Monthly Archives: October 2008

The Strange fringe leads to something interesting

There’s a book by Orson Scott Card called “Folk of the Fringe.” It’s one of his lesser known works. I liked the symbolism. In the post-apocalyptic future, a group of people are terraforming the Utah desert into arable land. In the story, there’s a sequence of plants (engineered and natural) that need to grow on the land before it’s ready for crops. This sequence is planted as ever-expanding rings out from Salt Lake City (O.S.C is a Mormon).

Out at the newly planted regions, the fringe, people live far away from mainstream society. They ride in long circles, tending to the ever expanding ring of habitable territory. The symbolism is obvious. People who are on the edges of social acceptability are actually making more conceptual and social “space” available to the rest of us.
There’s a bit of a parallel in the sciences. Truth to tell, most “kooks” don’t have anything fundamentally interesting. But occasionally, a kook will strike gold out in the frontier and inspire a new rush of activity.

I don’t know how kooky the subject is of “Binaural auditory beats.” The fact that I first heard about it through the “alternative” sources suggests that it’s pretty kooky. But that’s irrelevant in the end. This study looks like it’s bringing the subject into the more respectable realm of controlled experiments:

Binaural auditory beats affect vigilance performance and mood.
Lane JD, Kasian SJ, Owens JE, Marsh GR.

Department of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA

When two tones of slightly different frequency are presented separately to the left and right ears the listener perceives a single tone that varies in amplitude at a frequency equal to the frequency difference between the two tones, a perceptual phenomenon known as the binaural auditory beat. Anecdotal reports suggest that binaural auditory beats within the electroencephalograph frequency range can entrain EEG activity and may affect states of consciousness, although few scientific studies have been published. This study compared the effects of binaural auditory beats in the EEG beta and EEG theta/delta frequency ranges on mood and on performance of a vigilance task to investigate their effects on subjective and objective measures of arousal…

In any case, I’m not surprised that there are external stimuli that can have odd effects on our brain and consciousness. In fact, I would be surprised if there were not. This is the fringe, ladies and gentlemen. This is where fertile ground will be made from desert. Binaural beat stimulation is a crude probe compared to that which we are capable of designing. The last question is: what will we plant in this new ground made whole by our efforts?


The Swisstech Utilikey

I’m going to promote a product now: the Swisstech Utilikey

I use a Swisstech Utilikey basically every day. I love this little thing. It’s compact and as useful as a normal pocket knife for the same kinds of things, but it is also three screwdrivers and a bottle opener. It clips to a key ring and clips off just as easily. I keep mine clipped to a LED light.

Additionally, they are backed by a really nice warranty. I broke one of the blades on the Phillips screwdriver and Swisstech replaced the Utilikey for free.

They make a good gift, too. I gave one to my Dad, who is a real hard man for whom to shop.

So there you go. Head on over and get one.


DRM and "innovation policy"

Tycho and Gabe over at the Penny Arcade had a guest write their blog posts for a week . The topic was Digital Rights Management in videogames. DRM is the technological scheme by which a company tries to encourage buying instead of “sharing” of games, songs or movies. The fact that these products are now very long strings of Zeros and Ones has a fun consequence that the plebs else can copy it faster and cheaper than the original producer can.

Effectively, the previous bottleneck upon which the toll booth sat, distribution, is no longer optimally positioned. Everyone is still trying to cope. To thwart the “hackerz,” and keep people coming through the booth, companies have DRM.  It takes any of a number of forms. They all keep track of their product to make sure that people who use it are actually paying for it. I talked about this a while back, too.

So, we have two incommensurable agendas: consumers want to pay less; producers want to recoup their costs. Also, they would like to turn a massive, monopolistic profit. Did you know that RIAA settled over a price-fixing lawsuit?. Where should the law come down? Should it support the good of the people (see Canada) or the “greater good” that comes into play in economics? There is a case to be made: if people can’t protect their investment, why invest? Without investment, we presume, creativity and innovation stall. Or so we are led to believe.

There is a parallel case in the sciences. Upstream of patent and IP law, ‘innovation policy’ comes to play. Where and when should the public’s dollar be spent on science and (by extension) other great human pursuits? A recent article went up about this question at The question posed therein can be generalized. Science, art, literature all can be equally described by this statement:

“Research [and art, literature] occasionally generates radical changes that are unpredictable and often not associated with those pre-defined social goals. Nations invest in research for social purposes that are often thwarted by the nature of the research process itself.”

A society can invest, but it may not reap what it thinks it is sowing. The law of unintended consequences. DRM is similar: as people are thwarted in their attempts to access their legally purchased product, they turn to illegally acquired product. And so the software (and laws and business practices) designed to keep consumers buying turn them into thieves.



On TED talk and Book about The Blank Slate

As soon as I get to read Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I’ll give a more complete review. But I wholeheartedly agree with at least two of his points. First is the basic premise that people are born with a ‘first draft’ of their attitude toward life already built in. Secondly, and related to this, is his assessment of the ‘decline of the arts’. It’s bullshit. The arts are alive and well. What is declining is an interest in pedantic pseudo-intellectualism in the arts. We’re getting back to a more grounded artistic sensibility that actually takes into account what people actually like. That seems unsophisticated. Sophistication for its own sake had its heyday. It’s over.

But sophistication can come back. Sophistication now should be about bridging discipline gaps. Instead of intellectual masturbation, (forming connections to yourself) artists need to go study neuroscience and learn how to make people tick. Or make connections to other sciences or history and try to teach people something beautiful in a way that is beautiful. Forge new connections. We all need to bridge Snow’s Two Cultures. This is meaningful. It will give birth to new ideas. It’s intellectual procreation.



Dark Science: on freeing the negative results

Hi all. Sorry for the long silence. My dissertation is defended – I passed. I’m qualified as a PhD!

So this whole presentation and dissertation thing reminded me of some work I did a few years ago. I got it published after a struggle, but one reviewer specifically recommended against publication because it was a ‘negative result’. I showed that a peptide implicated in Alzheimer’s disease does not affect synaptic vesicles. It seemed like al ikely hypothesis at the time.

I think a “Journal of Negative Results” would be a good idea. There’s been some rumbling about this on the net. Wired magazine did a great piece on it called “Freeing the Dark Data”.

Well, in any case, there is one, now, it turns out. The Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine publishes studies that show that show things that are useful in the sense that they say “don’t bother trying this hypothesis. We already tested it.”

That’s a simplification, of course, but from a researcher’s standpoint, things in that spirit have tended to go unpublished. Articles like this make it sound like scientists are hiding data that doesn’t suit their fancy. Really, if they have some hypothesis (“I’ll bet drug A will work a lot better if we include drug B”) and then they test it and find out it’s totally false, it feels like failure. And it’s hard to publish. Journals don’t want low-impact articles like “Drug B does not change the activity of Drug A.” They want titles like “Drug B enhances effects of Drug A by 1000%”

Plus, it seems like scientists should know what they are doing. Why were we wrong when we predicted that Drug B would enhance Drug A? Were we being foolish? Nobody wants to look foolish.

So maybe with this kind of journal, this will start to change. This is good for science in the long run. If somebody, later, reads that the fact that Drug A and B don’t affect each other, it might have huge implications that are not obvious now. Why repeat the experiment? If the data is out there, that’s to everyone’s benefit. It even seems like Google (“don’t be evil”) is getting on board.