Showing posts from June, 2009

Asthma, Breathing

I have asthma. Sorry, past tense. I had asthma. For years as a kid I struggled with shortness of breath in certain conditions, such as cold, dry air, and exercise. My dad had always suffered from asthma, and carried a 'puffer' like the one in the picture above around with him at all times, puffing several times an hour. So eventually a GP diagnosed asthma, and I got puffers of my own. Not just a reliever like the Ventolin inhaler above, but also a preventative puffer in a very fetching cream and dark brown, full of juicy steroids to gradually reduce the twitchiness of my airways.
These all worked. They never got rid of the asthma, but they managed it well. But then out of the blue I developed heart arrhythmias. Also something my dad had. This ended up in surgery to correct aberrant pathways in the elctrical parts of my heart, which worked for about 5 years. Then I got another arrhythmia. This time the doctor said I'd need to be on life-long beta blocke…

The Amateur Ideal

James Lovelock, Mr Gaia
Slow to get to the blog this week, everything else is busy.
Earlier in the week I was listening to an extended interview with James Lovelock, who I first heard about back in the 1980s when the ABC did a series on maverick thinkers. He's most famous for his creation of the Gaia hypothesis, which basically said the Earth is a single, self-regulating system. This post isn't about the pros and cons of that idea, although in passing it doesn't seem a big leap to think that all of the various systems of the Earth somehow link to each other. It was way too much to that modern Torquemada, drizabone rationalist Richard Dawkins, but then he's always liked his science in withered, dust-dry, manageable rational chunks.
One of the interesting things Lovelock spoke about was the role of intuition in science. He feels modern science has become too obsessed with data and modelling, and about being absolutely right about things, all the time. Whereas great scientis…

Depression & Ockham's Razor

Depression. Scourge of the modern age. Been there myself, having a good strong family history on my father's side of the darker moods. Evil twin sister anxiety, which often accompanies and/or precedes depression.
Depression is often described in terms of darkness, and when you're depressed the metaphor seems perfect, it is like a darkness - an abyss almost. But also a terrifying abyss, and the terror has no object, which makes it even more terrifying.
It took me a lot of years to realise I even had depression, and thankfully much fewer years to figure out how to get rid of it. The anxiety had always been there, sometimes at a low level, sometimes at panic attack levels. I think it was beating anxiety and depression that first made me deeply distrust doctors, because as with most chronic ailments doctors have practically no idea what is going on with depression. If you have anxiety and depression it will likely manifest itself in all manner of pe…

The Virtual, Part 2

A better meaning for the virtual.

Again the virtual is not what it's usually painted as, the opposite of real. It's not some technology-assisted imaginary thing. In fact something can be virtual without a computer or anything electronic within 10 miles. And it's not an immaterial thing, to virtualise something can mean to make it solid and material.

The virtual is the potential or potentials inherent in a situation or thing. In practical terms take the example of a computer program, say Microsoft Word or some other word processor. The program doesn't determine what any person who uses it will write, it contains within its structure the potential for the people who use it to produce an infinity of different texts, or with modern word processors also diagrams, charts, and so on. Word processors virtualise the production of typewritten text, just as (and proof that virtuality is not immaterial) typewriters previously had, to a lesser extent. Prior to these technologies you …

The Virtual

Make my day, punk...
Virtual reality has been with us a while now, or at least the phrase has. Virtual as a term is often used but less often explained. By far the most common meaning in use is as a sort of opposite to 'reality'. So you have everyday real things like me and you and bananas and books, and then virtual not-real things like video games and life on the internet. Then you try to bridge that divide by dressing people in what looks like the innards of old TV sets, and S&M gloves.
It's funny that for over 100 years now a kid could sit in their room for hours each day with their head in a book and at worst be thought of as a bit of a nerd, whereas if a kid hits the intertubes or fires up the PS3 for even half that time each day, it's next stop Charlie Manson. Since when is a book any sort proof of being plugged into the real world? I hear parents all the time moralising about how little Jack or Amelie doesn't have a PlayStation, and never will, and how t…

Colour Theory. Goethe.

Goethe's Color Wheel
Colours are seductive. Good painters love colour and are wary of it at the same time, because of the difficulty in doing it justice. The glorious richness and subtlety of colour in nature and made things can dazzle and overwhelm you for hours at a time. Some expressionists in art so love colour that they attribute emotion to it, as in Franz Marc's yellow cow of sublime happiness (yellow expressing joy), which I used at the top of a recent entry.
Science is just as seduced by colour, or it used to be, when it still looked at the world with wonder rather than through the agonistic field of grants and rival theories. Newton is attributed with laying the foundations of the science of colour, the same Newton of gravitational eureka, with apples falling on his head. Most famously he decided that ordinary 'white' light is comprises a spectrum (rainbow) of colours - red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Just as famously exhibited in his prism experim…


Ask just about anybody "what is language?", and there's a pretty good chance you'll get an answer that says something about communication and/or information.

Communication (in general) doesn't quite work. One of those strange ones, where the norm is so at odds with the theory. The ideal information or communication schema says that you have a sender, say somebody talking to you, and a receiver - you. Between you passes a message, via the communication 'channel', whatever it happens to be. Sometimes you get interference in the message, via some sort of noise in the channel. So a car may be going by when the person is talking, and you miss part of what they say.

Information scientists building networks invented this schema, and it really shows. Because in the real world it's pretty obvious that the sender and receiver hardly ever get the same meaning in an act of communication. Not because people always misunderstand one another, often they don't, but…

This is Not a Pipe. The cat sat on the mat.

Rene Magritte, fromThe Treachery of Images (1928-1929)
Surrealism has always been a bit too clever to be great art. Very engaging and striking and fun, but maybe a bit too self-consciously cerebral to qualify as truly great.
Magritte was one of the better surrealists. He produced some beautifully memorable, witty images that have become part of the modern visual imagination. Behind all of those images was a very profound, serious project, and surrealism is in many ways more a conceptual activity. Take the painting of the pipe above, with 'This is Not a Pipe" scrawled beneath it. Yes you could see it as just some silly joke, but Magritte like other surrealists was always playing with the idea of representation. He wanted people to question what they perceived, and the underlying idea behind representation, that a representation in some way 'stood for' the thing.

The painting itself is not a pipe. So the statement "This is Not a Pipe" is actually correct, it'…

Cancer, Part 2

Day 28 of the twisting and folding human embryo.

Following on from last time, the thing about cells, and it's cells where cancer is said to happen, is that they're part of a wider system i.e. us, our bodies. But traditional cancer research, even the cutting-edge stuff they put on fundraising Biggest Morning Teas for, is obsessed with the cell, and increasingly with the components of cells, particularly genes. That reductionist illusion that infects so much modern science, thinking if you can go small enough you'll find the magic which causes everything else. This is why they build ridiculous atom smashers costing billions of dollars, trying to smash atoms into smaller and smaller pieces, thinking that eventually they'll find THE particles that drive everything.

Life and existence are smarter and much more simple than that. As Donald Ingber discovered, and we shouldn't be surprised, but scientists are (those who can look up long enough from the constant battle for new…