Daily Archives: October 13, 2010

McDonald’s Happy Meal shows no sign of decomposing after SIX MONTHS


Fresh: The Happy Meal on the day it was bought by artist Sally Davies in New York


Tasty: Looking a little dry and with an ‘acrylic sheen’, but the burger has no signs of mould – not even on the bun

You want flies with that? McDonald’s Happy Meal shows no sign of decomposing after SIX MONTHS

Daily Mail | Oct 12, 2010

Looking almost as fresh as the day it was bought, this McDonald’s Happy Meal is in fact a staggering six months old.

Photographed every day for the past half a year by Manhattan artist Sally Davies the kids meal of fries and burger is without a hint of mould or decay.

In a work entitled The Happy Meal Project, Mrs Davies, 54, has charted the seemingly indestructible fast food meals progress as it refuses to yield to the forces of nature.

Sitting on a shelf in her apartment, Sally has watched the Happy Meal with increasing shock and even her dogs have resisted the urge to try and steal a free tasty snack.

‘I bought the meal on April 10 of this year and brought it home with the express intention of leaving it out to see how it fared,’ she said.

‘I chose McDonald’s because it was nearest to my house, but the project could have been about any other of the myriad of fast food joints in New York.

‘The first thing that struck me on day two of the experiment was that it no longer emitted any smell.

‘And then the second point of note was that on the second day, my dogs stopped circling the shelf it was sitting on trying to see what was up there.’

Expecting the food to begin moulding after a few days, Mrs Davies’ surprise turned to shock as the fries and burger still had not shown any signs of decomposition after two weeks.

‘It was then that I realised that something strange might be going on with this food that I had bought,’ she explained.

‘The fries shrivelled slightly as did the burger patty, but the overall appearance of the food did not change as the weeks turned to months.

‘And now, at six months old, the food is plastic to the touch and has an acrylic sheen to it.

‘The only change that I can see is that it has become hard as a rock.’

Even though she is a vegan, Mrs Davies’ experiment has brought her amusement rather than fear.

‘I don’t really see this experiment as scary, I see it almost as an amusement,’ she said.

‘Although, I would be frightened at seeing this if I was a meat eater. Why hasn’t even the bun become speckled with mould? It is odd.’

When asked if their food was not biodegradable, McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said: ‘This is nothing more than an outlandish claim and is completely false.’

It comes after Denver grandmother Joann Bruso left a Happy Meal to decay for a year until March to highlight the nutritional dangers of fast food.

Morgan Spurlock also made the film Super Size Me in 2004 charting the changes to his body eating just fast food for 28 days had.

Neuroscientists manipulate the human body like a marionette using magnets


Magnetic coils are used to affect Prof Haggard’s brain and control his body.  Photo: MARTIN POPE

Neuroscience, free will and determinism: ‘I’m just a machine’

Our bodies can be controlled by outside forces in the universe, discovers Tom Chivers. So where does that leave free will?

Telegraph | Oct 12, 2010

By Tom Chivers

For a man who thinks he’s a robot, Professor Patrick Haggard is remarkably cheerful about it. “We certainly don’t have free will,” says the leading British neuroscientist. “Not in the sense we think.” It’s quite a way to start an interview.

We’re in the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, in Queen Square in London, the nerve centre – if you will – of British brain research. Prof Haggard is demonstrating “transcranial magnetic stimulation”, a technique that uses magnetic coils to affect one’s brain, and then to control the body. One of his research assistants, Christina Fuentes, is holding a loop-shaped paddle next to his head, moving it fractionally. “If we get it right, it might cause something.” She presses a switch, and the coil activates with a click. Prof Haggard’s hand twitches. “It’s not me doing that,” he assures me, “it’s her.”

The machinery can’t force Prof Haggard to do anything really complicated – “You can’t make me sign my name,” he says, almost ruefully – but at one point, Christina is able to waggle his index finger slightly, like a schoolmaster. It’s very fine control, a part of the brain specifically in command of a part of the body. “There’s quite a detailed map of the brain’s wiring to the body that you can build,” he tells me.

I watch as Christina controls Prof Haggard’s fingers like a marionette. The mechanical nature of it is unsettling. A graph on a screen shows his muscle activity plotted by time; 20 milliseconds after she clicks the button, it depicts an elegant leap and drop, like a heartbeat on an ECG. That 20 milliseconds is how long it takes for the signal to travel down his nerves. “The conduction time would be less from my jaw muscles, more from my leg muscles,” he says. And as many of us will recognise, the process gets less effective as we age: “As I get older, the curve will move slowly to the right on the graph.”

The idea that our bodies can be controlled by an outside force is a pretty astonishing one. “This is absolutely out of my control,” insists Prof Haggard, as his muscles continue to move. “I’m not doing it, Christina is. I’m just a machine, and she is operating me.”

What does this mean in terms of free will? “We don’t have free will, in the spiritual sense. What you’re seeing is the last output stage of a machine. There are lots of things that happen before this stage – plans, goals, learning – and those are the reasons we do more interesting things than just waggle fingers. But there’s no ghost in the machine.”

The conclusions are shocking: if we are part of the universe, and obey its laws, it’s hard to see where free will comes into it. What we think of as freedom, he says, is a product of complexity. “An amoeba has one input, one output. If you touch it with one chemical, it engulfs it; with another, it recoils.

“If you see a light go green, it may mean press the accelerator; but there are lots of situations where it doesn’t mean that: if the car in front hasn’t moved, for example. The same stimulus sometimes makes me press the accelerator, but sometimes the horn. We are not one output-one input beings; we have to cope with a messy world of inputs, an enormous range of outputs. I think the term ‘free will’ refers to the complexity of that arrangement.”

Slowly, however, we are learning more about the details of that complexity. This, Prof Haggard says, has profound implications: philosophically, morally, and – most worryingly – legally. “We understand what brain areas are responsible for impulsive behaviour, and which bits are responsible for inhibiting that behaviour. There’s a whole brain network associated with holding back from things you shouldn’t do.

“What happens if someone commits a crime, and it turns out that there’s a lesion in that brain area? Is that person responsible? Is the damage to the machine sufficient for us to exempt them from that very basic human idea that we are responsible for our actions? I don’t know.” He refers to a major project in America, where “lawyers, neuroscientists, philosophers and psychiatrists are all trying to work out what impact brain science has on our socio-legal sense of responsibility”.

This runs shockingly contrary to the sense of freedom that we feel in terms of controlling our actions, on which we base our whole sense of self and system of morality. “As far as I know,” says Prof Haggard, “all societies hold individuals responsible for their actions. Even in animal societies, individuals have reputations. Non-human primates adjust their behaviour according to how other animals will respond. Junior males will not steal from older males, because they know they’ll get beaten up. That’s the beginning of social responsibility; the awareness that your behaviour has effects on the behaviour of others, and can have good or bad consequences.

“It’s a rule that we need to have as social animals. You couldn’t have society unless, if you do something wrong, you pay for it. The question is, what do we do when people don’t have the brain machinery to play by the rules – or decide not to play by them? That’s not a scientific question. That’s a moral one.”

Maybe, I suggest, we’ve over-defined free will. Perhaps it doesn’t exist in the mystical breaking-the-laws-of-the-universe way, but there is a sense in which this “me”, this brain and body, responds to the world, reacts to information, tries to shape its environment; takes decisions. Can we not pull free will back to something more defensible? He taps his fingers.

“Yes, interacting intelligently with your environment might be enough. The philosophical definition of free will uses the phrase ‘could have done otherwise’. I picked up the blue cup; could I have picked up the white one? Given the initial conditions, the world as it was, could I have acted differently?

“As a neuroscientist, you’ve got to be a determinist. There are physical laws, which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey. Under identical circumstances, you couldn’t have done otherwise; there’s no ‘I’ which can say ‘I want to do otherwise’. It’s richness of the action that you do make, acting smart rather than acting dumb, which is free will.”

Some philosophers – Robert Kane, and, famously, Karl Popper and John Eccles – have held out hope that quantum indeterminacy, the randomness at the level of the universe’s finest grains, could rescue true freedom.

Prof Haggard is dismissive. “No one wants to be told they’re just a machine. But there is simply nothing approaching convincing evidence for the quantum view. Popper and Eccles proposed that free will was due to quantum indeterminacy in the chemical messages that communicate between neurons.

“But none of that happens at the quantum level. From a physics point of view, it’s macro-level.” Besides, quantum activity is purely random, and randomness gives you no more freedom than determinism does.

Does this bother you, I ask? Being a machine? “I keep my personal and professional lives pretty separate,” he says, smiling. “I still seem to decide what films I go to see, I don’t feel it’s predestined, though it must be determined somewhere in my brain.

“There’s an idea in theology that our free will places us next to God. Milton describes this beautifully in Paradise Lost. We like to think we’re wonderful, that we have this marvellous capacity. But we should be more impartial: perhaps we overestimate the value and the excitement of having free will.”

On that note, I take my leave. Although really, I didn’t have any choice.

School District settles lawsuit for $610k after being sued for spying on students via webcams


WebcamGate: High school student Blake Robbins and his parents successfully sued a Pennsylvania School District for unlawfully spying on students via webcam

Daily Mail | Oct 12, 2010

A Pennsylvannia school district has settled a lawsuit after a high school student and his parents sued for invasion of privacy when unlawful pictures were taken of him via his webcam on his school-issued laptop.

Blake Robbins and his parents Michael and Holly Robbins sued Lower Merion School District, and the School Board approved a $610,000 settlement on Monday in the case dubbed WebcamGate.

The Macbook laptops issued to 2,300 students in the district were equipped with tracking software that could remotely activate the computer’s webcam to take pictures of the user.

This was intended as a means to locate lost or stolen laptops, but was apparently activated in other circumstances also.

16-year-old Blake claimed he was was called into assistant principal Lynn Matsko’s office in February who showed him photos remotely taken with the laptop’s built-in webcam.

In the pictures, the teen was allegedly holding two pill-shaped objects which school officials believed were drugs. The family maintains they were simply Mike-N-Ike candy that Blake was holding.

Privacy concerns were then raised as to how the school got hold of the photos and how many other pictures had been taken.

Unknown to the students at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, PA and Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA, administrators had the ability to take photographs and screenshots remotely via the webcam.

Earlier this year on behalf of their son, Blake’s parents sued the school district, its board of directors and the superintendent.

The settlement reached Monday includes $175,000 placed in a trust for Robbins; $10,000 for Jalil Hassan – the second student who filed suit – and $425,000 for their lawyer Mark Haltzman.

Hassan had turned 18 when he was informed that 469 pictures and 543 screen shots had been taken of him over the course of several months so he filed his own lawsuit.

The district’s internal investigation turned up more than 50,000 images and screen shots taken over two years by school officials without the knowledge of students or their parents.

According to a message on the district superintendent’s website, the teens were given the computers in order to ‘enhance opportunities for ongoing collaboration and ensure that all students have 24/7 access to school based resources’.
Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young said that the district would only remotely access a laptop if it was reported lost, stolen or missing.

The case was settled when the district’s insurance carrier, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Co., agreed to cover $1.2million of the fees and costs needed to pay for the lawsuits.

Board President David Ebby said in a statement: ‘We believe this settlement enables us to move forward in a way that is most sensitive to our students, taxpayers and the entire school district community’.

Immediately after the lawsuits were filed, the district removed the webcam security program but it has continued the laptop distribution.

Ebby said the school revised its policies and procedures and put safeguards in place to ensure the privacy of students and staff.

The FBI were also investigating other potential invasion of privacy violations but they were subsequently dropped.

The Feds, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the district attorney of Montgomery County, Pennyslvania dropped the charges earlier in the summer which cleared the school district and its employees of any criminal wrongdoing.