The Brain: The Story of You: a review

December 19, 2015

In 1980 PBS broadcast the great Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a landmark series, which did a masterful job of popularising science. Now, 35 years later, neuroscientist David Eagleman transports us to another mysterious place. This time the destination is the inner cosmos – the brain. Sagan is tough act to follow, but Eagleman will also make you see yourself in a new way. The Brain: The Story of You, a new six-part series, also made by PBS, is crammed with fascinating insights and unusual perspectives.

One typical example is how our senses work. We think that we have direct access to the world through our senses. But this is an illusion. In the outside world there is no colour, no sound, no smell; everything is taking place in our brain. The brain has no access to the external world. Our sensory organs – eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin –collect information from a whole range of disparate sources such as electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and aromatic molecules. Our senses then translate this data into the language the brain understands: electrochemical signals. The idea that seeing isn’t happening in your eyes, hearing isn’t taking place in your ears and smell isn’t happening in your nose takes some getting used to. The electrochemical rendition may not be 100% faithful, but it is sufficient for us to navigate successfully through the world.

All this is brought to life by some wonderful visual effects. Here are some of the fascinating cases and experiments that Eagleman shows in the series. They are accompanied by short videos that you can find on YouTube.

Ian Waterman

The shows have a number of case studies. In 1971 Ian Waterman was a butcher on Jersey. Then the 19-year old came down with a severe case of gastric flu, which destroyed half his nervous system. He had no sense of touch below the neck and he lost the sense of proprioception, which tells the brain about the position of our limbs. Waterman was told he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But with sheer determination he has made himself get up and walk. But it is a struggle as he has to think consciously about every movement his body makes.

The Trolley problem

In a post from 2009, Some philosophical thought experiments #1, I looked at the Trolley problem:

 A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch? Consider another, similar dilemma. You’re walking along the track again, you notice the trolley is out of control, although this time there is no auxiliary track. But there is a man within arm’s reach, between you and the track. He’s large enough to stop the runaway trolley. You can save the five people on the trolley by pushing him onto the tracks, stopping the out-of-control vehicle, but you’ll kill the man by using him to stop the trolley. Again, what do you do?

This is a staple of ethics debates, but neuroimaging provides an interesting perspective. In the first scenario, which involves pulling a lever, activates the regions involved in solving logical problems; it is like solving a mathematical problem. In the second scenario, in which you have to push the man onto the track, activates additional networks into the decision: brain regions involved in emotion. This doesn’t necessarily help us resolve the ethical dilemma, but it does help why people often say yes to pulling the lever, but reject pushing the man onto the track, even though the calculation of lives lost is exactly the same.

Mirroring Others

The effects of Botox on facial muscles are well known. What is surprising is that people who have used are Botox worse at identifying the emotions shown in pictures correctly. The reason is apparently that we will often subconsciously mirror other people’s emotions when we are with them. Botox impedes this imitation, making users proved worse at interpreting emotions.

Discerning Babies

Eagleman recreated an experiment by Paul Bloom et al. which tested the ability of 100 babies to judge social behaviour of a puppet that had previously helped or harmed another puppet in a short show without dialogue. When asked after the show to choose a bear to play with almost all the babies choose the bear that had been kind. Even though they can’t walk or talk, they already have the tools to make judgments about others.

What is Empathy?

Eagleman shows how watching someone else in pain activates one’s own pain matrix, the pain processing areas of the brain. This is the foundation of empathy. But not all empathy is created equal. With collaborator Don Vaughn, he wanted to carry out a study using brain scans to determine how empathetic we are to people who are different from us. The 135 participants saw videos of a hand, which was labelled “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” “Scientologist” or “Atheist”, being touched by a cotton swab or stabbed by a syringe. While this was happening, the blood flow to their brain was being measured. The idea was to look at the regions of the brain that respond when viewing another person in pain. The results were sobering. Some people were equally empathetic to all hands, but many did care more about “their team”, including the atheists.  We really are influenced by the in-group / out-group dynamic. And remember the only difference was a label.

There are many themes in the book – how the brain can distort time, its plasticity, the fallibility of memory, the feeling of free will, the unconscious, the power of now, the mechanisms of decision making and the quest for immortality. It’s a series I can highly recommend.


You can find more videos here.




Christmas message

December 19, 2015

 I wish all my loyal readers a Merry Christmas and peace and joy for the holiday season. See you all in 2016! This year’s Christmas singer is Raphael.

Stationery – a couple of videos

December 13, 2015

Here are a couple of videos on the stationery theme:


Everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about stationery

December 13, 2015

For some people (myself included) buying new stationery is a joy. Visiting a stationery store, you are surrounded by potential; it’s a way of becoming a new person, a better person. Buying this set of index cards and these page markers means I’ll finally become the organized person I always wanted to be. Buying this notebook and this pen means I’ll finally write that novel. James Ward

For me, going into Ryman’s [stationery shop] is the most extreme sexual experience one could ever have. Morrissey


Writing a book about stationery has its downsides. James Ward, author of Adventures in Stationery, aka The Perfection of the Paper Clip in the USA, knows this. I recognise the feeling too. Whenever I try to explain the rules of cricket or the appeal of trainspotting to my Spanish students I can see a glazed look coming over their eyes. Ward refers to one kind of interviewer he would come across on the promotional tour for the book. Basically, they were out to take the piss. One interviewer was particularly obnoxious:

What? And you’ve got a girlfriend? Seriously?”

 Ward is the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Topics under discussion have included toast, discontinued IBM tills, domestic inkjet printers of 1999, car park roofs, the sounds made by vending machines, the carriage numbering system on the London Underground, the Shipping Forecast, barcodes, yellow lines and the history of dust. The talks tend to sell out very quickly, so maybe they are not so tedious after all. You can see a video of Mr. Ward below:

Ward’s particular fixation with stationery began as a child and has continued into adulthood. He even has a “Stationery Club”, which is modelled on those reading groups that have become quite popular in the last couple of decades. Before each meeting, one member nominates a piece of stationery, and then all the other members use it for a week and then discuss it in groups.

Adventures in Stationery begins with a long disquisition on the evolution of paper clips. Other topics include paper, pencils, pens, glue, business cards, correction fluid, staples, post cards and filing cabinets

I loved the story of Bette Nesmith who was according to Ward, not a very good typist. These mistakes would help this divorcee from Dallas to come up with a brilliant idea. Doing overtime one Christmas she noticed a man in the bank, painting a sign, and she realized that every time he made a mistake, he just painted over it with the background colour. She thought why not do the same thing with paper? You will just need to create a solution which is paper-colour. Then, whenever you make a mistake, you can paint over it and type it again. Nesmith would gradually perfect her typewriter correction fluid, which later became known commercially as Liquid Paper. Over the next 25 years she turned the Liquid Paper Corporation into a multimillion-dollar international company. In 1979 she sold the business to Gillette for $48 million. Her 13-year old son Michael, who had helped her to fill hundreds of bottles each month using squeezy ketchup bottles on the miniature production line in their garage, would later go on to become one of The Monkees, a band created for a TV show. A few months after selling her company, his mother died in 1980 at the age of 56. Michael Nesmith inherited half the fortune from Liquid Paper, much of which he ploughed into PopClips, a precursor to MTV. In the words of Ward, if video killed the radio star, then it was funded by correction fluid. In Europe the most familiar brand of correction fluid is Tipp-Ex, which like Liquid Paper, was developed to help correct typing errors.

Then we have Dr. Wolfgang Dierichs. A researcher for German manufacturing company Henkel, Dierichs was sitting on a plane when he had an idea that would go on to revolutionize the world of glue. He saw a woman carefully applying her lipstick and then he realised that you could apply glue with a similar mechanism. Using a thin twistable tube would be cleaner and more convenient. There would be no more pots, and brushes; all you would need to do is remove the lid and apply as much adhesive as you needed. I have to say that this idea would have occurred to me but Dierichs spent his working day surrounded by adhesives and it just came naturally.

The chapter on business card features a couple of internet sensations. He refers to a 2008 video featuring “infotainer” Joel Bauer called Your business card is CRAP!, which has had nearly 2.4 million hits.  After dissing every other business card in the world he shows the only card which cuts the mustard, which just happens to be his:

You see that card? This is the most impressive business card I’ve ever seen. It’s mine. It took me twenty-five years to design this.

Another similarly modest man is Chen Guangbiao, the Chinese recycling entrepreneur, whose business card proclaims:

Most Influential Person of China

Most Prominent Philanthropist of China

China Moral Leader

China Earthquake Rescue Hero

Most Well-Known and Beloved Chinese Role Model

China Top Ten Most Honourable Volunteer

Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China

China Low Carbon Emission Environmental Protection Top Advocate

China’s Foremost Environmental Preservation Demolition Expert

The story of the accidental discovery of the Post-it note is quite well known. Spence Silver of the adhesives department was trying to produce a really strong glue. He ended up with exactly the opposite. Luckily for him a colleague, Art Fry, found an alternative use. Fry was in a choir and would get frustrated when the little bits of paper would fall out of his hymn book. What he needed was a weak glue to stick these bits of paper in the book. And so the Post-it note was born.

There are many more fascinating stories in the book. Pencil cases are apparently less popular in the USA because everyone has lockers. We discover that Day-Glo paints and dyes that allowed U.S. planes to fly night missions from aircraft carriers during World War played a fundamental role in the development of highlighter pens. And did you know that Norwegians wore paper clips as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis, or that the British tape manufacturer Sellotape makes half its annual sales during the three-month run-up to Christmas?

The name Sellotape’ came from Cellophane. As this was at that time a trademarked name, its inventors, Colin Kinninmonth and George Gray, changed the “C” to an “S” so that the new name could be trademarked. In America they say Scotch Tape. This product, another one from 3M, was being tested in car bodyshop. According to 3M legend, one car painter complained about how tight the company was being by applying glue only to the edges and asked “Why be so Scotch with the adhesive?” As well as perpetuating negative cultural stereotypes about the supposed stinginess of our friends from north of the border, they were also using scotch instead of Scottish to refer to the nationality. Be that as it may, the name stuck and Scotch Tape has become another money-spinner for 3M.

What about the future of stationery? It will surely play a less central role in our digital world. However, it will not disappear altogether. The paperless office is just a pipe dream for the time being. But even in the world of computers, the internet, e-mail, smartphones, and tablets, we will have skeuomorphic design. In computing Skeuomorph is an element of a graphical user interface which mimics a physical object. The word comes from the Greek skeuos (meaning container or tool), and morphê (meaning shape). Steve Jobs was a big fan. The digital world is full of these visual metaphors: magnifying glasses, envelopes, scissors, pencils and rubbers all feature on the Microsoft Word interface.

Ward is convinced that stationery is not on the verge of disappearing. He concludes with an impassioned defence:

And so people who rush to announce the death of handwriting or those tech-evangelists looking forward to the singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence outsmarts human intelligence, should not get too excited. Stationery is not about to die. It’s been around since the dawn of civilization and it’s not going to let some plucky upstart like the Internet kill it off without a fight. And besides, a pen doesn’t suddenly stop working just because you’ve gone into a tunnel; no one has ever needed to borrow a charger because the battery on their pencil has died; and if you’re writing in a Moleskine, you never need to worry about having a bad signal or it crashing before you’ve had a chance to save your work.

The pen is not dead. Long live the pen.

I don’t fetishize stationery in the same way that Ward does. I don’t believe in its miraculous powers. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I am sure that I will never look at paper clip in quite the same way again.

The rise of ISIS

December 6, 2015

In the last month ISIS terror attacks have left 130 dead in Paris, 43 dead in Beirut and 224 people dead in after they downed a Russian airliner over Egypt. That makes 400 victims in under a month. But those who have been living under ISIS rule since 2014 have already experienced the terror of their rule. It was on June 10 2014 that the group showed its intentions. After a mere four days of fighting, 1,300 Isis fighters captured Iraq’s northern capital Mosul defeating the Iraqi forces which were said to number 60,000. They then set about killing their enemies, demolishing historic shrines ad generally spreading terror. On June 29 its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself caliph (successor to the Prophet Mohammed and rightful leader of all Muslims). Islamic State now controls an area roughly the size of Britain, with a population of at least six million.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t follow the news as much as I should do and the whole ISIS thing passed me by until their macabre videos started appearing on the internet. I won’t make any excuses for my ignorance but what is more surprising is that Barack Obama admitted that the U.S. defence and intelligence establishment had underestimated the threat posed by the terror group until they took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Given the events of the last fifteen years or so, with the rise of Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, this is a surprising admission. In order to remedy my own ignorance I decided to read a couple of books, The Rise of ISIS by Patrick Cockburn and Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick.

Warrick’s book focuses a lot on the origins of the group in Iraq after the Second Gulf War. The key figure, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, actually died before ISIS came into existence. He was the leader of the Al Qaida “franchise” in Iraq. This high school dropout was a man of the street, who had hit the bottle, experimented with drug use, been in fights and had his body covered in tattoos. He was not the kind of person you would imagine leading a radical religious group. He was not a significant player but then the Bush administration had the brilliant idea of naming Zarqawi as the connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Much has been made of the lack of weapons of mass destruction, but a far more egregious lie was that of the connection between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi, just like most of these jihadists, detested Saddam Hussein and his government, which systemically persecuted them. America’s intelligence experts knew there was no truth to that connection and yet, we it was made anyway.

Alas, this was not the only mistake that the Americans would make. The worst thing that they did was to disband the Iraqi army and outlaw the Ba’ath Party, creating a natural constituency of rebellion. This played into Zarqawi’s strategy to create chaos in Iraq. There was the deadly vacuum that was left after the war. They then went on the attack against the Shia majority to provoke retaliation. By maximizing chaos they could push Iraq into civil war. Zarqawi was eventually killed in 2006 by an American bomb dropped from an F-16. But the template was in place.

His eventual successor, the man who would declare the Islamic State in June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was very different to Zarqawi. Had it not been for the invasion of Iraq, he may well have spent his career teaching Sharia law in an Iraqi university.  Instead, he ended up rising through the ranks. And in 2010, when a number of the other leaders of the Islamic State were killed, he suddenly found himself at the top of the organization.

The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, provided the perfect scenario for the organisation. There was a perfect storm. The Assad regime overreacted to the demonstrations. Governments, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were sending large amounts of money to the jihadist militants in Syria. This support is another important factor. This obsession with promoting Sunni organisations is driving a lot of violence. Apart from the money there is the exporting of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist, eighteenth-century version of Islam. This is an ultraconservative movement within Islam that seeks the imposition of sharia law, and treats women as second-class citizens. It considers Shia and Sufi Muslims as non-Muslims, meaning that they should be persecuted along with Christians, Jews and any other apostates.  There are many elements to ISIS but to claim that it has nothing to do with Islam is bizarre. Voltaire famously quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But Islamic State is both Islamic and at the moment it controls a state.

In late 2013 and early 2014 the ISIS leaders in Syria saw an opportunity in Iraq. Huge caravans of ISIS fighters began pouring across the border and were very quickly able to overcome much the larger divisions of US-trained and supplied Iraqi troops.  Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, fell in just two days. The Iraqi army just fell apart.

ISIS took Zarqawi’s strategy and built on it, thanks to the new social media – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; they are very media-savvy. Not only were the videos of the beheadings, crucifixions etc. a way of intimidating potential adversaries, they also proved to be a vital recruiting tool. What is particularly frightening about ISIS is that they now have a state apparatus at their disposal. According to Warrick this is unique in the history of modern terrorism. Their access to funding, especially the oil, in the areas they control is a significant factor. I mentioned the resource curse in previous posts:

Having a large supply of oil enables autocrats to pay off their supporters and accumulate enormous personal wealth. It is tragic that while oil revenues provide the resources to deal with these countries’ problems, they actually create the political incentives to make the situation worse

Not having to collect so much from the local population, ISIS has few incentives to win their hearts and minds.

What are my conclusions? I am a little bit sceptical about the utility of bombing Iraq. And putting 100.000 troops on the ground is a complicated enterprise. Another lesson I have learned is that things can always get worse. Come back Taliban all is forgiven! When the Taliban were running Afghanistan, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. But ISIS almost makes them look good. It really is a vile ideology. But it is not a death cult. There is method in their terror. And so far it has proved horribly effective.

Regimes like those of Saddam, Gadaffi and Assad may appear terrible, but leaving a power vacuum can be worse. The project of the US and its Western allies allying with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Iraq, Libya and Syria was always rather delusional. The fact that ISIS has a state could make it easier to attack. But it is not easy to form a coalition with all the disparate interests. Something will have to be done at the very least to contain the threat. Let’s just hope that whatever the intervention, it is better thought out than the last few.

Some of my favourite Yiddish words

December 6, 2015

bubkes emphatically nothing, as in He isn’t worth bubkes (literally “goat droppings”, in Polish “bobki”)

chutzpah nerve, extreme arrogance, brazen presumption. In English, chutzpah often connotes courage or confidence, but among Yiddish speakers, it is not a compliment.

fercokt  means that something is all screwed up or FUBAR.

glitch literally “slip,” “skate,” or “nosedive,” which was the origin of the common American usage as “a minor problem or error.”

kibitz to offer unwanted advice, e.g. to someone playing cards; to converse idly, gossip; to josh or rib a person

klutz  Literally means “a block of wood,” so it’s often used for a dense, clumsy or awkward person. See schlemiel.

kvetch to complain habitually, gripe; or, a person who always complains, sometimes known as whinge

nebbish a hapless, unfortunate person, much to be pitied; the one who cleans up after the schlemiel’s accidents (from Yiddish nebekh)

nudnik  pest, “pain in the neck

putz used to refer to a fool, someone who is easily tricked and taken for a ride.

schlemiel someone who is particularly useless, clueless inept and often klutzy, the type who is always running into things and knocking them over.

schlock cheap, shoddy, or inferior.

schmaltz excessive sentimentality; chicken fat or drippings used to spread on bread

schmooze chat, make small talk, converse about nothing in particular. But at Hollywood parties, guests often schmooze with people they want to impress.

schmuck often used as an insulting word for a self-made fool, but you shouldn’t use it in polite company at all, since it refers to male anatomy.

shpiel  a long, involved sales pitch

shtick  something you’re known for doing, an entertainer’s routine, an actor’s bit, stage business; a gimmick often done to draw attention to yourself.

And here are a couple of videos so you can hear the words: