Thursday, 13 October 2011

Moral Dilemmas and PDs

I've written before about a typical and famous moral dilemma (click here).  There has been a recent paper published called "The mismeasure of morals: Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas".  In this paper, the authors argue that instead of wondering why 90% of people make illogical decisions in moral dilemmas (choosing to let 5 people die instead of killing 1), we should be wondering why that 10% of people don't get drawn into an emotional decision.

They gave personality tests to a group of people and then gave them dilemmas and correlated their answers with their personalities.
The conclusion was stark; to quote the paper: "those individuals who are least prone to moral errors also possess a set of psychological characteristics that many would consider prototypically immoral".

This should not really surprise anyone, and I'm dumbfounded as to why the paper has become as well known as it has.

The addendum to the paper that they should have written is the further correlation between people who take logical decisions, and people in positions of power in politics and the military.  If an airplane over the ocean, heading towards a city, cuts communications and ignores emergency protocols then I hope the person who decides whether or not to shoot it down before it reaches land has 'immoral' psychological characteristics.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Left Brain Vs Right Brain

The brain is far from understood, if it were simple enough for us to understand then we would be too dumb to understand it.  However, we do know a lot about it.  Only quite recently the plasticity of the brain has become accepted - it used to be thought that the brain structures were fixed and that they filled up with knowledge and experience, much like a computer.  I remember as a boy being taught that the number of neurons in the brain grew until adulthood and then they just started dying off with no new ones replacing them.  The truth is more complicated - our brains form new connections all the time and can become rewired dramatically through necessity if one area becomes damaged, but generally there are structures in the brain that perform [more-or-less] specific functions.

People sometimes talk about being left or right brained, i.e. more dominant in the left / right hemisphere.
The left hemisphere contains the structures strongly associated with: grammar and vocabulary; logically structured thinking; analysing and controlling feelings; reality.
The right hemisphere contains the structures strongly associated with: intonation of speech; an unstructured approach to tasks (they call it 'multitasking' which has been shown to be less efficient in tests); emotional responses; fantasy.

To summarise, the left brain is rational, and the right brain is a hippy.
No prizes which side I'd be associated with, although actually I'd say I am much better than average at seeing the big picture - the less immediate consequences of actions - which is a right-brain trait.

The 2 hemispheres communicate by little roads called commissures, and one superhighway called the corpus callosum.
For severe epilepsy this superhighway of communication is sometimes severed, leading to some fascinating discoveries.  The two halves of the brain can be thought of as having separate consciousnesses!  Imagine being trapped inside someone else's head, much like in the film 'Being John Malkovic', able to see everything but only able to have a slight influence on his behaviour.  That may be happening inside you right now!  With some subjects who have had their corpus callosum severed, a written command can be flashed up visible only to the eye without the subject being consciously aware of it.  For example, if the word "LEAVE" is flashed up, the subject may get up and start to leave the room - when asked why they are leaving they reply something like "I'm thirsty, I want to go get a soda".  The right brain has invented a story for the the conscious mind that is coherent with the action demanded by the subconscious.
Some of these patients also experience 'alien hand syndrome' in which one arm is under the control of the 2nd hidden consciousness.  Freaky.

I wonder if the religious doctors see these patients as having 2 souls?

Most people invent stories for their lives that fit with their actions.  Most people believe they have rational reasons for their actions, but actually it is just lies told to them by the ultimate manipulating puppet master - their own subconscious.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


Imagine you are expecting a pay-rise at work, and then you open your wage slip and find that instead of the £3.5k raise you were expecting you got an increase of £12.5k per year.

This is obviously a mistake, and one that should be easily noticed at the next salary review...

Would you own up ASAP?  I think the key phrase here is "plausible deniability" - if it transpired you knew of the mistake and didn't say anything then that would probably be construed as gross misconduct.

Not quite sure if I could pull off the plausible deniability thing... my boss certainly knows I am not hanging on for pay-day and accounting for every penny, and I could stop opening my payslips from now on so if challenged I could show them unopened "except for the one I opened last night to verify I was getting too much".  Probably worth the risk - if I was suddenly asked to leave they'd be fucked anyway so the worst they could really do is get me to pay it back.

Saturday, 16 July 2011


 Whether I get bored easily or not is a complicated question to answer.  Ex girlfriends have commented on how annoying my habit of constantly flicking TV channels is - a channel will have been on for 10 minutes, and perhaps even be approaching an exciting reveal, and I'll get a sense of boredom and flick to another channel.
If I don't like a task, I simply can't concentrate on it; for example, when others were revising for final exams I simply stopped drinking and taking drugs, and went jogging (to ensure my mind was working), as I knew I would only be able to get the bare minimum of revision done.  I was lucky I was studying a subject that was more understanding than knowledge.  
I don't, however, have a problem concentrating on something to which I want to give my attention.

The sort of boredom I want to talk about now though is more of a life existentialist boredom.  Sometimes I feel like everything I do is simply a distraction from the banality of life.  I feel like I'm doing the same boring shit, and so I do something exciting.  I've taken up hang-gliding, rock climbing, and ju-jitsu to name a few of the more transient activities I've taken up; I've even flown a fighter-jet!  And then, of course there are the everyday distractions such as going out drinking, clubbing, having sex, going for middle-of-the-night walks with my lockpicks...

Unfortunately, on occasion I get meta-boredom - where I feel like even though the new exciting thing designed to distract and entertain me is still part of the same boring equation: feel life is boring + new thing = temporary respite.  That feeling I get knowing I am repeating that same loop again and again is the most boring of feelings of boredom.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Stroop test

1.  Time how long it takes for you to read the black words at a normal pace - this is the control time.
2.  Time yourself saying the colours of the coloured words, not the words themselves.  e.g. for 'Red' say "Blue". 
3.  If you take more than 10s longer than the control time you may have an attention deficit problem.

If you make a mistake have another go at that word.  If you make more than a couple in total you are going too fast - start over and take enough care over it to get them all right.  If you have so many do-overs that you start to remember the sequence, change the order - row by row / column by column / left to right / right to left / down / up.

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Friday, 1 July 2011


Can animals be villains?  I've heard of heroic dogs and horses (and military medals of bravery have even been awarded to pigeons!) but I've never heard of a villainous animal.  

Villainy is a hard concept to tie down, so perhaps it's best to first think of evil - are there evil animals?  Of course, some people needlessly view the ways of an entire species or family, usually a reptile, as evil - but to tar a whole group of animals as evil must surely be to dilute the meaning of the word so much as to be meaningless.


Intelligent animals can certainly lie.  There are troops of monkeys that forage on the jungle floor, and if one spots something juicy in someone else's patch they occasionally give a warning call that sends everyone into the trees - leaving them free to go get it.
More obvious lies have been told by chimps and gorillas that have been taught sign language - and seem as prone to fibbing as most humans, though the lies are typically less devious.  In one famous example there was a gorilla called Koko who had a pet kitten.  Koko had a fit of temper in the night and ripped a heavy steel sink off the wall; when asked what happened, Koko pointed to the kitten and signed "cat did it".

Is it such a long way from the simple lies of gorillas to the deceptive games of human villains?  We are all animals and the forces of nature and nurture are powerful ones indeed - so how accountable is anyone?  I like to ask people who believe in the devil if he could repent and be good again.  It perplexes them as they have to either give up on the idea he has free-will and therefore that he is evil (these seem intertwined), or give up on their belief he is fated to be the head evil dude forever.

Villains add to the rich tapestry of life and help create bonds in society - nothing brings people together more than a common enemy - that's why the highest sense of nationalism is in times of war.
So in conclusion, I've waffled and digressed a bit, and I had no clue where I was going when I started writing this, but it is past 3am so forgive me - I hope you just have some food for thought :)

Sunday, 26 June 2011


Perhaps you are familiar with 2 quite famous experiments in psychology: the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Millgram experiment.  If not, the summary is that when people are cast in a role, they change their behaviour to be more congruent with the behaviours expected of that role.  A film was made based on the Stanford Prison Experiment that is well worth watching (imdb=7.9), called "Das Experiment" (German - make sure you download the English subtitled version!).

This effect is part of what is known as Attribution Theory in psychology.  An everyday example of the application of this was discussed briefly in my post on persuasion - calling someone "mate" or "buddy" will help elicit trusting and loyal behaviour.

The effect also must be borne in mind when explaining how whole groups of people performed acts considered 'evil' such as all the Nazi guards herding the Jews to their deaths.  Humans seem to readily accept that there are psychological reasons excusing bad behaviour, but conveniently forget the other side of the mirror, that the same forces are at play in the other direction as well.

Soldiers, police, and firefighters are all called 'Heroes' if they go into a dangerous situation and get killed.  It is much more often when they are killed, possibly because you can't speak ill of the dead - so no-one is allowed to bring any evidence forward opposing the moniker.
After the 9/11 attacks the firemen (and women) who responded were called heroes.  I think most of the population, if they had worked in the fireservice for long enough to hold it close to their personal identity, would have done the same thing - in which case are most of the population heroes who just haven't had the circumstances to demonstrate it?

I think it's great people like that are publicly called heroes - they put themselves in harms way for my benefit, and if we didn't impose the expectation of them being heroes perhaps they wouldn't.  It is in society's interests to call them heroes (and mean it!) - and that is why that meme has evolved.
Sure, some may join up as a vocation, but I think most are probably sheep just acting out a role thrust upon them.

Saturday, 18 June 2011


So I tried out the Cleanmeter I saw linked on LostInIdaho's blog.

I was very disappointed!  Apart from the obvious fact that the cleanmeter's algorithm leaves a lot to be desired if it only picked up ONE mature theme and ONE reference to a deity, I realised that I simply don't swear enough.

As Stephen Fry said:
Swearing is a really important part of one's life. It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing... There used to be mad, silly, prissy people who used to say swearing was a sign of a poor vocabulary -such utter nonsense. The people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies and the kind of person who says swearing is a sign of a poor vocabulary usually have a pretty poor vocabulary themselves... The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest or -is just a fucking lunatic... I haven't met anybody who's truly shocked at swearing, really, they're only shocked on behalf of other people. Well, you know, that's preposterous... or they say 'it's not necessary'. As if that should stop one doing it! It's not necessary to have coloured socks, it's not necessary for this cushion to be here, but is anyone going to write in and say 'I was shocked to see that cushion there, it really wasn't necessary'? No, things not being necessary is what makes life interesting -the little extras in life. 

And aside from that, swearing like a fuck-cunt is actually good for you!  So, for the love of wank-shit why haven't I been swearing my shaven bollocks off?
The person I've wanted to be has always been someone who isn't driven by periodic outbursts of limbic emotion, such as anger, and therefore it has become habitual to restrain myself.  I take a mental step back and a deep breath and present a reasoned mask to the world anytime I am provoked when there is a recurring character in my life present.

That's part of the reason why I've really enjoyed the two long holidays I've taken alone, far away from anyone that knows me.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Changing Minds

Ten years ago in the USA 57% of the population opposed gay marriage, 35% were for it, and 8% were too dull/stupid to have an opinion.  Today it is pretty much neck and neck, at 46% vs 45%, with the dull rising to 9%.

I'd like to think that the swing is people changing their minds, but I suspect most of this change is simply bigots dying and being replaced in the polls by fresh young minds.

Politics is far too dominated by old twats set in their ways.  Democracy is fine for most things but on progressive issues of morality society has to wait for the young generation to grow up and become politicians before the 'right' policy is enacted.
I talked a bit about what the direction of law should be in my very first post, which TBH I'd like to get some comments on as it's an interesting topic!

I don't think I have a point, or a solution to this, so feel free to suggest one.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Life Worth

I've thought about suicide a lot.  Not so much doing it, though I have sometimes felt so bored of life that I've thought I may as well, but about why I or anyone else would do it.  When I've felt particularly bored of life - same ol shit, different day - I've essentially ended up chastising myself for being unimaginative or just downright lazy.  

Once someone contemplates suicide they essentially stop placing value on life, and when that happens the person is liberated to do anything.  A lone suicide means that the person values the life of others - they didn't use the terrible strength and freedom of that decision to go postal on their boss etc - and so from their lonely death arises the realisation of a value that may have justified their existence.

I don't feel that value.  I don't believe there is a god or any sort of afterlife/reincarnation punishment.  I believe that we are animals with instincts and when we die we cease to exist.  I don't believe in morals (right and wrong) but I do believe in a... malleable... sort of ethics - how to live your life.  I may not instinctively find worth in the lives of others but I would not have a better life myself if I showed this to the recurring characters in this drama we call life.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Stories from childhood 2

Ok so I wasn't a child when this one happened - but I was a very immature 21 year old.  My parents had gone on holiday after my graduation and my elder sister and I traveled back to the family homestead.  Our grandmother hadn't been answering the phone, and no-one had heard from her for several days, so it was a reasonable assumption that she had died.  My sister wanted to go over to her house ASAP; I wanted to relax for a bit first - if she was dead then there was no hurry.  I'm reminded of Tim Minchin relating a conversation with his wife about going to check on their baby, "well if she's dead we may as well watch the end of this film before our lives are destroyed by grief"

When we got there there was no answer at the door so we let ourselves in with the key we had.  We went upstairs end into her room.  There was a body in the bed turned away from us with the bedclothes covering her.  I went around the bed to her and saw she was in a comedy death pose.  It kinda reminded me of Nosferatu - the way her wrinkled face was in a slight grimace and she had one hand in a claw-like pose up near her face.

So I shook my head at my sister and went over to her; through some tears she said "did it look like she died peacefully?".  I figured she was never going to go over to look at the dead body so I said "yes, yes she just looked like she was sleeping".
We go downstairs and I call the ambulance and put the kettle on... and then my sister says she's going upstairs to say goodbye.

I still don't know to this day whether she actually went up to her and saw what I saw.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Stories from childhood

At 11 years old I changed school to one with separate lessons with specialist teachers.  My biology teacher introduced us to the theory of evolution in the first lesson.

It made complete sense to me - if there is a subset of a species with a mutation (adaptation) that makes them ever so slightly more likely to have [more] kids then, over a long time in a large group, those mutations will become increasingly common (because they are genetic) and thus the species evolves.  Conversely, any trait that makes it less likely for an animal to reproduce (such as causing them to die quickly) will be strongly selected against.

I came home from school that day and said to my mother, who was a high-school biology teacher herself, "why do people believe that ostriches stick their heads in the sand when they see a predator?"
"Because they do"
"But if they did they would die out very quickly - that's evolution, and it's obviously true whereas 'common knowledge' is sometimes wrong"
"Well it's not wrong in this case"

This incident greatly influenced how I thought of my mother from then on.

Monday, 23 May 2011


I read an article based on a paper recently that concluded you could tell if someone were criminal from how they look.  I was astounded at the bad science behind it - there was no attempt to mitigate for, or even mention, the possibility that it was hairstyle or someone generally looking like they have had a hard life that provided the (somewhat weak) correlation with criminality.  Personally I don't think this study can conclude anything - in which case why did they bother?

As an aside - there is evidence that better looks are correlated with higher IQ.  I know it is with me anyway ;)

The weakest correlation was with rapists - suggesting (to me) that men from all walks of life can be capable of rape, whereas someone who is in a gang, or trailer park, etc, is much more likely to commit and be caught for murder than some white collar dude.

Anyway, here are some of the pics used in the research.  I'll post the answers and link the paper in a few days' time to give you a chance to see how you do!

Who are the criminals? 

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


In the NY Times a couple of days ago, there was an article written by an economist explaining why people sometime make bad decisions.  He obviously understands that evolutionary pressures have shaped our minds - shaped them to survive long enough to pass their genes on to the next generation, not shaped them to be happy.  He posits that happiness is usually only fleeting, and its allure is held in front of the mind like a carrot; he suggests that our minds are wired to be anxious and unhappy as the prime motivating factor in people's lives.

There is a lot wrong with his article, but the things it got right got me thinking.  I agree that happiness for most people lasts a much shorter time than being anxious or unhappy, and I know that most people instinctively move towards carrots and away from sticks.  Most people.  What about those who aren't neuro-typical?  People with flat affect, a smaller than average amygdala, a low fear response, have been shown conclusively to not react (not nearly as much anyway) to metaphorical sticks.  It is no use using punishment as a means of changing the behaviour of someone with an antisocial personality disorder - there has to be a carrot dangling somewhere.  Those with BPD and other disorders associated with anxiety do experience the stick, but it is beating them in every direction depending on which way the wind is blowing.

So is the reason that those with flat affect, and those who are overanxious, have difficulty with long term objectives simply that the motivation is too low or the direction the motivation is never in the same direction for more than 5 minutes?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Eyes

The eyes are the window to the soul, so they say. 
A massive part of our brain is dedicated to the visual analysis of our world, which is probably why we feel that the centre of our being is in our head – I think this feeling is more related to the location of our most important sense than to the actual location of our brain.  A hippy friend once said to me after he'd bumped his head on a short doorframe, "I always forget I have a body above my eyes".  he was stoned at the time though.

The reason we need a lot of brainspace for our vision is that it is a very complex mathematical problem to solve. 
If you have only one eye then it is presented with a 2D image with no depth information – your depth perception is certainly much reduced with only one eye, but you can navigate your way around day to day life without difficulty. 
This is something that is not to be sniffed at – your brain has to make many many assumptions about what an object's shape actually is and some shading information to then turn this into a sensible image presented to your conscious mind. For example, you know a TV screen is a rectangle, but if you see it from an angle it will form an image of a parallelogram onto your retina. It seems reasonable to assume it should actually be a rectangle and therefore is interpreted as a rectangle at an angle. What if it isn't an object you've seen before... a lot of processing is needed and optical illusions show some of the limitations of that processing.

When you have 2 eyes depth perception becomes easier, because each eye sees a slightly different image due to parallax. However, turning these 2 images into a coherent 3D world is nothing to be sneezed at either, and even the very best computer systems with artificial vision (2 camera 'eyes') are very slow and have a high failure rate compared to a human being.

The computational theory of mind is still the best theory to explain how we do things, and the current limitations on artificial vision are not evidence against it, but merely highlight what a massively complex calculation it is, and that it does require some reasonable assumptions – vision is an incomplete information problem.
One interesting validation of the computational theory of mind to do with vision that I read about recently concerned the reaction times of recognising shapes. Someone is asked to memorise a list of a few strange symbols, and then shapes are flashed onto a screen. When one of the ones in the list appears the subject presses a button. If the shapes are rotated when they are flashed up then the time it takes to recognise it is linearly proportional to the angle it was rotated by. This seems reasonable if the brain has a 'module' that rotates shapes. If the shape is a mirror image and rotated then the reaction time is exactly the same no matter what the rotation. At first this puzzled the researchers but a mathematician pointed out to them that for a rotated mirror image there is always a single axis to flip it about to get it back to the original image – all the shapes only required one flip in the mind's eye. How it determines where this axis is was not explained...

So in conclusion, the world you see is not the actual world – it is blemish corrected, your blind spot (where the optic nerve comes out of the retina) is filled in with guesswork, and is heavily image processed. Our heavy reliance on vision has shaped our thoughts and metaphors in our language.

And yes, that is my eye.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Sphex Wasp

Sphex wasps, when they reproduce, paralyse prey and lay their eggs in/on it.  When the eggs hatch the baby wasps have a fresh food source to give them a good start in life.

The mummy wasp digs a hole in the ground (they are commonly known as digger wasps) then goes off and brings back a paralysed grub.  It sets it beside the entrance to the hole and goes into the nest.  It is possible that another wasp has commandeered the hole.  After a quick look around it comes back out and grabs the grub, drags it into the hole, lays its eggs, and leaves (covering the hole entrance).

This seems like reasonable and intelligently foreplanned behaviour.

If, when the wasp goes into the hole, you move the paralysed grub by an inch or two, it comes out, re-locates the grub, moves it back to beside the hole entrance, and then goes back inside the hole.  It looks around then comes out again.  If you have again moved the grub, and continue to do so, the wasp will be caught in an infinite loop of hardwired behaviour.

Are you?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011


I was tempted to call this post "manipulation"; but these are things that many people do instinctively, or perhaps simply due to subconsciously copying someone. I seem to be more consciously aware of behaviours and I choose the appropriate behaviour for the situation – this means I will use the best behaviour I know to achieve what I want. In which case, is it really fair to say I am manipulative?

I distinctly remember when I was about 14 I read that people with more animated faces were trusted and liked more. This ties in with the theory I've touched on in emotions1 and emotions2 that a show of emotion is trusted for evolved reasons because it is hard to fake – and an animated face is more emotionally expressive. Any time I have come across other actual scientific studies that I can incorporate into my behaviour I have tried to do so – I will choose the appropriate facial animation, vocal inflections, and general body language to appear open. Body language is a big topic and requires practice to be able to [apparently] naturally pace with the person you are talking to in order to create a rapport. There are some general things even beginners should look to do such as leg crossing direction, showing the palms of hands when making a point, and awareness of personal space.

The way we use language is also incredibly powerful, as evidenced most obviously by hypnosis and the sort of persuasion skill shown by Derren Brown.
You don't have to hypnotise someone to get them to do something, and here are some of the ways to change people's behaviour that have been proven to work and I think are most common or easy to incorporate into your everyday life:
  1. Double binds – create the illusion of giving someone a choice whereas both options you have given elicit the desired behaviour. For example, a mother may say to her child, "would you like to tidy your room before or after your dinner?"
  2. Barnem statements are seemingly specific (personal) but actually apply to nearly everyone, e.g. "you have a creative streak that you aren't always able to indulge in". You can use the same types of statements to create a fast rapport with someone you've just met.
  3. As discussed on another blog recently, calling someone by their desired status elicits behaviour to reinforce it. E.g. referring to someone as 'friend/buddy' will enforce their perception of you as a friend. Calling your boss 'boss/chief' will give them a bit of an ego boost and help them to feel like you are a compliant employee even if the evidence suggests otherwise.
  4. Providing a reason for a request will vastly increase the compliance rate even if the reason is complete rubbish. For example, when trying to push in at a queue for a photocopier with "Excuse me, could I jump the line?" you will be let in approx 24% of the time. Changing it to "Excuse me, could I jump the line because I need to make copies?" increases this to 93%.  Always add "...because xxx" to every request you make.
  5. Don't just request someone do something, get them to declare they will do it.  A restaurant that had a 30% no-show rate for bookings reduced this to 10% by changing from "...let us know if you can't make the booking" to " will let us know if you can't make the booking, won't you?" and getting the response "yes".
There are also a few more subtle techniques that aren't purely bodylanguage or verbal. 
One I've been practicing recently was referred to as compensatory ethics by TNP, and is essentially the idea that people have a moral view of themselves that they like to remain balanced. If they do something they aren't particularly proud of then they become much more likely to do a good deed soon after. Looking out for a good time to ask a favour, or creating it by subtly reminding someone of their less than perfect behaviour, will vastly increase your compliance rate.

Asking for a small action that creates the right way of someone viewing themselves will make them then more likely to agree to a much larger request – because they have already thought of themselves as that sort of person. E.g. If you want someone to organise a holiday, then get them to organise a small night out. Soon after suggest to them to organise the holiday – they think of themselves as an organisor and will be much more receptive.

There are many many more little techniques to change people's behaviour/response, but this post is already too long and I don't wanna give away all my secrets! :)

Always be aware of the language and techniques used by other people, religions, and advertisers.  There is always more to learn, and books on body language and neuro-linguistic programming are good places to start.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


Yesterday was 20th April, and in North America the code/time/date of 4:20 is synonymous with cannabis.  I'm in an on-off abusive relationship with the weed; when I have it I abuse it, I have my way with it at any time of the day or night it suits me, and keep having my way until I'm satiated.  It makes me antisocial, though never paranoid, and dulls my thoughts to keep them from running away.  If I go too long without, I'm too aware, my thinking is too non-stop, and I'll not sleep.  I'll be on-the-ball, and I'll get shit done, but I'll be heading to the loony bin.  It's no coincidence that I've been off it for about 4 months and I'm getting a promotion.

Now the promotion is in the bag, I think it's time to celebrate with a joint or two.  I'll buy some in, and start growing - I'll have a short off period before the harvest is ready.  Joints are an art form - at university some friends even asked me to organise a masterclass in rolling the perfect joint.

I've tried more drugs than most could name, but skunk is the one I keep coming back to.  Ecstasy was the only other one I've had a regular affair with; cocaine does fuck all for me - I suspect my serotonin response is ok but my dopamine response is a fucked up.  But perhaps cocaine does nothing for me because I'm already an arrogant asshole ;)

I always stop when it starts affecting my life too much because I recognise that although it is lovely in the short term, it is not conducive to my plans in the long term.  Mental dulling and lack of physical fitness do not sit well with my self image, and so every joint I smoke is made that much sweeter because I know it will end again soon.

When I do quit, insomnia strikes with a vengeance and I have to be very careful that the mental benefits of not being stoned all the time do not outweigh the cost to my sanity of a long period of terrible insomnia.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma

Critical to fully understanding the evolution of behavioural traits is understanding some basic game theory, such as the iterated prisoner's dilemma.

The basic prisoner's dilemma is as follows: two criminals are taken to the police station and interviewed separately. They went on a crime spree together and there is enough evidence to convict them of some of the minor offences. Imagine you are one of the prisoners and you are given a choice, which you assume your partner in crime has also been given: confess to everything and thereby grass up your partner for the major charges [defect]; or keep your mouth shut [cooperate]. If you talk and your partner doesn't, then you get a reduced sentence of 2 years in prison because of helping to convict your partner; and he gets 10 years. If he talks and you don't then obviously the reverse happens. If you both give a full confession then you both get 8 years, and if neither of you talk you both get 4 years. What do you do?

Now imagine that you and your partner can both live forever, and any time either of you are not in prison you go on another crime spree together and each time you get caught and face the same decision. You know your partner's previous responses, so this will obviously affect whether you cooperate or defect in the latest interview with the police. This situation is the iterated prisoner's dilemma, and occurs (in other forms!) every day in societal life (the social contract).

The various consequences to the options can be formalised into a pay-off matrix, and different weightings given to the possible outcomes. So long as all the options are sensible, for example the benefit to you for defecting when your partner cooperates should always be more than the benefit to you for cooperating when your partner cooperates, then it is possible to make some firm conclusions about the worth of different strategies.

Axelrod created a tournament in which different programs played against each other (200 iterations for one game) and then each program's total score was added up. Some of these programs had very sophisticated algorithms to predict whether the opponent would cooperate or defect, however the overall winner was a program called tit-for-tat which simply started out cooperating and then did whatever the opponent had done the previous move. In the second tournament the winner was called tit-for-2-tats, I don't think I need to explain that one's tactics!

It is important to note that in a population it isn't as simple as there being an optimum strategy that everyone should abide by. One of the founders of modern game theory, John Nash (of “A Beautiful Mind”), showed that strategies of cooperation and defection settle to a balance (the Nash equilibrium) – so long as the frequency of defection is low, then on average the cooperators gain by continuing to cooperate and the small number of defectors can take advantage.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Arguing with People

I like arguing with people.  Sometimes I'll act dumb and use the Socratic method of asking seemingly innocuous questions that tease apart the person's position.  Sometimes I'll be aggressive in pointing out the inconsistency of their position and condescendingly laugh at them as I do it.  Either way can be entertaining and fun; and more to the point of this post - it is usually extremely easy.

99.9% of the opinions of 99.9% of the people are arrived at through instinct not logic.  The person then mentally commits to that opinion and looks for arguments to justify their position.  I have encountered very few well thought out, consistent, opinions.

I cannot emphasise enough the truth of this observation; it seems to simply be how the human mind works.  It takes self knowledge and a willingness to re-evaluate every opinion you hold dear to not fall into the same trap.

So if you want to stop talking out your ass, bring a little logic to your thoughts.  Think about it and then arrive at a conclusion, don't have an opinion and then think about it.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Person You Want To Be

If you could be anyone, who would it be?  If you could realise your potential, and be the best you possible, what do you envisage that looking like?
As I have a lot of self control, I've been able to live my life (the vast majority of time anyway) behaving how I would behave if I were a good person.  There is some satisfaction gained doing that due to it feeding my narcissist side: I can tell myself that I have more self control than other people, and because I choose to behave well when it is not natural for me to do so, I can not only feel noble, but also feel I actually have free-will instead of giving into instincts all the time and am therefore more worthy of life than others.

This has gone on for so long that it has become ingrained in me; it is a social conditioning of behaviour, and it is disconcertingly close to the religious brainwashing that I find so distasteful in other people.  I now find myself in a life that just reeks of dissonance because I will never want to act that way, only want to want to.

Of course I've always had an outlet or two.  I've always kept the physical manifestations of my private thoughts just that - private.  The internet (this blog, and other blogs/forums) has allowed me to be honest with people in a way I never have been before, and that in itself has led to further personal insights and the acceptance that some things about me will never change.  I have also realised that I need to shift the balance in my life more towards what the real me wants, rather than what the person I thought I wanted to be would want.

It isn't that the pull of the dark side is too great, it is simple acceptance that it is and always will be a part of me.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


Not allowed: nail-clippers.
Allowed: to go into the shop after security and buy a large glass bottle of flammable liquid (e.g. vodka) that you could take on the plane and break into a formidable weapon and a fire bomb.

Let's be honest – a lot of the security measures at airports are there either as a PR exercise to make people simply feel safer, or because the security managers wanted to increase their staff numbers, and therefore their own importance.

If someone has a modicum of intelligence and is prepared to die, then there is nothing you can do to stop them killing at least some people.  
Why are airplanes targeted anyway?  It would be a lot easier to get a van with a bomb in it onto a ferry, or just parked in Wall St.  Many people would die, there would be just as much publicity, and you could keep your own life.  If public fear and disruption is the objective then I just don't think taking down an airplane is good value for them; these terrorists have no imagination.  No logic behind their actions either - if you asked one of the terrorists how what they do is going to advance their cause, then I doubt they would demonstrate a well thought-through logical connection between the act and their aims.

Headline news in the UK today is a bomb last night in Northern Ireland; some Republicans killed a Catholic policeman.  While I'm sure they viewed him as some kind of traitor, I doubt they would say it was a simple act of punishment - they would claim it advances their cause somehow... but I highly doubt whoever planted it would have a coherent explanation of how it achieves this.

Monday, 28 March 2011


Primates other than humans have been studied when there is voluntary alcohol consumption, and the proportions of non-human primates that:
1. develop alcoholism
2. get drunk occasionally but are generally sensible
3. always drink in moderation
4. choose to be teetotal
have been found to be approximately the same proportions that are observed in humans.

Much of our predisposition towards level of personal control, and risk taking, seems to be genetic.  Upbringing may play a part, but it would seem to be a function of brain structure.  In life there is usually a trade-off between risk and potential reward; it makes sense for some members of a population to be more adventurous, and for some to be more risk-averse.

I'd like to share with you two things relating to risk that I find interesting:

1.  Drivers tend to drive to a level of risk that [at least partially] compensates for any safety measure.  For example, if you wear a seatbelt you drive slightly more recklessly and therefore you are more likely to kill someone else (protection afforded to you still far outweighs the extra risk to others - it is mainly pedestrians and cyclists that bear the brunt of the extra risk).
This thinking is obvious if taken to extremes – imagine if there were no seatbelts and a big spike in the middle of the steering wheel... there would be a lot of very careful drivers out there!

2.  The parasitic protozoa toxoplasma gondii's primary life cycle involves passing through a rat/mouse and a cat. Experiments have shown conclusively that this infection causes a rat to become less risk averse.  It becomes much more likely to forage out in the open rather than skulking in the shadows, and therefore more likely to be caught by a cat and continue TG's life cycle.  It may come as little surprise to some readers that toxoplasma gondii sets up residence in the amygdala.  Although rats and cats are the primary life cycle hosts for TG, human infection in USA is estimated at 22.5% (much higher for cat owners!) and worldwide it is estimated at 25 - 75 % (those are some big error bars, eh?).  Infection normally poses no obvious effects, very few people are struck with acute toxoplasmosis, but studies have shown effects on human risk taking and personality.  People infected are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents, and less likely to accept group moral standards
So perhaps the local crazy cat-lady has good reason...

Monday, 21 March 2011


Let me be clear - I do not have OCD.  However, there are some things I do that may be construed as compulsive behaviours and I thought I would share a couple of them with you.

There is often a right way to do something; if you realise that, and are not particularly time-constrained, then why would you do it the wrong way? 

For example, when making a sandwich the fillings should be spread evenly through the bread.  Therefore, I cut the cheese, tomato, cucumber, ham, etc to fit the bread exactly - like a food jigsaw.  Cucumber is a bitch.  Not too long ago I ate at a sandwich bar and when my sandwich arrived I found that the PROFESSIONAL sandwich-maker had put the top slice on in the reverse orientation to the bottom slice - this should be a sacking offence in my opinion.

The picture above annoys me; it was obviously not done by anyone obsessive, or even vaguely observant.  It is neither neatly done, nor consistent in use of lower case / capitals.

When I need to do a shit, I always check there is toilet paper there before I sit down.  In public places, such as in work, the 2-ply toilet paper often has the top ply separated and wrapped around an extra time so that the perforations don't match up - how does this happen and why doesn't anyone else fix it!?  And, of course, folding 2 sheets in half and half again doesn't yield the optimum width, so I either fold 2 sheets into 3, or 3 sheets into 4 (depending on quality).

As you may know, I can be a bit of a grammar nazi and TBH it often interrupts the flow of what I am reading.  Any time I read  a commonly wrong word, such as its/it's or your /you're, I do a double take to check it is right.  Also, as I pointed out to Notme earlier today, it should be !?, not ?! because the question mark is curved like a bracket and therefore the exclamation mark should be contained within it.

As I said, I am not OCD (though maybe I have a dash of Aspie in my comorbid cocktail!), and if I cannot do things the way I would prefer to, for whatever reason, I do not get anxious - I just move on and forget about it.  I think my little quirks are simply related to conscientiousness, an attention to detail, never assuming the traditional way of doing something is the best way, being generally more aware of things around me than most, and a frustration at how other people (imbeciles!) can get the simplest things wrong.

These are all the traits that make me good at my job - I see problems,  potential problems, and how things should be done.  Then I fix them.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


I'm just back from a snowboarding holiday in Austria. My traveling companions took many photos and had fancy cameras, whereas I took only a handful and have never owned a dedicated camera – using only my mobile phone on occasion (which does take a reasonable 5mpix picture if conditions are right).

I am not sentimental, and the photos I take tend to either be artistically pleasing or purely to put on facebook to placate family that protest if I don't. That means that the photos I take are either of people (this seems to be what others want to see photos of) or desolate vistas – one of the reasons I enjoy snowboarding is that, if visibility is good, from the top of a mountain in the Alps you can see giant snowy peaks stretching out into the distance.

Mountains and clouds and big rocks and starry skies are the scenery that impresses me most; I find it kind of liberating to feel how small and temporally fleeting I am. Some may find that feeling depressing, but it isn't simply that I feel I am small and ephemeral, I feel how insignificant everything in life is – everything in everyone's life – and that makes me feel powerful because I know that most people get caught up in their mundane existences and never realise their true place in the world.  It reminds me that I am different to other people; and by 'different' I mean 'better'.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Have been sleeping worse again lately, after a period of pretty good sleep.  After several nights of little sleep my brain feels like it is stuffed with cotton wool, and I just meander through the day in a trance.  In this unthinking state I sometimes have quite idiotic lapses - real "duh!" moments.  I'm sure everyone has moments like these, but normally I don't and I thought I would note a few of these down for prosperity :)

This morning I was nearly late for work because after breakfast I brushed my teeth and then went into my bedroom to get my phone.  I got undressed and got back into bed and was drifting off to sleep when I realised with a jolt that it was not night time it was the morning.

I bought a few groceries in a shop and went to pay with plastic.  I completely forgot not only the PIN of the card I picked out, but all the other ones too.  I'm normally very good with numbers.

Running slightly late in the morning, I hurried out to my car and went to put my keys in, only to find that I wasn't holding my keys - I was holding my electric toothbrush.

On several occasions I've been driving somewhere and just kept going for miles and miles past my destination (like for 30mins on what should be a 10min journey).

I guess these are pretty mundane things, but they make me laugh :)