Monthly Archives: October 2010

Whisky Highballs in Kyoto

At least I look a lot younger than Bill Murray

I have a bit time before my talk today so I thought I would write a short blog. So far my visit has been really enjoyable and my host Shoji Itakura has been incredibly kind. My post-doc, Thalia and I were treated on our first night to a feast at an “izakaya” restaurant. Shoji and his graduate student Yazu were drinking whisky highballs, and convinced me that they did not give you any hangover. I decided to give them a try and of course, woke up the next day with a major hangover. Whiskey and me have never been the best of friends. There again, it is difficult to know if my spaced out feeling was due to whiskey, or the notorious jet lag that plays havoc with one’s sense of reality.

That distortion of reality was captured so accurately in “Lost in Translation,” Sofia Coppola’s brilliant portrayal about a middle aged actor past his best, doing a photo shoot to sell “Suntory” whisky in Tokyo. The movie title refers to both the cultural barriers but also the main character Bill Murray’s attempts to adjust to own mid-life crisis. Hence the movie’s tag line – “Everybody wants to be found.”

Japan is different to Western culture in so many ways. The language of course is very difficult, especially for someone like me who linguistically challenged. But it is more than just the language. Someone told me that Japan is like a cultural onion, with many layers of complexity, that Westerners do not appreciate.

The other thing I find very amusing about Japan are all the warning signs. The last time I was here with some dear friends, we giggled at how warning signs literally pictured dangers. For example, one of the funniest warned about smoking in the street because you could poke a small child in the eye with a lit cigarette. It had a small child clutching an eye that had just been jabbed with a cigarette. If anyone has that one, could they please post it here.

Ok not exactly as I remembered it but still funny. Thanks

"Heh kid, let me stub this one out on you" Thanks Sabio

However, being Lost in Translation can be a very isolating experience when you do not make the connection with everyone around you. I am not saying that I feel moribund, but one does wonder about the loneliness of travelers. So I was somewhat alarmed when I looked in the drawer of my miniature hotel room to discover a plastic bag with visual instructions. Of course, this bag is presumably for dry-cleaning but the images on the front suggest an all together different way of checking out.

UPDATE: See Kita’s comment below – it turns out that you ARE supposed to put the bag over your head as as a means of dealing with fumes from a fire!

What not to do with a plastic bag if you are depressed


Filed under General Thoughts

I am the Kitty Man

Here is the latest German version of SuperSense and yes, you have guessed it, it’s a cat. Despite my initial reluctance to cats, I am now becoming quite inclined to them. After all, who could not fall in love with this adorable “Nom nom nom” kitten? Or even better still, what about this surprised kitten? I have just discovered that the Japanese version of “SuperSense” is to be published soon so I am really looking forward to seeing what design they have gone for. I am leaving for a 10-day field study in Kyoto next week so blogging may be a bit erratic as I run around madly trying to tie up loose ends.


Filed under book publicity

TAM Socks It to Skeptics

Just about every religion has some form of sacred object. These objects become the focus of belief systems and sacred values to be shared by the group. Reverence and fetishism of these objects is a mark of identity and faith. How do these objects get their magical powers? Some are bits of bone, some are nails, some are even said to be Jesus’s foreskin.

James Randi

The atheist and skeptics movements are often accused of becoming cults in themselves. I

Richard Dawkins

wonder if the sock knitted by Daniela Rudloff (@Cthulhoo on Twitter) will become the Holy Grail of the skeptical movement. Certainly it has been imbued by powerful essences of those who have held it during the recent TAM meeting in London.

As you can tell from the bemused expressions, even high profile skeptics have a sense of humour when it comes to praising the sock. Though I confessed I was the one who seems least willing to hold the item.

Bruce Hood

Richard Wiseman


Filed under General Thoughts

Spot the Difference

Just back from TAM London where I had a great time as a tourist. I got to hang out without the hassle and stress of being a speaker. The day started early for me with 7:15 train to London with time to spare to catch Sue Blakemore open with her personal journey from belief to skepticism. I have heard this a number of times but it is always good to hear it again with more details.

Next up was Richard Dawkins with a talk about how natural selection can be used as a general approach to understanding a broad range of disciplines. Then a very amusing Cory Doctorow talked about the origins of copyright, followed by a hilarious segment from Adam Rutherford talking about his experience of the Apha course. Then it was time for lunch. I headed to the green room to be confronted by the looming stature of Jonathan Ross, who beamed at me and then came up to shake my hand saying, “It’s a shame about Alan isn’t it?”

This time I was forewarned and not star-struck. “You think I am bloody Robin Ince again!” I snapped. Yes, Wossy still thinks I am a dead ringer for Robin. Either that or he takes some perverse pleasure in teasing me. We joked that it would be fun for him to greet Robin with a “Hi Bruce” but alas Robin did not turn up until later in the proceedings. Anyway, it is a joke that is a bit lame to start with.

At one point in the meeting, a foreign lady sheepishly edged her way up to me for a signature holding out a copy of “59 seconds.” I said, “I’m sorry but I did not write this, it was Richard Wiseman.”  She nodded and said that she knew that I was not the author,  but would I sign it anyway because she was using it to collect celebrity signatures. “In that case, sure,” replied I. After reading the signature, her smile was replaced by a look of confusion. “You think I am Robin Ince, don’t you?” I offered. Her look of disappointment was evident despite her profuse apologies for the mix-up.

So for any future TAMers and those going to QED where we are both on the bill, here is an easy to spot-the-difference guide for Robin twitchers.


Separated at birth?


Also appearing at QED in Manchester next February is Jon Ronson, and just in case there is any confusion, I have posted a picture of us so that you can tell the difference. I would like to take credit for writing, “Men Who Stare at Goats” and that hilarious article last week on the Isane Clown Posse that went viral, but alas it was not I.


Bruce has a DJ Grothe growth on his shoulder!


And whilst I am in the mood of name-dropping celebrities, here is one of Tim Minchin and me. I have forgiven him for ceasing to follow me on Twitter as he was so kind and fun at the meeting.


Dwarfed by the great Tim MInchin


So did I learn anything? Not much, but then this was not a science conference, but rather a gathering of a community that I have come to embrace. I still feel a bit of an outsider, slightly bemused by the characters who inhabit this geeky world, but they are a wonderful bunch and great fun to be around.

Also, I finally got a smile out of Richard Dawkins today as I was leaving, which was great given that he seems to have completely forgotten or acknowledge my existence since TAM Vegas. There again, with such a blatant obsession with celebrity name-dropping and craving for esteem by association, I probably don’t deserve any better. Maybe it was because I was leaving that made him smile!

Oh well, now back to the real world.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News

It’s the Wrong Time of the Month for Maoris

Many cultures have contamination beliefs about menstruation. Most notably in the Orthodox Jewish tradition of niddah, menstruating women must remain separated from their husband during their period and take a ritual cleansing bath at the end. Women may test whether menstruation has ceased; this ritual is known as the hefsek tahara. The woman takes a bath or shower near sunset, wraps a special cloth around her finger, and swipes the vaginal circumference. If the cloth shows only discharges that are white, yellow, or clear, then menstruation is considered to have ceased. If discharge is bright red, it indicates that menstruation continues. If it is any other color, it is subject to further inquiry, often involving consultation with a rabbi.


Bad Juju from menstruating women


All a bit much really and TMI for this blogger. Anyway, it turns out that not only menstruating women but also pregnant women have been banned from attending a Maori exhibit at the National Museum in Wellington, New Zealand.  Jane Keig, a spokeswoman for the museum, said the policy was in place because of Maori beliefs and was agreed to as part of one collection included in the tour. Apparently it is a common concern in Maori culture, with women forbidden to go into the garden or on to the beach when they are menstruating. Okay, so how exactly are they going to ensure that menstruating women are not let into the exhibition? I guess they may have to take the finger test and consult a rabbi.


Filed under In the News, supernatural

Same Face Syndrome

Have you ever noticed that the first person that people look for in a group photograph is themselves? Many people think that the whole photograph is ruined if everyone looks perfect but they happen to be the only one not looking their best. How we think others view us is a revealing insight into our sense of self and our face is the most conspicuous aspect of this preoccupation.

The developmental psychologist Phillpe Rochat in his excellent book, “Others in Mind,” has made a compelling case that the sense of self is one that is constructed largely by how we feel we are viewed by others. My favorite quote from his book is, ” To be ignored and rejected by others is indeed the worst punishment and the worst suffering of all. It is psychological death.” Maybe a bit melodramatic but for some, I think he is right. Hence the need to look good in group photos.

In the case of individuals who make a living from their appearance, looking good in any photograph is a preoccupation – hence the term I discovered this week – “same face syndrome.” It’s not a real syndrome, but rather the peculiar behavior where individuals strike the same pose in every photograph. If you rely on your looks then it is understandable why many celebrities refuse to be photographed from certain angles and strike the pose that they feel best represents them.


Click on Paris to reveal her same face syndrome


However, I think that this cannot be the whole story as Paris Hilton is a perfect example of someone who suffers from same face syndrome but still has a few bob in her pocket. No I think, the reason comes back to our self-perception and need to project what we think is our best image.

Maybe such individuals who are pathologically preoccupied with their sense of self might do well to have lesion to their fusiform gyrus that often produces prosopagnosia – a disorder where individuals lose the ability to recognize faces. Better still is mirror misidentification where one loses the ability to recognize one’s self in the mirror.

I jest of course – there is nothing funny about brain damage and losing the sense of self – topics to be covered in the book I am working on.


Filed under General Thoughts

Let Me In

I have a pre-publication of Nic Humphrey’s new book on consciousness, “Soul Dust,” published by Quercus. I hadn’t heard of this publisher before and so looked them up. They are one of the fastest growing publishers in the UK and appear to be bucking all the trends with double-digit growth. This success has been fuelled by being the British publisher of the Stieg Larsson trilogy phenomenon as well as the fantastic, “Let the Right One In” by John Ajvide Lindqvist.

the charming Oskar & Eli

I am pretty much fed up with the vampire band wagon that has dominated publishing and movie-making in the past 5 years, but I will make an exception  for “Let the Right One In.” It is a beautifully shot movie set against the background of an austere working class suburb of Stockholm in the early 1980s. The two child stars Oskar and Eli, are hypnotically quirky and compelling and the movie is a modern classic. So it is no surprise that it is being remade in English by Hammer productions! For those of you who are either too young or not British, Hammer were the leading post-war English company that churned out dozens of low budget horror movies and launched the careers of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I am a bit of a nerd with it comes to Hammer and have paid way too much money for some of their early movie posters. That said, I doubt they will be able to capture the charm of the Swedish original. But the trailer looks good and music sounds pretty cool.

The movie is due for release later this year. I guess I will be going to see it.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News, supernatural