Technosignatures Discovered From Nearby Stars

Machine learning – a subset of AI – has identified eight technosignatures in the search for life in the universe. The previously undetected “signals of interest” from five nearby stars were buried in data that had already been picked up by telescopes.

The research has just been published in Nature Astronomy.

You can find more here.

Alice In Borderland

Alice in Borderland is a phenomenal piece of work from Netflix and one of the best things the streamer has done recently. After a mysterious event, a group of people find themselves in a series of games that they have to win to survive.

Simple premise, but it hides what is thoroughly 21st century storytelling in a way that so few have mastered. Neither high brow nor low, it manages to be endlessly thrilling, hugely affecting emotionally and ultimately deeply profound.

It’s deceptively clever in that it’s intelligence is not overt and only really comes to light as the final credits roll. This is something that UK and US network TV can’t do with it’s 20th century one size fits all approach.

Based on Haro Aso’s manga it’s gory in a way that only the Japanese seem to do, but the focus on character throughout makes this element less of a point. Jeopardy is at everyone’s shoulder all the time, as it is in life. The echoes of Alice in Wonderland are there for a reason.

Imagination is stitched through it, again in a way that UK/US broadcasters no longer do. Their shrinking audience prefers people shouting at each other in kitchens. The show looks fantastic – undoubtedly loads of greenscreen but none of it is obvious – and all in the cast excel. Huge attention to detail. I bet it cost a lot.

I never really binge shows, but I whipped through the second season in two days. That’s the story wrapped up, a novel not a serial, with all the themes sharpened and landing hard.

The Old Ways

There’s a network of hidden tracks in the UK which is thousands of years old yet which remains invisible to most people.

Holloways are deep trenches – sometimes about fifteen feet deep – which look like mere lines of hedges from the fields but become visible from the air. They’re old drovers’ routes and trade paths worn deep into the soil and the sandstone by the constant movement of cattle and people over millennia. Some date back to the Neolithic.

As the tracks eroded into gullies, they created a unique temperate ecology in the sunken depths that allows rare plants such as spreading bellflowers, naval wort and hearts tongue ferns to thrive.

Many of the holloways have legends attached. Robert Macfarlane tracks along some of them in his book The Old Ways and there’s a certain frisson to realise you’re following in 2,000-year-old footsteps.

The name comes from the Old English ‘hola weg’ which means ‘sunken road’. This week Natural England embarked on a survey to quantify all the holloways, many of which have not been recorded. There are hundreds in Dorset alone. Many are overgrown with nettles and briar and have been impassable and unexplored for decades.

Nobody knows the full extent of the network, but the 3D survey will map it and also record the rich hidden environment the holloways maintain.

The Mind Heals The Body – New Research

This post may transform your life. It’s about a revolution in scientific thinking about health that is close to breaking out of university labs and into the mainstream.

  • Ten cleaners were told their day to day job provided the same level of exercise as working out at a gym. Within one month, their fitness had improved with weight loss and lowered blood pressure – real physiological benefits with no change in lifestyle.
  • People with a positive attitude to ageing are less likely to develop hearing loss, frailty and illness, including Alzheimer’s. You really are as young as you feel.
  • Injecting someone with a saline solution and telling them its anaesthetic achieves 90% of the results of actual anaesthesia without any risk of cardiovascular shock which comes from surgery without sedation.
  • An empty inhaler produces 30% of the benefits of the drug for asthma sufferers.
  • Beliefs about anxiety can change someone’s measured response to stress.
  • A sham operation to insert an aortal stent for angina sufferers has the same good effects on health as an actual operation.
  • A team from Switzerland administered a placebo in a VR environment and caused pain reduction in a real-life limb.
  • A sugar pill branded as Nurofen was as effective as actual painkillers.
  • Parkinson’s is caused by a deficiency of dopamine in the frontal lobe. A placebo can improve symptoms by 30% as the brain adjusts of its own accord.

The power of expectation is so strong it can determine how long you live.

All of these findings and more besides come from labs at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and other leading research establishments. We’ve known about the Placebo Effect for a long time, but scientists are now realising how powerful the mind alone is in healing the body.

Alia Crum, lead researcher at Stanford, says, “Our minds aren’t passive observers simply perceiving reality as it is; our minds actually change reality. In other words, the reality we will experience tomorrow is in part a product of the mindset we hold today.”

By the 21st century, many drug clinical trials were failing – not because the drugs were becoming any worse, but because the ‘control’ placebos were becoming significantly more effective. The more people became aware of the placebo effect, the more their bodies provided the same responses as the new drugs.

Placebos – actually labelled as placebos – have now been proven successful in trials for migraine, hay fever, IBS, depression, ADHD and menopausal hot flushes.

But the latest research shows placebos can be done away with altogether. Words alone are enough to trigger the response – affirmations, visualisations, all those New Age things that science-minded people steer away from. And they work with the treatment of more serious illnesses too. The mind really does heal the body.

Clearly it’s not a matter of simply believing – otherwise we wouldn’t have significantly more dead anti-vaxxers than vaccinated people. And no one would suggest avoiding regular medical treatment and merely wishing hard. But results emerging from the labs about the body’s own healing abilities are quite shocking.

There’s a flipside too, which I’m not going to get into here. But if you’re a negative person and believe you’re going to get worse or age faster, you will. You can even ‘believe’ yourself into death.

These new findings are so powerful I’m going to return to them a few times. This is just a preliminary. But you don’t have to take my word for it. All the research details are found in a new book, The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life by New Scientist writer David Robson.

It’s worth paying attention.

Best TV Drama 2022

In this ongoing Golden Age of TV, this last year has been the best. Normally the top ten choice is relatively easy. This time there were many shows vying for the top spots.

Of those not included here, honourable mentions go to House of the Dragon, Paper Girls, Billions, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, The Dropout, WeCrashed, Pistol, Borgen Power and Glory, The Umbrella Academy, The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlanta, The Crown and Russian Doll.

Biggest disappointment: Ozark which, after escalating brilliance, died in the final episode. It got exactly where it needed to go, but did it in a flat, unimaginative and unfulfilling way.

10. All Of Us Are Dead

(Netflix) This Korean zombie drama offering makes it into the list for a herculean, near-impossible sustaining of tension. If you binge it back to back, you face near-thirteen hours of nerve-shredding action. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

9. Better Call Saul

(Netflix) Years in the making, the final season of Saul Goodman’s odyssey still managed to pull some surprises as it crossed paths with the Breaking Bad timeline that spawned it and moved into an uncertain future for the character. Mature, serious and elegant in its pacing, the series cements Bob Odenkirk’s reputation as an actor of depth and style.

8. Hacks

(HBO) The second series didn’t quite reach the heights of the first, but it still managed to be both funny and tackle deep and affecting issues of the fear of losing potency and the different but connected trials that face the young. Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder made fantastic sparring partners.

7. Shining Girls

(Apple TV+) Lauren Beukes’ SF novel about a time-travelling serial killer gets a classy adaptation that digs deep into the themes. Elisabeth Moss, who seems to be everywhere, does a good job was the protagonist.

6. For All Mankind

(Apple TV+) This alternate history of the space race has improved with each season. Here in the third we’re in the 90s and on Mars. As always with these things, it’s fascinating to see the web of changes, social, political, cultural, that extends from one change to historical reality, in this case what would happen if the Soviet Union got to the moon first.

5. Slow Horses

(Apple TV+) Two six-part seasons of the masterful spy drama based on Mick Herron’s excellent novels. Witty, sardonic and characterful, it follows a team of failed spies who’ve been shipped out to ‘Slough House’ as punishment, under the mocking eye of Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb.

4. Euphoria

(HBO) The old folk-baiting drama about the ‘terrible’ things teens get up to – lashings of sex and drugs, surprise, surprise – rises to a new level in its second season. The Shock Horror is just the surface and there’s some real emotion and psychological dissection lying behind it. Top marks to Zendaya and Sydney Sweeney.

3. The Offer

Pictured: Juno Temple as Bettye McCartt, Miles Teller as Albert S. Ruddy, Matthew Goode as Robert Evans, Patrick Gallo as Mario Puzo and Dan Fogler as Francis Ford Coppola of the Paramount+ original series The Offer. Photo Cr: Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ © 2022 ViacomCBS. All Rights Reserved.

(Paramount +) A drama set around the making of The Godfather might sound dry, but this is an effervescent affair. It’s essentially the Mafia vs the sociopaths who run Hollywood – who wins? It perfectly evokes the 70s era with some remarkable casting choices to capture the real-life characters of the time. The stand-out is Matthew Goode as studio boss Robert Evans.

2. The White Lotus

(HBO) The second season of Mike White’s twisty-turns character-based drama that examines terrible people in paradise. This time the guests of the eponymous hotel chain are staying in Sicily amid a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. All the cast excel, but Jennifer Coolidge is amazing as always, and special mentions for Aubrey Plaza, Michael Imperioli, Tom Hollander and Will Sharpe.

  1. Severance

(Apple TV+) The most imaginative, offbeat and mysterious show in many a year. Severance occupies a space somewhere adjacent to Twin Peaks. A new procedure splits consciousness into two. You go into work and when you leave you forget everything you did during the day. When you return to work the next day, you forget everything you did in your private life. You have two lives, both of them uncontaminated by what you do in the other half. But there is so much more going on here. It’s quirky, intriguing, frightening, at times moving. There’s nothing like it on TV.

The Death Of Writing

The latest AI is on the brink of making writers obsolete.

A lot of people will snigger at that. How could a few lines of code replace the vast brilliance of a human mind? That response is just a failure of imagination.

Given enough time and enough resources the rate of advance of artificial intelligence shows it will eventually be capable of doing everything that humans do and do it better.

Medical dignostic software is already better than general practitioners. Architectural programs are now better than human architects. The rapid global rollout of 3-D printed houses is better than builders can do.

For writers, the AI can already produce passable non-fiction books, blog posts and journalism. It’s very close – perhaps only months away – from making the more formulaic genres – thrillers, romance, some others.

The important thing here is that the vast majority of readers are not discerning. They just want a story to fill an hour or two between their labours. They will already buy what objectively is very poorly written independent novels that are priced cheaply. AI can produce that level of writing now.

The AI learns fast. Within months it will be able to produce a novel in the style of Stephen King’s 1970s/80s novels or his 90s novels or his current writing simply by running through already published novels a million times in a second. You will be able to buy new Stephen King novels in perpetuity.

What about all the great ideas summoned up by the human mind, I hear you say?

Writers love to aggrandise themselves and the power of their creativity. Firstly we know those less-discerning time-passing readers don’t care about that and if they defect en masse to zero cost AI books there’s no need for publishers to pay writers for the relatively small number of readers who do care.

Secondly, any editor or film commissioner will tell you your idea is not truly unique. You think it is because it’s been birthed from your head, but they will already have seen five versions that week. A machine can arrange story elements in new forms much better and faster than you can imagine.

For me, it’s the flaws in writers’ work that makes them interesting – the quirks, the beauty spots on pristine skin. For a while, that alone will sustain creativity. But the machines will get there in the end.

Check out ChatGpt AI, which currently focuses on dialogue. It has flaws but it does a reasonable job and ones that are already significantly more advanced are going to be released in the New Year.

Testimony New Paperback Edition – Out Now

Testimony new cover

After literally hundreds of requests from listeners of the hit BBC Podcast The Witch Farm, I’m pleased to say the new paperback edition of Testimony is now available.

As you can see above, this one features a new cover – a photo of the truly terrifying Heol Fanog from the time when Bill and Liz Rich were reluctant residents. The paperback is available worldwide in all local Amazon outlets. Here’s the link for the UK version.

The excellent The Witch Farm podcast by Danny Robins was inspired by Testimony and digs deep into the investigation. It’s one of those rare accounts of the paranormal that has multiple witnesses – I interviewed twenty-four, many of them unconnected, including a previous resident – all of whom experienced something disturbing in that isolated house just outside Brecon in rural Wales.

Heol Fanog (c) Elizabeth Udall

When the artist Bill Rich and his wife Liz moved into Heol Fanog with their young family it was supposed to be an idyllic hideaway. Within weeks they were afflicted by a series of inexplicable events, including a massive power drain that took their electricity bills to industrial levels.

Then the encounters began.

Bill and Liz Rich (c) Elizabeth Udall

What followed was a terrifying experience that pushed Bill and Liz to the brink.

I first heard about the case through a small piece in The Independent newspaper about the baffling power drain, which had been investigated by the local electricity company and independent experts. As a journalist, I was intrigued enough to get in touch with Bill for a follow-up. I wasn’t prepared for what I found.

The ruined medieval Manor House in the garden with its private cemetery. (c) Elizabeth Udall

If you’re interested in the paranormal, there’s plenty in this book to sink your teeth into. If you’re a sceptic, there’s something here for you too. The debate is the thing.

What really happened?

But at its heart, Testimony is a human story, about two people who found themselves at the heart of something they couldn’t explain, trapped in a place they no longer wanted to be, and preyed upon by those allegedly offering help.

If you like the book, reviews on Amazon would be a great help. And if you can spread the word that the paperback is now available again, please do…if only for the sake of my in-box.

Testimony: A True Story About Terrifying Things

I want to tell you a true story. About ghosts, and things more terrifying than ghosts. I‘m a journalist, fully rooted in the real world. I write about foreign affairs and politics, economics, the arts, science, health, archaeology. Reality and evidence-based. Remember that.

Half of all Americans now believe they live or have lived in a haunted house. Researchers attribute a rapidly increasing belief in the supernatural to the rise of paranormal-related media and a decline in religious affiliation.

I wrote my only non-fiction book Testimony about the most supernaturally-afflicted house in the UK after coming across a newspaper report where a home was experiencing massive energy bills as if the power was being drained away. The owner mentioned in passing some supernatural element which got me interested.

I went in thinking I’d probably at the least end up with a book about the psychology of living in a house believed to be haunted. That view changed pretty quickly. I called the book Testimony because I wanted to build it around the accounts of people who had experiences in that isolated Welsh house, rather than filtering it all through my third party view of events.

Using my journalistic skills, I tracked down lots of people who’d had something strange happen to them. In the end I had 24 interviews. 24 people, many of them unconnected, who’d seen ghosts, dealt with possession, a range of terrifying phenomena, the manifestation of a seven-foot tall beaked figure, more…

In these kinds of accounts, it’s easy to dismiss them if you’re of a sceptical nature and it’s just a couple talking about what they went through. They’re mistaken, deluded, deranged, lying. When you have so many who haven’t had the chance to talk to each other or who thought they were isolated victims, that becomes so much harder. With those kinds of numbers, rationally you have to accept that something out of the ordinary was taking place there…

There’s a BBC podcast out about the case now, The Witch Farm. So far I’m the only person to have written about it because it was unbelievably difficult to track down the people involved, some of whom are no longer with us or who have vanished.

If you want to reach your own conclusions, or dismiss it out of hand, I suggest you read all those first hand accounts first. You might find it harder than you think.

The ebook of Testimony is available in all local Amazon sites globally, but here are the UK and US links.