo. Virtual work requires adjustments. Workers must be dedicated to the work itself rather than the social routines of the office. But, he argues, lots of types of work can’t be done efficiently at work anyway, especially tasks that require concentrated effort over long periods of uninterrupted time. As Chafkin notes, the workplace becomes an online market where a “culture of collaboration by a group of competent generalists” is replaced by “one based on specialists who are cheap, efficient, and good at meeting deadlines.” To counteract this negative effect, successful company owners and managers introduce and foster new online and offline collaboration products.

Key terms and definitions:

Mobile Work, Distributed Work – Distributed work reaches beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment. A distributed workforce is disbursed geographically over a wide area – domestically or internationally. By installing key technologies, distributed companies enable employees located anywhere to access all of the company’s resources and software such as applications, data, and e-mail without working within the confines of a physical company-operated facility.

Virtual company – In virtual companies, employees are distributed but primarily remain unconnected. Such companies employ electronic means to transact business as opposed to a traditional brick-and-mortar business that relies on face-to-face transactions with physical documents and physical currency or credit. Workers telecommute from other locations, and as much work as possible is usually outsourced to non-employee contractors.  Some virtual businesses operate solely in a virtual world.

Work-life balance – Work-life balance is having enough time for work and enough to have a family and personal life. It also means having a measure of control over when, where and how you work, leading to being able to enjoy an optimal quality of life.

Co-working centers – Co-working is a style of work that involves a shared working environment, often an office, and independent activity. Unlike in a typical office environment, those co-working are usually not employed by the same organization. Typically it is attractive to work-at-home professionals, independent contractors, or people who travel frequently who end up working in relative isolation. Some co-working spaces were developed by nomadic Internet entrepreneurs seeking an alternative to working in coffee shops and cafes, or to isolation in independent or home offices. See the recent story on Hacker Dojo (“Silicon Valley Techies Fight to Save a Popular but Illegal Haven” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/technology/techies-fight-to-save-hacker-dojo-a-popular-silicon-valley-work-space.html), which local authorities are threatening to close for violations of city regulations governing traditional workspaces.

Collaboration tools – A collaboration tool helps employees collaborate. Today, the term is often used to mean a piece of collaborative software. Conference phone calls are being replaced by asynchronous conferencing, video conferences, IRC or Instant Messaging. Peer review and editing of documents is done through Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, and Wikis rather than as iterative versions printed out on paper. Board room whiteboards are imitated by online whiteboards that allow telework.

Discussion questions:

  • What do you consider the best place to get your homework done? Why is this a good place to work?
  • Should “distractions” like Facebook and Twitter – and perhaps even email on specific days – be banned at work? Why or why not?
  • Think about a place where you have worked or your parents worked. How could this work be improved (or degraded) by implementing the strategies mentioned in Chafkin’s article or the video?
  • In companies with flexible schedules, how do you manage who picks up the slack during crunch times? Are employees who are parents a special class, and do they get or deserve special treatment? How do you juggle competing interests to work/school tasks and family or home responsibilities?
  • Do managers really distract employees from their work? Do managers tend to mismanage their time and the time of others? What should managers really be doing, and where should they be learning how to be better supervisors?

Additional comments: Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place argues that the best places to gather and get things done informally are what he calls “third places” like coffee shops, libraries, and pubs. He says these places, unlike home and work, represent “neutral ground” are important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.

As gasoline gets more expensive and commuting times get longer, virtual work is going to look more and more enticing to companies and their employees. In Iowa, my home state, government has made substantial progress in creating co-working centers in all 99 counties. Iowa is a big rural state with a low population, and workers are already dispersed over large geographical spaces. It makes sense to establish local workplaces where people do their daily jobs and can be gregarious – even when other employees in the building are working for entirely different companies.

Online Education and MOOCs

Here’s a small group guide for a discussion of e-learning in higher education.

Readings:

Online Education Examples:

The “gist”:

The internet has made many sectors of the economy, and indeed life itself, more volatile and decentralized. Coupled with economic insecurity, the online revolution is now transforming higher education. The conventional model for education is under attack for many reasons. Foremost, higher education appears as the exclusive preserve of those who can afford the cost, big blocks of time (measured in semesters and years), and distance from family commitments.

Perhaps we can leverage technology to reduce barriers to access and reduce costs. In the process, decentralization threatens many storied traditions of university life. A physical campus where students interact may become unnecessary. The lecture model for teaching used for a thousand years may wither away. Learning may reside in non-human appliances rather than professors and other students. Cheating may require more sophisticated, high tech policing. More students may succeed as massively open online courses become available for free. Simultaneously, more students may fail as motivation or ability to self-regulate falters.

Networked learning makes a number of assumptions. First, basic digital literacy is presumed. Technical challenges will be overcome. Assessment and evaluation of developmental learning can be standardized or automated. Course developers as inquisitive minds will be stimulated within the context of online learning environments and adequately paid. MOOCs and courseware instructional design also assumes that affective learning mode – pleasure, frustration, feelings, rapport, and interest felt – can be captured as easily as cognitive learning mode – someone’s ability to recall a list of learned items, their ability to generalize and apply knowledge – and can be measured or tested.

Key terms and definitions:

MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) – Characterized by scalability and oriented at the community, MOOCs are distance education products that often rest on the pedagogy laid out by “deschooling” proponent Ivan Illich.

LMS (Learning Management System) —A client-server application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational courses.Blackboard/WebCT, Canvas, HCOL virtual classrooms are examples.

Hybrid classes – Courses partially taught in the classroom and partially online. Blended or mixed-mode courses are those that take place in multiple contexts or environments.

Flipped classroom – An education where the focus at class time is on one-to-one teacher-student or peer-to-peer education. Homework is reserved for online lectures produced by “superstar professors.”

Computer aided instruction (CAI) – The use of computers for education and training. The term often became synonymous in the 1990s and early 2000s with “drilling” facts or message board-style learning.

Keylogging – Monitoring the frequency and rate of keys struck on a keyboard, in this case to detect cheating.

Discussion questions:

  • Is it true that an education is such a scarce commodity these days that most universities are already engaged in rationing such services? If so, will online education relieve the problem?
  • Will online educational tools tend to increase variety or homogenize education?
  • Charlie Firestone of the Aspen Institute is quoted as favoring “passion-based education” in the Pew Survey story. What do you think that is? Can any online course become “passion-based”? Is there any virtue to an education passively consumed?
  • What is it that a teacher or professor (mostly) does? Is she a “content developer”? A “motivator”? Something else?
  • Is a face-to-face education always better than one delivered online? Does technology facilitate the gamification of higher education, or is education as delivered in higher education already mostly gamified?
  • Is a university education still relevant? If so, why is there so much marketing and administration attached to it?
  • Will there still be physical universities with campuses in the future? Why or why not? What will happen to education that happens outside the classroom? Where will that go?
  • Is a university that graduates only 42.4% of its students wasting resources? What about 7%? Why or why not?
  • What will happen to students who are “demotivated” (as defined by Bill Gates)? Where will they get an education in a world where most education is delivered online?
  • Is it okay that most students (enrollees) will never finish any particular MOOC?

Darwin twisted around just in time to catch the strap of his pack as it slid downhill. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Covington. Now, about that fossil there. Strangest thing I ever saw. Let’s see if the earthquake shook loose any more bones. I think the earth is done misbehaving for the moment.”

Syms Covington, the brown-haired fiddler and cabin boy pressed into service as Darwin’s assistant, began digging in the soil near the latest find. He had become quite good at picking objects of interest out of the rocky soil. Darwin had even begun letting him label the specimens. In fact, Syms thought he might be doing a better job keeping his records than the naturalist himself.

On his knees now, Syms cast aside rocks and pebbles as he examined the ground around him. Darwin stood above, brown-haired and well-muscled with blue-gray eyes and ruddy cheeks. Slowly and methodically, Syms fanned his attention outward from the location of the last bone. Darwin took pains to look where Syms stepped, making sure that they didn’t overlook something right beneath their feet, and stood ready with the hammer. The small hole developing in his left boot was getting bigger, making him shift back and forth to center the pit over relatively big, flat rock. The day before a misplaced foothold drove a sharp splinter of granite into his sole. Darwin shifted his weight from left to right, dislodging some of the loose debris around them.

“Sir, why not step away and relieve the pressure on your injury,” said Syms, noticing Darwin’s change in stance. “There’s no reason to stay right here. If I find anything I’ll bring it over to you. At least take a drink from that flask you have there. It will remind you of home.”

“Damned if I want to be reminded of home, Covington! The tropical luxuriance in Valdivia and these long treks are making me long for holiday in North Wales. At least there a good, hot meal awaited me at the end of the day.”

“Sorry, sir. May I take your hole, sir?”

“My hole? What hole is that, Covington? You’ve barely begun to clear away the debris.”

“Sorry sir. I meant your spot. That’s what we call it in Bedfordshire, sir.” 

“All right then,” said Darwin, throwing down the hammer. “As you were.” Darwin seesawed away, favoring the sole of his good boot, and within a few moments leaned up against a big black boulder perched precariously above the site of the dig. He took a long swig from the flask on his belt and stoppered it back up. Moving away and uphill from the boulder, Darwin haphazardly scanned the accumulated scree. He sighed heavily, and then drew something out of his pocket. It was a handkerchief, filthy and torn from long use. Back home he’d have thrown it away ages ago. Wiping the cloth on his forehead left a dirty smudge.

“Damned bloody voyage,” he exhaled miserably.

Suddenly, his attention was caught by a mysterious, shiny object, just to his left of where the talus met the valley shoulder. Could it be a piece of quartz glittering in the sun? Some fool’s gold? Or something else? Who could have visited this remote spot and left behind a piece of metal? It had taken nearly half the day just to reach this mountainside. And there would not be anything here which any but a fool naturalist could possibly want. Could there be?

Principles of Geology

The force of the tremor knocked Darwin to his knees. He’d felt the earth move beneath his feet on the slopes of volcanoes, but never such a jolt as this. It felt like the ground had fallen out from under him. The staff in his hand slipped through his fingers and dust began billowing up around his feet. Darwin didn’t feel like he was in danger; in fact, he felt more afraid when climbing tall trees in search of reptiles and insects for his shipboard collections.

Darwin stood and immediately staggered again under the force of another jolt, this time a weaker aftershock. Birds that had settled to the ground in search of security rose up in flocks around him and flew out to sea. Is this how Lyell’s uniformitarian geology works, thought Darwin? Does the earthquake somehow determine the rise and fall of continents? If so, it wasn’t so slow and gradual a process as Lyell thought, occurring over long eons as natural forces worked away at the land. Sometimes of those forces felt downright catastrophic. Perhaps the biblical account had something to recommend it. A smaller shock, building up slowly in intensity shook Darwin from side to side, and his feet struggled to find purchase in the deep gravel beneath his feet.

For some reason, he began thinking about the coral reefs he’d seen from the deck of the Beagle earlier in the voyage. They seemed to rise and then sink beneath the waves because of similar forces — volcanic stresses rather than quakes, but natural nonetheless. Perhaps when the land collapses in an earthquake, somewhere else — simultaneously — another strip of land is being pushed up? Atolls worked this way, he reasoned. As the islands slowly slipped beneath the waves, elaborate coral catacombs built up on their surface, struggling for just enough filtered sunlight to keep themselves alive in the shallow pools. Most of the coral eventually died as fresh new coral heaped up on top of the old. Mountains of coral could build up in this way, even as the original volcanic mount underneath the pile subsided away into the deep.

Maybe earthquakes knocked together new mountains as the sea floor slipped away. Or, earthquakes knocked down the mountains as volcanic action pushed them back up again somewhere else. Sort of a cyclic system might develop that similarly caused the rise and fall of whole continents. Darwin trembled at the thought. His hands began to shake and he felt bile rise in his throat. He’d need to talk to the ship’s doctor about that. He’d been violently ill several times in recent days. But then his mind provided distraction once again. He muttered out loud to no one, “But how to test such a theory?”

Fitzroy’s cabin boy, clinging for dear life to a trunk on the other side of the clearing, interrupted Darwin’s reverie with a shout. “Look out sir, your gear is about to fall in the water. Your clinometer will be lost –“

Meet Your Meat

A week earlier, Nelson Magar had been quietly munching his McDonald-McDonald’s burger in the UWI Student Union. He wasn’t much surprised by the nutritional value of the meal. What really surprised him was how delicious the burger, manufactured in vitro in the lab, really was.

“Best human ever,” he told his lunch date, the ravishing grad student Amie Emig from English.

“What?” she asked, only half aware of the conversation.

“I said, best human ever.”

“What do you mean, ‘best human ever’? Where is the best human ever?” Amie looked around at the surrounding tables, trying to discern which admirable person Nelson was referring to.

“The burger,” Nelson motioned. “The McDonald-McDonald’s is made from artificially grown human stem cells. And delicious. It’s a work of art.”

“Oh Jesus, Nelson. I wish you wouldn’t talk about it that way.”

“What way?” Nelson asked.

“You know what I mean,” Amie rolled her eyes. “Acting like you’re a cannibal because your meat comes from a human being.”

“But it does,” Nelson replied. “And it’s totally scrumptious. This McDonald fellow, or whatever his real name is, tastes just like a Petit Jean ham.”

Amie stood up, and then sat down again. With a suddenly faraway look in her eyes she asked Nelson to tell her again how North Americans ended up eating burgers seemingly more artificial than the styrofoam clamshells they came in.

“It’s really pretty amazing,” said Nelson, now holding up his last bite of greasy flesh as if it were a museum piece. “Around 2010 scientists at the University of Maryland discovered that they could grow meat in a bioreactor in sheets — that’s why they jokingly called it “shmeat.” Meat was already getting scarce after the droughts of those years, and ranchers couldn’t keep up with the demand. So most of them, the successful operators anyway, sold the last of their animals for slaughter and invested in meat making technology. It’s healthier and victimless. Even PETA came around to accepting it, even though the first cells harvested came from live animals. But those animals weren’t killed, just had their cheeks scraped.”

“That must have been amusing to watch,” said Amie.

“Yeah,” said Nelson. “But the real leap came when those same Maryland researchers discovered that they could make allergy-free meat products by using stem cells from the end-user, the customer himself. You can’t be allergic to your own self, and that meant that people who had allergies to, say, glycerin or natural flavorings or gelatin — which is in everything — could finally eat everything that the rest of us ‘normal’ folks could eat. They were just consuming little bits of themselves.”

“You make it sound disgusting.”

“Not really. No more disgusting than biting your nails and ingesting the little slivers that come off. Or swallowing the saliva in your mouth, which is pretty much inevitable. … Or eating your own boogers.”

“Yech. See what I mean? Disgusting.” Amie made to stand up again. She looked cross-eyed for a moment, focusing her attention on the timestamp imprinted on her head-mounted, stylishly baroque spectraglass.

Nelson leaned in to Amie, putting his hand on her knee. “The rest is history. Now I can enjoy just about any flavor of human I want, including this Scottish fellow who is probably right now living it up on the Spanish Riviera. All he had to do was give up the private ownership of his body parts.”

Amie still looked non-plussed. “What’s that called again?”

“Autophagia, Amie. It’s not a crime and not a mental disease. … Go out with me Friday night?”

“Nelson, I’ve got work to do. I’ll never finish my thesis if I’m at the bar, eating Nelson fingers or whatever it is you intend to do with your cells.”

“Is that an offer or an invitation?” smiled Nelson as the two stood, hugged, and parted ways.