Monday, January 22, 2007

Altruistic Humans

Some people claim there's no such thing as pure altruism - humans just do selfless acts to make themselves feel good. I think this is bollocks - the evolutionary argument of fellow species preservation suggest altruism is a good thing. Now scientist have shed some more light on altruism:

Scientists say they have found the part of the brain that predicts whether a person will be selfish or an altruist.

Altruism - the tendency to help others without obvious benefit to oneself - appears to be linked to an area called the posterior superior temporal sulcus.

The participants were asked to disclose how often they engaged in different helping behaviours, such as doing charity work, and were also asked to play a computer game designed to measure altruism.

The study authors say their work could have important implications.

They are now exploring ways to study the development of this brain region in early life and believe such information may help determine how altruistic tendencies are established.

Interesting. Humans can be altruistic without the threat of burning in hell for all eternity. Who would have thought?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Today's Violence

People are often concerned about the level of violence on television. Sure, I wouldn't let young children watch "violent" TV, but I sometimes wonder what it was like back in the day when your kids could go see a public beheading. Thankfully, people are becoming less violent it would seem:

In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."

As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.

Definitely a sign of something good happening in our section of the cosmos.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Nuclear Fear

After it was revealed that seven anti-tank missile launchers were stolen in Australia and planned to be used for terrorists attacks, the media were very quick to say that the Lucas Heights research nuclear reactor in Sydney could have been a potential terrorist target.

That's right, idiots. With 50 years of a very-well researched nuclear industry behind them, the designers of the newly built OPAL reactor forgot to make it missile proof. Is intelligence a rare trait nowadays, or has its use gone out of fashion? More here.

The old reactor was, if memory serves, the size of a washing machine, produced enough power to boil a kettle of water, and was a good 40 years old. The new one is more efficient, and naturally, far superiour in safety. The research reactor, among other things, is used for neutron diffraction where they analyse and obtain the shape and characteristics of various materials, and even DNA. The byproducts are used to make radioactive medicines for all of Australia and even the proudly "nuclear free" New Zealand.

Ironically, an old professor of mine uses the reactor to study certain hydrogen-storing techniques in order to devise better, more environmentally-friendly fuel storage devices for greener cars.

Monday, January 08, 2007

An Inconveniet Truth

Last night I watched Al Gore global warminging documentary An Inconveniet Truth. Not bad, I had no idea that the CO2 graphs matched so well with the global temperature graphs over thousands of years - definitely suggests a very strong correlation. My flatmate's brother was sceptical, and made a couple reasonable points such as an increase sighting of polar bears swimming doesn't mean the globe is warming as those statistics haven't been collected for many years- though that was only one of very many examples Gore uses.

The flatmate's brother also claimed that if one weighed in all the data, the global warming argument would come to stalmate (apparently, him working for the oil company Chevron has nothing to do with his scepticism). I completely disagree with his opinion. I think there are some statistics that don't necessarily imply global warming, but when you see polar ice sheets melting and glaciers retreating, you have to start thinking maybe there's some truth behind this global warming thing.

Ironically, I could have sworn there was a scene where Gore drove a large fuel-guzzling American car, then he condemns America for having such low fuel-efficiency limit - lower than even China. He finishes the documentary by giving simple suggestions to limiting C02 emissions. And now if you dwell in the state of Victoria, you can see how effective your state is doing by looking at weekly C02 emission updates. A world first.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Dodgy Doctors

Every week I read an article highlighting the apparent decline in our education standards. From teaching oh-so-relevant Marxist themes in highschool English to the miserable decline in scientifically-trained teachers, the Australian education system seems to be sustaining politically and financially motivated assaults from all angles. Grimly, now our doctors appear to be suffering:

Almost three in four medical students say they are taught too little anatomy during their medical degree - and more than a third don't even think they have been taught enough about how the body works to be a competent doctor when they graduate.
A survey of more than 600 medical students also found more than half - 53.7 per cent - thought their knowledge of anatomy was inadequately assessed.

And nearly 90 per cent of students agreed that the traditional, guided style of anatomy teaching was "more effective" than the alternatives.

In many medical schools, traditional teaching has been increasingly replaced by a self-directed process where students research topics themselves in groups.

The findings - which have already been sent to the federal Government as part of a submission for its current review of medical school curriculums - are likely to reignite a controversy revealed in The Australian earlier this year, after senior doctors warned the state of anatomy teaching in Australia's medical schools was so bad that public safety was at stake.

I grew up under the belief that doctors were incredibly intelligent and all-knowing. That all changed a couple of years ago when a doctor claimed there was nothing wrong with my back (probably getting kickbacks from my employer). My employer, much to their chagrin, later found out I was telling the truth when they X-rayed my back.

And to think the government recently cut funding to science education. All this gives me a headache.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Binge Drinking

Believe it or not, I can only recall being drunk about 4 or 5 times in highschool. The main reason being I couldn't afford to drink even though I was 18 mid year 12. Then came uni, and it was all over. However, Aussie teenagers get an early and, perhaps, detrimental start:

Parents who allow their children small amounts of alcohol in an attempt to instil safe drinking habits may be setting them on the path to becoming binge drinkers.
The first international comparison of underage alcohol use, conducted by Australian and US researchers and involving 6000 children, has found rates of binge drinking are up to three times higher among Australian Year 9 students compared with equivalent American teenagers.

Australian parents often introduce their children to small amounts of alcohol early, in the hope this "harm minimisation" strategy helps them learn to control their behaviour in later life. By contrast, US attitudes tend to emphasise a zero-tolerance approach, and the legal drinking age is also higher - 21 compared with 18 in Australia.

The study's authors said the findings of higher binge drinking rates in Australia will be "counter to the expectations of harm- minimisation advocates", and showed the Australian approach was not working.

I must say, I don't approve of teenagers getting completely blind every weekend. Perhaps this is the pot calling the kettle black, but highschool years are tough enough without being a legless 14 year old wandering around town. I think year 11 or 12 is reasonable, not year 9. You'll have plenty of time to get plastered when you start uni or spend that year pissing it up, I mean, enjoying culture overseas.

Finally, I was surprised to see that girls binge drink slightly more than boys.