Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A WHIFF OF THIS – Sniffing Out Phantosmia

In the past few years, this celebrant of small wonders has come to notice a new sensation. Well, it’s actually an old sensation, but in an entirely new context. It’s smells, smells like none I’ve ever experienced. Because I’m pretty sure they’re all in my head.

I first noticed these phantom smells—distinct odors with no actual odor-emitting source—while I was getting ready to meditate. I sat in my favorite chair. I draped my favorite hoodie over the back of the chair and pulled down the hood over my eyes to block out most of the light. Then I focused on my breathing.

At least I tried to. Because that’s when I noticed it. A complex blend of pleasant, non-food, non-floral smells: smoke, grass, wood, leather.

PHOTO: CandleScience

At first I thought the aroma came from the hoodie, perhaps an accumulation of oils from my skin and hair. But I discovered that’s not the case because it’s the same even after I’ve washed the garment. And there’s no other specific odor source in the house—say from cooking, cleaning solutions or pets.

The mysterious smell comes and goes and might vary a bit from day to day. It seems to occur only when I turn off the other sensory stimuli that usually vie for my attention. Like while I meditate or nap—but, strangely, not when I go to bed
at night.

I don’t mind the smell at all; in fact, it’s become quite an agreeable addition to my down time, not unlike those relaxing essential oils diffused by masseuses.

        Thank God my smells are both agreeable
        and intermittent.


ALL IN MY HEAD

So, if this oddity isn’t caused, like other fragrances, by molecules of something odoriferous stimulating the smell receptors in my head, then what does cause it?

Turns out it’s a fairly uncommon* condition called olfactory hallucinations or phantosmia. The most common triggers include head injury, upper respiratory infection, temporal lobe brain seizure, migraine, sinus infection, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, nasal polyps, dental disease and COVID-19.**

I’ve thought a lot about the phenomenon. Is it like phantom pain—the kind you’d swear is coming from your left shoulder, but really stems from that ruptured C6-7 disk in your neck? If the odor doesn’t come from airborne molecules emitted by some object or substance, where does it come from? And how does it fool those olfactory nerves?

ILLUSTRATION: Neuroscience News

Research suggests that the smells are caused by rogue olfactory neurons transmitting bogus signals to the brain,*** perhaps assigning definition to the sham smells based on memory of real smells.

Some poor folks have to live with phantosmia that palms off really awful smells like rotten eggs, burning hair or chemicals like ammonia. And, though most articles say it's short-lived, for some the assault persists, nonstop, for years.

Treatments vary widely, depending on the cause of one's phantosmia. Common home remedies include nasal irrigation—like Neti Pot—or nasal sprays to relieve congestion.

        I hope you find it agreeable, intermittent
        and worthy of wonder.


SMELLING THINGS
The funny thing is that my real sense of smell has faded quite drastically over the years. Most of the fragrances I’ve so often written about here now fall on the olfactory equivalent of deaf ears. Assuming my aging smell receptors are just wearing out, what a lovely small wonder that my phantosmia manages to simply bypass that inept apparatus and go straight to my brain! Right?

Do you think the same thing might happen with our other senses? If so, that might explain such anomalies as “seeing things” and “hearing things.” And what does that say about the validity of “eyewitness”—or perhaps "nose-witness"—testimony?

PHOTO: Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty Images

I truly hope you don’t have to deal with phantosmia, but if you do, I can only hope you’re as lucky as I am to find it agreeable, intermittent and worthy of wonder. We'd love to hear your story!

* Phantosmia affects somewhere between one and 25 percent of people, depending on the threshhold used to diagnose the condition. (National Institutes of Health)
** WebMD
*** Wikipedia

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

I SEE, SAID THE BLIND MAN – An A.I. Cautionary Tale

For those of you still not terrified of artificial intelligence (AI), I offer this perspective.

One of AI’s up and coming players, C3 ai, is advertising on National Public Radio using the slogan, “Turns the invisible into the obvious.”

Does anyone else, in a world where the very notion of truth is being challenged, find this overt statement of purpose just chilling? It’s brazen; it’s warped; it’s nothing less than an admission of guilt.

  One minute there’s no smoking gun; the next,
  oh duh, there it is.


Yes, folks, here’s what we do at our company. We take stuff that’s not there and make even those not gullible enough to buy a conventional hard sell believe it is. What could possibly go wrong with that mission?

It’s worse than the sleaziest shyster lawyer. He can do a lot with a shred of evidence. But with AI, no evidence? No problem; we just let a computer make it up. One minute there’s no smoking gun; the next, oh duh, there it is.

BABY WITH THE BATHWATER
Now I know AI’s being harnessed to do some real good. Stuff a real human brain might perhaps come up with…if it were just a bit smarter. In medicine, science, finance and many other fields it does seem these capabilities are being channeled to help people.

One inspiring example: Country music legend Randy Travis, effectively silenced by a stroke, is using AI to reclaim his own voice and make new recordings.

PHOTO: Larry McCormack, The Tennessean

But it’s when the technology is used to fool people that my blood pressure starts rising. Photographic sleights of hand, fake sound bites, cribbed term papers, facts disguised as “alternative facts.” *

The technology will soon be convincing enough
to sway just about anyone—even if there’s evidence to the contrary!


RANK AND VILE VOTERS

One of the great truisms of life, I’ve discovered, is that we see pretty much what we want to see, what we expect to see. So it’s really not that much of a stretch to get someone who believes in you to buy your lies, even if there’s not a shred of evidence.

In politics—not just in the U.S. but in other vulnerable democracies around the world—the perpetrators of AI deception are hard at work trying to get their oligarch and despot bosses elected, even if it means putting damning words into their opponents’ mouths.

PHOTO: TMZ / Getty

If it isn’t already, the technology will soon be convincing enough to sway just about anyone—incredibly, even if there’s evidence to the contrary! (Witness the staggering con job a certain orange-tainted charlatan has foisted on roughly 40 percent of our fellow Americans.)

PHOTO: Mikhail Svetlov

The fake news AI engenders doesn’t just feed the mass delusion of these rank and vile MAGA dimwits, it’s being weaponized by our country’s worst enemies, whose despotic rulers use it to exploit our every cyber—and, I would suggest, moral—weakness and influence our elections.

    It’s when artificial
    intelligence ends up in the hands of genuine
    ignorance that we begin to see its perils.

MESSIN’ WITH MOTHER NATURE
In my retired-life’s work noticing and celebrating Nature’s small wonders, I’m particularly aware of the impact of AI on my “realm.”

On Facebook, where the algorithm’s clearly typed me as a tree hugger and animal lover, it’s feeding me more and more posts depicting creatures or landscapes that are clearly manipulated—from simply pumping up the colors or sharpening the focus to totally making up some bird or butterfly that has never existed.

Hey fakers, if you want to create such an unnatural depiction of Nature, at least have the integrity to call it art. Nature didn’t make it; you did. And quit dumping it in my feed—even if you do so under the guise of a David Attenborough fan group—saying “look at this amazing thing.” It’s not a thing; it’s a fraud.

PHOTO: Foto IG:@axellmg

I should know better than to waste my time responding to such deceits. But I can’t help myself. On a recent post featuring a highly retouched, flashily color-enhanced “photo” of Guanajuato, Mexico, I commented “I love Guanajuato, and it’s beautiful enough without your garish AI ‘enhancement.’ Please don’t make visitors disappointed when they see its real, perfectly adequate colors.”

  We should all begin
  vetting our art as
  we vet our food.


THE DECEPTION OF ART

And don’t get me going on AI’s wholesale theft and exploitation of artists’ work. A mendacity mafia is stealing everything from movie stars’ likenesses, to singers’ voices, to artists’ paintings, to designers’ and inventors’ ideas, and using them for their own profit.

ORIGINAL PHOTO: Steve McCurry

Students can now easily plagiarize their term papers and theses; ad agencies replace their human copy writers with ad bots; conventional fine art is appropriated to create NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

ILLUSTRATION: G2.com

No matter how sophisticated the technology gets, I suggest it can never capture the true soul of human-created art.

We should all begin vetting our art as we vet our food: with a concern for its origin, its unnatural modifications, and fair compensation for its original producers.

          Ultimately, we’re going to have to
          reign in this beast.


THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS
It’s when artificial intelligence ends up in the hands of genuine ignorance that we begin to see its perils. At its worst it can be far more than an affront to the truth; it poses a dire threat to our nation, nay all of humanity.

So far, the furthest top scientists have been willing to go in predicting AI’s potential harm is to say that the likelihood of the technology’s leading to the extinction of the human race is “unknown.” Good God, if you don’t know, who does?

So let’s not get sweet-talked into embracing a technology whose proponents swear is all soft and fuzzy when we know its potential for evil. I want to compare it with the NRA’s claiming the utter innocence of high-powered assault rifles and bump stocks. You’ve heard it: Oh, it’s not the guns killing those innocent school children; it’s bad people.

But, while blood on classroom floors is horrifying, a weapon that threatens the survival of every human being on earth makes that look pretty innocent.

 If we fail to control AI before it learns how to be sentient and wrest control from its creators, we should all redirect our “thoughts and prayers” from the grieving families of murdered young students toward ourselves.

CAPTURE: from the Twentieth Century Fox film iRobot


“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race….It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

STEPHEN HAWKING

* "Alternative facts" was a phrase used by U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States. ~ WIKIPEDIA

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

STILL A PERFECT DAY

Last night, after another of my vertigo-like episodes had me recliner-bound
and dodging nausea all day, it was a great relief going to bed and getting fully horizontal.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
http://www.scientificanimations.com/wiki-images/

Compared with most days this one hadn’t been fun. And yet, when I began my nightly prayer—typically one of mostly gratitude—instead of that misery blunting my thanks, I found it only sharpened its clarity.

As my tally of the day’s blessings unfurled, I realized it included just about every one I’d listed the night before when I was feeling fine. And when I got to part where I acknowledge my relatively good health, instead of that item migrating over to the unspoken list of negatives, there it was, still right there on the plus side.

  I appreciate...the smallest, most essential wonders:
  each precious heartbeat, every precious breath. 


Maybe it’s a product of one’s aging, but don’t we find ourselves doing this more and more? Being grateful, even for some unpleasant things, that they weren’t worse? For the reminder that one cannot take all the good stuff for granted?

IMAGE: www.thetabernaclechoir.org

After all, I’d still gotten up and gone to bed a free man, living in peace, and owning a few modest talents and ways of sharing them. What more does a person need to be happy and fulfilled?

With this new awareness of adversity’s inability to taint such blessings, I appreciate as never before not just those the big, broad wonders of life, but its smallest, most essential ones: each precious heartbeat, every precious breath.  

Thank you, Great Spirit, despite—or maybe I should say because of—the occasional pain, for another precious day of living, breathing, sensing, feeling….and, above all, of loving.