Why is it that chocolate and whisky help when I want a cigarette?

What does it mean that I can sometimes quench the belly-fire-for-fire with chocolate or whisky? Is this some kind of interchangeable appetite for the appetitive? I just want something bad for me? Or that these are all different sources of endorphins, and OD’ing on one source of pleasures drowns out the baleful vacuum of an alternative, absent pleasure?

We only use 10% of our brains?

The myth that we only use 10% of our brains is sticky and gets everywhere, much like glue-dipped belly button fluff. And just like glue-dipped belly button fluff, it’s a nuisance, and can only be combatted with the even-stickier duct tape of truth. Rather than attempting to be exhaustive, I’ll simply appeal to your intuitions to try and make sense of how it’s nonsense.

The urban legend that we only use 10% of our brains is true in the same way it’s true that we only use 10% of a piano. Have you ever seen even a concert pianist press more than ten keys at once? It wouldn’t be too hard – one could probably manage 20 or 30 by adding elbows, and maybe even more with props. But it would sound terrible – all of the informative signal that goes into making music rather than noise is in the choice and timing of the keys that get pressed. It’s the pattern of keypresses that matters.

The same is true of the brain. It may be that only (say) 10% of neurons are firing at a given moment, but that pattern of firing is what matters – the choice and timing of which neurons are active is what constitutes thought.

It is worth noting that, just like the piano, there are bits of your brain that are active more often than others – you can probably get rid of the very lowest and very highest notes without too much of a problem, though occasionally things might sound a little odd. The same is true for people and animals – you can lose a few thousand neurons heading a football or downing shots and no one will notice. But if you lose a big chunk of brain, or multiple keys in a row, then the music is going to sound pretty bad.

Email is the mind-killer

I must not email.
Email is the mind-killer.
Email is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my email.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the email has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Sensing the buzz at a conference

I go to a lot of conferences. Often, there’ll be lots of posters hanging up at the same time as workshops and presentations and it’s difficult to figure out what to go and see at a given moment. Imagine if everyone had an RFID tag in their badges (at their choice) that anonymously logged their movements. Wouldn’t it be useful to know the whereabouts of people who like the same things I do? The schedules tend to be organised in blocks of an hour or two. Feeling at a loose end, I could peer at my laptop, and have the various sessions and posters ranked for me, based on guesses about which things I’d be most likely to enjoy.

Of course, when the session switches, the system’s guesses about what I should see will be basically at chance. Within a short time though, based on the number of people and length of time spent in different places, the system can start to accumulate evidence for its recommendations. And it wouldn’t be too hard to seed its guesses based on the text from the abstracts.

Conferences certainly aren’t the only or even the best example of how to use this information. But if I was a company doing this, I’d make sure the RFID tags are entirely optional, anonymize and noisify the data to assuage privacy concerns, and provide an API to access the data for free, so that enterprising folks could easily build mashups and try out alternative algorithms. Something interesting might come out of it, and it would be a fun way of generating publicity.

Any idea how much 30,000 RFID tags would cost?

John Cunningham Lily, RIP

According to the wikipedia:

“[John Cunningham Lilly] is best remembered as a pioneer researcher into the nature of consciousness using as his principal tools the isolation tank, dolphin communication and psychedelic drugs, sometimes in combination.”

A noble epitaph. I hope to be remembered as “a pioneer researcher into the nature of consciousness using as my principal tools drugs, dirty dancing and pounding techno music, sometimes in combination”.

[Thanks to Sara Szczepanski for pointing this out]

Does eating salmon lower the murder rate?

‘Does eating salmon lower the murder rate?’ (NY Times – from Pat Gunkel) (040616)

Gesch (2002) showed that feeding volunteers in a British prison fatty acids and other supplements led to a drop of more than a third in antisocial behavior (assaults and other violations) (N=231).

Also mentions an unnamed group in Finland working on Omega-3 fatty acids’ effect on frontal cortex.

Google desktop search

Why does the google desktop search suck so much? It’s the only google product I hate. It regularly fails to find things that definitely do exist, its index doesn’t update very fast so it’s continually telling me that files that it’s produced for me in the search results don’t exist, it doesn’t seem to do a very good job of searching inside PDFs, there’s no way to tell it where to update, almost all of the plugins that I tried to download didn’t work somehow…

Why isn’t there an easy way to tell google or mozilla or something to download absolutely everything I view in my browser to my hard disk for local searching later? Am I the only one that depends on the information that I view online, but doesn’t trust it to be there when I really need it? e.g. doing a presentation when the wireless doesn’t like my MAC address, on a train, in my mum’s house etc.

Update: the Slogger Firefox extension does exactly this.

Cringely on the RIAA

Richard pointed this Cringely piece out to me. Interesting idea for getting round the RIAA. Nobody’s done it though, so perhaps it wouldn’t have worked out legally after all.

It does seem too easy somehow. And not the kind of progressive, gradual solution that wouldn’t lead to a destructive implosion in the music industry and subsequent dark ages. Or maybe it would lead to a flowering of new songs and unfettered artists. I don’t know.

Google goes public

I didn’t buy any Google shares because I don’t have much money to risk, but I think I would have if I had. I have faith in Google, that goes beyond the reasoned.


Google motto

Never settle for the best
Focus on the user and all else will follow
It’s best to do one thing really, really well
Fast is better than slow
Democracy on the web works
You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer
You can make money without doing evil
There’s always more information out there
The need for information crosses all borders
You can be serious without a suit
Great just isn’t good enough