Monday, May 18, 2009

That Which Is Is All There Is

I love learning. Every new quantum of information adds a new dimension of depth to my understanding of the world. Sometimes a new idea is so powerful I feel it physically. A chain of connections, revelations and insight crackles through my body. The sensation is quite literally orgasmic.

I hope you'll all forgive me for taking a moment to argue against a scarecrow that hasn't made it to Oz yet. But there exists this attitude, here and there, that science is something cold or passionless. That it robs the romance from all the beautiful things in the world.
I think, taking my first paragraph in context, you will see why this view quite stupefies me.

When I stand deep in the woods, and inhale the rich scents of leaf mold, and listen to the raucous peaceful business of life going on all around me, I am filled with a visceral pleasure; a strong sense of belonging and peace.
Tell me, why would that feeling be aught but strengthened by the understanding of my place in this ecosystem?
I know (for certain values of know) the physics, chemistry, and biology of the trees and the sun and the wind. I know about the creatures that surround me, and I know about the millions of years that put them there, and what the niche they've adapted to is. I even understand the neuro-biology that makes me so happy to be there.

I ask again: if the rainbow is beautiful, why are the quantum physics of refraction anything but awe-inspiring?

And there's always more to learn. I barely knew anything last year. Now, with increasing education, I am exposed to whole new vistas, the contours of which describe in elegant geometry exactly how little I know. It is an ever-full cup from which I could never tire of drinking.

And so I find another object of inquiry: we've all experienced the exultant heights and bitter valleys of love. Ah, amore, that most elusive and poignant emotion of the human cornucopia.

It doesn't surprise me that some would balk at turning the piercing gaze of science to the state of love. It feels as an invasion of our deepest privacy. There's nothing more intensely personal than love.
It's also a little distressing to think that our decisions and motivations are the product of more than some kind of "pure" thought. It makes us feel less like perfectly rational, ideal game theory actors.
Furthermore, it's as if a bit of selfness is stolen away. Is love still so important when it is "just" some chemical and neurological interactions?
And I can only respond, both to my own quivering heart, and to the doubts of others, that nothing has changed: knowledge can only bring us the why. It will change nothing about what is. You are no less in love for understanding why that state exists in your mind.

"To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right." —Confucius

So hopefully you can see why I was so excited at an interesting coincidence of articles recently.
I'd been reading about relationships. This is a representative sample. Think about their impact on my life. What kind of relationship I wanted, why I wanted that, and how I should go about it. One thing that ran through my mind was why sex, a physical act, should be so important to my emotional well-being. Whether that held true for other boys, or for women, and to what degree.
I'm also reading a book, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. It's an older book, but still has a lot of interesting insight into the human condition, as a big ol' ape with a uniquely ginormous frontal lobe jury-rigged to a matryoshka of more primitive ganglia stacked on each other.
And finally, this.
I can't say that strongly enough. THIS.

Now, before I get too excited, it is my duty to warn you that this is just conjecture. They emphasis in the article that this is preliminary research. Data collection. They're only now forming testable hypotheses.
But oh my stars it's incredible.
Just half-way through I felt struck by the sensation I described at the beginning here. Arched back, rushing sound in my ears and all.
I hope I'm not overselling this, but it's as if a handful of disparate bits of my life have finally caught fast and gelled into an intricate net of understanding that touches every corner of my existence.

One particular caveat I want to make note of before pressing on: the article makes a lot of reference to specific chemicals and their effects on our emotions. While many of these are pretty unambiguously proven, I advise a healthy dose of caution to any offer of a single hormone or neuro-transmitter as the sole source of any specific behavior or emotion.
My primary source for this caution is the serotonin hypothesis (essentially the theory that serotonin is the primary mood regulation chemical), which was, in essence, conjured whole-clothe from the rectums of anti-depressant pharmaceutical companies.

Forgive me as I reiterate some of the article while talking about the connections it's formed for me.

The article describes a group using a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine to scan the brains of people in various states of love. This machine analyses in three dimensions, in real time, blood flow inside the brain. Subjects are asked to look at a screen with certain pictures, or to think of certain things. Synapses involved in that kind of thinking fire more in greater density, and more blood is drawn to that section. The fMRI measures this blood flow, hopefully telling us what parts of the brain are involved in what kind of thinking. There are some criticisms here. That researchers are finding patterns that don't exist in what is essentially noise. But cross-referenced with other neuro-biological data, and with a large enough sample group, it seems to promise some stunning insights into the functioning of the human mind.

In high school I had a conjecture. I knew at the time it was flawed, and since then have always wondered what it was missing.
"Is love more than just a really strong friendship, plus attraction?"
And two highly respected doctors Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown have started work on a hypothesis that says "yes".
(PS: isn't it wonderful that there are more women in science every day? I'll have to write on that sometime soon.)

What was I missing? Perhaps it's so obvious that I feel silly even saying it.
That's it.

"But Robert, isn't that a tautology, 'romance is romance'?" I'll pretend you're asking.
Well, you see, perhaps we've been putting the cart before the horse.
We think perhaps we desire to settle down with that one special lady or one special guy (or a couple special someones?) because we're in love. But truly, we're in love because we want to settle down.
I'll try and explain.
When you're in love, your sex drive fires up. I don't think that needs much more explanation. So does the attachment system, which is basically the same stuff that makes you happy to be with friends, to talk with them and make them happy.
(It's even a little related to the instincts that make you love and want to protect both your body, and your possessions. Which says something interesting about materialism: our brain literally treats our possessions as similar to the way we treat parts of our body. Just, you know, without direct nervous system connections.)
Thirdly, this instinct, the missing branch. The two researchers have labeled a network of parts of the brain the "romance system." This system is the one that really makes what we call love. The heady, literally-cocaine-like rush when you see or hear or smell the recipient of your ardent desire. It is responsible for the "pair bonding" instinct. The interesting thing is that while ours is slightly extended, it's basically the exact same system we see in almost anywhere we see pair-bonding in the mammal family tree.

Which is where The Naked Ape comes in. Old as it is, it still walks through the logical progression of how pair-bonding became a fixture of human life. Through biology. The shared ancestor of chimps and humans was probably pretty similar to today's chimp. Humans are the descendants of the offshoot that left Eden the forest, and the other branch had no need to change. In the forest, these apes roamed their territory in small groups, eating and resting wherever they felt like it. Males would always be around to respond to any challenges for mating rights.
But on the Serengeti, this didn't work anymore. From our ape heritage, women needed to take care of children. And to get enough food to survive, men had to leave on multi-day hunting excursions. Cooperation in a hunting was mandatory. Although we eventually learned endurance, like wolves, especially early on, the only way to get prey was to work together. Competition for mating rights had no more place in the new world. Especially not when they started picking up elk thighbones, and gaining the power to kill with a blow. Another structure that died out were alpha males and harems. Even "lesser" men had to have a franchise in the future of the group, or there wasn't enough reason for them to cooperate. Pair-bonding, or love, gave them this franchise. A guarentee of passing on his genes. This is why the popular use of Darwinian always pisses me off. Humanity is one of the most cooperative species on the planet, and that's what makes us the most powerful species on the planet.
Furthermore, any male ape that would only share meat with his own children had a distinct genetic advantage. Genes that promoted either more or less altruistic behavior were at a disadvantage.
Thus, the ancient mammal instinct of pair-bonding was pulled from inactive duty by mutation and kept in service by selection.
Another part of why I love science so is the way that as better and more complete theories develop, everything begins to connect together. Ends meet and the structure as a whole is reinforced.
Pair-bonding was also heavily connected to sex. An the article says, they've only studied men so far. And furthermore, even a specific subset of them. But so far we've shown a lot of connections, ones that aren't present in many other animals, between our "romance system" and our sexual one. I really can't wait until Fisher and Brown have studied how women are wired. But everything in this article, discerned from the mental shape of love, is supported by the observational, anthropological and zoological data encoded in the forty year old book, the Naked Ape. And that one can definitely tell you: breaking down the mating habits of our proto-chimp ancestors took some unique solutions. And I'm sure you'll all agree with me that what they stumbled on, a complex cocktail of pleasure and affection chemicals released by sex, was a damn good one.

Some interesting factoids:
Semen literally contains pheromones that strengthen the romance system in women. An amusing, but groundless speculation: this could be why many guys like it when their partner swallows.
A bit of the reason we like doggie style may simply be mechanical; ie, how the friction occurs. But another part may be the "lordosis" posture. A vast majority of female mammals, to indicate that they're ready for mating, will raise their hips towards their mate, and look back over their shoulder. This apparently still jabs a poker into the most primitive, instinctual parts of our brain, branding "Iz tiem for sex now?" right down to our neurons.

Now, I keep saying pair-bonding, but that's not necessarily accurate. We apes come from a pretty hedonistic free-for-all sexual mannerism background. Pull an old behavior from your butt, clean it off, and staple it on, it's not going to completely supplant the old one. (Especially when some degree of variability is a pro-adaptive trait). While monogamy was adaptive enough, I'd imagine that polyamory would be a useful enough trait to have some biological basis in the here and now.
Of course, I'm sure there are a lot of reasons for non-monogamous behavior. But I'd be really fascinated to see a study of self-identified polygamous and polyamorous individuals. There's a lot of focus on it being purely about sex, about jabbing that sexual impulse reward button. Though this is just a guess, I'd be willing to bet that in most of them, those same connections exist between the sex and romance centers.

And that's another reason people don't like science poking into the boudoir. It's challenging. If reality challenges your prejudices, what are you going to do?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Entitlement Culture

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that the entitlement culture is a big part of what's wrong with today's world, largely in how it ties into education and anti-intellectualism.
I really truly want for every child to understand how marvelous they are, and what great things they are surely capable of. What I do not want, is to achieve this by breeding a generation of under-achieving couch potatoes because they've been told every steaming loaf they pinch off is the best thing since sliced bread.
Perhaps I'm generalizing too broadly, but it feels as if every time I turn on the TV, I'm beset by images of horrible idiots who can't seem to realize their own stupidity, because anyone calling them on their stupid decisions is being hurtful and vicious.
In this world, through a looking glass but slightly dim, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Criticism of which, or pointing out how poorly it meshes with reality, is equivalent to quashing their First amendment rights.

Well, this rant is now only barely connected to what inspired it, so I'll just leave you this letter response from Neil Gaiman to a fan. The fan had emailed Gaiman about how upset he was that George RR Martin had, gasp, a life outside of providing this fan the next book.
Honestly, I feel that Gaiman was a little harsh considering the man's message by itself.
But who knows, maybe it's just that I'm not an author (despite all my wishing really really hard!), and this kind of entitlement is simply so grating even a whiff of it needs to be excoriated instantly.
But it includes some very important advice, that I think all of you need to take to heart right now, and forever more:
"George Martin is not your bitch"

Well, unless maybe you're Neil Gaiman (I feel an RPS coming on!).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ergonomics and you

Man blogging consistently is harder than I thought it'd be. T__T
So here I'm going to repost something I wrote a while ago, but updated, and with references included. Maybe it'll get the juices flowing again.

As a philologist, I enjoy breaking down the words we use, both rarely and every day. Perhaps in examining the roots and history of why we speak the way we do, there is meaning, or even understanding, to be divined.
Like many of our technical terms, ergonomics comes from Latin. Ergo- refers to work. -Nomy is an interesting component, meaning something like law, or management. -Ics is a very dense little particle. It means the entire field of study; of art and science and knowledge.
A rough translation is "human engineering", which may explain my predilection for the field. :P
The best efforts of humanity are found in our efforts to better ourselves and our world.

Meta-lingual-discussion aside, I know I'm not the only one that spends a lot of time at their computer, so I thought a little guide to workspace ergonomics would be a useful post.

Starting off is the fact that while our knees, hips, and spines were good enough for our ancestors to survive, procreate, and provide enough for their children to grow up and repeat the cycle, selective pressure didn't give a crap if they would do so without giving us chronic pain into our dotage. Thus, they're all a bit fragile, and we need to take care of them if we want a comfortable middle and old age.

First things first, I recognize that few, if any of you, are going to run out and implement all of these suggestions immediately, but I'm putting this up as food for thought, a reference to check back on if you need to, and something to keep in mind if you get the chance to reorganize your work space.

Sit down work doesn't affect our knees so much, but humanity evolved legs in a world without chairs, so our spines and hips are a bit at a loss as to what to do with them.
Remember when you were goofing off in class, and kept tilting your chair back on two legs, tossing pencils at the ceiling or whatever? You thought you were just bored, but apparently we were unconsciously adopting the ideal sitting posture. If you spend more than a half-hour at a time working at your computer, You want your chair to support a 90° angle between legs and torso, and you want your torso tipped back about 35–45°. This way, the weight of your body is more evenly distributed, and you derive the maximum benefit from any lumbar and shoulder support the chair has.
However, you also want your feet on the floor, otherwise the weight of your legs is pressing your hamstrings right into the edge of your chair, which is a recipe for discomfort, and in extreme cases, even damage.

stick figure diagram
As you can see by my masterful art skills, there are pixels.

You also want to spend most of your time sitting perfectly evenly, shoulders, spine, and hips all aligned. Lateral stress on the spine can cause soreness in the back and hips. Arms should hang neutrally from the shoulders, ie, you shouldn't feel any stress or effort in your shoulders to keep your arms in position. Your medial plane should bisect your keyboard between the G and H keys (or I and D on Dvorak), and the exact middle of your monitor.
Now, craning your neck downward isn't, generally, good for you. Your spine forms a far-back fulcrum for all of your head's weight to wrench on. But here, you're leaned back, with your head straight up and down. The weight of your head is distributed into the head, neck, or shoulder rest, and you end up with even less weight on your spine than when sitting upright.
But if your chair lacks a headrest, this position might fatigue your neck muscles. This is a good time to point out another important ergonomic tip: switch positions. Though what I'm outlining is the best biomechanical posture, static pressure still has the potential to kink muscles, blood vessels, and nerves.
Of course, the best way to do this is to get up and take a quick walk every so often. But short of that, sit up straighter, or lean further back or pull one leg up, do something to change the forces affecting your body, and give pressure points a chance to recover.

Speaking of pressure points, viscoelastic memory foam is some nice stuff. It may not have been developed specifically for NASA, but they sure saw the benefits. The stuff that you now find in Tempurpedic mattresses was actually developed in Sweden, for hospitals. It is ironic (actually ironic too), that hospitals are one of the worst places to be when you're sick. Think about it, your immune system has been compromised, so let's stick you in a building with a lot of people carrying infectious diseases? Yay?
One of the features that used to compound this problem were bedsores. When you literally can't move, those pressure points get to be a serious problem. As in moisture builds up, making it a lovely environment for bacteria, which infest the skin, making raw patches, which continued pressure causes to become open wounds. Memory foam was created to alleviate pressure points completely, which is what makes it such a good material for beds, pillows, and yes, high end chairs. (You don't often see memory foam in chairs because you need a much higher density foam—ie, expensive—than that in mattresses, where your weight is more spread out, and pillows, where there's not much weight.)

So that's sitting. How about typing? Tendinitis and/or tendinosis of the wrists/forearms/hands is something most of us in this modern world deal with regularly. It happens because certain small movements, repeated over and over, can damage and possibly inflame tendons.
As a note, the carpal tunnel syndrome happens when pressure builds up in a small channel within your wrist. The pressure affects the thick nerve that controls your hand, and this causes general shooting pains through the hands, wrists, and forearms. For obvious reasons, tendinitis (inflammation of tendons) of the tendons in the actual carpal tunnel can cause the carpal tunnel syndrome. But while the picture painted by modern medical science is a touch murky, as far as I can find, it's generally believed that only certain twisting motions will cause an inflammation there. Basically, writing, painting and typing inflame or damage other tendons.
The midline of your keyboard should obviously be even with the medial plane of your body. Obviously, if your arms are angled in, your wrists need to be angled back out to put everything in the right position for typing. One wrist curved more than the other is obviously going to be under more strain. This is exaggerated on smaller laptop keyboards. Ergonomic keyboards are split so that your wrist doesn't need to bend at all. But if your keyboard is at the right height/position, the arrangement of the keys and of your fingers should not put a significant medial bend in the wrist. Still, couldn't hurt. Plus some of us have different length fingers than others.

You want your hands to be slightly higher than the elbows. If your fingers are on the home row, this position gives your fingers the a very neutral amount of curvature. Thus you require only minimal extension or flexion to hit the keys above and below. When you need to hit a key to the side (enter, backspace, tab, tilde, etc) try and do it with fingers and elbows, rather than wrist.

Mouse position is very important. Listen up WoWees. It's very very easy to try and sling your mouse around with your wrist. That's bad. Don't do that. Please.
With the keyboard in the right position, the best place for your mouse is on a slightly inclined tray right above your numpad. This lets you hold the mouse with zero wrist flexion, and move it smoothly from the elbow, which is ideal. I know that this is pretty hard to arrange. In fact, I've only seen one or two commercial products that allow you to follow this advice from the "famous" University of Georgia ergonomics study. But don't despair yet. Laptop users actually have a slight advantage here, in that they can just put their mouse pad where they need it. Left-hand mousers actually have it even easier! Just prop your mouse up immediately to the left of any regular keyboard, and you're good to go. If none of these are options, a slightly angled out, tilted up mouse-pad platform just to the right of your keyboard is the next best bet.
But whatever you do, don't rest your wrist or arm on anything, and move your mouse from the elbow, not the wrist.
On that note, remember that your keyboard and mouse are the parts of your computer you have real, direct interaction with. And furthermore, they sure don't go obsolete the way the internal components do. Get a good quality keyboard, and it'll last you decades. The IBM Model M clicky keyboard has a solid, tactile click that helps you put in only the amount of force you need, instead of grinding down on a plastic dome. Others have expounded upon their value, so I'll leave it at that.
Similar advice applies to your monitor, speakers/headphones, mouse, and something very few people consider in much detail: the mouse-pad. I'm not expecting to gain many converts to the world of expensive rigid plastic mouse-pads. A mouse sliding easily with the smallest possible impetus is a joy few know.

And finally, viewing.
Lighting is important, but it's pretty basic: minimize reflections and contrast.
If there's something reflected in your monitor, your eyes won't be sure what to focus on. They'll end up rapidly switching between what's on the screen, and what's reflected in it, and that's a recipe for eye fatigue. Similarly, if your monitor is dim, and the area behind it bright, or vice versa, you're (somewhat literally!) looking at eyestrain. You also really don't want any direct sources of illumination in your peripheral vision, as the rod cells in your eyes
This means that ideally, everything behind your screen is lit by indirect light to exactly the same illumination as the screen, and everything in front of it is perfect matte black.
For the real world, I recommend a torchiere (ceiling directed standing lamp), or maybe a lamp behind your monitor (credit Jessica), half-closed blinds, and an otherwise dim room. Modern CFLs are recommended for their energy savings and cool white light. If there's a significant amount of light reflecting off of or coming from you or the scenery behind you, and there's absolutely no way to move your monitor... you're screwed. Curl up and die.

Your forehead should be even with monitor's top bezel, allowing your eyes to cover everything in one sweep (you look down more naturally than up). You should be far enough back that you don't need to move your head at all, nor your eyes much, to see any part of the screen.

As for the screen setting itself, if you have a CRT, make damn sure it's set to a refresh rate higher than 75Hz. Anything less and you'll be lucky to avoid splitting headaches.
For both, your "contrast" setting should usually be at max, and the brightness at the lowest possible level where you can only just barely distinguish between black and the gray one standard step above it.

Set "contrast" to 100, decrease brightness to zero, then step it up until you can tell them apart.

This is recommended in a quite a few places, for text especially, and most games (I remember that Half-Life actually had a calibration screen that instructed you in this set-up). I think some artists prefer a little less contrast and more brightness for color fidelity? I don't have any references, but if it's that important to you, get a good monitor color calibrator, and follow its software's instructions.

Thank you. I hope this leads to a little less occupational stress for someone, somewhere. Please tell me if I've missed anything, or you have an issue with any part of this advice.