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Archive for the ‘General science’ Category

Going round in circles

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity … and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Albert Einstein

What is it about a good idea that makes us, as a species, invariably take it too far? Does it originate in some deeply embedded race memory that says since storing food for winter is a good idea, the more food the better? Wherever it comes from, it seems to be a habit we get into without thinking, then before we know where we are, we’ve taken it to extremes and gone and overdone it again, which seems to have an uncanny knack of landing us back where we started.

A lot of what passes for ‘science’ these days is a case in point. As its defenders are so fond of pointing out, we humans are very easily fooled by our senses and appearances into erroneous theories and conclusions. No argument there at all. We therefore need to rigorously test our theories to prove that they’re real rather than illusory. No argument with that either (leaving aside for the minute the whole monumental philosophical question over the boundary between reality and illusion, and how we go about creating our ‘reality’ in the first place).

All well and good so far. And a bit of wheel reinvention never goes amiss either. It’s got us from the cart-wheel and grinding stone to all the gazillion uses of wheels in our present technology, not to mention the treadmills that so many of us spend our lives running round in. So with so many attempts at wheel reinvention going on all the time, wouldn’t it be a good idea to establish a basic method for making certain that such attempts jump a few elementary scientific hurdles before they even get off the ground?

If the conceptual impossibility of that analogy tripped you up, it was deliberate. What started as a good idea and a well-placed trust in scientific principles seems to have gone too far and extended itself to encompass the established method as well. Not such a good idea. Particularly when some of those elementary hurdles are built on unverified assumptions that set up an inescapably circular logic for everything else that follows. Oh those wheels … they simply can’t bridge the gap between the founding principles of the scientific method and the way the scientific method is practiced.

If by now you’re wondering where this post is going, apart from round in circles, here’s the crux of it. The scientific distrust of natural human reasoning now seems to have got us to the point where generations of ‘common sense’ wisdom based on generations of common human experience is being re-examined, reformulated and redesigned with the apparent underlying assumption that it must be flawed and ‘science’ can do better. But where’s that all going to lead?

Stating the friggin’ obvious

In more of a firestorm than blaze of publicity (just try Googling “swearing pain”!), it was announced at the beginning of last week that a study performed at the University of Keele has determined that swearing can reduce pain.


As the Guardian succinctly put it:

“Swearing can actually lessen pain, according to scientists at Keele University. They asked 66 volunteers to submerge a hand into iced water while repeating one swear word out of a list of “five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer”. The experiment was carried out again, but with one of “five words to describe a table”. Volunteers were able to keep their hands in longer when they swore. Their heart rates also accelerated and their pain perception reduced. The scientists, writing in NeuroReport, believe swearing triggers a “fight-or-flight” response and heightens aggression.”

The study itself is behind a pay wall, but if the reports of it are accurate, there is so much that’s questionable about the thinking behind it it’s enough to have me swearing. For starters, the design completely ignores the relevance of context. Five words you might use in response to pain experienced after injury are contextualised to the experience of pain. They have relevance; they engage with the experience, even if the pain is being deliberately, rather than accidentally, inflicted. Therefore to differentiate between the effect of swearing and not swearing, you need to use five non swear words that are similarly contextualised. Five words to describe a table have diddly squat to do with the price of fish. The researchers even excluded the one subject from the trial who couldn’t suggest any swear words. Had this person been included and allowed to use the words they would normally use in response to injury, the conclusions might have been quite different. Also, had the subjects been instructed to use the table descriptors as if they were relevant to the experience of injury, again different results would have ensued.

Further, the researchers appear to be suggesting swearing triggers a “fight-or-flight” response and heightens aggression, rather than being, as so many of us have no doubt experienced for ourselves, a reactiona symptom of a “fight-or-flight” response triggered by shock or trauma. You may be able to induce a half-hearted adrenaline burst by deliberately swearing at the same time as deliberately injuring yourself, but this is about as natural a circumstance and response as the half-hearted responses vaccination triggers in the immune system. Apparently the importunate lead researcher, psychologist Dr Richard Stephens, when interviewed on Radio 4 was attempting to suggest that pain in childbirth might be a physiological trigger to the whole process! Sounds like a bad case of putting carts before horses.

Last but not least, in focusing only on swearing, the study seems to have missed the point entirely. It’s releasing sound, pure primal sound, that reduces pain. Stephens apparently first started thinking about the connection between swearing and pain during the birth of his now-5-year-old daughter. At an agonising point in labor, his wife began cursing up a storm, he says, though she felt bad about it later. “The midwives said, ‘Don’t apologise, we hear that kind of language on the maternity ward all the time.'”, but had he done a bit more research on women in labour he would have discovered that swearing is only one expression of the pain-mitigation impulse (and to any homeopath, one that specifically conforms to the Chamomilla pattern). Just as many women are moved to simply vocalise without running any of the impulse through the language centres of the brain.

It’s part of an instinctive and immediate reaction and release mechanism — a response to pain, no matter how caused, and whether physical or emotional — which seems designed to eject/expel (or reject/repel) the offending impulse before it can result in lasting injury, whether to feelings or soft tissue. It’s about letting go the experience as quickly and forcibly as possible, expunging its energy from the body-mind. Sound gives the process concentrated and focused power. Done effectively, a good roar can stop any bruising from a blow. Words are entirely superfluous. What’s critical is the degree of engagement between sensation and sound. Used deliberately, vocalisations can help martial arts practitioners enhance the power of their attacking moves or defend themselves more effectively. It’s the same impulse behind the grunts of weightlifters or Wimbledon tennis players. It’s a similar logic behind the Maori haka. (Ultimately, it’s a not dissimilar impulse — Rejecto, ergo sum? — that impels one to blog about pieces of nonscience displaying a disturbing lack of joined-up thinking …)

So much of this knowledge is ‘common sense’, known and used by humankind for thousands of years across all cultures, yet in trying to reinvent this particular wheel, the narrow and fragmented ‘scientific approach’ seems to have distorted it out of all recognition. At least commentators on the many online reports of this research seem to have enough common sense to react appropriately …

Is it smart?

Next we have the headlong rush by car and aircraft manufacturers to engineer out human error. There’s a Mercedes Benz commercial running in the ‘States now publicising their new E-class “smart” car that can figure out if you’ve started wandering between lanes, been driving too long without a break, or if you’re in imminent danger of collision and not paying attention, in which case it slams on the brakes.

But the computer can only do what it’s programmed to do. It’s not omniscient, and can’t replace the capacity of a living breathing human being to respond to unique context (context again!) … provided of course they’re paying attention. Although well-intentioned, the inevitable consequence of such developments is that humans will start to rely on technology to do what only humans can do and will pay even less attention, in which case you end up in situations like the woman who drove her £96.000 Mercedes SL500 into a river in spate because her satnav told her to turn into it.

Then there’s the Air France Airbus that disappeared into the Atlantic on June 1st with the loss of all 228 people on board. The leading crash theory suggests the aircraft had a faulty speed input and the computer assumed the plane was flying too slow and adjusted accordingly, and fatally. In this theory, the computer doesn’t know that the air speed indicator tube is frozen over and that the plane hasn’t slowed. It only assumes what its inputs and internal logic suggest.

Just like good old natural human reasoning really … Which all goes to prove that in taking things too far, we merely end up going round in circles.

A hole in the wall

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

“A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.”
Arthur C Clarke

I subscribe to TED talks and last week received their latest selection of video links. One in particular caught me, so after watching it I posted it to a home education forum I participate on. Since then, I’ve noticed posts about it and links to it in all sorts of places, so clearly I was one among many and it’s a talk that’s grabbed a lot of people’s attention.

Why should this talk be so remarkable? It describes an educational project in India to examine the role of information technology in education, and formed part of a wider study into the impact of such things as urban poverty and rural isolation – both expressions of remoteness – on educational achievement. What’s so compelling about it is that in devising his Hole in the Wall project, Sugata Mitra revealed an essential truth about human nature that our conditioned thinking about modern education seems to have completely blinded us to. This is a hole in the wall in far more ways than one.

Mitra’s premise was that education technology had consistently been trialled in all the places that would least benefit from it. High-achieving schools in affluent neighbourhoods are already high-achieving: any improvement through the use of ET would be marginal at best. He wanted to see what impact it would have at the opposite end of the scale. His holes in the wall were quite literally that – a hole in a wall filled by a PC monitor and touchpad – and they were installed in places where children were unlikely to have ever encountered one before. Urban slums. Isolated villages in the hills. The PCs were installed, switched on, and left running either a search engine where internet was available, or a computer game on CD where it wasn’t. Both the search engine and CD games were English-language based. That was it. Cameras were set up to monitor what happened next, and the machines were left for the local children to discover them.

Watch and listen for yourself …

You can download a high resolution version here (283.4MB).

What is so extraordinary about this experiment is not that the children reacted the way they did – what they did was perfectly natural. Left to our own devices, it’s what human beings do. What is so extraordinary is that the collective “wisdom” that’s emerged from 140 years of compulsory, organised, authority-based, institutionalised education should be so ignorant of this simple fact. Bertrand Russell (below) was spot on.

“Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.”
Bertrand Russell

Stupid isn’t the half of it. Forcibly incarcerate children in a system which frustrates and represses these natural instincts for self-organised community learning and discovery, and it’s no wonder our state education system is in the parlous state it’s in and why it’s dismally failing so many.

And England’s answer to this? Force children to stay in the system a further year until they’re 17. If, by the age of 16, all natural curiosity and desire for learning has been comprehensively squashed, exactly how is another year of the same going to be of any benefit? At least Scotland, Wales and N Ireland have had the good sense not to follow suit.

“A child born today in the United Kingdom stands a ten times greater chance of being admitted to a mental hospital than to a university … This can be taken as an indication that we are driving our children mad more effectively than we are genuinely educating them. Perhaps it is our way of educating them that is driving them mad.”
R D Laing

But what’s even more revealing (and depressing) are the comments posted to this article. If these constitute a representative sampling of the British public, then not only does it vivdly confirm the nation’s appallingly low rankings in child friendliness, but leaves no doubt that a sizeable proportion of the population eagerly support the establishment of a totalitarian state.

An example:

“If a child cannot read, write, and hold a sensible conversation about current affairs (and not just the latest reality tv rubbish or ‘pop’ music) by the age of 14 they should be sent out to work in a factory or forced to do some form of community service.”

Time to emigrate …

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.”
Albert Einstein


Saturday, August 9th, 2008

“The third level of suffering is the most significant – the pervasive suffering of conditioning. This refers to the very fact of our unenlightened existence, the fact that we are ruled by negative emotions and their underlying root cause, namely our own fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. Buddhism asserts that as long as we are under the control of this fundamental ignorance, we are suffering; this unenlightened existence is suffering by its very nature.”
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Do you have one of these satnav thingys in your car? I don’t, but I recently had the opportunity to travel in a car that did. Some visiting American friends had a rental Mercedes with a Garmin nüvi 350 provided as part of the package.

Garmin nüvi 350

There’s no doubt it’s an ingenious device, and the fact that it can pinpoint your position in seconds to within 30 feet (10 metres) from 12,500 miles (20,000km) up in space is more than merely cool. After a while of studying it, I got to grudgingly admitting that the thing was kind of useful for those situations where you find yourself in unfamiliar territory without an able navigator with a halfway decent map sitting in the passenger seat.

Grudgingly, because I like to know where I’m going, and if I don’t, I prefer to figure it out using my own resources rather than relying on a machine to do it for me. I’ve got a fairly decent inbuilt compass and photographic recall of maps and it’s generally got me by so far. I wouldn’t want all that to atrophy through disuse. Somehow, abrogating responsibility in this way feels like some kind of cop-out. It’s that whole response-ability thing again. It seems too easy to slip into; to become brainlessly reliant on it to the extent of making ludicrously insane errors because “that’s what the GPS said I should do”. After all, look what’s happened in medicine with the growing reliance on machines to diagnose problems and the simultaneous devaluing of human diagnostic instinct and intuition. “Computer says no …”

I’m wary of disconnecting myself from the immediacy of the road I’m driving and getting lost in a world of virtual reality. But wait. Aren’t I already using a machine rather than my own resources? A machine which has disconnected me from the immediacy of the road I could be walking? But which has conferred the considerable advantage of allowing me to get from A to B 10 to 20 times faster? Haven’t I already happily handed over the function of carrying around a vast repository of fascinating facts to my laptop and its WiFi connection? Which has given me instant access to a gazillion times more fascinating facts while freeing up resources to connect it all in more interesting ways? And isn’t the road I’m driving ultimately no less of a virtual reality than the one depicted on the Garmin’s screen?

What’s wrong here isn’t the GPS, but my attitude to it. I need to get my thinking sorted in relation to conditioning and awareness. It’s not a case of either/or (why is it that our unthinking thinking seems to automatically fall into such stark polarity?), but the efficient and intelligent application of both. Unthinking reliance on conditioned response isn’t unique to the human-IT interface – as Josef Cene could no doubt have told you from his seat in the middle of the Kennet and Avon canal – and we’d be an unredeemingly sad, sorry, humourless species if it was. It’s a potential pratfall in relation to all our patterning and programming, which is itself a fundamental biological imperative exhibited by all life forms in some way or another. But the conditioned response isn’t the problem (that seems a wonderfully efficient device of nature’s to maximise limited intelligence resources). The problem is diverting too much of those limited resources elsewhere and relying on autopilot to take us through situations where some modicum of attentive intelligence is called for. Though if we solved that problem, then we wouldn’t have an awful lot left to laugh at …

GPS-related navigation error

The driver of a £96k Mercedes SL500 had a lucky escape after her satnav directed her down a winding track and straight into the River Sence in Sheepy Magna, Leicestershire.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
C G Jung

Another aspect to this man-and-machine-team thing surfaced when I saw the reactions of my fellow passengers to the Garmin’s voiced instructions. ‘Ms Nüvi’, as ‘she’ was christened, seemed to be deeply irritating. Was it something to do with the subliminal effect of ‘her’ English accent on American sensibilities? Or something far more universal, as Joel Garreau wrote in a recent Washington Post piece?

“Personal GPS-based navigation devices in cars – the ones that say “In 500 feet turn left” – are far and away the most abundant machines smart enough to talk to us and sometimes listen. Nonetheless, humans continue to perceive them as surly, dumb or frantic – especially when the bot realizes you think you’re smarter than it is.”

Garreau goes on to write about several of the various developments under way to imbue navigation systems with some simulacrum of ‘personality’ in an attempt to make them more context-responsive and user-friendly.

“Given how much people hated their current navbots – it surprised no one when Mercedes owners christened their Teutonic dominatrixes “Helga” – the innovators viewed allowing the owner to customize the personality of this device as a must. The reverse would also make sense. The device should be able to shape itself to the owner, learning not to be too chatty before the human’s first cup of coffee – detecting stress or other psychological conditions in the voice of the driver.

“These seers believed if they worked hard enough, such devices would start to become common in the 2010 model year. They were evangelistic about how much you’d like the result, especially the first time it said, “I can tell from the direction we’re going and the reports I’m getting from up ahead that there’s no way we’re going to be able to pick up your daughter at her school on time. Would you like me to call her and tell her we’ll be 17 minutes late?”

“There was no name for this device. The designers called it simply “The Entity.””

This all seems completely back to front and inside out to me. By their very natures, machines are inflexible and human beings aren’t. What machine could ever accommodate the limitless variety of preferences and situations human beings put themselves in? The computing power of such a navbot would require the resources of a small power station to run and the omniscience of a minor deity. No wonder the designers called it “The Entity”. Yet this is something a human being can do on no more than a bowl of salad and a glass of water. Why are we expending such vast amounts of energy and effort in working against the nature of things? It’s our own nature that’s the one of almost limitless flexibility, not the machine’s. The only inflexibility is in our attitudes and perceptions which, no matter how fixed, can change in an instant given the right circumstances.

Isn’t it far more sensible and efficient to let both human and machine operate according to their intrinsic natures? It’s about teamwork. It’s about responsibility and response-ability. If your navbot drives you nuts, then what does that tell you about you? It’s not the machine that has the problem, so it’s not the machine’s software issue. The machine is just the mirror here. It’s you that needs reprogramming.

So will I get me a Garmin? Probably not. I don’t make enough trips to places I don’t know to justify the expense. And though I’m grateful to it for reflecting back to me those issues around trust and control I need to work on, part of that is about leaving the door open to getting lost once in a while; to the accidental opportunities that have a way of allowing the unexpected, the awesome, the amazing, the side-splittingly humorous, and the downright miraculous into life. And it’s all surprisingly effortless.

“If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

All is not as it seems

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

“All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward internal dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.”
H P Lovecraft

Stumbled across some more neat optical illusions.

Here’s one created by M Bach & J L Hinton.

If your eyes follow the movement of the rotating pink dot, you will only see one color. Pink. If you stare at the black + in the center, the moving dot turns to green. Now, concentrate on the black + in the center of the picture. After a short period of time, all the pink dots will slowly disappear, and you will only see a green dot rotating. The image is a 12-frame gif file of a circle of pink dots with a single one missing in rotation from each frame. There are no green dots. There are no frames with any more than one pink dot missing.

Pink dot illusion

With this one, focus on the black dot in the centre and then move your head in towards the screen and away again. No changing frames in this illusion. It’s a static image.

rotating illusion

It’s all in the spin

Monday, January 21st, 2008

“Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul
Nor beauty born out of its own despair
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil
O Chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we tell the dancer from the dance?”
William Butler Yeats

Which way is the dancer turning? Clockwise or anticlockwise?

According to the Perth News site which this image originally appeared on, if you see her spinning anticlockwise then you tend to have your left brain functions predominating. A clockwise spin indicates more of a right brain dominance.

Spinning dancer

The left side of the brain is associated with processing that is logical, detailed, factual, practical, reasoned, linear, sequential and expressed in language. It controls the right (L. dexter) side of the body. The right side deals more with processing that is intuitive, non-verbal, imaginary, holistic, random, symbolic, relational, philosophical, and spatial, controlling the left, (L. sinister) side of the body.

Rather than being any indication of brain functioning dominance however, logic would say this is just a simple, though very nicely executed, optical illusion which calls on the same image and spatial interpretation functions in the brain regardless of which way we see the dancer turning. The image has been doing the rounds for a few months now. Most people responding in comment sections seem able to make the dancer change direction at will after a bit of practice, and most seem to see her rotating clockwise initially.

What I find more interesting than any putative brain dominance diagnosis is the number of comments from people utterly convinced the dancer’s change in direction is programmed into the image file and that the whole thing is a fraud. It’s not – it’s just a 34-frame animated gif which cycles through the images (anticlockwise) in a continuous loop – but it shows very nicely the extent to which we’re willing to believe reality is “out there” rather than constructed in our heads.

(Occasional stutters in the image rendering can be sufficient to break the illusion and ’cause’ the dancer to ‘change direction’, but it’s all in the brain.)

“All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward internal dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.”
H P Lovecraft

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard