The Brain that Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

February 12, 2009 at 16:16 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The brain that changes itself

The brain that changes itself

Norman Doidge has written an eminently readable and interesting book about advances in the understanding of brain function, perception, learning, and response to injury. He also illustrates how these advances are informing the development of more effective treatments and interventions for conditions as diverse as strokes and addiction.

However, the book is somewhat spoiled by the over-congratulatory tenor of the prose, and the over-enthusiastic application of these ideas to every aspect of human behaviour. It is ironic that he spends so much time lambasting the ‘localizationalists’ (bizarrely portrayed as a kind of establishment mafia hell-bent on stifling research) for over-extending their ideas whilst he undertakes similar mental gymnastics in his attempts to demonstrate that every condition – from autism to pornography addiction – can be wholly explained by brain plasticity.

And this is where the book ultimately falls down as a science book. In many cases he asserts ‘facts’ to support his hypotheses which are simply wrong – facts which the rather poorly referenced and constructed end-notes are silent on. The chapter on sexuality is particularly cringeworthy, as he trots out a number of bizarre assertions, social commentary and outdated Freudian concepts to build his arguments, apparently unaware of the rich depth and detail of research in this area which in some cases contradicts his hypotheses.

Is this an interesting book worth reading? Yes. But that comes with a warning that it contains the over-generalisations and unwarranted assumptions that, so often, are found in sloppy science – both ‘popular’ and academic.

Chain cleaning and schoolboy errors

February 5, 2009 at 14:42 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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On Friday, I decided to clean my chain, as it was so caked up with grit from the recent rain. I gave it a bit of a half-hearted clean on the bike, but it wasn’t getting clean. So i decided to take it off the bike. I’ve never done this before, but it has one of those ‘magic link’ thingys so I figured it would be easy. My new year resolution is also to get more adept at doing mechanical stuff on my bikes (I got both a bike tool kit and a ‘how to fix bikes’ book for Christmas…) So I unhook the magic link thingy – easy peasy – stuck the chain in a bucket and give it a clean. I wasn’t altogether clear whether the magic link thingys would come off completely or not. (Yes, the seeds are sown for what went wrong…).. However, I did notice that they did come off, and thought to myself ‘hmmm, mustn’t lose those’. Took clean chain out of bucket, and poured cleaner down the drain at the side of the house. Then rinsed out the bucket, and threw the water over the garden (I was using a bio-degradable cleaner).

Sudden Realisation. I have tipped the magic link thingy’s down the drain. After some dithering, I lifted the drain grating and stuck my arm down. By lying on my side, I could get my arm fully unto the drain, and started fishing around in the murk. It was also dark by this point, so I am now wearing a camping head torch. Mrs Chillikebab came out to see what I was doing and was rather bemused to see her husband lying face down on the path, arm down the drain whilst lighting up the ground with a head torch. Amazingly, I found one of the magic link thingys. This was almost worse than not finding either of them. The other one didn’t appear to be down the drain, though. With a sinking heart I realised it had probably still been in the bucket when I rinsed it. So now I crawl into the hedge, still with the head torch, to scour the leafy ground for the other bit under where I threw the water. No joy. I’m dirty, smelly and annoyed with myself, but I can’t find the damn thing. And it takes me about 30 minutes to get the stinky ‘drain’ smell off my arm; I end up cleaning myself with the cream cleaner and scourer we use on the stovetop.

The next day I go up tot he bike shop, admit my incompetence, and get a new link. It’s a slightly different design, as he doesn’t have the SRAM ones in stock, but it will do. It comes in two pieces; one bit has both the pins on it, the other is a small plate with a slot in it. I get the bike out of the shed, bring it up onto the deck, and set to work. All is going well, I’m just clipping the plate on, when it pings off and I drop it. It falls, as if attracted like a magnet, towards the very narrow gap between the planks on my decking and vanishes out of sight. It’s quite remarkable; it would have been a job to post it through, but it mush have fallen exactly vertically, and exactly over the gap in the boards. I hear a forlorn ‘ping’ as it lands under the house. Getting it out seems too difficult an undertaking (getting under the house it very tricky, notwithstanding the wildlife living under there), so I’m buggered – I now have two half magic-links, which are not compatible. Today I went to a different bike shop near work and bought another set of ‘magic link’ thingys. These are yet another slightly different design. I can see I’m going to end up losing another one, and have three of the beggars which are not compatible…

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