This blog is now rarely updated, but remains as an archive of bits and pieces I've collected from around the internet. To see what's caught my eye more recently, find me on twitter.

Friday 24 June 2011

112; Uncontacted tribes and scientific illustrations

Uncontacted tribes are an incredible rarity in the world today, and apparently a new group has been identified in Brazil.
The group lives in the Javari valley, a South Carolina-sized region set aside by the Brazilian government for its indigenous people. About 2,000 uncontacted people are believed to live there, making it the last great stronghold of groups who've utterly eschewed industrial civilization.
"There are about seven groups who have been contacted, and what the Brazilian government says is that they've found references to about 14 uncontacted indigenous groups," said Watson. "Some of those groups may be the same people. It's hard to say exactly how many there are."
The most recent contact was made in 1996 with a group of Korubo tribespeople. Though government policy is to avoid contact altogether, they were moving toward an area occupied by loggers, making it necessary to warn them away.
Check this video from 1996:


On a very different note, I thought I'd point you to a lovely Tumblr:

#111; Football and stuff

Let's kick things of with this: Data in Football:
Giles Revell tried to visualise the Champions League final for the FT Weekend Magazine. Here are some of the results:

The visualisations are done from the point of view of an artist rather than an interested fan or follower of football. The article itself is fascinating and well worth a read, but I'm disappointed that it is accompanied by superficial visualisations which are interesting aesthetically but of no use practically. The story being told in the article focusses on the use of statistics and data in football, so it seems odd that instead of visualising this data in an informative and revealing way, they have opted to create static artwork that fails to say very much at all. Either way, great article and interesting (despite being of little practical use) illustrations.


Next up, a really interesting infovid about the environmental impacts of internet use. Pretty, too:
How Green Is Your Internet? from Patrick Clair on Vimeo.



Geeky design greatness - minimalist typography film posters:


Finally a quick nod to what looks like it might be a crazy interesting event in Brighton in November, which is taking submissions at the moment. Visualising Science & Environment:
From the DNA double helix, to climate model simulations, to media footage of environmental protest, images play a central role in the construction and communication of scientific and environmental matters. However, the visual dimensions of science and environment communication are often overlooked in research. What forms of knowledge and understanding do images produce, facilitate and/or constrain when it comes to issues of science and the environment? How are the visual dimensions of science and environmental communication approached differently across diverse fields such as the physical sciences, the social sciences and the humanities? This symposium will explore the visual dimensions of science and environmental communication by addressing questions of knowledge, understanding, practice and power, through the visual.
Get involved.


Sunday 5 June 2011


The last few months of my life have been dominated by looming, impending, miserable final university exams. They are now done, and I am now free to turn my attention to the future and more cheerful things.

What will life post-Oxford hold for me? I'm not sure, but maybe I should move to Switzerland for my health, Luxembourg to earn a lot of money, or Denmark for the best "life satisfaction". Go check out the beautifully designed and really interesting OECD better life index. Interactive, informative, fun.

In a similar vein is the 2011 Global Peace Index. The video below runs through some of the big trends in global peace. Quantifying peace is a little like quantifying happiness - you can be happy in the worst place in the world and at war in your own home in the most peaceful country, but there's some nice stats here. You can go and take a more detailed look at each country here.

2011 Global Peace Index from Vision of Humanity on Vimeo.

Want some facts about the internet in 2015? Check out this video. In truth the presentation of this fails to really highlight the most important changes and tell the stories of the predictions, which is a shame considering how pretty the design is & how carefully it has been animated. Some nice stuff, regardless:

Digital Life: Today & Tomorrow from Neo Labels on Vimeo.

And two sciencey videos to finish, because they are both a few minutes of visual loveliness.

First take a few minutes, hit full screen and marvel at this compilation of NASA images, beautifully compiled by a fan:

CASSINI MISSION from Chris Abbas on Vimeo.

And sometimes it's nice to sit back and admire nature's beauty. There's No Such Thing as a Jellyfish. Pretty AND educational. "Are jellyfish rare and elusive or poised to take over the world?":

So should I move to Iceland in search of national peace or sit around and think about jellyfish in space? Time will tell, while my single ambition remains to spend my life doing things that I want to do. I want to be interested and entertained by what I do. That's possible, right? Soon I'll be rebuilding my personal website and looking at working on some personal projects, but for right now I'm pretty happy to sit in the sun drinking beers.


Thursday 2 June 2011

Mind Control

Scenario i: You’re at the zoo.  You’re enjoying an ice cream and watching the lions in their enclosure below. You jump over the barrier and down into the lion pit. Your limbs are clinically detached and jaws around your neck squeeze the life out of you. Over the screams of children and their mothers from above, your last thought is “why did I do that..?
Scenario ii: You are a man. You are several months pregnant. Maternal hormones course through your body and, despite your confusion, you cannot help but protect the growing bulge on your belly with a natural mother’s instinct.
Scenario iii: It’s Saturday. You stroll into Trafalgar Square, climb Nelson’s Column, secure yourself firmly at the top, and cheerfully die.

What’s going on? Mind controlling parasites are having their way with you. Toxoplasmus gondii had you deliver it into the body of a lion so that it could reproduce; That baby growing in your belly was actually a parasitic barnacle, Sacculina, using you to provide a warm, cared for home; And a day or two after you died at the top of Nelson’s Column, fungal shoots sprouted out of your brain and body, and a few thousand Ophiocordyceps camponotibalzani spores rained down on the happy tourists of Trafalgar Square.

It may sound like low budget horror flick fodder, but this happens everyday, albeit with rats, crabs and ants, respectively, rather than humans. Nature has long since mastered the art of mind control, and crafty microbes like these have been pushing around animals for millennia. Well, anything nature can do, we can poke our fleshy digits, pointy scalpels and electromagnets at, and over the last few decades we’ve tried our hardest to figure out how to control the minds of others, & harness the full potential of the human brain.

First came “brainwashing”. The word and concept first popped up in the Korean War in 1950, when captured US soldiers emerged from war camps as converted Communists. Everyone from the CIA to contemporary cult religions has since allegedly attempted brainwashing, wherever a group has decided that its mission, beliefs, and principles are more important than those of the individual.
The concept has been engrained in the public consciousness by countless films and books, from 1984 to A Clockwork Orange, and, if you believe everything you read, a  “hideous and insidious enslavement agenda … today threatens virtually all of humanity…. In fact, life in the United States will soon become a carbon copy of Nazi Germany of the late 1930's, just a lot more high tech and much more lethal." A chilling prospect, and while this may be more hysterical conspiracy theory than measured fear, the prospect of brainwashing does not sit well with everyone.

For the most part, however, we have, with time, moved away from the classic brainwashing techniques of the 50s and into more elegant and sophisticated methods of mind manipulation. Conventional “thought reform” is now a rarity. Psychological mind play does persist through, if nothing else, the omnipresent advertising we experience and performers such as Derren Brown, although here the “brainwashers” are restricted by an obligation to stick to a fine code of conduct as they attempt to direct and manipulate people with a bit more subtlety than can be achieved with an electric chair or wooden mallet.
Today, scientists are turning to drugs, electricity and genetics to tinker with the brain.  Nature’s puppeteering parasites themselves employ a variety of methods to control their victims, but predominantly use a cocktail of hormones, proteins and assorted chemicals. Recent work has tried to revive the use of mind-altering drugs for potential medical uses (Grob et al, 2011), although this is not yet an exact science. Any work using illegal drugs or mind-fiddling technologies is controversial. Such societal tensions present a major barrier to the development of our understanding, but is a barrier worth pushing past if we are to truly understand the power of the brain.

This topic presents a fusion of biochemistry, neurology, psychology and philosophy.  Your mind is constantly adapting, contorting and changing, and much of it remains a mystery to us. We humans, however, are not the sort to let a little complexity dampen our spirits as we try to truly understand how the brain works and figure out how to control it. What's more, the direction of scientific progress is finally towards positive, useful and ethical mind manipulation, rather than that rather old-fashioned brainwashing and oppressive mind control.

In 2008 the journal Brain Stimulation was launched, to cover "noninvasive and invasive techniques and technologies that alter brain function." Research is advancing apace and our scientific poking and prodding is starting to reap rewards. So what methods exist today to mould people's minds?

We’re starting to get a grip on how the brain works, and understanding that is the key to enhancing and altering it. Take the "Thinking Cap", a device which selectively stimulates some areas of the brain and dampens others by pushing electricity through the skull. Researchers claim it can boost creativity and enhance the wearer's inventive capacities. Or how about a bit of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)? Using electromagnetic conduction, experimenters have managed to reduce racial prejudice in subjects (Gallate et al, 2011). At the flick of a switch can we unlock the Picasso inside ourselves, or eradicate racism and hatred?

In the past, invasive electrodes implanted into the brain have been required to alter behaviour. For example, using "deep brain stimulation", specific areas of the brain have been stimulated or disabled. But now we don't even need to go messing around with scalpels and drills. Ultrasound has been used to alter the behaviour of specific neurons, making mice move in certain ways. Electrodes on the scalp itself ("transcranial direct current stimulation", if you're a fan of techno-jargon) have been used to improve language skills (Baker et al, 2010), and even boost mathematical abilities (Kadosh et al, 2010). Pop a few electrodes on your skull and soon you could be working out equations like Einstein. Going even further into experimental territory, New Scientist reports that using "optogenetics" we can turn specific individual neurons on and off using just different coloured lights. Total control over individual neurons is an incredible step, but with 100 billion neurons in the brain, we should probably make sure we know what does what before we get too trigger happy with the on-off switch. Wouldn’t want to cut the wrong wire.

Reducing racism and boosting the brain seem like much more productive and tolerable uses of mind-fiddling technologies than political conversion, but any mind meddling will always provoke debate. Who are we to remove someone's prejudices? Would that be a nobler act than converting someone to communism and brainwashing them into submission, or does it all fall under the same umbrella of free will restriction. If we were to truly master mind control technologies, who would we trust to use them properly?

Deep questions indeed, and certainly ones with no straightforward answers. So let’s wade out of the murky waters of mind control and into the shining light of controlling with the mind. This is where the science becomes more than a little X-Men, and with sensational results. As neurobiology and technology has advanced, and our understanding of how the brain transmits signals develops, we are starting to be able to use the power of the mind to control the world around us.
            Picture a woman sitting deadly still, focussing on a screen. Without her moving a muscle she moves small cursor on the screen and selects various options. In another room, a motionless man sits next to a robotic arm, which picks up and moves a glass as he silently instructs. All the while, a man can move his wheelchair through the corridor just by thinking about it. These are all now a reality. In April of this year a paper was published showing that a Braingate® computer chip implanted in a woman's skull was still allowing her to telepathically control a computer screen 1000 days after implantation. With just the power of our minds, we can now move through a virtual reality world, control a computer, and even interact with our environment without lifting a finger. The significance of these breakthroughs for paralyzed and immobilised individuals is unbelievable. This is science fiction technology being developed and used right now on real people, to fantastic effect. (Don’t believe me? Have a look at the videos below.)

History, not to mention cinema, has taught some fairly dramatic lessons about the potential and dangers of mind control. Twisting the human mind to the whims of one person or another is a risky game to play, and the ethics involved are complex enough to be the subject of a whole book. The more we understand about the psychology and neurology of the human brain, the greater our ability to control and harness its power will become. There is a lurking threat posed to the most fundamental of human rights – free will – and we must proceed with caution, but truly great things could be achieved by this fascinating science.

Take solace, then, in the fact that the driving force of this research today is in medical fields and productive development areas. We're learning more about the brain every day, both in terms of its function and potential capacity. I personally look forward to the day when I sit in my living room, turn on the TV with my mind, and, while watching the latest episode of Robotbob Squarepants, use my super-enhanced mind to solve a few unsolvable equations. Hell, I’m just grateful the parasites haven't turned on us, yet.


Some great extra reading: