Sunday, January 31, 2010

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. (Don't eat what you see on TV)

That's Michael Pollan. I thought Michael Pollan will become obsolete with high fructose corn syrup and paradoxically, he will flourish with high fructose corn syrup. Boy, I was so wrong. The corporates are much smarter than that. They simply replaced high fructose corn syrup with another sugar laden ingredient and it was as simple as that. Michael and we are in this for a very long haul. Jonathan Safran Foer's is not a big fan of Pollan but we need people like Pollan who don't go to the extreme of that so called liberal spectrum. Polarization makes it hard for people to understand the ground reality and eventually makes this worse.

A growing and increasingly influential movement of philosophers, ethicists, law professors and activists are convinced that the great moral struggle of our time will be for the rights of animals." - Michael Pollan

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Talk with John Perkins - The (ex)undercover economic hit man

First they came for the Jews
            and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
            and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
            and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
            and there was no one left to speak out for me.

That's a popular poem on the erie silence with which German intellectuals watched the holocaust. Yes, I do agree with Steven Pinker on the decline of violence. But there are things worse than death. We in the west not only were silent but oblivious to what the corporate and political liaisons were doing to the some "third world" countries. Subprime mortgage crisis was just a precursor for the phrase "then they came for me". These were normal ubiquitous loans given to third world countries for decades in the name of poverty elimination but now most people there have woken up to gluttonous truth behind the veil of innocence. The only oblivious people left were people in this country and they came for us.

I grew up in India, listening to people bashing Gandhi and Nehru for not making the country flamboyant enough with the "help" of corporations. Even a country like Indonesia had "Bali" but all India had was a boring IIT. Imagine Chennai with the second longest beach in the world, its shoreline crowded with skyscrapers, dazzling roads, billboards et al but all it has is an university, harbor, cemetery for politicians and a cricket stadium. If Nehru had opened India up after independence, all this dazzling beauty would have been a reality but with an immense cost. There would have not been an university but chain of resorts. No cricket stadium, just bars and prostitution. The place would have been affordable only by rich westerns and Chennaities would have made a perceptual earning serving the tourists. Chennai would have been perceptually paying back the for the infrastructure cost (which they would have never gotten to use much) to the western banks and yes, whatever natural resources left in and around Chennai will be shipped to a more "productive" place thousands of miles across the ocean. I am glad (albeit I loath socialism) Nehru had this premonition and did what he did in spite of having to fight the Indian poverty alone. But most nations weren't fortunate enough to have popular leaders like India did at the right time.

John Perkins,
The confessions of an economic hit is a must read for every one, this is not a conspiracy theory and most importantly this is not about patriotism and bashing any particular country. Actually there are no hatching of plans behind the closed doors etc since they are just leaches who evolved to suck blood and know nothing else. These leaches don't care about geography, ethnicity, nations et al, all they need is blood and more blood. These leaches bring bad name to capitalism and there is good chance they never even heard of Adam Smith.

It's up-to us, the people to identify these leaches . It turns out these leaches are dumb, with little common sense and developing sense of common good we can easily identify these leaches and save others and ourselves from them. Well, using all the passion watching sports, cable news and reality tv is not going to help in this aspect but re-routing little of that passions in the right places will make this world a much better place (dopamine factor
here). There is no messiah coming, the messiah is in everyone of us and its upto us to put him to work. John Perkins here :


Friday, January 29, 2010

Voice against the Chinese cognitive dissonance

I had lost hope on this matter but glad I was wrong -  this and this (thanks), there is a silent revolution against eating dogs and cats in China.

In particular, the draft suggests people caught eating dog or cat meat be jailed for up to 15 days and fined 5,000 yuan (£450), while businesses would be fined between 100,000 to 500,000 yuan (£9,000 to £45,000). Pet lovers' associations have sprung up in Chinese cities over recent years, with one liberation group last year ramming a truck full of caged cats to rescue them from being shipped to southern restaurants.

While many Chinese enjoy rich dog meat, especially during cold winters, some object to the practice in some regions of beating dogs to death to release the blood into the meat.
The China National Native Produce & Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation backed the initiative, which it believes will improve overseas perceptions of Chinese exports.
Others insisted a ban on dog and cat meat was unrealistic.
'Banning such custom by law is inappropriate and unable to work,' said Xu Huiqiang, chief of wild animal protection in Jiangsu province, where a dog meat recipe has been listed as a piece of cultural heritage.
An official of Leping, a city that has a traditional catering industry based on dog meat, said that the local economy and people's lives would be terribly hurt by such a law.
'Cooking them alive must be punished but which meat to eat should be people's own choice,' said a commentary on Xinhua Daily in Nanjing. 'Some people in China still can't afford meat. We should not blindly copy Western values.'
But one online protester named 'Yuxiang999' posted on 'Eating cats and dogs is a shameless barbarian thing. Anyone with humanity would not kill these loyal friends of ours.' "

My thoughts -  
here -"I think for a non-democratic country, raising GDP is directly proportional to nationalism and adherence to "traditions" since the economic success feeds to their self-fullfling prophecy. It gets worse when they make up impromptu traditions to fit their current nouveau riche lifestyle. We in the west will make matters worse if we try to preach them (which will only feed their nationalism). The only way out of this is show them the importance of animal welfare which has been always the part of their culture, tradition and history. We need more Chinese scholars in the west to work with animal welfare activists in China to bring about this change. (Insights from behavioral economists will help honing this process) 

I bet a person like you Mark can find some smart behavioral economists in your academic circles to initiate this process - " How to improve animal welfare in China using Chinese tradition."
This is very important since more powerful the Chinese become more the people of world will try to emulate them (Coca Cola, anybody?) and we don't want that happen.
Simply bashing China will not improve anything.

Importance of democracy with growing economy is very important for animal welfare - Bear rescue in India speaks volumes.
Even with so much deplorable poverty in India, there good souls who tirelessly work on animal welfare with minimum hindrance from the government a.k.a democratic government. "

P.S: This theory applies only to pets and wild animals. Growing economy as we all know is a doom for farm animals. " 

E. O. Wilson: Trailhead

There are writers who write beautiful science fiction, opening up the young minds for limitless possibilities. There are scientists who dedicate their lives taming an invisible energy to make our lives better. And then there is E.O Wilson. He changed the way I look at nature. He not only made me understand the beauty and importance of nature but helped me see the Biophilia lurking inside me. Thank you, Mr.Wilson.

If not for him, we would have never seen the wonder behind the amazing lives of Ants.  Here is beautiful story about the colony of Ants adapted from his first work of fiction Anthill: A Novel coming out in April 2010 (interview here).

In cemetery work and all other activities, the guiding principle of the Trailhead Colony was self-sacrifice. The dominance of the colony over its individual members was total. A worker’s life story was programmed to be subordinate to the superorganism’s needs. If a worker died, the colony was weakened to some measurable but relatively inconsequential extent; the deficit could be quickly made up by rearing another worker in the nursery. If, on the other hand, a worker behaved selfishly, consuming for a good part of her life more resources than she contributed, this weakened the colony far more than if she had the decency to desert or die.

The colony’s members had given up the chance to reproduce, at least as long as the Queen was alive and healthy. They willingly accepted tasks—foraging, soldiering—that would almost certainly lead to early death. The sick and the injured did not seek help; they moved on their own to the outermost nest chambers. Dying workers often left the nest completely, thereby avoiding the spread of infectious diseases. Older workers who were healthy but approaching the end of their natural life span also emigrated to the nest perimeter. From there, they often became foragers, exposing themselves to a much higher risk from enemies. When defending the nest, the elders were among the most suicidally aggressive. They were obedient to a simple truth that separates our two species: humans send their young men to war; ants send their old ladies."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hyper-binding : From Clutter to Wisdom

Another study exposing the paradox of our memories and how it depends on so many intricate internal and external factors. All this makes me wonder, how on earth we evovled successfully in spite of this weird mixture of delusion and rationale memories. May be the innate creativity of our memories proved seminal for human creativity, turning a shortcoming into a harbinger for a succuessfull evolution.

"Imagine this hypothetical scenario: You’re at a cocktail party and the host introduces you to a stranger, whose name is Jeremy. It’s a crowded party, and as you chat with Jeremy, you’re also picking up snippets of another conversation nearby. Something about a big football game on Sunday. It doesn’t concern you, so you try to tune it out. You have a short but pleasant conversation with Jeremy, then go on to mingle with other guests.

What do you remember when you run into Jeremy the next day? Well, if you’re young, you will probably recognize Jeremy’s face and associate his face with his name. That’s normal social memory. But if you’re older, you may have a very different kind of association: You may inexplicably link Jeremy with the upcoming football game. That overheard chatter about football is an irrelevant piece of information—you don’t even like football much. But your mind has been distracted by it, and it has connected that unimportant tidbit with your newly forged memory of Jeremy.

This is just a theory, which scientists call “hyper-binding.” That’s really just a jargony way of saying that the elderly remember a lot of useless information by attaching it to important new learning."

"Wouldn’t such distractibility be a terrible hindrance? Wouldn’t it just clutter up the mind with a lot of junk information? Not so, say the Toronto scientists. In fact, it may well be an advantage for the elderly. Aging often brings with it some mild cognitive declines—and indeed the elderly were slower and less accurate in some parts of these memory experiments. But awareness of how events connect in everyday life—even seemingly irrelevant events—may play a critical role in certain kinds of reasoning and judgment. In this way, distractibility may surreptitiously bolster everyday problem-solving."

"The fact is, we never really know for sure what information in our world is important or useless—not when we’re first encountering it. The elderly mind may not be as fleet as it once was, but by being unfiltered, it perhaps is making connections that aren’t literal or obvious, and can be insightful. It might even be the foundation of a novel kind of intuition that comes with aging, or perhaps even what we call wisdom."

This is an innate version of Howard Gardner's synthesizing mind hypothesis. We all have this gift inside us but the question is as we grow old do we want to cherish wisdom, show compassion, use the accumulated wit or go down whining about "good" old days and kick the bucket with cortisol feeding on the inflated self esteem. 

Building neurons from mouse tail!!

Fascinating report on how neurons can be built from body cells, I guess this where neuroscience meets genome to make bio-tech more effective.

In a feat of cellular alchemy, connective tissue from a mouse's tail has been transformed directly into working brain cells.

Ordinarily, so drastic a makeover would require the creation of so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and then turning these into neurons, an inefficient process that can take weeks.

Marius Wernig and colleagues at Stanford University in California discovered that inserting a cocktail of three genes into fibroblasts turns them directly into neurons in just days. "The real surprise was that this conversion is extremely efficient," he says.

By many indications, these neurons are the real deal. Under a microscope, they look like a kind of mouse brain cell found in the cortex and they can form synapses to send and receive signals from others. Wernig expects that the cells will integrate into a mouse's brain - an experiment that's in the works.

If they do, cells produced using a similar process might one day be used to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease in humans."

Since they can create neurons in a petri-dish, I hope this helps neuroscience researchers to minimize the animal torture in the name of necessary evil. If we can create and regenerate neurons in a lab, then I wonder if this makes this project easier?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Evolution: The Curious Case of Dogs

Dogs are the ubiquitous proof of evolution and I wonder why still there is that spontaneous botanical garden myth. Another interesting post on the Moscow stray dogs (earlier post) and if its not obvious yet (and for those who are driven only by self interest), this is why these studies on dogs are important :

"The last group of Moscow's dogs is by far the most amazing. They are the beggars, for obvious reasons. In these packs, the alpha isn't the best hunter or strongest, it's the smartest. The most impressive beggars, however, get their own title: 'metro dogs'. They rely on scraps of food from the daily commuters who travel the public transportation system. To do so, the dogs have learned to navigate the subway. They know stops by name, and integrate a number of specific stations into their territories.

This dramatic shift from the survival of the fittest to the survival of the smartest has changed how Moscow's dogs interact with humans and with each other. Beggars are rarely hit by cars, as they have learned to cross the streets when people do. They've even been seen waiting for a green light even when no pedestrians are crossing, suggesting that they have actually learned to recognize the green walking man image of the crosswalk signal. Also, there are fewer "pack wars" that once were commonplace between Moscow's stray canines, some of which used to last for months. However, they remain vigilant against the wild dogs and wolves that live on the outskirts of the city – rarely, if ever, are they permitted into Moscow. When politicians thought to remove the dogs, their use as a buffer against these animals was cited as a strong reason not to disturb them.

Moscow's exemplary dogs show how different traits help dogs adapt to different ecological niches – whether it be brute strength for hunting in the truly feral wild dogs or intelligence in the almost-domesticated beggars. Some wonder if the strong selection for intellect will make Moscow’s metro dogs into another species all together, if left to their own devices.

Dogs make it easy to understand and demonstrate the core principles of evolution – variation and selection – and how they can make such a dramatic impact on an animal. It's no wonder that Darwin took cues from domesticated animals when formulating his theory of evolution. However, there's still a lot to learn about the processes that have shaped our best friends, and what future lies for them. How much time will it take to completely separate dogs from wolves, into their own species? What areas of the genome are key to doing so? In studying dogs and wolves, we may gain insight into how speciation occurs and when a threshold of change is met for it to do so. Seeing how much change has occurred already makes you wonder what surprises our canine companions still have in store for us as they, and we, continue to evolve together over the next ten thousand years."

Demons ....

Not sure how these people live with themselves and not sure how to quantify this to deliver proper sentence. Now you know why I have high hopes for neuroscience and bio-tech in general. A report  from Alaska:

"A bill that would criminalize bestiality has continued its path toward state law books.

Supporters say the measure, which cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee today, would close an important gap in Alaska law.

Public animal control commissioners in Fairbanks have lined up unanimously behind the bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage.

Ronnie Rosenberg, the Fairbanks commission's chairwoman, told the State Affairs Commission on Monday that people who work or regularly volunteer at shelters are bound to eventually care for an animal that has been sexually abused by a person. In Fairbanks, an active duty soldier last summer was accused of sodomizing a dachshund that eventually needed medical care and Rosenberg said a more recent case has emerged involving a puppy.

"It's very important that we have the (legal) tools so the troopers can pursue these," Rosenberg said of animal sexual cruelty cases.

The animal cruelty laws already in statute generally make it a misdemeanor to torture or intentionally kill animals outside of standard veterinary care or common farming practices. Lynn's proposed change would add the crime of "knowingly ... engag(ing) in sexual conduct with an animal."

Lynn said studies indicate someone who abuses animals is far more likely that others to move on and abuse children or vulnerable adults.

Rachel Dzuiba, a veterinarian with the Gastineau Humane Society in Juneau, said the bill is well written and would provide one more option to help stop "a cycle of abuse" in Alaska.

The House has already unanimously passed the bill, HB6, which now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee."

Glad they passed a law to stop this and reminds me of what that nice farmer from Virginia, Joel Salatin said - "A culture which views it animals and plants from 'that' type of manipulative, arrogant, disrespectful attitude will also soon view its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Avatar redux

Pretty much everyone who can write has already written a review of Avatar and the "surprise" Chinese factor is making it more sensational. I agreed with most of  the good as well as the critical reviews. No doubt it's a phenomenal movie (not the story) and I loved it. Although it will never be one of my favorite movies, it was like walking into a dream and it was very unique experience. Ever since I watched the movie, I was breaking my head wondering what made it so special other than 3D and the technological flamboyance.

Finally this hypothesis dawned one me. This is probably the first movie which cracked the uncanny valley barrier. For instance, the romance and the mass destruction of innocents didn't emote to the extent of an quintessential classic
Hollywood usually does but it did find an anthropomorphic soft spot subsiding the stoicism (and that little harmless repulsion we express for non-anthropomorphic romance), like a balmy breeze trying to venture into an unconquered territory.

A small kiss on the silver screen but a giant leap for movie industry. (and may be this is the beginning of end of the overpaid actors)  

Monday, January 25, 2010

How many fish are in the ocean?

Great reality check on the current state of our oceans (earlier post here). We always being relativists assume the vastness of the ocean directly corresponds abundance of fish and develop this delusion,  leading to an unquenchable appetite for sea food.

"Ryther’s approach to this complex problem is actually quite simple- any introductory biology student could understand the scientific principles behind his solution. Although it is impossible to count all the fish in the ocean, it IS possible to measure the primary productivity (how much energy is produced by photosynthesis at the base of a food chain). By knowing how much food is out there and knowing how efficiently energy from food is transmitted up the food chain, you can indirectly calculate how many fish the oceans can support.
Ryther used measurements of primary productivity from the 1950-1952 expedition of the Galathea, which had taken measurements of only 194 locations in the world’s oceans. He had access to one measurement for every 2 million square kilometers of ocean, and most of the measurements were taken in tropical waters.
The data from the Galathea expedition is startling. The overwhelming majority of the oceans (approximately 90 %) have extremely low primary productivity. The average is 50 grams of carbon per meter per year. In comparison, coastal regions (approximately 7.5% of the total area of the oceans) produce around 100 grams of carbon per meter per year, and upwelling regions (approximately 2.5% of the total area of the oceans) produce over 1,000 grams of carbon per meter per year. In other words, while there are a few incredibly rich fisheries in the world, most of the ocean simply doesn’t have enough food at the base of the food chain to support a lot of fish.
Now that Ryther knew (approximately) how much food was at the base of the food chain, he could start to solve the problem. The next step required a knowledge of trophic transfer efficiency, which is a measure of how much energy from organisms on one step of the food chain is usable by organisms that eat them. Not all the energy that a given organism has can be gained by its predator, since some of an organism’s energy goes into things like growth and reproduction.
Though trophic efficiency varies by ecosystem and organism, ecologists usually use 10% as an estimate. In other words, one hundred pounds of plant (primary producer) biomass at the base of a food chain can only support ten pounds of herbivore biomass, which can only support one pound of primary carnivore biomass.
Trophic efficiency becomes important when you consider where on the food chain humans get their food. On land, we tend to eat animals such as cows, which are only one step up from the base of the food chain. In the ocean, however, we eat animals much higher up the food chain- phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton, which are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by medium sized fish, which are eaten by the large fish like tuna that we eat. Keep in mind that 90% of the oceans don’t have very much energy at the base of the food chain- the trophic level we get most our seafood from can support 10% of 10% of 10% of 10% of relatively little biomass. The “bounty of the oceans” is far from inexhaustible.
The final estimate from all of these calculations was as follows: the ocean can support a total of approximately 240 million tons of fish. However, humans can’t harvest all of the fish that are out there- we need to leave some to reproduce, and some to feed the ocean’s other carnivores. Ryther estimated that we couldn’t remove more than 100 million tons of fish before we run into serious problems.
As it turns out, the 2008 “State of World Fisheries” report stated that we harvested 95 million tons of fish in 2008. That makes the technical term for Ryther’s estimate from 40 years ago “pretty darn close”

I am a big fan of Nassim Nicolas Taleb, check out his "hobby":
" "My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the courage to sometimes say: I don’t know...." (You may not be able to change the world but can at least get some entertainment & make a living out of the epistemic arrogance of the human race)."

This arrogance of human's can be entertaining  but some of them are self destructive. Not everything which looks and seems obvious can be self-evident and not all which looks and seems self-evident can be obvious. Not everything that's both obvious and self evident are true. To get to the truth we need to look beyond obviousness and self-evidence and yes, we need to develop a sense of epistemological modesty and reduce that inflated self-esteem. That's the only way out for a solipsist.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How wolves became dogs

Thanks - Beautiful excerpt from Richard Dawkins new book The Greatest Show on Earth. A humbling remainder how my bond with Max evolved thousands of years ago.

We can imagine wild wolves scavenging on a rubbish tip on the edge of a village. Most of them, fearful of men throwing stones and spears, have a very long flight distance. They sprint for the safety of the forest as soon as a human appears in the distance. But a few individuals, by genetic chance, happen to have a slightly shorter flight distance than the average. Their readiness to take slight risks -- they are brave, shall we say, but not foolhardy -- gains them more food than their more risk-averse rivals. As the generations go by, natural selection favours a shorter and shorter flight distance, until just before it reaches the point where the wolves really are endangered by stonethrowing humans. The optimum flight distance has shifted because of the newly available food source."

Great coincidence since I was watching Richard Dawkins on TED last night.

Tonight on the Resting State Network...

This is hilarious!! Thanks

Etymological Remorse

This is one of those things which we never notice even though it always right under our nose. It took this column to show me the obvious.

“Loot,” the noun and the verb, is a word of Hindi origin meaning the spoils of war or other goods seized roughly. As historian Peter Linebaugh points out, “At one time loot was the soldier’s pay.” It entered the English language as a good deal of loot from India entered the English economy, both in soldiers’ pockets and as imperial seizures."

This is not about opening up old wounds but rather I am happy that  Brit's lack cognitive dissonance on this front and it's laudable.
I simply couldn't connect the dots in spite of knowing Hindi, English and Tamil well. The reason I am bringing this up because there was a report on Scientific American last Friday on
"The Neural Advantage of Speaking 2 Languages" .

The ability to speak a second language isn’t the only thing that distinguishes bilingual people from their monolingual counterparts—their brains work differently, too. Research has shown, for instance, that children who know two languages more easily solve problems that involve misleading cues. A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that knowledge of a second language—even one learned in adolescence—affects how people read in their native tongue. The findings suggest that after learning a second language, people never look at words the same way again.

Eva Van Assche, a bilingual psychologist at the Univer sity of Ghent in Belgium, and her colleagues recruited 45 native Dutch-speaking students from their university who had learned English at age 14 or 15. The researchers asked the participants to read a collection of Dutch sentences, some of which included cognates—words that look similar and have equivalent meanings in both lan guages (such as “sport,” which means the same thing in both Dutch and English). They also read other sen tences containing only noncognate words in Dutch.
Van Assche and her colleagues recorded the participants’ eye move ments as they read. They found that the subjects spent, on average, eight fewer milliseconds gazing at cognate words than control words, which suggests that their brains processed the dual-language words more quickly than words found only in their native language.
“The most important implication of the study is that even when a per son is reading in his or her native language, there is an influence of knowledge of the nondominant second language,” Van Assche notes. “Becoming a bilingual changes one of people’s most automatic skills.” She plans to investigate next whether people who are bilingual also process auditory language information differently. “Many questions remain,” she says."

Instead of feeling great pride in speaking not just 2 but 3 languages, I felt there was something amiss. For starters then most Indians should be geniuses since most of them speak two languages and its obvious that not the case. Yes, there are many unanswered questions. Developing an apt Broca Area surely has immense benefits but may be it comes with other hidden costs (like I missing the "duh" in "loot").

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Emerson's words of wisdom

President's favorite book is Self reliance. Couple of years ago, I forwarded this essay to people I know and the responses were like its incongruous, quixotic et al. The truth is its hard to read since its full of abstractions incomprehensible by the sound byte driven and spoon fed culture. All those memories came back when I read a column bashing Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I wasn't born in this country and Emerson wasn't part of my curriculum in India but yet I can draw analogies to these bashing from the bashings Gandhi receives in India. These great men are like a thorn to us since their life and words are a perceptual remainder of our lack of or ever oscillating conscientious nature. These men are our worst nightmare and we feel immense satisfaction by avoiding their words but yet consoling ourselves by putting them on a demi-god pedestal (calling them "prefect") unattainable by humans (like they were some "different" evolutionary miracle).

My favorite line from Self reliance:
"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

Those are some beautiful words helping to light up an intellectual spark in youngsters (but age hardly matters here),  giving hope to pursue their ideas (not to be confused with dreams) without the fear of rejection and ridiculed.

Lets not talk about those who get the wrong message, hitch-hike on ideas of others and derive immense pleasure by calling it their own, living and dying in that fallacy.

The nature of ideas or visions has always been a cumulative effect passed down from generations, like a relay race, each generation carrying necessary spark to keep the fire lit. The truth in self reliance is courage with humility and it was never about inflated self-esteem.

It's no accident that self reliance depends on the most beautiful words in English language - "I don't know".

Friday, January 22, 2010

What I've been reading

My most favorite journalist and yet I haven't read any of his books. My excuse being he has written just two books and the fear of hitting the destination stopped me from even starting. Good news is, he is in the process of writing a book on social impact of neuroscience (if I remember it correct, that darn memory again)  and I think its coming out some time this year.

I picked up Paradise Drive:How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense by David Brooks last weekend and once I started reading it, I honestly wanted to cry. I wish I read this book few years ago, it would have answered many of my questions about this country so elegantly with humor. But yet, I don't regret not reading him and I am so glad I didn't. Since this sheer quest had bombarded me with more questions and in that process, I did learn lot of things about not only American life but life in general. The whole process helped me "grow-up" (well, its a never ending process).

I cannot even begin to explain what a spectacular book it is and I wouldn't do justice even if try to explain. A warning -  this book can help propagate the self fulfilling fallacy for pro-americans, anti-americans and most of all the other flavors out there. If we have grown up enough to shed these mundane biases, this book will be an intellectual oasis. Sadly this is the delirious illusion most of us so convincingly live in but what's more worse is, most don't even realize this deliriousness before kicking the bucket and thanks to genes, these vicious cycle continues.

"As you may have noticed, 90 percent of Americans have way too much self-esteem (while the remainder has none at all). Nobody in this decentralized, fluid social structure knows who is mainstream and who is alternative, who is elite and who is populist. Professors at Harvard think the corporate elites run society, while the corporate elites think the cultural elites at Harvard run society. Liberals think their views are courageously unfashionable, and conservatives believe they are bravely dissenting from the mainstream media.
Most people see themselves living on an island of intelligence in a sea of idiocy. They feel their own lives are going pretty well, even if society as a whole is going down the toilet. They believe their children's schools are good, even if the nation's schools in general are terrible. Their own congressperson is okay, even if most of others should be thrown out of office. Their own values are fine, even if civilization itself is on the verge of collapse. We all live in Lake Wobegon because we are all above average. We are all okay; it's the vast ocean of morons who are mucking things up."
Ain't that the truth :-)?

Check out the following lines/hypothesis, it precisely describes the mind-set of commoners oozing with ...errr  cognitive dissonance.

"The future-minded person is discouraged from crashing his progress on the rocks of principle. On the contrary, he is encouraged to be a little fuzzy in his principles for the sake of perceptual advancement. He is not likely to be unprincipled, exactly, just flexible. Hope is a lawyer, not a martyr."

This is the reality and people aren't going to change miraculously by some magic switch. In fact, I can safely assume they are not going to change in my life time. This is the curse of life driven by principle. I am still trying to find peace with that reality and best away to live with it is spicy it with humor. I am still working on it.

Happiness is an unconcisous euphemism

A very beautiful post questioning our dichotomy of hope/dreams vs motives/actions to feed our addiction to happiness.

"This popular theory doesn’t explain why people are so ignorant after billions of lifetimes of data about what brings happiness, or alternatively why they are helpless to direct their behavior toward it with the information. The usual counterargument to this story is simply that money and status and all that do in fact bring happiness, so people aren’t that silly after all.

Another explanation for the observed facts is that we don’t actually want happiness that badly; we like status and money too even at the expense of happiness. That requires the opposite explanation, of why we think we like happiness so much."

She has some very valid points, Henry David Thoreau wrote "Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulders."

In an evolutionary sense, we are not equipped to bombard any single trait. Anterior cingulate cortice will probably go nuts, satiated and simply cannot handle surfeit of happiness. I think, we use happiness as an euphemism and sought of a white lie, masquerading our real selfish motives from ourselves and making them socially more desirable. The tragedy of this situation is we get into a delusional dissonance about what we really want and what we are actually working towards. No wonder most of us feel lost except those occasional islands of instant gratification.
May be the founding fathers already knew this, no wonder they embraced an abstraction (albeit beautiful) by including "pursuit of happiness" instead of just including  "being happy".

Happiness like life is probably about the journey, not a destination.

Bill Gates blogging now

Bill Gates joins the bandwagaon - here.

Very interesting posts and this one on
learning has very useful information. Here's a sample Q&A:

"A question from a UK-based media executive

People complain that TV news is partisan entertainment, and it's hard to really know what to trust in the mainstream press. What mass-media outlets would you suggest people read to stay informed?

I don’t really watch a lot of television news. I mostly watch it if someone sends me a link to something they think I would be interested in.
I do read quite a few magazines and newspaper. I like the Economist because it provides good background knowledge. Scientific American is very good and so is the New Yorker. We get the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. I tend to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal online but I read the Economist almost entirely offline. I read Slate quite a bit, too. Slate is good because if you go there, you always find three or four things that are very interesting.
Beyond that I’m amazed at the number of great seminars and lectures that are available online. In an area like how the brain works, for example, every month I’d say there are at least ten really good videos worth watching. In fact, I used to be able to watch all of them on a topic that I cared about, but as there has gotten to be more and more out there, it’s not easy to do that anymore.
There are some good sites that make it easier to find great courses and lectures online, including Academic Earth and the TED Conference website at There are also good courses that you can buy online. is the main company for this and while their stuff costs money, the quality is extremely high.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Compassion by touch

I started to read this article and it started to sound like the same mundane litany on the importance of compassion and effects of Oxytocin, anterior cingulate , blah blah. It's little frustrating to see the same wheel being reinvented for the zillion times since we know, humans are compassionate but self fish as well. We need more information on how to cultivate compassion  since we know its not much genetics but depends on nurture. The question is how to cultivate compassion if someone missed the nurture ticket? (and incapable of meta cognition, self-relfection etc) Nevertheless, one thing that stood out in this article was the multitudes of message conveyed by different kinds of "touch" (I do have a feeling, Oxytocin has something to do with it):

"Research by Nancy Eisenberg, perhaps the world's expert on the development of compassion in children, has found that there is a particular facial expression of compassion, characterized by oblique eyebrows and a concerned gaze. When someone shows this expression, they are then more likely to help others. My work has examined another nonverbal cue: touch.

Previous research has already documented the important functions of touch. Primates such as great apes spend hours a day grooming each other, even when there are no lice in their physical environment. They use grooming to resolve conflicts, to reward each other's generosity, and to form alliances. Human skin has special receptors that transform patterns of tactile stimulation—a mother"s caress or a friend"s pat on the back—into indelible sensations as lasting as childhood smells. Certain touches can trigger the release of oxytocin, bringing feelings of warmth and pleasure. The handling of neglected rat pups can reverse the effects of their previous social isolation, going as far as enhancing their immune systems.
My work set out to document, for the first time, whether compassion can be communicated via touch. Such a finding would have several important implications. It would show that we can communicate this positive emotion with nonverbal displays, whereas previous reserach has mostly documented the nonverbal expression of negative emotions such as anger and fear. This finding would also shed light on the social functions of compassion—how people might rely on touch to soothe, reward, and bond in daily life.
In my experiment, I put two strangers in a room where they were separated by a barrier. They could not see one another, but they could reach each other through a hole. One person touched the other on the forearm several times, each time trying to convey one of 12 emotions, including love, gratitude, and compassion. After each touch, the person touched had to describe the emotion they thought the toucher was communicating.
Imagine yourself in this experiment. How do you suppose you might do? Remarkably, people in these experiments reliably identified compassion, as well as love and the other ten emotions, from the touches to their forearm. This strongly suggests that compassion is an evolved part of human nature—something we"re universally capable of expressing and understanding."

Anyways, a nurture tip for parents:

Developmental psychologists have also been interested in comparing two specific parenting styles. Parents who rely on induction engage their children in reasoning when they have done harm, prompting their child to think about the consequences of their actions and how these actions have harmed others. Parents who rely on power assertion simply declare what is right and wrong, and resort more often to physical punishment or strong emotional responses of anger. Nancy Eisengerg, Richard Fabes, and Martin Hoffman have found that parents who use induction and reasoning raise children who are better adjusted and more likely to help their peers. This style of parenting seems to nurture the basic tools of compassion: an appreciation of others' suffering and a desire to remedy that suffering."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Interactive Movie - How the human brain works

Great place to learn the basics - Interactive Movie - How the human brain works

"Spirituality" by Tyson foods

No kidding, check this out.

"Through a $2 million gift from the Tyson Family Foundation and Tyson Foods Inc., the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas is establishing the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace."

I am not sure how to brand this cognitive dissonance.

Conscious Capitalism - Interview with whole foods CEO, John Mackey

Great interview (text) with one of the most "humane" CEO's left on this planet. Having born outside this country, I do have an innate bipartisan perspective towards fellow citizens which most "grown-ups" in this country lack. Thank god, I always thought I was crazy to believe that but Mackey agrees:
reason: Do you have any political team that you root for?
Mackey: A political team? It’s funny that you would say that. I think part of the polarization that exists in America is that people try to size you up for what team you’re on. If you’re on their team, they love you, and if you’re the other team, they hate you.

Great words of wisdom : “I like the quote by Michelangelo. He said, “Criticize through creating.” It’s easy to be a critic. It’s much harder to create something. I always want to encourage young people to take their passion for making the world a better place and channel it to help us create new solutions to our challenges."

Animal Minds- Interview with Dr. Alexandra Horowitz

Interesting talk on Animal Minds with inputs from Alexandra Horowitz on dog cognition. I am big fan of her work but I disagree when she starts generalizing. She infers dog's aren't guilty conscious but they act just submissive when they do something is wrong and hence that guilty look. May be its true in an very abstract sense. How can we can explain this -  When Max does something wrong, he reacts very fast reading my subtle facial expression even before I start emoting and he does one or all of the following few:
  • He takes that big "gulp" (sweetest thing to watch), emulating a cartoon character.
  • The common head down posture with guilt in the eyes
  • He would start jumping on me trying to pacify me with a twinkle in the eyes saying "dude, no sweat".
The "guilty" feeling we emote varies drastically even across humans depending on culture, religion, morality et al and we cannot even begin to stereotype them. It's very unfair that we to personalize everything if its human but generalize when it comes to animals.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stray dogs in Moscow

Growing up in India, like most I got immune to the condition of stray dogs but things after the great catharsis, thanks to Max . I have been to India only once since Max came to my life and with anxiety level high enough with Max not around me, it made things worse looking at the strays in India. It's simply hard to emote for strays where the relativist society had already become immune to the deplorable human condition there. It doesn't have to be a zero sum game , we can take care of both the poor and the dogs. 
I never knew there were strays in Russia until I read this piece (irony is this grand 40 year experiment was carried out in Siberia) . Since 1947,  India was cozy with Russia and inherited lot of "insights" from them. After reading this piece, I deduced that the insight of catching and culling stray dogs was probably a Russian import. As a kid, I have watched vans rounding up stray's to euthanize, it's one the most terrorizing spectacle.and thank god, they don't do that anymore (not sure but I hope).

There are four kinds of stray dogs:
"The stray dogs of Moscow are mentioned for the first time in the reports of the journalist and writer Vladimir Gilyarovsky in the latter half of the 19th century. But Poyarkov says they have been there as long as the city itself. They remain different from wolves, in particular because they exhibit pronounced “polymorphism” – a range of behavioural traits shaped in part by the “ecological niche” they occupy. And it is this ability to adapt that explains why the population density of strays is so much greater than that of wolves. “With several niches there are more resources and more opportunities.”
The dogs divide into four types, he says, which are determined by their character, how they forage for food, their level of socialisation to people and the ecological niche they inhabit.
Those that remain most comfortable with people Poyarkov calls “guard dogs”. Their territories tend to be garages, warehouses, hospitals and other fenced-in institutions, and they develop ties to the security guards from whom they receive food and whom they regard as masters. I’ve seen them in my neighbourhood near the front gate to the Central Clinical Hospital for Civil Aviation. When I pass on the other side with my dog they cross the street towards us, barking loudly.
“The second stage of becoming wild is where the dog is socialised to people in general, but not personally,” says Poyarkov. “These are the beggars and they are excellent psychologists.” He gives as an example a dog that appears to be dozing as throngs of people walk past, but who rears his head when an easy target comes into view: “The dog will come to a little old lady, start smiling and wagging his tail, and sure enough, he’ll get food.” These dogs not only smell who is carrying something tasty, but sense who will stop and feed them.
The beggars live in relatively small packs and are subordinate to leaders. If a dog is intelligent but occupies a low rank and does not get enough to eat, he will separate from the pack frequently to look for food. If he sees other dogs begging, he will watch and learn.
The third group comprises dogs that are somewhat socialised to people, but whose social interaction is directed almost exclusively towards other strays. Their main strategy for acquiring food is gathering scraps from the streets and the many open rubbish bins. During the Soviet period, the pickings were slim, which limited their population (as did a government policy of catching and killing them). But as Russia began to prosper in the post-Soviet years, official efforts to cull them fell away and, at the same time, many more choice offerings appeared in the bins. The strays flourished.
The last of Poyarkov’s groups are the wild dogs. “There are dogs living in the city that are not socialised to people. They know people, but view them as dangerous. Their range is extremely broad, and they are ­predators. They catch mice, rats and the occasional cat. They live in the city, but as a rule near industrial complexes, or in wooded parks. They are nocturnal and walk about when there are fewer people on the streets.”

The fall of soviet union has tremondously improved the prospects of strays but yet ... the demon inside some of us refuses to die.

"On a winter evening, Romanova was returning with her beloved Staffordshire terrier from a visit to a designer who specialises in kitting out canine Muscovites in the latest fashions. The terrier was sporting a new green camouflage jacket as he walked with his owner through the crowded Mendeleyevskaya metro station. There they encountered Malchik, a black stray who had made the station his home, guarding it against drunks and other dogs. Malchik barked at the pair, defending his territory. But instead of walking away, Romanova reached into her pink rucksack, pulled out a kitchen knife and, in front of rush-hour commuters, stabbed Malchik to death.

Romanova was arrested, tried and underwent a year of psychiatric treatment. Typically for Russia, this horror story was countered by a wellspring of sympathy for Moscow’s strays. A bronze statue of Malchik, paid for by donations, now stands at the entrance of Mendeleyevskaya station."


Monday, January 18, 2010

Chaos theory and Cockroach Robot

Bio-mimicry gave us the internet, now they are building robots mimicking the Cockroach and Chaos theory!! Yet another to reason to preserve biodiversity,  reflect on the intricate beauty of natures innate engineering, control our umami and stop turning the wonders of nature into excrement.
Why is this damn important to me? I need a better robotic vacuum cleaner to pickup the generous shedding from Max (thanks to Iraq war, iRobot postponed my dream Roomba cleaner).

Reinhold Niebuhr Interview and Sermons

The only time I have watched Niebuhr was an old interview with Mike Wallace (here). Thanks to Andrew Sullivan, I got to listen to five enlightening lectures - here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Behavioral Economics and Afghan War

My immense belief (here and here) in behavioral economics always nudges me to lookout for confirmation bias and most of the time it get more than a dose of bias. Here is story from Tim Harford, right out the "nudge team" text book but this time in Afghan:

The story – told by Major General Andrew Mackay CBE and Commander Steve Tatham in a new paper on “Behavioural Conflict” for the UK’s Defence Academy – illuminates the situation facing coalition forces in Afghanistan. There has been a tendency among commentators and politicians to treat the “hearts and minds” aspect of counter-insurgency as a popularity contest. But the “voters” are not casual spectators, trying to choose between the Taliban or the coalition forces; they are individuals weighing up complex choices in difficult circumstances.
I met Andrew Mackay, who commanded 52 Brigade in Helmand Province (and who announced his resignation from the army in September), because of his interest in the problem of influence in conflict situations. He was reading books about behavioural economics, including my own, in the hope of adding some insight to experience gained in the field.

Some of the more successful tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan have indeed been built on the simple economists’ prescription: if you want to change behaviour, change incentives. For example, killing insurgents without holding territory did not encourage co-operation from bystanders, as anyone who had collaborated would be killed when the insurgents returned. When coalition forces switched to the tactic of holding territory and preventing the return of insurgents, people became happier to share information.

The more psychologically detailed insights of behavioural economics may also be promising. Mackay and Tatham cite Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Programme as an example of the “choice architecture” described by policy guru Cass Sunstein and the behavioural economist Richard Thaler. The NSP handed out grants to villages, provided the village leaders were elected by secret ballot, held communal meetings, and posted accounts in a public place: a nudge towards better governance."

Of course there are limitations to this but lets first put it use in diverse fields to get best out of people without worrying about the threshold level.

The paradox of behavioral economics is, it's probably the only field which gets a free ticket to call us, the people "idiots" while making us feel like Einstein's.

The premise of behavioral economics is to make us unconsciously realize the "DUH" and it works.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Premature anxiety albeit real

Max had his routine rabies vaccination today and I asked the doc about this. To my relief he laughed and said to Max " buddy you have premature grey like me and we both need some hair coloring!!". I already knew that  but like everyone else hearing those words from a professional is always soothing (and that's why this and this are so damn important). Max never weighed less than 73 lbs in the past 2 years and this is the first time he weighed 70 albeit winter curtailed our frisbee and park ventures. No need to say, I am more than delighted.

It's good to be novel but we do "evolve" better with the music we grew up with and I was fortunate enough to soak in AR Rahman's music. This beautiful song epitomizes the surreal life I share with Max. I wish this goes on forever.

Besides the power of his music, the humility of Rahman is something I always admired (well, I am aware of fundamental attribution error). His Oscar acceptance speech sums it all up:
I just want to thank again the whole crew of Slumdog Millionaire,especially Danny Boyle for giving such a great opportunity. And the whole, all the people from Mumbai. The essence of the film which is about optimism and the power of hope in the lives, and all my life I had a choice of hate and love. I chose love and I'm here. God bless."