Next: Science is now so complex that we can no longer ask What? We can now only wonder Why?

This Blog used to be about the question: What is Science?
Now, it asks: What is Happiness?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Seldom Seen Smith

I have a frazzled and strangely bent friend from times long ago, who one day succumbed to a curious mix of anarchism and auto-didacticism and took an IT job at Woolworths. Now, all copious and OCD emails are sprinkled with stars and stripes. e.g. "What the ***--- can we do about this --**--** manage**nt!"

He has learnt the art of corporate survival. Stay under the radar 'cause if you don't, the radar will get ya!

So, it was with some trepidation and lead-lined underware that I delved into a mail marked Seldom Seen. At the end of it all I understood the reason for its lengthy tome. For somewhere deeply concealed in the bowels of its copious text were the words "Seld*m S**n -*i*-"

After the briefest of exposures I hit the OFF BUTTON and found shelter in a coffee shop called Incognito.
Whilst there I wandered back to a old and crusty book that was once given to me by an aged mentor from days long gone. The book is called, "Delightful Journey' and is the account of the rafting trip down the Colorado and Green rivers by one Barry Goldwater and buddies. This was done in the days before the river was damned up and as a last experience of the fading wilderness....1940.

Barry Goldwater later turned his considerable life views to politics and is mostly responsible for the resurrection of the American Conservative Movement which eventually saw Ronnie Reagan as President.
However, there are some things about him that have caught my attention:
I quote....
'Some of Goldwater's statements in the 1990s aggravated many social conservatives. He endorsed Democrat Karan English in an Arizona congressional race, urged Republicans to lay off Bill Clinton over the Whitewater scandal, and criticized the military's ban on homosexuals: "Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar."[39] He also said, "You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight."[40] A few years before his death he went so far as to address the right wing, "Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you've hurt the Republican party much more than the Democrats have."'
When Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981, some Religious Right leaders suspected she might be too moderate on abortion and other social concerns. Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell told the news media that "every good Christian should be concerned." Replied Goldwater, "Every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell's ass."

That same year Senator Goldwater complained at length that :
""There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of 'conservatism.' " (1909-1998) US Senator (R-Arizona) Source: Congressional Record, September 16, 1981

So, what is the connections between Goldwater and SS Smith?

A spurious one at best, but both have left a legacy. Barry was only the 70th person to have hauled his rubber raft into the Colorado River, but today that legend lives on.
Each year only 1600 people are allowed to raft the river. Everything that goes in must come out, down to the ashes from the fires which can only be made on a metal base plate.
Now, I wonder what Barry and SSS would have chatted about if they met one day on a winding highway and desert scattered with rockin' beer cans?

(personally....I like desert highways and hate litterbugs)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Science Challenged

First, a little reminder of the Hows and Whys of Scientific Method......

From the BBC website>

"WHO recommends against homeopathic treatments for HIV, TB, malaria, influenza, infant diarrhoea
The WHO has warned that people with conditions such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria should not rely on homeopathic treatments, the BBC reports. The agency was responding to a June letter (full text available here), in which researchers from the Voice of Young Science Network called on the agency "to condemn the promotion of homeopathy for treating TB, infant diarrhoea, influenza, malaria and HIV."
The group, which is part of the Sense About Science organization that advocates for "evidence-based" care, has conveyed the WHO's views in a letter to health ministers, according to the BBC (8/20).

According to a Sense About Science release, the organizations received comments from five WHO officials, which "clearly express WHO's position" (8/21). Mario Raviglione, director of the Stop TB department at the WHO, said, "Our evidence-based WHO TB treatment/management guidelines, as well as the International Standards of Tuberculosis Care do not recommend use of homeopathy." In addition, a spokesman for the WHO department of child and adolescent health and development said of treating diarrhoea in children: "We have found no evidence to date that homeopathy would bring any benefit," the BBC writes (8/20). The release includes additional comments from the associate director of WHO's global malaria program, the HIV/AIDS department interim director and others (8/21).

Robert Hagan, a researcher in biomolecular science at the University of St. Andrews and a member of Voice of Young Science Network, said, "We need governments around the world to recognise the dangers of promoting homeopathy for life-threatening illnesses. We hope that by raising awareness of the WHO's position on homeopathy we will be supporting those people who are taking a stand against these potentially disastrous practices," BBC writes (8/20).

[24 Aug 2009 08:27]

And whilst on the subject of Rule no X (that's a good idea!)....being, 'Scientific Method gives us the best shot at finding the Truth'

Just as a reminder that we continue to live in ancient times as far as many of our modern day pseudo-scientific practices show us. All of us probably have a friend who is an alternative healer or homeopath. I certainly do and if I pause to think about them they are all nice gentle and caring people who no doubt believe implicitly that their healing works. I have yet to hear a single homeopath claim or admit that the successes they see are no more than what is expected from a combination of placebo effect (1/3 of cases), and 'leave it alone and it will self heal', (1/3 of cases). This 1 third rule is, I hear, taught in medical school and leaves a crucial 33% that if untreated according to proper medical intervention will or may kill the patient. Now, add to this mix an unfriendly doctor, an uncaring and overstressed health care system and a lack of social support and it is easy to see how the odds can actually be slewed in the direction of alternative practice being more successful at making people feel better.

So, if what you are suffering from is not likely to kill you or does not need your being anaethesized for it, then visiting your local foot massager or electrode prodder may well result in your feeling a heck of a lot better more of the time. After all, what do most people say about homeopaths...."They really show they care about the patient, They hold your hand and listen to who you are." In this way, they can well be healers.

Resurrecting my Advice Columnist...(literally)

(Lack of) Wisdom from the kitchen>>>>

I have been wont to include an insert of the gems of domestic wisdom which normally sprout forth from my mother whilst dicing carrots in the kitchen. Well they seem to have started again as she regains strength from her 4 month post hospital recovery.

But....there is a narrow dividing line between her random wisdom and just getting something plain wrong.
This morning when she discovered that her water tablets had changed colour she blurted out, "I hope they are NOT GIVING ME GENERICS!"
I explained that even if they were, there was no significant pharmacological difference. "Oh no", she replied, "They are cheaper so they must we worse".
"The doctor told me that I must not take generics!", to which I replied something about her having a vivid imagination.
After betting (and not being accepted) my entire financial worth, I hauled out the trusty netbook and googled a few references, confident that the local pharmacy was not handing out counterfeit drugs.
It turns out that whilst the formutaion remains essentially identical with generics, there is a caveat: In older patients sometimes a colour change can result in the meds not being taken which has the same effect as not taking at these cases it is better to stick to the same shape, size and colour.

As for the tale about the doctor. This reminds me of a fascinating area of neurological real estate called the Prefrontal cortex, or the cogitative and Storytelling part of our brain.
This rather inventive lump of grey matter sits in the front and sides of our heads and is one of the later evolved parts that sort of define us as human. In between firing up when we improvize on our Fender Stratocaster, it has an ongoing argument with a far older piece of brain, the Amygdala, which sits deep in the evolutionary depths of our psyche. This is what gives us those sudden rushes of emotion and fear that warn us of danger and give us the energy to fight or flee. But in the sensible society that we now live in, it is not always appropriate to thump your boss on the nose when he yells at you even though every molecule in your body seems to be crying for justice.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the guy that says, hold on, lets think about this, maybe it is a better idea to take a breath and find another way of handling the boss's outburst. the medial prefrontal, on the other hand is the creative, the imaginative storyteller. It is this part sitting up front that fills in the gap, so to speak, when we are telling a tale constructed from fragments of memory.
Thus, when my mother has some recall of things being said about generic medicine, she weaves a story around these spuriously recalled facts and literally fills in the gaps with nonsense, like what the doctor said. The important thing is that the Prefrontal plays a trick on us here and makes us believe that these fillers are in fact as true as the rest. So, mum, based on a few bits of recollection, pieces together a story that she really believes in.

Religion, I suspect, is a bit like this, but in a way inverted. The bible stories fill the heads of receptive believers and the good ole prefrontal fills in the gaps with all the evidence needed. Just look around you and everywhere is proof of the work of God.
So, when we suspect that religious people are suspending disbelief in key areas, we have to understand that the story that they are often seeing is one of non-fiction in its entirety.

I too, therefore must be filling in the gaps...where though is what I have to ask.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Look, think, look again.

Here's a hypothetical situation. One which allows me to explore a question that is buzzing around my head.
First I need a dialogue. Let's have 2 persons, A & B.
If A is fanatical about anything it is to adherence to scientific method.
If A is intolerant of anything it is towards willful ignorance on the part of other human beings.
If A is angry about anything it is the damage that lack of the former and the presence of the latter causes.

A and B are engaged in a debate. B is devoted, entirely devoted, to a belief that any opinion, no matter how substantiated or researched has equal status to any opposing opinion. As long as it is an opinion being expressed there is no matter whether it be right or wrong, factually accurate or wildly imaginative. Now, in the post modern world that we live in this is all old hat. We understand that Truth itself is dubious at best and vacillates from one perceptive being to the next.
But, B does not fit into this world. For him, all is black or white, no cloudy shades of grey.
So it was that B, relaxxxxxxed next to a fire one early summer evening, beer in hand and crinkly feet raised up in defiance, gave the throw away line, "Well, A, you will surely agree that blacks are less intelligent than whites. All you have to do is to look around you."
It turns out from his own admission that this was no mere throwaway line. It was carefully thrust into the party space to see how A would react. And react he did. Vehemently first demanding an explanation as to how on earth B could make so outrageous a claim. The only validation A got was to the tune of "Well, it's obvious isn't it?".

Well, thought A, he does have a point. But this is a political hot potato. So A returned the favour and tested his reaction by emailing B's personal mailing list with a query re B's 'observation that blacks are less intelligent than whites." The rapidity and seriousness of B's response told A that this was an opinion which did in fact matter.....

Loath to abandon a challenge that encompassed both his personal fanaticism and pet hate, A decided to investigate this 'opinion' a little deeper. Is it possible that B's observation has some merit? If so, what does this mean?
In about as fast as A had formulated the question, the answer came. The link between an observed phenomenon and the conclusion made from it holds a wealth of information about the intelligence that made that leap. In B's case, it pointed very strongly to a rather absent intelligence.
How could he not see it? How could he not know that when 2 things happen to occur in synchronicity that the one does not necessarily cause the other?
B had observed black people and simultaneously observed what, from his cultural POV was unintelligent behaviour. Clearly, a lack of intelligence cannot cause skin to turn brown so it must be the other way. Yes?
Actually no, my friend. There is no necessary causal link at all. Well, there must be something that links being black in South Africa and being seen as unintelligent.

Like all good scientific journeys this one starts with a definition.

Oxford Dictionary:


General mental ability due to the integrative and adaptive functions of the brain that permit complex, unstereotyped, purposive responses to novel or changing situations, involving discrimination, generalization, learning, concept formation, inference, mental manipulation of memories, images, words and abstract symbols, eduction of relations and correlates, reasoning, and problem solving.

RIght, so we are dealing with understanding and adapting to a changing and complex environment. Not mere ability to process data, not just being able to learn or recall facts. This is a creative descriptor that achieves its best definition in the observed actions of others.
So, where do we derive our intelligence from? Is it innate? Can it be learnt? Is it culturally determined? Does one size fit all?

To continue on this journey I have to go back in time, several million years to a time when homo-sapiens was becoming the big guy in town, mostly as a result of his bigger brain and hence greater intelligence and ability to adapt to the changing world. One day he picked up a stone and it became a tool and in a flash of centuries we shot through the age of discovery, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age and now...the post information Age. All this happened in a remarkably short time in the scale of human evolution, definitely not long enough for our brains to change or evolve much from that which gave our ancestors the edge.

The brain that you and I are born with evolved tens of thousands of years before the different races were defined by evolution, resulting in a multitude of racially differentiated humans all with a very similar brain that had the same potential to develop.

In every young child there are a few crucial times when their brain is set up for later life. A 3 year old has a brain that has many more brain cells than an adult brain. The stimulation and attention that the young brain gets, directly determines which brain cells grow and which die. If you don't use them, you lose them.
Thus the love and richness of the child's early years actually shape the physical structure and ability of their brain. We all know how easy it is for a child to learn new languages when young and how hard it is when we are old.
Fortunately for those of us who did not learn to play the violin or speak Spanish at 4 years old, there is another brain growth spurt at about 10 years. At 18 there is another and it all tails off by the mid twenties. During these crucial times, the external influences are so powerful as to be able to suppress or increase the genetic potential inherited from parents. Studies of twins clearly show that different environments make different people of identical twins, down to actual physical differences.

Thus, it is easy to see that South Africa is a place where many, many young people were deprived of a good education and grew up away from the love and attention that we take for granted. Apartheid and poverty are both directly responsible for this and the result is that many black people have grown up to be less intelligent (in terms of the Western definition), directly as a result of being denied the same rich environment that was available to the privileged South Africans. They were then continually faced with their inferiority being reinforced at every turn. This has been shown to actually further change the structure of the brain, making people less confident, less intelligent and less competitive.

To summarize:
Individual intelligence is not something we are born with. We learn it and education and our upbringing teaches us this.
Anybody has the brain potential to be intelligent. In SA many black people have been denied the chance to develop their potential.
Increasingly we will see less differences in mental ability between young black people and those from other race groups, because the differences are learnt, not inbuilt at birth.

Any comments?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Don't chat at airports!

'Some fact, some fiction, some copyright, some left, depends on how much tea I've had'

Flight Log Friday the 9th October 2009.

Kigoma, Tanzania

I have now wallowed in Central East Africa for over 2 years. I landed in Kigoma on the 1st August 2007 and, totally delighted by the languid mix of Lake, centuries old lack of real economic development and abject cleanliness, I hunkered down for a few weeks till my dollars ran dry. And run dry they did, while I wallowed in the ultimate lakeside pool with a view at Kigoma Kambas.

By early September, Ida had then been in Nairobi fo r 10 months and home cooking and the cats beckoned, so I took the Great North Road back up to Kenya.Whilst finding suitable storage hangering for Daxi proved a challenge, the characters I met in the process made it all worth while. I also absorbed a huge amount of local history. After all, it was near here that Henry Stanley met David Livingstone in 1871 and the immortal line "Dr Livingstone, I presume" was uttered.
Kigoma is the poorest region in Tanzania, with a per capita annual income of US$ 210, and the population growth rate is the country's highest..Except for rapid population growth, some aspects of village life in Kigoma have changed little.
Being close to the Rwanda/Burundi area it has also inherited up to half a million refugees many of whom have remained. Walking around the town, however, belies this particular history. The Rwandan genocide may have devastated the lives of many many lakeside people but today, it is no more than a distant memory. In Rwanda, life is better than ever and an uncanny sense of peace and prosperity reigns. There are lots of reminders though in the way of concrete memorials that dot the main cities and towns but healing in the minds and hearts of the people has taken a strong path in the receding years. Much of the last 2 years can be seen in my website and the rest on this blog.

I got back to Kigoma with 2 days to liberate Daxi and do all the necessary paperwork. Not being akin to bribery (the norm here too) things take a lot of South African charm to get done.
But finally I was up and away, heading for the much talked of Kasaba Bay, about an hour and a half's flight down the other side of Lake Tanganyika....or so I thought. Sitting at the airport having a last cuppa Tanzan tea I got into a chat with a delightful septuagenarian, one Peter Hazelhurst.
It turns out he flew as a navigator in DC3s based at Mwanza in the 50s. With a cheeky grin coming from having survived life's adventures by the skin of his teeth, Peter recounted how the goonybird had in fact saved his life. "The plane stalled and we would have crashed but for sliding off the side of a mountain and regaining enough airspeed to get aloft again."
But the tales of flight didn't end there. It turns out, after my 4th cup of tea, that Peter did the first wingsuit jumps in South Africa in 1958. This was reported in the Sunday Times of 9 February 1958. He was 21 years old at the time and had only 33 normal parachute jumps. Today you are required to have 500 jumps before being allowed to try out a wingsuit. He kept this extreme experiment secret. In 1955 a French man by the name of Leo Valentin died in front of 10 000 spectators while demonstrating his wingsuit in the UK. A humble Peter Hazelhurst did not want to subject another crowd to the possibility of the same fate.

Peter told me he did three jumps over Grand Central from 5 000ft AGL and that on his 3rd and most successful jump he managed 15 seconds of fl ying time before opening his parachute. In 1958 he told the Sunday Times in an interview that he had a hard time controlling the suit made from canvas, but he could make small turns by shifting his weight around inside the suit. After the article in the Sunday Times, he told us that CAA stopped this nonsense as the CAA saw it as far too dangerous an activity.

One thing led to the next and I only got airborne by 15h30 local time, and believing that I had enough daylight for a 1 and a half hour flight I headed off, totally inspired by Peter and singing softly to myself.."Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and ....."

Climbing to 11000ft was slower than expected and by the time I was still 20 min from Kasaba Bay the sun was already searing orange through my right side window. I immediately opted for a precuationary landing which in itself would be in low light. As I descended in a too rapid slip turn I wondered how on earth I had managed to get myself in this precarious situation. Not once on the entire trip had I faced this level of flying risk, and through my own laxness!

But the flying gods were with me and I found, almost glowing in the dusk a piece of sloping but clear dusty terrain and with a wobble of the wheels and my heart, I got her down, for a night in the tin can, in the bush.

FLight Log 10th October 2009

Up at daybreak to check for obstructions and any damage and to ensure I could use the cool morning air for a minimal ground run liftoff.
As it happened, I had landed on a slope, which though precarious for last night, could be used to my advantage on my departure.
A thorough system check revealed that no damage seemed to have been sustained the previous night. With some considerable finesse, if that can be said of turning a 2 ton tail dragger, I manoevered Daxi to face the short downhill slope into the morning darkness. I strolled ahead looking for anthills and other latter day landmines and waited for the dawn. Oh, for a cup of tea now, but I had not expected to be camping in the bush so...another reminder of what to pack next time.

Then, sun up to give me sharp shadows to navigate my liftoff, I slowly throttled up and with the stick fully back I trundled down the hill. It seemed almost instantaneous, the takeoff, almost taking me by surprize. But the real surprize came when I tried to lift the gear and flaps. Nothing happened! There was only one alternative now - head for Kasaba Bay with what I had under me...a DC3 in full landing trim with a mystery fault. I was reminded of Amelia Earhart's last fateful flight where only on the shaky black and white film of her takeoff do we see the aerial wire being ripped off from the belly of the plane. Did my new problem happen on departure? I would never know. Now I needed to nurse Daxi southwards at 80knots with the engines overworked.

I could not afford to subject the plane to such continuous stress, but needed to keep going, so I used my time to recheck all systems. Finally I after resetting the electrical fuses I managed to breathe new life into the undercarriage and with an almighty heave and shudder, the copious wheels lifted up into her belly, shortly followed by the welcome squeel of flaps up.
Was it home James now....surely my trials were over. I gradually dropped to 2000ft above the water which itself is 2700ft above sea level. Gliding happily now over Lake Tanganyika I suddenly was filled with a feeling of being well between the heavens and the deep. This after all is the deepest fresh water reserve on the planet (almost 1.5 km deep) and holds some 1 sixth of all the fresh water on Earth.
I radioed in and got permission to land on RW24. This was the safer approach, being from the water side. The other side was rising ground and I was not keen to risk a fault creeping up on me.
Coming in with full flaps and slowly I nursed Daxi towards the well defined but short airstrip. The wheels going down seemed a little different this morning, but I was now quite tired and anxious to get back to terra firma.
It was wise to have made a really slow and low approach. The wheels had only partly emerged and when I landed they held me for just long enough to slow down to 20kts then collapsed back up into the plane's belly. I ground to a sickening halt, surprizingly smoothly if I may say so myself.
Now I just had the embarrasment of climbing out of a rather low DC3 and greeting the tourists who were now clearly going to reassess their confidence in flight!

Tomorrow is another day. I guess I am doomed to be a lake dweller fo another few months.......unless Insurair has an agent and large bank account here!