February 2013
« Jan   Mar »




Brain to Brain Interfaces: Rats Get them First, but Death Row Inmates Next?

February 28, 2013

We’re pretty squeamish about doing inhuman experiments on people. But most of us don’t think twice about being inhumane with animals. There are so many examples out there and it is not just testing for the development of cosmetics. How about breeding mice so that they are likely to get cancer so that we can then test out anti-cancer drugs on them? There are lots of things that we do to animals that we wouldn’t want happening to us. And don’t get me started on the ethics of raising intelligent animals like pigs so that we can kill and eat them.

Maybe comparisons with other species is not fair because humans are “special” and we should not have the same standards for humans that we apply for animals. But there are so many interesting experiments that might be very informative and helpful, if they didn’t have ethical problems. And not all of those experiments are conducive to using animal models.

Sometimes we are able to do what would otherwise be unethical experiments in special circumstances. Consider the case of electrodes implanted directly into the brain. Normally the ethical way to record brain activity is to use electrical recordings from the scalp (EEG) or a form of medical brain imaging (e.g., PET or MRI). Each of these approaches has problems. The EEG data is noisy, and it is not well localized to specify areas in the brain. MRIs and PET scans are good at showing structural details in the brain but they are not good at saying when exactly something happened. The more ethical indirect recording methods don’t provide the fine spatial AND temporal resolution available from electrodes implanted in the brain. But we have found a way around these problems in some cases. For instance, people with severe physical disabilities sometimes get electrode arrays implanted inside their brains so that can communicate with computers by thinking. Ideally it’s a win/win situation where they provide research data while also getting a means of interacting with the world. And some people with severe epilepsy have had their brains probed with electrodes to collect scientific data about the brain works (while they are having brain operations to try and relieve their seizures).

But even though we have been creative in using special populations to carry out brain research that would be considered inhumane for the general population, there are still many fascinating experiments that we can currently perform on animals but can’t perform on people.

Consider the case of direct brain-to-brain communication. Imagine that you could know exactly what another person was thinking. It may not be for everyone, but intelligence services would love to have it when interrogating spies. Recently, fascinating research on this topic has been carried out with rats ( by Professor Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues
( at Duke University.



According to the BBC summary of the research: “The researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem – pressing the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on, to obtain a water sip [this was obviously a thirsty rat].

The researchers then placed the rodents in separate chambers and connected their brains using arrays of microelectrodes – each roughly one hundredth the diameter of a human hair – inserted into the area of the cortex that processes motor information.”

Here’s a picture of a rat showing the cap it is wearing and the wires that are transmitting its brain data.

One rat was designated as the “encoder”. Once this rat pressed the correct lever, its brain activity was delivered as electrical stimulation into the brain of the second rat – designated the “decoder”.The decoder rat had the same types of levers in its chamber, but it did not receive any visual cue indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward.

In order to receive the reward, the decoder rat would have to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain interface. The following figures show how the experiment worked.

A light is switched on in the trained, encoder rat’s cage above one of two levers which will release a reward if pressed.
The encoder rat sees the light and presses a lever to receive a reward. As it does so, the brain signal is sent to the decoder rat’s brain.
The decoder rat interprets the brain signal, chooses the correct lever and gets a reward. If the decoder rat gets it right, the encoder rat gets an extra reward.
In other words, both rats were being rewarded for communicating with each other through their brain activity. And since it is an electronic link, if the communication works, it can work whether they are in neighboring cages in the same room, or if they are thousands of miles away from each other.
“The brain to brain interface (BTBI) allowed the decoder animals to repeatedly perform significantly above chance. This performance immediately dropped to chance levels when the cable was disconnected but the system remained fully functional.” So just in case you were wondering, the rats were not using ESP to perform  the task.
And other point to note is that while some communication between the rat brains was occurring, it was by no means perfect. As can be seen in the following figure (from the journal paper) the decoder rat was pressing the correct lever about two thirds of the time. So the decoder was processing the wrong lever about a third of the time, but that’s still a lot better than getting half of the selections wrong (as would occur by chance alone).
I am intrigued by this study. It would be surprising if something similar couldn’t be made to work for human beings. But what about the problem of getting electrodes implanted in human brains for this study? Well here’s a suggestion. Why not ask people on death row to volunteer. Maybe they could be given an extra week of life for each inhumane experiment they participated in, or maybe they could be entered into a lottery where they had a chance to get their sentence commuted to life in prison if they did the experiment. For me, it’s hard to see what could be more inhumane than putting a person to death. And maybe it would be inhumane not to give people the chance to pay back their debt to society by providing valuable scientific data?
Now I know that some people regard a death sentence as necessary punishment and deterrence, but maybe we could take advantage of the situation for the good of science. Sure, it might be a biased sample of rogues and political prisoners that we would be collecting, but we are also talking about general brain processes that should probably transfer fairly readily to the general population.


Posted in: Events | Tags: , , , , , , ,

How to Get the Credit Card Company to Avoid Canceling Your Card When You are Traveling

February 28, 2013

Of course the credit card companies are doing us a big favor. They make everything so convenient and it would be very difficult these days to book things online without them. Maybe they feel like all this convenience should come at a price, over and above the cut that they take on each transaction. So they get us to call them up before we travel anywhere and each time we do that we have those wonderful skill testing questions.

You could try taking multiple credit cards for redundancy when you travel, but if all the credit card companies play the same loss prevention game, then you could just end up with multiple frozen cards instead of just one.

It seems annoying don’t you think? If you travel fairly frequently then it can get a bit onerous. And what if you are a frequent traveller with a bunch of different credit cards? That’s a lot of phone calls.


So what is a frequent traveller to do, especially one who doesn’t particularly want to keep calling the credit companies for permission every time he is thinking of traveling?

One of the good things about ranting on Facebook is that you will often get useful information from friends and colleagues. Recently I was describing my experience of having my five digit PIN (for my credit card) fail in New Zealand because they only take 4-digit PINs there on Facebook. Someone, it turns out, had the reverse experience of having had a four digit PIN frozen in Switzerland because it wasn’t 5 digits.

You know how it is with Facebook, you keep the thread going and suddenly you get some useful information such as the following:

“But the training them for international travel is easy. Call them once and tell them if they ever turn down your card on a trip again, you will cancel it. They will flag your file as a frequent travel customer and never bug you again.”

So there it is. If you are being bullied, then bully back. Brilliant. I am not much of a tough guy, but I might give it a try.

And what about my credit card situation? Well I’m not sure. I wasted more of my time calling customer service this afternoon and they told me to try it out and see if it works. Go to a shop and order something, and take some cash with you just in case. Brilliant again! I feel like they should be paying me to do the research for them.

I am starting to think that the credit card companies are vast bureaucracies where each department jealously guards its information and arcane rituals in order to make everyone else reliant on it.

But I suppose the moral of the story is to threaten to cancel your card if they freeze it while you are overseas, and to convert your five digit PIN to a four digit PIN, unless you are traveling to Switzerland.


Posted in: Events | Tags: , , , ,

Make Sure you Only have a Four Digit PIN Code on Your Credit Card

February 28, 2013

ore digits makes a PIN code more secure, right? That’s what I thought until very recently. I had a five digit PIN on my credit card but it turns out that most countries in the world only accept a four digit PIN. So when I bought gas in New Zealand and tried to use my five digit pin the system wouldn’t accept it. Disbelieving, I enter in the PIN two more times and then my card was locked down for the rest of the trip and I was not able to use it.

So the geniuses at TD Visa offered to send me a new card while I was in New Zealand, but thank goodness I turned them down. If I had got the new card it would have had a different number and all my subscriptions would have failed. Plus it would probably have arrived after I left the country. The last time I got a new card with a different number (when I was travelling around the time my card was expiring and they sent me the replacement card too late) I couldn’t ride my BIxi bike for a couple of months (when you add credit card shenanigans to a slow reset process in another company it really gets messy).

So the bottom line is that if you have a Canadian credit card with a five digit PIN code you should go to your bank branch and get the code set to four digits.

And every time you travel, make sure that you call the fraud prevention geniuses so that they don’t lock your card when you use it in a different company. These people are trying to train us. Call them for this, call them for that. If this wasn’t a monopoly people would vote with their feet. But they can’t. We have to do back flips so that the credit card companies can avoid the cost of fraud.



Posted in: Events | Tags: , , , , , ,

Spring Sale and Weekend Deal At Vera Bradley!

February 23, 2013

SHOP Vera Bradley

Spring has arrived at! Now through March 6th they’re offering 25% off these colours: Camellia, Doodle Daisy, Ellie Blue, Priscilla Pink.

13550 10007084

Posted in: 2-4 Day Deals | Tags:

$20 off Men’s & Women’s Boots Plus Free Shipping at Timberland!

February 23, 2013

SHOP Timberland

Save $20 off men’s and women’s boots from Timberland plus free shipping until February 25, 2013. And don’t forget about their clearance sale event going on while supplies last!

$20 Off Men's & Women's Boots Plus Free Shipping

Posted in: 2-4 Day Deals | Tags:

The International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch: Last Stop Before Antartica

February 23, 2013

Wellington, New Zealand, is the southernmost capital city in the world. And Christchurch, New Zealand is even further south than Wellington. So not surprisingly perhaps Christchurch has traditionally been the launching pad for trips to the Antarctic.
Here’s a picture of Scott and his wife in Lyttelton Harbour in 1910 (
And here’s a statue of Scott that was sculpted by his wife after his death, and displayed in Christchurch. I wonder how many men would have the good fortune to have their wives make statues of them after they die.
After Scott, both New Zealand and the United States used Christchurch as the launching pad for their missions to the Antarctic. The Americans have there base at McMurdo Sound and New Zealand’s Scott Base is fairly close to it. Here’s a picture of the large hangar that the American Deep Freeze programme keeps near Christchurch Airport.
I was at a conference recently and the reception was held at the International Antartctic Centre. It was one of the best conference receptions I’ve been too. First we took a ride around the Centre in a Hagglund ( It’s an amazing vehicle and we were talking over what felt like a roller coaster ride which included crossing a simulated crevasse, going over water where the whole vehicle was floating for several meters, and going over small, but fairly steep hills. In one case we went over the side of a hill and the vehicle tipped at an alarmingly steep angle, but we survived it. I think that the driver knew what he was doing.
There were live penguins, a 3-D movie and a simulated storm. Yes it was cold in the storm, but it just felt like a typical winter’s day in Toronto to me.
If you happen to be in the area, I would highly recommend the International Antarctic Centre, and especially for kids.


Posted in: Events | Tags: , , , , , ,

The Impending Death of the Credit Card, we hope

February 22, 2013

I find encouragement in a report that just came out (

“The Payments Council, an organization representing the interests of the U.K. payment industry, has released a new report on the way Britons pay for things. According to the group, the trends are pointing towards a future when plastic is eclipsed by the mobile device…Kamellard said the 2000s were the decade of the debit card but the 2010s are likely to be the decade of the mobile phone.”


Will the credit cards port their services to mobile devices, or can we hope for a kinder future where more enlightened service providers take over.

I like the idea of credit cards going the way of bad cheques, but I don’t want to be too hopeful just yet. There is something about money that seems to attract the wrong kind of people.

Posted in: Events, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Art 2.0: Coffee Art is the Latest Reason to Carry a Digital Camera/Phone

February 22, 2013

It used to be that art was self-conscious. It was created by artists, supported by patrons and hung on various walls to be admired. Or it might take pride of place in a city square or a church. But traditional art is so old-fashioned and so Art 1.0! Just like Web 2.0 has turned anyone with access to a blog into a publisher (feel the power!) so Art 2.0 is allowing anyone to be an artist. I don’t know what the art professors would classify as Art 2.0, but I’m going to use the old catchphrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and paraphrase it as “art is whatever people think it is”. So Art 2.0 is everywhere and if people love that picture of the dogs playing poker when it’s pinned on Pinterest, then hey, that’s Art 2.0 as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, when a term that is as cool as “Art 2.0” is coined, there are going to be competing visions of what it is. Go to the Financialist (, for instance, and Art 2.0 is being used as a kind of e-commerce for art.

“It appears that the next wave of Internet speculation has found its target. It’s been dubbed Art 2.0 and it’s generating buzz everywhere from Silicon Valley to Soho galleries to art-buying sites like, Paddle8 and ArtSpace. These sites promise to revolutionize the way art is discovered, viewed, and—most importantly—sold.”

I’m actually a few years late in coining the term Art 2.0. In 2009 ( posed the following questions about Art 2.0:

– Is it a new way of saying digital arts?
– Is it some sort of a tool, a method in order to strengthen the relation between art and ITC?
– Is it an abbreviation of something?
– Is it a new version of art with particular aims and objectives such as dialogue, development, freedom, peace, etc?
– Is it describing the current facility in making art that ensures interactivity with the public through today’s technology?
– Is it related to the term Web 2.0?
– Is it the name of a coming era of art?
– Is it describing the tools and methods that make it easy to create a work of art?

Here is my definition of Art 2.0:

“Art 2.0 is the democratization of art where a work of digital art can be created by anyone, and where the term ‘art’ is not assigned based on the role of the artist, nor by art critics, but rather by general acclamation by a critical mass of people.”

Perhaps we can go further and define “Intrinsic Art 2.0” where something is a work of art according to some universal standard. Perhaps this is the art critics view of Art 2.0. And then there is “Extrinsic Art 2.0”, exemplified in my initial definition by the designation of art is an appellation bestowed by the Internet masses.

So where are we likely to find Web 2.0 art? Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr, and Facebook of course. So many pictures, and many of them are no doubt works of art in their own way. In some cases the art may come from the photographer, choosing just the right angles and lighting, etc. In other cases the art may be inherent in the object, and the scene, and the photographer is simply capturing and recording that work for posterity. Digital capture now allows so much that is artistic, but ephemeral, to be preserved and posted as Art 2.0.

Let’s take as an example of Art 2.0 the wonderful and surprising domain of coffee art. Surprising to me at least. Growing up in a world prior to Starbucks, colour television was a big surprise, and coffee art wasn’t even on the radar. As a teenager I would have expected us to land on Mars sooner than create art in cups of coffee. But here we are, and I claim that the following images of cups of coffee are excellent examples of Art 2.0.

The first one is Disney yes, but considering that it is in a cup of coffee, I say that it is art.


Is this one Jimi Hendrix without the afro or someone else? I’m not sure, but I think it’s art. The facial expression has been handled beautiful. A Mona Lisa in a coffee cup!


This one is a bit strange, but no stranger than “The Scream” I suppose.


Maybe the aesthetics of the next one depends on your politics. Can you imagine Nixon in a cup of coffee?


The next one looks like one of Miyazaki’s anime girls. Kiki perhaps? Art to some, that’s for sure.


Not everyone might think that this rabbit is art, but enough people think it’s art, than I say that it is. I’m still waiting to find the Barrista who can do the dogs playing poker in a coffee cup!


and here’s our final art work. Some kind of elfin scaramouche perhaps.


Posted in: Events | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

New: Target Free Shipping Test!

February 21, 2013

SHOP Target

Target is excited to announce that from March 10th-23rd will be testing a new free shipping threshold: spend $75, get free shipping – no exclusions. Go ahead and start shopping the latest spring trends!

Posted in: 2-4 Day Deals, US Deals | Tags:

What is Food Like in New Zealand?

February 21, 2013

I was a fat kid. Well actually, a very fat kid. There are pictures of me in Singapore (I had blonde hair then!) at the age of five where I was relatively trip. Two years later and my family had been in New Zealand for a year, and I had blown up like a balloon, just like my sisters. For the next four or five years I was an obese, not-so-little kid, until my parents sent me to boarding school for six months and solved the problem for good (I grew four inches in height while I was there without gaining any weight). Incidentally, boarding school was the only place where I dreamt about food. I was constant hungry during that time and I used to dream about food. And breakfast cereal in particular.

I blame New Zealand food for my childhood weight problems. The food in New Zealand was just so damn good. The milk and baked goods taste great, but all that butter and milk can be pretty fattening. I  used to come back to New Zealand and be surprised at how good the food tasted. This latest trip maybe the New Zealand food shock hasn’t been as great, but I put that down to my aging taste buds.

Here’s an example of New Zealand food (tastes great by the way).
There’s a dab of hokey pokey ice-cream (we can’t get it in Canada). It’s not quite as creamy and full of caramel bits as I remember as a child, but it is still pretty good. And the strawberries are somehow more tasty than what we get in North America.

And of course the piece de resistance, the slice of almond and honey cake. We got that from a farmer’s market at Riccarton Bush. It’s on every Saturday morning in Christchurch. They have some great food there, including baked goods. It’s a fantastically dense and moist cake, but I dare say it’s a ton of calories.

It’s not just Food in New Zealand these days. As a  tea drinker, I’m not so sure about how good this is, but there is quite a coffee drinking culture in New Zealand. Here’s a great Latte bear that my sister got in Christchurch.


Posted in: Events | Tags: , , , , , ,