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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Some Really Bad Brain Science

Last night before going to bed I watched the pilot episode for a television show. To be honest, I was expecting it to be quite bad, and the only reason I was watching it was to see the familiar scenes from the University of Toronto that had been extensively used throughout the show. The show that I am speaking about is called Fringe. It is like a newer version of the X-Files, just minus the aliens and with an added dose of corporate rather than governmental evil. The FBI headquarters are in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, one of my favourite buildings on campus. It is home to the mathematics, computer science, and engineering science departments, as well as contains some of the nicer lecture halls and tutorial rooms. The building also has a remarkably distinct architecture that blends old brickwork with modern steel and glass designs (for example, the formerly external wall of the next door Koeffler Centre forms the southern wall of the Bahen Centre lobby). With such a distinct interior design, it is kind of thrilling to see the protagonist of the show charge up the same glass-walled spiral staircase I walk up at least once a week and enter the large room I know as the Great Hall of Computing (of course, fancied up with some extra desks and plasma screens on the wall). Additionally, front campus was used for one of the final scenes (supposedly taking place at Harvard, but really taking place in front of University College here at U of T... ironically, it is only about a dozen meters away from the secret meeting place of the sinister ivy league fraternity the Skulls that Fringe costar Joshua Jackson ought to be so familiar with... I wonder if he felt a little nostalgic returning to the University College building for filming almost a decade after that movie I never saw). Also, there was one building I was sure I've had an exam in but could not place... I think it might have been one of Trinity College's buildings.

Anyway, despite all the exciting University of Toronto locations, the show was immensely bad. Stop reading if you mind spoilers, but I recommend you don't care for this particular show. Not only was it exceedingly predictable (main character is a young blonde lady who starts in a covert relationship with a handsome coworker. While it is nice for the two of them to have a relationship, the audience never got the visceral thrill of seeing it develop, so clearly he is going to either die or be evil. Turns out it's both), but the "fringe science" it was supposed to be dealing with was useless pseudoscience, paranoid (but for the wrong reasons based on misunderstanding) fear of actual science, or blatant misunderstandings of basic science. I felt a particular twinge of annoyance when, in the show's introduction, the names of all the "fringe science" subjects flash up on the screen and, amid such things as precognition and psychokinesis, it lists artificial intelligence (and also nanotechnology, but since I don't study nanotechnology I wasn't quite as annoyed about that one). AI and nanotech are not at all comparable to precognition and psychokinesis. Two of those are pseudoscience, and two are actual science.

I keep getting sidetracked, though. What made me decide to write about this show was that one of the important plot developments involved the main character going to drug induced stupor in a large tank of water with a bunch of fancy electrodes hooked up to her head and a pair of metal prongs attached to a bundle of wires inserted into the base of her skull (probably going either into her brain stem or on either side of her spinal cord at the top of the neck, it was kind of hard to tell exactly where they inserted the prongs). That contraption is somehow used to synchronize her brain waves with those of her dying lover (this is before it is discovered he's evil) who is also in a drug induced coma (and apparently frozen to keep the rate of cellular decay down, but that doesn't seem to prevent brain activity nor do they seem to take any special precautions to keep him at a low temperature... it is awfully confusing), and this synchrony of brain waves allows them to communicate subconsciously (which apparently means they meet up with fully coherent forms (matrix style) in a weird, shadowy dream state to talk for a bit and then she is able to experience his memories firsthand). I would like at this point to unequivocally state that that is not at all how brain waves work. Brain waves are NOT how thoughts are formed or transfered, but are rather the electrical dipole created by summated post-synaptic potentials. I think I had a post about this a while ago. For whatever reason, brain waves are one of those things that pseudoscients love to talk about and use to proffer all sorts of weird and entirely unfounded theories of consciousness and consciousness manipulation. It's rather annoying.


cornucrapia said...

Now you know how I feel whenever computers are mentioned in TV or movies, makes you grit your teeth eh?

Mozglubov said...

Haha, oh, certainly. In many ways I've been at that point (at least in terms of algorithm misstatements) with computers for a while. Especially in terms of computer vision... while some cutting edge research is now starting to create some pretty impressive capabilities to visual analysis, you cannot take a single security camera image, infinitely zoom in while still "cleaning up" the image so it doesn't just look like a bunch of massive pixels, and then rotate the image to look at the back of an object (both things which I have seen in plenty of TV and movies). It's unfortunate. It must be worse for you, since you have vast quantities of hardware and IT knowledge as well.