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Techsploits

Placebo

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 MRIs 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 been worked out yet. 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 emails to people sitting two seats away from me.

There's nothing like watching hackers at play. When all of us arrive at the post-Con reception thrown by Google, it turns out that 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 their yo-yo. Ken Schalk, who works on software configuration management system Vesta, whips out a pocket knife and starts taking his yo-yo apart.

"OK, here's the problem," Schalk 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 the yo-yo 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 it."

Even later that evening, I'm hanging out with some hackers at San Francisco greasy spoon Sparky's. Jonathan Moore is going wild because people at his local WiFi cafe 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 (sugarpill@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose yo-yo skills are on a par with her origami skills.


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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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