August 2004

O’Reilly publish the world famous IT guidebooks and the superb Hacks series (e.g. Amazon Hacks & Google Hacks). Now apparently they are joining the Neuroscience bandwagon with a new book in the hacks series: Brain Hacks. From Tom Stafford, one of the co-authors:

I’m writing a book, with my friend Matt, for O’Reilly, codenamed ‘Brain Hacks’

The book is a selection of 100 design quirks of consciousness – ways in which constraints from neurobiology or evolution have produced unexpected features in cognition.

O’Reilly are an American publisher who produce computer books. One series they do, the Hacks series covers tips, tricks, unorthodox methods and functional insights for well known bits of software. This book will be the same, but covering for the bugs and features of the human operating system. A selection of functional anecdotes about the construction of conscious experience and behaviour. A smash and grab on the intellectual goodies of cognitive neuroscience!

Writing the book is going really well, and we’ve got some great people contributing. It’s great fun putting together practical demonstrations of important computational and cog neuro principles, and it’s even fun being driven slightly mad as I start to notice all the ways in which my experience of the world is constructed from the raw data available to my senses, and the ways my actions are delegated to different, intermeshed, subsystems. MORE

See a more details post from Matt Webb the other author here.

The lads are seeking submissions so if you have anything you think will fit in the book contact them via their blogs.


Mexican ‘drugs legend’ arrested

A man claimed to be responsible for smuggling half the cocaine that reaches the US from Mexico has been arrested.

Gilberto Higuera Guerrero had a $2m (£1.1m) price on his head.

According to Mexico’s Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, Mr Higuera Guerrero was “a legend” in the drugs trafficking world. MORE


This was lovely!!!

by Limbic on August 23, 2004

South Africa win Tri-Nations


“Voters look to their neighbours to determine their decision. John Allen Paulos explains why a few swing states of borderline electors will settle the US presidency”

In recent years the US electorate has become highly polarised. Large contiguous regions of the country (the red states) favour the Republicans, other large contiguous regions favour the Democrats (the blue states), and relatively small regions in between (which we might label purple) constitute the so-called battleground states.

There are many reasons for this dichotomy, but some light may be shed by an abstract model introduced in 1999 by Joshua Epstein of the Brookings Institution (Learning to be Thoughtless: Social Norms and Individual Computation).

Imagine that around a big circle are millions of people who are asked daily whether they intend to vote for George Bush or John Kerry. Assume that they have an initial favourite, randomly choosing Bush or Kerry, but that they are very conformist and decide daily to consult some of their immediate neighbours. After polling those on either side of them, they adjust their vote to conform with that of the majority of their neighbours.

How many people each voter consults varies from day to day and is determined by the fact that they are “lazy statisticians”. They expand their samples of adjacent voters only as much as necessary, wishing always to conform with minimum exertion. MORE


I thought I had lost this article. I posted about Maté last year, but I had forgotten his name and could not find it again. It is wroth revisiting especially as I want to link Maté’s thesis with Howard Bloom’s very similar comments in the Global Brain.

Dr. Gabor Maté has lived several lives in one. He’s most decidedly a risk-taker: the bestselling author of a controversial book on attention-deficit disorder called Scattered Minds [ .com], Maté is a political activist known for his (even more controversial) views on the Middle East, and a physician/psychotherapist who gave up his family practice several years ago to work with HIV-positive heroin addicts on the Vancouver’s downtown east side. Unflinching in the face of criticism, this is a man who will not keep silent about his multiple passions.

In his latest book, When the Body Says No [ / .com ], he goes out on a medical limb with his passionately-argued thesis that certain types of chronic disease can be triggered by stress. And not the garden variety stress we usually think of (the job, the kids, the mortgage), but internal stress generated by the repression of powerful emotions, particularly anger.

In his many years as a palliative care physician, Maté observed in his dying patients certain eerie similarities in personality. Many of them were cheerful and agreeable to a fault, never seemed angry, placed everyone else’s needs above their own, and were harshly critical with themselves. Their personal boundaries seemed fragile and uncertain, as if they did not know where they left off and others began. In many cases, it was nearly impossible for them to say “no,” to the point that their bodies had to say it for them.

Contrast this Howard Bloom’s comments in “The Global Brain”

Robert Sapolsky discovered how wild baboons who couldn’t gain status in their tribe were flooded with hormonal poisons which killed offtheir brain cells, made their hair fall out, invited illness to come in and stay a while, and threatened their very lives.

Humans are apparently the same. Investigations have revealed that the hospital patients who need help the most – Those submerged in depression – are the least likely to receive their doctors’ and nurses’ tender, loving attention. Careful scrutiny indicates that the sufferers are unwittingly triggering their own rejection. Depressed patients whine, snarl, or turn their faces to the wall in ways that alienate their doctors and nurses. They upset their caregivers through every means from facial expression and verbal intonation to body language.

…The patients with the greatest number of relatives and friends are the least likely to be depressed. Instead, they tend to be the cheerful souls who even in the face of death remain charming and bring doctors and nurses flocking sympathetically to their beds.

…Both animal and human studies demonstrate that the depressed souls who flirt unwittingly with the grim reaper [have] family ties [that] are either frayed or nonexistent. Friends? They often have none. In fact, they tend to feel there’s no place in this world where they belong. These unfortunates are apparently seized by something akin to the suicide mechanism called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a firecracker string of self-destruct routines preprogrammed into nearly every living cell. Its fuse is lit when the cell receives signals that it is no longer useful to the larger community. Between self-crippling immune systems and self-defeating conduct, isolated individuals vastly increase their odds of death. MORE

I am glad this fascinating area of psycho-immunology and the role of social conformity, status and psychological health in physical health.

Also see: Status Syndrome by Michael Marmot . This is a new book by Sir Michael Marmot on the astonishing effect that status has on health and longevity. Oddly enough it is not absolute status that applies, but relative status. If you are the lowliest member in a troop of alpha males, you are worse off than the most dominant of the beta males. Very good.


Way back in 2002 Malcom Gladwell hinted at his new book’s topic when he wrote an esasay in the Annuls of Psychology called “The Naked Face: Can you read people’s thoughts just by looking at them?”.

I recently found out he has a new book coming out next year called “Blink“. her is the book description from

How do we make decisions–good and bad–and why are some people so much better at it than others? Thats the question Malcolm Gladwell asks and answers in the follow-up to his huge bestseller, The Tipping Point. Utilizing case studies as diverse as speed dating, pop music, and the shooting of Amadou Diallo, Gladwell reveals that what we think of as decisions made in the blink of an eye are much more complicated than assumed. Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology, he shows how the difference between good decision-making and bad has nothing to do with how much information we can process quickly, but on the few particular details on which we focus. Leaping boldly from example to example, displaying all of the brilliance that made The Tipping Point a classic, Gladwell reveals how we can become better decision makers–in our homes, our offices, and in everyday life. The result is a book that is surprising and transforming. Never again will you think about thinking the same way.

Gladwell’s book follows this years superb “Mind Wide Open” by Steve Johnson (who incidentally was following up on his must-read best-seller “Emergence“).

Gladwell’s book appears to have an alternative title in some listings as “Intuition“. This suggests that Gladwell may be tackling one of the subjects that has been a big theme of mine since reading the superb “Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker, namely the power of intuition, how humans make snap judgements (limbic memory) and the accuracy of “gut feelings”.

I can barely wait!

Also see:

How to Start a Revolution: paraphrasing the main ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point

The Dummies Guide to Change, Diffusion and the Tipping Point by Robert Paterson


“People in a negative mood provide more accurate eyewitness accounts than people in a positive mood state, according to new research.

The surprise finding, which is to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is the first to assess the effect of mood on memory and human thinking.

People in a positive mood such as happiness were shown under experimental conditions to have relatively unreliable memories, and show poorer judgement and critical thinking skills.” MORE


Luddites get a new weapon [Smart Mobs]

by Limbic on August 20, 2004

Recoil embeds small magnets into clothing. The magnets have the ability to erase data contained in many memory devices. The wearer creates thus a data-free zone around him/her, which also acts as a form of data terrorism. (Imagine emerging from a throng of people to find that your office swipe-card or credit card no longer works!)

RECOIL also heightens awareness in the wearer and others as to the high penetration of digital technologies into our everyday lives and reasserts awareness of bodily presence in the environment.” MORE

I can see a whole new market for personal EMP shield, magnetic field early warning systems and EMP hardened PDA cases.

There is something oddly brutal about someone who could sit on perhaps a Tube carriage and wipe digital camera images or personal data off people’s devices. It is a sort of digital typhoid. The mere presence of such a data killer could destroy your digital life.

I can foresee flash mobs attacking these digital Shivas. People dropping dead on the streets after their bio-medical devices are wiped. A could create a whole new tactical front.

How long before an Al Qaeda suicide squad with EMP bombs attacks the stock exchange or BT Telehouse?


Heavy rain again in London

by Limbic on August 18, 2004

This summer I have seen heavier rain and storms than ever before. It reminds me of Highveld (South African) summer afternoons. Sun followed by daily storm.


An interesting article about the difficult subject of locking people up because of the risk they pose to others. It explores the methods used to make those judgement and assessments and explores the ethical problems the practice creates.

“The authority to detain a particular defendant to protect society is naturally premised on the idea that it is at least reasonably possible for the courts to make predictions regarding the possibility that particular defendants, if released, would act in ways that would endanger other individuals or the community in general” [D. N. Adair].

Over time, there has been a need for professionals to assess the level of dangerousness a certain individual poses to society. This may take the form of assessing an individual for his tendency to commit violent acts, either now or in the future, or it may be assessing an inmate’s suitability for release back into the community; that is, whether or not he will continue to pose a danger upon release.

Given that an inaccurate prediction could mean the difference between liberation and incarceration, these assessments must be conducted with great caution. This is especially true when one considers that the rate of false positives, that is, those assessments that incorrectly identify an individual as a danger when he is not, is incredibly high.

Predictions of dangerousness are made in several ways. Predictions may be clinically based, where a professional will interview an individual in a controlled setting, or they may be based on statistical assumptions.

This article explores the issue of dangerousness and the broad ways in which predictions are made. First, the issues on which the prediction of dangerousness is based; then a look at the two very broad ways such predictions are made in the clinical setting and through the use of statistics and averaged offender types. Next, I will address the problems with prediction and the accuracy of such predictions. Finally, I will briefly address the situation of people who are mentally disordered.

…The very idea that professionals may be able to determine the risk posed by a member of society is very controversial. It is often the primary criterion on which involuntary psychiatric internment and prison security classification is made [Shaffer]. Whether or not this decision should be made on past behaviour raises an interesting ethical question; that is, once an offender has served his time, should he be released? A number of studies suggest that such predictions can be made, although the accuracy of such predictions is questionable.

Despite criticism, it is convincingly argued that the community should be protected from offenders who pose a threat to the safety of others. Many industrialised nations have a policy of involuntary commitment of an individual who displays extremely antisocial behaviour [Quinsey] and this is often counterbalanced by the rights of the general population to be free from victimisation. The issue is further clouded when certain individuals who are in need of treatment are incarcerated as opposed to getting the [psychiatric] help they require.

The question still remains though, whether a professional should be allowed to judge the suitability of an individual to return to the society from which he was removed owing to some past criminality or antisocial behaviour. MORE