Inside the Dark Bone Vault

The Science of Storytelling[1] is a self-help book masquerading as a neuroscience book inside a writing guide. But this is not evangelical American self-help with an enormous whitened smile bounding onstage to thumping pop rock. This is self help written by an English recluse.

Author Will Storr is a man who has gazed long into the abyss. The introduction opens, “We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love.” “The cure for the horror is story,” he continues. Bleak, empty reality is why our brains “conjure up a world for [us] to live inside”.

The link between storytelling and neuroscience lies in how our brains render stories. When we hear a story, our brains generate a hallucination that allows us to “see” what’s going on in the story and to experience the sounds and textures that are described to us. Characterisation allows us to empathise with fictional characters.

The reason that our minds have the ability to generate these hallucinations of fictional worlds is because that’s what they’re doing all the time for the real world. We have no direct experience of external reality. Your brain is, according to neuroscientist David Eagleman,[2] “locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull”.


Continue reading “Inside the Dark Bone Vault”

The Todger Screening Administration

To celebrate Dunedin Airport being sold some body scanners, here’s something I wrote years ago. This article first appeared on Not PC in 2010.

The latest weapon against airborne terrorism is nudie pictures, with backscatter x-ray machines being installed at airports across America.

Normal x-rays machines use radiation that passes through an object and can detect dense things like guns, femurs, and the various household objects that people waddle into A&E having “accidentally” sat on.

Backscatter x-ray machines, however, measure reflected x-rays. While fabrics appear invisible the radiation is scattered by most other things, like guns, explosives, and penises.


The Fiqh Council of North America has issued a fatwa stating that the nudie-scope is un-Islamic for its violation of modesty. Save your breath guys. Strip searches without warrants or probable cause are un-American, too, but nobody’s listening.

Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’” Those were simpler times. That statement has mutated into, “I’m from the government and I’m here to take photos of your cock.”

All this is in response to the attempt to blow up a plane last Christmas by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. “Smokin’” Umar, the underpants bomber. Abdulmutallab’s plot raised many questions, chief among them: How do you explain to the seventy-two virgins, who’ve been eagerly waiting for you their whole afterlives, that you’ve just blown your todger off?

The second question was: What’s happened to al Qaeda? 9/11 was simple, ingenious, and devastating. The underpants plot was so bad it would’ve been rejected by ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The third question was: What’s the dimmest knee-jerk reaction we can have to our hopeless security lapse?

After 9/11 the instant response was to ban anything sharper than an Oscar Wilde story from aircraft cabins. (In New Zealand the Aviation Security Service was formed so hastily that they forgot to check that it’s acronym wasn’t ASS.)

After Richard Reid’s shoe bombs (again, WTF al Qaeda?) passengers had to remove their shoes at the security gate. Clearly, getting everyone to remove their pants for x-raying was too dumb even for the Department of Homeland Security so the nudie-scope it had to be.

Passengers who don’t want to be photographed by the nudie-scope can opt out and have a good old-fashioned groping instead. As Ben Franklin once said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will end up getting its bollocks gripped by the government.”

Protesters recommend the groping because it slows down the queue to the point of impracticality and requires the government flunky to molest you face-to-face (or hand to bollock as the case may be) in the hopes that this is embarrassing for him too. November 24th has been designated National Wear A Kilt To The Airport Day.

What Ben Franklin actually said was, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” He is backed up by Rafi Sela, former head of security at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, a man who knows about fending off murderous nutters. He says that Israel hasn’t bothered with body scanning technology because the machines are “useless.” “I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747.”

I assume he’s talking about the old cocaine smugglers’ trick. If the machine maps the outside of a passenger’s body in exquisite detail, carry the explosives on the inside. Come on al Qaeda – let’s see how big your arsenal really is.

The truth is that all this remove-your-laptop-battery, take-off-your-shoes, drop-your-pants nonsense, known as “security theatre,” won’t stop terrorists but it will make life unpleasant for the rest of us. You are now assumed to be a criminal the moment you walk into an American airport.

Security expert Bruce Schneier believes that security theatre does nothing to protect us. What he claims will protect us is intelligence gathering, understanding terror organisations, diligent police work, and having the sort of society where people don’t want to become terrorists.

Notwithstanding the horror and drama of 9/11, bringing down an airliner won’t destroy our way of life. A hyperbolic and misguided response to the threat just might. It’s time American air travellers told their government to stop taking liberties.

Who Let the Underdogs Out?

Before social media professionals grabbed control of the United States and gnawed at the foundations of the European Union with their pervasive tracking, personality profiling, and hyper-targeted ads, came a bunch of amateurs who had no idea what they were doing. I know this because I was one of them.

In 2006, an opportunity to hack away at the establishment presented itself and I took it. If Trump was a magnitude-eight quake that tore a rift through the political world, ten years earlier I was a tiny foreshock. The sort of thing that a political geologist might have recognised but that to everyone else was an inconsequential bump. It wasn’t much, but this early social media campaign had far more impact than all my previous late-night attempts at proving people wrong on the Internet.

I was leader of the Libertarianz, a tiny political party in New Zealand, which, to date, had achieved pretty close to nothing. We held a position that about 2% of the New Zealand population agreed with and, of those 2%, 1.95% didn’t want to vote for someone who wasn’t going to win. I lived in Lower Hutt but stood for Parliament in Wellington Central, which meant I couldn’t even vote for myself.


Continue reading “Who Let the Underdogs Out?”


Aristotle’s Three Pillars

Welcome to logos, the most boring of Aristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric.

Aristotle’s three pillars were laid down 23 centuries ago in his book The Art of Rhetoric. This book is still the go-to guide for persuasive speaking after all this time.

For a long time we were taught that persuasion relied on presenting logical arguments that relentlessly took us from our shared assumptions or basic facts and, step-by-step, with deductive reasoning turned them into new, unassailable conclusions.

More recently there’s been a renaissance in the understanding that Aristotle’s other two pillars, ethos and pathos are just as important. Today, we find ourselves in a world where reasoning is undervalued and many arguments, especially political arguments are all ethos and pathos, with reason nowhere to be seen.

As a reminder, ethos is your character and your standing with the audience, logos is how you attempt to influence with audience with reason, and pathos is an attempt to stir your audience with anger, fear, or hope.

As Sam Leith puts it in You Talkin’ to Me, ethos says, “Buy my car because I’m Jeremy Clarkson.” Logos says, “Buy my car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.” Pathos says, “Buy my old car because this cute little kitten, which is afflicted with a rare degenerative disease, will expire in agony, for my car is the last asset in the world and I’m selling it to pay for kitty’s medical treatment.”

CarBuyingPerSamLeith.png Continue reading “Logos”

Newsletter: 5th August 2019

Asteroid Apocalypse Edition

Abundance and apocalypse both lurk in the dark

Humanity dodged a bullet a week ago. By “bullet” I mean “100-metre wide rock travelling at a hundred times the speed of sound”. And by “dodged” I mean “sailed on blissfully ignorant of our possible doom”.

Asteroid 2019 OK streaked past Earth at lunchtime (NZ time) on 25th July, getting within 80,000 km, which in space terms is thinner than an after-dinner mint.


The asteroid was only noticed a day before its closest approach – no time for any planet-saving heroics, even if we knew what to do.

The only comparable event in recent history is the Tunguska event in 1908, when an asteroid or comet about the same size came down over Siberia, causing an explosion that flattened 80 million trees over 2,000 square km. Fortunately, Siberia is only slightly more populated that interplanetary space.

Asteroids, Climate Change, Farming, and Measles

Asteroids, appearing unbidden from the black emptiness of space, make for a great plot device when you need some unlikely magic to push your story along.

12,000 years ago the climate cooled rapidly. Nobody knows what caused the change, but one candidate is an asteroid strike. An asteroid strike at the dawn of human history is too good for a pseudo-archaeologist to pass up and this asteroid strike also gets the blame for destroying Atlantis.

Try searching for anything serious on this prehistoric cold snap, known as the Younger Dryas, and you’ll soon be neck deep in lost civilisations.


The Younger Dryas may have triggered the shift from foraging to farming, which in turn gave us measles, a disease originally transmitted from domesticated sheep. Now the same online recommendation engines that are twisting our early history are also helping to bring back our ancient diseases. (See my post Measles Goes Viral.)

T. rex and the Crater of Doom

The asteroid impact that we all know best is the one that killed the dinosaurs. For a readable and lively retelling of the scientific detective story that led to the discovery of the impact crater in Mexico, see T. rex and the Crater of Doom.

From the book of rocks comes the history of the Earth

The book is written by Walter Alvarez, the son in the father-son team that made the discovery. It vividly describes what happened that day 65 million years ago, the battle between the gradualists, who believed nothing in geology happens quickly, and the catastrophists, and the final discovery of the vast submerged Chicxulub crater.

This short, personal story is an easy, fun introduction to one of the milestone events in Earth’s history.


Asteroids are not all death and destruction. They’re also a trillion-dollar opportunity. Metallic asteroids contain vast quantities of valuable raw materials. Commercial ventures are already under way, looking to stake their claim, and NASA recently announced construction of its first mission to a metallic asteroid, Psyche, which will launch in 2022.

For what happens when a quadrillion dollars worth of gold shows up, see my recent post: Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire.


Try and avoid any extinction events before next week. Until then, thanks for reading,


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Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?

A Real Space Race

Exploration has always been motivated by the desire to get our hands on more resources. The recent anniversary of the Apollo programme reminded us that exploration for its own sake is a dead end. We haven’t been back to the moon in 50 years.

If we want space exploration to continue, there needs to be a reward at the end. Asteroid mining will be worth trillions and show us what a real space race looks like.

It will also teach us some lessons about economics.


Continue reading “Who Wants to Be a Trillionaire?”

Newsletter: 17th June 2019

Prepper Edition

Protecting yourself from Russians, riot police, and rainfall

Lights Out – Moscow Edition

Last week I wrote about how warfare was moving into the information age in The Laptop Luftwaffe. This week the New York Times published a report detailing how the United States has deployed cyberweapons into the Russian electrical grid. You know, just in case.


United States Cyber Command has been probing the Russian grid for years but, according to the report, has recently shifted to “forward defense,” a phrase you can draw your own conclusions from.

Russia and the United States have been meddling with each other’s infrastructure for years. One of the dangers from cyberwarfare is the lack of a clear boundary that marks an act of war. Is placing malware in the grid a deterrent or an attack? That lack of a boundary encourages escalation. Expect chaos and missteps as we explore these edges.

Umbrellas vs Oppression

High tech surveillance is a key part of modern Chinese authoritarianism. Watching protesters in Hong Kong resist Chinese authority this week has been instructive.


Some technologies favour offensive uses and others favour defensive uses. Some require the machinery of a large organisation to run and some can be used effectively by individuals. If we value political freedom, defensive technologies that can be used by individuals are important.

Hong Kong residents in huge numbers have been protesting against new laws allowing extradition to mainland China. Protesters have used a variety of tools to protect themselves from Chinese surveillance.

Social media has been important in organising protests, as it has been since the Arab Spring, but the platform matters. WeChat is a no-no as it can easily be tracked and censored by the government. Telegram is probably the best option but it needs to be used carefully.

People traveling to protests have been queuing to buy single-use train tickets to avoid being tracked by their stored-value Octopus cards. Cash is a simple, decentralised, censorship-resistant technology. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to get rid of it.

The other image that struck me was of protesters using umbrellas. Word got around that the government was using aerial drones to watch crowds and identify people. So, up went the umbrellas – a wonderful example of a cheap, low-tech countermeasure.


Amongst Silicon Valley billionaires, the go-to plan for surviving the apocalypse is to buy a house in New Zealand. I already own a house in New Zealand and so I feel as if I’m one step ahead of the game, particularly as I’ve done it without the hassle of becoming a Silicon Valley billionaire.

If you plan to do the same, make sure you bring your umbrella. Not because of the drone surveillance but because it does, you know, rain a lot.

Thanks for reading,


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Newsletter: 10th June 2019

Crypto-Sutra Edition

Cryptography as a weapon, as fiction, and as a lifestyle choice

Press Any Key!

For the last five weeks I’ve been doing a writing course, called Write of Passage. Ironically, it has slowed down the rate I post stuff to my blog. I’m hoping it’s because my standards are higher. The final piece of writing I did for the course is The Laptop Luftwaffe, the long-promised and much-delayed piece on cyberwarfare.

The thesis is that the shift from explosive power to computing power is as big as the shift from swords to gunpowder. I take a stab at what that change might mean but, “it’s tough to make predictions,” as Yogi Berra noted, “especially about the future.”

Writing is a type of thinking. The reason I write about the way technology is changing the world is not because I know the answer but because I want to know and writing about it is part of the discovery process. Feedback is part of that process too, so if any of these articles spark curiosity, further research, or disbelief at how wrong I am, please reply.

In the meantime, press any key to continue…


A Race Against Time

This morning I finished the second book in Quicksilver, the first volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The series is a sprawling monster of a story, set at the birth of the modern world. The frame for the story is the battle between Newton and Leibniz and it covers computation, cryptography, gold, plague, alchemy, wars, and slavery. It’s populated by kings, puritans, pirates, and vagabonds. Reviews have varied from “magnificent” to “ridiculous” and I love it.

Stephenson has a new book, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, out. I was hoping to get through the Baroque Cycle before Fall arrived but, at a nightstand-busting 3000 pages, it was never going to happen.


One of the less likely-sounding pieces of press for Fall is this one from Reason: If We Told You Neal Stephenson Invented Bitcoin, Would You Be Surprised? Er, yes, I would, but not because he couldn’t. He’s probably too busy smashing out the next thousand-page epic.

The Crypto-Sutra

The Kama Sutra isn’t all eroticism, despite what you may have seen carved into the pillars of Hindu temples. It contains advice on all aspects of good living and contains a list of the arts and sciences to be studied by all men and women. Number 44 on the list is mlecchita vikalpa, or “the art of understanding writing in cypher.” Cryptography isn’t just for princes and generals, it’s for anyone who wants to live the good life.


Everyone should be able to leave saucy notes for their lovers without the neighbours reading over their shoulders, which is why mlecchita vikalpa makes it into the top-64 life skills list. As a society we have laws respecting confidentiality between patients and doctors and clients and lawyers. When we sent letters through the post, we use envelopes; we don’t write everything on postcards.

We also expect our financial dealings to remain private. Number 36 on the Kama Sutra’s essential arts and sciences list is “knowledge about gold and silver coins.” I can’t promise to help you with dancing, sword-fighting, or teaching parrots to speak – a Neal Stephenson book is where you go for that sort of variety – but this newsletter will at times cover both money and writing in cypher, two essential life skills for the price of one.

Grab an acidulated drink or spirituous extract with proper flavour and colour (life skill #24) and join me.

Thanks for reading,


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Newsletter: 3rd June 2019

This Message Will Self-destruct

So will factories and political parties.

An Air Force in Your Pocket

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” Mae West once asked of a police escort. The wonders of modern technology mean that you can now fit a lot more than a pistol in your pocket.

Last week I promised a blog post on cyberwarfare. I posted the first installment this afternoon, An Air Force in Your Pocket, featuring Nazis, atom bombs, and derring-do. In the next installment, I’ll look at what the shift from industrial age warfare to information age warfare might mean.


(If you’re interested in how changes in weapons technology have changed society, also have a look at Nobbling the Nobility (about the Iron Age) and The Medieval Hiroshima (about gunpowder)).

Electile Dysfunction

My uncle introduced me to the idea that there was more to political life than the two big parties. He stood in Reading East for the Ecology Party, forerunner of the Greens, in 1983. A couple of decades later, and on the other side of the world, I stood for the Libertarianz in Wellington Central. Opposites in many ways, we both dreamed of knocking the big guys off their perches, but knew it was a long game.

I wrote recently about how mainstream political parties are doomed. “Broad church” political parties are enabled by broadcast media. As those media fragment, they’ll take the political parties with them. Even with that in mind, recent opinion poll results from the UK have shocked me.


The two-party system we’ve known forever looks wrecked. Whether this is a temporary blip due to the Brexit shambles, whether the old Labour-Conservative duopoly is going to be replaced by a different duopoly, or whether the whole two-party system is falling apart remains to be seen.

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The first selfie was not very “insta”. Robert Cornelius sat motionless in front of his camera for a minute to take this portrait. The wifi would have been even slower, with radio waves not being discovered until 1888, 49 years after the picture was taken.


It took until 2009 for duck face to start trending.

Thanks for reading,


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