Tag Archives: culture

TV makes kids fat, but not the way you think.

I think it will come as no surprise that young couch potatoes tend to be overweight. What I think might come as a surprise is that a few hours per day of sedentary vegetation is not the problem. According to the National Academies, it may well be the advertisements that the kids are watching that’s causing it rather than the actual time of inactivity.

And I get it. If you want to make lots of money, you need to buy low and sell high. That means buying corn syrup (cheap) and effective advertising (kids are the easiest) and selling it for ten times the market price. Now maybe advertising  could convince kids that orange juice was awesome. The problem is that the value added is not all that high. Special name brand orange juice probably can’t be driven up in price by a factor of 10 because nobody will bay $20 for a bottle of OJ (Or so I once thought…). Name brand sugar water, on the other hand, certainly can because the price was so low to start.

Where does that laeve us? Kids want crap because they see crap on TV. Value added foods like cola and flavored tortilla chips (both derived from corn, interestingly) make money.  Kids get fat, somebody gets rich. And who are to say that’s not just fine and dandy?


Short Review of "A Culture of Conspiracy"

A Culture of Conspiracy” by Michael Barkun is by far the most coherent, scholarly material I have ever read on the contentious issue of “stigmatized knowledge.”

It is not a book written to “expose of the TRUTH” about the hidden reality of… whatever. It is also not a debunking of the conspiracy theories that abound about everything. The problem with the fringe, as I have said, is that the stuff out there is contradictory, so at best one of the competing voices is right… and it’s a lot easier to generate that crap than it is to debunk it. A definitive volume that debunks every conspiracy theory would be impossible. And the people to whom it would be the most use would denounce it as more propaganda from the conspirators anyway.

Barkun’s book is a sort-of natural history of crazy memes. The results are fascinating. The world views that people hold are… amazing, really. There are people in our midst battling literal demons in the moments leading up to the end of the world. That’s right now. Not fiction. They are living it. And it feels important to them.

Barkun sums up nicely: “A growing number of people believe that a super-conspiracy commonly referred to as the New World Order is on the verge of consolidating world domination, possibly in collaboration with malevolent aliens.” Or, I would add, in collaboration with the Devil. “The conspirators allegedly operate through so wide ranging a network of confederates that they have co-opted authority figures in every sector of life. Through this control, in turn, they shape the information available to the general public and thus conceal the conspiracy’s existence and activities.”

Well, that presents some epistemological/metaphysical problems for the rest of us.

Dean argues that there is no longer a “consensus reality” according to which contested questions of fact can be resolved.  She suggests that on such subjects as alien abduction and political conspiracies, there are multiple contending realities, which keep contested issues from being decided…Dean’s position, while extreme in its suggestion of epistemological anarchy, is sufficiently reflective of the material considered here that it must be taken seriously.

So, can we all live in radically different parallel realities? Do we need a consensus reality? Who would get to enforce it if we do need it?

That’s the real philosophical question at the heart of this strange stuff. It underlies the “culture wars” and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. I think it’s an issue we’re going to be dealing with a lot over the next century. What I’m afraid of is that the conspiracists and the orthodoxists (I just made up a word!) will get the limited attention of the intelligentsia and the fundamental issue will get overlooked. Or, worse, The Jester is right and nobody cares at all.


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?


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.


Death from overwork – Karoshi

The Japanese have a word, Karoshi, for “Death from Overwork.” This was sent in by alert reader Robert, who (unlike the Jester) cares about my welfare. I’m not going to work myself to death. I’m going to work myself to exhaustion, then go to Germany. I worked all night last night. I did not get the data I need. I will have to do it again. I have had 9 hours of sleep in the last 48. I have no sense of humor about this fact.

On the other hand, punctuation is hilarious! Gabe and Tycho know! And I agree. What about this phrase “What is f___ing natural?” Is it an intensifier for “natural” in the sense of “What does ‘natural’ even mean?” Or are we to infer a question about the existence of natural coitus? Is there a punctuation solution?

Ah, conversations in lab. I’m so tired. I feel like Ze Frank expresses it best.