Thursday, 29 July 2010

Information Flood

I've just been thinking about the sheer volume of information I'm processing these days, and to be honest it's a bit freaky.  You can read about it all you want in cyberpunk novels (Charlie Stross's Accelerando is superb), but for no particularly good reason it's smacked me square in the eyes today.  I've got future shock.

When I was a kid, back in the eighties mostly, I read voraciously.  A book every few days, copies of Reader's Digest that were all sat in the living room ("I Am Geoff's Fight Club Reference").  My friends would phone up sometimes, but mostly we'd go out to play, two or three of us running around in a forest usually.  And there was the TV: three, later four channels.  I remember Doctor Who, Blakes 7, Blue Peter, Challenger and Ghostwatch rather vividly.

But these days it all a bit different.  I've got feeds at work from the book industry's main news sites, Slashdot and New Scientist because of their book reviews, my calendar, notes to myself plus the quantum physics/GR section of Arxiv for personal interest.  I've got a "home" version as well, with my personal email, Twitter feeds from the six most interesting people on the planet, IM client and the like.

I get about twenty or thirty phone calls a day, skim read about thirty books (you can usually tell if a book is "science" or not with a few random paragraphs), ten or so emails plus the usual social interaction know, humans.

It's an order of magnitude change from three TV channels and a few books a week, both in terms of volume and also of the sheer number of sources feeding into my own little head.  It's really quite startling, I feel a little like a rabbit facing a UFO...

Sunday, 18 July 2010

i-dosing, Night-Trips and Drug Induced Hysteria

Telegraph editor/blogger Tom Chivers recently posted an amusing (and slightly scary) piece about the latest drug craze sweeping the US, "i-dosing".  

i-dosing is a digital drug - you simply download it, plug into some headphones and get high.  That's the theory anyway, and at first glance the public and state reaction seems to be the usual hysterical, kneejerk "think of the children" approach so beloved of the conservative right.  

If you're thinking this all sounds a bit crazy then you're probably right, and I can't help but feel there's a rather subtle mass prank going on somewhere, akin to Brass Eye's marvellous episode about the dangers of Cake, "A totally made-up drug" which led to questions being asked in the British parliament about a fictional and clearly ludicrous "drug" and its non-existent dangers to society.

But enough politics for the moment - you are clearly itching to try this new internet based way of getting off your head.

What you'll need is a ping-pong ball, a sharp knife, headphones and a computer connected to the interweb - essential drug paraphernalia for any dedicated i-doser I think you'll find.  Firstly cut the ping-pong ball in half around its circumference.  Put them to one side, you'll need them later.  Next sit down with your favourite search engine and find a "binaural tone" as an mp3 file.  Different tones have different effects simulating various different drugs apparently.  Now lie down somewhere quiet, place the ping-pong balls over your eyes, stick the headphones on and hit play.

Pretty wacky, huh?

In essence what we're looking at isn't a drug, it's a high-tech meditation technique.  

You'll get effects that are just as wacky by staring a a candle while trying some breathing exercises.  Far from being a dangerous new drug, i-dosing is likely to be beneficial if anything.  The research is very inconclusive and generally badly controlled, but what there is suggests that meditation may be effective in reducing stress levels.  At worst, i-dosing does nothing.  At best, it's possibly a very useful practice for your average stressed out teenager.

If you want to get really hardcore, get into night-trips. I've been doing night-trips for over 30 years now, pretty much every day, and I can't see what harm it's done me. Obviously, like any drug, it's best saved for an evening when work is finished (doing night-trips at work is generally frowned upon!). Firstly, you feel a little drowsy and lethargic, then you pass out entirely, typically for eight hours or so. The unconscious stage of the night-trip is punctuated with exceptionally vivid hallucinations, often weird, frequently pleasant but sometimes utterly horrifying. One of the worst I ever had was a night-trip where I thought I'd killed my two best friends in cold blood.

The comedown from night-trips isn't too bad - you're usually a little disorientated when you regain consciousness but that soon wears off. Many people take a mild stimulant to get over it.  If the conservative right want to ban anything, it should be night-trips, not i-dosing.

Aside: According to I Write Like this article is written in the style of Cory Doctorow.  I'm happy with that :)

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Fermilab May Have Found Higgs Boson

Tommaso Dorigo, a physicist working on projects at both CERN and Fermilab has posted a strong suggestion that the decades old Tevatron accelerator in the US has pipped the European LHC to the post when it comes to the Higgs boson. The signal shows a three-sigma effect according to at least one of his sources, meaning there's a 0.3% chance that it's an experimental error. If true, the readings would indicate a Higgs mass of around 115-140GeV, very much at the lighter end of the theoretical range.

It's all highly speculative at present, with Dorigo himself admitting: "keeping particle physics in the press with hints of possible discoveries that later die out is more important than speaking loud and clear once in ten years, when a groundbreaking discovery is actually really made, and keeping silent the rest of the time.