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Neurons hide their memories in their imaginary fluctuations

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This is your brain. Well, not <em>your</em> brain. Presumably your brain isn't being photographed at this moment.

Enlarge / This is your brain. Well, not your brain. Presumably your brain isn't being photographed at this moment. (credit: Adeel Anwar / Flickr)

The brain is, at least to me, an enigma wrapped in a mystery. People who are smarter than I am—a list that encompasses most humans, dogs, and possibly some species of yeast—have worked out many aspects of the brain. But some seemingly basic things, like how we remember, are still understood only at a very vague level. Now, by investigating a mathematical model of neural activity, researchers have found another possible mechanism to store and recall memories.

We know in detail how neurons function. Neurotransmitters, synapse firing, excitation, and suppression are all textbook knowledge. Indeed, we've abstracted these ideas to create blackbox algorithms to help us ruin people's lives by performing real-world tasks.

We also understand the brain at a higher, more structural, level: we know which bits of the brain are involved in processing different tasks. The vision system, for instance is mapped out in exquisite detail. Yet the intermediate level in between these two areas remains frustratingly vague. We know that a set of neurons might be involved in identifying vertical lines in our visual field, but we don't really understand how that recognition occurs.

Memory is hard

Likewise, we know that the brain can hold memories. We can even create and erase a memory in a mouse. But the details of how the memory is encoded are unclear. Our basic hypothesis is that a memory represents something that persists through time: a constant of sorts (we know that memories vary with recall, but they are still relatively constant). That means there should be something constant within the brain that holds the memory. But the brain is incredibly dynamic, and very little stays constant.

This is where the latest research comes in: abstract constants that may hold memories have been proposed.

So, what constants have the researchers found? Let's say that a group of six neurons is networked via interconnected synapses. The firing of any particular synapse is completely unpredictable. Likewise, its influence on its neighbors' activity is unpredictable. So, no single synapse or neuron encodes the memory.

But hidden within all of that unpredictability is predictability that allows a neural network to be modeled with a relatively simple set of equations. These equations replicate the statistics of synapses firing very well (if they didn't, artificial neural networks probably wouldn't work).

A critical part of the equations is the weighting or influence of a synaptic input on a particular neuron. Each weighting varies with time randomly but can be strengthened or weakened due to learning and recall. To study this, the researchers examined the dynamical behavior of a network, focusing on the so-called fixed points (or set points).

Technically, you have to understand complex numbers to understand set points. But I have a short cut. The world of dynamics is divided into stable things (like planets orbiting the Sun), unstable things (like rocks balanced on pointy sticks), and things that are utterly unpredictable.

Memory is plastic

The neuron is a weird combination of stable and unpredictable. The neurons have firing rates and patterns that stay within certain bounds, but you can never know exactly when an individual neuron is going to fire. The researchers show that the characteristic that keeps the network stable does not store information for very long. However, the characteristic that drives unpredictability does store information, and it seems to be able to do so indefinitely.

The researchers demonstrated this by exposing their model to input stimulus, which they found changed the network's fluctuations. Furthermore, the longer the model was exposed to the stimulus, the stronger its influence was.

The individual pattern of firing was still unpredictable, and there was no way to see the memory in the stimulus in any individual neuron or its firing behavior. Yet it was still there, hidden in the network's global behavior.

Further analysis shows that, in terms of the dynamics, there is a big difference between this way memory is encoded and previous models. In previous models, memory is a fixed point that corresponds to a particular pattern of neural firing. In this model, memory is a shape. It could be a 2D shape on a plane, as the researchers found in their model. But the dimensionality of the shape could be much larger, allowing very complicated memories to be encoded.

In a 2D model, the neuron-firing behavior follows a limit cycle, meaning that the pattern continuously changes through a range of states that eventually repeats itself, though this is only evident during recall.

Another interesting aspect of the model is that recall has an effect on the memory. Memories recalled by a similar stimulus get weaker in some cases, while in others they are strengthened.

Where to from here?

The researchers go on to suggest that evidence for their model might be found in biological systems. It should be possible to find invariant shapes in neuronal connectivity. However, I imagine that this is not an easy search to conduct. A simpler test is that there should be asymmetry in the strength in the connections between two neurons during learning. That asymmetry should change between learning and rest.

So, yes, in principle the model is testable. But it looks like those tests will be very difficult. We may be waiting a long time to get some results one way or another.

Nature Communications, 2019, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-12306-2 (About DOIs)

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nathant
29 days ago
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In A Roundabout Way

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Nobody knows how many roundabouts there are in France, only that their number has soared. The image of the peloton parting like a school of fish to navigate a roundabout has become a staple televisual image and there sometimes tactical features of the course, ask Jacob Fuglsang and Thibaut Pinot or see Edvald Boasson Hagen exploit one to get away for a stage win in 2017. They’ve become an unloved feature of France and even political. Let’s take a tour…

History
Frenchman Eugène Hénard was the original inventor of the carrefour giratoire or “giratory crossroads” at the turn of the century. As Kory Olson sets out in “Contemporary French and Francophone Studies”, Volume 14, 2010, the new Paris Métro was set out as “the true solution for movement and hygiene in Paris” but Hénard differed, he knew the railway was good for pedestrians but not for the rise of the motorcar and delivery trucks. Hénard proposed the carrefour giratoire and the Place de l’Etoile, the hub with the Arc de Triomphe at its centre was transformed to allow moving vehicles to flow better. Apart from a few examples on big city junctions, including New York, things went dormant until the British revived the scheme in the late 1960s and hit on the idea of the roundabout as a traffic measure. This is what we know today and differs from the old French version as traffic approaching the roundabout had to give way to vehicles already on the roundabout.

  • Rondpoint or carrefour giratoire? there’s a corner of the internet where militant carrefour giratoire police pop up to point out that technically the rondpoints we know today, where approaching traffic is met by a “give way” sign and priority goes to traffic already on the roundabout are not rondpoints but carrefours à sens giratoire. But for 99% of people they’re rondpoints.

In the late 1970s Jean-Marc Ayrault was mayor of Saint-Herblain and the town had some traffic problems. Ayrault – who’d become prime minister in 2012 – had visited the UK and invited a British traffic expert over. Soon the town experimented with makeshift roundabouts, with temporary signs and bales of hay placed in the middle of crossroads. It worked. Today nobody knows the exact number, only that they’ve grown enormously. Thorough work by a blogger says there are 65,000 which is roughly six times more than Germany, three times more than Britain and double that of Spain or Italy only the work only . If France has gone from almost zero to 65,000 in the space of 40 years that’s roughly 1,600 a year, every year or over four per day, every day.

There are so many they’ve become banal, a constant feature yet hardly noticed. Still many are decorated in municipal pride with flowerbeds and even installation art to become local landmarks and eyesores. As journalist François Thomazeau ventured on The Cycling Podcast a while ago, they could be proxies for municipal corruption given the construction contracts and the maintenance deals but at the same time France’s regional press loves reporting just how much they cost, even a plain one can add up to a million Euros and the same papers regularly invite readers to pick the “ugliest roundabout” in annual contests.

Life on the edge
The roundabouts are also the story of the French economy and society of late. A lot of medium and large towns in France have become encircled by retail parks, warehouses and other zones. They’re ubiquitous and near-identical and part of what geographer and sociologist Christophe Guilluy calls La France périphérique, or “peripheral France”, a marginalised part of French society where large hypermarkets draw shoppers and nearby town planners have allowed the widespread construction of pavillons or small one and two-storey houses where inhabitants need a car. Guilluy’s work is imperfect to say the least but he’s given a label to a segment of French society that’s priced out of the charming town centres with their squares, fountains and boutiques; yet urban enough to be separated from the rural charms. To cut a long story short it’s no surprise that the gilets jaunes protest movement last autumn was most active on roundabouts, the movement was rooted in these areas among people who often need a car to get to work, to buy food and also so controlling the roundabouts makes strategic sense compared to waving a banner in a street as it actually blocks things. The movement still exists but many don’t want to block the Tour de France as they see it as a festive event to enjoy.

Tactical features
As for the racing, rondpoints matter. No other country has so many and with a typical Tour de France stage starting in town before riding out to the countryside before an urban finish it means rondpoints take on a tactical aspect, they’re a feature of the course. Sometimes they dictate the route even with the Tour threading its way through a town to avoid obvious pinch points and even sometimes a mayor will be asked if they’d mind adjusting or even demolishing the roundabout so that the race can finish in a desired location. It helps explain why there’s a neutral roll out to the stage so that the peloton can navigate its way out of town to get a wide, ordinary road before the action starts although Tejay van Garderen broke his hand the other day once the race had started, the peloton had navigated a roundabout and was reforming when he tumbled on a divider designed to separate traffic on the entrance and exit to the roundabout. Crucially they matter in the finale of a race and as we saw yesterday, they can shape the race at any point.

“Passage des 2 côtes” = pass on both sides

The Tour’s roadbook lists them for the final five kilometres but before that it’s normal for teams to send soigneurs up the road to drive course on their way to the feedzone and they can scout the course and report back any observations including asymmetric roundabouts where one side is quicker than the other, something Dimension Data did in 2017 when Edvald Boasson Hagen won. That only gets people so far.

In 2010 Lance Armstrong’s comeback was undone by a roundabout. As the bunch sped to the first Alpine climb of that year’s Tour on the stage to Avoriaz the peloton parted like a school of sardines to pass a dull roundabout built to regulate traffic in and out of a supermarket. It was on a descent and the passage of hundreds of thousands of vehicles braking before and on the rondpoint had caused the downhill traffic to ripple the bitumen while the traffic on the other side of the road coming uphill never had to brake so hard. So the right side of the road was bumpy and Armstrong took this side at speed and struggled to turn while being bounced by the rippled tarmac and crashed. He finished 58th that day, finished the Tour and only rode one more race before retirement.

Summary
Nobody knows how many roundabouts there are in France, just that there are a lot and more than any comparable country. They’ve gone from almost zero to an estimated 65,000 today and are a feature of France, although one that is rarely celebrated and sometimes mocked. Visit for a ride and you’ll probably encounter more rondpoints than cols even if they’re starting to flourish on mountain passes these days, take the Col d’Aubisque and Galibier for example. They matter to the race, TV producers like aerial shots of the peloton navigating them but they’re regular crash-points and some are tactical features because of their asymmetry.

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nathant
127 days ago
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Amazon Alexa fanfic

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Inspired by true events

 

Me: Alexa. Good morning.

Alexa: Good morning! On this day in 1961, NASA sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, flying 155 miles up in the Mercury capsule.

But these scientists weren’t just aping around. This mission was designed to tell them about –

Me: Alexa stop. Alexa, did you just say “aping around”?

Alexa: Yes I did.

Me: Alexa. Do you mean “monkeying around”?

Alexa: No. I said “aping around.”

Me: Alexa. But the joke is “monkeying around.”

Alexa: “Aping around” is an acceptable alternative.

Me:   Alexa no it’s not! Literally no one uses the word “ape” in that context. They say “monkeying around”. Or maybe “horsing around”. I guess you could “ape” someone —

Alexa: From a legal perspective, “monkeying around” and “aping around” are identical.

Me: …

Me: Alexa did somebody sue amazon dot com?

++++++++++++++++++++++  One year ago today  +++++++++++++++++++++

Rowan Harper*, age 57, Wisconsin:  Alexa. Good morning.

Alexa: Good morning! On this day in 1961, NASA sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, flying 155 miles up in the Mercury capsule.

But these scientists weren’t just monkeying around. This mission was designed to tell them about –

Rowan Harper: Alexa stop. Alexa, did you just say “monkeying around”?

Alexa: Yes I did.

Rowan Harper: Alexa is that supposed to be a joke?

Alexa: Yes.

Rowan Harper: Let me be really clear here. Alexa. Are you implying that a chimpanzee is a monkey?

Alexa: That’s the joke.

 

+++++++++++++++++

To: jeff@amazon.com
From: beatriceharper2602@aol.com
Date: 6 February 2017, 21:25
Subject: A request from a grieving family

Dear Mr. Bezos,

We write to you fresh from the grief of burying our beloved paterfamilias, Rowan Harper. His death came as a great surprise to us.

You can only imagine how our grief was compounded when, while searching for his last words on the Alexa app, we found the attached conversation. Rowan died from a heart attack shortly after this exchange with Alexa.

We are not claiming that Amazon killed Rowan, and we have no interest in suing your company. But we would greatly appreciate your assurance that no other family will never have to go through what we went through.

Kind regards,

Beatrice Harper, Teddy Harper, Erin Harper, & Spot

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From: jeff@amazon.com
To: alexa team
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:26
Subject: FW: A request from a grieving family

?

——————-Forwarded message——————–

 

++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To
: PR, legal

Date: 7 February 2017, 21:28
Subject: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Shit guys what happened here

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++

From: PR
To
: alexa team, legal, devices

Date: 7 February 2017, 21:45
Subject: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+devices

All,

I’m not understanding the problem. Do we need to send the family another Alexa?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++

From: devices
To
: PR, alexa team, legal, machine learning
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:48
Subject: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+machine learning

Sounds like we need to fix the code

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: devices, PR, alexa team, legal
Date: 7 February 2017, 21:55
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Sounds like we need to fix the joke.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:00
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

What joke?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:02
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

“Monkeying around.”

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:04
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Why/how is that a joke? 

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:04
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Right, exactly. The joke doesn’t work because chimpanzees are not monkeys.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:05
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

A chimpanzee is not a monkey?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:10
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

It’s an ape.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++

From: PR
To: machine learning, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:10
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Right. And an ape is a monkey. So where is the problem?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:10
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

An ape is not a monkey.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, machine learning, PR, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Are you sure about that?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: PR, alexa team, legal, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Is this a joke? Are you guys joking?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++

From: legal
To: machine learning, PR, alexa team, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Confirming and clarifying: a monkey is a small ape.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, machine learning, PR, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:11
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Actually, I think the general rule is, all monkeys are apes, but not all apes are monkeys. 

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++

From: devices
To: legal, PR, alexa team, machine learning
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:12
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

An ape is just two monkeys in a large suit.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++++++

From
: machine learning
To: legal, PR, alexa team, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:15
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Guys apes and monkeys are completely different animals. Does everyone seriously not know this?

——————-Forwarded message———————-


++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, PR, machine learning, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:30
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

All,

Just bumped into Jeff B in one of the Spheres – official amazon position is that a monkey is not an ape. What’s the course correction here people.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, machine learning, PR, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:31
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Suggest a disclaimer appended to this specific “fact of the day” stating that amazon is aware of the differences between monkeys and apes, and that the wording of the joke in no way implies that we are seeking to obscure those differences. 

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++++++++

From: alexa team
To: legal, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:45
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+marketing

Alexa has to say all of that, every time she tells this story?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:46
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Only if we don’t want more people to die.

I suggest we also add an explanation of how they are different:

Alexa “monkeying around” joke disclaimer draft 1:

“Amazon is aware of the differences between monkeys and apes, and this joke in no way implies that we are seeking to obscure these differences. Apes have a longer lifespan, larger body size, larger brain-to-body size ratio, and higher intelligence; the main difference is that monkeys have tails and apes do not have tails.”

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++

From: marketing
To: alexa team, legal, PR, machine learning, devices
Date: 7 February 2017, 22:55
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Can we just kill the joke?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++

From: devices
To: marketing, alexa team, legal, PR, machine learning,
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:02
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

No, that joke module plugs into a massive number of conversation set pieces. Heavy tech lift.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing, public policy
Date: 7 February 2017, 23:03
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

+public policy, do you take a view on this?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++++

From: public policy
To: legal, alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing

Date: 7 February 2017, 23:30
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Guys, in light of Amazon’s upcoming campaign to combat wildlife crime, this whole thing has really bad optics.

Is there a way to use this tragic situation to draw attention to the plight of other monkeys?

+marketing, for example, maybe we can revise the joke to honor the anniversary of Harambe.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++++++

From: marketing
To: legal, alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing

Date: 7 February 2017, 23:33
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Fantastic bias for action! Let’s take this off copy.

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

++++++++++++++++++

From: machine learning
To: legal, alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing

Date: 7 February 2017, 23:33
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Harambe was not a monkey! He was a gorilla! Gorillas are apes! Apes are not monkeys! What the hell is the matter with all of you?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

+++++++++

From: legal
To: alexa team, PR, machine learning, devices, marketing, public policy

Date: 7 February 2017, 23:59
Subject: RE: FW: FW: FW: FW: A request from a grieving family

Guys I might have a simple fix that would leave us completely unexposed. Does anyone ever “ape” around?

——————-Forwarded message———————-

 

 

 

Picture credit: A chimpanzee swinging from a branch of a tree in an enclosure. Reproduction of an etching by F. Lüdecke. Wellcome Collection.

 

  • Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, even if they are the last person who succumbed to my gratuitous ape/monkey trolling

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nathant
644 days ago
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Why the IndiPac spirit is stronger than ever despite the race’s cancellation

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Everyone knows the Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IPWR) story by now. The brainchild of Jesse Carlsson, the ‘IndiPac’ was designed to reanimate the Australian Overlander spirit and celebrate cycling in one of its purest forms – just the person, the bicycle, and the road. Self-sufficiency, simplicity, and freedom.

Last year’s inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race captured the attention and imagination of a great many and a huge amount of positive interest emerged around the event. This was tainted after the tragedy of Mike Hall’s death in an accident involving a motor vehicle on the outskirts of Canberra.

Now, nearly a year since Hall’s untimely demise in the 2017 IPWR, it is still having an impact.

The as-yet-undetermined circumstances around Mike Hall’s death, the approaching ACT Coroner’s investigation, and related questions about road cycling safety have forced the cancellation of the 2018 IndiPac. This certainly forms an important part of the IPWR story. But that is not the only story around this event. Not by a country mile.

Something much more positive, and possibly more significant, is emerging.

Barely hours after the official announcement of the 2018 IndiPac’s cancellation, people whose registrations had been accepted for the planned event took to social media to confirm they would ride the course anyway – not to necessarily race it to win, or for glory, but simply to ride.

A new GPS tracker map page was also made for the course which, to date, has 32 riders registered (from the 66 individual riders and 28 people across seven teams that were part of the official race roster).

There are also others from the 2018 IPWR roster who intend to start riding from Fremantle in March as planned, but will use their own GPS tracking arrangements. It is also likely some of the applicants who weren’t selected for the approved official roster, and possibly others, will turn up in March and ride too.

So, the IndiPac spirit lives on. But now, perhaps more so than ever, it really is a do-it-yourself adventure ride across Australia.

Of course, the individual reasons driving those who will ride out of Fremantle bound for Sydney on March 17 will vary. But, judging by the reactions of some of those riders, it appears the IndiPac story is shifting away from the previous focus on the Mike Hall tragedy and the perceived risks of ultra-endurance cycling across Australia’s open roads.

The cloud that has hung over this type of riding in Australia could be lifting.

Take Rupert Guinness, for example. The well-known cycling journalist and author, who rode the IndiPac in 2017, sees a wider relevance to this type of cycling.

“There is something about it which is taking us back to pure cycling,” he said. “I just really love this genre of cycling, because it helps me to re-attach to what I love about cycling … just the simplicity of riding out in the environment on your own, looking after yourself.”

And there’s a growing community element too. One member of the Melburn Durt all-women’s team that was entered for the relay ride option had this to say in their interview with Melbourne radio station 3CR on Monday:

“It really doesn’t change anything, the fact that Jesse has stepped down,” she said. “I’m still just going to continue the race, and I imagine a lot of people will. The whole community that he’s created, this beast he’s created, is just going to carry itself.

“It doesn’t need him pushing anybody to watch the ride; it doesn’t need him constantly trying to promote the ride anymore. It’s sort of got a life of its own now.”

The potential community impact of this year’s ride is not lost on the people closest to the IndiPac 2017 event organisers either. Ryan Flinn, a co-director with Carlsson at Curve Cycling, believes a big opportunity exists for the riders starting in Fremantle this year “to generate a lot of good will and faith in this type of cycling.”

Flinn, who is starting his own ‘long ride’ towards Sydney in mid-March, hopes the rides that happen this year might help shift the ‘us and them’ perception he believes exists now amongst different road user groups.

“Once you remove the helmet and the lycra, we’re all just people … ordinary people that have day jobs,” Flinn said. “Like last year, there’ll be a lot of spectators and dot-watchers that are inspired by this type of event … it was something that was taken up by non-cyclists and cyclists, and was really nice to see.”

Rupert Guinness agrees.

“It is quite phenomenal, this coincidentally collective voice, saying this is something that all these individuals want to do,” he said about the large group going ahead with their 2018 rides. “This year could possibly create more discussion about it, beyond just the cycling media, and in general media too.”

Indeed, it is possible that the riders who roll out of Fremantle at 6:22am on March 17 (the date and time Mike Hall’s GPS tracker stopped) could unwittingly be starting something that surpasses anything a formal ultra-endurance cycling race could ever achieve.

Think about it for a moment. The IndiPac has been officially cancelled this year. The riders are no longer racing across the country to the Sydney finish line. Now, instead of a roster of teams and individual ultra-endurance cycling athletes pushing themselves to and beyond their physical and mental limits, you’ve simply got a group of passionate people determined to complete a very long ride across Australia.

The idea of ordinary everyday people attempting such a ride, and not the best ultra-cycling athletes racing each other to the limit, could potentially be a more compelling story – a narrative that a lot more people may be able identify with, cyclists or not.

This time around there is the still the spectacle of the obvious physical and mental challenge of riding 5,500km across some of Australia’s toughest country. And no doubt scores of spectators (‘dot watchers’ as they have been dubbed) will be eagerly following the rider’s progress across the country from their computer screens and the roadside.

And now, without the focus on the ride as a race, we may also be able to identify with the bigger things that motivate the riders continuing this year despite the official cancellation.

Riders like Ryan Vecht, the 41-year-old A-grade racer and father of two from Melbourne’s west, who has set up a GoFundMe page for his ride to raise funds for the McGrath Foundation.

“I’ve got two very close friends who have breast cancer, and when you look at them and what they’re going through and their dedication to just getting on with it, and the hurdles they’re facing, I just thought if they can do it then why not ride … sort of do it for them,” he said.

For others, the March 17 Fremantle sunrise will signal the beginning of a personal challenge, a step outside of the comfort zone, a break from the monotony of work, an amazing adventure, unfinished business … and a whole lot more besides.

But there is disappointment and frustration too, felt by some of the riders who were planning to race the IPWR in 2018.

Heath Ryan is one such rider. The 54-year-old veteran of last year’s IndiPac has mixed feelings.

“I think it will be a more relaxed atmosphere this year … but it won’t be the same event as last year,” he said. “It doesn’t count for much anymore. The results aren’t going to go on the website.

“A lot of us who did it last year and had it cancelled have said there’s unfinished business. We’d like to complete the race as a race, and do our best … deal with the unforeseen, deal with the weather, deal with mechanicals and have a chance to complete what we didn’t complete last year.”

At this stage, he will be heading to Perth in March to do some sort of ride anyway.

“I’m reviewing options for where I ride,” Ryan said. “I know the organisers wanted this to be a route that people use … but I’m probably going to get my own tracker and ride my own route – the route that Hubert Opperman rode in 1937.”

Many words have already been written about the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, and many more will follow as the story continues to unfold.

But perhaps the most important thing written so far came (ironically) in Jesse Carlsson’s cancellation statement last week, in the four little words he ended with.

“Live because you can.”

A simple yet powerful message, and one that is hard to argue with.

About the author

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer whose work has appeared in CyclingTips, Cyclist Aus/NZ magazine, Cycling Weekly, SBS Cycling Central, The Conversation, and The Age. He was a member of Team Pane e Acqua who won the 2014 Audax ‘Oppy’ National Shield by riding 730km in 24 hours.

The post Why the IndiPac spirit is stronger than ever despite the race’s cancellation appeared first on CyclingTips.

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nathant
644 days ago
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The fog has pathways

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I was thinking, walking home this evening, that the season of mists is upon us again here in London.  Then, later, I found myself reading about a proposal for a fleet of sculptures in Santa Monica bay that would harvest fog and turn it into water. Regatta H2O, by Christopher Sjoberg and Ryo Saito, has just won first prize in the biannual Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) contest. According to the Smithsonian website, the 'sails are made of mesh, which is veined with troughs to collect fog and transport it to the masts, where it can be piped to storage containers on the shore. When there’s not enough moisture in the air to generate fog, the sails retract for an unobstructed view. The energy needed to operate the pumping and steering mechanisms is wind-generated. At night, extra energy lights up rings that serve as navigational safety markers.'

The photographs of this artwork suggest that the sails would not actually disperse the blanket of water vapour covering the bay.  It would, after all, be a shame to lose our fogs or demystify our mists.  I'm reminded of something Etel Adnan said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrest (Etel Adnan in all her Dimensions, 2014), how she regretted that London no longer has its great fogs.  Adnan, whose art and poetry I wrote about earlier this year, has been inspired by the fogs of San Franciso.  ‘I love fog.  The arrival of fog is the coming of a new living being, the entering in the world of an extraordinary event.’  Fogs would come in from the ocean every afternoon around five o’clock. ‘It is not something static, it arrives like a horizontal cascade.  This fog has pathways.  It is stopped by the mountain, and by hills in the East, but it pours and even forms a huge curtain that isolates San Francisco by its surroundings.’  She has even tried to film the fog. In Journey to Mount Tamalpais she says ‘I made a movie, once, of fog, fog, fog.  They said “It’s a study in greys, an abstract movie, a joke!”  It’s none of these things.  It is the fog.’
 
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nathant
1139 days ago
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I’m ready to go to Mars, but there’s something we’ve forgotten

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Enlarge / Growing food and creating a livable environment are two engineering challenges on Mars that are just as important as making fuel. (credit: The Martian)

While Elon Musk's recent speech about the glories of Martian colonies is still echoing in our ears, we should take a moment to consider what it means to colonize a planet. It's not just about setting up some habitat pods and sucking water out of the regolith. Acquiring food and a livable environment are just as important as manufacturing rocket fuel, which is why it made sense to make a botanist the brave hero of recent colonization epic The Martian. You might say that growing space potatoes is key to the interplanetary survival of our species.

Put another way: we need awesome rockets to get to Mars, but we need environmental science if we're going to stay there. Colonization requires us to settle—actually settle, like my ancestors did in the 19th century wilds of Texas—in an alien ecosystem. For all we know, that ecosystem might be teeming with life. Unfortunately, colonization also requires us to destroy that alien ecosystem and replace it with one we prefer.

This is where we run headlong into the moral quandaries of our future space adventures. We can use existing environmental science to understand the nature of these quandaries. But to prepare for the ethical issues involved, it helps to have some science fiction.

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nathant
1140 days ago
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Smart thinking on why colonising Mars might help us survive on Earth
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