Archive for May 28th, 2009

I’ll take my pseudoscience with drugs, please

May 28, 2009

I’ve been looking for an excuse to trash 2012, the New Age Y2K. Now that journalist Ron Rosenbaum has done my work for me in Slate, I am free to take the broader view.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan “Long Count” calendar is supposed to turn over after a 5,139-year “Grand Cycle,” and the 2012 meme holds that the date will mark a passage to a new, more globally spiritual era. Drug culture superstar Daniel Pinchbeck has helped fuel the whole thing with his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. (I’m waiting on my copy from the library.)

Rosenbaum links to a nice debunking of the astrological significance of Dec. 21, 2012. Of course, to anyone who believes in 2012 astrology, “debunking” is jerk-speak for “proof.” Which is why Rosenbaum’s trashing is so much preaching to the choir:

The best cultural explanation I found for this flowering of idiocy said that New Age fads like the Hopi prophecy and 2012 are a kind of cultural colonialism in which white people endow the minorities they have wiped out or repressed with mystical powers made more mysterious by their virtual vanishing.

and

Maybe those obsessed with making the world conform to rigid rationalities are the most vulnerable to the shambolic visions of mystics who can “explain” the anomalies and mysteries that elude their “Science of Detection.”

I agree whole-heartedly with the second statement. But if Rosenbaum thinks colonialism is a bad thing, why isn’t he sensitive enough to realize that an impulse toward spirituality, self-integration, connectedness — whatever you want to call it — is a very human thing, and that even if 2012 is a “silly scam,” maybe it’s being abetted by a dominant culture that doesn’t accept spirituality in nonsecular secular [oops] forms? Our culture does seem to have a hard time publicly affirming the value of subjective experience, hence Marianne Williamson’s goofy quantum advice and George Bush’s unwavering convictions. I mean, as much as I disagree with Jenny McCarthy, all she wants is validation of her feelings.

The tension, as always, is between subjectivity and objectivity. First, 2012ers need to accept that modernism isn’t going anywhere. And second, the Rosenbaums of the world should get on board with the judicious, therapeutic use of illicit psychoactive drugs. And then let’s everybody hold hands and be all Kumbaya and shit, ok?

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Uncle Enzo was on to something

May 28, 2009

It always stuck in my head that in Snow Crash, when Uncle Enzo is trying to get the drop on Raven at the end, he opens his mouth to hear better.

That’s my random association from this Sci Am news story:

In the study, a specially designed robotic device stretched the mouths of volunteers slightly up, down or backward while they listened to a computer-generated continuum of speech verbalizations that sounded like “head” or “had,” or something in between. When the subjects’ mouths were stretched upward, closer to the position needed to say “head,” they were more likely to hear the sounds as “head,” especially with the more ambiguous output. If the subjects’ mouths were stretched downward, as if to say “had,” they were more likely to hear “had,” even when the sounds being generated were closer to “head.” Stretching subjects’ mouths backward had no effect, implying a position-specific response. Moreover, the timing of the stretch had to match that of the sounds exactly to get an effect: the stretch altered speech perception only when it mimicked realistic vocalizations.

Next experiment:

Ostry and his colleagues hope to help answer this question with follow-up work that inverts the experiment: instead of hearing a continuum of sound, subjects will endure a continuum of stretches to see if auditory input can influence what they feel. 

And that reminds me of Alexander technique.

Stem cells: let the disappointment begin

May 28, 2009

The problem with turning a scientific issue into a political football is that the passionate rough-and-tumble of the game can leave the science itself rather scuffed. When opponents of ESC [embryonic stem cell] research likened it to genocide and Nazi concentration camp experiments, its proponents countered by emphasizing how irreplaceable ESCs were and how miraculous the cures arising from them could be. Whether or not those claims wandered into rhetorical excess, at least a few false hopes and misimpressions have probably been left behind.

That’s Sci Am on the inevitable disappointments of stem cells.

What is the sound of one million neurons firing?

May 28, 2009

Here’s Nobel winner Gerald Edelman, from another great Discover Q&A:

Eugene Izhikevitch [a mathematician at the Neurosciences Institute] and I have made a model with a million simulated neurons and almost half a billion synapses, all connected through neuronal anatomy equivalent to that of a cat brain. What we find, to our delight, is that it has intrinsic activity. Up until now our BBDs had activity only when they confronted the world, when they saw input signals. In between signals, they went dark. But this damn thing now fires on its own continually. The second thing is, it has beta waves and gamma waves just like the regular cortex—what you would see if you did an electroencephalogram. Third of all, it has a rest state. That is, when you don’t stimulate it, the whole population of neurons stray back and forth, as has been described by scientists in human beings who aren’t thinking of anything.

In other words, our device has some lovely properties that are necessary to the idea of a conscious artifact. It has that property of indwelling activity. So the brain is already speaking to itself. That’s a very important concept for consciousness.

Thanks, Cosmic Variance

Landau-Kleffner Syndrome

May 28, 2009

Who am I kidding? I’m a fricking nerd.

From Epilepsy Currents:

Landau-Kleffner syndrome is characterized by acquired aphasia [first manifestation: “Parents report a child no longer responds to their commands, even with raised voices”] and paroxysmal, sleep-activated EEG paroxysms [“highly correlated with the occurrence of clinical seizures“] predominating over the temporal or parieto-occipital regions. Secondary symptoms include psychomotor or behavioral disturbances and epilepsy with a favorable outcome for seizure control. The prevalence is unclear. A male predominance exists, with an approximately 2:1 ratio. This regressive syndrome affects children after having achieved early developmental milestones, with 3–9 years being the usual age of presentation.

LKS “has commonalities with autism spectrum disorder.”

Communication deficits in autism include abnormal development of spoken language and impaired ability to initiate or sustain conversation. The autistic child’s language is often stereotyped, repetitive, and idiosyncratic, with echolalia and neologisms 11. Confusing the picture is the fact that seizures may occur in autism, and EEG abnormalities are common. Furthermore, at least a third of autistic toddlers demonstrate neurodevelopmental regression, involving language, sociability, play, and cognition. LKS represents selective loss of language in association with an abnormally paroxysmal EEG, eventually characterized by electrographic status epilepticus of slow-wave sleep (ESES).

McCarthy’s son started seizing when he was two, so if he has LKS, it seems like he presented earlier than usual.

Only 10% of children with LKS regress before three years [versus “the great majority of children with autism who undergo language regression”]. As regression in autism occurs early, it usually entails the loss of single words, versus more drastic changes in LKS children who are typically older and have more developed vocabulary and language. LKS does not feature the behavioral profile that encompasses the core deficits of autism, i.e., abnormalities of reciprocal social relatedness and restricted stereotypical patterns of interests and behaviors. There is an intricate relationship between LKS, autism, ESES, and developmental dysphasias and the interaction between epileptiform discharges and cognitive dysfunction remains enigmatic.

Autism is so interesting: Why would there be multiple autism-related disorders?

Trendwatch: hugs, Great Books

May 28, 2009

Either I’m paying attention to more trend pieces, or some serious trends are underway.

For Teenagers, Hello Means ‘How About a Hug?’

Girls embracing girls, girls embracing boys, boys embracing each other — the hug has become the favorite social greeting when teenagers meet or part these days. Teachers joke about “one hour” and “six hour” hugs, saying that students hug one another all day as if they were separated for the entire summer.

The Great Books are coming back?

I kept running into more and more students fed up with militant multiculturalism and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism. Although pomo’s demise has been widely reported, one can’t ignore how sclerotic academe is. […] But every orthodoxy, as they say, breeds its own apostasy, and I was getting the message that this might be the hour for recuperation, renaissance, resurrection, recovery, renewal, and revival of the Great Books’ perennial questions. Old ideas become stale — perennial questions do not.