Friday, 31 August 2007

Weekend Comedy: Torn

Mimes have a pretty bad reputation, but David Armand pulls it off well. And Natalie Imbruglia isn't so bad herself.

This is from Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Ball, an annual benefit to raise awareness and funds for international human rights issues. Starting in 1976 as a collaboration between Amnesty and Monty Python, these shows initiated other comedy benefits like Comic Relief, and inspired many comedians and musicians (like Bob Geldoff and Bono) to become active in campaigns for human rights.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Thursday TED: IV (Education, Intelligence, and Creativity)

The note above has been floating around the Internet for about a year now, and although it is probably a hoax, it is most notable because it is so believable. I've witnessed similar instances in high school many times. I've heard it said there are three types of police officers: those who do it because it pays the bills, those who do it to make the world a better place, and those who like the power a little too much. I believe it is the same with teachers. The embittered teachers are only a symptom though; the sad fact is our education system is very broken.

This week's TED is by Sir Ken Robinson about our education system, in particular as to how we conceive of intelligence and creativity. Let's watch:

Ken is right. Our current system is set up so that the ideal student will be trained to be a mini professor. By luck, I am the kind of person our current education system was designed for (and by), and I have personally benefited greatly from this. It's my opinion that professors are pretty neat-o, but professors are still only parts, and parts are only useful when well-integrated into a greater whole. Our current understanding of intelligence - in terms of how our societal institutions define, measure, and encourage it - is staggering in its limitation and its folly.

For more thoughts on the nature of intelligence, and how it is (ill)defined, this short essay by Isaac Asimov is a good starting place.

On a related note, Joshua has recently blogged about this article in Time, entitled Are We Failing Our Geniuses?, which takes a look at those who are currently considered our most gifted - and how they make up 20% of current high school drop outs. Truly, our public education is a shrine to literate mediocrity.

Update: Joshua has a reply to this post.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

The Mind, the Mushroom, and the Research

About one year ago, an intriguing - and very rare - study was published by researchers at John Hopkins University's Medicine department. It was the world's very first scientifically controlled, double-blind investigation into the effects of psilocybin - the psychoactive ingredient in what are colloquially known as magic mushrooms. Psilocybin had been studied before, but never in such a systematically controlled way, and virtually not at all in recent decades.

The lead researcher Dr. Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology and professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins is no light-weight. His CV is here, and you will note that this study is his 239th journal publication. The goal of this particular study was to investigate the potential of psilocybin as a therapeutic agent, and to better understand the functioning of consciousness, sensory perception, and what may be termed mystical experiences. The participants were 36 well-educated adults with no personal or family history of drug use or mental illness.

What did the researchers find?

In the study, more than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Two months later, 79 percent of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction compared with those given a placebo at the same test session. A majority said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Structured interviews with family members, friends and co-workers generally confirmed the subjects’ remarks.

In the next few months and years, expect a flurry of follow-up publications. The original research team is currently publishing a 1 year review of the research participants (no word yet on the exact release date). The Griffiths team is also conducting a trial of patients suffering from advanced cancer-related depression or anxiety, as well as designing studies to test a role for psilocybin in treating drug dependence. Researchers at the University of Arizona, UCLA, and Harvard (to name a few) have begun to study psilocybin as a result of this study.

This development is groundbreaking for a number of reasons:
  • No real scientific research has been conducted on hallucinogens in the last 40 years. We don't really understand how they work, or what effects they have on their users. Hopefully that will change.
  • This opens up an entire new range of methods for investigating the fundamentals of how the human mind works. Philosophical questions of the nature of consciousness, mysticism, and self-concept may be addressed from an entirely new scientific approach.
  • New treatments for depression, bipolar disorder, drug dependence and other mental illnesses may be available. Anecdotal evidence is very promising in this area, but empirical research is the only conclusive way to test and develop new treatments.
  • Government drug policy may finally be adjusted to reflect realistic potentials for abuse. Psilocybin has been condemned by many governments; in the US, it is ranked as a Schedule I drug, along with cocaine and heroin, and possession carries similarly severe penalties of lengthy prison sentences and substantial fines. However, psilocybin is non-toxic (ie, physical overdose is not possible), it is not physically addictive, and there is not a single recorded death caused directly by psilocybin. By contrast, in 1993, tobacco killed 434,000 Americans (20% of all premature US deaths) and alcohol killed 125,000 (Mathias, 1994.)

What an exciting time to be a psychologist!

As the relevant publications are released in the coming months, I will provide summaries of the findings here on Exeterra.

The full research report is available here:

Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U. & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial systained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187, 268-283.

This is a good, accessible press release written without jargon.

And here is commentary by other distinguished researchers in related fields, originally printed in the same edition of Psychopharmacology.

Q & A with the lead researcher, Professor Griffiths.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Mythbusting Monday VI: How Psychics Work

Although we consider many things to be proven - such as the fact that you and I exist - it is vexingly difficult to disprove anything. Can you disprove the existence of unicorns and leprechauns? No, the best we can do is show that there is no support for their existence, but we cannot disprove them. It is always possible that they may exist in some way we cannot detect, improbable as it seems. Likewise, we cannot disprove psychic abilities, but we can demonstrate that there is no support for them. Most of my readers will probably already take that as given, so let's take a look at something a little more interesting: how psychics work.

Psychics use a variety of techniques that borrow from the magicians' repertoire as well as capitalizing on humans' many cognitive biases. In fact, there is a branch of stage magicians called mentalists who perform "psychic" readings while freely admitting that what they do is good-natured chicanery. First, let's take a look at the well-known mentalist Derren Brown as he performs a "seance":

Spooky! But not as spooky as the creeps who use these techniques to exploit vulnerable, grieving people who are desperate for answers. So, how is it done?

Cold Reading: This is a technique where a combination of highly probable guesses and cue reading is used to give the impression that the reader knows something they could not have possibly known. The reader starts (let's say in a seance where there is a large room full of people) by saying, for example, "John, I have a message for you from an old man who loved you dearly." Most large gatherings of people will include a John, and nearly all adults were once close to an old man who is now deceased. The reader then watches the individual's reactions to their probings, and uses very slight reactions to hone in on specifics. A skilled reader can use cold reading very convincingly.

Importantly, not all psychics are intentional fraudsters. Many believe they truly do have paranormal powers to know what other people are thinking. It is most likely that these people are unusually gifted in reading social cues, and have a special ability for reading facial twitches and tones of voice, rather than supernatural powers. As the psychic makes likely guesses, they will become increasingly confident in their "powers" aided by confirmation bias, selective memory, and confabulation.

Wanna know something cool? Even animals have been documented to use a kind of cold reading. Check out Clever Hans, the horse that could do arithmetic.

The Forer Effect: A component of cold reading, but also used in horoscopes and dubious personality tests, the Forer Effect is a cognitive bias where people are likely to interpret statements or predictions as having particular personal relevance. In fact, these statements often apply to just about everybody. In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer provided research participants each with a "unique personality analysis" which they were asked to rate in terms of accuracy from 1 to 5. The average rating was 4.26, but the "unique personality analysis" was always the same:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

The analysis above was created by combining snippets of several horoscopes. The effect has been duplicated by other researchers many times, with most people claiming it to be 80% to 90% accurate.

Let's take another look at Derren, this time using the Forer Effect in a cold reading:

Hot Reading: This is when the reader uncovers private information about the target beforehand, and later uses this to their advantage. Many of the tv-psychics do this by placing microphones in the waiting room. The people who go on those shows usually have particular issues on their mind they are focused on, and will speak to them with other guests while waiting to appear. Then they are shocked, shocked I tell you when the psychic knows of these private concerns. Faith healers have been known to use prayer cards filled in before the show to know the particular afflictions of the sick (through God's grace, of course.) When combined with cold reading, the effect can be very convincing.

Let's take a look at how James Randi, noted mentalist and skeptic, debunks Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff who both used hot reading as well as cold reading (though Uri also uses a lot of standard stage magic.)

Randi has offered a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate psychic abilities under controlled conditions in a lab. To date, there have been over 150 applicants and no winners. You'd think all those psychics working at the 1-900 numbers and the beyond-the-grave tv shows would put their skills to more profitable applications - like taking up Randi on his offer, or predicting stock market trends, or lotto numbers. But no, they're content to have your money instead.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

It's Just Like a Mini Mawl

Normally I'm not quite so eager to jump on the viral bandwagon, but this made me laugh more than usual. Several times in the past 24 hours whilst otherwise engaged in conversation or activity I would burst into laughter thinking of the Mini Mawl.

A significant portion of my family is from Montgomery. I'll have to ask them if it is usually like this down there.

Hat tip to James for finding this one.

Science Sunday IV: Fun with Numbers!

When I first came to the UK, it seemed that the world worked differently. Ever so slightly, the laws of physics seemed altered. The weather seemed to be determined by different laws. Household appliances functioned through different properties. People's social understandings and interactions appeared out of phase. In ways that are hard to describe, I seemed to be in an ever-so-different parallel universe.

Of course, both the UK and US societies had developed different techniques and methods of doing things, ignoring many of the other potential options. We choose some paradigms and forget others. In some ways, this is so fundamentally obvious, it is banal to speak of it. But yet, when it is experienced first-hand, it still seems bizarre and surprising.

The same principle applies to our understanding of numbers and mathematics. Our schemas and paradigms of what numbers are, how they function, is very limited. I have already written about our common shortcoming in understanding repeating decimals, and this week, we have a video of how any multiplication problem can be solved with pencil and paper using only line drawings and no calculations:

Weekend Comedy: Mocking Homeland Security Edition

Most people realize that the Department of Homeland Security is little more than a politically expedient joke - but let's not let it go to waste - we can turn it into a series of literal jokes instead of just figurative jokes! As notes, the Department of Homeland Security warning signs are so vague, they could mean anything - that means it's caption time! Here are a few of my favourites: (remember these are real DHS signs - somebody thought these were helpful illustrations for what to do in an emergency.)

After exposure to radiation it is important to consider that you may have mutated to gigantic dimensions: watch your head.

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

People, animal corpses and the biohazard symbol are all at risk of being sucked into the time-tunnel vortex.

If you spot a terrorist arrow, pin it against the wall with your shoulder.

Try to absorb as much of the radiation as possible with your groin region. The current world record is 5 minutes, 12 seconds.

Visit to see the whole set.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Rob in the News Again

As Earthchick notes, her son and my brother, after being involved in an accident where he was buried alive, is in the news again in a short segment with Detroit's Fox affiliate. Now I know local news in general and Fox affiliates in particular have a certain reputation, which is mostly deserved, but this segment is not very sensationalized, and does not feature an irrelevant let's-bury-a-reporter- so-you-can-know-what -being-pseudoburied-in- sand-looks-like demonstration like the last one on CBS. The Fox video does however feature an irrelevant this-is-what-a- completely-different-shape- and-size-sand-hole- looks- like-even-though-it's-not-related- to-the-story illustration. No one in the family is made to look a fool though, and that's what counts though. ;)

Earthchick would like to point out that the top she is wearing in this segment is one she made herself.

Background story here (short) and here (full).

Thursday TED: III (Happiness)

This week we'll be taking a look at a presentation by Harvard social Psychologist Dan Gilbert about happiness, specifically something he calls synthetic happiness. I don't know that I would agree with every single one of Gilbert's points, but he does nail many issues squarely on the head: namely, we do a very bad job at knowing what will make us happy. This is, in my opinion, one the more thought-provoking TED presentation... but then, it's probably no surprise that I'm biased towards social psychology.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

How To: Boost Your Wifi Signal (For Free)

Many people have trouble with their wireless signal, particularly if their computer is far from their router, or if they live in a nuclear fallout shelter. You can buy a wifi booster for a hefty chunk of change, or you can do it for free with a parabolic reflector that outperform the commercial boosters. I've tried this at home, and it actually works very well. You can expect about 9 to 12 decibels of boost.

Click to download the antenna plans.

It took me a total of about 15 minutes from start to finish. Because I do not have a printer at home, I just traced the image from my screen on to a regular sheet of paper (lightly, with a pencil). Then I cut that out, and traced the paper cutout onto some cardboard, cut out the cardboard, glued the foil to the card, and it was all done. The cardboard used to make the antenna is actually from an old beer box.

Also keep in mind that if your wireless receiver is external to your computer, you can put another parabolic reflector on that to increase its sensitivity. Using this method you can easily double or triple your signal.

There is an urban legend that during the space race both the Americans and the Russians sought to overcome the difficult of writing with a pen in a zero-gravity environment. NASA spent millions of dollars to develop a pressurized pen that could write without gravity, and even in a vacuum. The Russians brought a pencil. This story is not true, but the point is valid. Simple, low-tech solutions are not only cheaper and easier than the snazzy, expensive solution, but they often work better too.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Science Sunday III: Better Living Through Chemistry (Thermite!)

This week's video is about thermite. What is thermite? It's white hot fun, that's what it is! A thermite reaction is when aluminum is oxidized by another oxidized metal (like rust). This produces, aluminum oxide, pure iron, and heat. A lot of heat. 4000 (F) degrees of heat.

Shall we watch a video?

When used in small amounts, thermite is very useful in welding, particularly in areas where it is difficult to lug more bulky welding equipment. Railroads use it extensively to weld together sections of rail. It's also used to weld together thick electrical wires. In WW2 it was used frequently as a quick and quiet way to disable enemy artillery - put a dab of thermite on the end of the artillery barrel, and it welds shut in seconds with no loud noises or explosion.

Of course, this is not an experiment for the kitchen sink. In fact, it's probably best not to try this one at home - this can be very dangerous if you do not take the appropriate safety precautions.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Update and Signs

It's been a while since I've posted much about what's going on in my life. So what's going on? Well, not a whole lot. I've got a few studies I'll be starting in October, so I've mostly been focused on getting the measures finalized, and getting approval from the ethics committee (a necessary formality - these are pretty tame experiments). But I'm looking forward to starting them. There's nothing quite like fresh data.

Other than that, I'm heading to Kent (Canterbury) in early September for a social psychology conference held by the British Psychological Society. I'm not presenting any research (thankfully!) but I'm looking forward to getting to see what interesting new research other people are working on, and getting to do some networking. I really don't know many social psychologists outside of Exeter, so it should be a great opportunity.

Well I don't know about you, but the previous two paragraphs were a bit too dull and work-oriented. Now, how about some unintentionally unfortunate signs from around the world? They've all got one thing in common...

Umm... I hadn't planned on it, but thanks for the reminder!

Ehh... I guess it's safer to pull over and get out of the car when that happens.

Err... From a park in Germany... and you know what those are like.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Bueller? ... Bueller? ... Bueller?

Those who read Exeterra regularly will know that one of the drums I beat regularly is the need for empirical evidence (ie, real research and real data) to be the basis of our social policy.

This essay by Alfie Kohn makes a research-based critique of the value of homework. According to Kohn, the research is not very supportive. Here's a money shot:

The results of national and international exams raise further doubts. One of many examples is an analysis of 1994 and 1999 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data from 50 countries. Researchers David Baker and Gerald Letendre were scarcely able to conceal their surprise when they published their results last year: “Not only did we fail to find any positive relationships,” but “the overall correlations between national average student achievement and national averages in [amount of homework assigned] are all negative.”
According to Kohn, (and I should point out this is not my research area) nearly all of the research suggests homework is actually quite harmful to kids, in terms of how they learn, their attitudes towards learning, and their overall well-being. My personal experience supports this.

I would add most forms of exams to the list of useless learning aides as well. I can demonstrate this with a thought experiment: think of some times you have studied for a test, be it chemistry, mathematics, history, or anything else. Think of all those things you memorized. Do you remember them now? Did you remember them even one month after the test? What is the point of exams if you forget almost everything once the exam is finished?

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Music You May Like: Sigur Rós

Many of you may already be familiar with Sigur Rós; they are an Icelandic band who make music unlike anything else - slightly surreal, yet utterly unpretentious. It's wavy, dreamy, and floaty, but not in a shallow or new age kind of way. They are like an Icelandic Radiohead that has found inner peace. You may or may not like it, but it is definitely worth a listen to find out. I prefer to listen to it 1) while working late at night 2) while trying to sleep in a noisy area 3) while riding public transportation or driving at night and 4) while whacked out of my mind on Oxycodone (joking!)

Thankfully, since Sigur Rós is an enlightened group (a trait I imagine common to Icelanders - well, at least since they got over that whole Nordic pillaging thing), they have made much of their music available for free online. This is the band's download page.

Songs I would suggest starting with:

Untitled #8

Untitled #4


Olsen Olsen


Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Pictures of a More Natural Habitat

The perpetually cold, wet weather and the dense populations here in the UK has made me wistful for America's scorching hot rural summer-times. That means it's time to get out the photos. These are pictures I took at my old university, a small number of students (~2000) in a big, natural campus (~30,000 acres) nestled in the southern Appalachian Mountains. There are plenty of things I don't miss there (like racism and rampant homophobia, for example), but I'll always miss the land.

Horses playing in the rain, near the gravel road west to Possum Trot.

Cypress knees growing by Mirror Pond

The view from Berry Hill, looking north-east towards Lavendar Mountain

A cypress grove near the edge of Victory Lake. The chorus of frogs here in the summer is deafening.

In the fields and hills east of Frost Chapel, looking north.

Victory Lake

The Lavendar Mountain Reservoir on a cloudless summer day. Or a champagne glass.

The Old Mill grinding corn on Mountain Day. This is the largest overshot waterwheel known to exist, built by students in the 1920s. Many of the surrounding pine trees are Longleaf Pines, an endangered tree that forms the Longleaf Pine ecosystem, home to 33 threatened or endangered species.

Stumbling Finds III: Wallpaper Edition

Here are five landscape wallpapers I've stumbled upon and used lately. Unfortunately, I found them in various places without attribution, so please let me know if you know where any of them came from so credit/links may be given. In the future I'll post wallpapers on other subjects. Click on the image for the full size.

Monday, 13 August 2007

The Internet: Documenting Hypocrisy Since 1990

One of the great things about the Internet is that it creates an easily accessible record of everything public officials do. Although there have always been records (old newspaper, old tv footage) it was difficult to access, and once found, difficult to distribute. The Internet changed all of this, particularly the latest incarnation of the Internet. Since 2000, there has been a virtual explosion in online user interactivity, with blogs being a part of this. I am an optimist in the regard that I think the open, interactive, democratic Internet will have a very profound impact on how we think and act, worldwide. It's already starting to change politics, with a number of unscrupulous congressmen losing the last election because their behaviour was recorded and posted to YouTube.

Here is a short example of a very revealing video from April 15, 1994:

The transcript from Editor and Publisher is as follows:

Q: Do you think the U.S., or U.N. forces, should have moved into Baghdad?

Cheney: No.

Q: Why not?

Cheney: Because if we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn't have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq.

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it -- eastern Iraq -- the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you've got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.

The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed with the fact we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families -- it wasn't a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth?

Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got it right.

For the curious, the official casualty count so far is 3689 US soldiers (dead), 27,279 US soldiers (maimed), roughly 70,000 Iraqi civilians documented as dead, and an unknown number dead and wounded that have not been documented.

Thanks, Dick.

This picture has made the rounds many times on the Internet, but it's worth seeing again.

This is from Donald Rumsfeld's 1983 trip to Iraq on 19-20 Dec. You can clearly see Rumsfeld and Hussein shaking hands. This trip was made more than a year after Saddam committed the atrocities against the Kurds for which he was executed, and it was widely known at the time that he was using chemical weapons. That did not matter to us at the time. (See here for a detailed timeline with documentation about the US relationship with Saddam in the 1980s.) I do not intend to imply we can never meet with brutal leaders or that we never make mistakes - the issue here is not that Rumsfeld met Hussein; the issue is the reconstruction of history, the elaborate fabrication that we have always opposed Saddam and always wanted to invade Iraq.

Thanks to the Internet, and users who are willing to do a little digging, there can no longer be a memoryhole. As more and more people go online, the more democratic our communication will be.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Science Sunday II: The Kaye Effect -or- How To Have More Fun With Shampoo Than You Knew Was Possible

This week's science topic comes from an area I know next to nothing about: fluid dynamics. The Kaye Effect is a strange property of organic liquids that exhibit a kind of pseudo-plasticity called shear thinning. I don't fully understand what that means, but it is a property of fluids like shampoo, non-drip paint, nail polish, ketchup, and even blood.

All shear-thinning fluids can exhibit the Kaye Effect - a beautiful and bizarre quirk of fluid dynamics where when the fluid is poured thinly from a height, it will collect in a mound until suddenly a fine streamer of fluid will eject upwards. Usually this occurs too quickly to be noticed, but when filmed at high speeds, the effect is stunning. Just watch the video; it does a much more eloquent and effective job of explaining it.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

New Green MP3 Player

I've always had mixed feelings about green consumption - the manufacture and sale of 'earth-friendly' items that often have no real purpose. For example, at the bottom of this page there is a fan and handbag with built in solar panels that store energy in the day and glow at night. They are marketed as earth friendly. Um, ok, but no. This is just more consumption, and although it incorporates technology that can be green, it doesn't actually do anything green. In fact, in their current state of development, solar panels require several decades of constant use before they produce enough energy to exceed that used in their manufacture - thankfully that is expected to change drastically in the next few years.

But this new little gadget, the Eco Media Player (found via Boing Boing) might actually be quite useful. It is an MP3 player/electronic Swiss Army knife powered by a windable crank - you get 40 minutes of music for every 1 minute you wind the crank, and you can store up to 20 hours worth of energy. It's also chock-full of features - you can store computer files on it like a USB drive, it has a built-in radio, video player, photo viewer, torch/flashlight, audio recorder (which it converts to MP3s), and you can charge your mobile phone with it! It can also be charged via the USB connection, if need be. At £170, it is very competitively priced with similar non-green MP3 players. The built-in memory is a little on the low side at 2 gigs - that's 33 hours of music (the latest ipods hold 80 gigs - 1300+ hours of music.) But fortunately it has an SD memory slot, so you can add plenty of extra memory for just a few pounds more. It's highly functional, genuinely green, and affordable - everything a green tech should be.

I don't have an MP3 player - honestly I really appreciate silence when I can get it - but if I do get one, this would definitely be the one. I would use it while wearing my 30+ wheel rolling body suit.

I love the future.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Stumbling Finds II: Video Edition

Normally on Fridays I provide some kind of comedy video. Today I'll provide five short videos I Stumbled Upon, some funny, some just bizarre. Here are my top five picks for this week:

This is freakin' incredible! By building a semi-rigid bodysuit of 30+ wheels, Rollerman can roll at high speeds on any flat surface in any body position! His top speed so far is 61 mph. You have no idea how much I want one of these; probably even more than a jet-rocket backpack and even more than a flying motorcycle. It's probably best that I don't have one. I would wear it all the time - late to class? I'll just roll down the hallway and into the classroom at high speed! About to miss my plane? I'll just roll down the mile-long airport terminal, weaving between travellers and suitcases at 60 mph! Sigh... one can dream...

Ever play Minesweeper? Did you know they are making it into a movie?

Ever wonder what would happen if you filled a swimming pool with a non-Newtonian fluid and then went for a swim? Well... it's time to find out!

The UK was the birthplace of the railroad - the good side of that is the UK was the first country to become 'modern' - the bad part of that is we are stuck with infrastructure that is 200 years old. In France and Asia, trains travel up to 500 kph, (300+ mph) five times faster than in the UK. Wow.

Lastly, a brilliant commercial from Germany. Watch it twice, it's clever stuff.

An Aside About Google (and pies)

A side note: people find this site in a number of ways, and sometimes that is through Google. I can see what search terms people use, and some are fairly strange. You may remember this short post about Fahrenheit 451, in which author Ray Bradbury claimed the book had nothing to do with censorship and instead it was all about tv. Yeah, um, whatever. I said that was like writing a book about pie recipes, publicly hailed as a classic text on pies, and then 50 years later after receiving countless pie-related awards claiming it had nothing to do with pies and instead was all about the pumpkins used to make some of those pies. I called the post Fahrenheit 45pie. And now I get visitors from Taiwan searching Google for 45pie. In fact, Exeterra is the number 1 site on Google for 45pie. I have no idea what a real 45pie is, but they think I have one, or at least know something important about 45pies. That feels kind of nice. I also get visits from people trying to look up how to fold a mattress (Who knows, maybe one of them was Leon himself? See item number 81.)

It could be worse. A few blogs I read about the situation in the middle east get a significant amount of traffic from people looking for arab porn.

Also of note, my most frequently Googled page is about a native American gardening technique called the Three Sisters. I get more Google-related visits to that page than all my other pages put together. I hope those people aren't looking for porn too.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Thursday TED: II

I have been so impressed with the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) presentations, I've decided to share one of the best ones every week. The premise of TED is that each presentation is by an outstanding individual whose ideas are considered profound enough that they are likely to change how the entire world thinks and behaves. Last week we took a look at the amazing Trendalyzer software by statistician-humanitarian Hans Rosling. Check it out if you missed it - it's powerful stuff.

This week we'll take a look at a new software program called Photosynth. This is not just a killer app, it is a whole new paradigm of how we think of computer graphics. You just have to watch it - trust me, your jaw will drop. I recommend you click the button on the lower right side of the video player to maximize the video.

The best part is that before too long Photosynth will be freely available on the web. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Microsoft may be doing something right for a change.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

How To: Grow Soap Nut Trees

A few months ago I wrote a review about soap nuts. These are nut husks (Sapindus spp.) coated in saponin, a natural soap. The image to the right is a grove of young adult Sapindus marginatus though the related Sapindus mukorossi is most commonly used as a detergent substitute. You can use these to wash your laundry without other detergents. The best part is that they actually work really well. I use them myself, and anyone who knows me will till you I am renowned for my subtle yet pleasing odour.

One day I found a soap nut seed amidst the husks. These are supposed to be removed from the husks, but this one made it through. My immediate thought was I must grow my own soap nut tree, and so I began to search for information about how to grow them. I could not find much information available, and what is available is geared towards commercial farmers in Asia. After 3 months, I successfully germinated some soap nuts, and now have living soap nut trees in my garden. I'm no expert at this, but I do have experience in horticulture, so I thought I would share what I've learned with you, gentle reader. These directions are based on reading guidelines given to commercial soap nut tree growers, my experience in growing soap nut trees of my own, and my horticultural experience growing other plants.

  1. First you must find a seed. These can be found with the husks occasionally, but you may have to look through quite a few husks to find one. I'm sure this varies from source to source, but by my estimate about 1 seed makes it through for every 50 to 100 husks. Because you use about 5 husks per load of laundry, this means you are likely to find one every 10 to 20 washes. The seed will be charcoal black, about the size of a small grape, and stone hard. If you find the seed after it has gone through the wash, it will still be perfectly good.
  2. Secondly, you must scarify the seed. Because the seed coat is so hard, the plant embryo inside cannot breakthrough the seed coat on its own. You must help it by damaging the seed coat. (The evolutionary purpose of this is to stagger the germination span over a period of months or even years, as well as dispersing them geographically so that an entire generation of seedlings cannot be wiped out in one streak of bad luck.) Nature scarifies seeds through harsh weather and by animals eating and partially digesting them. We'll have to be a little creative. One option is to use a nail file and wear down a notch in the seed coat. I found the seed coat to be so tough that sand paper and fine-grained files did not leave a mark. Another option is to hammer the seed. Be careful not to crush the seed; we just want to weaken the seed coat. I gave about a dozen hard whacks to my seed against concrete, and felt like I was weakening it, but did not see any visible change. Thirdly, you may soak it in hot water. Don't use water that is actually boiling, but it can still be very hot. I boiled a kettle, let the hot water sit for five minutes, and then filled up a vacuum-insulated thermos with the seeds and water, and let it soak for 24 hours. The thermos will keep the water quite warm throughout that period. I used all three methods (filing, hammering, soaking) and it worked ok, but I'm sure there are other good methods too. Soaking is particularly important though, as the water is what activates the germination.
  3. Thirdly, you need to plant the seed. I would do this in spring or early summer in a pot either outside or in a greenhouse. Choose a pot that is deep, as soap nut trees send down vertical tap roots. If you don't have a deep pot, a 2 litre plastic bottle works well - cut off the top and drill several holes in the bottom. Bury the seed in potting soil (not dirt - use good quality potting/germinating soil) to about three times the seed's depth. Put it in a place where it will not be in direct sun, and where it can catch some rainfall. Water the pot if the soil starts to dry, but don't water if it is still moist - that can promote fungal growth. Also, avoid fertilizing the soil before germination occurs - high levels of nitrogen in the soil can actually inhibit germination in general.
  4. Fourth, wait. Your seed may take a long time to germinate. It could be 1 month to 3 months, perhaps even more. Not all of the seeds will germinate, but if you follow these directions, you should get 80%+ to grow. Once it does begin to grow, it will shoot up fast. About 1 foot in 1 month should be about right, then it will slow down a little. Give it plenty of full sunlight, and water when soil begins to dry. The image to the right is a Sapindus mukorossi (as far as I can tell) about 3 weeks after germination. It is ready to be repotted in a larger pot.
  5. Fifth, taking care of the tree... My trees are still very young, so I cannot provide a lot of personal experience. I will be growing mine in progressively larger pots, keeping them on a sunny patio when temperatures are above freezing and moving them indoors when it gets cold. (They may be able to cope with British/American winters, but I need to find out about that - they are mainly grown in northern India and southern China, so they may or may not be able to sustain freezing temperatures, depending on their specific biome.) They appear to be generally quite hardy and should not need a high level of care. From what I can piece together, you should start getting decent crops of soap nuts in about 10 years, but I would not be surprised if you get some significantly earlier or later than this. The tree will start off with a smooth silvery bark, which will eventually become darker and rougher. Some of the largest Sapindus trees are 75 m in height, but that would be quite unlikely out of their natural environment.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Stumbling Finds I

If anyone is not aware of StumbleUpon, you should be. It is a great tool for sucking away your free time online. If you find the Internet to be like cocaine, you will find Stumbling the Internet to be like crack.

I've found loads of bizarre stuff on there, and thought it was my duty to share some of these with you, dear reader.

  1. All I can say is.... wow

  2. Don't know what to do with all those spare pennies you have at home in a jar? Here's an idea...

  3. I've always thought that creative tree grafting was an underutilized art form.

  4. Do you remember that ice storm we had in Atlanta in 1999? It could have been worse. This is the Swiss town of Geneve.

  5. And what blog would be complete without photoshopped pictures of cats?

I'll post more fun stumbling finds every now and then.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Mythbusting Monday V: People Only Use 10% of Their Brains

First, a few housekeeping issues: You can now email any post on this site by clicking on the envelope icon at the bottom of each post.

Secondly, I've added a function on the right, just below my profile info, which provides you with a randomly selected Deep Thought from Jack Handey each time you load the page (refresh to get a different one.) Currently there are about 23 38 53 different ones, but I'll add more as I come across them.

This week's myth is the old 'you only use 10% (or x%) of your brain.' This myth is more than 100 years old, and has worked its way deep into the imagination largely because most of us have a desire to magically unlock some sort of hidden potential within ourselves, enabling us to effortlessly gain deep wisdom and intelligence. Who wouldn't want that? Unfortunately it has been the selling point used in many pseudoscience/new age systems, promising to enable you to unlock that further 90% for just 4 easy payments of $49.99! (Wow!)

This week's myth is rather fuzzily defined, so we'll approach it from a few different angles. The questions, 'what counts as the brain?' and 'what counts as use?' have more than one interpretation.

First, a short, simple answer: all of your brain is useful and has a known function (100% of it) - though there are also many functions we still don't fully understand. Additionally, most thought processes are very dispersed (processed in many parts of the brain simultaneously). We use all of the brain all of the time, even if the activity level varies - just like we are still 'using' our body when we sit down or sleep.

Now a more detailed answer... So, what counts as the the brain? Well, most people think neurons, and yes, the brain has neurons, but it is actually mostly glial cells (glia being Greek for glue.) In fact, only about 10% of brain cells are actually neurons - the rest are glial cells. But those glial cells are still vitally important - they support the neurons, provide them with nutrients, take away waste, insulate neurons from each others, and are implicated in some thought processes. Neurons would not function without glial cells. This could be one origin of the myth, since only 10% of your brain is neurons, but you still depend on and use that remaining 90%.

What counts as use? One interpretation of use is whether the cell is synaptically active (ie, the neuron is firing.) And indeed, only a small percentage of neurons are firing at any one time. So what would happen if all (or most) of your neurons fired at once? You would have a seizure. In fact, that is exactly what an electrical seizure is. If it happens long enough (and it usually doesn't), you would die. It is the brain equivalent of tensing all your muscles at once - it doesn't make you a super-athlete, it paralyzes you. You don't want to 'unlock' all those remaining neurons at once.

Another interpretation of use is 'potential,' ie, we only use 10% of the brain's potential. This is inherently an unanswerable question, because potential is virtually unknowable. However, our best evidence suggests that this too is poppycock. Most measures of cognitive function show people are actually very similar to each other - we all read at roughly the same speed (200 w/m), and we all have short term memories of about the same size (6 to 8 items). The rare individuals who excel dramatically in one area (for example, mathematics or memory), often have deficits in other areas (social functioning or language), suggesting that these people are not unlocking hidden reserves, but have brains that are specialized in a few areas at the cost of others.

We know the 10% myth is BS, but there are many things you can do to increase your mental performance. However, these involve behaviours and techniques, and do not change how your brains works, but rather take advantage of how it already works.
  1. Use your brain - really challenge yourself until your head hurts. Your brain is like a muscle, and using it keeps it healthy - also like in muscle-building, very hard work gives better results than simple work. In fact, trying hard to solve a puzzle and failing is great for your brain - better than actually solving it. You won't become a genius this way, just like going to the gym won't make you a body-builder, but the effects will be beneficial.
  2. Take advantage of the automaticity of habits. Once we are habituated to a behaviour, we do it automatically without thinking. Form habits like reading, puzzle solving, and game-playing and you are building in regular brain work-outs with minimal planning effort.
  3. Use techniques like chunking and mnemonics to boost how much you remember. Also, you remember/understand things better once you have slept - staying up all night to study is a bad idea. There are hundreds of little techniques you can use to get better cognitive results without actually being any smarter.
  4. Stay physically and emotionally healthy. There is a positive correlation between physical health and mental ability (counter to the unhealthy nerd/dumb athlete stereotype). Aerobic exercise, good nutrition, and adequate sleep are all critical to optimal mental functioning. Exercise is also especially important for emotional balance.
Enjoy your brain!

UPDATE: This is a very well done documentary on autistic savants, particularly Daniel Tammet. Watch it, and be amazed.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Science Sunday I: Fire and Sound

How about a new weekly meme? Does Science Sunday sound good to you? Good. There are so many good science videos online, I thought I'll do these with more video and less words.

The first one is a demonstration of the Rubens' Tube, which is a tube of fire that is influenced by surrounding sound waves. Very cool stuff.

And yes, that was the Foo Fighters at the end.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Weekend Comedy

Thank God that now we don't have to see this guy any more than we choose to:

Enjoy your weekend!

Important New Research On Opinion Entitlement

I found this particular news article from the University of Chicago's School for Behavioral Science to be particularly on target:

Study: 38 Percent Of People Not Actually Entitled To Their Opinion

CHICAGO—In a surprising refutation of the conventional wisdom on opinion entitlement, a study conducted by the University of Chicago's School for Behavioral Science concluded that more than one-third of the U.S. population is neither entitled nor qualified to have opinions.

"On topics from evolution to the environment to gay marriage to immigration reform, we found that many of the opinions expressed were so off-base and ill-informed that they actually hurt society by being voiced," said chief researcher Professor Mark Fultz, who based the findings on hundreds of telephone, office, and dinner-party conversations compiled over a three-year period. "While people have long asserted that it takes all kinds, our research shows that American society currently has a drastic oversupply of the kinds who don't have any good or worthwhile thoughts whatsoever. We could actually do just fine without them."

In 2002, Fultz's team shook the academic world by conclusively proving the existence of both bad ideas during brainstorming and dumb questions during question-and-answer sessions.

From The Onion :)

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Free Our Information

The Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference, is quite simply, fantastic. Every year they have a conference where they have talks and presentations about the coolest ideas coming up, all with the potential to alter how we perceive and interact with the rest of the world. Fortunately, they are all available online. I've only seen a few, but so far they have all been mind-blowing.

The presentation below is by Hans Rosling, and it's about statistics. And it's freakin' sweet! Not in a math-nerd way, but in an everyman way. It's 20 minutes long, and worth every minute.

The most important part of the presentation is the last five minutes. We simply must have a new paradigm of knowledge - of perceiving it and disseminating it. Rosling's presentation is one of the best illustrations I have seen of this. Governments and organizations collect massive amounts of data, and then make it inaccessible. I believe the big revolution of this century will be the liberation of data - the democratization of information. This includes statistics, but more importantly science, entertainment, culture - human knowledge in its entirety. Presently, the producers and masters of human knowledge serve as gatekeepers whose primary role is to create systems which limit access to knowledge. You have to pay dearly to buy books or go to a university. Access to an academic journal often costs $20 per article and are written as to be inaccessible to anyone who has not spent years learning unnecessary jargon. This is no way to promote and disseminate knowledge - it merely keeps knowledge within the elite who are already knowledgeable. Largely, this democratization will occur because of the Internet, but it is much larger than that as well. I believe the impact of liberated data will eventually be on the level of the creation of the printing press, or universal suffrage. It will take time (many decades), and there will be no dramatic news coverage, but the weight of the impact on society will be enormous.

You can download the Trendalyzer software used in the presentation for free.