Category Archives: Science & Technology

Timothy Leary Was Right. Maybe.


This is your brain on drugs
This is your brain on drugs. Or rather, the right-hand image is your brain on psilocybin. The other side is your brain on a non-psychedelic drug. Researchers recently discovered some amazing facts about how our brains work on some chemicals. And some psychedelic drugs prove to have pretty amazing effects. But don’t try this at home… stick to building toy rockets and drones for your science experiments…

Apparently Timothy Leary was right: psychedelic drugs change the way users think. For a long time, possibly forever. In his pioneering work, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Leary wrote

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

He also said in a 1966 CBS documentary about his work,

We always have urged people: Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.

A story in Wired Magazine about this new research described the image above:

A representation of that is seen in the image above. Each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks—with normal-state brains at left, and psilocybin-influenced brains at right…
In mathematical terms, said Petri (study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange), normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There’s not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge…
Petri notes that the network depiction above is still a simplified abstraction, with the analysis mapped onto a circular, two-dimensional scaffold. A truer way of visualizing it, he said, would be in three dimensions, with connections between networks forming a sponge-like topography.

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Debunking Homeopathy. Again.


Homeopathy. It’s absoHomeopathic cartoonlute bunk. But you already know that. All those forms of ‘magic medicine* are bunk, of course, but homeopathy has a special place reserved for it in the kingdom of codswallop.

Codswallop is dangerous to the mind, and often to your wallet, but homeopathy compounds that by being dangerous to your health, too, even fatal, as Penelope Dingle discovered. Yes, homeopathy can kill you, if you take it’s fake cures instead of actual medicine or treatment.**

But, you ask, if a placebo works (in some cases), what’s wrong with it? As Joel Gottsegen wrote in the Stanford Daily last week, it’s the pseudoscience baggage that attends its use that is equally dangerous:

Helping people with chronic pain via the placebo effect is nice, but there are many ways to achieve this effect that create less collateral damage. Giving someone a sugar pill is relatively simple. Creating an enormous ideological framework that clouds people’s judgements about mainstream medicine is not. The biggest problem with practitioners of alternative medicine is that they often deny the soundness of scientific studies as a measurement of the efficacy of a treatment. This is a dangerous sentiment. If Deepak Chopra were to discover a new form of medical treatment that helped sick people, it should be possible to test that the treatment is actually working. By denying the validity of the scientific method, alternative healers free themselves from any kind of accountability.

The Atlantic Magazine quoted Steven Salzberg, a prominent biology researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, saying homeopathy is a…

…cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery. These clinics throw together a little homeopathy, a little meditation, a little voodoo, and then they add in a little accepted medicine and call it integrative medicine, so there’s less criticism. There’s only one type of medicine, and that’s medicine whose treatments have been proven to work. When something works, it’s not all that hard to prove it. These people have been trying to prove their alternative treatments work for years, and they can’t do it. But they won’t admit it and move on. Of course they won’t. They’re making too much money on it.

I got back onto this old horse of an argument recently when a Facebook poster responded to my posts urging residents to get a flu vaccine by saying, “If you care for your health, take a homeopathic alternative with no added toxins.” No added anything, really, since homeopathic “remedies” are simply placebos and what you get in those little pills is a little sugar and nothing else.

Taking nothing does just that: nothing. If you care about your health – and that of others – you’ve already had your flu shot. Homeopathic “remedies” will not prevent the flu from spreading or infecting anyone. In fact they’re actually helping spread disease.

In short: homeopathy is bunk, and dangerous, unhealthy bunk at that. It’s taken off these days because of the internet-driven conspiracy-theory gullibility that pervades our culture. Terms like “Big Pharma” are used to scare people who are already deeply suspicious of government, corporations, developers, Liberals, contrails, medicine, vaccinations and science. Ooh, scary…

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Words, Your Brain and Sex


Naked readingOne of the reasons I’m a dedicated librocubularist* can be found in a story on IFL Science that is headlined, “Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs.” It opens:

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

So nothing like a good, brisk read through the Compact English to get in the mood, eh? Get all purfled from the effort of learning new words. While you groak your snoutfair mate and suggest she festinate her reading while she tells you to be testudineous while she deliciates her words…

The actual article this story draws from doesn’t exactly say that learning new words is the same as sex or drugs. What it says is that learning them lights up the regions of the brain that kicks into play when it wants to reward you. At least it works on people who were being studied under MRIs, not necessary those in libraries or bookstores. Don’t go ecstasiated over it, yet.

It does the same thing for gambling, although I have to admit for this unrepentant mumpsimus, my own reward-centre connection for learning kicks a much more powerful punch than that for gambling. It’s a burden I bajulate well, though.

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The Ebola Panic


Jenny McCarthyEbola has gripped the imagination of North American media and been spun into a terrifying spectre looming like a horseman of the apocalypse over us. So widespread has it become that Jenny McCarthy, one of the top wingnuts of quackery and pseudomedicine, and poster girl for the pro-measles-pro-mumps parents, felt compelled to pipe up with her own “cure,” should it spread to the USA:

Lemon juice.

Yep. Wonder how the scientists missed that one. A quick trip to the grocery store and you’re immune. Safe easy and natural!

Well, okay, she didn’t really say that. It was from a story posted on The Daily Currant, a satirical website and shared on social media as if it was a real story. Not even McCarthy is that moronic. I hope (it’s hard to tell…).

The same site also had stories titled, Sarah Palin: ‘Can Obama Stop The Ebola Zombies?’ and “Justin Bieber Hospitalized With Ebola” and Ann Coulter: ‘Give Ebola to Migrant Children’.

That doesn’t mean the wingnut crowd McCarthy belongs to hasn’t been busy spinning its nonsense. There has been the usual pile of steaming codswallop coming from the conspiracists about ebola as with chemtrails, morgellons and the New World Order. It’s been called a hoax on the loony tune sites. And on one a government population control device:

A buzzword around the internet lately, describes that the US government has either bought or created patents of a virus “called” ebola (not necessarily the same as the original from 1976), and is being used for either population control or as a bio-weapon for use on foreign powers that the government is at war with.

I know, I know: who comes up with this irresponsible, paranoid madness? (Apparently the scare/hoax/conspiracies are fueled by a profit motive… at least in part.)

The point is that ebola – a few years ago barely known outside the virus hunters of the CDC – is now a household word and a hot topic on social media. It scares people (and clearly befuddles the wingnuts). So much so that Ann Coulter, harridan for the Tea Party actually did chime in on it (although she lacks any knowledge about medicine or science to justify her comments), albeit to use it as a platform to launch another anti-Obama-pro-white-racist attack:

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter on Wednesday joined the bandwagon of right-wing critics questioning why President Barack Obama hasn’t instituted a travel ban for the African countries battling the Ebola epidemic — perhaps with the goal of preventing those who are infected from getting “free medical treatment” here in the U.S

Calling Coulter a pundit is obviously sarcasm; Salon more fittingly calls her a “professional troll.”
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“A” Personalities: A Theory


GoodreadsWhen someone tells me he is an “A-type” personality, I cannot help but think of the title of Aaron James’ bestselling book: Assholes *A Theory (Anchor Books, New York, 2014). After all, what else would the “A” stand for when someone boasts to the audience he is an alpha male as if the rest of the room was full of less-worthy betas?

Self aggrandizement is not limited, of course, to assholes, but they certainly occupy centre stage (at least in their own mind). Not always the best place to be, considering that, medically speaking, A-types are more prone to heart disease than B-types.

As Wikipedia tells us, Type A personalities are,

“…ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management… often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.
…Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms: (1) free-floating hostility, which can be triggered by even minor incidents; (2) time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation usually described as being “short-fused”; and (3) a competitive drive, which causes stress and an achievement-driven mentality.

Not entirely flattering a description, is it? Rigid, status-conscious, ambivalent, impatient, short-fused, irritable, hostile, competitive… not the sort of person you want at a council table where cooperation, consensus and respect make for good governance. A-types at the table generally are seen by others as assholes. Hence the mnemonic association with the book. One wonders why anyone would boast of this.

Aaron James writes of a dichotomy between cooperative people and these A-types:

Even the “bright-line” rules of cooperation will have exceptions and cooperative people often put a certain amount of work into discerning both the spirit of the law and what is finally acceptable in a particular case. They thus seek clarification, check assumptions, ask permission or at least take a measure of care in good faith. The asshole, by contrast sees little need for the work of mutual restraint aimed at benefit for all involved. According to his generalized sense of entitlement, it is only natural that the various advantages of social life should flow his way.

(For the sake of politeness and civility, I am inclined to find another name for assholes. I cannot merely call them jerks, because James differentiates between assholes and mere jerks. Twits, idiots, dweebs, boors, shmucks, cads, jackanapes… these names fail to capture the essence of those truly despicable people whom James describes. I think I will have to simply refer to them as “a*holes” so as not to entirely dilute the impact.)

A-type, A*holes, pretty much the same thing, at least as far as I can fathom. Of course, I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure there are subtle shades of difference I fail to discern.

B-type personalities, on the other hand, Wikipedia says, work well together:

…generally live at a lower stress level and typically work steadily, enjoying achievement but not becoming stressed when they do not achieve. They may be creative and enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective…

Sounds like someone much easier to get along with in a group dynamic like the council table: unstressed, creative, exploratory, reflective. People who will contribute rather than control, will think rather than merely act. People you can work with and respect. people who use “we”  when describing accomplishments and work as a team. People unlikely to be described in James’ book.

A-types, however, will find themselves in it.

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Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime


An intriguing possibility was reported on Science Daily this morning:

Earth’s last magnetic reversal took place 786,000 years ago and happened very quickly, in less than 100 years — roughly a human lifetime. The rapid flip, much faster than the thousands of years most geologists thought, comes as new measurements show the planet’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than normal and could drop to zero in a few thousand years.

Why would this matter? The article continues:

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

When will this happen? That’s the big question behind the headline. Soon, warn geologists. But their “soon” in geological time doesn’t mean the same as “your breakfast will arrive soon” in a restaurant. It seems overdue for a flip, but no one is sure when that might happen. A 2002 story in The Guardian warned that it was imminent – in geological terms:

“Some experts have stuck their necks out to predict that we can expect the next reversal some time in the next 2,000 years.”

I think we can have that cup of tea while we wait. It may not happen in our lifetimes. But, the article has that shock effect nonetheless:

The Earth could be about to turn upside down. The planet’s magnetic field is showing signs of wanting to make a gigantic somersault, so that magnetic north heads towards Antarctica, and magnetic south goes north. Compasses will point the wrong way, and migrating birds, fish and turtles are going to be very confused.
Just when this will happen, how long it will take and what the consequences will be, is difficult to fathom. What is not in doubt, though, is that it will happen. About every half a million years or so, the Earth’s magnetic field flips upside down.

And that’s the worry: every half-a-million years is a lot less time than the 786,000 years since the last flip-over. This summer, Scientific American warned it could happen sooner rather than later:

Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from huge blasts of deadly solar radiation, has been weakening over the past six months, according to data collected by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite array called Swarm.
The biggest weak spots in the magnetic field — which extends 370,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — have sprung up over the Western Hemisphere, while the field has strengthened over areas like the southern Indian Ocean, according to the magnetometers onboard the Swarm satellites — three separate satellites floating in tandem.
The scientists who conducted the study are still unsure why the magnetic field is weakening, but one likely reason is that Earth’s magnetic poles are getting ready to flip, said Rune Floberghagen, the ESA’s Swarm mission manager. In fact, the data suggest magnetic north is moving toward Siberia.

So we wait, unable to do anything about it. Have another cuppa, if you must. Yes, you have time.

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The Utility Animal


In the July/August edition of Pets Magazine (the Cat Care issue) there are two articles that caused me concern. One is “The Loyalty and Bravery of a Cat” (p.28), the other is “Quick-Thinking Cat Saves the Day.” (p.26). The latter is a pet profile from the Purina Hall of Fame that honours pets for “extraordinary actions.” The former is about a YouTube video showing a family cat attacking a dog that had itself attacked the family’s four-year-old son.

The acts themselves and the cats involved are extraordinary and deserving of praise as individual animals. But the idea that cats in general need to be propped up as utility animals, that in order to have intrinsic value they need to perform some service for humans, bothers me deeply.

It also annoys me that cat lovers feel the need to be defensive about cats and find ways to make them seem more like dogs. They are separate species with very different social (pack) cultures and cannot be expected to behave like one another.

All animals evolved to fulfill their own purpose. Some have become domesticated through their interactions with humans; a few are even companion animals we call pets. Dogs and cats top that small list. And a small percentage of those perform acts that are of use or beneficial to humans.

Valuing an animal on the basis of its utility is to devalue the life of that animal. Animals do not exist to serve human needs. Yes, they can be trained to perform tasks, but that isn’t their purpose.

Cats have value simply by being cats. All life has its own inherent value and we cannot measure that value against its usefulness to our lives. Not should not – cannot. There is no appropriate measuring stick.

Any attempt only promotes subjective value judgments over other species. It’s akin to measuring the distance to a neighbouring planet by the number of bicycle lengths between us. Irrelevant.

Value your pet, value all life, for what it is. Not what use, not what advantage and not what profit you can gain from it. And I am happy to share my home with my pets for the sake of their companionship alone.

Gut instincts


Ars TechnicaA story on Science Daily says research suggests our so-called “free will” may be less free than we ever imagined. We may, instead, be meat puppets ruled by the desires and cravings of the smallest symbiotes we carry: our gut bacteria.

The story opens:

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity… researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way… the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses.

Actually this is not really surprising. It has long been known that human evolution has been affected by both viral and bacterial presence, as well as having our own DNA encoded with bits from them. And recently it was discovered bacteria can encode DNA from other animals – even dead ones – into their own.

The discovery of the recombinant DNA process should have alerted everyone to the wider possibility that there may be biological analogues already. After all, it only makes sense that in any symbiotic relationship, there must be some way for all parties to communicate with each other for mutual survival. The gut is a competitive environment with numerous species, so they also need a mechanism for cooperation and communication in ways that also help keep the host alive.

Most life on the planet has some form of symbiotic relationship and many are mutually beneficial like that with our gut flora, although there are also parasitic relationships as well.

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