Monday, January 31, 2011

On Zombie Rodents: Part II


As if rats weren’t already rather zombie-like creatures (apart from the quicker movements), there is a parasitic disease which affects their brain function. The parasite can infect most complex vertebrates, but can only breeds in cats, and is somehow aware of this. Somehow, the parasite has evolved the ability to increase dopamine levels in the part of the brain that controls emotional responses in the brain. Somehow, by doing this, the parasite is capable of replacing a rodent’s fear of cats (without affecting it’s other fears) with an urge to go into areas that are marked with cat urine – leading the rodents to be eaten by cats...

I wish I could say that this disease only affects rodents, but unfortunately, it does not. It can be carried by most complex vertebrates, including humans. I also wish it was rare, but it is not. In fact, it has been estimated that between 30% and 65% of the world’s population carry the virus, and it has several psychological effects on people. In particular, a study carried out on draftees at the Central Military Hospital in Prague between 2000 and 2003 found that those infected with the parasite were up to six times more likely to have a traffic accident than those who were parasite free (when coupled with an Rh- blood type). It has also been linked to reckless and antisocial behaviour, and several studies have shown that the disease is especially prevalent in schizophrenics.

The world truly is a fascinating and scary place.
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Monday, January 24, 2011

On "Why?"


In my years of being an arrogant know-more-than-most-people, I have learnt that even though people constantly ask “Why does this happen?” and “How does that work?”, they don’t really want to know why. They are satisfied with a superficial basic answer, and get frustrated if your answer goes too deep.

(On not a side note, since it is actually relevant here: I hate the term know-it-all because even I openly admit that I don’t know it all. I just know more than most people because I read a bit more than average, and my curiosity takes me deeper than most people like go. If I want to know why something happens, or how something works, I look it up, and I don’t stop after just a basic understanding.)

A good example is the popular question “Why is the sky blue?” At the time of writing this, this question in Google gives well over 26 million results. Most of these start off by describing the electromagnetic spectrum (in most cases, limiting it to the narrow range of visible light, even neglecting to mention the vast (technically infinite) range of other types of electromagnetic radiation, which differs from light only in that human eyes cannot detect it), followed by a brief description of how the atmosphere consists of particles (if you’re lucky, these particles are molecules. Often they are called atoms (which are actually rarely alone up in the sky), but more often, they are called dust or pollen. In reality, it is everything from the molecules, to the dust particles to natural density fluctuations in the atmosphere). This is followed by a description of how light (treated as a wave, despite the fact that modern physics considers light as a stream of particles when it interacts with matter) of different colours bounce at different angles off the particles in the atmosphere. Blue light is scattered more than other colours (which is not true, but within the range of colours the human eye is most sensitive to, it is close enough), and so blue light gets projected across the sky, and we see it as blue.

Most of them are valid explanations (once you correct the minor inaccuracies that arise from the authors’ own misunderstandings), and most people are satisfied. However, I am not.

The technical term for the scattering of light at the molecular level is called Rayleigh scattering. A Google query for “why is the sky blue rayleigh” gives just over 30000 results. The scientific theory that is used to (very accurately, despite its few shortcomings) model the interactions of light with matter is quantum electrodynamics. However, the number of results for “why is the sky blue quantum electrodynamics” is only around 7000. And the number of people out there who have a solid enough mathematical background to apply the necessary partial differential equations in the realm of complex probability amplitudes, and then solve them (even approximately with the aid of the world’s most powerful supercomputers) for something as simple as steady unidirectional white light interacting with a homogeneous mixture of diatomic nitrogen and oxygen molecules mixed at a ratio of 3.71:1 is practically zero. And quantum electrodynamics is just an approximation of reality. Wait until the real Theory of Everything is found...

What I am trying to get at (in a very roundabout way) is that a lot of people show a healthy curiosity and ask the question “Why?” about lots of things. But, as soon as the answer gets to the realm of basic physics, they are satisfied. Why people cannot accept such simple principles such as “The sky is blue” but do accept “particles scatter different colours differently” is beyond me.

I am satisfied by the fact that I cannot have the answers to everything, but I still refuse to stop asking “Why?” and understand as much as I can.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On a Not Very Important Something


When this blog was created, it needed a logo. Being at work with a limited range of tools at my disposal, I simple did a Google image search, stole a cartoonish picture of a sheep, sent it through an online image to ASCII art converter, and then used that as my logo, meaning to change it at a later date to something a bit more complicated. But I liked the way it had turned out, and being a chronic procrastinator, I never got round to making an original one.


After posting about having been going for two years, I remembered that I was going to make a new logo. With almost non-existent graphic design skills, and minimal artistic talent, I opened up GIMP and created a new image... After half an hour of getting nothing, I Googled “sheep” and there was an inquisitive sheep staring back at me. Gradually over the next 5 hours, I focussed removing each part of the sheep, and replaced it with planes of text with a perspective effect, and added a piggy nose. And so, I introduce the new Alphanumeric Sheep Pig.


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Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Second Arbitrarily Defined Solar Cycle


which was a bit less eventful than the first, although there was still enough activity to have attracted 3272 hits. Although, once you take out the Googlebots and such, it’s rather less impressive. The interesting thing is how international my readership has gone...


Highlights from the last year are those slipping spiders, the end of the world, my excuse for blogging less in 2010, houses made from fruits and vegetables, the problems of spoilers in titles, some structered gibberish regarding deleted buckets, the posts of my well-meaning comment spammers, my attempt at poetry, the silver pizza, and my incredibly reliable cure for boredom.

And on that note (the cure for boredom note, not the highlights note, since it’s not immediately obvious), thank you for being part of the cure for my boredom. I sincerely apologise for the boredom that I have inflicted on all of you.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On A Motor-Driven Chain of Stationary Steps


Also known as an escalator that is switched off, which (rather deceptively) appears to work like an ordinary stair case. Until you step onto them, that is, and experience a sudden unexpected forward lurch, which sets you off balance and your balance does not return fully until you step off the escalator. I like to call his initial jerking sensation you feel as you step onto the stationary escalator an externally stimulated vestibular equilibrioception myoclonus, because it does not seem to have an accepted name yet.

The fact that such a perception that a stationary escalator is still moving is very disturbing. It implies that, even though my conscious mind is smart enough to know how escalators work, and to analyse the situation reliable and accurately so that I know that a stationary escalator will not be moving when I step onto it, my subconscious is still driven by instinct developed by simple past experiences and remains unaffected by the incredible complex connections between the vast database of knowledge that my conscious mind has made over the rest of my life. In the end, no matter how much I know and learn, or how complex my thinking is, it is all overpowered by some simple programming that is beyond my control. That is very disturbing indeed.

(On a side note: The word “escalator” was not derived from the word “escalate”, as I believed for my entire life. Rather, the word “escalator” was made up and trademarked in 1900, and the word “escalate” was later derived from it. In fact, the first printed definition of the word “escalate” only came in 1959.)
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Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Some Arbitrary Point


It has come to my attention (after proof reading my previous blog post) that the date is now listed with the year as 2011. I have also been made aware that it is customary to wish others happiness at the arbitrary point at which the number happens to change (which is a different point, depending on where in the world you happen to be). So consider the customary amount of happiness wished upon you by me.
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On the Wishy-Washy Nature of Reality


It has always amazed me (In case you haven’t worked it out by now, I spend my life in an eternal state of amazement and wonder) that people are prepared to believe so much with absolutely no evidence. I like to think that I question everything I hear (even though I really don’t come close) and I like to look at everything from as many angles as possible before I accept them. My entire world is built on simple principles that I accept based on inductive reasoning, and where there is not enough support for induction to provide a conclusion, I satisfy myself that I can’t develop any firm belief. I guess, technically speaking, I could be regarded as a philosophical skeptic although I have never really considered myself one. As a result, I have, essentially, no firm beliefs whatsoever.

(This is getting very close to my religious beliefs, which is a subject I was always going to avoid in this blog. Suffice it to say that I usually list my religion as Potato and that I will now try to steer this post away from that topic.)

This sceptical nature, which to me seems the only sensible approach to life, actually seems rather rare in the real world. Ignoring the millions of self help books and get-rich-quick schemes out there, there are millions of little so-called “facts” and “scientific explanations” that people randomly believe.

(On a side note: The best get-rich-quick scheme, and the only one that works is to come up with (or steal) a brilliant idea or product that people like (or think they like), work out how to get people to pay you willingly for having that idea or product, and then sacrifice every aspect of your life for the endless hours of hard work you will need to put into marketing your idea or product.)

(On another side note: The common explanation for how an aircraft wing generates lift – that goes into how one side is longer, and the air flows faster etc. – has always annoyed me. I have no idea how the incorrect explanation started, since the correct explanation is far simple. The wing is at an angle so that it pushes the air downwards, and by Newton’s action-reaction law, which everyone knows but loves to misquote, the air is also pushing the wing up at the same time. Very simple.)

Interestingly enough, I can pinpoint the reason why people are so ready to accept fiction passed off as fact. I cannot say how it started, but the human race in general seems hesitant to explain the concept of imagination to its children. It is perfectly acceptable for children to watch a show in which some animals and inanimate objects act human, while others carry behave as in the real world. As if this wasn’t confusing enough for the children, there are large numbers of parents who are not prepared to explain that the animals and inanimate objects only talk in the universe that someone has imagined. They can’t explain that what happens on the TV is fictional and does not really happen in real life. In particular, a local TV station was fined yesterday for showing an advert for a horror movie festival, which contained some graphic scenes from a variety of horror movies, during prime time. I agree that it should not have been done, and I agree that they should be fined. What disturbs me is what one viewer said in response:

“How do I explain to a five-year old the stuff she saw - a child sitting in front of a television and something coming out of the TV and grabbing her or the lady in the shower washing her hair and then there’s a hand in her hair coming out of her head?”

The answer is very simple. You explain the difference between fact and fiction, explain to your child that he/she shouldn’t believe everything they see on TV, and encourage other parents to do the same, and perhaps in 20 or so years, the world will be a better place.

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