Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Teaching Company Reviews

"Imagine how much you could learn if you spent just 30 minutes a day for the next year in the best college classrooms in the world".

I have written quite a lot about the Teaching Company which is a company that I genuinely love. They have completely revolutionized my life and the amount I have learned by listening to these lectures is absolutely staggering, no doubt about it. Forget about boring high-school teachers who cannot explain their subject and who have no desire to give you knowledge and wisdom, the teachers recruited by the teaching company are absolutely top-notch.

Here I thought I would just add a few reviews of courses that I have been listening to since last time:

Wisdom of History 5: I am currently listening to this course taught by Rufus Fears. In it he goes through many episodes in history in a very entertaining fashion and he tells us about the lessons that can be drawn from history such as "Freedom is not a universal value, power is".

Famous Greeks 4: If you get one of the courses taught by Rufus Fears you can expect terrific entertainment as well as many moral lessons. His story telling ability is marvelous and he even makes voices to some of the characters. In this course you will learn about many fascinating ancient Greeks

Famous Romans 5: This course is very similar to the one about famous Greeks and it is also taught by Rufus Fears. For some reason I think that this one is even better, perhaps because I find Ceasar, Cicero, Hannibal, Scipio and the like even more fascinating than the Greek personalities, fantastic course!

Sensation and perception 5: I may be somewhat biased in judging this course since I have been using it when I am myself teaching – reviewing different sensory systems. Professor Coalvita turns a subject that I recall as not very interesting into a subject that is extremely interesting. Perfect for me as a researcher in neuroscience.

New Testament 5: I could not have asked for a better book about the New testament. The professor goes into depth about the content of the New testament as well as other sources of historical evidence. Highly recommended

Great ideas of Psychology 5: Great Great course! Daniel Robinson is one of the very best teachers in the teaching company series and this course goes through pretty much everything you learn in an introductory psychology course.

Foundations of Western civilization P1 3: Although this is a very good series of lectures with a lot of content, the teachers was unable to hold my attention for some reason, perhaps it is just me…

Foundations of Western civilization P2 5: This course which covers the period from 1500-2000 approximately is truly great. Unlike the teacher in the first part of this series, the teacher here never loses my attention, highly recommended course if you want to understand why the world looks the way it does today!

Free will vs determinism 5: I am also currently listening to this one and the first few lecture have been great so I will go ahead and just recommend it. It may be however, that I am biased here since the topic is one that I find very interesting.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Positive psychology and the hedonic treadmill

How happy are you on a scale from 1-10, with 5 being the average individual? If you are like most people you think that you are happier than most people (7-8 is the average answer you get). But what factors affect your life satisfaction?

This post has been inspired by yet another fantastic professor that everyone with an internet connection can (and should), listen to. His name is Paul Bloom and his course in introductory psychology can be found at Yale's open courses site. In the last lecture of this series Bloom discusses "The Good life: Happiness". The first 15min or so is about therapy and whether it really works, an interesting topic on its own, however, it is with happiness that I will be concerned here.

A few years ago (summer 2004) I went to summer school in Cambridge UK. I attended a wealth of different lectures on everything from astronomy and climate change to genetics and ladybird sexuality. One of the most memorable lectures was one held by Nick Baylis which was on the just born branch of psychology called "positive psychology". The general outline of the lecture was something like the following. Since psychology was born in the 19th century it has merely been focused on the sick and abnormal. How do we deal with crazy and depressed individuals? Now does that seem a bit skewed to you? Should we also not study happy people and see how they differ. What makes them happy? Or is happiness simply not being abnormal or insane (not to far from the truth perhaps…)? What Nick said was basically that we should investigate happy people to see if there are any lessons to be drawn from them, and that I think seems to make an awful lot of sense.

Since this lecture which positive psychology has become a very hyped subject and vast sums of money are being pumped into this field of research with highly variable gains. Some experiments which I will share here are however, highly interesting and also hilarious. In what is perhaps my favorite experiment, random people at work were asked to go to the photocopier and make some copies of whatever. For half of the participants a dime had been planted on the photocopier, as if someone had forgotten it. Now we all know what a great feeling it is to find money on the street but I think that what happens next will surprise you. After having done the photocopies the participants were approached and asked something like the following: "how happy would you say you are with your whole life". What happens? The group that found the dime on the photocopier reported significantly better life satisfaction!!! Conclusion: when we estimate how happy we are we are extremely susceptible to factors in out immediate environment. In a similar experiment participants were asked when the weather was sunny or rainy, and like in the previous experiment, bad weather caused people to say that they were just not particularly happy with their entire life!!!

In fact, the picture that has emerged from research in positive psychology is that our life satisfaction goes up and down. We have some sort of average happiness which we basically stick to, whatever happens, throughout or lives. The nice thing about this is that whatever happens in your life you are not likely to become less satisfied with your life. Even people who have been paralyzed neck down tend to recover, after about a year, in terms of overall life satisfaction.

The more depressing conclusion from this research is that there is nothing you can do to increase your overall life satisfaction. This is where the term "hedonic treadmill" comes from. You can fulfill all your dreams and fantasies, jump from an airplane, win the nobel prize, become a karate champion, become a Mormon and have sex with ten partners simultaneously, buy your dream house, visit exotic places, etc, etc. Whatever you do, your life satisfaction will stay the same. Of course all of the above may give you temporary happiness and some people suggest that this is how to proceed in life, always do new things that make you happy and don't stick to one because the happiness will disappear. The fact of the matter is that we are able to adapt to even the most luxurious lifestyle.

So is there really nothing that will make you happier? There is actually one interesting exception that I want to end with. Individuals who have undergone plastic surgery report that they have greater life satisfaction after the surgery, and amazingly the gain remains. In other words plastic surgeons have done what no-one else in history have ever managed to do, make people happier (I don't know if this statistical conclusion is true for the woman in the picture who want's to become a cat)…

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Apollonius of Tyana

About 2000 years ago a pregnant woman got a visit from a heavenly agent who told the mother-to-be that her son would be the son of God. His birth which was associated with some supernatural signs and as a boy he made himself a name among the religious leader. When he got older he left his home to walk around from town to town and convinced people to give up on their material belongings and instead focus on the spiritual dimension of life.

His followers were convinced that their teacher was divine, and indeed he was able to heal the sick as well as casting out daemons. Towards the end of his life he was prosecuted by the roman authorities, and then he disappeared. However, even after he were gone, his followers continued to believe in him and there are even reports of him showing up after he was dead. He came down from heaven to convince the spectators that there is a life after death.

Does this man sound familiar to you? Who am I talking about? Many books have been written about this pagan philosopher. His name is Apollonius of Tyana and his historical existence is not disputed due to the fact that there are several independent sources. These survive in spite of the fact that the catholic church actively tried to destroy all records of Apollonius existence. Apollonius followers had heard about Jesus and they believe he was a fake.

I did not hear about this man Apollonius until recently and I must admit that I was quite surprised to hear that Jesus is not unique at all, at least not if you go by historical documents which is really the only proper way to go about if you do not want use subjective arguments such as "I feel (or know) that Jesus existed and that he did all those things written about in the gospel".

I have found a number of webpages claiming that a lot of what is written in the New Testament was really about Apollonius and that only later was names changed. This could explain some of the discrepancies between different books of the bible, but I guess it is very hard to tell one way or the other. I am no historian so I will merely say that I find it unlikely that those who wrote the New Testament had not been influenced by the books or tales about Apollonius in any sense. The stories of Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana simply have too much in common with each other for everything to just be random chance

Here is another blogpost from "atheism and happiness"

Monday, September 29, 2008

The New Testament and “Russian scandal”

There are many ways in which The New Testament is a great book. It has been read by many people (to say the least), it gives many people guidance in their lives and has done so for many years, and it also serves as historical evidence for the character named Jesus.

It is on this last point that I want to expand here. Having recently listened to two different courses from the always fabulous "Teaching Company", one exclusively about The New Testament, and one on "The foundations of western civilization P1", I have been fueled in my skepticism towards these books as any more than a fiction which one can interpret and then depending on who you are, help you do good things or bad things. (By the way, feel free to send comments and point out if I make any blatant mistakes – I have never read the book in their entirety)

Jesus was never famous during his lifetime it seems. Apart from the bible he is barely mentioned in any historical documents. So what we know about Jesus we know mainly from the gospels in The New Testament.

Mark, which is generally regarded as the earliest of these gospels was written, according to most historians, about 70AD, that is almost 40 years after the death of Christ (the exact year of this event is also very uncertain). 40 years in an age where very few people had access to any written sources and where perhaps even fewer could read. This means that the story of Jesus must have been passed on verbally for about 30 years or so.

Anyone who have ever played Chinese whispers (I just saw that this game also goes under the name of "Arab phone" or "Russian scandal" =)), knows that this is a problem. In Chinese whispers a message is passed along in a ring eventually coming back to the person who formulated the message. The final message is compared to the original message and there is invariably an astounding difference between the two.

The normal way to play this game is to have a group of children passing along a short message, say ten words or so, with little personal significance and hence little motive amongst the children to change the message in any way. In contrast, The New Testament is a rather long message, and the people who have passed it along have had every reason to alter the story to make Jesus sound better and greater than he actually was (does anyone seriously believe that he can turn water into wine?). What would 30 years of Chinese whispers with people who would have a strong interest in changing the story do to tales about Jesus? Well, let's just say that it would be no less of a miracle should the story be accurate and precise.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Popular fallacies of alternative and complementary medicine

In the most recent issue of the magazine "Skeptic", Harriet Hall, also known as "SkepDoc" writes about three fallacies that you will encounter very frequently if you engage in discussion about alternative or complementary medicine. I will of course not plagiarize Hall's article, but what I am writing here is her article, filtered through my brain (I have written about related matters here and here)...

The fallacies that you will inevitably hear are the following three;
(1) It is "natural" (and hence better for you)
(2) It has been used for a long time (and if it didn't work people would have stopped using it)
(3) It works for me (or a friend or a spouse or a friend of a friend...)

So natural is good by default ehh? In this form the statement sound very categorical, and hence, put in this fomr, the claim can be falsified by a single unambiguous counter-example, and there are plenty... Curare, a compound extracted from nature (and thus a natural compound?) will paralyze you and hence is not recommended unless you need to be still during a surgery. There are many different, naturally growing mushrooms, which will kill people who try to eat it. There is also the fen-phen scandal where a product which was advertised as an alternative medicine was later shown to have severe side effects, despite the fact that the active ingredient was "natural".

Ok, sure, there are a few extreme counter-examples, but still, isn't natural products better in general? Well this is certainly debatable and I would not jump to verdict just yet, however, the evidence to date actually tells the opposite story, namely that natural is often worse than "synthetic" (or whatever you won't to call it). Plants which are sprayed with pesticides are protected from potential predators and therefore they can use all their energy to grow. Now that I think of it, it is rather similar to us humans, in peacetime we can spend our energy on building schools and being nice to children and that sort of stuff... Plants which are not sprayed are not given their protection and therefore they have to use allot of energy on chemical warfare (or the plant-equivalent thereof). Basically they produce chemicals which will make the predator (us), sick.

But don't synthetic pesticides make you sick too? In large quantities they might (just like natural pesticides). However, pesticide control is rather strict and the chemicals used are tested so that they are of minimal danger to us... I have written more about this issue here.

The second argument says that if something has been used for a long time then it is because it is good. Again there are many counterexamples. Some people persist in using astrology even though it has been falsified over and over again. Astrologers cannot do what they claim to be able to do, and add to that the fact that their quackery is based on an astronomical model that is very out-dated. Still people are still using it… If we would have strictly gone by the "old is good" rule we would still be drilling holes in people's head to relieve headaches (here you can buy your own drill kitJ), and what about all new techniques and medicines that are developed? Are we to discard them because they are new? The fact of the matter is that we cannot rely on tradition. The way to test whether a therapy is good or bad is to do a proper, scientific test where it is possible to isolate the effect of the medicine from other factors such as placebo.

The last argument (it works for me), is the one that I have most sympathy for. In my opinion we should have respect for individual differences as well as the power of people's belief to cure them or at the very least make them feel better. If someone starts taking extra vitamins to bolster their immune system and then they do not get sick for a long time then everything is great (as long as they don't overdose which could be dangerous). Similarly, when I tell people that I am studying the brain I am often told about some therapy or mental training that I have never heard about before but which has changed their life. In those cases I normally just say that I am happy for them. However, the mistake that is often made is to assume that just because you have experienced miracles everyone else will too. Even with most conventional medicines which have a proven effect that is greater than placebo, it doesn't work for everyone. The point is that what works for you might not work for other people. Most alternative therapies have not been tested (or they have been tested with no effect). The responsible policy if you ask me is that doctors advocate therapies which have a proven effect, but do not prevent people from spending their money on other therapies (as long as they are not harmful)…

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Religion as refuge

Christianity as well as most other religions are, I believe, false in the sense that their view of the world do not agree with the world as we perceive it. However, one might ask why false theories flourish so much. Would so many people believe in something which is false? My answer to this is obviously, yes they would! Here I want to propose one explanation of why there is religion.

Last time I wrote about Plato who grew up in wartime. I do not think that it is a coincidence that his republic, his utopia, is a state which would be very static. Everyone has their role, and there is left no room for progress, scientific or otherwise, in this state. Could it be that Plato somewhere desired something lasting and permanent? His idea of ideas similarly refers to something which is constant albeit not in our world.

Stoicism is another example of a philosophy which seeks something permanent beyond the world that we perceive. This philosophy advice us that the path to happiness is to ignore all calamities in your life. Do not let people irritate you. If your wife dies then there is no point in grief, after all what good does it do that you are also unhappy?

I am not entirely sure how the concept of philosophy and that of religion is connected. However, in this case I see religion as just another instance of the search for something permanent. I do not know whether there is any data on the hypothesis that I am just about to spell out, I was not able to find any when I did a google search, however, if true it would fit perfectly with where I am going here. I think that as hardships disappear from a society, more people become atheist, and vice versa. When life is rough people rely on religion or philosophies of endurance such as stoicism to achieve something permanent. Religion is in other words just an expression of people longing for a safe haven, something they need to cope with the hardships around them. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, many people really do need religion, however, some of the consequences of such beliefs have been devastating as I have indicated in other posts (I think).

Some personal experience can also be used as evidence of the point I am trying to make. I remember when I was little and did not know whether I believed in God or not. Perhaps this is an after construction, but as I remember it, I used to pray to God about only when I was in some sort of trouble or when I needed something, not when everything was going well for me. It was as if God was some sort of last resort when I could not handle the situation myself. I do not think that I am the only young boy exhibiting this type of behavior. Further I do not think it is even limited to boys. In Denmark where I was born and lived until I was seven, the most religious part, traditionally, is western Jylland. Coincidentally, this is also where people have traditionally made a living of fishing. Many people who went out a random day to catch fish never came back. What can you do about this (in the absence of supercomputers that predict the weather)?, not much except pray to God , who will in most cases answer your prays...

Much of the inspiration to this post came from Bertrand Russell and his book ”History of western philosophy”, a book that I highly recommends. He sums up the point I tried to make above in these words:

”The search for something permanent is one of the deepest of the instincts leading men to philosophy. It is derived, no doubt, from love of home and desire for a refuge from danger; we find, accordingly, that it is most passionate in those whose lives are most exposed to catastrophe. Religion seeks permanence in two forms, God and immortality. In God is no variableness neither shadow of turning; the life after death is eternal and unchanging. The cheerfulness of the nineteenth century turned men against these static conceptions, and modern liberal theology believes that there is progress in heaven and evolution in the Godhead. But even in this conception there is something permanent, namely progress itself and its immanent goal. And a dose of disaster is likely to bring men's hopes back to their older super-terrestrial forms: if life on earth is despaired of, it is only in heaven that peace can be sought.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Plato and totalitarianism

Plato (see picture) was a philosopher born at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war which raged from about 430BC to 400BC. Plato is correctly given a lot of credit for being a very influential philosopher, indeed he thought and wrote about most areas of philosophy during his lifetime. For this he is very much admired, so much in fact that critical voices tend to drown in this ocean of admiration. However, since I started reading "History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell (one of my favorite philosophers by the way) I have gained a new perspective on Plato, one which I will share here.

In "The Republic" Plato writes about Utopia, that is, the ideal society. It is indeed a very charming and interesting book, much more engaging then many contemporary books that I have read. Socrates, the protagonist in The Republic is a man of great charisma and charm, and as a reader it is difficult not to be seduced.

Nevertheless, if you take away the the charm that is undeniably great in this book, what you are in essence left with is a state that would have made Josef Stalin and Hitler envious, had it ever been created. Society, we are told, is to be divided up into three different classes of citizens, guardians who are to rule, soldiers who will fight and workers who will (you guessed it), work. The guardians decide who, in the next generation, will become the guardian and who will be the worker/soldier. In other words, what Plato is advocating is that we decide at birth whether a child will be ruling over others, fight for the state, or carry out all the dirty work. We have A, B, and C citizens i.e. what we have is fascism, in its most pure form.

A short defense of Plato may be in order here. I do not think that he was being selfish when he advocated this fascistic society, it was not to make life comfortable for himself and other philosophers. Rather, his argument is that rulers should be chosen according to how good they are at ruling, not according to how many people like that ruler. Just like you want a shoemaker to make your shoes, or a soldier to fight your wars you would like a ruler who is educated in his/her profession. The problem with this, as Bertrand Russell points out, is that it is all but impossible to decide who is a good ruler, and if we get a bad ruler who we then cannot get rid of (in a democracy you would typically replace a bad ruler), then the consequences can be very serious indeed. I believe that there is no education that you can give a person that will ensure that he or she will be a good leader, therefore democracy is to be preferred.

Plato was also a fan of positive eugenics in which you arrange the society so that men judged as having desirable traits get more children as well as negative eugenics in which you prevent "inferior" people from getting children. We are told that when a child is born it is to be taken away from its mother so that she will never know which child is hers. If the child is judged by the doctors to be deformed or if it simply has inferior parents, it will be put away in a mysterious place "as it ought to be". Is it just me who thinks this sounds uncomfortably similar to Nazi Germany? Like I said, Hitler and Plato would have had a lot of ideals in common.

Strict censorship of information is another policy dear to Plato. We are told that any book that portrays Gods doing something un-virtuous are to be forbidden because Gods only do acts that are good (yeah right). This of course meant banning all works of Homer where you finds Gods that are jealous, envious, evil, cheating, you name it. As if that was not enough, Plato also want censorship of every book in which people are fearful or afraid to die. The reason is that the soldiers could be affected in a negative way if they read about the horrors of war.

To sum up, if Plato had been given free hands he would have created a fascist eugenic society society with very strict censorship. Hardly utopia for a modern person (I hope). Such a society, like the Christian-based societies that existed in the dark middle ages would also have a detrimental effect on creative thought and on science. All such a society can hope to achieve is success against other societies of roughly equal size (as long as that society does not start to encourage progress). Bertrand Russell suggests that Plato may have been influenced by the fact that he grew up during war-time. There is a clear tendency among people who live in turbulent times to desire stability, and as just mentioned, that is what Plato's Republic may potentially achieve.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to square any number between 1 and 100

In my post on magic mathematical tricks I claimed to be able to easily square any number between 1-100. Later I got a comment enquiring about this claim, according to my reader there is only a calculation "fast track" for numbers ending with 5, i.e. 5, 15, 25, 35, 45, 55 etc, and not for all the other numbers between 1-100.

The fact of the matter is that numbers ending with 5 are particularly easy to square, but there is a more general rule which works for all numbers. Here is how you do it…

Take any number between 1-100… 67, ok, lets square 67. First you find a number close to 67 that is easy to multiply such as 70. Next you move the same number of steps (there are 3 steps from 67 to 70) in the opposite direction giving you 64. Multiply 70 and 64 (4200 + 280= 4480). Then add the square of the number of steps that you took in either direction i.e. 3, giving you 9. Now simply add these two numbers to get 4489, which is the square of 67.

Ok sure, multiplying 64 and 70 does require some mathematical skull but is not that hard and most people can do it with a little bit of training I think. The trick is much easier for smaller numbers such as 18. For 18 you would multiply 20 and 16, giving you 320, plus the square of 2, which is 4, giving you a total of 324. Here is an illustration of the method taken from the teaching company course "The joy of mathematics".

The very easiest cases are numbers ending with 5. Take the number 45 and apply the previous rule. You go five steps in either direction giving you 40 and 50. Multiplying these gives you 2000. Add the square of the number of steps that you took i.e. 5, giving you 25. So the square of 45 is 2000 + 25 = 2025. For numbers ending with five you can simply multiply the number below and above the first number and then write 25 behind that number i.e. 4*5 = 20, and with 25 behind that gives you 2025. For 65 it would be 6*7 = 42 and then 25 behind that giving you 4225, for 15 it would be 1*2 = 2, and then 25 behind giving you 225.

This trick seems to work well with higher numbers as well. The only limitation is your multiplication skills. So go out and impress your friends. Next time I write about math I will explain how you can pull of the almost autistic feat of telling what day of the week it was or will be at any date in history or future

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Magical mathematical tricks

Parallell to working on forthcoming articles I have been listening to the Teaching Company series called "The joy of mathematics", taught by professor Arthur T. Benjamin (see picture).

It is a truly great series of lectures which has allowed me to fresh up my math as well as to learn som impressive new skills. For example I can now square any number between 1-100 very fast (perhaps I will reveal the trick in a subsequent post). The lecturer has also perfomed two "magical tricks". The first one I think most people will be familiar with, I recall hearing it in 3rd grade, it goes as follows:

1. Think of a number between 1-10
2. Double that number
3. Add 10
4. Divide that number by 2
5. Subtract the number that you first thought about

Ok, now concentrate on the number that you are left with, a little bit more... I think I am getting... wait for it... yes, I almost have it... 5! Was that the number that you were left with? If not, it is because you did an error. Some simple algebra will prove why you are always left with 5.

x*2 = 2x,
2x+10 = 2x+10,
(2x+10)/2 = x+5,
x+5-x = 5

If you want to end up with a different number you can merely swap out the 10 with something else. Your answer will always be half of the number that is added in the second step.

The second magical trick is somewhat more complicated and also more impressive if you ask me. It goes as follows:

1. Think of a number between 1-10
2. Triple that number
3. Add 6
4. Triple the number again
5. Now add the individual digits in your numer
6. If you still have a two digit number, add the individual digits again

Now, concentrate again. Unless you have done a mistake you are thinking about the number 9. The following algebra plus some explanation shows why this trick works.

x*3 = 3x
3x+6 = 3x + 6
(3x+6)*3= 9x+18

Now 18 is a multiple of 9 and adding x number of nines to that will always result in a multiple of 9. Multiples of nine always consists of digits that add up to 9, or to another multiple of 9 which will then add up to 9. You can check this out for yourself. The multiples of 9 are 9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90, 99, 108, 117, 126 etc

Adding the individual digits of any of these number will give 9 except 99, which gives 18 which you then add again and get 9.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Debunking christianity

In this post I would like to promote another blog which I have just been reading. It is called Debunking Christianity ( and it seems to be high quality posts. Here is the authors (there are several different contributors) own description of their blog:

"This Blog has been created for the purpose of debunking Evangelical Christianity. We are ex-Christians, ex-ministers, and even ex-apologists for the Christian faith. We are now freethinkers, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. With the diversity of our combined strengths we seek to debunk Christianity."

The reason I stumpled upon this blog was that I was investigating the birth date of Jesus Christ. In a lecture I listened to recently I heard that historical records indeed confirms that there was a census in Bethlelem. However, the census was not in year 0, but in 8BC, and it was only for Romans. And I thought that Jesus was born in year 0?

Apparently this is not the only problematic detail concerning the birth of Jesus, I qoute again from debunking christianity. The authors deserves alot of credit for the fact that they have extensive references to other texts, including the bible.

"Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, if Luke is taken literally, according to E. P. Sanders [The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Press, 1993, pp. 84-91)]. What husband would take a nine-month pregnant woman on such a trek from Nazareth at that time when only heads of households were obligated to register for a census when the census would’ve been stretched out over a period of weeks or even months? But if he did, why did he not take better precautions for the birth? Why not take Mary to her relative Elizabeth’s home just a few miles away from Bethlehem for the birth of her baby? According to Luke’s own genealogy (3:23-38) David had lived 42 generations earlier. Why should everyone have had to register for a census in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations earlier? There would be millions of ancestors by that time, and the whole empire would have been uprooted. Why 42 generations and not 35, or 16? If it was just required of the lineage of King David to register for the census, what was Augustus thinking when he ordered it? He had a King, Herod. “Under no circumstances could the reason for Joseph’s journey be, as Luke says, that he was ‘of the house and lineage of David,’ because that was of no interest to the Romans in this context.” [Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things, (p.10)]. The fact is, even if there was a worldwide Roman census that included Galilee at this specific time, there is evidence that Census takers taxed people based upon the land they owned, so they traveled to where people lived."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

MIT open courses

Nobody could have missed that I love to listen to audio and video lectures on my spare time. In particular when I am doing something where I do not have to concentrate (such as doing dishes or walking the dog). I recently wrote about The Teaching Company which is probably my favorite company in the world. I have also mentioned Berkeley webcast and in particular the lecture series called physics for future presidents taught by professor Richard A Muller.

When reading Lunkens blog I saw some really good news. MIT, one of the most prominent Universities in the world (particularly in physics, technology, and computer science), have been inspired by Berkeley and have now made a good deal of their courses available online for free, hurray for that! For example, here is a lecture series on introductory biology taught by Eric Lander (see picture above), a key figure in the human genome project.

So, make use of these fantastic resources. With a few clicks on your mouse you can enrich your life by learning about anything you wish from world leading experts, who are also in my experience fantastic teachers.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Dangers of radiation in the home

The best Swedish site for news on technology, in my opinion, is Today they have an article on radiation in the home. The article is based on an interview with Maria Feychting professor in epidemiology at Karolinska Institutet. The article discusses the danger of the radiation associated with products that are becomming increasingly common in ordinary homes. I am speaking of mobile phones, routers, wireless keyboards and mice, bluetooth headsets and dect phones.

The conclusion of the article, briefly put, is that there are no scientific evidence that this radiation causes any harm. It is a fact that studies showing potential dangers of radiation get much more attention than studies which show zero effects, even though the latter type are much more common. Furthermore, most of the studies which have shown slight biological effects of radiation have subsequently been replicated with contrasting results i.e. the latter studies did not find any effects.

I think that one of the reasons why some people are so afraid of these things is the fact that they radiate, and we all know that radiation is bad right? No, not necessarily so. Radiation can be your friend to. If it were not for the radiation from the sun we would not be alive. Similarly, seeing involves the capture of radiation by photoreceptors in the back of your retina. In fact we are all rich sources of radiation which you can see for yourself if you have a camera that pick up infrared wavelength.

But isn't that different? Sure some sorts of radiation are more dangerous than others. Cosmic rays which arive from outer space are extremely rich in energy, and alot of that type of radiation would be bad for you. Similarly, X-rays will slightly increase the risk of cancers because it is rich in energy. But what about the radiation from all those home devices? This radiation is lower in energy than normal visual light, so you are very unlikely to get cancer from this type of radiation. These devices actually emit microwaves, just like your microwave oven. The difference is that the radiation is not contained within a box, and also the power is 10,000 smaller than in an ordinary microwave oven (for a dect phone it is 100,000 times smaller). If you want a different point of view on these issues, you can visit this page.

The article also gives some quick answers to the following questions:

1. Does radiation from mobile phones cause cancer: False

2. Will using a bluetooth headset reduce the amount of radiation you are exposed to: True (because a bluetooth headset has a much lower effect than the mobile phone)

3. A dect phone emits more radiation than a mobile phone: False

4. A 3G phone radiates more than a GSM mobile phone: False

5. More wireless devices in the home will make it more dangerous: False

6. A new router radiates more than an old router: False

7. It is dangerous to have your mobile lying next to you when you are sleeping: False

8. The mobile will emit less radiation if you hold your hand over it: False (actually it will radiate more becuase that is necessary in order to communicate the station.

9. Even the good old cable hardware emits radiation: True (anything with a current in it, a cable for instance, will generate a magnetic field which is also basically a form of radiation.

I want to end with a personal reflection on an issue which I think is highly relevant yet often forgotten. Mobile phones, which as mentioned is the device which has the highest effect and thus the highest radiation, has been around for about two decades now. In spite of their popularity, there has not been any increase in cancers in this timeperiod. This "natural experiment" shows that if mobile phones have any effect at all on the human body, that effect have to be very subtle. Pretend for a moment that there has been a slight increase in some obscure form of cancer, or other type of disease, that is a result of mobile phone radiation. Even such a necessarily slight effect would pale in comparison to the enourmous benefits of being able to call ambulances, fire fighters and the police from almost anywhere on this planet. Hurray for mobile phones!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Medical myths

Rational as I may be I sometimes engage in superstitious behaviors because of advice I have heard a long time ago and then stuck. For example, when I have a flu I usually overdose on C-vitamin. I believe that this piece of advice was made famous by Nobel prize winning scientist Linus Pauling who asserted that C-vitamin could cure the common cold. According to other sources that I trust more on this particular issue, such as Harriet Hall, also know as the "Skep Doc", a C-vitamin overdose will at best shorten the common cold for a day, and that is for people who do not eat a lot of C-vitamin in the first place (I am one of them why I may perhaps benefit somewhat), at worst a C-vitamin overdose can make you quite sick.

Two other behaviors which I sometimes engage in is drinking coca cola when my stomach is upset, and eating garlic when I have the common cold. Quick google searches did neither prove or disprove the efficiency of these two questionable treatments. Perhaps someone out there know something about it (in which case I hope you will share your knowledge).

What I really wanted to write about in this post is an article published in the British Medical Journal in which widespread myths, often reinforced by doctors were punctured. Some of these myths I believed in firmly until I saw the article. For example I have thought for a long time that reading in dim light is bad for your eyes. Now, becuase of this article, I know that there is no good evidence to back this claim. I had been wrong, but now I have changed my provisional world model to fit the new data (I stand corrected to put that more simply).

However, I am proud to say that I never bought into the myth that you only use 10% of your brain. Then again, I am a brain researcher so perhaps I cannot brag to much about this accomplishment. The idea, though popular in books such as Uri Geller's "Little Mind Power Book", is completely absurd. Would evolution allow 90% of our brain just sit there and do nothing, I think not. By the way, the claim can be easily disproved by sending a person into an FMRI and watch how the entire brain lights up which is an indication of energy expenditure (maybe with the exception of people like Uri Geller). Furthermore, in contrast to predictions of the "we only use 10% of our brain" hypothesis, removal of almost any part of the brain will result in clear symptoms,

The entire list of medical myths which are debunked in this nice article are as follows. Take a look at the article if you are not willing to take my word for it (there are nice references as well).

1. People should drink at least 2,5 litres of water per day
2. We only use 10% of our brains
3. Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
4. Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster and be coarser
5. Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
6. Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
7. Mobile phones cause electromagnetic interference in hospitals

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Teaching Company – My Favorite courses

This is my second post in a short time when I am going to help a commercial business. Last time it was Nokia, because of their brilliant software "Nokia sports tracker". This time I want to take my hat off for The Teaching Company. I have mentioned them in previous posts here and here, but now I want to dedicate an entire post to this wonderful company.

Their concept is easy. They hunt down University professors who excel in their subject and in teaching skills. Then they ask these professors to record a series of 30-45min long lectures (on average about 30 lectures in each course) on their subject. Then they sell these lectures over the internet. You can download them as mp3's, have CD's with audio sent to you, or buy video recordings of the lectures. I normally prefer the first alternative since I can convert the files to the Nokia audiobooks (another terrific application from Nokia) format which use up very little space on my mobile phone, however, sometimes it is nice to have video also.

The lectures are normally equivalent to what you would expect from an introductory university course - rather detailed in other words. When do I have time to listen to these lectures? Well, on the top of my head, here are a few situations in which I normally put in my earphones and broaden my universe a little bit.

1. When I am riding my bike to work

2. When I am doing the dishes

3. When I am vacuum cleaning

4. When I am out jogging

5. When I am walking the dog

These situations actually correspond to a few hours a day, which adds up to a great many hours per year. Since I discovered The teaching company little more than a year ago I have been listening to an estimated 240 hours of lectures (a modest estimation, in reality it is probably more than that). It has really enriched my life.

If any of my readers are also fans of The teaching company then I am very interested in hearing which courses you liked and which ones you did not like, so that I know which courses I should get in the future. Here are a list of the courses that I have completed as well as my rating of them (5= Brilliant, 1=Not worth buying)...

Classical mythology: 3 - The teacher does everything you would expect, but not more. Mythology is exotic and interesting which makes this course very attractive

Second world war: 5 - I may be a bit biased because I think wars are interesting to study. I think that I finished this 30 lecture course in three days or so. Teacher is brilliant.

First world war: 5- Same rating as for the second world war

History of Russia: 4 - One of the first courses I listened to, very good lecturer, unfortunately I have forgotten a lot of what was said in this course

Argumentation: 3 - I remember this course as being engaging, but for some reason I don't remember so much of this course, and in addition I retoric has always been a little bit too abstract an inconcrete for my taste

Philosophy of Science: 3 - Good course which can get a bit complex every now and then, and that can make you loose focus

Books that have made history: 5 - Probably the most entertaining course of all, like listening to engaging stories. The professor even makes voices for the characters in the book which makes it even more entertaining

Biology and human behavior: 5 - Robert Sapolsky from Stanford (see above), may simplify a lot, however, a more entertaining course on human behavior will be extremely hard to find. Great, great course!

Science and religion: 3 - Seemed to me that the professor was very biased, and that he wanted to defend religion, however, you will learn a lot about interesting historical events

Biology: 3 - 80 lectures long course going through a huge amount of biology, works well to fresh up your memory, and the lecturer manages to put in a lot of details to, however, I would have liked some more jokes and stuff from him

Economics 3rd ed: 5 - Also a fantastic series from a lectures from a great professor. I thought economics would be boring but now I know it isn't so

Contemporary economic issues: 4 - Very similar to the course above, same lecturer, great stuff.

Utopia and terror in the 20th century: 4 - Takes you through genocides and massacres in the 20th century which is always interesting, greatly recommended.

Philosophy of the mind: 5 - John Searle's course on the human mind is simply brilliant. Many good illustrative jokes.

History of the United States: 5 - A massive 84 lectures on the history of the united states. Loved the part about the civil war, but everything was great in this course.

United State and the middle east: 5 - Manages to guide you through a century of conflicts. Gives you the facts without taking sides which is an impressive feat in an on itself.

Here are a few other blogs that have written about The teaching company as well.

Creative think

Cool tools

Learn out loud

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dihydrogen monoxide...

Ever heard of dihydrogen monoxide? No? That is probably because your government has covered up all the dangers associated with this toxic chemical. Here are some of the reasons why you should be concerned (find more at DMHO fact).

Dihydrogen monoxide...
  • Is a highly reactive chemical
  • Is one of the main waste products from nuclear power plants
  • Is used in the production of pesticides and is an ingredient in spray oven cleaners (!)
  • Has been used by ALL students responsible for school shootings in the United States in the past
  • Is used by athletes to improve performace
  • Contributes to the greenhouse effect
  • Have been found in large amounts, in children who live near factories

Trust me, the list goes on and on. If you don't trust me, listen to this girl at you tube, or visit DMHO facts, or "Ban dihydrogenmonoxide".

Fooled? I hope not, though if you were you are certainly not alone. The common name for dihydrogen monoxide, or DMHO, is water (di=two, mono=one, two hydrogen and one oxygen makes H2O=water). This hoax which I rate almost as highly as the Sokal hoax which I have written about here, was popularized by a 14 year old american high school student as a part of a science project. He came up with this alternative name for water and listed statements such as the ones above, all of which are of course true. He then went around and asked fellow student to sign a petition to ban DMHO, 43 out of 50 signed it.

According to wikipedia more influential people have also been fooled. In 2001 A staffer at the New Zealand green party was asked to support the campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide, in response she wrote that she was "absolutely supportive of the campaign to ban this toxic substance". In New Zealand 2007 (are they lacking scepticism in New Zealand?) Jacqui Dean a member of parliment wrote to the health minister asking whether there were any plans to ban DMHO.

I think that this hoax illustrates that scepticism is more often than not a virtue. This hoax was very transparent compared to many of the stories that are circulating in the world which are also not true, and yet, people fell for it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Top ten blogs that I read

I am proud to announce that my blog has just been honered as being among the ten best by my blogfriend fresh brainz. It is not often that I join this type of campaign but I thought this was a nice initiative and a good opportunity to show my appreciation of a few blogs that I like. Instead of a top ten I will do two top five blogs, one for english blogs and one for swedish blogs:

English blogs:
1. Bayblab: Unfortunately I miss many of the posts that they write, but when I happen to read a post, and it can be any post on this site, it is categorically thought inspiring
2. Fresh Brainz: A very nice mix of different subjects here, great writing which makes you stay.
3. Rationally speaking: Always interesting and thoughtfull. Written by a real professor to...
4. A blog from hell: A blog which is more radical than my own, yet when I have read it I have always found something of interest.
5.Life before death: Good writing focused on biology, atheism, and a few surprises here and there.

Swedish blogs:
1. Allotetraploid (Swe): Hard hitting atheism from a former Christian.
2. Anna Does Life (Swe): Posts about almost everything with admirable values as the central core
3. Z (Swe): Great blog from someone I tend to disagree with. Always willing to take part in discussions, not dogmatic, model christian (in my view)
4. Orsakverkan: In many ways similar to my own blog.

The above are all brilliant blogs. It was hard to rank them...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

New circumcision study

I have previously written quite a lot about circumcision. See for example (1) here, (2) here, or (3) here. Circumcision proponents use different arguments when they try to spread this surgical procedure. Sometimes they say that your hygiene benefits, which may be true if you never ever clean yourself under the foreskin - hardly a reason for removing the foreskin. Another rather medievil argument is that circumcision will make it harder for the child to masturbate, and after all sexual pleasure is something you should avoid!

The only potentially valid argument for the use of circumcision, an argument which has only been around for perhaps five years (before that circumcision was conducted for irrational reasons entirely), is that it may reduce the risk of getting HIV if you have unprotected sex. Based on this some people argue that we should use mass circumcision to prevent the spread of HIV. There are many arguements against this.

First of all, people normally don't make their sexual debut when they are still in diapers, so let them choose themselves whether they wan't to be circumcised when they have reached an age where they can actually make such decisions. Secondly, condoms work much better than having your penis circumcised, so why not spend all the money advocating the use of condoms and handing them out for free instead? Furthermore, people who have been circumcised may feel safer and therefore have more unprotected sex, thus cancelling the potential gain...

Another serious argument against circumcision is that circumcision may cause serious problems for the patient in terms of penile function and penile sensitivity. The foreskin has a lot of sensory nerve endings. According to estimates that I have read, 50% of the nerve endings in the penis are in the foreskin. Just recently a study investigating the consequences of circumcision came out.

The study seems to show that people who have been circumcised do not suffer from reduced pleasure, at least that is what they say. However, as Mary Crewe points out, studies like these do not take into account psychological biases which are very likely to be at work. If you go and have yourself circumcised (the people in the study voluntered of course), then you will want to justify that decisions afterwards. As a result, minor troubles are likely not to be reported. The patient will simply bite together and say "I am fine, and my sex life is great".

For this reason I think it would be a mistake to start circumcising people based on this type of questionnaire evidence. Some sort of medical examination of penile function (or dysfunction) would be preferred.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Nokia Sports Tracker

I remember when I was little and my mother wanted me to go get some eggs in the store or just have me run off some excess energy. First I would not be so enthusiastic, "why don't you do it", or "no I don't feel like it" I would say. But then my mother uttered the magical words which would, without exception, cause me to dart of in my maximum velocity. The words were "I will time you"! Perhaps this is a powerful argument against the concept of free will, or maybe it is just evidence that I was a very stupid little boy. In any case, it was extremely motivating to know that I was being timed, and it did not matter that my mother probably just made up some number when I came back.

Now I am older and new synapses have been formed in my brain. Telling me that I am being timed when going to the store doesn't do it for me anymore, in fact, until recently it was hard to get me running at all. Throwing me a soccer ball has always worked and it still does, but my jogging career was all but over until I discovered a little piece of software which you can download for free onto your Nokia phone: Nokia sports tracker. It has been working flawlessly with my Nokia N95 8Gb which I got in Christmas present. I should perhaps make clear that I am not a Nokia employee…

Nokia sports tracker records your GPS position while you are running, cycling, walking or skiing. It also calculated your speed, altitude, calorie expenditure, number of steps, and a lot of other interesting statistics. When I have finished my run I upload my workout to Nokia sports tracker online and then I can see my workout online on a map (see picture). I can also export the route to Google earth and see the route in this wonderful piece of software.

But the wonders do not end there. Next time I am going to run the same route, I open Nokia sports tracker and I tell the program that I want compare my new workout with my old workout. When I start running I see myself as a little blue dot, and I see my opponent (me two days ago) as a little red dot. When that little red dot on my screen gets ahead of the blue dot it is as if I am five years old again and my mother says "I'll time you", amazingly motivating. I almost ran myself to death the other day because I did not want to lose to my past (I did eventually lose, but I will correct that soon). It the dots are too close to distinguish, don't worry, the program continuously tells you how far behind or ahead you are in meters and in seconds (or minutes).

To sum up. Good work Nokia! Via this piece of software you have increased my predicted life span by a couple of years.

Ps: I will soon start writing about more pressing matters such as religion, brains and free will vs determinism again, so no worries there…

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Is the theory of evolution normative?

A lot of people object to the theory of evolution on normative grounds, that is, because evolution says that people should behave in certain ways. To take a radical example, according to the theory of evolution men who rape has gained some sort of evolutionary advantage, and that is why the behavior still exists in many different species today. Speaking in evolutionary terms an individual can gain fitness through rape. Confused people (Russ Tanner in this video is confused on other issues besides this) who mistakenly thinks that the theory of evolution is normative goes on to argue that according to the theory of evolution, rape is good.

This is of course wrong. The theory of evolution says absolutely nothing about how we should behave. The theory of evolution, in other words is descriptive. It describes what the world is like and the mechanisms that are at work, it doesn't say what the world should be like or whether status quo is good or bad.

So independent of whether you want a communist or a liberal society, whether you want like or dislike a certain behavior that the theory of evolution predicts. Independent of what your opinion is, the theory of evolution can help you get you where you want to go because you can learn important lessons about human nature. Ignoring or trying to deny our natural instincts will just make things harder for you…

Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature

Ps: Also see my post "Ethics of an atheist"