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Aphantasia

What is aphantasia?  It’s the opposite of phantasia, the ability to recall or imagine an image.  People with this condition are unable to form images or pictures in their mind.  Which one is normal?  It’s better to ask: what is normal?  People have a range of mental abilities, just like they have a range of physical abilities.  In the case of aphantasia, it’s extent is still unknown.

Aphantasia has been in the news recently, the result of a recent scientific study and a subsequent article that Blake Ross published on the web.  The ability to form mental images is sometimes called the mind’s eye.  The lack of this ability is sometimes described as a form of blindness.

Visualization is usually described as a powerful technique.  Imagine yourself achieving success, they say.  See yourself on top of a mountain with your arms raised above your head.  The technique fails when you are unable to form the image.  Then it’s not powerful at all but just difficult to understand or perform.

According to the descriptions, I must be one of the people who have aphantasia.  I’m certainly unable to recall an image of anyone who I know.  I also find it difficult to describe them when they are not present.  Still, I can recognize them immediately when they do appear.  Recalling their name takes a little longer, but I can generally do that easily as well.  I also don’t have the type of imagination that other people often have.  I do have difficulty imagining something that has never happened or may only happen in the future.  I do find it easy to describe something that actually did happen, even if it didn’t happen to me.

I wonder if I really have two unusual mind conditions.  Is one the cause of the other?  Am I normal?  Probably nobody is normal.  We all have a range of mental abilities.  Perhaps I’m towards one end of the normal range.  Certainly many other people share my inability to form mental images.  Certainly many other people share my type of imagination.

 

Electronic Payments

It’s a curious thing that I’m investigating electronic payments, as I do most of my payments with cash.  I always pay restaurant bills with cash, and pay cash for my groceries.  I do use a credit card for other purchases, though.

I’ve been following the Mintchip project of the Royal Canadian Mint.  It was intended to develop a cash replacement, a way to eliminate coins and small bills.  I was disappointed to hear that they had cancelled the project and sold Mintchip.  By that time, it had become just another payment system.  Of course, payment systems of all sorts are one way to eliminate cash transactions.

In parts of Africa, people use a payment system called M-pesa that uses text messages from ordinary mobile phones to transfer money.  These people generally don’t have bank accounts.  Instead, their telecom company provides accounts, and allows them to transfer funds in and out of these accounts.  An M-pesa trial failed in South Africa, likely because most people there already had bank accounts, and already used credit or debit cards for payment.  Another reason for that failure may have been the requirement for an official bank to be involved, rather than a telecom company.

In North America, everybody seems to carry a mobile phone, and most of them are smart phones!  Well, maybe only 75% of people carry them.  The major vendors of mobile phone operating systems all have their own proprietary payment systems.  There are three right now.  Since they are all different, merchants have to buy wireless payment machines that at least handle the popular ones.

In parts of Asia, people use a more flexible payment system, based on a mobile phone messaging application.  The phone itself displays an image that can be scanned by the clerk at the checkout counter.  This scheme works the same with any mobile smart phone, requiring less investment by the merchant.  It may soon appear in North America.

I notice here that credit and debit cards are still the most popular way to make payments.  Using them certainly does eliminate the need to carry cash.  Cash is quicker, though.  That’s one reason I prefer to pay with cash most of the time.

What do people want in a payment system?  I suppose that convenience is the main thing.  Some people also want to collect points of some sort.  I don’t.  Most people also want a payment system that’s free to use, although they often don’t consider hidden charges.  Certainly, fees the merchant has to pay are of no concern to most customers.

What do merchants want?  I suppose the main thing is to attract customers, and certainly not to drive them away.  They also want low cost, of course.  Merchants have to pay for the point of sale equipment, the back-end computer system, and for payment services.  In the case of credit or debit cards, there’s a whole list of companies that take their cut.  The banks and credit card companies are only part of the list.  Merchants also want security, to avoid the bad publicity that occurs when millions of credit card numbers are disclosed.

There is something new out there in the world of payments, something called a blockchain.  It’s an open distributed electronic ledger.  It’s appeal is that it can replace banks, although anything doing banking business in this country is protected by legislation.  Banks, of course, have their own ledgers where transactions are recorded.  These were once books that were filled in by trusted clerks writing with quill pens.  Now they are computer databases kept behind locked doors.  Used appropriately, a blockchain should be able to provide secure and low-cost electronic payments.  No doubt banks and other large financial institutions will want a piece of this market.

 

 

Our Place in the World

What is our, we humans I mean, what is our attitude to other forms of life?  No doubt most of us see animals and plants either as posessions or pests.  We say “my dog” or “my lawn” or even “those dandelions”.  Some of us see them as decorations or amusements.  We see “cute squirrels” or “pretty flowers”.  A few of us see them as objects of study, like “my first warbler” or “a new tree species”.

What’s the religious attitude?  The Hebrew bible, called the old testament by Christians, is revered by all three Abrahamic religions.  In the first chapter of Genesis, you can read this at the culmination of the first creation myth:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

That’s pretty clear.  This is followed by the Adam and Eve story.  According to Wikipedia, this story is not really another creation myth, but is more like a parable describing what happens when you disobey God.  It also does little to refine our place in the world.

Science, ever since Darwin, tells a different story.  Evolution, with the mechanism that Darwin discovered, has become the basis for all biological science.  Evolution is a random process, with no direction and no goal to it.  All life forms on earth are the result of evolution.  We are not special, but just an animal, like all the other animals.

What are we to believe, religion or science?  Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack, is able to identify our beliefs about evolution by the questions that he most often gets.  People do seem to believe that one animal species can transform into another, in the fullness of time.  They seem to believe too that we evolved from monkeys.  However, they also seem to believe that we humans are the pinacle of evolution, and that the direction of evolution is towards us, and that its goal is the creation of humans.  These last are erroneous beliefs, as so stated by Gould.

We seem to mash together religious ideas and scientific ideas, with a large dollop of wishful thinking.  I suppose we do this in order to make sense of conflicting ideas.  I suppose also that it’s too frightening for us to abandon some ideas that we hold dear.  Maybe doing it this way is how we accomodate and grasp new ideas.

 

Populists are Popular

I’ve seen mentions of populist movements or populist politicians frequently in the news.  I gather from the context that it’s always used in the negative sense, almost like a swear-word.  Why is this?  Doesn’t populist just mean people.  Aren’t people the essence of democracy.  How can it be negative?

The Wikipedia article is instructive.  Populists claim to represent ordinary people.  Don’t all politicians and all parties make this claim?  They speak for the middle class (everybody believes they are middle class) or for the silent majority.  Of couse, they need a wide appeal to win the next election.  In any case, we can’t use that claim to identify populists.

The article also states that populists rail against an evil corrupt elitist group.  This could be the current government, corporations, or some other small group of people.  It’s a conspiracy theory, that’s what it is!  There’s a small group that’s exploiting the majority.  It’s a common enemy, that’s what it is.  It’s something that is easy to claim, easy to believe, but difficult to prove.  Here we have something better to identify populists, but it’s not perfect.  It may be the best we have.

This article also reports that a referendum is a favourite tactic of populists.  It’s something that will demonstrate how much popular support they can command.  Referendums are also controversial.  Some people say they are direct democracy, the best form of democracy.  Others say that the politicians that we have elected to lead us should be making decisions on our behalf.  Probably both are correct to some extent.  After all, referendums are used by traditional political parties too.

When do we need populist movements?  They seem to appear when a political party has been in power too long.  People always believe the worst about politicians.  All they need are rumours of bad behavior to vote them out of office.  It could be corruption.  It could be repression of opposition voices.  It could be heartless treatment of ordinary people.  At that point, it doesn’t really matter.  It’s just time for them to leave, and be replaced by another party.

Now, the supposed evil corrupt elitist group may be imaginary, identified by a false story.  It could also be real.  Sometimes there really is an abusive leadership.  They might be engaging in undemocratic practices, such as suppressing the opposition.  They might have subverted democracy itself.  How do we decide?  There’s usually no reliable proof.  We generally have only rumours, accusations, and denials to go on.  We may have only one person describing their treatment at the hands of this group.  Who are we to believe?  I suppose we have to make up our own minds on this question, rather than just doing what everybody else is doing.

 

Co-op Housing

There’s a woman I know from a weekly dance.  She’s told me before that she needs to be with people.  I did notice that, even though she comes there to dance, she spends much of the time talking with other people.  She’s also told me that she lives in a trailer, all by herself.  The other day, I overheard her telling somebody else that she wanted to sell her trailer and move into an appartment.  I didn’t think of it then, but I wondered later if co-op housing might suit her.  I’ll mention it the next time I see her.

I first thought about co-op housing a few years ago, when a fellow I worked with recommended it to me.  He knew that I lived alone.  He knew that I was not a very sociable person.  I’m sure that he believed that I would benefit from living with other people.  Of course, I scoffed at the idea.  I wasn’t going to change the way I lived.  I liked being alone.  Co-op housing was the furthest thing from my mind.

This fellow had lived in co-op housing when he was a student at University.  He told us about the experience many times.  Each person had a separate room, but they ate all their meals together.  They took turns doing the cooking, and other chores like shopping and cleaning.  Usually, several people worked together at any of these tasks.  Certainly they saved money by doing those things together.  That’s something that would be important to students.  I’m sure they also acquired valuable skills as well, along with an appreciation of other people.

My parents are living in a senior’s home now, but in some respects, it’s like co-op housing.  The residents eat all their meals together in the dining room.  Eating together is how they get to know other people in the senior’s home.  To some extent, these meals are highlights of their day.  In between meals, people there return to their rooms.  They don’t often co-operate in other tasks, though: all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry are done by staff members.  People do get together at various activities organized by the senior’s home.  I suppose it’s as close as you can get to co-op housing for people who don’t want to work anymore.

I can certainly see some advantages for a person like me in co-op housing.  I’d learn to be friendly to other people at their convenience, not just at mine.  I’d learn how to cooperate with others.  I’d learn to appreciate other people.  I’d be appreciated by others for what I could contribute to the group.  I’m also reluctant to even take the first step in that direction.  I’m not motivated by the need to save money.  I like to be in full control of my life.  What if they didn’t like me?  What if they didn’t want me?  What if they asked too much of me?  I need some time to myself.  I like my life the way it is.

 

Scrambled Eggs

Recently, I decided to introduce some protein into my breakfast.  I’ve been eating a scrambled egg every second morning, with meat of various kinds the other days.  I purchase these eggs at a local grocery store, a small package of large white eggs.  I did notice that they came from Burnbrae Farms.  According to the Wikipedia entry on Burnbrae Farms, their original farm is in Ontario.  There’s no farm by that name in this province.  They do have an egg grading station and distribution operation here.  They buy eggs from local farmers.  Burnbrae has become a distributor of eggs.  Calling them a farm seems misleading to me.  Of course, it’s a brand name now.

The other day, I watched the video of a CBC Marketplace investigation about eggs.  They had a panel who tasted scrambled eggs from the wide variety that were available in food stores.  Some people on the panel described their concerns with eggs.  Panel members were quite diverse.  One was an egg farmer.  One was a mother with children to feed.  One was a woman who kept laying hens in her backyard.  One was a nutritionist.  The panel only rated the scrambled eggs according to their flavour.

In the video, the Marketplace host visited a number of egg farms of various types.  All were large-scale commercial production facilities.  One, representing most producers today, had hens in conventional cages.  Another farm had them in larger cages, so that the hens were less crowded.  One was cage-free, meaning that the hens could wander all over the barn.  At one farm, they ran around a field outside of the barn.  Each of these produced higher-priced eggs than the ones from a conventional egg farm.

Many conflicting issues surround egg production.  Most of these were mentioned in the video.  Cost is an important consideration for most people, especially for those living on a limited budget.  Some types of eggs are very expensive when compared to others.  Some people wanted eggs with the organic label, assuming that they were healthier than other eggs.  Nutrition, especially onmega-3 fatty acids, was important to some.  The program did mention the nutrient content of each type of egg, assuming that more was better.  It didn’t mention health aspects of eating eggs, though.  Isn’t cholesterol still controversial?  Some people are concerned about the welfare of the laying hens, looking for ethical production facilities.  Were the hens happy at some of the farms in the video?  I couldn’t tell.

I only want the protein for my breakfast.  I don’t care about other nutrients.  I can get them someplace else, if I really need them.  I don’t care about omega-3 fatty acids, either.  I am concerned about cruelty to the hens, of course.  I wouldn’t want to be eating eggs that came from birds that were in pain or injured.  The conventional cage production method seems okay to me.  The hens may be crowded.  I’m willing to accept that.  Larger cages would be okay too.  It’s certainly impersonal.  All commercial livestock production is impersonal.  I suppose I’m with the majority when it comes to eggs.

 

Ransomware

It’s been in the news lately.  The University of Calgary paid $20,000 to the hackers who launched a ransomware attack against them.  A dog rescue charity paid the ransom to get their computer files back.  Is this just something that happens when computers are connected to the Internet?  Is there nothing that can be done about it?

It’s an attack on Microsoft Windows computers: desktops, laptops, or tablets.  Ransomware encrypts all of the data files on your computer, making all of them unreadable unless you provide the decryption key.   It will even do this to your backup files if they are online at the time.  Then, it demands a ransom payment from you, if you ever want to see your files again.  If you pay the ransom, it will decrypt all of your data files, leaving them intact once again.  If you don’t pay, it will destroy the decryption key, leaving the files forever unreadable.

Victims don’t realize that they, the computer user, played a part in the ransomware attack.  Often, it begins with e-mail that contains a dangerous attachment.  The text of the e-mail message convinces the user to run the attachment.  Windows makes this easy to do.  It may also begin with an infected web site.  When the user views this web site, their web browser downloads and runs a malicious Javascript program.  This program exploits a security opening in Windows.  In either case, the attachment or Javascript program downloads and runs the ransomware program.  It’s this program that encrypts your data files and demands the ransom.  If you need a more technical description, see the SANS site.

What can you do to recover from such an attack?  Your best option is to restore all your files from backup, if you have been making regular backups of your data, of course.  You will have to recreate any data that you entered after the last backup.  If you don’t have backup, you still have two options.  One is to reinstall Windows on your computer.  All of your data files will disappear.  You will have to recreate them.  The other option is to pay the ransom.  If you do this in time, the ransomware will decrypt all of your files, leaving them as they were.

Better yet, you can prevent ransomware attacks from hitting your computer.  In a corporate environment, the IT department will be responsible for protecting all of the computers owned by the organization.  They will design a security system that prevents individual users from running malicious programs, and that will permit fast recovery of data files that are damaged or lost for any reason.  Usually, this means that the IT department will have complete control over your desktop computer.  They will impose many restrictions over what you can do on that computer.  You will have to understand that these restrictions protect your computer, as well as all the other computers and servers on the corporate network.

There are also a few things that you can do to protect your home computer from ransomware attacks.  Having a secure and reliable backup system is your first line of defense.  It will protect you against many threats, such as a disk crash or a fire, not just against ransomware.  Make sure that the backup files are not mounted on your computer while you are reading e-mail or browsing the web.  Next, ensure that your computer receives frequent updates from Microsoft.    For more protection, remove Administrator privileges from the account that you normally use.  You will have to set up a separate account that has Administrator privileges, and use this account only for installing software on the computer.  Since you don’t have an IT department’s protection, you will need to be careful yourself.  Heed any warning messages from Windows.  Don’t open dangerous e-mail attachments, even if they seem important to you.  Avoid viewing dangerous web sites.

Don’t put your faith in anti-virus software or firewalls.  Ransomware is designed to evade these products.  There are ways to protect your data files, but not this way.  Understanding how ransomware gets onto your computer is the key to defending against it.

 

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