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What we think
One Damned Thing After Another PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Friday, 10 September 2010 09:34

"Life is just one damned thing after another". So said U.S. author Elbert Hubbard sometime around the late nineteenth century. This was probably intended to be cutting, cynical, fatalistic. But I recently saw it turned round in an interesting way by author David Orrell in his book 'The Future of Everything'.

Here it's to do not with fatalism but complexity. Life is just one thing after another: change piling on change, complexity piling on complexity, evolution piling on evolution. Incremental steps of indeterminate size creating pattern and randomness of unknown and unknowable outcome. Whether these things could be described as 'damned' is another matter. They can certainly seem damnable sometimes.

Deterministic laws, such as Newton's Laws of Motion, work for everything from planetary orbits to dropped anvils. But we now know that his 'clockwork universe' is far from being the whole story. In the case of complex systems it is simply not possible to plug in all the variables and find the correct outcomes. Most of the things we would wish to predict are non-linear in this way. Forget butterfly wings as a variable in your weather forecasts - try plugging in some sea, some mountains, some hail, some snow, some wind, some rain, some sunshine and you'll have problems enough.

Perhaps there's a new kind of joy to be found in this damnable complexity. For those who insist on plugging the gaps with God-filler, a deterministic universe is really the only outcome: an all-knowing entity must know how its experiment is going to turn out, otherwise it's not all-knowing and therefore ipso facto not God. But, of course, all-knowing entities aren't required, and thus we are liberated from God and determinism (the same thing really). Complexity will emerge because complexity will emerge because emergent complexity will emerge.

Just one damned thing after another.

72 Votes


Homeopathetic PDF Print E-mail
Written by Iain   
Friday, 16 July 2010 16:21

An article that appeared in the Guardian newspaper yesterday offering a pro-case for homeopathy has caused quite a stir amongst it's online users.  I was going to write a piece about it, but as you'll see the barrage of comments following the article give a clear indication of the overwhelming opinion on it. I was particularly drawn to a comment by a user called Brawnwilliams, which pretty much sums up my own take on it.

"There is a simple concept underlying this and I honestly, really and truly cannot believe that anyone intellectually capable of making a cup of tea or putting on their own trousers or scratching their head cannot grasp it: If you take a medicine for a condition and that condition subsequently improves, this ALONE does not demonstrate that the medicine CAUSED the improvement.

There are OTHER explanations which have been covered above and elsewhere ad nauseum and the only way to rule out these other explanations and demonstrate causation is with rigorously conducted, properly controlled tests, published following peer review all done in a totally transparent way. That’s all. Anecdotes CANNOT give you this vital information which is the only way  that science and medicine moves forward, and dosnt stay stuck, say, in 1798. This has been done extensively for homeopathy and it has been conclusively and repeatedly shown that homeopathic remedies work no better than placebo. That is a fact supported by the evidence, not a matter of opinion. You may have an opinion about whether I’m a nice guy, but you cannot have an opinion or debate about the fact I’m 5ft 10 and 36 years old.

The Guardian, in what I assume was a clumsy attempt to show the ‘other side’ of the debate has damagingly given the impression that the jury is still out and printed information that simply isn’t true eg ‘mounting evidence that homeopathy is effective' "

It also gives me the perfect opportunity to post this...

71 Votes


Barbaric Death Monkeys PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Sunday, 20 June 2010 11:13

While it's not the aim of Futurehead.com to spend too much time commenting on the ridiculous vagaries of politics, we do aim to be topical and to comment on stories of significance to the development of the human race. The execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad is one such story.

Why is this horrible event relevant to the development of the human race? Because it makes humans look like a bunch of barbaric death monkeys, rather than the highly evolved and intelligent lifeforms we must strive to be if we are to have any hope of survival. I don't mean to insult monkeys, just the ignorant excuses for humanity who are involved in the perpetration of state-sanctioned murder.

Executions happen all over the world, every day. But we should (and must) use highly publicised executions such as this one to highlight the ghastly inhumanity of such practices.

Families of victims cannot be allowed to guide the punishment of murderers. They cannot be rational or objective participants in the process. State execution cannot even be conflated with biblical "eye for an eye" fallacies, because the execution is more cruel than the deed of the murderer. The victim will usually have little (if any) time to contemplate his/her fate, while the murderer on death row has a hideous amount of time to contemplate his certain demise.

But policies of execution are, of course, bred from ancient and barbaric religious beliefs. We can't ignore this fact. Religion-compounded ignorance and survivalist expediency could be seen as excuses for this behaviour in the past. But those excuses can no longer hold. We now know a great deal about brains and how they can malfunction. The brain of Ronnie Lee Gardner malfunctioned; as did those of the people involved in his execution. The chance to repair his mind is gone; the chance to repair theirs is still present.

Our exponentially-developing science and technology demand humans with the wisdom to wield them. Murderers and executionists are relics of a terrible phase of our "development". Their lives are governed by fear so they are likely to find the future an utterly terrifying place and to try to cling on to the past with a death grip.

71 Votes


The Singularity goes mainstream? PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Thursday, 17 June 2010 09:40

While it's heartening to see the mainstream press trying to get to grips with the ideas behind the Singularity, I wonder if they are missing the point.

We're told that the TV show "Fringe", "explores a number of Singularity-like concepts". This may be the case and I may have to watch it to find out. I'm not sure why The New York Times is rehashing a story about "Fringe", as it has been out for a while (probably just a contrived way of getting reasonable coverage for a Singularity story). I have, thus far, avoided "Fringe" because I get bored with much of the so-called sci-fi dross screened on Sky. "V 2010" is an example of the kind of genre I'm talking about: a crack team of gorgeous Yanks furrowing their brows in earnest analytic contemplation of impending doom.

One of the key ideas behind the Singularity is its rapidity. We may not really have a lot of time to contemplate and agonise over the consequences as the exponential wave of change breaks over us.

Singularitarians/Extropians/Transhumanists are, on the whole, an optimistic lot. I suppose some of us do get carried away with the idea of a technological Utopia, and don't really think hard enough about the potential downside. On the other hand there are many who go out of their way to highlight the "existential risks" inherent in Singularity-like technologies, in an effort to convince dogma-laden politicians that they need to start thinking and planning for this right now. Others, more in the Extropian camp, argue that the failure to adopt potentially life-saving technologies earlier is the real crime.

It might be interesting (although probably not) to see if/how "Fringe" tackles Singularity-type issues. The quote from executive producer Joel Wyman doesn't inspire much confidence: “The whole series is based on science being out of control". Now, where have we heard that before?

62 Votes

1 Comment

Mouthwashed and brainwashed PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Sunday, 13 June 2010 14:49

I have been thinking about the bacteria in my mouth.

I don't buy into health scares. But I do try to take note of the science behind the big media health stories such as the interesting one from last month about the correlation between poor oral hygiene and heart attacks. The BMJ-published research appears to back up previous findings and concludes that "Poor oral hygiene is associated with higher levels of risk of cardiovascular disease and low grade inflammation, though the causal nature of the association is yet to be determined".

I'd be fascinated, as I'm sure many others would be, to know the "causal nature of the association". In the meantime, in this case, it seems reasonable for me to take stock of my own oral hygiene. I brush my teeth twice a day, sometimes with and electric toothbrush, sometimes manually; sometimes with my right hand and sometimes with my left. It's probably the case that my brushing is not as rigorous as it should be.

This being the case I thought I would buy some mouthwash to help to mitigate my lazy brushing. On trying the first, rather expensive, brand I noted "clumps" of matter in the sink after I spat it out. My first instinct was to feel quite satisfied by this. The mouthwash had evidently bound to nasty plaque or some such such and sluiced it out of my mouth. Job done. The other brand I tried, a supermarket own-brand at about a quarter of the price of the first, produced no such "clumping".

On comparing the ingredients of the two brands the only discernible difference I could see was that the "clumpy" one contained "PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil" and "Cocamidopropyl Betaine" (a surfactant). Why would there be any kind of Castor Oil in a mouthwash? I'm not a chemist and I don't know the answer to this. But I am suspicious of the motives of big companies such as GlaxoSmithKline. I suspect that, whichever ingredient is causing it, the "clumping" effect is a con cynically designed to "scientize" the simple anti-bacterial action of a mouthwash. The drug companies realise that consumers are educated enough to know a little about the detrimental effects of plaque build-up. So they invent some faked-up visual cue for the exit of plaque from the mouth in order to fool them into believing that their brand is doing more work than a cheaper one.

This is a small matter [sic] but symptomatic of the science-abuse routinely engaged in by cosmetics conglomerations [sic]. I'm tired of this kind of manipulation. I am, of course, free to choose my brand. So, from now on, I'll take the mouthwash without the lumps.

69 Votes


Out of this Body PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Thursday, 20 May 2010 14:05

I'm always fascinated by articles like this one we published recently about the way in which the brain can be "tricked" into "feeling" sensations from extraneous objects or, as in this case, from virtual reality bodies.

It may seem to you that when you experience a sensation, such as a touch to your hand, you "feel" that sensation "in" your hand. But it's really not as simple as that. You are, of course, "feeling" the sensation in your brain. So, if your brain can be "fooled" into believing that the input is coming from an object such as a rubber hand, you will "feel" the sensation "in" that "hand".

Sorry about all the inverted commas here but this is awkward stuff to frame. I also don't like using terms like "tricked" or "fooled" in connection with the brain. Rather, to me these experiments demonstrate another amazing property of the brain. And one that should certainly be a huge boon to virtual reality enthusiasts. Think of the possibilities: if our brains can be made to feel that they are receiving input from the kind of crude VR bodies available today then there is a real prospect of being able to fully "immerse" ourselves in the virtual worlds of the future.

None of this is as weird as it may, at first, appear. It's another glimpse into the true nature of "self". It shows "self" to be a construct; a very useful one but a construct nevertheless. We are stories that our brains spin for us. Change the parameters and it will spin you a new one.

66 Votes


Political Claims and Cognitive Democracy PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Saturday, 24 April 2010 10:04

While it's satisfying to see Ben Goldacre's article today discussing the application of science to test the validity of claims made by politicians, what I would really like to see is the testing of the personal validity of individual politicians.

It's a huge deal when another human being claims that they will "represent" you and make decisions on your behalf. These decisions are life and death. We get landed with far too many iniquitous scumbags, engaged in state-sanctioned profiteering and warmongering. It really shouldn't be that difficult to guard against the rise of political opportunists at the extreme end of this motley scale.

I have argued previously in the Extravolution Blog ("Cognitive Democracy") that what we need is proper psychological evaluation of political candidates. I would now add to the comment contained there that having any form of religious/superstitious/paranormal beliefs should immediately disbar any prospective candidate from standing.

Offer to "represent" me by all means, but first prove that your brain is working properly.

66 Votes


Brain Salad Drudgery PDF Print E-mail
Written by nuncio   
Thursday, 22 April 2010 13:38

So, it's conclusive: brain training games don't work.

As someone who took part in the study, playing the BBC's actively mind-numbing "brain training" games, I can honestly say that I'm a little frustrated with this result. I suppose I did want to hear that they worked, at least to some extent. But I can't argue with the application of science to the over-hyped claims of this industry.

I've also been using Posit Science's "Brain Fitness Program" software for some time. It's quite enjoyable and staged in a way that certainly makes you feel like you are making progress. It's really an entirely different animal to the games in the BBC study, and I'm not sure what the implications of that are. Perhaps there need to be wider studies, taking in more types of software, in order to really call this one.

Anyway, why did the BBC have games designed specifically for this study? It would have been rather more entertaining if they had used the commercially-available software and rubbished that in their programme. Or was this yet another case of the BBC running scared from potential law suits.

I liked the section of the programme about activities that can actually boost cognitive function. Good old-fashioned exercise raised its ugly head again. Looks like there's no escaping that one. Also, listening to music, be it Mozart or Blur, prior to undertaking cognitive tasks, can have a measurable positive effect.

It's good to know that many of the facets of ordinary everyday life, can have a beneficial effect on one's brain power; but I suspect that's not what most of us are really after when we play these games. We're really trying to find ways of being smarter than the average bear, in order to get ahead in life and work. Personally, I'm just really interested in brains, and the idea of being able to experiment and play with my own (while leaving it in situ) appeals to me.

I won't be ditching the brain training anytime soon. I'll just be looking for better designed and more interesting products. I'll also be looking much more closely to see how rigorously the products have been scientifically tested.

I've also taken up a musical instrument, and I know that's doing something because practising makes my head hurt.

63 Votes

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