Polluting The Waters

If you travel around the country, you’ll be finding signs like this posted near lakes and rivers all over.

I’ve been studying Chemistry all night and I came across this in the textbook.

Methylmercury in Fish

In the last decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has grown increasingly concerned about mercury levels in fish.  Mercury — which is present in fish as methylmercury — affects the central nervous system, especially in children and developing fetuses.  In a developing fetus, excessive mercury exposure can result in slowed mental development and even retardation.  Some lakes now have warnings about eating to much fish caught in the lake.

Recent regulations have forced many fish vendors to alert customers about the dangers of eating too much of certain kinds of commercial fish, including shark, tuna, and mackerel.  These fish tend to contain high levels of methylmercury and therefore should be eaten in moderation, especially by children and pregnant women.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) action level — the level below which the FDA claims the food has no adverse health effects — for methylmercury in fish is 1.0 ppm or 1.0 g of methylmercury per million grams of fish.  However, a number of environmental advocacy groups, including the U.S. EPA, have suggest that, while this level may be safe for adults, it is too high for children and pregnant women.  Consequently, the FDA suggests that pregnant women limit their intake of fish to 12 ounces per week.

This sort of thing really depresses me.

What Neuroscience Is Saying About Free Will

Recently I’ve been posting clips here on my site to accompany my posts, some of them being from Baroness Susan Greenfield, an eminent neuroscientist.   I searched to find out what sorts of books and other materials she’s made and found out that she was involved in a six part television series called Brain Stories.   It’s six hours jammed packed with the fascinating inner workings of your brain.  Here is the introduction to the series.

If you want a basic primer into the workings of your brain and the research that’s currently being done, you definitely want to see this series.  In one episode they talked about “phantom limbs”, where a woman whose arm has been amputated continues to feel as if she has a hand.  She even sometimes tries to pick things up with it and finally remembers, “Oh, I don’t have that hand anymore.”  Then Professor Greenfield explains why this is and shows what areas of the brain generate the sensation of having a hand.  She shows how the brain changes in traumatized individuals, in particular we witness the damaged brain of a Vietnam war veteran.  We later witness a man who had shrapnel go through his frontal cortex, leaving him with the inability to plan and assess risk.  From then on, his life went downhill as he made one bad decision after another.  It’ll really make you think about what it means to be a human being.

In the introduction clip you see the woman who can’t perceive motion.  I find that particularly fascinating because I think understanding these sorts of disorders is the key to understanding our subjective sense of time.  Currently I’m studying vision science which tells how the brain builds up a conception of space.  Next I’ll be trying to figure out how it registers memories and the time-line of our lives.  The plan is to take all this information and combine it with modern physics research and see what view of reality I come to.  The deeper I go down this rabbit hole, the more bizarre it gets.   Even more bizarre is learning how and why I feel bizarre about it!

The best episode is the sixth one which  deals with the generation of consciousness.  She goes to a circus and interviews men who subject themselves to terrible pain yet feel nothing, and goes into how they’re able to do it.  She talks about anesthetics and gives her personal theory into why they dull the mind and why we start to hallucinate.  She talks about alcohol and how it too dulls the mind.  This is a clip from the sixth episode where it goes into free will, and shows an amazing guy whose corpus callosum has been severed allowing him to do some strange things.  Just watch it for yourself.  This user has posted the entire Brain Stories series on Youtube.  Just go to his channel.  It’s research like this that makes me speculate that free will isn’t what we think it is.  Lately I’ve been amassing a small library of neuroscience books, reading them in my free time  (along with physics, of course!).

I think her idea of consciousness is definitely close to the truth.  You see that the the brain is a wave generator, and we’re conscious once it generates waves of certain intensities and patterns.  She compares it to watching the surface of a lake when it’s raining.  You see the drops falling creating ripples.  She compares those to sensory inputs from say our eyes and ears.  Those then ripple through the brain, a wave is generated, and then we feel a conscious experience.  We feel we’re in control of this body as we move it about, yet as research is showing, the decision seems to have taken place quite a long while before we have a conscious experience of having decided to make the decision.  It’s almost as if the conscious mind is aware simply of other areas of our brain justifying why our subconscious made a decision.  A sort of rationalization.  Either way, there’s strong evidence that free will doesn’t exist, at least not as people commonly think of it.  Then again, there’s a lot of mysteries to this problem as well.

This sort of thing profoundly changes how I view the world and how I treat others.  Ever since I began studying neuroscience two years ago, I look at everything differently.  That’s how powerful studying neuroscience is.  It will change how you view everything.  When I combine these sorts of things with what I’m learning from modern physics, I feel like I’m peeling back reality and seeing the deeper aspects of what’s going on.  I don’t understand it, but what I am realizing for sure is that we’re not what we think we are.  I feel like a stuck record saying the same thing, over and over, but it’s true.  I feel like I’ve been finding out things which are truly amazing and I want to run around telling everybody.  Some people seem interested, but others feel their religion and other worldviews explains the world for them, and they don’t care.  I wish I could tell them, “The way you view the world is completely wrong on so many levels.”  Science like this though isn’t convincing until you dive in and learn more and more.  I can’t quickly summarize it for you and say, “Oh, here’s the gist of it.”  You have to actually watch a video of a surgeon stick an electrical probe on a woman’s brain as she’s counting and then watch her lose her ability to continue.  Then you study all the literature and see what each brain function is doing and see the machine aspects of who we are – the living robot.  We’re a conscious machine, a mixture of determined biological chemistry and possibly free will of some sort.

Who Are Your Heroes?

What is a hero?

“A hero is born among a hundred, a wise man is found among a thousand, but an accomplished one might not be found even among a hundred thousand men.”
– Plato

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
– Joseph Campbell

“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
– Bob Dylan

Who are your heroes?  Who inspires you?  Who has had the biggest influence on your life, your thoughts, and who you are?

Though this probably sounds cliche, my parents and family are probably my biggest heroes, mainly because there’s no one else in this world who has shown me such undeserved kindness and love, time and time again. My family has always operated by different principles.  There’ s a lot of love there.

Not too long ago my computer broke and wouldn’t boot into Windows.  It was a Sunday afternoon, one of the few days my older brother is off work.  We were all having dinner at my parents house and I mentioned that my computer died on me.  I said I was going to order a new system but then my brother said, “Let’s take it into the shop and get it going.”  He owns a PC repair shop.  We ended up having to install a new motherboard but my other components were still fine.  I ended up repairing the system with a $75 component, as opposed to buying a new $1000 system.  I wasn’t charged for labor nor for wasting several hours of his weekend.  I thought, “Who else in this world would do this sort of thing for me?”  The only other two people I could think of were my parents.

I don’t think the kindness my mother has shown during the course of my life can even be measured.  Throughout my childhood I was completely pampered.  I can remember being sick and mom nursing me back to health.  I can remember her bundling me up to play in the snow, only later to track mud and snow all over the house when I came back in — all of which she cleaned up after me as I ran off to play Nintendo.  I can remember her waking me up every morning before school, making me breakfast, washing my clothes, and running me to basketball practice.  Who else would do something like that for me?  Probably about the only other person would be my Dad.  Right now here in Missouri we’re buried in snow.  I wasn’t going to attend classes because my car was buried in two feet of snow.  Once Dad got word he was out there picking me up, trudging through the snow, and driving me to class in his 4-wheel drive Jimmy.

It’s important to remember that people do notice the good deeds you do, and will remember them.  I’m not exactly a demonstrative person, but I’m always noting in my mind the kindness and goodness I’m shown by others.  I’m sure most all of you are the same way.

But the same observant mind which helps me to notice the small acts of goodness done to myself and others also sees all the evil around me far too clearly.  I struggle with being cynical of human nature and humanity in general.  At times, I look at everything and just lose hope.  For me, the quest to be a hero is overcoming that cynicism and finding a faith to believe in others even when I know how nasty everything around me is.  I long to somehow find the strength to be kind and good to people – even the terrible people.  I certainly try.  Loving someone based on biological and romantic passions is beautiful, and we’re lucky that nature has given such passions to us, but I think the most sublime love is unconditional and given for no reason at all.  But that sort of love is very difficult to give, especially when the object you’re being asked to love is far from perfect.  In fact, the person needing love may be quite disgusting as a human being.  When Gandhi spoke of forgiveness he was straight on.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend.”

“Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will.  Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”

– Various quotations from Gandhi

To forgive you first have to be wronged.  The goodness of this world is often poisoned by all the insincerity, lies, corruption all around us.  The ancient Hebrew king Solomon was noted for his wisdom, and as he searched the world of his day he wrote the following,

“Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered:  Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things— while I was still searching but not finding— I found one upright man among a thousand.”

– King Solomon of Israel, Ecc 7:27-28

But coming across that one man in a thousand is what makes life worth living.  They seem like they’re from a different dimension.  They’re surrounded by an aura of love and goodness and as you examine their lives closely, you find out that they’re genuine.  Such people are my heroes.  Heroes of that sort lift my spirit and totally change me inside and out.  They make life worth living.  Thankfully, one seems to appear every time I get really down on life.  And as I’m inspired, they always tend to remind me to be the change I want to see in the world, and not wait for someone else to inspire me to change.  I then think, “I need to be that source of inspiration for those around me.”  Sadly, after a few weeks of being “fired up”, I read the news, get cynical again, and the process repeats.

Though that was a lengthy introduction, I want to share with you some videos from a few of my heroes.  I spend a lot of time in isolation with my books, so besides close family members, various authors are who have inspired me.  First, let’s go to Bertrand Russell.

I don’t think I’ve ever been fortunate enough to meet a man quite like Bertrand Russell.  Bertrand was fearless yet kind, brilliant but not cynical.  What I admire most in Bertrand Russell is his intellectual clarity.  Listen to what he said.  Love is wise and hatred is foolish.  It doesn’t sound profound, but it is.  Real love.  Deep love.  Though Russell makes a distinction between the intellectual and the moral, I think the two go together.  Love becomes that much more important when you do examine the facts of this world, as is.  No rose colored glasses.  You see the frailties of our constitution and passions, and all of our faults — which can be overwhelming.  The more you learn, the more imperative it is for love to be unconditional because the more you learn, the more faults you’ll see in those around you.  You’ll also find more reasons for why people are worth loving, but when the mind is overwhelmed with information, it can only think on so much at a time.  Sometimes the mind’s memory can be overloaded with “negativity”, and even though you know that people have lots of good traits as well, your mind is currently thinking about all the terrible things.

Unconditional love, to me, is to want a beautiful world so bad that it means more to you than your life and personal welfare.  Even when you’re wronged you don’t retaliate, you don’t return with insults, you respect people who don’t deserve respect, and you forgive people who don’t deserve being forgiveness.  You help people who don’t deserve being helped.  When you love goodness more than your life, then I think you’re ready to be a hero.

Love is hard and it takes work.  It’s frustrating.  Sometimes it has that happy emotional feeling along with it, but from what I’ve experienced, it’s often frustrating to love and do what’s right.  The other day I was out for a walk and a trash dumpster had fallen over.  It was windy and trash had blown all over the place.  I knew nobody was going to pick that up.  I crawled in the ditch and picked up soda bottles and beer cans and other junk and carried it over to the dumpster, which I set straight and sealed the lid.  I ended up with a grimy film of nastiness on my hands which stunk and I was far from home with no way to clean my hands.  Love is oftentimes like that.  Nobody saw me and there were no video cameras filming me with the world saying, “Look how good Jason is.”  Considering that social workers have one of the highest suicide rates of all professions, I have to conclude that not all good works are rewarded with happiness.

Bertrand Russell is the type of person I want to be, and who I want to be around.  When I read his three passions from the prologue to his autobiography, it’s like he was speaking to my soul and I no longer felt alone in the world.

Richard Dawkins is also a very inspirational person, though people don’t seem to think of him as such.  The world seems to find him a vile atheist, but when I analyze what he’s saying, he’s always speaking out for human rights, such as the rights of women, and condemning the Catholic church for how they’ve handled issues of child abuse.  He’s concerned for the Earth and the environment, promotes science, reason, and technology, and always speaks out against every bad thing we’re doing to the planet.  He sees all life as interconnected and has all the science and reason you could ever ask for to back it up.  It’s rare for me to be deeply moved, but the subtlety of this next clip, and its delivery, makes me appreciate life in ways I didn’t before.

And speaking of life, I’ve learned more about life on planet Earth from David Attenborough than anyone else.  I’ve watched nearly every nature film he’s ever created.  He’s traveled the world and documented, in detail, just about every form of life on this planet.  I’ve seen things I never would have been able to see.  I feel like he’s taken me along with him and his narration in every film is the best there is.  I stamp David Attenborough’s nature films with an A+, 10/10.  But besides all this, he’s a great guy.

Everyone who has worked with David knows he’s not vain at all.  He’s very down to Earth and helps his film crews set up, break down, and carry the equipment.  They say he always carries the heaviest luggage and doesn’t really concern himself with his appearance.  His hair will be messed up, he’ll wear old stained clothes which are falling apart (even in his films), and won’t think a thing about it.  When he’s out there in nature, showing you what’s going on, he’s totally immersed.  He even decides to wear the same clothes in every film so that he draws less attention to himself.

His films are filled with life lessons and wonder.  I can’t recommend them enough.  In this clip below, he’s talking about Easter Island and what happened to their culture.

Lastly, I’ll share a video of Richard Feynman, a famous Nobel laureate physicist.

My favorite part of this Feynman clip is when he speaks about doubt being a fundamental part of his being.  Many people associate doubt with giving something up.  To doubt and question say, a religious belief, will rob you of the peace God will give you.  But you have to be suspicious of things like that.  I also think that that is the wrong way to look at doubt.  To doubt, which is the opposite of faith, is to not accept anything but truth which you can know.  You demand evidence and verification, otherwise you suspend judgment.  It’s a form of bravery and honesty.

I own some nine or ten undergraduate physics textbooks but none compare to the Feynman lectures.  He brings Physics to life.  You can tell that understanding the universe is what he lived for.  His lectures have a depth to them that is absent from ordinary textbooks.  Boring textbooks are filled with fluff because the authors weren’t quite sure what to put in there and needed to fill it up so it would be big and thick and justify the $150 they planned to charge the students.  Feynman on the other hand, he had so much he wanted to share that he had no room for fluff.  He’s far too busy teaching you new material.  You can tell there was so much he wanted to share but couldn’t because the lectures were designed for undergraduates.  His diagrams are simple line drawings but shed more insight into the phenomenon you’re examining than the full color photographs in other textbooks.  If you’re learning Physics for the first time, the Feynman lectures may not be the best source to start.  Most textbooks are filled with examples of all sorts on how to work problems, problem solving strategies, calculations and so on.  He is more concerned with giving you a deeper understanding of it all.

Feynman had an aura about him.  I think he’s a hero of mine because he’s filled with life and a passion to understand the universe.

Visual Perception, The Mind’s Eye, And Change Blindness

The other day I mentioned that I’ve been studying visual cognition, and in particular I’ve been reading Vision Science: Photons To Phenomenology, by Stephen Palmer.  I found two amazing videos on YouTube which discuss the kinds of topics visual cognition gets into.   If you don’t know what vision science is, these videos will help you get a feel for it.

Unfortunately I can’t embed them because the user disabled embedding.  Why?  I don’t know.  Anyways, you can always just click the link?

Mind’s Eye:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrAwr-ReuVA

Change Blindness:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAnKvo-fPs0

If you can imagine a 850 page thick textbook packed with experiments and information containing how the brain works during all these sorts of circumstances, how it processes space, how it builds a representation of a scene based not only on sensory information from the eyes but also on your memories, and so on, then you’ll have an idea of what vision science is.  This subject and physics are probably the most fascinating subjects to me.  Next would come neuroscience, biology, and then economics.  Enjoy the videos.