The human brain and its tendency to believe irrational things

The last two interviews on the Angry Atheist podcast have got me thinking a lot about whether the human brain is predisposed to believe in religion, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, etc.

Firstly Craig James, author of The Religion Virus, talked about religion in terms of evolution, explaining how religions have adapted and progressed, and the strongest strains survive because of their ability to take hold in our brains. Our brains are the ecosphere in which these ideas live. Craig explained that the ideas that survive are the ones that appeal to us (someone is looking out for us, you’ll get to meet your dead relatives in heaven and be happy forever) as well as things that people are afraid of (fear of making God angry, eternity in hell, for example).

It made me start to wonder: what has atheism really got to offer? There’s no attractive warm fluffy appeal or fear factor to make it stick in people’s head. I guess it only really appeals on an intellectual level. Craig mentioned that most people don’t tend to continue to believe something once they realise that it’s not right, which could be an advantage for atheism. It also means that the anti-gay churches are going to struggle in the future as more and more people are realising that homophobia is not right. Those churches will either need to adapt or die.

The other interview was with DPRJones, youtube broadcaster and host of The Magic Sandwich chat show. Part of what DPRJones talked about was the question of why people buy into religion. A lot of it comes down to how we are brought up, which is interesting, but more interesting for me is the connection to the evolution of the human brain.

Homo Sapiens are very good communicators, and we understand that the evolution of large frontal lobes has something to do with that. DPRJones points out that we have the advantage of being able to imagine conversations with people before we have them. We can also imagine conversations with people who are dead, or don’t even exist. 50% of 4-year-olds have an imaginary friend who they talk to. It’s no wonder that, when children are told there is a God they can’t see who cares about them, they accept it without question. DPRJones also mentioned that 9-year-olds questioned about dead animals mostly had the notion that the animal, while it no longer needs food or drink, still has desires of some sort. It seems natural for us to believe in life continuing after death.

I’ve read similar ideas before. Richard Dawkins explains some elements of religion as a by-products of evolution. For example, most of us are inclined to obey authority. It is an evolutionary advantage for us, when told not to do dangerous things, to obey. Disobedience sometimes causes death. This evolutionary advantage “misfires” when we feel we must please and obey a God, much like moths who fly towards artificial lights because they evolved to navigate by the light of the moon.

These things help me to understand why i so naturally believed that Christianity was right, and why some of my beliefs continue to persist unnecessarily. If something goes wrong, my first thought is still to wonder if i’m being “punished” by God for some wrongdoing, until i remember that it’s an irrational thing to believe and then i feel liberated to find a solution to the problem.

Sometimes i still wonder though, whether i am really any better off now as a non-believer than i was as a believer. I still suffer the common faults in human thought patterns. I am not free of confirmation bias, of self-consistency bias, of herd mentality, of assuming that i am right. Isn’t it funny that everyone, no matter what they believe, thinks that they are right? Even when writing this post, i’ve had to try to stop myself from implying that atheism is the obvious conclusion to logical thought. I can picture myself ten years ago and know that i definitely would not have agreed!

I don’t think i believe in anything irrational now, but i only need to follow the patterns of the human psyche and extrapolate to realise that i probably do. It scares me that i have no idea what those things are.

Did Jesus actually exist?

I’m always learning new things. Even though i’ve been an atheist for several years, i’ve always had the opinion that Jesus probably existed. I’ve heard people claim that Jesus did not exist but i never really heard any good reasons to back up their claims. I kind of thought, “Oh, that’s taking it a bit too far, isn’t it?”

I was happy to accept that sure, maybe Jesus existed. Maybe Jesus said some really inspiring things, and maybe some really horrific things. Maybe a lot of the stories were elaborated and embellished over time. But surely Jesus existed, right? I mean there’s historical evidence outside of the bible, right?

Turns out, not so much. Actually, the most celebrated reference to Jesus outside of the bible was probably fabricated, and even provides quite a strong hint that Jesus did not exist at all. It’s this passage from the Jewish historian Josephus:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

– Jewish Antiquities 18.3.3

Oh, i remember Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha Course placing great significance on this passage as part of the evidence that we can be sure Jesus existed. But hold on, what’s this? The passage was supposedly written 93 years after the birth of Jesus, yet it was not referenced by any Christian historian or scholar for over 200 years after that. It was first referenced by church historian Eusebius in 325 CE. Other copies of Jewish Antiquities existed that did not contain this passage. The writing style does not match the rest of Josephus’ writings. This passage comes out of context to the surrounding passages.

What are we to assume? It seems very likely that Eusebius inserted this passage. I mean, it’s perfect for any Christian who wants reassurance that Jesus is mentioned outside of the bible. It’s actually too perfect: Jesus’ works, teachings, being accepted as the Messiah, death, resurrection, fulfilment of prophecies.

And here’s the thing: that’s it! You take that passage on its own and it looks great for Jesus. But when you understand that Josephus wrote at length about many other people at the time, but said no more than this about the supposed saviour of mankind, Jesus Christ, it’s starting to look very much as if Jesus did not actually exist at all.

Then you find out that at the time of Jesus there were already many mythological stories about sun gods who were born to a virgin (often on December 25th), dying and being reborn. It was a common meme. Apparently, Christians have tried to explain that Satan went back in time to create these stories to make it look as though the story of Jesus was based upon them!

I think i can see now why some people consider it unlikely that Jesus ever existed, just like Horus never existed.

As a post-script, here is something i learned a long time ago, but i can’t vouch for whether or not it is true. Apparently, the three stars in Orion’s belt form a line that points down to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. If you extend this line down to the horizon, it points to the exact point where the sun rises, but only on one day of the year. Guess which day? December 25th. The three kings followed the star to find the son.

An evening with Professor Stuart Burgess

Last night i went to a talk given by Professor Stuart Burgess on biblical creationism. It was a public event at Winchester Guildhall, organised by the Hyde Street Chapel, our local congregation of hard-core young-earth creationists. Since anybody is welcome, seven atheists/humanists decided to go along. We weren’t there to cause a fuss, just to ask some questions.

Burgess is a professor of Engineering Design at Bristol university. If you read British Centre for Science Education summary of Stuart Burgess you might get a clue on why we wanted to be there. This guy has some seriously scary beliefs, and uses force and scare tactics to try to make other people believe them too.

The infiltration

After a quick drink and snack at the nearby pub, we went in separately and distributed ourselves throughout the audience. I sat next to a retired minister from Kent and immediately had something to talk about: my dad is a minister and my mum lives in Kent! :) I am sure the minister fully believed i was a Christian. Which meant i was privy to overhearing some interesting pre-talk discussions next to me, chuckling about how anyone could be so stupid to dismiss the beauty of creation. Yup, this crowd was hooked in from the start.

Someone took to the stage to welcome us and introduce the speaker. I smiled as i received a “special welcome to anyone who is here for the first time – we trust you’ll feel at home”.

The talk

Professor Stuart Burgess opened the talk: The Design Argument. Burgess outlined that design reveals a designer. As it does in mechanics, so it does in nature too.

The first slide was a technical diagram of an aeroplane, accompanied by the statement that an aeroplane is designed. We switched to a picture of a bird, then the bone structure. I think Burgess pointed out some kind of a similarity between the bird and the plane and instantly concluded that if an aeroplane is designed, then a bird must be too.

I don’t want to debunk everything, or this will get really long. But feel free to smash any of Burgess’ arguments to pieces in the comments below! :)

You don’t need a PhD to understand the design argument, even a child can understand it.

This quote is interesting in context of later comments that insulted the audience’s intelligence and claimed that you DO need a PhD to understand pretty much anything else.

On the day of judgement there will be no excuses. It’s no good saying that you listened to Dawkins.

Here we get a hint towards Burgess’ real soap box (judgement day) and an introduction to the nemesis of the talk, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins knows nothing about design.

We were repeatedly told throughout the talk that Dawkins has no qualification to speak about design, never having designed anything. There was a lot of bragging that Burgess tried to cover up with modesty “I don’t really want to bring this up but … I’m a professor of engineering design and Dawkins isn’t” sort of thing.

You often hear from Dawkins, “That giraffe just evolved a long neck and it wasn’t very difficult”.

I don’t know Dawkins’ work well enough to comment, but i suspect this is a gross misrepresentation, a flippant throw-away comment to try and discredit Dawkins.

Having been told what a useless n00b Dawkins is, it was time for us to be impressed by some of Burgess’ designs. Cue complicated technical diagrams and mathematical equations along with casually insulting the intelligence of the audience.

This is something i invented and designed. I don’t expect you to understand it.

I would be very offended if anyone told me that something like that could evolve. It took me many months of hard work to design it.

I really wish Richard Dawkins would take my first year engineering course in design. He would learn that it doesn’t happen by chance.

We were treated to a video of Envisat (Environmental Satellite) going into orbit in 2002. Burgess contributed to the design of the auto-expanding solar array, and paused the video at a few points to draw our attention to its magnificent design. There was a wry quip that some people thought it was called Envisat because they were envious of it.

I am saddened so often to hear Dawkins say that design and creation is easy, that it just happens.

We moved on to another of Burgess’ favourite topics: the irreducible complexity of the human knee joint. This is mostly from a paper written in 1999 that has been heavily criticised. Bristol university list Burgess’ other publications, but omit this one.

It was made clear that we shouldn’t expect to understand any of it. A diagram showed two bones and four ligaments. It looked pretty simple to me, but apparently you’d have to be in your final year at university to appreciate it. I forget whether Burgess said you’d have to be studying biology or engineering.

Burgess tried to simplify it for us by demonstrating how 4 pieces of Meccano move when connected together. We were specifically told that the 4-bar compact hinge knee joint “cannot evolve”. It was on the slide and everything. It is Burgess’ belief that the elbow joint could evolve, but the knee joint cannot.

The human knee joint is too wonderful for Richard Dawkins to understand. He will just say it evolved because he thinks everything did.

Burgess successfully omitted all the criticisms of the last twelve years that explain how multiple characteristics can develop simultaneously, and still sticks to the misguided belief that evolution says characteristics develop one at a time.

We were shown a few slides that demonstrate 4-bar mechanisms in birds, fish and dragonflies. It seems that Burgess encourages engineering students to search for these marvellous 4-bar mechanisms in animals.

Burgess made a few more comments disregarding evolution but did not dwell on them. Some sarcastic remark about “evolutionary breakthroughs” triggered a sympathetic chuckle from the audience, who apparently were lapping it all up.

Everywhere i look, i see optimal design. Everything is optimal.

Even the human eye? Our nose and throat connection? The laryngeal nerve? Our sex organs right next to our waste disposal system? One hole for eating, drinking, talking and breathing? You’re telling us these are all optimal design?

All species of bird ALL have optimal wings, and that is true if you look back in the fossil records. Complete optimal design.

As one of my twitter followers pointed out: “Tell that to a penguin.”

Now we moved on to added beauty. A round column can hold up a building, but architects add features such as ridges and elaboration that add to the beauty without providing additional functionality. Apparently we see the same thing happening in nature.

Evolution cannot explain birdsong or the beauty of peacocks.

I know what Burgess is getting at: evolutionary theory has something in it about unnecessary features being lost. I suppose the answer to this lies in competition. The peahen chooses the most attractive peacock to mate with, and that’s how the genes for beauty get preserved and enhanced. I’m guessing here; i should look into this in more detail.

And then we were told we would need a degree in music to understand the beauty of bird song! This whole thing relies on me being too stupid to understand anything, therefore I have to rely on experts to tell me what to believe.

Sadly, millions of people read Dawkins’ books.

This triggered a reminder in me: when i was a Christian i was too scared to read anything by Dawkins. I think we were discouraged from it, though i can’t remember explicitly being told not to. It was more likely from comments like this. Personally, i think i was scared that i might learn something that would cause me to have doubts, and doubts are bad. You must always just believe.

Funnily enough, not knowing anything about Dawkins, i still had an opinion. I remember once, as a Christian, walking into a bookshop with another christian, seeing The God Delusion on promotion and commenting “I feel so sorry for Richard Dawkins”.

Burgess made a smug comparison of credentials in engineering and mechanical design. A table on screen listed Burgess’ credibility: over 100 publications, 30 years experience in the field, 10 years teaching experience and so on. Next to Burgess were Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, with great big triumphant zeroes in their columns. All this was covered with a lot of feigned embarrassment: “I apologise for comparing myself to Dawkins and Dennett … I didn’t really want to show you this …”

The table was carefully constrained to make Burgess look great, and make Dawkins and Dennett look like numpties. In fact it just points out that they specialise in different fields. You could construct a similar table constrained to experience in biology, and Burgess would look like the biggest n00b of them all.

Apparently Dawkins always criticised imperfect design but never suggests a better design. This was mentioned in reference to the human blind spot, something i happen to know a bit about, so i called Burgess out on it later.

In his latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, Dawkins is more angry than he’s ever been.

Dawkins is trying to make everybody see the world in a very black way.

There were a few off-hand comments about atheists being angry, offensive, arrogant bullies. It was not specifically spelled out, but young ears in particular would have heard a character portrayal that will stick with them.

Right after those comments, we got a perfect example of Burgess being offensive, arrogant, and a bully!

I had a student come to me and say he thought he had designed a perpetual motion machine. I said to him, “You are a fresher! You have only been here for one week. You have unconscious ignorance. You don’t even know what your ignorances are. Come back to me in your final year and then we’ll see if you have designed a perpetual motion machine!”

I don’t think this was a one-off occurrence of belittling students. I can’t remember the specifics, but there was a definite “This is what i tell my students” to do with unconscious ignorance, and after a few years they might get conscious ignorance, followed by unconscious knowledge and maybe finally conscious knowledge.

I think you know where Richard Dawkins fits into that!

Sniggers from the audience. In case we didn’t get it, Burgess spelled it out.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t even know what he is ignorant of.

We were coming to the end and the pace picked up with ever more absurd statements.

I could find a billion arguments that prove God exists but they would be ignored because they are not the evidence science is looking for.

It got more religious in theme. Burgess started going on about The Curse, that we live in cursed times. Everything bad was blamed on this Curse, including sore throats (Burgess had a sore throat last night).

We came back to the original scare tactics, clearly Burgess’ real passion: Judgement Day. Again we were told that there would be no excuses on the day of judgement. You can’t stand before God and say you ignored all the evidence of creation.

People have to remember that they will be in trouble on the day of reckoning. We have a duty to inform our friends and neighbours.

And don’t worry if you don’t understand anything about logic or reasoning, or science at all:

The way you argue can be more important than what you’re saying. It’s a spiritual argument. God works in people’s hearts.

The questions

Due to Burgess’ cursed throat, there was only opportunity for three questions. I put my hand up straight away and talked about the human eye and the blind spot. Burgess had said that Dawkins never provides a better design, but i suggested that the octopus eye was an example of a better design. Their light receptors are in front of the nerves, whereas ours are behind. We have this gap where the nerves go through the retina to the brain, giving us this blind spot so our brain basically has to hallucinate to make up the picture. This can be shown with a few optical illusions. Octopuses, and all cephalopods, don’t have this design flaw. So my question: “Do you think God prefers octopuses to humans?”

Burgess said that octopuses are very different and have different requirements for vision. “I stand in front of you now looking in the audience and i’m not aware of any blind spot” (No, because our brains are pretty awesome at inventing what it thinks might be in the blind spot – see these blind spot tests and map your blind spot.)

Burgess ended the answer by stating that we can’t always understand why God designed something in a certain way, but it is always perfect.

Jon, another infiltrator, picked up the question and pushed Burgess a little further on the design of octopus eyes. A teenager in front of me whispered “Oooh, i hate him! He was here last time!”

Burgess allowed for one last question. And it was Clio, another infiltrator! Actually, i don’t think the Christians there had any questions; maybe they were just there to pick up creationist arguments to tell to their evolutionist friends.

Clio is a medical doctor and was successfully able to push back and forth with Burgess. I was delighted that Clio brought up the laryngeal nerve which i only learned about yesterday, and found fascinating. It provides a good indication that we evolved from something like a fish.

In fish, this nerve goes straight down from the brain, past the heart to the gills. In all mammals, the laryngeal nerve still exists, still loops round the heart, and comes back up the neck to the larynx (voice box). It enables us to talk and swallow. In giraffes, this nerve travels 4 metres from the brain, down the neck to the heart, then comes back up again to a point 2 inches from where it started. An intelligent designer would presumably have chosen the optimum 2 inches route rather than 4 metres. In designing you have the opportunity of starting from scratch. Evolution makes more sense for gradually stretching this nerve over the course of millennia.

Burgess had no answer to this, which is a shame because some people have made good points about this nerve also branching off to other organs, and suggesting that maybe the brain needs to know about what the stomach is doing in order to decide how to control the larynx. But Burgess, not being a biologist, merely made reference to “some people” who thought the laryngeal nerve was poorly designed but later realised it was perfectly designed after all! :D

After a few more questions from Clio about sickle-cell anaemia it all came back to simply blaming every bad thing on The Curse … and praising God for everything good! Whoopee! :D

Having sussed that some people in the audience were not christians, the host came back on stage and encouraged us to read our Bibles “and if you haven’t got one we’ll give you one!” :)

The infiltrator chats

The best part came at the end, where we talked to the people there. I firstly went to challenge Stuart Burgess on the billion proofs of God’s existence that would supposedly be ignored. I think that if there were even one undeniable proof that God exists, everyone would want to know about it. I’d certainly change my mind straight away if someone had indisputable evidence.

Burgess disagreed. “People don’t want to know” … “Essentially there are a billion proofs all around us and people just ignore them”. I tried to press my point even harder – “Because there are alternative explanations. I’m talking about something that provided absolute proof with no other explanation”. Burgess still thought that people would just ignore it.

I later got chatting with a group of people who admitted to having doubts, but just chose to trust God in all of it. I encouraged them to think in terms of knowledge vs belief: “You don’t know for a fact that God exists, but you believe God exists. I don’t know for a fact that God does not exist, but i don’t believe in God.”

We had a very nice conversation, very respectful of each other. It basically came to this: we had the same doubts and the same questions. They chose to go to their bibles, and i chose to go to science. I said i like things that can make predictions, that you can experiment and test, and multiple people can come to the same conclusions from the evidence.

Somebody told me there are no contradictions in the bible. I got the Skeptics Annotated Bible up on my tablet PC and turned to just the short list of contradictions in the bible. I can respect their faith and beliefs, but if they tell me the bible has no contradictions, i will tell them that it does. We just looked at the first question: the grandfather of Jesus. They looked it up on their Blackberry and said “Oh yeah! I never noticed that!” and then said something about the genealogy of Jesus being important. I suggested that maybe Matthew elaborated a little to put Jesus in the right family to match the prophecies.

I hope i showed that there are questions to be asked, and that atheists are not all angry, arrogant, offensive, bullying.

I was actually thanked for coming: so often it’s all one-sided and they found it interesting to have another point of view to consider. I know i would have loved it if something like that had happened when i was young and brainwashed, and having doubts. It would have been really good for me to see that someone can come to alternative explanations and be happy about it. That’s really the reason we were there.

The end

Now i have written far too much! But i hope if some skeptics find this blog post in the future they will be prepared for an evening with Stuart Burgess. I have no reason to suspect that the content matter will change much: it seems Burgess has been rehashing this stuff about the knee joint for the last twelve years and will continue to do so for a lot longer yet.

Now bring on the comments! Let’s see if i get an army of arrogant offensive bullying christians! :)

Computer generated art

I woke up yesterday with a simple idea for generating a picture based on an input string. I don’t exactly know where the idea came from, but i think i’ve been influenced by Nick Huggins, whose abstract work i adore, and also in a way by QR codes. I’m not a particularly artistic person, but i figured i could come up with an algorithm and let the computer do the creative bit for me! :)

So i installed the open source tools ImageMagick and RMagick, learned a bit about the RVG library, and set about trying some ideas. I fiddled and tweaked the algorithm until it seemed to consistently output something that was reasonably pleasant. Here is the picture for my name, and for my twitter id.

aimee @sermoa

Having tried random numbers and obvious inputs like my name, i searched for other input sources. Being interested in community generated content, i wrote a script to fetch the current top twitter trends. Here are the results.

Kim Hee Chul Solomon Burke Steamed Bun #thingsyoushouldntsay HEEBUM
#badsongsinjail Limera1n Aiden #bsr_tousounow One Direction

As you can see, some come out better than others. I’m adding the input string mostly for debugging purposes so that i can see how the image was seeded. When i get one that i like, i can increase the blur and remove the input string. For example, i really like the images produced by “Kim Hee Chul” and “#bsr_tousounow”, so let’s try with a bit more blur.

Kim Hee Chul (with more blur) #bsr_tousounow

Nice, hey?! Not sure they’re ready for a gallery just yet, but certainly an interesting experiment.

Everything in the picture is generated from the input string: the size, colour, number of boxes, box sizes, opacity, border style. It is extremely unlikely that any two input strings would ever generate the same picture. However, the algorithm is not random. Given an input string, you’ll always get the same picture, though i may choose to do some post-processing on it (such as blur, frame, lighten or darken).

In the interests of sharing knowledge here is the main structure of my generator, but the really creative part is in how it comes up with the numbers, which is going to remain a secret, sorry!

I am willing to generate images for anybody who asks nicely! :)

Gowalla pins

As of Monday, 5th July, these are the 38 pins currently available on Gowalla, grouped by category. I just made this because it’s sometimes hard to see what all the pins are at a glance.

If you’re curious about Gowalla, see my other introductory post: Gowalla tips.

Installing Gowalla

I Installed Gowalla I Installed Gowalla

Checking in

Wanderer Wanderer Check in at 5 different Spots to receive the Wanderer Pin.
Sightseer Sightseer Check in at 10 different Spots to receive the Sightseer Pin.
Ranger Ranger Check in at 25 different Spots to receive the Ranger Pin.
Discoverer Discoverer Check in at 50 different Spots to earn the Discoverer Pin.
Explorer Explorer Check in at 100 different Spots to receive the Explorer Pin.
Wayfarer Wayfarer Check in at 250 different Spots to receive the Wayfarer Pin.
Voyager Voyager Check in at 500 different Spots to receive the Voyager Pin.
Epic Voyager Epic Voyager Check in at 1,000 different spots to receive the Epic Voyager Pin!

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My first geocaching experience

Many readers will know that i enjoy geohashing ( locating a geographic point detemined daily by randomly generated coordinates. For a long time i’ve been wanting to try the sport that inspired geohashing, which is geocaching.

Geocaching ( is another GPS game where you have to find a ‘cache’ which has been hidden by someone else. The cache stays there indefinitely and over the course of time several people will follow clues to find it. The cache may be large or small, and may contain various items. People sometimes take an item out and replace it with another item for the next visitor to find.

Today i got my chance to go geocaching for the first time. All the geohash locations were uninteresting or hard to reach this weekend, so my geohashing friend Mike came to Winchester for the afternoon. We initially planned to spend an afternoon juggling, but it was a bit wet and the ground too dirty for that. We went for lunch in the Bridge Patisserie and then decided to look whether there were any geocaches nearby.

It turned out there was one just around the corner! GC1N2M9 – Winchester Chesil Station which is part of a series of geocaches along the route of the former Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway. I became interested in this railway line since my geohash in Bar End where i noticed the railway line going past St Catherine’s Hill on a map from 50 years ago. So i was curious to go anyway, to see whether i could spot any clues of the former railway and the station.

The first clue made me laugh to myself that i’d never noticed it before!

Old Station Approach

Old Station Approach. The clue is in the name!

The second clue is even bigger! This is the entrance to the tunnel that went straight through St Giles’ Hill and out the other side in Winnall before it carried on towards Kings Worthy. I wonder whether the tunnel is still intact?

Where in Winchester?

This is a contribution to the Flickr group Guess Where Winchester? so [shhh] on the location! ;)

The footbridge near the multi-storey car park has a definite ‘railway feel’ about it, don’t you think?

the bridge and the car park

That car park is built exactly where the old station used to be. It was called Winchester Cheesehill, the old name for the area we now call Chesil.

The view from the bridge:

view from the bridge

The silver car driving away is following the route of the old railway line. There is no sign of it now, but a photo on wikipedia proves the history. Winchester Chesil Station

We looked for a long time before we found the geocache. It was very small and very well hidden. I don’t believe anyone would find it unless they were specifically looking for it. Eventually Mike pulled it up. It was really nicely labelled:

found the geocache!


Look what was inside!

opening up the tiny geocache

list of previous visitors to the geocache

A list of people and dates when they have found the cache. The list was actually full: somebody needs to go back and put in a new sheet of paper.

I really enjoyed my first geocaching experience. There are loads of geocaches all over Winchester so i’ll definitely be going to find more. There are another 4 in this series on the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway which i am keen to find, whilst learning more about the old railway line.

Audio illusions

I love optical illusions, particularly ones which make us see things that aren’t there, miss things that are there, or misinterpret things. They show us that our brains do not faithfully relay everything in the outside world directly to our consciousness, but there is plenty of pre-processing, pattern matching and filtering that goes on in real time.

Today i discovered an amazing audio illusion that just blew my mind. Perhaps because i am quite used to optical illusions, they don’t have the same powerful effect on me, but when you see this you’ll realise that what you ‘hear’ and what you ‘see’ effect each other enormously.

Play it a few times, sometimes watching and listening, sometimes just listening (close your eyes). Isn’t it incredible how you ‘hear’ something different depending on whether you are watching or not?! It’s a very persistent effect too. Even though i know i should be able to hear ‘ba ba’ when i’m watching, i just can’t. My brain takes the visual input and processes it with the audio to tell me what it thinks i have heard.

Here’s another good audio illusion, though it may not work for everybody. Play this a couple of times. You might be surprised at what you hear on the second play!

I think it’s all about the harmonics and balance, but i’m sure there is a fair amount of brain trickery involved with our tendency to match patterns wherever possible.

There is also an audio illusion which i can’t try because it requires speakers placed some distance apart, but apparently it causes people to hear phantom words that aren’t there at all. Different people hear different words. This to me is very interesting from the point of view of spiritual experiences. People say they hear angels, or the voice of God. I once had an experience where the volume of about 60 people singing suddenly sounded more like 200. Just because you hear something doesn’t mean it is there.

I’ve also recently been interested in the spectrum of what people can hear. There is a ‘mosquito’ alarm outside a nearby shop that emits a squealing noise at a very high frequency. I had no idea it was there until somebody told me they could hear the noise. It’s very unpleasant apparently, and its purpose is to stop kids from wanting to hang around outside the shop. The frequency is more likely to be heard by children than adults because their audible range is larger.

It’s quite fascinating to be reminded that everything we think we see, hear, smell, taste and feel is really just the brain’s filtered interpretation of the things around us.

Right Now Search

With all this talk of Google wanting to buy Twitter, it got me thinking about the exciting potential for real-time searching. I’ve seen some greasemonkey scripts for adding Twitter search results into Google, but i wanted something a little bit different. I wanted to search multiple places and bring them together in columns. Something a bit like this:

Right Now Search

So i spent the whole afternoon figuring out how to do it (and in the process, learning how to do object-oriented PHP!) and you can try it out here:

I need help on making it more interactive. It should be fairly easy to define new search locations like plugins. I want people to be able to choose which they wish to search on. I would like AJAX updating with auto refreshing. And of course i need a lot of help with the design!

If you fancy having a play, fork it on Github! :)