Trouble Thinking

March 28, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Durandal @ 9:01 pm

I’ve got too much to do to do a bunch of extra reading so you get a post about games, which requires no research due to my constantly thrumming connection to the Zeitgeist.

So Starfarer looks really interesting.

You can grab the game here:

Lasers lasers laaaasers

Why does it look interesting?

Woah there calm down okay Starfarer is a game in the tradition of Star Control and Escape Velocity. That is, a game in which you play a brave starship captain who is making his or her way in the world via trade, diplomacy, and combat.

You begin with a single ship, your “flagship” of your “fleet of being a loser”. You have options about how you want to grow that into something impressive. You can modify your ship, acquire holdings for sweet cash money, or buy/befriend/capture ships to integrate into your growing fleet. Everything you do makes everything else you do a bit easier.

The economic model is something the developers are hoping to make a bit more interesting than varying commodity market prices. Essentially, it seems like they want to create RPG-like “economic encounters” in addition to having a simple underpinning trading system. The example they give is that you can encounter illegal weapons shipments. Destroying them ups stability in a system, leaving them lowers it. Your decision would depend on whether you want a stable trading partner that likes you or an unstable planet you might be able to grab for yourself.

Combat takes place in a top-down perspective, with you piloting the flagship of your fleet and giving general strategic orders to your captains. The direct control takes the form of WASD turning/acceleration and mouse aiming and firing. After tooling around in the tutorial/early mission there are already some things I love about the combat.

For one thing, there’s a great system for using multiple ship weapons. You can quickly swap which weapon you control in order to focus on an enemy with whatever hurts them most. Flak cannons for fighters, big HE shells for giant ships and whatnot. But oh, you say, what about when multiple enemies are attacking at once? Well, that’s where automating weapons comes in. Press Shift+3 and your flak cannons will auto-target incoming fighters.

The basic mechanic in combat is that ships have shields and armor. Shields take damage from certain weapons, such as lasers, very poorly. Armor takes damage from certain weapons very poorly too. So what you do is knock down shields with lasers and the like, then pound on armor with explosives. When shields get knocked out, there’s a moment of paralysis while systems reboot. If you drop shields before they’re forced down, you can avoid that. It’s all reasonably simple, but provides some decisions to make at a steady rate.

Other ships in your fleet mostly seem to mind their own beeswax, going to the location you planned in order to fulfill whatever mission you ordered them on. There’s little to no micromanaging. The idea is that you go into combat with a plan for your fleet, and they carry it out without your direct orders. They’re still playing with ideas about how to make the AI fleet respond to various RPG-type stats like the individual ship captain personalities and such.

They’ve just released a new update too! It introduces a nifty new campaign mode:

  • Campaign mode – fight your way up in the war-torn Corvus system
  • Start out with a single frigate, buy (or capture) more ships to grow your fleet
  • Customize your ship’s loadout before battle
  • Level up your crew
  • Ship weapons and engines can be disabled by damage, adding a new layer of tactics
  • Tons of balance changes, UI improvements, AI improvements, and several new ships and weapons

Here’s a video explaining a lot about the new mode, which I haven’t gotten nearly enough time with to fully understand!

I’ve wanted a game like this since Escape Velocity Nova, and I feel like this is pretty close to delivering all I was hoping for and more.

March 21, 2012

Fibromyalgia and PTSD

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 10:41 pm

So this is a question I got recently, and tried to find an answer to as best as I could:

Is there a connection between PTSD and the development of Fibromyalgia?

PTSD is a disorder characterized by intense anxiety and maladaptive anxious reactions to otherwise normal stimuli brought on by some instigating traumatic event, such as military combat. It also must involve some aspect of functioning loss tied directly to an inability to “process” the event that occurred, such as recurring dreams about the event or recurring flashbacks to the event. The prevalence of PTSD appears to be around 3.5% currently, and about 6.5% people are expected to experience it in their lifetime.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by intense pain sensations from otherwise innocuous stimuli, both widespread and in particular at about 11-18 “Tender Points” that are located near joints and along the back. Fibromyalgia appears to affect around 2.0% of the population in the US. Less emphasized, but consistently reported, are complaints of sleep disturbances, fatigue, and stress. Tender points seem to be linearly related to the intensity of these other disturbances, even in sub-clinical populations (those with fewer than 11 tender points).

So why would these two seemingly disparate disorders be related at all?

Although Fibromyalgia is a disorder causing physical pain, there’s not yet any evidence linking it to a distinct physical root cause. There’s no evidence of nerves being damaged, and no gross physical malformity at the tender points. Some studies have determined that it’s possible Fibromyalgia may be caused by stress reactions similar to those found in PTSD. Fibromyalgia co-occurs frequently with disorders across the stress spectrum, but most often with PTSD. Several studies have shown that persons experiencing PTSD have a significantly increased rate of Fibromyalgia, and that it seems to coincide with a more intense experience of PTSD. Both PTSD and Fibromyalgia sufferers frequently show evidence of hypocorticism, or lowered levels of the stress hormone Cortisol.

Many Fibromyalgia symptoms are also extremely similar to those reported by patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, including the painful tenderness. One study even suggested that classifying these disorders as separate was no longer tenable, as 70% of Fibromyalgia sufferers could be classed as CFS or MCS sufferers. Both of these disorders are also strongly linked to other stress disorders.

So why would this be the case? It seems as though there’s a very sharply defined connection between purely mental disorders and a purely physical disorder.

The answer is that there isn’t any such thing as a purely mental disorder, there are only physical disorders.

There are some highly stupid studies using fMRI to try to “prove” pain by showing some area of the brain receiving an increase in bloodflow several seconds after the pain is reported, but those are incredibly foolish. These studies serve to reveal the startling fact that when someone says they are in pain, a part of their body behaves differently. Super great if you want to check whether someone you know is a robot designed to deceive you, but not actually a very useful metric. It’s an elaborate way to check if someone flinches when you poke them.

The reason we do this sort of ridiculous study, though, is to reassure sufferers (or perhaps the doctors) that their problem is definitively and only physical by finding some aspect of the physical body that responds to their pain without requiring them to report it. The undercurrent to these fMRI studies is that we must test, because simply taking people at their word that they are in pain might mix in some mental patients with the “real” sick. Because the mental is inherently embarrassing and vulnerable and to a large extent considered your own damn fault. Persons with mental disorders are either dangerous or pitiable or contemptible. Persons with physical disorders are sympathetic and treatable. This is not just wrongheaded and insulting, it’s useless.

The reason Fibromyalgia co-occurs with stress-related disorders is because Fibromyalgia is a stress-related disorder. The reason it co-occurs with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities and Chronic Fatigue is because those too are stress-related disorders.

But then, so is lower back pain.

I get intense lower back pain with reasonable regularity. But I get it most often and most severely when I am intensely stressed. Is this considered a physical symptom or a mental one? Is it physical because tensing of my muscles causes the pain? My nervousness causes that tensing which causes the pain, so if we’re looking at root causes it’s sure as hell not my actual back. I can do physical exercises and take drugs which reduce inflammation to both relieve the current pain and lessen future pain, but neither of these actions “prove” it’s a purely physical condition any more than dressing the wounds of someone who cuts themselves proves it has nothing to do with their mental state. People experience this brain-body interaction almost identically when suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome or tension headaches or dozens of other disorders that because they are easily treated using physical methods are considered not just primarily but only traditionally “physical” rather than “mental”. There is no such separation.

Your brain is a part of your body. It is not separate in any manner whatsoever, whether regarded as a physical object or as a philosophical one. The difference between disordered functioning of your peripheral nerves and disordered functioning of your central nerves is exactly zilch. We don’t feel that, though. We feel like a whole being inside of a physical shell. I mean to use an offensively dumb analogy, all those body-switching family comedies exist because we believe on an intuitive level that “we” can be put into any physical form and still be entirely ourselves. So when we feel pain, we look for a cause that is intrinsically “physical”, which makes sense if you believe that your nervous system is separated between “you” (The central nervous system) and “your body” (the peripheral nervous system). But the only real separation is one we developed to conveniently subdivide areas of interest. Pain in the periphery could indicate something about the center, because they aren’t actually different systems, they’re a single integrated part.

We look to the physical first and foremost because it’s less disturbing to our sense of self, less embarrassing to discuss socially, and more likely to be solvable without changing who we are. Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes intense physical pain, which understandably is the primary focus due to the intensity of the sensation. And if we can find ways of reducing the pain experienced then by all means we should be as soon as fucking possible. But several studies have pointed to the fact that tender points seem to be most useful as indicators of other underlying effects rather than as treatable objects. The connection between PTSD and Fibromyalgia suggests that it’s entirely possible that as salient as the pain is, it’s only a small part of a more complex disorder.

March 15, 2012

What the fuck is Deja Vu?

Filed under: Science, Troubled Thinking — Tags: , , , , , , — Durandal @ 12:27 am

Okay so I study memory. You may have seen my work slightly fictionalized in “Memento” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. It’s glamorous and I get to mess people the heck up with magic brain machines. Here’s the thing though: one of the only unusual aspects of memory that I’ve ever directly experienced is “Deja Vu”. And as a brain person who studies memory I feel like it’s my job to know what the fuck that was and why it happens. People come up to me on the street and they beg me to please explain so their nightmare can end. Only, I haven’t found any decent explanations! Wait what is that? You don’t know what deja vu is? Oh well jeez let’s start at the top gosh I’m sorry.

Deja Vu is the intense, awesome experience of knowing exactly how a situation will play out because you’ve been there before. No, I don’t mean when a situation seems “familiar”, and I especially don’t mean when you point out something is happening over and over again. Fuck, that’s the opposite of deja vu. The few times I’ve been lucky enough to experience intense deja vu it felt as though I’d been transported into my own body in the past. I didn’t feel familiar with the situation I was in, I felt as though I could finish every sentence spoken. And the sense of time is amazing, you get a very distinct sensation of not living the same thing twice, but of being in a place you were before, some vague moment a week or a month or a year ago that has dragged you back into itself. In fact, the fullness of sensation experienced has caused quite a few researchers to recommend the term “deja vecu”, because “vu” means “see” but you do more than see. This is evidence that researchers enjoy being pedants when they’ve run out of useful things to do. The point is: I really cannot recommend intense bouts of deja vu enough, they’re lovely.

The second thing you need to know about deja vu is that fucking everyone writing an academic paper on policy or economic research thinks the phrase “deja vu all over again!” is hilarious because they are children.

The first thing any article about deja vu will tell you is that don’t worry it’s totally normal. Thanks guys! It’s good to know you’re not officially calling me crazy, but I don’t think anyone in history has experienced deja vu and immediately checked themselves into a mental hospital or anything. It’s pretty well known, guys. In fact, the earliest mentions of deja vu seem to be from St Augustine, talking about “Falsae memoriae” conveniently choosing to write in the type of Latin that is basically silly English for ease of comprehension. But the actual term deja vu wasn’t coined until almost 1900, by a man named FL Arnaud. Apparently he didn’t like the fact that it was being referred to as “false memory” because maybe that wasn’t what was occurring.

So, you know what it is you know it isn’t a sign of madness and you know to stop saying “deja vu” when something happens twice. Now, what causes it?

Hahaha well we’ll get back to you on that dude. Turns out the reason a registered Ultra Brain Scientist didn’t have a clue what caused it is because yeah basically we don’t have a good theoretical or practical idea of what causes it. In fact, a couple papers dedicated any words to “parapyschological theories” like telepathy and astral projection. The weirdest part is how half-assed a lot of these are. I mean obviously Freud tossed out one about how you want to fuck something and your current situation is causing you to recall a repressed fantasy… which makes total sense! That’s why deja vu only ever occurs in situations that anyone would fantasize about and not in completely unremarkable ones. God it’s like he didn’t even finish listening to the description. There are a couple psychodynamic theories like that: it’s a defense mechanism, it’s dream residue, it’s wish fulfillment, etc. None of them make any actual testable predictions or in any way explain the reasoning or mechanism beyond saying it kind of sort of makes sense sometimes if you think of it like that. Good job Psychodynamics!

There are a few decent-ish proposed explanations from other areas of psychology that take themselves slightly more seriously. It could be that deja vu is some form of disturbance of time perception, causing things that were just seen to be mislabeled as having happened some time ago. Of course I’m pretty sure that theory is just as useful as the one proposed since the beginning of the fucking phenomenon. Time perception having some thing to do with deja vu? Oh wow, awesome job. The one that’s gotten the most support in my opinion is the idea that deja vu occurs when for some reason the mind simultaneously “records” into memory and “reads” out of it. I put those words in quotes because I’d give great odds that there’s not anything remotely like “record” and “playback” in the brain and this is just a slightly more useful shitty analogy. There are also a couple papers suggesting that deja vu is associated loosely with better memory function. Which again sort of makes sense but is also disappointing as an explanation. I guess it rules out some possible explanations like a faulty memory that accidentally wrote to bad sectors or something like that. The thing is, there are more than a few of these explanations but they all amount to “some processes that are supposed to be in sync are out of sync for a bit”. Replace “some processes” with whatever it is the authors are flogging all over the place. No one seems to actually be engaging with the phenomenon so much as explaining it on the way to other research.

There are a few neurological examinations of deja vu that are a little bit better about explaining it but still nothing groundbreaking. Basically it’s been noted that it can occur frequently in people experiencing some form of pathological mental disorder. There are frequent reports of deja vu experiences in epileptics, and because epileptics are one of the few groups of people whose brains we can jam electrodes into in the name of science, there are a few reported findings of induced “dreamy” states that are similar to deja vu during some stimulations of the temporal cortex. Of course, it’s entirely possible that these deja vu-like states experienced in pathological patients bear only a surface resemblance to actual deja vu, in the way that visual hallucinations aren’t caused by the same phenomena as actual vision.  Then there are more of those asynchronicity explanations, only with “neurological pathway” replacing “process”. At least these have some better surface validity though, I can see where it’s possible that two pathways for sensory information might split into a sort of double vision. Of course, that explanation doesn’t match the subjective experience at all, because people experience all sensory perception during deja vu as occurring simultaneously as normal. The “two pathway” explanation loses a lot if it becomes the “12 really intricately timed pathways” explanation. They’re all so frigging general though! “Slowed transmission” “something going wrong during a seizure”, etc. So again, yes maybe the function of the brain might affect an experience we have somehow good job guys.

Explicitly memory based theories of deja vu are many and varied but they share a lot of essential elements, basically whatever general theory of memory someone has is applied inexpertly to the phenomenon. So you know if memories are stored, then a prior memory is “slightly activated” and gives a feeling of undue familiarity. If there are two memory processes, one is out of sync. Etc etc, none of these are particularly noteworthy because they just repeat the general theory and make slight attempt to explain the phenomenon. The last category of possible explanations involves attention, basically that you pay slight attention to a scene and then rapt attention to a scene and the slight attention you paid earlier gets somewhat but not entirely overshadowed. This then makes you think you’ve seen it before. You’ll notice this doesn’t really make any goddamn sense because that’s not remotely close to the subjective experience.

Really the issue here is that experiments are what informs science, and there just haven’t been a lot of experiments dealing with deja vu. Because here’s the dirty secret of science: we are all lazy. Hard experiments fall by the wayside because why bother? There are dozens of other phenomena that are easy to reproduce in a lab and study. I know I can’t think of a way to produce deja vu in a lab environment, and I can’t think of an experiment that would get to the heart of the phenomenon. That’s not to say we’ll never understand it, but it is to say we’ll probably get to it last, or accidentally.

So there you have it. Science tells us:

Deja Vu exists

Don’t worry it’s normal

Happens more often in young people

It might be two things of some sort working out of sync, or it might be nerve problems of some sort, or it might be memories activating badly somehow, or it might be you paying weird attention.

And it’s really fucking hard to investigate so stop bugging us about it it’s just some weird thing jeez.

March 7, 2012

So it’s been a rough few months.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — Durandal @ 5:57 pm

But that’s no excuse to stop writing reams of shit about whatever happens to be on my mind, and that’s why this stupid thing is all going to get updated again.

As I’m doing a crazy amount more work than I was last year, I’m going to shift to a weekly update schedule  on Wednesdays, something I should have done a bit earlier.


“That’s tonight!” you’re saying, and there’s nothing here but a horrible non-apology for not updating. You are correct, you are indeed correct. But I’m changing all that! I’ve got lots to say about things and you need to hear it all, or you’re going to regret it for the rest of your short and painful life.

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