Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mind Games

We have so many misperceptions of the world. Contributing to this are "blind spots" in the way our bodies and brains have evolved.

Here is a list of some fun sites that explore various sensory "blind spots."

(You can't trust your eyes)
Your brain will make stuff up
And it may ignore what's actually there
Things can change right in front of you and you won't notice
You can miss huge gorillas
And lots of other interesting misperceptions of color, contrast, and shade

(you can't trust your ears)

How our expectations affect what we hear:

Vision/Sound systems affecting each other: (Look for McGurk effect under Demonstrations)

How thoughts and emotions can affect how you perceive things:

So...How do you feel about witness testimony in your trial?

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

By George, I Think He's Got it

I've been reading Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers.

It amazes me how many of the pitfalls and foibles of our system of government were anticipated by these learned gentlemen.

Take this bit from George Washington's farewell address when he left the office of President (given Sep 19, 1796).
Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseperable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind. It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controuled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able to more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of this own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
It serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public administration. It agitates the Community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.

Sound like any political party system you know? How about this one from Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 1.
And yet, however just these sentiments will be allowed to be, we have already sufficient indications that it will happen in this as in all former cases of great national discussion. A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose. To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives....History will teach us...that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
I particularly like this next one (again from Hamilton, Federalist No. 70). Not only is it applicable to politics, I've seen it time and time again in other setting that it must be a fundamental failing of human nature...
Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, and indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments. Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind.
Don't you wish we could vote for someone with the education and insight that these men demonstrated? Someone who uses history and human nature as their guide (as opposed to truthiness :-).

I know that if I'm to learn anything from history myself, it's to apply these lessons to my day to day life. Next time I oppose a plan, I'll look a bit deeper within for the reasons why. And next time I propose a plan, I'll try to figure out how to get buy in for the particulars before launching the generality in an attempt to keep from poking this temperamental button.

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Blade Runners of Glory

I'm excited as only a true science fiction geek can be about the upcoming release of a new cut of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

I've always thought the original Blade Runner (1982) (BR)was one of the best science fiction movies ever made. There are a lot of movies that have some great element(s): story, script, acting, effects, production values - but BR had it all.

The story, using an old noir detective type device, explored what we mean when we use the word "human." How easily we draw the line between us humans and those less-than-human, and how blurry (or non-existent) that line is in reality. We humans seem to be built to dehumanize.

The script, even the one with the hokey voice overs, was intelligent. I should say that the script, combined with the set design visions of Ridely Scott, was intelligent - prophetic some might say. Taking a complicated Philip K. Dick novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and boiling down multiple story lines to the essential parts so they could be told visually.

The actual dialogue of the screenplay was bare, with the story told primarily by visuals. But it couldn't have been told well with just special effects (witness any of the past few Star Wars movies). Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Joanna Cassidy, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah ... while each may have had a particular finer moment in some other film, each delivered a great performance in their roles for BR.

The movie was shot before digital effects had really taken off, and therefore the sets had to be "real" (or as real as sets and props get). Because of this, it all looked and felt real, like you were really looking at the streets of San Angeles some decades in the future. CGI is powerful, but it still doesn't come across the same as real 3-D set work. The production values were extremely high throughout. Were there mistakes? Sure, but only a supergeek would notice.

25 Years after it's initial release, Ridley Scott has put together the movie he originally wanted to make - no compromises, happy endings, voice overs - a hard movie that doesn't give anything away freely, and rewards that much more because of it.

I hope.

I'm looking forward to it. December 18th! (Can you say early xmas present?)

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life Support

I made some comment the other day about the Iraq war, and a staunch defender of Der Fuhrer in the group gave me a shot about "not supporting the troops."

Why is it that any anti-war comment is taken as "not supporting the troops," but anything pro-war - whether it's extending tours, staying indefinitely in Iraq, attacking Iran - is somehow supporting the troops?

Repeating tours so that those lucky enough to make it out alive the last time get another shot at getting shot? (Pro-troops?)

Extending tours so that troops spend more time in combat than they do with their families? (Pro-troops and Pro-family)

Shutting down public debate on options to get out of the horrendous mess? (Pro-democracy, pro-free speech)

How is it that Senator can vote against a bill that would allow our troops some time at home, away from a war zone, and be considered as supporting the troops?

There is no support for the troops, just those who want them to stop dying and those who think their goals are worth the ultimate sacrifice of others. There is no debate, only two sides that won't listen to the other. There is no victory, only attempts to keep things from getting worse. There is no end, only years of death and suffering.

There is no making sense of the messes we make. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when we understand ourselves and our motivations better, we can behave better.

Here's a debate for you that is relevant to the war, I think, but hopefully one that doesn't evoke the knee jerk reactions that the war does.

Take one second to imagine a person behaving the way some countries do. After all, a person is a group of cells and organs. A country is a group of a group of a group, just an entity at a larger level of organization.

What do we think of individuals who threaten others? What do we think of individuals who won't play well with others, who always want things their way? What do we think of someone who pulls a gun to get what they want? What do think of individuals who bully others, who beat them up and leave them broken and bleeding?

We use sociopath, bully, crazy, dangerous, criminal as words to describe people who act like this. What do we call countries who act like this? How have we come to expect such deviant behavior from countries?

Should we continue to allow countries a lower standard of moral behavior than we demand of individuals?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Crazy Monkeys

In David Sloan Wilson's book Evolution for Everyone, he tells a story about crazy monkeys, and the evolutionist explanation for why this behavior, though seemingly contra-survival, can keep coming up in a rhesus monkey population.

Here are the basics (paraphrasing the book). Every generation, a small faction of males in a rhesus monkey colony active as if they are out of control. They take insane risks in jumping between branches. They bully and rebel, can't be controlled by their mothers or by their peers.

The first theory the researcher, Dr Stephen Suomi, was that perhaps this behavior conferred an advantage to the psycho males - they could enter a new group, take over with their bullying and crazy behavior, mate with the females whether they liked it or not, and thereby perpetuate their genes.

But experiments showed that this theory was wrong. Rejected by family and friends, the psycho males never learn to compete well with other males or to fit into a group. Rejected, they typically lead a miserable solitary existence until they die. So why doesn't this sort of maladaptive behavior die out?

The answer appears to be that the same gene that causes males to go crazy turns out to produce confident, capable females who achieve high status within their groups. These females breed more, and, just as important, due to their enhanced abilities are even able to raise sons with the "crazy gene" to be fine young monkeys. Mothers lacking the gene who gave birth to sons having the gene (thanks, Dad) weren't so effective, and the crazy gene expressed itself to produce crazy monkeys.

So the gene stays active in the population, and due to the statistical dynamics, about 10% of male rhesus monkeys get the crazy gene, with a smaller percentage of these not having the advantage of corresponding super mom who end up acting...crazy.

The basic story of the crazy monkey - adaptations that thrive work for the group (or species), not necessarily for an individual. Certainly, at an individual level they can't be too destructive or they would die out in a population. But they don't have to be individually helpful, and can sometimes be individually hurtful.

For the longest time I've wondered about religion, and how some of the craziest acts of humans seem to come from religious extremists.

Initially, I used simplistic explanations. In searching for better answers, I looked to neurobiology. Antonio Damasio has produced some great work on how emotions work (and are in fact necessary) in reasoning. Better yet was Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, which went into some evolutionary origins concepts for religion, and did pretty good job of explaining what religion was (and wasn't), and how our brains dealt with it.

But this only got into the proximate reasons for religious tendencies (meaning that it helped explained why people act religious, but not why these brain structures and cultural structures developed in the first place). For the trait to become so widespread in our species, it must have some larger effect that helps species survival. (In evolutionist terms, proximate causes are the immediate biological or physical mechanisms that cause a behavior or outcome. Ultimate causes are the species level reasons why such a behavior or outcome propagates through the generations more effectively than others).

In Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson gets into these proximate and ultimate causes of religion. In his theory, the ultimate cause of religion is that it is adaptive at a group level. In other words, religion is a mechanism that causes people to group together with common purpose. (Clearly there's more to it than that - otherwise he couldn't fill a whole book. But the gist is that religious tendency in the human brain is a proximate cause which supports an ultimate cause of forming groups that perform better than individuals, or even of other groups that aren't so cohesively knit).

Getting together into cooperating groups doesn't require religion. And certainly having religious feelings and irrational beliefs don't always result in forming a cohesive group. But individuals who initially developed the genetic variation producing the god module portions of the brain had powerful feelings, and connecting with other individuals with similar feelings (to the exclusion of those who didn't) made sense. And because these feelings evoke such powerful emotions, this mechanism provides a very strong social glue for like individuals. Groups who can collectively whip themselves into a religious fervor can feel more connected, and more cohesive, than those who group based on less emotional drivers.

This is finally a reason which makes sense to me, and which is consistent with known facts of religion. This is a group-supporting behavior, like altruistic punishment, that provides survival and propagation benefit to members of the group over members outside of it.

Personally, I may not like the fact that the mechanisms of religiosity periodically result in a crazy monkey. But I can understand the selection advantage to groups with strong binds and common purpose, which religion historically has provided.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Free Market Fodder

Article today in WSJ about cancer research. The article is about company scientists (or academic scientists who's research is funded with corporate dollars) won't share data with each other.

Sharing data is pretty fundamental to how science works. At the core of science is the Scientific Method (which is basically hypothesize, design experiment to prove/disprove, collect data, publish results showing how data is consistent with new or old theory). No scientist can afford to test a theory completely. But collecting data across the experiments of multiple scientists, theories can be explored and supported or disproved. Having other scientists able to repeat the results of an experiment also validates that the data is meaningful, and not just a fluke or product of some other unknown variable.

When scientists don't share ideas, then multiple experiments aren't run in parallel (which dramatically slows the pace of advancement). When scientists don't share data, then repeatable experiments aren't run, placing the data and the conclusions in doubt.

When scientists don't share data, multiple theories abound, each consistent with a couple experiments, but probably not with the full body of evidence collected across the community. Meaning that it's likely that each theory is wrong in some way.

Which not only means that science and human knowledge doesn't advance as rapidly. In the medical field, it means that drug companies and doctors are providing treatments based upon incomplete and possibly incorrect theories.

Which is bad for you.

But that's our system as it sits today. Companies will not release information until it is patented. Also, scientists competing for grants will not release information until it gets them grant money. Patents take years to award. And once a patent is awarded, other companies are dissuaded from trying to repeat the experiment even if it is then published, since it won't buy them anything. And unless the research is something that affects lots of people (thereby increasing the potential payoff), the research won't even get funded in the first place.

Which is why we still treat many forms of cancer with blunt instruments, blasting our way through healthy cells to get the few bad cells. Which is why we still treat cancer like witch doctors, scratching our heads when a treatment that worked for one patient doesn't work the same on another, then trying some new magic incantation handed down from the archipelagos of medical research.

Which is why some hedge fund managers are freeing up $1 million (a pittance, really) to try some new approaches to funding research.

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ACL Wrap

Every year, Austin City Limits hosts ACL Fest - over 130 bands over 3 days. Always hotter than hell, in so many ways.

Here is my quick take from this year. (Warning - all of these reviews were subject to time of day, heat, state of mind, and personal preference. Your mileage may vary).

New bands I found I liked:
Sahara Smith
Kaiser Chiefs
Young Love
Rose Hill Drive
Butch Walker
Cary Ann Hearst
Ike Reilly Assassination

Shows I enjoyed more than I thought I would:
DevotchKa - known for slow stuff, their fast stuff they did live was fun
Regina Spektor - she was clearly blown away by the crowd, full of spark, and funniest damn lyrics
Arctic Monkeys - I like most of their songs
MIA - good show, high energy
Ghostland Observatory - Muse meets Prince, which sounds weird till you see them, but it works.

The Killers - the old songs I still like, a lot - the new stuff, not so much
Queens of the Stone Age - 3 good songs - still only 3 good songs
Dax Riggs - As Dead Boy he blew me away - as Dax, he's a downer

Ok to see, but didn't make me wanna buy their albums:
Bloc Party
My Morning jacket
One Mississippi
Peter Bjorn and John

I'm not really going to comment on Blue October, Joss Stone, Spoon (which were all fine, just not my favorite live performances); neither will I comment on Bjork, Arcade Fire, Muse, Bob Dylan - they have plenty of fans already.

A couple other notes...some bands are good in studio, some are good live, and some are both. And even those who are usually good live can have a hard time at ACL, where you are at a large outdoor venue in front of 30,000 to 60,000 people on a hot, sunny stage.

Which makes those that were good that much more impressive.

Oh yeah - the fire was impressive too. I was there right after it started, before they started a perimeter, and it was big and scary. You look at this raging inferno that is getting bigger by the moment as more propane tanks and porta potties explode, and realize that there's no amount of willing people with fire extinguishers that can do a damn thing to contain it. Then the police and festival staff start clearing a perimeter, and everyone is very cooperative and wants to help, but can't. You all start looking around nervously for the fire department hoping they'll get here soon because you really don't want Zilker to burn down (or ACL to get cancelled). Then they finally do show up, winding their way through the crowds, and quickly contain what is now a raging inferno as tall as the trees. And you realize how freakin' awesome the fire department is, the police, the ACL staff, and all the very cool crowd that shows up for this event every year (even if all your friends think you're an idiot for running over to video the fire...).

If you haven't been to ACL Fest, I highly recommend it.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Colonial Expansion

To understand how intelligence can emerge from groups of simple cells, it helps to have examples of other emergent behaviors.

Hive animals, such as ant and bees, work in ways similar to the ways in which cells in our body work, but because they are "bigger", they're easier to study.

Let's look at how bees manage to figure out the best place to go get nectar every day.

Bees look for nectar that they then take back to the hive to make into honey. The higher the sugar content of the nectar, the more efficient the bees are at making the honey. Bees are pretty good at finding the best sources of nectar, even when those sources change. How is this done? Is there some guiding intelligence that takes the reports back from the worker bees and decides to send all the other workers to the best spots?

In a sense there is a guiding intelligence, but it is an emergent intelligence, based upon statistics and feedback loops in a system. Here's how it works for bees. The worker bees head out in random directions looking for nectar. When a bee finds nectar, it collects some then comes back to the hive. It then does a little "dance", which other worker bees at the hive can watch to learn the directions to the nectar.

Different bee species have variations on the dance, but basically the orientation of the dance correlates to the relative position of the sun or the direction of the nectar relative to the hive, and the length of the "waggle" portion of the dance is correlated to the distance from the hive. The worker bees in the audience can head out in the correct direction and the approximate distance, then look for the nectar source.

Ok, neat, this is how other bees can find nectar more efficiently than just every bee randomly searching each time. But when you have lots of different nectar sources, how do most of the bees go to the best nectar source? If they're all coming back and dancing about random nectar locations, then the audience bees should also be spread out among the random sites.

But...the time spent on the dance is driven by the richness of the nectar. The bee gets a buzz on, and the better the buzz, the longer he can dance. With bees coming and going all day, those bees that dance longer will have a larger audience of bees - more bees will catch their act if they perform it ten times rather than just once. So all those bees go find the better buzz, and they too come back and perform longer dances, which grows exponentially to send even more bees to the better source.

Each bee just follows a few simple rules. Step one - get ready to leave the hive. If you see a bee dance while leaving the hive, stop and watch it, then orient yourself in the right direction and fly ten waggles thataway. If you don't see a recital going on, just leave in a random direction. Remember to count how many waggles you fly, and in what direction relative to the hive (or sun).

Now look for nectar. If you find some, take it back to the hive. Pass the nectar to another type of bee, then go perform. Perform as long as you feel the energy to perform.

Go back to step one.

If you model this, you see that no matter where the best source of nectar is in a given day, most the bees will end up heading for it, thus optimizing the nectar collection for the hive.

No single bee made a decision. Nobody passed along the information to the (nonexistent) decision makers. The dance says nothing (directly) about how good the nectar is. Nor is there any "debate" among the bees about the relative merits of the different nectar locations. It was purely the inherent mechanism that the better the nectar, the longer the bee could dance, and the statistics inherent in that fact that drove the "intelligent" behavior of the hive.

"That is real intelligence," you say. Well, it's a smart move on the part of the bees, certainly, but it isn't how humans make decisions. (Or is it? I'll come back to how groups of humans make decisions in a later post).

What this example highlights is how separate "cells", each just doing what comes naturally, can create a higher order "emergent" behavior when the cells are in a group. Studies of human organs indicate similar sorts of statistical emergent behaviors in blood cells, liver cells, and even brain cells, where the normal biological functions of the cells and the chemical byproducts of these functions create a form of communication between cells. Groups of cells (an organ) also work with other organs for even higher order emergent behaviors. Our organs use chemical signaling (such as nitric oxide, hormones and neurotransmitters) and electrical signaling (such as potassium and sodium ion channels).

Understand that all of these mechanisms develop over time through the evolution of genetics. Those mutations that provide better survival and breeding in a given environment become standard in the later generations. Bees that could dance longer given good nectar statistically attracted more bees to the right place, so the hive outperformed other hives that didn't have workers with this trait. Over time, only those hives who had workers with this trait were the only ones around.

Evolutionary theory isn't just for biology, although it's pretty amazingly useful to help understand how and why organisms are the way they are. This powerful concept can be applied at any level of organization - including brain organization, and even human social organizations. The exact same principals apply.

I'll try to put together examples of each of these in the following weeks.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Woman jailed for serving salty burger to police officer

The police officer said that after he ate the burger, he nearly threw up. Bull wonders why the officer didn't he throw it away after taking a bite? By the way, the McDonald's gives free meals to the police who eat there.
Boing-Boing article

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Taliban Qwikie Mart

Here's a story about a girl with no ID trying to buy alcohol. Fortunately, she was caught in the act and prevented from doing so, thanks to new laws and policies requiring ID for those who may look too young to drink.

The "girl" in this case was 65 years old. (And I have some friends who want the number of her plastic surgeon).

The first absurdity that struck me was the obvious one - in how many ways can we attempt to replace good sense with arbitrary and ridiculous laws? The Maine State Legislature "passed a law that requires identification from those who look under 27 years old." Not to be outdone, this particular supermarket chain implemented a rule to card "anyone who looks under 45 and wants to buy alcohol."

(Rumor is that their competitor down the street, not wanting to lose all the MADD mom's in the neighborhood, is considering an "id required for anyone who looks under 100 and wants to walk by the cold beer section" rule).

I really shouldn't make fun of these stores. They're just reacting to the incredibly absurd laws passed around the country regarding "underage drinking." Laws that arrest bartenders and 7/11 clerks if they sell to a minor, even if that minor has a valid looking ID. Laws that close businesses if their patrons get intoxicated - not before driving, not even outside on the street, but in the bar. Laws that lock-up parents and send the kids to foster care if those parents allow kids to drink - even the safety of their own home, even if they allow no one to leave the house till the next day.

I could go on. I could start citing the evidence around drinking age laws, but these arguments have been presented well by people like former college president John McCardell, to no effect.

Instead, I'll just do what I do best. Laugh at the absurdity of people, particularly those who make the absurd laws that generate even more absurd behavior.

You know the old saying..."If you can't laugh at yourself, make fun of other people." (attributed to Bobby Slayton)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Taliban Airlines

As we continue our travelogue on the country's journey to intolerance and fascism, I offer this little tidbit.

Apparently being young and hot is against airline policy at Southwest Airlines. Miss Kyla Ebbert, wearing attire more conservative than I see on the UT campus every day, was asked to change clothes or leave the aircraft because someone thought she was dressed inappropriately for a plane flight. (I suppose "appropriate" would have been wearing a leather cap, goggles, and an aviator jacket?)

You can see the "scandalous" outfit on this CNN video or the San Diego Union-Tribune story that originally broke the news. (I like the CNN video, which juxtaposes the original Southwest Airlines flight attendant hot pants outfits with the more conservative white skirt worn by Kyla Ebbert).

Here are the facts as stated in the newspaper article:
She arrived at Lindbergh Field wearing a white denim miniskirt, high-heel sandals, and a turquoise summer sweater over a tank top over a bra.

After the plane filled, and the flight attendants began their safety spiel, Ebbert was asked to step off the plane by a customer service supervisor, identified by the airline only as “Keith.”

They walked out onto the jet bridge, where Keith told Ebbert her clothing was inappropriate and asked her to change. She explained she was flying to Tucson for only a few hours and had brought no luggage.

“I asked him what part of my outfit was offensive,” she said. “The shirt? The skirt? And he said, 'The whole thing.' ”

Keith asked her to go home, change and take a later flight. She refused, citing her appointment. The plane was ready to leave, so Keith relented. He had her pull up her tank top a bit, pull down her skirt a bit, and return to her seat.

This sort of sexist, hypocritical bullshit has always bothered me. I've noticed that it is always the attractive young women who get targeted for being called out for "dressing inappropriately." This happens a lot in office environments, but I've also seen it in restaurants, cultural events, and other locales.

My guess here...some bitter old bitch who's husband just dumped her for his new stripper girlfriend saw Kyla and decided that she was going to get back at everyone who had ever done her harm (which would be the entire category of women who are younger, cuter, and more tolerant than Taliban Bitch). She complained, and Keith, who apparently isn't very bright (or who could never get the hot girls in school to talk to him) decided he would pull an authority power trip over poor Miss Ebbert.

(These are usually the same people who say of rape victims, "well, she had it coming, dressing like that...")

This attitude, which appears to be common in the U.S., even shows in the article and CNN piece, in which somehow the fact that Miss Ebbert is a waitress at Hooters is relevant to the fact that she was arbitrarily bullied on an aircraft.

And those of you out there who think I'm wrong, who actually think you're the arbiter of appropriate, you fashion police of teh interweb...go look in a mirror, and ask yourself for the real reason you hate Kyla Ebbert.

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I Love The Taste Of Your Genes

From New Scientist...
So says George Gallup at the State University of New York, Albany, who surveyed 1041 students on their attitudes to kissing (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 5, p 612). Some views verged on the predictable: women, for example, placed more emotional importance on a kiss, valuing kisses during and after sex, and throughout a relationship. The men tended to see kissing as a means to an end - sex - and placed less importance on kissing as a relationship progresses. Just over half the men said they would have sex with someone without kissing, compared to 15 per cent of women. And more men than women said that a good kiss was one with tongue contact, where the partner made moaning noises.

But Gallup says the first kiss a couple share could make or break the relationship. In a separate survey, 59 per cent of men and 66 per cent of women reported on occasion finding themselves attracted to someone, only to lose interest after kissing them for the first time. "The complicated exchange of information that occurs during a kiss may inform evolved, unconscious mechanisms about instances of possible genetic incompatibility," Gallup says.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Free Will To Highest Bidder

I read an article in New Scientist that once again questioned whether or not humans have "Free Will."

I think the debate is again asking the wrong questions. We use undefined terms such as "free will" and "conscious" or "voluntary" actions.

If we look at the brain as a collection of independent but connected subsystems (or a society of mind as Minsky phrased it), there are structures that are responsible for different acts of reasoning and behavior. If we look at the concept of "consciousness" as being the portion that is responsible for modeling the behavior of ourselves and others (the mirror neurons and other supporting structures), then it makes sense that this model can inform the other "unconscious" structures of the brain and that actions can in fact be taken as a result of the actions of structures other than the modeling structure. In such an organization, many times the modeling structure would be informed of actions "after the fact" - and would then incorporate this new data into the model of self and others and continue to inform and influence the other "unconscious" structures.

This is consistent with the experiments of Libet. In fact, Libet's later experiments showed that once the awareness of the pending finger movement made it into consciousness, the subject could "choose" not to lift the finger - could "cancel" the command already given by another part of the brain to lift the finger. Although Libet developed a theory of Conscious Mental Field to explain this, I think a better explanation is in a way simpler.

His results are completely consistent with a model that says the motor section of the brain starts to lift the finger, and then this input is factored into the model of self (consciousness), which then can further influence the other sections of brain depending upon the "choice" of the model. (In fact, since the subjects were asked to lift a finger in the first place, it is likely that the modeling subsystem created the impetus for the Readiness Potential that was measured).

This concept of consciousness is also consistent with experiments of Haggard, and even Wegner. Haggard did some interesting experiments around how the brain perceives cause and effect, and the time allowed by the internal model between cause and effect. Wegner did some interesting stuff with our sense of "agency" where two people are moving a mouse at the same time and how at times one individual may think they are the agent of control when in fact it is the other individual - the modeler gets confused when the inputs closely resemble, but not quite fit, the expected inputs of the mirror neurons. Both are explainable by separating the modeling subsystems from the motor control subsystems, and tying "awareness" to the modeling subsystems.

All of these have been used, incorrectly, to question whether humans have "free will." I think it is a confusion of sloppy definitions, and therefore a red herring.

(Adding a huge amount of additional confusion are the religious authorities, who freak out at the very notion of a lack of free will, since this choice to be "good" or "bad" is at the heart of many religions. As I've said in previous posts, books such as Moral Minds show how this too is framing the discussion in the wrong paradigm - there is no inherent "good" or "bad", except in the context of an organization, an environment, and a goal).

I think there are still a number of mysteries unexplained by this conceptual framework. But for the scientific evidence we've been able to produce so far, it is a consistent theory of mind.

(What are the unexplained mysteries? Well, in a sense I just isolated the mystery into a smaller black box, then left the workings of the black box unexplained. The "modeling" portion(s) of the brain are well and good, supported by evidence - but how do they work? And ultimately, how does the modeling engine decide which actions will best accomplish the goals?

I don't think we need to stop here and resort to the supernatural for explanation, however. I think creating similar modeling engines using computer simulations that are driven by these neurological experiments, and experimenting with a more complex set of "goals" driving the engine, we could probably start to explain how this black box actually works. In fact, that sounds like really fun work - I wish I had the time and resources to pursue it.)

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Moral Relativity

Whether or not something is "good" depends entirely upon the level of organization and the environment in which is exists.

You, as a normal human being, are a social organism made up of a lot of other living entities. Large groups of cells, whether organized into tissue or organs, or living in colonies like bacteria, "cooperate" to form your body. In the same way, each cell depends upon even smaller (although still complex) structures, such as mitochondria, ribosomes, membranes, and many others. (In fact, a mitochondrion is really itself a separate organism, living inside your cells...but this story is for another day).

If a cell is "misbehaving" (such as in a cancer or other harmful mutation), what's best for the organ (and organism - you) is to kill the cell. From the cell's perspective, this option really sucks.

But why would a cell risk being killed? Lots of reasons. A lot of what the cell does as a whole is driven by the "cooperative" behavior of all those cellular structures we talked about - mitochondria, DNA, RNA, membranes, and such. If something changes in the behavior of one of these members, then the overall behavior of the cell may also change. And the immediate rewards may encourage such behavior, such as unchecked replication and growth.

But as with most dynamic systems, the surrounding community of cells (or some specialized cells) may take action against the non-conformist cell, perhaps bringing it into line, perhaps just killing it. (Sometimes the cell itself will commit suicide!) Thus a tendency toward the status quo, an inherent conservatism built into a stable organization.

At each level of organization, it isn't immediately obvious to the individual components what "good" behavior is. And good is, obviously, relative. It really depends upon the level of organization, the environment, and the "goals" that determines "goodness" (where I define goodness as furthering the progress of the organizational level toward set goal).

Without defining the organizational level, goal, and environment any concept of "good" or "bad" ascribed to behavior is meaningless. It just is. The cell changed - it now made copies of itself unchecked. Good for the cell. But probably bad for the larger organism/organization in which the cell lived. So the cell was killed. Good for the larger organization. Bad for the cell - no matter what its goal was, it's sure not going to achieve it now. (Unless the goal was death - in which case, Way To Go, Cell!)

The parallels to social theory are obvious, and have been used quite a bit in the last century. The good of the individual human being vs the good of the group has been ripe ground for applications of theories in social structure. The group can be a family unit, a neighborhood, a community, city, a state, even a species.

Benefits can accrue to individuals who attempt to cooperate in a larger group. The level of group "allegiance" can vary quite a bit from individual to individual, and game (and evolutionary) theory has a lot of fun trying to work out the relative cost/benefit equations for these trade-offs.

And humans are well adapted to this sort of group cooperative behaviors. Evolutionary theory would say that's obvious. If working as a group confers advantage to individuals in the group over individuals who are not in a group, then over time individuals who work well in a group will proliferate more than those who don't.

Rogue "cells," such as a terrorist, can produce significant local change. With the technologies being made available, this change can reach quite a bit further than local. Think nuclear, or worse, biological weapons. The cells may think they are doing the right thing. They might not see themselves as cancers - perhaps they think they're mighty immune cells! Their mission is to wipe out the foreign viruses that threaten to change the very DNA of the stable host society!

I'm not the first to wonder about the social parallels. In fact, it was the following quote that made me start thinking about this. What has changed is that it is only recently has science started to get to the point where is was possible to actually do something about it.
I am prepared to assert that there is not a single mental faculty ascribed to Man that is good in the absolute sense. If any particular faculty is usually good, this is solely because our terrestrial environment is so lacking in variety that its usual form makes that faculty usually good. But change the environment, go to really different conditions, and possession of that faculty may be harmful. And "bad," by implication is the brain organization that produces it. - W. Ross Ashby, 1962
I see the battleground of today is being defined as western concepts of progress and individual liberty against the backlash conservatism of religious fundamentalism (typically anti-science, anti-"progress"). I hear questions like: Is globalism and consumerism and what's best for the individual what is also best for the planet? Or do we need to revert to the "good old days," of strong hierarchical (typically religion based) control?

I think we're asking the wrong questions. We need to think of new models of social organization. Ones that provide the best chances for species survival, that better check the rogue individual (be they terrorists, CEOs, or Presidents). But that do so in a way that enables the creativity and progress that comes from free thinking individuals.

It's likely that these new models will require that we take our own brain evolution in hand and modify it as required.

Most of what we think of as "moral judgments" are made as a result of genetic hardcoding produced by evolution. In Moral Minds by Harvard's Marc Hauser, reports of experiments and studies show that moral decisions are made "intuitively," with various rationalizations for the decision produced after the decision is already made.

Interestingly, and perhaps counterintuitive, there don't appear to be any real differences in fundamental moral choices in people of different cultures, or people of different religions. In fact, even people with a religion and those without make the same choices, suggesting that inbuilt morality is independent of learned religious frameworks. We don't think our way through moral decisions - we just react.

So where does this leave us? Our moral decisions are made based upon our selected genetic wiring. That wiring was selected for being "good" for the majority of breeding individuals, given the environment (including social structures) that existed prior to now.

If the environment changes, be that the physical or social environment, those decisions may no longer work. They're no longer "good," regardless of what worked before, and regardless of religious dogmas. And as we see, "good" also depends upon whether we're talking about the individual, the country, the species, or the planet.

Like the example of the cancerous cell, individuals who threaten the planet threaten all species of life that we know of. These threats can be immediate, such as terrorists with WMDs, or more subtle, such as governments who do nothing about resource depletion, global warming, and other "let the next generation deal with it" type of threats.

What could we adjust that make us less likely to follow the crazy leaders, more likely to look at long term consequences?

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