Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Review: The Secret House

Today I'd like to offer a book recommendation.

Did you know that the major ingredients in toothpaste are chalk, water, paint (yes, paint), seaweed, anti-freeze, parafin oil, detergent, peppermint, formaldehyde (as in embalming fluid) and flouride? Were you aware that the eggs in an typical kitchen freezer are actively fighting a pitched battle with bacteria? Or that nylon stockings are under continuous assault from sulpheric acid?

If you like these kinds of scientific tidbits, I highly recommend The Secret House by David Bodanis. It takes a look at a day in the life of an ordinary house through the lens of scientific understanding. The writing is extremely accessable and should appeal even to people who normally don't like science books (such as my girlfriend who absolutely loves it).

Monday, June 28, 2004

Internet Fraud

I've seen a lot of attempts to use the internet to defraud people but one that reached my inbox, last night, was particularly shocking. The email was a very slick HTML document that looked at though it came from onlinesecurity@visa.com. The subject of the email was "Protect your debit card from fraudulent online transactions". This was the email's pitch:

All online merchants receive every day thousands of online fraud complaints.

In order to prevent any fraudulent activity with your card we offer you free enroll in Verified by Visa program.

Verified by Visa protects your card with a password you create, giving you reassurance that only you can use your card online.

Simply activate your card and create your personal password. You'll get the added confidence that your card is safe when you shop at online stores.

Once your card is activated, your card number will be recognized whenever you purchase at participating online stores. You'll enter your password in the Verified by Visa window, your identity will be verified, and the transaction will be completed.

You may activate now by filling out the form below. If your card issuer is participating in Verified by Visa (most issuers are) we'll verify your identiy, create your Verified by Visa password and email it to you.
The effectiveness of the pitch was hightened by graphics culled directly from the Visa web sight which, unfortunately, more than compensates for the occasional lapses of English in the pitch.

The real insidious thing was the form that was embedded in the email (which I will not reproduce). Among the information that the form asked for was your credit card number, your expiration date, your name on the card, all of your address information, your phone number, your card validation code (with helpful instructions on how to obtain it), your email address, you bank routing number, your checking account number, your social security number, your ATM pin code, your mother's maiden name and your driver's licence number.

In other words, a laundry list of the information that's needed to commit an act of identity theft. A close look at the HTML of the form revealed that the information was actually being sent to a yahoo email address by way of a third party website.

I work in the IT realm and I've been playing with HTML since it was introduced. It's not hard for me to see through this kind of trick but I genuinely fear for the many, many people on the web who aren't saavy to the tricks that people can play with the clever manipulation of form tags. I think that it would be hideously easy for someone who was technologically innocent to be duped by this kind of trick. I shudder to think of how many people's bank accounts and credit cards have already been raided by these scum bags.

Please, please, please try to educate your friends and families on the basics of internet security. At the very minimum, make sure that they understand that no legitimate business would ever email them with a request for confidential information. Not their banks, not their credit card companies, not anyone. Do whatever you can to drill that into their heads. Identity theft is a very real and serious problem. We can't expect everyone to be as technologically sophisticated at the bastards who purpetrate these scams but we can do something to make sure that our loved one's know how to avoid exposing themselves to this kind of fraud.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Five Small Essays on Random Subjects

There's a site out there called Blog Ideas. It's sort of an artificial muse. You go to the site and it gives you subject ideas for blog postings. Many of the ideas of fairly banal, such as "How long have you been bloggin'?". Never the less, I thought that it might be an interesting thing to take five random suggestions to see what I could do with them. So, without further preamble, here I go.

Alcohol: My Thoughts

My view on alcohol is pretty much the same view I have with regards to any other intoxicant. If you find yourself in a position where your consumption of it poses harm to others, you are irresponsible. If you find yourself in a position where you can't moderate your own consumption, you have a problem and should seek help. If you find that you use it as a means to escape from reality, you need to find something better. If your consumption is purely a matter of personal enjoyment, then it is not my place to tell you otherwise.

As for myself, I will drink on occasion, but only rarely. This isn't because I have any high scruples that I am trying to live up to. The simple fact is that, most of the time, it simply doesn't appeal to me. Honestly, I don't much like the taste of alcohol, itself. When I do drink, I tend to select wines, beers, and liquors that have a very mild dryness. I also don't much enjoy the sensation of being drunk, so a lot of the recreational aspects of alcohol are lost on me. This isn't to say that I'm never in the mood but it is not a typical thing.

I want to be clear that I am not much of a Puritan. If it were legal, my drug of choice would be marijuana (a drug that I have more than merely indulged in the past). I'll make no attempt to disguise the fact that I enjoy the sensation of being high. I find there to be a qualitative difference between getting a little high and getting a little drunk and that I much prefer the former to the latter. Given this, I am hardly in a position where I could even conceive of criticizing someone who enjoys a few beers, now and again, even if I were so inclined. Be that as it may, I'll usually settle for a soda.

Vanity Searches on Google: Does My Site Come Up?

As topics go, this strikes me as a rather flimsy foundation. The answer is either yes or no. As it happens, it's yes. Google, as usual, is all-seeing. I half-expect it to achieve sentience within my lifetime.

I suppose that I could talk about the phenomenon of vanity searches in general. Like most people who've had any amount of interaction with the internet, I do like to do the occasional search on my name. Since the advent of Google, it's very hard to resist the temptation.

Most of my searches return a signature file that I used to use. Here it is:

"Christian Fundamentalism: The doctrine that there is an absolutely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, universe spanning entity that is deeply and personally concerned about my sex life"

I came up with this quote back in the days when I was very active on alt.atheism. I'm happy to say that a lot of people seemed to like it. For awhile, I even had a signature FAQ up to address the emails that I got that were addressed to it.

These days, it seems just a little too glib. A little too… confrontational, I suppose. I think that the point of the quote – that fundamentalists too often seem to imply that their god has a rather petty sort of focus – is a fair point but saying it this way seems to deny the very real sense of meaning that their beliefs are invested with. Ultimately, it seems to be the sort of thing that a clever young punk might say to provoke someone. In that, at least, it is an accurate reflection of the person who wrote it.

Excepting my little would-be contributions to Barlett's, there's a random scattering of preserved posts to sci.nanotech, alt.atheism, and rec.arts.tv.babylon5, a collection of letters to the editor of Science Fiction Weekly, some professional posts to various SQL Server forums, a critique of a Weird Al Yankovich album, a Darwin Awards submission (that actually made it, in edited form, into the second published compendium of Darwin Awards), several references to other people named Andrew Lias, and various errata.

It is odd to suppose that, once I pass away, this sort of thing may well be all of the public record that survives me, assuming, of course, that these continue to be archived. I don't plan on having children and the memories of friends and family can only endure until the ends of their own lives. I fully realize that one of the reasons that I'm keeping this blog is precisely because I want to add something to my legacy but, in the end, I don't expect that many historians are going to be culling my small observations out of the mass of records that will be preserved on the internet. History, ultimately, will swallow my life just as it does to most people. It offends our dignity to think in these terms but it is hard to deny the truth of it.

Perhaps my impudent little sig file will, after all, be my legacy.

How Big is My Bed: Big Enough?

If I were to list the five great pleasures in life, they would be reading, eating, thinking, sleeping and sex. The nice thing about beds is that all five activities can be enjoyed without having the leave the comfort of the sheets. When I think about the things I particularly dislike, such as having to go to work, getting haircuts, paying bills, and taking the dog out, perhaps it is not a coincidence that all of these things require me to, first of all, get out of bed.

My current bed is a queen sized bed which is reasonably large. I am sharing it with my girlfriend and our dog. Although I am happy to have their company, I will admit that I do begrudge the space that I have to sacrifice. When I sleep, I like to sprawl. I like the freedom to twist and turn. I like being able to grab up all of the sheets when I'm cold and the latitude to toss them all off when I'm hot.

When you share a bed with someone, you have to make adjustments. It is not so much that my queen sized bed is too small, it is that there is no bed quite large enough for me unless I'm alone in it. Such are the compromises we make.

TV Shows I Never Miss

As much as I'd like to claim to not watch TV, I am just as prone to its distractive maw as anyone. I hate it, though. I hate realizing that I've just wasted two or three hours of irretrievable time watching something banal. I hate the fact that I can be enthralled by flickering lights and the gaudy sounds that come out of that damned box.

I tend to read when I'm watching it. I read during the commercials. I read when I'm watching reruns. I'll sometimes read even when I'm watching something that I haven't seen before. It's not much of a show of defiance so much as a perfectly effective way to diminish my enjoyment of whatever I'm reading.

We recently got a 50" projection TV. It's overwhelming. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that it absolutely dominates the living room. It's a great thing to have when we're using it to watch DVDs but it's hard not to feel self-conscious when you have a two foot high Spongebob Squarepants cavorting in front of you. It's even worse when you find yourself watching something like American Idol, especially when you realize that your sense of ironic detachment has somehow eroded to the point where you actually care about the results of the damned show.

Do I Want to Have Children?

I am thirty-five years old, now, and my girlfriend is thirty-six. It would not be too late for us to have children but it's impossible to deny that the point of no return is rapidly approaching. I have friends with children and I have friends who have firmly decided not to have children.

We've the matter a great deal of thought and have concluded that children wouldn't be right for us. I think that this was an easier choice for her than it is for me given that she really seems to have a profound sense of distaste for the entire notion. My own stance is a bit more conflicted.

Children are a great responsibility and, honestly, I don't think that I have the temperament to be a good parent. I didn't have a great role model in my own father and, although I don't think that I'm as bad as he is, I realize that I do have a temper. When I am thinking or when I am reading, I don't like to suffer distraction and, if there is one thing that I do know about parenthood, it is that it is one long period of nothing else but distraction.

Be that as it may, there is one thing that I do regret. I have learned a lot of things in my life (and, hopefully, am continuing to do so). I have accrued a certain stock of knowledge and "wisdom", for lack of a better word. It would be a marvelous thing to have someone that I could, at least, try to pass some of that along to. It would be even better if I could pass that to someone who could take that store of information and use it as a foundation whereby they could exceed my own.

It is a thought that makes me wistful. I try to bear in mind that children are not clones of their parents. They develop their own interests and ideas. There is no guarantee that any children of my own would have the least interest in the things that capture my own imagination. Given Finagle's Law, which states that the universe tends towards maximum perversity, I would probably have a child that would be extremely interested in sports and cars, so it is, perhaps, for the best.


Thursday, June 24, 2004


To many of my friends,
I never said goodbye.

Too many of my friends
Never said goodbye.

A momentary silence
Can stretch to endure,

Our spheres become uncircled,

The hours unwind
And become uncoiled,

Our links become unchained,

Until time, too soon,
Has past into the past

And our paths
Have become diverged.

Too many of my friends
Went away.

To many of my friends,
I went away

And never said goodbye.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Greg Egan

Greg Egan is an Australian science fiction author who's noted for writing stories that employ a hefty mixture of both hard science and philosophy. His home page includes not only the standard bibliography and story links (including my personal favorite, Oceanic) but a number of Java applets, in his applets gallery, that he wrote himself which he uses to visually illustrate various scientific and mathematical concepts.

My personal favorite is a demonstration of light refraction as it passes through a circle of rotating prisms.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

On the Nature of American Culture and its Place in World Affairs

One of the amazing things about the Internet is that it has such a fantastic reach. This little blog alone has been read by people as far away as Kuala Lumpur. As such, it irritates me that I have a nasty habit of writing about "we" and "us" when, in fact, I mean America and Americans (the United States of America and citizens of the United States of America if you want to be pedantic – but let us not be pedants if only to save me the effort of a lot of additional typing). I know better than to actually assume that my cultural standards are universal ones but even being aware of this it's hard not to do so out of simple habit and, frankly, for the sake that it is very hard to think about things from a non-American perspective.

It is frequently stated that Americans, as a whole, are fairly ignorant about other cultures. It is often alleged that this is a willful ignorance. While I won't dispute the first point, I am not sure that the second is entirely fair. One of the central reasons that we have this lack of perspective is that we are geographically isolated from most of the world. We are bounded by oceans on two sides and we only have one neighbor that I would describe as being significantly different from us (with apologies to Canadians – be assured that I am not claiming that you are just unofficial Americans).

Although this does, I think, explain why we tend to have a myopic and, frequently, apathetic attitude with regards to the rest of the world, I won't try to claim that it excuses us. I do wonder, however, whether there are two sides to this blurred worldview. I wonder, in particular, how other nations perceive us.

I know that it's practically impossible to ignore our existence. A given American may have no need to think about, for instance, the Seychelles, except as a potentially vacation destination, but I would be equally confident in supposing that it is a rare Seychellian that hasn't given thought to America. We are simply too large of a political and economic presence in the world for people to easily ignore us. It would be a bit like trying to studiously ignore an elephant in one's living room. Be that as it may, I don't think that awareness necessarily equates to understanding. The world can't help but to notice us, but what does the world know of us?

I suspect that most non-Americans encounter us via our media, our corporations, and our tourists. It worries me that our cultural ambassadors are Britney Spears, McDonalds and assorted random yahoos. I have a terrible feeling that other nations have an image of us that is as accurate of a portrayal of the reality of America as Main Street USA in Disneyland is.

Our own school textbooks to the contrary, the view that we are a melting pot isn't quite accurate. Immigrants who come to America do tend to become assimilated, with time (as happens anywhere) and there is a tendency for certain aspects of immigrant culture to get incorporated into the wider cultural milieu. The error is not in supposing that American culture changes as a result of immigrant integration. The error is supposing that there is a single thing that could be accurately called American culture.

We are a nation of sub-cultures. Some of our cultural boundaries are geographical: Birmingham is not like San Francisco is not like New York is not like Dallas, etc. However, where geography was once a good indication of a persons cultural outlook, in modern times the cultural identity of a typical American is going to be determined by a myriad of factors including income, occupation, political view, ethnic identity, geographical identity, and so forth. I suspect that one of the reasons that opinion surveys are such a prominent industry in America is precisely because Americans don't, ourselves, know what America "believes" on any given subject from one moment to the next.

None of this is to deny that there is a kind of meta-culture, in America. So long as it is understood that any statement about Americans is going to, typically, be contradicted by a non-insignificant subset of Americans, I think that we can draw some broad lines of consensus. I believe that we can, in other words, sketch out a kind of American identity.

We love our country. American's really do tend to believe that we are the best country in the world and any challenge to that notion is apt to be rejected out of hand. Most of us, I think, understand that we are not the best in all domains. We are well aware that our education system, for instance, is not the best in the world. Where we fail to be demonstrably the best, however, we feel that we ought to be. Most importantly, it is in the arena of intangibles that we sincerely tend to think that we are without compare.

We are proud of our system of government. We are proud of it even as we have made it a national past-time to criticize the actual members of our government. We love democracy and deplore politics all at the same time.

We feel that we are a just nation. Again, this is simultaneous with our general (and genuine) contempt for the day to day running of our legal system. We esteem the American principles of justice while seeing absolutely no contradiction is hating our herds of lawyers and having nothing but contempt for any number of perceived miscarriages of justice (recall the very divisive anger over the OJ Simpson trial).

We think of ourselves as a society without class in both the literal and the figurative sense. We have a kind of plebian snobbery in our culture. Everyone aspires to the American dream and most of us have immense respect for entrepreneurship (certain feelings about Bill Gates not withstanding). At the same time, we look down upon inherited wealth and we tend to consider refinement of taste to be a kind of affectation. Although we like to be able to experience the good things in life, we expect that a given person will be able to appreciate the common things in life. This is why, I think, the world tends to see our politicians as cowboys and bumpkins. They fail to appreciate that a good politician must, absolutely must, not appear to be above his constituents. Even Kennedy was sure to eat hot dogs every now and again.

Above all else, we think of ourselves as a good nation – as a good people. If there is one thing that hurts us and makes us angry, it is that we are so often hated by others in the world. We have a hard time understanding why. Most Americans are not entirely naïve when it comes to the history of our nation. We know that we have a tarnished past. We are well aware of our treatment of our Native population and know full well that slavery is a permanent blot upon our legacy. We know that in the world of international politics, our government has often failed to live up to our own ideals. We are as inclined to distrust the CIA and the NSA as anyone else. Even as we tend to love our troops, our fictions often cast the Military-Industrial complex as villainous and sinister. We are ashamed when our own people get caught doing something despicable, as happened in Abu Ghraib. Never the less, we do believe that we are a good and generous people and we want our government to live up to that standard.

I think that one of the biggest challenges that is facing my nation in this new century will be that we must learn to think internationally. In truth, we lost that luxury by the start of World War II, if not earlier. Unfortunately, we've been willing to let international affairs be the domain of the experts. It is a luxury that can no longer be afforded. At the same time, however, the world is going to have to accommodate itself to our presence. If we (and there I go with that "we" again) must become cognizant of the world than, I think, the world must learn to see past Britney and McDonalds as well as Earl and Ethel from Idaho. The world is a complex place than we are often willing to admit but we, also, are more complex than the common perceptions of us. Simplistic stereotypes don't do anyone any good.

Friday, June 18, 2004

GMail Contest Closed

I want to thank everyone who participated in the GMail contest. I will be contacting the winners with their invites.

Ratfish Redux

Behold, the ratfish!

This is a "living fossil" discovered by Brazilian scientists. It's related to sharks and rays.

The so-called Age of Discovery, when such organizations as the National Geographic Society were having to continual update the lists of new creatures, flora, and peoples, pretty much came to an end with the culmination of the epoch of European imperial expansion. New species are still discovered (mostly arthropods and the like), but the pace has slowed to a comparative trickle.

The oceans are the last great frontier on the planet that have remained largely unexplored. Such discoveries as this ugly little fish hold out the possibility that a new Age of Discovery may yet exist in our future.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

That Feeling

It’s that feeling you get
When a semi truck

Big burdened with blind spots

Starts to merge
Into your lane into you

And that SUV you’re wearing,
Great gleaming solid thing

Suddenly seems as small
As a helplessness

And the muscles in your back
Quiver/clench in anticipation

Of the shudder, crunch, crashing
Oh my God, you’re going to die

And it doesn’t happen:
Breathing, breathing, hands shaking.

It’s that feeling.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Welcome GMail Contestants!

If you're a TotalFark member or an alt.atheism reader, you probably know that I've decided to distribute another three GMail invites to the three people who post the most intelligent comment to this blog. I'll be rendering judgement Friday night.

Please feel free to scan through the blog (you can comment on the archived posts, too -- be assured that I will see them) to find something worth commenting on. I am looking for posts that show an understanding of the topic and which demonstrate insightfulness and intelligence. Don't worry about identifying yourself as a GMail contestant. I'll consider any post an entry and I will confirm with the winners that they do, in fact, want the invites when I'm ready to distribute them.

Although I went out of my way to invite Farkers and the folks at alt.atheism, the contest is open to anyone interested in participating.

Please be welcome and have fun!


It's has been less than 400 years since Galileo Galilei first glimpsed Saturn's rings (although it took another forty years to determine that they were rings). Before than, Saturn was just a bright, wandering spot in the sky with various mythological associations.

In that immensely brief time we've gone from looking up at it to actually visiting it. Of all the recent achievements of humanity, I am perhaps most astonished that we've gone from Leonardo Da Vinci's hopeful drawings of flying machines all the way to sending sophisticated probes on multi-billion kilometer journies with pin-point accuracy to the far planets of our solar system.

At the moment, the Cassini-Huygens space probe (named after Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens) is currently approaching the Saturnian system. NASA has a page dedicated to this with current photos and data. In particular, be sure to visit the image gallery for the latest images from the mission.

Be advised, it may take awhile for the mission pages to load. They're getting a lot of hits, right now. It's worth the wait, though.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Taste Test

Natalie Ramsey posted a very unscientific but highly amusing cola taste test on her blog. Check it out, why don't you?

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Some Meditations on Memory

This is not an essay, meaning an organized sequence of thoughts with a well defined beginning, middle and end used to advance some point or argument. This is a meditation meaning that it's a semi-structured sequence of thoughts on a given topic. It has neither a thesis nor a conclusion. There are quite a few observations but no arguments. If you are expecting an essay, you may find yourself at a loss to understand what I am doing.

When I was eleven years old, I fell ill with a condition called Kawasaki's Syndrome. The exact cause of the disease remains unknown. What is known is that it attacks the lymph system and can lead to cardiac problems. One of the most dominant symptoms is a high fever. For a period of nearly a month, I had a temperature that was rarely lower than 100 degrees which would, occasionally, go as high as 105 degrees. Although I recovered from the disease, the fever took its toll on my memory.

There are broad swaths of my childhood that I simply do not remember. I don't have any recollection of my second grade teacher and only the vaguest one's of my first and fourth grade teachers. I don't remember very many of the friends that I had from before I was ten and have even less in the way of emotional associations to go with those memories. Shortly after my release, we went to see my aunt Mary-Lou and I simply did not remember her at all (she thought that I was just being rude).

When we think about memory, we have a tendency to think of it as being something like a videotape. This is utterly wrong. Sometimes we think of it as being like a filing cabinet. This isn't as wrong, be its still grossly inaccurate. Some of us prefer to use computer analogies, comparing it to a hard drive or, perhaps, to the Web. This can be much closer but that can easily mislead us. In truth, memory isn't like anything else other than itself.

The biggest fallacy of memory is that memories are like snapshots. They are instants and events that have been imprinted upon our brain. While we may concede that we occasionally misremember something or forget it outright, we tend to think of our memories as being reasonably stable. This is far from the truth. Even old, established memories are subject to constant revision.

Forensic scientists have long known that eyewitness accounts are the least accurate source of information about a crime, contrary to the weight that juries give to eyewitnesses. One of the most shocking demonstrations of this unreliability is the fact DNA evidence has been used to exonerate people who have been positively identified by rape victims. To put that plainly, people who have been raped have actually misremembered their rapists. If any event should burn itself into one's mind, that should be it and yet even that sort of memory can suffer revision to accord to one's expectations.

Yet, in spite of its basic unreliability, memory is, above all, the single thing that most profoundly affects our sense of identity. If you were to sneak into my room and erase all of my memories and replace them with the memories of Princess Margaret, I would wake up believing that I was her – and confused as to how I ended up in a strange person's body. If my memories had truly been overwritten with her's, it would be a fine philosophical question to ask if I was still, in fact, me or whether I was some sort of mental clone of Margaret.

During the months and years that followed my recovery from Kawasaki's Syndrome, I began to wonder if I was, in fact, the same person that I had been before the disease. When my relatives would talk about things that I had done when I was younger, it often seemed like they were talking about someone else, entirely. They spoke of someone who was more prone to exuberance, for one thing. Someone who was talkative and, if not quite outgoing, at least more open to expression. I had to ask myself whether this other person was, indeed, me or whether I had become a kind of changeling.

Over the years, I have filled in enough of the gaps (often indirectly through the memories of others) to get a sense that there is a continuity of personality. I think that having my memories damaged did lead to certain changes in my personality but I think that my core persona persisted. Many of the gross changes to my personality can probably be accounted for by puberty. Never the less, it makes me wonder what a more serious loss of memory would be like. What is it like to have Alzheimer's, for instance?

Is it like being trapped in some sort of temporal labyrinth where everything seems out of place and out of time? Do you even realize that you're suffering through it, or is the loss of new memories so profound that you're always on the verge of being confused but never quite there? Is it more a horror or a haze?

It is wrong to think of memory as a monolithic thing. There are at least four different types of memory. There is sensory memory which covers our immediate experiences. There is working memory which represents the amount of information that we can hold in our heads at one time. There is short term memory which covers the range of time from a few seconds out to a few minutes or so (the exact range is a subject of debate). Finally, there is long term memory which can span a full lifetime.

Movies and books have conditioned us to think of memories as linear narratives. In point of fact, memories are not really replays as much as reconstructions. The brain remembers (more or less) what happened and it puts together ad hoc representations of those events when we try to recall them. Memory is rarely linear. We tend to jump around our memories as one association triggers another, then another, and other in an unending cascade of connections. The ability to present your memories as an episodic narrative is, in fact, a talent which many people lack.

At the best of times, my memories are like free floating sketches. I am not at all good at presenting events in a chronological order. My overall sense of the passage of time is chancy. When talking about events from my childhood, I'll typically say that they happened when I was seven. Judging by my stories, nothing ever happened to me when I was six, eight, nine, or ten and only a few things happened to me when I was five. Since I really can't recall how old I was when I experienced most of the events of my childhood, seven is just a convenient sort of place marker. When talking about events in my adult life, I'll typically say that they happened either five or ten years ago, or when I was eighteen or twenty, for much the same reason. There are only a handful of events that I can specifically place in time.

During the 90s, there were wide spread reports of cases of child abuse and even ritualistic Satanic abuse. The bulk of these reports came from patients who had apparently recovered memories during the course of psychiatric therapy. Some of these memories were recovered via hypnosis while others were recovered through psychoanalytic techniques. Many people were charged with very serious crimes on the basis of these recovered memories. Quite a few of those people went to prison and even those who weren't convicted often had their lives and careers torn apart by the accusations.

Even from the start, there was considerable skepticism regarding the veracity of recovered memories. In the vast majority of cases, there was no independent corroboration for the memories. Some of the claims, especially the claims of ritual satanic abuse, were so outlandish as to be implausible. In the time since then, a lot of research has gone into the techniques used to recover memories. Empirical studies have demonstrated that it is frighteningly easy for a therapist to inadvertently (or deliberately) implant a contrafactual memory in a patient. It has been further noted that survivors of traumatic events, such a torture and rape, typically have problems forgetting the events as opposed to remembering them.

My earliest memory may well be a chimera. One day as I was getting very, very stoned (an indulgence that I have since given up), I had a vivid memory of myself going up to a bed and smelling the covers. The bed was as high as I was and I was toddling as opposed to walking. In my memory, the only thing going through my mind was a curiously non-verbal desire to walk forward.

The only universally recognized effect of THC on memory function is that it temporarily impairs short term memory. Some studies have suggested that there may be some permanent impairment to short term memory and, perhaps, to long term memory as well (although the studies that have yielded those results have used controversial methodologies). There is absolutely nothing in the literature that indicates that THC can result in the recovery of memories. It is, however, well established that THC is psychoactive and that it can cause mild hallucinations. Given this, parsimony would suggest that I did not have a true memory. There is just one thing that makes me hesitant to agree with this – in my memory, when I reached the sheets I smelled them. As far back as I can remember, my sense of smell has been somewhat "dim". I don't smell as clearly or as accurately as other people do. In this memory, I could not only smell the cotton in the sheets, but it was an absolutely intense and utterly pure smell. Outside of this memory, I have never had that sort of sensation. Does this mean it really happened? Of course it does not. Never the less, I find it hard to dismiss on a very basic emotional level even as I must dismiss it intellectually.

Some people suggest that we have souls. Some make the further suggestion that these souls migrate from body to body in a succession of births, deaths and rebirths. It is believed that when this happens, the souls do not retain their memories excepting only, perhaps, the vaguest ghosts of experience. To me, that is no different than death as I understand it. If something survives me but it has no memory of me, it may as well be a kidney or a lung for all that I would consider it a representative of my self. I am my memories. As my memories change, so do I. As my memories fade, so do I. When my memories die, so, I think, shall I.

Friday, June 11, 2004


One of the challenges to writing on-line essays is finding good links for the essays. I try to avoid linking for the sake of linking instead stiving to make every link informative, illustrative and, if at all possible, entertaining. Sometimes this is easier than at other times. My recent essay on the subject of Sexual Dimorphism proved to be an especial challenge. There are a lot of great articles and studies out that pertain to the subject but most of what I'd like to have linked to is in the form of professional journals that either don't have an online presence or which require subscriptions to read the articles.

As it happens, I just stumbled across a site that would have made a perfect link (actually, several perfect links). Rather than going back and re-editing the essay, I've decided to simply post the link here. The site is hosted by the University of Plymouth Department and is meant as a supplement to their Psych 141 course (Biological Perspectives on Gender Differences).

I would particularly like to point out the section pertaining to the development of external genitalia (as well as the accompanying animation) and, even more pertinantly, the site's article on a boy who had suffered an accidental castration due to a botched circumcision who was subsequently raised as a girl. I would also note that Slate contains a follow up to this rather sad story.

Please note that this site contains clinical nudity. There's nothing prurient but it has been pointed out that there are companies that would object to their employees browsing these images. Proceed with caution.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

A Timid Madness

I have a timid madness inside of me.

Sometimes it scampers across my eye,
Causing others to flinch before it
Flinches itself away.

It murmurs under my tongue sometimes,
Playing slow games with words and
Making unmusic in my throat.

Sometimes I try to bring it out
For other people to see.
Sometimes I think that I should take it
To the doctor to see if it is healthy.

But it's shy —
So shy —
So very, very shy.

Now it's nestled in my ear,
But I can't quite hear what
It wants to say,
To have me say.

Someday it won't be so shy.
Someday I'll show it to the world.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


Today's fun is a clever bit of interactive flash animation called, simply, Egg from the talented group at www.vectorpark.com. Egg starts out as a rolling egg that follows your cursor around. As time progress, the egg goes through an immense number of clever permutations.

Be sure to set aside some time before you take a look at this. It's both time consuming and mesmerizing.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Some Thoughts on Human Sexual Dimorphism

In biology, the term used to describe the differences between the sexes of a species is sexual dimorphism. Dimorphism is just a fancy word meaning that something has two shapes. Even though the term seems dry and technical, there's something poetic about the notion that the sexes are a single thing with two sides.

The degree of dimorphism between the sexes of a species can vary profoundly. If you were to look at a typical dog, for instance, you'd have to lift the animal up and have a good look at its plumbing. You certainly couldn't make the distinction based on size, of the tone of its bark or even by such behavioral gauges such as its aggressiveness. The differences between male and female angler fish, by contrast, is so profound that it's difficult to accept that they are members of the same species. The males are a fraction of the females size and, disturbingly, attach themselves to the females, like parasites, and actually fuse to the females' bodies, acting as little more than attached sperm repositories.

In the overall scheme of things, humans are more alike than different. The most "obvious" differences are actually superficial. Breasts, to cite the most visually distinctive difference, are essentially the same on both males and females. Male breasts can even be made to engorge and to lactate with the introduction or suppression of certain hormones. Even the genitals of men and women are, essentially, the same organ with male and female versions being little more than complex inversions of one another – a reproductive expert can draw a one to one mapping between every part of them.

One of the common misconceptions about what distinguishes men and women is whether a person has two X chromosomes or an X and Y chromosome. Strictly speaking, the chromosomal set you are born with offers nothing more than a strong genetic predilection towards one sex or the other. What actually determines your sexual development is your uterine environment. If you have a Y chromosome, there's a point in your development when the chromosome "activates" a particular cascade of sex linked hormones (most notably testosterone). It is this chemical environment that drives your sexual development beyond that point. It is entirely possible for this trigger to misfire. There are men who have two X chromosomes and there are women who have X and Y chromosomes. This is a fact that's caused quite a bit of controversy in the Olympics which, misguidedly, uses genetic standards to gauge sex in order to combat cheating.

Given that men and women are so physically close, it should not come as a surprise to find that we are cognitively close. It is, in fact, one of the great crimes of human history that, for millennia, women have been treated as being not only profoundly different from men but intellectually inferior to them. Given this sad history, it ought not be a surprise that once this view was challenged, there was a tendency to go too far in claiming that men and women are entirely identical in mind. Decades of research have shown that there are consistent differences between the way that men and women think but the differences aren't intellectual and they are subtle.

Men and women react to pain differently. Men and women bond with their offspring differently. Men and women deal with spatial and abstract problems differently. There are apparent differences in verbal memory, emotional memory, and how we perform acts of coordination (women do better). In listing the differences it is easy to get swept up in them to the point where we are tempted to declare that men and women are utterly unalike. The truth, however, is that even in the areas where we have differential levels of performance (e.g., performing spatial manipulations) there are broad overlaps.

One of the thorniest questions facing cognitive science (right up there with the genuine minefield of the question of racial differences) is whether or not there are any behavior differences and, if so, what is their source. It is easy to note that women and men exhibit different modes of socialization. In simplistic terms, men have a competitive social environment whereas women tend to focus of building complex interpersonal structures. There is, of course, the endless sort of anecdotal observations such as the that women tend to enjoy shopping more than men all the way down to the banal distinctions between guy flicks and chick flicks. For anyone but a dyed in the wool egalitarian, it's apparent that men and women do behave differently. The big question, however, is why.

Anyone who has spent any time watching the commercials that play during children's cartoon shows knows that there's a heavy amount of sexual segregation in the products that advertisers offer. Excepting only such neutral grounds as breakfast cereals and candies, certain products are pitched exclusively at boys while others are pitched exclusively at girls. Boys are sold miniature cars and trucks, weapon-like toys (nerf guns, spray guns, and the like), and all sorts of monsters and robots. Girl toys tend to focus on motherhood (lifelike baby and child dolls), romantic items (fashion accessories, jewelry, etc), and role playing (doll houses, adult dolls, pets, etc).

It is very tempting to say that boys and girls see themselves as having boy and girl roles because they experience heavy socialization. It may even be largely true, but we must be careful lest we confuse the causative associations. Do boys and girls behave as they do because they get certain cultural messages on how to behave, or do the cultural messages conform themselves to a set reality? Do boys want toy soldiers because that's what they're sold or do we sell boys toy soldiers because girls are, predispositionally, uninterested in them?

It's a damnably difficult question to answer. If it were possible to take children and raise them in a controlled laboratory environment with careful sets of controls, it would be relatively easy to glean some answers. Fortunately, we don't ethically condone that sort of experimentation. For better or worse, researchers are restricted to subjects that have invariably suffered all sorts of potential social contamination. It would be tempting to simply write the whole question off as insoluble. It would be irresponsible for us to do so, however. Even if the answers are not easy to determine, the question is important.

Thirty years of attempts to convince women that they should consider technical careers has done little to improve the presence of women in such fields as physics, mathematics, engineering, computer programming and most of the sciences as a whole. Given that these are precisely the careers that are driving modern technology and, hence, modern culture, this lack of representation is a source of legitimate concern. If there is something that can be done in order to fix this disparity then we, as a society, ought to do so. On the other hand, there are few things worse than misguided attempts at social engineering. It is important for us to know what the reality is and to adjust to it accordingly.

This task is complicated by the presence of all sorts of political agendas. On the one hand, you have proponents of so-called traditional values who think that it's an error to encourage any deviation from the past. On the other hand, you have groups who think that any efforts to so much probe the potential differences between the sexes must, automatically, be construed as acts of sexism and subjugation. Either side is motivated by concerns that it considers legitimate but I firmly believe that reality can not be bent to ideology and that any effort to do so is folly.

We are a dimorphic species. We are also, men and women, far more alike than different. To properly understand ourselves, we must illuminate those differences while, at the same time, resisting the urge to exaggerate them. If we can not manage this task, we can not understand ourselves. If we do not understand ourselves then we are charting our course by false stars.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The New Thing

Have you seen the New Thing?

It's waiting on your desk,
Lurking in your car,
Hiding between the glossy pages
Of your favorite Sunday magazine.

Have you tried it?
Have you tasted it?
Do you know the feel of it
As it makes New Love
Between, around,
Inside of you?

Poor soul.

Don't you know,
Haven't you been told,
What's good for you yet?

Don't worry though,
It will find you
Before you remember
That you’ve been waiting for it
All your sorry life.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


For anyone who's ever played around with the Window's default sounds, the Albino Black Sheep site has this amusing little flash medley.

Addendum: it appears that the above link is no longer working. Try http://www.ebaumsworld.com/windowsnoises.html

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