Going Postal

Posted in Uncategorized on December 15, 2009 by lesmonde

Life must be beautifully simple in whatever delusory parallel dimension the collective mind of the Daily Mail resides. The moral landscape is a comfortable, if a little drab, chessboard of black and white. Science can and should deliver binary “yes” or “no” answers to complex issues and when it can’t we may as well just make up crazy shit and believe that. Britain is bloody great and every other country is populated with peculiar yokels. And people can be neatly sorted into perfectly homogeneous little squirming dollops of either “goodies” or “baddies” based on the most superficially obvious of their circumstances.

So, the depth of thought required to navigate rationally through our world where the human condition is an inextricable knot of complex interacting factors would make their tiny brains, sensitively balanced to handle only the most childishly simple of concepts, bubble and pop like simmering porridge. No surprise, then, that they avoid such attempts at analysis and deliver indignant headlines like the one we can see today:

“Millionaire who fought off a knife-wielding burglar is jailed (while the intruder is let off)”

Bloody hell! You’d be forgiven for thinking that each member of our judiciary had disappeared up his nearest colleague’s arse, forming a spectacular ouroboros of thousands of suffocating judges that would rival the London Eye. However, remember that this headline was written by denizens of the DailyMailian utopia where “the transgressions of goodies” is a logical non-sequitur and any unpleasant fate that befalls baddies is their just dues. Therefore, it’s no surprise that some “nuances” may be missing from this perspective on the events.

With that in mind, let’s attempt to fertilise this half-story with the semen of fact and see if we can’t deliver something more wholly resembling the truth. First of all, it is not in dispute that a “millionaire”, in this case businessman Munir Hussein, “fought off a knife-wielding burglar”. It also seems to be an undisputable matter of record that Mr Hussein has been “jailed”. What is implied by the headline, however, is that Mr Hussein was jailed for fighting off the knife-wielding burglar. Now, that’s not quite true. Mr Hussein was jailed for, after successfully “fighting off the knife-wielding burglar”, pursuing the fleeing criminal down the street before using a cricket bat, a metal pole and hockey stick to deliver an attack that was vicious enough to break the cricket bat into three pieces.

It also seems to be the case that the “intruder was let off”. “Let off”, however, is a rather rosy way of painting this particular picture. The intruder was declared unfit to stand trial for the burglary because Mr Hussein’s assault had smashed his skull to pieces and has left him brain damaged in a hospital bed.

Predictably, the mouth-breathing, Mail-reading masses have swarmed all over this roundly nasty little tale like maggots feasting on a gangrenous sore between the bum-cheeks of humanity. “It’s a travesty,” they froth “a dastardly outrage and a perplexing nonsense that the law will not permit us to exercise gruesome acts of violence in order to protect our property, our families and ourselves!” Thing is: the law does allow us to perpetrate horrendous violence with near impunity in the pursuit of these understandable goals. Consider the case of Nathan “Poseidon” Kirk, a young man who, when confronted with a “knife-wielding burglar” in his girlfriend’s house, unloaded a three-pronged harpoon from a spear-gun into the trespasser’s surprised face, causing serious damage (including the loss of an eye).

Sare AneSare Ane

He, quite rightly, walked from court a free and victorious man. In this case, Mr Kirk was confronting an ongoing threat. In the case of Mr Hussein, any immediate threat had passed, yet through anger or a desire for vengeance Mr Hussein gathered weapons, pursued his trespasser, and spent several energetic minutes challenging himself to turn the young man’s brains into Ardennes pâté.

We all, from time to time, allow ourselves to enjoy fantasies of the terrible vengeances we could mete out against our transgressors. Gladly, though, most of us possess qualities such as “reason” and “self-control” and never see these desires go any further than a few pejoratives grumbled into our spaghetti hoops. If we accept the right of the victim to deliver justice, and the right of the transgressed to decide how to deal with his transgressors, we accept putting power in the hands of the people least likely to be objective and sanction a return to times when the mob ruled, salt water was a decadent Christmas feast and the consumption of bees was considered a credible means of contraception.

So, should Mr Hussein have gone to prison for what he did? Truthfully, I don’t know. I’m positive, though, that he should have been punished. He might have been out of his mind with adrenaline (as his defence team suggested) and he may well have wanted to make sure there was no chance of the burglar returning. Neither of these considerations means we should excuse and passively encourage mindless or pre-emptive violence. It’s at the end of that little sewer of nastiness that mob-rule and vigilantism lies.


Blue Eyes

Posted in Uncategorized on November 27, 2009 by lesmonde

Here’s the much renowned “Blue-Eyes” puzzle. It’s been kicking about for an eternity and always seems to confuse and befuddle and lead to screaming matches and downright incredulity over the answer and the general structure of the puzzle. Most recently for me, over on the forums at Bad Science. Give it a go before looking at the answer (which I’ll provide a link to (or a link to what I, at least, believe to be the answer) at the end).

I’ve taken this from the XKCD wiki.

A group of people with assorted eye colors live on an island. They are all perfect logicians—if a conclusion can be logically deduced, they will do so instantly. No one knows the color of their own eyes. Every night at midnight, a ferry stops at the island. Any islanders who have figured out the color of their own eyes then leave the island, and the rest stay. Everyone can see everyone else at all times and keeps a count of the number of people they see with each eye color (excluding themselves), but they cannot otherwise communicate. Everyone on the island knows all the rules in this paragraph.

On this island there are 100 blue-eyed people, 100 brown-eyed people, and the Guru (she happens to have green eyes). So any given blue-eyed person can see 100 people with brown eyes and 99 people with blue eyes (and one with green), but that does not tell him his own eye color; as far as he knows the totals could be 101 brown and 99 blue. Or 100 brown, 99 blue, and he could have red eyes.

The Guru is allowed to speak once (let’s say at noon), on one day in all their endless years on the island. Standing before the islanders, she says the following:

“I can see someone who has blue eyes.”

Who leaves the island, and on what night?

There are no mirrors or reflecting surfaces, nothing dumb. It is not a trick question, and the answer is logical. It doesn’t depend on tricky wording or anyone lying or guessing, and it doesn’t involve people doing something silly like creating a sign language or doing genetics. The Guru is not making eye contact with anyone in particular; she’s simply saying “I count at least one blue-eyed person on this island who isn’t me.”

Note: The answer is not “no one leaves.”

My attempt to provide and explain the answer is here.

Blue Eyes – Explained (I think)

Posted in Uncategorized on November 27, 2009 by lesmonde

Here’s my attempt to explain the answer to the famous Blue Eyes puzzle.  Bear with me.  Also, this may all be wrong.  It’s quite confusing!

The answer to the puzzle is that all 100 blue-eyed people will leave on the 100th night.  Why?  If there was only one person with blue eyes, they would leave the first night, knowing  from simple observation that they were the person the guru had mentioned.  Two blue-eyed  people will leave on the second night, because each knows that if the single blue eyed person they could see was the only one they would have left on the first night.  When they don’t leave they can assume that the blue-eyed person they see must also see a blue-eyed person, and seeing no other blue-eyed people, the know it must be themself.  So the night of leaving is the number of blue-eyed people each blue-eyed person can see, plus one.

The brown eyed people and the guru can never leave.

However, whenever this puzzle comes up, lots of people seem to get the answer but have a lot of difficulty understanding how the guru’s words can be important.  “She says she sees a blue eyed-person?  Well, duh, there are loads of them.  Everyone on the island can see a blue-eyed person.  What’s she telling them that they don’t already know?”

It’s a good question, and had me stumped for a while.  But she is telling them something very important:  she’s telling them how much confidence they can have in the assumptions of their peers.

The easiest way to understand this is to consider what will happen if there is only one blue-eyed person on the island.  In this case, the guru’s words are clearly very important.  If she announces she has seen at least one blue-eyed person, that blue-eyed individual can deduce the colour of his eyes because he can observe no other blue-eyed people in the population.  So he leaves the island on the first night, and the rest of the population are stranded.

In the case of two blue-eyed people the guru’s words are, again, very clearly important.  If individuals A and B are both blue-eyed they can deduce their eye-colour through the principle demonstrated in the one-blue-eyed-individual example above.  That is to say that A observes B as having blue-eyes and realises that, after hearing the guru’s words, if B had observed no other blue-eyed people he would have left the island.  Therefore when B does not leave, and A observes no one else in the population with blue eyes, A can deduce that he has blue eyes.  Exactly the same logic applies in reverse (from person B to person A), so they both leave the island on the second night.

Now consider the example of three blue-eyed people on the island: A, B and C.  Each of these three individuals can see two blue eyed people, so the guru’s announcement is not news to them.

We’ll look at the three-blue-eyed-person problem from A’s perspective but it’s very important to remember that the same thing is going on in the minds of B and C.

Okay, here goes: A knows that B cannot know the colour of his own eyes.  So A’s assumption about B is that, if A’s eyes are non-blue, B can only see one person with blue eyes: C.  Further to this (and this is where it starts to get a bit brain-knotty!) A can also assume that B is assuming that C can see no-one at all with blue-eyes (because A’s baseline assumption is that his own eyes are non-blue and he’s assuming that B mistakenly thinks his own eyes are non-blue).  If B believes C to be seeing no-one with blue eyes (he doesn’t believe that, but that is A’s logical assumption) then A cannot trust B to deduce his own eye-colour based on C’s behaviour.  And we end up with a logical stalemate.

However, when the guru announces that she can see at least one person with blue eyes  the stalemate is broken.  A need no longer worry that B thinks that C sees no blue-eyed individuals because A knows that each individual has been given the knowledge that there exists at least one person with blue eyes.  On this assumption, A can confidently observe the behaviour of B and C and compare it to what would happen in the two-blue-eyed-people example in paragraph seven (behaviour itself which is dictated by what would happen in the one-blue-eyed-person example).  If B and C don’t leave on the second night, A can deduce that he also has blue-eyes and all three, each observing no other blue-eyed-people, can leave on the third night.

It’s the same principle in the puzzle, but taken to mind-melting proportions.  Basically, everyone can see 99 blue-eyed people, but everyone only knows for sure that everyone else can see 98 blue eyed people, and everyone only knows for sure that everyone else only knows for sure that everyone else can see 97 blue eyed people.  And on and on and on, until you need the guru to break the stalemate and give each member of the population the confidence to trust that everybody knows that everybody else knows that there is at least one blue-eyed person.

QED, motherfuckers.

Criticisms encouraged.

Edit: I now no longer believe that this “bottom-up” way of looking at the problem accurately reflects the puzzle, but the principle is the same. The way I’ve worded it makes it look sort of like having blue eyes is a goal from the outset.

Vaccine Panic – Don’t Blame The Mums!

Posted in complaints, science with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by lesmonde

In recent months, vaccine panic has arguably supplanted the eternal Evolution vs Creationism debate and global warming as the cause célèbre of the sceptical community. For those not au fait with the issue: there is a growing and increasingly vocal community of self-styled “anti-vaxxers” who have decided, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, that vaccination programmes are a danger to health and long-term wellbeing, particularly of children. Opposition to vaccination ranges from mild trepidation, to the belief that mass vaccination is a systematic attempt at specicide by the “New World Order” to reduce global population. I’m not kidding.

The issue came to the fore with the publication by the now notorious (or heroic, I suppose, depending on which side of the needle you fall) Dr Andrew Wakefield of a paper in The Lancet purporting to have identified a possible connection between autism, bowel disease, and the MMR vaccination. The paper itself was unremarkable and inconclusive, but Wakefield’s subsequent interactions with the press, in which he advised caution against the MMR vaccine ignited a national health scare during which uptake dropped to as little as 61% in some parts of the UK and saw measles return to the UK as an endemic disease. Wakefield’s study has now been discredited and renounced by the majority of his co-authors, and the evidence that vaccination causes neither autism nor any other long-term health problem in anything other than negligible numbers is vast and overwhelming. Yet the controversy continues to be perpetuated.

In the last few days Wired magazine has published an excellent article by journalist Amy Wallace which tackles some of the frothing irrationality surrounding vaccination and its spurious link to autism. The article has inflicted upon Wallace a not insignificant and often unpleasant or indignant e-mail response, which she is currently tackling on her twitter. What’s interesting is that a large amount, if not all, of the negative feedback is coming from parents. Either the parents of young children, or the parents of children with autism. The protests are poignant:

“The PARENT knows their child more than anyone in the world. The PARENTS, Ms. Wallace, NOT Mr. Offit.”

“I have a Son that needs Me – not another needle.”

“Me and mine are not a herd. Human beings are capable and entitled to decide for themselves what to put in our bodies.”

These are parents who feel the need to defend themselves from the accusations of irresponsibility in their decision not to vaccinate. And the implied irresponsibility is sharp: Wallace’s article points out that, as vaccination uptake drops and herd immunity slips away from communities, children are now dying from preventable diseases. Often the accusations are explicit. As Jenny McCarthy, mother of an autistic child, crusades against vaccinations in the US, so a website has appeared, the controversial but pertinent Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which counts the number of cases of and deaths from diseases which, until the recent panic, had become little more than curiosities and links them explicitly to McCarthy’s high profile campaign. It’s little surprise that such indictments provoke fierce defence.

But the blame doesn’t lie at the feet of the parents. It doesn’t lie at the feet of Jenny McCarthy. Parents, by and large, cannot conceive of taking any action which will cause their child to come to harm. Charged by all their instincts to protect their child, the choice between “X causes immediate harm” and “X causes no immediate and direct harm”, when X is something they don’t fully understand, is a no-brainer. The consequences of ignoring the first appear direct and causal, the consequences of ignoring the second are far less cut and dried to the majority who understandably have little knowledge of epidemiology and immunology. In the light of the mountain of evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, this is not a rational approach, but is it really fair to point the finger at parents who act irrationally in the interests of the wellbeing of their children? I don’t think it is.

The complaints from parents, vilified by these remote and unapproachable journalists and scientists, that they “only want to do the best for their children” are deeply understandable. This motivation cannot be credibly denied. It’s the press that’s to blame for the current debacle; the press who published with neither appreciation of the facts nor care for the consequences; the press who give a voice to the charismatically irrational. The press made this the issue that it is and, where the wellbeing of children is concerned, that’s a beast that’s hard to get back into the box.

“The Mice, The Owls, and The Bright Blue Frogs” – A Thurberian Fable

Posted in nonsense, science on September 16, 2009 by lesmonde

I really enjoy the fables of James Thurber, so I thought I’d try my hand at a tribute (or a rip-off, depending on how charitable you are) about a subject close to my heart.

“The Mice, The Owls, and The Bright Blue Frogs”

Once upon a time, in a far off woodland, lived a colony of little brown fieldmice who spent almost all of their time living in little burrows in the ground. Occasionally, a precocious and bright young mouse would question, as precocious and bright young mice are wont to ask questions, why it was that they were committed to such a miserable subterranean lifestyle when there were such beautiful and bountiful trees and grasses and streams and sunshine outside. In response the eldest and wisest of the mice would tell of a time when death was delivered daily on their ancestors by a family of vicious clawed and sharp beaked owls that lived in the trees around their burrows. And, anyway, it wasn’t so bad down here, there was plenty to eat, they were safe and they wanted for nothing.

One day, a particularly precocious and cocksure young mouse refused to accept the explanation. “Pah!” he said, rolling his eyes, “It’s not so good down here, my uncle must wear glasses and I’m sure that’s because he’s constantly straining his eyes in the dim light.”

The other mice looked around and, sure enough, a small but visible proportion of their colony did have eye problems.

“And these owls,” continued the young upstart “if they even exist, can clearly be dissuaded from eating us if we just assert ourselves. Why, there are a colony of bright blue frogs just two hillocks west from here, who spend their days hopping around in the trees where these so-called owls supposedly make their homes. Indeed, they couldn’t be more conspicuous, and they come to no harm!”

The other mice cheered, and it was resolved that afternoon that they should leave their burrows for the open air where all eye problems would be cured and they could enjoy the beautiful and bountiful trees and grasses and streams and sunshine outside. Furthermore, it was agreed that, come night-time when the owls were most active, they should stride around confidently, making themselves as conspicuous as possible, to dissuade the owls from attacking them.

News of the massacre reached the bright blue frogs within three days and, being a conscientious species, they resolved to make the journey two hillocks east and respectfully bury any body parts that remained.

The End

Edit: It appears, from feedback, that this was a little too obscure, I’ve clearly not struck the right balance between metaphor and clarity necessary for accomplished fable writing.  OH WELL.

How Did Derren Brown Predict The Lottery Numbers?

Posted in nonsense on September 10, 2009 by lesmonde

So, the internet is frothing with speculations about how exactly the magic man, Derren Brown, managed to predict the national lottery draw on live TV. Every wild and fanciful theory from split-screen technology to sleight of hand has been mooted.
However, after careful consideration, I’ve narrowed it down to the nine most likely explanations.

Derren’s magic brain drew on the balls from a distance. With a mind pencil.

A Monkey Butler
Unseen by the viewers, a trained monkey butler belonging to the novelist Dan Brown spidered down the rear wall of the studio, ascended the podium and scratched the numbers onto the balls with its little finger’s nail. Derren was able to give it signals from his position beside the telly.

Secret Gay Powers
We all know that Derren Brown is a gay, and who knows what secret powers these “gays” learn at their mysterious dancing clubs.

An Invisible Child
One of the less likely candidates. Derren’s producer gave birth to an invisible child before the show. The slumbering neonate was attached to strings and was manipulated by simple puppetry from the ceiling to pen the numbers onto the balls. Derren’s commands we’re relayed to the puppeteer by a tiny radio on his thumb.

Something Involving His Penis
Being a man, Derren has a penis. Many men learn to do quite spectacular things with their penis over the course of their long relationship with it. Who knows what form that relationship has taken in Derren’s case? Not me. Probably not you. Which leaves some kind of penis trick as likely as anything else.

We Dreamt It
At any time of the day, in half the world it is not a time of day at all. Rather it is a time of night, because it is night-time. At night time, people sleep. When people sleep, they dream. Is it not suspicious that Derren Brown performed his trick when half of the worlds population (an astounding 3.4 billion people) were asleep?

Helped By Sex Mice
Many have been the long, dark nights where I have lain awake wondering what exactly a sex mouse is. I still don’t know. All I can say, is that they are probably from the future. If I’m right about this, it’s certainly plausible that they have a book containing ALL the lottery numbers from the inception of the contest until the extinction of man in some terrible cataclysm. There’s no reason they can’t have given Derren this book (or at least some of the information in it) in advance of the show. He probably wouldn’t tell anyone about the sex mice, lest they think him mad.

Every day God answers the mental yells of over one hundred people. Brown has always claimed to be a staunch atheist, but perhaps this is all part of his funny little game. Petitioning God for help by thought would be a simple, silent and efficient way to get the numbers on the balls.

Sheer Bloody-Mindedness
Is it possible that Derren simply put on a brave face and just bloody well got on with it? Some certainly think so.

Depression and “Chemical Imbalance”

Posted in science on September 3, 2009 by lesmonde

The main aetiological explanation for depression in the public consciousness is undoubtedly the “serotonin hypothesis”. This probably manifests more popularly as the idea that depression is somehow the result of a “chemical imbalance” in the brain, and therefore that sufferers of depression (whose suffering is not in question) are somehow the passive victims of an organic condition, like victims of diabetes, for example, and that this can be righted with medication. It’s a neat explanation, which, I guess, is why it’s so appealing. However, the evidence, as it so often does, suggests that depression is nowhere near this simple.

The serotonin hypothesis was the product of two papers, both published in the mid 1960s. Basically, the authors of these papers suggested that a deficit in a certain group of neurotransmitters (the monoamines, which include serotonin) could be a cause of depressive illness. Their suggestion was based on an observation that inhibiting a (entirely natural) process which breaks down these chemicals, while feeding patients a diet which includes their precursors, seemed to alleviate depression. This was a perfectly reasonable mechanism to suggest, on the evidence available, but that’s all it was: a suggestion. And the logic of this hypothetical mechanism is not without its critics:

“Some have argued that depression may be due to a deficiency of [noradrenaline] or serotonin because the enhancement of the enhancement of noradrenergic or serotonergic neurotransmission improves the symptoms of depression. However, this is akin to saying that because a rash on one’s arm improves with steroid cream, that the rash is due to steroid deficiency.” – Pedro Delagado and Francisco Moreno, writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry

So, how does the evidence for the “Serotonin Hypothesis” stack up? The answer, it seems, is not very well. To this day there exists no roundly accepted evidence demonstrating reduced serotonin levels in the depressed. Indeed, attempts to demonstrate a link in even the most severely depressed patients have been regarded as fraught with problems and therefore inconclusive. It has also been demonstrated that depression cannot be induced in the healthy by depleting serotonin – an observation which, if accurate, would fatally falsify the serotonin hypothesis. This patchy and inconsistent evidence does much to raise doubt over whether a condition such as depression can be explained by a mechanism as simple as that proposed in the serotonin hypothesis.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, contrary to its popular image, serotonin can’t rightly be described as a “mood improving” chemical. Like all neurotransmitters its effects are highly context dependent, different parts of the nervous system will respond to serotonin in different ways; responses which are modulated by the different ways in which different cells respond to serotonin, all of which is subject to modulation by the local chemical and anatomical environment. Serotonin is no more a “happy drug” than metal’s to be feared because it’s what swords are made of.

But if the drugs are helping people what does this matter?

The problem here is that we’re no longer entirely sure that the drugs are helping people. Recent studies have provided evidence that selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs, such as as citalopram (cipramil), paroxetine (seroxat), fluoxetine (prozac), sertraline (zoloft), and many others) – drugs which purport to “rebalance” the “imbalance” of serotonin – perform little better in alleviating reported symptoms of depression than identical pills containing no drug (link). On top of this, a simple programme of cardiovascular exercise has been shown to be no less effective than a programme of anti-depressants.

Is it really what we want to have ineffective drugs based on hypotheses that are, at best, dubious? Especially considering that this model of understanding lends credibility to the idea that depression is an inescapable biological phenomenon, the manifestation of a malfunctioning brain. This view can only be hugely disempowering for the depressed.

Clearly, the causes of depression need to be better understood if we’re to develop an effective model for caring for those who suffer from the condition. Resigning people to the conclusion that they are the sufferers of some organic malfunction which can be corrected but not cured by chemical intervention is, quite simply, telling them something which hasn’t stood up to scrutiny. This is not to say that there’s no neurochemical contribution (one or more siblings with depression is a significant risk factor, for example, although I’d imagine the line between genetic and environmental input in most of these cases will be irrecoverably blurred), it’s simply to say that we currently have scant idea of what that contribution might be. And, as for a simple explanation such as “chemical imbalance”, the facts are that science has no idea what the correct balance of brain chemistry is, or if there even is something that could be described as a “correct” balance. The mind is far too complex.

That neurochemistry only modulates our potential response to multitudinous psychosocial and environmental factors needs to be considered – and it is very possible that a cure, not simply a treatment, lies in the consideration of these external factors and situations that the depressed individual finds themselves exposed to. Of course, unless we want to entertain concepts such as “the soul”, we have to accept that behaviour is, at its very root, a chemical event. But the trend for this biological reductionism in depressive illness is, I feel, misguided. Just as we can’t learn much about aerobatics from studying the chemical properties of the polymers in a stunt-plane’s fuselage, neither can we learn much about complex social behaviours from studying the chemistry of the brain.