“Have you ever thought that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be…”

Human beings love nostalgia, perhaps strangely. For all the success of various self-help gurus and such telling us to ‘live in the moment’, there are few things more satisfying than sitting back and letting the memories flow over us, with rose-tinted spectacles all set up and in position. Looking back on our past may conjure up feelings of longing, of contentment, of pride or even resentment of the modern day when considering ‘the good old days’, but nobody can doubt how comforting the experience often is.

The real strangeness of nostalgia comes from how irrational it is; when analysing the facts of a given time period, whether in one’s own life or in a historical sense, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the past is usually as bad as the present day, for some different and many of the same reasons. The older generations have, for example, have always thought that current chart music (for any time period’s definition of ‘current’) is not as good as when they were a teenager, that their younger peers have less respect than they should, and that culture is on a downward spiral into chaos and mayhem that will surely begin within the next couple of years. Or at least so the big book of English middle class stereotypes tells me. The point is that the idea that the modern day is worse than those that have gone before is an endless one, and since at no point in history have we ever been rolling in wealth, freedom, happiness and general prosperity it is a fairly simple process to conclude that things have not, in fact, actually been getting worse. At the very least, whilst in certain areas the world probably is worse than it was, say, 30 years ago (the USA’s relationship with the Middle East, the drugs trade, the number of One Direction fans on planet Earth and so on), from other standpoints it could be said that our world is getting continually better; consider the scientific and technological advancements of the last two decades, or the increasing acceptance the world seems to have for certain sections of its society (the LGBT community and certain racial minorities spring to mind). Basically, the idea that everything was somehow genuinely better in the past is an irrational one, and thus nostalgia is a rather irrational idea.

What then, is the cause of nostalgia; why do we find it so comforting, why is it so common to yearn for ‘good old days’ that, often, never truly were?

Part of the answer may lie in the nature of childhood, the period most commonly associated with nostalgia. Childhood in humans is an immensely interesting topic; no other animal enjoys a period of childhood lasting around a quarter of its total lifespan (indeed, if humans today lived as long as they did in the distant past, around half their life would be spent in the stage we nowadays identify as childhood), and the reasons for this could (and probably will one day) make up an entire post of their own. There is still a vast amount we do not know about how our bodies, particularly in terms of the brain, develop during this period of our lives, but what we can say with some certainty is that our perception of the world as a child is fundamentally different from our perception as adults. Whether it be the experience we do not yet have, the relative innocence of childhood, some deep neurological effect we do not yet know about or simply a lack of care for the outside world, the world as experienced by a child is generally a small, simple one. Children, more so the younger we are but to a lesser extent continuing through into the teenage years, tend to be wrapped up in their own little world; what Timmy did in the toilets at school today is, quite simply, the biggest event in human history to date. What the current prime minister is doing to the economy, how the bills are going to get paid this month, the ups and downs of marriages and relationships; none matter to a childhood mind, and with hindsight we are well aware of it. There is a reason behind the oft-stated (as well as slightly depressing and possibly wrong) statement that ‘schooldays are the best of your life’. As adults we forget that, as kids, we did have worries, there was horrible stuff in the world and we were unhappy, often; it’s just that, because childhood worries are so different and ignore so many of the big things that would have troubled us were we adults at the time, we tend to regard them as trivial, with the benefit of that wonderful thing that is hindsight.

However, this doesn’t account so well for nostalgia that hits when we enter our teenage years and later life; for stuff like music, for example, which also is unlikely to have registered in our pre-teen days. To explain this, we must consider the other half of the nostalgia explanation; the simple question of perception. It is an interesting fact that some 70-80% of people consider themselves to be an above-average driver, and it’s not hard to see why; we may see a few hundred cars on our commute into work or school, but will only ever remember that one bastard who cut us up at the lights. Even though it represents a tiny proportion of all the drivers we ever see, bad driving is still a common enough occurrence that we feel the majority of drivers must do such stupid antics on a regular basis, and that we are a better driver than said majority.

And the same applies to nostalgia. Many things will have happened to us during our younger days; we will hear some good music, and ignore a lot of crap music. We will have plenty of dull, normal schooldays, and a couple that are absolutely spectacular (along with a few terrible ones). And we will encounter many aspects of the world, be they news stories, encounters with people or any of the other pieces of random ‘stuff’ that makes up our day-to-day lives, that will either feel totally neutral to us, make us feel a little bit happy or make us slightly annoyed, exactly the same stuff that can sometimes make us feel like our current existence is a bit crappy. But all we will ever remember are the extremes; the stuff that filled us with joy, and the darkest and most memorable of horrors. And so, when we look back on our younger days, we smile sadly to ourselves as we remember those good times. All the little niggly bad things, all the dull moments, they don’t feature on our internal viewfinder. In our head, there really were ‘good old days’. Our head is, however, not a terribly reliable source when it comes to such things.

The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.

The Science of Iron

I have mentioned before that I am something of a casual gymgoer- it’s only a relatively recent hobby, and only in the last couple of months have I given any serious thought and research to my regime (in which time I have also come to realise that some my advice in previous posts was either lacking in detail or partially wrong- sorry, it’s still basically useful). However, whilst the internet is, as could be reasonably expected, inundated with advice about training programs, tips on technique & exercises to work different muscle groups (often wildly disagreeing with one another), there is very little available information concerning the basic science behind building muscle- it’s just not something the average gymgoer knows. Since I am fond of a little research now and then, I thought I might attempt an explanation of some of the basic biology involved.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a biologist, and am getting this information via the internet and a bit of ad libbing, so don’t take this as anything more than a basic guideline

Everything in your body is made up of tiny, individual cells, each a small sac consisting of a complex (and surprisingly ‘intelligent’) membrane, a nucleus to act as its ‘brain’ (although no-one is entirely sure exactly how they work) and a lot of watery, chemical-y stuff called cytoplasm squelching about and reacting with things. It follows from this that to increase the size of an organ or tissue requires these cells to do one of two things; increase in number (hyperplasia) or in size (hypertrophy). The former case is mainly associated with growths such as neoplasia (tumours), and has only been shown to have an impact on muscles in response to the injection of growth hormones, so when we’re talking about strength, fitness and muscle building we’re really interested in going for hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy itself is still a fairly broad term biologically, and only two aspects of it are interesting from an exercise point of view; muscular and ventricular hypertrophy. As the respective names suggest, the former case relates to the size of cells in skeletal muscle increasing, whilst the latter is concerned with the increase in size & strength of the muscles making up the walls of the heart (the largest chambers of which are called the ventricles). Both are part of the body’s long-term response to exercise, and for both the basic principle is the same- but before I get onto that, a quick overview of exactly how muscles work may be in order.

A muscle cell (or muscle fibre) is on of the largest in the body, vaguely tubular in shape and consisting in part of many smaller structures known as myofibrils (or muscle fibrils). Muscle cells are also unusual in that they contain multiple cell nuclei, as a response to their size & complex function, and instead of cytoplasm contain another liquid called sarcoplasm (more densely packed with glycogen fuel and proteins to bind oxygen, and thus enabling the muscles to respire more quickly & efficiently in response to sudden & severe demand). These myofibrils consist of multiple sections called myofilaments, (themselves made of a family of proteins called myosins) joined end-to-end as repeating units known as sarcomeres. This structure is only present in skeletal, rather than smooth muscle cells (giving the latter a more regular, smoothly connected structure when viewed under the microscope, hence the name) and are responsible for the increased strength available to skeletal muscles. When a muscle fibril receives an electrical impulse from the brain or spinal cord, certain areas or ‘bands’ making up the sarcomeres shrink in size, causing the muscle as a whole to contract. When the impulse is removed, the muscle relaxes; but it cannot extend itself, so another muscle working with it in what is known as an antagonistic pair will have to pull back on it to return it to its original position.

Now, when that process is repeated a lot in a small time frame, or when a large load is placed on the muscle fibre, the fibrils can become damaged. If they are actually torn then a pulled muscle results, but if the damage is (relatively) minor then the body can repair it by shipping in more amino acids (the building blocks of the proteins that make up our bodies) and fuel (glycogen and, most importantly, oxygen). However, to try and safeguard against any future such event causing damage the body does its bit to overcompensate on its repairs, rebuilding the protein structures a little more strongly and overcompensating for the lost fuel in the sarcoplasm. This is the basic principle of muscular hypertrophy; the body’s repair systems overcompensating for minor damage.

There are yet more subdivisions to consider, for there are two main types of muscular hypertrophy. The first is myofibrillated hypertrophy, concerning the rebuilding of the myofibrils with more proteins so they are stronger and able to pull against larger loads. This enables the muscle to lift larger weights & makes one stronger, and is the prominent result of doing few repetitions of a high load, since this causes the most damage to the myofibrils themselves. The other type is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, concerning the packing of more sarcoplasm into the muscle cell to better supply the muscle with fuel & oxygen. This helps the muscle deal better with exercise and builds a greater degree of muscular endurance, and also increases the size of the muscle, as the increased liquid in it causes it to swell in volume. It is best achieved by doing more repetitions on a lower load, since this longer-term exercise puts more strain on the ability of the sarcoplasm to supply oxygen. It is also advisable to do fewer sets (but do them properly) of this type of training since it is more tiring; muscles get tired and hurt due to the buildup of lactic acid in them caused by an insufficient supply of oxygen requiring them to respire anaerobically. This is why more training on a lower weight feels like harder work, but is actually going to be less beneficial if you are aiming to build muscular strength.

Ventricular (or cardiac) hypertrophy combines both of these effects in a response to the increased load placed on the muscles in the heart from regular exercise. It causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken as a result of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and also makes them stronger so that the heart has to beat less often (but more powerfully) to supply blood to the body. In elite athletes, this has another effect; in response to exercise the heart’s response is not so much to beat more frequently, but to do so more strongly, swelling more in size as it pumps to send more blood around the body with each beat. Athletic heart syndrome, where the slowing of the pulse and swelling of heart size are especially magnified, can even be mistaken for severe heart disease by an ill-informed doctor.

So… yeah, that’s how muscle builds (I apologise, by the way, for my heinous overuse of the word ‘since’ in the above explanation). I should point out quickly that this is not a fast process; each successive rebuilding of the muscle only increases the strength of that muscle by a small amount, even for serious weight training, and the body’s natural tendency to let a muscle degrade over time if it is not well-used means that hard work must constantly be put in to maintain the effect of increased muscular size, strength and endurance. But then again, I suppose that’s partly what we like about the gym; the knowledge that we have earned our strength, and that our willingness to put in the hard work is what is setting us apart from those sitting on the sofa watching TV. If that doesn’t sound too massively arrogant.

Drunken Science

In my last post, I talked about the societal impact of alcohol and its place in our everyday culture; today, however, my inner nerd has taken it upon himself to get stuck into the real meat of the question of alcohol, the chemistry and biology of it all, and how all the science fits together.

To a scientist, the word ‘alcohol’ does not refer to a specific substance at all, but rather to a family of chemical compounds containing an oxygen and hydrogen atom bonded to one another (known as an OH group) on the end of a chain of carbon atoms. Different members of the family (or ‘homologous series’, to give it its proper name) have different numbers of carbon atoms and have slightly different physical properties (such as melting point), and they also react chemically to form slightly different compounds. The stuff we drink is that with two carbon atoms in its chain, and is technically known as ethanol.

There are a few things about ethanol that make it special stuff to us humans, and all of them refer to chemical reactions and biological interactions. The first is the formation of it; there are many different types of sugar found in nature (fructose & sucrose are two common examples; the ‘-ose’ ending is what denotes them as sugars), but one of the most common is glucose, with six carbon atoms. This is the substance our body converts starch and other sugars into in order to use for energy or store as glycogen. As such, many biological systems are so primed to convert other sugars into glucose, and it just so happens that when glucose breaks down in the presence of the right enzymes, it forms carbon dioxide and an alcohol; ethanol, to be precise, in a process known as either glycolosis (to a scientist) or fermentation (to everyone else).

Yeast performs this process in order to respire (ie produce energy) anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen), so leading to the two most common cases where this reaction occurs. The first we know as brewing, in which an anaerobic atmosphere is deliberately produced to make alcohol; the other occurs when baking bread. The yeast we put in the bread causes the sugar (ie glucose) in it to produce carbon dioxide, which is what causes the bread to rise since it has been filled with gas, whilst the ethanol tends to boil off in the heat of the baking process. For industrial purposes, ethanol is made by hydrating (reacting with water) an oil by-product called ethene, but the product isn’t generally something you’d want to drink.

But anyway, back to the booze itself, and this time what happens upon its entry into the body. Exactly why alcohol acts as a depressant and intoxicant (if that’s a proper word) is down to a very complex interaction with various parts and receptors of the brain that I am not nearly intelligent enough to understand, let alone explain. However, what I can explain is what happens when the body gets round to breaking the alcohol down and getting rid of the stuff. This takes place in the liver, an amazing organ that performs hundreds of jobs within the body and contains a vast repetoir of enzymes. One of these is known as alcohol dehydrogenase, which has the task of oxidising the alcohol (not a simple task, and one impossible without enzymes) into something the body can get rid of. However, most ethanol we drink is what is known as a primary alcohol (meaning the OH group is on the end of the carbon chain), and this causes it to oxidise in two stages, only the first of which can be done using alcohol dehydrogenase. This process converts the alcohol into an aldehyde (with an oxygen chemically double-bonded to the carbon where the OH group was), which in the case of ethanol is called acetaldehyde (or ethanal). This molecule cannot be broken down straight away, and instead gets itself lodged in the body’s tissues in such a way (thanks to its shape) to produce mild toxins, activate our immune system and make us feel generally lousy. This is also known as having a hangover, and only ends when the body is able to complete the second stage of the oxidation process and convert the acetaldehyde into acetic acid, which the body can get rid of relatively easily. Acetic acid is commonly known as the active ingredient in vinegar, which is why alcoholics smell so bad and are often said to be ‘pickled’.

This process occurs in the same way when other alcohols enter the body, but ethanol is unique in how harmless (relatively speaking) its aldehyde is. Methanol, for example, can also be oxidised by alcohol dehydrogenase, but the aldehyde it produces (officially called methanal) is commonly known as formaldehyde; a highly toxic substance used in preservation work and as a disinfectant that will quickly poison the body. It is for this reason that methanol is present in the fuel commonly known as ‘meths’- ethanol actually produces more energy per gram and makes up 90% of the fuel by volume, but since it is cheaper than most alcoholic drinks the toxic methanol is put in to prevent it being drunk by severely desperate alcoholics. Not that it stops many of them; methanol poisoning is a leading cause of death among many homeless people.

Homeless people were also responsible for a major discovery in the field of alcohol research, concerning the causes of alcoholism. For many years it was thought that alcoholics were purely addicts mentally rather than biologically, and had just ‘let it get to them’, but some years ago a young student (I believe she was Canadian, but certainty of that fact and her name both escape me) was looking for some fresh cadavers for her PhD research. She went to the police and asked if she could use the bodies of the various dead homeless people who they found on their morning beats, and when she started dissecting them she noticed signs of a compound in them that was known to be linked to heroin addiction. She mentioned to a friend that all these people appeared to be on heroin, but her friend said that these people barely had enough to buy drink, let alone something as expensive as heroin. This young doctor-to-be realised she might be onto something here, and changed the focus of her research onto studying how alcohol was broken down by different bodies, and discovered something quite astonishing. Inside serious alcoholics, ethanol was being broken down into this substance previously only linked to heroin addiction, leading her to believe that for some unlucky people, the behaviour of their bodies made alcohol as addictive to them as heroin was to others. Whilst this research has by no means settled the issue, it did demonstrate two important facts; firstly, that whilst alcoholism certainly has some links to mental issues, it is also fundamentally biological and genetic by nature and cannot be solely put down as the fault of the victim’s brain. Secondly, it ‘sciencified’ (my apologies to grammar nazis everywhere for making that word up) a fact already known by many reformed drinkers; that when a former alcoholic stops drinking, they can never go back. Not even one drink. There can be no ‘just having one’, or drinking socially with friends, because if one more drink hits their body, deprived for so long, there’s a very good chance it could kill them.

Still, that’s not a reason to get totally down about alcohol, for two very good reasons. The first of these comes from some (admittely rather spurious) research suggesting that ‘addictive personalities’, including alcoholics, are far more likely to do well in life, have good jobs and overall succeed; alcoholics are, by nature, present at the top as well as the bottom of our society. The other concerns the one bit of science I haven’t tried to explain here- your body is remarkably good at dealing with alcohol, and we all know it can make us feel better, so if only for your mental health a little drink now and then isn’t an all bad thing after all. And anyway, it makes for some killer YouTube videos…

Today

Today, as very few of you will I’m sure be aware (hey, I wasn’t until a few minutes ago) is World Mental Health Day. I have touched on my own personal experiences of mental health problems before, having spent the last few years suffering from depression, but I feel today is a suitably appropriate time to bring it up again, because this is an issue that, in the modern world, cannot be talked about enough.

Y’see, conservative estimates claim at least 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, be it a relatively temporary one such as post-natal depression or a lifelong battle with the likes of manic depressive disorder or schizophrenia. Mental health is also in the top five biggest killers in the developed world, through a mixture of suicide, drug usage, self-harming or self-negligence, and as such there is next to zero chance that you will go through your life without somebody you know very closely suffering or even dying as a result of what’s going on in their upstairs. If mental health disorders were a disease in the traditional sense, this would be labelled a red alert, emergency level pandemic.

However, despite the prevalence and danger associated with mental health, the majority of sufferers do so in silence. Some have argued that the two correlate due to the mindset of sufferers, but this claim does not change the fact 9 out of 10 people suffering from a mental health problem say that they feel a degree of social stigma and discrimination against their disability (and yes that description is appropriate; a damaged mind is surely just as debilitating, if not more so, than a damaged body), and this prevents them from coming out to their friends about their suffering.

The reason for this is an all too human one; we humans rely heavily, perhaps more so than any other species, on our sense of sight to formulate our mental picture of the world around us, from the obviously there to the unsaid subtext. We are, therefore, easily able to identify with and relate to physical injuries and obvious behaviours that suggest something is ‘broken’ with another’s body and general being, and that they are injured or disabled is clear to us. However, a mental problem is confined to the unseen recesses of our brain, hiding away from the physical world and making it hard for us to identify with as a problem. We may see people acting down a lot, hanging their head and giving other hints through their body language that something’s up, but everybody looks that way from time to time and it is generally considered a regrettable but normal part of being human. If we see someone acting like that every day, our sympathy for what we perceive as a short-term issue may often turn into annoyance that people aren’t resolving it, creating a sense that they are in the wrong for being so unhappy the whole time and not taking a positive outlook on life.

Then we must also consider the fact that mental health problems tend to place a lot of emphasis on the self, rather than one’s surroundings. With a physical disability, such as a broken leg, the source of our problems, and our worry, is centred on the physical world around us; how can I get up that flight of stairs, will I be able to keep up with everyone, what if I slip or get knocked over, and so on. However, when one suffers from depression, anxiety or whatever, the source of our worry is generally to do with our own personal failings or problems, and less on the world around us. We might continually beat ourselves up over the most microscopic of failings and tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, or be filled by an overbearing, unidentifiable sense of dread that we can only identify as emanating from within ourselves. Thus, when suffering from mental issues we tend to focus our attention inwards, creating a barrier between our suffering and the outside world and making it hard to break through the wall and let others know of our suffering.

All this creates an environment surrounding mental health that it is a subject not to be broached in general conversation, that it just doesn’t get talked about; not so much because it is a taboo of any kind but more due to a sense that it will not fit into the real world that well. This is even a problem in the environment of counselling  specifically designed to try and address such issues, as people are naturally reluctant to let it out or even to ‘give in’ and admit there is something wrong. Many people who take a break from counselling, me included, confident that we’ve come a long way towards solving our various issues, are for this reason resistive to the idea of going back if things take a turn for the worse again.

And it’s not as simple as making people go to counselling either, because quite frequently that’s not the answer. For some people, they go to the wrong place and find their counsellor is not good at relating to and helping them; others may need medication or some such rather than words to get them through the worst times, and for others counselling just plain doesn’t work. But this does not detract from the fact that no mental health condition in no person, however serious, is so bad as to be untreatable, and the best treatment I’ve ever found for my depression has been those moments when people are just nice to me, and make me feel like I belong.

This then, is the two-part message of today, of World Mental Health Day, and of every day and every person across the world; if you have a mental health problem, talk. Get it out there, let people know. Tell your friends, tell your family, find a therapist and tell them, but break the walls of your own mental imprisonment and let the message out. This is not something that should be forever bottled up inside us.

And for the rest of you, those of us who do not suffer or are not at the moment, your task is perhaps even more important; be there. Be prepared to hear that someone has a mental health problem, be ready to offer them support, a shoulder to lean on, but most importantly, just be a nice human being. Share a little love wherever and to whoever you can, and help to make the world a better place for every silent sufferer out there.

The Chinese Room

Today marks the start of another attempt at a multi-part set of posts- the last lot were about economics (a subject I know nothing about), and this one will be about computers (a subject I know none of the details about). Specifically, over the next… however long it takes, I will be taking a look at the subject of artificial intelligence- AI.

There have been a long series of documentaries on the subject of robots, supercomputers and artificial intelligence in recent years, because it is a subject which seems to be in the paradoxical state of continually advancing at a frenetic rate, and simultaneously finding itself getting further and further away from the dream of ‘true’ artificial intelligence which, as we begin to understand more and more about psychology, neuroscience and robotics, becomes steadily more complicated and difficult to obtain. I could spend a thousand posts on the subject of all the details if I so wished, because it is also one of the fastest-developing regions of engineering on the planet, but that would just bore me and be increasingly repetitive for anyone who ends up reading this blog.

I want to begin, therefore, by asking a few questions about the very nature of artificial intelligence, and indeed the subject of intelligence itself, beginning with a philosophical problem that, when I heard about it on TV a few nights ago, was very intriguing to me- the Chinese Room.

Imagine a room containing only a table, a chair, a pen, a heap of paper slips, and a large book. The door to the room has a small opening in it, rather like a letterbox, allowing messages to be passed in or out. The book contains a long list of phrases written in Chinese, and (below them) the appropriate responses (also in Chinese characters). Imagine we take a non-Chinese speaker, and place him inside the room, and then take a fluent Chinese speaker and put them outside. They write a phrase or question (in Chinese) on some paper, and pass it through the letterbox to the other person inside the room. They have no idea what this message means, but by using the book they can identify the phrase, write the appropriate response to it, and pass it back through the letterbox. This process can be repeated multiple times, until a conversation begins to flow- the difference being that only one of the participants in the conversation actually knows what it’s about.

This experiment is a direct challenge to the somewhat crude test first proposed by mathematical genius and codebreaker Alan Turing in the 1940’s, to test whether a computer could be considered a truly intelligent being. The Turing test postulates that if a computer were ever able to conduct a conversation with a human so well that the human in question would have no idea that they were not talking to another human, but rather to a machine, then it could be considered to be intelligent.

The Chinese Room problem questions this idea, and as it does so, raises a fundamental question about whether a machine such as a computer can ever truly be called intelligent, or to possess intelligence. The point of the idea is to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to appear to be intelligent, by conducting a normal conversation with someone, whilst simultaneously having no understanding whatsoever of the situation at hand. Thus, while a machine programmed with the correct response to any eventuality could converse completely naturally, and appear perfectly human, it would have no real conciousness. It would not be truly intelligent, it would merely be just running an algorithm, obeying the orders of the instructions in its electronic brain, working simply from the intelligence of the person who programmed in its orders. So, does this constitute intelligence, or is a conciousness necessary for something to be deemed intelligent?

This really boils down to a question of opinion- if something acts like it’s intelligent and is intelligent for all functional purposes, does that make it intelligent? Does it matter that it can’t really comprehend it’s own intelligence? John Searle, who first thought of the Chinese Room in the 1980’s, called the philosophical positions on this ‘strong AI’ and ‘weak AI’. Strong AI basically suggest that functional intelligence is intelligence to all intents and purposes- weak AI argues that the lack of true intelligence renders even the most advanced and realistic computer nothing more than a dumb machine.

However, Searle also proposes a very interesting idea that is prone to yet more philosophical debate- that our brains are mere machines in exactly the same way as computers are- the mechanics of the brain, deep in the unexplored depths of the fundamentals of neuroscience, are just machines that tick over and perform tasks in the same way as AI does- and that there is some completely different and non-computational mechanism that gives rise to our mind and conciousness.

But what if there is no such mechanism? What if the rise of a conciousness is merely the result of all the computational processes going on in our brain- what if conciousness is nothing more than a computational process itself, designed to give our brains a way of joining the dots and processing more efficiently. This is a quite frightening thought- that we could, in theory, be only restrained into not giving a computer a conciousness because we haven’t written the proper code yet. This is one of the biggest unanswered questions of modern science- what exactly is our mind, and what causes it.

To fully expand upon this particular argument would take time and knowledge that I don’t have in equal measure, so instead I will just leave that last question for you to ponder over- what is the difference between the box displaying these words for you right now, and the fleshy lump that’s telling you what they mean.

The Age of Reason

Science is a wonderful thing- particularly in the modern age where the more adventurous (or more willing to tempt fate, depending on your point of view) like to think that most of science is actually pretty well done and dusted. I mean, yes there are a lot of the little details we have yet to work out, but the big stuff, the major hows and whys, have been basically sorted out. We know why there are rainbows, why quantum tunnelling composite appears to defy basic logic, and even why you always seem to pick the slowest queue- science appears to have got it pretty much covered.

[I feel I must take this opportunity to point out one of my favourite stories about the world of science- at the start of the 20th century, there was a prevailing attitude among physicists that physics was going to last, as an advanced science, for about another 20 years or so. They basically presumed that they had worked almost everything out, and now all they had to do was to tie up all the loose ends. However, one particular loose end, the photoelectric effect, simply refused to budge by their classical scientific laws. The only person to come up with a solution was Max Planck who, by modelling light (which everyone knew was a wave) as a particle instead, opened the door to the modern age of quantum theory. Physics as a whole took one look at all the new questions this proposed and, as one, took a collective facepalm.]

In any case, we are now at such an advanced stage of the scientific revolution, that there appears to be nothing, in everyday life at least, that we cannot, at least in part, explain. We might not know, for example, exactly how the brain is wired up, but we still have enough of an understanding to have a pretty accurate guess as to what part of it isn’t working properly when somebody comes in with brain damage. We don’t get exactly why or how photons appear to defy the laws of logic, but we can explain enough of it to tell you why a lens focuses light onto a point. You get the idea.

Any scientist worth his salt will scoff at this- a chemist will bang on about the fact that nanotubes were only developed a decade ago and will revolutionise the world in another, a biologist will tell you about all the myriad of species we know next to nothing about, and the myriad more that we haven’t discovered yet, and a theoretical physicist will start quoting logical impossibilities and make you feel like a complete fool. But this is all, really, rather high-level science- the day-to-day stuff is all pretty much done. Right?

Well… it’s tempting to think so. But in reality all the scientists are pretty correct- Newton’s great ocean of truth remains very much a wild and unexplored place, and not just in all the nerdy places that nobody without 3 separate doctorates can understand. There are some things that everybody, from the lowliest man in the street to the cleverest scientists, can comprehend completely and not understand in the slightest.

Take, for instance, the case of Sugar the cat. Sugar was a part-Persian with a hip deformity who often got uncomfortable in cars. As such when her family moved house, they opted to leave her with a neighbour. After a couple of weeks, Sugar disappeared, before reappearing 14 months later… at her family’s new house. What makes this story even more remarkable? The fact that Silky’s owners had moved from California to Oklahoma, and that a cat with a severe hip problem had trekked 1500 miles, over 100 a month,  to a place she had never even seen. How did she manage it? Nobody has a sodding clue.

This isn’t the only story of long-distance cat return, although Sugar holds the distance record. But an ability to navigate that a lot of sat navs would be jealous of isn’t the only surprising oddity in the world of nature. Take leopards, for example. The most common, and yet hardest to find and possibly deadliest of ‘The Big Five’, everyone knows that they are born killers. Humans, by contrast, are in many respects born prey- we are slow over short distances, have no horns, claws, long teeth or other natural defences, are fairly poor at hiding and don’t even live in herds for safety in numbers. Especially vulnerable are, of course, babies and young children, who by animal standards take an enormously long time to even stand upright, let alone mature. So why exactly, in 1938, were a leopard and her cubs found with a near-blind human child who she had carried off as a baby five years ago. Even more remarkable was the superlative sense of smell the child had, being able to differentiate between different people and even objects with nothing more than a good sniff- which also reminds me of a video I saw a while ago of a blind Scottish boy who can tell what material something is made of and how far away it is (well enough to play basketball) simply by making a clicking sound with his mouth.

I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say in this post- I have a sneaking suspicion my subconscious simply wanted to give me an excuse to share some of the weirdest stories I have yet to see on Cracked.com. So, to round off, I’ll leave you with a final one. In 1984 a hole was found in a farm in Washington State, about 3 metres by 2 and around 60cm deep. 25 metres away, the three tons of grass-covered earth that had previously filled the hole was found- completely intact, in a single block. One person described it as looking like it had been cut away with ‘a gigantic cookie cutter’, but this failed to explain why all of the roots hanging off it were intact. There were no tracks or any distinguishing feature apart from a dribble of earth leading between hole and divot, and the closest thing anyone had to an explanation was to lamely point out that there had been a minor earthquake 20 miles ago a week beforehand.

When I invent a time machine, forget killing Hitler- the first thing I’m doing is going back to find out what the &*^% happened with that hole.