Bacteria don’t think.

8 06 2013

It seems a statement of the obvious, but bacteria don’t think.

Yet bacteria get around, and indeed are remarkably successful. Same with viruses. So thriving as a species does not require planning, studying, concentration and imagination, all the things we humans are so arrogant about.

And I’m not just talking about surviving, I’m talking about achieving the incredible. Think of the fungi that take control of ants, get them to climb up to a good spot and hunker down so that when the fungus bursts out from the corpse like a slow motion firework (see the picture) it’s got a fair chance of spreading its spores.

Did the fungus plan it? Of course not, the trick ‘evolved’ as the most successful of many different permutations, via, of course the process of natural selection.

So what?

Well, what about humans? We like to think we are the pinnacle of evolution with our big brains and our consciousness and our self-awareness. Our abilities to plan, co-operate and imagine have led us to dominate the planet. Or have they?

Could it be, that just as no ant envisions the design of the anthill, none of us can claim to have masterminded very much? Yes perhaps a building, a harbour or a town’s zoning, but who can claim to have masterminded New York or world trade or democracy?

Surely these ‘real’ achievements are not ours to claim, but should also be laid at the door of the power of evolution, of the unstoppable force of trial and error, of the natural emergence of order from the chaos?

See more about the Cordyceps fungus:

Leveraging the Inventiveness in your Mind

15 02 2013

There are some tasks our brains find hard. We cannot remember long numbers or calculate square roots and we learn information at such a low rate, it takes a lifetime to fill up our hard drive/brain.


The impressive visual tools in our brains are fun to trip up.

We are fooled by simple magic tricks, our memories can change and we constantly lie to ourselves in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Yes, we are pretty awful, and it’s pretty amazing we manage to get through the day. The reason we do is that our brains were not designed to remember long numbers or to calculate square roots, we were designed to …get through the day.

Thus it’s no surprise that we can spot tigers hiding in the shrubbery, and judge someone’s intent from the curl in the corner of their mouth – things computers can’t even dream of!


Amazing Things the Brain Can Do

There are some really remarkable abilities the evolutionary arms race has given us. Consider for a moment how hard it is to teach these skills to a computer:

  • Facial recognition (from any angle!) – and similar advanced pattern recognition
  • Theory of mind – our ability to realize that others have motives and intentions and the ability to guess them reasonably well
  • Inventiveness – our ability to make connections from disparate fields

Much has been said about these skills, and in particular, much value has been placed on theories about our inventiveness – if only we can understand how we invent, we can unleash a torrent of innovation!


The ideas usually run something like this: the human mind is so highly integrated that many concepts are forced to overlay one another so connections are inevitable – while others suggest the mind reviews new learning each night during sleep and tries to spot patterns, suggesting our innovative spark is really just our pattern recognition skill in disguise [1].

While I suspect there is truth to both theories, there is probably more to it than that…

Another Amazing Skill Often Overlooked

Now – if you have ever caught a child being naughty, you may have been lucky enough to see another remarkable human talent…



Lying is tricky. Lying requires amazing computation – it needs theory of mind, it requires creativity, and does its invention under pressure.

Lying requires creating an entire alternate reality that fits the evidence but makes you look innocent of all crimes! It’s so hard that young kids don’t always get it quite right, but at some point most of us master the art. Our brains can also be switched to this mode of inventive overdrive in another way: when we attempt to explain incomplete data.

The most common opportunity to fit a narrative to incomplete data is when we recall faded memories – it turns out many of  us can bring out our internal Dr. Seuss when recounting our roles in past events.Dr-seuss-oh-the-thinks-you-can-think1

And because we all like to think of ourselves as pretty darn awesome, our memories cannot contain any information that could contradict this most evident truth. Thus when we recall situations when we did something downright shameful, our brains become positively electrified and we will magic up perfectly good reasons for what we did out of thin air.

Almost everyone can do it. However, if you ask us to write a short bit of utter fiction, our ability instantly vanishes.


Leveraging Brain Power

So the question is this… how can we tap into these remarkable abilities? Do creative people already do it?

I, for one am going to try!


[1] How the mind works – Steven Pinker

Confirmation bias: confirmed as bias.

13 08 2011

I have this theory that ‘confirmation bias’ is a load of BS, so I looked on the net and found, after careful search, some people who clearly agree with me. Most don’t, but they must be idiots.


The compensation factor – or why shoes might just be bad for your feet

10 06 2011

There are many modern innovations around which we take for granted as good, that are, indeed, not.

Some interventions, such as seat belts, are shown by statistics to save lives, and as the cost of strapping in is not too high, so the case in favour is strong.

But what about modern running shoes? It may be turning out that nice cushiony running shoes actually cause more injuries than they prevent – and for a similar reason that taking out all the safety features from a traffic intersection may actually make it safer.

Why is this so?

It seems in these latter cases that making people safer only leads them to take more risks, sometimes cancelling out the benefit completely – this is has been termed “risk compensation” – but how does that apply to running shoes?

It turns out the cushioning makes us feel safe – safe to slam down our heels without feeling the shock. It also turns out that while it may feel ok, it allows us to use our foot in a way it was never intended, and results in far greater forces going up our legs.

Think for a moment about the foot of a cheetah, or a deer, or a dog. Ask yourself, where is the heel?

Of course, it is clear once you think about it, it’s way up the leg, far from the floor! And do you think a cheetah has thuds of force going up its spine? I don’t!

Ok, so someone could point out we did not evolve from gazelles and they could also point out that no other primates show a raised heel; true enough – but primates started off as rubbish runners, and it was only the humans that  started down the road to better feet for running during all those years hunting on the African savanna. Whenever there is selective pressure to run, that great engineer (evolution) eventually finds that a raised heel is the optimal solution – remembering of course that the engineer has only the stump of a redundant old fin to work with. Of course, the invention of shoes (and ultimately cars) has completely removed the shaping forces, so I guess our heels will fall once more.

Don’t agree? Ok, pop on those big comfy shoes, and just like a beemer driver cruising at 100mph, tell yourself its safe to slam down those heels 😉

Some interesting sources:

  1. Walking robot – gee look, to make it work, they abandoned heels:
  2. Walking robot “with heels” seems to need bizarre extra hip mobility:
  3. Even Nike, they who started the whole thing now seem to admit openly that bare is best, and sell you the shoe that does it for $90:
  4. Take a sneak-peek into the barefoot community:
  5. Oh, and I got put on the scent of this by Christopher McDougall’s excellent book, Born to Run:
  6. In the wiki for Risk Compensation it interesting to learn that in Sweden, traffic collision rates dropped for 18 months after they changed which side of the road they drove on. Wow!
  7. The classic tale about how making roads seem more dangerous made them safer:


8 11 2010

It seems to me there are three elements to a good education:
1. A stimulating environment. In such an environment, everyone will learn furiously.
2. Selection. That is to say, the ratio of useful/constructive things learned, vs useless/wrong/just plain destructive things we learn in the abovementioned stimulating environment.
3. No sugar coating. Nobody who learns only wholesome, proven, positive things will be well educated. An essential aspect of a good education is learning by error and embarrassment, loss, sorrow, breakage, cheating, lying and heartbreak.

So because an education requires fault and deception, there cannot be a perfect education, only a more or less effective one for one’s environment…

Stuff I Wish I Had Read When I Was Younger

6 11 2010

Over the years I have supervised and mentored several PhD students, and recently our firm started to award scholarships to undergrads, and I was asked to support one such scholar. These scholars are from the best and brightest and so I got to thinking…

Graduates today have it tough, competition is tough, people work longer and harder than ever and stress is hitting us earlier and earlier in life – or so it seems. I would argue that, to some real extent, things have always been getting worse, and therefore by induction, we can prove that they have haven’t really changed at all.

No, the graduates of today have unparalleled opportunity to learn, to travel and to experience. The brightest graduates have the world at their feet and will be its commanders when we are are all retired and done for.

So what could I do to support this scholar? In the end it was easy – I asked myself – what do I know now that I wish I had known sooner? Most of this is in attitudes and is deep in my psychology, and is the result of direct experience – but it turns out that a healthy chunk of my scientific learning experience can be re-lived – by reading some of the books I think steered my course.

So I made a point to summarize some of the best science related books I have read (and some of the most useful internet resources I have found), and dumped the list complete with hyper-links in an email to the scholar. I hope she goes on to be president!

Now having gone to the effort, it would be a crime to keep this email secret, so here it is, (almost) verbatim!


As promised, here is a list of useful resources I wish I had known about when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got round to this, it should be useful for several other students I work with, and has also led to me revisiting a few things! I think I may brush it up and pop in on my blog if you don’t mind…obviously I won’t mention you!
Anyway, back to the business. To me, science is not all about chemistry, molecules, atoms, valence electrons and so on. To me, is is the process of trying to understand the world, and this set of materials I have hand picked, should you get through even a part of it, will not only educate but inspire.

This may not be the very best list, and I am sure there are many great books I have not read, but I have stuck with ones that I have, so you will have to rely on other people for further recommendations.

Jarrod’s reading list: science/psychology/economics & so on

  • I’ll start with something really easy, relevant and engaging – an excellent (if quirky) summary of material science: The New Science of Strong Materials – Prof Gordon  has written another on Structures that is also worth reading.
  • Ok, this next one is not a book, but a paper; I like it because it shows that many stuffy professors are wrong when they prescribe boring scientific prose for papers. This paper uses the criminal “us” and “we” and discusses subjects as if with a friend. Shocking form, especially for a junior scientist. This paper by an unknown, changed the world.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel” – this is large-scale scientific thinking at its best- the book looks at how we can explain why the world is the way it is (especially the inequality) by looking at how technology spreads through societies.
  • Mistakes were made…but not by me” – this is required reading if you want to work with other people, so its basically for everyone then…
  • Then to take it to the next level – “How the mind works…” – Stephen Pinker‘s other books are also good if you like this one.
  • “Flatland”, (full text here) was written in 1884, and is essential reading because it defines the cliche “thinking outside of the box”.
  • To make your upcoming economics courses more interesting, first read this easy-to-read popular book: “The Undercover Economist“.
  • Also, Freakonomics– it’s shameless self promotion by egotistical authors, but hell they are smart, so put up with it.
  • The Tipping Point –  Malcolm Gladwell is a current thinker I really like; he’s not satisfied to focus on one thing for very long – his other books are on totally different stuff, but are equally thought provoking.
  • The selfish gene” – Obviously I would firstly recommend “On the Origin of Species”, (full text here) but if you are short of time (which you should be as an undergrad), you can learn most of the basics, and also get updated (well up to the 1970’s at any rate) by reading Dawkins’ classic.
  • I couldn’t ignore statistics, so I will include two – one classic, “How to Lie with Statistics”  and a more modern one “Reckoning with Risk“, they are quite different, but either will get the important points across.

Alas, books are perhaps becoming obsolete, so I better include some other media:-

  • The first one is so good I can’t believe its free – try watch at least one a week, but the odd binge is essential too.
  • Next, an excellent physics recap (or primer) – but  you need lots of time (or a long commute!) to get through this lot – look on the left menu for Podacts/Webcasts on this webpage: – I cannot begin to praise the worthwhileness of this enough. It used to be called “Physics for future presidents” because it teaches you enough to understand the risks of nuclear energy, and the likelihood that we will all run our cars on water – and let you know when you are being duped or dazzled by big words.
  • When I was somewhat younger there was a TV show called Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, you may know of it. You could watch in now here, though obviously it is dated, so perhaps you shouldn’t; the reason I mention it, is because it was key in creating a generation of scientists, people who were inspired by Carl to be inspired by the universe. The previous generation had the space race and the moon landings to inspire them, but since then science has been on a downhill, with 3-mile island, global warming, etc, etc, and we have had no more Carl Sagans to cheer for us; Cosmos was a rare bit of resistance in the decline of the importance of science in society. You may also know that there have been battles in society (well in the circles on intelligentsia at any rate) about science – on the one had the ‘two cultures debate‘ and more recently, the ‘anti-science’ movement (suggested in books like “The Republican War on Science“. I do not wish to indoctrinate you, but rather make you aware that being a scientist used to be cooler and used to be more respected and something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.
  • Getting back on track, here is an excellent guide to critical thinking (something else sadly lacking in the world) – don’t read it, listen to the podcast versions (also on itunes):
    “A Magical Journey through the Land of Logical Fallacies” – Part 1 and Part 2
    I think this should be taught in school. Brian Dunning’s other Skeptoid podcasts put these lessons into practice showing how a scientific approach can debunk an awful lot of the nonsense that is out there (alternative medicine, water dowsers, fortune tellers, ghost hunters, etc etc).
  • If you do happen to have any time left, which I doubt, there are several other podcasts on critical thinking – that use a scientific approach to look at the world and current affairs: –


Postscipt – Dear readers, please feel free to append your own recommendations to my letter in the comments section below. If there is one thing I know well, and that’s how little I know. I feel I only started to read ‘the good stuff’ far too late in life, and so those with more years than me (or better mentors), please do share. But bear in mind, this is principally a science oriented list, and is meant to be accessible to undergraduates – I left out books like Principia Mathematica (Newton) because it is really rather unreadable – and the Princeton Science Library (though awesome) is probably a bit too intense. Also, in the 30 minutes since I sent the email, I have already thought of several others I sort of, well, forgot:

That’s it for now…

The Art of Forgetting

24 10 2010

There is a skill I have not yet heard taught, but that is invaluable: the ability to remember what it was like before you knew something.

For example, a good story teller needs to be able to put him or herself into the mind of their characters so that the ‘revelations’ are best timed – this requires putting oneself in the position of the character (and by extension the listener/reader) – of not knowing what you know (as the author), and reacting appropriately to each twist and turn of the plot.

Now it occurs to me, that when we remember our own past, we often forget that the person in the memory is not actually us; it was a past version of ourself, that does not know what we know – and should thus be given the same treatment the author gives their character.

Unfortunately, our mind is obsessed with the desire to ensure our memories are consistent with our self image and narrative, and thus when we look back on decisions we made we struggle to identify the true reasoning; we routinely select reasoning consistent with what we know today.

So it turns out, that to truly remember, we actually need to be able to forget!


Postscript: That said, it would be a useful to be able to selectively forget things temporarily; not just to write a good thriller, but to play around and find out which bits of my knowledge are responsible for which bits of my attitude…