Testing Times II – the Result

CovidFromBBC

Imagine an abandoned Army camp stretching over several acres of land. But with a surreal twist: this one happens to be in the expansive car-park between your favourite garden centre (also deserted) and one of those out-of-town places where you leave the car and get on a shuttle-bus into town.

Well – that’s what it looked like as we drove up. I say ‘we’ because I can’t drive: Marvellous Other 1/2 had to do the honours. Which begs the question: how do you get a Covid-19 test if neither you, nor anyone in your household, has access to both a valid driving licence and an actual car? “Home testing kits!” they all cry. We’ll come to that in a minute.

It was 10 o’clock on a breezy Sunday morning. I’d booked in early(!) to avoid the heaving crowds of anxious nurses and care-workers I’d expected, having seen countless news items about how hard it was to access these vital tests.

But as I said, the place was empty: we were literally the only punters! I guess running a car on a nurse or care-worker’s sparse wages isn’t a goer.

A second surprise came when the ‘download’ on my phone (one of those QR codes that looks like a smashed-up chessboard) actually worked. A white-shrouded volunteer scanned it through the car window and, satisfied that I wasn’t some kind of impostor, waved us on.

Other figures held up placards to direct us through a string-and-cone maze, between several small white military-looking gazebos (you’ve seen them on the news, right?). One chap mimed heart palpitations when we looked like not stopping in time. A shout through the window: Could I self-administer the test, or did I need someone to do it for me?

Now as I said, I’ve seen those things on the news. If you think you can push an elongated cotton-bud 8 inches up your own nose – or worse, 8 inches down your throat – without gagging then you are, I’m afraid, seriously mistaken. You’re likely, I fear, to bail after the first inch or so, not reach the places where the virus lurks, and come back with a false Negative.

So I chickened out and asked for help.

Even then it took the poor lass four goes on the throat part before I stopped choking for long enough.

People have apparently been waiting over a week for results from these tests, but I got mine on the Tuesday, and it came as a bitter disappointment:

Negative.

So now, until reliable Antibody tests are available to the general public (those tests, like everything else Covid-19-related here in the U.K., are being ‘ramped up’ even as our Government insists everything’s under control), I must go about my life not knowing whether I might catch, in the next six months or so, an illness that may very well kill me.

Testing Times

Covid19Zoe

This post is unashamedly current, and I apologise.

About a month ago a friend posted me a link to Zoe, a research project investigating the symptoms of Covid-19. They were looking for volunteers make up a Big Data collection to help us all understand our new uninvited guest.

At the time, Government advice was basically ‘If you’ve got a sudden onset dry cough, and/or a high temperature, then you have got IT, and you must take yourself away from human company for seven days. Or possibly fourteen.’

I had just recovered from an evil little bout of sinus agony, accompanied by proper nausea (unusual for me) and the first high temperature I’d had in about forty years. For three days, all I could do was eat (very slowly), sleep, and sit up in bed to post to friends on Facebook.

As the Facebook friends comiserated about life in Lockdown it became apparent that there were fellow-sufferers out there, with a raft of weird symptoms like mine. Which meant that unless we were unlucky enough to have not one but two viruses floating around so late in the year (March had turned to April by then), we might all of us be fending-off the actual Rona.

And here’s the odd thing: all of us with the weird symptoms, but without the ‘dry cough’ and proper fever, were female.

This brought to mind a study, from several years back, about why so many women were dying of heart attacks. That is: more men than women have heart attacks, but once you’re a heart attack victim then being female meant you were far more likely to die. The study found that the ‘classic heart attack symptoms’ that everybody knows by rote (pain in chest shooting down left arm…) are often absent in women. We might just have a pain in the neck, or a headache and nausea, or blurred vision, and then fall over, with no-one any the wiser till after the autopsy.

Perhaps Covid-19 was the same.

I scrolled back to my friend’s post about Zoe, and signed up.

Zoe sends a message every day asking for a log of symptoms.

What’s the point, you may think, now my illness is over?

But Covid-19 is a virus, and like other viral diseases such as Glandular Fever (the cause of my high tempersture all those years ago) it hangs about. I found myself identifying with Paul Garner with his ‘Advent Calendar‘  of symptoms – an unwelcome new surprise for every day.

I got hangovers without drinking anything. I developed an irrational urge for siestas.

On V.E. Day weekend my heart kept jumping beats.

I sent it all to Zoe.

A week later – two days before they become publicly available – I was invited to a test.

I had to wait for the results – and so, I’m afraid, must you.

 

But is it Evil?

Hedge Bindweed - Calystegia sepium

For reasons known only to the Great God WIP (Work in Progress, which at the moment is a novel with a botanical theme) I took it upon myself to write a scene from the point of view of a Bindweed.

For this I had to find out more about the Nature of the Beast than the little I already know: that, given half a chance, the thing would outgrow and strangle practically everything on our vegetable allotment (with the noble exception of the Rhubarb, who apparently makes its own weed-killer, and the Globe Artichoke, who is basically just a giant thistle with gourmet pretentions).

Plants communicate with each other, including across species. Not by whispering when we’re not listening (though to be fair this has never been proven), but by chemical messages below the soil, and occasionally above it. I have personally experienced this. Picture the scene: one spring morning I noticed a couple of cheeky dandelion flowers on our lawn. With nothing better to do, I dug the plants up. In doing so I noticed more that hadn’t flowered. And more, and more, until I’d dug up every dandelion I could see. I remember their fragrance – quite strong but not unpleasant.

The following day the several who’d escaped this intended wipe-out were all in brazen flower. I’m still convinced that they knew, somehow, that they were in danger and were doing their level best to make sure someone among them got to make seeds.

Another one from my own experience: watching the bamboo on our allotment bend away from a bonfire we’d lit next to it. You could actually see it move.

And there’s a lab in Australia who have managed to show that plants can find water just from the sound it makes.

So why not write from a plant’s point of view? In checking certain things for research (for example, the technical term for the tubular white roots which form that infuriatingly durable network from which the Bindweed draws its apparently boundless energy) I discovered they are Rhyzomes (Rhizomes in the States) and the plant itself is a Bine.

Bine?

Why had I never heard the term before?

A Vine  – for example a Pea plant or a Grapevine – throws out little curly tendrils to clasp on to whatever it has chosen for support, whereas a Bine – the Bindweed, or indeed our Beans – wraps its whole stem about its support in a helix. The Bindweed helix always turns clockwise (as you lie on the ground looking up, that is), so here in the Northern hemisphere that means it turns against the path of the sun – widdershins, as they say.

It is, therefore, obviously Evil. Which makes it an interesting character to write about, no?

 

 

‘I will choose free will’

free-will.jpg

The more Metal among my readers may recognise the phrase in this title, but we now turn from the apparent perversity of people’s decisions to the even more uncanny matter of the mechanics of how they’re made.

In 1983 Benjamin Libet of the University of California San Francisco set up an experiment to determine the speed with which people take decisions. His volunteers were asked to perform a simple movement, at a time they chose, while a pickup measured the ‘readiness potential’ – a signal in the brain’s motor cortex known to precede physical movement.

Readings by the volunteers of the timing of their decision, from the second hand of a clock, showed that the signal in the motor cortex – of which they were not consciously aware – came half a second before their conscious decision. In other words the decision was made subconsciously and only afterwards did the subjects’ brains construct the perception of freewill.

Argument at once began to rage over how accurate the subjects’ timing readings could be, given that their attention should have been focussed on whether or not to make their move. Experiments in other fields of brain study have shown how a single line of ‘time’ is reconstructed by the brain ‘after-the-fact’ so, it was argued, we still have freewill – it just doesn’t look like it in that one experiment.

In 2009 Jeff Miller and Judy Trevena carried out a new version of Libet’s experiment in which volunteers had to listen out for a tone before making a 2-way decision: press the key or leave it. The experimenters found a ‘readiness potential’ building-up in both cases – press or leave – and concluded that the potential just signified attention, and not decision-making. Our state of attention is not something of which we are fully conscious, though it can of course be controlled with practice.

Libet’s own conclusion about his findings was that the readiness potential signalled preparedness to push the button but nevertheless a person could decide, within the final tenth of a second, not to go through with their decision.

But it could be said that this view – which acquired the nickname ‘Free Won’t’ (as opposed to ‘Free Will’) – just pushes the question one step along by leaving the mechanism for the final ‘restraint’ decision unexplained.

Improvements in measurement equipment – including siting the pickups within the brain – have in some cases shown even longer intervals (up to two whole seconds) between ‘trigger’ signals and apparent decisions.

Arguments still rage then: do we have fully-conscious freewill, or do our decisions bubble up, mostly uncontrolled, from depths we cannot reach?

 

 

The price of obedience II

They twist their hands. They sweat, they grit their teeth. They claw their hair, the battle in their minds playing out on their agonised faces…

And those are just the perpetrators.

And the rest of us – those in the field and those whose connection extends no further than being of the same species – have ever since then been struggling to explain why, nevertheless, in so many cases they press on.

Where does empathy go, or what is it that overpowers it, in Milgram’s experiments?

Milgram himself was the first to be shocked by the outcomes, and the first to put forward an explanation. He proposed that our mind – the set-up of our thought processes – passes through something of a phase change, going from an ‘Autonomous’ state, in which we act entirely of our own freewill, to an ‘Agentic’ state, in which admonitions such as ‘I/the institution take full responsibility…’ (a typical experimenter reply when pressed about the consequences of any harm that might be done) are taken literally. It’s as if some part – not all – of the volunteer subjects’ mind is thinking ‘that pain I can hear isn’t my doing: it’s the experimentor’s’.

The obedience-over-empathy effect is strongest if the experimenter is nearby: hearing instructions via a phone link rather than from someone physically present reduced average compliance from over 65% to under 20%. It’s also stronger if the ‘victim’ can’t be seen. We’re a social species after all and we don’t want to let down (on the one hand) or harm (on the other) those who are near us.

But there’s more.

Dressing the experimenter in casual clothes rather than the classic white lab-coat, and switching the experiment’s location from prestigious Yale to a nondescript building on the edge of town, both had the effect of reducing compliance for an otherwise identical experimental set-up.

Similarly, the sexes of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ made a difference: men were far less willing to inflict pain upon women. This may be cultural, or it may be older: perhaps our higher-pitched screams, nearer to humankind’s ‘emergency signal frequency’ of a baby’s wail, are simply more effective at their job.

Some spoilsport has even suggested that this explains the Australian result: the women in that study were ‘teaching’ other women, on instructions from a male experimenter. Yes lads, it’s true: we’ll gang up on you if we have to, simply to survive.

What the effect of the clothes and buildings appear to show, though, is that our willingness to inflict pain on others is, in the life of human beings as a species, a fairly modern thing. And that what brought it to the fore was the hierarchical state in which we all live now: we have simply become accustomed to putting our minds into Neutral gear and obeying orders, especially from those who are nearby, no matter the consequences to those who are out of sight.

In the words of laboratory assistant Charity, in the sequel to ‘The Price of Time’ when asked “What would you do?”:

“I’d do what I was paid to do.”

The price of obedience

MilgramGrainyDark.jpg

Would you – yes, you – torture someone, just because you’d been told to?

In the wake of the Holocaust and the trials that followed, in which the defence ‘I was only obeying orders’ gained notoriety, a young psychology student set about trying to find out.

Stanley Milgram was only 28 when he first devised the experiments on extreme obedience which now bear his name.  For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the set-up, the experiments took place in a laboratory into which the volunteer subject, together with a conspirator in the experiment, were led having been explained they were taking part in an investigation into learning and memory. The two drew lots to determine who would ‘teach’ and who would ‘learn’ – the lots had been fixed so that the volunteer would ‘teach’.

As the two were shown round the set-up and informed of what they were to do, and  the ‘learner’ attached to electrodes through which the ‘teacher’ would administer a mild shock in the event of an incorrect answer, the ‘learner’ would drop into the conversation the ‘fact’ that they had a heart condition. The ‘teacher’ would then be reassured that the experimenter, and the institution sponsoring the investigation, would ‘take full responsibility’. The experiment would then begin.

The ‘learner’, on being asked to memorise pairs of words, would occasionally make mistakes. When this happened the ‘teacher’ was to administer shocks. These began at a barely-perceptible 15 volts but rose by a further 15 volts with each incorrect answer. The voltages – in increments of 15 all the way up to 450 – were clearly displayed on the row of switches on the console before the ‘teacher’, along with helpful phrases such as ‘mild pain’, ‘severe pain’, ‘danger of death’ and ‘xxx’.

For comparison U.K. Mains voltage, at 230 volts, is plenty enough to put a life at risk.

Some of the results of these experiments are well-known, but they come as a shock to those who stumble upon them for the first time. Some people have tried to explain-away the apparent cruelty by postulating that the volunteers knew, or else twigged during the experiment, that the shocks were a sham and the ‘learner’ had been detailed to act the pain – to scream and bang the desk, and then fall silent.

Most people, once the initial shock clears, have the natural reaction ‘I would never obey cruel orders…’. But people do. They – we – do it in experiments and in real life, as yesterday’s grievous anniversary reminds us.

Why is this?

No-one else in the animal, plant or fungus kingdom (and please weigh-in to say if I am wrong here) inflicts deliberate, prolonged suffering on other individuals of their own species. There are parasites who appear to do this to their hosts, there are species who practice infanticide and even cannibalism in extreme survival situations, but nobody – nothing else on earth – tortures.

Since the sixties Milgram’s experiment has been replicated all over the world. Every demographic has had a go – women as well as men. The proportion of people who complied and took the process all the way to the lethal 450 volts, fell for the most part between 40% –  men from Australia – to 90% – men from the countries of Eastern Europe still recovering, at the time of the experiment, from their totalitarian states.

But one outlier stood stark: 16%.

There are theories which attempt to explain this away, but nevertheless: Women of Australia, I salute you.

I cannot Tell a Lie

Trace1.jpg

Her chest constrained in broad straps, one arm bound in a tight black band, the other tied by the hand, the crime victim sits in the windowless basement, looks at the man and tries to remember to breathe normally.

Her heartbeat spurts out in jagged red…

But this is not the scene of the crime.

This is the interview afterwards.

Welcome to the next stage of our efforts to get the truth straight from people’s minds: the first in which Science takes a hand.

Around the turn of last century, just as our man Byrnes was on the wane, several advances in tehnology conspired to enable monitoring of the inner workings of our bodies in real time. Investigators – scientific and otherwise – couldn’t resist the chance to take a peek at how, exactly, our involuntary metabolism reacted to the various emotions and stresses of real life.

Early Heath-Robinson (or to use the more local, American term – Rube Goldberg) attempts led to the ‘cardio-pneumo psychograph’ developed by John Augustus Larson, the first individual in American law-enforcement to hold a Ph.D.

His guinea-pigs, in the spring of 1921, were a cohort of young college girls accused of petty theft.  The case became a media sensation.

Thus the concept of the ‘Lie Detector’ was born.

The device used in the USA today monitors breathing rate using bands round the chest and stomach (top two lines in the illustration), skin conductance (dampness of skin –  smooth green line) and instantaneous blood pressure, hence also heart rate – red jagged line.

Stress ‘tells’ in the person being monitored include raised blood pressure and heart rate, raised skin conductance, and irregularity in breathing. Certain kinds of stress ‘tells’ – but not all – are taken to be signs that the subject is grappling with the process of telling a lie: a more complex business, the polygraph’s underlying philosophy assumes, than simply allowing the truth to come out.

Two ‘pre-tests’ are carried out before any serious questions are asked.

First, the interviewer chats with the subject about their past. From this, information is gleaned that can be used to devise ‘Control’ questions – questions which any normal person would like to lie about. For example, “Have you ever stolen anything from your workplace?”

Second, once the pick-ups are in place, the interviewee is asked to tell a deliberate lie. This usually involves them writing down a number and then having to conceal which number it is in the face of simple yes-no questions.

Most people think the questions in the main session come in two types: Relevant, and ‘Control’.

But there’s more.

Both Relevant and ‘Control’ questions are designed to put our subject on the spot, but in different ways. The Relevant questions refer to the particular crime being investigated and are assumed more stressful if the subject is lying, whereas the ‘Control’ questions are assumed just plain stressful regardless – the subject either has to lie, or to admit some misdeed in their past.

A third type of question, ‘Irrelevant’ – the type most people believe to be ‘Control’ questions – are those which are easily answered without lying. For example: ‘Are the lights on in here?’

So far so good. Under these conditions a guilty interviewee will generally, short of having mastered some arcane technique of body self-control, not be mistaken for innocent.

But here are you: you’re innocent, and you never lie – or at least, not about anything that matters. You’ve been picked up in error and you’re telling the truth without much sign of nerves. The lie-detector works, right? Else they wouldn’t use it.

Then this happens:

‘Did you hide the blood-stained dagger in the shrubbery?’

‘No.’

(after a long silence)

‘The polygraph says that you are lying.’

Your stress-levels go through the roof. And you know full well they’ll be showing on the traces behind you – the traces you, as an American citizen, have been brought up to believe never make mistakes.

What are you to do, now?

Do you cave and change your answer? Lie, and say you’re guilty?

Or do you double down on what you originally said, thus betraying a lack of faith in your country, its technology and its fairness?

Your thoughts twist in knots. A term whose origin is an old word for ‘twisting’ might come to mind. It may occur to you that no other country uses polygraphs – why does yours? You might even happen to know that the guilty party among those college girls was never found, the intense questioning into her personal life precipitated a nervous breakdown in one of the ‘suspects’, and that Dr. Larson, horrified by what his invention had spawned, went on to refer to it as ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’.

You might not believe it, but this last way of using the Polygraph – making false statements to the interviewee – forms part of the next ‘step’ in the erratic progress towards Portsmouth, and Kate.

Stuff of Nightmares

1024px-John_Henry_Fuseli_-_The_Nightmare.JPG

I seem to have been writing a lot of Horror lately. This may – or may not – have been the result of having just finished wading through a text about the neurology, psychology and purpose of Nightmares.

For most people the peak era of nightmares is toddlerhood. In that sense at least, I am like most people. Some of my nightmares – getting lost in a derelict house inhabited by Something Menacing that I Never Saw, or being pursued through a speeding train, again by SMtINS, I can still remember, along with the typical wading through treacle, or not being able to move at all. My childhood nightmares seem, at least according to the agreed ‘definition’, pretty much the classic formula. Not to be confused with ‘bad dreams’ which are still unpleasant but more mundane and without that nameless, abject terror.

The text delved into related matters: REM sleep, slow-wave sleep, the roughly 90-minute cycles of these and other sleep states in a normal night, and what happens when any of these states are disrupted. It got quite technical – I’m sure the parts of the brain were named by a committee whose remit was ‘make these words as forgettable as possible by people all over Western Europe.’

The part which really puzzled me, though, came next.

The character, constitution and body chemistry that make some people more prone to  nightmares than others are to an extent hereditary. If – after a million or so years of human-racing – nightmares haven’t died out then they must, in some bizarre way, have been useful.

Perhaps they still are.

The theory proposed here was that in prehistoric times those of us who suffered nightmares were held in awe and believed to be privy to esoteric knowledge no-one else could get at. We were considered useful. We were also in a way powerful because in our ‘other life’, in darkness, we had confronted Evil Things and come away unscathed. But to reach all these benefits we had, of course, first to tell other folk what had happened to us in the night…

I can’t quite make sense of this. People are surely more likely to believe the nightmare victim the source – or at least the conduit – of Evil Things rather than their vanquisher. And people who were regarded as having a connection with Evil wouldn’t have lasted long – in a tribe they’d be excommunicated and later, in modern but pre-industrial times, they’d be executed as a witch.

And as if that’s not enough, why toddlers? Why did nightmares come to afflict the very people least able to put their terrifying experiences into words, and thus to benefit from them?

Perhaps we were just supposed to remember them for later, and write Horror stories…

 

Image By wartburg.eduimage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1170857

Crystals in Time

PICT4041

It’s a crystal…

Like sugar, or salt, or Copper Sulphate: playing its own shape through space.

Except it’s a crystal with a difference.

It repeats through the fourth dimension.

It plays on a never-ending loop, through time; over and over.

Once set up it could, in theory, outlive me, you, civilization; the world, the sun… and pulsate on, for ever, into empty space.

And yes, someone – two of them in fact – has built one.