Virtual Groping


Does this surprise anyone?

When developer Aaron Stanton first heard that a woman had been groped while playing his virtual reality game, his heart sank.

The woman, Jordan Belamire, was shooting zombies alongside strangers in QuiVr when another player virtually rubbed her chest and shoved his “hand” toward her virtual crotch.

“Our first response was, ‘Let’s make sure this never happens again,'” Stanton told CNNMoney.
Stanton reached out to me after I wrote about Belamire’s experience on Monday.

I received many angry emails in response to my story. I was told I was a feminist who knew nothing about QuiVr; that it was impossible to assault someone in that particular game, or more generally, in the virtual world. I was more than curious to hear what Stanton had to say.

Stanton, whose day job is in software development, told me those attacks were “absolutely incorrect.” What happened to Belamire (a pseudonym) was possible in QuiVr and in other virtual reality games too. It’s up to developers to create controls to make players feel safe inside the world that they’ve brought to life, he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Stanton and QuiVr creator Jonathan Schenker published an op-ed in Upload VR.

In it, they suggest that developers band together to create a universal “power gesture” to combat harassment in virtual reality, essentially a “safe word” in the form of a motion that would give the player special powers to protect themselves. “We need to offer tools that give players better controls, not simply better ways to hide.”

Kudos to the developers for taking this seriously, and may I suggest that the “special powers” include the ability to pluck the virtual groper’s virtual twig and two berries off and display them as a trophy?

I’m not a gamer; I’ve played a few zombie apocalypse games to placate the teens. I’ve wowed my old grandma by convincing her to experience virtual reality via Google Cardboard. I probably won’t live long enough to see consumer VR resemble the Holodeck on Star Trek TNG.

But if it does, one of the highest and best uses of it would be to give us all an opportunity to walk around in each other’s shoes — to serve as the “ultimate empathy device,” as Sheryl Sandberg said in the linked article. That might be more valuable than building robots that make Mrs. Glenn Reynolds redundant.

An Interesting Breakthrough on the Science Front


This is very cool:

Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have discovered a chemical reaction to turn CO2 into ethanol, potentially creating a new technology to help avert climate change. Their findings were published in the journal ChemistrySelect.

The researchers were attempting to find a series of chemical reactions that could turn CO2 into a useful fuel, when they realized the first step in their process managed to do it all by itself. The reaction turns CO2 into ethanol, which could in turn be used to power generators and vehicles.

The tech involves a new combination of copper and carbon arranged into nanospikes on a silicon surface. The nanotechnology allows the reactions to be very precise, with very few contaminants.

I’ll let Tom and Tim talk more about this because they are more hard science inclined than I am, but this could change everything. Again, they can discuss the details, but I will use this as an opportunity to make a political point.

The sheer volume of scientific and technological breakthroughs that occur with a couple of men and women in lab coats standing around and saying “Holy shit- did that just happen?” would boggle your mind. Things we take for granted- X-rays, the microwave, synthetic dyes, and on and on. A complete list would fill this blog. I’m assuming you have all read your Kuhn and are up to speed on paradigm shifts, but this is why we fund basic and applied research at the federal level. It’s honestly some of the best money we spend, if not the best, and it is a mere fraction of our budget. It should probably be triple what it is now.

This happened at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their budget- $1.64 billion.

Um, holy sh*t

Science is f*cking rad.

Scientists Create Fully Functional Eggs from Skin Cells

Using skin cells extracted from mice, researchers in Japan have produced fully functional egg cells that were used to produce healthy mouse pups. Should the method work in humans, it could introduce powerful new ways of treating infertility—and even allow same-sex couples to produce biological offspring.

Although I have friends who routinely create muscle cells, bone and neurons out of stem cells, a viable egg is a major and possibly the holy grail of stem cell science. No we cannot have this tomorrow, although I would wager whichever private firm buys the license will work night and day to get approval for human tests.

However before getting too excited I want to throw out the usual caveat about medical breakthroughs and mice. It turns out that rodents make really, really great patients. We have can cure or treat almost anything in mice – diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, most cancers etc etc. Your pet mouse could almost literally live forever as long as you have enough money and a suitably equipped veterinary center / world class research institute nearby. Unfortunately we’re not mice. Human trials have too often been the cruel rocks against which promising medical breakthroughs get dashed. You could explain away some of that by pointing out that animal studies have a relatively low bar to meet. Human trials get intense oversight that makes it much harder to pull off the kind of sloppiness or flawed experimental design that you see in papers that don’t hold up when someone tries to repeat it later. But there is also a real biological difference between most mammals and us. The Korean guy who cloned dogs and sheep got himself in so much trouble precisely because he assumed that the techniques for cloning other large mammals would work in humans. He filled in a bunch of results based on what he expected to get and then published the filler data as if it was real, like giving a Powerpoint talk with that nonsense Latin filler still in every slide. To his dismay none of that stuff he learned from sheep and dogs did him any good. Another team finally reported success in 2007, two years after the UN banned growing any cloned humans to term.

With that in mind I would say that egg cells on demand is still far from guaranteed, and even if it does happen FDA approval will be a long time coming. But the odds of people alive today having a simple alternative to infertility just got a whole lot better.

For a Good Time In Radioland (Short Notice Self Aggrandizement)

ETA: So, we lost the connection to Blog Talk radio.  Jay and I continued the conversation to tape; he’s editing it now and will post the audio as a podcast tomorrow.  I’ll let y’all know when it’s up.  Sorry…


Don’t know if anyone reading this has had their fill of The Hunt For Vulcan, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll be talking soon about that book, missing planets, error in science (and life, perhaps) and more with Jay Ackroyd on his internet radio program, Virtually Speaking.

Time: 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 Pacific (one hour from now!)

Here’s the link.

Tune in, if you’re not absorbed in more down-to-earth matters. (I.e….Go Sox!)

Image:  Gerrit Dou, Astronomer by candlelight1665

Some Stray Reading For When You’ve Finished Your Luke Cage Binge

Hey all,

I’ve got a couple of pieces out in what we might call the mainstream media that might reward your attention.

The first closes the loop on that lovely Royal Society award shortlist we talked about a while back.  The winner was announced a couple of Mondays ago and, alas, it didn’t go to The Hunt for Vulcan (which you should still totally read).

Instead the prize went to Andrea Wulf for her intellectual biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature.  It’s a very strong book, as were each of the others on the shortlist.  I commend all of them to you.


The event itself was great, and the organizers made sure that each of the titles in the finals had a chance to shine, and while I was certainly disappointed, I was also greatly chuffed — and why not?  My work had been recognized as among the class of the year, I got to rub shoulders with some wonderful writers, (including a personal hero, the head judge Bill Bryson), and hey — London! What could be bad.

Nothing — until, as I was getting ready to leave that green and sceptered isle, I came across a piece at The Guardian in which the writer argued that there was something dodgy about Wulf’s win — that she had garnered a feminized prize, one that sought to reward a woman’s interest in people instead of a man’s pursuit of “problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.”

I couldn’t let such arrant nonsense fly unanswered, so I wrote up a response for The Atlantic.  In it I drew both on my experience as one of the competitors in the contest Wulf won, and my prior encounter with prize judging as a Pulitzer juror in 2012.  Check it out, if you’ve a mind.

The other article you might find fun is a book review that I wrote a little while ago that went live yesterday at The Boston Globe — my take on James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel.  The shorter is that the book is great, really fine work, and I commend it to you all.  Here’s a sample:

Mostly, though, Gleick leads us on a thrilling journey of ideas. Augustine talks to Robert Heinlein who talks to Kurt Gödel, all the while someone is trying to connect a call between Marcel Proust and the ever patient Sam Beckett. Alongside the big ideas come the odd facts too delicious to leave out, as when we learn that among the audio selections placed on the Voyager spacecraft is the Bulgarian folk song “Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin’’ or “Delyo the Hajduk Has Gone Outside.” Pity the alien trying to decipher that code!

So, yeah. I’ve been delinquent in my blogging here.  Think of these as peace offerings.

Have a great weekend, all.  I’m going to continue nursing my dread catarrh; nothing like a full 747 to offer a smörgåsbord of viral delights.  Honey-lemon tea (possibly helped by some bourbon) in my future.

Image: William Harnett, Job Lot Cheap, 1878.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

This is a video that will haunt your nightmares:

Go to NPR‘s story on this for a narrated version of the video — and you’ll find that what you see is a bacterial colony developing extraordinary capacities for antibiotic resistance in a shockingly short time — two weeks, or a little less, to go from a naive, wild-type strain to varieties that can resist 1,000 times or more the dosage that killed almost all of the original microbes.

The video is part of the supporting material for a paper published this week in Science .  In a way, there’s nothing new, or rather, nothing surprising here.  Microbial resistance to antibiotics is a phenomenon as old as antibiotics themselves.  (See Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Prize speech, for example).

What’s revealed in this video — and the reseach behind it, of course — is the obvious.  We ain’t going to win any war with bacteria anytime soon.  But in this political season, I’d add another thought:

There are some things at stake in this election that matter rather more than whether one candidate used a not-according-to-Hoyle email server.  Among them are matters of life and death — and not just in the usual sense of decisions about national security or similar matters.  One party, one candidate takes science seriously right now.  The other doesn’t.  Vote like your — and your kids’ — lives depend on it.


Late Evening Open Thread: Duct Tape Roll Cage Testing Kangaroos!

Remember to wear your seat belts!

I didn’t realize the previously posted video was an advertisement (hadn’t watched it all the way through). Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! So instead, here’s some kangaroos!!!!