Adrian's Writing Blog

news, articles and reviews

Aldous Huxley letter to George Orwell

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The current edition of New Philosopher magazine includes a copy of a fascinating letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) after he read a first edition copy Orwell's famous book, '1984'. I thought I'd reproduce it here in its entirety, as I think it touches upon a very important subject, that Orwell's dark dystopia was very perceptive and prescient in its warnings and ideas but missed a key point, that it wasn't the most efficient system of population control. Here's the letter:

Dear Mr Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the middle of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor eyesight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on ‘Nineteen eight-four’.

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Agreeing with all that the critics that have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once once, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals - the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution - the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at the total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology - are to be found the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen eight-four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in ‘Brave New World’. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognisance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile and the rest. Read More...

Twelve important psychology experiments

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I thought it would be a good time to go over all the psychology experiments that I've encountered over the years, ones that have been fascinating and revealing studies on human behaviour. It's not a comprehensive list, for sure, but it is a good list, I think, full of revealing content. It starts out fun and harmless and becomes darker as it progresses, so you can stop at any point if you become too saddened by human nature.

I haven't included psychology experiments showing 'psi' effects, such as work done by Daryl Bem, Robert Jahn and others; I think they're better off in their own list. I also haven't included experiments about cognitive bias, although there are lots of interesting ones for that subject (e.g. anchoring bias, halo effect, priming, framing etc). My favourite cognitive bias example at the moment is the 'UP TO 50% OFF' sale signs we see here in Britain all the time. Many people will see these signs and expect items inside to be 30% off or 40%. In fact, the sign does not state this at all. In fact, what the sign says is exactly the same as saying; 'NO MORE THAN 50% OFF.' Imagine what the customer would think if he or she saw a sign like that stuck on the shop window? Read More...

Cognitive Dissonance and tin-foil hats

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In Dean Radin’s book ‘The Noetic Universe’, which I recently reviewed, the author describes a fascinating psychology experiment with a doctored pack of playing cards. Here’s the description, taken from the book:

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A classic experiment by psychologists J.S.Bruner and Leo Postman demonstrated that sometimes what we see, or think we see, is not really there. Bruner and Postman created a deck of normal playing cards, except that some of the suit symbols were color-reversed. For example, the queen of diamonds had black-colored diamonds instead of red. The special cards were shuffled into an ordinary deck, and then they were displayed one at a time, people were asked to identify them as fast as possible. The cards were first shown very briefly, too fast to identify them accurately. Then the display time was lengthened until all the cards could be identified.

The amazing thing is that while all the cards were eventually identified with great confidence, no one noticed that there was anything out of ordinary in the deck. People saw a black four of hearts with red hearts. In other words, their expectations about what playing cards should look like determined what they actually saw. When the researchers increased the amount of time that the cards were displayed, some people eventually began to notice that something was amiss, but they did not know exactly what was wrong. One person, while directly gazing at a red six of spades, said; “That’s the six of spades but there’s something wrong with it - the black spade has a red border.”

As the display time increased even more, people became more confused and hesitant. Eventually, most people saw what was before their eyes. But even when the cards were displayed for forty times the length of time needed to recognise normal playing cards, about 10 percent of the color-reversed playing were never correctly identified by any of the people!
Read More...

Why psychopaths and secret clans rule us all

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2016 has been an interesting year, to say the least. As the year is coming to a close, I thought it would worth thinking about possibly the most important even of the year; the election of Donald Trump to become President of the United States. Many people in the Western World have been appalled at how far Donald Trump has risen, considering his alleged traits of poor attention span, callousness, continual lying, shallow misogyny, racism, homophobia, incendiary militarism, etc. It's interesting to note that such traits are linked, in psychology circles, with sociopaths and psychopaths.

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The term ‘psychopath’ and ‘sociopath’ effectively mean the same thing; a person who has effectively no empathy or compassion for others. When many people think about psychopaths, they immediately think about serial killers. It is true that the two are closely linked. Psychopaths have such poor internal mental activity that they can only gain stimulus from intense external experiences. This need, combined with almost no compassion, gives rise to the serial killer behaviour, as the psychopath craves the intensity of a violent act and sees no reason not to carry it out. Read More...

Michael Faraday and self-deception

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This week, the excellent website Brainpickings has published an article about the eminent British scientist Michael Faraday. On May 6, 1854, Faraday delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution on the subject of “mental discipline,” later included in his volume Experimental Researches In Chemistry And Physics. Here's what he said:
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Among those points of self-education which take up the form of mental discipline, there is one of great importance, and, moreover, difficult to deal with, because it involves an internal conflict, and equally touches our vanity and our ease. It consists in the tendency to deceive ourselves regarding all we wish for, and the necessity of resistance to these desires. It is impossible for any one who has not been constrained, by the course of his occupation and thoughts, to a habit of continual self-correction, to be aware of the amount of error in relation to judgment arising from this tendency. The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.

Read More...

Why do we move forward in time?

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This week, the New Scientist magazine gave me a big compliment by making my latest letter to them their Editor’s letter of the week. Here it is:

Your article 'Why do we move forward in time?" (Issue 3037, 5th Sept 2015, pg34) makes it clear that physics has no clear answer as to why time passes. The article reminded me of an ancient Zen Koan. Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving." A Zen master, walking nearby, overheard them. He said, "It is not the flag nor the wind that is moving but your minds." The idea that our minds experience the four-dimensional 'landscape' of physical reality in a chosen time direction would explain the phenomenon of time passing without violating any physics. Perhaps the Zen master was right philosophically and scientifically?


The article concerned was one of a series of articles in the New Scientist that week (issue 3037) about aspects of physics that non one had yet solved. The tricky nature of time is definitely one of these big conundrums. We all experience time flowing; we do things, one after the other, day after day. Around us clocks tick and cars drive and birds fly etc. We can't seem to stop or alter this flow of time. We can't make time stand still. It can certainly sometimes seem as if time is flowing more slowly than at other times. For example, waiting to go into an exam can seem to last forever, but while you're doing the exam, time can seem to scream by. I remember once starting a strategy board game, then becoming completely engrossed and then looking up and finding out that two hours had gone by, as if in a flash. Read More...

Oliver Sacks - Three wonderful books

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Oliver Sacks sadly passed away a few days ago. He was a fascinating, brilliant and warm man and he contributed immeasurably to both clinical neuropsychology and public knowledge and interest in that field. Here's three of his books that I can heartily recommend.
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'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' is the book that began my love for Oliver Sacks' writing. In it, he describes several patients that he worked with that had suffered some form of injury to the right hemisphere of their brain. The fact that it was a right hemisphere injury was of critical importance. A left hemisphere injury can cause serious problems to a person's ability to operate in society, but they are of an understandable nature. When the right hemisphere is damaged, the effects are very strange indeed. Read More...

Mindsets and the Pauli Effect

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On Saturday, I went to the ‘science fiction future’ event at the BFI on the South Bank in London. The afternoon was a mixed affair but one of the speakers, Lydia Nicholas, made a very interesting comment during her entertaining talk on biology. She quoted a biologist who said:

"Cell work is so sensitive. Some times I wonder if the success of my experiment is down to whether I'm feeling happy or sad that day."



The quote generated laughter in the room but I wondered, surely a scientist would be intrigued by this experience? He or she might say to themselves; this is an interesting phenomenon. I'm noticing a pattern of behaviour. Is this phenomenon repeatable? If it is repeatable, I'd know it is a reliable, measurable phenomenon. If it is, then I've extended my knowledge of the world around me. I can then write up my experiments and distribute the information to others. That way, others can be made aware of what I've found. Ideally, one or more of them will conduct the experiments too and they can report whether or not they found the same effect. I can perform a set of experiments and in each one, record my own state of mind, giving my level of happiness a scale of one to ten, then carry out the cell work and record the results. It would be a relatively inexpensive task and if the phenomenon is real, it would be a big step forward in understanding how reality works. If the phenomenon isn't reliable, then I can conclude that it was purely a concoction on my part. Read More...

Clockwork minds

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There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the potential threat of A.I.; the danger that robots and artificial intelligences could become sentient, accelerate in intelligence and destroy humanity. Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have all warned of this threat. Musk is even pledging millions of dollars to study and plan against this outcome. It seems pretty weird that these guys are talking about the threat of A.I. rather than climate change, whose existence is very, very well supported with evidence and which will become highly dangerous to humanity, but there you go.

How real is the threat of rogue A.I.'s? Can one really become sentient, accelerate in intelligence, form its own agenda and take over the world, destroying humanity in the process? Read More...

Am I eating the tablet game or is it eating me?

A lot of us play computer games. There's a huge array of games out there to cater for nearly every taste, from blood-spattered sadistic violence (huge market) to organising parties. Recently, I've noticed, after quite a few hours, that the games I've played seem to fall into two categories.

The first type are the tablet games that eat me, in the sense that the game entirely consumes my mind and time. When I play certain games, particularly the simpler games where you match up tiles to complete a row, or combine two sliding tiles together to make the next level up of tile, I fall into a weird mental state where all I'm doing is combining tiles and nothing else in the universe exists any more. It feels good combining those tiles. I work out where to slide the tiles and which tiles to focus on so that they combine well and I can create the next level up of tiles which I will then combine to make the next level up of tiles after that and every time I do that I get a little kick of happiness and success until finally, after I can't change any more tiles and the game ends, I look up and an hour's gone by. An hour?!! How did that happen? What's worse is that even though I've just gone through a self-created, pointless time-warp that's just erased an hour of my life, I actually have a itchy, nagging desire to play the game again!

Earlier this year, the New Scientist magazine published a very interesting article entitled 'Obsession engineers: Mind control the Candy Crush way' that discussed this very phenomenon. The article focussed on two popular games, 'Flappy Bird' and 'Candy Crush saga'. Either by accident or design, both games ate people. 'Flappy Bird' was an accidental success but its popularity was a mixed blessing to its developer, Dong Nguyen. He made a lot of money but he received so much angry correspondence from frustrated players that he withdrew the game from public circulation.

By comparison, Candy Crush Saga is still most definitely available and it really eats people. To quote from the New Scientist article:

Candy Crush has become an instant, unstoppable juggernaut and a pop culture phenomenon. Since its introduction two years ago, the game has become the focus of obsessive analysis and sordid confessions. Journalists have openly declared themselves addicts, with more than a few admitting they have paid extravagant sums to play. They played on the train, at work, at weddings, while driving and during bathroom breaks (according to one anonymous web confessor, when she finally got off the toilet after 4 hours of play, her legs collapsed beneath her).


Psychologists have studied the astonishing addictiveness of such games. They refer to the pattern of play in these games as a ludic loop. In a ludic loop, the player performs short cycles of repeated actions that are easily achievable. When the player achieves these actions, they are rewarded, usually by a pleasing tone and visual flash of colour. These repeated events give the player a dopamine hit to their brain, similar to a drug-rush. Combined with the knowledge of a large achievement in the future, this ludic loop compels us to repeat the activity ad infinitum. When I read this explanation, I immediately thought of Super Mario Bros and fruit machines. They both flash and make a jingle when you pick up a star or a coin. Of the two, I'd recommend Super Mario Bros; it's a brilliant game, contains hours and hours of fun and you only have to pay once.



The ability of certain games to eat people has reached disturbing levels around the world. A recent BBC Storyville programme entitled 'Web Junkies - China's addicted teens' documented teenage Chinese men who have been placed into a detoxing camp by their parents to try to end their compulsive gaming addictions. These young men were playing immersive on-line action games in cyber-cafes for hours every day, in some cases all through the night. Watching the programme is both a fascinating and saddening experience.

Fortunately, I think there are a second group of tablet games that work in a very different way. These are the games that we eat. What I mean by that is that there are games that are skilfully made, beautiful to look at and most importantly, only last for a limited amount of time. Here are three great examples of such games:



1) 80 Days is an iPad game in which the player travels around the world as fast as they can in order to try and get back to London in 80 days or less, just as Phileas Fogg tried to do in 'Around the world in 80 days'. '80 days' has a wonderful visual style, mixing late victorian empire and steampunk and is cleverly balanced. It gives the player many different possible routes to take around the world. Players need to plan ahead, buying and selling items on the way that can either help them on their journeys or increase their wealth so that they can take more expensive but quicker forms of transport. Eventually, you learn enough about the routes to travel around the world within the time limit and often with a lot more money than you started, but that's okay because reaching that goal was lots of fun. As you can see from the image below, the artwork is excellent too.



2) Rymdkapsel means 'space capsule'. In this game, your job in this game is to develop a space station by moving resources around using your little rectangle people. Periodically, arrow things visit the space station and fire at your rectangle people. You need to protect your rectangle people against these attacks, but balance that protection with developing the station. I really enjoyed the sparse beauty of the station and the challenge of putting the place together while fending off the arrow threats. Again, like '80 days', the game comes to a natural end in that there is a main goal and once you achieve it, you're done.



3) Monument Valley is a puzzle game where you move a princess around perspective-defying buildings inspired by the works of M.C.Escher. The game has been flawlessly executed with an enjoyable score, elegantly simply controls and the visual fun of manoeuvering around impossible architecture. The game only has ten levels and you'll probably complete the whole game in a few hours, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

All three of these games, for me, are like a wonderful meal. You sit down with them and you look at them and you know that they've been lovingly made by people who are highly skilled and dedicated to producing something with mouthwatering contents, visual appeal and happy satisfaction. You tuck into them and enjoy the sensations, the feelings but you know that the experience won't last. After a few hours, it'll be finished and you'll have to get up, step away from the table and get on with your life but that's okay because you spent those few hours in happy enjoyment.

In that way, I think these games, the games that we eat, enrich our lives. They're short games that end, which means there are gaps between them, but this leaves room for anticipation, which can be more exciting than actually playing the game or eating the meal. Speaking of which, Wired magazine says that new levels of Monument Valley will be out soon. Yum yum! :-)

Milgram's experiment just won't die

Just a quick note to say that another of my letters has appeared in New Scientist magazine.

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This letter was in response to a recent feature article in which several psychologists put forward the idea that Milgram's famous experiment (which, among other things, is the subject of a track in Peter Gabriel's excellent, classic, bewitching album 'So') isn't quite as bleak as people have made out. For those who haven't heard of Milgram's famous psychology experiment, I've described it in this earlier post.

In the New Scientist article, the psychologists argued that the members of the public that participated in Milgram's experiment - the ones that applied the electric shocks - weren't as bad as everyone has made them out. One reason the psychologists gave was that the subjects in the experiment were told that the experiment had scientific benefit. That, argued the psychologists, was partly why the subjects applied what they thought were lethal level shocks. Also, the psychologists argued, Milgram did the experiment many times, with different parameters (including one where the subjects carrying out the shocks had to physically put the victim's hands on the shock plates) and in some of those versions, a greater percentage of people refused to carry out the shocks to lethal levels. All this, the psychologists emphasised, showed that people
aren't as willing to inflict pain and eventual death on a victim - if instructed to by an authority figure - as Milgram's experiments make out.

Being a right picky, curmudgeonly so-and-so, I felt I had to respond with this letter:

"In re-evaluating Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher argue against the popular view that most people will willingly shock someone to death if an authority figure asks them to (13th Sept, pg28). These psychologists might change their mind if they watch the 2010 French/Swiss televisions documentary 'Le Jeu de la Mort', in which participants in a fake game show were asked to shock a contestant who answered trivia questions incorrectly. The participants knew there was no scientific benefit. Yet only a fifth of them stopped before inflicting what they thought were lethal level shocks."


I was very pleased that New Scientist published the letter. The version they printed wasn't actually the version I sent them, but theirs is better. Nuts, I still haven't cracked this clear and efficient prose malarkey. For those who'd like more info on how the devious but illuminating French-speaking fake-game-show people reinforced Milgram's infamous findings, here's the
BBC report.

Reality is Casablanca

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In this week’s Brainpickings - a web site dedicated to interesting articles about writers and writing - there is a very interesting article about C.S.Lewis. Lewis is the famous author of books such as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. He was both an author and a Christian philosopher. In the article, focussed on his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, Lewis poses a fundamental moral and spiritual problem:

The problem of pain, in its simplest form was the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that "God" wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we'd have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in "either goodness, or power, or both."


It’s a tricky question. In a nutshell, it is: ‘If God’s full of love, why’s he put us here in a place full of suffering, misery and pain?’

There are lots of possible answers to this question but here's three popular ones:

  • God is good and he wants suffering in the world for a good reason. Unfortunately, we can’t understand why because God purpose is beyond our limited understanding. In other words, we’re too stupid to understand why we have to suffer.
  • We’re fundamentally bad; it's our own fault there’s suffering. We basically deserve what we're getting.
  • God doesn’t exist and the universe is what it is because of physics. There's no Big Reason nothing to ponder. This is the materialist or atheist solution and is fully believed by such academic luminaries as Richard Dawkins.

Unfortunately, none of the above answers are particularly positive. In fact, they’re all pretty depressing, which doesn’t improve the lot of anyone who's already unhappy about ‘the problem of pain’ in the first place.

But there is another answer! Hooray! If the Influence Idea is correct, then we, as thinking minds, are separate to physical reality and influence physical reality in order to make Life happen, including the functioning of our own bodies. This is a scientific idea, grounded in fact and logic, so there's no need to actually believe anything in order to say, with confidence that God exists (a.k.a. Original Mind, Tao or Atum) and there's Life After Physical Death etc.

But if we don't originate in this physical reality and we can leave it, why are we all going through all the suffering that comes as part and parcel of living our lives? What's the point? An answer may lie in reading the reports of people who say they've temporarily stopped living their physical life and visited the AfterLife…

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In previous centuries, there have been reports about this other realm from people that had temporarily died but then reawakened in their bodies (known as an NDE or Near Death Experience), but these were sketchy and anecdotal. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology and solid research, we have several recent, comprehensive studies to draw upon. I personally recommend the books ‘Heading towards Omega’ and ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’, which are both written by highly experienced doctors and academics.

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In both books, many people who survived NDE events report what they experienced and the testimonies are highly consistent. Almost all the survivors report that the after-death realm is an absolutely wonderful place. They state that our physical lives, by comparison, are just awful, full of pain and constraints and suffering and problems. Physical life, according to the NDE subjects, is actually even worse than we think it is; it’s only the fact that we’ve forgotten how wonderful the inter-life realm is that makes Reality for us even remotely bearable. Crucially, the NDE survivors also add that we have all willingly decided to live our physical lives because we believed that the experience would benefit us.

Such an idea leads to a simple but highly meaningful question; ‘what should we do to improve ourselves?’ Most of us would agree that we want to become better people during our lives, to be more courageous, more compassionate, more charitable, but how would we go about it? If we were in Heaven, we could perhaps ask God to transform us into ultimately lovely people… but there’s a problem with that. If we did that, we wouldn’t have improved, we’d have just been changed into someone else by another’s hand. This is where living a physical life full of challenges and difficulties starts to make sense. By living such a challenging life and succeeding in it, we have really improved as people.

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In the classic film ‘Casablanca’, the hero Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, faces all sorts of challenges and choices. Eventually, by the end of the movie, he becomes a better person. In the film’s climactic scene [plot spoiler], he surprises Elsa by telling her that she should leave with Victor Lazlo and not run away with him. He still loves her but he realises that she’ll only be truly happy if she gets on the plane with another man. If she doesn’t, she’ll regret it, maybe not today but soon and for the rest of her life. It’s a famous scene and a famous line and it’s meaningful; Rick has turned the corner, walked away from bitterness and anger. He has acted selflessly and improved the world.

But what if the film had been different? What if Rick had asked a Higher Power, five minutes in, to transform him into a wonderful human being? The net result would have been the same (freedom fighter escapes, woman is forgiven, man shows he cares) without a lot of talking, wearing of raincoats and singing of the Marseillaise. But such a transformation would have been rubbish, false, pointless. For Rick’s story to touch our heartstrings and stir our souls, he had to face challenges in that story. He had to resist the temptation of stealing Elsa away for himself. He had to face the option of wallowing in self-pity and bitterness, but instead rise above that and do the right thing and it was hard for him to do it; he had to reach down and pull himself into a good place. The challenges he faced were tough and we, the audience, didn’t know, until right at the end, which choice he would make but when he did make the right choices and become a better person, it meant everything to him and to us. It gets me every time. I practically blub when they sing the Marseillaise.

The same ise true of our own lives. Deep down, many of us want to become better people through our own experiences, our own choices and actions. Just as with Rick, we have to experience all sorts of challenges to be sure we are great people. A wise person would say that we don’t know how good we are until we are challenged; it is only when we’re challenged that we find out. We can’t just ‘talk the talk’, we have to ‘walk the walk’ to be sure.

This idea, that we are living physical lives to improve ourselves, has interesting consequences. For example, if Reality is a construction created by minds for personal improvement - a therapy environment - then the only things of real importance to us in Reality aren’t actually the physical things of reality at all - they’re just props. The only important thing in Reality is the state of our own minds. All extrinsic things like money, attractiveness, material goods etc are ultimately irrelevant and only of use if their presence helps us improve our minds. Anyone in Reality who is preoccupied with material things is akin to someone spending all their time playing a computer game because they're obsessed with amassing as many gold coins as possible. Such an attitude by game players often invites pity and ridicule but Reality is an artificial environment too, an immersive, affecting environment that we only temporarily experience.

It seems that Reality is the film 'Casablanca', only we don't know the ending. It is an immersive environment that we have all chosen to experience, from birth to death, and by doing this, by living our physical lives, we hope to rid ourselves of negative thoughts and negative reactions. Just as Rick had to face temptation, overcome bitterness and choose selflessness during the two hours of ‘Casablanca’, we are spending four-score-years-and-ten here because we want to achieve the same goals, only possibly with less raincoats…

p.s. Literally trying to live out 'Casablanca' is tempting too, but kind of dumb, but Woody Allen was very funny when he tried it in his film 'Play it again, Sam', which is definitely worth seeing.

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What's the logic of… the Longitude Prize 2014?

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This year, Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees is heading a ten million pound prize fund to help solve big problems that we face today. It is a project with a big media profile, organised by the Nesta charity. Here's five of the big questions they are hoping to answer:
How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
How can we fly without damaging the environment?

Don't they sound great? If we could use our cleverness and innovation and work really hard, we could answer those questions and help mankind.

But wait a second, this doesn't make sense, because we already know the answers to those questions. The problem seems to be that nobody likes the answers we already have. Before wondering why that is, let's look at the history of the Longitude Prize...

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The original Longitude Prize was set up in 1714 by the British Admiralty to find an accurate tool for navigation over the open oceans. The lack of such a tool was causing great loss of life for British sailors. Without an accurate way to measure how far around the planet you were (as compared to how far up and down) it was easy for ships to lose track of their position and crash into rocks with tragic results. To stop this happening, the British Admiralty set up a huge prize of ten thousand pounds for someone to develop a tool for calculation longitude accurately. Famously, Harrison rose to this challenge and developed a timepiece (Harrison No4) that met the requirements of the competition. His watch was an engineering masterpiece and met the competition's requirements. Unfortunately for Harrison, the Admiralty weren't keen to hand over the money. In fact, they avoided paying out for years. Eventually, with royal support, Harrison received at least some of the prize money he so richly deserved.

The original Longitude story is a fascinating one. It was a historical and memorable competition and made perfect sense. Harrison's clock was one of the best ever pioneer's tools, helping people who were at the mercy of a dominant natural world. Climate change hadn't really kicked in at that time and Humanity at that time were still explorers, having little impact on their environment (relatively). Longitude was an admiral prize (literally!) to solve a genuine and sincere problem where mankind was at the mercy of the natural world…

But that's not the case now! The situation has completely changed in the last century. We're not pioneers in a forest any more, lost in its vastness, fearful of its grandeur and power. Instead, mankind's current relationship with the natural world is more like a crowd partying around a solitary small tree, swinging from its weak branches and pissing up against its trunk. We don't need a discovery to help us avoid the dangers of the natural world. The natural world needs a discovery to help it avoid the dangers of us!

The Longitude Prize should be awarding a prize to stop people being people. We need is a competition that will award a prize for people NOT manufacturing products, NOT having more babies, NOT taking loads of antibiotics,or NOT using vast amounts of water.

Instead, the current Longitude award wants a new invention that makes all our problems of excess go away, without us changing our behaviour, which is like developing healthier doughnuts for gluttons. They'll just eat more of them, you berks! Humanity is a spoilt rich kid who's told he can't have any more doughnuts because they'll make him ill. He's not happy with that and he offers ten million pounds to anyone who can create magical doughnuts that you can eat as many times as you like and never get ill. This new challenge isn't daring science, it's Willy Wonka.

Let's look again at the Longitude Prize questions in this light, with the knowledge that a) man and nature are now akin to a drunken party debauching around a small and feeble tree… and b) that humanity is acting like a spoilt brat.


How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
Yeah, I want clean WATER for everybody, forever! No, you can't. Climate change is up and running and water resources are already shrinking fast. Projections made by governments and NGO's unanimously agree that water supplies will soon become so acute that wars will break out over control of what's left. To stop this, we need to urgently stop climate change by low-carbon lifestyles and a serious reduction in population. Only by doing that will we reduce the human impact on the planet and preserve our fresh water. We therefore need to stop burning fossil fuels and stop having babies. What, no sex or cars? Rubbish!!

How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
Yeah, I want ANTIBIOTICS that will work forever! We can't if every time someone feels a bit snuffly, their doctor gives them antibiotics. We need to stop using antibiotics like they're paracetamol tablets. If we don't, common infections like gonorrhoea will becomes life-or-death events. What, no drugs when I want them, whatever my ailment? Rubbish!!
How can we help people with dementia live independently for longer?
Yeah, I want to be mentally and physically healthy for the entire rest of my life and never get DEMENTIA!
A lot of scientific evidence shows that eating less sugar, less animal protein, taking short fasts, exercising more and avoiding alcohol and tobacco can hugely improve a person's cognitive state in later life. This is a scientifically supported way to reduce the risks of dementia. What, I can't eat and drink what I like as much as I like, while sitting in my car? Rubbish!!
How can we ensure everyone has nutritious, sustainable food?
Yeah, I want everyone to have great FOOD forever!
This is the same as the water question. Even if anyone comes up with a new super-wheat to increase yield, with no population control measures in place, the population will simply shoot up, stressing the environment further. Climate change is accelerating and that surge in population would only make climate change effects worse. There is one way to improve the diet of people; eating less meat in the developed world, as the rearing of livestock takes far more resources from the land than simply raising vegetables and grains. What, no steaks? Rubbish!!
How can we fly without damaging the environment?
Yeah, I want to FLY around the world as much as I like!
Air travel is a very energy-intensive activity. You cannot ferry large numbers of people through the sky without consuming huge amounts of fuel. For example, the fuel cost of taking one six-hour flight is equivalent to running a 1Kw bar fire continually for a year. The only way to reduce the environmental impact of flying is to do it less. Since much of modern air-travel is non-essential and climate change is a major threat, reducing all air travel to essential-flights-only would reduce climate change without major social damage. What, I can't fly to Brazil for the weekend? Absolute Total Killjoy RUBBISH!!!… OW! Did you just slap me?!

What's the logic of… charity sponsorship?

charity-donation


Charity sponsorship; it seems simple. Someone commits to doing something challenging. If they succeed, their sponsors donate money to a specific charity.

But wait a second... almost no one, nowadays, does something really difficult. They can’t, Health and safety would be all over them like a rash if they decided to walk a tightrope over the Thames while wearing ship chains, or wrestle a half-starved lion, or swallow a bucket of scorpions. No one nowadays can be allowed to risk their life, or even serious injury as part of a sponsored event. That’s perfectly sensible, but it means that all legitimate sponsored events are perfectly do-able by everyone who takes part in them. Not only that, but most modern sponsored events actually benefit the people taking part. Also, the events are usually enjoyable, as shown by the oodles of websites full of grinning faces standing around finishing lines and comments like ‘gosh, it was wonderful! I’m looking forward to doing it again!’ Therefore, in nearly all sponsored events nowadays, people are sponsoring other people to do something they’ll be really pleased they’ve done.

That’s odd, because if that’s the case, then, logically, I should be able to ask people to sponsor me to cycle to my town centre every morning and drink a FairTrade coffee while reading a magazine. It’s healthy, ethical and I’d be pleased I did it. I could even make it challenging and say I’ll have the coffee at precisely 11am every day. That would be really difficult to achieve! That would require organisation, persistence and a positive attitude. I think most people would respond badly if I asked them, but logically, it should be fine. For me, the ‘coffee at 11am every day for a month’ challenge is harder than, say, cycling 50 miles in a day. I can cycle a long way on a bicycle, but meeting a deadline every day for weeks on end is torment, so how does my ‘coffee at 11am for a month’ challenge look utterly ridiculous and frankly rubbish to others, but the easier task, for me, of cycling 50 miles in a day seem respectable?

I don’t know. To be honest, I’m confused about the logic of donating. If someone thinks a charity is worthwhile, why do they need to watch someone to go around the Isle of Wight in a wheelbarrow before handing over some cash? Surely, if a person thought the charity involved was valid and worthwhile, they would just donate the money regardless?

It gets weirder. What if, say, Jimmy Saville was still alive today and was running a marathon in support of a cash-starved children’s hospital. Would you sponsor him? My automatic response is ‘no way!’ since it’s now pretty clear he was a monstrous, repulsive, sexual predator. But he wouldn’t get the money I’d donated, the hospital would receive it. None of it would go to him. Would it still therefore be a positive act? I’d still be reluctant to do it, but who would I want to sponsor instead? Why would I need to sponsor anyone to push me to help out an ailing children’s hospital? Why I do I need to be woo'd by a celebrity and see someone run ten miles in a gorilla suit before I hand over some cash? It makes me look like I have to be entertained before I'll open my wallet, however important the cause.

Charities do need our money, but raising those donations by organizing events is a woefully inefficient way of raising money. A fundraiser once admitted to me that two-thirds of the money raised from the celebrity-endorsed event she’d help organize was lost the charity. The money was spent paying for advertising, catering, commissions, venue and so on for the event. What charities ideally need is for us to quietly pay them every month, without any ostentatious displays. That way, they can use nearly all the money donated to get on with their work. They’ll also know that they have a reliable supply of income, month in, month out - security and stability that will enable them to plan ahead and implement long-lasting beneficial projects... wait a second, I’m talking about a welfare state.

The logical conclusion seems to be to never sponsor anyone at an organised event. Instead, a far better act of charity is to set up a monthly donation to a organisation whose aims you strongly believe in.

For those that disagree with this conclusion, I'll soon be setting up a MustGive web-page for my ‘fairtrade coffee every day for a month’ challenge. Please give generously.

What's the logic of… cycle helmets?

cyclist-helmet

Cycle helmets; they're everywhere now. Almost everyone on the roads who's decked out in lycra and/or high-visibility clothing is wearing one of these turtle skeletons. At first glance, it makes perfect sense; you're safer wearing one that not wearing one and every cyclist in their right mind should wear one. This straightforward view is backed up by a Department of Transport study [that] found that cycle helmets worn correctly could prevent an estimated 10-16 per cent of fatalities.' Simple, eh?

But if helmets are that important, why aren't pedestrians wearing them? In my experience, I've had just as many close shaves while crossing the road than I have while cycling on it. The pedestrian crossing near my house, for example, is an absolute death-trap. If one side of the traffic stops for you on that crossing, DO NOT CROSS ALL THE WAY! YOU WILL DIE! You must cross half way and then stick your head out. From there, you can get a grandstand, front row seat view of the cars coming around the corner and travelling past you at high speed in the other direction, seemingly oblivious to the fact that you're an upright, bipedal bag of blood wrapped in some skin who's standing on some stripes, trying to get to the supermarket. Eventually, one of them stops or possibly screeches to a halt and you finally cross.

It's not just me. Here's a stat from a BBC website article:
road-casualties
Motorbikes win easily, but pedestrians aren't far behind bicycles. You think cycling is dangerous? It is! But only a third more dangerous than crossing the road!

There's another factor with the whole 'cyclist in a helmet' plan. It's called human psychology.

When it became compulsory for people to wear seat-belts in cars in Britain, this clear benefit was somewhat undermined because, on average, motorists drove faster if they wore seat-belts because they felt safer with them on. If you dress someone up like Robocop, they will try to smash through walls because they feel invulnerable. They won't say 'oh, that wall looks like it's got breeze-blocks and my Robo-suit is only tested on Victorian Brick. I'd better leave it be.' They'll have a go because they've got hydraulic arms and kevlar! You could call this the Titanic Problem; if the person in charge thinks they're very secure, they take bigger risks. We're also rubbish at accurately assessing what our technology can do for us; we just haven't evolved enough. We're like frogs who try to mate with plastic bottles. It looks good, it feels good, it must be okay!

Putting amphibians shagging polymers aside for a moment, there's yet another factor in wearing a helmet while cycling that undermines the safety benefit.
A fascinating cycling study found that when a cyclist wore a helmet, motorists gave them less room because the motorist unconsciously viewed the cyclist as being better protected. 'Oh, look, she's got a bird's nest on her head! I can cut her up without a care in the world now because the top of her head is protected by little weaves of high-impact plastic.' I have personally noted this problem while cycling with a helmet. Bizarrely, the most effective apparel I've found for warding off the attention of cars is a flapping jacket. They give you loads of room if you're wearing one; it's some sort of force field. This odd, as it means that drivers are like horses. Then again, drivers give horses loads of room too, rather than driving up close to them and shouting that they should get off the road and leave it to those who pay road-tax. Perhaps they feel kinship with them?

Human psychology therefore seriously undermines that 10% physical benefit while wearing a helmet. You might be a little better protected but your likelihood of being crushed like a bug has significantly gone up after putting it on. By comparison, pedestrians - who get killed almost as much as cyclists - only need to put them on when crossing the road. Why don't they carry one for their protection? Why are they being so irresponsible over their own safety?

Pedestrians, WEAR A HELMET WHEN YOU CROSS THE ROAD!

Are we sheep?

sheep
The Lord is my Shepherd. When I was growing up, I heard this a lot. At the time, I thought it was a warm and loving idea; that the Creator of the Universe and Source of Endless Love was watching over me, guiding me, leading the way. Nowadays though, I think it’s an awful idea. We’re not sheep! We’re not dumb herd animals, incapable of living independently, thinking independently. Humanity is made up of intelligent, strong, courageous people who can take a stand and go their own way!… I think.

But is that true? Are we all actually better than sheep? Or are we really weak, herd-like animals that just think we have the qualities of free will, independent thought, compassion, the courage to take a stand, to treat everyone equally, to use power responsibly? To try and answer this, I though I’d gather together a group of famous psychology experiments that delve into such questions. These experiments give a picture of how we actually behave in certain situations, rather than how we’d like to think we behave. With their help, I’ll work through the list of human qualities mentioned above and give a score for each one. The score will be the percentage of people who actually succeeded in showing these positive qualities in controlled situations; It’ll be like a sort of human qualities assessment test. I’ll then tot up the results and see humanity’s score. Off we go... Read More...

RSA Animate on YouTube

A friend sent me some very interesting links today and I thought I'd pass them on to anyone interested in popular science, psychology and the brain. The first one was to the web site brainpickings.org which looks to be full of good content. Here's a quote I've picked out of one of its recent articles:


“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings — a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption — an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Read More...

The AV referendum - it's still bugging me

Last week, for the first time in my entire adult life, myself and the rest of the people of the UK got the chance to chance their electoral voting system. The change available to us wasn't exactly earth shattering; we were able to choose between the current system (first past the post - you put an 'x' beside your chosen candidate and the one with the most votes gets a seat in Parliament) and AV (you get to rank your choices on the voting slip). AV wasn't much of an alternative. There are better voting methods out there like Single Transferrable Vote or STV but that was what we got.

And then two thirds of us (or at least the half of voters who actually turned up) said 'no' to AV. WHAATTTT????? Read More...

Carry a Rubber Ball. Make it part of your healthy lifestyle!

It's driving me nuts, that Benecol margarine spread advert on the radio. It's the one where they interview various people who say that they changed their lifestyle because they were worried about their health. They explain how they started exercising and avoiding unhealthy food and, along with all that, they had some Benecol margarine. Straight after saying that, they say their cholesterol levels went down and they'd recommend anyone else taking Benecol. So Benecol reduces cholesterol? Does it? Does it my backside! Read More...

The power of 'up to'

The biggest advertising strategy of the last twelve months (or more) has, I think, been the use of the phrase ‘up to’. It’s everywhere now in sales signs and adverts. ‘Up to 50% off!’, ‘Up to 70% off!’. You’d think that most people on seeing these signs must say to themselves ‘well, that doesn’t mean very much’ but retailers clearly don’t regard that as a problem. Based on how much it’s being used, companies in the U.K. seem to think it’s a sure winner for improving their sales. They’re confident that telling people that at least one of their five thousand items in stock will be 70% off in the upcoming sale, even though that single item has probably all the desirability and functionality of owning a deranged skunk, is an actual winning formula.

Are we missing something here? Are these companies, with their skilled and experienced staff, pointing us in a new direction? If using ‘up to’ is such a gold mine, should we be trying to use it in aspects of our own lives? Maybe the power of ‘up to’ can be used in our emotional relationships?

Read More...

The Utter horror of the 'three for two' offer

I was in Waterstones today to buy a present for a relative. I had a rough idea what I was after and went straight to the appropriate section. There, stacked neatly on the shelf, were two books by John Lindqvist, the writer behind the hit Scandinavian film ‘Let the Right One In’, which I think is currently being remade in America on the grounds that the original is full of foreigners who talk funny. They’ve also shortened the title to ‘Let Me In’. I guess this is because a) no movie about Vampires should ever refer to them as ‘The Right One’ or b) Five words in a title is too long. Since ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ are incredibly popular and are stuffed full of blood sucking creatures of the night who somehow retain tender romantic feelings while their souls sit writhing in the nethermost depths of hell, I’m guessing it’s mostly about the title length.


Film tie-ins aside, I picked up the two books by Lindqvist that I wanted. Sorted! I could go home and have a cup of tea. Then I spotted something. Sitting prominently on the front cover of both books was a sticker marked ‘3 for 2’. Oh. That’s good, I thought. I have two books I want. I can pick up a third for nothing. I looked around casually. There were lots of ‘3 for 2’ books on the tables around. I’ll definitely want one of those.


The only thing was, each one I spotted I didn’t want.

Read More...

How owning a DVD ruined my evening

About five years ago, I was sitting in my flat, glancing through the television guide when I noticed that 'Indiana Jones and the last crusade' was on television, wednesday 8:30pm to be precise. What was even better was that it was on the BBC so there wouldn't be any adverts. Brilliant! I thought. I made a note of it and planned to get some snacks in, get back from London in good time, settle down and enjoy the movie.

Then a grim truth hit me. I already owned an 'Indiana Jones and the last crusade' DVD. There was no need to wait until wednesday evening. I could watch it whenever I liked.

I was completely deflated. Weird, isn't it? Read More...

The treadmill conundrum

We now have a Conservative government in power in this country (give or take a very strange attempt at a Liberal Democrat party). As a result, there’s lots of comment in the news about ‘reducing inefficiency’ and ‘getting the work-shy to do their fair share’ and other such political statements. It’s got me thinking about an idea I had ages ago to try and come up with a social setup that could be successful at encouraging everyone to do their fair share.

To try and reason out how this could be done, I thought up a fictitious room. In it, a group of people would be standing on a treadmill. They would run on the treadmill and thereby generate power. To keep them going while doing this work, food and drink would be given to them at regular intervals while they ran on the treadmill. This, in a very simple way, could represent a society. People work together to generate output and receive sustenance in return. Read More...