28 December, 2013

Boys and their Toys

I just learned about a scientist named Eric Kandel, and an experiment, for which he earned the Nobel Prize, performed in the early 70s on a a type of large sea slug known as Aplysia.

Kendal prodded the side of the slug over and over, right on the gills. Take that, slug. And that. Poke poke poke. Neat how he curls up, huh? A reflex reaction. Poke Mr Slug enough times and he gets used to it.

I was reminded of one big reason why I hated science classes when I was a child. I had too many of my own ideas, and the discoveries I was forced to read about, bullied by a system that constantly hammered home the notion that my future depended on conformity to their education (poke poke poke, and eventually I got used to it, and consequently better at ignoring them) were boring. Scientists like Kendal could win a Nobel Prize for "discovering" something every little boy already knew. Poke a slug enough times in the side, and it gets used to it.

However, before the tone of this post feels too snide, let me clarify something. I was reminded in an amused way. Kendal won his Nobel Prize for something deeper. He discovered that Mr Slug doesn't just stop caring, his "learned change in behaviour was paralleled by a progressive weakening of the synaptic connections." (Quoted in Doige, Brain that Changes Itself, p. 201)

Mr Slug's brain was changing.

The possibilities of such things had been theorised about before. Sigmund Freud was a researcher in Neurophysiology before his idea that the brain was made up of separate cells gained him such derision as to push him from his original dream, and lead him to find new grounds to explore in Psychology. 

Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield had already made a sensory map of the brain back in the 1930s, and Michael Merzenich in 1968 took the idea a step further by cutting off a segment of a living monkey's skull and prodding his hands while he was strapped, conscious, to a chair with needles and probes jabbed into his brain. What a nice fellow.

Evidence for neuroplasticity (the idea that the brain can reform itself based upon stimuli) had sprung up by 1950. In a series of lectures broadcast by the BBC, British biologist J. Z. Young argued, "There is evidence that the cells of our brains literally develop and grow bigger with use, and atrophy or waste away with disuse." (J. Z. Young, Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist's Reflections on the Brain, Oxford University Press, 1951, p. 36),

What Kendal accomplished in prodding Mr Slug is to prove that the neurotransmitters actually reforge on a cellular level, that the sensory map alters with stimuli. This had been theorised, but it had never actually been mapped. Slugs make great subjects for such experiments as their nervous system is both simplistic and large. Kendal showed us the cellular reason behind age old childish wisdom, poke Mr Slug and he eventually gets used to it.

In showing us proof that even those things which science would scoff at, those things that the innocent and un-indoctrinated know to be true, Kendal gives strong evidence to the idea that such wisdoms will frequently be proven. This discovery made me wonder about all aspects of the universe. Science itself dictates that an absolute truth is impossible (this does not purely refer to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) and that discoveries will lead us into new ground. What else is there a cellular (and is cellular as deep as it goes?) explanation for?

Mr Slug didn't "just" stop caring, but he did stop caring. There were biological reasons behind a deep, intrinsic response--an "intellectual" response, so far as a slug's intellect is concerned. This is true of human brains as well. It draws me to a question for the scientists and science fiction writers: does this cheapen the neurological experience? Does biology ruin magic, or is it magic? What's the difference?

It also makes me wonder about scientists generally--the kind, at least, who offended me so as a child, and the kind who ousted young Freud. How can we be so ignorant of our own methodology and principles as to decide that thought, or indeed a piece of age-old wisdom, is wrong on the grounds of not having yet unearthed the explanation?

As you can see, learning of this turned the ignition of my imagination, and, to be perfectly honest, I wrote this as much to force myself to remember as I did to share it with you. Such is the benefit of having a blog. I hope you've enjoyed my new-found knowledge and thoughts.  (This is rushed because I'm supposed to be taking my mom out for coffee.)

05 December, 2013

An Atrocity

I am re-posting this as it's one of the most important, and horrific things I have ever seen. This abysmal attack on democracy must be stopped. If there is one responsibility of the modern individual, it is vigilance. We must be proud to live in a democracy, and that pride comes at a cost. In a world where economics is more powerful than legislation, corporations are more powerful than governments. It is our duty to remind ourselves of the dangers of these times and stand against economic oppression wherever possible.

I'm proud to have a medium with which I can let a decent number of people know about such a crime against liberty as this.

Please read the below, and thank you for lending your ears.

Wm. Luke Everest

Dear friends,

We have just days to stop a top-secret global corporate power grab that attacks everything from a free Internet to environmental protections. Trade ministers are packing their suitcases for a trip to finalize the deal -- but we can stop them from putting profit over people. Let’s get 2 million people to crash their secret meeting and keep corporate hands off our laws:

Monsanto, Philip Morris, and over 600 of their closest friends have spent years building a massive Trojan horse to give corporations the reins to our democracies. They're planning to deliver it at a key summit this week -- but we have the power to send it back where it came from.

12 Trade ministers are scheduled to meet this week to finalize the super-secretive deal that could allow corporations to sue governments over their own laws and undermine things from life-saving affordable medicines to Internet freedom. But a leaked draft has revealed a widening rift between countries and fueled a civic uproar that could keep them from signing.

Let's back up the leaders pushing for people over profits -- when we reach 2 million signers, we'll cover the capitals with Presidents standing up to the corporate takeover with ads urging them not to back down and work with lawmakers in those places to have their backs. Sign now, and tell the world:


The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a major pillar in efforts of US corporations to extend their power to bend laws around the world to their benefit. It would set up a system of opaque tribunals that hand democracy's reins over to multinational corporations. Similar quasi-courts have let Philip Morris sue Australia for protecting kids from smoking and undermined Quebec’s ban on unsafe mining practices because they stood in the way of profit.

It’s SO secretive that only three people in each treaty country have seen the whole thing -- not even law-makers know what’s in it! We’ve known all along that there’s a lot at stake, but we didn’t know exactly what until Wikileaks published one of the chapters. Now the battle lines within the negotiations are out in the open and politicians are racing to distance themselves from its anti-democratic provisions.

If this all sounds crazy, it's because it is -- countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and New Zealand are getting fed up with the corporate bullying and are pushing back. But the deal has friends in powerful places -- it's the #1 trade priority for Obama and the world’s biggest and dirtiest front for greedy corporations, the US Chamber of Commerce. They’re hellbent on wrapping things up before January and are pulling out all the stops to make that happen. Our voices now, amplified into the right sets of ears, could make the difference. Sign the urgent petition now:


US Senator Elizabeth Warren recently said: “Corporations are not people. People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die. And that matters, because we don't run this country for corporations, we run it for people." Let’s reach two million PEOPLE to stop the corporate takeover of our governments.
With hope,

Alice, David, Jooyea, Alex, Aldine, Julien, Ricken, and the Avaaz team

WikiLeaks publishes secret draft chapter of Trans-Pacific Partnership

Secret TPP Negotiations Resume in Salt Lake City (Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Secret Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (Wikileaks)

The Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty is the complete opposite of 'free trade' (The Guardian)

The Near and Far Future of Everest by Fog

Last week I thought Wednesday was Tuesday, and I thought Friday was Saturday. I'm not an alcoholic or a heroine addict or any other really expensive thing like that. We'll see what happens after I get a book deal. Until then, I satisfy myself with cheaper things like video games and books. But I wasn't even doing that. I was just waking up and working.

I'm almost back, so hold onto your hats, readers. Take it perhaps as advice on what to do, and indeed what not to do.

1) I'm getting loads done! If you can bury your head in a project like this, do it. Let yourself get obsessed. Just make sure you're obsessed with perfection, and not completion. The former is a hard road. The latter is a mudslide to Crap Town.

2) I'm putting on weight (not much yet, but it's weight by my standards). Each morning I look like I've spent the night punching myself in both eyes. I never see my friends, and I never write on my blog. If you want to take something from this, my advice is to find balance in your life, which is something I've learned I'm not truly capable of.

Soon I might begin a PhD. If my book deal doesn't happen soon, I'll defer, but so what? You've noticed how much I blab about self-motivation, I'm sure. It is the only thing that will carry you through to a career in writing, and it is, I believe, the healthiest form of motivation in general. If I practise what I preach, I must be someone who doesn't need an academic institution breathing down my neck to get my work done.  It's a research degree. That means I do the vast majority of the work on my own anyway, so I don't need Royal Holloway University of London. Regardless of whether I can go work with Adam Roberts (check him out here: http://www.adamroberts.com/) which I would of course love to do, and regardless of whether I can have other smart, motivated colleagues around me, I can study plenty of sociology and narrative theory.  I'm already qualified to teach at University level in the latter. As for having colleagues around me, I've never cared much for working with others. Playing, yes. Working, no.

Essentially I'm going to include a lot more interesting research in the future. I'm also quite an ancient history buff, and my secret love is Sword and Sorcery fiction. I'll be cranking out posts related to that as well as I do novel research in other directions. My career intention is to write one work of what I consider "important art" per year, and one or two kick-ass fun novels in the meantime. I've tried taking breaks from writing before. They don't work. It's like my fingers are addicted. If I don't type in a day, I go insane. Same with not thinking stories over. I have to do it. I'm also very prolific. "Important art" takes longer. The narratives aren't necessarily more complicated, but I have much more to say and I want to ensure everything is poignant. Kick-ass fiction just requires good writing skills, which I'm always working to improve.

See you 'round the twist!

I'll be back soon. I promise!