Link Round-up

14 Feb 2012

Here’s a rag-bag of entertaining things...

Whatever: John Scalzi’s blog
John Scalzi writes entertaining science fiction books and is also an all-round good egg. His blog, Whatever, has been around since forever (in internet terms). Scalzi has a magic touch when it comes to moderating comment threads: Whatever must be the politest place on the internet, all without threats or banning or rudeness from John. Scalzi’s books tend towards the light and funny, but his blog posts are sometimes more serious. Here are a couple that really stray dangerously close to thought-provoking: Being Poor, Things I Don’t Have To Think About Today.

Mathematical Fiction
Yes, everything is there to be found on the internet. Even a page detailing more or less every work of fiction involving mathematics even tangentially, scored for “Mathematical Content” and “Literary Quality” (although they do need some graphs to show whether there’s any sort of correlation between these scores!). There’s some good stuff on there, and it’s quite interesting just to browse along the “similar story” links to see where you end up.

Structured Procrastination
I’ve never been a fan of the Getting Things Done type of self-help/self-organisation book, but John Perry, a philosophy professor at Stanford, has what sounds like a perfect recipe for making progress on all those tasks that get pushed aside in favour of more interesting things. The key idea seems to be to make a task list with tasks at the top that you’re never really going to do (“Write novel.” “Learn Icelandic.” “Found religion.”) then use your other tasks as excuses to avoid these. That way you can trick yourself into actually doing things. It sounds like a great way to go, and it fits very nicely with the way that a lot of natural procrastinators already work. We don’t do nothing, we just do something more interesting and perhaps less important that what we’re supposed to be doing...

How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy
Finally, here is one of the freakiest things I have heard about for a long time. You think you have free will? You think you’re in control of the decisions you take? Maybe you should think again. Rats infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which they pick up from cat faeces, exhibit a strange mix of behavioural changes, the most striking of which is that they no longer fear cats. Male rats infected with T. gondii find the smell of cat urine sexually exciting. Result: infected rats get eaten by cats and the parasite goes on its way to explore the next part of its charming life cycle. Big deal, you say. Who cares about freaky rats? The big deal is that T. gondii is a zoonose–it infects humans too. There’s not a perfect match between the parasite and human brains, since T. gondii evolved to jump between cats and rats, but the parasite has enough affinity for human grey matter to cause significant changes in behaviour in some carriers. It gets a little scary when you hear just what those changes are. One is increased recklessness (particularly in males), leading to detectable differences in car accident statistics for carriers compared to non-carriers. Another is schizophrenia, which shows strong correlations with T. gondii status. How weird is that? A parasite that lives in cats and rats may be at least partially responsible for one of the most mysterious and terrifying of mental illnesses. There is still a lot of work to be done on this, but there are some serious people involved in the research, and it sounds pretty solid.

For me, I guess there are two separate “whoah!” moments that come out of this. The first is about the power of evolution. The coevolution of parasites and their hosts is already strange, even before you get to mind-altering parasitic cysts that make one of the parasite’s carriers more likely to be eaten by another. I find it quite hard to get my head around this: it’s like the parasites are farming the rats and cats (albeit unintentionally). The second thing is the idea that schizophrenia in humans may just be collateral damage in the T. gondii/Felis catus/Rattus norvegicus arms race. It would be one thing for humans to suffer the by-blows of some cataclysmic war of the gods, but these are cats, rats and protozoa!

If you want to get even more scary, think about the fact that T. gondii is just one environmental parasite, one of the relatively well-studied ones. There might be dozens of other little suckers shaping you to their ineffable monocellular will. Still think you’re the one driving up there?