Sunday, December 9, 2018

Take It from Someone Who Has Suffered Real Physical Abuse: Words Aren’t Violence

Language is mutable, and definitions change over time. But what we’ve witnessed in recent years—especially on campuses—is a profound form of concept creep that goes beyond mere language and labels. The ordinary challenges of life now are being reinvented as trauma, and words are conflated with violence. It is all part of our ongoing cultural embrace of the “untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker,” as illuminated by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind. Debates, lectures and even ordinary conversations now can be brought to an end when one party declares checkmate by asserting that this or that argument serves to “deny their humanity” or makes them feel “unsafe.”

As someone who has experienced nine of the 10 most studied Adverse Childhood Experiences, who lives with chronic physical pain from violence-inflicted injuries, who spends three hours a week with a therapist specializing in trauma, I can attest that such claims strike me as dangerous gibberish. Can words do damage? Of course. But the difference between words and violence is that mentally competent adults nearly always have a choice about how much damage words can inflict, whereas the damage caused by my father’s belt—like all physical abuse—didn’t rise or fall depending on my psychological state at the moment of impact.


The sight of a man’s belt used to trigger me. I would avoid the men’s department in clothing stores for this reason. Standing in a line with a man both in front of and behind me would give me physical anxiety symptoms for hours afterward. To resolve this trigger, my therapist told me to buy a man’s belt. I cried in the car and used up a lot of Kleenex in my next therapy session. Then I brought the thing home and hung it on the doorknob of my bedroom door. It hung there like a poisonous viper, giving me nightmares.

Then something beautiful happened. Its power started to fade. After a few weeks, it went from a dark artifact with the power to bring back my traumatic past, to a hunk of leather fashioned to hold up some guy’s pants. The experience made me grateful that my therapist didn’t take his cue from the culture around him. Teaching people to react to words as if they were weapons is teaching them to fetishize their damage—or even to create new damage. How will a generation trained to brew up their own cortisol on any pretext experience life if every off-colour joke knocks the legs out from under them?

When I enrolled at my university as a mature student trying to piece her life back together, I knew there was a chance that I might need some kind of special accommodations. But the university’s disability officer offered me so many accommodations that it was embarrassing. If I wanted to, I could have remained deeply mired in my mental debilitation without even the slightest spur toward recovery.

Self-pity is an addictive drug; and students who come to campus looking for ways to avoid stress, instead of deal with it, will find dealers in every office and classroom.  We can’t force students to fight their demons. But at the very least, we shouldn’t be encouraging a policy of immediate surrender.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Only someone miraculously innocent of history could believe that competition among ideas will result in the triumph of truth.

- John Gray

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Wisdom Of The Week

For the past decade or so, Friston has devoted much of his time and effort to developing an idea he calls the free energy principle. (Friston refers to his neuroimaging research as a day job, the way a jazz musician might refer to his shift at the local public library.) With this idea, Friston believes he has identified nothing less than the organizing principle of all life, and all intelligence as well. “If you are alive,” he sets out to answer, “what sorts of behaviors must you show?”

First the bad news: The free energy principle is maddeningly difficult to understand. So difficult, in fact, that entire rooms of very, very smart people have tried and failed to grasp it. A Twitter account2 with 3,000 followers exists simply to mock its opacity, and nearly every person I spoke with about it, including researchers whose work depends on it, told me they didn’t fully comprehend it.

But often those same people hastened to add that the free energy principle, at its heart, tells a simple story and solves a basic puzzle. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe tends toward entropy, toward dissolution; but living things fiercely resist it. We wake up every morning nearly the same person we were the day before, with clear separations between our cells and organs, and between us and the world without. How? Friston’s free energy principle says that all life, at every scale of organization—from single cells to the human brain, with its billions of neurons—is driven by the same universal imperative, which can be reduced to a mathematical function. To be alive, he says, is to act in ways that reduce the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs. Or, in Fristonian terms, it is to minimize free energy.

To get a sense of the potential implications of this theory, all you have to do is look at the array of people who darken the FIL’s doorstep on Monday mornings. Some are here because they want to use the free energy principle to unify theories of the mind, provide a new foundation for biology, and explain life as we know it. Others hope the free energy principle will finally ground psychiatry in a functional understanding of the brain. And still others come because they want to use Friston’s ideas to break through the roadblocks in artificial intelligence research. But they all have one reason in common for being here, which is that the only person who truly understands Karl Friston’s free energy principle may be Karl Friston himself.


EVEN FRISTON HAS a hard time deciding where to start when he describes the free energy principle. He often sends people to its Wikipedia page. But for my part, it seems apt to begin with the blanket draped over the futon in Friston’s office.

It’s a white fleece throw, custom-printed with a black-and-white portrait of a stern, bearded Russian mathematician named Andrei Andreyevich Markov, who died in 1922. The blanket is a gag gift from Friston’s son, a plush, polyester inside joke about an idea that has become central to the free energy principle. Markov is the eponym of a concept called a Markov blanket, which in machine learning is essentially a shield that separates one set of variables from others in a layered, hierarchical system. The psychologist Christopher Frith—who has an h-index on par with Friston’s—once described a Markov blanket as “a cognitive version of a cell membrane, shielding states inside the blanket from states outside.”

In Friston’s mind, the universe is made up of Markov blankets inside of Markov blankets. Each of us has a Markov blanket that keeps us apart from what is not us. And within us are blankets separating organs, which contain blankets separating cells, which contain blankets separating their organelles. The blankets define how biological things exist over time and behave distinctly from one another. Without them, we’re just hot gas dissipating into the ether.

“That’s the Markov blanket you’ve read about. This is it. You can touch it,” Friston said dryly when I first saw the throw in his office. I couldn’t help myself; I did briefly reach out to feel it under my fingers. Ever since I first read about Markov blankets, I’d seen them everywhere. Markov blankets around a leaf and a tree and a mosquito. In London, I saw them around the postdocs at the FIL, around the black-clad protesters at an antifascist rally, and around the people living in boats in the canals. Invisible cloaks around everyone, and underneath each one a different living system that minimizes its own free energy.


The concept of free energy itself comes from physics, which means it’s difficult to explain precisely without wading into mathematical formulas. In a sense that’s what makes it powerful: It isn’t a merely rhetorical concept. It’s a measurable quantity that can be modeled, using much the same math that Friston has used to interpret brain images to such world-­changing effect. But if you translate the concept from math into English, here’s roughly what you get: Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.


A single-celled organism has the same imperative to reduce surprise that a brain does.

The only difference is that, as self-organizing biological systems go, the human brain is inordinately complex: It soaks in information from billions of sense receptors, and it needs to organize that information efficiently into an accurate model of the world. “It’s literally a fantastic organ in the sense that it generates hypotheses or fantasies that are appropriate for trying to explain these myriad patterns, this flux of sensory information that it is in receipt of,” Friston says. In seeking to predict what the next wave of sensations is going to tell it—and the next, and the next—the brain is constantly making inferences and updating its beliefs based on what the senses relay back, and trying to minimize prediction-error signals.

So far, as you might have noticed, this sounds a lot like the Bayesian idea of the brain as an “inference engine” that Hinton told Friston about in the 1990s. And indeed, Friston regards the Bayesian model as a foundation of the free energy principle (“free energy” is even a rough synonym for “prediction error”). But the limitation of the Bayesian model, for Friston, is that it only accounts for the interaction between beliefs and perceptions; it has nothing to say about the body or action. It can’t get you out of your chair.

This isn’t enough for Friston, who uses the term “active inference” to describe the way organisms minimize surprise while moving about the world. When the brain makes a prediction that isn’t immediately borne out by what the senses relay back, Friston believes, it can minimize free energy in one of two ways: It can revise its prediction—absorb the surprise, concede the error, update its model of the world—or it can act to make the prediction true. If I infer that I am touching my nose with my left index finger, but my proprioceptors tell me my arm is hanging at my side, I can minimize my brain’s raging prediction-error signals by raising that arm up and pressing a digit to the middle of my face.

And in fact, this is how the free energy principle accounts for everything we do: perception, action, planning, problem solving. When I get into the car to run an errand, I am minimizing free energy by confirming my hypothesis—my fantasy—through action.


So: The free energy principle offers a unifying explanation for how the mind works and a unifying explanation for how the mind malfunctions. It stands to reason, then, that it might also put us on a path toward building a mind from scratch.

- Free Energy Principle

What I've Been Reading

I think the term is very loaded, and when many people invoke it they often do so as a catch-all for talking about working with a certain a set of tools:R, map-reduce, data visualization etc. I think, this actually hurts the discipline a great deal, because if it is meant to actually a science, the majority of our focus be on questions, not tools.

- Drew Conway

The Disruptors: Data Science Leaders: Collective Biographies of Influential Leaders by Kate Strachnyi.

Kate has done a much needed work to bring to light what this field is all about; thank you Kate for giving me good talking points on explaining what I do.

Humans are born data scientists; we are born curious, we ask lot of questions, and we are good at detecting patterns. When children play, they sort their toys by color, shape, function. They know they can build a castle with blocks but not balls and they know you can play soccer with a ball but not blocks. These are things data scientists do, classification, sorting, indexing etc. 
- Kirk Borne 

People want artificial intelligence, but they also want control. Having both is difficult. 
- Mico Yuk

Quote of the Day

Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’

- Marcus Aurelius

Friday, December 7, 2018

Cats, Birds & Humans

John Gray considers why the human animal needs contact with something other than itself.  He tells the story of an eminent philosopher who once told him that he'd persuaded his cat to become a vegan! An effort, it seems, to get the cat to share his values. 

But Gray argues that there's no evolutionary hierarchy with humans at the top.  "What birds and animals offer us", he says, "is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy. It's admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves".  He concludes that "by giving us the freedom to see the world afresh, birds and animals renew our humanity".

- Listen to John Gray Here

Quote of the Day

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

- Marcus Aurelius

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Complex Adaptive Systems - Dave Snowden

Quote of the Day

The outcome seems rather beautiful: dark energy and dark matter can be unified into a single substance, with both effects being simply explainable as positive mass matter surfing on a sea of negative masses.

Proof of Dr. Farnes's theory will come from tests performed with a cutting-edge radio telescope known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international endeavour to build the world's largest telescope in which the University of Oxford is collaborating.

Dr. Farnes adds: "There are still many theoretical issues and computational simulations to work through, and LambdaCDM has a nearly 30 year head start, but I'm looking forward to seeing whether this new extended version of LambdaCDM can accurately match other observational evidence of our cosmology. If real, it would suggest that the missing 95% of the cosmos had an aesthetic solution: we had forgotten to include a simple minus sign."

- Negative Mass

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

I Have Been At Every Powerful Table You Can Think Of... They Are Not Smart

Michelle Obama offered a "secret" to young women everywhere: "I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart."

In addition to revealing her tonic for self-doubt, Obama also talked about the experience of black women being caricatured, asserting that "the size of our hips, our style, our swag, it becomes co-opted, but then we are demonized."

- More Here