Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Harry Magnet Publishes His First Novel: The Next Beethoven

I’ve published my first novel, entitled The Next Beethoven. David Green is a millennial virtuoso pianist and composer. He aspires to become a great composer. He also has the more ambitious goal of starting a Second Renaissance, and organizes a group of like-minded New York City artists who want to restore art to its European glory days. The novel portrays his struggles to achieve his goals.
You can find The Next Beethoven on Amazon Kindle. Sorry, there is no paper book. As a bonus, I included four short stories at the end.

Art modernism has dominated Western art for over a century, and it is strange that it hasn’t been seriously challenged. It’s unpopular with the general public, and it has led to utter decadence. While early modernists such as Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce became widely known, in recent decades it has been associated with a triumph of dullness, where the mediocrities creating art in these styles are only known to experts in their fields, and are ignored by the wider public.

Where are the artistic geniuses of today? There are more people in the world than ever before, and more of them have access to education and middle class lifestyles. If genius is a function of a rare combination of genes and environment, we should be having more geniuses than ever before, as there is a larger pool of people to draw from.

The only explanation is that there are strong environmental factors preventing potential artistic geniuses from actualizing their potential. I discuss some of these factors in the novel. One is conformity to modernism. Art modernism has been dominant for over a century. Although it may no longer be called modernism (perhaps “postmodernism” or some other label), it shares the essential qualities of modernism: rejection of plot in literature, melody in music, and representation in the visual arts. This makes it unpopular with the general public, so artists do their work mainly for other artists (or academics). Since virtually all mentors and teachers are modernists, it’s hard for a new artist to defy his teacher and do something completely different, in the absence of role models.

Another factor is having a career other than art. The decline in standards of art leads to the prestige motivation being worthless—a five-year-old could paint as good a painting as one that gets into MOMA, a ten-year-old could compose as good a work as a highly-regarded composer. People of high ability and intelligence will choose a career where financial rewards are more certain and they will be rewarded for their abilities—i.e. science, business, technology.

Other factors are 20th century or later philosophies and belief systems that did not exist during the golden age of European art. I talk about one in my novel—the Ayn Rand/Objectivist philosophy. This philosophy seemed very promising to bring about a creative revival, but after over 75 years since The Fountainhead was published, it clearly has not fulfilled its promise. In fact, Objectivism most likely has made things worse, by promoting hyperindividualism, the idea that creative accomplishment is an individual endeavor, which is best nurtured by leaving the individual alone. This doesn’t reflect the historical reality of creative achievement. Geniuses were part of a cultural and social milieu that was an integral part of their achievements. For example, Beethoven was taught by Haydn, had Mozart and Bach as role models, and initiated the early Romantic era of classical music, which included famous composers such as Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and others. Beethoven came from a musical family, and as a young man was part of the Viennese salon social scene. His biography, along with the biographies of other creative geniuses, bears little resemblance to the fictional orphans Hoard Roark or John Galt.

The idea from Atlas Shrugged that free minds and free markets promote creative achievement has no support in history. Charles Murray, a self-described libertarian, published a book in 2003 called Human Accomplishment. In this book, he talked about artistic and scientific genius, and did regression analysis to try to show social and political forces that promote such achievement. He had to admit that, short of totalitarianism, there was little correlation between political freedom and accomplishment. Most creative accomplishment was done by Europeans living under monarchies and other regimes that bear little resemblance to the contemporary conception of individual freedom. As political and economic freedom gradually advanced worldwide beginning in the late 18th century (with some notable setbacks in the 20th century), accomplishment didn’t rise along with freedom. Murray reported a mysterious decline in accomplishment (i.e. accomplishment as a percentage of people with opportunities) beginning in the 19th century. This decline has clearly accelerated in the last century.

Until recently, there were strict informal social norms that limited individual freedom. These included traditional family and gender roles, respect for parental, teacher and clerical authority, shamefulness of divorce and illegitimacy, closeting of homosexuals, racial and religious prejudice, speech and dress codes, etc. For the vast majority of people, these informal norms affected daily life more than national or state politics. Despite major worldwide differences in political and economic systems, these informal norms persisted until the 1960’s. The Sixties social revolution resulted in the collapse of these informal norms in Western countries, resulting in an unprecedented amount of individual freedom. From the perspective of popular culture, there were some positive developments. I was fortunate to have grown up in a golden age of popular music, the Sixties through Eighties, which included an incredible number of talented artists in different genres. But that eventually fizzled out by the turn of the millennium. Modernism became more entrenched than ever in the fine arts, and there has been little accomplishment since the Sixties, despite all the freedoms we enjoy.

The factor that I talk most about in the novel is the link between creativity and mental illness/drug abuse. I think this is probably the single most important factor. Something in the environment since the late 19th century has been making potential geniuses mentally ill. Some of them commit suicide, others develop disabling mental illness and/or drug abuse that prevents them from accomplishing anything. So instead of having a golden age of creative accomplishment, we have thousands of people committing suicide, and millions of mentally ill and drug addicted people straining health and legal systems around the world. I believe the cause of this is the intersection of modern technology and human magnetoreception (as discussed in this blog, one of my most popular). I don’t discuss this in the novel mainly due to timing. I didn’t do serious research of my magnetoreceptive abilities until age 40, and wrote the first draft of this novel a few years before that. To try to insert themes involving human magnetoreception into the novel would break it.

Some may ask: who cares about art? I haven’t written much about art in my blog or website. The reason is that there’s not much to write about—contemporary art is terrible, so what’s the point? From the standpoint of the art consumer, times have never been better. Let’s take a fictional example of Joe Businessman, who likes traditional European art. Joe has access to pictures of virtually any classic painting and sculpture available online with a few clicks. If he wants to see the real thing, he can go to a local museum, or travel with his family to big cities. It’s never been easier to travel, especially for someone with money like Joe Businessman. If Joe Businessman wants to read classic literature, and likes paper books, if they’re not in his private library or the local public library, he can order on Amazon.com and get it shipped within 48 hours. If he’s OK with eBooks, Project Gutenberg has most classics available for free. Or he can download to his Kindle or other device for a few dollars. Live theater is available in most medium-sized or larger cities. Joe can also travel to bigger cities for more theater options. Joe has access to almost any music he wants online either via MP3’s he owns, YouTube, or streaming services. Live music, like theater, is available in most medium-sized or larger cities. Joe has access to virtually any movie or TV show he wants to see via streaming services like Amazon Prime or Netflix. Joe Businessman is in a better position to appreciate art than anyone living during the time that the great works of art were created.

The problem with not creating great art isn’t for the art consumer like the fictional Joe Businessman. It’s that not creating great art is a symptom of the decline of our civilization. Western civilization’s decline has been occurring for over a century, and we managed to get through the challenges of the twentieth century. But, two decades into the twenty-first century, it is looking questionable that our civilization will be flourishing or even exist by the end of this century.

There are related symptoms of our civilization’s decline. Lack of artistic creativity is associated with lack of scientific creativity. Although the sheer number of scientists and resources leads to scientific advance, we’re lacking in significant individual creative accomplishment. This kind of individual accomplishment is what produces paradigm shifts in science. Such shifts are sorely needed in sciences that haven’t accomplished much, such as the neuroscience of mental illness. Another related decline is in leadership. The reason why we were able to muddle through the twentieth century is that we had great leaders when they were needed, such as the Great Depression and World War II (e.g. FDR and Churchill). The reason why the twenty-first century has started out so poorly is lack of strong leadership, especially George W. Bush, and now Trump.

The decline of moral and artistic standards is another symptom of our civilization’s decline. This decline sped up in the 1960’s. “Anything goes” is basically how Western nations operate today. This led to an explosion of drug abuse and criminal behavior, which triggered the U.S. to become an “incarceration nation.” Money that goes to police, drug treatment, and incarceration is money that’s not available for constructive purposes like infrastructure, education, science, and the arts.

The explosion of mental illness, as discussed above, is related to the decline in creativity, and also results in lost productivity and societal resources that could be otherwise be spent to grow our economy.

A result of the decline of moral and artistic standards is that some people will turn to fundamentalist religion to escape this decadence. Fundamentalist religion is incompatible with modern, Western society and government. It doesn’t respect the separation of state and religion. It doesn’t adhere to scientific guidance on how to run society and guide behavior. Both Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalism overseas are extremely dangerous to the future of our civilization.

It’s amazing, looking back, that we were able to get through the challenges of the twentieth century while in a state of decline. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear Armageddon, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s—there were a lot of things that could have sunk us. But a combination of great leadership when it was needed, science, technology, and luck helped us pull through. In fact, things looked pretty good by the start of the new millennium, at least on the surface. The U.S. had won the Cold War, Russia and Eastern Europe were experimenting with democracy, IT had transformed the economy, and the U.S. even had a rare budget surplus. But beneath the surface, the symptoms of civilizational decline that I described above were ready to drag us under.

9/11 was a warning, a sign of a possible religious fundamentalist dystopian future if we continued our decline. The two wars that resulted drained America’s treasury and unleashed more religious fundamentalism. The Great Recession wiped out much of the middle class in the U.S. and Europe. Brexit and the Trump election were additional warnings, indicating that two of the most stable democracies were now in grave danger of meltdown. We’ve had democracies around the world change into dictatorships, and the Chinese dictatorship become more Orwellian.

Two major challenges of our century are inequality and global warning. Both require a collective response that is difficult to generate when your civilization is in decline. Inequality requires that nations and states or provinces within nations come together to adopt a policy to tax the rich and corporations. It also requires the rich and corporations to be willing to submit to taxation for the common good and stop avoidance schemes. Global warming requires a collective response from nations to reduce emissions, along with creative scientific and technological solutions that can help reduce the cost of the transition to clean energy, and also remove carbon from the atmosphere. Collective action requires strong leadership, and the willingness of people to sacrifice for the common good. We’re in an advanced state of decline now that prevents strong leaders from emerging, and makes people focus on their immediate needs and desires, and discard the long-term national or global interest. Also, we’re not seeing creative geniuses who could provide scientific and technological advances needed to make green energy practical on a large scale.

A civilization in decline lacks the energy to generate new intellectual movements. The last major intellectual movement was the 1960’s cultural revolution. We are long overdue for another movement. The mind-boggling level of corruption and decadence in contemporary society screams for such a movement. Obama had promise as a great leader, but there was no intellectual movement to support him, so he failed on most of his goals. Artists played important roles in past intellectual movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In the 1960’s, think of how popular music and movies helped unite and motivate the young people of the times to fight for change. But the hyperindividualistic undercurrent of the Sixties sowed the seeds of its destruction, and helped paved the way for our contemporary decadence. It has led to a major split between the American liberals who control academia and the arts, and conservatives who control most state governments, and part of the federal government. The liberals embrace social libertarianism, i.e. unlimited personal freedom and autonomy. This has led to unstable family life, massive drug abuse and addiction, and lack of respect for authority. It has also led to political correctness and identity politics, which divide groups of people. Conservatives have embraced economic libertarianism, i.e. free markets, and have advocated tax cuts for the rich and corporations, lower regulations, and reduction in union power. This has led to massive inequality. The two sides have become more extreme in recent decades, and nothing constructive gets done any more.

I think a future major intellectual movement will need to involve a partial return to tradition. The Next Beethoven is about a return to European traditionalism in the arts. It ignores much of the political controversy of our time. The idea of contemporary artists making a return to European traditionalism seems far-fetched. So does a major intellectual movement, like a Second Renaissance, that manages to unite and motivate people. It’s why I am pessimistic about the short and medium term. There are tough and dangerous times ahead of us. But if we can survive these challenges, there is hope for the future. Although I don’t discuss it in The Next Beethoven, I think that a new understanding of human magnetoreception will allow potentially creative people to actualize their potential, instead of killing themselves or becoming drug addicts or psychiatric drug zombies, like they are doing today. As I previously blogged, human magnetoreception research is now resuming after 30 years of neglect. It will take time for this research to make a difference in people’s lives (which could be a lot shorter if scientists take a serious look at my ideas), but it does promise a better future.

In summary, great art will not directly solve our problems, but its emergence will signal a change in our civilization that will also include things such as scientific creativity and leadership that will more directly impact us, and help us successfully respond to the challenges of our century. The lack of artistic accomplishment will signal that we are continuing our decline, and that we will probably not survive as a civilization much longer. Hopefully we choose the former.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Human Magnetoreception Research Resumes After 30 Years of Neglect

Robin Baker’s human magnetoreception experiments in the late 1970’s and 80’s were pioneering efforts that led to—30 years of basically doing nothing. Failure to replicate his results was the reason for this, but failure to replicate is common in neuroscience. The brain is complicated, and we don’t have a good understanding of it yet. Why failure to replicate led to scientists abandoning human magnetoreception, but not abandoning other fields like brain imaging, search for chemical imbalances, etc. probably requires a psychological explanation along the lines of Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

While scientists abandoned the study of human magnetoreception, a small number of scientists continued studying nonhuman animal magnetoreception, making important contributions in experimental technique and understanding of biophysical mechanisms. These contributions, which were yet to be discovered at the time of Robin Baker’s pioneering experiments, along with general technological improvements, have led to much better experimental control than was possible during Robin Baker’s time. I’m pleased to be able to report two human magnetoreception experiments that make use of these scientific and technological advances, and have been published in science journals this year.

The first experiment, Chae et al., was done by a research group in South Korea. They did a modification of Robin Baker’s spinning chair experiment. In Baker’s original experiment, blindfolded subjects were spun around in random directions in a chair, and asked to say the compass direction they were facing. In this new experiment, the researchers created an artificial magnetic field using Helmholtz coils, and shielded subjects from external EMF’s using a Faraday cage. 41 subjects with no physical or mental disorders, ages 19-33 years, approximately evenly divided between men and women, were studied. Subjects were able to rotate their chairs instead of having the chairs rotated for them. They were asked, with eyes closed, to rotate their chair to face magnetic north or east. These magnetic directions were modified by the Helmholtz coils. Adding an operant conditioning component, some subjects were starved, and “rewarded” with candy if they faced the correct direction. The ambient light was experimentally controlled. Some subjects were blindfolded. The study made use of scientific advances in understanding of factors that can affect animal magnetoreception, including that some RF frequency EMF’s can affect magnetoreception, and that some types of magnetoreception requires low wavelength monochromatic visible light (i.e. blue or green, but not red or yellow). The authors concluded that starved men (but not women) significantly oriented toward magnetic north or east. This orientation was maintained under blue light, but not under long wavelength (> 500nm) light.

I have several issues with this experiment. One is that, like with many of the Robin Baker experiments, and unlike with most nonhuman animal experiments, there’s a lot of spread in the data. The highest r value (a measure of the variability, with a higher r meaning less variability) is 0.51, which isn’t very good. To get a visual idea, here’s a reproduction of the main results figure:

The blue dots represent data points, i.e. direction estimates. See how the blue dots in the supposedly significant D and H are spread around in a circle. If the subjects really were able to ascertain their direction, the dots would be congregated either at magnetic north or magnetic east. Results like these are invitations for failure to replicate, as happened with Robin Baker.

If you’re going to test light-dependent magnetoreception, why ask subjects to close their eyes? It drastically reduces the light hitting the retina, and may disable the light-dependent magnetoreceptor. There was no reason in this experiment for subjects to close their eyes, as the magnetic field was modified by the Helmholtz coils, and was invisible to the subjects.

It’s not a good idea to test human magnetoreception in only healthy subjects. Most people who have contacted me regarding purported magnetic sensitivity have some sort of psychological and/or physical problems. Just think about it—if you’re sensitive to magnetic fields, you’re not going to do well in modern society, with all the artificial magnetic fields that we’re forced to live with. You may have done well a long time ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, but not today.

I don’t see how starving humans and conditioning them using food adds anything of value to this experiment. If humans were able to ascertain compass direction, then it shouldn’t matter if they were starving or not.

Did any individuals exhibit special powers of ascertaining compass direction? The results were grouped, so I can’t tell. Anyone studying magnetoreception should look for individual differences and focus on those who are sensitive. This leads to my discussion of the second experiment, which did just that.

This Wang et al. experiment, done by a research group at Caltech headed by longtime magnetoreception researcher Joseph Kirschvink (joined with others at Princeton and the University of Tokyo), has been extensively reported in the science press (see this, and this for good nontechnical summaries). Instead of measuring navigational abilities like Robin Baker or the Chae et al. study mentioned above, this experiment looked at a drop in amplitude of the alpha EEG brainwave (known as alpha-event-related desynchronization, or alpha-ERD) in response to changes to external magnetic fields. It studied 24 adult males and 12 adult females, ages 18-68, “recruited from the Caltech population.” Subjects included people of European, Asian, African, and North American descent. Like with the Chae et al. experiment, a Faraday Cage was used to shield against external EMF’s. This experiment used a nested set of orthogonal, squared Merritt coils to modify the magnetic field surrounding the subject. An EEG was used to measure brainwaves, and current EEG analytical techniques were used to identify patterns. A battery-powered digital conversion unit relayed data over an optical fiber cable to a remote-control room. This room, ~ 20 meters away from the subject, had all power supplies, computers, and monitoring equipment. The paper goes into great detail on the experimental setup, to aid in future replication efforts. Participants sat with eyes closed, in total darkness during the experiments. Tests were run that varied inclination with declination constant, or varied declination with inclination constant. Each run was ~ 7 minutes long, with 8 runs in a ~ 1 hour session. There were sham runs (no changes) interspersed with real runs, and the experiment was conducted double blind. Here's a picture of the experimental setup:

The study reported alpha-ERD in 4 out of the original 36 participants (11%) that remained stable over time. The alpha-ERD occurred when inclination changed (i.e. from upward to downward, or vice versa). The alpha-ERD also occurred when declination changed counterclockwise, but only when the magnetic vector was pointed downward, as it does naturally in the Northern Hemisphere. There was no alpha-ERD when declination changed but the magnetic vector pointed upward, as it does naturally in the Southern Hemisphere. This asymmetry, along with other analysis, was used to rule out potential biophysical mechanisms such as the quantum compass and induction. The authors suggest magnetite as a likely biophysical magnetoreceptive mechanism, although this experiment wasn’t designed to prove this. None of the participants in the study could consciously distinguish between different magnetic field conditions.

This study needed a lot more information about the participants, especially the ones who had the strong responses. We are given no information about how they were selected. They were from the Caltech population. What does that mean? Were they students, professors, employees, or a combination of the three? The fact that someone is at Caltech at the time of the experiment tells me nothing of their background. They could have lived all their life in Sydney, and started at Caltech a month or two before the study. In that case, I’d expect their magnetoreceptor to be tuned to the Southern Hemisphere. Future human magnetoreception studies should have a detailed history of where and when a person lived. Many people move around a lot in their childhood, including from Northern to Southern Hemisphere, and vice versa. We also need to know where they spent their adult life. If someone who spent their childhood in Cape Town but has lived in LA for 6 years, and has alpha-ERD responses at Caltech with downward inclination like in the Northern Hemisphere, then that would indicate that this response is capable of adaptation after childhood.

There should also be personality and clinical testing of participants to determine if the responders had any noticeable differences from the non-responders. That would aid in identifying other responders.

One flaw in this study is that it groups statistics between responders and non-responders. They did find significant ANOVA results, but what if there were only one or two responders instead of four? That’s a potential problem for replication. If they need more subjects for statistical power, they should find more responders, and group the responders together.

While the authors’ exclusion of the quantum compass (i.e. radical pair) biophysical process makes sense based on their data, it must be remembered that the experiment was done with eyes closed, in total darkness. The quantum compass is a light-dependent magnetoreceptive process. It’s possible that humans have this quantum compass, which was turned off under these experimental conditions.
The alpha rhythm is an awake, resting rhythm. The conditions of eyes closed and total darkness is somewhere in between normal waking behavior and sleep. Studies of normal alert waking behavior should involve eyes open and lights on. This would activate the light-dependent quantum compass magnetoreceptor, assuming humans have it.

This study is very important in creating a magnetically-controlled condition that utilizes EEG, as this can be applied to sleep research. Ten years ago, I argued in my research paper that any studies on my magnetoreceptive abilities would require experimental control of my sleeping behavior. I couldn’t imagine at the time how this could be accomplished in a magnetically controlled way, especially EEG, which is critical in sleep research. Thanks to the Wang et al. experiment, it does appear now within reach. The kind of experimental controls used in this study can also be used in a sleep experiment. Some of the independent variables in sleep magnetoreception research include inclination and intensity, bed angle, bed time, and ferromagnetic materials near one’s head when sleeping. Bed angle (i.e. angle of the long axis of the bed relative to magnetic north), inclination and intensity can be manipulated by the Merritt coils. With EEG, bed time (i.e. the time when you initially go to sleep) can be precisely determined, along with the progression of sleep stages. Ferromagnetic materials can be introduced in the experimental chamber in a double blind manner to determine the effect on sleep. Dependent variables include subjective sleep quality, psychological state upon awakening (which is heavily dependent on sleep quality), and EEG.

I think from my own experience that human conscious perception of magnetic field changes requires prior sleep under similar conditions to the awake testing ones. That means that the subject will have to spend at least several nights sleeping in the experimental sleep apparatus prior to awake testing. It also means that magnetic changes need to be physically realistic. In the Wang et al. experiment, the inclination sweep was not realistic. It would require a Star Trek-type transporter to move physically that amount of inclination in that short a time. Realistic inclination changes that would maintain conscious magnetoreceptive responses are similar to those occurring while running, biking, or driving (not flying). Declination sweeps, however, are more realistic, as it only requires body rotation. In North America, both inclination and intensity are highly correlated, so physically-realistic changes would require changes in both at the same time, and in the same direction. Lastly, the subjective importance of bed time in my research seems to imply perception of geomagnetic diurnal variation. It’s possible that conscious perception of the artificially-generated magnetic field may require a time-dependent component similar to the natural field.

In summary, human magnetoreception research is back in business. While these two experiments are a start, and need to survive replication, they point the way to further experiments of sleeping and waking behavior. Under the right conditions, these future experiments can verify my hypothesis that some people are sleep sensitive to magnetic fields, that some people can consciously perceive magnetic fields, and this sleep sensitivity and conscious perception may be connected to symptoms of psychiatric disorders.