Suggestible

It’s amazing how suggestible the human mind is. Well, not quite amazing, but still impressive. I’ve just been over at a friend’s who’s a fan of psychological magic tricks, and he managed to successfully predict two different cards chosen by myself and another person. When I say ‘predict’, of course what really happened was that he placed the suggestion in our minds to choose the cards that he’d already decided on beforehand.

It’s not overly difficult to do this; you just have to pay attention to body language signals and also use subtle hand movements and phrasing. However, to see it done successfully is very impressive and provides an interesting counterpoint to my thoughts about free will.

Freedom Evolves

Just finished reading Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett. It took me only four days to accomplish this, which is a great improvement from previous philosophy books that took me several weeks to finish (or I never ended up finishing them). This presents several possibilites, which I’ve listed in increasing order of likelihood:

1) My IQ has risen by several dozen points in the last few months.
2) This book happens to be really easy to read.
3) I’m finally getting the hang of philosophy jargon and concepts.

It’s probably the last two in combination.

I’ll post my thoughts on the book in a while, after I’d had a chance to digest the ideas. In the meantime, here are two choice quotations:

“Some philosophers can’t bear to say simple things, like “Suppose a dog bites a man.” They feel obliged instead to say, “Suppose a dog d bites a man m at time t,” thereby demonstrating their unshakable commitment to logical rigor, even though they don’t go on to manipulate any formulae involving d, m and t.”

and also, seen on a car bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”

Geeks With Books

Geeks With Books – a nice little article about what it’s like to work in a used SF bookstore. “I never count on having Philip K. Dick books. They tend to stay around for about twenty minutes. When I shelve his books, I worry about losing a finger since they sell so fast.”

Webcams for schools

Putting webcams in classrooms to catch problem pupils – seems like a great idea to me, you wouldn’t believe the number of parents who think their kids can do no wrong. As for privacy concerns, I think maybe some kind of key escrow agency might be a good idea, wherein (say) at least two out of the three key holders have to be persuaded that the video warrants being released for the parents and teachers.

24 Episode 3

Some brief thoughts: Today’s episode on BBC3 was an improvement over the last two – in short, far less Kim and far more Jack. Much more dramatic tension, although I am a bit puzzled about why they haven’t included more subplots. This stuff about the groom being a terrorist doesn’t count, it doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere.

My guess on the undercover CTU bad guy (or girl, in this case) of the season goes to the new computer geek (Paula). Perhaps the producers have made it deliberately obvious and are pulling a bait and switch on us, but she’s suspicious. Why? Firstly, she’s new. Secondly, she starts going on about how afraid she is that LA is going to blow up, etc etc, and then we find her transferring files during an evacuation. This action completely contradicts everything else we know about her – she should have gotten the hell out of there. Maybe she was transferring files to yet more Bad Guys? Or perhaps she’s some undercover NSA agent. I don’t know.

Finally, George Mason has about a day left to live. Clearly the only path left for him now is to pull a Doc Holliday and engage on highly dangerous missions, thus saving the day and redeeming himself. And who knows, maybe the diagnosis was wrong and he’ll live. I guess we’ll find out… in the next episode of 24!

Trailers as a cultural indicator

While watching my Back to the Future DVD for the umpteenth time, I decided to go and check out the original theatrical trailer. Since the film first opened in 1985, the trailer was suitably cringeworthy, what with all the flashing LEDs, arrays of ‘futuristic’ buttons, shots of the Delorean’s profile and the silly dialogue:

V/O: How far are you going, mister?
Fox: About thirty years…
[cue Huey Lewis music]

This didn’t surprise me too much, since I expect trailers like this from all 80s movies. However, Back to the Future could have opened yesterday and they wouldn’t have had to change much at all. As I see it, the content of films themselves haven’t changed anywhere near as much over the years and decades as the trailers for those films.

So what’s going on here? Are the trailers reflecting and amplifying the cultural conditions of their age, trying to tap in to the zeitgeist and just pull people into theatres by any means necessary? Or is the art of the trailer gradually asymptoting towards some theoretical and unattainable level of ‘trailer perfection’, wherein the ‘Perfect Trailer’ would enrapture any viewer’s mind such that they would be compelled to see the movie (much like Langford’s image-hack)?

I suppose it’s probably a mix of the two, more’s the shame. But surely there must be some study out there correlating the evolution of trailers with cultural change?

Front Page

I was feeling a little depressed and annoyed today when I was told that my entry for the college Science Essay Prize hadn’t won. So, to cheer myself up, I submitted it to the Kuro5hin community website and to my delight, my essay about synaesthesia has met with their approval and been posted on the front page.

The Drugs Don’t Work

Over the past two days I’ve had an excellent two-part workshop in my neuroscience course on addiction, covering what we know about the causes of drug addiction at a molecular, cellular and cognitive level, reward pathways in the brain and possible treatments, vaccines and cures for drug addiction. Definitely one of the most thought provoking workshops I’ve attended, and it’s also made me appreciate the unique way we’re taught in our course.

I don’t have any lectures, not in the traditional sense. Every week, we have two three-hour long workshops that cover a specific topic; usually the teaching is a mixture of didactic and interactive, depending on the subject material and the organiser. Sometimes it’s more one than the other, but even the most didactic organisers try to get us to talk in discussion groups to figure out problems. The end result is that people feel far more comfortable about asking so-called ‘stupid’ questions and voicing their opinions than in traditional unidirectional lectures, which of course is a good thing.

After the two workshops, we split up into four groups that each reviews a paper or two, and presents the review at another three-hour session. Apart from the useful variety of viewpoints this gives you, it also helps people develop their speaking skills tremendously – I’ve seen great improvements in my and other people’s presentations over this year.

Given that the total course size is hovering around 13 or 14 these days, I’d say it’s pretty decent. Of course, it isn’t always good and we’ve had some boring workshops. Plus, no amount of good workshops could lift me out of the malaise I found myself in after being forced to study development of organisms.

Anyway, this last session was great; it helped that one of the organisers was Prof. Wolfram Schultz, the most recent recipient of the Golden Brain award.

We started off with a discussion of how you can become addicted to something psychologically.

Wolfram: The real problem is not drugs like cocaine or heroin, it’s tobacco and alcohol. Those two are the biggest health problems, and they cost the country the most. Part of the problem is the availability and the context-dependency of addiction and withdrawal – if you’re trying to abstain from drinking and there’s a wine bottle in front of you, you’re just going to start drinking again. And there’s a big problem with obesity these days as well – it’s all these supermarkets all over the place! You go into Sainsburys out of town and you just want to spend �2 but end up spending �50!

I find it great when people go off on bizarre tangents.

So, a lot of our talk today concentrated on how we’d treat drug addiction, which isn’t doing so well at the moment, what with a recent study that tracked a group of addicts over a long period of years. Most of the addicts were either dead or in prison, and the best case scenario was that they were back in rehab. Clearly not ideal from anyone’s point of view.

The problem with treating drug addiction is that the changes drugs make to your brain on a neurological level are so pervasive and long-lasting (the effects can last for years or decades) that it really is not possible to create a magic bullet that will quickly and easily ‘cure’ a full addict. Drug addiction is a mixture of a lot of different and nasty things; it seriously upsets the balance of chemicals in your brain, and it creates a literally warped form of learning that is the basis of the addiction. To cure addiction, you’d basically have to erase something that you’ve learned; a bit like erasing your liking of chocolate, but much much harder (since liking chocolate is far less intense than being addicted to cocaine).

So, appropriately, one of the best ways to overcome an addiction is simply to relearn it, over a long time, through cognitive therapy.

Current treatments for addiction address four areas:

1) Alleviate withdrawal symptoms to prevent craving and relapse. Also related to point 4.

2) Prevent drugs from reaching their targets in the brain and causing addiction. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for addicts at all since along with preventing addiction, it also prevents the rush – so what’s the point, really? Apparently some addicts dedicated to rehab take these drug antagonists though.

3) Substitute the drug, e.g. methadone. Many people are opposed to this, seeing it as jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, hence this exchange during the workshop:

“Over a hundred thousand people-”
“-are addicted to methadone.”
“No, I was going to say, use methadone as an alternative to heroin. Since it’s less dangerous, it’s an improvement.”

4) Alter the addiction process. Treatments such as Zyban and naltrexone help reduce addiction and craving. The only problem is, no-one knows exactly how they work, and they have some particularly nasty side-effects. Zyban, for example, gives 1% of people seizures.

A fair few people found my suggestion intriguing. If you want to both prevent addiction and help addicts, you need some kind of positive alternative – a drug that you can’t get addicted to! Or at least create a situation where people won’t want to take harmful drugs. Evidently not many people have read Brave New World.

Others suggested creating a new association for drug paraphanalia other than euphoria – pain, for example. This would mean that addicts would be too scared to relapse. It all got a bit Clockwork Orange-ish after that…

It’s important to realise how context-dependent drug addiction is. A famous study found that thousands of Vietnam veterans who were addicted to heroin had absolutely no problems back in the United States, because the environment in which they took drugs in Vietnam was so different to back home.

There’s also a fair bit of work being done on genetic susceptibility to drug addiction. As yet, there haven’t been any genes or polymorphisms identified in humans, but there have been interesting studies done in fish, of all things. They basically took some zebrafish and conducted a place preference test – in other words, they addicted zebrafish to cocaine. It turns out that some mutant zebrafish don’t get addicted. Interesting stuff.

They’re back

The Borg To Appear On ‘Enterprise’ – a lot of fans have been wailing and gibbering about this development, but I’m actually quite optimistic. Enterprise has seen quite a lot of average and below-average episodes so far, but I’ve also seen some pretty decent episodes as well, and they’re only halfway through the second season.

This Borg episode, airing in May, sounds quite well done, and while I admit that the Borg have been seriously overused as a plot device throughout Star Trek, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be used sparingly if they’re involved in good stories.