You cannot trust your own perceptions

Last week I asked if anyone had any burning facts they wish they could magically teleport into everyone’s brains. One reader suggested this, and they’re absolutely right about it.

“The really hard-to-internalize knowledge I wish people had is just you cannot trust your own perception. Study after study have shown that no, your memory isn’t reliable. Your anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up. A quick google search found this, which basically summarizes the whole concept: https://markmanson.net/trust

That Black Mirror episode where everything is recorded would, contrary to whatever point they were trying to make, vastly improve the world IMO. No longer would we have those “no I swear you had the keys last” arguments, and of course there are much broader contexts also.

The issue with this stance, of course, is that there’s a percentage of the population who don’t trust their own perspective enough, which opens up a path to abuse. Alas.”

I (McKinley) went to a super-interesting lecture on forensic psychology, which deals with some of this stuff – the unreliability of memory. At the beginning, they showed us some footage of a ‘suspect’, and at the end, we had to pick him up out of a line-up. I wasn’t totally sure, but I picked the guy I thought looked the most like my memory.

And that was exactly the problem. None of the men in the line-up were the one from the footage, but the one who looked most like him got accused. They don’t do line-ups like this anymore (or they shouldn’t). You see each candidate once, and once only, and you have to say Yes or No. You can’t say “hmmm, let me get another look at number 6”. Either you recognise the guy or you don’t. And you’re not told how many people will be in the line-up, so you don’t select the last guy out of desperation.

There’s other things like – no one in the room should know who the suspect is. Even if they’re not corrupt, they won’t be able to stop their body language very slightly indicating more anticipation or interest, and the witness won’t be able to help picking up on it. The worst bit is, neither party will realise there was any influence. The witness will just think “I had a sense about that one”.

(In some ways this is a tribute to how incredibly observant humans are – we can pick up on the tiniest cues and synthesise them into what we call intuition. That intuition is not magic, it comes from real, but very subtle observations. But yeah it’s a goddamn mess when it comes to forensics.)

—————————–
For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Soldiers’ wounds glow blue and heal faster

This is real. I mean not all soldiers, but:

“As the sun went down after the 1862 Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War, some soldiers noticed that their wounds were glowing blue. Many men waited on the rainy, muddy Tennessee battlefield for two days that April, until medics could treat them. Once they were taken to field hospitals, the troops with glowing wounds were more likely to survive their injuries — and to get better faster. The mysterious blue light was dubbed “Angel’s Glow.”

Honestly, with the information available at the time, it would be weirder NOT to get religion after that. The cause of it was a bioluminescent bacteria called Photorhabdus luminescens. It has a symbiotic relationship with tiny nematode worms. The nematodes are parasites. So what happens is, the nematodes go into a host insect larva, and vomit up their P. luminescens – which are powerfully antibacterial and antimicrobial. So the nematode and the P. luminescens get to eat the larva with no competition from other organisms. When they’re done eating, the nematode swallows the P. luminescens again. The bacteria glows blue, attracting insects, making it easy for the nematodes to find a new host. P. luminescens lives in the soil when its not inside a nematode, and was presumably in the mud of the battlefield .

You probably know enough of the 1800s to understand what a drastic effect an antibacterial substance would have had on wounded soldiers’ mortality rate. So why wasn’t this happening constantly? P. luminescens can’t survive at human body temperature. It’s too hot for them. The soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh had been left in the rain for two days, and had hypothermia. Source.

—————————–
For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Naked molerats are amazing but I hate them

  1. The only cold-blooded mammal
  2. Can’t feel pain. Literally do not have the receptors for it.
  3. They are extremely long-lived (30 years, but remember they’re small rodents) and they stay young right up until they die, they don’t sort of generally break down the way everyone else does.
  4. Almost wholly immune to cancer. “Their cells secrete a kind of sugar, which prevents cancerous cells from multiplying and overcrowding.”
  5. Immune to not having any oxygen. They live underground in mass bundles, where there’s no fresh air, so they’ve evolved a bunch of ways of doing this.
    a) “the haemoglobin in their blood is very sticky for oxygen, able to grab oxygen molecules out of atmospheres with very low oxygen levels.”
    b) “they reduce their need for oxygen by not generating body heat—they are the only cold-blooded mammal. Keeping warm takes a huge amount of energy which normally requires a huge amount of oxygen.”
    c) normally, your pain receptors go crazy if you breathe in too much CO2. Naked molerats lack of pain receptors allow them to comfortably hang in a high-CO2 environment
    d) they can release fructose into their bloodstream and use it for energy. Normally all mammals use glucose, which is much more efficient, but required oxygen to break down into ATP (energy that cells can use). You know who uses fructose? PLANTS. Whole article just on this oxygen thing.
  6. How is there a sixth thing! The sixth thing: they (along with one other mole rat species) are the only known mammals to have the queen/worker/drone social structure (called ‘eusociality’). Other animals that have this: ants, bees, wasps. Not mammals. Naked molerats have a single fertile queen, three or four fertile breeding males, and all the workers are sterile.

Any one of these things would be amazing on its own. I can’t believe molerats. How are they. Anyway here are photos but don’t say I didn’t warn you.


For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet!

Consciousness is relational: A biologist talks about trees & a psychologist talks about the mind

“Roots draw nutrients from symbiotic fungi and communicate with neighboring bacteria. Leaves sniff the air to detect the health of neighbors, while releasing alarm chemicals that summon caterpillar-destroying parasites. Seeds are dispersed by far-flying birds. Photosynthetic cells harness the power of sunlight using structures evolved from free-living microbes. And these kinds of relationships are ancient: A balsam fir that Haskell encounters in Ontario exemplifies this idea; it grows on rocks that contain the corpses of bacterial colonies that lived 1.9 to 2.3 billion years ago.

“The fundamental nature of life may be not atomistic but relational,” Haskell says. “Life is not just networked; it is network.” (David Haskell,a natural history writer and professor of biology)

“Haskell sees life, as exemplified by trees, as less about the stories of individuals and more as “temporary aggregations of relationships.” And death, then, is the de-centering of those relationships, as the “self degenerates into the network.”

“A forest’s networks also provide it with something that Haskell likens to intelligence—and he asserts that this isn’t anthropomorphism. Plants sense and respond to their surroundings. They store information—memories—about the threat of grazing mouths or past climatic conditions. They integrate information both within their tissues and beyond. When such processes happen in a nervous system, we talk of minds, thought, and behavior. So it is with plants, Haskell argues.

“I’m very comfortable using words like intelligence, but I need to emphasize that this is a very other kind of intelligence,” he says. It’s slow, diffuse, other. “We’re not putting elves in the forest or imagining one big super-organism that thinks in a human-like way. The forest’s intelligence is so decentralized compared to ours. To me, the closer analogy is of human culture. Ideas and human culture happens between points of consciousness in our brains. It’s very decentralized, but it has memory and contributes to our understanding and our ability to solve problems.”
Full article / book review

Consciousness is relational, pt. II: A psychiatrist talks about the mind

“Our mind is not simply our perception of experiences, but those experiences themselves. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.

I realized if someone asked me to define the shoreline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the shore is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “You can’t limit our understanding of the coastline to insist it’s one or the other. I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline—some inner and inter process. Mental life for an anthropologist or sociologist is profoundly social. Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind.”

Full article: Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain, or even your body

——————————
For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

The last mammoths died out because their DNA became ‘riddled with errors’

Woolly mammoth

“The last woolly mammoths to walk the Earth were so wracked with genetic disease that they lost their sense of smell, shunned company, and had a strange shiny coat.”

Researchers found “many deletions, big chunks of the genome that are missing, some of which even affected functional genes”.

Dr Rebekah Rogers of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research, said the mammoths’ genomes “were falling apart right before they went extinct”.

“Knowledge of the last days of the mammoth could help modern species on the brink of extinction, such as the panda, mountain gorilla and Indian elephant.” Full article

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet.

 

 

Your ability to focus declines after 30 (it’s not just because smartphones)

This uncharacteristically warm weather feels more like LA than NY, and this trendy trekker is definitely bringing the heat. A simple black t-shirt and jeans hasn’t looked this good since Hank Moody. Forget the beautiful weather outside, all I care...

There are two totally separate systems that govern attention:

  • your ability to maintain focus on the thing (‘enhancement’)
  • your ability to tune out other things (‘suppression’).

“These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better.

By understanding these as separate systems, rather than seeing an inability to suppress distractions as just a side-effect of not having focused well enough, you’ll be better equipped to try and improve the situation.

This article says that it’s the suppression aspect, our ability to tune out distracting stimuli, that declines with age. That’s a huge relief, because as a kid I used to read in the playground and not notice stuff like a basketball hitting the wall next to my head (generally thrown by a kid who was annoyed that I spent all my lunchtimes reading.) But I can’t do that anymore, and I assumed it was just smartphones and stuff, the Age of Distraction, and I’d let that skill deteriorate through my own fault. But it probably isn’t, not totally.

So, just like if you needed reading glasses you’d just buy them and wear them, maybe now you need to remove external distractions to read a book properly, and you should go ahead and do that instead of just CONCENTRATING… HARDER…

It also probably means older people are genuinely more sensitive to a cluttered room or desk than young people (rather than young people just being too lazy to tidy or whatever the prevailing theory is).

Also you already know this, but meditating will help you improve since it’s literally practising focusing, go on, take your damn medicine.

Image taken from hotdudesreading.tumblr.com

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet

Stilts and stumps

“Hunting for food, ants roam haphazardly. But when they find it, they use celestial cues, perhaps from the sun, to head back to their nests more or less in a straight line – rather than retracing the tortuous journeys they’d made on their outbound searches.

So how does an ant know when to stop running?

It must not be based on seeing the nest entrance, because a returning ant rarely runs straight down into its hole. Instead, when they think they’re in the right area, they stop running, make a U-turn, and pace back and forth until they find it.”

Scientists showed that they ‘count’ their steps by giving some ants stilts and amputating the last segment off the legs of other ants (ants’ legs can’t feel anything because they have to walk across boiling sand). The ants with stilts overshot their nest by 50% and the ants with stumps only got halfway home.

“Interestingly, the ants quickly adjusted to their new leg lengths. The next day the modified ants were allowed to engage in normal foraging, and they returned to the nest as well as the unmodified ants.”
Full article

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

Molyneux’s Problem: thought experiment from 1688 solved in 2003

Q: If a man born blind can feel the differences between shapes such as spheres and cubes, could he, if his sight was restored, distinguish those objects by sight (without touching them)?

A: No. Huh. “Although after restoration of sight, the subjects could distinguish between objects visually almost as effectively as they would do by touch alone, they were unable to form the connection between an object perceived using the two different senses. The correlation was barely better than if the subjects had guessed. They had no innate ability to transfer their tactile shape knowledge to the visual domain.”

“Ostrovsky, et al studied a woman who gained sight at the age of 12 when she underwent surgery for dense bilateral congenital cataracts. They report that the subject could recognize family members by sight six months after surgery, but took up to a year to recognize most household objects purely by sight.” Wikipedia article

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

Ayam Cemani, the black-hearted chicken

“The bird is inky black from the tip of its comb to the end of its claws, with blue-black skin, jet-black eyes, and a black tongue. It is covered in shimmering metallic black feathers, and even its internal organs are black.”

EVEN ITS INTERNAL ORGANS ARE BLACK

Also its bonnnnnes. Anyway, full article on the breed.

The Honeybee Industrial Complex

The case for not saving the bees

Controversial but interesting! I’m gonna try and summarise this long read on all the stuff that’s missing from the conversation:

  • There are many many pollinators, honeybees aren’t even that great it.
  • Industrial agriculture relies on bundling up pollinators and taking them from farm to farm:
    “Domesticated landscapes bloom all at once, and die all at once. If you’re a pollinator, that means that you’ve got a ton of food, and then you have no food”—not a sustainable living situation for an insect. “We’ve created a system where we need to bring in an outside pollinator. And the honeybee, being stackable, is what we selected.”
  • STACKABLE. So yeah, we rely on honeybees because they’re portable.
  • Only 5-10% of honeybees are wild, the rest are part of this industry.
  • Our much-talked-about reliance on honeybees is not natural, it’s a result of a disastrous lack of biodiversity.
  • Don’t save the bee, become less dependent on the bee!
  • Lack of pollinator diversity is a bigger threat than Colony Collapse Disorder.

Okay obviously there’s a LOT I haven’t included here, but oh my gosh, CONTRARIAN DELIGHT. Read the full article.

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

The super-recognisers of Scotland Yard

How an elite police unit is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals.

“I hate using the words ‘talented’ or ‘good’ for a criminal, when they could be so many better things, like a street magician or a dextrous watchmaker,” said Porritt. “But when we watched him, it was like: ‘That’s good.’”
Extremely well-written long read

Dragonfly wings “shred” bacteria

Credit:  Bonnie Taylor Barry
Dragonfly wings are covered in irregular nanospikes, which bacteria get stuck on and then tear themselves open when they try to move. Scientists are experimenting with antibacterial textiles that mimic this texture. Full article

For more of this sort of thing, sign up to my weekly newsletter, The Whippet!

Pom-pom crabs = best crabs


Boxer crabs (or pom-pom crabs) go through their lives with an anemone in each claw. (The anemones have defensive stinging cells.) If you take one of their pom-poms away, they’ll induce asexual reproduction in the remaining one by tearing it in half. If you take both away, they’ll steal one off another crab and do the same thing, so they always have two at all times. Full article