Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Keep Your Eyes on the Cards

Cognitive psychology is that area of science which is interested in how people think, and it attempts to explain, through the development of models and experimental tests, the inner workings of the mind. Bruner and Postman's (1949) study on the perception of playing cards is one of the most fascinating experiments I have ever heard of, and has stuck with me since hearing about it, many years ago.

Bruner and Postman were interested in the ability to identify an object shown very fast. Using a tachistoscope (an old piece of technology that allows very fast and accurate exposure of images) Bruner and Postman projected pictures of different playing cards at their participants and measured at what speed they could correctly identify them. Beginning very fast (30ms) the presentation speed was slowed at intervals, and the participants responses recorded. The cards that were presented fell into two categories. One group were conventional playing cards (a five of hearts, an ace of hearts etc) and the other were fictional cards (a black three of hearts, a red five of spades etc). What did they find? From Gather.com:

The reader will note that even at the longest exposure used, 1000 ms., only 89.7 per cent of the incongruous cards had been correctly recognized, while 100 per cent of the normal cards had been recognized by 350 milliseconds.
So, people were much better at identifying normal playing cards, and much worse at correctly identifying the fictional cards. Bruner and Postman discovered that their participants would often fixate on one aspect of the card (the colour or suite) and give the correct answer for that aspect. Presented with a black three of hearts, some might consistently identify it as a red card. Others bizarrely reported that the cards were a blend of the two colours, rather than accurately reporting what was actually presented. More from Gather.com
A third reaction may be called disruption. A subject fails to achieve a perceptual organization at the level of coherence normally attained by him at a given exposure level. …”I don’t know what the hell it is now, not even sure whether it’s a playing card,” said one frustrated subject after an exposure well above his normal threshold.
So this experiment is hailed as providing support for the idea that what we perceive as reality is a top-down, bottom-up process. Not only is the information we receive from the senses important (the light from the cards which is relayed into the brain) but that the brain has a framework in place which imposes it's own expectations and beliefs on the information (such that playing cards don't come in a huge variety, so when you are presented with a card it is cheap to come to snap decision about what card it is). A red three of clubs is a rare thing indeed and there are very real evolutionary advantages to making snap decisions like this and sticking to them. Remember the dots, after all.

The difficulty is, like visual illusions, these artificial situations highlight the fact that we did not evolve to identify playing cards. As a species we have achieved more than any other on this planet (and possibly the entire universe). We were not made by a god, and designed to be perfect. Far from it. We are are hodge-podge of evolved predispositions (made by a molecule with the singular purpose to replicate) and we find ourselves lumbered in a modern world. As children we are taught how to think by other humans, who were taught how to think, by other humans before them. Remember Bruner and Postman's work and realise that just like the fictional cards, maybe the reason you're not getting it, is because you're brain isn't letting it in.

Why Do Boobs Get Big?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the function of the foreskin and why it might exist in the first place. There are lots of things we don't understand about the human body and why the female breast is the way it is, is one such mystery. What then is the great mystery about boobs? From Wikipedia's page on breasts:

Zoologists point out that no female mammal other than the human has breasts of comparable size when not lactating and that humans are the only primate that have permanently swollen breasts. This suggests that the external form of the breasts is connected to factors other than lactation alone.
Look at the two pictures of the adult female chimpanzees. The first shows that female chimps normally have a flat chest (which only swells when breast feeding). The second picture shows what happens to a female in oestrus - this female is ready to reproduce and is advertising this fact to males (hence the very prominent swelling in her rear). Since we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, why do human females not get this same swelling and why are human females usually endowed with permanently swollen breasts which develop at puberty?

Nobody has a definitive answer to these questions, but what has been suggested is certainly thought provoking. The two main positions fall into breasts as a replacement for the engorgement seen in chimpanzees or as a means of concealing fertility, thus ensuring constant attention from male partners. From How Mate Choice shaped Human Nature:
female humans have greatly enlarged breasts and buttocks, a greater orgasmic capacity, and continual `sexual receptivity' throughout the monthly cycle. Many of these traits show hallmarks of having evolved under the capricious power of sexual selection: they are uniquely elaborated in our species, show considerable sexual dimorphism, are grown only after puberty (sexual maturity), become engorged and displayed during sexual arousal, are manifestly valued as sexual signals, and are selectively elaborated through ornament and make-up (Miller, 1993; Morris, 1985). Such traits probably evolved both as indicators (of fertility, viability, age, health, and lack of infestation by pathogens and parasites) and as aesthetic displays (that play upon pre-existing or co-evolved perceptual biases).

Permanent enlargement of breasts and buttocks is also fairly effective at concealing ovulation (Margulis & Sagan, 1991; Szalay & Costello, 1992). Females who do not reveal their menstrual or lactational cycles may benefit from male uncertainty by being able to solicit male attention and investment even when they are not really fertile: "From hairy, flat-chested ape to modern buxom woman ... males were kept guessing about when females were ovulating" (Margulis & Sagan, 1991, p. 96). More generally, the loss of a specific estrus period, combined with `concealed ovulation' and `continuous sexual receptivity', may have allowed females to attract more continuous attention (e.g. protection, provisioning, social support) from males even when they were not ovulating (Alexander & Noonan, 1979; H. Fisher, 1982; Hrdy, 1981, 1988; Hrdy & Whitten, 1987; Tanner, 1981).
From Humanity's Evolutionary Heritage:
Alexander and Noonan (R7) argue that concealed ovulation, and the breast as a permanent signal of receptivity, enabled a female to hold on to a mate by reducing paternity certainty at the same time as inviting sexual receptivity, making it difficult for a male to know when she is on heat and thus having to stick around. Receptivity is then both an invitation and ‘sex as a weapon’ to enforce male resourcing compliance. Jared Diamond (R161) calls this the ‘daddy-at-home theory’. Diamond argues that a woman had to conceal her ovulation; otherwise her husband would only stay with her when she was exhibiting signs that she was fertile. The rest of the time, he would be out trying to find other women, who were exhibiting signs that they were sexually ready His absence would be detrimental to his children, and by concealing her ovulation, a woman convinced a man to stay by her side and make love to her throughout the month, so that he could be sure he was fathering the children she bore. However Shlain (R617) notes that several flaws and inconsistencies, weaken the argument that promotes sex as the glue holding human relationships together. If sex served the purpose of ensuring the durability of the human parenting commitment, then parents should become more ardent in their lovemaking following the birth of a baby. Instead, the opposite occurs. Both parents routinely report a sharp fall in their respective libidos. Barbara Smuts adds the ironical twist of females tolerating male mates to protect against coercion by other males, thus forcing males to accept these bonds even when they involved lower-ranking males (Pusey R540). Wrangham (R742) has even speculated that pair bonds may relate to food guarding, with the establishment of cooking.
Stated in brief, I believe that upright walking hid females’ engorgable estrus skin between their legs; walking itself both required buttock muscles and hid the female genital opening - an important focus of sexual signaling in primates; the new buttock area became denuded of hair to compensate for the lost sexual signal; and the bare buttocks were mimicked around the front, in the form of bare breasts, [and a pubic triangle of hair against a bare background]. That is, nakedness developed as a form of sexual signaling to compensate for the disappearance of estrus skin, which had formerly performed that function. The emergence of nakedness was thus not a question of losing hair but of extending areas of sexual skin. This process culminated through sexual selection within a cultural environment-clothes and cosmetics enhanced and selectively covered the areas from which hair was lost, and encouraged it to be lost over yet wider areas. In my view, therefore, we have never been truly naked apes (R661 34).
I don't know which position I favour more. The rather bizarre engorgement of a fertile chimpanzee is certainly a strong sexual signal and it seems odd that human females don't have such a thing. Since beauty isn't an objective measure, I cannot believe that the human females today don't have such a gorging for aesthetic reasons. But the real answer will probably remain an unexplained mystery because of the inability to go back in time and investigate what selection pressures influenced our human ancestors. Plus fleshy breasts don't leave good fossils (and they didn't have under-wired bras in the the distant past). Whatever their function let's give a cheer for breasts. I for one, have fun contemplating them!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Dusseldorf Vampire

When I was a teenager, I was very much fascinated by true life crime stories. Funnily enough as I got older my interest waned, specifically because the horrible acts that humans are capable of committing, troubled me lots. But now I often think about the variety of human acts and I am interested in the motivation of other human beings. The Dusseldorf Vampire was an infamous murderer, who's stayed with me over the years, atrocious creature that he was. An introduction from The Crime Library:

It may be said – and without exaggeration – that the epidemic of sexual outrages and murders occurring between February and November 1929 provoked a wave of sheer horror and contempt not only in Germany, but throughout the entire world. The subject of extensive judicial examination, justice has sought not only to punish the killer for his crimes, but also to probe the mind and soul of this outrageously enigmatic man.
Peter Kurten (later, the Dusseldorf vampire) was born in Cologne in 1883. From the BBC Crime Cases:
his childhood was one of unremitting poverty and violence. The Kurten family rented a one-bedroom apartment and lived in fear of Peter's father, a moulder by trade, a habitual drunkard. He would return home from the local inn, beat his children (Peter, as the eldest, felt the brunt of the violence) and rape his wife in front of them. In later years he also sexually assaulted his daughters.
His childhood then was one of the very worst that a child could have. Apparently he admitted killing a couple of school friends when he was just five years old, but whether that it actually true is difficult to say. His later crimes are not disputed. An example from the Crime Library:
In August, however, a series of strangulation and stabbing incidents made the police aware that a madman was once again on the prowl. On the 21st of the month, in the western suburb of Lierenfeld, three people were stabbed while walking home at night. The three random victims were all bidden "Good Evening" to before being subjected to a deep knife wound in their ribs and back. As the lights went out on the night of the 23rd August 1929, hundreds of people were enjoying the annual fair in the ancient town of Flehe. At around 10.30 p.m., two foster sisters, five-year-old Gertrude Hamacher and fourteen-year-old Louise Lenzen, left the fair and started walking through the adjoining allotments to their home. As they did so, a shadow broke away from among the trees and followed them along a footpath. The shadow stopped the children and asked whether Louise "would be very kind and get some cigarettes for me? I’ll look after the little girl." Louise took the man’s money and ran back towards the fairground. Quietly, the man picked up Gertrude in his arms and strangled her, before slowly cutting her throat with a clasp knife. Louise returned a few moments later and was dragged off the footpath before being strangled and decapitated.
His reign of terror lasted approximately one year, at the end of which, though he was finally caught and tried for nine murders, he was suspected of committing over 60. Why did he do, what he did? Interestingly Kurten was one of the first serial killers to be interviewed by a psychiatrist and in his own words then, is his motivation:
"I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman."

"I have no remorse. As to whether recollection of my deeds makes me feel ashamed, I will tell you. Thinking back to all the details is not at all unpleasant. I rather enjoy it."
And so this is a kind of Munsters' dilemma. Kurten wanted to murder people to achieve arousal. But no human really wants to be murdered by another (at least no sane person) and his victims no doubt all hoped that it would never happen to them, and yet it did. It seems to me that it is good that the frequency of such prolific serial killers is decidedly minimal, so they do not pose the greatest danger to our individual survival. Though, that there are humans out there that want the complete opposite to you or I, is something to bear in mind. You have been warned.

Ouija Board Wonder

The Ouija board is an object which gets far too much respect, quite a bit of which is out of fear. Americans may be surprised to learn that in the UK it is far harder to purchase a Ouija board, where a person in the UK may be surprised that in the US the name Ouija is owned by Parker Brothers, the same company that make monopoly. It is even marketed as a children's game, with a recommended age of 8-12 years. Bizarre then, when I attempted to purchase one, many years ago now, I had to lie to a 'medium' who would not sell me the board without proof that I could protect myself.

So what is the truth of the matter? What is a Ouija board? Simply put, it is a flat board with letters and numbers on it. People often sit in a circle, and place a finger on a pointer or glass. Sometimes the glass will move, seemingly as if under it's own volition and may spell out all manner of things. Who or what is doing the spelling is a matter of some small debate, although, as usual, the skeptic knows best. Here is an example of a hysterical, religious account:

The following quotes from a Christian publication highlight the experiences that others, like the individual in the introduction to this article, have had with the evil of the Ouija Board:

"The headmaster of an Essex school was confronted by a dozen terrified 15-year olds who were seeking help after playing with home-made ouija boards, a simple device for communicating with outside forces. Teachers at the school were shocked at the behavior of those involved which included:

- A 15- year old boy who stood bolt upright in a geography lesson, shouting at a spirit to get off his shoulder - before he ran out of the classroom and the school.

- A girl claiming to have woken in the night to see a person in her room.

- One child who told of how, after a ouija session in a block of recreation park toilets, he was barred by a spirit from leaving the building.

It was only through the help of local clergymen that the problems were resolved. After prayer, the children said they felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from them. One girl slept peacefully through the night for the first time in two weeks."
But since there is no god and no survival after death, where do the messages really come from? The answer is intriguing, although not supernatural in the least. Get two pencils and hold one in each hand, so that you have the ends between your thumb and index finger, and try and touch the nibs. If you keep you fingers reasonably loose you will notice a quivering between the nibs: an almost imperceptible movement which is exaggerated by the pencils. That is an example of the ideomotor effect. From The Straight Dope:
This is a fancy name for involuntary/unconscious movement, such as a dowser's hand flicking enough to move his stick when he passes over an area he knows has water. (In fact, Cecil has discussed this very subject.) The basic point is that your muscles can move without your consciously thinking, "move to the word YES." As the Skeptic''s Dictionary says, "suggestions can be made to the mind by others or by observations. Those suggestions can influence the mind and affect motor behavior. What is purely physiological, however, appears to some to be paranormal." In other words, if you believe this stuff and are trying to get the spirits to answer questions proving that they are all-knowing, and you ask a question that you already know the answer to (for example, "What's my father's name?"), odds are that your own hands will do the rest by spelling out your answer. That's where trying it blindfolded comes in (provided you haven't memorized the board, obviously). If it's spirits, they should be able to guide your hands no matter whether you can see or not. But if it's you doing it unconsciously, the blindfold will screw things up.
Your brain has to do a great many things without conscious input. Yesterday I mentioned alien hand syndrome, where a hand can act as if under someone else's control. This phenomenon is similar and these automatic responses can act in strange ways, when you sit people down in a group and ask them to play with a Ouija board. Finally there is one other explanation which is the most simple, as to why the pointer moves. Conscious faking on the part of one or more of the other sitters is difficult to prove for definite but no doubt happens a lot. So, don't be afraid of a board with letters and numbers and don't be foolish to hope that death isn't the end. The biggest question yet again seems to be, why we need consciousness in the first place!

A Library of Lives Lost

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria is one of the events in our species' history, that sets me thinking about the ultimate futility of knowledge acquisition and dissemination. Founded in the 3rd century BC, it quickly grew into the greatest repository of human thinking that had ever existed. Apparently visitors to the city of Alexandria were required to give up any written material for transcription and deposition in the great library. The modern word museum, is derived from one of the early parts of the library - the temple of the muses.

Estimates of the size of the collection vary greatly, although some have suggested it numbered up to a million scrolls. So as with libraries today, the Library of Alexandria was an important seat of learning and discovery and no doubt contributed greatly to the lives of the people. The fate of all of this accumulated knowledge is a cruel one. Although the exact cause of the destruction of the library is debated, the outcome is not. From Wikipedia:

Although the actual circumstances and timing of the physical destruction of the library remains uncertain, it is however clear that by the 8th century, the library was no longer a significant institution and had ceased to function in any important capacity. Alexandria was not a major research center for the Islamic world. Moreover, if the collection had survived to the early 700s, it would very likely have been incorporated into the library of the Al-Azhar mosque (and later university) in Cairo. This collection has come down to the present intact, but does not include Alexandrine texts.
We will never know what knowledge and words were deposited in the great library. We probably have an idea about a mere fraction of the stories that were lost, never to be heard again. And if you think about it, ever since our species evolved (some 200,000 years ago) there have no doubt been many stories, thought and told, that have been lost to civilisation because no copy remains. Though our distant ancestors left their genetic code, what they thought and how they lived has been lost to time. Does that put their actions into perspective? If all of the information lost in the great library can never be found out again, was there any point in accumulating it in the first place? If somebody deleted your blog and every copy of the words that it contained, would you start afresh, or resign the battle lost, and give up.

Even in this internet age, where every word can be recorded and stored for a promised eternity, there is no guarantee against the breakdown of civilisation. When a meteor smacks into our planet, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, no end user agreement is going to protect you or your life's work. And then the best you can hope for is to be an imagining in a future writer's mind: who contemplates the destruction of the internet and all of the information that it had once contained and wonders whether the people would have bothered, if they'd known that it would all turn to dust.

As for me, I write to amuse myself and not for any great posterity. In the unlikely event the I do deconstruct reality and get to initiate my great plan, it will not have made anything more pointfull. But I would have had a much more enjoyable time, than had I not started my blog at all.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Longing to be Legless

There is a bizarre story over at the Guardian, which is supposedly true, although since the writer only gives a pseudonym for the interviewee, I can imagine that somebody is pulling his leg (I remember the giant slime mould). The article is a first hand account of a woman with body identity integrity disorder, which is apparently where people feel detached from their body parts and often want to remove them. An extract:
First I needed to freeze and kill the leg so that surgeons would amputate it afterwards. I ordered dry ice pellets from a company near Edinburgh (the same stuff that is used in discos for the smoke effect). Nobody asked what it was for. I bought 40kg - it evaporates very quickly, so you have to buy a great deal. I put on layers of pantyhose, because you do not want it sticking to you, spread it in the back of the car and sat with my leg immersed in it for one hour. The pain was indescribable: it hurt so much I passed out a few times. I was scared, but more so of failure. I am that kind of person - I never fail.
So what is causing this behaviour? A sceptic might first suggest that the story is a hoax. But if it is not a hoax, this person has remarkable insight into her condition and it is very odd that there is a desire to lose healthy limbs - people without limbs are less able to survive than able bodied individuals, so there cannot be much genetic basis for the disease. From Wikipedia:
Today, very few surgeons will treat BIID patients by giving them what they want. Some act out their desires, pretending they are amputees using prostheses and other tools to ease their desire to be one. There are hence several recorded cases of sufferers resorting to self-amputation of a "superfluous" limb, for example by allowing a train to run over it, or by damaging the limb so badly that surgeons will have to amputate it. Often the obsession is with one specific limb, with patients "not feeling complete while they still have a left leg", for example. However, BIID does not simply involve amputation. It involves any wish to significantly alter body integrity. Some people suffer from the desire to become paralyzed, blind, deaf, use orthopaedic appliances such as leg-braces, etc. Some people spend time pretending they are an amputee by using crutches and wheelchairs at home or in public; in the BIID community, this is called the 'pretender'. The condition is usually treated as a psychiatric disorder.
And by psychiatric they mean that they can't find any obvious reasons for it, so they're stuck. There is another condition this reminds me of, which if not related, seems similar. Alien hand syndrome is a bizarre neurological condition where a patient's hand can move and act as if it is under the control of another person. Also known as anarchic hand syndrome and Dr Strangelove syndrome (hence the Kubrick clip), this is a real medical condition caused by damage to the brain. Why it occurs is as yet not quite understood (although there are some interesting theories). But patients with alien hand syndrome raise difficult questions about what exactly consciousness is and why we need it at all in the first place. The function of legs, is far clearer.

Seroxat Suicide Bomb

There main reason that I am sceptical of psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry is that we have very little good understanding of how the brain works and what effects different chemicals have on its functioning. And don't get me started on the placebo effect.

All over the BBC today is the news that GlaxoSmithKline has apparently been caught covering up the ineffectiveness of its antidepressant Seroxat, for adolescent depression. An extract:

She also found an email from a public relations executive working for GSK which said: "Originally we had planned to do extensive media relations surrounding this study until we actually viewed the results. "Essentially the study did not really show it was effective in treating adolescent depression, which is not something we want to publicise."

The editor in chief of the British Medical Journal, Fiona Godlee, said that what she calls the "blind-eye culture of medicine" should be exposed by professionals.
When pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts of money developing and promoting a drug, it is understandable that they are willing to suppress studies which undermine their agenda. How else are they going to make back the money they have already spent, if not through peddling their wares to as many as possible? But it is your own responsibility to ensure that you are not being taken advantage of by people who think they know better, or consider those who aren't helped by their drugs as a kind of collateral damage. People may be trying to help, but this really still is the blind leading the blind.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Challenger

Today is the 21st anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I remember seeing the pictures of the shuttle explosion on TV at the time and finding it sad that the men and women on board the shuttle achieved so little in their short time. The mission lasted some 73 seconds before exploding in a fireball, which no doubt instantly killed the seven crew members. To get the chance to go into space is certainly one of the most unique experiences a human can have. Whether it is worth the risk to have no further experiences and die in the attempt, is a question I will almost certainly never have to ask in my own life.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Raft of the Medusa

The story of the raft of the Medusa, is a horrible tale, that I found fascinating when I first heard it as a child. The Medusa was a French ship that was wrecked off the coast of Africa, on July 17th 1816. There were not enough life boats for the crew and passengers, of which there were nearly four hundred, and almost 150 of them found themselves abandoned in a hastily constructed raft. From Wikipedia:

On the raft, the situation deteriorated rapidly. Men began to throw wine and flour out of spite and fight among themselves. On the first night 20 men – whites and Africans, soldiers and officers – were killed or committed suicide. Rations dwindled ever more rapidly and on the fourth day some on the raft resorted to cannibalism.
The surviving ship's surgeon and ship's geographer produced an account of their experiences on the raft (a copy of which can be found on Project Gutenberg) which describes their time on the ocean, in more horrifying detail. An extract:
We were now only twenty-seven remaining; of this number but fifteen seemed likely to live some days: all the rest, covered with large wounds, had almost entirely lost their reason; yet they had a share in the distribution of provisions, and might, before their death, consume thirty or forty bottles of wine, which were of inestimable value to us. We deliberated thus: to put the sick on half allowance would have been killing them by inches. So after a debate, at which the most dreadful despair presided, it was resolved to throw them into the sea. This measure, however repugnant it was to ourselves, procured the survivors wine for six days; when the decision was made, who would dare to execute it? The habit of seeing death ready to pounce upon us as his prey, the certainty of our infallible destruction, without this fatal expedient, every thing in a word, had hardened our hearts, and rendered them callous to all feeling except that of self preservation. Three sailors and a soldier took on themselves this cruel execution: we turned our faces aside, and wept tears of blood over the fate of these unhappy men. Among them were the unfortunate woman and her husband. Both of them had been severely wounded in the various combats: the woman had a thigh broken between the pieces of wood composing the raft, and her husband had received a deep wound with a sabre on his head. Every thing announced their speedy dissolution. We must seek to console ourselves, by the belief, that our cruel resolution shortened, but for a few moments only, the measure of their existence.
And what does the tale of the raft of the Medusa tell us about human existence? That some on the raft desired to continue to live, so very much, that they survived the harshest and most treacherous of conditions. And that humans in extraordinary circumstances can act in ways which seem inhuman. Don't judge them too harshly (though they are all long dead). If you were lost at sea, for 13 days, would you fare so well?

A Drunkard's Impossible Hopes

Today, I began reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel 'Crime and Punishment' which he wrote in 1866. I'm not far into it, but already I am struck by the astute observations of human life (that has little changed in the intervening years). I present a short extract, from very early on in the book, where a drunk man tells his sorry story to the main character, Raskolnikov:

"Why am I to be pitied, you say? Yes! there's nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, not pitied! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me but pity me! And then I will go of myself to be crucified, for it's not merry-making I seek but tears and tribulation!... Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and have found it, and I have tasted it; but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge. He will come in that day and He will ask: 'Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?' And He will say, 'Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once.... I have forgiven thee once.... Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much....' And he will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it... I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek.... And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. 'You too come forth,' He will say, 'Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!' And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, 'Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!' And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, 'Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?' And He will say, 'This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.' And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before him... and we shall weep... and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!... and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even... she will understand.... Lord, Thy kingdom come!"

Friday, January 26, 2007

Beware: Thinkpol About

I know I promised to cut down on the 1984 references but after seeing an article over at Fark, I couldn't resist. According to CNN, six 14/15 year old girls have been charged in the US, for conspiring to kill their classmates, as well as a few 'others'. An extract:

School officials said the list, discovered in a classroom trash can, mostly named students and faculty members but also included Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey and the Energizer Bunny. Sequatchie County High School Principal Tommy Layne said that he initially considered it a joke, but that authorities then found the ninth-graders' online MySpace pages and postings that included the word "kill." "In general terms, it was like, 'Let's kill these people,'" Dunlap Police Chief Clint Huth said. He declined to provide the specific wording on the posting, which has been removed. "I am not saying we thwarted a shooting incident or an act of violence," Huth said. "On the other hand, had this gone unchecked, down the road it could have grown into something a whole lot more serious than a list of names."
Now perhaps this will turn out to be a hoax, but if the story is accurate, it is troubling. Most teenagers go through a period of hating people, be it their parents, teachers or just others in general. If we were to prosecute and convict every one that showed the slightest anti-social behaviour, then the already overburdened prison system would be in ruin. Teenage girls are hardly the scourge of society and I personally don't believe that the energizer bunny is capable of being murdered!

Kids, beware. Adults may be in charge (and might often know better) but there are some crazies out there who don't like what you're thinking. Again, you have been warned.

18th November 1978

Two noteworthy events happened on the 18th November 1978. Not only was it the day of my birth, but it is also infamous for the events that surrounded the Jonestown massacre. I've included a youtube video which contains some graphic images and be warned, the story of the Jonestown massacre is a sad and disturbing tale. From the BBC's 'On This Day':
18 Nov 1978: Mass suicide leaves 900 dead. The bodies of 914 people, including 276 children, have been found in Guyana in South America. Most of the dead - members of the People's Temple Christian Church - had consumed a soft drink laced with cyanide and sedatives. However, the body of the People's Temple charismatic leader, Jim Jones, was said to have a bullet wound in the right temple, believed to be self-inflicted.
Obviously then, something tragic happened to the people of Jonestown. I remember teaching this particular case in a social psychology class a few years ago and it is often used as a real life example of extreme obedience. From a CNN article:
Only two years before, Jones -- the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple, an interracial organization that helped the desperate -- was the toast of San Francisco's political circles. But after an August 1977 magazine article detailed ex-members' stories of beatings and forced donations, Jones abruptly moved his flock to Jonestown, a settlement in the jungle of Guyana, an Idaho-sized country on South America's northern coast. The plan was to create an egalitarian agricultural community. But Peoples Temple members who worked the fields and subsisted mostly on rice soon learned it was more like a prison, recalls Jonestown defector Deborah Layton. Dissent was unthinkable, she says. Offenders sweltered in "The Box," a 6-by-4-foot (1.8-by-1.2-meter) underground enclosure. Misbehaving children were dangled head-first into the well late at night. Loudspeakers broadcast Jones' voice at all hours.
So the official picture is of a religious work camp, like something out of 1984 or The Island of Dr Moreau. Jones was the god figure, who seemingly ruled to corrupt and abuse, rather than help people as he had claimed. Horrible as the story is, I recently found via StumbleUpon, an alternative theory about what happened at the camp. Right away though, I would like to say that I am presenting this merely as an item of interest, rather than endorsing any particular interpretation of the events. Firstly, more from the CNN article:
Over the years, there have been rumors of CIA involvement. Some people believe CIA agents were posing as members of the Peoples Temple cult to gather information; others suggest the agency was conducting a mind-control experiment. In 1980, the House Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the CIA had no advance knowledge of the mass murder-suicide. The year before, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had concluded that cult leader Jim Jones "suffered extreme paranoia." The committee -- now known as international relations -- released a 782-page report, but kept more than 5,000 other pages secret.
This site goes into more detail behind the CIA conspiracy. An extract:
The story of Jonestown is that of a gruesome experiment, not a religious Utopian society. One Temple director, Joyce Shaw, described the Jonestown massacre as, "some kind of horrible government experiments, or some sort of sick racial thing, a plan like that of the Germans to exterminate Blacks." If we refuse to look further into this nightmarish event, there will be more Jonestowns to come. They will move from Guyana to our own back yard.
While there are still classified files and vested interests, it is difficult to assess what the truth of the story actually is. Jonestown is proof though, that joining any religious cult (and that includes the so-called established religions) requires that you defer responsibility for your life to other people. In some cases that can mean deferring to religious authorities on trivial matters, but in other cases, ignorant religious opinion can be used to severely hurt people.

To be born on the day when these people died because of their involvement with Jim Jones (who promised much and delivered death), is an ever present reminder of the dangers of religion. If you can think and act for yourself, then do so. Because the others who say that they just want to help you, may just be manipulating you. Again, you have been warned.

Killer Kloud Katastrophe

According to an article over at the BBC, the worst natural disaster to hit the UK in recent memory, was caused by an eruption of an Icelandic volcano in the year 1783. Apparently a huge toxic killer cloud covered much of Britain and Western Europe, killing thousands if not hundreds of thousands. An extract:

In total, he estimates Laki's killer cloud took the lives of 23,000 British men and women, making it the greatest natural disaster in modern British history. France and other countries were similarly hit. And it could happen again. Iceland has 18 volcanoes that have been active in recent centuries, the greatest concentration anywhere on the planet. "There will be another one," says leading vulcanologist Professor Stephen Self, of the Open University, who has studied the Laki eruption.
As if we don't have enough to worry about, this very real threat has killed before and will no doubt kill again. I say it often, but if it isn't killer asteroids, or killer volcanoes, one way or another we're all going to die. Let's hope that we get a chance to live out our lives before the next really big catastrophe occurs. Fingers crossed! :)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Women Cured at Lourdes

No, I'm being serious, although I'm not using cured in the way that you probably expect! According to the Guardian, a British woman has been found dead in the French town of Lourdes, having been kept a secret by her mother, who was apparently awaiting a miracle. An extract:

Marian Therese died of cancer last September at her mother's home and in the four-and-a-half months since her death, her mother kept her body in the bedroom on the first floor of their home. She hid the death from her granddaughter and continued to take her to and from school as if nothing had happened. "She was a mystic who was convinced a miracle would occur in Lourdes," Gerard Aldige, the local prosecutor told AFP.
Well I guess the only miracle that occurred was that she managed to keep a dead body hidden for a number of months. Presumably she was as 'cured' as a christmas ham - or should that be sham (sorry)! Apparently some six million people go to Lourdes every year, in the hope that a non-existent god will cure them of their ills. And there is no doubt an entire economy which exists to cater for the sick, dying and ignorant.

We're all suffering from that terminal disease called life, but if you're really sick people, go and see if medical science can help you, because there isn't any god listening.

Dead, Dead, Dead

Being an atheist, christmas means absolutely nothing to me - it's just another point on that slow orbit around the Sun. South Park is one of the funniest and most honest shows you can watch and I've been looking for a way to present one of my favourite songs on this blog: Dead Dead Dead from Mr Hankey's Christmas Classics. Well I've found this crazy video on youtube which uses it as a backing track. Enjoy the song (and the mad man miming the words). Merry christmas everyone. ;)

Prehistoric Hunt of the Ginormous Wombat

Another one from New Scientist. Although it should come as little surprise, scientists investigating a cave in Australia, where dozens of fossils have been found, have concluded the the continents megafauna were wiped out by man. An extract:

Australian megafauna died out roughly 40,000 years ago, and Prideaux says the discovery that they survived in an arid environment undermines one of two popular theories for what killed them off - namely, that ice-age aridity was responsible. That leaves the second theory, which suggests that the giant kangaroos and wombats were wiped out by the actions of humans, either through habitat destruction or hunting, says Prideaux.

That conclusion is supported by other discoveries by teams led by Prideaux in the Naracoorte caves in south-eastern Australia. Fossils here showed that many species of megafauna survived the recent ice ages - except the last one, which occurred after humans had arrived
The more we learn about prehistoric man and his impact on the environment, the more we realise that the rest of nature had no real defence against our species greatest strengths: intelligence and communication. Mammoths, dodos and ginormous wombats. They had no chance really.

Cower from Cowell

Aren't these Pop Idol, American Idol, X-Factor shows odd? Some of the people who come to audition are absolutely out of their minds, if they honestly believe that they are capable of winning. And the weird thing is that many seem to be deadly serious in their ambitions (and get very emotional when Simon Cowell delivers his usual scathing remarks).

The youtube clip is one of the more bizarre auditions that I've ever seen, and despite being named Darwin, it is hard to imagine that this contestant seriously believes that they can win (or even get into the next round). However the worrying thing is, it seems that they are absolutely serious. From Wikipedia:
Cognitive dissonance is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, where "cognition" is defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior; in other words, it is the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions.
So the reason that people who have no chance of winning a Pop Idol type show are able to maintain a belief that they can win (or be generally successful in the world) is because the alternative belief would cause too much psychological pain. Depressed people often have a more realistic view of the world. Optimism is an attempt to prevent depression and ignorance is bliss, after all. Religion is undoubtedly a related phenomenon, and I wonder if theists realise that this is how they look to non-theists. Scary, isn't it?

Beware of the Cats

According to the New Scientist, the danger posed by bird flu may not have gone away, as scientists in Indonesia have reported finding high numbers of cats that have been infected with the disease. From the article:

Chairul Anwar Nidom of Airlangga University in Surabaya, Indonesia, told journalists last week that he had taken blood samples from 500 stray cats near poultry markets in four areas of Java, including the capital, Jakarta, and one area in Sumatra, all of which have recently had outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry and people.

Of these cats, 20 per cent carried antibodies to H5N1. This does not mean that they were still carrying the virus, only that they had been infected - probably through eating birds that had H5N1. Many other cats that were infected are likely to have died from the resulting illness, so many more than 20 per cent of the original cat populations may have acquired H5N1.

So as if we did not have enough reasons to avoid the crazy cat ladies of the world, we now have to worry about cats making a nice, intermediary home for the flu virus (where it can really get down to the business of adapting and evolving, making the jump to humans even more likely). And killing all the cats would just give the rats and other pests a free reign (and that's never a good idea). You have been warned.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Smoking Pol Pot

I had some interesting comments to my last post on Spartacus. From The Atheist Jew:

How far would you go to escape death? What if you were told to have sex with a child or animal to prevent getting shot in the head? What if it was to be a nightly event to please the ones with the gun? Would you murder a family member to save yourself if that was your only choice?
Now we're getting at some important issues. How far do we go as atheists or even just humans, to protect our own way of life? I don't want to keep harking on about 1984, but it's a good example. There is all manner of abuse in 1984. Abuse of children by adults. Abuse of adults by children. Abuse of the poor by the powerful. My existence must be the most important thing to me, because as soon as I die, that is the end of my existence. After I am gone, I will not know anything more of what happens. I won't feel better knowing that my family exists still. I will be dead.

Other people are just degrees of genetic relatedness. We are all related. We are all family. We were just never intended to live in such big groups. We were too good as a species (and since evolution isn't directed, it was unintentional). So, since I don't want to have to be forced to do things I don't want to do (which I do in this world already), we atheists should try and ensure that the really bad things do not happen to us. I am often reminded of the atrocities committed by Pol Pot. From Wikipedia:
Out of a population of approximately 8 million, Pol Pot's regime exterminated one quarter, or almost 2 million people. The Khmer Rouge targeted Buddhist monks, Western-educated intellectuals, educated people in general, people who had contact with Western countries, people who appeared to be intelligent (for example, individuals with glasses), the crippled and lame, and ethnic minorities like ethnic Chinese, Laotians and Vietnamese. Some were thrown into the infamous S-21 camp for interrogation involving torture in cases where a confession was useful to the government. Many others were subject to summary execution.
You see we could be living under a regime that kills people just for wearing glasses. This is akin to 1984. Where intelligence and free-thought are feared and restricted by those in power (because it is a way of maintaining power). I added a random thought last night: There is a reason we don't let children set the agenda.

My position then is simple. Science and atheism are based on reality. The intelligent must be the people who are best placed to make the correct decisions (and there is potential for those who do not understand, to intervene in our lives and maybe even extinguish them altogether). Death will come soon enough for all of us. Atheist and theist alike. But perhaps we should ensure that Pol Pot, Big Brother or any person who thinks that they know better (but don't) do not have the power to destroy my one and only life. The Cambodian glasses wearers didn't even get a choice.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I am an Atheist. I am Not Spartacus!

Another Kubrick reference this time. Spartacus is the epitome of a perfect Roman film. It has huge battles, villainous Romans and plenty of crucifixions. The youtube clip is the moment in the film where the slaves are offered their lives, in return for giving up Spartacus (the leader of the rebel army). It is a classic cinematic moment. But it also makes me think. 1984 struck me as a story where rebellion is futile. Spartacus is crucified at the end, along with his compatriots: his one and only life, extinguished by people who believed differently to him. But it makes me wonder. Is being an atheist a position to die for? If I lived in Spartacus' world or Orwell's world, would I still shout my atheism from the highest rooftop? And isn't the sacrifice that the slaves made as futile as the actions of Winston Smith? Once you are dead, you are dead and that is the end of your ability to choose and act. In 1984, people were liable to being erased from existence at any moment, by the Party. In Spartacus, the slavery and oppression is what forced the slaves to rebel in the first place, but it achieved nought.

For me, atheism is not about dying for my viewpoint regardless of the truth. It is that atheism is the truth of existence. I do not believe it because it is easy, or brings me joy, but because reality is reality is reality. I am not prepared to die for anyone or any belief, thank you very much. But I also don't think I could be happy knowing what I know in either Spartacus' or Orwell's world.

Perhaps rather than wait for the world to resemble either reality, atheists need to protect themselves by using the power of science and atheism to ensure that alternative memes do not wipe us out or turn us into their slaves!

Microwave Flower Power

So, David Icke mentioned lots of things in his talk and I've already discussed his belief in the hundredth monkey phenomenon. He also talked briefly about the effect of microwaved water on plant growth and presented pictures from a fairly well known site, which purports to be an experiment proving that water that has been microwaved is bad for plants. From rense.com:

Below is a science fair project that my granddaughter did for 2006. In it she took filtered water and divided it into two parts. The first part she heated to boiling in a pan on the stove, and the second part she heated to boiling in a microwave. Then after cooling she used the water to water two identical plants to see if there would be any difference in the growth between the normal boiled water and the water boiled in a microwave. She was thinking that the structure or energy of the water may be compromised by microwave. As it turned out, even she was amazed at the difference.
So, does microwaved water really have this dramatic effect on the growth of plants? From the very excellent Snopes.com:
First of all, water heated in a microwave oven is no different in "structure or energy" than water heater with a gas flame, on an electric stove, or over a wood fire: It's just water, plain and simple.
And in fact Snopes tried to replicate the 'experiment' and found no such difference between the plants watered with microwaved water and those watered with normal water. So what is the explanation for the difference observed in the first set of pictures? The fact is, there are lots of reasons for the difference and the one thing we can be sure of is, it wasn't caused by microwaving the water. We know this because we understand how microwaves work. From Wikipedia:
A microwave oven works by passing microwave radiation, usually at a frequency of 2.45 GHz (a wavelength of 12.24 cm), through the food. Water, fat, and other substances in the food absorb energy from the microwaves in a process called dielectric heating. Many molecules (such as those of water) are electric dipoles, meaning that they have a positive charge at one end and a negative charge at the other, and therefore rotate as they try to align themselves with the alternating electric field induced by the microwaves. This molecular movement creates heat as the rotating molecules hit other molecules and put them into motion. Microwave heating is most efficient on liquid water, and much less so on fats and sugars (which have less molecular dipole moment), and frozen water (where the molecules are not free to rotate).
So there is no great mystery and watering your plants with microwaved water will not hurt them (although why you would waste energy zapping it, when perfectly good water falls from the sky, is beyond me). Moreover, millions of people use microwaves every day to cook their food etc with no ill effects. Again, the proof is in the pudding and my advice to David is don't fall for everything you see on the net.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Big Brother

Big Brother is an ever popular term in modern society. This weekend I decided to sit down and read George Orwell's book 1984, for the first time. And I was pleasantly surprised by the story.

For those that do not know, it is the tale of Winston Smith, a man who spends his days changing past records, so that they match that day's version of the truth as declared by the Party (headed by the elusive Big Brother) that rules the totalitarian super-state with fear and obedience. Whilst outwardly, Winston tries to act like a good Party member, inside his mind he is tormented by the state of the world in which he finds himself.

Almost everyone in Orwell's novel is either complicit in the state of affairs, or apathetic to what is happening around them (as is the case for the proles). What is 1984 about then? In some ways I was reminded of a cross between a H.G. Wells story and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. But the world of 1984 is not so much a science fiction (the Party hope to eradicate science one day) but more a meme-fiction: an imagining of a time when humans are subservient to memes, which exist not for the human being, but to propagate themselves and dominate alternative memes. Sex and family (things which tie biological beings together) are distrusted in Orwell's imagined future. Genetic inheritance is of little importance (and it is said that if the ruling Party could get rid of sex altogether they would).

All through the book I was considering which bit to quote and although a difficult decision, I chose a section from the appendix:

Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation - that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with some unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.
So this then is a kind of memetic natural selection. A way of destroying alternative memes and preventing people from even understanding that such alternative memes exist. If the true meaning of freedom is lost, then is it not a meme that has gone extinct? And what happens at the end of the book? Our protagonist, who has declared himself a freethinker of sorts, gives into his primal fear of rats and succumbs to the belief that 2+2=5.

It is a novel filled with warnings. But Orwell seems to have decided that memes will win the battle between memes and genes. There is no happy ending in the story. The same is true of life. In the end, Winston receives that thing he begged for at the height of his 'interrogation' and a bullet in the head is seemingly a blessing in disguise. But, biology does not wish death to come early. It is a mixed up world where life is cheap but living expensive. And for all of Winston's fears, the rats seem so much less imposing than the annihilation of himself and the other people he loves or has loved.

The facts are these. There are no unalienable rights in the universe. We are born, because our parents had sex. And their parents before them. And their parents before them. Orwell is right that a totalitarian future, like the one he describes is no doubt possible. But death is permanent and final for every human. There is no god and everything is pointless. With those scientific truths, perhaps we can inoculate people against giving up their one life for the pursuit of pain, over the pursuit of happiness?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

This Thing Called Justice

Justice would seem to me, to be a cornerstone of society. Without the law and law enforcement, the prevailing wisdom is that we would be over run by crime. Justice is also about retribution. An eye for an eye. It may not be enough that a criminal regrets his actions, but the victim may want his pound of flesh in return.

But justice, law and society are man made things. Without humans they would not exist. I was reminded recently of the film, '12 Angry Men'. It is an important story, if only to show people that preconceptions about the world can influence decision making. At the start of the film, all the juror's bar one, feel that the defendant (a young man accused of murder) is guilty. Only Henry Fonda shows dissent and even he feels that the boy is probably guilty. But over the course of the film, the 12 men work through the evidence and one by one begin to doubt their original assessment of guilt. At the end of the film, all the jurors vote not-guilty, a situation that would have been very different had Henry Fonda not raised initial concern about the evidence.

Despite having been written in the fifties, the story remains pertinent today. One of the most disturbing documentary films I have ever seen was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, directed by Berlinger and Sinofsky, regarding the horrific murder of three young boys. The film is a real life documentary with amazing access to the defendants, lawyers, families and even judge involved in the case. And what happens? Three teenage boys are apparently vilified by their local community for listening to heavy metal music and wearing black clothes. They are denounced as devil worshippers and one of the boys has been on death row for over 10 years. Did they commit the crime for which they were tried and punished? I don't know. But what I do know is justice is not science, but a serious process, handicapped by the inaccuracies and emotionality of human beings. I also know that a room full of jurors who have already made up their mind is not necessarily justice and that were the tables turned, I would want Henry Fonda fighting my corner. You can find more about the West Memphis 3 here.

David Icke: Matrix Fan

This weekend I decided to sit down and watch David Icke's talk 'Freedom or Fascism' which he gave, last year, to 2000 people at the Brixton Academy, for over 7 hours! Phew! The above clip is from a Channel 5 documentary on David Icke (and it mentions the Brixton talk).

So what was this talk about? On the most basic level David Icke attempted to answer the greatest question of them all: what is the point to life? He has rejected conventional wisdom and has rehashed together a variety of conspiracy theories, new-age philosophies, quack-science, and down right lies, into a philosophy of inter-dimensional slavery and a belief in the infinite power of love. He believes 'The Matrix' is reality. He believes in life after death. And he believes we are all, one conscious being.

Let me take one example which he uses a few times in his talk. The 100th Monkey phenomenon is the idea that once a certain number of a species understands something, that a critical mass is reached and other members of the species pick up the knowledge, through some kind of mental emission or telepathy. From Skepdic:
Thus, I repeat: Watson created the hundredth monkey phenomenon. Amundson refers to Watson's "myth-making" rather than his confabulation. Watson's response to Amundson's critique was published in the Fall 1986 issue of Whole Earth Review. Watson wrote: "I accept Amundson's analysis of the origin and evolution of the Hundredth Monkey without reservation. It is a metaphor of my own making, based—as he rightly suggests—on very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay. I have never pretended otherwise. . . ." Watson has apparently made no effort to contact the researchers to inquire about the hearsay he claims he heard. In any case, Watson did not put forth the idea as a metaphor; he put it forth as a fact for which there was some unspecified hearsay evidence.
And so it is with most of the evidence the David provides. He refers often to joining up the dots. But for those that missed my own dots post, just because something can be joined up in a 'meaningful' way, does not mean that there is an underlying reality to those connections. As it goes, I have some sympathy for David. He has lived on the fringes of society for many years and despite the increased interest in the paranormal, he remained on the fringes until 9/11. Who was in the audience? From the start the laughter and cheering identified where Icke's main support is drawn from. There were anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-Blair sentiments. There were 'The Matrix' fans. And there were the disenfranchised. Preaching to people about how Bush is the devil or the matrix is real is not difficult, when the people come already believing those things.

I'm not going to give David Icke any more thought than that. He had 7 hours or so in which to convince me and I discovered a man, overcome by various strands of evidence, that he has constructed into a narrative for his life. Unfortunately asking for meaning in the universe is a non-question. It is like asking the meaning of a rock. A rock has no meaning, it just exists. Our purpose has no meaning and we like the rock, just exist. The universe no more exists for the rock than it exists for us. David concluded that love is the only truth and everything else is an illusion. Unfortunately David, you're wrong. The Matrix isn't real. There is no god and everything is pointless. That is the simple truth of existence.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Basic Science: Osmosis

I'm sure we've all seen the story about the woman who died after drinking too much water. Today, the Guardian reports that a couple killed a boy they were hoping to adopt, by forcing him to eat salt as a punishment. It would seem to me that these people must have been asleep when their science teacher was discussing osmosis. From Wikipidia:

Osmosis is the net movement of water through a selectively permeable membrane from a region of low solute potential to a region of high solute potential (or equivalently, from a region of high solvent potential to a region of low solvent potential). The partially permeable membrane must be permeable to the solvent, but not to the solute, resulting in a pressure gradient across the membrane. Osmosis is a natural phenomenon. However, it can be artificially opposed by increasing the pressure in the section of high solute concentration with respect to that in the low solute concentration. The force per unit area required to prevent the passage of solvent through a selectively-permeable membrane and into a solution of greater concentration is equivalent to the turgor pressure. Osmotic pressure is a colligative property, meaning that the property depends on the concentration of the solute but not on its identity. Osmosis is an important topic in biology because it provides the primary means by which water is transported into and out of cells.
When you drink too much water, you cause there to be more water outside the cells of your body, than in, which disrupts the delicate balance within the cells. When you eat too much salt (or drink salt water) you create an opposite gradient, where there is more water inside the cell than out (and thus water flows out of it). If you remember only one thing today, let it be this: Too much salt and too much H20 is bad for your health!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Dawn of Man

Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' is my favourite film and I recently got the chance to show it to my girlfriend (even managing to keep her awake until the end). It's a fantastic tale of subtle alien intervention in our species' history and is based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. I found this clip of 'The Dawn of Man' segment on youtube. Enjoy.