There's nobody here but us chickens.

Sunday, March 27, 2005


Major internet deficit this holiday weekend. Once real life returns, I'll post a fairly lengthy piece about my fundamental principles. Wait, I have principles? Anyway, it all links inito evidence and poisoning the discourse, and it's tangentally inspired by this post which is far better than anything I would write anyway, so go ahead. I'm virus woozy anyway.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Penny in the link bank (balance: ₤0.06)

The swop system for courses at a law school leads to trouble when students start offering hard cash for a coveted course option: link. One students posting at the swop forum says it all:
a spot in neuborne's evidence: $500.
one year's tuition at nyu law: $38,000.
proving every existing lawyer stereotype right: priceless.

Penny in the link bank (balance: ₤0.05)

I've become a convert to using index cards to organise my life, as a quick and dirty alternative to a PDA (Psion, Blackberry, etc). Here is a guide to really, really making the most of such a system, replete with visual examples using flickr: link

Sunday, March 20, 2005


..has dropped a little on this front, but in a war on many fronts, sacrifices are made. Back to the business - the business of productivity maximisation.
(Sing along - 'theyyyre's no bizness....')

43 folders is the best source of information for how to make your work and leisure more efficient, whilst perversely being an ideal place to while away a lot of time that could have been better spent doing other stuff. From a typically tip-packed post , I am particularly in agreement with this:
Standarize your Subject lines - I think well-crafted email subject lines are largely a lost art today. Back in the day, people would use them like IMs, creating a message where the Subject line could stand as a request or answer all by itself. No more. I know I’m guilty of my share of “Subject: Hi” emails to be sure. We all are. But good subjects can save tons of time when used correctly and consistently. Whenever I manage projects, I encourage everyone to start the subject line for all project emails with the same 4-6 letter code. Spacely Sprockets’ project emails might start with “SPROCK,” for example. This makes filtering a breeze and helps you visually organize your inbox more quickly, especially when you work with a given person across several projects.
Yes, yes, a dozen times yes. Another tip I would give is to use gmail, or any kind of email system with threadable conversations, to group circumscribed projects cleanly and simply. For those who aren't familiar, when you get a reply to a message in gmail, or reply to a message, these are paired together in your inbox: If Sam asks "Let's meet at 6. where shall we?" and I reply "Foyles on Charing Cross Road", then the inbox will read 'Sam(2)' and clicking will reveal a page with both messages displayed in chronological order, making it a snap for me to refresh myself of all the salient facts. This stacking will persevere as long as somone doesn't change the header or send a new mail rather than replying.

I've done this on a larger scale with my projects I am running with students. I've got 4 groups of roughly 3 students each, and with those numbers the inbox can get peppered with responses that may or may not be labelled or placed in folders, leading to a high tendency to disorder. So when the first group approached me, I gmailed them with "miniprojects" as a header, and asked them to keep to correspondence by replying to this account. When other students started applying for the projects, I forwarded/replied to the first groups response, deleting their email and the email content and sending it to the new students. Soon I had conversations with four sets of students, identifiable by the "To" header information, all in one chronological thread, with my outgoing messages placed in order amongst them.

It's now come a bit adrift as people have been sending fresh emails. I suspect they are inclined to do so because they are not using threaded conversations themselves, so the advantage isn't really there (I also must admit I have broken the chain on one occasion - still need to train myself into it). But it has proven enormously helpful, especially when trying to organise multiple meetings that were interdependent without losing where I was. The utility of having causal linkage between mail is massive for me - no more hopping from inbox to outbox to verify what the hell I had said in the first place.

In the comments to that post, Tyler Weir shares a nice idea:
Adding useful text to the subject line is a great time saver. At work we commonly do something like this: "Working from home today: 555-555-1234 [nt]" Where "[nt]" stands for "no text." That way you tell the recipient they don't even have to open it.
Also in that post is some wise advice about preparing for illness.
Create a sick box - Make up a little box filled with all the stuff you'll want fast access to on the next morning you wake up with a cold. TheraFlu, cough drops, fresh box of Kleenex, unwatched DVD you've been saving, a nice trashy novel, and the phone numbers of anyone you'd need to contact at work. Believe me, you're in no mood to collect this crap when you wake up with the flu kicking your ass.
Perhaps I should make another list of things to prepare before you get a mighty arm tattoo: hoover, wash-up etc because you won't be doing any of that for a while, buy a hundredweight of burn cream, work out some way to sleep at night that doesn't end up with your sticky arm bonded to your vest. OK, I've creeped everybody out now.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Penny in the link bank (balance: ₤0.04)

Trick your goldfish into feeling free. Link

Sunday, March 13, 2005


I realised something somewhat depressing. To the extent that some people do stumble across my site through google (and despite the fact that this may become a rarer source of readership for blogs thanks to changes in the way google appears to rank sites: link), does this mean my swell of random traffic excludes those people who can spell coup correctly? If so, at least I don't have to worry about jibes from anonymous grammar police. Eat, shoot and kiss my face.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Penny in the link bank (balance: ₤0.03)

What the different UK political parties offer, from a humanist perspective: link. Article by Nick Cohen, followed by party positions.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Through the k-hole

Note: this post will go up at 12pm Friday at

What do squat parties in Brixton, vetinarians in Buckinghamshire, and cereals in Budgens have in common?* The answer, of course, is Special K.**

Ketamine is a tranquillising agent that was widely used until patients began to complain of its hallucinogenic effects, which they experienced when coming out of sedation. Not too fun. Except, of course, for those who take it for pleasure - of whom, according to ongoing research by Mixmag magazine and the Institute of Psychiatry, there have been more than a fourfold increase between 1999 and 2003. Apart from this population, the drug is still administered as a tranquilliser for animals, and also young children for whom the trippy effects don't seem to occur. Notably, after Putin banned the drug in Russia in 2003, Bridget Bardot campaigned for a reversal, on the basis that it would result in more suffering for animals; whether the implications for children were weighed is not on record, but in any case Russia reversed the ban in '04. Notably, the drug is not illegal in the EU, and whilst a controlled substance is low down in priority, at least in the eyes of the law. But if you're an ocassional taker, or curious about it, I suggest you read further, to get the skinny on the cognitive neuropsychopharmacology of ketamine.

My friend and colleague Celia Morgan has been doing her PhD on the cognitive effects of ketamine with Val Curran at UCL; Prof Curran gave a presentation about this last month; again, some is not yet published (although some is, and if you use Google Scholar you should be able to get your hands on some abstracts, at least).

To give the basic neurochemistry, ketamine is an nMDA antagonist - this means it acts on a specific type of neural receptor in the brain, the nMDA receptor, found throughout the brain but particularly in the cortex, and it act by suppressing its normal activity (whilst an agonist would boost it). This leads to an excessive release of the neurotransmitter glutamate. This lays a case for a possible harmful effect of ketamine: nMDA antagonists have been shown to disrupt long-term potentiation (the neural mechanism by which learning takes place in the brain). And the receptors are particularly heavily distributed in memory-critical areas such as the hippocampus and surrounding areas, which means adverse effects are likely to impact on memory.

Moreover, clinical reports document that being on ketamine produces symptoms very similar to those seen in schizophrenia. The similarities have been so striking as to contribute to a shift away from purely dopaminergic models of schizophrenia to nMDA hypofunction models, which suggest that glutamate as well as dopamine are responsible for the abnormal function of the schizotypic brain. (see e.g. Olney and Farber 1997).

Morgan and Curran have been investigating this using cognitive and neuropsychological testing, alongside clinical-style inventories of schizotypic symptoms and thoughts. One aspect of their research uses healthy people, dosed up with ketamine. Relative to doses of placebo, ketamine-addled subjects were impaired across a variety of tasks - short-term memory, attention, and problem solving. They also gave higher ratings when asked to score a number of schizophrenic-type experiences, such as such as 'The world does not feel real to me'.

Anyone investigating specific populations (like patients, drug users or people with developmental disorders), rather than imposing different conditions on a generic population, will tell you nightmares of exclusion criteria, control group selection and so on. The difficulty with ketamine users is that they invariably take a lot more than ketamine - cocaine, weed, ecstacy and even more obscure drugs. Their solution was to accept poly-drug users in the ketamine group - and to match with a control group of poly-drug users, who had never done ketamine. In effect, this is a subtraction technique, similar to the kind that underlies many imaging studies (activation difference between complex and baseline tasks shows you the activation due to the processes unique to the complex task), and underlies much of the presuppositions of cognitive neuropsychology.

Compared to this control group, ketamine users were poorer on days following their drug intake, and still poorer three days afterward. As ketamine has a very short half-life, it seems fair evidence that this may represent neural degeneration (already established in laboratory work - Olney et al 1998), rather than active effects of the drug. (To make sure of this, they also compared subjects from their non-chronic use experiment after three days, and the placebo and ketamine group were not performing at different levels.) Their poorer performance was shown on tests of source memory, story recall, verbal fluency (being able to list words of a specific criteria rapidly) and speed of semantic processing (what things mean). They also, needless to say, showed higher ratings of schizotypic type symptoms. A follow-up study on a sample of former chronic users is also a window into how enduring these effects are; changes in certain measures were heavily correlated with changes in ketamine intake, but many others, including the schizotypic symptoms, continued to persevere. What is perhaps the most ominous of the findings is the apparent irreversability of the impairment produced in episodic memory (personal memories of events and instances), and possibly also attention.

Abstract of paper on healthy individuals link
Abstract of longitudinal paper in Addiction link

*Non-UK readers, insert your own amusing locations (to wit: lively if rough urban area; rural dull spot; corner-store-cum-supermarket). Once you have done this, laugh appreciatively, and wonder at the marvel of international collaboration. Truly, is there nothing we cannot do?

** I hasten to add that Special K the cereal is not in any way hallucinogenic, unless you can hallucinate from eating damn fine flakes. Of maize!

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Penny in the link bank (balance: ₤0.02)

Checkout the webcomics here (click on either archive and start from the beginning): link. More and more you can see the potential for this medium - the style and colours that the bright young things are starting to pull off are cracking.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Penny in the link bank (balance: ₤0.01)

I'd never heard of Oblique Strategies before, but apparently Brian Eno and friend, the artist Peter Schmidt (I'm beginning to sound like Joe Friday here no?) put together their working principles, which were often whimsical and out there, into a deck of cards as inspiration. There is an online oblique-generator at this link.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone: A policy tonight!*

Posting policy, that is.

This whole blogposting thing has become increasingly slackadesical, and I'm the first to admit that. Mainly because the poverty of posting means there's no-one else to do the admitting. The ridiculous thing is I have a stack of things to talk about, but they just get furled up or store away in a text file (normally a never-to-be-sent email, which I find functions quite nicely as an on-the go appendable list).

My attempt at a remedy is this: one post every three days, while offering comment free linkage on other days. That is, a one-liner like "Sebastian really hits it with this post: {link}" or "This story describes some interesting biotech developments, but there is some sinister goings on: {link}. Copyright of biological materials is going too far". If I am in danger of spilling over into more, even a paragraph, I'll finish it off and shelve it for the next post day, and replace with a link instead (hell, there's millions of them). Link days may have more than one link, and may quote where appropriate. The Glenn Reynolds model of blogging, I guess. Items that 'only' get a link may later get upgraded to a post, in that I think of some interesting angle that I want to add. This counts as a post, so two link days to come. Goodies every day, with a personal touch as regular as I can make it.

*With apologies to Stephen Sondheim