Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Because... by Jeremy Bentham

Came across these great lines by Jeremy Bentham, snubbing the imperialistic policies of the British empire:

 "You will, I say give up your choices - because you have no right to govern them, because they had rather not be governed by you, because it is against their interest to be governed by you, because you get nothing by governing them, because you can't keep them, because the expence of trying to keep them would be ruinous, because your constitution would suffer by your keeping them, because your principles forbid your keeping them and because would do good to all the world by parting with them."

Kudos to Bentham for exposing the cognitive dissonance of the Brits (c. 1822).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Random musing for the time capsule

An attempt to capture some of my thoughts, perspectives et al as of this day and see how much I change with time for better or worse.  (a.k.a how dumb I was or how dumb am I)

"When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake." -  An old quote by Shimon Peres (current Israeli president) referring to Ronald Reagan.

I always believed in those words. It's right to bifurcate and reflect on the situation at hand. But it comes with a cost, since people don't segregate those two things and eventually affects the relationship. What is the point of being a friend if one doesn't infer the shortcomings of other?
This logic should be embraced not only by friends, but in every other relationship. The sanctification of politics depends on this stance. This could eventually be the panacea for polarization.(yeah, right!!)
Since it involves reasoning, this seems to be a characteristic of executive function which depends on the frontal Lobe but frontal lobe also determines the most acceptable social response. Shimon Peres quote is very rational but socially unacceptable in most situations (and even in private conversation). So the big question is, is the frontal lobe responsible for Pere's reasoning or is it responsible for averting the reasoning and opting to overlook the friend's mistake or the frontal lobe is malleable enough to give rational socially acceptable response (Bingo!!) ? Waiting on neuroscience to give an answer.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Clay Shirky on newspapers

Check out this great speech by Clay Shirky (audio) : Let a thousand flowers bloom to replace newspapers; don’t build a paywall around a public good

It would be hasty to undermine the importance of newspapers and overestimate the new world of youtubes and twitters. We need journalists to mine the plethora of information - from economics of toilet paper to the study of mirror neurons. The good thing is competition from web will be making the newspapers more "Kousher" but the irony is the old business models of NPR, New Yorker and Atlantic might turn out to be the most succesfull models.

The hilarious tweet Shirky received says it all : Newspapers should rename their local obituary column to “Subscriber Countdown.”

My favorite (behavioral) economist - Daniel Kahneman

Here's the interview with Daniel Kahneman, the founder of the fascinating field called Behavioral Economics. A very humble human being, Naseem Taleb rightly calls Kahneman, the only person who deserved the Noble prize for Economics (2002). Kahneman, born in Israel and Taleb born in Lebnon make a unique pair, showing the world what can be achived if we learn to co-exist.

Kahneman stroy is an another vidication of how our childhood events have such a profound influence on our future decisions: (again that "pre-analytic cognitive act")

"Like many other Jews, I suppose, I grew up in a world that consisted exclusively of people and words, and most of the words were about people. Nature barely existed, and I never learned to identify flowers or to appreciate animals,” he said in his autobiography. “But the people my mother liked to talk about with her friends and with my father were fascinating in their complexity. Some people were better than others, but the best were far from perfect and no one was simply bad.” Most of her stories were touched by irony, he says, and they all had two sides or more.

An early event in Nazi-occupied Paris that he remembers vividly left a lasting impression because of varied shades of meaning and implications about human nature. “It must have been late 1941 or early 1942. Jews were required to wear the Star of David and to obey a 6 p.m. curfew. I had gone to play with a Christian friend and had stayed too late. I turned my brown sweater inside out to walk the few blocks home. As I was walking down an empty street, I saw a German soldier approaching. He was wearing the black uniform that I had been told to fear more than others—the one worn by specially recruited SS soldiers. As I came closer to him, trying to walk fast, I noticed that he was looking at me intently. Then he beckoned me over, picked me up, and hugged me. I was terrified that he would notice the star inside my sweater. He was speaking to me with great emotion, in German. When he put me down, he opened his wallet, showed me a picture of a boy, and gave me some money. I went home more certain than ever that my mother was right: people were endlessly complicated and interesting.”

It was Kahneman influence, which made the current new breed of very talented behavioural economists possible including Richard Thalper (my favorite book Nudge, the co-author Cass Sustien is the Director of the White House OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs)

"Kahneman points to his collaboration with longtime research partner and friend Richard Thaler, professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, as contributing to the development of the field of behavioral economics.

Although I do not wish to renounce any credit for my contribution, I should say that in my view the work of integration was actually done mostly by Thaler and the group of young economists that quickly began to form around him, starting with Colin Camerer and George Loewenstein, and followed by the likes of Matthew Rabin, David Laibson, Terry Odean, and Sendhil Mullainathan.”

Currently, Kahneman has moved on from behaviour economics and focuses on studying hedonics!! (although he didnt coin the term "hedonic treadmill")

Men like Kahneman are a rare dying breed, even after all these accomplishments, humility oozes out of him and one can feel the prepectual calmness in his eyes. We need more men like him not only in economics but every other field. We are indebted to this great man, for dedicating his life in making us understand who we are and how it reflects on society as a whole. I believe, behavioral economics is one of those fields waiting for the rocket fuel called Neuroscience.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Making of a genius

This fascinating article , is about economics and making of a great economist.

Karen Horn, hits the bull's eye on how the seeds of intellectual curiosity is sowed in a kid. It acts a "pre-analytic cognitive act":

"The situation was, however, altogether different for Vernon Smith, whose parents left school at 14. His father provided the work ethic and can-do knowledge, while his mother was active in political and social affairs in the community. Financial problems forced the family to practise self-sufficiency on a farm for a couple of years. The situation of James Buchanan was similar to Smith's. His family lived on a farm throughout his youth. His father had gone through two years of university training ("and played football"). His mother, however, had been a schoolteacher. She was endowed with an exemplary work ethic and a voracious intellectual appetite. Both character traits, as it seems, have left an important and lasting impact on the son.
ven without much schooling, therefore, parents can provide their children with intellectual appetite and a motivation for achievement. Discussions at the dinner table, or other regular family gatherings, are extremely important — and it doesn't matter much how high-powered the arguments are. What is crucial is that the awareness is raised-awareness about the importance of certain topics relating to economics and economic policy, to anything that touches social questions and of course the appetite to learn more about them.
This is an experience that most laureates share. Smith was fascinated to discover at college that the topics that had been debated at the dinner table were actually "things you could study, that it needn't be only a matter of opinion. You could actually base your opinions on analysis, on investigation, on some kind of understanding about how society and how the economy work.
Worldviews also play a role in instigating academic research. As Schumpeter put it, worldviews enter the "pre-analytic cognitive act" or "vision" that "supplies the raw material for the analytic effort". To some extent, a person's worldview is usually shaped at home, in the family, actively and passively, perhaps also during dinner table conversations. This "initial endowment" may however fade away as new influences come in later in life."

This reminds me of Alison Gopnik's new book Philosophical Baby , she writes on the similar lines on what parents can do even at a younger age:

"Babies and young children are designed to explore, and they should be encouraged to do so.

The learning that babies and young children do on their own, when they carefully watch an unexpected outcome and draw new conclusions from it, ceaselessly manipulate a new toy or imagine different ways that the world might be, is very different from schoolwork. Babies and young children can learn about the world around them through all sorts of real-world objects and safe replicas, from dolls to cardboard boxes to mixing bowls, and even toy cellphones and computers. Babies can learn a great deal just by exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on the phone. (Imagine how much money we can save on “enriching” toys and DVDs!)
But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play."

Going back to the original article, the importance of consilience in economics:

"As Friedrich August von Hayek said, An economist who is only an economist is likely to become not only a nuisance but a positive danger.
Economics must also again be understood as an encompassing social science, deeply ploughing the rich common ground with philosophy, sociology, politics and history. The use of formal mathematical methods should certainly be part of this approach — but not their long practised senseless misuse, with many mainstream scholars indulging in an obsession with mathematical virtuosity for its own sake, forgetting to ask the relevant questions. It is only such a cure of technical sobriety and wider perspective that will make economics a truly worthwhile avenue of research again, interesting for the individual scholar and useful for society as a whole." 

I am not an economist, but I am fascinated by the profound impact it has on defining our lives. I have been trying to get atleast a rudimentary understanding of what economics is all about. So far, its been a great awakening and fun but it has left me wondering why economics was never part of kids curriculum in school?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What I've been reading

Mistakes were made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
Hmm were do I start ... I should have read this long long time ago.
As I was reading this book, it was very tempting to start thinking about mistakes made by others (of-course !!).
It's such a wake up call book for everyone, COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is the central theme of the book.
No matter what I write here about this book is not going to be enough, so trying reading this book and if we use this book as a self justification for all things that happened in our lives, then its safe to assume there might be nothing left in the gray matter under the skull.

"We have met the enemy and he is us" - Pogo

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is unconditional love nihilistic?

The word "Faithful" (loyal) was copiously associated with dogs for ages but it seemed to have eased out of the lexicon with the Agrarian society. Personally I loathe the word but its still used by considerable amount of people in world.
But the unanimously gospel that's associated with dogs is "unconditional love". I have been agnostic using that word since it has self-vindicating feeling to it. The unconscious litany to it is, the self is an unconditional lover (a.k.a morally superior) which fellow humans lack and eventually found it only in dog. Its an unintended convenient self proclamation and no wonder, it there is an aura around that word.

Yes, Max loves me and will always, no matter what and I would die for him too. Even if self proclamation is taken out of the equation, unconditional love (assuming it does exists) still has repercussive feel to it. It sounds like an intelligent design.
Science has most of the answers for feelings we share with our dogs, evolution explains how the bond originated but the romantic inside us perpetually searches for more answers and drives  science to get more answers.

The love we share with fellow humans is eclipsed by social norms, values, differences and people constantly changing with time. Most importantly, our love persists only by making compromises with ourselves and others to co-exist and of-course it had a great evolutionary advantage but we lost the sanctity of love in the process. May be we are overwhelmed by the non-compromising bond we share with our dogs and call it unconditional love since we already accepted as an fact that our love is conditional. I keep it simple, I love Max and its Rhizomic. 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Don't trust your memory!!

Well, I told you so and that was one of the my reasons to start blogging. One of the irrefutable fact of  my life (and could be a curse depending on how I feel at that time) is that I will be left to live with memories of Max.
I don't want to make up stories (i.e.,
imagination inflation), like the imagined self of being the world greatest dog lover or Max being the greatest dog ever. As of today, I know that  I am ordinary man who loves a regular chocolate labrador called Max and this simple evolutionary bond is having a profound impact on my life. It is as simple as it sounds, nothing more and nothing less. Those simple moments are the ones I want to hold on until the end without distilling it with time and make up feel good stories (no rosy retrospection and save the real feel good ones I am having now). At the same time I don't want the real memories to fade with time when eventually other things sprout in my life. I want to "pickle" and "freeze" the memories of my years with Max. It's not a personal war to preserve my autobiographical memory of these years but an effort to preserve as much I can, knowing the limitations (I do have the receny effect on my side for now).
The ape in me is obsessed with the future but Max is teaching me everyday to live my life now. So preserving the memories for future is just a fringe benefit and enjoying the time I have with him now is the reality and only thing I could control.
I might sound obessed with my uncertianities of my own memory but I have very good reason to do so.
Pick your favorites from the smorgasbord of memory biases . We need to stop pointing fingers at others and understand consequences of our unconsicious biases. For each one of the biases listed below, I do have my own stories with the aid of my "own" memory(does that sound like an oxymoron?).

Choice-supportive bias: remembering chosen options as having been better than rejected options.

Change bias: after an investment of effort in producing change, remembering one's past performance as more different than it actually was.

Childhood amnesia: the retention of few memories from before the age of two years.

Consistency bias: incorrectly remembering one's past attitudes and behaviour as resembling present attitudes and behaviour.

 Context effect: that cognition and memory are dependent on context, such that out-of-context memories are more difficult to retrieve than in-context memories (e.g., recall time and accuracy for a work-related memory will be lower at home, and vice versa).

 Cryptomnesia: a form of misattribution where a memory is mistaken for imagination, because there is no subjective experience of it being a memory.

 Egocentric bias: recalling the past in a self-serving manner, e.g. remembering one's exam grades as being better than they were, or remembering a caught fish as being bigger than it really was.

Fading affect bias: a bias in which the emotion associated with unpleasant memories fades more quickly than the emotion associated with positive events.

Hindsight bias: the inclination to see past events as being predictable; also called the "I-knew-it-all-along" effect.

Humor effect: that humorous items are more easily remembered than non-humorous ones, which might be explained by the distinctiveness of humor, the increased cognitive processing time to understand the humor, or the emotional arousal caused by the humor.

Generation effect (Self-generation effect): that self-generated information is remembered best. For instance, people are better able to recall memories of statements that they have generated than similar statements generated by others.

Illusion-of-truth effect: that people are more likely to identify as true statements those which they have previously heard (even if they cannot consciously remember having heard them), regardless of the actual validity of the statement. In other words, a person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.

Leveling and Sharpening: memory distortions introduced by the loss of details in a recollection over time, often concurrent with sharpening or selective recollection of certain details that take on exaggerated significance in relation to the details or aspects of the experience lost through leveling. Both biases may be reinforced over time, and by repeated recollection or re-telling of a memory.

Levels-of-processing effect: that different methods of encoding information into memory have different levels of effectiveness.

Misinformation effect: that misinformation affects people's reports of their own memory.

Misattribution: when information is retained in memory but the source of the memory is forgotten. One of Schacter's (1999) Seven Sins of Memory, Misattribution was divided into Source Confusion, Cryptomnesia and False Recall/False Recognition.

Modality effect: that memory recall is higher for the last items of a list when the list items were received via speech than when they were received via writing.

Mood congruent memory bias: the improved recall of information congruent with one's current mood.

Next-in-line effect: that a person in a group has diminished recall for the words of others who spoke immediately before or after this person.

Part-list cueing effect: that being shown some items from a list makes it harder to retrieve the other items.

Peak-end effect: that people seem to perceive not the sum of an experience but the average of how it was at its peak (e.g. pleasant or unpleasant) and how it ended.

Persistence: the unwanted recurrence of memories of a traumatic event.

Picture superiority effect: that concepts are much more likely to be remembered experientially if they are presented in picture form than if they are presented in word form.

Positivity effect: that older adults favor positive over negative information in their memories.

Primacy effect: that the first items on a list show an advantage in memory.

Recency effect: that the last items on a list show an advantage in memory.

Reminiscence bump: the recalling of more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than personal events from other lifetime periods.

Rosy retrospection: the remembering of the past as having been better than it really was.

Serial position effect: that items near the end of a list are the easiest to recall, followed by the items at the beginning of a list; items in the middle are the least likely to be remembered.

Self-relevance effect: that memories relating to the self are better recalled than similar information relating to others.

Source Confusion: misattributing the source of a memory, e.g. misremembering that one saw an event personally when actually it was seen on television.

Spacing effect: that information is better recalled if exposure to it is repeated over a longer span of time.

Stereotypical bias: memory distorted towards stereotypes (e.g. racial or gender), e.g. "black-sounding" names being misremembered as names of criminals.

Suffix effect: the weakening of the recency effect in the case that an item is appended to the list that the subject is not required to recall (Morton, Crowder & Prussin, 1971).

Suggestibility: a form of misattribution where ideas suggested by a questioner are mistaken for memory.

Telescoping effect: the tendency to displace recent events backward in time and remote events forward in time, so that recent events appear to be more remote, and remote events, more recent.

Testing effect: that frequent testing of material that has been committed to memory improves memory recall.

Tip of the tongue phenomenon: when a subject is able to recall parts of an item, or related information, but is frustratingly unable to recall the whole item. This is thought to be an instance of "blocking" where multiple similar memories are being recalled and interfere with each other.

Verbatim effect: that the "gist" of what someone has said is better remembered than the verbatim wording.

Von Restorff effect: that an item that sticks out is more likely to be remembered than other items.

Zeigarnik effect: that uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones.

The gray matter under our skull is fascinating but no question it does have weird sense of humor.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Adios Clairvoyance

This excellent "clairvoyant" article on New Yorker on the unveiling Biotech revolution, ironically reveals limits of human clairvoyance. We are going to step into a world where human imaginations needs to re-calibrated since they are currently running way below par.

"The BioBricks registry (check here ) is a physical repository, but it is also an online catalogue. If you want to construct an organism, or engineer it in new ways, you can go to the site as you would one that sells lumber or industrial pipes. The constituent parts of DNA—promoters, ribosome-binding sites, plasmid backbones, and thousands of other components—are catalogued, explained, and discussed. It is a kind of theoretical Wikipedia of future life forms, with the added benefit of actually providing the parts necessary to build them.
I asked Endy why he thought so many people seem to be repelled by the idea of constructing new forms of life. “Because it’s scary as hell,” he said. “It’s the coolest platform science has ever produced, but the questions it raises are the hardest to answer.” If you can sequence something properly and you possess the information for describing that organism—whether it’s a virus, a dinosaur, or a human being—you will eventually be able to construct an artificial version of it. That gives us an alternate path for propagating living organisms."

Article chronicles, starting from Jay Keasling's remarkable
achievement of developing the synthetic malaria drug "Artemisinin"  reverse engineered from a chinese herb to the current Carlson curve which is progressing at faster than its silicon peer Moore's law. Even the current swine flu's crisis was stopped from being an epidemic only by sequencing gene of the virus within weeks .

"The industrial age is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by an era of biological engineering. That won’t happen easily (or quickly), and it will never solve every problem we expect it to solve. But what worked for artemisinin can work for many of the products our species will need to survive. We are going to start doing the same thing that we do with our pets, with bacteria, the genomic futurist Juan Enriquez has said, describing our transition from a world that relied on machines to one that relies on biology. A house pet is a domesticated parasite, he noted.  It is evolved to have an interaction with human beings. Same thing with corn—a crop that didn’t exist until we created it. Same thing is going to start happening with energy, he went on. We are going to start domesticating bacteria to process stuff inside enclosed reactors to produce energy in a far more clean and efficient manner. This is just the beginning stage of being able to program life.”

These kind of stories (like Exxon tie-up with Craig Venter) are already in the media, but the last line "This is just the beginning stage of being able to program life” !! , opens up a new domain to humanity.

The government, media et al missed out predicting the current economic crisis because they never understood or bothered to understand the economic models, the economist were building in the air. Citizen's cannot rely on the media soaked in cognitive dissonance and dollars, to understand the coming and probably, the beginning of the end of all revolutions.

The pro's and con's of biotech can be debated for years and some of us are even going to have a stroke or heart attack debating it (which started a while ago, like the book wars by Ronald Bailey vs Francis Fukuyama ) but all this would lead to a dead end. These debates are going to be meaningless since they are going to have a severe hangover of the current chaotic political debates. How is the government going to stop spread of nuclear weapons when every person in the world has pound of enriched uranium and a blueprint to create nuclear weapons? That pretty much sums up the impasse would be facing soon. Future depends on how we are going to take the debate to next level and how we embrace the change prudently.

As a kid, I visited (now one of my favorite places) Vivekanandha Rock Ashram  in Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) at the southern most tip of India. This is an small Island (or a big rock) where  Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea meet but it is one of the most serene places. 
Like wise sooner or later, there will be a consilience of Biotech, Neuroscience and Robotics. Serenity might sound like a misnomer at this juncture but if we, humans can bring these three disciplines to crossroads, then we are as well capable of bringing serenity to it.

Will Biotech bring "cognitive destruction", like the industrial revolution bought us creative destruction ? This time, not only jobs will be lost but the whole set of moral values, ethics, society, relations and pretty much everything we know might have to re-written. It doesn't matter, if we are ready for it or not and we like it or not. It's happening now and its in everyone's best interest to educate themselves.

Big question is who is going to educate the masses? Who and how to convey the message to the "Bakelite" worshiping denizens that our brain IS plastic and we as a species are becoming malleable ON-DEMAND.

Every philosopher since start time have failed create an epidemic of universal knowledge and history is telling us,  it wouldn't be much different this time either.

At the end of the day, most of us might turn out be the supplier and customer of our own body, while euphemistically still calling ourselves "Humans".

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From the archives - The Thinker

One of my favorite article from last year about the thriving philosophy mill in an unlikely place.
It vindicates the age old cautionary wisdom of "Don't judge too fast".
Of all places on earth, philosophy came out on top in the internal ranking at Auburn University in Alabama. Unlike our economists, they deduced there might be some issue with the ranking system and came up with new "formula" !! . Well, philosophy was at the top again. So the geniuses there, stopped the internal ranking all together. 

All this credit goes to one man Kelly Jolley, the dean of philosophy department and his unique ability to identify the right students: 

"Jolley is always on the lookout for students with a philosophical bent, and has urged his colleagues to recruit aggressively as well. While I was at Auburn, he introduced me to one of the department’s current top prospects for graduate school, a rising senior named Benjamin Pierce. Jolley told me that Pierce’s gift for reasoning was first identified a couple of years ago in an entry-level logic class. “If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C,” the professor said, introducing the so-called transitive relation.

“Not in rock, paper, scissors,” Pierce volunteered.

Pierce is now majoring in philosophy. “We have high hopes for him,” Jolley told me with the pride of a football coach talking up a strong tackler with great open-field speed. I would bet that he ends up in a Top 10 graduate program.”

These students at Auburn must be very lucky to have this man as their guide. Teaching is a gift and especially teaching philosophy which cannot be taught but should be "thought" between two minds is a very unique gift.  Of-course being the man he is, he isn't quixotic.
"In Jolley’s ideal world, every student would catch the philosophy flame, but he knows this will never happen. He says that philosophy requires a certain rare and innate ability — the ability to step outside yourself and observe your own mind in the act of thinking. In this respect, Jolley recognizes that his detractors have a point when they criticize his approach to teaching. “It’s aristocratic in the sense that any selection based on talent is aristocratic,” he told me. “I know it offends everyone’s sense of democracy, this idea that everyone’s equal, but we all know that’s just not true.”

There aren't many people, who can speak their mind openly in this world obsessed with "political correctness".
I think, the truth is not everyone involves in self-reflection and even if they do, they tend to feed their cognitive dissonance with their self-reflection. Isn't that the height of cognitive dissonance?
The biggest answer I am waiting from Neuroscience (or from our genes) is what makes metacognition possible? 
Which part(s) of the brain is involved?  (I still have to checkout the fMRI studies on Buddhist monks and books by Andrew Newbrug and Antonio Damasio) 
The most important question is how can metacognition be possible when some one is least interested in it? Can metacognition be invoked by TMS ?
Isn't metacognition the great horse power for neuroplasticity ?
I am not a big fan of any "grand unified theory of everything". 
But lot of expendable human short comings, which we readily accept and live with, can be expended(duh!!) if neuroscience sheds some light on them. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dog Coat Variation depends on variants in 3 Genes !!

A recent study from Human Genome Research Institute reports that variation of three Genes - RSPO2, FGF5 and KRT71 are responsible for variation of dog coat. 
  • "A variation in the RSPO2 gene produces wire-haired dogs.
  •  Combine variations in the RSPO2 and KRT71 genes and you get dogs with wiry and curly hair, such as Airedale terriers.
  •  A change in the FGF5 gene results in longhair breeds such as golden retrievers.
  •  Long-haired dogs with beards such as the bearded collie have variations in both the FGF5 and RSPO2 genes.
  •  Combining the FGF5 and KRT71 genes results in curly hair dogs such as Irish water spaniels."
Now,  this gives me no clue on what type of gene variant Max, chocolate labrador has? 

This report is great news, since Biotech brains are now looking to decipher the genes of man's best friend and can open up horizons to cure lots diseases. 
But the sad news is other side of the globe in South Korea, they are creating transgenic fluorescent puppies. 
There is no sane explanation for their ghasty actions. We are witnessing the pioneer's of Thymotic Biotech and probably, Murpy's law in action. Neverthless,  I support this splendid biotech boom.
When Craig Venter answers with a smirk, "We are not playing" (to the question "Are you playing God?" ) , its not Thymos or arrongance but an obvious dissent at religion.
No one has the right to judge a man by his personal believes as long his lives and acts civilized and uses his intelligence for betterment of all living creatures. After all, this man is working on extracting biofuel from Algae without killing an Algae!!

Sunday, September 20, 2009


There comes out the blue,  some very special moments with Max, which I feel is my raison d'etre.
I hope my memory doesn't mess with me as I age and lose the image I have captured to last till the end.
Today morning, after we woke up and was cleaning his bowl, I didn't see him in kitchen with me as he usually does.
So I got curious and thought he must be up to something. So stopped what I was doing, to peak into the living room.
There he was sitting right in the middle of living room, like he had never sat before. It was one of perfect canine imitation of a panda poster. I cannot explain how cute he looked, sitting there innocently looking at me.
These are the moments which makes life so special living with him and my eternal longing to transfuse that innocence to me as well.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Follow up on time perception theory

Few weeks ago, went to a state park I had never been before for a hike. It's close by, about less than 30 minute drive on the local roads but it seemed long and hiking the trail for a hour and half seemed like eternity. Max was all jumpy and awestruck enjoying the olfactory buffet.
Today morning we went again to the same state park, the drive seemed shorter and hiking the trail went fast, the trail was in fact seemed shorter than what  usually do every weekend in another state park. Max was less excited and constrained his sniffing unlike last time. Our anxiety had dropped like the stock market last year.
Last time I checked, our earth hasn't shrunk.
No brainer, its an obvious example of how brain tends to make time slow when an environment is new and slowly moves the learnings from short term memory to long term episodic memory. Having been to the state park earlier, time flew by today and everything around the park started to look mundane.
Isn't the gray mass under our skull, fascinating?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Random musing for the time capsule

Here's an attempt to capture some of my thoughts, perspectives et al as of this day and see how much I change with time for better or worse.  (a.k.a how dumb I was or how dumb am I)

Omnipresence of rationality is impossible to achieve without an external man made stimuli, which obviously hasn't happened yet.

People can prevent lot of bad things in their life and others if they involve in self reflection for just few minutes everyday.

Lot of times,  people patiently wait with a bait to catch misery.

In-spite of all the above,  goodness prevails and any simple explanation can never give an answer to this paradox.

I want to be like Max, with no hangover from the past and no expectations from tomorrow, living just for now making this a special moment.  (I am not talking about shedding long term responsibility or stop learning from history but carrying grudges and planning for pay back et al)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Philosophy 101

I have often heard people say Philosophy its not for me, its boring, its depressing, I have no time for it or some even say philosophy is for progressives !!. I used get annoyed by these statements but with subdued passions in time, it was obvious what people were missing without the understanding ubiquitous-ness of philosophy. 

This speech by Ayn Rand, titled Philosophy: Who needs it? addressed to the graduating students of West point military academy in NYC (and complete collection essay's here ), is the best place to jump start our philosophical part of the brain:

"You might claim--as most people do--that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? "Don't be so sure--nobody can be certain of anything." You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: "This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice. You got that from Plato. Or: "That was a rotten thing to do, but it's only human, nobody is perfect in this world." You got that from Augustine. Or: "It may be true for you, but it's not true for me." You got it from William James. Or: "I couldn't help it! Nobody can help anything he does." You got it from Hegel. Or: "I can't prove it, but I feel that it's true." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality." You got it from Kant. Or: "It's evil, because it's selfish." You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: "Act first, think afterward"? They got it from John Dewey.

Some people might answer: "Sure, I've said those things at different times, but I don't have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it's not true today." They got it from Hegel. They might say: "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." They got it from a very little mind, Emerson."

Irrespective of your stance on Objectivism (Ayn Rand's philosophy), your "political" affiliation or love/hate relationship with Atlas Shrugged, this speech mostly gives a general outlook and a great place to begin contemplating the importance of philosophy in life. (For the record, my favorite Ayn Rand book is Fountainhead ) 

We all don't have to be philosophers (albeit, lot of them think they are!!) but the sheer size of the spectrum, philosophy covers makes it, one of the important things under the sun. 

The idea of democracy to the idea of Capitalism; cultural differences to social sciences; astronomy to science; all of their roots are some way or other influenced by philosophy.

Studying any philosopher is a great place to start but don't pick the favorite philosopher or philosophy earlier or at anytime until you have a rudimentary understandings of the western and eastern philosophy and philosophers. It's difficult not to pick the favorites early with the way our brain works (achoring and adjustment even without number, I guess) but it will lead to biases without understanding the others.
Ayn Rand hates Immanuel Kant who in-turn hates Aristotle. It's not worth being polarizied without having a full sense of what we are being polarized about. Every philosopher is worth reading, we can learn little something from everyone and it will eventually feed into your own unique philosophy.

What Ronald Bailey wrote  (in Liberation Biology) "Ignorance is not freedom. Knowledge is freedom; Igonrance is stagnation." says it all.

I am still a student and will be till the end. I fell in love with western philosophy after coming to this country. I grew under the influence of eastern philosophy, in retrospect its a unique blessing  having to influenced by both these diverse philosophies. So far its been one heck of ride. Until last few years I wasn't reading much into philosophy but of-course everything changed since that four legged stress busting powerhouse checked-in.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From the archives - Gladwell profiles Cesar Millan

This fascinating story of Cesar Millan (Dog whisperer) from 2006 by Malcolm Gladwell.

In a typical Gladwellian style, he chronicles Cesar Millian's story from the humble beginnings in Mexico to the rise to current stardom in LA.

It doesn't matter if we like Cesar Milan's philosophy of dogs  or not, but the important lesson and significance of his story is how his relationship with dogs changed his social relationship with humans, saved his marriage and in the process his life.

"Early in their marriage, Illusion got sick, and was in the hospital for three weeks. "Cesar visited once, for less than two hours," she said. "I thought to myself, This relationship is not working out. He just wanted to be with his dogs." They had a new baby, and no money. They separated. Illusion told Cesar that she would divorce him if he didn't get into therapy. He agreed, reluctantly. "The therapist's name was Wilma," Illusion went on. ""She was a strong African-American woman. She said, 'You want your wife to take care of you, to clean the house. Well, she wants something, too. She wants your affection and love.'" Illusion remembers Cesar scribbling furiously on a pad. "He wrote that down. He said, 'That's it! It's like the dogs. They need exercise, discipline, and affection.'" Illusion laughed. "I looked at him, upset, because why the hell are you talking about your dogs when you should be talking about us?"

"I was fighting it," Cesar said. "Two women against me, blah, blah, blah. I had to get rid of the fight in my mind. That was very difficult. But that's when the light bulb came on. Women have their own psychology."
Cesar could calm a stray off the street, yet, at least in the beginning, he did not grasp the simplest of truths about his own wife. "Cesar related to dogs because he didn't feel connected to people," Illusion said. "His dogs were his way of feeling like he belonged in the world, because he wasn't people friendly. And it was hard for him to get out of that." In Mexico, on his grandfather's farm, dogs were dogs and humans were humans: each knew its place. But in America dogs were treated like children, and owners had shaken up the hierarchy of human and animal. Sugar's problem was Lynda. JonBee's problem was Scott. Cesar calls that epiphany in the therapist's office the most important moment in his life, because it was the moment when he understood that to succeed in the world he could not just be a dog whisperer. He needed to be a people whisperer."
Honestly I don't hate or love Cesar Milan, I simply got satiated with his shows. I should rather say I was satiated with the dog owners with their lack of understanding of a creature that co-evolved with us for thousands of years. But I can relate to Cesar epiphany. I have one often after watching Max's frame of mind and sometimes his idiosyncrasies. Not  sure when and how I started doing it but with every issue that pops in the everyday life  or when facing a provocateur  or even during a polemic rhetoric on the air, I think what would Max do and what have I learned from him? It might sound stupid or silly but its leads the greatest introspection I ever had and I get this wake up call to not to get carried away by my passions. It saves me from going through the process of inferred justification (People believe whatever they want, and then search for things to back up those beliefs. They disregard information contrary or challenging to things they believe.) and nudges me to pure reason. 

All my strengths are something that I have learned from Max and all my weaknesses are a remainder to the student in me, the enormity of things yet to be learned. The teaching goes on. (Thank you, Tuesdays with Morrie)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The lost word

David Brooks in today's article , talks about well - take a guess,  "humility", a lost word in this country. Its about time someone spoke about it since its been out of the American lexicon for a while now.

The scene and mood of the nation after defeating the Nazi's says what made this country unique and great: (NPR broadcast)

"On V-J Day, Frank Sinatra appeared, along with Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, Bette Davis, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity. And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches."

"This subdued sentiment seems to have been widespread during that season of triumph. On the day the Nazi regime fell, Hal Boyle of The Associated Press reported from the front lines, The victory over Germany finds the average American soldier curiously unexcited. There is little exuberance, little enthusiasm and almost none of the whoop-it-up spirit with which hundreds of thousands of men looked forward to this event a year ago.”

And this great country has been sinking and almost reached the abyss these days in a self centered rhetoric:

"Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. To scoop up just a few examples of self-indulgent expression from the past few days, there is Joe Wilson using the House floor as his own private “Crossfire”; there is Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards to give us his opinion that the wrong person won; there is Michael Jordan’s egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech. Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration, you don’t even notice it anymore.

This isn’t the death of civilization. It’s just the culture in which we live. And from this vantage point, a display of mass modesty, like the kind represented on the V-J Day “Command Performance,” comes as something of a refreshing shock, a glimpse into another world. It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary."

How did this happen? Its not something that happens overnight but collective social system tries to sneak into us and we take it for granted as an evolutionary trait. The innated talented "heros" of this generation, most of the outliers and the leaders tend to look forward for instant gratification. Common masses who these creatures as demi-gods, try to emulate their successes (in vain) sans the talent and hard work. With no sense of introspection they get caught in this infinite loop and the sense of social responsibility collapses. The boisterous litany not only gives them a false sense of amelioration but reinstates their beliefs like a gambling addict.  

In this process they tend to lose the golden goose , the plasticity of the brain or worse, making it malleable in a parochial sense.
Humility comes for someone who has a worldly outlook, realizes there will be tomorrow and invests in dedicated long term responsibility. They concur the obviousness that no one in the history has reached the top alone. Humility oozes naturally into the system with such a progressive mindset. Who could someone make people understand this obvious truth? I wish, I knew.

People have to change for themselves for their own good. Instead we have become a dopamine driven nation. Thanks to Max for the constant flow of Oxytocin which is saving me from becoming the man I despise. 

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's brain

In the new TED talk , Rebecca Saxe explains the neuroscience behind reading others mind. 

Turns out that a brain region called right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) above the right ear is used to interpret thoughts of other people. This region gets developed around age five and makes us realize that others might have different belief than others. (duh!!)
Evolution has pre-equipped us with this "cool" piece of gray matter so that we can coexists in a civilized way. We humans have come a long way and gone are those days when we used to kill each other for having different beliefs. But still we have long ways to go. Have you seen lately any of the non-stop polemic nonsense in politics, TV and talk radio. These people are driven bythe quintessential money maker - the refusal to comprehend stance of others.
The obvious question is do these people have RTPJ as part of their brains. I think its safe to assume they do and its in working condition. I think, the answer to these non-stop nonsense is their false-belief. This is the classic case of evolution overwhelmed by passions (albeit passion is part of evolution). I don't believe they will be willing to pop some futuristic Nootropics to cure their false-belief and even if they did it will be like having a daily brain "Somatic (gene) therapy" for rest of their lives. The best thing is to get oneself involved in self-reflection and metacognition. (yeah right like thats gonna happen but I am an optimist) 

Well fMRI is slowly getting replaced by NIRS (both are used to read the brain "output" ) but the new device transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS, which is used as an input to simulate the brain).  Well the plan is  to use TMS on the RTPJ region and change peoples judgements and morals (Poor guy, Jonathan Haidt he has been spending years on researching on our morals, check this out. I am big fan of his works).  Any part of brain can be simulated using TMS to cause a temporary involuntary (like a reflex) action. TMS looks pretty big in size but like everything its eventually going to be small and wireless. I bet its going to cause lots of hue and cry sooner or later. This is one part of neuroscience which I sincerely believe should be under the control of neuroscientists alone, not even regular doctors or regular diagnostic labs. Although compact TMS might be cool and might turn out be the "building block" for near prefect family life!! 

Who knows, TMS might turn out to be the prototype for an ultimate device to make us rational (by feeding rationality and very slight sprinkling of right passions).