Gweek 075: Oliver Sacks' Hallucinations

Dr. Sacks books are fascinating explorations into the way the human mind works, usually through studying abnormal minds and surprising ways in which they give us clues about perception, consciousness, and behavior.

When I was living in London in my early 20s, I found a book in the hallway of a university in Hampstead. It was a nonfiction story about a group of people who had become literally frozen with Parkinson's disease from an encephalitis outbreak. The book was written by a doctor who treated the people with a substance called L–dopa. The drug was like magic. It gave the formerly paralyzed people the ability to move around, talk, dance, and do most everything they could do before they became sick. Unfortunately, the effect of the drug tapered off, and the patients needed greater and greater amounts of L-dopa to receive the benefits. Eventually, The dosage required to obtain positive results exceeded the toxicity threshold, and so the doctor had to stop administering L-dopa to them. And one by one, all the patients became frozen again for the rest of their lives.

The book is called Awakenings, and it was written by Oliver Sacks, a physician and professor of neurology at the New York school of medicine. Dr. Sacks is the author of twelve books, including Uncle Tungsten, The Mind's Eye, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and most recently, Hallucinations, which was published earlier this month.

Dr. Sacks' books are fascinating explorations into the way the human mind works, usually through studying abnormal minds and surprising ways in which they give us clues about perception, consciousness, and behavior. Interestingly, Dr. Sacks himself has face blindness, Asperger's syndrome, is blind in one eye, and is slightly deaf, which might explain in part why matters of the human mind are of great interest to him. He's one of my favorite authors, and because my coeditor at Boing Boing, David Pescovitz, is also an ardent admirer, he joined me in the following interview with Dr. Sacks.

Here is our interview with Dr. Sacks.

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Wall Street is not made up of "numbers guys"

Chad Orzel's post, "Financiers Still Aren’t Rocket Scientists" is a timely reminder that Mitt Romney and other Wall Street Types are not, by and large, superhero math geniuses with their fingers on the arcane numeric truths underpinning all reality. Some quants are genuinely impressive mathematicians, but the industry's reputation for "numbers guys," is just wrong-o.

You would think that the 2008 economic meltdown, in which the financial industry broke the entire world when they were blindsided by the fact that housing prices can go down as well as up, might have cut into the idea of Wall Street bankers as geniuses, but evidently not. The weird idea that the titans of investment banking are the smartest people on the planet continues to persist, even among people who ought to know better– another thing that bugged me about Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites was the way he uncritically accepted the line that Wall Street was the very peak of the meritocracy. It’s not hard to see where it originates– Wall Street types can’t go twenty minutes without telling everybody how smart they are– but it’s hard to see why so many people accept such blatant propaganda without question.

Look, Romney was an investment banker and corporate raider at Bain Capital. This is admittedly vastly more quantitative work than, say, being a journalist, but it doesn’t make him a “numbers guy.” The work that they do relies almost as much on luck and personal connections as it does on math– they’re closer to being professional gamblers than mathematical scientists. This is especially true of Bain and Romney, as was documented earlier this year– Bain made some bad bets before Romney got there, and was deep in the hole, and he got them out in large part by exploiting government connections and a sort of hostage-taking brinksmanship, creating a situation in which their well-deserved bankruptcy would’ve created a nightmare for the people they owed money, which bought them enough time for some other bets to pay off.

Romney has no shortage of nerve, and while he creeps me out, he has the sort of faux charm that works well in the finance community. But he’s not a “numbers guy” in any sense that looks meaningful from over here in the land of science. He can do the math needed to add up his personal fortune, but the game that he made his money playing isn’t a rigorously mathematical one– people get rich in finance as much by playing hunches and cutting sharp deals as by crunching numbers. There are people who make their way in that business by taking a rigorously data-driven approach to investing– one of the many things I need to write up for the blog at some point is a review of a forthcoming book called The Physics of Wall Street– but they’re nowhere near a majority of the industry, and Romney’s not one of them.

Financiers Still Aren’t Rocket Scientists (via Making Light)

Draw smokey patterns with Silk


Silk is a website that lets you draw smokey shapes (with or without symmetry) by clicking and dragging.

Empire I: World Builders - 1981 game for the Apple II

Last week I was at the Albuquerque Academy and I spent some time with the smart and friendly high school members of the rocketry club there. They had a lot of great stuff in their on-campus hackerspace, including an Apple ][ and a bunch of software for it. One of the games they had was called Empire 1: World Builders, by Edu-Ware. It's from 1981. I thought the box cover was funny, and the box contained a couple of manuals and the disk to play the game. I didn't play it, but I found the above video on YouTube.

Here's a description of the role-playing game from the Internet Movie Database:

The gateway to the New York Rocket Field is your first step of a space voyage in which you may choose one of three career paths to follow, here at the dawn of the Interstellar Empire. Homesteaders must find a hospitable planet on which to farm, raise a family and conquer the environment. Miners must find a high-density planet in a search for material wealth. Missionaries seek out populated planets to preach to the masses. Each path into the space frontier has its dangers, and a misstep may have bloody consequences.

Empire I: World Builders has one of these clunkiest user interfaces imaginable, much worse than the clunky interface for my favorite Apple II game, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. It looks as though direct channel commands must be typed in in their entirety: "ENTER LEFT DOOR," "GO STRAIGHT AHEAD," "PREPARE FOR LAUNCH," etc.

According to the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities, "the Empire series sold in the low thousands."

Download the 58 kB disk image here!


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How to turn Barbie into a Weeping Angel

The Mary Sue tracked down a new career for Barbie -- Weeping Angel. The DIY guide, originally found on Wich Crafting, shows how a simple Barbie (or a less expensive impostor) can become the fearsome Doctor Who villain using a few simple ingredients. (And also breaking Barbie's arms.) Consider this a suggestion for holiday gift-giving, in case you want to see if your child is smart enough to notice a missing toy from their collection. Heheheheh, don't blink, kiddies... (via io9)

Lifelike robo-fish at Tokyo Toy Fair

https://youtu.be/xikImOPe1iI

Next time my kid asks for a pet fish, I'll get her one of these instead. It's better than the real thing.

Created by TakaraTomy Arts and released at the 2012 Tokyo toy fair, this cute gizmo costs 15 € a pop. it runs on batteries that power the fish's tail. it then moves randomly on it's own, with its tail respectively moves slower or faster.

(Via Geekologie)

Math + Too Much Free Time =

Here is a detailed analysis of the amount of time it would take to ride a hypothetical elevator down through the Earth's core and back out the other side of the planet. Apparently, this has something to do with the remake of Total Recall. But it's interesting even if (like me) you have no intention of seeing that movie. (Via Rhett Allain)

If pot were truly legal, high-quality joints would cost the same price as a Splenda packet

In July, Salon's Matthew Yglesias wrote an article about the price of legal marijuana, which is even more interesting now that Colorado and Washington have legalized cannabis for recreational use.

How cheaply could pot be grown with advanced farming techniques? One potential data point is Canada’s industrial hemp industry, where production costs are about $500 per acre. If the kind of mid-grade commercial weed that accounts for about 80 percent of the U.S. market could be grown that cheaply, it implies costs of about 20 cents per pound of smokable material: Enough pot to fill more than 800 modest-sized half-gram joints for less than a quarter!. Those numbers are probably optimistic, since in practice recreational marijuana is grown from more expensive transplanted clones rather than from seeds. Even so, the authors note that “production costs for crops that need to be transplanted, such as cherry tomatoes and asparagus, are generally in the range of $5,000-$20,000 per acre.” That implies costs of less than $20 per pound for high-grade sensimilla and less than $5 a pound for mid-grade stuff. Another way of looking at it, suggested by California NORML Director Dale Gieringer, is that we should expect legal pot to cost about the same amount as “other legal herbs such as tea or tobacco,” something perhaps “100 times lower than the current prevailing price of $300 per ounce—or a few cents per joint.”

This would make pot far and away the cheapest intoxicant on the market, absolutely blowing beer and liquor out of the water. Joints would be about as cheap as things that are often treated as free. Splenda packets, for example, cost 2 or 3 cents each when purchased in bulk.

I wonder how much money the liquor industry is going to contribute in their attempt to get these cannabis laws overturned?

Get High for Free

Why do trees fall over in a storm?

The more accurate version of this question would really be something like, "Why do some trees fall over in a storm while others stay standing?" The answer is more complex than a simple distinction between old, rotted, and weak vs. young, healthy, and strong. Instead, writes Mary Knudson at Scientific American blogs, trees fall because of their size, their species, and even the history of the human communities around them.

“Trees most at risk are those whose environment has recently changed (say in the last 5 – 10 years),” Smith says. When trees that were living in the midst of a forest lose the protection of a rim of trees and become stand-alones in new housing lots or become the edge trees of the forest, they are made more vulnerable to strong weather elements such as wind.

They also lose the physical protection of surrounding trees that had kept them from bending very far and breaking. Land clearing may wound a tree’s trunk or roots, “providing an opportunity for infection by wood decay fungi. Decay usually proceeds slowly, but can be significant 5-10 years after basal or root injury.” What humans do to the ground around trees — compacting soil, changing gradation and drainage “can kill roots and increase infection,” Smith warns.

Read the full piece at Scientific American Blogs

Image: West Philly Storm - Trees Down, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kwbridge's photostream

Anti-virus software tycoon John McAfee wanted for murder

In an update to the Gizmodo story Xeni pointed to last week, Salon reports that "eccentric anti-virus pioneer John McAfee is wanted by Belize police for murder."

See also: Lawsuit-plagued McAfee founder hunts for libido-boosting herbs in Belize

Doomsday Preppers game for iOS

https://youtu.be/k-o1Tdvr9J0

Based on the popular National Geographic Channel TV show by the same name, Doomsday Preppers challenges you to prepare for a new (and even more fabulous) life below the ground. Design a multi-level dream bunker complete with everything you need for post-apocalyptic bliss, from a gym to a greenhouse to a disco bar! Flush out your subterranean palace one floor at a time while measuring and improving your survival skills along the way, so that you can extend your underground lifespan – and keep on building!

The cool science behind a really cute video of a "snoring" hummingbird

This hummingbird is sleeping in a specialized research container connected to a machine that measures how much oxygen it is breathing. According to forrestertr7, who posted the video to YouTube, this experiment was part of research aimed at understanding the differences between the metabolism of hummingbirds and that of larger species. After its nap, the hummingbird was released back into the wild.

But what about the snoring? Does the hummingbird really need a tiny, little beak strip, or what? I asked science blogger Joe Hanson, who posted this video to Twitter earlier today, and he did some research. Turns out, it's not totally unreasonable to call that adorable little wheeze a "snore". But, at the same time, hummingbirds have very different biology than we do. A snore for them isn't the same as a snore for us.

Hummingbirds have incredibly high metabolic needs. To do all that buzzing around and to keep their tiny bodies warm, they eat the human equivalent of a refrigerator full of food every day, mostly in the form of high-energy nectar and fatty bugs. Because of their small size, they also lose a lot of body heat to the air. In order to preserve energy on cool nights, they have the ability to enter a daily, miniature hibernation called torpor.

...Just before morning, their natural circadian rhythms kick in and they start to thaw out, like heating a car engine on a cold day. What we see in the video is probably a bird coming out of torpor (which is what the scientists in the video were studying), starting to breathe in more oxygen to raise its body temperature, and making that adorable snoring noise.

Read the full story at Joe Hanson's blog, It's Okay To Be Smart

Wes Anderson's Star Wars: Episode VII would have to include Bill Murray, so let's consider it

(Video link) In case you missed it, screenwriter Michael Arndt was confirmed to write the newest Star Wars movie, and that means finding a director is the next step. Some names have been thrown around, like Matthew Vaughn, but it's all been rumors. But Conan O'Brien has an idea: Wes Anderson. It sounds wrong, but consider the cast he'd get. He'd get everyone he wanted, and they'd all have silly hats. (via Conan on YouTube)

High Frontiers (1984 proto-cyberdelic 'zine) now online

Highfrontierrrr

The first issue of the 'zine High Frontiers (1984), founded by BB pal and co-conspirator RU Sirius, is now online at the Internet Archive. High Frontiers begat Reality Hackers which begat Mondo 2000 which begat the cyberdelic early 1990s. "First Glimpse Of MONDO 2000 History Project Archives: Complete Issue #1 Of High Frontiers" (Acceler8or)

Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise

Nate Silver's been in the news a lot these last few days: looking at some stories, you'd think he'd won the election, not Mr. Obama. A statistician, his rigorous polling analysis riled, then humiliated political pundits, whose imaginary political horse-race was rejected by Silver's cold, hard numbers.

And what numbers they were. His "prediction"--though really just the most likely probability among many scenarios offered by his model--nailed the electoral college total on the night.

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