I’m Back

It’s a new school year, so how’s about I start blogging on this blog again? Sounds good. As many of you know, I have another blog, but I only post relatively tame posts on this one (since it’s the one I link to in my e-mail signature, and may be seen by people who have the power to hire/fire me). I’ve been slacking in copying the tame posts over to this one lately. Well, I just added a bunch of posts, and I’ll continue to do so. I’ve also decided to get more serious about school and research, by keeping up with the latest literature in sciency stuff. This will probably translate over to this blog, since blogging about interesting stuff, and my opinions on it, will help motivate me to really think about what I’m reading.

See you soon.

Sleep Sucks

I recently read about a drug being developed that will allow people to stay up for 36 hours, or even a few days, at a time, without any of the side effects of things like caffeine.

Now most people will think this is creepy. That we shouldn’t play God and mess with nature like that. But not I; sign me up, I want to get rid of sleep altogether. I remember in my 2nd year of university I read a lot about sleep. Most of the best sources seemed to agree that sleep serves little purpose today. One theory is that we only sleep at night because it would be dangerous for our ancestors to be out and about at night. Since we can’t see in the dark, we’d be likely to fall into a lake or the mouth of a tiger. Much better that we just lie dormant in a cave while it’s dark.

This doesn’t apply today, where we have electric lights all over the place. We can have artificial daylight 24 / 7. Think of how much more time we could have to be productive, and more importantly, have fun and enjoy life, if we didn’t have to spend 8 hours a day lying there doing nothing.

People will say “oh, but I like sleeping”. Well yeah, me too, but I only like it when I’m tired. If a pill made it so I was never tired, I’d never feel like sleeping.

OK, so there are some advantages to sleep. Dreaming is the biggie. I love waking up and remember all the crazy ass dreams I had. Dreaming is one of the purest sources of creativity in everyday human life, and it would be a shame to lose it. There is also evidence that sleep helps with certain brain functions, such as consolidating memories.

So here’s my ideal situation: We take a pill once a day, 6 days a week, that keeps us awake and alert 24 / 7. This gains us 8 x 6 = 48 hours = 3 WHOLE WAKING DAYS (assuming we’re awake 16 hours per day) of extra time per week. There are people who can write novels in three days! Then, like God himself, on the 7th day we rest. We skip the pill and get a good night’s sleep, gaining all the benefits of sleep and waking up with some sweet dreams.

It’s a perfect solution to make life awesomer for everyone. Disagree? You’re wrong.

P.S. Here’s another fun link: How to Become an Early Riser. Just remember that this is some random blogger who might not know what he’s talking about.

Book Review: Theatre of the Mind: Raising the Curtain on Consciousness, by Jay Ingram

Consciousness is a very difficult subject to tackle. It’s hard to even define, despite the fact that every one of us experiences it during every (waking?) moment of our lives. It’s even harder to study objectively, given that consciousness is, practically by definition, highly subjective.

Jay Ingram gives it a shot in his latest book, Theatre of the Mind. The title refers to several past thinkers who have used the theatre metaphor to understand consciousness. This often leads to problems (e.g. if the stage represents consciousness, then someone (the audience) needs to view the contents of consciousness, and thus must be conscious themselves, which leads to an infinite string of consciousnesses within consciousnesses), which Ingram points out in order to illustrate difficulties with consciousness studies. However, I like how he also explains an updated version of the metaphor to illustrate one of the current theories about what consciousness is, how it works, and how it avoids the above problem. Books like this often present a whole lot of research and anecdotes without even attempting to tie it all together. Ingram, though aware of the limitations of this approach, does bring up one possible approach (global workspace theory) to wrap things up.

Given Ingram’s origin as a host of popular science shows, it is not unexpected that the book is extremely casual and non-scientific. It is almost like watching a long episode of Daily Planet all about consciousness. This makes it an easy read, and I would recommend the book to anyone even if they have no experience with psychology or philosophy. Sometimes, however, I wished for more detail and depth. He jumps around a lot, as if unable to stay on one topic for more than a few paragraphs, which can get annoying if the topic is interesting and he suddenly moves on to something else. Ingram also adds his own anecdotes and opinions, which again makes it easier to digest, but some may view it as overstepping his bounds to be critical of an area of research which he has not participated in himself.

Another thing I must mention is that Ingram takes a very open-minded approach. Though he always warns when something is not generally accepted by the scientific community, he is not afraid to venture into territory that could be considered pseudo-science or parapsychological. One example is a researcher, Benjamin Libet, who wishes to stimulate a piece of brain which has been completely detached from the rest of the brain, but kept alive and in the skull. He believes that the rest of the brain could still react to the stimulus, because there is more to consciousness than connections between neurons. Needless to say, it’s a bit controversial, but given some of the incredible findings that Libet (and others) have already discovered about the mind and brain, I think it’s worth seeing what happens.

I recommend Theatre of the Mind to anyone looking to learn more about consciousness. It probably brings up more questions than answers, but at least it will clarify one’s thinking about a subject which is very hard to think about.

Book Review: Angels & Demons, by Dan Brown

A quick review here, just so I have a record of the books I’ve read and it motivates me to keep reading instead of playing video games (which is what I’ve been doing for the last 3 days).

Angels and Demons takes place in the same world as The Da Vinci Code, with the same main character, Robert Langdon. I think that Dan Brown is secretly in love with his fictional character, and loves the name “Robert Langdon.” He always writes about Langdon’s deep manly voice and awesome tweed jacket. And instead of using pronouns, it’s “Robert Langdon touched the pope’s hat, because it was shiny and Robert Langdon liked shiny things. Robert Langdon communicated Robert Langdon’s intense appreciation for the church in that single touch.”

This also demonstrates how badly written Angels and Demons is. If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code and cringed, Angels and Demons is even more simply written. With all this said, it doesn’t really get in the way of keeping you reading and interested. The book takes place in real-time, never jumping forward or backward in time (except for flashbacks), so it’s as intense as an episode of 24.

The historical “facts” are obviously not facts. While you may feel like you’re learning something while reading this book, it’s actually making you dumber. For example, a critical plot point is that nobody could figure out how to make words read the same whether they are upside down or right side up (ambigrams). Yet…Dan Brown and Friends were able to come up with a whole bunch for this book (and the awesome cover for it pictured here). It’s really cool to see these ambigrams in the book, but I doubt that a fiction author is the first person in history to create them.

Still, if you go in expecting an intense novel that’s more science fiction than art history textbook, it’s a very entertaining read.

On a side note, I hear that Brown is being sued over The Da Vinci Code. A non-fiction book was written a while before Da Vinci which dealt with the same topic, and the author of that book is angry that Brown stole the idea. Brown admits to using it as a source. Now, last time I checked, fiction authors were allowed to use non-fiction sources to check their facts, and that’s not plagarism. If I write an erotic story about squirrel sex, The Discovery Channel isn’t going to sue me because I saw squirrels boinking on TV. And this is (supposedly) fact…if Brown hadn’t even read this book and had done his own research, he (supposedly) would have come to the same conclusion. Since facts are, arguably, objective.

Whatever. I’m just looking forward to the Smart Car chase in the movie version of The Da Vinci Code. Yay Smart Cars!

How To Stop Time

I found this groovy little illusion:  How to Stop Time.  It involves looking at a the second hand of a clock out of the corner of your eye, and it appears to stop moving.  

The site gets cheesiness points for trying to convince people that they are actually stopping time.  I do wonder what the actual explanation is, though.  I’ve read about people with brain damage who are blind to movement:  when pouring liquid out of a glass, they see it frozen in mid-pour, then the glass is suddenly empty.  Perhaps this illusion is related to that, allowing normal people to experience change blindness without ramming a pole through their brain.

The Cuba Trip (Part 1)

V and I spent our slack week doing what the week was made for: slacking. We figured slacking would be more efficient in a warm place, so we went to Cuba. Here are some pictures and stories documenting the trip.

The plane ride there was a blast. The Cuban airline isn’t as nice and fancy as Air Canada. I couldn’t understand what the hell the stewardess was saying over the intercom, even when she switched to English. She could have been telling us that our time on this earth is over…say bye to your loved ones…but all I heard was Spanglish babbling. The seat in front of me had a substance on it that resembled bloody snot, and even though I knew it would make me lose my appetite, I couldn’t stop looking at it as I ate. That was probably a good thing though, since the “beef” they served for lunch was covered in a shiny rainbow film, like it was covered in oil. Probably good that I didn’t eat it.

The airport had people in military outfits all over the place, which is a little alarming at first. We found the guy who was supposed to guide us to the resort, but he said our bus was full. He told us to get on another random bus. Whatever. Luckily it did take us to the right place…Brisas Del Caribe, which looks like this from the outside:

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The lobby of the resort was full of drunk people. That’s because there are two bars in the lobby alone. Nice. Further exploration revealed that there were approximately three thousand bars at the place, all serving unlimited booze. The bartenders there don’t bother with little things we care about here…such as “measuring” and “not spilling rum all over the bar”. Every drink was at least a double. Plus they’re never the same twice. You can order a “Brisas” one day, and it will be a blue fruity vodka drink. The next day it will be a pink rum drink. It’s a surprise every time. My new favourite drink is the Mojito, which has tonic water, mint leaves, a bunch of sugar, and a whole lot of rum.

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Yum. I also rediscovered the Grasshopper (chocolate liqueur, mint liqueur, cream). It’s not unique to Cuba or anything, but damn it’s good. I was mildly drunk the entire week, but never really DRUNK drunk. I guess your body gets used to alcohol when it’s all you drink. And yes, my shirt does say “Western Drinking Team.”

While the drinks were good, the food was … questionable. They seem to love ham and cheese there. You can get ham and cheese on its own, ham and cheese on a piece of toast, deep fried ham/cheese paste, or ham and cheese stuffed into a chicken (“Gordon Blue”, as the menu called it). The rest of the buffet was average at best…and unidentifiable at worst. V mostly stuck to bread, but I enjoyed some of the weird mystery food.

Our room smelled funny (as did most of the country), but it was good enough for sleeping. The bathroom, like the food, was full of mysteries.

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Like, what the hell is this? It looks like a sink that’s a foot off the ground. At first we thought it was a urinal, but what’s the point, with a toilet right beside it? Then I thought maybe it’s for washing feet and babies. Some dude we met insisted it was a bidet…a fancy European thing that you shit in, then spray water onto your ass and balls to clean off. Just the fact that people think you should shit in the thing makes me sorry I ever washed my feet in it.

Whoa…ok…I looked it up in Wikipedia (Bidet). It probably was a bidet…which is for washing your junk off (but not shitting in), and washing babies. Um…yuck. Poor babies.

Speaking of washing and genitals, the maids would make fun sculptures with the towels they brought to the room. Here is one of them:

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What is it? My guess is vagina. I suppose it could be a flower or shrimp thing, though. Who knows.

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The bathroom also held this friendly reminder that the world cannot survive without water. Also, we cannot live without water. Don’t misspendit…pitchin.

OK, enough dumb stuff. The whole point of Cuba was to be in warm weather on a nice beach, and there was plenty of that. The weather was beautiful the whole time we were there, and the beach really is gorgeous. We spent the majority of our time just sitting on the beach or by the pool reading in the sun (though, strangely, neither of us got a dark tan). Here are some random pictures of the beautifulness:

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I could write more, but I’ll save it for later. What I still need to cover: Lizards, The River Cruise, Communism/Anti-Americanism, The Rock Star, and CSI: Cuba. Stay tuned.

Road Trip of Death

Yesterday, a few friends and I went to Toronto to see the Ontario Science Centre’s Body Worlds 2 exhibit. This exhibit consists of real dead bodies and organs, preserved by replacing fluids and fat with plastic. It’s partly educational, but mostly artistic. I was surprised at how close you could get to the bodies; they are not behind glass, so you can get right up to them. It was extremely interesting to see the insides of the human body…a place that most people will never see except in pictures.

Speaking of pictures, I managed to avoid security and snap a few with my crappy camera phone.


Here are two “plastinates” figure skating. They were in all sorts of poses, to illustrate different body parts and keep things interesting.

ring man

This is the ring man. He’s on the rings, and his flesh is cut into rings! Get it?

dead horse

Not all of the bodies were human. Here’s a dead horsie!

kid skeleton

They also weren’t all adults. Here’s a cute little skeleton of a kid. There was also a controversial dead baby / pregnant mom section. It was cool to see how fast kids grow in the womb. But I feel sorry for women having to pop those things out…damn…

Anyway, I recommend that anyone who can go see this thing do so ASAP. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and good practice for the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

Book Review: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

I have a reading problem. It’s not that I’m illiterate (even though I just had to look up how to spell illiterate), it’s that I have trouble finishing books. Whenever I get a new book, I want to start reading it right away. Therefore, all the books I’m currently reading start seeming like a chore to read; just something to get over with so I can start the new book. Usually I give in and start the new book before finishing the old one, so I end up with 20 half-read books lying around.

So it is a big accomplishment for me to have finished reading the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. I’ll start reviewing books here, so I have a nice record of the books I’ve finished. Maybe it’ll motivate me to finish them.

Blink is about what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing”: making quick decisions based on very little information (i.e. a “thin slice” of information). He goes through numerous examples of this process in a variety of contexts, such as military operations and the recognition of facial expressions.

The book deals mainly with anecdotal accounts, which makes it an easy and entertaining read. Psychological research is not described in great detail, but the quick and casual descriptions are a nice change from the detailed procedures and statistics I’m used to reading. Gladwell offers a glimpse into areas many people never think about, such as professional food tasting, which is fascinating. It was also kinda cool for me to see Keith Payne mentioned…he gave a great talk at UWO recently.

However, I have several problems with the book. It reads more like a collection of short stories than a cohesive essay. It is sometimes unclear how each chapter relates to the big picture, and some of his points seem to contradict other points. I also noticed a few obvious errors which indicate sloppiness. For example, Limp Bizkit is two words. It’s not “Limpbizkit”.

My biggest problem, though, is that Gladwell is making up a new term (thin slicing) for a concept that already has too many words to describe it. My favourite term is intuition (since that’s what I’m studying myself), but it also goes by insight, implicit learning, automatic thought, etc. These are terms only briefly mentioned in the book, even though he is obviously talking about them. It is as if he is trying to cover up the fact that his ideas are nothing new. In fact, I found one of his specific examples (about a firefighter getting a bad feeling about a building before it collapsed) in a book about intuition. Intuition is already a confusing term, and calling it by other names will just confuse it even more.

Still, I would recommend Blink to both psycholgists and the general reader. It’s a fun read, even though it may not be as deep or insightful as geeks like me would like. Also, I’m glad to see this topic getting mainstream attention, because it probably means the government will give me lots of money to do research on it. Mmm, money.

MRI Dangers

I’ve been in an MRI machine many times before, so I could get pretty pictures of my brain and get paid for it. Oh, and help with the advancement of human knowledge and all that too.

So it was somewhat scary to come across this web page with pictures and stories of objects flying into the MRI. Since it’s a giant magnet, any nearby metallic objects tend to fly at it with great speed. If a person had been in there when, say, the large floor buffer flew into the tube, they probably wouldn’t live to see their brain’s data in a science journal. Apparently there is also a danger of being eaten by a tiger while in an MRI.

I wonder what part of your brain lights up when you’ve been impaled by a sharp metal object?

Flying Spaghetti Monsterism


Sachz, in response to the post below, brought my attention to The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. The church presents a reasonable alternative to Christian intelligent design and evolution, and so this theory should really be taught in science classes at school. The web page shows the letter which was sent to the Kansas School Board promoting its presence in classrooms, and showing the link between global warming and pirates.

I’ve been touched by his noodly appendage. Have you?