26 February 2010

The Simon Singh Bandwagon - Skeptical about Skeptics

The longer the Simon Singh case goes on the more disquiet I start to feel. It seems to me that a skeptical Bandwagon (how's that for an oxymoron) is rolling, with those tell-tale signs of a bandwagon: groupthink and proselytising righteousness

In other words I am skeptical about the skeptics. I will try and explain why

(Aside: if you are unfamiliar with Simon Singh case read about it here and here)

First, let me say that I am no fan of chiropractic, nor any other form of CAM; but I am a fan of Simon Singh, owning two of his books, hearing him speak several times. I hope that he will win his case.

Having said that, here are the three things about the Bandwagon the case has attracted that worry me

23 February 2010

One Drug to Rule them All

 "It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him"  - Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

Modafinil tris by Arenamontanus
Professor Barbara Sahakian, speaking at the Royal Institute on Monday, is a softly spoken academic. She's an unlikely-looking herald of a new world order, but that exactly is what she is for in her laboratory in Cambridge she is testing a collection of smart drugs that boost attention, memory and cognition and which, just possibly, could change what it is to be human.

She is disquietingly relaxed about it all; I wasn't certain that she realises the power of what she is helping to unleash.

Life as a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology is varied. Some days she gives Ritalin to test subjects and monitors their improvement at Tetris; other days she slips the Ring idly on to her finger just for fun, and walks the halls of academia invisible and unseen (far away the Nazg├╗l stir).

The smart drug of choice at the moment seems to be Modafinil: with few known side effects and seemingly non-addictive it reliably boosts attention, concentration and cognition no one knows exactly how. What's not to like? Her drug-ingesting students are occasionally  asked how it feels. They tell her it feels good, and they scurry far away to make preparations for their exams.

How can you get some? Unfortunately it's prescribed only as a treatment for narcolepsy so it would take some dedicated fakery to get it from your GP, even if she is Private.  If you want it merely to become superhuman (this is called an off-label use) you'd need to buy it from a reliable source on the internet. Alas Professor Sahakian didn't give reveal her favourite, merely observing that when you buy something on the internet you need to be careful, or you might end up with an inert sugar pill. (not unlike the NHS)

It was an intriguing talk.

Smart Drugs offer a world where we all can become brighter and more focussed. Where the effects of old age are staved off, and where no one need fear the terrible loss of self that is dementia. It's an artificial boost for the mind - like plastic surgery for the body, but a lot less dangerous. It's the way we will all live someday: if Modafinil was cheap and legal now it's hard to imagine who wouldn't try it.

And eventually, like the one ring, perhaps it will gain control of us.

"A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later - later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later the dark power will devour him"

 ***updated ***

15 February 2010

Table for One

Amongst strangers and casual acquaintances who do not know me well one should never underestimate the dazzling effects of an Oxbridge degree1 and a blue chip employer (even a bank). In consequence I cannot claim to be an entirely low status individual.

Fifteen Moai by anoldent
But no man is a hero to his family and in the Botogol family it is taken for granted that although I sit at the head of the table, I occupy the bottom of the pecking order.

Well, second bottom, I'd claim; above the cat, for while the cat has free access to the garden and all the food it can eat, they don't trap me in a small box to travel in the car. Not normally, anyway.

However the ability to lord it over the cat, while reassuring in the privacy of my home, does not wholly compensate for my lack of status and no doubt my deference at home does not help me to command the respect that my casual acquaintances assume is mine at work.

For I am not at the apex of Project Phoenix, and Project Phoenix, is not the most prestigious project in the bank.

Even so: I was still disappointed last week when, covering for a sick secretary2, I made a rare trip to the C-Suite on the 27th floor, to photocopy and deliver a deck of handouts to the Project Phoenix Supreme Oversight Governance Committee, where I distributed biscuits3 and helped them dial into the audio call.

I was little hurt that my appearance in this modest guise evidently lacked sufficient incongruity to even raise a smile.

"My deck is stapled at the bottom", complained the Senior Business Sponsor of Workstream Three, with just a hint of menace.

I had done it wrong

"Can I get you anything else?" I asked the Overall Programme Controller.

"No, Alfred, that's fine just close the door as you leave" he said in the Voice.

I was glad it was Friday, with all the senior brass occupied in the Governance Group I could sneak off home early and beat the cat.


1 long forgotten in the real world but still occupying a mantelpiece on my cv,
2 Off for two weeks; hiring a temp takes three weeks
3 Yes, the meeting attendees really are that senior

13 February 2010

Out and About

We are going to the Magritte Exhibition

08 February 2010

A glimpse of the holodeck?

The Third and the Seventh : a short film made entirely using CGI.

The Third & The Seventh from Alex Roman on Vimeo.

Advice: Click through to Vimeo and watch in full-screen, HD.

Of course doing this in 3D would be a whole order of magnitude(s) harder, and aren't people hard to do in CGI?  But still, it's remarkable.

(HT Robin Hanson)

05 February 2010

Parents Evening

old classroom (Mie Prefectural Normal School) by shuichiro

"You're so rude", said Mrs Botogol under her breath, "You sat at that table with the Johnsons and you acted for all the world as if you didn't recognise them"


It was parents evening. So many parent evenings, so many parents. It wasn't that I hadn't recognised the Johnsons, I hadn't recognised them yet.

The school has an unusal system: the teachers ask to see you if they think they need to. Fourteen teachers considered that they needed to see us. The trains were running slowly and I received two "absents" and a "late".

And four "please pay attention"s and one "if that message on your android phone is so interesting Mr Botogol, perhaps you could share it with the rest of us"

I don't think I'd like to be back in school. It's a bit too much like work.


I am Twittering a bit. You can follow my travails, wry remarks and routine humiliations here http://twitter.com/botogol

Nothing about what I had for breakfast.