A clinical trial made in 2010 at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel observed that when male subjects are exposed to emotional tears -- isolated from females crying during sad movies then deposited onto a small pad above the male's upper lip, their heart and respiration rates, skin temperature, testosterone levels and levels of arousal dropped. The men hadn't witnessed the act of crying, nor could they consciously smell the tears. Yet, they were influenced by its chemosignals.


The research could obviously be useful to manufacture pharmaceutical but Angela Bracco, who is currently showing her work at RCA's Design Products (Platform 13) graduation show, speculated on the possibility to push the finding even further. Her project If You can Smell it, it has Mass asks whether it would be possible in the near future to mass-produce women's emotional tears to decrease aggression in humanity. Women's emotional tears could thus be used in prisons or as invisible warfare.

(The fact that the idea is scary and highly unethical doesn't make it any less credible. After all, when did trivialities like ethics and morality stop governments?)

In the future, in a world where emotions of sorrow are valued high, tears are coveted for their use as means of pacification. The demand for copious quantities of emotional tears has pushed scientists to recreate human tears within the context of a laboratory. Although the ability to manufacture tears has allowed manipulation to the compound to heighten its potency, it is not to say authentic tears are seen as any less special.

Her graduation project therefore imagines a future clinic for the production and testing of emotional tears.



To ensure that tears are produce on a large scale basis, the clinic would host The Delilah Project, a big tear simulation machine that simulates human tear production. The glass sculpture takes the proteins, ions, enzymes and other elements within tears, mixes them together and processes them in a similar way that the human body is producing tears.

Because Angela's background is in architecture, she also designed a tear chamber, a misted room where tears would be diffused. Inmates would thus enter the chamber and be submitted to these natural air born sedatives.

Finally, she made a Sad Cinema that uses clips of sad movies to induce tears. Women would sit down, have a good cry and their tears would be collected in a specially designed tear collecting device.

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Male/female tear gland differences (image source)

All images courtesy Angela Bracco.

The RCA show opens today at the Battersea location (see map) and remains open until 1 July (closed 29 June.)

Sponsored by:

The Arktika rear view

On Monday i went all the way to the Royal College of Art's new Battersea buildings to check out the graduation show of Design Interactions. As i'm sure you know by now, the department is exploring design in relationship to the latest technology and scientific developments. This year, however, several projects are dealing with what they call 'big design'. Big design gets to grip with complex systems and large contexts such as global finance and geopolitics. If you remember how much i liked one of the projects from last year, Everything Ends in Chaos by Ilona Gaynor, you'll understand how excited i am to see how ambitious political and socio-economic themes can be approached from a critical design perspective.

Which brings me to this year's 'project from hell'. It's one of my favourite works but it took me ages to half grasp its ramifications and elaborate structure. Tobias Revell has spent the year drawing up a timeline that starts at the end of the Roman Empire and closes in the early 22nd century. The timeline unravels the history of power in whatever form it takes. Most historical timelines will only highlight the financial crashes, the wars, the major upheavals, the groundbreaking innovations and the revolutions but Revell also takes into account the minor events that might take decades to manifest themselves into something more noticeable.

One of the works Revell is showing at the graduation show illustrates the timeline by zooming on one event of our not-so-distant future. The event is seen at the time as fairly insignificant but it will have huge consequence on the history of the European Union. In fact, it will be one of the motors of its dissolution.

The event takes place in the early 2040s, when an ex-Soviet Arktika class, one of the nuclear powered icebreakers traditionally used for clearing shipping lanes north of Siberia as well as for scientific and recreational expeditions to the Arctic, is recommissioned to host a barely legal experiment in global finance.

One of the original icebreakers Arktika class ship

The icebreaker would be entirely refitted to welcome highly qualified traders on board and would circle at 88.7 degrees latitude - the heart of the arctic sea. By circumnavigating the world in twenty-four hours, the ship would thus stay in constant contact with trading zones throughout the world.

Such practice would undoubtedly be highly efficient and in Revell's scenario it is indeed a phenomenal success. The Arktika proved that growth in trade could be sustained beyond state regulation with lower risk due to its detachment from public and welfare infrastructure. In doing so it had brought support to the idea of a hyper-libertarian Europe.

The sheer volume of trade made possible by the continuous, rapid and deregulated system of the Arktika's movements and its elite traders invalidated economic theories of zero-sum growth in the eyes of the Equestrian Councils and business leaders - encouraging decades of power shifts throughout the financially developed world.

In September 2048, after almost a decade of transitional process, the European Equestrian Council was granted the control over European Parliamentary directives and began the process of turning Europe into a successful transnational business entity and away from historic national divisions. The Arktika was seen as a key component in this process. By 2055 - when China collapsed - there were no sovereign currencies or indeed Euros left in the European Equestrian Union.

Chart showing the movements and trading patterns of the Arktika over a one-week period

At this stage, dear reader, i suspect that you've either left the building in horror at the third paragraph or have at least as many questions as i have for Tobias:

Hi Tobias! Your project 88.7 is set in the early 2040, just before the European Union and its nation-states are dissolved and become a uniform 'European Equestrian Union". Could you briefly sum up how the Equestrian Council comes into existence?

The original Equestrian Councils were a short-lived institution of the Roman republic - a council of business leaders with the right to influence and even veto government policy if it was felt it might damage merchant interests. In the not-too-distant future, Europe faces a continued dialectic struggle between the nature of high-finance and national economies so in 2025 Italy re-establishes its own Equestrian Council. Italy and notably Austria have uniquely insular economies, they're pretty self-sustainable but also economically jealous so I see them as a potential flashpoint for future economic progression.

The idea of the Equestrian Council begins the end of nation-states as global actors. I was inspired by something I read around 2008 about how states are the worst bodies to be put in charge of economies because they only know how to spend money, not make it and so there's no way to sustain growth if something that is expert in gathering rolling debt is in charge of regulating the flow of money. Not that I fully buy into that.

Timeline that charts the change in flow and concentration of power since the end of the Roman Empire

What i'd need more explanation about is how the right to trade has changed? You told me that right now, one has to be registered in a particular nation and only trade within that nation, right? So how has the scenario changed at the time of 88.7? Why is it allowed to trade 'transnationally'? And to do so in the Arctic?

I don't see it as a big change. It would be something infinitesimal, slipped under the mat at late-night sessions of senates and parliaments in a process that takes place over years. There are very few huge events that are themselves 'turning points' in history, more often they come after the fact. For example, the fall of the Berlin Wall was endemic of the crumbling power structure in the USSR, not the other way round. This legal shift was again inspired by real life events such as the relatively silent repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 that led to an explosion of complex high-risk instruments and the 2008 crisis.

So I see it as a loophole, it would be something that maybe no-one would explicitly legalise or even consider. There was a great defence from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs when the whole Vodafone tax-avoidance thing surfaced. HMRC pointed out that Vodafone had hundreds of world-class high paid tax-law experts on their team while HMRC was headed by a couple of guys with classics degrees from Oxford. So, it's a thin screen. In legal terms, between now and then, and no-one will notice when it's broken through until long after it has happened.


How has the boat been retrofitted? With special technology for trading or just with space, comfort and entertainment for traders?

Actually, that's one of the most thorough things and one of the least noticeable. I rigorously re-designed the ship based on real plans of the original Arktika fleet. Of course, it has a trading floor and server space, which is very high-tech since the entire operation is about brevity and intensity of trade, but the traders don't live in comfort. To me, this is an industrial operation.

In social terms I can see traders and bankers as our new livestock (and populist scapegoats.) But again, the 'greed' and brutality of high finance is not symptomatic of itself. It's like that because in the seventies and eighties, we - or our parents - wanted credit, growth, houses, holidays and cars we couldn't afford without paying the labour cost. So, the traders are a resource for this growth, just like an oil well or a herd of cattle and the ship treats them like that, they have little space, are intensely 'milked' for their risk-taking abilities and then are shipped off - back to pasture in the real world until they're called in again. They might not sleep for weeks and they willingly subject their bodies and minds to colossal amounts of strain because they get a hit from the trade in neuro-biological terms and the boat makes money.

Juche City Stadium in North Korea is over 2km in diameter and able to home up to over 1.8 million Arirang mass-games performers

Now North Korea remains under the same regime, right? Except this time it is with the benediction of the UNESCO that calls it a World Intangible Heritage. Why would the traders on the Arktika be such fans of the Arirang Mass Games, the yearly festival of giga-choreography dedicated to the regime?

It's an ideological clash. I suppose this is quite a personal part - I'm fascinated by 'alternate' regimes, especially socialist autocracies but I am especially deeply obsessed by North Korea. In 'western' or developed social economies we suffer from a resource shortage in attention. There are so many disparate demands on our attention - attention that represents both purchasing and labour power that we're nearly at a ceiling beyond which there is no more economic acting an individual can physically perform in their lives. Of course, making processes faster such as transactions and digitising product is helping but ultimately there are just too many things to do and look at. North Korea is the total opposite, in a way it's much like the Roman Empire in social economic terms, in that it is everything. A resident of North Korea only has one body to answer to, work for and gain from and that is the state.

So, in a world where states are beginning to or have already dissolved, where individual competitiveness is encouraged and we answer to less and less socially higher powers I imagine the idea of seeing two million perfectly choreographed performers in devotion (staged or genuine) to a common cause to be hypnotising - much like a flotilla of boats on the Thames, military parades, even ballets.

The traders on the Arktika are the peak of the hyper-libertarian Equestrian ideology while North Korea represents its opposite - the national project, the common homogeny, social harmony, etc. Even if it is forced at gunpoint. In the scenario investment from Japanese and South Korean media companies build the stadium and broadcast the games, much as is already happening in their exclusive economic zones and the Egyptian hotel construction work.

In which currency are they trading?

They're on the cusp of the changeover of currency. Currency is just a measure of trust or creditability, so it could be anything. The dissolution of states begins the collapse of the idea of sovereign currency - trust in nations - and it turns to the alternative global construct that guarantees growth overall which could be futures. So they use futures contracts which are derivatives of potential 'things that might happen' as a currency - if you want to call it that.

Extra-Dermanl growths caused by neuro-biological mutation in Arktika traders

Your text mentions the intensity of risk undertaken by traders on board. Which risks are they taking that today's traders are not taking?

The same risks are faster, greater in value and more intense. Just like growing industrialisation - same product but more, faster, better. Technology can ramp up trade to the speed of light but it can't take risks. Trade needs the human factor - the intuition and guile that involves making trades. Computers can calculate perfectly but that, in fact, makes machines poor traders. The traders on the Arktika deal with a greater torrent of activity enabled by activity, they take more risks, with greater consequences more regularly. This the only way to guarantee growth, the one thing every human economy is obsessed with.


Finally, i'm very curious about the way you chose to present the work, using texts that detail the life and feelings of various characters involved at various levels in this transnational trading. Why did you chose to present the project through their voices? Did you write the texts yourself?

I wrote everything myself, I'm very comfortable with writing and all the stories as well as more intensive expositions on the economic theories were all written in parallel with the research and development of the project over the last year or more.

It's very hard to present huge, complex systems. In the mind or in the pub over a few drinks they can be beautiful and elegant as well as easy to explain, but communicating that without just standing and talking is very hard. I was talking with Ilona Gaynor, a graduate from last year who had a similar problem with presenting and a similar admiration of systems and we agreed that anyone who understood the financial crisis of 2008 would never criticise it because it was so elegant. But how can anyone present that understanding quickly and simply without talking it through step-by-step? Presenting such an intuitive understanding of the levels and dimensions of these events, their precursors and their systems is very hard.

I think by starting at the individual level, you can begin to draw strands from how one person sees and acts in this system and begin to thread it through the other artefacts, perhaps encouraging understanding of their place in them. When we talk about things like economics and finance we tend to nod to systems and constructs and then scapegoat individuals or point the finger. But the system and the individuals are not mutually exclusive.

Aesthetically, the stories lend the project a literary edge which makes it feel more real to me. When a character is talking about the way steam curls off above the ice from vents on the ship it's more real to me than any rendering and I think a much more powerful way of engaging with these huge ideas than often charts and diagrams can be.

Thanks Tobias!

The RCA show opens today at the Battersea location (see map) and remains open until 1 July (closed 29 June.)

Spontaneous Human Combustion occurs when a human body bursts into flame and is reduced to ashes without any apparent external source of ignition. Moreover, while the body is almost completely incinerated, which requires temperatures of about 3,000 degrees, the rest of the room, the furniture remain almost undamaged by the fire. SHC takes place in Charles Dickens' novels but also in contemporary police investigations. A few months ago, the badly burned body of a pensioner was found in his living room in Galway, Ireland. Apart from his body, investigators could only find minor damage on the ceiling above him and the floor beneath him. "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," said the coroner.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon is accompanied by much speculation and controversy.

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

Sebastian Thielke, a first year student of Design Interactions, looked closely at the phenomenon for a project he showed at the RCA's Work in Progress exhibition which closed a few weeks ago.

While investigating the paranormal phenomenon, the designer found about long forgotten military experiments that were carried out in the 1960s USA. Thielke's finding tells a fragmented story of how science, in the name of war, is willing to push the boundaries of what is ethically and morally acceptable, and how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational. His work looks also at the way information technology contributes to the intertwining of science and occult beliefs.
In the age of information technology these ideas and philosophies have won new territories on the internet where they can grow and multiply on websites and social networks, and tie into ever growing theories of science and spiritualism, conspiracy and mass deception, Thielke explains on his project page.

So far, it seems that the project is more about investigating than designing. What i found most interesting though is that the designer is ready to explore and comment on a mysterious, paranormal, pseudoscientific phenomenon. As far as i know, this is very unusual area of research for a designer.

Extracts from the email exchange i had with Sebastian:

Why this interest in spontaneous human combustion? It is such a spooky phenomenon.

Yes, that's a good question. This project was initially a response to a brief. It was a two-three week project and we had very short time to chose a topic we wanted to work on.

I didn't know much about spontaneous human combustion (SHC). I just remember reading about it many years ago in a Paul Auster novel, which I've now forgotten the name of. But SHC has stuck in my head since. I really like these kinds of phenomenons that are so mystical they seem to be fictional and yet they have occurred several times in history.

Mary Reeser, a suspected victim of spontaneous human combustion. Her remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) and her backbone remained

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

I had a look on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_human_combustion and it doesn't appear to be a phenomenon one should take very seriously. The causes of SHC are mostly either paranormal or unknown/unobserved. What is the consensus among scientists about the phenomenon?

There are some scientific or causal explanations, but they all fall short of explaining every detail of the events. One of the main topics of discussion is the source of ignition: how people actually start to combust. The rational explanations all claims that the source of ignition is external, they suggest things such as static electricity from a carpet, a dropped cigarette or a malfunctioning power socket sparking a flame. While these might be valid explanations they don't seem to have been confirmed in any of the reported cases, only suggested. And it still doesn't explain how a person sitting in a chair can burn to ashes without the fire spreading to the rest of the house. When a body is cremated it is burned at almost 900 degrees Celsius for about two hours. Investigators have tried to explain this with what they call the 'wick effect', which is also mentioned on wikipedia. It describes how a body can burn for several hours; the melted body fat becoming a flamable liquid, saturating the clothes of the victim and thus acting as a wick that can burn for hours.

But I didn't really do that much research on the scientific side, and it doesn't seem like there has been that much research done to explain this phenomenon. Since it is such a rare occurrence, I guess it is mostly dismissed as random coincidences. But that is what is so intriguing about it - that it is such a weird phenomenon. The circumstances when it happens, the bizarre visual sceneries it leaves behind of ashes, burned limbs and melted TVs. It has occurred so few times that it cannot be perfectly explained by science, yet it has occurred enough times to have earned its definition as a phenomenon. It leaves so much space for speculations into the mystical and paranornal, and that was the part I was most interested in.

So I did a lot of research into Kundalini, which is one of the more mystical explanations of SHC. Kundalini is a term used in Eastern philosophies. It is a bodily energy that can be awakened through yoga and meditation. Some people believe that this energy might be able to cause a human being to combust - that it causes a subatomic chain reaction that heats up the body. I'm not going to go into detail about Kundalini, there is plenty of stuff to read about it online, but what you discover when you start researching Kundalini is that it opens up a huge world of New Age interpretations that mixes it with (pseudo) scientific theories. It is amazing to see how different New Age, spiritual/religious cultures appropriate science and piece together their own explanations of how the world works. And I believe the internet plays a key role in this. There is so much information available out there for anyone to study, and since there are no academic institutions governing and validating this knowledge it becomes an entangling jungle of pocket-philosophy and pseudo-science, which mutates into various unimaginable forms on blogs and forums. I guess you can say that this has been my material in this project.

How is SHC related to the military experiments carried out in the 1960s in the USA your research refers to?

The thing that lead me to find the items that I presented in the exhibition, was a video I stumbled upon during my research. As I was reading through several odd blogs and forums about SHC and kundalini, there was a few places where a 'video of a burning mouse' was mentioned. When I finally found the video on YouTube, it was this weird short clip of an actual burning mouse, which didn't really tell me much. But as I read through the comments, I could see that people were discussing and speculating what the weird shadow that is seen in the beginning of the clip might be. There was all sorts of stupid suggestions, but one that was particularly interesting was a woman (the name LPK19 didn't actually reveal any gender) who wrote that she had seen the clip before when she was working at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. I ended up emailing the museum about the clip and they told me that it had been a part of the remnants of a military lab in the Alpena Air National Guard Base in Alpena, Michigan, which burned to the ground in 1964.

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

What were these experiments about? Where can we find more information about them?

There are no detailed descriptions of what exactly the experiments were about, but from looking at the photos and papers it seems like they were dealing with sound frequencies. There is a photo of an oscilloscope, a spreadsheet where different frequencies are noted, plus some technical drawings of what seems to be directional speakers. From my research I've learned about something called the Solfeggio Frequencies, which is believed by many spirituals to have healing powers (or potentially destructive if used in the wrong way). Solfeggio, or Solfège, is an old music system that were used in gregorian chants to associate different note-intervals, with specific syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti. It seems that they were using those frequencies in their experiments.

Some of the other photos shows men dissecting black, burned corpses of pigs and there is also an illustration of the anatomy of a pig brain, which of course shows that they have been testing on animals.

A third photo shows a person that seems to be meditating. This along with a drawing that illustrates the seven chakras of kundalini, suggests that they have somehow used these ideas and philosophies in their experiments.

Nowhere is there any mentioning of SHC.

Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

And what is that helmet you were exhibiting at the work in progress show?

It seems like it is meant to project sound into the forehead of the person wearing it. In Kundalini it is believed that the body has seven energy centres called chakras. The Ajna Chakra, also known as the third eye, is situated just behind the center between the eyebrows. It is also associated with the pineal gland inside the brain. I suspect that they have been trying to somehow stimulate this part, the 'third eye', to affect the kundalini of the test person or animal.

Your project page talks about 'how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational.' What do you mean by that? That they are pulling hoaxes on us?

No, what I meant with the word rational was that sometimes military research pursues ideas that has no scientific foundation or that goes beyond what is ethical.

Most of the technology that surrounds us was originally developed for military purposes and warfare has always been one of the major drivers of science and technological development. In this race to be technologically ahead, military labs have sometimes gone too far in their research and experiments. The Nazi experiments or those of the Unit 731 in Japan are horrible examples of military funded science turning a blind eye on ethics and human rights. In more recent time the CIA Stargate project has shown that occult, paranormal and mystic beliefs still have a place in military research. My findings seems to be from one such program.

Thank you Sebastian!

Related: Delusions of Self-Immolation.


Tim Miller has devised 101 ways to use a trailer. Yes, a trailer, that mundane, strictly utilitarian object no one would ever waste a glance on. The designer, however, sees the trailer as a blank canvas that has the potential to become a tool for the realization of collective as well as individual dreams. You can use trailers for anything, you can reinterpret them, you can use them to manipulate the world around you or better said you can 'pervert' trailers according to your desires and needs.

Miller has already put some of its 101 ways to use a trailer to the test:

Image courtesy Tim Miller

- Trailers are routinely used as a rapid deployment devices that generate a zone of exclusion or control. The police turn trailers into mobile surveillance tools by mounting them with CCTV cameras. The military uses them as walls. Inspired by these practices, Tim Miller designed a trailer that emits a pink light that would deter teenagers from any area where the object is left. The choice of colour is not arbitrary. Pink lights have already been used in a Nottinghamshire housing estate because the colour is seen as 'uncool', emphasizes acne and as such rely on any personal insecurities young people might have.

Image courtesy Tim Miller

Image courtesy Tim Miller

Total Recall Filming in Toronto

- A film screened at RCA's work in progress exhibition showed another function for the trailer: the vehicle was used to simulate and film car driving in a similar way to the studios of Hollywood.

Image courtesy Tim Miller

Image courtesy Tim Miller

Pervert Trailer was exhibited at the Work in Progress show a few weeks ago at the Royal College of Art in London. Only 99 more ways to use a trailer to go!

Pervert Trailers was developed at Platform 13, in the Design Product department. The platform, which is by far my favourite in the whole department, is headed by Onkar Kular and Sebastien Noel. Together they look at how design can contribute to alternative models of living and production by engaging with, commenting on, and addressing issues currently beyond the usual scope of design - political, social, technological or ecological.

"They [superstitions] give us a feeling of control over uncertainty and so it might be predicted that the current feeling of instability in the world would create an increase in superstition," said Prof. Richard Wiseman in 2003, just before launching his 'UK Superstition Survey'. The research demonstrated that levels of superstition in the UK were surprisingly high, even among people with a scientific background (full details in the PDF.)

Image courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

In this time of crisis and confusion, are we going to resort more than ever to superstition and irrationality in order to get back an illusion of control? The project that Shing-Tat Chung was showing at the work in progress show of Design Interactions, explores a world in which beliefs and rituals emerge from the seemingly harmless private sphere to infect larger and more complex public systems. In times of uncertainty will the population demand an alternative logic to be implemented? This project imagines a stock market in which superstitions abound, producing uncanny algorithms and illogical bankers attired in green suit and Feng-Shui briefcases.

an uncanny algorithm.jpg
Image courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

Questions to the designer:

I found surprising that your project associate people working in the Stock Exchange with superstition. I thought they were the only people who had control these days. What triggered this interest in 'illogical bankers'?

We're at our most superstitious in times of uncertainty, as we are hardwired to gain control of a situation by recognising patterns, even if they ignore current rationale. When I started researching superstition, I started to concentrate on looking at contextualising my project in scenarios that would best suit my project. This drew me to the stock market and thus bankers. Due to the high levels of instability and vast amounts of money at risk, it seemed the ideal economy to play out my project.

The stock market is in essence a breeding ground for superstition. We have this view that trading is done the rational way, almost emotionless, and then there is this whole other part that is hidden in the private sphere of the banker or trader, such as being buried in their lucky trading jacket or large hedge funds using financial astrology as a source of advice.

One of my favourite researched rituals is a 'reputable' trader who establishes his starting trading position based on the nipple direction of the Sun's page 3 model (up or down). Whilst these facts may be fun and whimsical, what really interests me is when these irrational beliefs start to emerge and become implicated into more cemented systems. For example, 70% of the largest lift supplier's orders, request that the number 13 is removed. So in question, how far will it go, and how far do we demand such beliefs to be implemented? What I want to do is extract these irrationalness and redesign a system which is governed by alternative beliefs. One in which all these beliefs that exist on a private level emerge to infect larger systems. In effect creating this parallel stock market.

With the economic and financial systems collapsing, will we seek an alternative logic? One in which will give us illogical bankers.

Do you think people would trust them more (or at least see them in a more favourable light) if they knew that bankers' decisions are influenced by superstition and illogical elements?

Maybe we would see them as more human and as a result vulnerable. However I think it says a lot more about us in general. The stock market is just another structure among many in which decisions are much more influenced by superstition. The same with extreme fishing, or even sports. That's why a lot of sports stars or even politicians deploy more superstitions than average.

In the early 20th Century, the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski noted that islanders in the pacific who fished in 'safe zones' carried out their jobs with a high level of rational expertise. However the fisherman who ventured off beyond the coral reef displayed many superstitious rituals and ceremonies to invoke magical powers for safety and protection. So it would seem reasonable that bankers would use more irrationalities. What I want to see is what happens when they solely use illogical elements.

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Image courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

pattern detail.jpg
Image courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

Can you talk to us about the Power of 8 suit? Why the number 8? And what do you mean by "The suit provides the owner with the comfort that even the process of the making of the suit has accommodated relevant superstitions'?

The idea was to begin to question what, why and how the stock market is run. What bankers and traders wear, the colours, the organisation. My first objective was to imagine what it may look like visually, would all the bankers wear green because green represents a rise in the market. However, I wanted to take this a bit further, so working with a pattern cutter, we came up with a pattern that had all its dimensions tailored towards a multiple of the number 8 (cm). Whilst it may look like a regular suit, the cuffs are in fact a bit wider than normal, the sleeves stretch out a bit more than usual.

Why I used the number 8? Well 8 is a lucky number in Asia. (Translates as sudden fortune and prosperity). A number 8 plate in Hong Kong sold for around half a million pounds, where as the Beijing Olympics started on 8.2008 on the eighth hour, eighth minute and eighth second. Part of the project is not only to critique certain collective beliefs but also to see how far we demand them to become implanted and that's where the comment comes in. To what extent do we take our beliefs. Do we require that the current logic in manufacturing is replaced with alternative ones? So if all the measurements of products had to abide to the number 8, what would our reality shape to look like?

If I was rich and superstitious and someone came up with the proposal to convert the all my belongings to be tailored towards 8, I would probably go for it.

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Architecture following Feng Shui principles in China

Image courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

One of the experiments of Superstitious Thoughts involves an Uncanny Algorithm. What is this algorithm about? And what do people invest in when they invest in this Uncanny Algorithm?

The Uncanny Algorithm is a trading algorithm. One that is currently in stage 1, which is the call for investment and the creation of the actual algorithm. The algorithm will use a trading platform and buy and sell shares with the investors money. However, rather than using current rationale, the algorithm will use superstition as its principle logic. The rules or logic will be governed by collective beliefs such as the fear of the number 13. Buying and selling on a collection of numerological rules (that don't clash). Whilst it will acknowledge collective superstitions, it will also generate its own. Hopefully it will recognise hidden patterns whilst it is trading. So upon a successful trade it will seek for hidden 'charms'. Speculating a bit here, but if I could link this pattern recognition with, for example, the BBC sports webpage, it could potentially start to develop superstitions that are related to the performance, of say, Manchester United. It will then use this to govern how it trades. Or much more simply, if it made a successful trade at a certain time, it may consider the numbers in this time lucky and start computing these as the logic to trading.

So what will happen is that the algorithm will happily trade shares for one year, after this period, the result, whether it has lost or won money will be returned to the investor.

During the trading year, I hope to release quarterlies (reports) and AGMs where investors can attempt to raise trading performance supernaturally. At this very moment, £686 had been invested.

Essentially, what people are investing in is superstition. The experiment, rather than a tool to make money, is more about moving people into the thought space that an algorithm could operate with a very humane way of working and to also act as a live social experiment. As an experiment, that is why I am accepting investments as low as two pounds.

fengshui briefcase.jpg
Image courtesy Shing-Tat Chung

How do you feng-shui a briefcase?

I like the term 'to feng-shui'. Maybe I'll use that more. What I was trying to be careful with, was not to embody the briefcase with, all aspects of superstitions, but to sub divide beliefs into more manageable slices. Feng-Shui has a lot of rules to abide to. So I didn't want to use them all in one go (my project would be over in a flash). In this case, I wanted to take the iconic 'hole in a structure' that channels through chi. It still amazes me when I see those buildings in Asia that have huge holes in the middle of their architecture. Incidentally Feng-Shui is used a lot in businesses, I wonder how you could Feng-Shui a business plan.

Maybe I should go to a specialist and ask to Feng-Shui my thesis.

Did working on this project make you more superstitious than ever?

I would say I am on the half way line. I am pretty rationale, however I like to entertain myself with superstitions. But by working on this project, and unearthing all these wonderful superstitions out there and its effect on systems, it hasn't made me more of a believer, but it has definitely made me admire them more.

Although now that my superstition knowledge has quadrupled and that I now know of more beliefs and rituals, maybe they will slowly or subconsciously affect me.

In fact, I recently found out the time I was born which was 8.18pm. Combine this with 8th Nov 1986 and I am starting to feel pretty lucky.

Thanks Shing-Tat!

The premise of Raphael Kim's project at Design Interactions' work in progress show --which closed a couple of days ago at the Royal College of Art-- contained all the ingredients to intrigue me: The falling cost and increase in speed of DNA sequencing has given rise to two extreme scientific worlds: giant pharmaceutical companies who trawl the Arctic Ocean in search of potent genes that would profit them in a lucrative cancer market; and DIY biologists who try to beat the system.

The designer imagined a gene hunting device that biohackers (who usually cannot afford to 'trawl' the oceans) would create to collect gene samples present in the air.


The device would rely on rotifers, tiny animals capable of absorbing environmental DNA, that have been genetically programmed to start glowing as soon as a target gene is spotted in their environment. The rotifers sit inside a chamber attached to the gene hunting device, and wait for the targets to come near. This kind of "LED switch" can be obtained by fusing a commercially-available fluorescent gene with a part of rotifer's own DNA (see image on the left).

A motor spins at high speed to draw the air onto the sampler while the outer mesh of the device protects the delicate samplers and filters out large, unwanted particles.

In-line with biohacking philosophy, these actions can be done, in theory, using an open-source data and hardware available to the public. Ever since the complete DNA sequence of human has been made public, genetic maps of other organisms have been published gradually, including those of rotifers, on free online database such as GenBank. Many other pieces of biohacking equipment can either be made at home or can be purchased on eBay.

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The gene hunting device. Image courtesy Raphael Kim

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Rotifer. Image courtesy Raphael Kim

Unsurprisingly, i left the show with many questions for Raphael:

The description of your project in the show mentions the 'falling cost and increase in speed of DNA sequencing', so how cheap and how fast can this be done nowadays? do you mean 'cheap' for corporate labs or do you mean 'so cheap that anyone can do it'?

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Carlson's curve

This is a 'Carlson's curve' that monitors cost of DNA sequencing over time (see blue line). At the moment, my understanding is that for each base of DNA it would cost you a fraction of a penny. The cost of DNA synthesis (the act of actually creating new strands of DNA) is falling as well, albeit relatively slower (red and yellow lines).

If we think about sequencing the entire genomes of organisms, the cost can be huge for an average biohacker. Humans, with three billion base pairs of genomic DNA, would cost just below $20,000 using the latest sequencing technology, and even a relatively simpler E.coli bacterial genome would be costly. However, most biohack projects do not need to involve the entire genome, but a selection of few genes from its massive catalog. These are in the regions of hundreds to thousands of bases, which brings the cost down to a manageable level, and they can be sequenced by commercial companies that can take your sample away and sequence them for you on your behalf.

Some companies even offer an overnight sequencing service, that would allow them to sequence around 1,400 bases of your sample through the night. So yes, the speed is there, and also affordable for ordinary people to carry out.

This is already happening in citizen science. DIY bio groups in Europe have already started to create microbe maps - by collecting samples from various parts of a city and analyzing them they are trying to paint a picture of microbial diversity in a given area.

It is also important I think that whilst low cost of sequencing and synthesis is a significant trend that allows biohackers to explore the genetic contents of their environment, it is only a part of a bigger economical landscape in which 'biohacking' practice as a whole, sits in. In fact, most biohack projects do not involve DNA sequencing at all, as they can buy cheap, ready made DNA components and templates for use (think of it as components of an electric circuit board - resisters, amplifiers, LEDs etc), as well as cheap second hand lab equipment bought from ebay, sold by pharma companies who are going bankrupt from the credit crunch.

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The gene hunting device. Image courtesy Raphael Kim

The gene hunting device you're showing would thus be used by a citizen to do their own gene hunting. Does it look in any way like the tools used by pharmaceutical companies? Do you know which kind of instruments they use to discover new genes?

If we think about what kind of genes we are looking for, what kind of organism these genes sit in, and where they might live, the design of the collecting device can be extremely diverse. At present, most gene-hunting is targeted at micro-organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa and planktons, which narrows it down a little.

For solid surfaces (e.g. skin, soil etc), the 'device' would simply consist of a cotton swab which is enough to pick up microbes. These swabs would then be sealed and taken to a big machine in laboratory for analysis. For water samples, they would use some kind of filter/net system to filter out biological samples according to size. The Craig Venter research group use specialized equipment which can be found here.

As for sampling air, which the device that I am showing at the moment is doing, simple machines called rotorod samplers are used in industry, as shown below:

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Rotorod air sampler

They consist of rotating rods powered by motor. The rods are covered in sticky material for the microbes to land on, which can be analysed.

The story I am working on is a device based on this technology. The idea is that the biohackers gather around a fish market, trying to pick up exotic microbes that become airborne from drying and decaying fish. And the rotating rods are found at the end of the device as shown below.

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The gene hunting device. Image Raphael Kim and Jae Yeop Kim

The air is a seemingly-unlikely source of microbes, but recent studies show that it contains abundance of them, and who knows if these could come from different parts of the world? The bacteria that coexist with fish - either living/found on its skin, or inside their stomach (ingested as food) or simply in contact with parts of the ship etc. or any other possible sources could possibly become airborne once it reaches the fish market.
I think it is important to remember that this is purely a sampling device - this device does not sequence the DNA of the captured sample for you, but merely makes some form of 'contact' with the target.

A bit of imagination was used to design the rest of my object - how long should they be to reach pallets of fish in the market, how could they imply a notion of a 'hunting tool', and also additionally, could they use some kind of a bait to help them capture the gene that they want? Where will the bait be positioned, how will it work?

Bait, here, is the rotifer, which leads me to your next question.

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Image courtesy Raphael Kim

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Image courtesy Raphael Kim

What made you think that rotifers would be the best ally of the bio hacker?

Many reasons behind this:
*Rotifers are harmless, non-toxic and non-contagious/infectious: they are animals, and not bacteria. They are made up of many different cells and are more controllable.
* Rotifers are found just about everywhere (ie. common source): If you pick up any grass or moss and put under water, these animals would be present.
* They are easy to culture and grow - just add water! (more culturing tips are found here: http://raphaelkim.tumblr.com/
* Rotifers are very robust - they can tolerate extreme dryness, cold and ioniszing radiation - an ideal set of features that are currently getting NASA people very excited.
* They can be dried and stored for future use. Below is an image of drying 'pellets' of rotifers which I have made. These can be ground and put into the chambers of the hunting device, and be activated when in use.

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Drying rotifers. Image courtesy Raphael Kim

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Culture plate. Image courtesy Raphael Kim

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Culture plate. Image courtesy Raphael Kim

* Also - perhaps most importantly, rotifers are used because they are able to absorb environmental DNA. This is known as horizontal DNA transfer - and rotifers do this first by eating the source of DNA (eg. oncoming bacteria, plankton, yeast etc). The rotifer then needs to undergo some kind of stress - eg. heat, dryness, etc. This produces an unknown mechanism in which the rotifer 'patches' the DNA content of its stomach into its own genome. Using this mechanism, the hackers try to engineer a switch that can be incorporated into the animal so that when gene horizontal transfer occurs, the organism lights up as shown below:

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Image courtesy Raphael Kim

The book that is in the exhibit is a journey and experiments that were undertaken to produce this switch.


Thanks Raphael!

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