“And I know I’ll see your face again”

ImageHere in the UK, one of very few scientific studies into the effects of MDMA (the active component in Ecstasy) has been carried out – and televised – this week. The fact this experiment has found its way to TV is a result of funding being supplied by Channel 4, which adds an odd extra layer to proceedings. Once the pill was taken (each volunteer was tested twice to allow for a placebo control), the participants were first loaded into an fMRI scanner for two hours and then interviewed and asked to take personality and trust tests – all while still high.

The show was mostly filled up with clips of interviews with participants while high, framed with live studio discussions. Small segments of the program were given to displaying the impurities mixed in with the ecstasy that is sold illegally via an interesting analysis of drugs seized at Glastonbury, but for such a high-profile show with such a wide audience, this potential source of danger was not extrapolated anywhere near enough for me. There were also a few debates between the two scientists running the experiment, who were very prepared to argue for certain uses and a few other scientists with opposing views. These got extremely lively and confused, perhaps reducing the impact of these sections – personally, I mentally tuned out at times.

The whole show took place in a very strange atmosphere, with a room full of users and ex-users being constantly asked for their opinion. This added a certain air of legitimacy to the whole idea of taking MDMA, which perhaps went too far and portrayed it as too OK on occasion. And while the possible long-term negative effects are another aspect that is almost unexplored by science, the emphasis to proceed with caution that should have been there was definitely absent.

It is undeniable that, with the exception of the ex-soldier, all the participants reported overall positive experiences. Recollections of positive memories in the fMRI scanner are enhanced, while the experiment appeared to suggest that negative memories are easier to handle, with a reduced emotional impact. The scientists running the experiment professed a belief that these conclusions provided an argument for use of MDMA to unlock traumatic memories while blocking the emotions that had previously hindered recall.

Personally speaking, I have become very open to the possible benefits of legalisation of some “drugs” over the last few years. I do believe there are significant flaws in the current approach, including the fact it encourages the addition of unknown and potentially dangerous components to the inevitably available pills. However, this show seemed to be deliberately taking as much context as possible out of the debate. While perhaps attempting to mimic the isolated scientific approach that the core experiment correctly took, I don’t think that is the correct approach for a show that has been so widely trailed and will have been very well watched.

More important than this TV show are the results of the published research – which has obviously not been released yet. While the fact that the experiment has gone ahead is a good thing, the TV show focusing on 6 of the 25 subjects is an example of the anecdote-based response that far too much of modern politics and legal policy is based on. A scientific method must be applied where possible and should be encouraged to leak into politics – sensationalist shows like this are not the way to go about promoting that approach.

Experiments like this are essential, and should be encouraged, with the results used to inform and educate at the highest level. This experiment could be the one that sparks more and it is important that they are funded to be carried out in a understated and effective way, without the attention that TV piles on.

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“Pure Morning/Nancy Boy”

ImageThe placebo effect is one of the strangest and least well understood aspects of human and animal biology. What’s undeniable is that it does exist – a person given a sugar pill will recover from mild colds and injuries up to twice as quickly, as well as some startling effects on more severe problems. It’s also true that the placebo effect can have some very bizarre effects that aren’t as well known:

  • Even if told that the pill they are taking is a placebo, it can still have a measurable effect compared to taking no “medication”
  • Placebos can inspire negative effects as well as positive effects – the “nocebo” effect
  • Placebos can be targeted to certain symptoms – if told that the placebo will help with your toothache but not a bad knee, that’s likely what you will feel happen
  • They will be more effective if presented as expensive and well-branded
  • The placebo effect is significantly diminished or even completely lost if the subject is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease

And yet despite all of the above, the mechanism that causes the effect is still unknown. It’s true that the effect can cause measurable release of dopamine and other self-produced pain-relieving hormones. However it has been less well understood why the source of the pain itself doesn’t trigger the release of these chemicals, instead being reliant on the consumption of some kind of physical process

New research however may shed light on this bizarre aspect of an already strange phenomenon. Subliminally, the fact that an immune response requires energy means that in a difficult, winter environment, it is overall more beneficial to simply endure a minor infection. Or in human terms: “You’ve got a cold? It’s cold, get over yourself!” Get ill in the summer though and people are rushing for the medicine drawer: “Don’t waste the sunshine!”

So the link here is that the placebo effect needs a trigger. In Siberian hamsters, that trigger is sunlight, while in humans, it’s being told that you’re going to get better! Is this a consequence of greater communication in people, or some other reason – obviously this will inspire further research. It also seems that this validates to an extent the benefits of the traditional “couch-based” psychology.

ImagePlacebo pills have been shown to have measurable effects on ailments that are usually considered at least partly psychological – ranging from the extent of physical pain, to conditions including ADHA, some depression and neurological addictions (ie. gambling) and autism. Is it true that often, the act of prescribing, collecting and taking a pill is perhaps more significant to any healing process than the content of said pill?

Perhaps the placebo effect affecting physical conditions is more surprising – but then, the mechanism of physical conditions is often better understood as well. Some people might say that knowingly prescribing a “useless” pill for some very serious psychological ailments is immoral, but given the complexities of the human brain, we’re often not doing much more than taking an educated guess anyway. And I know about educated guesses – I play LOTS of poker!

Smartphone Dispute: Expect an Apple-eal

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Last week, Apple managed to win a patent claim against Samsung, for the infringement of “design concepts”, first seen in their 2007 iPhone and allegedly copied in subsequently released touch-screen Samsung smartphones.

Firstly, what were the claims? Well (from http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/aug/22/apple-samsung):

Apple says Samsung infringed the following “design” patents
• covering the front of the iPhone, with its system for displaying text and icons
• back of the iPhone
• design of iPad
• iPhone graphical user interface
• “bounce-back” or “rubber band” functionality when the user tries to scroll past the end of a page or list
• ‘tap-to-zoom’ feature on photos, articles, etc.
• detecting whether the user is scrolling or making the “pinch to expand” and other gesture motions

All of the above were ruled in favour of Apple. However it raises an interesting point – just how much of the above is intrinsic or near-intrinsic in the design of a touchscreen phone? In order for a patent to be granted, an design must be new, have a practical use and have an inventive step that is not obvious to someone with knowledge and experience in the subject (http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/patent/p-about/p-whatis.htm).

It surprises me that Apple have managed to win on all of these claims. The reason the iPhone did so well in 2007 was due to the incredibly intuitive nature of the interface – most of the features of which still exist in the most recent iterations. To avoid infringing patents, Samsung would have had to make their interface difficult to use and less commercially viable.

I’m not entirely sure how a grid of app icons is a clever design feature worth protecting, but outside of the interface issues though, the “design of the back” is also under debate. It’s a flat shiny surface with an Apple logo on! Unless Samsung are selling tablets with Apple logos all over it, where’s the conflict?

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Most ridiculous of all, Apple has managed to successfully sue Samsung both for “double tap to zoom” and “pinch to zoom”. You could argue all day regarding which of these is the more obvious one to include, but if Samsung isn’t allowed to use either of these alternatives, I’d be extremely interested to hear what the more intuitive and streamlined design is that they should have used?

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Samsung are expected to appeal and of course, HTC and other manufacturers are locked in similar legal disputes. But take a modern iPhone back to 2006 and give it to a random and see how difficult they find it. I am firmly of the belief that the biggest compliment to Apple avaliable is the fact that it’s almost impossible to make an intuitively useable touchscreen phone without copying the iPhone to some extent.

One Last Step for a Man

Today, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon has died at the age of 82. One of only 12 men to make that incredible walk, his name is known around the world and has inspired generations of scientists, engineers and others, with myself counted among them.

ImageWhen the initial launch site proved unsuitable, Armstrong as commander was responsible for finding an alternative. By the time an alternate site was found and arrived at, the landing module had only 20 seconds of fuel remaining, with Armstrong’s skill as a pilot essential in completing the legacy set out by John F. Kennedy at the start of the decade. 2 1/2 hours were spent on the surface of the moon, with valuable insight gained to help future missions.

He spent the rest of his life uncomfortable with the fame he earnt, preferring to live in privacy, occasionally honouring students by emerging and teaching engineering. As his family have said in the press release announcing his death:

Neil Armstrong was also a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job. He served his Nation proudly, as a navy fighter pilot, test pilot, and astronaut. He also found success back home in his native Ohio in business and academia, and became a community leader in Cincinnati.

He remained an advocate of aviation and exploration throughout his life and never lost his boyhood wonder of these pursuits.

As much as Neil cherished his privacy, he always appreciated the expressions of good will from people around the world and from all walks of life.

No one has set foot on the moon since 1972, 40 years ago. Are the group of 12 that started with Armstrong destined to be the only 12 who will ever see the lunar surface with their own eyes?

Touchdown Confirmed

Mars. Mars! I mean, seriously – Mars!!!

Essentially, the above is why I haven’t written anything about the landing of the Curiosity Rover so far – every time I start to do some research for it, I see a new video of how the amazing landing was carried out. And now, they’ve started releasing actual pictures of actual Mars!

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Personally, when I look at that photo, I am absolutely mind blown. To think, this is a picture of a place where I expect no human will tread in my lifetime. An absolutely, totally unobtainable goal, but one that could have all sorts of ramifications in everyday life. Sometimes, you don’t need a reason to perform experiments, they can just feel right – and this mission to Mars feels so right!

People are always sceptical when it comes to spending big money on abstract science – the LHC is a prime example on this. I did a project on this at university and the question I was constantly asked (by scientists as well!) is “What’s the point of all this?” To which I could only answer “No idea!” The fact is, so many things we take for granted nowadays come through investigating the theory first and discovering the practical applications later. Edison was once asked what the point was in all the time he spent investigating the harnessing of electricity. His response? “I know not what use it may be, but I do know that one day it may be taxable”

While the focus on the commercial aspects do not paint him in a good light, Edison was correct here in saying that there is simply nothing wrong with understanding nature better – and sometimes, what to do with that knowledge is only self-evident once you’ve committed to gaining it. Funding to NASA has been slashed, with the high cost-per-launch rates often cited. Commercial rivals are already claiming that they can improve on the costs of recent NASA launches.

I have to wonder, with commercial research being carried out, is there room for knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Obviously there is a time and a place for product-orientated investigations, but when it comes to the BIG projects, I don’t believe we can afford to ignore the need for the really base understanding that the “abstract” science focuses on. Government funding, both here, in the USA and elsewhere is essential and these images of Mars – and the dream of one day reaching that surface – is to my mind, all the inspiration any country will ever need.

#ForScience!

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The first images of full, laser-based chemical analysis or Martian rocks. Again, MARS!!!!

Olympian Standards

So, the Olympics are over and I managed to put aside many many hours to spend on my sofa multi-screening sport and discovering some of the mess-with-your-head combinations available: Basketball/Handball, Basketball/Volleyball and of course, Basketball/Boxing (Yes, I genuinely thought for a split second that two basketball players had started sparring).

But I also had the wonderful opportunity to actually go to the Olympic Park for one day. Lizzie Armitstead was being interviewed by the BBC as we walked past their strange shipping container-stack/studio:

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What struck me at this point was just how utterly stunned she looked by the (relatively modest) crowd that had gathered outside and were cheering constantly. While this was relatively early on in the week, she was one of the very first medallists and was absolutely adored by the crowd underneath her. Later examples are the same: From the truly excellent “We’re going to be on a stamp!” from the rower Kat Copeland, to the other end of the event and Mo Farah having simply no idea how to celebrate his incredible achievements in the heat of the moment, winning Olympic athletes have hit the pinnacle of their sport.

And it being a home Olympics must have made it even more special. Chris Hoy won his 6th medal, but the sound of a home crowd singing his National Anthem was enough to set him off crying for the first time. Laura Trott standing open-mouthed as the crowd cheer her achievement. Jess Ennis – expected for the last 4 years to deliver gold and somehow, ignoring the immense pressure and storming it. Truly amazing moments, enough to make me shed a few tears of my own at times. I unexpectedly won an award once – about 40-50 people were politely clapping for a bit and that left me speechless, so I don’t know how these incredible people coped with a 80,000 seater stadium pouring waves of adoration directly at you.

Unfortunately, now it’s over and we’re left with football. Two weeks of athletes that can be adored with every step and smile, replaced with the likes of Ashley “Only Fifty-five-f*cking-grand a week?” Cole. I do love football, but sometimes…it’s hard. And it’s not helped by the media style of reporting these player’s off-field antics and the oddly high expectations placed on them.

When reporting scandals, it’s not uncommon to hear footballers referred to as “role models”, which has always struck me as an absolutely bizarre choice of words. Sure, I can see why they might be an aspirational target (although I avoided that temptation by being terrible at football), but as people – not really. A lot of these people are basically young boys, taken out of normal society and near-drowned in money and with very little moral or even general social guidance. While sometimes this leads to the semi-endearing eccentricity of the likes of Mario Ballotelli, more often that not, it simply leads to a person with money….and not much else.

Some Olympians would kill for a gold medal. If you told a footballer they could pay their way out, some might do the same. Maybe money is the issue, but I’d be surprised if Jess Ennis and Chris Hoy aren’t pretty comfortable nowadays through sponsorship as well. I’d suggest it’s more likely to be the simple act of displacement – something that is common in other areas of reality (The famous Bullingdon Club is the example that comes to mind), as well as a topic that is deeply explored in books like “Lord of the Flies”. Perhaps all that needs to be done is to simply treat footballers as normal people and wait for them to act like it?

So Hang On….

I subscribe to a number of blogs and occasionally actually catch up with reading them. This one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18889594 by Jonathon Amos on the BBC shocked me – quite simply, how come no one has ever done this before?

If you can’t click that link, it’s a discussion on how transponders currently installed on most commercial ships are being linked up with newly-launched satellites, enabling them to be tracked once line-of-sight contact is lost over the horizon. Implying that until this service was launched, any ship more than 5km outside of port, could literally be anywhere in a given ocean. For sake of comparison, the English channel is never narrower than about 35km – so for any Dover-Calais crossing, ports are reliant on radio for 5/7ths of your journey!

I suppose that nowadays we are so used to having up to date information on our lives being constantly and easily broadcast. GPS is the most obvious connection to the above story, but social media via smartphones can let anyone know where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling… Combine the $9 trillion worth of goods being shipped by sea every year, with the growingly public issue of modern-day piracy and I genuinely can’t believe that more time and money hasn’t been put in to connecting the existing AIS system with the massive number of satellites currently orbiting earth.

Obviously this isn’t something I’ve put a lot of thought into before, but I think it just highlights how some things can really slip through cracks. Such a large portion of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the electronic equipment we use is shipped by sea – and for the majority of its journey, no one outside the crew of the container ship has any idea if it’s still on course.

Extend this metaphor to everyday life and things start to get scary. Just how confident are you that your car is really working perfectly? Are you actually monitoring all the inner workings – and how able would you be to diagnose a fault if one came up? Essentially, when applied to ships, knowing how well everything’s going at the start and finish is considered shockingly inferior. Is checking your car for an MOT once a year enough without the same level of monitoring that is now being brought into shipping?

To my mind, this is where sport comes in. At any point in a Formula 1 race, engineers sitting in the garage can monitor almost anything you care to know about the car out on track – engine temperatures, tyre pressures and temperatures and how heavily the driver is using his brakes. Should the car break down, engineers often know where to look for the issue before the car has even been brought back to the garage.

F1 has been a constant source of innovations that move to road cars. Previously, systems such as semi-automatic gearboxes and power steering were developed to give competitive drivers every possible advantage – now they are extremely common. Everyone is looking at the regenerative braking KERS system, but I suspect that improvements in self-diagnosing cars might be something else that gradually becomes more and more commonplace in the near future. Whether that affects the price of fixing such problems is a different matter!