Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The history of the Ice Bucket Challenge

Originally, the ice bucket challenge was not associated with ALS.

Before it all went viral, I saw a number of my capoeirista friends taking part, and the challenge was a little different, have two buckets of iced water poured on you, then pour the third one on yourself (here's my capoeira teacher, Mestrando Primo taking part, just before it went viral). 

The idea for the challenge was to either take the challenge, or donate to charity (or both), and to pick a charity of your choice, and also nominate three more to take part. Now some would say this isn't the nicest of fundraising tactics, and that it amounts to bullying fundraising tactics, but I think it's not that bad (and certainly better than "trick or treat" at Hallowe'en which is essentially demanding money with menaces), Anyhow...

Facebook data indicates that the challenge started around June 8th, but it wasn't until August that it really went viral. Golfer Chris Kennedy nominated the ALS foundation, and this is where the association with ALS (aka Motor Neuron Disease, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

As with many charity things, some people have been critical of how ALS Foundation spend their funds, for example, they have $6.7 million in investments. What people often fail to realise is that charities need to have money in reserve - fundraising isn't always predictable, and if the fundraising dries up, you need to have your operating costs to carry on the services you provide. I've defended charity spending before, but it bears repeating: charities don't get anything for free, and if you want to have a professional bunch of people working for you, you will have to pay them, as everyone has bills to pay and needs food to eat.

The ALS Foundation are quite open about their spending, and in the UK you can go to the charity commission and look at the accounts of all charities. It is then up to you to see if you think a charity spends too much on its staff etc relative to how much the charity brings in. In the case of ALS, 21% being spend on fundraising and admin seems more than acceptable.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Being a spoil sport for breast cancer awareness

A friend recently posted the Facebook status:

"It's confirmed, I'm going to be a daddy"

Naturally, I liked it, and was then sent this message:

"Sorry,you should not have liked or commented!!!! Now you have to pick from one of these below and post it to your status. This is THE 2014 BREAST CANCER AWARENESS game. Don't be a spoil sport, pick your poison from one of these and change your status, 1) Damn diarrhea 2) Just used my boobs to get out of a speeding ticket 3) How do you get rid of foot fungus 4) No toilet paper, goodbye socks. 5) I think I'm in love with someone, what should I do? 6) I've decided to stop wearing underwear 7) it's confirmed, I'm going to be a Mommy/Daddy! 8) Just won $900 on a scratch card 9) I've just found out I've been cheated on the past 5 months. Post with no explanations. So sorry, I fell for it too. Looking forward to your post."

If this was just a status meme doing the rounds, I might play as they can be fun. But it's not actually doing anything at all to raise awareness of any aspect of breast cancer, and it bugs me to see a cause I've done quite a lot of fundraising for co-opted to spread a practical joke via Facebook. So I'm not playing the Facebook game, and instead have written this blog post.

Feel free to help breast cancer awareness by doing any of these if you have the time:

Checking out information on breast cancer from Breast Cancer Campaign or the NHS - in women, and in men.

Looking at how you can support Breast Cancer Campaign or maybe sharing this blog on Facebook, Twitter and the like.

All these things will do lots more for breast cancer awareness than playing a joke on my friends.

Though if you could tell me how to get rid of foot fungus, that would be appreciated. For a friend.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Quantum Mechanics does not give us free will

UPDATE: I should have looked at the You Tube comments after the video, as Derek deals with what I say here, you can follow the link to his comment, or see them reproduced at the end of this post.

I love Veritasium (in fact, I plugged the lovely Derek Muller's channel before), but I have to take issue with the end of his latest video on randomness in which he says:

I have to flat out say that this is wrong.

To explain why, I need to firstly define free will, and I tend to side with Jerry Coyne's definition:

In that same article Jerry also explains why I don't believe we have free will. Our brains are not exempt from the physical laws of the universe. Jerry briefly mentions quantum mechanics there too: 

"(It's possible, though improbable, that the indeterminacy of quantum physics may tweak behavior a bit, but such random effects can't be part of free will.) "

I would like to elaborate on that.

In what sense does quantum mechanics give us free will? OK, so it appears that quantum mechanics appears truly random, entirely probabilistic. Given that randomness and unpredictability, maybe that could mean that if we reran the tape of your life and you could end up acting in a different way. But in what sense have you chosen to do this? How were you a free agent? If we are relying on utterly random and unpredictable events to let us chose a different course of action if the tape of our life was rewound, in what sense are we free to choose? 

If it turns out that quantum events have a significant influence on the firing of our neurons, then they may indeed affect how we think and behave, but that does not make us masters of our fate and captains of our soul. We are still slave to the machinations of the universe, whatever they may be.

The idea that we don't have free will is counter intuitive, as it very much feels that we do.Thinking about it does make my brain hurt (I can't help it); but the facts speak for themselves. I've mentioned optical illusions before a few times at they are a great example of why our experiences are not as reliable as we would like to think they are. And so it is with free will, it seems like we experience it, but we don't. There seems no logical reason to think that we do.

UPDATE: As mentioned above: ""To be clear, by "free will" I mean that your decisions could not be predicted with certainty, even if someone knew everything about all the particles that make up your body. I am not suggesting you have conscious control over your decisions as even current research shows we become conscious of choices after we make them.

I've given my view on the quantum measurement problem but it's called a problem for a reason. No one has it fully worked out quite yet (or maybe this is as fully as it can be worked out). I am not saying that determinism is certainly false, but our scientific theories and observations as they stand today imply that new information is being generated in the universe and this makes it impossible to predict the future with certainty. Some day this view may be overturned.

To me, for now, time looks like a zipper. Far in the future the possibilities are wide open, but with every passing second time zips up what might be into what actually happened."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Interesting stuff about light

This conversation happened on Facebook and there is no point in adding to it, as communication has broken down. However, the last addition* is like an itch I can't scratch, and so instead of adding stuff there, I thought I'd write about light.

A pro baseball player can throw a baseball at around 90 miles per hour (mph). If he were to do the same throw whilst standing on top of a vehicle moving at 60 mph, then the ball would be traveling at 150 mph. Now, if the baseball player where to stand still and use a torch, the light would leave the torch at 299,792,458 metres per second (m/s). If he then was on a vehicle moving at 542 m/s, and shone his torch, the light would not leave the torch at 299,793,000 m/s. It would leave at 299,792,458 m/s.

299,792,458 m/s is the speed of light. Actually, it's the speed of light through a vacuum, light travels slightly slower through the air (and slower again through water, this explains the rainbow. The red end of the spectrum slows down more than the blue end of the spectrum when light enters water, and so this is why we can see rainbows).

299,792,458 m/s is also the fastest anything can move in the universe. To achieve this speed, you must have no mass. The faster you want to throw a ball, the more effort (and therefore energy) you must put into throwing it. To move something with mass at the speed of light would require infinite energy. So far the photon (a particle of light) is the only known massless particle, though others are theorised such as the graviton.

This all might sound theoretical at the moment, but it is used practically as well. Without our knowledge of the above, Sat Navs would not work. If you were to go and drive with a Sat Nav for an hour, the satellites that work  out where you are would actually experience less than an hour. This is pretty counter intuitive.

The best way that helped me understand it is like this: Imagine you're in a car going at 60 mph. If a car drove past you at 70 mph, from your point of view in the car it would like it was moving past you at 10 mph. Likewise, if you were level with another car travelling at 60 mph, from your point of view, they would look still (and this effect is used in action movies for our heroes or villains to jump from one vehicle to another whilst they move at high speed). If you then accelerated to 70 mph, it would like the car that was next to you was now moving behind you at 10 mph.

Now if we think back to the second paragraph, light always travels at the speed of light. In all the cases above, whichever of the cars you are in, you will always see light travelling at the same speed. Speed is distance traveled over a period of time. If light always travels the same distance over a period of time, no matter how much distance you are travelling in that time, something has got to give, and this is relativity, as described by Einstein. It's called relativity because time is relative. The faster you move, the slower time passes for you relative to an external observer who is moving slower than you (or not moving at all).

This effect is called Time Dilation, and was used in the plot for the original Planet of the Apes films - Charlton Heston et al travelled on a ship going at close to the speed of light, and were on it for 18 months, however, as the ship crashes onto an unknown planet, it's noted that the year is 3978 - a full 2006 years after the crew left Earth. The satellited servicing our Sat Navs also experience time dilation, and this must be taken into account when they calculate where exactly it is we are.

Now, it's true that our understanding of relativity is incomplete, as it doesn't (yet) tie in with our understanding of gravity. But this does not mean that it is wrong. Newton's Laws of Motion do not take into account relativity (which was why they caused a headache when trying to predict the orbits of the planets), but they were not wrong when described objects moving on Earth. Working out the flight path of a plane, or the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, Newtonian mechanics are just fine. We know that Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity are good approximations of the truth, because without them, things like Sat Navs wouldn't work, and it also explains a great deal more about what we observe in the universe.

If you've found this interesting, then I'd encourage you to check out the following books, as they go into great detail about the evidence for the above, and more besides:

Big Bang by Simon Singh < Especially this one, which I think is the most accessible
The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
Why does E = mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

*The last post in the conversation said "Particles are still physical, so in theory, like waving your hand through the air, you would push those particles away from the point of origin faster than their original speed"

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Stay classy Deepak

So Deepak Chopra has issued (an insult laden, hence the title of this post) challenge, which he sees as a parallel to James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. As Jerry Coyne has pointed out, it is not in parallel, as he is asking for an explanation of quite a complex problem (the Hard Problem of consciousness), whereas all Randi asks for is a demonstration with no explanation required (someone backing up their claim to paranormal abilities in a controlled environment). However, I thought I'd add it to the blog, as it gives me an excuse to highlight some pretty cool things.

Chopra says:  "If I ask you to imagine a sunset on the ocean right now, and we have the experience somewhere then explain to me where that picture is, and don't just give me a neural correlate or NCC as it's called. Neural Correlates of Consciousness are well known. They are not a good enough explanation for how we experience the world, how we experience colour, taste, sound, form, any perception."

Well, NCCs may not offer the actual solution for the Hard Problem of consciousness, but they certainly seem to point in the right direction. Consider this:

"So do imagery and vision share space in the brain? The neuropsychologists Edoardo Bisiach and Claudio Luzzatti studied two Milanese patients with damage to their right parietal lobes that left them with visual neglect syndrome. Their eyes register the whole visual field, but they attend only to the right half: they ignore the cutlery to the left of the plate, draw a face with no left eye or nostril, and when describing a room, ignore large details - like a piano - on their left. Bisiach and Luzzatti asked the patients to imagine standing in the Piazza del Duomo in Milan facing the cathedral and to name the buildings in the piazza. The patients named only the buildings that would be visible on the right - neglecting the left half of imaginary space! Then the patients were asked to mentally walk across the square and stand on the cathedral steps facing the piazza and describe what was in it. They mentioned the buildings that they had left out the first time, and left out the buildings that they had mentioned. Each mental image depicted the scene from one vantage point, and the patients' lopsided window f attention examined the image exactly as it examined real visual inputs."
Pinker, S (1997). How the Mind Works. St Ives: Penguin Books. p288 - 289.

Chopra asked where an imaginary picture sits, and it must obviously be within the brain. When certain neurons are damaged, even our mental imagery gets affected! So whilst we can't explain how the image got there, we can at least conclude it is in the brain.

Chopra's followed up his challenge with a second video, in which he explains his idea of consciousness: that instead of consciousness being produced by the matter of the brain, it is instead top down, with consciousness being fundamental, and it is this that creates the material world we see.

This idea is the same kind of problem that comes about when discussing the soul - why is it that consciousness is so tied to the brain if it is fundamental? If it is consciousness itself that produces qualia in our brains, why do some of these get affected after brain damage, as we have just seen?

In his second video Chopra also says that we (as skeptics): "Do not understand that we do not have access to reality but only to our perceptions, that whatever we experience as reality is the contents of our mind". We clearly do, and this also links into his comments about colour perception in the first video. Optical illusions demonstrate this:

I've posted this optical illusion before:

The blue and green are the same colour. If you look closely, what does change is the lines in between the "blue" and "green", which are either pink or orange. Our perception of the colour is influenced by the colours around it. We cannot escape it, much like another favourite illusion:

The square labelled A is the same colour as the square labelled B.

We may not have sussed how qualia arise, but we do know what causes these illusions (the world map is explained here, and the here, the checker board illusion). All these optical illusions happened because they exploit short cuts our brains take as they have evolved to work out what the world around them is like.

On top of that, colour is an illusion any way. Consider this from the Oatmeal (and do go and read the whole strip, really do, I'll not be offended if you don't bother reading the rest of this post. Go):

We may be able to wax philosophical about whether my blue is the same as your blue, but the mantis shrimp can see the world in a glorious technicolour that we can't hope to imagine.

The exploration of how we, and other organisms, perceive the world is still ongoing. The fact that science hasn't explained it all is not a problem!

When Chopra said "[How we perceive] ..any perception. You can't explain it. Texture, solidity. You can't explain that." I was reminded of these two things:

Bill O'Reilly's infamous "Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can't explain that" and also the Insane Clown Posse's lyric - "f***ing magents, how do they work?" (you can see this wonderful Veritasium and MinutePhysics collaboration if you're curious). Now it's true that in Chopra's case he's picked up on something that, as yet, has not been fully explained. But this is a strength for science - saying "I don't know" is a perfectly respectable answer, especially when it's followed by "Let's try and find out".

This challenge is just fluff (though it would be interesting to see how seriously Chopra takes it, is it possible to see his bank statements proving the money's there for example?). Whilst he may not have ring fenced this money, it is a shame that he has amassed so much from his pseudoscience and platitudes that he himself does not always follow. However, as Haldane said "Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose", and quantum mechanics of the real sort do seem to back him up.

It's ok that science hasn't explained "the normal" yet because scientists, and those like me that enjoying reading about the fruits of their labour, get a thrill from the sentiment of this not-actually-Carl-Sagan quote  "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known".

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