What’s really out there?

How we know what we know seems such a hazardous topic.

Anil Seth on why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’Aeon Videos
It’s easy to mistake our conscious experience for an ongoing, accurate account of reality. After all, the information we recover from our senses is, of course, the only window we’ll ever have into the outside world. And for most people most of the time, our perception certainly feels real. […]

Seth argues that it’s not just that our perceptions provide flawed accounts of the outside world, but that our brains aren’t in the business of recovering the outside world to begin with. So it’s more accurate to think of our conscious experience as a series of predictions that we’re incessantly and subconsciously fine-tuning – a world we build from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

And here, with plenty of visual illusions to illustrate the point, is another take on the same issue.

“Reality” is constructed by your brain. Here’s what that means, and why it matters.Vox
“The dirty little secret about sensory systems is that they’re slow, they’re lagged, they’re not about what’s happening right now but what’s happening 50 milliseconds ago, or, in the case for vision, hundreds of milliseconds ago,” says Adam Hantman, a neuroscientist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus.

If we relied solely on this outdated information, though, we wouldn’t be able to hit baseballs with bats, or swat annoying flies away from our faces. We’d be less coordinated, and possibly get hurt more often.

So the brain predicts the path of motion before it happens. It tells us a story about where the object is heading, and this story becomes our reality. […]

In Hantman’s view, what we experience as consciousness is primarily the prediction, not the real-time feed. The actual sensory information, he explains, just serves as error correction. “If you were always using sensory information, errors would accumulate in ways that would lead to quite catastrophic effects on your motor control,” Hantman says. Our brains like to predict as much as possible, then use our senses to course-correct when the predictions go wrong.

Image Victoria Skye, via Gavin Buckingham

Will we get the future we deserve?

I have to admit this Plandemic conspiracy theory has somewhat passed me by. It sounds bonkers, to say the least.

Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the controversial virologist attacking Anthony Fauci in a viral conspiracy videoScience
Mikovits: Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus. You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions, and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you’ve got a big problem.

It’s not clear what Mikovits means by “coronavirus expressions.” There is no evidence that wearing a mask can activate viruses and make people sick.

Mikovits: Why would you close the beach? You’ve got sequences in the soil, in the sand. You’ve got healing microbes in the ocean in the salt water. That’s insanity.

It’s not clear what Mikovits means by sand or soil “sequences.” There is no evidence that microbes in the ocean can heal COVID-19 patients.

It’s worrying how mainstream these ludicrous conspiracies are becoming.

The Plandemic conspiracy has a wild new fan club: Facebook momsWired UK
Across Facebook, the Plandemic video was shared on hundreds of community groups. Its appearance was often incongruous, akin to the conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. turning up uninvited to your village’s summer barbecue and telling everyone that vaccines are going to kill their children. The spread of the conspiracy theory on otherwise banal community groups reveals a perilous new reality: one where the coronavirus pandemic has taken dangerous, fringe views and planted them firmly in the minds of scores of ordinary people. And, as with the anti-vaccination movement, the Plandemic conspiracy theory has resonated particularly strongly amongst women – often young mothers. […]

The unprecedented success of the Plandemic video is part of a growing trend: of conspiracy theorists using the coronavirus pandemic to seek out ever larger audiences. For this to work, they have changed tack. While poorly-produced, hour-long rant videos and clumsy memes still persist, the Plandemic was notable for its higher production values. This added slickness is central to efforts to attract new believers. And it’s working.

The video’s long gone now, taken down in an attempt to stop the spread of misinformation. But even that’s not straightforward.

[T]he messaging around the Plandemic was designed for it to be censored – Mikovits, so the conspiracy theory went, had been silenced, now she was speaking out, but soon the big technology platforms would censor her again. The big technology platforms dutifully obliged, not by limiting the spread of the conspiracy theory but by simply deleting it. This created the perfect storm – a Streisand effect that boosted the conspiracy theory still further.

It may feel like a US-only problem, but that’s far from the case, sadly. Here’s another Wired UK article from earlier this year, before our current lockdown had properly begun. Facebook, again.

How Facebook turned into a coronavirus conspiracy hellholeWired UK
The posts, which are filling innocuous Facebook groups normally dedicated to political discussions and flight deals, are a strange evolution of conspiracy theories that have been knocking around the internet for years. One much-mooted theory, for example, is that the coronavirus has been caused by radiation from 5G masts. […]

Other Facebook groups keen on coronavirus conspiracies include “We Support Jeremy Corbyn”, “I’M A BREXITEER” and the “Jacob Rees-Mogg Appreciation Group”, with hundreds of posts and tens of thousands of reactions. These posts incorporate political conspiracies – for instance, one post on the “We Support Jeremy Corbyn Facebook” group, states that “people have bugs like this all the time, the media are basically covering up the economic global crash which is coming and also the Brexit shit show.”

It’s easy to feel despondent, reading all this — we’re just too stupid to help ourselves, we’re going to get the future we deserve. But it’s important to remember that, however noisy all these scared stupid bigoted idiots people are, and however much attention the media gives them, the vast majority of us are sensible and keeping it together. Right?

Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinkingThe Conversation
Understanding and revealing the techniques of conspiracy theorists is key to inoculating yourself and others from being misled, especially when we are most vulnerable: in times of crises and uncertainty.

Need something to read?

In this age of 24-hour, panic-driven, conflict-addictive news content designed just to be clicked on, glanced at and forgotten, here’s an archive of journalism worth spending some time with.

The Stacks Reader
The Stacks Reader is an online collection of classic journalism and writing about the arts that would otherwise be lost to history. Motivated less by nostalgia than by preservation, The Stacks Reader is a living archive of memorable storytelling—a museum for stories. We celebrate writers, highlight memorable publications, honor notable personalities, and produce interviews with writers and editors and illustrators in the hope of offering compelling insight into how journalism worked, particularly in the second half of the 20th Century.

For those of you with a little more time on your hands, perhaps you want to settle down with a good book.

Internet Archive’s ‘national emergency library’ has over a million books to read right nowCNET
The Internet Archive will suspend its waiting lists for digital copies of books, as part of its National Emergency Library. “Users will be able to borrow books from the National Emergency Library without joining a waitlist, ensuring that students will have access to assigned readings and library materials that the Internet Archive has digitized,” the organization said in a blog post last week.

The decision comes as schools around the country are shut down in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and as it’s become more difficult to get goods of all kinds. The post noted that many people can’t physically go to their local libraries these days.

More open eBooks: routinizing open access eBook workflowsThe Signal
We are excited to share that anyone anywhere can now access a growing online collection of contemporary open access eBooks from the Library of Congress website. For example, you can now directly access books such as Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, and Youjeong Oh’s Pop City: Korean Popular Culture and the Selling of Place from the Library of Congress website. All of these books have been made broadly available online in keeping with the intent of their creators and publishers, which chose to publish these works under open access licenses.

Or if you fancy something older and more visual, check out this remarkable archive from the Cambridge Digital Library.

There’s so much in here, I’m having trouble deciding what to highlight.

Newton PapersCambridge Digital Library
Cambridge University Library is pleased to present the first items in its Foundations of Science collection: a selection from the Papers of Sir Isaac Newton. The Library holds the most important and substantial collection of Newton’s scientific and mathematical manuscripts and over the next few months we intend to make most of our Newton papers available on this site.

something-to-read-2

Sassoon JournalsCambridge Digital Library
The notebooks kept by the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) during his service in the British Army in the First World War are among the most remarkable documents of their kind, and provide an extraordinary insight into his participation in one of the defining conflicts of European history.

something-to-read-3

It’s not all scans of historic documents, however.

Department of Engineering Photography competitionCambridge Digital Library
The annual Department of Engineering photo competition highlights the variety and beauty of engineering. For many people, engineering conjures up images of bridges, tunnels and buildings. But the annual University of Cambridge engineering photo competition shows that not only is engineering an incredibly diverse field, it’s a beautiful one too.

something-to-read

Christian Hoecker – Carbon Nanotube WebCambridge Digital Library
This fibrous material is made of self-assembled carbon nanotubes. The diameter of each nanotube is more than a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Looking at it differently

Yes, it’s another post about that virus, but these two articles about it are a little different.

Scientists translate the novel coronavirus structure into beautiful music – Boing Boing
Translating abstract scientific data into sound can give researchers new insight into the complexities of the phenomena they are studying. MIT materials science professor and musician Markus Buehler, who has employed this technique to understand biological materials and develop new proteins, has now transformed the novel coronavirus into music.

Dazzling coronavirus painting by biologist David GoodsellKottke
“You have to admit, these viruses are so symmetrical that they’re beautiful,” said Mr. Goodsell, an associate professor at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. “Are bright colors and pretty stuff the right approach? The jury’s still out. I’m not trying to make these things look dangerous, I want people to understand how they’re built.”

looking-at-it-differently

Putting Covid-19 into perspective

Here’s another way of visualising the numbers connected with the coronavirus.

Just how contagious is COVID-19? This chart puts it in perspectivePopular Science
One quantity scientists use to measure how a disease spreads through a population is the “basic reproduction number,” otherwise known as R0 (pronounced “R naught,” or, if you hate pirates, “arr not”). This number tells us how many people, on average, each infected person will in turn infect. While it doesn’t tell us how deadly an epidemic is, R0 is a measure of how infectious a new disease is, and helps guide epidemic control strategies implemented by governments and health organizations.

If R0 is less than 1, the disease will typically die out: Each infected person has a low chance of passing the infection along to even one additional individual. An R0 larger than 1 means each sick person infects at least one other person on average, who then could infect others, until the disease spreads through the population. For instance, a typical seasonal flu strain has an R0 of around 1.2, which means for every five infected people, the disease will spread to six new people on average, who pass it along to others.

perspective

Here’s more on that.

What is the coronavirus’s R0 and why does it matter?Life Hacker
R0 is one of the numbers epidemiologists use to describe how an infectious agent spreads through a population. But it’s important to remember that it’s simply a statistic that describes some of the numbers we see. It’s not a rating of how scary a virus is, nor does it dictate how deadly a disease is or how difficult it might be to contain. We need more information for that.

And another way of comparing such things, from 2014.

Visualised: how Ebola compares to other infectious diseasesThe Guardian
Every disease has a basic reproduction number but the numbers are scattered across the literature. We’ve web-crawled and gathered them all here in one graphic, plotting them against the average case fatality rate – the % of infectees who die. This hopefully gives us a data-centric way to understand the most infectious and deadly diseases and contextualise current events.

Eloquent trees

Using trees to make paper to write on, I get that. But writing with trees? Katie Holten, an artist-in-residency with NYC Parks, has developed a typeface to allow us to do just that. (via Futility Closet)

NYC is planting secret messages in parks using this typeface for treesFast Company
It would be fair to say that Holten is at least a little obsessed with turning trees into typefaces. Back in 2015, she developed her first so-called Tree Alphabet, made up of sketches of 26 different trees that each stood for its own letter. The project led her to publish a book, About Trees, typed in forests rather than paragraphs. “I’m interested in creating something that lets us translate our words into something beyond us,” writes Holten over email. “It forces us to slow down and think about what we’re writing, or reading.”

To see the typeface in action, head over to nyctrees.org and try it for yourself.

New York City Trees
The New York City Tree Alphabet is an alphabetical planting palette, allowing us to rewrite the urban landscape by planting messages around the city with real trees. What messages would you like to see planted?

These messages aside, it seems the trees are busy communicating by themselves.

The fascinating science of how trees communicate, animatedBrain Pickings
But trees are much more than what they are to us, or for us, or in relation to us. They are relational miracles all their own, entangled in complex, symbiotic webs of interbeing, constantly communicating with one another through chemical signals dispatched along the fungal networks that live in their roots — an invisible, astonishing underworld only recently discovered, thanks to the work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

The secret language of trees – Camille Defrenne and Suzanne SimardYouTube

Mapping the outbreak

Here’s a new tool, updated daily, to help us visualise the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

2019-nCoV-tracker
[H]eadlines can be hard to interpret. How fast is the virus spreading? Are efforts to control the disease working? How does the situation compare with previous epidemics? This site is updated daily based on the number of confirmed cases reported by the WHO. By looking beyond the daily headlines, we hope it is possible to get a deeper understanding of this unfolding epidemic.

mapping-the-outbreak

You can overlay the data from previous epidemics, too, as this summary from The Conversation explains.

Coronavirus outbreak: a new mapping tool that lets you scroll through timelineThe Conversation
Comparisons with other recent outbreaks are also revealing. At one end of the spectrum, the 2014 Ebola epidemic can be distinguished by its devastating virulence (killing nearly 40% of the 28,600 people infected) but narrow geographic range (the virus was largely confined to three countries in West Africa). On the other hand, the 2009 swine flu pandemic was far less virulent (with an estimated mortality rate of less than 0.1%), but reached every corner of the globe.

mapping-the-outbreak-2

A very useful resource. This is exactly the kind of context our news needs to be providing.

Cases Deaths Countries affected Case fatality rate
2003 SARS 8,096 774 26 9.56%
2009 H1N1 (swine flu) 60,800,000 18,499 214 0.1%
2014 Ebola 28,646 11,323 10 39.53%
2019 nCoV:
12 Feb
45,171 1,115 26 2.5%
2019 nCoV:
2 Mar
88,913 3,043 62 3.4%
2019 nCoV:
13 Mar
125,048 4,613 118 3.7%

Update 13/02/2020

Thanks to China’s fast response, are we about to turn the corner?

mapping-the-outbreak-3

A ray of hope in the coronavirus curveThe Economist
Trying to forecast the trajectory of a new virus is complex, with scant initial information about how infectious it is. Several scientists made valiant attempts based on early data from China. Some warned that it might not peak until May, but that was before China implemented strict containment measures. The more pessimistic ones now look too gloomy. Cheng-Chih Hsu, a chemist at National Taiwan University, plugged different scenarios into a simple model for estimating the spread of epidemics (the incidence of daily infections typically resemble bell curves, with slightly fatter tails as transmissions peter out). The tally of confirmed cases so far closely fits a seemingly optimistic forecast by Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese respiratory expert, who said on January 28th that transmissions would peak within two weeks.

The end can’t come soon enough.

The coronavirus is the first true social-media “infodemic”MIT Technology Review
On February 2, the World Health Organization dubbed the new coronavirus “a massive ‘infodemic,’” referring to “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” It’s a distinction that sets the coronavirus apart from previous viral outbreaks. While SARS, MERS, and Zika all caused global panic, fears around the coronavirus have been especially amplified by social media. It has allowed disinformation to spread and flourish at unprecedented speeds, creating an environment of heightened uncertainty that has fueled anxiety and racism in person and online.

Update 02/03/2020

I’ve updated the figures in the table above, using data from the tracker. Whilst the numbers of new cases in China is slowing down, they’re increasing everywhere else. And so too is the fatality rate, worryingly.

Update 13/03/2020

And still climbing.

World on fire

The extent of the wildfires in Australia recently has been heartbreaking, even if some of the images that were doing the rounds were a little ambiguous.

Australia fires: Misleading maps and pictures go viralBBC News
One image shared widely by Twitter users, including by singer Rihanna, was interpreted as a map showing the live extent of fire spread, with large sections of the Australian coastline molten-red and fiery.

But it is actually artist Anthony Hearsey’s visualisation of one month of data of locations where fire was detected, collected by Nasa’s Fire Information for Resource Management System.

“The scale is a little exaggerated due to the render’s glow, but it is generally true to the info from the Nasa website. Also note that not all the areas are still burning, and this is a compilation,” Mr Hearsey wrote on Instagram in response to criticism by viewers that the image was misleading.

world-on-fire

But is this just a taste of things to come?

Analysis confirms that climate change is making wildfires worseNew Scientist
In light of the ongoing wildfire crisis in Australia, Richard Betts at the UK Met Office in Exeter and his colleagues reviewed 57 peer-reviewed studies about the link between climate change and wildfire risk.

All the studies found that climate change increases the frequency or severity of fire-favourable weather conditions.

The review found that fire weather seasons have lengthened globally between 1979 and 2013. Fire weather generally involves hot temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall in the preceding days and weeks, and windy conditions.

So what can be done? We’re hearing more and more about carbon offsetting, with not-even-slightly-green companies like Shell and JetBlue getting in on the act.

Do carbon offsets really work? It depends on the detailsWired
[S]ome critics worry the programs are an excuse to not take tougher measures to curb climate change. If not done right, the purchase of offsets can act as a marketing campaign that ends up providing cover for companies’ climate-harming practices.

When a company buys offsets, it helps fund projects elsewhere to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as planting trees in Indonesia or installing giant machines inside California dairies that suck up the methane produced by burping and farting cows and turn it into a usable biofuel. What offsets don’t do is force their buyer to change any of its operations. […]

“What would JetBlue have done if they couldn’t buy offsets?” Haya says. “Would they have put money into efficiency of the planes, or invested in future biofuels to create a long-term alternative to fossil fuels? That’s the fundamental question we have to ask for voluntary offsets: How much is it taking the place of real long-term solutions?”

Things are on the up!

Well I, at least, can take a positive spin on this.

The mid-life crisis is real, study suggests, as economist pinpoints age of peak misery as 47.2The Telegraph
“Something very natural is going on here… maybe there’s something in the genes,” he said. “When you have this pattern in 132 countries, the reality is, it was really hard to not find it.”

In his paper entitled: ‘Is happiness U-shaped everywhere?’ and published yesterday by the National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER), Professor Blanchflower said that averaging across 257 individual country estimates from developing countries gives an age minimum of 48.2 for well-being, and doing the same across the 187 country estimates for advanced countries gives a similar minimum of 47.2.

on-the-up

As a 47.8 year old, I’ve officially passed the nadir so can look forward to a continuing surge in happiness levels from now on!

Update 21/01/2020

Just parking this opposing article here, in case I need to refer to it later…

How to stave off depression in later lifePatient
Whether it’s moving from work into retirement or dealing with the loss of a loved one, it’s evident that the stresses and feelings of isolation in later life can take their toll. And it may come as little surprise that nearly half of all adults aged 55 and over said they had experienced depression, according to a recent survey by Age UK.

A mysterious seismic hum

That really faint noise? For me, it’s a quiet, high-frequency tone that seems to be coming from the centre of my head. For that guy in Arizona, it was a low-pitched drone coming from a neighbouring data centre. But these other unexplained low-frequency rumbles, heard around the world, could be much more elemental.

Ear-pleasing new report confirms volcanic source of mysterious global humSyfy Wire
Now a German scientific team has apparently solved the mystery of a strange seismic humming experienced around the globe since it was first detected in late 2018. And despite many believing it was some alien doomsday device warming up to unleash its planet-killing spores, it appears to be caused by a massive underwater volcano forming just off the coast of Madagascar.

So now you know

They say you learn something new every day. Here are some of the things Tom Whitwell learnt in a year.

52 things I learned in 2019Fluxx Studio Notes

  1. Since the 1960s, British motorways have been deliberately designed by computer as series of long curves, rather than straight lines. This is done for both safety (less hypnotic) and aesthetic (“sculpture on an exciting, grand scale”) reasons. [Joe Moran]

Ah, motorways, “the twentieth century’s equivalent of the pyramids”.

  1. Gravitricity is a Scottish startup planning to store energy by lifting huge weights up a disused mine shaft when electricity is cheap, dropping them down to generate power when it is expensive. Using a 12,000 tonne weight (roughly the weight of the Eiffel tower), it should be half as expensive as equivalent lithium ion battery. [Jillian Ambrose]

Such a simple idea, though something about it reminds me of those perpetual motion contraptions.

  1. CD sales still make up 78% of music revenue in Japan (compared with less than 30% in the UK). Japanese pop fans have been encouraged to buy multiple copies of their favourite releases to win rewards (buy 2,000 copies, win a night at a hot spring with your favourite star). One 32 year-old fan was charged with illegally dumping 585 copies of a CD on the side of a mountain. [Mark Mulligan]

You really must follow the link to that one and read more about the incredibly bizarre and manipulative marketing practices going on there. It beggars belief.

This next one reminds me of that xkcd comic about Bobby Tables.

  1. A man who bought the personalised number plate NULL has received over $12,000 of parking fines, because the system records ‘NULL’ when no numberplate has been recorded. [Jack Morse]

Here’s one for Borges and his friend Funes the Memorious.

  1. SDAM (Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory) is a rare syndrome where otherwise healthy, high-functioning people are unable to remember events from their own life. There is also an exhausting syndrome called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, where people can remember precise details about every single day of their life. [Palumbo & Alain]

And I’m sure this one applies this side of the Atlantic too, as we head into the last few days of general election polling.

  1. “Polling by phone has become very expensive, as the number of Americans willing to respond to unexpected or unknown callers has dropped. In the mid-to-late-20th century response rates were as high as 70%… [falling to] a mere 6% of the people it tried to survey in 2018.” [The Economist]

Like to be by the sea

We always knew it to be the case, but now science backs it up.

Blue spaces: why time spent near water is the secret of happiness
In recent years, stressed-out urbanites have been seeking refuge in green spaces, for which the proven positive impacts on physical and mental health are often cited in arguments for more inner-city parks and accessible woodlands. The benefits of “blue space” – the sea and coastline, but also rivers, lakes, canals, waterfalls, even fountains – are less well publicised, yet the science has been consistent for at least a decade: being by water is good for body and mind.

like-to-be-beside-the-sea-1

White says there are three established pathways by which the presence of water is positively related to health, wellbeing and happiness. First, there are the beneficial environmental factors typical of aquatic environments, such as less polluted air and more sunlight. Second, people who live by water tend to be more physically active – not just with water sports, but walking and cycling.

Third – and this is where blue space seems to have an edge over other natural environments – water has a psychologically restorative effect. White says spending time in and around aquatic environments has consistently been shown to lead to significantly higher benefits, in inducing positive mood and reducing negative mood and stress, than green space does.

like-to-be-beside-the-sea-2

“People work with what they have,” says Kelly. When she lived in London, she would head for the Thames when she had a spare 10 minutes “and recalibrate”. Then, four times a year, she would go to Brighton “and the benefits would keep me going for the next few months – so I didn’t get into a place of being overwhelmed or stressed, just keeping myself topped up”.

like-to-be-beside-the-sea-4

All the more reason to be looking after our natural environment.

Can you hear this?

It’s been there since my teenage years, I think. But this last year, it’s really been making its presence felt.

Tinnitus
Tinnitus is when you can hear sounds inside your head that are created by your hearing system, not your environment. It could be a ringing, humming, pulsing or hissing. It is more prominent in quiet areas or at nighttime. … You can’t turn it off or move away from it, so it can be spectacularly annoying.

I think mine’s something like Tone 5 in this video of examples — very high pitched. The thought that the ringing will never, ever stop feels more stressful than the ringing itself, sometimes. Is this going to get worse?

Does tinnitus lead to hearing loss?
Even though tinnitus can’t be cured, there is still lots you can do to help with your symptoms. It’s important to understand that with rare exceptions, tinnitus isn’t caused by a serious condition and doesn’t lead to other symptoms. It certainly isn’t because you’re going mad. Nor is it going to keep on getting worse – in fact, it often gets less noticeable over time.

I’m not the only one with this problem.

White Noise – Tinnitus Radio Documentary
What happens when sounds exist inside your head? How do you cope with an internal soundtrack from which you can’t escape and only you can hear? These questions are explored in White Noise, a new Documentary On One production that investigates the mysterious world of people who suffer from tinnitus and the impact it has on their lives.

A fascinating, moving, award-winning documentary, full of people trying their best with this, created by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

Living with tinnitus – Documentary On One
I was prompted to make this documentary when I was diagnosed with tinnitus myself. About two years ago, I noticed an intermittent sound in my head that, over time, became a constant presence. You’ll hear tinnitus sufferers talk about ‘their sound’ and mine resembles stormtrooper boots marching on loose gravel, if you can imagine that. Then I began to wonder who else had it, and how do they cope with it on a day-to-day basis.

Will there ever be a cure?

Tinnitus: why it’s still such a mystery to science
It’s estimated that 30% of people worldwide will experience tinnitus at some point in their life. This number is likely to rise, as increases in life expectancy and exposure to loud music are all reasons people develop tinnitus. But while it’s more important now than ever to find a cure for this condition which is likely to become more common, researchers still struggle to find one because of how complex tinnitus is.

There seems to be no lack of research going on, though.

Tinnitus Week 2019
The positive take away from this, Dr. Aazh concludes, is that there are a number or rehabilitative approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that can help a patient reduce their annoyance and the emotional distress caused by tinnitus, thus reducing the perceived volume of the tinnitus. This is something many people can achieve.

In the meantime, I should start following this advice from the British Tinnitus Association, and r e l a x .

Relaxation
The beauty and strength of the breathing exercises are that you can do them anywhere and at any time – standing, walking, sitting or lying down. They can be extended and control of the abdominal muscles can be introduced and combined with breath control. You can find more breathing exercises in books on stress management, relaxation, yoga, etc. so take an interest in learning to control your breath. Making breathing exercises a routine will allow you to see “letting go” as a first resort, not a last resort, in times of stress.

Here’s another take on that.

What being a tinnitus sufferer has taught me about silence
The only thing I can liken it to is when you own a refrigerator that hums, it’s really annoying and at first it’s all you can hear, but then as you live with it for a while your brain learns to tune it out – because it’s irrelevant noise. I’ve tried all kinds of ‘remedies’, I even got referred to the audiologist and had a full check up but no source for the tinnitus was found. The last thing the audiologist said to me when I left was “just try and forget it” – that’s pretty lame advice coming from a medical practitioner, but he was right actually. There is no known cure for tinnitus and the cause of mine is still unexplained, but sure enough things did get easier when I gave up trying so desperately to solve it, because the more attention you give to a sound the more prominent it will become.

I see his point in theory, but …

Be happy!

This study into happiness came out last month, but it’s interesting to read through this in light of the general election we’re currently in the middle of.

Why the UK was at its cheeriest in the 1920s
Says who? A study. By psychology researchers at the University of Warwick. They analysed millions of books and newspapers going back to 1825, counting key words that signify happiness and sadness.

And they found? That in the UK, we were happiest in the 1920s and after the end of the second world war. And least happy in 1978 during the winter of discontent.

Can money buy happiness? Two centuries’ worth of books suggest it can
By examining millions of books and newspaper articles published since 1820 in four countries (America, Britain, Germany and Italy), they have developed what they hope is an objective measure of each place’s historical happiness. And their answer is that wealth does bring happiness, but some other things bring more of it.

be-happy-1

Let’s hear from the researchers directly. It’s not all about the money.

What makes us happy? We analysed 200 years of written text to find the answer
What we found was remarkable. While gross domestic product (GDP) is often assumed to be associated with a rise in well-being, we found that its effect on well-being throughout history is marginal at best. GDP has increased fairly consistently over the last 200 years in the four countries that we looked at, but well-being has moved up and down dramatically over that time.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that well-being appears to be incredibly resilient to short-term negative events. Wars create dramatic valleys in well-being, but soon after the war well-being frequently recovers to its pre-war levels. Lasting changes to our measure of happiness occur slowly, over generations. …

Across countries, an extra year of life (in terms of longevity) is equivalent to a 4.3% rise in GDP. A year of internal conflict is equivalent to a 30% drop in GDP. Policies that seek to enhance longevity, for example through providing better access to healthcare throughout life, may therefore be better than policies that only attempt to increase GDP, which is increasingly being challenged as a measure of progress.

It’s OK

Technology is the reason we get old enough to complain about technology.
Garry Kasparov

It’s worth remembering that there is good news out there, if you know where to look.

Take a closer look

This year we’ve seen photography competitions for the best sea view and for views a little closer to home. But how about something real close — the winning images from Nikon’s Small World competition.

2019 Photomicrography Competition
The Nikon International Small World Competition first began in 1975 as a means to recognize and applaud the efforts of those involved with photography through the light microscope. Since then, Small World has become a leading showcase for photomicrographers from the widest array of scientific disciplines.

Phantom midge larva (though it reminds me of something else), Christopher Algar:

take-a-closer-look-6

Neuron growth, Dr Torsten Wittman:

take-a-closer-look-4

Housefly compound eye pattern, Dr Razvan Cornel Constantin:

take-a-closer-look-2

Small white hair spider, Javier Rupérez:

take-a-closer-look-3

OK that’s maybe a little too close. Let’s take a step back. Wayyy back.

These beautiful, swirling images are maps of Washington’s geology
These maps reveal the shapes of the state’s landslides, river basins, and glaciers, along with other strange features, like glacial drumlins and mysterious mima mounds. Lidar data can be used to make maps that highlight elevation contours as well as the aspect and slope of the land. They can reveal landslides hidden by trees and faults beneath the earth’s surface.

take-a-closer-look-1

So that’s Washington. What about the rest of the globe?

Can we make a 3-D map of the whole world?
Their ultimate goal now is to create a comprehensive archive of lidar scans, including some that are already in existence and more to be added over time, to fuel an immense dataset of the Earth’s surface, in three dimensions. It will have tremendous utility in the short term for finding ancient sites and large-scale patterns, but Fisher and Leisz are taking a long view. With such a tool, they say, when the full impacts of climate change begin to set in, future generations will have a comprehensive understanding of how things once were.

The plan, he says, is to start with the most vulnerable ecological and cultural heritage sites, and go from there. For example, Fisher estimates that the entire Amazon rain forest, where a scourge of forest fires recently made international headlines, could be lidar scanned by plane and helicopter in six years, for $15 million. The next step could be to use some future technology that puts lidar in orbit and makes covering large areas easier.

“Right now we’re not able to put a lidar instrument into the orbit that would give us the kind of resolution we’re requiring,” Fisher says. “Ten years from now, maybe that might not be true. But we can’t wait 10 years.”

I’ve just added a reminder in my Google calendar to come back to this post in ten years’ time, to see how they got on.

Fixing space and time

Here’s a wonderfully poetic extract on time and impermanence from Maria Popova’s new book, Figuring.

The first surviving photograph of the Moon: John Adams Whipple and how the birth of astrophotography married immortality and impermanence
Four years into it, the thirty-year-old Whipple would awe the world with his stunning photographs of celestial objects — particularly his photographs of the Moon. Louis Daguerre himself had taken the first lunar photograph on January 2, 1839 — five days before announcing his invention, which marked the birth of photography — but his studio and his entire archive were destroyed by a fire two months later. Whipple’s remains the earliest known surviving photograph of the Moon — an image that continues to stun with its simple visual poetics even as technology has far eclipsed the primitive equipment of its photographer.

fixing-time-and-space

Yes, it’s an incredible photograph (here’s my own version), but this is about more than just astronomy.

We say that photographs “immortalize,” and yet they do the very opposite. Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be. To look at a daguerreotype is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one. Rather than bringing us closer to immortality, photography humbled us before our mortal finitude. Florence Nightingale resisted it. “I wish to be forgotten,” she wrote, and consented to being photographed only when Queen Victoria insisted.

I wonder about this as I stand amid the stacks of the Harvard College Observatory surrounded by half a million glass plates meticulously annotated by the hands of women long returned to stardust. I imagine the flesh of steady fingers, atoms spun into molecules throbbing with life, carefully slipping a glass plate from its paper sleeve to examine it. In a museum jar across the Atlantic, Galileo’s finger, which once pointed to the Moon with flesh just as alive, shrivels like all of our certitudes.

Pinned above the main desk area at the observatory is an archival photograph of Annie Jump Cannon — the deaf computer who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory — examining one of the photographic plates with a magnifying glass. I take out my smartphone — a disembodied computer of Venus, mundane proof of Einstein’s relativity, instant access to more knowledge than Newton ever knew — and take a photograph of a photograph of a photograph.

 

Global protests for a global crisis

Lots of attention, rightly, on the school climate strikes today.

Greta Thunberg is leading kids and adults from 150 countries in a massive Friday climate strike
It’s a big moment for Thunberg and the legions of youth and adult activists and leaders she’s inspired since August 2018, when she began skipping school on Fridays to protest outside the Swedish Parliament. Thousands of young people in the movement, called Fridays for Future, now strike every Friday to demand more aggressive action from their governments and the international community. The last large-scale coordinated climate strike on May 24 drew participants from 130 countries.

The huge youth climate strike is about courage, not hope
As children and young people in more than 150 countries skip school, university, or work, to strike against climate inaction, they aren’t just creating a new form of activism. They are also creating a platform that presents a united front to a multi-pronged global problem.

It’s not just for teenagers this time.

Global climate strike: how you can get involved
The global climate strike kicks off on Friday and will ripple across the world in more than 4,000 locations, the start of a weeklong movement to train international attention on the climate emergency. It’s the latest of a succession of strikes on Fridays led by schoolchildren – but this time adults are invited to join in.

The scale of the problem can feel a little overwhelming, but here’s a possible way forward.

Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot make short film on the climate crisis
Environmental activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot have helped produce a short film highlighting the need to protect, restore and use nature to tackle the climate crisis. Living ecosystems like forests, mangroves, swamps and seabeds can pull enormous quantities of carbon from the air and store them safely, but natural climate solutions currently receive only 2% of the funding spent on cutting emissions. The film’s director, Tom Mustill of Gripping Films, said: ‘We tried to make the film have the tiniest environmental impact possible. We took trains to Sweden to interview Greta, charged our hybrid car at George’s house, used green energy to power the edit and recycled archive footage rather than shooting new.’

(Speaking of videos that are trying to change hearts and minds, have you seen the absolutely heart-wrenching film from Sandy Hook Promise, Back-To-School Essentials?)

The most interesting links of the day, I think, are all these from The Conversation, bringing together climate science with economics, culture and the media.

Five things every government needs to do right now to tackle the climate emergency
I would never argue against setting climate targets. They are necessary – but far from sufficient. We must guard against politicians hiding behind distant and possibly empty promises, and demand climate policy that impacts the carbon ledger here and now.

I stand with the climate striking students – it’s time to create a new economy
My research area remains marginal, and its results neglected, because to accept it would require a fundamental transformation of the prevailing economic philosophy. We would need to pay less attention to growth and profit as the measures of prosperity, and replace them with sufficiency and equity – a fair division of resources to provide what is sufficient for well-being and not more. After centuries of entrenchment, that’s no easy feat.

How getting rid of ‘shit jobs’ and the metric of productivity can combat climate change
But suppose we stopped chasing productivity growth. What might happen? It would make it easier to decarbonise. We’d no longer be stuck on the production-consumption treadmill. It would mean less stuff too. But do we need all the crap we have?

Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis
Scholars such as Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour remind us that viewing the natural world as separated from humans is not only ethically problematic but empirically false. Microorganisms in our gut aid digestion, while others compose part of our skin. Pollinators such as bees and wasps help produce the food we eat, while photosynthetic organisms such as trees and phytoplankton provide the oxygen that we need in order to live, in turn taking up the carbon dioxide we expel.

Climate change: children are carving out a place in politics – now adults must listen and act
It’s not enough to put children on the covers of newspapers and call them “heroes”. It’s not even enough to listen to the concerns they’re raising through the global strikes for climate action. Adults in positions of authority need to give young people the means to change the world and create their own visions for the future.

Why is climate change still not top of the news agenda?
Journalists with a better grasp of the science (and indeed social science) of climate change would be less reliant on press releases, reducing the impact of corporate lobbyists and the need to include their public relations activity as part of the news. However, these suggestions are optimistic considering the wider power structures that constrain how journalists operate.

#ShowYourStripes: how climate data became a cultural icon
Helping science to make this leap from the lab to social media is crucial to changing mindsets. My research has often focused on communicating the impacts of climate change to new audiences. The more people that see and understand this huge problem, the better chance we have of solving it.

Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important
When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

global-protests

Excel errors are everywhere

I know that Excel is only trying to be helpful when it ‘corrects’ what it sees as formatting errors, but it really needs to pack it in.

An alarming number of scientific papers contain Excel errors
A team of Australian researchers analyzed nearly 3,600 genetics papers published in a number of leading scientific journals [and] found that roughly 1 in 5 of these papers included errors in their gene lists that were due to Excel automatically converting gene names to things like calendar dates or random numbers.

You see, genes are often referred to in scientific literature by symbols — essentially shortened versions of full gene names. The gene “Septin 2” is typically shortened as SEPT2. “Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 1, E3 Ubiquitin Protein Ligase” gets mercifully shortened to MARCH1.

But when you type these shortened gene names into Excel, the program automatically assumes they refer to dates — Sept. 2 and March 1, respectively. If you type SEPT2 into a default Excel cell, it magically becomes “2-Sep.” It’s stored by the program as the date 9/2/2016.

Brainy people

After reading about Terry Gilliam’s views on one of his old gang, I came across this moving article from a couple of years ago about two others — Terry Jones and Michael Palin discussing dementia.

Terry Jones: ‘I’ve got dementia. My frontal lobe has absconded’
The pair still regularly have lunch together. “We chat – well, I chat,” added Palin. “But when the meal is over he makes it clear he has to move. He has to get to the next thing on his agenda and he just puts his head down and goes. I have never felt discomfited in his presence, however. There is no embarrassment. He doesn’t shout or show his bottom.”

Only taxis cause problems. “He always wants to give directions and he hates traffic,” said Sally. “That is nothing new in a sense. He always knew a better way and would always let the taxi driver know that very early on in the journey.” At this point, Jones nods vigorously.

I wonder what he’d make of this new restaurant.

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders
The servers at The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders, a series of pop-up restaurants in Tokyo, are all living with dementia, which means that you might not receive what you ordered …

“It’s OK if my order was wrong. It tastes so good anyway.” We hope this feeling of openness and understanding will spread across Japan and through the world.

And then coincidentally I read this, about another hero to many in declining health — Linda Ronstadt on living with Parkinson’s.

Linda Ronstadt has found another voice
In the documentary, you say, “I can sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.” That sounds either comforting or excruciating.

Well, it’s a little frustrating when my family comes over from Arizona, because we would all sing together. That way we don’t have to talk about politics. It makes for harmonious—I don’t mean the pun—relations. But I can’t do that anymore, so I just invite the ones who are Democrats.

I don’t know much about Linda, but I adore her singing on Philip Glass’s Songs From Liquid Days album. (She’s on ‘Freezing’, with words by Suzanne Vega, and ‘Forgetting’, with words by Laurie Anderson.) Her voice is so just strong and pure, it cuts right through you. I was looking for something for something on YouTube from that album, but all I could find was this clip. Remember Kenny Everett and Hot Gossip?

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. They say that brains are the most complicated things in the universe. You’d never be able to do something as crass as grow one in a lab, right?

Cerebral organoids are becoming more brainlike
At what point does a mass of nerve cells growing in a laboratory Petri dish become a brain? That question was first raised seriously in 2013 by the work of Madeline Lancaster, a developmental biologist at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, Britain. That year Dr Lancaster and her colleagues grew the first human-derived “cerebral organoid” …

Since then, Dr Lancaster’s work has advanced by leaps and bounds. In March, for example, she announced that her organoids, when they are connected to the spinal cord and back-muscle of a mouse, could make that muscle twitch.

All done in the best possible taste.