By Annalee Newitz
SO THERE'S AN article in Science this week about how
placebos really work. Basically, some scientists at the University of
Michigan created fMRIs of people's brains while they burned and shocked
them. Turns out that when the subjects took placebos before being hurt,
activity in the pain centers of their brains went down. In other words,
believing that you've eaten a painkiller causes your brain to stop interpreting
pain signals as, well, pain.
I like this idea: it's sort of like getting the neuroscience stamp
of approval for all kinds of wacky shit, like monks who train themselves
not to feel pain when they burn themselves, or sadomasochists who have
orgasms while being flogged. Even better, it reminds me of that cool
scene in the movie Dune, when Paul sticks his hand in the pain
box for a really long time and you hear that spooky voice-over intoning,
"I will not fear; fear is the mind-killer." Gratuitous science
fiction references aside, I do think it's remarkable that scientists
can get permission to as the researchers delicately put it
"shock or apply heat to" subjects. How much pain are we talking
about here, exactly? I guess it's all in the mind of the perceiver.
Which brings me to my mind, right now. As I write this, I'm sitting
in a darkened nightclub, watching a roomful of geeks taking notes on
their laptops. Yes, I'm at the inimitable CodeCon, an annual hacker
conference that brings together the most devious minds in the computer
industry. Already, I've learned a lot more about reverse engineering
than any good citizen ought to know.
But what's really exciting is that the guys from the Shmoo hacker group
have set up shop in the VIP area and are selling random numbers for
a dollar. I'm talking high-quality random numbers these suckers
are really random. They're generated using entropy from lava
lamps and radio waves from space and shaking a laser mouse inside a
paper bag. I'm going to buy two. Unfortunately, after a bit of investigation,
I've discovered that the random number-generating machine isn't working
quite yet they promise me that tomorrow, when I ask the machine
to pick a number between 1 and 10, it won't give me 175.
That's sort of the beauty of CodeCon: people come here to share their
weird creations, even if all the bugs haven't quite gotten worked out
Plus, it's a chance for geeks and nerds to talk to each other in person.
It's always exhilarating and vaguely bizarre to find myself
sitting next to Danny O'Brien and giggling, instead of giggling while
reading his e-zine Need to Know. Of course, there's still a lot of electron
juggling: we're all surfing the Web via the wireless network, and I'm
trying to send e-mails to people sitting two seats away from me.
There's nothing like watching hackers at play. When all of us arrive
at the post-CodeCon reception thrown by Google, it turns out we get
yo-yos with our free booze. And these are no ordinary yo-yos
they have little LEDs in them that light up. Immediately, everybody
has to analyze his or her yo-yo. Ken Schalk, who works on software-configuration
management system Vesta, whips out a pocket knife and starts taking
his apart. "OK, here's the problem," he opines. "The
string in the center needs to be tied a little more loosely, plus the
plastic needs to be roughed up a little for a good grip." Once
he's hacked it for a while, he shows me a couple of tricks the
yo-yo is zapping everywhere and lighting up and zooming around. The
guy is an amazing yo-yo fiend. "You've optimized your yo-yo!"
I exclaim. "No," he replies humbly. "I've just modified
Later that evening I'm hanging out with more hackers at San
Francisco greasy spoon Sparky's. Jonathan Moore is going wild because
people at his local WiFi café are using hacked computers that
spray data packets all over the network and gum it up. "So I tell
this guy sitting next to me that his computer is pinging constantly
and messing up the network," he says. "And the guy just freaks
out. He can't believe I know that his computer's been hacked, and just
seeing one glimpse of what I can see utterly scares him." Matt
Chisolm chips in, "Yeah, the guy really was terrified."
I start thinking about the placebo effect again, and how our brains
are capable of fooling us into believing almost anything that
scientists aren't hurting us, that sugar pills can kill pain, that computers
can't be hacked, that our information infrastructure is safe and secure.
Nobody takes the placebo at CodeCon. We want to know what's going on
even if it hurts.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com)
is a surly media nerd whose yo-yo skills are on a par with her origami
skills. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly