Saturday, 25 August 2012

Monkey therapists

My individual project for the M.Sc. is not something I came up with myself, but something I was allocated. One of the things it involves is reading up on Attachment Theory, which makes me a bit sad. Apparently babies are born with the part of the brain which deals with terror in place, but without the bit of the brain which you use when you calm down. They need adults around to act as that part of the brain for them, until they're old enough to grow that bit for themselves. (I think that's when they're around two years old.) A small child that doesn't have interactions with a nice sensible adult brain won't be able to grow that part of their brain properly. They have missed out on something almost as important as food.

It's interesting stuff. I think we're all used to the idea of the brain as a huge set of connections between neurons. I wasn't aware before of the idea of the brain as only one brain among many, only able to develop its own internal connections through its interactions with other external brains. On the one hand it's quite cheering because there seems to be a general anxiety around about parenthood, and all the parents I know are succeeding hugely in ways they may not even be aware of. On the other hand learning about it is depressing because it involves learning about what happens when it goes wrong. This means lots of sad stories of terrible things happening to toddlers so that they grow up without a part of their brain, and a certain amount of systematic cruelty to baby monkeys to see how they cope with it. They did experiments where they gave baby monkeys all the food etc that they needed but replaced their mothers with stuffed toys. Said monkeys, when introduced to other monkeys, could not cope at all, and acted in ways described as "autistic". Poor monkeys. There was another interesting experiment where they gave the "autistic" young adult monkeys other monkeys as therapists. The monkey therapists were half the age of the damaged monkeys, and their incessant demanding need for social interaction was able to break through the damaged monkeys' isolation and socialise them, so that they were all later able to join monkey society together. Which is something, I suppose. Because the human brain stays changeable for much longer than people used to think -- you can make significant new pathways even late in life -- those who missed out as toddlers could probably be helped by carefully directed therapies.

(I often wonder, what does it do to the development of the brains of the people who do this to monkeys? The discovery of long-term neuroplasticity means that it could quite feasibly alter the adult brain. I don't know if anyone's studied the neuroscientific and psychological effects of cruelty to animals being part of your job. I'd have though it could be as bad as second-hand smoke.)

The literature on the subject is a little annoying because of its tendency to see this as the entire deal. It may be true that you can induce autistic-like behaviour in a child just by how you treat it -- thankfully no one has tried this but they assume they can because of their afore-mentioned successes with monkeys -- but that doesn't change the fact that there are children out there who have actual autism. It certainly doesn't mean their parents don't play with them, and it does seem to have a large genetic component. And they're very sexist -- everything is mother this, mother that, and I read a formal interview where one of them was asked about this and he implied that when a father looks after a baby the father has a different emotional gender from his physical one. Attachment theory has been used as another stick to beat women around the head with, by people who think they should stay home and gurgle at their babies instead of going out to work. It's not just unfair on the mothers, it's unfair on fathers and men in general too. My brother is certainly part of his small children's emotional framework, and when my dad (who is a softy) spends ages pulling faces at his little grand-daughter and bouncing her on his knee I'm sure that's helping her brain to develop.

While I'm on depressing subjects I recently read a thing (as part of a book review in the Literary Review) which said that the Japanese were already gearing up to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It said that this was partly because the terrible conventional bombing campaigns were having a massive effect, but also because the Red Army was invading Manchuria, and the Japanese knew they couldn't face the military power of enormous Russia. It said that the Americans knew this and that the point of dropping the bombs was not to force a surrender which was already on its way, but to hasten the surrender to limit the inevitable land gains which the Soviets were about to make in the Far East. In this reading the "shorten the war by five years and save innumerable lives" justification was knowing bullshit and the real reason was about the post-war political map. Ouch ouch ouch. Part of me wants to follow this up and see what the evidence is for and against, while part of me dreads doing that.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Relevance in popular culture

I don't have a lot in common with and I'm OK with that, but it looks like I might be inadvertently ahead of a trend (again!). Apparently next year is going to college to study computer science. Here is a nicely-verbed quote from the popjustice website:
“When I am 57 I still want to be relevant in popular culture,” he threatened, “and the way to be relevant within popular culture in the future is writing code.”

I like ZeFrank and this job interview video is him at his best, with his wierd combination of funny and intensely serious:

You probably already saw this video of excellent dancing. Now here is another by the same man, to the good sort of dubstep.

This song is brilliant. I don't know why it's called Peanut Butter because it seems to be just a love song, unless it's a love song to peanut butter. I'm not a big fan of peanut butter myself. I like the taste but somehow I never want to eat it. Still a good song though:
Note that you can download it for free (click where it says "download").

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Some things!

I just had some good news which I won't mention because it's not 100% definite. So here are some good things!

1. Radical tea towels! By the time you read this I will probably have bought this March of the Women tote bag.

2. This story of an 18-year-old Somalian refugee bought tears to my eyes in both a bad and a good way.

3. My small nephew is only three so he doesn't enunciate very clearly. At the moment he seems to be confused about the difference between an adventure and a bench. "Let's go on a benchure!" he'll say when in the park, and confound his parents by then running up to and sitting down on a bench. My brother feels a bit guilty that they're clearly not providing him with a very adventurous life. Also when we play "football" and he gets the ball in the right place he shouts "Gold!". I love my nephew. And my eight-month-old niece is getting fun too. She likes to pick things up and then drop them. Then she looks at you with this excellent expression of wonder and joy as if to say "that was both awesome and hilarious!".

4. If you want to upgrade your laptop's memory Crucial have a tool that lets you select its manufacturer and model and then shows you the right things to buy and a video to help you do it. I'm going to try upgrading mine to 8Gb. (Thanks Adrian for the link.)

Sunday, 12 August 2012


I have a sense of the American literary scene (or more likely one particularly vocal aspect of it) because I subscribe to various literary blogs, including the Millions, which sometimes prefaces its longer blog entries with as many as three epigraphs. The McSweeney's and Dave Eggers lot are quite ascendant. And because I like it when things are very much themselves, without fear of parody, it made me happy when I saw that the latest issue of the Believer has an actual audio cassette taped to its front cover. Apparently it has music on it which is exclusively available in audio cassette form. But Beck has gone one step further by only releasing his latest album as sheet music, in, where else, McSweeney's.

It includes ukelele notation, obviously.

On the other side of things enthusiastic Americans get up to, this project to make a 3D motion sensor from tin foil and cardboard (and also an Arduino board, some crocodile clips, and free software) is pretty cool.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Dansk höspitalitet

I made up the word "höspitalitet", sorry. But I did go to the Danish Olympic hospitality house at St Katharine's Docks. They had one of the Roskilde museum reconstructed Viking ships there, a little one called the Helge Ask. This was just a coastal defence ship, not a full-on raiding vessel, but it's very nice anyway.
The Helge Ask
Putting up the sail
Taking the sail down

There were also Vikings fighting, which was great:

And a lego model of the Olympic park:

Well done the Danes.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Pet Shop Boys yay!

The latest Pet Shop Boys single, Winner, is not that great. So it's lucky that popjustice exists to point out that its b-sides are much better ("Well the third Pet Shop Boys b-sides album is off to a good start"). There's a sad Beegees cover, a long atmospheric piece which I think is based on a poem I read as a kid, and this excellent song which they wrote for but did not give to Kylie, possibly because they realised that "I like the cut of your jib" is not a very Kylie lyric. Hurray!

(Is it just me or is the beginning a bit like that saucy Bloodhound Gang song?)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Snooker is not an Olympic sport

I'm not one for watching sport, with two exceptions. I used to watch a lot of snooker, because I find the combination of abstraction and seediness very appealing. I also had a big crush on Stephen Hendry as a teenager -- I think it was his shyness, spottiness and firm grasp of geometry that did it for me. Also I watch showjumping when it's on, but I do find it a little stressful as well as beautiful because of the partnership aspect.

So I have watched almost none of the Olympics, even though unlikely people like my mother have been finding themselves glued to the TV. Still I'm quite enjoying them. I thought London would be a nightmare but it's actually quite pleasant. There's a bit of a party atmosphere, with tube train drivers announcing medal results as they come through, and visitors wandering around in Olympic uniforms of various countries, as well as lots of people carrying children waving British flags. Yesterday I met up with my friend Laura who is one of the Olympic volunteers. She's come down from Manchester to spend her fortnight's summer holiday sleeping on a friend's sofa and getting up ridiculously early to steward people through security at the Olympic park. We went to St Paul's for evensong and then had a coffee. The marathon route was still closed to traffic, which had essentially turned the whole St Paul's area into a large pedestrian precinct, and the cafes, which in the City usually close at weekends, were open and bustling. The City is usually a depressing ghost town at the weekend. Then we walked across the Millenium Bridge down to Southwark. Lots of the visiting Olympic nations have hired large places and set up hospitality houses. I think they're mostly open to the public, and many of them are free. (The Londonist has a list.) We went to the Swiss one, right next to Southwark Cathedral. Perhaps immediately after Murray's surprise victory over Federer wasn't the most tactful time, but actually we had a tremendously polite conversation with a lovely Swiss lady, where we extolled the virtues of Federer as both tennis player and human being while she did the same about Murray. They had free biscuits and Lindt chocolate, as well a woman yodelling along to accordian music, and one of those massive long alpine horns. Also climbing, cheese rolling, and other Swiss 'sports'. Laura picked up a few free lapel pins, which apparently are collected by the Olympic volunteers, and have swapping value.

Anyway, in short: the Olympics are quite good fun. (A lot more interesting than my M.Sc. summer project...)

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Endearing things

I've realised that I find the Scissor Sisters very lovable. I'm not sure why since they're not particularly tame.

In that video I think Jake Shears is channelling a certain amount of Techno Viking. If you haven't see the Techno Viking you should watch it because it's one of the precious things of the internet:

Also here is a walrus making noises:

London isn't half as bad as people were expecting during the Games. There's quite a nice friendly atmosphere -- to the extent that people who stand on the left on the elevators who also have small children with them are generally being left alone by the London populace, even if it's busy. Forgiving someone for standing on the left on the elevator is the hardest thing for a Londoner to do. And we got silver in the eventing! Not only is it Mary King's sixth Olympics, she also recovered from a broken neck to compete again.