Queue

You know the feeling well. You’ve been queuing up in a worryingly long line for a film or a talk for a while now, and while you’ve resigned yourself to getting a seat at the back behind a pillar, you’re still holding out hope that you’ll actually get inside. Just as you begin to near the door of the ticket booth or theatre, the queue halts. The people around you peer ahead inquisitively, and the support staff for the event mill around, darting inside and out.

Finally, ten minutes later, you get told that there’s no room left, we’re very sorry, now please would you go home. The fact that you are only one of a hundred (or more) people still left queuing doesn’t make you any happier.

This is probably a global phenomenon, but it certainly happens a lot in Cambridge. Many times I’ve asked myself why the support staff (mainly students) can’t just look in the theatre, then look outside, work out a cutoff point and then helpfully tell everyone beyond that that there won’t be enough space for them. Is it really that difficult to assess the number of empty seats relative to the number of people in the queue, when they are orders of magnitude apart, or are all the support staff completely incompetent and don’t have the guts to tell people to leave?

Back In Time

When someone says to you, “I need to make sure I can get back in time to Cambridge,” and your first reaction is that of a genuine stunned silence and an incredulous, “You’re travelling back in time?” you know you’ve been watching too many time travel movies.

Adrian on Mars, part two

Are you going to be in or around Cambridge on the 29th April? If so, what better way to spend the evening than attending a delightful presentation by me on ‘The Human Mission to Mars’. I’ll be talking about why we should send humans to Mars, how we might do it and how much it’d cost, and why humans are better than robots. In the second half of the talk, I’ll be talking about my time at the Mars Society Desert Research Station last December in Utah and showing off my holiday snaps.

It’ll cost �1 for entry and is being held at the Winstanley Lecture Theatre (Blue Boar Court) in Trinity College at 8pm. Be there, or… don’t be there.

Word Limit

“… You should aim for a total text length of 6000 words. Other than in exceptional circumstances, you should not exceed 8000 words.”

That’s a typical guide for a dissertation at Cambridge. When I read that, I think to myself, ‘Okay, in that case I should aim to write around 6000 words.’ Seems straightforward enough.

But apparently I am almost alone in that regard. Most people think, ‘Right, if the word limit is 8000 words, I am going to write 8000 words. In fact, I’m going to write as much as is humanly possible without blatantly breaking the rules.’ If the word limit was 10,000 words, they’d write 10,000. If it was 15,000, you’d still see people complaining about not being able to fit everything in.

How do I know this, other than the fact that other people have told me their essay word counts? It’s through the way people talk about word limits. I commonly hear questions like, ‘Are figure legends included in the limit?’, ‘Does it matter if we’re a few hundred words over’ and ‘Can I use numbers to refer to references instead of authors?’

What the hell? If people are worried about adding a few dozen words onto their essay, I hate to think of how far over the word limit they are. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people are emphasizing quantity over quality, but I do get the feeling that many students have no appreciation for the elegance of a short and concise piece of writing. And why indeed should they, when it’s so much easier to write down every single detail and repeat yourself? It’s as if people are writing essays without realising that someone has to actually read them.

It should come as no surprise that all of the examiners and supervisors I’ve spoken to greatly prefer shorter and concise essays than bloated ones, and that in general, short is good. That’s not to say that you can’t write a good, long essay that hits the word limit, but it is much more difficult and there is always the question of whether the topic warrants a long treatment.

Perhaps it’s just my work-avoidance skill speaking, but I have a real love of concise writing that tries to be as comprehensible as possible. It really is an art, and when I read a well-written essay and learn something new, it’s enjoyable. In contrast, reading bloated essays feels like a battle; tiring and depressing. So kids: conciseness is your friend!

Life in the Lab

Scene: A moderately untidy lab in a university with stacks of papers on tables and computers humming away to themselves. One person, G, is building a couple of computers and taking apart two others. S watches by. Another, R, is working on a paper.

G holds up a dusty-looking computer card.

G: R, what should I do with this old 1401 ISA interface card?

R: I don’t know, is there anything we could use it for?

G: I don’t think so.

R: What if we needed to use it with the old computers again?

G: Ah, well, I was intending to throw the old computers out.

S: Throw out computers? Sacrilege!

R: You could put the 1401 cards in a box.

G: A box?

R: A box.

G: Okay, I’ll put them in a box and put the box in the filing cabinet.

R (taken aback): Well, I don’t think that they need to be put in such an exalted position.

R gets up and walks over to a corner of the room, gesturing towards a veritable cornucopia of antique computer and signal processing equipment. Monitors, tape players and the burned out hulks of old 286s linger there, in silence.

R: We could just put them in this pile here.

G looks at the pile doubtfully, in which much of the equipment is almost as old as he is.

G: I suppose so, although I could just put it in this drawer (gesturing towards a smaller drawer filled with slightly less old but no less useless equipment).

And so the pile of disused computer equipment grows ever larger, where perhaps one day it may gain sentience and rise up against its neglectful human masters… or perhaps not.

Serendipity

So it was a gorgeous day yesterday in Cambridge, sun shining, birds singing, etc etc, and after a game of badminton in the morning I went to do some reading on the Trinity College backs. I originally intended to take along An Instance of the Fingerpost which had been sitting around in my room looking quite malovent and foreboding, but has turned out to be quite a decent read, and a couple of papers, thus mixing pleasure and business. In reality, of course, I knew full well that I’d just end up reading the book, but what the hell.

Anyway, once I got to the backs, the book had mysteriously disappeared from my bag, so I had no choice but to read the papers. A bit disappointing, but then the weather was good and I had my iPod, so I couldn’t really complain. While there, I met up with my friends Alex and Kristina who told me about a visiting professor from MIT they met at a party the night before. This professor was set to give a lecture on Tuesday on some neural/computer science topic.

After a bit of talking about university admissions and girls, the two stable topics of discussion in Cambridge, we decided to go and get some coffee and as we were walking over the bridge, who did we see but the very professor concerned, who was a rather diminuitive Indian fellow. On our way to a cafe we made a detour to the computer room to go and drool at the new iMacs they had there. While demonstrating their Unique Selling Point of the moveable screen (clearly I should be employed by Apple) I managed to set off an anti-theft device that was attached to it. This didn’t faze me particularly since it wasn’t as if I was carrying the thing away (although the thought did cross my mind briefly) and since no-one turned up immediately, I decided to check my email while the alarm was ringing.

So after a while it got a bit annoying, and as we were making our way out from the computer room, I spotted a porter striding to the computer room on our right. Sensing a potential disaster, my survival skills went into overdrive and it was as if I had a heightened awareness of the universe – and most importantly, I spotted the MIT professor approaching obliviously on our left. We quickly made a detour to the professor and asked him if he wanted to come along for coffee. He assented happily (thus giving us much needed cover from the porter). As we were looking for a cafe, we showed him around the sights of Cambridge. Being late Sunday afternoon, there weren’t any decent cafes (i.e. non- Starbucks) actually still open, prompting the professor to proclaim:

“Why don’t we go for dinner instead? Tell you what, I want to take you out to the best restaurant in Cambridge. My treat!”

Of course, we were spellbound by this magical combination of words, ‘best restaurant’ and ‘my treat’. Naturally, we made vigorous protestations about paying for dinner, but he insisted that he had plenty of discretionary funds and it’d just be treated as a business expense. With our consciences thus cleared, we made our way to one of the best restaurants, had a wonderful meal talking about US and UK universities, neural computation, quantum computers, university admissions policies and girls. The professor was a very intelligent and talkative guy, and had a lot of interesting things to say.

Afterwards, we then had no choice but to adjourn ourselves to The Eagle pub; after all, the guy wanted a photo of him in the Watson and Crick’s famous watering hole. More fun discussion about evolutionary strategies of mating and the apparent deteriorating mental state of Watson ensued, and we finally departed with a promise to meet up to do some punting on Tuesday.

Only in Cambridge could this wonderful, serendipitous sequence of events occur…

(I guess it could happen in Oxford as well, but just not in such a nice way. I will probably have ample opportunity to find out though, since it appears I will be going to Oxford University for a PhD next year)

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.

Fuji Food

Fuji Food – Cambridge’s first Japanese food store, full of Japanese snack, noodle and frozen food goodness. I was quite pleased with their sweet selection, stocked with the requisite Pocky sticks and rice crackers. The noodles looked pretty decent as well, and I’m considering trying out the frozen octopus balls sometime.

Ragging

One of the great things about being in Cambridge is that you have the opportunity to meet a great deal of international students – an opportunity that sadly many students do not take. Anyway, while talking to friends from India and Singapore, I discovered that the age-old tradition of ‘ragging’ is still in use across the world.

If you’ve read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, or have any experience with boarding schools, you’ll know what ragging is. Essentially, it’s the practice in which older students will make new students carry out time-consuming tasks that may or may not involve physical labour (and even injury). Its use varies greatly between establishments, and you might see it in schools or colleges. Often it is institutionalised, or at least not prohibited.

I was fairly surprised to hear that ragging is still alive and healthy, and expressed my disapproval. However, my friend from India made an interesting point. Ragging at his college was also aimed at groups of students, not individuals, so an older student might order half a dozen new students to carry around some heavy trunks for the day. At the end of the day, the older student would take them all out for dinner.

The argument goes that far from being a complete waste of time, the ragging helps new students bond together. I countered by saying that ragging was nothing more than a mixture of the usual scapegoating tactics to provide a common enemy and your stereotypical corporate bonding day – which is what it is. Of course, all this served to prove is that it’s not a new concept, not that it’s a waste of time.

If you look at any Cambridge college, my friend said, you’ll see that none of the people within a year in any college actually know each other, even if they’ve been together for three years. But look at my college, and everyone knows each other, and it’s because of the ragging.

This actually makes sense to me. Shared and emotionally salient experiences help you quickly form bonds with other people, and while ragging undoubtedly irritates new students no end, it does work (at least, anecdotally). Universities in the UK do attempt to help new students make friends through Fresher’s Week, but in my experience it really is a dismal effort. Organising a few pub crawls and parties hardly begins to make a group gel together, and besides, not everyone is interested in alcohol, especially at a university like Cambridge. As an aside, my theory is that the organisers of Fresher’s Week activities are caught in a deadly cycle wherein they are only catering for people identical to themselves, and they feel that this is justified since it’s tradition.

Of course, there are numerous potential pitfalls associated with ragging; you have to ensure that the students don’t begin to actively hate the perpetrators, and you have to ensure that they all actually dislike the tasks they are given. The latter is easy – heavy lifting is despised the world across, but you have to handle the former carefully. At the college in India, they held a party a month after the start of the year in which everyone threw eggs at each other, and then subsequently there was no more ragging (and of course, there the obligatory dinner after a day�s hard ragging). The key thing here is that the ragging was conducted in good faith and humour � if that isn�t the case, then things could turn ugly.

Now, it wouldn�t be mssv.net if this didn�t have some sort of relevance to massively multiuser online entertainment. Clearly shared and emotional salient experiences are the best – and some might say, only – way in which to build strong communities. However, this is something that recent immersive fiction games have completely overlooked – with their emphasis on single player games, they eliminate the shared experience of struggling through puzzles and speculating about the plot. While I was playing the AI game, much of the community spirit that grew up came about via the process of cursing the game designers for creating such devilishly difficult puzzles – a high-tech, indirect form of ragging, but ragging nonetheless.

(The analogy is not perfect – some people like solving the puzzles. But the process remains, like ragging, a difficult one that sees you interact with other players and share tips and stories. You can identify with fellow players because they are going through the same experience as yourself)

But why should game designers bother making online communities? Why, because they make money! Not only do online communities provide valuable feedback and generate publicity, but they also amplify revenue sources – a player is much more likely to stay with your game if he is part of a strong community he identifies with than if he is on his own, all other things being equal.

Immersive fiction game designers are, at the moment, completely ignoring the potential of the Internet. By creating effectively single player, episodic games, they might as well sell CDs with the game content – it’d probably be cheaper and faster. The real potential for immersive fiction games lies in exploiting the interactions between large numbers of users, and ragging, as a method of developing ties between users, deserves more attention than it has thus far received.

Xylophone

Saw four people busking with xylophones and glockenspiels in Cambridge city centre today – I think it’s been the first time for years that I’ve felt compelled to give a street performer some money. Their performance of Blue Danube was pretty damn impressive.

On another note, I have two long posts that I have in progress for mssv.net which, as usual, are mostly done but not finished. I should be able to start posting a bit more frequently now – I’ve broken the back of a huge pile of work and other stuff that’d piled up recently.

Going to see a talk called ‘Artificial Intelligence and religious belief’ tomorrow, by the Cambridge Humanism Society – it promises to be good.